Your complete Iceland travel guide – What you NEED to know before you go
Iceland is the Beyoncé of countries – naturally blessed.
As two people who have travelled to over 70 countries between us, Maggie and I get asked all the time what our favourite country is. It’s a difficult question to answer, but the one place that we can undeniably say is the best country we’ve ever visited is Iceland. With nature at its untouched best, some of the friendliest locals you’ll ever encounter and activities galore; Iceland is the complete package.
Disclaimer: I can’t promise that after reading our Iceland travel guide you won’t immediately want to book a flight straight to what is probably the most magical country on Earth.
Table of Contents
Why you should go
If you’re even remotely interested in nature then Iceland could be your new favourite country. It is kind of like nature on steroids – only not because it’s so raw and untouched. Plus there are the showstopping Northern Lights. Whatever your reason for going, you’re in for a real treat.
Before you get too excited thinking of this ancient Viking paradise, I’m going to slightly burst your bubble. Iceland is not that old. The earliest recorded settlement goes back to 870AD (which for Europe is like, yesterday). However, like all great things in history, important people who write important leather-bound books dispute this fact.
Despite being such an infant in European terms, Iceland can claim the world’s oldest existing parliament, Althing (or AlÞingi in Icelandic – yes they have a cool hybrid letter P which is pronounced like an English ‘th’). It dates back to 930AD. For the majority of the next 1000 years, the Norwegians and the Danes controlled Iceland until it was granted complete independence in 1944.
Today, Iceland is absolutely thriving as a progressive European nation. It survived a debilitating banking crisis that hit in 2008 and now draw masses of travellers every year.
Because of Iceland’s isolated nature and relatively small population (around 330,000) there is a mobile app designed to prevent incest by alerting users if they are related to a potential lover when they bump phones together. It’s been parodied as a ‘reverse Tinder’ app, but Íslendingabók (The Book of Icelanders) is actually pretty clever. It uses a genealogical database to compare the users’ family lines and informs them if there is a genetic connection, and how closely the two are related.
Also, a large percentage of Icelanders believe in the existence of elves. We can’t be sure of the accurate statistics but let’s just say it’s enough for there to have been several news stories of construction sites that were magically disrupted by malfunctioning equipment. The reason behind these mysterious malfunctions was due to the disturbance of elf communities which were not consulted before construction began. In such a scenario, an elf consultant gets involved to resolve the dispute and get the approval of the elves so construction can resume. Not a joke – I told you Iceland was magical!
Know before you go
Unfortunately, the rumours are true. Iceland is incredibly expensive. Now, normally I would advise against auctioning off superfluous internal organs on the black market, but in this case I’ll make an exception. Even if you have to sell a kidney to get there, your other kidney will really, really enjoy this magnificent country.
To ease the burden on your wallet, start saving well and truly in advance for any trip to Iceland. For tips on how to save money while you travel read our money-saving budget travel guide post. The currency is the Icelandic Krona or ISK, and it can be a little tricky to convert. At the time of writing, 1000 ISK was equivalent to around $12 AUD/$9.50 USD/ £7.30 GBP/$13 CAD/€8.60 EUR/$13.50 NZD. I think it’s easiest to work in thousands when it comes to ISK but it really comes down to personal preference. For the rest of this Iceland travel guide, I’ll use Australian Dollars and Icelandic Krona for ease of understanding.
There are ATMs throughout the country if you are planning on using a travel card, or if you want to take a different currency it would be easiest to bring Euro or British Pound and then change it over at a money exchange. Truthfully, I didn’t use cash very often, as my travel card was accepted virtually everywhere but it was still good to have for small purchases and markets.
Alcohol is crazy expensive in Iceland. You might notice the locals who are returning home, flock to the duty free section at the airport and bulk buy their booze. This is a great idea if you plan on having a few drinks at any point on your holiday here.
If you’re currently stumbling over an Icelandic phrasebook (seriously good fun after a few red wines) then don’t worry, Icelanders almost all speak very good English. The language is quite unique and the locals will appreciate you making the effort though if you do try to speak it.
Will it be cold? Depending on the time of year you go, generally the answer is still going to be yes. The whole of Iceland is incredibly close to the Arctic Circle (in fact, Grimsey Island, also part of Iceland, sits directly on the border of it) and can experience 4 seasons in a day, so no matter when you’re planning to visit, pack some warm clothing to be on the safe side and your bathers too, because you just never know with Iceland.
If you’re one of those people (like me) who enjoys getting a feel for the local music before arriving, Iceland has a pretty talented bunch of artists to get you excited about your trip. Asgeir is my personal favourite, he has an incredible album called ‘In the Silence’ and his voice is unbelievable. Of Monsters and Men is probably the most popular band to come out of Iceland recently (of ‘Little Talks’ fame) and then there’s Sigur Ros and Emiliana Torrini too. If they don’t get you pumped for your trip there’s always Björk!
Best time to visit
The answer to this really depends on what you want to see. The summer months are June to September, which is the best time of year to visit if you want to see the whole country. Iceland is a brilliant road trip destination and to make it easy, it is accessible via one giant ring road. This road can become treacherous in the winter months though and many roads actually are completely closed for safety reasons. So stick to summer if you plan on road tripping and especially if camping is on your agenda.
Another benefit of visiting Iceland during summer is extra long hours of daylight given how far north the country is. The sun barely even goes down! You can smash through the bucket list with ease and complete simple trips like the Golden Circle (more on this below) at an easy pace in one day. For this reason, you will pay a premium for accommodation and day tours, as this is the peak season.
Summer also presents itself as a great time for waterfall lovers like myself (seriously fighting the urge to reference TLC here… you can just hum to yourself) as the peak temperatures result in melting ice and therefore increased water flow. Expect daily maximums around 20 degrees Celsius (68 F).
Winter is a different experience altogether. Less hours of daylight can mean you might need to split up your sightseeing over several days. However, it does grant you a much higher chance of seeing the breathtaking aurora borealis or ‘Northern Lights’. Accommodation and tours are just as expensive in winter as Iceland experiences a second peak for the year during December through to February.
Winter can be a little tough to get around due to icy roads and the potential for heavy dumps of snow. For this reason, an alternative time to visit is between summer and winter during the shoulder season. I’m talking October and November – which is exactly the time that I visited.
This 2-month period was perfect for a few reasons. For starters, it was still relatively sunny most days, so despite the reduced hours of sunlight we had quite clear weather. We chose the first week of November because it is typically the first time that the ice caves in the Vatnajökull Glacier are formed enough for visitors to safely climb into. We were also lucky enough to see the Northern Lights in Reykjavik on 3 out of the 7 nights we stayed due to the cooling weather too. That said, we had snow on our last 2 days also and the roads started to get a little bit icy by the time we left the country.
How to get there
Surprise, surprise, to get to Iceland you will have to fly. The shortest direct international flight you can take to get there is from Aberdeen (Scotland) and the longest is from Los Angeles (USA). Although there is a small airport in the capital, all international flights will take you to Keflavik Airport, which is about 45 minutes away from Reykjavik. For a list of cities from which you can get a direct flight to Keflavik Airport check out this handy resource from Kayak here.
As far as airlines go, there are a number of different choices with the local Icelandair being the most popular. If you are flying between North America and Europe and using Icelandair you will be pleased to know that you can do a free stopover for up to 7 days in Iceland for no additional cost. This is a pretty genius move by the national airline as it allows visitors to turn their stopover destination into a holiday itself.
Alternatively, European low-cost airlines are now frequenting Iceland and some of the cheapest include WOW Air, Easyjet and Wizz Air. Personally, we used Wizz Air and flew from Gdansk, Poland. This worked out great as we stayed there for 4 days also and got to see a city we generally wouldn’t have gone out of our way to travel to. To search for these yourself, check out Momondo. It’s one of our favourite sites to use along with Skyscanner as they both allow you to see the dates surrounding the ones you’ve selected so you can see cheaper alternatives for your departure and return dates.
If you are planning on flying from the UK, there are a number of package deals that you can take advantage of which will also include accommodation and Northern Lights tours – generally, these are 3 or 4 night packages and sometimes they can be great value. It’s always good practice to price up the accommodation, flights and tours individually to ensure you are getting a good deal here too.
Where to stay
As with just about everything in Iceland, accommodation is very expensive. Sensing a trend here yet?
The vast majority of travellers base themselves in Reykjavik and will do day trips (whether organized or self-drive) around the country. Alternatively, others choose to do a drive around the ring road and stay in small towns along the way. This is certainly possible but it is worth planning ahead as these small town accommodations fill up quickly during the peak seasons and there is a very limited selection to choose from.
You have 4 main choices when choosing accommodation in Iceland: hotels, hostels, Airbnb and housesitting. Hotels are the priciest option but also the most plentiful. To put this into perspective, on Booking.com there are a little over 250 hotels listed in Reykjavik (based on this example search of a double room for a 1 week stay in November) and 160 of those hotels are priced at over $290 AUD per night! There are 55 in the $220-290 AUD bracket and the rest of course are cheaper. Now you can see what I mean about selling a kidney to travel here. To do your own Booking.com search click here.
Hostel-wise, Hostelworld gives us a total of 18 hostels to choose from; with prices ranging from $40-50 AUD a night in the 10+ bed dorm rooms, up to $80-120 AUD per night (OUCH!) in the smaller 4-6 bed dorms. Private rooms in these hostels range from $80 AUD for a cheap single room up to $250 AUD for a double room. One of them is literally $430 per night for a double room…. in a hostel.
If you’re still reading, take a deep breath.
We’re getting to the cheaper stuff now. Airbnb presents great value for what is otherwise a ridiculously expensive country to rest your head at night. Personally, Maggie and I are huge fans of Airbnb and it’s usually our go-to option when travelling for anywhere 3 days or more. The average place of an Airbnb ‘entire home’ (you can opt for shared rooms or private rooms too) is $224 per night in Reykjavik, but that average includes the high-end apartments and homes that we aren’t interested in.
Refining our search (Airbnb is very customisable, luckily) we have come to find over 300 properties in the heart of Reykjavik with prices between $65 and $145 AUD per night – now we’re talking. These places vary from apartments to houses and have as many as 4 beds. Whether you are travelling as a solo traveller, a couple or family or group of friends, Airbnb can therefore slash your accommodation expense to very little when shared amongst a group. Consider that having access to a kitchen means you won’t need to head out for 3 meals a day either. If you are new to Airbnb you can use our discount link to get $50 AUD off of your first Airbnb stay too.
The final option we’ll cover here is housesitting. We are avid housesitters and for any trip that is 1 week or longer generally we will look for housesits; as it can reduce our accommodation expense to nearly zero. You still need to pay a subscription fee to the website for joining as a potential housesitter but it is usually only around $60 AUD. Iceland is very hard to line up a housesit for due to the small population and the high competition when a house does get listed. For example, one of the most popular websites to discover housesits is TrustedHousesitters.com and currently there is only one listing there. Keep it in mind but the chances of the dates and availability lining up with your plans are minimal.
Alternatives to what we have mentioned here include camping, hiring a campervan (not as cheap as you’d hope) or Couchsurfing. Icelanders are big on Couchsurfing as there are some 5000+ hosts listed on the website but they do get snapped up really quickly. Check our post on both Couchsurfing and Airbnb for advice on how to be an awesome guest.
The good news: Reykjavik is small enough for you to walk around the city without the need for a car or public transport. The bad news: for everywhere else – you’ll need to either drive yourself or book a tour. Public transport options are few and far between, even more difficult during the winter months. Depending on the time of year and your own comfort in driving around a foreign country, hiring a car and driving yourself is by far the superior option.
When hiring a car, it pays to shop around. We love using RentalCars.com as a way of searching all the major car rental companies at once, plus the prices there are usually very competitive. Before booking you’ll need to consider how much distance you’ll be covering and where to pick the car up. The vast majority of people will collect from the Keflavik International Airport, which is what I’d recommend also. It saves you paying for an expensive bus ride into town to collect a car, plus it is the most popular place to collect, so you’ll have a wider variety of cars to choose from.
On RentalCars.com the cheapest car you can get is a Hyundai i10 which costs $375 AUD for a 7 day rental, or $53 AUD per day. This covers Avis, Thrifty, Europcar, Sixt and other smaller local companies too. For some reason, Budget and Hertz don’t allow Icelandic bookings through the RentalCars.com website (though they do for other countries) and Budget comes in around the $400 AUD per week mark for their small car offerings too.
A great local alternative to this is SADCars.com which, despite its misleading name, actually makes for a pretty happy roadtrip. SADCars has a Toyota Yaris as their cheapest offering coming in at a very affordable $315 AUD for 7-day rental ($45 AUD per day, with unlimited kilometres) or if you pay in advance it’s even cheaper at $265 AUD for the week! Awesome value and SADCars come with fairly good peer reviews too.
One thing you will want to check out is if the car comes with a spare tyre. In one of those ridiculous moments where Captain Hindsight kicks you right in the groin – we didn’t check this and copped a very flat tire about 15 minutes away from our ice-caving adventure… which happened to be nearly 5 hours away from Reykjavik. Luckily, we had phone reception and the tour company came to pick us up from the side of the road near the magnificent Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon. The car company had to send someone out to fix our busted tire as they had only provided a puncture repair kit instead of an actual spare tire. Our puncture wasn’t exactly repairable. It all worked out in the end but it is worth finding out.
While car hire is the most cost-effective and easiest way of getting around the country, if you’re travelling solo you might feel more comfortable booking group tours. I’ll get to some of these below but keep in mind that these are usually with 30+ other people and time at each destination is limited. If you find some like-minded cool people you don’t mind spending some time with at your hostel then splitting the cost of a car for a few days is a great option. Petrol is expensive as you’d expect, but again sharing the cost of this with a few friends makes it much more manageable.
One final thing to consider is Iceland’s F-roads. An ‘F-road’ is generally suitable only for off-road vehicles like four-wheel drives (4x4) and rental companies will strictly enforce whether the car you are renting from them is suitable for 4x4 driving or not. These highland roads can be dangerous to drive and are mostly closed during winter. It’s important to check the safety of the road you are planning to travel on by using www.road.is, which has updated information on closures, webcams and weather-affected roads. It is illegal to drive off of these F-road tracks and you can even face jail time for this! This country is serious about protecting its nature.
Things to do – Reykjavik
It wouldn’t be an Iceland travel guide without plenty of things to do. The heart of Reykjavik may be fairly small, but it is a quaint and pretty capital city that is well worth exploring. You can easily see the main sights within a day, or even half a day if pressed for time.
CityWalk ‘Free’ Walking Tour
Now I’m a bit of a history and culture nerd, so one of the first things I usually do when arriving in a new city is jump on a walking tour. CityWalk is the top-rated company according to TripAdvisor and with over 2500+ 5 star reviews you can rest assured that they consistently do a great job. The tour goes for 2 hours and it is an easy paced walk around the main sights of town but with a lot of interesting information. They have a few different departure times each day and you MUST book through the CityWalk website (you can’t just turn up unannounced) and while it is listed as a free walking tour the guide will simply ask for a tip at the end depending on what you think the tour is worth. They do a fantastic job so don’t be that cheap and disappear at the end. They also have 2 paid tours: a pub crawl and a ‘Walk the Crash’ tour taking you through the Icelandic financial crash of 2008.
Cost: Tip what you think the tour is worth
Time: 2 hours
Like basically every other European capital city, Reykjavik has a major church which doubles as a tourist attraction. Hallgrímskirkja (good luck with the pronunciation) is architecturally very unique. The exterior resembles the basalt columns you’ll find on a visit to Reynisfjara Beach in Vik (more on this below). If you like climbing things, you can visit the top of the belltower for a small fee and the view is fantastic.
Cost: Free, but the tower entry is 900 ISK
Time: 30 minutes
Icelanders love thermal pools and there are plenty to choose from in Reykjavik. It is where the locals go to socialize and gossip, the same way you would visit the pub or a coffee shop anywhere else in the world. All of them have brilliant long and difficult-to-pronounce names like Sundlaug Seltjarnarness, Vesturbæjarlaug, Laugardalslaug and Sundhöll Reykjavíkur. Keeping an open mind is essential as many pools operate with a no-clothes policy. A naked shower with soap is a must according to Icelandic pool etiquette and of course no peeking or peeing when you’re in the pools.
Cost: Varies – but one of the few inexpensive activities in Iceland
Time: As long as you want!
Other points of interest
The Harpa Concert Hall and the Sun Voyager sculpture are also worth seeing. You don’t need to spend much time at either but they make for good photos and are particularly easy on the eye if you’re a fan of architecture or design. The Old Harbour is definitely worth walking around and there are number of good restaurants in the area, plus the Kolaportid Market is a great place to go shopping and try some local delicacies.
Things to do – Outside Reykjavik
Probably the most famous thermal pool in the world, the Blue Lagoon is located 20 minutes from Keflavik International Airport or about 50 minutes from Reykjavik. For this reason, it’s popular as a final stop on the way back to the airport from Reykjavik – a perfect place to relax before a potentially long flight. It’s far more expensive than the local pools and you won’t find too many Icelanders there due to its price and remote location. Despite that, it’s freaking unbelievably beautiful. Light blue water contrasting against this otherworldly black rock that looks like it’s freshly cooled lava – it’s worth a visit. Plus there’s a bar inside the lagoon so you never have to leave the thermal water – what more could you want! Pre-booking your ticket online is a must.
Cost: Starts from 5400 ISK per person up to 9500 ISK for the premium package
Time: 2 hours is usually enough but you can stay as long as you want.
The Golden Circle is a trio of nature’s delights easily visited during a daylong journey. The 300km round-trip includes the Þingvellir National Park, Haukadular geysers and the Gullfoss waterfall. It is easy driving and well-signposted too. Þingvellir (or ‘Thingvellir’) is a logical first stop and a beautiful introduction to the nature of Iceland. Geology has never rocked so much as it does here, where you can see the meeting of two tectonic plates. Haukadular is home to the famous Strokkur and Geysir geysers (the word ‘geyser’ comes from Icelandic) and luckily Strokkur erupts every 10 minutes or so. It makes for some impressive photo opportunities and you can laugh at the people who get a little too close and receive a free shower of hot water. Finally, there’s the Gullfoss waterfall – as powerful as it is picturesque. As a bonus you could also squeeze in the Kerið Crater Lake and the Faxi waterfall without really altering your route too much.
Cost: Free to self-drive, tours start from 11000 ISK
Time: 6-9 hours depending on time spent at each location and stops
Ice caves of Vatnajökull Glacier
In case you were wondering what my favourite thing to do in Iceland was, this is it. I researched heavily before my trip and spent hours looking at different ice cave activities and settled upon Glacier Adventure’s Ice Cave tour, which turned out to be AMAZING. It is only available from November onwards to March due to the cold temperatures needed to form an ice cave with enough stability to climb into. You’ll need to stay locally the night before (the closest town is called Hali), as the drive is around 5 hours from Reykjavik and not entirely smart to do in one long stretch on the day. The climb is great fun but you need to be willing to get a bit physical in order to arrive in the main cave in one piece. You also get to wear crampons, which is cool. Can’t recommend this highly enough!
Cost: 34,500 ISK with Glacier Adventure (other companies do operate similar tours too)
Time: Between 3.5 and 6 hours depending on group size and conditions
Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon
Located near the Vatnajökull Glacier, the Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon is one of Iceland’s most spectacular sights. If watching huge chunks of ice floating majestically though a lagoon is your thing then you’ll definitely want to visit Jökulsárlón. It’s one of the few places on earth you can also see said chunks of ice washed up on the Jökulsárlón beach – basically a photographer’s dream. You can see this spectacle for free (thanks Mother Nature) but there are boat tours with Glacier Lagoon (inventive company name, I know) that take you into the lagoon as well. You can choose an amphibian car/boat hybrid or a little zodiac boat for a more intimate experience. Tours operate from May – October.
Cost: Amphibian 5500 ISK, Zodiac 9500 ISK
Time: 30 – 45 minutes, however note the 5-hour drive from Reykjavik
Reynisfjara Beach and Vik
Another string to the awesome bow of Iceland’s nature repertoire is Reynisfjara Beach, home to black sand and spectacular basalt columns. At low tide there is also access to Halsanefshellir Cave, where the basalt columns have been eroded to form a geologist’s dream. The beach is free to access but you do have to be mindful of the strong waves and unpredictable nature of the tide here. Nearby, the tiny town of Vik is a pleasant place to stop and have a coffee, although there is not a whole lot to see or do. There is a quaint church on the hill, which is a great place to take a photo. It’s a little over 2 hours from Reykjavik (180 kilometres) to Vik, and Reynisfjara is only 10 minutes away from Vik.
Cost: Free, however without a car a tour will set you back around 13000 ISK to do the entire south coast on a day trip from Reykjavik
Time: Entire day if including waterfalls on the way and returning to Reykjavik
Silfra Fissure Diving
One that still sits on my to-do list is diving the Silfra Fissure, in Þingvellir National Park. Imagine water visibility of more than 100 metres, due to its cold temperature (2 degrees Celsius all year round) and the fact that it is filtered through underground lava channels. It’s so pure that you can drink it during your snorkel trip! Another draw card of Silfra is that you are literally diving (or snorkelling) between the Eurasian and North American tectonic continental plates. For scuba divers, the average depth is between 7 and 12 metres, with 18 metres the deepest you can descend to.
Cost: Approximately 16000 ISK and up for snorkelling (depending on the company you choose) and dives start from 40000 ISK
Time: 2-3 hours total, including 30-40 minutes of actual dive/snorkel time
Skogafoss and Seljalandsfoss
The south of Iceland is breathtaking, and one of the features of Iceland’s landscape is its abundance of waterfalls. Two of the stars of the show are Skogafoss and Seljalandsfoss, which are only 25 minutes apart from each other. It’s a 1.5-hour drive to Seljalandsfoss and Skogafoss is 2 hours from Reykjavik, which you can visit en route to Vik and Reynisfjara. Skogafoss is 60 metres tall and visually very impressive, plus if you’re lucky you might see a double-rainbow. Seljalandsfoss is another treat for the eyes, especially because a small trail takes you into the cave behind the waterfall, which makes for some magical photo opportunities too.
Time: 45 – 60 minutes at each waterfall should be enough time
Other Tours and Activities
There are a ridiculous amount of activities and tours to choose from: horse riding (side note: Icelandic horses are very photogenic), helicopter tours, jeep tours, Game of Thrones location tours, whale watching, puffin tours (these little guys are extra cute), glacier climbing, hiking, the list goes on.
One of the most unique reasons that people get so excited about Iceland is the possibility of seeing the Aurora Borealis or ‘Northern Lights’. Now, the one guarantee here is that you can never be completely guaranteed to see the lights. That’s part of their beauty and makes it that much more exciting when you do spot them. You can only hope that you time it right and that nature is kind enough to let you in on a show.
So how does it occur? Without geeking out completely, electrically charged particles from the sun’s atmosphere collide with gaseous particles (like oxygen) in the Earth’s atmosphere and the result is a green luminous gas. Iceland is blessed with being far enough north that this atmospheric event occurs frequently and when the weather is right (that is: cold, cloudless and windless) the Northern Lights dance across the sky.
When is the best time to see the Northern Lights? As well as clear skies, a lack of wind and darkness (no chance in the summer months sorry), you will need the weather to be cold too. From September to April you have a chance of seeing the aurora, but the best time is November to February due to the colder weather. The catch, however, is that the deeper you get into winter, the more wild the weather gets and with cloud cover you aren’t very likely to see the lights. It’s all about everything falling into place.
To give yourself the best chance to see the aurora you have 2 options: hiring a car and chasing the lights yourself or booking one of the many Northern Lights tours. I recommend the car hire of course due to the fact that you can leave on a whim if you get the chance of a sighting, but for those who must go with the organized tour I would strongly suggest booking this for the very first night of your visit. Many tour companies will offer you to take the tour again on the following night for free if you miss out on a sighting – so you’re giving yourself the most time and the best chance to see the aurora.
When doing it ourselves, we used this aurora watch website to keep an eye on the forecast. It not only rates the strength of activity (from 0 to 9, with 9 being the strongest) but shows you the expected level of cloud cover, the time of the sunset and time of darkness. We were fortunate to see the lights on 3 out of 7 nights we spent in Iceland. Our best view was from the Grotta Lighthouse, just far enough outside of Reykjavik so that the city lights didn’t spoil the darkness.
Also worth mentioning is how difficult it can be to take a decent photo of the Northern Lights without the right camera gear. No doubt you’ve seen pretty amazing photos of the aurora, and I can just about guarantee that they were all taken with a tripod and a great camera and lens combo. You’ll need to be dedicated and learn to use your camera’s settings to take the best long-exposure photo possible. If you’re expecting to take epic shots with your smartphone then unfortunately, it’s unlikely to work. We always travel with our Manfrotto tripod and so our photos turned out pretty well. Check out our travel gear here to see what we bring on every trip.
Off the beaten track
There are so many different parts of Iceland that are still very much undiscovered and underrated. Reykjavik and the south of Iceland are the most frequently tread paths in the country, so what’s beyond that?
In the west, there is the Reykjanes Peninsula and the Blue Lagoon. East Iceland is perfect for hiking and given that it is the furthest point from Reykjavik it is also the least visited. Then there is north Iceland, an adventure paradise on the edge of the Arctic Circle where whale watching, ice climbing, skiing and even dog sledding is possible. Plus there’s the picturesque Kirkjufell Mountain and the Snaefellsnes Peninsula too.
One of the commonly searched for hidden gems of Iceland is the DC plane wreck. Sólheimasandur is a black sand beach in the south of Iceland, and in 1973 a US Navy DC-3 plane had to make an emergency landing there after the engines iced up. All the passengers survived thankfully, however the plane did not fare so well and now rests permanently on the beach.
Private vehicles are prohibited from driving to the plane wreck, as it is off-road and the vegetation is protected. A 4-kilometre hike from the main road to the wreck will take about an hour; you have to be dedicated. In winter this hike can be dangerous and the area is known for sandstorms in high wind. There are now tour operators that have permission to drive this path and many will combine it with a south coast tour.
Sample 1-week itinerary
There are countless different ways to spend a week in Iceland, and I’d almost argue that you’d still want to spend a little longer there. We visited in November as I’ve mentioned above, which was great for the Northern Lights and ice caving, but there are some summer activities that we missed out on as a result. For the purpose of this Iceland travel guide we’ll keep it at one week, but feel free to use this as a stepping stone to larger and more expansive itinerary.
You really need to visit at least once in winter and once in summer to get a proper, well-rounded experience. For Europeans and North Americans, if you travel between the continents often you should start using Icelandair and their free stopover option in order to see a little bit of Iceland every time you have the chance. Your bank account might hate you for it, but you’ll be richer for the experience.
Here is an example itinerary based on a 7 day/6 night November visit:
Arrive at the airport, pick up the car rental and drive into Reykjavik to your accommodation. Jump into an afternoon timeslot of CityWalk’s walking tour for an introduction to the city and then head to one of the many brilliant cafes to warm up. Spend the evening on lookout for Northern Lights, or if booking a tour for this, schedule it tonight to give yourself every chance to see them during the week.
An easy day trip to complete on your first full day in Iceland is the Golden Circle. In November this will take you the whole day as you only have until around 5 pm before the fading light starts to make it difficult to see anything else. Ideally you should start with Gullfoss, then to the geysers and finish with Þingvellir National Park, probably because you will find the most to see at Þingvellir. If you do it in the reverse order you risk spending too much time at Þingvellir and rushing through the rest of your day. Keep an eye on the aurora forecast for tonight too!
For something a little off the beaten track, spend the day exploring the Reykjanes Peninsula (south-west of Reykjavik and back in the direction of the airport) or Kirkjufell mountain (north) and the Snaefellsnes Peninsula. The Reykjanes Peninsula is very much underrated and is only an hour’s drive from the capital. Kirkjufell is more of an effort, being almost 2.5 hours north of Reykjavik but the surrounding Snaefellsnes Peninsula will ensure it’s a worthy day trip.
Many people will say this is one of the best drives in Iceland, the road to the south. You’ll need to get up early for this! Seljalandsfoss and Skogafoss waterfalls are first on the agenda (you probably won’t make it without taking photo stops along the way though) and after that it’s over to Reynisfjara Beach and Vik. You’ll spend a bit of time at each enjoying the amazing scenery, but after Vik you’ve got another 2.5 hour drive to get to Hali where you’ll need to stay tonight in order to do the Ice cave tour tomorrow. Total driving time is 5 full hours today (385 kilometres) which can be a real stretch combined with all that sightseeing, plus the fact that the sun goes down early in November. Alternatively you can stay in Vik and drive the last leg early the next morning and take the afternoon ice cave tour. Remember that in winter the roads and the weather are unpredictable.
Depending on how far you got yesterday, you can either take the 9 am or 1 pm ice cave tour today (though it must be pre-booked well in advance). Keep in mind the tour can go for up to 6 hours, so the morning tour is strongly recommended! After the ice tour if you feel up to it and you can fit it in, take a boat trip on the Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon, or simply drive to one of the little car parks nearby and enjoy the view. Then comes the long drive back to Reykjavik.
After an exhausting few days of bulk driving, this is your last full day of leisure in this amazing country. Though I didn’t manage to do this personally, if I had my time again I would spend it snorkeling the Silfra Fissure. The water is going to be freezing cold all year anyway, so there’s no reason not to do this in winter. Many tour companies will offer you a pick-up service from Reykjavik, which you may take up if you’re sick of driving by now, but taking the car is the better option as Silfra is part of Þingvellir National Park so you can take time after to see more of it. Spend the evening exploring more of Reykjavik and defrosting your body, plus looking out for the aurora on your last night.
Any day you’re leaving Iceland is going to be a sad one, but to make it all better we’ve saved one of the best (the Blue Lagoon) for last. Depending on the time of your flight you can spend pretty much all day here. Food and drinks aren’t going to be cheap there, but you’re probably used to that by now, right? After an extreme week of sightseeing, driving and falling deeply in love with nature, a visit to the Blue Lagoon is the perfect way to unwind and reflect on your trip. Plus you can spend this time figuring out how you can somehow afford to visit here again as soon as humanly possible – because trust me, you will want to.
This itinerary is not for the faint of heart. It takes into account a lot of big drive days, cramming in as much as possible. That’s the kind of travellers Maggie and I are, (plus we took her awesome parents along for the trip, so having 4 people made it ideal for sharing costs and the driving duties) but it certainly isn’t for everyone. It’s just a starting point to show you what is possible in a whole week if you plan it well.
For digital nomads, freelancers, or anyone who is currently working online: I strongly, strongly advise to pad this itinerary out to 2 weeks so that you have time to get some work done! You will get crazy distracted by the nature and beauty in Iceland and the cafes are cosy beyond belief when it’s cold out.
Eating and drinking
Iceland isn’t perhaps known for its cuisine worldwide. You’re not exactly likely to find an Icelandic restaurant in your hometown – but that doesn’t mean you won’t be pleasantly surprised when you get there.
Being surrounded by the ocean, seafood is king here. Hearty food is what you’d expect from a place where the climate is generally cold for a large portion of the year. Some of the specialties are: smoked lamb, skyr (a hybrid yoghurt/cheese curd), kleinur (Icelandic doughnuts) and fermented shark (try at your own risk).
There are 2 places in Reykjavik I’d recommend as ‘must-try’ experiences. One is the Sægreifinn (Sea Baron) restaurant, famous for its lobster soup, and the other is the famous Icelandic hotdog stand, Bæjarins Beztu, which HuffPost wrote about here. Sea Baron is a classic seafood restaurant and yes; the lobster soup is pretty damn good. I would also get a grilled salmon skewer as well – simply delicious.
Bæjarins Beztu is the tiny red and white hotdog (pyslur in Icelandic) stand in the Old Harbour that probably has a lineup out the front. It’s the cheapest meal you can get in the city and you might remember a photo of Bill Clinton looking pretty happy with himself about to destroy a pyslur from there some years ago. He called them “the best hotdogs in the world”, but we all know his judgment has been a little off in the past.
Now you’ve just gone and Googled “Bill Clinton Icelandic Hotdog”, haven’t you? No judgment.
Drinks wise, Icelanders love their coffee and the café culture in Reykjavik is very popular. The coffee is delicious, but if you want something a bit stronger the signature alcohol is Brennivin, an Icelandic take on schnapps made from fermented potato pulp.
Beer has somewhat of an interesting history in Iceland; it was banned for nearly 75 years and this was only overturned in 1989! My beer of choice was Einstök White Ale, a wheat beer with a hint of orange in there for good measure.
Lastly, Iceland has its own version of orange soda, which is called Appelsin. It’s awesome. They have beer cozy gloves like the one I have on in the photo so you can drink your beer or Appelsin without your hands ever getting cold and without the effort of actually having to hold onto the can, the glove does all the work! Try not to get addicted before you leave.
Some final tips to help extend your budget to round out this Iceland travel guide.
- Bring a packed lunch on long day trips and long drives, you won’t have much choice when stuck at a café attached to a tourist site, and prices won’t be too friendly (though the people always are!)
- Shop at Bonus supermarkets (look for the big yellow and black sign with a pig logo) for the cheapest food in Iceland
- At restaurants, many portions are enormous so it might be enough to split a meal between 2 people
- Alcohol is expensive, as mentioned above, stock up at the airport’s duty free shop
- Tap water is drinkable in Iceland, don’t waste your money by buying bottled water, just bring a drink bottle with you on day trips and fill up as needed
- Aside from the CityWalk walking tour, tipping is not expected in Iceland, but exceptional service can always be rewarded as with anywhere you travel
- Finding some travel buddies and sharing costs is the ultimate way to save money in Iceland – splitting car rental, petrol and accommodation 4 or 5 ways (a full carload) can make hundreds of dollars of difference
- Likewise, Iceland is a great place to travel with your partner, it will help you get more bang for your buck, and even present a neat opportunity to pop the question in a gorgeous landscape!
You made it!
If you’ve enjoyed reading this Iceland travel guide or have cool Iceland recommendations or any questions, please let me know in the comments below! If you want to read about another country, why not check out our Vietnam travel guide?
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Nick is a travel-obsessed Aussie, who in 2011 quit his job in banking and has been working whilst travelling ever since. He enjoys the finer things in life, like eating too much Greek food, being punctual and reading European History for Dummies. He speaks 9 different languages (okay, just the swear words) and credits most of his writing inspiration to coffee, late-night cheese binges and the not-so-occasional mojito. Some say he has too many flamingo shirts in his backpack, but we all know that’s physically impossible. His passion is helping travellers explore every inch of the Earth and become location independent so the journey never has to end.
Hey, we're Nick and Maggie!
Pun-lovers, caffeine enthusiasts, and major travel addicts. We created Living to Roam to teach aspiring digital nomads the skills to achieve their own freedom lifestyle. If you dream of travelling longer, working smarter and living happier, this is YOUR place.