There's no ignoring the fact that Iceland has become an “it” destination for travelers. It's got amazing landscapes, a cool culture, and a wealth of adventurous things to do.
But Iceland is NOT a cheap country to visit.
Flights to the Land of Fire and Ice might be affordable these days thanks to airlines like WOW Air, but once you get on the ground in Iceland you're basically in Scandinavia – and that means Scandinavian prices.
While you can find semi-budget-friendly options when it comes to food and accommodation, I'll be honest with you: Iceland tours are expensive.
BUT there are so many cool things to do and see in Iceland that I don't necessarily think you should forego taking any tours just because of their price tags.
Instead, let me walk you through the best Iceland tours; I'll tell you which ones I think are worth the money, and which ones you're better off doing on your own or skipping entirely. (And note that most of these can be done as day trips from Reykjavik!)
Iceland tours always worth paying for
The following are activities in Iceland that I think are worth doing, but that you can really only do as part of a guided tour.
Iceland is one of only two places in the entire world where you can see two of the earth's tectonic plates above ground. You can see the separating North American and Eurasian plates in Þingvellir National Park – and you can go diving or snorkeling between them in Þingvallavatn Lake! This is an epic adventure. The water is incredibly incredibly cold year-round, but it's also incredibly clear and blue. I promise that the frozen fingers are worth it!
The thing is, though, that you can't snorkel or dive here independently – you have to book a tour, which comes complete with the necessary gear and a guide.
My top tour picks: This small-group Silfra snorkeling tour from Reykjavik, or this diving tour (for experienced divers). Or you can combine snorkeling Silfra with touring a lava cave if you have a full day.
Why it's worth it: Because it's freaking amazing, and something you literally cannot do anywhere else in the world.
Ice caves / glacier hiking in Iceland
Iceland has lots of volcanoes, but it also has lots of glaciers (many of which sit on TOP of dormant volcanoes). This means that there are plenty of opportunities to hike on glaciers, and even explore glacial ice caves during the winter months.
Ice in general can be VERY dangerous, though – and I'm not just talking about the risk of falling on your butt. Glaciers are constantly moving, meaning cracks and fissures can shift around and open up relatively suddenly. Do NOT climb up onto a glacier or down into an ice cave on your own, especially if you have no experience navigating them and don't have the proper gear.
Luckily, there are lots of companies in Iceland that offer glacier-trekking tours (year-round) and ice cave tours in the winter.
My top tour picks: This full-day glacier hiking and ice climbing trip from Reykjavik, and this Crystal Ice Cave tour from Jökulsárlón.
Why it's worth it: Because you don't want to mess around with safety. But also because the guides on these tours know all the secrets (like where to find the best ice caves), and will provide you with the gear you need to keep you safe on the ice.
Whale watching in Iceland
Iceland is an island, after all, meaning that all sorts of cool marine life resides just off its coasts. In the summer months especially (April through September), Iceland has particularly good whale watching – you can see humpbacks, orcas, blue whales, and more. Iceland whale watching tours also take place during the winter months, though you'll want to be prepared for cold weather and choppier seas.
Why it's worth it: Because whales are pretty incredible, and seeing them in the wild requires you to be out on the water.
Some very unique horses call Iceland home. The Icelandic horse is small and sturdy, and has a couple extra gaits beyond the usual walk, trot, and canter. These furry cuties are also directly descended from the horses the Vikings brought over to Iceland back in the 9th and 10th centuries, which is pretty darn cool.
Horseback riding in Iceland is unique both because of the horses and the landscapes you can see; riding across ancient lava fields is not uncommon.
And, while you could perhaps swing a free ride if you happen to have a friend in Iceland who owns horses, chances are you'll need to book a tour in order to ride.
My top tour picks: This 2-hour riding tour is a great option for beginners.
Why it's worth it: Because of the landscapes and the sweet, shaggy horses. (And if you're a horse fan, getting to try out the unique gaits of an Icelandic horse is pretty special, too!)
Read about it: The Horses of Iceland
Going up into the Highlands
The center of Iceland is known as the Highlands, and is known for its incredible landscapes – from volcanic deserts to huge glaciers to rainbow-hued mountains. The thing about the Highlands, though, is that there aren't many paved roads and even in summer the roads that exist aren't passable for the majority of rental cars in Iceland.
So, while you *can* technically rent a 4×4 and head into the Highlands on your own, this is one part of Iceland where I think you can really benefit from taking a tour with an expert driver (plus, if you go by super jeep, you can drive over some of the lava and through rivers, which you can't do in a regular car).
Two popular places in the Highlands to go by tour are Þórsmörk (Thorsmork, the Valley of Thor) and Landmannalaugar (where you find the colorful mountains).
Why it's worth it: The scenery is just incredible, and you don't have to stress about things like bad roads and river crossings.
Iceland tours sometimes worth paying for
The following are tours that I think *can* be worth the price, but mostly only if you're not renting a car in Iceland (which is totally possible, by the way – check out my itinerary for a winter Iceland trip without a car!).
Northern Lights tours in Iceland
During the winter months (generally September through March), the Northern Lights often make an appearance in the skies above Iceland. You aren't always able to see them because winter in Iceland usually means lots of clouds, but if you hit on a clear winter night, your chances of an aurora sighting are pretty high.
If you have a rental car (or if you're staying somewhere away from bright city lights), it's not difficult to see the Northern Lights on your own on a clear night.
BUT, if you don't have a car to help you get away from light pollution, or if there's significant cloud cover, then booking a Northern Lights chasing tour is probably worth it. I've gone on aurora-chasing tours in Norway (the weather has never cooperated during my Iceland trips!) and the benefit of going on a tour is having guides adept at reading weather and aurora forecasts in order to get you in the right place at the right time.
My top tour picks: This Northern Lights tour from Reykjavik, or this small-group tour in a Super Jeep. You can also book a Northern Lights cruise, but I wouldn't recommend that option if you want to try to get good photos.
Why it's worth it: Because you'll have the best chance of seeing the Northern Lights – and sometimes the guides will even help you take photos!
Golden Circle tour
Iceland's Golden Circle is probably the most famous route for tourists in the country, and definitely one of the most popular day trips from Reykjavik. It features three main attractions: Þingvellir National Park, the Gullfoss waterfall, and the geyser area at Haukadalur.
If you have a rental car, you should absolutely not book a tour of the Golden Circle, as all the sites are very easy to drive to on your own.
But if you aren't renting a car, then this is definitely a tour option to consider. Even though the sites are famous in Iceland, they're still super cool! I mean, Þingvellir is where Iceland was first settled, and Geysir in the Haukadalur geothermal area is literally where the word “geyser” comes from.
Why it's worth it: Because it's iconic Iceland and there are lots of tours to choose from (many often combined with another activity).
Read about it: Iceland's Golden Circle
South Coast for waterfalls / black beaches
The other super-famous route in Iceland is the drive along the South Coast, past Vik and on to the Jökulsárlón glacial lagoon and Vatnajökull National Park. Along this drive are several famous waterfalls (including Seljalandsfoss and Skogafoss), and a couple famous black beaches (like Reynisfjara). Again, this is a trip best made in two days if you have time (and can be combined with a glacier hike or ice cave exploration).
If you have a car at your disposal, you can fully explore this route, stopping at every waterfall, beach, and cool vantage point. (The advantage of having a car is that you can also check out spots like Fjaðrárgljúfur Canyon and hike to Svartifoss waterfall, which are two stops not usually included in any tours.)
No car? No problem. There are quite a few tours that will explore the area from Reykjavik in either one or two days, too.
Why it's worth it: Umm… you heard the part about waterfalls and black sand beaches, right? Definitely must-sees in Iceland! And going on a tour means not having to drive or navigate yourself.
Read about it: The Sights of Iceland's South Shore
The Snæfellsnes Peninsula can be found in Western Iceland (north of Reykjavik) and is often called “Iceland in Miniature” because it contains all the most famous aspects of Iceland, from waterfalls to glaciers to black sand beaches. There's a lot to do and see on the peninsula – definitely enough for an overnight trip if you have the time.
Once again, this is an area you can explore on your own if you have a car; there aren't that many roads that go around the peninsula, and they're drive-able even in winter.
But, also once again, if you don't have a car I think booking a tour to this part of Iceland is more than worth it.
Why it's worth it: Because it's not as touristy as the Golden Circle or South Coast, but just as beautiful.
Read about it: The Wild Beauty of the Snaefellsnes Peninsula
Other tours that will sometimes be worth paying for in Iceland are specialty tours like a Game of Thrones tour, or a snowmobiling tour. These tours won't be for everyone, but if they're for you then they are probably worth paying for.
Iceland tours not worth paying for
And now for the Iceland attractions that you DON'T need to book tours for.
You'll find lots of Blue Lagoon tours for sale in Iceland. And, generally, I'd say you don't need to pay extra for these unless they're combined with another activity you want to do. I DO think the Blue Lagoon is worth visiting while you're in Iceland, and especially recommend it upon arrival after your international flight. But you don't really need to go on a tour.
How to do it on your own: You can pre-book your Blue Lagoon ticket online (recommended so you can avoid the line inside), and either drive yourself there (it's very close to the airport) or book a ticket on the FlyBus to/from the airport with a stop at the Blue Lagoon.
Read about it: Relaxing at Iceland's Blue Lagoon
Reykjavik city tour
You'll also find lots of Reykjavik city tours for sale; there's even a hop-on, hop-off bus version. And while I love a good city tour, the truth is that Reykjavik is a small enough city to explore on your own – and most of it on foot!
How to do it on your own: You can walk from any central accommodation to all the major sites in Reykjavik, including the Hallgrímskirkja church, waterfront, and Opera House. The only place you might not want to walk to is Perlan, a museum/observation deck/restaurant that sits on a hill just outside of the city. You can drive there if you have a car, or take bus #18 from Reykjavik, which stops close by.
Read about it: 48 Hours in Reykjavik, Iceland
ESSENTIAL ICELAND INFO
- Looking for packing suggestions for Iceland? Head over to my Iceland packing list to see all my favorite travel gear for Iceland!
- Pick up an Iceland travel guide before you go.
- Curious about where you should stay? In Reykjavik, my pick is the Rey Apartments.
- Don't leave home without a good travel insurance plan – because you never know what might happen! I recommend World Nomads for affordable basic travel insurance.
- And check out more of my Iceland posts here.
Have you done any tours in Iceland? If not, which one(s) sound best to you?
Pin it for later:
Amanda Williams is the award-winning blogger behind A Dangerous Business Travel Blog. She has traveled to more than 60 countries on 6 continents from her home base in Ohio, specializing in experiential and thoughtful travel through the US, Europe, and rest of the world. Amanda only shares tips based on her personal experiences and places she's actually traveled!