Iceland is one of the world’s most awe-inspiring places, and even the most cynical children will be intrigued and enchanted by its dramatic landscapes of forests, glaciers, lava formations, waterfalls, volatile geysers and bubbling mud pools. Iceland is one vast natural playground, characterised by the purity of its air and its abundance of space – the perfect setting for outdoors pursuits, ranging from horse-trekking to swimming in geothermal pools, as well as certain kookier activities (elf-spotting, anyone?).
Things to do with kids in Iceland
Go horse-trekking on a pure-bred Viking horse exclusive to Iceland – they’re the perfect size for children and have a gentle temperament and smooth gait. A recommended tour operator is Ishestar, who offer eco-friendly tours of the countryside, including highlands and sandy beaches, plus lessons.
Ooh and aaah at the country's dramatic geysers. Geysir, 125km from Reykjavik, was the original erupting hot spring that gave its name to the very word ‘geyser’; though it’s now inactive, nearby Stokkur still projects boiling water up to a height of 35m every 10 minutes, and its surroundings boast bubbling pools, steam vents and springs turned psychedelic colours by algae and mineral deposits.
Marvel some more, this time at the Gullfoss (‘Golden Falls’) waterfall about 150km north-east of Reykjavik. Together with the geysers and Thingvellir (a UNESCO listed National Park around Iceland’s largest natural lake), this forms the popular ‘Golden Circle Circuit’.
Spot elves – if you’re clairvoyant. Many Icelanders believe in a ‘hidden world’, to which their country’s otherworldly lava landscape lends itself – many rock stacks and formations are said to be trolls petrified for committing bad deeds. (Look out, too, for the alfhol or wooden elfhouses in most Icelanders’ gardens). Elves, gnomes, fairies, dwarves, lovelings, mountain spirits and angels are thought to be most prevalent (or at least easier to spot) in the Hafnarfjördur area, because lines of mystical energy converge here (you can’t even build a house or road in the vicinity until it’s been established the plot isn't occupied by elves and suchlike!). Hidden World Walks led by clairvoyant Erla Steffánsdóttir take you to their home-sites, telling stories about the magical worlds and history of hidden folk in the town – local kids often come along too, in fancy dress.
Bathe in a geothermal pool – part of daily life in Iceland, visited by many locals pre- or post-work, or both! Kids love playing in naturally heated water surrounded by chill Icelandic air. There are pools and hot tubs around Reykjavik, including the Laugardalslaug thermal baths and pools in the Laugardalur Valley, with the country’s largest outdoor swimming pool, an 86m waterslide, mud baths, steam baths, sun-lamps and massage facilities. Of course, the most famous geothermal spa is the Blue Lagoon, also near Reykjavik – here, black sand and lava fields surround a 5,000m2 pool with an average temperature of 37°c, rich in natural mineral salts and algae. Show your kids how to get messy with facepacks from the boxes of silica mud around the pool.
Head for Perlan or ‘the Pearl’, a domed building with spectacular 360° views over Reykjavik, and for the Saga Museum retelling Iceland’s rich history as recorded in the sagas (stories written in old Norse, about Viking voyages, bloody family feuds and more) through historical tableaux. In summer, there’s living history on offer at the Arbæjarsafn Rejkjavik Museum, with historic buildings brought here from around the island hosting farming and crafts demonstrations, food tastings, and the like.
See the wild side of Iceland – and perhaps even the spectacular Northern Lights – on a Super Jeep Safari, taking you where conventional vehicles can’t go. Or head for Akureyri on the north coast and from there to Húsavík, Europe’s whale-watching capital. Though you can take whale tours from other towns, including Reykjavik, here you do so by traditional wooden boat, or by converted schooner out to Flatey Island with its puffins. Húsavík also has a whale museum.
Discover Vatnajokull National Park, created in 2008 to become Europe’s biggest national park, packed with grazing reindeer and natural wonders, including Iceland’s highest mountain, Öræfajökull, its country’s most active volcano, Grímsvötn, and Europe’s most powerful waterfall, Dentifoss. There are shorter hiking routes suitable for families, and one of the visitor centres offers a children’s program. It's on the edge of the national park that you'll find the spectacular Jökulsárlón glacier lagoon.
A Viking pony in eastern Iceland.
Fish is, unsurprisingly, an important component of the diet in Iceland, but lamb is very popular too, from the sheep that graze the mountains, and you might, to your children’s consternation, also see whale, dolphin, puffin, reindeer and horse on some menus. Seafood includes lobster, shrimp, herring, haddock, plaice and halibut, as well as hákarl – rotten shark meat often washed down with brennivín, a local schnapps. Icelanders also eat a lot of dairy products, including skyr (like yogurt) and mysa (whey), plus wild berries and traditional breads and pastries.
Reykjavik, your most likely base for family holidays in Iceland, offers seafood restaurants, plus international options, from Indian and Chinese to steakhouses. Don’t miss a hot dog from Baejarins Beztu, a tiny kiosk that is such a local institution that Bill Clinton came here when he was in town – the Full Monty includes mustard, ketchup, and raw and fried onions.
Alcohol remains pretty expensive in Iceland and will drive up the cost of eating out quite dramatically (note that you can't buy it in supermarkets, only specialist shops).
The Northern Lights over a pagan monument.
When to go to Iceland
Despite its name, Iceland has a temperate climate because of the Gulf Stream, with fairly mild winters and cool summers. January, surprisingly, can be warmer in some areas of the country than in New York. This means it’s a year-round destination for family holidays, with some outdoor pursuits coming into their own in winter.
Spring brings the beginning of longer days (which culminate in the ‘midnight sun’ – 24hr daylight – in the height of summer) and of the main travel season. Spring and autumn are both also good times for festivals – locals load up on culture when the days are shorter.
An ice cave in Iceland.
Though Iceland has the reputation of being a very expensive destination, prices are very reasonable outside Reykjavik and most of the natural attractions are free to visit, so it may be more affordable than you expect.
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An Icelandic waterfall.
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A remote cottage in Iceland.
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