It’s quite accurate when the Icelandic people has named their country ‘The land of fire & ice’. Iceland is really a stunning place with magnificent glaciers, rumbling volcanoes and constantly changing landscape.
So, there is enough to see, and if you are traveling there with only limited time, choosing what can be difficult.
I went there myself for 5 days in early February, and below you will find my suggestions.
Before we get into what to see and do, I have a few tips and pointers for traveling to and in Iceland.
After WOW Air has opened up, you can get affordable tickets to Iceland from both Europe and America. It’s worth noting, though, that WOW Air is a budget airline, and you can expect small seats and having to pay extra for large (usual cabin size trolley bag) overhead luggage. And there are no getting around this; they will check the size of your bag in the airport.
When that is said, it was a good experience traveling with WOW, and everything went quite smoothly.
Getting Around Iceland and Renting a Car
Sure, there a plenty of bus tours departing from both Reykjavik and Keflavik Airport to various places, mostly around the Golden Circle – so if you have limited time, that might be your best bet. But, to really experience Iceland, you should rent a car and drive around on your own terms.
Iceland is truly beautiful, and driving in this landscape is an experience in itself. The infrastructure is made up of a combination of standard roads like road 1, that literally encircles the whole of Iceland and also the road for the Golden Circle, which are both normal good tarmac, suitable for any car.
The rest of Iceland is basically gravel roads or ‘F-roads.’ F-roads can vary a lot concerning quality, and to travel on F-roads, you will definitely need a 4×4 car.
The F-roads can be closed due to weather conditions, so make sure to check and updated map before you head out.
Also, good idea to check the site www.vedur.is for weather forecast as it changes a lot locally. Vedur.is is an excellent website, where you can check everything in regards to the weather, and also see an Aurora forecast.
Side Note – A Rant About Budget/Avis Car Rental
On a personal note and rant, we had a bad experience renting from Budget/AVIS. Everyone must have done so, as there was an about 50-meter queue there when we arrived (and none at anyone of the other rental companies) and combined with a very slow service, it took about 1,5 hour before we got the car. When we booked, they had presented us a brand new Suzuki Vitara, but they gave us an old Dacia Duster with broken window wipers and back lights. Objectively, a far worse car.
Although this can be a general problem with car rentals, there was a noticeable price difference with Budget/AVIS, when searching on Rentalcars.com – which explains both why everyone chose to rent from here, but also that they simply oversell their cars.
Anyway, it might be worth your while paying a few more bucks, renting from another company – potentially saving your time and giving you a better and safer experience on the Icelandic roads.
THE GOLDEN CIRCLE
About an hour drive outside Reykjavik you will find the ‘Golden Circle’ with some of the main tourist attractions like Thingvellir National Park, The Gullfoss Waterfall, and Geysir.
For Iceland standards, this is a very busy and touristy area. However, everything is relatively close together, and even if you are staying in Reykjavik, you should be able to see most of it in just 1 day.
We stayed dead center in the Golden Circle, at a hotel called Hotel Borealis (Great place, great food! – definitely recommend), and we dedicated one day to see the main things around the Golden Circle.
Thingvellir / Tectonic Plates
Famous for 2 things, the original parliament and a unique place to see where the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates divide. Also, a good place to start, as there are more spectacular attractions further on.
If you have time and skills, you can either snorkel or dive down to experience the tectonic plates from underwater at the place called Silfra.
We then headed on to the famous waterfall called Gullfoss, a 32-meter high waterfall. Very scenic and worth a quick stop.
Next stop was the Haukadalur valley with spouting hot springs or geysers, most famous the one that’s actually called ‘Geysir.’ However, Geysir only goes off occasionally, and nothing like it used to do.
Instead, just a few meters away, is it’s smaller brother Strokkur which erupts every 5-10 minutes and up to 30 meters. Get yourself a cracking selfie, if you have the patience!
Further down the Golden Circle lies Fridheimar Greenhouse, which is a great place to stop for lunch. The greenhouse itself is geothermally heated allowing to produce vegetables (especially tomatoes) all year around.
The restaurant is located inside the greenhouse which gives a nice atmosphere, and they serve delicious food. Note – you have to love tomatoes though, everything on the menu consists of tomatoes, even the tomato icecream!
A 2-DAY EXPEDITION
We decided to leave the Golden Circle and head up the east coast to see the (in-)famous volcano Eyjafjallajökull (watch this guy on YouTUbe, if you want to know how to pronounce it), the Glaciers, notably Vatnajökull – Europe’s largest glacier, and the Glacier Lagoon at the foot of it.
Originally, the plan with the 2-day excursion was to go and see one of the big ice caves under Vatnajökull with Adventure.is and combine with other sights. However, due to poor weather conditions though – basically a warm winter, the tour, unfortunately, got canceled on the morning of the scheduled tour.
Regardless, the trip up the east coast offered plenty of stunning experiences.
The Great Waterfall – Seljalandsfoss
First on the tour was another waterfall (there are many on Iceland!), called Seljalandsfoss. It’s a spectacular waterfall with 60 meters drop that you can walk behind, and get a feel of the untamed force of nature and the ice cold water.
I would definitely recommend walking behind it, but do bring some waterproofs as it (obviously) gets quite wet!
Next on the road was the volcano Eyjafjallajökull, that back in 2010 crippled Europe with an eruption. We decided to go around the mountain to get a better view, taking F-road 250 and 261 – where you need your 4×4 car, as you will experience some small streams and bumpy terrain.
Just after we took a left on F-261, there is a road leading directly up the mountain, almost to the top. It’s worth a small detour, to get some stunning views, but you should be very aware of the conditions – there was no snow for us, before the very last part where we stopped (only Super Jeeps should and can continue from there).
When we got back down, we continued on F-261 for a while – you will see both the flat lava fields and glacier flood valleys on the left side and the volcano on your right. Quite impressive.
The Hidden Spa at the Foot of The Volcano
Back on the road 1, from F-250, heading east, you will find a hidden gem, a geothermal spa called Seljavallalaug. To get to the spa, you will have to go slightly off the road 1 for a few kilometers, before you get to the parking lot, where you have a hike of around 1 kilometer through the valley. The hike does not have an actual path, so your balance should be decent before you venture out.
Seljavallalaug is an old geothermal spa, build in 1923, and because it is off the beaten path with far fewer tourists, laying at the foot of the volcano, it has a very special feel to it.
Watch you don’t hit the old nice parking lot dog when you arrive, very friendly but almost in camouflage!
The Black Beach
Next up was the black sand beach outside Vik. An astonishing place, not just because of the scenic flat black sand beach and impressive rock formations, but the waves that come roaring in from the Atlantic ocean is a sight in itself and tranquilizing just to stand and admire.
The best way to describe it, is with the words of an Icelandic poet:
“When the surf was high, the sound of the sea was one continuous roar, heavy, deep, dark, sombre, with all kinds of variation, and at its height you felt it also came from the very earth beneath your feet. Composers would have called this the opera of the sea, poets would have called it the expression of the bleeding dawn sky, and priests the voice of God in nature.” Sudursveit, p. 111.
The Glacier Lagoon – Jökulsárlón
We then headed up the road and stayed at a hotel just a few kilometers away from the city of Hofn called Hali Country Hotel. As written earlier, our ice cave tour the morning after got canceled due to weather conditions, so instead, we headed down to the Jökulsárlón glacier lagoon.
With it’s ice cold blue water, and ice bergs ripping off the glacier, floating out to the Atlantic, this is a magnificent place to experience. And although we were disappointed not to get into an ice cave, this itself is remarkable scenery, which you should go and visit as a trip itself.
Laugarvatn Fontana Spa & Fjaðrárgljúfur Canyon
We then headed back towards our hotel at the golden circle, which is approx 4,5 hours drive away with our end goal of Laugarvatn Fontana Spa for a bit of R&R.
We only had one stop between, the Fjaðrárgljúfur canyon, which is an impressive 100 meters deep and 2 kilometers long canyon, only a short detour of the main road.
A couple of hours away from there is the Laugarvatn Fontana Spa which is a luxury spa with several geothermal baths as well as saunas, where you can lay back and relax after a long day of driving.
We had one full day to spend in Reykjavik, before heading back home. Reykjavik is a relatively small city, and you can see a lot in just a day.
On the way to Reykjavik, we stopped by the Icewear and 66 North outlets, just outside the city center. The 2 outlet stores are just on each side of the road. You can make some good bargains here, from these high-quality Icelandic brands.
Back in Reykjavik, we first headed down to the Bus Hostel to see the last remaining cheeseburger and fries from McDonald’s on Iceland.
When McDonald’s closed down in 2009, an Icelandic guy called Hjörtur Smárason, decided to buy a cheeseburger and keep it – for reasons unknown. Anyway, the cheeseburger is now on display there, and even after 8 years, it looks almost the same, which is a bit concerning!
We then walked back to the center for a stroll on the main shopping street Laugavegur, with plenty of shopping and restaurants.
For a bit of an afternoon ‘snack,’ we went into Cafe Loki, to try a platter with Icelandic specialte, including dried fish and the infamous fermented shark. The shark, in particular, were absolutely horrid, and I will not recommend this to anyone, but if you insist, this is the place to go.
A much better experience is the famous ‘Baejarins Beztu Pylsur’ down at the harbor, that serves Icelandic hot dogs, primarily made of lamb. Visited by both Bill Clinton and latest, the Kardashian’s, you can expect a long queue – but it moves quickly and worth the wait.
What We Missed and Other stuff
The Blue Lagoon
Everyone knows about the Blue Lagoon, however, we decided not to go here, primarily because you had to book in advance, leaving very little space to do other things, but also due to the fear of having to swim around in tourists, which only was confirmed by this blog post.
Truly, Iceland has so many other things to offer, also geothermal spa’s, go and visit them instead.
Ice Caves & Northern Lights
As mentioned earlier, our ice cave tour got canceled due to the weather, something that we, unfortunately, can’t control and the weekend after, the tour was back on. So really, you just have to hope for the best.
Same applies to the Northern Lights that we didn’t get to experience. Not only because it was mostly cloudy, we had a few clear nights, but really because this depends on solar flares. However, the best time to experience the northern lights are during the winter from October to March. You can check various Aurora forecasts, but they are unpredictable, and Aurora can show unexpected – or not show.
Whales & Puffins
For whale tours and puffins, you should only go during summer. There is a lot of boat tours that goes throughout winter (recommended is https://elding.is that keep a diary), however, you are most likely not to see whales in winter, mostly dolphins.