OH WHAT A TRIP. WHAT A LOVELY TRIP.
2 weeks in Iceland: 4 days in Reykjavik, 9 days driving and camping the ring road. It was amazing. I don’t even like road trips and it was amazing.
I really think that Iceland is the perfect destination for a road trip. In the span of 6 hours you will see beaches, glaciers, mountains, waterfalls, grazing lands….It’s like driving the length of the United States in 1/10th of the time! But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Iceland? What made you want to go to Iceland? If I had a nickel for every time someone asked me why I wanted to go to Iceland. “Isn’t it cold?!” “What is there to do in Iceland?” To which I can only say: Have you seen pictures of Iceland?! It’s always been on the list of places I wanted to visit, and I can pin the beginning of my fascination to 2 images: This photo of Blue Lagoon and this photo of a canyon. The locations are so unique, I just knew I needed to see it for myself.
Of course, Iceland’s frequent use as a filming location in movies/television (especially all of my favorites) also played a huge role in me wanting to go. Game of Thrones films there, Interstellar was filmed there, Prometheus was filmed there, basically every space movie is filmed there. Even NASA astronauts trained for the lunar missions there! I figured it’s the closest I’ll get to space travel if SpaceX doesn’t pull it’s act together before I die.
Now let’s get the common questions out of the way:
Isn’t Iceland cold? I went in the beginning of June, which is technically summer, and it was still pretty cold (30s at “night” to 50s when sunny). But it was also more of a coastal cold, not one of those to your bones chills you find in the middle of nowhere Canada. With proper layering it’s quite comfortable most of the time.
I did hike through snow a couple of times (not even including the glacier!). And there were roads still closed off because of snowfall. Wool is huge there for a reason.
Is it really expensive? Actually, no. Especially if you split costs with friends. In total my 13 day trip (split with 4 other people) cost me around $2,000. And I definitely was more liberal with money than a true budget traveler. Let me break it down:
Flights: The impetus for my trip to Iceland was a promotion by Wow Airlines for their new routes from Boston and Washington, DC to Reykjavik for $99 one way! Wow is essentially like Spirit Airlines connecting the US and Europe. So while you eventually do add on other costs and what not, $400 is way better than $1000! In the end I didn’t even end up doing the Wow deal because I found Icelandair tickets for $550 with 2 bags included. The cheapest gateway cities to Iceland are Boston, Washington DC, Minneapolis and Seattle; so if you live in one of those cities you should absolutely go! But I’d especially recommend flying from Seattle because then you get to fly straight over Greenland/the Arctic.
Accommodations: If you require top notch accommodations then yes it will get pricey quick. I found the AirBnB’s in Reykjavik to be very reasonably priced (~$100/night for an entire apartment). For the budget traveler there are also plenty of hostels in the cities. I stayed at a popular hostel/bar called Kex which was ~$30/night for a 10 person mixed dorm. If you’re the adventurous type camping is a huge business in Iceland, like everyone does it. There are campgrounds in EVERY town and they are usually $10-$15/night. Wilderness camping is also an option (and it’s free), but I personally prefer to pay for the convenience of bathrooms.
Transportation: Getting around will be the most expensive part and it’s better to not skimp. Public transit is not like Japan; there are buses but I don’t think it’s the easiest or most convenient way to see the country. If you’re just interested in doing day trips from Reykjavik, then you’ll be fine booking a ride on a tour bus. But if you want to tackle the Ring Road your best bet is to rent a car, ESPECIALLY if you want to do the ring road. And that can get expensive. For 9 days I got a 4×4 Diesel SUV (with all insurances added) for ~$1,300. Divided between a bunch of people, reasonable. Solo, super expensive. Gas is also around $7/gallon, which made my jaw hit the floor when I first saw it, but on the trip we didn’t actually spend that much on gas…so I guess they’ve really figured out diesel over there!
Food: Food was no more expensive than New York. Actually I think it was cheaper than New York. We had a lot of road trip food and gas station hot dogs (the hot dogs are actually delicious), so we were able to splurge on the expensive stuff occasionally. If you visit, definitely try the lobster, horse meat and smoked puffin.
Did you see the northern lights? Nooo, unfortunately the northern lights can’t be seen in the summer because it never gets dark. BUT it was an okay trade off because in the summer the sun never completely sets. So there was virtually an endless amount time in the day to sight-see (the day was only limited by my own exhaustion). And nature never closes 🙂
Do they speak English? Yes! Very well. I flew Icelandair and was nervous when the pilot made all the announcements in Icelandic, but English was very widespread on the ground.
Did you learn any Icelandic? I can barely pronounce the cities we visited?
Did you see Björk? No! ;(
Okay that’s over onto the good stuff!
So what is there to do in Iceland? A lot of outdoor activities. There are a little over 300,000 people in the entire country (which is about the size of Kentucky). So the cities/towns are small. But the nature is huge: There are waterfalls everywhere. Literally. Everywhere. There’s a ton of hiking and climbing. There’s whale and bird watching. A ton of incredible beaches and naturally heated swimming pools everywhere (one of the perks of living in a geothermal hotspot). If you can do without all the urban comforts of traditional destinations, there’s TONS to do! And did I mention the horses?
And of course there is always the capital Reykjavik which does have all the urban comforts: boutique hotels, fancy restaurants, shopping, bars, museums, etc.
What exactly did you do then? There is one “major” (read: 2 lane, and mostly paved) road that goes around the entire island, it is called the Ring Road. In total it is about 830 miles long (about the distance from New Orleans to Miami!). And it is the best way to really experience Iceland.
My 4 friends and I did a road & camping trip around the Ring Road, with many stops and detours to see awesome things. We rented a car, rented some tents and roughed it around Iceland for 9 days. I mean it wasn’t really too rough, it’s not everyday you’re waking up to birdsong and snow covered mountains.
Driving in a Iceland was definitely a new and interesting experience:
» You don’t have to watch out for state troopers hiding under overpasses. (Because I don’t think they even have enough police to care about interstate monitoring).
» There are in fact such things as one lane bridges and one lane tunnels, and they are exactly as terrifying as they sound.
» Pray to GOD your car doesn’t break down outside of a town, because there is no AAA. We learned this the hard way.
» Carry jumper cables. CARRY JUMPER CABLES!
And now you too want to visit Iceland? Thankfully I have a glorious, wonderful, heavily researched map itinerary to share, with hindsight commentary — and let me say that it was literally the perfect amount of activity for completing the ring road in 9 days; adding much more would’ve been a lot. I think the sweet spot for a relaxed ring road trip is around 14 days.
Day 1&2: Exploring Reykjavik
Day 3: Reykjavik to the Snæfellsnes Peninsula
Day 4: The Snæfellsnes Peninsula to Akureyri (via West Iceland)
Day 5: Akureyri to Lake Mývatn
Day 6: Lake Mývatn to the East Fjords
Day 7: The East Fjords to Höfn
Day 8: Skaftafell
Day 9: South Iceland
Day 10: The Golden Circle
Day 11: Reykjanes Peninsula
Day 12&13: Winding Down in Reykjavik
What places were exceptionally amazing?
Krafla Power Station and Leirhnjúkur. While it was undoubtedly the coldest experience of our trip, the hike around the Krafla Power Station lava fields was truly a zen experience! In June the hiking path was still partially covered in snow, but the scenery was exquisite. At the end of the hike you reach the lava fields which are still smoking. We caught it at “sunset” (around midnight) and it was the perfect cap to our day. The power station itself is also interesting to see as the pipes wind through the landscape and over the road–the only sign of humanity for a while.
Snæfellsnes. All my research suggested the Snæfellsnes would be amazing. And it was still even better than I expected! Every place we stopped in the Snæfellsnes was amazing! The people were friendly. It wasn’t crowded at all. And it has some amazing lava fields. Definitely a remote, off the beaten path area but well worth it.
The base of Eyjafjallajökull/Seljavallalaug. Eyjafjallajökull is a small icecap and the location of the volcano that famously erupted in 2010 (also the one that erupts in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, another movie filmed in Iceland). Around the base of Eyjafjallajökull is the oldest pool in Iceland. The pool itself is nothing special, but the hike to the pool was GLORIOUS. But the pool is clothing optional.
And what places were not so amazing?
The Golden Circle. The most visited and well known part of Iceland was also the least enjoyable in my opinion. After spending a week sharing sites with only a couple of people, it was very disenchanting to see SO MANY people at the Golden Circle sites. Even as far out as Seljalandsfoss which was a madhouse (and parking nightmare to rival the mall at Christmas). The Golden Circle sites are still beautiful, but they are the most accessible so you don’t get as much satisfaction when you don’t have to work hard to reach the scenic view or waterfall. I will say Silfra was the exception, Silfra was magical.
Grotja. I’ll just say approach with caution. Grotja is the famed location of Jon Snow and Ygritte’s steamy love scene on Game of Thrones. The pool itself is pretty underwhelming, and it would’ve been way more enjoyable if it was open for swimming. But it is also located on private property, and we just happened to visit at the same time the owner was trying to swim there, and she wasn’t a super pleasant person.
Jokularlson. I’m putting a condition on this one. It is amazing, BUT you should definitely see it from different locations. The obvious vantage point you can reach from the parking lot, but I think it would be more interesting if you see where the lagoon meets the ocean. I didn’t even think of doing this and I kick myself in the butt thinking about the missed opportunity. I’d also suggest any photographers really plan what time of the day to visit and how long to stay. You can get some fantastic time lapses here.
What place did you miss out on that you would like to see next time? Landmannalaugar! The highlands are the most remote and hard to access areas of Iceland, but also some of the most beautiful. I’d love to spend 2 weeks just exploring the highlands on my next trip. Though even in June a lot of the highland roads were still closed because of snow.
And also I’d like to spend more time on a glacier.
What was your favorite:
Meal? The hot dogs. I actually swore off all hot dogs when I was in middle school after I learned what they were made of; and I didn’t miss them much because hot dogs aren’t particularly delicious. But Icelandic hot dogs ARE THAT GOOD. It became a routine, we had to have a daily hot dog. The meat is a mostly lamb, the bun is the perfect amount of fluffy, the sauces are so much richer than their American counterparts, and OH MY GOD THE FRIED ONIONS. I don’t know how fried onions are not a staple on ALL hot dogs. So now I’ve sworn off all hot dogs, except Icelandic hot dogs.
The smoked puffin was also shockingly good. I was expecting something like chicken, but I got something like smoked salmon sashimi. Weird, but delicious!
Hákarl is fucking nasty though.
City/Town? Neskaupstaður. So I may have a slight bias towards Neskaupstaður because my cousin spent a year there playing volleyball (and thus connected me with some awesome locals for my trip), BUT even without the connections I was blown away by Neskaupstaður. It’s located at the tip of fjord in the East Fjords, and the drive to get there was phenomenal. You go over mountains, through clouds, around hair pin roads, into a one-lane tunnel, and emerge into a beautiful fjord with snow covered mountains on either side.
Campground? Neskaupstaður again. The town is built into the side of a mountain and the campground sits on top of the town, you can see EVERYTHING from the campground! It literally had prime real estate and I’m not sure how the residents let that happen (I’d want my house to be where the campground was)! There were only 2 other cars there, nice and empty the way I like it. And THE BATHROOM. The bathroom had FREE showers and private toilets. It was the only campground with free showers AND private toilets. 10/10 would live there.
Activity? Horseback riding. I signed up for this tour for the novelty of riding on small, hairy horses. I walked away from this tour begging everyone to go horseback riding with me everywhere. Not only do the pony sized horses carry our fat asses, they carry our fat asses through rivers, along cliffs and up steep hills. I see horses in a completely different light now. And I really want to replace my car with a horse.
And the horse farm has a baby sheep that thought it was human and wanted to go on our road trip. +1000 points.
Scariest hike? There are definitely a bunch of heart racing moments while adventuring in Iceland, people with a crippling fear of heights beware. There were two that really caught me off guard:
The approach to Hvitsekur is essentially a steep vertical descent down a cliff, make sure you have shoes with a strong grip.
And the face rock at Skogarfoss. VERY narrow, VERY wet, suspended VERY high in the air. I was determined to have a picture on this rock but it took a lot of determination on my end.
Place to photograph? I had an obscene amount of fun at the plane crash! It wasn’t even exceptionally scenic and the weather was rotten, but to crawl over a WWII plane crash in the middle of a sandy wasteland was so much fun!
But in close second was Svartifoss. The sense of accomplishment from reaching Svartifoss only made the pictures that much better.
So now you have an idea of what to see in Iceland, but what should you bring with you?
What items are you glad you packed?
Foldable Rain Boots. You may be like “there’s no way I’m wasting space/weight on rain boots.” Then you realize the only thing standing between you and that hot spring is a glacial river. When you’re chasing waterfalls rain boots are the ultimate weapon. You can walk across that 3 foot span of water instead of finding a dry crossing somewhere else. You can get that photo that requires you to stand in water instead of settling for that less appealing spot on dry land. Rain boots are game changers.
I Recommend: Hunter Tour Boots
My Medicine “Cabinet”. Those 7 day pill organizers are great for storing medicine on your travels! I was able to supply ibuprofen, Benadryl, Zyrtec, vitamins and cold medicine for our whole trip! The Benadryl was a must have with all the sunlight.
USB Hub. In this day of a million electronic items that need to be charged, the hub is a must have. Between 5 people with phones, tablets, laptops and cameras, finding enough places to charge became a game. Having a hub meant that one car outlet could charge 5 phones. We didn’t have internet but our phones were always on full!
What items do you wish you’d packed?
Waterproof Camera. I actually don’t own one, but I won’t go back to Iceland without buying one. In the same vein of rain boots being able to take you anywhere, so can waterproof cameras.
Sleeping pad. I did not realize the importance of sleeping pads until I slept without one and woke up every hour shivering. I get it, I will invest in a sleeping pad.
Cozy Onesie. When you go dry suit diving they give you this fleece lined onesie to wear under the suit (essentially like a full body sleeping bag with arms and legs). If I would’ve had one of those to wear all the time it would’ve been all I needed.
Gloves. If you don’t pack gloves with you, definitely buy some. The should be required on all glacier tours. No one tells you that a glacier feels like sand paper until you’re on the glacier.
What items do you wish you’d left at home?
Clothes. As a heavy packer, I think I did well to fit 2 weeks of supplies in 1 checked bag! But my goal is to pack even lighter. Since it’s cold you can get away with wearing things multiple times before they need to be washed. Only my vanity made me pack enough clothes to make multiple outfits. In reality I spent most of my time in my pajamas because I was too lazy to get dressed.
Eye mask. Between being exhausted from daily activities and Benadryl, the sunlight was a non-issue.
What did you bring back with you?
Winter Accessories. I purposely didn’t bring any hats or scarves with me because I wanted to buy something made of wool in Iceland. I ended up buying a hat and a balaclava and they kept me perfectly warm on the trip.
Iceland was incredible. As an extreme novice when it comes to outdoor activities Iceland was a perfect place to “get my feet wet”. I definitely left the country like with a new found love of the outdoors, trying to figure out where to go next! The hikes are simple but INCREDIBLY scenic. The temperatures were moderate. The facilities were very nice and plentiful. But the best experience was the road trip bonding. There’s nothing like a road trip for bringing people together (see: Little Miss Sunshine?)
I had way too much fun planning the trip and even more fun having my plans come to fruition.
Would you go back to Iceland? ABSOLUTELY. I’d like to check off a few more items from my travel bucket list before I do, but I absolutely want to return to Iceland. This time with a drone.