Everyone knows the typical Iceland tourist highlights of the Blue Lagoon, the Northern Lights, and the Golden Circle. And they're all spectacular in their own right of course. But what we're interested in right now are the less frequented locations. In this article, we’ll be exploring off the beaten path. Here come our top twenty hidden gems in Iceland.
Our top hidden gems in South Iceland
1. Glymur Waterfall
The lovely plume of Glymur is the second-highest waterfall in Iceland. So by rights, it should be pretty well visited. But owing partly to the adventurous hike to get there it’s not as busy as you might think. Located about a forty-five-minute drive from Reykjavik it’s easy enough to get to the closest car park.
From the car park, you will need three to four hours to hike to Glymur and back again. Along the trail you’ll need to wade through a river, negotiate a cliff edge path and feel your way through a cave. It is a fairly challenging trail but one which is well worth the reward of seeing this 198-meter cascading waterfall.
2. Stakkholtsgja Canyon
Stakkholtsgja Canyon is located in the Þórsmörk Nature Reserve below the Southern Highlands. It is two kilometers long and 100 meters deep. Hiking here feels like you are entering a fairy-tale world. The canyon narrows towards the end culminating in a beautiful waterfall scene.
Getting there is relatively simple, but people are often put off by the streams running through the canyon. You will need to have sturdy footwear to manage without getting your feet wet. And there are few slippery rocks to negotiate too.
3. Fjaðrárgljúfur Canyon
This is another one of our Iceland hidden gems that we guarantee not many travelers are aware of. When heading east on the Ring Road from Vik to Vatnajökull National Park, be sure to stop at Fjaðrárgljúfur canyon. The beautiful moss-covered canyon is close to the village of Kirkjubæjarklaustur.
It's probably one of the most picturesque sites in Iceland but ‘Feather River Canyon’ is not yet on the radar for too many tourists. It's also beautiful at any time of year.
4. Friðheimar Tomato Farm
When traveling along the Golden Circle route, most people think there are only three things to see. While Thingvellir National Park, Gullfoss Waterfall, and the Haukadalur Valley geysers are impressive, there’s much more to experience.
One of our favourites is the Friðheimar organic tomato farm. If you're driving the Golden Circle it makes for a perfect place to stop. This family-owned tomato and cucumber farm also has a restaurant on the premises. And they use all of their freshly grown tomatoes to make their famous tomato soup from scratch.
You’ll also find tomato chutney, Bloody Marys, and tomato ice cream, as well as a warm and welcoming atmosphere.
5. Reykjadalur thermal river
The hot river in Reykjadalur Valley is another hidden gem in Iceland. In a land known for its natural hot springs, this is no exception. It's not just a hot spring though, but an entire river with temperatures hovering at around 40 ºC (104 ºF). Most people can stay in for about five minutes before they have to get out and cool off.
Outdoor lovers and hiking enthusiasts will definitely want to visit this off the beaten path experience. The Reykjadalur hot springs hike is 3 km (1.9 mile) and it takes around an hour to complete. Upon arrival you find yourself in a gorgeous valley teeming with bubbling mud pools, hot springs, and the hot river.
6. Gljufrabui Waterfall
Gljufrabui, meaning ‘Canyon Dweller’ is located a mere kilometre away from the much better known Seljalandsfoss Waterfall. This truly is one of Iceland’s hidden gems tucked away through a steep and winding canyon. The determined will need to wade through a river to find it too!
Those that do venture thorough will be rewarded with a magical scene. Mossy volcanic rock and cascading waters create a scene from a storybook land.
Our favorite East Iceland hidden gems
1. Viknaslodir hiking area
The hiking trails around Viknaslodir are some of the loveliest to walk in all of Iceland. This is partly because of the stunning scenery, but also because of the milder climate here. And it’s especially because they are quite off the beaten path with relatively few other walkers taking to the trails. The area is to be found close to Borgarfjordur Eystri deep in the Eastern fjords.
2. Stuðlagil Canyon
This is one of the more newly discovered Iceland hidden gems. It's been off the beaten track for so long due to the pure and simple fact that no one knew that it was there. The powerful glacial river that ran through the picturesque Jökuldalur valley kept this breathtaking basalt canyon covered for many years. Water levels were simply too high and the river too dangerous to cross.
When the Kárahnjúkavirkjun hydroelectric plant was built, parts of the river flowing from the Highlands to the valley were diverted. This resulted in the discovery of a new geological wonder in Jökuldalur valley. The unexpected find in East Iceland was the beautiful Studlagil Canyon.
The exquisite natural treasure features a soaring cathedral-like fortress of basalt volcanic columns and a turquoise blue river. As you do the Stuðlagil canyon hike, it suddenly opens up to magnificent views of this otherworldly natural wonder. It's a hypnotizing place that feels both secret and sacred at the same time
This is absolutely Iceland off the beaten path, so while you are road tripping in the east, make sure you come here.
North Iceland’s top hidden gems
1. Vesturdalur Valley
This little-known volcanic valley is situated between Ásbyrgi and Dettifoss waterfall. Here you’ll find the most amazing rock formations created by the sheer elemental force of volcanoes. Swirls and spirals rise up out of the valley floor along with all manner of fascinating formations. It’s a great little detour and an Iceland hidden gem not to be missed.
2. Raudasandur Beach
This remote Icelandic beach is found in the wilds of the northern Westfjords. There is a vast stretch of pink or red coloured sand here backed by dark volcanic rock and lapped by bright blue waters. Depending on the light the precise color of the sands shifts and changes. It’s a beautiful spectacle and one you are quite likely to have all to yourself.
3. Hornstrandir Nature Reserve
This is probably one of the most inaccessible and isolated places in all of Iceland. If you're looking for an untouched, hidden Iceland gem, this is the place for you. The Hornstrandir Nature Reserve is located on the northern tip of the Westfjords. You can't actually drive there, as there are no roads that will take you to the reserve.
Nevertheless, you've got a couple of options to get there. First, you can leave your car near Krossnes and hike it. This takes about a week each way. For the less athletically inclined, or those who simply don't have that much time on their hands, there’s another option. The easier and faster choice is to set sail from Ísafjörður and take a boat directly to the reserve.
Whichever route you choose, you don't want to miss the jagged cliff at Hornbjarg and this beautiful unspoiled territory. The dramatic cliff drops steeply into the sea. You'll find lots of stunning Icelandic wildlife here, including nesting guillemots and Arctic foxes.
4. Hofsós swimming pool
If you're looking for a more formal bathing experience but don't want to fight the crowds of the Blue Lagoon, check out Hofsós swimming pool. It’s yet another one of the many hidden gems in Iceland. Located in the Tröllaskagi peninsula, you'll find a stunning infinity pool with breathtaking views of the town's fjord here in the north of Iceland.
5. Hvitserkur Rock
This striking sea stack off of the coast of northwest Iceland is a real spectacle. Fifteen feet high and 50 metres out to sea, this contorted volcanic monolith looks like some kind of mythical creature.
The hidden gems of west Iceland
1. Flatey Island
The tiny island of Flatey is reached by ferry from the top of the Snaefellsnes Peninsula. At just two kilometres long and one kilometre wide it really is a wee one. The island is only open to visitors during the summer months of June through August and it’s entirely car free.
There is one lovely hotel on the island where visitors can stay and enjoy the calm and tranquillity. With an abundance of sea birds it’s one of Iceland’s top hidden gems for ornithological enthusiasts.
2. Hraunfossar Waterfall
Not far from Barnafoss waterfall just off the Reykjavik to Snaefellsnes Peninsula route you will find the beautiful Hraunfossar Waterfall. Rather than one single waterfall this is in fact a series of cascading rivers running off of the Hallmundarhraun lava field. The best time to visit has to be in the autumn when the fall colours combine with the black volcanic rock to stunning effect.
3. Rauðfeldsgjá Canyon
The name of this narrow hidden canyon translates as Red-Cloak Rift. Located on the Snaefellsnes Peninsula in the Botnsfjall Mountain it can only really be visited in the summer. You’ll need sturdy hiking boots as well as full waterproof gear to tackle the route in. But for those with an adventurous spirit it’s an exciting and rewarding clamber.
Central Iceland hidden gems
1. Kjölur road in the highlands
When you rent a car in Iceland, part of the adventure is taking the roads less travelled. You'll definitely get that feeling if you visit in the summer and decide to drive the highland F-roads. You are quite literally getting off the beaten path on these rough tracks. They are about as different from the paved main highway of the Ring Road as you can get.
You will need to rent a four-wheel drive vehicle to drive the Kjölur route (road number 35). There are a few stops along the way to enjoy, such as the Kerlingarfjöll Mountains or the Hveravellir hot springs. Enjoy the winding hiking trails, rugged nature, and untamed beauty of Iceland’s wild backcountry. The Highlands are hidden Iceland at its best.
2. Holuhraun lava flow
If you've ever visited Iceland then you know that it's quite common to visit a lava field and the surrounding areas. But what about an actual active volcano? One of our favourite hidden gems in Iceland is the lava flow at Holuhraun, close to Bardarbunga.
The most recent eruption of the volcano was in 2014-2015, and it was even bigger than Eyjafjallajökull in 2010. While it's no longer erupting, you can still visit and feel the heat of the Earth beneath your feet. In fact, if you stay in one spot for too long, the soles of your hiking boots may begin to melt slightly.
You will need a four-wheel drive to access the area and of course, only go with a fully qualified guide. There are also helicopter tours on offer, which can give you a bird's eye view of the land below.
Hidden gems in and around Reykjavik
Grotta is a nature reserve right at the tip of the Seltjarnarnes Peninsula in greater Reykjavik. It is a rugged stretch of coastline with black volcanic sand beaches and a wild ocean. In summer the area comes alive with multiple species of seabird. So it’s a haven for wildlife as well as for Reykjavik city dwellers.
During the winter months it is far enough away from the city streets to have minimal light pollution. This makes it an excellent place to come and see the Northern Lights. Bikers and walkers enjoy its paths year round and there is even a decent break here for hardy surfers. Just ask around if you’re keen.
2. The Sky Lagoon
The Blue Lagoon is sitting pretty on most people’s Iceland travel bucket list. But now it has competition. Newly opened in 2021 the Sky Lagoon offers an alternative to its more famous near neighbor. Located on Kársnes Harbour in Kópavogur it is just a twenty-minute drive from downtown Reykjavik.
This is one stylish spa too, with design placed firmly at the forefront. The pools are set amidst dark volcanic rocks and stretch between them to the coast. An infinity pool overlooking the ocean adds to the drama of the setting. Big skies and the vast expanse of the North Atlantic really make you feel as if you’re out in the elements. Definitely a top hidden gem in Iceland.
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