Our Icelandic Road Trip
by Katie McCabe | @awelltraveledpair | January 14th, 2017
For John's birthday, I surprised him with a trip to Iceland. It was August 2016, and the country was becoming a popular travel destination. We didn't know much about it, and that really excited us. Usually when we go somewhere, we immediately have a list of things to do and sights to see. It was refreshing to not have a concrete plan, to kind of go where the wind takes us. I mean, I'm not going to lie, I did do some research before leaving but there really wasn't too much information out there, and I was okay with that. After picking up our rental car in Reykjavik, I glanced over at the birthday boy. "So, should we head east?"
Skógafoss was by far our favorite waterfall in Iceland. Standing at over 200 feet high, this majestic waterfall surely captivates. We stood in front of it just staring at it for a good twenty minutes before we even begun taking photos. It truly is stunning! Located on the southern side of the island, about two hours from Reykjavik and thirty minutes from Vik, this is one sight you don't want to miss.
Seljalandsfoss is another spectacular waterfall in southern Iceland. Located about ninety minutes from Reykjavik, Seljalandsfoss is most famously known for being the waterfall that people can walk behind. As you enter the cave, you'll see what all the fuss is about. The view is amazing! Before leaving Seljalandsfoss, be sure to take a quick five minute walk to Gljufrabui waterfall, a real hidden gem.
After a short five minute walk from Seljalandsfoss, you'll come across a river leading out of a cave. Walk inside of the cave to see the incredible Gljúfrabúi waterfall. Be prepared, you will get wet, but it's totally worth it!
Reynisfjara, also known as Black Sand Beach, is a black pebble beach located near the town of Vik. On the beach is a unique set of basalt sea columns, while two basalt sea stacks tower out of the ocean. As folklore has it, two trolls tried to drag a ship to shore but were turned into stone when daylight broke, hence the two sea stacks. As fun as the folklore is, it's the unpredictable waves, unique formations, and towering sea cliffs make Reynisfjara one of the most fascinating places in all of Iceland.
A trip to Iceland wouldn't be complete without a visit to the famous Blue Lagoon. The Blue Lagoon is a mineral rich geothermal spa that is believed to have healing powers. People from all over the world travel to soak in its waters. Be sure to make reservations well in advance. Tickets sell out quickly during the high peak months of May through September. Check out their website for pricing and availability.
The Golden Circle consists of three main locations - Thingvellir National Park, Geysir Geothermal Area, and Gullfoss waterfall. From Reykjavík, it will take a full eight hour day to see all of the sights the Golden Circle has to offer. Be sure to pull over and say hello to the beautiful and friendly Icelandic horses while you're there.
Reykjavík is Iceland's capitol and largest city. Located about forty minutes from Keflavík Airport, this seaside town boasts colorful houses, historic buildings, fantastic restaurants, and lively nightlife. Hallgrímskirkja Cathedral is the most famous structure in Reykjavík and definitely worth a visit. As one of the tallest structures in Iceland, the view from the top of the cathedral is spectacular. Also, make sure to stroll down the main strip, Laugavegur, for good food, fun, and nightlife.
Jökulsárlón is a stunning glacier lagoon located in southeastern Iceland about five hours from Reykjavik and two and a half hours from Vik. Jökulsárlón is one of Iceland's most popular attractions, and it is easy to see why. Large icebergs float in the island's pristine waters creating a serene and picture perfect atmosphere.
The 1.5 km hike to Svartifoss waterfall in Skaftafell National Park is a must do while visiting southern Iceland. The easy thirty minute hike is clearly marked and has a steady, gradual incline. Once you arrive to the falls, you will be rewarded with mesmerizing dark lava columns and one of the most beautiful waterfalls you have ever seen.
The most thrilling, terrifying, and best thing we did in Iceland was a scuba dive in the Silfra at Thingvellir National Park. The Silfra is a large fissure crack between the Eurasian and North American continental plates. In the summer months, the average temperature of the water is 2 degrees Celsius, therefore a dry suit is necessary while diving. Experience the Earth's clearest water with companies such as Dive.Is, which offers both snorkeling and scuba diving tours year-round. Check out their website for pricing and availability.
Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur
What's the most famous food in Iceland? Hot dogs! What's the best hot dog spot in Iceland? Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur. I've had my fair share of good hot dogs - Dodger Dogs, Fenway Franks, and of course, Disneyland's famous corn dogs, but nothing compares to the hot dog deliciousness that Iceland delivers. Topped with ketchup, sweet brown mustard, remoulade, raw white onions, and crispy fried onions, you'll instantly be addicted. In five days, I'm pretty sure both of us consumed over twelve hot dogs each. If you don't get a chance to dine at Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur, fret not! Similar hot dogs are sold in both airports, as well as gas stations throughout the island.
A day trip to the Snæfellsnes Peninsula is a must do while in Iceland. About two and a half hours from Reykjavík, plan to spend at least six hours on the peninsula. With incredible sights, such as Kirkjufell Mountain, Snæfellsjökull volcano, quaint fishing villages, caves, hot springs, black and white sand beaches, majestic sea cliffs, and unique landscapes, you'll have plenty of incredible sights to fill your day with. I recommend grabbing lunch in the adorable fishing town of Stykkishólmur. We ate at a quaint local restaurant, Narfeyrarstofa, and enjoyed their warm homemade bread and delicious seafood chowder.
The Northern Lights
The Northern Lights, also known as Aurora Borealis, may be the biggest attraction in all of Iceland. When you mention to people that you have traveled to Iceland, usually the first thing they'll ask you is "Did you see the Northern Lights?" And yes, we did! We went in the middle of September, as we were hoping to get both good weather and a glimpse of the NL's, and we lucked out with both. The summer months of June through August tend to have the best weather but due to the lack of darkness, you won't be able to see the NL's. In September 2016, the summer weather was still hanging around and the night hours were getting longer. We experienced the NL's one night on the Snæfellsnes Peninsula, and other night, surprisingly, in Reykjavík. A lot of times, the bright city lights in Reykjavík make the NL's hard to see, therefore, your best chances of catching them will be in less populated areas such as the Golden Circle and Snæfellsnes Peninsula. Weather also plays an important role in how well you can see the lights. Heavy cloud cover makes it nearly impossible to see the lights from land. While you're in Iceland, use the Aurora Borealis forecast website as a guide to see when and where your best chances are to see the Northern Lights.
AIRFARE: WOW Air offers very affordable flights to Reykjavík. An 8 hour non-stop flight from Los Angeles to Reykjavík costs around $169.00. That does not include seat assignments, meals, or baggage costs. We travel light (carry on bags only), don't mind where we sit on the plane, and bring our own food for the flight, so that keeps the extra costs down. ***UPDATE*** WOW Air is no longer in business. Icelandair is a great alternative option.
LODGING: Reykjavík is a very expensive city. Even the low budget hotels are pretty pricey. We decided to stay at an Airbnb during our stay and it was fantastic. We spent $108 USD / night (in September) for a beautiful, clean, and safe apartment near downtown Reykjavík. Check out their website for affordable rentals!
CAMPING: If you want to experience the camping life while in Iceland, Happy Campers gets great reviews. We have never used them, but I have talked to people who have, and they raved about them.
RENTAL CARS: If you're looking to rent a car while in Iceland, I recommend checking out SADcars. Their prices are good, we paid $190 USD for 5 days. They also have a helpful shuttle service at Reykjavík airport that brings you to/from the car rental pickup/drop-off location.
CURRENCY: The currency of Iceland is the Icelandic Krona also known as ISK. $1 USD equals around 103 ISK.
WEATHER: Iceland has 3 seasons; high, shoulder, and low. The high season is June-August. Tourism is at its peak during these months, and so are the prices. Hotels, campers, and rental cars raise their prices during these busy months and usually sell out quickly. Be sure to book everything well in advance. During the high season you'll experience endless daylight (that means no visible Northern Lights), more comfortable weather, large groups of tourists, and all the roads should be open and fully functional. The shoulder season, May & September, can be a lovely time to visit. Prices and crowds are lower, weather can be nice, and there's chance of seeing the Northern Lights. The low season, October-April, will have the cheapest prices and barely any tourists. The weather can get pretty unpredictable during this time, and a lot of roads close down. Because of that, driving the entire Ring Road during the low season is usually impossible. The best thing about the low season is that most nights will have beautiful Northern Lights activity.