Things to do:
- We spent most of our time outside of the city, but this was a great starting off point. If you go to Iceland, I would recommend staying here for a night, maybe two, and traveling outside of the city during the day.
- Blue Lagoon: The lagoon is about a 45 minute drive from Reykjavik proper, and well worth the drive. It is home to a sulfuric hot spring, and nestled between gorgeous black and green rock. The water is a murky blue and white, and the sides of the pool re covered in a white mud that is used as a facemask. You can get drinks and additional spa treatments while you’re there, but note – it is very pricey and everything should be booked in advance!
- Solfar Sculpture: If you can, go close to sunrise or set on a sunny day. There are mountains in the background and the water is a beautiful blue color. This was a favorite spot of mine to have a coffee or bring breakfast to sit and eat.
- Hallgrímskirkja: This is a pretty new church – built in the 1980’s – but it is a gorgeous site to see. It’s massive exterior is absolutely imposing, and going at sunset was a really beautiful treat. If you go to Café Loki (see below) you can see it out the windows while you eat.
- Saga Museum: While I sadly didn’t get to this museum on my trip, I heard great things and really wish I’d had a chance to go. Iceland has an incredibly unique history, and while reading about it is great, I would have really benefitted from seeing some of the artifacts of history while there.
- Look out for the Northern Lights: We got incredibly lucky and were able to see the Lights both on our flight in Reykjavik and once we were in the city. Make sure to go somewhere with as little light as possible, and keep an eye out for green or gray patterns in the sky. The Lights often look like blue-gray clouds, but you’ll see the difference if you look long enough – they move in quickly swirls in every direction while clouds just follow the wind
Where to eat and drink:
- Broad Co: Delicious breakfast pastries and bread – a great spot for breakfast and close to the water, so you can take your food there to eat.
- Café Loki: This is one of the cheapest places we ate in Iceland, though not inexpensive by any means. We had a big meal of mashed turnips, sweet rye bread with butter, sheep head, flat bread, smoked trout, smoked lamb, lamb stew, mashed fish, and skyr with peas and carrots. It was all very traditional and tasty, though I had a pretty hard time with the sheep skull.
- Drunk Rabbit: Great Irish bar with live music every night. Also pretty inexpensive for Iceland standards.
Where I stayed:
- Guesthouse Pavi: Absolutely would not recommend. This was one of the worst “hotel” experiences I have ever had. It was not inexpensive, and when we arrived we found out that it is not a hotel at all, but rather a worn down apartment building under construction. There was no check in desk, and we waited a long time before we could get ahold of anyone to show us to our room. When they arrived they told us we wouldn’t actually be staying at this location, and instead took us a few blocks away to a home where we were given a room. It was very strange, and not a great experience.
Things to do:
- If I could do this trip again, I would spend much more time in Southeast Iceland. We did all of the following things in one day, and while you certainly can do the same, note that it was a very full day. It would be better to allot 2-3 days to this area.
- Seljalandsfoss Waterfall: The only waterfall in the world that you can walk behind! Go for the main waterfall, then follow a path to the left for a short hike to another incredible waterfall, Gljufraubui.
- Eyjafjallajokull Volcano: It looks like a huge, snowy mountain, but it’s really a volcano that erupted in 2010 and blew its own top off! There were pictures up of what it looked like before the rupture, and it was so cool to see how much it had changed in just a few years.
- Skogafoss: This is tucked just off the main road, and it is by far the most beautiful waterfalls I think I will ever see. Follow a river a short ways to a huge, gusting waterfall flanked by two rainbows on sunny days. It feels like stepping out of a fairytale!
- Renisdrangar Black Sand Beach: The sand is almost a midnight black, and there are huge jagged rock formations along the shore. There are also massive black rocks popping up out of the ocean – rumored to be two frozen giants towing a boat back to shore. You can immediately see why this is the land of legends!
- Skafatell National Park: If you can, I would plan to explore this park for at least a 6 hours so that you can do the hikes that take you across the glaciers. There are several tour groups that will guide you, and while they are pretty expensive (about $100) it seems worth it for the views. We didn’t have enough time for that, so we did a hike across the grasslands to an area overlooking the glacier. Still absolutely beautiful, but I would have loved to have more time.
- Jokulsarlon Glacier Lagoon: One of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been. We went just before sunset to see and hear the ice breaking off the Vatnajojull Glacier and heading out to sea. There were seals playing in the water and the sun set turned the ice a bright blue and the water a golden yellow. It was gorgeous!
Where to eat:
- We wanted to spend as much time as possible at the sites in Southeast, so we primarily grabbed bites to go from the stands at each major location. We also got great, homemade ice cream from a gas station along the way.
Thingvellir (and surrounding areas)
Things to do:
- I would plan to spend a full day exploring this area – there is so much to see and do!
- Snorkel or Scuba Dive Silfra: Silfra is the rift between the North American and European tectonic plates, and you can snorkel or scuba dive between them. It is an incredibly cool (literally freezing) experience, and I would highly recommend it. We went with Dive Silfra and had a great experience (complete with hot chocolate and biscuits after!) While I can see the appeal of scuba diving here, for the price difference I don’t know that I would recommend it. We snorkeled and I didn’t feel like there was anything that I missed. Be sure to book this well in advance! Note: this is a pretty pricey activity, but well worth it in my opinion.
- Oxafoss: This waterfall is just a short distance from Silfra, and you can take a short hike up to it, or drive to it.
- Kerid Crater: Beautiful crater of an extinct volcano tucked in the mountains. You can hike up and around it, or down to the center and should allot about 30-45 minutes for both.
- Geysir and Strokkur Geysers: If you go, be sure to park at the main building and take the hiking trail ahead of you and to the left. This will take you on a path up behind the geysers, and it is well worth the trek. The views are incredible, and at the top you can see for miles on a clear day. Then, take the same path down to the geysers and wander through them. There are close to a dozen, all of which has it’s own special feature.
- Gullfoss: This is Iceland’s version of the Niagara Falls. It’s an absolutely massive waterfall that cascades down yet another rift in layers with platforms of rushing water in between. When the sun starts to set, it turns the water an incredible gold color (which is how the falls get their name).
Where to eat:
- Lindin Bistro: This restaurant is pretty expensive, but it’s also one of the only things for miles. Be sure to ask to eat in the bistro – it’s the same food as the dining hall, but a little cheaper and less fancy.
Where I stayed:
- Heradsskolinn: This is a little ways away from Thingvellir itself, but well worth the drive. It’s situated in the mountains on a big lake, and the view is incredible. The rooms are modest, but each comes with a living space, kitchen, and balcony, which is great. Close to hot springs, the lake is very warm along the shore and a great place to watch the stars at night. I would definitely stay here again.
Foods and Drinks to Try:
Stew: Iceland has a variety of delicious stews, the most popular of which includes lamb or fish and veggies. It's the perfect way to wrap up a cold day.
Ice cream: The best ice cream I've ever had in my life came from a gas station near Skogafoss waterfall in Iceland. It was made on a farm near by and was unbelievably creamy and delicious. Eat as much ice cream as you can here.
Rye bread: The bread is super sweet and served with butter and often a smoked meat or fish. Really tasty any time of day.
Skyr: A creamy, thick yogurt/cheese combo. Very tasty and served with anything from peas and carrots to fruit.
In general, you can't go wrong with meat or lamb, both of which are in abundance and cooked in all sorts of tasty ways.
Food and lodgings in Iceland are incredibly expensive. Take whatever you think you’d spend on a normal trip and double it. We’re talking $30 for a regular sized bowl of soup expensive. You don’t need to allot much money for activities – the best parts of the country are its natural wonders, all of which are free – but the food is where they’ll get you. Pack as many protein bars as you think you can stomach…
That being said, your activities can be dirt cheap! All of the natural wonders Iceland has to offer are open to the public at no cost. You may opt into buying a guided tour at any of these locations, but don't feel like you need to do it every time. There is so much to see and do just by walking around.
Bring warmer clothes than you think you’ll need! When the sun is out it can be beautiful and warm, but winds whip up quickly and can make you bone cold.
The gas stations and restaurants are really spread out if you’re driving between towns. Get gas and snacks much earlier than you think you’ll need them because there may not be another stop for an hour or more.
Iceland is a very small country (population 300,000) and as such it is one of the safest countries in the world. Violent crime is practically non-existent, and while I’m sure petty crime exists we were never in a location with enough people to feel like it was really a risk. That being said, as always you should watch out for pick pockets and ask your hotel/hostel/Airbnb host which areas are safe and unsafe to wander around at night.
Careful driving at night – sheep can sometimes wander out into the road.
Transportation in Iceland:
Iceland has a lot of big, open expanses and while I saw buses taking people to touristy sites, I would highly recommend getting a car. For starters, it is by far the easiest way to get around, and there are so few people on the roads that there isn’t as big a risk of an accident as driving in crowded metropolitan areas. Secondly, some of the absolute coolest things I saw were surprise stops on the side of the road, and I would have been heartbroken to watch them go by from the window of a bus.