4 Ways to Get Closer to the Authentic Beauty of Iceland

Iceland is a country of immense natural beauty. From the iconic braided rivers and cascading waterfalls to the mighty geysers, the lava fields and the black-sanded beaches, the island’s dramatic geographical features characterize a unique landscape that beckons exploration. What’s at stake for willing travelers? Getting closer to the authentic natural beauty of Iceland unlocks the essence of the country—a potentially cathartic experience, indeed.

It’s little wonder that visitor numbers are skyrocketing in recent years. In Iceland, one can walk to thunderous waterfalls that generate rainbows within great plumes of mist; admire puffins, whales and dolphins on an exhilarating RIB tour; venture across one of Iceland’s largest glaciers on a 4×4 safari; and take to the skies to witness the full picture of the country’s extraordinary geology, constantly in flux. Read on to gain insight and get closer to the authentic beauty of Iceland.

Glaciers of Iceland
Flying over the glaciers of Iceland/Andrew Shiva

4×4 Glacier Safari

Icy behemoths with aquamarine hearts that have crept back and forth across Iceland’s landscape for millennia, Iceland’s vast glaciers look pretty impressive from the air. But seeing them up close, developing an appreciation for their majesty as you’re dwarfed by their enormity, promises a far more exceptional encounter.

Now, a man-made ice cave carved 800ft into Langjokull, Iceland’s second largest glacier, even lets you explore inside one of these astounding geological features. But first, you have to get there. An Icelandic glacier safari begins with an intrepid journey across snow and ice in a 4×4. On the way, you’re likely to stop at the site of Iceland’s first parliament: no middling concrete edifice but rather an open-air platform that began hosting assemblies in 930AD—earlier than any other society on Earth.

Venturing into the cave itself, you pass an ice chapel and an ice bar, as the glacier around you turns an exquisite shade of blue the closer you get to the frozen structure’s ancient core.

4x4 safari, Iceland
4×4 safari, Iceland/Andrew Shiva

Airplane Tour

While the authentic beauty of Icelandic sites such as Langjokull demand to be explored up close and personal, it’s also true that few countries are as magnificent as Iceland to view from the air. An aerial expedition gives you a geologist’s view of a fluid landscape, which was shaped by flowing lava and glacial scouring—one so distinctive and striking it partly inspired JRR Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings.

The colorful patchwork quilt that the Icelandic capital, Reykjavik, resembles from above is a jolly curtain-raiser to the moonscape of the Reykjanes Peninsula lava field. Lake Kleifarvatn is a cobalt splodge within this austere terrain, its water source a mystery until you discover it is filled mainly from inlets below the surface.

Beyond the lake, eerie, pyramidal Mt Keilir, like something straight out of Mordor in the above-mentioned fictional epic, shows off the suture of the American and Eurasian tectonic plates that runs through the country.

Aerial view of Iceland
Iceland from above/Lucia Griggi

Hiking to Waterfalls

Aerial and overland tours are ideal for exploring Iceland’s more inaccessible parts but, if you want to experience the full sensual feast on offer in this extraordinary country, you’re advised to set off on foot. Engage with the landscape that Icelanders believe is populated with mythical elven ‘Hidden People,’ on walks accessible from Reykjavik or a regional road.

One hike, starting at an hour’s drive from the capital, takes you to the fairytale-like Glymur waterfall. Long thought to be the country’s tallest, until pipped at the post by another, Mosarfoss – recently revealed by glacial melting – it rewards the eyes after a three-hour hike with the sight of long, delicate watery tendrils that frame the face of the fjord down which it tumbles.

By contrast, Dettifoss waterfall earns the nickname of ‘the Beast’ for the dam-loads of water it chucks hourly into the valley below. This, the most powerful waterfall in Europe and arguably the most spectacular, is a hike of only about a kilometer from the road in the north of the country.

Aerial view of Dettifoss waterfall, Iceland
Dettifoss waterfall, Iceland/Lucia Griggi

Take to the Water by RIB

If Iceland’s most astounding geological attractions – contorted lava fields, imperious glaciers, gushing geysers – tend to be safely land-bound, it’s fair to say that its headline wildlife attractions are predominantly aquatic. To get the most of encounters with whales and seals (and puffins), it helps to join them in their watery territory. Light and zippy RIB craft cover a lot of water quickly and enable you to get closer to the region’s oceanic beauty.

To understand more about the island’s seal population, head to the Vatnsnes Peninsula, which is among the best places to encounter grey seals and harbor seals—both on the land and in the water. If birds are more to your liking, Iceland is home to approximately half of the world’s puffin population. The Westman Islands offer the best place to view the birds in Iceland, with Heimaey Island as the focus of puffins’ activity. A RIB tour enables you deeper into this ornithological hotspot. To the north of the island, Zodiac tours provide the chance to spot humpback whales, minke whales and dolphins.

Iceland by Zodiac
Iceland by Zodiac/Lucia Griggi