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 a ridiculously beautiful country and unlike most I’ve visited, has only a population of 350,000 so you’ll need to make an effort to find the crowds.
Being a land of extremes; in one day it’s possible to see epic waterfalls, electric blue glaciers, wastelands of volcanic tundra and magnificent black sand beaches. It’s also not uncommon to experience four seasons in one day so being prepared is important, but whichever weather Iceland serves up, it’s an incredible place to travel around and invariably photo friendly.
It’s easy to see why scenes from Game of Thrones were filmed here, the colours are richer which I assume is to do with the Arctic sun sitting lower in the sky. The weather patterns change so frequently and with this, the mountains and views perpetually morph and take on new dimensions. Just so you know I’m not talking complete drivel, look at the two images below of the same view but only one day apart — what a difference a day makes!
Icelandic’s earn the Krona and are paid at a higher rate than most of Europe, so prices are naturally higher. To give you an idea of costs a pint of larger costs GBP10, dinner with a glass of wine costs GBP40, and a swim in the Blue Lagoon will set you back a whopping GBP35.
Top tip: To reduce costs take your own alcohol, make your own lunches, take a towel (most pools will charge £5.00 to rent), and if possible take a tent as you’re able to free camp most places. Oh, and public bathrooms will set you back about £2-3.
WHERE TO REST YOUR HEAD FOR THE NIGHT
Camping is significantly cheaper in Iceland and you’ve the pick of some amazing pitches including the base of Selfoss and Glacier Lagoon. If its a roof over your head you’re seeking there are hotels however, if like me you hung up your hostel boots a long time ago, you’ll need to accept that hotels in Iceland are expensive. The standard won’t match your expectations although they are generally clean, comfortable and include a decent breakfast. Under each day is the name of the hotel I stayed at.
You can stay in Reykjavik and join arranged day trips, otherwise you’ll want to rent a car. In my opinion, Iceland is far too beautiful not to stop where you like, stay as long as you want and have the flexibility to change your plans. We rented a car in advance through Auto Europe and paid GBP180 for 5 days. Keep in mind if your itinerary takes you onto the F-roads (basically any road that isn’t the main Ring Road), you’ll need a 4WD. Be sure to check your car thoroughly before driving off as I’ve heard horror stories from travellers being stung for paint chips that existed long before they got behind the wheel.
Petrol is reasonably priced but it’s worth noting you’ll either need to buy a petrol card and top it up, pay with your credit card (and pay an international bank charge), or smile sweetly for the attendant to unlock the pump.
Driving in Iceland is a pleasant experience where you won’t be backed up in queues with aggressive drivers; plus you can pull over every time you see a worthy view…which is basically around every turn!
WHAT TO SEE
There are many variations to an Iceland road trip but if time isn’t on your side, you’ll want to tick off the highlights quickly. Below is a 4 or 5 day itinerary, with full days and a relaxed enough pace so you can stop along the way, and not just tick boxes.
In my humble opinion, Reykjavik can be taken or left. It’s a small city and has all the usual tourist shops, overpriced restaurants and city life one would expect. I’ve been twice and not been overly blown away; perhaps because I’m going to Iceland for the scenery. If you want to shave off a day, I recommend an early morning flight, hit the Blue Lagoon, 2 hours in Reykjavik and then head on out into the Golden Circle volcanic wilderness.
The Golden Circle
DAY 1 REYKJAVIK
If you arrive into Reykjavik early morning, pick up your car and drive fifteen minutes directly to the Blue Lagoon. 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, iPads, selfies and screeching tourists. Even though there are other pools in Iceland which 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 as you can get some lovely photos. Also make sure and try a hot dog from Good American Hotdogs and KEX Hostel has great drinks and live music.
A decent dinner option is the Three Coats but you should book in advance. They serve whale so this 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 I’m fine as I’m not a vegetarian.
Reyjakavik – Rey Apartments
I’ve stayed at Rey Apartments twice, they are city central, clean, modern and have basic cooking facilities including fridge if you’re desperate to keep costs down, free Wi-Fi and friendly staff.
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.
DAY 2 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, you can spend an hour petting horses or jumping around waterfalls like a big kid if you fancy.
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 it’s 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.
One of the best known waterfalls in Iceland with a height of 60 meters, it’s 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.
Hella – Hótel Lækur
Situated on a private farm surrounded by rolling hills and animals, it’s 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.
Day 3 HOFN
Today is a lovely drive day out to eastern Iceland. The scenery changes throughout the day between endless wastelands of volcanic rock, to fields of lichen and moss, cascading waterfalls and onto the black sand coastline.
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
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.
Hofn – Hali Country Hotel
Situated on a farm, the rooms are clean, comfortable yet fairly basic also. It was hugely expensive at GBP 230 for a double room with en suite, no fridge or any of the additional extras one would expect. They offer a decent buffet dinner which although almost only Arctic Char, has a few delicious lamb options also.
DAY 4 JOKULSARLON TO VIK
One of the main reasons why we drove as far as Hofn, was to visit Glacier Lagoon and Diamond Beach, places that even Icelandic’s include on a road trip of their own country. You need cameras well charged and you’ll also want to arrive early to beat the crowds mid-summer.
Is essentially a lagoon where gigantic glacier chunks have broken away from the ice-sheet and end up bobbing around here. Eventually they get spat out into the sea but for the time being it really is quite remarkable. When I was there, it was also a playground for seals and I recommend parking the car, wrapping up warm and walking as far as you can to get away from the crowds, but also to see more of the obscure ice shapes gnarled by the elements. If you fancy getting closer to the glaciers, you can opt for a Zodiac boat trip .
Next drive across the road and you’ll see where glaciers end up before either melting or drifting further out to sea. What greets you is a beach cluttered with brilliantly coloured and unusually shaped chucks of ice, set against the black sand which makes them stand out even more. If you can be here for sunset (or sunrise) you can get some very interesting photos. This beach is pretty awesome!
At this point you start turning on yourself and drive back to Vik. If the weather is good you can stop back at Black Sand Beach for sunset.
Hotel Katla Hofdabrekka
Probably my favourite location being so close to Black Sand Beach, but also the most dated inside and very motel-esque. With a handsome price tag of GBP 200 per night for a twin, you’d expect more however, you won’t find better for the price. Theres an outdoor hot tub, breakfast is excellent, a buffet dinner can be purchased for 6000 Krona but I recommend you try down the road at Sudor Vik as their pizzas are some of the best I’ve eaten in a long time.
DAY 5 REYKJAVIK AND AWAY….
From Vik the last day consisted of simply driving back to Reykjavik, taking our 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.