They call it “Iceland in Miniature.”
And it really is. With a crashing coastline, natural hot pools, basalt columns, volcanoes, waterfalls, fluffy horses, and glaciers, the Snaefellsnes Peninsula really does encapsulate just about everything Iceland is known for all within a 90-kilometer-long peninsula.
The peninsula not too far north of Reykjavik also embodies some of the non-visual characteristics of Iceland, too: small, cozy hotels; fresh seafood; an adventurous spirit; and the reminder of just how wild and harsh Mother Nature can sometimes be.
Here on the Snaefellsnes Peninsula you can visit black sand beaches bearing the ghostly remains of shipwrecks, walk along coastlines shaped by the crashing sea, descend into caves formed by molten lava, and hike on a giant glacier that sits atop a dormant volcano.
I’ve actually been to the Snaefellsnes Peninsula three different times in the last decade – twice in the summer, and once during the winter months. And I can unequivocally say that it’s one of my favorite parts of Iceland.
Whether it’s your first trip to the Land of Fire and Ice or your fifth, it’s worth trying to squeeze in some time to experience “Iceland in Miniature” for yourself.
This list will circle the peninsula going clockwise on Highway 54 (AKA Snæfellsnesvegur), though you certainly could go the other way, too.
One of the first points of interest on the Snaefellsnes Peninsula is the Gerðuberg Cliffs. These hexagonally-shaped basalt columns were formed by rapidly-cooling lava during a volcanic eruption thousands of years ago.
The columns rise anywhere from 23 to 46 feet, forming what almost looks like a wall.
The columns are easy to reach; they’re not far off the main road, and there’s a designated parking area. You can also climb up to the top of the column wall for some interesting views.
This beach is unique in that it has golden sand (instead of black). Walking along the beach and rock pools here is nice, and this is one of the best places on the Snaefellsnes Peninsula to see Harbour Seals.
There’s a parking lot here and a trail out to a viewing area. Just note that if there are seals on the beach, you should give them plenty of space! They are wild animals, after all.
The first notable waterfall you’ll come across on this route around the peninsula is one of the most impressive! It’s called Bjarnarfoss, and is a two-tiered waterfall that falls roughly 260 feet from basalt cliffs.
There’s a large car park here, and a clearly marked trail that will lead you to a bridge over the lower portion of the falls. You can technically climb higher up, too, but be very careful if you do.
I highly recommend making a stop here! I visited later in the day, and we basically had the whole place to ourselves.
Within sight of Bjarnarfoss is another spot worth a photo stop: the black church Búðakirkja. No one is quite sure why some Icelanders started painting their churches black, but they sure are striking against the already-striking landscape.
This one sits on the Búðahraun lava field just up the hill from a hotel. (You can drive up the hill to the church, where there’s a small parking lot.)
Rauðfeldsgjá Gorge AKA “the Crack” is an interesting little gorge with a stream running through it.
There’s a short uphill hike required to get to the mouth of the small canyon, and you’ll want waterproof shoes if you want to go beyond the mouth. But I promise it’s worth it! Inside, the towering gorge walls are covered in moss.
The Snaefellsnes Peninsula has no large cities. Instead, there are a bunch of little fishing villages dotted along the coast. One of these worth visiting is Arnarstapi, a popular summer escape for many locals and tourists and traditionally a decent-sized port in Iceland.
Sights in town worth seeing include the harbor, the Stone Bridge, the Gatklettur rock arch, and the Bárður Saga Snæfellsás Statue. Most of these are connected via a well-maintained trail of crushed black lava rock.
In the winter, the town is nearly deserted. But in the summer, it’s downright bustling. There are a couple hotels in Arnarstapi, along with a handful of restaurants.
The path that connects the main sites in Arnarstapi actually continues for 1.5 miles along the coast and through the Hellnahraun lava field to another small village called Hellnar.
The hike takes about an hour (you’ll want to stop lots for photos!), and is filled with epic views of the coast and a few scrambles over lava rocks.
This hike is definitely worth doing if you have time!
Even if you don’t do the coastal walk, it’s worth the slight detour to the village of Hellnar. The views from the Hellnar View Point are worth it (and the Fjöruhúsið café is lovely).
The cliffs of Lóndrangar rise out of the ocean in a distinctive shape – and the pillars of basalt rock here are actually the remnants of an ancient volcanic crater that have been battered down by the sea.
The Lóndrangar View Point is connected to a parking lot, but you can also see the rock formation from elsewhere in the area.
There’s another hiking trail here along the coast between the Lóndrangar View Point and the Gestastofan Visitor Center near the Malarrif Lighthouse. The trail is about a mile one-way, and takes you down to the beach and then up and around the 200+-foot-tall pillars of Lóndrangar.
Parts of this trail also offer up excellent views of the glacier-capped Snæfellsjökull mountain.
Snæfellsjökull is a 700,000-year-old stratovolcano in the center of the Snaefellsnes Peninsula. It’s also the name of the glacier that sits on top of the volcano.
You can spot the mountain and get glimpses of the glacier from all over the peninsula (though the glacier is sadly receding rapidly due to climate change). In the summer months, intrepid hikers can even climb the 4700-foot volcano. The hike is challenging and takes most of a day, so you’re encouraged to do it as part of a guided hiking tour like this one.
Fun fact: The Snaefellsnes Peninsula is the setting for the beginning of Jules Verne’s “A Journey to the Center of the Earth.” In fact, they find the tunnel to the center of the earth beneath Snæfellsjökull.
So if you don’t want to climb Snæfellsjökull, you can go under it via the Vatnshellir lava cave.
The Vatnshellir lava cave is popular for a couple of reasons. First of all, it’s a cave beneath a glacier that was carved out by molten lava 8,000 years ago. Secondly, it has a lot of legends surrounding it, including being the home of trolls. And, thirdly, the locals say that this is where you’ll find the passage to the center of the earth – in fact, there’s even a cheeky sign inside pointing the way!
You can only go inside the lava tube cave via a guided tour. Tours last about 45 minutes, and include necessary gear like helmets. Booking ahead is recommended; tours are offered every 30 minutes in the summer, and hourly the rest of the year.
If you want proof of the awesome power of Mother Nature in Iceland, look no further than Djúpalónssandur beach. This black sand/pebble beach at the end of the Snaefellsnes Peninsula is known for wicked waves and currents that have claimed more than one ship throughout history.
There’s a view point overlooking the area, as well as a trail leading down to the beach itself. From the parking lot, the walk takes about 10-15 minutes each way and takes you down through the craggy Aflraunasteinar rock formations.
The evidence of shipwrecks can still be seen scattered across the wide swath of black pebbly beach, and the waves breaking on shore are definitely powerful enough to make you think twice about getting too close. (And, seriously, don’t get too close.)
This is one of the busier stops on the Snaefellsnes Peninsula (it is possible for the parking lot to fill up during the summer months with bus tours), but don’t skip it! It’s worth it to wait to see this very unique beach.
Want to get up close and personal with an extinct volcano? You can do it pretty easily at Saxhóll Crater. Visitors can hike into the 100-foot-tall extinct crater relatively quickly via a set of low-slung steps that curve around its side.
This doesn’t take too long, making it a popular stop on the Snaefellsnes Peninsula.
While black sand beaches get all the love in Iceland, here’s another golden sand beach worth visiting. You do have to drive down a one-lane road for a little ways to reach Skarðsvík Beach, but it’s definitely worth it (and also fine to do in a 2WD car).
The beach here is a mixture of black and golden sand, surrounded by black volcanic rock and cliffs. It’s simply stunning!
There’s a small parking area and a couple picnic tables set up here.
Follow signs to Ingjaldshóll to find a charming red-roofed church and an interesting set of stone monuments with stunning views.
The history of Ingjaldshóll goes back centuries – at least back to the 1300s. The church here was once the third-largest church in Iceland, and still serves people in nearby villages.
Outside the church there’s a small graveyard, as well as two stone monuments dedicated to Eggert Ólafsson and his wife Ingibjörg Guðmundsdóttir, who grew up in this area and died tragically at sea in 1798. The monuments were made by the sculptor Páll Guðmundsson.
Another waterfall worth stopping to see is Svöðufoss on the northern side of the Snaefellsnes Peninsula. A short, flat walk from the parking area through farm fields will bring you up close to this lovely waterfall.
Svodufoss doesn’t seem to have really been “discovered” yet (despite there being an established parking area and trail), making it a fun one to visit. When I was there, there were only two other couples at the waterfall.
The waterfall cascades 30 feet over a cliff of basalt columns (yes, those are a theme here in Iceland!). On clear days, you can even see Snæfellsjökull rising behind it in the distance.
Heading along the northern coast of the Snaefellsnes Peninsula, the top attraction by far is Kirkjufell, or the Church Mountain. This is the cone-shaped mountain you’ve probably seen on all the postcards.
There’s a parking lot across the road from the mountain with access a trail that will lead you to the Kirkjufellsfoss waterfalls.
Just note that this is one of the only places on the peninsula where you have to pay to park. The Kirkjufellsfoss parking lot has cameras at the entrance that will take a photo of your license plate, and you pay via a machine before you leave. The amount is based on how long you stay – but you probably only need about 30 minutes here.
If you only visit one non-natural spot on this list, make it the quirky Shark Museum in Bjarnarhöfn. Here you can listen to a short presentation on how the infamous Hákarl (fermented shark) is made.
Hakarl is the national dish of Iceland, and locals have been eating it for hundreds of years. It’s made using the meat of the Greenland shark, which is toxic to humans when fresh. But if it’s left to ferment and then hung to dry for a few months, it’s safe to eat.
After this process, the meat has a distinct ammonia-rich smell and taste to it. You can try it here at the museum if you dare.
The Shark Museum is located on the farm of one of the last families that produces hakarl commercially to sell all over Iceland. They use sharks that are accidentally caught in fishing nets (shark hunting isn’t a thing here any more), and it’s fascinating to learn about the process even if you don’t want to taste the meat.
Lastly, it’s worth stopping in Stykkishólmur, the largest town on the Snaefellsnes Peninsula. This town has a lot of charm, as well as a beautiful harbor (which is also where you can catch a ferry to the Westfjords).
Also worth a look is the Stykkishólmskirkja, a modern Lutheran church with a striking design.
Ideally you’d allow yourself two days to fully explore the Snaefellsnes Peninsula. With two days, you can stop to see all the beaches, cliffs, and waterfalls, and still have plenty of time for the coastal walks, lava cave tour, and taking your time to enjoy the scenery.
BUT, if you don’t have two days, you can see the majority of the highlights here in just one (very jam-packed) day.
Where to stay on the Snaefellsnes Peninsula
Staying overnight on the peninsula is highly recommended! A few hotels and guesthouses to consider include:
The Snaefellsnes Peninsula is within easy driving distance from Reykjavik (2 hours each way), and the roads are well-maintained in good weather. Therefore you could definitely rent a car and see the peninsula on your own time.
If you don’t feel comfortable driving yourself (or if you’re going in the winter when the roads might be a bit iffy), there are plenty of tour options, too. You could do an overnight tour, or even a day trip from Reykjavik. (I’ve done both; obviously the 2-day tour fits more in, but you still see a lot on a day trip!)
Have you ever been to the Snaefellsnes Peninsula? If not, is is somewhere you’d like to visit?