Characterized by an abundance of natural attractions, Iceland truly is one of the most beautiful places on the planet. Commonly known as the “Land of Fire and Ice”, Iceland is a country where you can see waterfalls, glaciers, volcanoes and active geysers all in one trip. Nowhere are nature’s wonders more clustered than southern Iceland. You can see a rainbow ringed waterfall followed by a 4,000 year old glacier followed by a black sand beach all in one day in southern Iceland.
After four trips to Iceland, I can honestly say that southern Iceland is my favorite region to explore. Only a few hours from Reykjavik, Iceland’s capital city, you can easily access some of the country’s most beautiful places within a short period of time. Yet, the lack of people in Iceland will make you feel like you’re in the middle of the wilderness. There is so much incredible natural diversity packed into a small area!
I have driven the entire Ring Road of Iceland, but I have also done just two nights along the southern coast. Obviously with more time, you’ll be able to see more of the natural attractions listed in this blog post; but as a minimum, I recommend dedicating at least two days to explore southern Iceland. You are never more than a few kilometers away from incredible scenery sights, so you can easily pack your days with stunning adventures.
Best Waterfalls in Southern Iceland
Visible directly from the ring road, Seljalandsfoss is one of the most visited waterfalls in all of Iceland. There is a large parking lot with toilets right in front of the falls. This stunning waterfall drops directly off the side of a cliff into a pool below. What is special about this waterfall is the hollow cave that allows visitors to walk behind the falls. Yes, you can hike behind these waterfalls! Wispy strands of water plunge into a small stream, creating a rainbow filled mist. It is stunning! You’re likely to get wet by some spray if you go behind the waterfalls, so dress appropriately. You aren’t walking through the falls necessarily, so simply a waterproof outer layer is sufficient.
Just steps away from the iconic Seljalandsfoss waterfall, Gljúfrafoss is a lesser known but no less impressive waterfall in southern Iceland. It is easy to see both Seljalandsfoss and Gljúfrafoss in one stop since they share a parking lot. From Seljalandsfoss, simply follow the well-marked path along the mountain ridge about 15 minutes to find Gljúfrafoss.
Tucked behind a large crack in the rock, this waterfall is actually in a cave. Wade through a shallow stream in the cave to find the falls. You will be greeted by moss-covered rock walls and water crashing into the shallow pool below. Since it is lesser known, there is a good-chance you may be one of only a few visitors inside the cave. Climb up to the top of the fallen boulder for an incredible photo and some fresh glacial mist on your face!
When you picture a waterfall or draw a little picture of a waterfall, Skogafoss is basically what you are imagining. A thick curtain of water neatly plunges about 200 feet off a blunt rock face. The cliffs perfectly frame the falls and it is one of the most notorious waterfalls in Iceland. Conveniently, Skogafoss is also visible directly from the ring road and very easy to find. There is a large parking lot with toilets right in front of the falls.
During the summer months, Skogafoss has a near constant rainbow. Perhaps even more impressive in the winter, the water still flows but creates an array of ice and icicles – it is an incredibly picturesque sight unlike anything I’ve ever seen before. It was my favorite view of 2022! Because it is well known, Skogafoss is sure to be crowded during your visit. You can walk up a steep hill to the viewing platform at the top of the falls (approximately 20 minute hike) or you can walk directly up to the falls along the stream. The thundering mist is likely to get you a little wet but you are able to get very close to these falls!
Located several kilometers into the Vatnajokull National Park, Svartifoss is not accessible from the ring road, but it is well worth the 90 minute round trip hike to see one of Iceland’s most coolest waterfalls. Translating to “Black Falls”, Svartifoss is unique because of its black basalt columns that form the steep wall from which the water falls. It is an open freefall foss which means you can get incredibly close to the cascading water. Pack yourself a small picnic lunch for a romantic afternoon hike to this stunning waterfall! It is much less visited than other waterfalls on this list, so the photo opportunities are excellent.
Sometimes also called Stuðlabergsfoss, this two-tier waterfall is the furthest east attraction in this blog. It should be the last place you visit from this list, if you are doing a ring road trip. While it is a little bit hard to find (GPS 65.073316, -14.880282), this secluded falls is one of the least visited. It is worth the effort – you’re likely to have people-free photos and a pristine experience. The hike up to the waterfall from the parking lot is not very difficult, but there is some elevation gain. Similar to the Svartifoss (above) as well as the Reynisfjara Black Sand beach, these falls are surrounded by basalt columns. These columns in particular are some of Iceland’s longest. The falls drop nearly 100 feet, and the whole area is incredibly picturesque.
Best Glacier & Ice Attractions in Southern Iceland
One of the most Instagrammable places in southern Iceland is Diamond Beach. This breathtaking natural attraction gets its name from the stark black sand studded with ice crystals that sparkle like – you guessed it – diamonds. This beach is formed by the melting of the nearby Vatnajökull glacier, which is the largest glacier in Europe. As the glacier melts, it produces massive icebergs that break off and float into the Jökulsárlón glacier lagoon (more on that below). Over time, these icebergs break down and get carried out to sea. Eventually, small and large pieces of ice wash up on the shores, where they are polished by the erosion of the ocean waves.
With a parking lot on either side of the glacier stream, you can visit one or both sides of Diamond Beach. Get a view from the bridge to see which side seems to have more icebergs on any given day. The best time to visit Diamond Beach is during the summer months, but this is one of the few places on this list that is truly a year round attraction. Take a leisurely stroll along the beach, marveling at the shimmering ice formations and enjoying the rugged beauty of the surrounding landscape. Keep your camera handy, because I can almost guarantee you will be snapping lots of photos!
Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon
Does floating on a boat among 4,000 year old icebergs sound like a magical experience? Well it is exactly as special as you’re imagining, and you can do it at the Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon in southern Iceland! This large arctic lagoon serves as a catch basin for the calving Breiðamerkurjökull Glacier. It is regularly filled with floating glacier pieces in deep blue and white hues. The bergs are ever changing, and eventually they flow out to the sea, sometimes washing up on the Diamond Beach I mentioned above.
While you can admire the glacier lagoon from land at one of the many view points around the lagoon, it is even more awesome to get up close and personal with an amphibian boat tour of the lagoon. The ride lasts about 45 minutes, and you’ll need to reserve a time slot ahead of time online. You’ll board the boat on land, and then it will drive into the lagoon where it turns into a boat. If there is a small enough iceberg, your Capitan might even grab it out of the water to let you hold. This lagoon is a photographer’s dream and you can watch the bergs float out to the sea via the river. If you go in the winter, you will also see seals feasting on the fish that collect in the lagoon for warmth!
If you have ever dreamed of climbing on a glacier, Iceland is your chance! The Skaftafell glacier is easily accessible as a day trip from Vik, and trekking on ancient ice makes for a lovely afternoon activity. We scheduled our Skaftafell glacier hike with Extreme Iceland who provides all the gear that you’ll need for a safe and comfortable walk out on the glacier. They even have hiking boots if you didn’t bring your own! You’ll meet at the warming hut at the base of the glacier, and the entire trip takes about 4 hours. The guides provide lots of information on the history of the glacier as you trek.
It is not every day that you can climb inside a glacier, but in Iceland you can! There are a number of ice cave tours around Iceland, and I’ve tried a few different experiences. Going inside an ice cave was one of the most unique experiences I had while traveling in Iceland, and I would 100% recommend it to anyone interested in discovering the magic of glacial ice. My favorite one was the ice caves tours in Vatnajokull National Park, because these ice caves offer bright clear blue ice with minimal snow or silt layers inside. In my opinion, it makes for the best photos and coolest experience. Each season, the ice caves fluctuate in position and size as the glacier moves, giving each visit a completely different vantage point.
It may seem scary, but it is truly incredible to go INSIDE a glacier. The local guides have a great understanding of the glaciers and how they move, so you’ll feel safe in their hands. I went on a simple ice cave tour, which picked me up at the Jökulsárlón parking lot. The tour costs included a helmet, spikes for your shoes, transportation and a knowledgeable guide. The entire experience took about 3 hours, with about 2 hours spent on the ice and in the ice caves. You’ll walk on top of the glacier until you reach the entrance to the caves. Depending on how deep the cave is, you may go down just a few steps or quite a way down. Wear warm layers that you don’t mind getting dirty, because there are times when you may need to crawl or hunch to fit inside the caves.
Fjallsárlón Glacier & Lagoon
Far less visited than the Jökulsárlón, the Fjallsarlon Glacier Lagoon is just a stone’s throw away from Diamond Beach and the ice caves. It makes this an easy place to add on to any southern Iceland itinerary. Located behind a small cafeteria (the perfect spot for lunch!) with a parking lot, a short walking path will lead you directly to the waterfront viewing point. You’ll have a stunning view of the lagoon and the glacier. Plus, there’s a good chance you’ll be one of only a few people there. We only saw two other groups while there! The calving glacier pieces here are smaller than in Jökulsárlón, but you’re much closer to the glacier and the mountains which makes the scenery much more impressive. I preferred it here actually!
Best Rock Formations in Southern Iceland
Not far from Vik there is a stunning volcanic rock arch called Dyrhólaey. In Icelandic, the name Dyrhólaey means “hill island with door hole”, which aptly describes this naturally formed oceanic archway. You can hike up to the promontory point of the arch, a short walk appropriate for all ages and physical abilities. Once to the top, you can see as far north as the Mýrdalsjökull glacier and as far east as the Gerduberg basalt columns. It is best visited in the late afternoon when cloud cover is less intense and you can see further distances.
Often considered one of the most beautiful canyons in Iceland, Fjaðrárgljúfur is an easy stop off the ring road. It is about 100 meters deep and 2 kilometers long with steep, sheer walls carved through erosion by the Fjaðrá river below. There is a well-trafficked and straightforward hiking trail at the top of the canyon while the more adventurous souls might opt to walk in the bottom of the canyon through the shallow riverbed. Regardless of which path (or both!) that you choose, the canyon’s carving serpentine shape offers magnificent photo opportunities regardless of which view you take in.
Reynisfjara Black Sand Beach & Sea Stacks
Well-known by travelers, the black sand beach at Reynisfjara is a must-see natural attraction on any drive through southern Iceland. It was ranked by National Geographic as one of the top 10 most beautiful non-tropical beaches in the world! Less of a sand beach and more of a rock beach, don’t expect to go barefoot along the shore here. The coarse sand at the beach is made up of crushed volcanic rock, the origin of the black color.
On the eastern side of the beach, you will notice a collection of enormous basalt columns in hexagonal shapes. These unique rock formations occur when hot lava rapidly cools, typically because it hits cold water. You might also recognize these from the north of Ireland at the Giant’s Causeway. Don’t miss this awesome Instagram spot! On a sunny day, you might be enticed to grab a seat at the patio (along with a sandwich and a beer) at the beachfront Black Beach restaurant for a relaxing afternoon on the oceanfront.
Other Things to Visit in Southern Iceland
A truly Iceland experience you can try in southern Iceland is a visit to a public swimming pool. This is a popular way that local people relax, and it is a fun cultural experience for visitors. Seljavallalaug public swimming pool, accessible off the ring road via a well-marked hiking trail, is one of the most well-known yet secluded spots to take a dip. This Instagrammable pool was built in 1923 and is the oldest swimming pool in Iceland. Pack yourself a small picnic (and drinks!) for a stunning swim surrounded by Icelandic mountains.
Another interesting activity in this area of Iceland is seeing the ruins of the Sólheimasandur airplane crash. If you’ve seen photos of Iceland in your social media research, you’ve probably seen photos of this iconic sight. In 1973, a US Navy C-117D airplane crashed on the southern coast of Iceland due to icing. Thankfully all members of the crew survived and were evacuated. To this day, the wreckage remains largely intact. Until recently, the crash site was closed to the public but nowadays it has opened. You can park in a nearby lot and walk 40 minutes to the site, or you can book a spot on the shuttle bus which drives there every half hour.
While many of the attractions on this list are best seen during the summer months, there is one very special thing that Iceland offers in the winter – the Northern Lights. Also known as the Aurora borealis, the Northern Lights are one of the most awe-inspiring natural phenomena on the planet. I have attempted to see the northern lights twice in Iceland, and once in Lapland, failing all three times. That was until my latest trip over New Years 2022. And WOW. The dazzling display of shimmering colors across the night sky was as spectacular as I anticipated. If you want to see the Northern Lights in Iceland, you’ll need to be in a remote area away from the city lights. Southern Iceland is perfect for this!