For families looking for a vacation filled with adventure, wildlife and history, few areas in the world can match the density of offerings jammed into a tiny island like Iceland. A former Danish colony famously settled in the 9th Century by seafaring Norseman known as Vikings, this subarctic European gem is roughly the size of Cuba.
Despite its diminutive size, though, Iceland contains many countries’ worth of geological highlights, from geothermal hot spots to active volcanoes, waterfalls, glaciers and fjords. Bottom line? It’s the ideal vacation destination for outdoor-loving families.
Of course, there’s also plenty to do in unassuming yet sophisticated Reykjavik, including shopping along Laugavegur, walking along the waterfront toward Harpa concert hall, visiting iconic Hallgrímskirkja church, or touring the city’s numerous galleries and museums. Outside of town, kids will also love soaking in the Blue Lagoon or taking a Golden Circle tour to see several of the area’s geological wonders.
But if you’re willing to step outside the big city, there’s so much more to experience on a family vacation. Here are five not-to-miss, kid-friendly activities around Iceland.
Ride an Icelandic horse
I can’t imagine traveling all the way to this country for a family vacation and not riding one of these slight but hardy steeds that date back to the age of the Vikings. Unmistakable with its smallish size and long, flowing manes—what I call the Fabio of horses—Icelanders take great pride in its homegrown breed, known for being surefooted and capable of crossing difficult terrain.
The Icelandic horse is also noteworthy for possessing two extra gaits (in addition to walk, trot and canter): tölt, a four-beat, lateral ambling gait—faster than a walk; a smooth ride good for extended times in the saddle, as in trail rides—and skeið, or “flying pace,” a fast pace in which some horses can reach up to 30 mph.
The country takes such pride in keeping these inimitable horses healthy and disease-free, in fact, that Icelandic law dictates any exported horse is never allowed to return to its native land. And one more thing: Do not, I repeat, do not ever insult an Icelander by referring to these horses as “ponies.”
Visit a Bakarí (Bakery)
While the country may be known for its meat, from seafood to beef and especially lamb—since there are more Icelandic sheep than people—we had no idea we’d encounter such dreamy pastries. In even the tiniest of villages, it’s easy to find a bakery—sometimes, even inside grocery stores—filled with homemade breads, pastries, cakes and coffee, both savory and sweet.
Oftentimes, the bakeries also include local staples like muesli and skyr (skeer) yogurt, as well as they country’s most revered dessert, skyr (skeer) cake, Iceland’s answer to cheesecake. Oh, and if you get to Mývatn in North Iceland, try the bread locals bake underground via geothermal heat.
Tour in a Super Jeep
The vast array of terrain throughout Iceland makes traveling in a super jeep—modified jeeps that allow literal off-the-beaten-track tours—a popular option. And while you can find them practically anywhere in the country, you can even rent a super jeep on your own, we chose a tour in Southeast Iceland to experience some of the area’s many dazzling glacial lagoons in Vatnajökull National Park. Named after the world’s largest ice cap (after both poles), the Park covers 14 percent of the country and offers gorgeous views of the country’s iconic, icy-blue glaciers marbled with volcanic ash.
Spot whales in Húsavík
Taking a boat tour in search of these hulking marine mammals is nothing new or unique, and there are several whale-watching spots throughout Iceland, including Reykjavik. But for some of the best viewing in the country, head to North Iceland’s Húsavík, known as the country’s whale-watching capital.
A tiny fishing village along the shores of Skjálfandi bay, the combination of nutrients from two estuaries draws up to 11 species for summertime feeding, including minke, humpback and even blue whales. Then after an exhilarating ride in a RIB (rigid, inflatable boat), chow down at one of the many harbor-side restaurants and cafes. And be sure to visit the town’s world-class whale museum, adorned in local children’s artwork and whale skeletons, including one from a blue whale that was beached in 2010.
See the Northern Lights
In most of the world, we focus on winter-weather forecasts. But in Iceland, winter means focusing on the Aurora forecast. As a sparsely populated country with few trees (What do you do when you get lost in an Icelandic forest? Stand up!), and relatively little light pollution, Iceland is the perfect place to spot the sky’s pageantry of color.
Known as the Northern Lights or Aurora Borealis, and caused when electrically charged particles from the sun enter the earth’s atmosphere near the earth’s poles (Aurora Australis in the south), the best time to spot them in is in wintertime, roughly September through April in Iceland. But locals know to start looking in late August, when our family was lucky enough to witness its stunning display of green radiance lighting up the night sky. There are plenty Northern Lights excursions that are perfect for your family vacation throughout Iceland’s dark, cold winters.
This post was contributed by Heather Mundt of Momfari. You can see more of her writing and family-travel advice at www.momfari.com