Let’s get one thing straight first: I LOVE Iceland. I’ve been to Iceland three times in the last decade, and often tell people it’s one of the most unique countries I’ve visited.
Iceland has volcanos and and glaciers and black sand beaches and even fjords; in short, it’s a dream destination for a landscape-loving, adventure-seeker like me.
My first trip to Iceland was in early 2012. This was back when there were whispers going around about how cool Iceland was, but it hadn’t yet exploded into Instagram stardom; back then, I still felt very much like I was discovering somewhere “new.”
My second visit to Iceland was also a winter one, in late 2015. Iceland was firmly on the tourist trail by then, but it still didn’t feel too overrun with tourists (granted, the fact that I visited in winter helped).
But by my third visit in the summer of 2018, the popularity of the Land of Fire and Ice was evident. Hotel prices in Reykjavik were crazy, restaurants downtown were bustling every night of the week, the Blue Lagoon was completely sold out for multiple days, and every tour my dad and I took was full.
The issue with overtourism
Overtourism has become the newest catchphrase in tourism, with mega-popular destinations around the world struggling to keep up with an influx of visitors as the global pool of tourists expands.
In the past year alone, Boracay in the Phillipines shut down for 6 months for “environment rehabilitation,” the popular Maya Bay in Thailand closed indefinitely, Venice has banned cruise ships from docking in its center, and MANY other destinations have talked about adding or increasing taxes on tourists. Even in the US, the National Parks Service has toyed around with the idea of timed entrances and requiring more permits for hikes in some of its most popular national parks.
I love travel and I love to encourage other people to travel. But there’s definitely a little voice in the back of my head that wonders whether we may be loving certain parts of the world to death.
Overtourism in Iceland
Overtourism has been discussed when it comes to Iceland, too, where the tourism industry saw growth in the double digits for several years in a row. Experts are saying that growth is finally slowing – but there were still more than 2.3 million international visitors to Iceland in 2018, which is a LOT in a country of only 340,000 people.
Is Iceland at maximum capacity? Well, I don’t know if I would go that far, as there are still plenty of parts of the country that are quiet and lesser-known. (Get away from the southwest coast, and you’ll find far fewer people.)
But the popular spots in Iceland ARE getting crowded, and it’s inevitable that continued stress on those spots is going to have a negative impact in the long run.
So what’s my solution? Consider going somewhere else!
5 alternatives to Iceland
Sure, Iceland is awesome and is pretty easy to get to from both North America and Europe… but maybe right now isn’t the best time to visit. Give Iceland a breather, and consider one of these other countries like Iceland (that aren’t currently suffering from overtourism) instead:
1. The Faroe Islands
When I visited the Faroe Islands in 2017, my first stop after leaving the airport was the famous Mulafossur Waterfall. It’s the waterfall in front of a mountain that you’ll see on all the Faroe Islands postcards and guidebooks. And yet, on a July afternoon I had the spot entirely to myself.
The Faroe Islands are a collection of 18 rugged, volcanic islands located in the North Atlantic roughly halfway between Iceland and Norway. The country is small (population: 50,000), but the landscapes are BIG.
The very first comment I made about the Faroe Islands on my Instagram Stories was that it reminded me of “Iceland on crack.” The landscape was very similar to what you’ll find in Iceland, but dialed WAY up. Everything in the Faroe Islands is dramatic – and yet I had even the most popular spots all to myself in the middle of high season.
3 unique things to do in the Faroe Islands:
- See puffins on Mykines – The island of Mykines is an easy ferry ride from the island of Vagar, and during the summer months it’s home to thousands of Atlantic puffins. Hiking here was a highlight of my trip to the Faroe Islands.
- Hike to the “floating lake” – I didn’t do any crazy hikes in the Faroe Islands, but my favorite was the 4-hour Trælanípa hike. The cliffs you hike to overlook Sørvágsvatn, the largest lake in the Faroe Islands that looks like it’s floating above the ocean.
- Go to a music festival – For being such a small country, the Faroe Islands has a rather large number of festivals throughout the year! I went to the G! Festival in Gøta, which is a music festival that takes place on a beach.
How it’s similar to Iceland: Landscapes, culture (the Faroe Islands are part of Denmark, and have a very Scandinavian feel), climate, hiking opportunities, easy to road trip
Best time to go: July-August, when it’s the warmest, and when you can see puffins!
How to get there: There are regular flights from cities like Copenhagen, Bergen, Edinburgh, and even Paris on Atlantic Airways.
Read more: 6 Reasons to Add the Faroe Islands to Your Bucket List
The Faroe Islands are still relatively “undiscovered” by mass tourism, but I don’t think they’ll stay that way for long. If you want to visit before these islands become “the next Iceland,” I recommend going soon!
2. Scottish Isles
Scotland is one of my favorite countries in the world; I’ve visited close to once a year since my first trip there in 2012. I contemplated whether to add the Scottish Highlands or Isles here as an alternative to Iceland, but ultimately went with the Isles.
While the Scottish Highlands are dramatic and moody (just like Iceland), I love the Isles because of their rugged beauty – and because many people don’t know about them outside of the Isle of Skye!
Now, Scotland has a lot of islands; in fact, it has more than 790 islands (yes, 790!). Its islands are divided up into four main island groups: the Shetland Islands and the Orkney Islands in the north, and then the Inner Hebrides and Outer Hebrides in the west. Each island group has a slightly different feel and different landscapes ranging from mountains to beaches.
Unique things to do in the Scottish Isles:
- In the Inner Hebrides, you can visit distilleries on Islay, see Fingal’s Cave on Staffa, and hunt for faeries and waterfalls on Skye.
- In the Outer Hebrides, you can marvel at the beaches on Harris, visit standing stones on Lewis, take off from an airport runway that’s just a beach on Barra, and visit a new UNESCO World Heritage site on St Kilda.
- In the Orkney Islands, you can see ancient sites like Skara Brae and the Ring of Brodgar, and do tastings the northernmost distilleries in Scotland.
- In the Shetland Islands, you can go bird watching at sea cliffs in Hermaness, meet some Shetland ponies, and perhaps even set things on fire with Vikings if you visit for the annual Up Helly Aa festival.
How it’s similar to Iceland: Unique landscapes, climate, hiking, road trip opportunities
Best time to go: May-October for the best chance of good weather; July-August is high season when all the ferries are running, though I do NOT recommend visiting popular islands like the Isle of Skye during these months.
How to get there: You can drive to the Isle of Skye, but most of the other Scottish isles are reached by ferry – most of which can carry cars.
Read more: Hopping Around the Hebrides with Haggis Adventures
Some Scottish islands are more well-known than others (for example, everyone seems to know Skye these days), but there are so many of them that you could easily plan an itinerary that would still feel adventurous and allow you to get off the beaten path in Scotland.
Greenland may be the largest island in the world at more than 836,000 square miles, but it’s mostly covered by a giant ice cap and is only home to about 56,000 people – meaning it’s still quite untouched and wild.
Greenland isn’t super similar to Iceland landscape-wise (Greenland doesn’t have beaches or volcanoes), but it gives you the same sense of being on another planet when you’re there.
I visited Greenland for the first time in 2018, spending 5 days in the town of Ilulissat with my dad. Ilulissat sits above the Arctic Circle on Greenland’s west coast, near the UNESCO-recognized Ilulissat Icefjord that empties into Disko Bay. It was an EPIC trip filled with icebergs and sled dogs, and I can’t wait to go back and explore more of Greenland.
3 unique things to do in Greenland:
- Ilulissat Icefjord – This fjord ends at the Sermeq Kujalleq, one of the most productive glaciers in the world. I got up close to the big icebergs in the Ilulissat Icefjord by boat, by plane, and even on foot.
- Meet Greenlandic sled dogs – Greenlandic sled dogs are working animals that the local people have relied on for survival for centuries. Humans’ reliance on dogs is changing in today’s modern world, though, so it’s fascinating to learn about them.
- Go for a hike – Hiking is pretty popular (relatively speaking) in Greenland during the summer months. I only went on a short hike near the icefjord with my dad, but I know people who have hiked the whole Arctic Circle Trail.
How it’s similar to Iceland: Epic landscapes, culture (Greenland, too, is part of Denmark), chance to see the Midnight Sun/Northern Lights
Best time to go: July-August for the warmest weather and the most tours (but you can visit year-round!)
How to get there: You’ll have to fly from Denmark or Iceland on either Air Greenland or Air Iceland.
Read more: 9 Things That Surprised Me About Traveling to Greenland
Greenland is definitely not on the typical tourist trail, and it’s not a particularly cheap place to visit. But its tourism infrastructure is more developed than most people realize, so don’t discount it if you’re curious about getting a unique taste of the Arctic.
Ah, Norway. Where do I even begin?? I’ve traveled to Norway multiple times, and it always blows me away.
Norway is a safe and beautiful country filled with fjords and mountains – and it certainly isn’t a stranger to tourism. But since Norway is fairly large and not densely populated, there are plenty of parts of it that are still quiet and relatively secret.
You might already know a handful of Norwegian spots like Bergen (for the fjords), famous hikes like Trolltunga and Pulpit Rock, and the Lofoten Islands (for mountains and snowy Northern Lights scenes). But for every beautiful spot you’ve heard of in Norway, there are probably 10 similar ones that haven’t yet graced your Instagram feed.
3 unique things to do in Norway:
- Island-hop in Senja and the Vesteralens – Even though the Lofoten Islands get all the love, nearby Senja and the Vesteralen Islands are just as stunning – but see far less tourists. You can plan an epic road trip in this part of Norway.
- Visit Alta in the winter – Northern Norway is one of my favorite winter destinations. Most people head to Tromsø, but I recommend heading even further north to the town of Alta for a more intimate experience. Here you can sleep overnight in an ice hotel, go dogsledding at night, and of course chase the Northern Lights!
- Road-trip the southwest coast – Another of my favorite parts of Norway to explore is the southwest coast between Trondheim and Bergen. Here you can cruise Geirangerfjord, drive the Atlantic Ocean Road and Trollstigen, and visit the city of Alesund.
How it’s similar to Iceland: Dramatic landscapes, culture, hiking, chance to see the Midnight Sun/Northern Lights
Best time to go: June-August for summer; February-March for winter trips; April-May and September-October for popular spots like the Lofoten Islands
How to get there: You can get direct (and often very cheap!) flights to several destinations in Norway on airlines like Norwegian Air.
Read more: A Travel Itinerary for 10 Days in Norway
The downside is that Norway is huge, and the distances between major cities can be far – so you probably won’t be able to see everything in one trip (you certainly can’t drive around the whole country in a week like you can do in Iceland!). But multiple trips to Norway has never sounded like a bad idea to me!
All the other destinations on this list have been in Europe, so let’s throw in one in North America, too! Alaska would make another great alternative to Iceland because of its vastness, moody weather, and dramatic landscapes.
While Alaska is a popular cruise destination during the summer months, the state is still called “The Last Frontier” and has plenty of unexplored corners off the main tourist trail.
Highlights in Alaska generally revolve around nature and wildlife – so if those are things you’re interested in, this is the place for you.
3 unique things to do in Alaska:
- Hike on a glacier – Alaska is home to a lot of glaciers – an estimated 100,000 of them, including at least 1000 in Glacier Bay National Park alone. If hiking on a glacier is on your bucket list, I can highly recommend hiking the Matanuska Glacier not far from Anchorage.
- See grizzly bears in the wild – Something that’s still on my bucket list is flying into Katmai National Park during salmon season to see lots of wild bears!
- Ride the Alaska Railroad – If trains are your thing, you can get to know the real, remote Alaska by taking a tour on the Alaskan Railroad.
How it’s similar to Iceland: Dramatic landscapes, outdoor activities, cool climate, chance to see the Midnight Sun/Northern Lights
Best time to go: May-September
How to get there: You can travel overland from British Columbia, but the easiest way is to fly into a city like Anchorage or Fairbanks.
Read more: Ice, Ice, Baby – Glacier Hiking in Alaska
Alaska is another huge place (the state covers 663,000 square miles!) that you can’t possibly explore in just one trip – but you can certainly plan a pretty epic adventure that would rival anything you’d find in Iceland.
This isn’t an exhaustive list, of course. There are lots of other destinations that would make great alternatives to Iceland, too; places like Newfoundland in Canada, the Azores in Portugal, Torres del Paine National Park in Chile’s Patagonia region, Svalbard in Norway, the volcanic regions of New Zealand, and even Kyrgyzstan are like Iceland in many ways.
The destinations listed here are ones I’ve personally visited and can vouch for in terms of their awesomeness AND their similarities to the Land of Fire and Ice.
And, I should round this up by saying that I don’t necessarily think people should stop traveling to Iceland altogether – the country now relies on tourism as a major part of its economy. But for those who want to help ease the strain (or maybe those who have visited Iceland already and would be happy to try somewhere new), then this guide is for you!
What do you think? Would you consider one of these alternatives to Iceland?
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