Museums, landmarks and main attractions in Iceland - Icelandic Culture

Museums, landmarks and main attractions

Learn about Iceland first hand 

At the Icelandic Saga Centre, South Iceland

Below is a list of places that you might be interested in visiting and learning about first hand. This is just a short collection of notable sites to get a glimpse of what you can find in Iceland - you can rest assured there are many more possibilities.

Some general information and lists of natural wonders in Iceland can be found HERE.

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For a selection of educational tours:

School trips and Educational tours to Iceland

Learn about Iceland first hand

School Groups. Do you want to take your class to Iceland on an educational tour? Extreme Iceland can arrange school trips of any kind and size around Iceland. We have knowledgeable guides who can show around the historical sites and other notable places in Iceland.

Available: all year

 

Museums and information centres in Iceland

From The Saga Centre in South Iceland

From The Saga Centre in South Iceland

The Icelandic Saga Centre: The Saga Centre is a culture and tourist information centre for the region of Rangárþing Eystra, South Iceland. The Saga Centre offers visitors a unique opportunity to explore the vast and fascinating world of the Sagas. As our guest you will have an incredible chance to enter the world of mythology, ocean voyages, and the discovery of new lands. Take some time and meet the characters of the famous Saga of Brennu-Njáll or as it is called in English, the Story of Burned Njal. And like several other Sagas, it has a nickname in its native Iceland, “Njala”.

The Saga Museum: The Museum is located in Perlan (The Pearl), Reykjavík. The Saga Museum intimately recreates key moments in Icelandic history, moments which determined the fate of our people and which give a compelling insight into how the Icelanders lived for more than a millenium. At the Saga Museum you will encounter Snorri Sturluson working on his Snorra Edda, the founding of the Althingi, the oldest parliament in the world to still be in existence. Of course, no such museum would be complete without a tally of horror stories - among the more gruesome events which can be seen here are the execution of Jón Arason (Iceland´s last Catholic Bishop), the burning at the stake of Sister Katrín (Iceland´s first heretic) and, not least, the famous and bloody battle at Örlygsstaðir.

The Icelandic Phallological Museum: The Icelandic Phallological Museum, located in Reykjavík, Iceland, houses the world's largest display of penises and penile parts. The collection of 280 specimens from 93 species of animals includes 55 penises taken from whales, 36 from seals and 118 from land mammals, allegedly including Huldufólk (Icelandic elves) and trolls. In July 2011, the museum obtained its first human penis, one of four promised by would-be donors. Its detachment from the donor's body did not go according to plan and it was reduced to a greyish-brown shrivelled mass pickled in a jar of formalin. The museum continues to search for "a younger, bigger and better one."

Harbor House Museum: Born Gudmundur Gudmundsson in 1932, but commonly known as Erro -- the most prominent Icelandic artist of the late 20th century. He has donated most of his life's work to this contemporary art branch of the Reykjavik Art Museum. The exhibition spaces are inside a 1930s-era warehouse perfectly suited to the vast, cartoon-styled montages for which he is best known.

The National Museum of Iceland

The National Museum of Iceland

National Museum of Iceland: This museum's permanent but ever-evolving exhibit, "The Making of a Nation", covers the entire span of Icelandic history and culture. You might anticipate a numbing encyclopedic survey, but the curators' selective restraint manages to say more with less. Look out for impromptu appearances by a youth choir singing haunting scores from the past.

Einar Jonsson Museum: The work of Iceland's most revered sculptor draws heavily on classical mythology and traditional folklore, with a virtuosic command of gesture and an ingenious meshing of human and beastly forms. His romantic symbolism is sometimes difficult to interpret, but never fails to carry deep emotional and spiritual resonance. Einar spent as long as 10 years perfecting his works, many of which are exclusively displayed here.

Settlement Center: With state-of-the-art multimedia exhibits dedicated to Egils Saga and the first 60 years of Icelandic settlement, this engaging new museum tries almost too hard to turn learning into a kind of amusement park fun house -- but we certainly are not going to complain about that.

Glaumbaer : Iceland has several museums preserved inside 19th and early 20th century turf-roofed farm buildings; but, if you see just one, make it Glaumbaer in the northwest. Fish-skin shoes and other fascinating artifacts are on view, but the most powerful moments are when you imagine the smell of burning peat and the sounds of the family clan pottering about in  these dark, damp, and sometimes snug rooms throughout the long winters.

Museum of Small Exhibits: "I collect old things," explains Sverrir Hermannsson, the eccentric carpenter behind this strange and unique museum. Sverrir has meticulously culled, categorized, arranged, and mounted all sorts of things -- hammers, kettles, record player needles, belt buckles -- in an art of pattern, repetition, and variation. The objects themselves may be ordinary and worthless, but as he cryptically notes, "The thought alone can be of aesthetic value."

Safnasafnid : The curators of this inspiring art museum combed the country for what they call "honesty," ignoring conventional distinctions between contemporary art, folk art, and "naive" art. The museum is not anti-elitist so much as immune to all aesthetic dogma. Whatever the grounding principles, the results are compelling: Exhibits could spotlight anything from women's needleworking tools and wooden figurines whittled by a farmer to fine photography and sculpture.

Husavik Museum: Gudni Halldorsson, the intense and tireless curator of this prolific folk museum in northeast Iceland, is used to seeing most visitors to Husavik take a whale-watching tour, giggle at the jarred penises in the Phallological Museum, and depart. Nothing wrong with that, but they might take some time to enjoy the fascinating range of regional artifacts on display here, from a stuffed polar bear to necklaces made from human hair.

Skogar Folk Museum: This is without a doubt the greatest of Iceland's many folk museums, with an enormous artifact collection ranging from fishing boats to carved headboards and makeshift mousetraps. Let the staff lead you around; otherwise, you will never know what the hollow fishbone was used for.

Landmarks and main attractions in Iceland

Iceland is very rich with peculiar natural landmarks and the island also contains very interesting cultural landmarks. The highlights of Iceland are:

Seljalandsfoss Waterfall, South Iceland

Seljalandsfoss Waterfall, South Iceland

Waterfalls - Iceland is very rich with magnificent and large waterfalls. Some other European countries have taller waterfalls, but a multitude of Icelandic Waterfalls are unsurpassed in their width, power and the impact of their visual impression. Several Icelandic Waterfalls (Dettifoss, Gullfoss) belong amongst the most impressive falls of the world. List of the ten highest waterfalls in Iceland can be found here.

Geysers and other geothermal features - the only true geysers in Europe are located in Iceland. Haukadalur geothermal area contains the two most famous geysers - Geysir and Strokkur, but there also several other beautiful and interesting geothermal fields in the country.

List of the 10 largest geothermal areas in Iceland can be found here.

Glaciers and ice caps - The glaciers and ice caps of Iceland cover 11.1% of the land area of the country (about 11,400 km² out of the total area of 103,125 km²) and have a considerable impact on its landscape and meteorology. An ice cap is a mass of glacial ice which covers less than 50,000 km² of land area covering a highland area and they feed into outlet glaciers.  Many Icelandic ice caps and glaciers lie above volcanoes, such as Grímsvötn and Bárðarbunga, which rest under the largest ice cap, Vatnajökull. The caldera of Grímsvötn is 100 km² in area, and Bárðarbunga´s caldera is 60 km². 

Eyjafjallajokull volcano eruption in 2010

Eyjafjallajokull volcano eruption in 2010

Volcanoes - Iceland has a high concentration of active volcanoes due to its location on the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, a divergent tectonic plate boundary. The island has 30 active volcanic systems, of which 13 have erupted since the settlement of Iceland in AD 874. Of these 30 volcanic systems, the most active/volatile is Grímsvötn. Over the past 500 years, Iceland's volcanoes have erupted a third of the total global lava output. List of Eruptions in Iceland since 1900.

Northern Lights - The northern lights or aurora borealis are a natural phenomenon which can paint the night sky with unearthly, surreal colours. The northern lights are similar to a sunset in the sky at night, but appear occasionally in arcs or spirals usually following the earth's magnetic field. They are most often light green in colour but often have a hint of pink. Strong eruptions also have violet and white colours. Red northern lights are rare, but these can sometimes be observed at lower latitudes The aurora borealis are caused by charged particles ejected from the sun. When these particles reach the earth, they collide with gas atoms in the earth's atmosphere causing them to energise which results in a spectacular multi-coloured light show.

Waters and lakes - A list of the ten largest lakes in Iceland can be found here - A list of the ten deepest lakes in Iceland can be found here.

Natural landmarks

Volcanoes

Brennisteinsalda – Suðurland. 855 m tall volcano whose surface displays almost all colours – white, yellow, red, black, green.
Laki fissure vent – Suðurland. Volcanic fissure – a clearly visible fissure which in 1783 – 1784 was the site of one of the largest and most destructive eruptions in modern times. This fissure eruption flowed simultaneously from 130 craters.
Surtsey – Suðurland. New volcanic island, which rose from the ocean in 1963 – 1967. The island is pristine and serves as a natural laboratory where the colonisation process of plant and animal life is being researched. The area of the island is decreasing.
Viti crater lake – Norðurland Eystra. The explosion crater at the summit of the Askja volcano contains a light blue, opaque geothermal lake. The water in this lake is warm and rich with carbon dioxide.

Strokkur Geyser

Strokkur Geyser

Hydrothermal features

Deildartunguhver – Vesturland. This is a very powerful hot spring. The temperature of the water at its source is 97° C and the flow rate is 180 litres per second. Grjótagjá – Norðurland Eystra is a small lava cave with a thermal spring and hot lake inside it. Earlier the luke warm water in this cave was suitable for bathing, but between 1975 and 1984 the temperature of water increased until it exceeded 50° C.
Haukadalur geothermal area with Geysir and Strokkur – Suðurland, Iceland. Two spectacular geysers located close together. Geysir has given its name to the geological phenomenon of geysers. Geysir has spouted up to 100 m high in the past. Strokkur is very intense, erupting to a height of 25 – 35 m every 4 to 8 minutes. There are some more geysers and hot springs in this area. More information here.
Hverir Geothermal Field - Norðurland Eystra. A large and colourful geothermal field with boiling mud pots, solfataras, sulphur deposits.

Canyons and ravines

Ásbyrgi – Norðurland Eystra. This is a unique canyon. When viewed from the air, it reminds you of a tongue with approximately 100 m tall, vertical walls. In the middle of this tongue a long, 25 m tall, narrow cliff has remained. Ásbyrgi was most likely formed by glacial flooding.
Eldgjá Canyon and Ófærufoss Waterfall – Suðurland. A spectacular canyon, up to 270 m deep and 600 m wide with a powerful stream falling and flowing over several steps. This is the largest volcanic canyon in the world.
Jökulsárgljúfur – Norðurland Eystra. The canyon of the River Jökulsá below Dettifoss. This magnificent canyon is 25 km long, up to 500 m wide and up to 120 m deep.

Natural bridges and other cliff formations

Arnarstapi – Vesturland. Group of sea arches and other rocks with amazing shapes.
Dimmuborgir kirkja - Norðurland Eystra. Natural arch – a section of lava tube in an unusual lava field. There are also numerous chimneys of lava, which one can enter, to be found on Dimmuborgir.
Dyrhólaey – Suðurland. Two neighbouring natural arches under a narrow promontory in the sea. There are also basalt stacks nearby which are up to 66 m tall.
Hvítserkur – Norðurland Vestra. Amazing, 15 m tall cliff in the sea. This narrow cliff has two natural arches carved by sea wave action.
Kirkjugólf – Suðurland. Very decorative natural pavement or floor formed by from upper ends of basalt columns which resemble a church floor.

Caves

Surtshellir – Vesturland. The longest known lava cave in Iceland, 1 970 m long. Ghost stories.
Víðgelmir – Vesturland. The largest volume lava tube in the world. The cave is 1,585 m long, with a volume of 148 000 m3.
Buri Cave -  A unique underground world with ice sculptures, lava tunnels and a 17 m high vertical pit formed from a lava fall. Buri is probably the most prized of all Icelandic lava tube caves. Its size is unrivaled in Iceland, the largest chambers are about 10 metres high and 10 metres wide.
Leidarendi - Cave Leidarendi is about 900 m long and is situated in a lava field near a volcanic crater southeast of the town of Hafnarfjordur. It was first mapped in 1992. The cave's name translates as "End of the Journey". This name came about  because the carcass of a dead sheep was found at the far end of the cave, where it met its own End of the Journey. It obviously fell into the cave through a shakehole and was not able to climb out.

A list of the ten longest lava tube caves in Iceland can be found here.

Waterfalls

Aldeyjarfoss – Norðurland Eystra. A powerful waterfall, some 20 m high. The waterfall is surrounded by columnar basalt cliffs.
Dettifoss – Norðurland Eystra. A grandiose waterfall, considered to be the most powerful in Europe. The falls drop in a single plunge and are 45 m tall with a width of 100 m. The average water flow rate is 193 m²/s. There is another giant waterfall just a little upstream – Selfoss. This waterfall is 11 m high, but it is very wide – the stream has shaped a long V-shaped cliff and water cascades down over a cliff which is more than 500 m long. Downstream from Dettifoss there is another waterdall, Hafragilsfoss which is 27 m tall and 91 m wide.
Dynjandi – Vestfirðir. A cascade of beautiful waterfalls, their total height is 100 m.
Glymur – Vesturland. The tallest waterfall in Iceland at196 m tall. This waterfall plunges into a green, moss covered canyon.
Goðafoss – Norðurland Eystra. This is one of the most beautiful waterfalls in Iceland. Height – 12 m, width – 30 m.
Gullfoss – Suðurland. One of the most spectacular waterfalls in Iceland and worldwide. Consists of two steps (11 m and 21 m tall), located at right angle to each other.
Háifoss and Granni – Suðurland. Two neighbouring 122 m tall waterfalls. In each of them the cascade falls in a single plunge.
Hengifoss – Austurland. Beautiful, more than 120 m tall waterfall, the tallest in the eastern part of the country. A little lower down there is another beautiful waterfall – Litlanesfoss -   this waterfall flows between columnar basalt.
Hraunfossar – Vesturland. Unusual waterfall, flowing out of the lava field in an approximately 900 m wide front along the bank of the River Hvítá.
Morsárjökull – Austurland. A group of waterfalls, falling down a vertical wall from the base of the glacier of Vatnajökull.
Seljalandsfoss – Suðurland. Beautiful waterfall – 60 m tall with a single plunge fall.
Skógafoss – Suðurland. One of the most impressive waterfalls in Iceland, 25 m wide and 60 m tall single plunge fall. In sunny weather a rainbow is often seen here.
Svartifoss – Austurland. Unique waterfall – free falling, more than 20 m tall plunge in a valley adorned with basalt columns.

Lake Myvatn, North Iceland

Lake Myvatn, North Iceland

Ecosystems

Hallormsstaðarskógur – Austurland. The largest forest in Iceland which was planted more than 100 years ago with over 50 different tree species. 

Lake balls of Mývatn - Norðurland Eystra. One of two places in the world (another is in Japan) where whole colonies of marimo, balls formed by green algae Aegagropila linnaei, are present. These balls are soft, pleasant and up to 12 cm in diameter.

Látrabjarg – Vestfirðir. Up to 440 m high cliff, 14 km long. This is the largest bird cliff in Europe with many millions of birds.
Midges of Mývatn - Norðurland Eystra. In some years in summer a massive increase of the population of the midge, Tanytarsus gracilentus, has been observed. These algae consuming insects rise from the lake in giant, dark swarms and after the end of their short lives cover the surface of the lake like a blanket. These insects do not bite. More information here.

Other natural landmarks

Jökulsárlón – Austurland. A glacier lagoon between the glacier of Vatnajökull and the ocean. The lagoon is adorned with numerous floating icebergs. Seals have even been spotted in the glacier lagoon.
Lagarfljót – Austurland. This large lake, according to legend has a worm monster living in it – Lagarfljotsormurinn.

Man made landmarks

Churches

Hallgrímskirkja – Höfuðborgarsvæði. The best known monument of architecture in Reykjavík – an impressive 74.5 m tall church, designed in Art Deco style and constructed between 1945 and 1986.
Hólar church - Norðurland Vestra. This is the largest traditional stone church in Iceland, built in 1763.

List of the 10 oldest churches in Iceland can be found here.

Other man made landmarks

Bessastaðir – Höfuðborgarsvæði. This is a historical manor house, built on the site of a royal stronghold. Since 1944 this has been the residence of the President of Iceland.

Glaumbær Turf Houses - Norðurland Vestra. Among the very best representatives of traditional Icelandic turf houses – a group of carefully restored turf houses in Skagafjordur Folk Museum. This site has been inhabited since the 11th century but the oldest turf houses exhibited are from the middle of the 18th century. There are many more examples around Iceland – such as Hólar turf houses (Norðurland Vestra).
Hellnahellir – Suðurland. An enormous artificial cave, made in medieval times. This 50 m long cave is covered with engravings.
Lystigarður Akureyrar – Norðurland Eystra. One of northernmost botanical gardens in the world, established in 1912. The Botanical Garden aims to select plants which will thrive in Iceland.
Ruins of house in Hafnir – Höfuðborgarsvæði. Remnants of the earliest settlement in Iceland – a cabin which was abandoned between 770 and 880 AD.
Þingvellir (Thingvellir) – Suðurland. A unique historical monument  – the site where Althingi, the Icelandic Parliament  was established in 930 AD - it continued here until 1789. The site still contains remains of numerous temporary houses constructed from turf and rock which were used during the two week long assembly of the Althingi. More information here.

Hellisheidarvirkjun geothermal power plant

The geothermal power plant of Hellisheidarvirkjun 

Hellisheidarvirkjun heat and power station in South Iceland - Located on the volcano of Hengill in South Iceland, Hellisheidarvirkjun (or Hellisheidi) heat and power plant (CHP) constitutes the largest power station of Iceland and the second largest geothermal power station in the world. This geothermal power plant was created to provide electricity to the city of Reykjavik due to an increasing demand. Only 11 km separate the geothermal power plant of Hellisheidarvirkjun from Nesjavellir which is the second largest geothermal power in Iceland. More information here.

Icelandic art

Icelandic art has been built on the Northern European traditions of the nineteenth century, but it has developed in distinct directions in the twentieth century, influenced in particular by the unique Icelandic landscape as well as by Icelandic mythology and culture.

Origins of contemporary Icelandic visual art

Contemporary Icelandic painting is typically traced to the work of Þórarinn Þorláksson, who, following formal training in art in the 1890s in Copenhagen, returned to Iceland to paint and exhibit works from 1900 until his death in 1924, almost exclusively portraying the Icelandic landscape. Þorláksson was not the only Icelandic artist who learnt in Denmark at that time: there were several Icelanders, both men and women, at the Academy in the closing years of the 19th century, and these included Ásgrímur Jónsson, who together with Þorláksson created a distinctive portrayal of their home country's landscape in a romantic naturalistic style.

Landscape painting

The distinctive rendition of the Icelandic landscape by its painters can be linked to nationalism and the movement toward home rule and independence, which was very active in this period. Other landscape artists quickly followed in the footsteps of Þorláksson and Jónsson. These included Jóhannes Kjarval, Jón Stefánsson, and Júlíana Sveinsdóttir. Kjarval in particular is noted for the distinct techniques in the application of paint that he developed in a concerted effort to portray the characteristic volcanic rock which dominates the Icelandic environment.