Iceland is an idiosyncratic place. In the winter, darkness reigns, while in the summer, the sun barely sets. The country is roughly the size of Kentucky and 10 percent of it’s covered in glaciers, yet there’s room for 66 golf courses. It’s a place where “land of contrasts” is more than a cliche and what you get is often the opposite of what you’d expect. If you’re looking for experiences beyond the usual, here are six quirky things to do in Iceland.
1. Go tolting on an Icelandic horse.
Icelandic horses aren’t your average horses. Descending from the horses brought over from Vikings, the breed is very special and its lineage totally pure (Icelandic horses that leave the country can’t come back, and no other horses can come in). Short, stocky, surefooted, kind, gentle, curious, and adorably fuzzy, they’re perfectly equipped to handle Iceland’s unique terrain and challenging conditions. They also have two special gaits, the flying pace, and the tölt, a gait that’s fast but super smooth, so that it feels like you’re riding in an easy chair instead of jostling around. Several farms offer introductory rides within an hour of the city (and many include transportation). For more experienced riders, there are full- or multi-day rides.
2. Dive between continents.
The Eurasian and North American continental plates meet in Iceland, where they are slowly moving away from one another and creating a rift that’s visible on the surface — particularly near southwest Iceland’s Þingvellir National Park. Here, you can walk in the Almannagjá canyon between the two plates, or even dive into the crack between continents in the Silfra Rift in Lake Þingvellir. The water, filtered down through lava rocks, is some of the clearest in the world. If you’re not certified to dive, you can snorkel above the rift — an equally thrilling experience.
3. Go inside a glacier.
More than 10 percent of Iceland’s surface is covered in glaciers, and at Langjökull, Europe’s second-largest glacier, you can go inside one. Sixteen hundred feet (500 meters) of man-made tunnels and the world’s largest man-made cave have been created to show visitors what a glacier looks like from the inside. Guided tours bring visitors up on the glacier, into the tunnels and caves to see the incredible ice from the inside, and allow guests to walk on top of the glacier itself.
4. Soak under the stars in a secret lagoon.
Even if you haven’t been planning a trip to Iceland, chances are you’ve heard of the Blue Lagoon. But Iceland’s most famous tourist attraction isn’t the only hot spring in the country; in fact, the landscape is dotted with dozens of hot springs and pools that are less crowded and less expensive. The Secret Lagoon is just one of them, and it’s the only one to offer special buoyant headgear that helps you float horizontally. The lagoon even offers special night soaks so you can float under the stars, and — if you’re lucky — the sparkling Northern Lights.
5. Go inside a volcano.
There are more than 100 volcanoes sprinkled around Iceland, and many of them erupt regularly. Thrihnukagigur volcano, in southwest Iceland, is not one of them, which means it’s safe to go inside the volcano — a special feat accomplished with the help of a window-washing basket rigged to an elevator that brings visitors 400 feet (120 meters) into the belly of the 4,000-year-old dormant volcano. Visitors first hike for 30 minutes to the volcano, then descend the height of the Statue of Liberty to the bottom of the chamber, where they’re given about an hour to explore its multi-colored walls and rocks, and imagine what it was like when this ancient volcano belched it’s scalding lava onto the surface of the earth.
6. Have your Viking portrait taken.
The ancient Vikings were the first to settle in Iceland, and their legends live on in the sagas — tales passed down from generation to generation, highlighting the legendary deeds of their heroes and villains. At Mink Viking Portrait Studio in Reykjavik, run by photographer and Viking enthusiast Guðmann, you can get dressed up in period garb, get a quick lesson in Viking history (in Viking times, the women pillaged alongside the men), and walk out with an amazing photo straight out of Game of Thrones. The studio provides clothes, accessories, and weapons, and coaches you on the best positioning, so you end up with a photo that goes beyond kitschy souvenir.