The land of fire and ice!
This is my un-definitive guide to Iceland by car in early summer. Do you have a layover, a couple friends, and a drivers license? Then get your cameras and faces ready for some jaw dropping scenery in the most beautiful place on the planet. Finally returning after two years, this time I am armed with two best friends, an upgraded rental, and a mind blowing itinerary. Iceland isn’t so hard to figure out as there is basically one road, budget shopping (bonus supermarkets), and everything else is on the Internet (from accommodations to itineraries). Therefore this is a quick and dirty guide to hitting and quitting Iceland from my recent perspective to highlight some of the better hidden gems and to show off the beautiful scenery in photos.
Bring waterproof and warm clothing as the weather is unpredictable, accommodation is 30-40 a night, spend a few more dollars on a bigger car while getting a good deal, and pack lots of picnics.
The capital is colorful, slightly expensive, and a fun time. After doing the few local landmarks such as the church and Viking sculpture either prepare for a long first day or go out and meet some locals. They are very friendly and often invite you home.
Secret hot spring alert: Grotta Hot Pot
A cute little puddle of a hot spring. Super tiny, but I managed to fit with two people. It feels funny being in such a small space, but the view is huge. Locals even patted me on the back for stripping down in the cold weather.
This is the big one. Get some sleep unless you are a train wreck of awesomeness like my buddy Shane and stay out all night with locals in Reykjavik.
Now Iceland’s second tallest waterfall and a small adventure in itself. Strolling up the beautiful canyon you get to descend trough a tiny cave and cross a river before hiking up to the lookout point. A great place to hit first thing in the morning and even spend half a day doing the whole loop around the lake at the top.
Secret hot spring: Geothermal Hot Tub
This one was given to me by a local and it is obscure. You can drive there easy enough and with a short walk arrive, but it is hit or miss. The water is bubbling out of the earth no doubt, but it requires the piping to be working to fill the tub. On my first visit it was great, on the second the pipes were not in order, so a bust. The scenery is worth the trip and if you can soak, all the better.
The Golden Circle
This is the must see highlight from Reykjavik, whether you take the tour for 1 day or rent a car. It includes the double waterfall Gullfoss, the timely Geyser, and Thingvellir national park where the tectonic plates are separating. There is amazing history as well as shopping.
Hotspring alert: Gamle Laugin in Flúðir
Not so secret but definitely hidden and also not free. You can tour the site which is quite beautiful and see more bubbling water and bright pools coming out of the earth without paying to soak. 20$ to soak
Attraction alert: Flúðir
Tour one of Iceland’s tomato hothouses and enjoy some culture and delicious tomato soup and sandwiches.
Continuing on because you are gung-ho adventurers, we head south to the coast on our way to Vik for our wonderful Kosy beds.
Staring at you right off the main road is this spectacular waterfall. It’s loud, it’s wet, you can walk behind it! The mist is what gets you so wrap up in your waterproof gear. Time this for sunset or sunrise and you are going to get spectacular photos. Actually if the sun is shining at all you will be blown away.
You are welcome to find other nearby accommodations or booking well in advance you can stay at the lovely Kosy Vik. A renovated 100 year old hospital with two modern and comfortable rooms in the bottom floor and a wonderfully helpful host. You will be receiving a special Icelandic culinary experience here generally so be prepared. (It’s the classic fermented shark and brennivins shot, bottoms up!)
The sun doesn’t really go down so if you wandered around the small town or black sand beach you could enjoy some unwinding time. You might also have spent three days getting this much excitement into your schedule and you will be rewarded tomorrow again.
Southern Iceland Area
We start our day off by backtracking actually. If you find different accommodation then you can save some driving.
Black sand beaches of Vik
Located right around the corner is black beach. From the black sand to the unique lava rock hexagonal formations, a trip to this beach is a must. Memory making photo sessions are a quick jot from the parking lot. Easily the best beach we visited.
Just further up the coast from black beach. Known for its unique elephant shaped rock formation and the many puffins. it’s a wonderful place to visit for various reasons or a picnic spot.
Going back further still is the Myrdalsjokill Glacier. You can play around its outskirts, hire a guide and gear, or bring your own ice cleats and take a stroll. This glacier can also be hiked over with a visit to Eyjafjallajökull from the next location (although I did not personally accomplish this, just some friends of mine).
This wide waterfall is a beauty. With stairs to the top and an impressive view this is also a great place to picnic. Make sure to stop halfway up and visit the fuzzy trolls. You can also start or end a 2-3 day hike into Iceland crossing over the earlier glacier and visiting the peak of Eyjafjallajökull volcano. You also get to scope or hike through landmanlagur which is certainly off the beaten track and mesmerizing.
Crashed DC-3 plane
Have an extra hour? Drive down to a crashed DC-3 and make up your own stories for friends at home. You don’t need a 4×4 to reach here, just some good eye sight to spot the entrance sign which is tiny. Drive slowly and stay in the markers and you will be fine.
Hot spring alert: Seljavallalaug
The pool at the end of the canyon is easily accessible and frequented by many locals and travelers. The water isn’t very hot except by the vent so be aware of this. The scenery is beautiful and the changing rooms are messy, but at least there are rooms to change in. The hike is fun even if you don’t take a dip.
These attractions are some of the most enjoyable of Iceland so take your time in the area before flying off east into your adventure with a hitchhiker towards skaftafell.
Visit another glacier and svartifoss waterfall which is the inspiration for the Reykjavik church.
Scoot over to the most amazing spot in all of Iceland and a personal item on my bucket list Jokulsarlon Lagoon. Ive always wanted to see icebergs on a black sand beach with the waves coming in and out. I was not disappointed nor will you be. Take some time for photographs.
Spend the night at the quaint farmhouse Stafafell. Lovely sheep and a small cemetery compliment the large kitchen and many couches of this guesthouse. It was a nice place to rest after such a long day.
Despite the amazing scenery from the car and the many fjords, I didn’t see much else in the east worth mentioning. I know there is much more, but southern Iceland seems positively packed comparatively.
The third highest waterfall in Iceland and walking up to it feels like walking through a fairy glade. Best when the sun is out, the red rock formations from the Iron cooling in hot magma are impressive.
This was certainly the highlight of eastern Iceland. Driving over the snow line and down into a beautiful fjord was breathtaking. Spend the evening in this quaint town and book a room at Nordursild (north marina) Guesthouse. The rooms are smaller but clean and incredibly comfortable. The main room of this old converted dock house is full of spectacular nautical furniture and artifacts.
It snowed on us! Driving over the black wastelands of north eastern Iceland the winds picked up and so did the weather. We arrived at a geothermal plant with bubbling gasses spewing from the earth where just yesterday there was a lake, there is now ice skating. We were freezing so much we had to move on quickly.
Haverarond mud pits
Just across the road literally from the geothermal plant is this wonderful place that looks like mars. Bubbling mud, white hot steam, tourists walking around. Whats not to love?
This is a must stop on the road trip. The lake is absolutely beautiful whether you camp out here or just take a picnic. The only accommodation that was available for us was a nice little room at a working farm just past the lake: Guesthouse Stöng. Beautiful property, they serve their own homemade meats and salamis for breakfast, and have hot tubs to use.
There are so many things to do around the lake just take a look (Hverfjall hike for instance), but not to be missed is Grjótagjá. This underground hot spring grotto is mesmerizing and beautiful. There is a wonderful splitting of the earth here you can walk along, and if you ignore the signs and go to the little cave next door (to the left), you can get away with some bathing.
Myvatn Nature Baths
The blue lagoon of the north! Spend a few hours in this milky blue hot spring and watch the weather move across the landscape. Rejuvenating waters and saunas for the weary traveler. By this point you certainly need a break as too much driving and beauty can wear you out.
*Pro tip: Tell them you are a student and save 10$, they dont check either way we noticed.
We back tracked due to weather, trying to land a good time at Europe’s most powerful waterfall, dettifoss. There are two roads to get there, east and west. West certainly has a better view and walking around, but if you are going north then the road might not be open all the way and you will have to drive a long way around up the east road. Check first with the government website. We ended up driving on both, but it was still worth the drive.
The beautiful city of the north. After driving around beautiful stretches of the north coast we arrived in town and found a room at the backpackers hostel because they are in the middle of downtown (which happens to be one short road in length) and because we were hoping to land a couchsurfing host (which worked out the next day). The houses are quaint and worth a few hours of walking around, and the nightlife is bubbly since the sun is up all night. We couldn’t find any locals to tell us what fun there was other than drinking and winter sports, so we did just that.
Here we had to say goodbye to our outrageous friend J’Lynn at the little airport. The laughs were wonderful.
Hot spring alert: Grettislaug
The hot springs of legend! This is worth the drive to visit. Two quaint and surprisingly hot hot springs are well maintained. With rising mountains and the black sea for a view, this was the highlight of our last day. We jumped into the freezing north sea a few times, building up to 10 seconds and then went to warm up in the pools. Our version of the polar plunge.
I may have been a little over zealous for our last day, driving from Akureyri to Reykjavik, but we spent an extra day in the north so this is what was left to us. I wanted to see Snaefellsnes peninsula for its beauty and a particular photo opportunity. However it was rainy and overcast. Even still it was beautiful. We crossed a mountain obscured in cloud and couldn’t see 5 feet in front of us. For the adventurer with more time, grab the Snaefellsnes map from the tourist office and visit some black beaches and small towns, I would make this a priority visit on my next tour.
We got back to Reykjavik in the evening and spent some time in a cafe bar with locals. It was the eve of summer solstice and the city was alive with revelers. We enjoyed the mayhem in the streets till late and then made our way to the airport for an early departure. No damage to the rental and with a huge sigh relaxed into a comfortable seat at the airport. We could have slept, but as our adventures were about to go in different directions we spent the time with each other, and all the beauty of Iceland. Its amazing to think that by the end we could barely enjoy one more perfect waterfall, or another picturesque mountain. It just goes to show Iceland can be too much of a good thing for one visit, so plan a second trip, you wont be disappointed.