So, you’re going to Iceland?
My wife and I spent seven days in Iceland last summer (late July, 2017). Seven days isn’t enough time to enjoy the entire island, so we limited our visit to the Golden Circle and the southern coastline.
June through August is the best time of the year for hiking and exploring nature while it’s green. The time of year also affords you a few extra hours of sunlight each day, which means you can cram more things in. I remember eating a late dinner after an evening hike and still seeing the glow from the freshly set sun around 10:30pm. It never got completely dark, as that “glow” sticks around until sunrise.
If you want to see the northern lights, you should wait until February or March. July felt like perfect timing for us, all the shops and restaurants are open, the weather was consistently misty, but the rain stopped just short of anything that would deter us from being outside.
Lots of folks stay in Reykjavik for their entire visit and just run day trips via tour groups and buses to popular destinations. I’m not going to knock it, but we didn’t do that. We rented a car for our entire stay, which enabled us to travel around more of the country at our pace, and be a little flexible on our plans.
Iceland’s “Highway One” (also called “the ring road” and “Route One”) encircles the island around the coastline, and driving at your own pace around lets you enjoy the striking views and little towns as you pass through. Throw on some Múm or Sigur Rós in the rental and you got yourself an awesome road trip.
We rented a “4x4” (four-wheel drive vehicle), which was pretty damn expensive, but we needed it for a couple of the places we planned to drive to (more on that later).
Growing up in the Midwest, I’ve grown accustomed to overly friendly strangers. It’s totally normal for grocery store clerk to ask about my weekend plans, or have a waiter spend ten minutes reviewing specials and their favorite dishes while talking about their kids’ birthday last week.
I mention that, just so you know where I’m coming from. The Icelandic people we encountered were all appropriately hospitable, but not overly cozy. As with a lot of Europe, commerce is seen as a more transactional affair, and the little Midwestern niceties that I’m accustomed to are dispensed with. It’s not rudeness, just pragmatism.
Planning your trip
We planned our route pretty aggressively, allowing just enough time to stop and sleep between stretches of 4–5 hours drives. It was exhausting, but it afforded us the chance to see a lot of the island in a short amount of time. Our itinerary went something like this:
- Reykjavik — 1 night
- The Golden Circle / Laugarvatn — 1 night
- Vik — 2 nights
- Höfn — 2 nights
- Reykjavik — 1 last night
Although most of the road signs are only in Icelandic, all the locals speak fluent English. I can’t remember a single instance where I found it hard to communicate with someone. Often, if you try to speak the native language, they will respond in English instead, just because it’s easier.
One tip we got before visiting Iceland was to avoid their high liquor tax by buying provisions ahead of time at a Duty-Free store in the airport. Everything in the country is pretty expensive, so why not cut down on your costs a bit and grab a few bottles of wine when you land?
Want more? Here’s a quick listicle outlining the differences between American and Icelandic culture:
Iceland has amazing seafood! I love to eat food that’s new to me, and Iceland definitely delivers on that. Check out the Langoustines (small lobsters), lobster soup, and a wide variety of fish (Hake & Char), prawns, scallops, and even whale. Also, be prepared to pay for it.
Next to the car rental, eating out was probably our biggest expense. At a casual restaurant, it wasn’t uncommon for the cheapest thing on a menu to be about $20. If my wife and I got lunch for under $60, that was a good deal; Dinners were closer to $100 — $120 before drinks.
On the positive side, you don’t need to tip. I’ve read that tipping might even be considered an “insult” in some places in Iceland, but that wasn’t my experience. I didn’t tip often, but everyone was happy to accept a tip if it was offered.
Tip: We stopped at a corner store our second day in the country and bought sliced bread and a jar of “American” peanut butter to make trail lunches and snacks to cut down on food expenses.
Glacier Goodies — Skaftafell National Park, Iceland
We had lunch at a food truck called Glacier Goodies in between the glacier walk and the hike to Svartifoss. It was the best lobster soup we had in the entire country!
Pakkhus — Höfn, Iceland
Like all of Iceland, Pakkhus isn’t cheap, but the fresh seafood is unbelievable. We had steamed Langoustines and assorted seafood in a cream sauce.
For dessert, we got this frozen ball of ice cream, that was melted with a caramel sauce when it was served. Yum.
Friðheimar — The Golden Circle
Friðheimar is situated inside a functioning green house where all the tomatoes used in the restaurant are sourced. Also, they serve mostly tomato-based food and drinks and it’s all delicious. We each had bottomless tomato soup, accompanied by a selection of different kinds of bread baked in-house, and sipped Bloody Mary’s.
This place booked up really far in advance and we wouldn’t have been able to eat there if we had not made reservations well ahead of time.
The food isn’t the only thing that makes Friðheimar special. It’s located on lush farmland with a working horse stable. We arrived about an hour before our reservation and just chilled with the horses while we waited.
Blue Lagoon Geothermal Water | Blue Lagoon Iceland
Learn about the unique geothermal water and the benefits from its active ingredients - Silica, Algae & Minerals.
Tip: book ahead of time. They only let in a certain number of visitors every hour, and it can full up quickly during a busy tourist season.
A mere 20 minutes away from Keflavik airport, this was our first stop in the country, and a perfect way to kick-start out vacation. We went directly to the Blue Lagoon after landing and picking up our rental car. Nothing feels better than a glass of red wine or berry smoothie from a spring-side bar after a seven-hour flight in coach across the Atlantic.
We live in Colorado, and visit hot springs a few times a year in small mountain towns along the I-70 corridor. I’m used to small mom-and-pop type operations. Locker rooms buffer the entrance and offer towel rentals, old-school lockers, and if you’re lucky, maybe there’s a bar outside. A lot of Colorado hot springs are comprised sprawling small pools along a valley, or they look like an Olympic swimming pool — deplete of character.
Blue Lagoon is a whole new level of hot spring. The large, open main pool is carved out of the earth, amounting to a small lake, untouched by man. The water is a striking blue-green color, framed by black volcanic rock, and only slightly obscured by steam billowing out from every direction. Bars and face mask kiosks line the outskirts of the spring, serving wine, beer, fruit smoothies and “mud” from the spring for face mask treatments.
Whenever you go, it’s bound to be busy. Even with the crowds in the locker room and entrance, it was easy to slink out into the spring and find a good spot to chill without bumping elbows with other tourists.
Lots of people stay rooted in Reykjavik as a home-base and make day trips outward during their time in Iceland. It’s near a lot of popular attractions, and there’s a ton going on within the city limits, so that plan makes sense, but I’d suggest hitting the road after spending a day or two here instead.
The country roads are beautiful, as are the small towns, wildlife, and waterfalls you inevitably encounter along the way. More on that later, but first, I want to share a few of my favorite places in Reykjavik.
Get breakfast at Braud & Co
Braud is one of the best quick breakfast spots in the neighborhoods near the Hallgrímskirkja Church. It happened to be across the street from our Airbnb, so we went each morning we were there. They open super early. They literally just say “early” for the opening time on their website, but I remember getting up and running there for coffee as early as 6:30 am.
Brauð & Co
Brauð og co er súrdeigsbakarí sem leggur áherslu á hágæða hráefni og íslenskt sé þess kostur.
See all of Reykjavik from the top of Hallgrímskirkja
Hallgrímskirkja is an old church in the center of town, at the top of the hill Reykjavik seems to encircle. The exterior features long, increasingly tall octagonal cylinders, meant to mimic the natural Basalt columns of the Svartifoss waterfall (more on that later).
For a few bucks, you can take an elevator to the top of the spire and get awesome panoramic views of the entire city.
Most of the streets are paid parking around the city, but you can park for free in the church parking lot through the day and overnight.
Pretty random spot, but super fun: the Lebowski bar is situated right in the middle of a busy stretch of restaurants and boutiques. They offer a ton of milkshakes, and standard American bar fare like burgers & fries.
We went here for drinks and enjoyed the milkshakes and atmosphere and happened upon movie trivia night. There’s something very surreal about hanging out with a bunch of Europeans and playing trivia based on 99% American movies.
Strangely enough, this is not the only restaurant in Reykjavik we noticed celebrating another country’s culture. I remember walking by a Chuck-Norris-themed restaurant, Scottish pubs, and lots of Italian places.
Situated in Reykjavik, this hostel is a multi-story hispter heaven. We went there for lunch on our last day in Iceland. The comfy/casual spot was a perfect place to try to recover from the exhaustion of seven days filled with hiking & driving.
A trendy hostel housed in an old biscuit factory in Reykjavik city centre in Iceland. Budget hotel & guesthouse…
Saegreifinn — The Sea Baron
The Sea Baron serves amazing traditional lobster soup in a casual atmosphere. This place is a little further away from the main stretch of town, but we were able to walk there in under 20 minutes. The inside is tiny, adorned with a few sparse community tables, which creates a strange sense of community among the eaters. My wife and I made acquaintances with a group next to us after overhearing them discussing “back home” in St. Louis, MO (we were both born and raised in St. Louis).
The Golden Circle
Þingvellir (say it like “thing-va-leer”)
Þingvellir is a historic site in Iceland, known for being home to the counties parliament from the 10th — 18th centuries. A rift between two tectonic plates in the Earth’s crust expose a corridor comprised of black rocks, green moss and steam.
This was one of my favorite places to hike in the country because of its striking appearance. The rocky walls of the valley grow taller as you move east, along a gradual incline that eventually leads you to the top of the plateau.
Iceland is covered in waterfalls. Pick a direction, if you drive long enough, you’re sure to run into one. Here’s a run down of the ones we visited across the country (we drove along the southern coast).
About two hours from Reykjavik, Skógafoss is really impressive and hard to miss. It’s massive water flow falls a huge distance down the ridge, which is easy to spot from the highway. Although picturesque from just about any viewpoint, if you brave the never-ending stairs directly adjacent to the waterfall, you might see a double rainbow like we did :)
Although this waterfall doesn’t offer a long fall like some of the others on this list, it’s very dramatic in its own right. It’s so wide that the spray and sounds from the rushing water is overwhelming.
It’s also one of the more built-up waterfalls, with a gift shop offering food positioned next to the parking lot. Probably because of this, it’s a tour bus stop, so if you hit it when a few buses happen to be there, it’ll be pretty crowded.
The only waterfall we visited that we could hike in underneath, behind the falling water. We got absolutely soaked by the mist.
If you go there, take an extra fifteen minutes and walk down the road to find a second, smaller waterfall in a cave called Gljúfrafoss. After you wade through ankle-deep water to enter the cave, you’ll find a giant boulder against the back wall of the cave with water crashing down around it.
Adorned with natural basalt columns, Svartifoss is an extremely unique waterfall. Nestled in Skaftafell national park, there’s a short hike to get up there (something like twenty minutes) of pretty easy switchbacks. We did this directly after the glacier walk, since it’s in the same park.
The easy hike in, the large camp ground near the parking lot, and the close proximity to the highway make it a popular spot. Once you get up there, the areas for good pictures are a hot commodity, so you may need to do a bit of waiting around to get a good shot, but it’s worth it.
Brauerfoss (Blue falls)
Brauerfoss is a little, hidden waterfall near the Golden Circle. We had to ask a local (the receptionist at our hostel) directions to get there. While it’s just off the “Golden Circle” route, finding it is a little tricky unless you get help from someone. We spent a good half hour driving around a small dirt road trying to find the trail, only to double-back on the main road stop to find the trail.
There’s no marked parking for the trail head. We only found the entrance by taking note of the footprints in the mud, which directed us over a low barbed wire fence near the dirt road. Following the footprints another fifteen minutes, the route took us through a “closed” bridge (see photo), then curved left sharply through thick brush & mud, and then finally opened up at Brauerfoss.
Since it’s a little hidden, it’s not very popular among the throngs of tourists you end up elbow-to-elbow with at most other waterfalls. Brauerfoss was the only waterfall we went to where we had the whole place to ourselves, which meant we could hang out there and relax a bit.
Hike in Landmannalauger
The best hike I took in Iceland was in Landmannalauger, a large national park in the middle of the country. It’s not coastal, but it’s goddamned beautiful. Pockets of steam rise from green mossy patches, accented by opal volcanic dirt, while herds of sheep wander through the park cautiously eyeing your trajectory as you hike alongside them.
If you want to drive here, you have to have a four-wheel-drive vehicle (they call them 4x4 cars in Iceland). They’re more expensive to rent than the 2-wheel-drive alternatives, but it’s absolutely required to get up there. Living in Colorado has made me accustomed to driving off-road or on dirt, and the first couple hours of the drive lull you into a sense of security, but as you approach the park, the terrain gets really gnarly, and the 4x4 requirement begins to make sense.
If you’re not planning on renting a car, there are bus tours that run up there as well. Since we drove ourselves, I can’t vouch for it, but I saw a lot of people up there arriving via bus, so it’s definitely a popular option.
The terrain’s amazingly multi-colored. In one hike you’ll see vibrant green moss coating onyx-black rock, next to stripped-red mountains who’s valleys burst with volcanic steam. It’s unique look is a result of a volcanic eruption that left moss to thrive in the lava fields that were left behind.
We spent about four hours hiking a six-mile trail. A lot of people there were backpacking in. If we had even more time, we would have loved to hike from hut-to-hut starting from the park and ending in Þórsmörk (a four-day trip).
One thing I wish we had time for was taking a dip in the hot spring that’s near the park entrance. We didn’t happen to get in, but it looked great, albeit a little small (maybe good for fifteen people total).
Hidden hot spring: Seljavallalaug
Tucked in the south coast of the island, Seljallalaug is an awesome out-of-the-way spot that’s really easy to find. After parking right off the highway, we hiked along a gradually inclining trail about fifteen minutes. After rounding one final corner, the valley opens up with the hot spring smack-dab in the middle.
It was busy, but not over-crowded. It was really fun to just sit there and watch the sheep wander down the valley on the other side of the creek.
The abandoned DC plane on Sólheimasandur
If you do any research on social media, you’ll probably see this image of a downed cargo plane on a black sand beach. In the 70’s, a United States DC aircraft ran out of fuel and crash landed on the beach. Fortunately, everyone in that plane survived. Apparently, the pilot later realized he’d accidentally switched over to the wrong fuel tank.
Visitors are free to climb on the plane, and explore inside it.
It’s a striking view, and one that was once much easier to get to. A few years ago, there was a dirt road leading up to the plane crash, but now you have to hoof it about two miles to reach the site from the parking lot. The hike is absolutely flat, and really easy, but honestly really boring.
A two-mile hike doesn’t seem like much at all, but I was not expecting the utter monotony this hike entails. Just flat black rocks, as far as the eye can see, in every direction. It felt peaceful for the first leg, then sort of cool in a indie-arthouse movie kind of way, and then thoroughly boring.
We did it one night after dinner (the picture on the right was taken around 9pm) and although it’s a good photo opp, I’m not sure I’d do it again.
Hike up a glacier
The glacier that tops Iceland covers about 11% of the island, and has three main “tongues” where the ice flows from the highest point in the center out to the open ocean. These tongues constantly change throughout the year as they roll out to sea and churn up the volcanic dirt underneath.
You might recognize the terrain from the movies. Our guides told us the roads leading in to the glacier were made when the The Dark Knight shot there. They, apparently, employed the guides for the entire season as “a security of sorts” — which was mostly aimed at keeping crowds of tourist off the glacier while they filmed.
It’s also featured in Interstellar. Christopher Nolan really has a thing for glaciers.
Explore the Glacier Lagoon in a boat
As the glacier melts through the summer, the tongues roll out to the sea, creating spectacular floating icebergs in the brackish lagoon of Jökulsárlón. Tour companies man boat expeditions into the lagoon and circle around the giant ice, giving you great photo ops.
There’s two kinds of boat tours: a shorter, slower tour in an amphibious pontoon boat and a longer tour in a speed boat. We did both.
The pontoon is a WWII-era boat which holds about fifteen people, and moves very slowly. Because of the speed, it doesn’t go very deep into the lagoon, and circles a few large icebergs near the parking lot.
The second tour we took was much cooler. The speed boat allows the groups to go much further into the lagoon, close to the edge of the glacier, which is (partly) “The Wall” in Game of Thrones. Also you get to wear super fucking awesome outfits (see below).
Explore the Diamond Beach
As the ice makes its way out to sea, chunks of it get stranded along the beach as the tide rises and falls. The result is a black sand beach with huge chunk of blue/white ice. If you’re already in the area, you might as well walk through the beach and check it out.
That’s a recap of our time in Iceland, and some of my favorite things we saw, ate, and explored. Boom!