Led Zeppelin knew what they were talking about when after a visit to Iceland, they wrote the lyrics “We come from the land of the ice and snow. From the midnight sun where the hot springs flow.” Why? Because Iceland is insanely beautiful and if you’re after a short mini-break destination to tick off the highlights, then its perfect.
It’s clear to see why the director of Game of Thrones chose to film scenes in Iceland; the colours are richer which I believe is to do with the Arctic sun sitting lower in the sky. During the course of one day, its possible to gaze upon epic waterfalls, electric blue glaciers, volcanic wilderness tundra and awesome black sand beaches.
It’s also not uncommon to experience four seasons in one day so being prepared is important, and as the weather patterns constantly morph, the landscape changes to the point where the same view doesn’t even look the same from morning to afternoon. Just so you know I’m not talking complete rubbish, check out the two images below of the same view but only one day apart — what a difference a day makes!
What will it cost me?
There really is no way around it, Iceland is an expensive destination. Icelandic’s earn the Krona and are paid at a higher rate than most of Europe, so prices are naturally higher. Accommodation is ridiculously priced, a pint of larger costs GBP10, dinner with a glass of wine costs GBP40, and if you plan on swimming in the Blue Lagoon this will set you back GBP35 as a minimum depending on which package you choose.
Top tip: To help reign in your spending, pack your own lunches, bring your own alcohol, don’t forget a towel (public pools charge £5.00 to rent), and if you’re happy to brave the elements take a tent. Oh, and public bathrooms will set you back about £2-3 so best time your stops.
GETTING AROUND ICELAND
By renting a car you can stop where you like, stay as long as you want and have the flexibility to change your plans. Iceland is too beautiful to not be able to call your own shots. We rented a car in advance through Auto Europe. If your plan is to drive on the F Roads (basically any road that isn’t the main Ring Road), you’ll need to pay more and rent a 4WD, but if you’re just planning a quick jaunt around the Golden Circle you’ll be fine with a standard car. Before driving away, make sure you check your car thoroughly as I’ve heard horror stories from travellers being blamed for paints chips that existed before they got behind the wheel.
Driving in Iceland is a relaxing experience which allows you to pull over every time you see a worthy view…which is basically around every turn! Petrol is reasonably priced but in order to top up you’ll either need to buy a petrol card with credit or pay with your credit card (and pay an international bank charge).
Where to rest your head for the night
If you keen on getting back to nature and risking Iceland’s volatile weather systems, then camping is significantly cheaper and you have the pick from some truly magnificent pitches including the base of Selfoss and Gulfoos waterfalls. If you prefer a roof over your head, there are a selection of hostels but if like me, your hostel days are well and truly behind you, you need to accept that hotels in Iceland are expensive and it’s likely the standard won’t match your expectations. Having said this, they are clean and comfortable and typically include a decent breakfast and hot tub.
What to see
There are so many variations to an Iceland road trip and if you have 5 days then check out my other blog. If time isn’t on your side, you only have a long weekend, and your focus is the Golden Circle, then you’ll want to tick off the highlights quickly. Below is a 3 day itinerary with action-packed days but a relaxed enough pace so you can stop to pet horses or act like a big kid under waterfalls, but more importantly enjoy the road trip.
Here is a video I made from my longer trip in Iceland in caes you have a few more days up your sleeve.
If you arrive into Reykjavik early morning, pick up your car and be arriving at the Blue Lagoon in 20 minutes. If like me, you don’t reserve tickets in advance you’ll miss out. I’ve been before and the Blue Lagoon gets busy with queues out the door and far too many iPads capturing the moment. Even though there are other pools in Iceland which Icelandic’s will visit and are equally as enjoyable (‘Secret Lagoon’ on the Golden Circle), there probably isn’t any point me telling you not to visit the Blue Lagoon.
The drive to Reykjavik takes one hour (free parking on a Sunday) where you can cover everything on foot. I recommend to visit Solfar (Sun Voyager) for sunset and be sure and try a hot dog from Good American Hotdogs, plus KEX Hostel has great drinks and live music.
If you’re looking to sample some local flavours, a decent dinner option is the Three Coats but you should book in advance. They serve whale which may or may not work for you. Personally I’m averse to animals/mammals being killed for specific parts, but ultimately if every part is consumed then I have no issue as I’m not a vegetarian (for the record I didn’t eat whale).
Reyjakavik – Rey Apartments
I’ve stayed at Rey Apartments twice, they are central, modern, clean, offer free Wi-Fi and have basic cooking facilities including fridge if you’re desperate to keep costs down. With a strict check-in policy of 2pm, if you arrive early you can drop bags and head out exploring. Rooms by the road can be noisy at night and a twin room with en suite = GBP 180.
THE GOLDEN CIRCLE
Driving the Golden Circle is perhaps the most popular day trip for visitors to Iceland. The 300 km route covers so many beautiful landmarks in a short space of time. There is no need to rush this day, so take your time and stop where you like.
Þingvellir National Park
Thingvellir National Park is where the North American & Eurasian tectonic plates are slowly pushing apart form each other, which creates deep (and obvious) fissures in the ground. Among these is one named Silfra, where you can opt for a snorkelling or diving trip but you can walk through one down to a beautiful lake if you an icy dip isn’t you thing.
Haukadalur, is an area of geothermal activity and where you’ll find two geysers named Geysir and Strokkur. In fact the general term ‘geyser’ was named after this particular one in Iceland. Geysir erupts every 5-10 minutes shooting boiling water and steam 100ft. in the air so it’s easy to get a decent video or photo. I recommend hiking up the mountainside for an all encompassing view of this geothermal wonderland.
It’s extremely spectacular to watch the Hvítá River cascade down into the ravine below with an unstoppable force. This wide and rapidly flowing river turns a bend and cascades 100ft. into a crevice in the earth, resulting in heavy spray and rainbows. You’ll want a waterproof bag for your camera and a rain jacket if you plan on getting up close (which you should). There are two view points which offer equally different and beautiful perspectives. Firstly, take a left at the top of the stairs and follow the path for an all encompassing down into the belly of the waterfall. Then turn back on yourself and walk down the staircase, following the boardwalks all the way to the end where you’ll be as close as you can get without jumping in. This place is mesmerising and truly one of natures finest creations.
OK so technically it’s not a secret and if you arrive between the hours of 15:30 – 17:30 it tends to get busy with tour buses, but its well worth a visit and in my experience a great deal more relaxing than the Blue Lagoon (I’m just bitter really). Entrance is 2800 krona and a towel costs extra.
Kerið Crater Lake
Kerið, is a volcanic crater lake which was first assumed to be the result of a huge volcanic explosion however, it is now considered to have been a cone volcano which erupted and emptied its magma reserve. The cone collapsed into the magma chamber which resulted in the crater lake.
Hella – Hótel Lækur
Situated on a private farm surrounded by rolling hills and animals, its quiet, rooms are modern and breakfast is superb. There’s a hot tub so you can relax under the stars with a drink, and being away from artificial lights makes it the perfect place for viewing the Northern Lights. There isn’t a fridge in the room or cooking facilities so you can either eat the buffet dinner 6000 Krona, or drive into Hella town and eat dinner by the river at Kannslarinn.
Black Sand Beach, Iceland
One of the best known waterfalls in Iceland with a height of 60 meters, its claim to fame is that you can walk behind it. We were lucky enough to be there on a sunny day to see a rainbow, but I’ve seen pictures during winter and it’s hard not to be impressed. Wear decent shoes with grip as this place gets slippery, a waterproof jacket and dry bag for your camera.
Top tip: continue walking another 3 waterfalls down until you reach Gljúfrabúi, which means ‘Dweller of the Gorge’. Step through a crack in the rock which brings you to the base of a waterfall, then look up! You’re basically inside a cave and the only view you can see is the blue sky above and the water cascading down. This was one of my favourite places in Iceland.
We stopped at the visitor centre where there is a 20 minute video about a local family who own a farm by Eyjafjallajökull, the volcano which erupted in 2010 and caused the global ash cloud. It touches on the before, during and aftermath of the eruption and cleanup process. OK so yes, it is fairly cheesy but it’s also a realistic account of what happened and it won’t break the bank.
Black Sand Beach
Ok so it’s not technically on the Golden Circle but it is very cool and highly recommended. Leaving the carpark there’s a bathroom and coffee shop, or 5 minutes walk down to Black Sand Beach. Known for it’s strange rock formations and jet black sand, it pulls in the tourists so the best times for more solitude are early morning or late evening. The waves can be ferocious and a number of locals warned me about freak waves here so be careful, especially after seeing it with my own eyes at high tide.
From here turn back towards Reykjavik, taking your time and stopping for lunch. By now you should know anywhere you fancy stopping again and have a decent idea of drive times. It’s recommended to turn off the main road (Highway 1) – halfway between Selfoss and Reykjavik onto the 417 (left hand side towards Hafnarfjordur) and take the backroads. This will take you the wonderfully scenic road (unpaved) over the mountains for your final dose of what Iceland does best….incredible scenery!
Top tip: If you plan on eating at the airport, it tends to be super expensive (GBP 30 burger and chips) so plan ahead. You can change back any unused Icelandic currency at the airport.
I’ll leave you with a blog which I enjoyed on the top ten Icelandic bands you need in your life, some great choices here.
Happy travels folks and feel free to ask any questions.