Iceland has done a fantastic job of positioning itself as an ideal layover destination for flights between the US and Europe. So many travelers spend just a few days on the island. And while we would highly recommend spending at least 2 weeks in Iceland to see all of the amazing sites, the most impressive highlights are on the southern end and easy to see in just a few days.
You may have already heard about the Golden Circle route which is a circular route that begins and ends in Reykjavik and takes you to 3 of the most popular tourist destinations in Iceland. And while they are amazing to see, there is so much more that southern Iceland has to offer, beyond the Golden Circle.
So we’ve compiled a list of our top highlights from southern Iceland below, in counterclockwise order from Reykjavik. Follow our guide to ensure that you see the best places in southern Iceland during your visit!
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- 19 Top Things to See and Do in Southern Iceland
- 1. Reykjavik
- 2. The Blue Lagoon
- 3. Thingvellir (Þingvellir) National Park
- 4. Kerið Crater Lake
- 5. Reykjadalur Hot Spring Thermal River
- 6. Bruarfoss Waterfall
- 7. Geysir Geothermal Area
- 8. Gullfoss Waterfall
- 9. The Secret Lagoon
- 10. Gluggafoss Waterfall
- 11. Seljalandsfoss and Gljúfrafoss Waterfalls
- 12. Seljavallalaug Swimming Pool
- 13. Skogafoss Waterfall
- 14. Kvernufoss Waterfall
- 15. DC Plane Wreck
- 16. Vatnajökull National Park
- 17. Fjallsárlón Iceberg Boat Tours
- 18. Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon
- 19. Diamond Beach
19 Top Things to See and Do in Southern Iceland
Reykjavik is the capital of Iceland and the largest city in the country. Most people only pass through Reykjavik on their way to or from the airport, but there are actually a few worthwhile stops in this pretty city. The Hallgrimskirkja Church has an iconic shape of concreted stepped slabs. It’s quite unique and unlike any of the other churches in the country. There is a small fee to enter the tower but most people choose to appreciate the church from out front.
The Harpa Concert Hall, with its unique and easily recognizable facade, is another one of the top things to do in Reykjavik. The front is covered in curved, colored glass so the views of the city from inside the hall are quite beautiful.
And the Sun Voyager art installation is a steel structure that is meant to resemble a viking ship. It is located right on the ocean and the sleek, modern design is quite striking.
2. The Blue Lagoon
The Blue Lagoon is arguably the most popular (and expensive) tourist destination in Iceland. You’ve undoubtedly seen photos of the bright blue water set against the black lava rocks lining this hot pool, just 45 minutes outside of Reykjavik. The piping hot water is runoff from the nearby geothermal plant and it is filled with minerals that are great for your skin (but unfortunately not your hair so lather up on conditioner before entering the pool).
You’ll need to make a reservation on their website ahead of time. The base-level entrance fee includes a towel, a locker, a silica mud mask, and one free alcoholic or non-alcoholic drink of choice. Check out our Complete Guide to Iceland’s Blue Lagoon for everything you need to know before your visit!
3. Thingvellir (Þingvellir) National Park
Thingvellir National Park (the Icelandic spelling is Þingvellir) is the first stop along the Golden Circle route. It is the only place in the world where you can actually see the meeting place of the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates above sea level. These plates are continually moving away from each other at a rate of 2 centimeters per year due to volcanic eruptions which has created a dramatic landscape in the park.
There are well-maintained trails throughout the park and you can get information about them in the Visitors Center.
A popular activity in Thingvellir National Park is to dive or snorkel between the tectonic plates where a fissure disrupted an underground spring. This is called Silfra and the water here is considered to be the clearest in the world, with visibility of over 320 feet! Be sure that you don’t miss Oxararfoss Waterfall, the walk to get to it is lovely and the waterfall is small but beautiful!
4. Kerið Crater Lake
Kerið Crater Lake is a volcanic crater made of red rock and covered in green vegetation. There is a large lake in the center of the crater that is not due to rainfall, it is actually at the same level as the water table. Visitors can walk along the trail that leads around the rim of the crater, and also take the stars that lead down to the lake.
The crater is actually on private land so you’ll need to pay 400 ISK to visit.
5. Reykjadalur Hot Spring Thermal River
Of all the hot springs that we visited during our 2-week trip to Iceland, Reykjadalur Hot Spring Thermal River was my favorite! It is actually a hot river with some deeper areas for soaking, that is surrounded by lush green rolling hills. A wooden boardwalk allows you to easily access the soaking area and there are several small screens to allow semi-private changing. The further upstream you go, the hotter the water.
From the parking lot, you’ll have a 1.8-mile uphill hike to the soaking area of the river. Along the way, you’ll have stunning views of the valley and a waterfall, far below. You’ll also get to see several boiling hot springs that are far too hot to enter but fascinating to see. This is one of Iceland’s true hidden gems.
6. Bruarfoss Waterfall
And speaking of our favorites, Bruarfoss Waterfall was one of our favorite waterfalls in Iceland! It’s more difficult than most others to get to so you’ll find far fewer crowds. From the parking lot it’s a 2.2-mile hike each way. The path is fairly flat but muddy at certain points. And the route can be confusing so just follow the hand-painted signs.
But by the time the waterfall comes into view, you’ll know that it was worth the work to get there. Beautiful turquoise blue water flows over jet black rocks making Bruarfoss one of the most striking sights in all of Iceland. You can enjoy the view from the wooden bridge, or take the small dirt trail on the left side to the base of the falls.
7. Geysir Geothermal Area
The Geysir Geothermal Area is also along the Golden Circle route that is quite active with boiling mud pits, steaming hot springs, and geysers. The largest geyser used to have spouts that reached 550 feet, but unfortunately, it has been dormant for years. It’s neighbor, Strokkur is still active with eruptions every few minutes.
Parking is free and entrance to the area is free as well (although donations are appreciated). A small dirt path leads around the area and up to a viewpoint high on the hill above. The path gets really muddy so be sure to wear appropriate footwear.
8. Gullfoss Waterfall
And to round out the three highlights of Iceland’s Golden Circle route, Gullfoss Waterfall is the last one. And for good reason. A massive amount of water flows over this two-tiered waterfall that is 100 feet from the top of the falls to the bottom. A short trail leads through Hvítárgljúfur Canyon and allows you to get incredibly close to the top tier of the waterfall.
There are two parking lots here, one at the top with a few souvenir shops and a pay-to-use toilet, and one closer to the trail. Be sure to check out the viewpoint from the upper parking lot as it is the best view of Gullfoss from overhead!
9. The Secret Lagoon
The Secret Lagoon is a hot pool that is less popular and less expensive than Iceland’s famous Blue Lagoon, but every bit as relaxing. The water in this large pool isn’t vibrantly colored, but the surroundings are scenic and different areas of the pool have different temperatures so you can choose what’s most comfortable for you.
There’s no need to book in advance but you will be charged an entrance fee, plus extra if you need to rent a towel. There are flotation tubes available so you can enjoy floating around the pool for as long as your heart desires!
10. Gluggafoss Waterfall
Gluggafoss (also called Merkjárfoss) was another of my personal Iceland favorites as it is off-the-beaten-path and we had it all to ourselves! A bumpy road leads to the small parking lot right in front of the falls. And from there, a dirt path leads up to both levels of this two-tiered waterfall. You can even walk behind the lower falls if you don’t mind getting wet!
11. Seljalandsfoss and Gljúfrafoss Waterfalls
There are several waterfalls along the walking path from the parking lot at Seljalandsfoss Waterfall. You’ll want to start on the path that leads behind Seljalandsfoss so you can enjoy the view while getting absolutely blasted by the spray!
From there, continue down the path past several smaller waterfalls, before you finally reach Gljúfrafoss. This waterfall is hidden behind a narrow canyon so you’ll have to walk through a stream to get close to it. Beware that you’ll also get soaked here but it’s worth it!
12. Seljavallalaug Swimming Pool
Full disclosure: we thought that Seljavallalaug Swimming Pool was set in an absolutely stunning location, but the water wasn’t hot enough for a soak. It’s only lukewarm so if the weather outside is really chilly, you may want to sit this one out. If you do decide to soak, stay close to the pipe that is pumping in the hot spring water.
That being said, it’s worth doing the 3/4 mile hike from the parking lot just to see the pool. Constructed out of concrete, seemingly in the middle of nowhere, this is one of the oldest swimming pools in Iceland. It was constructed in 1923 but is no longer maintained so be sure to pack out any garbage.
13. Skogafoss Waterfall
Skogafoss is an absolutely epic waterfall and not-to-be-missed during your trip to southern Iceland! It is actually difficult to capture it in a photo due to its gigantic size. There is a rocky area that leads up almost to the base of the falls, although the closer you get to it, the more soaked you’ll get. Tour buses begin showing up at 9:30am so get there early if you are itching for a good photo.
Take the stairs on the right side of the falls to a lookout at the top. And if you continue to follow that path you’ll find a few more much smaller but also spectacular waterfalls further upstream.
14. Kvernufoss Waterfall
Okay, I know that by now you must be thinking that every waterfall in southern Iceland is my favorite, but they are all truly amazing! And Kvernufoss Waterfall really does make my list of favorites. The hike to get to the falls is short but stunning and the view of the valley from behind the falls is absolutely breathtaking!
Kvernufoss is right next to Skogafoss, but the tour buses don’t stop there. Park at the Skogar Museum and take the dirt path on the right side of the building. You’ll need to climb the small ladder over the fence and then continue through to the back of the canyon. It’s about a half-mile each way and the path can get muddy so beware. It’s a must-visit during your trip to southern Iceland!
15. DC Plane Wreck
Full disclosure: the DC Plane Wreck made our list of top things to do in Iceland because many people seem to love it. We, however, did not. It’s a 2-mile hike along a gravel road from the parking lot to the wreckage. And when you get there you’ll find a lot of people climbing all over the plane (even though a sign at the trailhead clearly states not to) while taking selfies. I thought this would be a rather sad, somber place, but everyone else there seemed to feel differently.
The backstory of this Douglas Dakota C-117 airplane is that in November of 1973 it was carrying 7 crew members and kept losing altitude. The pilots were forced to make a crash landing on this massive black sand beach and thankfully, everyone survived. If you do visit, it’s worth going early in the morning to avoid the crowds and photoshoots.
16. Vatnajökull National Park
If you are driving counterclockwise from Reykjavik, then Vatnajökull (also called Skaftafell) National Park will be your introduction to the incredible glaciers of Iceland. You’ll park at the Visitors Center where you can get information about various hikes and any trail closures.
The hike out to Skafta-Fellsjokull Glacier is 1/2 mile each way on a flat, well-maintained trail. You’ll be able to get pretty close to this massive glacier and the large lake in front of it. Beware that it’s incredibly cold near the glacier so bundle up! There is also a more difficult hike to Svartifoss Waterfall that takes 45 minutes each way. It’s a lovely hike to a rather unique waterfall that is surrounded by black basalt columns.
There are several tours available in Vatnajökull National Park if you’d like to hike on the top of the glacier or tour an ice cave. It will undoubtedly be an Iceland experience you’ll never forget!
17. Fjallsárlón Iceberg Boat Tours
Of all of the adventures that we had in Iceland, the Fjallsárlón Iceberg Lagoon Tour was the most memorable! You’ll cruise around on a raft boat through the lagoon that is filled with icebergs all the way to the base of the massive Vatnajökull glacier.
The price is 6,900 ISK per adult, 3,500 ISK per child and includes a 45-minute boat ride, a flotation jacket, and a life vest. Boats depart daily at 9:30am, 10:30am, 12:30pm, 1:30pm, 2:30pm, 3:30pm, 4:30pm, and in the summer months at 5:30pm.
Even if you decide against the boat ride, it’s worth walking down to the lagoon to check out the view. A trail leads from behind Frost Restaurant down to the lagoon where hopefully you’ll have clear, calm weather so you can see both the glacier and its reflection on the water.
18. Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon
And another highlight of Iceland that is absolutely not-to-be-missed is the Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon. This lagoon is filled with gorgeous bright blue water and the most uniquely shaped icebergs you’ve ever seen. These massive chunks that have calved off the glacier float right up to the shore which creates a surreal setting, as if you were on another planet.
Tours of this lagoon are available as well, but they are more expensive and are a common stop along the tour bus route. So expect to contend with crowds and possibly wait times.
19. Diamond Beach
The massive icebergs float around the Jökulsárlón lagoon for a while before finally making their way toward that channel that leads to the sea. Here they sit and melt until they are small enough to travel through the channel. They get tossed around by the waves before washing up on the black sand beach.
This is called Diamond Beach and it’s littered with crystal clear, uniquely shaped pieces of ice. There are no other beaches like it in the world!
Do you know of any southern Iceland highlights that we’ve missed? Comment below so we can add them to the list!
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