Iceland was simply breathtaking and otherworldly. The views were outstanding in every direction, as well as ever-changing with the elements. The air seemed cleaner, the snow seemed whiter, and the breeze crisper. The sky seemed to have a mind of its own; pouring rain, then blowing sheets of blustery snowflakes, then showing off a dome of bright blue with clean, sharp winds, all within a few minutes. We counted 5 rainbows in one day! The landscape reflected these shifts in the atmosphere too—there’d be snow covered mountains and black sand and green and mustard colored rolling hills and sepia toned cliffs of rock. It was wildly intoxicating to experience. And thought provoking, too, given that the entire country has less residents than the city of Cleveland. We couldn’t wrap our heads around that fact! The houses along Ring Road in the South (the main road that stretches around the perimeter of the country) were some of the most remote and rural I’ve ever seen—magnified by the fact that many were surrounded by looming mountain ranges and the sprawling Atlantic coastline. It was fascinating!
Time and time again, we found ourselves saying, “This is the kind of scene that cannot be captured in a photograph. It just doesn’t do it justice.” The vastness, or the depth, or the tonality, or the sheer size of certain scenes was difficult to comprehend in person let alone communicate through a two dimensional photograph. Pro tip: when someone says that about a place, run, don’t walk.
The other thing that continually fascinated us was this underlying sense of independence and serenity throughout the country. Sharply contrasted with the US and even other places we’ve been in Europe, there weren’t countless signs and guides and trail markers and brochures and gates and rest stops. We were mostly left to fend for ourselves and go where we pleased, but not in an unfriendly/uninvited sort of way—just in a completely unobtrusive sort of way. Even the “popular attractions” felt low-key and underrated, and yet still some of our very favorite things were spots we stumbled upon all by ourselves, never having heard of prior to being there. Perhaps we’re just more accustomed to our tourism heavy and economically driven country, but Iceland felt strangely content to stay untapped (especially considering how much tourism HAS ramped up there, according to what we've read!) It was not uncommon to be driving along Ring Road, catch a glimpse of something magnificent, and go exploring for a couple hundred yards, completely and utterly alone. It was the sort of thing that made you feel tiny and humbled by Mother Nature, for sure.
Keflavik & Reykjavik - 1 day, 1 night
We took a redeye flight from Boston to Keflavik, Iceland. It's a 5.5 hour direct flight. We arrived at 6:00 AM local time, so we headed directly to nearby Blue Lagoon after picking up our rental car. It's important to make reservations for Blue Lagoon, as they allow you to skip the long line. I highly recommend going first thing in the morning when it opens (discussed more below). We then drove the short distance to Reykjavik to settle into our first Airbnb which was a Scandinavian minimalist dream. We spent that day and night exploring the city, eating Icelandic street fare, and drinking equal parts coffee and cocktails (we only took a short nap in the evening). For dinner we had an unbelievable traditional Icelandic meal at Matur og drykkur.
Drive out to Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon - 2 days, 1 night
We set out fairly early to make the longest drive of the trip—about 220 miles east along Ring Road (or Route 1) to our hotel near Glacier Lagoon. We lucked out with beautiful weather that made sightseeing a dream throughout the day. The views were endless and truly surreal at times. We made some crucial stops along the way for breathtaking photos and experiences. The drive took us about seven hours (all the daylight hours, actually) with the stopping. It was my favorite experience of the trip to see the drastic change in weather, geography, terrain, and wildlife along the Southern coast just over the course of a few hours. This is where we pulled off the road to experience our first glacier up close—which was actually a glacier tongue, or the end where bits break off and form floating icebergs—something we did on a whim after randomly spotting it on the map (needless to say we were completely alone besides one other native couple, which we found baffling). It was an unforgettable experience. And true to form, the glacier's exact name and location remains a mystery to us—all we know is we pulled off the road onto a gravel path somewhere around Hof. UPDATE: the glacier tongue is called Svínafellsjökull! And it's apparently where they filmed "north of the wall" in season 7 of Game of Thrones. We finished our drive with a night at Fosshotel Glacier Lagoon, a sleek modern hotel (pickings are very slim around those parts—it's quite remote with very few Airbnb options). We spent the night drinking bourbon on ice in our room before heading to a late dinner at the hotel restaurant. For the second night in a row, we were blown away by the food we were served.
The next morning, after breakfast at the hotel, we headed the short distance to see Diamond Beach and Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon, both of which were unbelievable sights (as was the drive to it, flanked by towering mountains of white snow and ice in the distance). Then we turned around and headed back west on Ring Road towards Vik.
Highlights: sightseeing along Route 1, Skogafoss, the mystery glacier somewhere near Hof!!! (UPDATE: it's called Svínafellsjökull!), dinner at Fosshotel Glacier Lagoon, Diamond Beach, Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon
Drive back to Vik - 1 night, 1 day
Vik is a small (but popular) town known for a few must-see attractions such as its black sand beaches and puffins, its red roofed church on top of the hill, its basalt stacks at Reynisfjara, and its ocean arches at Dryholaey. We experienced our worst weather here (sideways rain and fog), but we just suited up and embraced it as we explored the area. We bought local beers and delicious croissant sandwiches at the little cafe outside Reynisfjara, and took them on our hot spring swimming pool walk (which unfortunately ended in a very cold water swimming pool, but it was well worth it anyway for the views and experience).
Highlights: Reynisfjara, Dryholaey, beaches and puffins right in Vik (if you're lucky enough! we didn't see any), and we heard all good things about Halldorskaffi but decided to cook instead. Also, Seljavallalaug hot spring swimming pool isn't in Vik but we hit it on our way from Vik to the Golden Circle area.
Golden Circle - 2 nights, 1 day
We arrived at our Airbnb near the Golden Circle at night, which was again a treat to wake up to the following morning, with floor to ceiling windows for viewing 180 degrees of what felt like the middle of nowhere. We had high hopes of seeing the Northern Lights here, but alas, we weren't lucky. We spent the better part of our day there hiking in the snow filled mountains to a hot spring river, called Reykjadalur. The hike was pretty challenging in white out conditions, especially with the added knowledge that no one would know where we where if anything happened to us. (We had this thought often in Iceland—we are so used to being monitored and regulated by rules and guidelines in the United States, none of which seemed to really exist in Iceland.) But reaching the hot spring river was unforgettable. We wore our bathing suits under our snow gear, but stripping down in whipping wind and snow was about as miserable as you'd imagine. Laying in the warm bath water amidst a practical snowstorm is just as surreal as it sounds—and I'm not going to lie, all I was thinking about the whole time was having to climb OUT and walk barefoot across snow to get my towel and change. Strangely, and maybe it's because of just how much I was dreading it, I wasn't as hypothermic-ally cold as I thought I'd be :) Some combination of adrenaline and endorphins must have been on our side.
After feeling quite literally deprived of a liquor store for the better part of our trip (dramatic?), we were delighted to feel that our apres-ski (hike) dreams of bourbon and wine were to become a reality. We stocked up and headed back to our Airbnb for our final night of Icelandic hygge, which included dinner at a famous langoustine place by the water, called Fjorubordid. The menu essentially had just about one choice—how many grams of langoustine you want. All four of us jumped at the mid-range tasting menu of langoustine bisque, steamed langoustine in butter and garlic, and dessert. The food was simple, rustic, and divine. It was a phenomenal way to spend our last night in Iceland—wondering how on earth what we were eating was real (the same thing we wondered about the country's landscape over and over again). The next morning we headed back to Reykjavik early to wander around the shops before (sadly) making our way to the airport in Keflavik in the late afternoon.
Highlights: Reykjadalur hot spring river hike (note: wear your bathing suit under your gear, and bring flip flops, unless you like a little old fashioned masochism, evidently like us :), Gulfoss waterfall (although we didn't get to it), Fjorubordid restaurant
Top takeaways & tips
I highly recommend going to the Blue Lagoon as your very first activity upon arriving in Iceland if you come by red eye flight.
We headed directly there after getting our rental car—it opens at 8am which, this time of year, is still over two hours before sunrise. It was an indescribably cool experience to have our very first views of the country be from within the hot, milky-blue geothermal pool. We kept saying it felt like we’d woken up in heaven—the colors, the steam, the calmness of the water. It was undoubtedly a highlight of the trip for all of us and an experience I will never forget. So make your reservations early (allowing you to skip part of the inevitably long line) and go for it. Other perks of going early is that it’s much less crowded (this is one of the most touristy things to do in Iceland) and you can celebrate the start of your vacation with a glass of early morning Prosecco or Icelandic beer to really embrace that jet lag life :)
Dining out is very expensive in Iceland.
We heard this a lot in the months before our trip, but I think we imagined it to be along the lines of New York City prices. But in fact, it’s staggeringly higher than that. We found it nearly impossible for the four of us to eat any meal without breaking $100, even if that meal consisted of deli sandwiches and beers, or bacon, eggs, and OJ. On our first night in Reykjavik, we stopped at Mikkeller and Friends for pre-dinner cocktails (which I highly recommend, as mentioned above), and our four drinks came to $100. That’s when we realized just how expensive dining out would be. We cooked meals at home in a couple of our Airbnbs, which was more affordable, but given that the country is an island in the middle of the North Atlantic, most produce and other items are still way more expensive than what we’re used to. It’s certainly something to be aware of in your planning and budgeting.
…and so is alcohol.
My recommendation is that if you plan on drinking most (or any) nights like we did, buy alcohol in the duty free store in the airport. We were unsure how much we’d need, so we just played it safe, assuming we could re-up anytime at a liquor store or grocery store. But we soon realized just how difficult it would be to find liquor stores that were open in the more remote southern region, and again, how expensive it was!
That being said, nearly every bit of sightseeing and exploring we did was literally free of charge.
... (with the exception of the Blue Lagoon.) Although this could probably change at any moment, given that Iceland is working to bolster its tourism sector, our experience was we didn’t have to shell out for extra excursions or tours to experience all of the glory that is Iceland's landscape (although you could certainly do extra excursions if you'd like).
Renting a four wheel drive car is a must if you are visiting during the winter months.
Driving gets a little hairy when there are 40 mph winds and it’s snowing or hailing or sleeting, especially on the gravel roads through the hillier regions. I can’t imagine doing it in a small car. Further, the weather in general shouldn’t be underestimated. We lucked out with gorgeous days for our two longest drives along the southern coastline, but had we not, the five hour drive easily would have taken double that amount of time. And actually, there were still some road closings during our time there! This is incredibly important to consider when planning your itinerary. We would have loved to make it farther up the southeastern coastline, but it felt too risky to book ahead of time, not knowing what the driving conditions would be like. I’m glad we were conservative in our estimates, or else it could have been a stressful (and expensive) oversight, had we been unable to reach our booked destinations.
... but if the weather permits, drive as far as you can possibly go!
Some of our very favorite sights and experiences took place along Route 1. Heading into the trip, there had been so much emphasis placed on the Golden Circle in things we read, and for good enough reason, but we absolutely loved getting to explore far beyond that. Covering a lot of ground felt like the only way to really digest the beauty and vastness of the country (and we still only saw a tiny portion!). The only downside (and it's really not one) is that you're going out and coming back on the same road. But I swear, it still looks and feels new due to the sun and changes in the weather.