Welcome to Grapevine’s Best Of Iceland—a guide to the best hikes, hotels, must see spots, eateries, road trips, tours, shops and more, all around the black shore of this rocky subarctic isle. We assembled panels of locals, travellers and Iceland experts to help us decide the winners and runners-up in each category: all come highly recommended. On this page, you’ll find our awards for the southern area of the country.
If you’d like to hold a copy of the Best of Iceland magazine in your hands, you can order one here, posted worldwide; if you think we’ve missed something, give us a shout via Facebook or Twitter. Finally, a word of advice: some places—whether a hiking route or a countryside restaurant—close down for winter, so be sure to check ahead. If a winner is marked “Summer,” it’s probably either not accessible or not open in winter.
Winner: Héraðsskólinn, Laugarvatn
More of a hostel than a hotel, Hérðasskólinn in the lakeside town of Laugarvatn was a school building before being renovated into guest accommodation. It can be expensive to stay in Iceland, but affordable and charming options like these make things more manageable. It also has the added benefit of being located in the heart of the Golden Circle, so it’s positioned amongst some of the natural gems of the south.
Luxury Pick: Hótel Rangá, Nr. Hella
Many country hotels are relatively plain, but Rangá boasts a 4 star rating. “They have grand rooms,” said the panel, “and they were about fifteen years ahead of their time.” As with all fancy hotels, it’s pricey, but the beautiful surroundings, fancy restaurant, affordable bistro menu and next-level service are worth it.
Newcomer: The Lighthouse Inn, Garður
Located in the tiny village Garður in Suðurnes close to the Keflavík international airport, this hotel only opened up for bookings in March, but has already been raking in positive reviews. Built in the style of a log cabin, it has a cosy bar and a sun terrace with view of the ocean. “It’s my newest favourite hotel,” remarked one panellist.
Joint Winners: Tryggvaskáli, Selfoss & Slippurinn, Vestmannaeyjar
This was tough. But the panel agreed that there were two restaurants in the south that stood out. Slippurinn, a firm favourite in the Westman Islands, is more established, but closed in winter; Tryggvaskáli, based in a Selfoss house built in 1890, was founded in just 2013. Both share a passion for local, seasonal ingredients. “You just never want to leave Tryggvaskáli,” said the panel.
Runner Up: Friðheimar, near Flúðir
It might surprise foreigners, but we actually grow tomatoes in Iceland, and nobody takes better advantage of that than Friðheimar. Eating in their greenhouse, you get to sit right by the produce you’re consuming. The menu is simple—tomato soup and bread—but delicious, and they make some of the best bloody Marys in the country.
Budget Pick: Sjómannastofan Vör, Grindavík
Many tourists want to get in touch with the local atmosphere, and few places are more local than Sjómannastofan (“The Fishermen’s Living Room”). What you get there is simple homemade food in a cosy setting. There is nothing fancy or pretentious; this is a place that knows what it is and it does it well.
Winner: The Westman Islands
“You are always wide-eyed when you sail into the harbour,” a panelist remarked, and there is a unique agreement among the panel about Vestmannaeyjar being top of the list—and understandably, this is a truly unique place. The volcanic archipelago is home to a charming little town and has the added allure of having had a volcanic eruption in 1973. Part of the island chain is also the UNESCO heritage isle Surtsey, which was formed in 1963.
Runner Up: Jökulsárlón
Jökulsárlón is impossible to do justice to in text. It’s the famous glacier lagoon where Vatnajökull calves floating blue icebergs into the water. You can take a boat trip on the lagoon, sailing between the icebergs as they move around, and see the ancient glacier fragments drifting out to sea.
Runner Up: Skaftafell
The Skaftafell nature reserve is one of Iceland’s gems. The hiking trails—slippery in winter, so wear good boots or crampons—lead up to the basalt columns of the Svartifoss waterfall, over a chilly trail to a viewpoint over Skaftafellsjökull glacier tongue, and back down to earth via a steep forest trail.
Best Bathing Spot
Winner: Hveragerði Swimming Pool
It might seem strange that a simple town swimming pool would knock The Blue Lagoon into second place, but that’s exactly what happened. Located in the small town of Hveragerði, about 30 minutes out of Reykjavík, this is a perfect place to meet locals and enjoy the hot tubs. It has the added benefit of being sheltered from the wind, making it a perfect place for sunbathing.
Runner Up: The Blue Lagoon, near Keflavík
Iceland’s most famous bathing spot never fails. It has a truly unique look, great facilities, and has understandably become one of the country’s most popular spots. The lagoon also boasts a spa and a bar, making it the most luxurious place to swim around in geothermal water.
Runner Up: The Secret Lagoon, Flúðir
This naturally hot lagoon has been kept as close as possible to its natural state. It’s close to a small geyser, which blows every five minutes, making it a very scenic place. Experiencing the northern lights while immersed in the hot water is also a truly unique experience.
Winner: Reykjadalur, Hveragerði
Located just a 40-minute drive from Reykjavík near Hveragerði, this is one of the most popular hiking trails in Iceland. An hourlong hike (you’ll need crampons, hiking poles, and probably a guide, in winter) brings you to the Reykjadalur valley, which has a warm geothermal stream running down its centre. Steam billows up into the air, making it a truly mystical spot, and the hike has the added reward of a dip at the end.
Runner Up: Þórsmörk
Þórsmörk is a dramatic mountain ridge in a wide, ashen valley between two glaciers. Through it runs Krossá, a shifting glacier river. You can get a bus there during winter, or travel by Super Jeep. Head to the campsite to pick up a trail map, and seek advice about what’s safe in snowy conditions.
Advanced Pick (Summer only): Fimmvörðuháls
This stunning hiking trail is where the Eyjafjallajökull eruption took place in 2010. Beginning at Skógar, it’s a 25 km hike with a 1000m elevation, accessible from mid June to late August. You’ll pass many waterfalls, patches of snow and Highland desert, and still-steaming lava fields. Some parts are challenging; hiking poles are recommended.
Easy Option: Eldfell Volcano
This hulking volcano became one of the most infamous in the world when it erupted suddenly and unexpectedly in 1973, forcing an evacuation of the Westman island and engulfing part of the town. The easy 40 minute hike to the summit crosses ash plains and bright red, orange, white and maroon volcanic rocks, and leads to a dramatic view.
Best Road Trip
Winner: Reykjanes ring to Þingvellir
This trip will take you a whole day, but you’ll see a range of stunning scenery. Starting with a circle around the mostly barren Reykjanes peninsula, you’ll see geothermal areas, lakes, mountains and the beautiful southern coastline, before looping inland to end up at the historic, evergreen Þingvellir national park. “This is a perfect trip for taking pictures,” said the panel. “It’ll be a long road trip, but it’s worth it.”
Runner Up: Landsveit down Þjórsárdalurinn
Drive towards Gjáin via Route 32 to see Háifoss and Hjálparfoss, two of the beautiful waterfalls in the country. For those interested in history there’s also Þjóðveldisbærinn—a Viking Era farmstead that was reconstructed in 1974. “It’s the perfect length for a good road trip,” said the panel.
Runner Up: The Golden Circle
The Golden Circle is impossible to ignore—few road trips allow you to see as many beautiful spots in a single day. It maybe a bit cliché and somewhat crowded, but who are we kidding? This place is unique and every single stop on your trip will be worth it. For extra freedom, hire a car and drive the route yourself.
Best Sightseeing Tour
Winner (Summer only): Into The Volcano, Þríhnúkargígar
One of the most remarkable phenomena of its kind worldwide, the Þríhnúkargígar magma chamber is an intense and fascinating place to experience. After hiking to the mouth of the volcano, just a short drive from Reykjavík, you’re lowered into an empty magma chamber by a hanging elevator, revealing sculptural lava formations and immense walls in a rich Rothko-esque palette. An unforgettable trip.
Winner (Winter option): Glacier Caving in Vatnajökull
Close to Jökulsárlón glacier lagoon, the ice caves of Vatnajökull are a sight to behold, and even more so in the winter. Once spring is over and the meltwater begins to freeze, the caves assume new shapes, each in its own unique way. Don’t forget your warm clothes and be ready for a true adventure.
Runner Up: Þórsmörk by Super Jeep
Þórsmörk is one of Iceland’s most breathtaking and otherworldly natural landscapes, located in a wide valley flanked by volcanoes and glaciers on both sides, and full of vast canyons, forests, and wild glacial rivers. Few places in Iceland will bring you closer to the vast, untamed nature the country has to offer.
Runner Up (Summer Only): Westman Islands Boat Trip, Heimaey
Sailing around Vestmannaeyjar allows you to explore the islands from every side. “You get a totally different experience of the place,” a panelist remarks. The steep cliffs are stunning and you can sail into the beautiful, echoing cave Kafhellir. Plus, you get to watch the puffins.
Runner Up: The Highlands
There are many different organised trips available into the barren and beautiful Highlands, so you can choose whatever fits your schedule. Amongst the most interesting spots is the mountain range Kerlingarfjöll (“Old Woman Mountains”), where you’ll find many hot springs and colourful minerals formed by geothermal activity.
Best Action Tour
Winner: Jet Boat Tour, Reykholt
Do you feel the Golden Circle trip lacks some excitement? Then you’re in luck—kick it into the next gear by sailing around like a madman on the Hvítá river, just below Gullfoss. The scenery is amazing, and you can cling on and try to enjoy it while you whoosh down past birds, cliffs and water rapids. If you want a next-level experience, than go river jetting.
Runner Up: Super Jeep on Eyjafjallajökull
The panel notes that this is definitely a trip for those seeking an action adventure. Driving on Eyjafjallajökull, the subglacial volcano that stopped air travel across the world, is simply brilliant. You can ride up the ice cap in a monsterous “Super Jeep,” or take a helicopter ride.
Runner Up: Quad Trips in Reykjanes
So close to Reykjavík, yet so different. Riding a quad bike over rocky Reykjanes is a real adventure. The trip takes you over mountaintops and down gravel roads to black volcanic beaches. There is also an ancient Viking village on the way. Prepare to get shaken-tourist syndrome.
Winner: Eldheimar, Vestmannaeyjar
This volcano museum focuses on the 1973 Westman Islands eruption that destroyed 400 homes and businesses and forced the entire population of 5,300 inhabitants to flee to the mainland. At the time of the eruption, it seemed doubtful that the islanders would ever return. The museum is newly built and highly modern, and is open Wed-Sun, 13:00-17:00 from October till May.
Runner Up: Rokksafnið: Icelandic Museum of Rock ‘n’ Roll, Keflavík
Interested in the history of Icelandic music? Then you need to go to Rokksafnið (“The Rock Museum”) in Keflavík. It tells the story of the pioneers of Icelandic music, and how they shaped acts like Björk and Sigur rós. “It caters to a pretty specific demographic, but it’s a great museum,” said the panel.
Newcomer: Lava Centre, Hvolsvöllur
Our panel picked this one as somewhat of a wild card, as it just recently opened. It documents the history of volcanic eruptions in Iceland since 1900, from the science to the human experience. The museum is state of the art, with movies, artefacts and graphics.
Winner: Réttin, Úthlíð
The Réttin bar—also a restaurant—draws its name from the sheep pen that used to be located there. The restaurant is only open during lunchtime, or by request to accommodate groups, in the winter. One thing our panelists agree on is that the main attraction might be the owner: “Bjössi is a very funny man,” they noted. “He always says ‘there’s nothing around here that I don’t own.’”
Runner Up: Skjól, Kjóastöðum
Skjól is a campsite and hostel with a restaurant-bar that’s good for meeting locals, and its location on the Golden Circle certainly doesn’t hurt. It’s a fun spot, and as it says on the Skjól website: “If you play three songs and get applause, you’ll get a beer on the house.”
Newcomer: The Brothers Brewery, Westman Islands
As well as having a friendly and cosy bar at which to try some truly locally brewed beer, the Brothers Brewery offer group or individual tours to share some insight into the ingredients they use, and the process of brewing itself. Afterwards, of course, you get to taste their wares.
Winner: Bókakaffið, Selfoss
There are not many used bookshops left in Iceland, but one of the better ones is actually in the small town of Selfoss. It is a cosy cafe where you can enjoy cakes and good coffee surrounded by shelves of books. The mood is easy-going, and it’s the perfect place to spend a lazy afternoon in surroundings that make you feel smart.
Runner Up: Gamli Vitinn, Garðskaga
You don’t get many chances to drink coffee in a lighthouse by the unforgiving North Atlantic, but that is exactly what you get in Gamli Vitinn (“The Old Lighthouse”). It also has the added benefit of hosting three permanent exhibitions: On whales, northern lights and the lighthouse itself.
Newcomer: Rósakaffi, Hveragerði
Built in a converted greenhouse, this quirky café is perfect for a relaxing day out or a snack stop. They serve breakfast, and offer both a soup and dish of the day. Plus, they have ice cream. “It’s brand new, but it really is a good café,” said the panel.
Winner: Karl Úrsmiður, Selfoss
This 50-year-old metalsmith is a family business that’s a must-see for every bling traveller. It was founded by Karl R. Guðmundsson, and is now run by his son Bogi Karlsson and his family. In this large and fashionable store you can shop for gold, gems and watches, while you get your cuckoo clock fixed. “He has the biggest jewellery shop in Iceland, and it’s in Selfoss,” observed a panelist.
Runner Up: Geysir Store, Geysir
You probably didn’t go on the Golden Circle to shop, but the large Geysir store in the Geysir visitor centre might change that. It’s bigger than either of their stores in downtown Reykjavík, and you can pick up something practical for your road trip, or something to wear out to dinner later.
Runner Up: Sveitabúðin Una, Hvolsvöllur
This shop is the very definition of “local.” Located in a Nissen hut military barracks from WWII, it sells locally made products, from wool sweaters to food from the region and handmade rune moleskins. They also take after-hours group bookings, so you can sip wine while you survey their wares. Not bad at all.