...has rapidly made it's way to everyone's ultimate destination list over the past few years, and for good reason, but before you rush to put on that parka and jump on the WOW flight, read through these tips about when you should visit, what you should do from the moment you arrive until you leave, and sincerity about how to get the full experience while respecting the land and the locals.
When to go & How to get there
I highly recommend making the trek during shoulder season (mid-November until April). During this time, it's going to be colder, darker, harsher winter conditions, and more of a challenge to get around. BUT you will run into less tourists than in peak months, have a high chance of seeing the breathtaking northern lights, cheaper rental and accommodation options, and see the landscape in a way that not many other tourists do. I have visited two years in a row, both times in March, and both trips were equally as incredible.
Now that WOW Airlines is taking over the international discount airline scene, that is going to be your most affordable flight option. I have flown WOW Airlines for three separate trips now and every experience has been great. Keep in mind that yes, the initial flight prices are low, but you will have to pay extra for your seat, baggage, and anything you may want while in-flight. So if you're trying to travel on the cheap, forgo the extra leg room to snag a cheaper seat, pack as light as possible, and bring snacks and beverages along with you.
How to get around & Where to stay
You are going to want to rent a 4x4 all-wheel drive car if you visit during the shoulder season. While they do a great job of maintaining the roads during winter, it is still snowy and icy. Put in the money for a sturdy car so you can explore more of the region safely. There will still be a significant amount of snow and you also can't go off the main Ring Road (Highway 1) if you don't have a 4x4 regardless of the season. When I say off the main road, I DO NOT mean on to the land, I mean onto any F-roads which are the gravel mountain roads. Also, be aware that there are a lot of roundabouts and one lane bridges. Just be cautious when approaching these because locals will fly through them and you may find yourself playing chicken with other cars. Lastly, be prepared to spend a lot of money to fill up the gas tank, remember you are on an island which makes natural resources more scarce. If paying by card, you'll have to use your debit card and a significant hold will be put on it for a couple days before the payment goes through (and the payment won't be small). BUT it's all worth it; just something to be aware of before you go!
If we stick with the theme of visiting during shoulder season, I recommend planning your trip around the southern coast. The weather conditions will be more tolerable than in the northern region and if you're taking a traditional week long trip, there will be more than enough to see and experience along the southern coast.
In terms of accommodations, I always steer people towards AirBnB. There are constantly more hosts and guesthouses opening up due to the influx of tourism. AirBnB is going to be your cheaper option over hotels and provides an opportunity to converse with locals and other travelers. Also- you really should only be there to sleep because there is so much awaiting you outside of the accommodations! Here are links to the AirBnB's I have stayed at and would recommend as affordable, safe, comfortable options.
So I'm in Iceland, now what?
If you arrived really early in the morning, know that nothing really opens in Iceland until 9:00am, especially the further away from Reykjavik you are. So if it is painfully early when you arrive, gather your bags then head to Joe & the Juice in the airport for a coffee and/or fresh juice to kickstart your brain and body, because it's about to be an amazing day!
There is an ATM in the airport if you want cash, but you can use a credit card just about everywhere. Just understand the Krono and conversion rate before taking out cash...I made that mistake on my first go round and ended up withdrawing almost $400 (rookie mistake). Since we're on the money topic, Iceland isn't the cheapest place in the world (but don't complain about the prices anywhere; remember, you're a visitor). To save money on eating out, take advantage of the gas station hot dogs (trust me on this one) and bring snacks along.
Where do I go first?
Once you pick up your car, start driving towards Vik, which is ~3 hours from the Keflavik airport. Don't worry, you'll be stopping quite a bit on your way out there; it's impossible to not be drawn in to every sight. Keep in mind that you will be backtracking on the return to Reykjavik, so save some things to stop at for on the way back.
On your way out towards Vik, stop at the Seljalandsfoss waterfall. Expect to find quite the crowd here as it is one of the more popular waterfalls. If you’re facing Seljalandsfoss, turn to the left and walk for a few minutes. You’ll pass a couple other waterfalls, but will eventually come across a stream with an information sign in front of it. This is where you can walk back through the stream to see the hidden waterfall. BRING A PONCHO! And wear waterproof shoes. There is a little hill with a rope to guide you down to the stream. It will look like something you can’t walk through (it’s literally a rushing stream), but you can if you don’t mind getting a little wet. Walk back through, stepping on whatever rocks you can, and you’ll come to a giant, hidden, powerful waterfall (Gljufrabui).
What's the deal with the horses everywhere?
Chances are you will see some Icelandic horses once you get into your drive, and you'll probably even see some people pulled over to get closer to the horses. It's really exciting the first time you see a group of the beautiful horses close enough to the road to touch. Here's the deal with the Icelandic horse: they are a symbol of strength and highly respected animals amongst the locals. They are simply owned for pleasure and what they represent. Two things to avoid doing: DO NOT call Icelandic horses 'ponies' (it's offensive) and DO NOT ever ask a local how many horses they own (also offensive). In addition to the obvious, if you do stop to see the horses: respect the land you are walking on, do not pull off onto land, do not feed them anything, do not taunt/jump fences/try to ride them, or any other absurd action. Take the moment to appreciate how beautiful they are and respect the fact that they do have owners, but are still fairly wild.
If you're not too exhausted yet, make a stop at the Solheimasandur US Navy DC-3 plane wreck site. This has become quite the tourist attraction so you probably won't be the only one checking it out (unless you go really early in the morning or late at night). You'll park by the road and then walk for 30-40 minutes before reaching the actual plane. It can be a tiring walk, especially after a day of travel, but if it's a nice day out, I recommend it as a way to stretch the legs. They have marked a path now for people to follow that will guide them to the plane. As mentioned, you'll be hard pressed to find yourself alone there now with the popularity of the site so be mindful of others there observing as well. More importantly, be mindful of the state of the plane itself and be respectful to not climb all over it and jump on top of it (even if you see other people acting a fool on it).
Continue on towards Vik to either settle into your accommodations or grab a bite to eat. There are a few restaurants in Vik with great food (Halldorskaffi and Sudurvegur are two I'd recommend), but be sure to arrive before 8:00pm for dinner as most places (even stores) will be closed by then. The same goes for breakfast in Vik; you'll be hard pressed to find somewhere to get food early in the morning (unless you're staying at a hotel that serves it) so I recommend bringing something for breakfast in the morning or stopping at a grocery store to pick up food.
A couple things to note regarding dining in Iceland:
When eating out, the servers don’t work for tips (but they will accept them if given, it's just not customary).
You may find that you need to grab their attention if you need anything, rather than waiting for them to stop by the table. Majority of places don’t bring you a bill, you just go to a front counter to pay, usually just telling them what you ordered or what table you were at.
Most important tip: if you like sweets, get the apple pie/cake anywhere you see it offered!
Reynisfjara Black Sand Beach
If you still have a little daylight left after arriving in Vik, head over to Reynisfjara Black Sand Beach and watch the sunset. While you're at it, plan to wake up early and watch it rise on the beach as well, because who doesn't want to start and end their day with a sunrise/sunset? Be sure to visit both sides of Reynisfjara as they both offer different, but equally amazing views.
BEWARE: The tides here can be sudden and extreme. There have been numerous tourist deaths due to climbing on the rocks or turning their backs to the tide for a picture. You'll see postings and warnings about the tide; respect those and take them seriously.
Get an early start the next day to start heading towards Skaftafell for all the glaciers your heart could desire. Fjallsarlon Lagoon and Jokulsarlon are ~2 hours away from Vik and you're going to want to beat the crowds to these (especially Jokulsarlon).
Fjallsarlon was one of my favorite discoveries in Iceland. During my first visit, we stumbled upon this lagoon by mistake in an attempt to visit Jokulsarlon. It was the most breathtaking, beautiful mistake we could have made.
Jokulsarlon will most likely be more crowded as it is a base for a lot of tour companies. This is where you will find the famous "diamond beach". If you're lucky, you'll see groups of seals swimming around and lounging on the glaciers.
A note about experiencing glaciers, DO NOT climb on top of the ice. Glaciers are incredibly unpredictable; if it's quiet enough, you can hear them shifting and crackling all around you. These glaciers are still part of the land, please respect them as you would the soil.
The one and only tour you should book!
As tourism continues to explode in Iceland, there are tours you can book for just about everything. If that's your thing, great, but I prefer to keep the money in my pocket and explore on my own. Prior to visiting the second year, I knew I wanted to get inside of an ice cave. I assumed they would be close to the glaciers, but I wasn't sure how to go about finding them. I ended up booking a tour with Glacier Journey and I couldn't have been more relieved and happier with the outcome! The tour started out with climbing (literally) inside of a super jeep. The group ended up being four girls total and our tour guide, Laufey. Laufey kicked off our tour with turning back to us saying "Hello, welcome, today is International Women's Day and what better way to celebrate than a tour of all women!" We all roared in agreement and excitement. From there we started the journey to the glacier (you'll realize very quickly how appropriate the name Glacier Journey is). This ride is so much fun, but can also be a whole lot of bumpy. You know the wacky waving inflatable tube man? Imagine turning into that and having no control over it. Laufey is an incredible, honest, real, strong, proud, take-no-shit woman and tour guide. She answered all of our questions we had about the culture and enlightened us about life in Iceland. We all felt comfortable admitting our ignorance to ask the questions and in turn learned so much. Once we got to the ice caves, Laufey not only takes your safety very seriously, but also your experience. She will steer clear of any other tours that may be occurring so you get the most intimate experience of the ice caves. I am here to say, that those pictures you see of the bright blue Diamond Cave are true to what it looks like in person. So if you do feel the need to book a tour, I highly recommend it be the ice cave tour with Glacier Journey; it was worth every penny for me and I would absolutely do it again!
After a couple nights in Vik, continue onward towards Höfn. Being a little over 3 hours apart, you'll want to start your drive fairly early. Höfn is a fishing town so I recommend taking advantage of eating all of the fish you can here. Do not miss out on an opportunity to dine at Pakkhús and have the langoustine soup.
One of the most unique things we found in Stokksnes area was the abandoned Viking Village. Okay, it wasn't actually built for vikings, but it was a movie set that was constructed and never used. It now sits for visitors to explore. The village was built on a local farmer's land so be cognizant of that and his horses that roam the land. Surrounded by peaks and Icelandic horses, this is a great spot for some Game of Thrones inspired pictures.
The best way to find this village is to visit the Viking Cafe and go from there. While you're at the cafe, grab a cup of coffee and the apple cake (yes, again).
You'll find another black sand beach in this area, and this one will probably be less crowded than the one in Vik. It was quite gloomy and rainy while we were at the beach, but I think it made it that much more beautiful. Iceland does this amazing thing that makes you see and appreciate the beauty in a gloomy day.
Hoffell Hot Tubs
The Hoffell Hot Tubs are part of the Hoffell Guesthouse, but anyone that isn't a guest can use the tubs for 1000 ISK per person (paid to a payment box). The tubs themselves are man-made but they are built into the stones of the hot spring that feeds into the tubs. These are definitely worth going to after a long day to unwind and relax.
While you're in Hofn, if you continue to drive east/north, you will be graced with some amazing views of the coast, stumble upon some deserted black sand beaches, discover more waterfalls, adorable small towns that leave you wondering where people get their groceries, and all that magical stuff that Iceland has. We did some blind exploring by just driving further down Hwy 1 and found all those things and more. That's one of the great things about Iceland, even if you don't have a plan, you're bound to stumble upon something amazing.
Time to backtrack!
At this point, you'll start the journey back towards Reykjavik. Remember earlier when I said to save some things for on the return trip? Here are those things!
What? You don't know what Fjaðrárgljúfur is? Or how to say it? That's okay, that's why you're reading this! A massive canyon thought to be around 9,000 years old and formed during the Ice Age. You've probably seen a lot of pictures of people standing on edges of the canyon or dangling their feet off the edge. Yes, there are a lot of areas to do that here; No, you should not step over the ropes to get the picture. The ropes and railings are in place for a reason, to protect the land and to protect you. When I say protect the land, I especially mean the moss. The moss that grows in Iceland is INCREDIBLY delicate and takes well over 50 years to grow. If it is stepped on or dug up, it will take another 50+ years for it to rejuvenate. Please, please do not mess with the moss! Be smart, be kind, and respect the ropes!
What you can do here is hike above the canyon and down below within it. You should definitely do both to get the different vantage points.
A SPECIAL NOTICE ABOUT YOUR POOP!
"Did she mean to write poop?" Yep, sure did! Here's the deal, Iceland is vast, precious land that locals and others are trying to protect for being built up and ruined. That being said, restrooms can be scarce at times depending on where you are. Over the years, the influx of tourism has brought along the issue of tourists relieving themselves wherever they see fit. THIS IS NOT OKAY! I bring this up now because there is a restroom at Fjaðrárgljúfur, however, when we were there it was closed for repairs. The building of the bathroom was surrounded by trash, articles of clothing, and human waste. It was disturbing and a true example of the effects that tourism is having on Iceland. Imagine for a second, taking in this incredible view, being in awe of these natural formations, all of the moss delicately dressing the canyon, to then turn around and see a tourist shitting against the bathroom shed! Excuse my language, but COME ON! If you don't believe me, just google the issue (using whatever phrasing of your choosing) and you will be presented with a plethora of articles. My advice, stop whenever you come across a gas station and use the restroom there under the impression that the next one may be hours away. Okay, back to the good stuff...
Ah, Skógafoss. One of the biggest (and most popular) waterfalls in Iceland. It's giant, powerful, breathtaking, and admired by...everyone. I say this so you are aware going into this one that it is a huge tourist attraction and to not expect to have it all to yourself like a lot of pictures portray. It's possible to get a picture of it without a strange family or selfie stick intruding, you just have to be patient or take it at the right angle. Regardless of the crowd, it's impossible to not be drawn into just how massive and powerful this waterfall is. You can observe this beautiful beast from below and feel its power, or hike the stairs for the view from above; I recommend both!
Real life with all your tourist friends...
But sometimes it's not so bad to have a fellow tourist in your picture to show scale...
I promise I wasn't here alone at this time, the GoPro just came through clutch for this photo...
Seljavallalaug Swimming Pool
Yes, this is the hot spring that is so hidden and secret that if you find it, a troll will come out and grant all your wishes!
Obviously, kidding. About all of it. Seljavallalaug is definitely hidden in the fact that you will need to hike for about 10 minutes to find it, but thanks to the wonderful world of social media, it has kind of lost its secret status. As of March 2017 there still weren't any signs or indications leading you to the path to find the hot spring, but you shouldn't have any problem because there will most likely be others making the same trek. The walk back to find the hot spring in and of itself is beautiful so be sure to take it all in as you make your way. It is quite a magical little place tucked in a valley and being towered by Eyjafjallajökull. It is said to be the oldest pool in Iceland, originally built to give locals a place to learn how to swim. There are changing rooms, but keep in mind that it's just a giant concrete room with a few hooks on the walls; so get comfortable stripping down with others or practice changing under the guise of a towel. People tend to leave their towels and clothing behind here (for some reason) so it doesn't appear to be the cleanest, but remember, you have the choice to be a better tourist. Leave no trace and take ALL of your belongings back with you. This is a hard spot to leave just because of how beautiful it is, so continue to do your part to keep it that way for everyone else.
Laugarvatn Fontana is comparable to the Blue Lagoon (no, I haven't forgotten about that), but with a smaller price tag and different atmosphere. These geothermal baths sit next to Lake Laugarvatn. You may see people going from the hot baths and jumping into the cold lake. There is a reasoning for it and discussion about how it's good for your body, but I enjoy being warm way to much to have attempted it. In addition to multiple geothermal baths, there are saunas that range in temperature. I'm telling you, this is the place to be on a cold day! They open at 11:00am and we arrived around 11:30am which seemed to be a perfect time and beat a lot of the crowd. You do not need to make reservations here and they do have the option to rent towels and bathrobes, which I recommend doing. Treat yo'self!
This is me, in front of the lake that I didn't have the courage to jump into in 30 degree weather and quickly sprinted back to the hot pools after this photo...
I visited the geysirs on my first trip to Iceland. Not far from Laugarvatn and located within the Golden Circle, you can make the geysir stop as quick or as long as you want. Take note that it is a very touristy spot and will be filled with tour buses (as are most things in the Golden Circle), so if this is something you're wanting to enjoy with a little more peace and quiet, I recommend going early in the day. There are different paths to walk and the geysirs are all surrounded by ropes (for good reason).
Time to cap off the trip with life in the city for a couple days! Let's start with food, shall we?
Here is a list of some places I ate at in Reykjavik that I would recommend:
Gló For the health-conscious traveler, this is your spot for juices, smoothies, bowls. Refreshing after a week of hot dogs on the road!
BRAUÐ & CO You HAVE to make it here one morning! This bakery is incredible and incredibly popular! You will have to wait in line and it's totally worth it. Get a cinnamon roll and whatever else your heart desires, and then thank me after!
Reykjavík Roasters Coffee lovers unite! My favorite cafe in Iceland. Amazing coffee, chill atmosphere, oh, and right next to Braud & Co so you can conveniently grab a coffee to sip on while you want in line for cinnamon rolls!
Reykjavik Chips Craving fries? You're in luck! A restaurant that serves nothing but fries paired with different sauces. Just trust me, it's worth the stop.
C is for Cookie This is the very first place I went in Iceland...because this was the first thing we could find open after our early morning arrival. Traditional breakfast and coffee, you can't go wrong!
The Icelandic Bar Yes, it's a bar, but also an excellent restaurant. The food here is so good! Offering a range of selections and pricing, this is a place that will have something for everyone.
The Laundromat Cafe It doesn't get better than this for the traveler; truly a cafe and laundromat in one! They welcome travelers with open arms with a sense of humor and travel inspired decor. This is a must to put on your list!
Bæjarins Beztu This is the infamous hot dog stand in Reykjavik that you will find with a line wrapped around the corner. It's an Icelandic staple and something you just have to do while in Reykjavik.
What to do in the city
If you're in Reykjavik on a weekend, I recommend exploring the indoor flea market, Kolaportid. It's a pretty typical flea market, but you can find some really unique things to buy as souvenirs here as opposed to an overpriced gift shop. My favorite part is the mini bookstore within the flea market. I bought some worn-in, antique books from here and they are my favorite "souvenirs" I've ever brought back. This is also where I dared to try the hákarl (fermented shark); definitely a "when in Iceland!" experience!
The famous Evangelical-Lutheran Church that towers over Reykjavik and one of the most visited places in all of Iceland by tourists. You can go inside the church for free during open hours, but will need to pay to go into the tower to get the birds eye view of the city. If you are wanting to go to the top, I recommend arriving when it first opens to avoid waiting in a long line. They only allow a certain amount of people up at a time and the longer the day goes on, the longer the line gets.
The Icelandic Phallological Museum is a real place and is exactly what it says it is; yep, a collection of penises and penile parts from various land and sea mammals. There is a cost to visit the museum, but it's worth it for some good laughs, and maybe you'll even learn a thing or two! I'll spare you my pictures from here and let you see the junk for yourself ;)
Reykjavik Bar Crawl
During my first visit to Iceland, we joined in on the Reykjavik bar crawl as a way to see some different bars and meet other people. It was definitely a good time (and will get you drunk quick if you have a drink at each stop)! A note about going out in Reykjavik on the weekend...they get crazy. A lot of bars don't close until 5:00am on the weekends and people in Reykjavik like to party! On my second visit, we got caught up in the partying and meeting other tourists that we didn't even realize it was 5:00am before we decided to head back to our AirBnB! I mention that because it does not make for a pleasant travel day if you have to fly out the following day after going out.
The Blue Lagoon
Of course I had to include the infamous Blue Lagoon in this! This is one of the most well known spots when people think of Iceland. It is very touristy, but don't let that deter you from including it on your itinerary. A lot of people mention visiting when you first arrive to Iceland because it's close to the airport, but I honestly think it's best to save this for the very end before going to the airport. If you do it right, by the end of your trip you should be exhausted and feeling pretty run down. Relaxing in the Blue Lagoon before having to sit through a long flight is the perfect treat to help relax you and will be much deserved by the end. While planning, keep in mind that you MUST purchase tickets for a scheduled time in advance to visit. There are a couple different packages to choose from; I recommend the package with the mask and complimentary drink. While it is touristy, once you get in it's enjoyable and big enough that there is plenty of room to space out from others and enjoy sipping on your complimentary wine while your clay mask soaks in.
But what about the Northern Lights?
I saved the best for last! What everyone comes to Iceland in Winter hoping to experience; the magical Aurora Borealis! During my first rendezvous to the land of fire and ice, I didn't end up catching the phenomenon, but boy did my second visit make up for it! You're going to want to take advantage of the time you're in Vik/Hofn or just anywhere outside of the city to get some incredible viewing opportunities. While we were on the ice cave tour I mentioned earlier, we asked our guide about seeing the northern lights and she said "tonight will be perfect, just go outside and look up!" And you will hear that a lot from locals; go outside and look up. So in regards to this, don't bother signing up for those "northern lights chasing" tours. If it's a clear night (not many clouds), you'll get a show if you're patient enough. We went atop a hill in Vik initially and within 10 minutes saw the streaks start to form and tease us. After a few minutes they faded away, but we wanted more. We drove down the road until we decided to pull off to the side and wait it out. At first, we couldn't really tell if anything was going to happen. I was playing around with my camera and making sure my settings were ready until I noticed a green tint in the sky in my test pictures. I started snapping away and it was like the most I snapped, the more they started to form. It was one of the most exciting moments in my life. Standing in the middle of the road in the middle of Iceland, moonlight at our backs, jumping up and down with pure joy and awe as we watched the ribbons of light develop stronger and dance all around us. There really isn't any secret to experiencing the northern lights. It's just a matter of being in a good vantage spot (lack of light pollution), having a clear night, and a little patience. I do hope that if you choose to visit during the winter season that you experience what it feels like to be immersed in this magic.
I would love to hear your stories about visiting Iceland or answer questions you may have about planning a trip! Iceland is one of my favorite places on this planet of ours, mainly because the land is so protected and makes you appreciate what a gift our Earth is. As with everywhere you go, be kind and leave no trace.