The family-friendly holiday destination you’d probably never thought of

At least no one says, “Are we there yet?” The landscapes of Iceland, with waterfalls spritzing by the roadside and glaciers wreathing black sand beaches with diamonds of ice, are so hard to look away from that there is practically no blinking allowed in the backseats. Often, travellers fly around the world to gawk at spectacular geographical wonders – geysers, canyons, U-shaped valleys and incomprehensible phenomena like bubble-blowing mud pools. But this is all just a short, three-hour flight north of Britain, with so many popcorn moments.

Even if your idea of the perfect family holiday is a fly-and-flop week on the beach, you need to experience the road out of Keflavik International Airport (and, surely, wherever else can wait for next year?). Every bend, it turns out, reveals a mesmerising vista and there are adventures galore, from whale-watching to barely believable elf-hunting. I’m 40-something, but I’ll certainly never forget the story of Mt Stapafell, a mountaintop where the troll Gellivor kidnapped shepherds to feed to her young. And I doubt my kids will either. For wide-eyed, inquisitive children, the Land of Fire and Ice has far more magnetism than an iPad ever will.

Fire up the kids’ imaginations with myths

Credit: Arctic-Images/Getty Images

Contrary to popular belief, you also don’t need to be constantly kitted-out in Bear Grylls’s outdoor gear to enjoy many of Iceland’s hairy-chested adventures. Dozens are within sniffing distance of the roadside and wonderfully configured for any family with a tolerance for Pac A Mac cagoules. Yes, there are ice climbers and deep lake divers here, but also plenty for can-do nursery tots and gung-ho preschoolers. Remember, Hoppipolla, the sweeping BBC Planet Earth soundtrack by Icelandic band Sigur Ros? It translates as “jumping into puddles”, an art form here. 

And a trip to Iceland doesn’t have to break the bank. Flights are cheap (see easyJet and Wow Air, fares from £28.99 one-way), and all those grandstanding natural wonders are free to visit with a rental car or round-trip bus. The cost is also down to family-friendly accommodation being set up for self-catering, with any trip beyond Reykjavik dovetailing nicely with picnic lunches and faff-free gas station snacking. And for a splurge, the country’s beloved national supper is a delicious ode to the deep-fried dinner. The UK may do cod and chips well, but Iceland does it better. And if your family isn’t happy with that, then may the Norse gods help you.

10 great family things to do

Kayak with icebergs at Jokulsarlon

If ever there was a place to convince kids that Narnia is real – to step through the wardrobe into a land of ice – it is the Jokulsarlon’s inland sea. This is where the Breidamerkurjokull glacier, an all-powerful leviathan, snakes from the mountains to the volcanic beaches of the south coast, shedding icebergs as big as double-deckers into the lagoon. At 985ft deep, the water is Iceland’s lowest point, while above the glacier towers at 2,985ft, pricking senses when seen from a kayak or zodiac. Afterwards, an adventure with the Boy Scouts or Girl Guides just won’t cut it. Tours run from May to October only.

Journey to the centre of the Earth

French fantasy writer Jules Verne set his classic adventure novel Journey to the Centre of the Earth on the Snaefellsnes Peninsula in 1864 and, for school-aged kids, West Iceland still fires the imagination after all these years. To do it justice, plot a 125-mile route from Reykjavik to Hellissandur, hoovering up all the sights in between – it’s a wellspring of sense-tingling volcanic caldera to sniff, lava tube caves to climb into and rock formations to puzzle over. One standout is kaleidoscopic Vatnshellir Cave, an 8,000-year-old lava tube accessible for five-year-olds and above. Then, capping it all, is bejewelled Snaefellsjokull glacier, which kids can lap up from the vantage point of a snow cat or snowmobile, from May to August.

Hit the hot tub, Icelandic style

In many ways, Icelanders were the progenitors of wellness travel as we have come to know it, with every sort of trip punctuated by stops at geothermal springs and natural hot tubs in unlikely occasions. The Blue Lagoon at Grindavik is the blue-ribbon attraction, but the crowds can make it feel theme park-esque. The connoisseur’s alternatives for splashing about in age restriction-free waters are the many 40C pools of Reykjavik’s Laugardalslaug (double win: there’s a family park and Arctic zoo next door); the Ibiza-does-Iceland vibe of Nautholsvik Geothermal Beach; and the snooker-chalk blues of Seljavallalaug, a natural hot tub a 20-minute hike up a valley near Skogar. Children under 14 often get in for free – a personal favourite is the Secret Lagoon at Fludir.

The Ibiza-does-Iceland vibe of Nautholsvik Geothermal Beach is one alternative to the crowds of the theme park-esque Blue Lagoon

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Join an elf hunt in the east

How far would your family be willing to follow a storyteller who puts their faith in supernatural characters with flawless hair and pointy ears? Well, in Iceland, searching for the magical huldufolk, or hidden people, is a national sport, and locals approach elf-tracking with stories as old as the mountains themselves, particularly around Borgarfjordur Eystri on Iceland’s northeast coast. If my little ones are anything to go by, an essential yomp is to Alfaborg, a hill so-named because it is the supposed residence of Borghildur, the Icelandic elf queen. Otherwise, take your teens on a day hike to Mt Dyrfjoll, where legend says the elf king lives.

Meet the monsters of the deep

Where the Icelandic plateau crumples into the Greenland Sea, you will find Husavik, the country’s whale-watching capital and a coastline alive with white-caps and moshing humpbacks, minke and orca pods. Peak whale migration hits Skjalfandi Bay from July to mid-September and, while there are white-knuckle RIB excursions, these have over-10 age restrictions. For all ages, trips on more traditional fishing vessels are widely available, however, and tours also run out of Akureyri, Iceland’s second city. Otherwise, head to the Westman Islands and Heimaey, for a bob around the world’s first beluga whale sanctuary.

Hike a glacier

Skaftafell, the jumping-off point for trips into the frozen kingdom of Vatnajokull National Park, doubles as Hollywood North. Batman, James Bond, Lara Croft, Thor and the warring dynasties of Game of Thrones have all played second fiddle to the scenery of Europe’s largest ice sheet on the Svinafellsjokull glacier, and here you can rope up for an assault on its maze of crevasses. Height and age restrictions apply on the easiest trips – mostly, around eight to 10 – but there are still plenty of crampon-free walks to enjoy with younger kids. Guides are essential for trips on the ice, with Icelandic Mountain Guides offering combined glacier walks and climbing intros.

Take the Golden Circle road trip

Visitors have overwhelmed Iceland’s 155-mile Golden Circle route through the southern uplands to Thingvellir National Park for years now, but it’s still worth close examination. For those with older kids to entertain, the adventure begins with dry-suit snorkelling between continents in Silfra Gorge, a dramatic axe split between Europe and America. For amusing the nippers, meanwhile, motor one hour further east to Geysir, where you can witness its astonishing 230ft-high jet stream of steam tickling the heavens. Next comes multi-levelled Gulfoss Falls, a hyperreal cascade of swirling spray on the Hvita river. To keep backseat tantrums to a minimum, the famous sights just keep on coming. Need any further persuasion? The route can be done in a day.

Multi-levelled Gulfoss Falls, a hyperreal cascade of swirling spray on the Hvita river

Credit: Anna Gorin/Moment RF

Have an adventure, no matter the weather

The midnight sun grabs the headlines, so it’s easy to forget Iceland’s summer weather is a reminder that the country exists at the very finest margins of the continent: rain gear is essential. It’s just as well, then, that there are places like Perlan, a natural history museum on steroids, with space station-style dome, walk-through ice cave and exhibits that make the island’s glaciers buggy accessible. Along the same lines is FlyOver Iceland, an Imax theatre that dangles you, virtually, from a chopper over the country’s Instagram hits. Finally, for other wet day wonders, try the Icelandic Sea Monster Museum in the Westfjords or the Museum of Icelandic Sorcery and Witchcraft in Holmavik.

Ride an Icelandic pony

It’s clear that nothing is out of the ordinary in this part of the world, and that also applies to the endemic Icelandic horse. A rare breed in so many senses, the pint-sized ponies are ideally suited to little riders and are stocky, yet reassuringly gentle and friendly, for nervy first-timers. Riding tours tend to be open for children aged seven years or older, while younger ones can pet the ponies on meet-and-greets across the country – a few places to consider are Fridheimar stables, Eldhestar and farmers’ cooperative Islandshestar.

Climb into a lava tube

The sense of ease when travelling with young kids or toddlers continues when scrambling down into an underground lava cave. If your children can handle a set of dimly-lit steps – or if you’re a stooping load carrier, like me – then hugely accessible Raufarholshellir, 30 minutes from Reykjavik, is a terrific all-ages, all-abilities affair – and, better yet, under-11s can turn mini-explorers for free. Nearby, popular lava tube Leidarendi has stricter requirements (over-fives only).

How to get around

Public buses run all over Iceland. Adults pay less than £3 for a journey, children aged six to 17, £1.50, and under-sixes go free. Details at; click on the planner PDFs for routes. 

Iceland’s main roads are also excellent. There is one national road, Route 1, aka the Ring Road – most families hire a rental car or campervan. Expect to pay £350 per week and remember that – unlike in most European countries – minor roads are rudimentary and you will see more sheep than cars. 

If tackling the Golden Circle Route, drive counterclockwise to avoid the worst of the summer crowds.

Five places to stay with kids

Kex Hostel, Reykjavik

The words “biscuit factory” should do it for the kids. This insanely brilliant downtown Reykjavik hostel (more a boutique hotel, really) is housed in the former Fron milk biscuit HQ and comes with family rooms with made-up bunks. The real treats are the cracking restaurant, guest kitchens and design – vintage bric-a-brac with industrial steampunk. Family room from £139, room only;

Fossatun Camping Pods, Fossatun

What was once a peaceful roadside stop is now a centre of troll folklore thanks to owner and local musician Steinar Berg who has gone on to write bestselling troll novels and create a half-mad troll garden full of games around a hotel, campsite and glamping pods (left) on the road to the Westfjords. Also here is the Rock ’n’ Troll Coffee Shop, with more than 8,000 records and CDs – ask nicely and Steinar will spin your family’s favourite. Campsite pitches from £30, glamping pods from £68, room only;

Fossatún Camping Pods consist of a hotel, campsite and glamping pods on the road to the Westfjords

Torfhus Retreat, Selfoss

Your base for an adventure on the Golden Circle is this collection of stone and wooden houses – the sell is that they are turf-topped and inspired by the Viking farm remains at nearby Stong. Location-wise, it’s hard to beat (15 minutes either way to both Geysir and Gullfoss), and joyous activities abound: book a super jeep tour into the highlands or pony ride on one of Torfhus’s shaggy-haired family members. The chalet-like houses fit four across two bedrooms and come with a kitchen and a basalt stone hot pool. Family room from £809, B&B, two-night minimum stay;

Fjorukrain Viking Village, Hafnafjorour

Almost everyone in Iceland has Viking blood (two-thirds are of Norse descent), so this themed hotel with medieval banquet hall and the sort of fixtures and fittings you might find in Valhalla fits the mood. It’s kitsch, yes, but geared for families with all the shields, swords and sentiment little warriors could ever want. The Viking houses are creaky wooden affairs with box bunk beds. Viking cottage from £239, room only;

Hotel Aldan, Seydisfjordur

At the intersection of all village life, this three-star hotel is spread across several beautifully restored wooden houses: the mere idea of picking between the old schoolhouse, the bank, or the post office should be enough for it to catch on with your kids. Also utterly brilliant is the first-floor restaurant of the main building: Noro Austur, a superb sushi restaurant with an Icelandic twist. Family room from £139, room only;