Despite being a remote, windswept island in the North Atlantic, Iceland is well-trodden territory for travelers. The country has less than 400,000 residents yet has made a big splash as an it-destination, with certain sights seemingly essential for an Iceland trip. But the singular beauty of the land of fire and ice extends well beyond the bounds of the waterfalls and beaches that repeatedly appear on your friends’ social media profiles.
If you’re looking to go beyond the typical tourist track, here are five underrated activities to get you started.
1. Drive the Westfjords Way
Road-tripping is one of the most popular ways to maximize time spent in Iceland, especially when taking advantage of Icelandair’s free stopover program that gives travelers up to a week in the country. Most race around the Ring Road to quickly hit every corner of the country, but there’s another way to enjoy Iceland’s culture and beauty: the Westfjords Way.
This part of northwestern Iceland is home to some of the country’s most scenic mountains, cliffs full of puffins in spring and summer, and tiny towns. Driving the nearly 600-mile loop around Iceland’s Westfjords allows travelers to take their time in getting to know the oldest geologic part of Iceland and its people: In Bíldudalur, Vegamót’s owner claims to serve the best fish and chips in the world, while the Westfjords Heritage Museum in Ísafjörður, the largest town in the area, will surprise and delight visitors with its oddly large collection of accordions.
Every fjord has something special to share with those who explore northwestern Iceland, and because most drive right past it as they hit the top spots on the Ring Road, you’re rarely caught up in a crowd.
2. Indulge in Icelandic fine dining
Thanks to traditional dishes like fermented shark and boiled sheep’s head, Iceland’s culinary prowess sometimes goes unnoticed. But head to any number of the awarded and recognized restaurants in the country and travelers can find cuisine that is often creative, well-crafted, and delicious.
In Reykjavík, Dill’s menu showcases the bounty and flavor of the country through dishes like winter-dried wolffish and fermented cabbage, even earning Iceland its first Michelin star several years back. Nearby, Óx serves a menu centered around Icelandic ingredients in a lively environment. Inside the Reykjavík Edition, Tides masterfully captures local flavor with fare like baked arctic char with celeriac, apples, and smoked almonds. Further south, Moss Restaurant at the Blue Lagoon provides diners with an immersive, creative meal suitable for omnivores and vegans alike, defying the stereotype that Icelandic food is reliant on animal products.
This list is by no means exhaustive: Plenty of finely crafted delicacies await around the country for those that want to experience how tasty Iceland can be.
3. Walk on a colored-sand beach
Visitors to Iceland’s south coast will undoubtedly have black-sand beaches in their itinerary, but those aren’t the only colorful beaches in the country. Head to the southern side of the Westfjords to walk along another shade of sand. Rauðasandur, which translates to red sand, is a beach facing Breiðafjörður Bay that stretches into the surrounding hills. Its pinkish hue shifts between gold and red depending on weather conditions. A black church keeps a sentry watch over the marine environment, adding a stark color contrast to the environment.
The views are worth the journey, but it’s not necessarily an easy one. It’s best to go during good weather, which can be hard to predict in Iceland; the road there is steep, full of turns, and made of gravel. Visiting during low tide is also recommended to see how the sea has gracefully shaped the beach. Keep a look out for nesting terns and other birds that nest in the ground, as they work hard to defend their eggs.
4. Spend time in a local museum
Iceland’s rich cultural and geologic history makes it a wellspring of information perfectly suited for museums, and those who curate them tend to make the information deeply immersive. What can look like a bland building in the middle of nowhere can house a riveting, hands-on storytelling experience that leaves visitors imbued in Icelandic folklore and trivia.
Take Draugasetrið in Stokkseyri, a town in south Iceland. Inside an otherwise unremarkable edifice is a museum through which visitors become part of the spookiest ghost stories known to the country. In Bíldudalur, the Icelandic Sea Monster Museum is an interactive guide to the creatures lurking in the water just beyond the museum’s walls. (Road signs in the region advise travelers to look out for the same monsters whose stories are detailed in the museum.) One of the most immersive museums is the Lava Show in Reykjavík and Vík, which brings guests up close and personal to real, molten lava by recreating a volcanic eruption. There are countless other museums throughout the country, so stop in when you spot one.
5. Explore the Diamond Circle in north Iceland
If you want to see Iceland’s biggest waterfall and explore mythical sites turned Game of Thrones filming locations, look to the Diamond Circle. This is northern Iceland’s answer to the Golden Circle in the south, which similarly consolidates some of the best sights in the region into one itinerary.
Whether you book a tour or drive it yourself, try to visit at least these major spots: Lake Mývatn, a gorgeous landscape teeming with birdlife and natural baths that have a similar feel to the Blue Lagoon, but without the crowds. Dettifoss Waterfall is also on the drive, measuring at around 150 feet tall and 330 feet across. Ásbyrgi Canyon has significant importance in Icelandic folklore, with stunning landscapes to go with it. Húsavík is the main town along this route, and before it earned Hollywood fame from Will Ferrell’s Eurovision Song Contest movie, visitors came here to enjoy some of the best whale watching in the world.
Ali Wunderman Ali Wunderman is a freelance writer with work in the Washington Post, Michelin Guide, Cosmopolitan, the Guardian, Condé Nast Traveler, and more. She is the 2022 Lowell Thomas bronze award winner for Travel Journalist of the Year and a guidebook author for Belize and Iceland.