June 1, 2017
If you follow me on Instagram, you’ll see that I took a solo trip to Iceland at the beginning of this month for 10 days!! Way back in the fall I’d planned to take 2 weeks off in May before wedding season started & just didn’t have a destination picked!! When I was randomly looking at flights (this is something that I do for fun – I know, it’s weird), I saw a super cheap fare to Iceland directly from Boston & purchased it!! I had LITERALLY no idea what I was going to do or where I was even going to stay. I did some research, found some guesthouses, booked a car and set off!!
My plan was to travel the Ring Road, which encircles the whole island (except for the Westfjords and the northern tips). It’s a paved road that has excellent signage (I honestly wasn’t ever lost!). It does go through the mountains in the northern part of the country, and due to a bad storm that blew in when I was there, I ended up getting off of it when I was in the east & driving along the eastern fjords instead (I would absolutely do this drive again – it was gorgeous!). It was such an incredible experience and even though when I was in the north the weather was terrible (I’m not joking – literal blizzards), it is such a beautiful country that I can’t wait to go back!
THINGS TO KNOW:
The weather is unpredictable. I mentioned this, but a storm blew in and I ended up driving for two days through snow covered mountain roads while the wind ripped across the road. There were points where visibility was absolutely zero and I was convinced that I was going to get blown off the road. One day I ended up in 3 different weather systems, and it can change at the drop of a hat. They also don’t mess around with wind warnings!! This website became my best friend: http://en.vedur.is/weather.
Driving: the roads are SO well labeled that you’ll never be lost (unless you’re in a town). When weather kicks in, they do heavily monitor the roads and have warning signs on the main roads with the weather on the approaching highway. They don’t MESS with weather and driving!! I saw 3 cops the entire time that I was in Iceland, and it was when I was in/around Reykjavik – the Ring Road is monitored by speed cameras and they’re pretty serious about the speed limit. That being said, the Icelandic people drive so far above the speed limit that it’s laughable. Sometimes the sheep and horses manage to get themselves on the main roads too, so it’s best to keep an eye out!! Reindeer are also prolific in the Southeast & will run in front of your car (I can vouch for this!). Gas is STUPID EXPENSIVE. I was paying between $8-$9 a gallon (luckily I had a little car, but STILL). Gas was definitely my biggest expense when I was there! This was a website I kept up to monitor the road conditions: http://www.road.is/travel-info/road-conditions-and-weather/entire-iceland-road-conditions-map. I rented a little tiny non 4×4 car when I was there and it handled so well, even in the snow! If you’re going in the winter, you NEED to have a 4×4 – also, get the insurance on your car! There is a lot of gravel (many roads aren’t paved) and Iceland has GRAVEL INSURANCE. This is a thing, guys. I did find out that if I booked the car on my credit card, I had car rental insurance built into the card – so I didn’t have to pay extra for theirs! #worthit
Everything in Iceland is pricey – the food, gas and entertainment. Luckily, there are grocery stores everywhere (you’ll become very acquainted with Bonus) so it’s your best bet to stock up on fruit, Skyr (Icelandic yogurt – you’ll thank me for this!), and items for sandwiches. I ate a LOT of sandwiches and oatmeal. Most of the places that I stayed at had complimentary breakfasts, so I always just tried to fill up in the mornings! I brought non perishables from home (KIND bars, oatmeal packs) to save some money and it was a good thing, because finding gluten free bread was quite a task. I paid for three meals when I was there; one at a hotel I was staying at (so worth the first born child I had to promise), one at Skogafoss ($19 for a hamburger ????????), and once the night before I left Reykjavik because I ran out of food. The biggest delicacies in Iceland are fermented shark, puffin and whale (#NOPE) but you’ll pay handsomely for the experience of eating rotten fish.
The majority of the Icelandic population lives in Reykjavik and the surrounding area, but you’ll drive through lots of little tiny towns and villages (and if you’re anything like me you’ll wonder if Amazon Prime even delivers to these places). Farms are prolific and you’ll see horses around every turn! Since I was there in early May, there were SO many new little lambs that I wanted to snuggle with!
Iceland is such a stunning country full of natural wonders, and every turn has something new to see!!
DAY 1: KEFLAVIK > REYKJAVIK > GOLDEN CIRCLE > REYKHOLT
I took a red eye from Boston to Keflavik and landed at 430 am, picked my rental car up and was in Reykjavik by 600 am. Despite the fact that it was a Sunday morning, there were people out and about (or they just never went to sleep since the sun sets so late!). I wandered around the sleeping streets for a few hours (it was beautiful), grabbed a cup of coffee and met up with my cousin for breakfast.
WHAT TO SEE:
Golden Circle: this contains Þingvellir National Park (tons of hiking in here!!), Geysir (the coolest geothermal area), and Gullfoss (for future reference, -foss means waterfall, -vatn means lake, and -jökull means glacier!). Gullfoss has a few different viewing areas, and I recommend making your way to both – the views from every angle are insane!!
Where I stayed: Guesthouse Fagrilundur in Reykholt. The family was so sweet & I ended up being the only guest that night so they let me pick my room! I’d totally recommend this place, and it was literally right off the highway so it was super easy to find.
DAY 2: REYKHOLT > SNÆFELLSNES PENINSULA > STYKKISHÓLMUR
So, funny story. When I booked the Reykholt guesthouse, I didn’t realize there were TWO Reykholts in Iceland – luckily I realized a few days before I left, otherwise I would have ended up about an hour and a half north of where I should have been ???? #classiccaitlin. Consequently, the drive that was supposed to be about 4 hours to Stykkishólmur ended up being around 9 with all the stops I made. I was originally just going to drive north from Borgarnes straight to Stykkishólmur, but it was recommended to me that I drive the Snæfellsnes Peninsula, and I’m so glad that I did!!
WHAT TO SEE:
Þingvellir National Park: Drive through it instead of around it!! It’s full of spiky vegetation and looks like the Sierra Nevadas – the road is twisty and climbs up and down.
Lóndrangar basalt cliffs: This was one of my FAVORITE spots in the country!! It looks like nothing until you walk up to the very top and look down – the seagulls are EVERYWHERE and the juxtaposition of the black cliffs against the aqua water and vibrant greenery is breathtaking!! I could have spent hours here watching the birds!!
Búðir Church: I’ve seen pictures of this little black church for years and I never though that I’d be able to see it in person!! It was such a pretty area around it and so deserted!
Kirkujellsfoss: I stopped at this on the way to Stykkishólmur and it was SO pretty, but super packed so I planned on coming back later. It was only about 30 minutes from the inn I was staying at, so I headed back around 1030 pm and there was NO ONE there – so if it’s packed, definitely plan on going back later!!
Stykkishólmur: The town itself is so cute and quirky with the old, colorful buildings. It’s a great little town to walk around – the sun was setting around 1130, so when I walked around at 930, it was super quiet and pretty, but still really light out!
Where I stayed: Hólmur Inn. Located right by the water in their tiny downtown. It was tiny and clean & cozy, plus it was within easy walking distance to a few cafes and restaurants.
DAY 3: STYKKISHÓLMUR >BLÖNDÚOS
It’s possible to go straight across to Blönduós from Stykkisholmur (you’ll go along the coast), but after talking to a couple who was doing the exact reverse of my trip, they told me that it was an all gravel road & there was no way I wanted to drive on a gravel road for more than 10 minutes! I cut down to Borgarnes (more groceries!) and drove through some really pretty farm country with the snow covered mountains in the background (it snowed overnight in the higher elevations!).
WHAT TO SEE:
Hvammstangi: A tiny town located on Miðfjörður & they have a rich and intricate history of seal hunting. They have seal watching boats that go out to the northern parts of the fjords, where you can see rare seals that are endemic to Iceland. The museum was fascinating and the best part of the stop was the scientist who ran out of the museum as I was leaving, yelling about a humpback whale in the bay. The whale stayed close to the surface for quite a while, and even though I’ve seen whales before in California, it’s a pretty cool experience to see them in Iceland as well!
Where I stayed: Hotel Húni. It was located outside of Blönduós, and was literally in the middle of NOWHERE. No signs or anything! It was the most basic (and cheapest!) place that I stayed in Iceland. A warning: when you’re in the northern part of the country, the water has an extremely pungent sulfur smell. I mean, WHOA. You get used to it and it doesn’t taste any different, but beware!!
DAY 4: BLÖNDÚOS > SKÚTUSTAÐIR
On day 4, a rather large storm blew in (“Oh, it will only last for today!” they told me. Spoiler alert: it was 3 days). I drove up through the mountains to Akureyri (mountain passes in a 2wd car, 40+ mph winds & snow aren’t super fun). The valleys I drove through were stunning, lush landscapes of vibrant green with the little white farmhouses with red roofs nestled at the base of towering, snow covered mountains. I’m sure the mountain roads were pretty too – but I couldn’t see much past the hood of my car. Remember what I said about ever changing weather in Iceland and dangerous driving? This is what they meant.
WHAT TO SEE:
Akureyri is the second largest city in Iceland and it was big!! There were lots of apartment buildings going up, tons of residential neighborhoods and cute cafes, all right on the water. Unfortunately, the weather was terrible which really dissuaded me from walking around, but from everything I read, there are tons of cute shops and places to eat!!
Godafoss: this was probably my favorite waterfall!! It’s horseshoe shaped and really more of 3 or 4 different waterfalls all together. You can access it from both sides (I recommend this), and if you’re paying attention, you can find the little path down that puts you at the waters edge. It was incredible!
(I look this exhausted and red in EVERY picture that was taken when I was there ????!)
I was low enough in elevation that the snow was gone but the wind was worse than it had been earlier – you can tell by the spray, but walking back to the car, I was leaning forward at a 45′ angle to stay straight!!
When I checked into my guesthouse, the girl at the front desk told me that if I had time to kill, I should go to the Myvatn Nature Baths. Iceland has tons of natural hot springs (like the Blue Lagoon), and she said that the Myvatn Nature Baths were smaller than the Blue Lagoon and not as well known, so they were never crowded. I headed there after dinner and it was SO worth it. Not only does it cost half of what the Blue Lagoon does, it was so cold that day that they slashed the prices again since the baths weren’t as warm as usual. I sat in the hot tub for an hour, overlooking the lake while the wind whipped and the snow flew around us and it was the BEST hour I spent on this trip!!
Where I stayed: Skútustaðir Guesthouse. It was located right across the street from Myvatn Lake, and run by the sweetest family!! Also, the bathroom here was nicer than my first apartment, so there’s that.
DAY 5: SKÚTUSTAÐIR > EGILSSTAÐIR
I’ll always remember this as the day I had a fun mental breakdown and started googling flights back home immediately because of the weather. WHAT A MEMORY!! This entire drive is through the mountains, and by this point the storm had REALLY ramped up in intensity, but since I never actually did a whole lot of research on driving in Iceland (which was a good thing – have you ever looked up your symptoms on WebMD and been convinced you were dying? Yeah, THAT.) I was blissfully ignorant to the fact that people DIE DRIVING IN ICELAND. Cool. Anyways, the part before the mountain passes was really incredible – it was completely flat and covered in black lava rocks. There was literally NOTHING in this area – it was just a road cutting through the landscape.
The mountain roads were windy, and when I could see, it was so beautiful – black mountains topped with bright white snow. Iceland is beautiful, but it will kill you!! After I came down into a little valley, I stopped at a little pull off right above this gorgeous river, and then headed down into Egilsstaðir. I tried to make it over to Seyðisfjörður, but the road goes STRAIGHT up a mountain with hairpin switchbacks, and when I started getting into slush and low visibility, I turned around and headed back. I also attempted to get to Borgarfjörður Eystri (try to pronounce that) to see the puffins, but the road was terrible AND I saw some serious weather coming in so I turned around and went back to town. It was a short drive back but it was one of my favorites – I don’t know if it’s because the sun was peeking out (FINALLY!!), or because the mountains were so breathtaking and the green was so…green. The air is so much clearer there and the colors look significantly more vibrant!
WHAT TO SEE:
Myvatn: I tried to walk around the lake the night before but the wind was so out of control that it was difficult to stay upright. It’s a volcanic lake and there are large craters all around it – you can climb to the top and look down in them! It was amazing.
Grótajá: This is an underwater hot springs that used to be widely used by the locals until a volcanic eruption caused the water to be too hot to bathe in. The signs say you can’t bathe there, but a local who was there said many people still do! It was stunning inside the cave – the water was bright blue and it was so warm!
Námafjall: This is a few minutes past Grótajá, and it’s a cool spot!! It’s a bunch of geothermal smoke pillars coming out of the ground, surrounded by bubbling water and red ground. It was so windy when I was here that I didn’t smell any sulfur, but it sounds like its pretty pungent!!
Where I stayed: Laufás Guesthouse. Small and centrally located, really sweet people who own it!! I grabbed a coffee at Salt Bistro (it was just a short walk from the guesthouse!) and they had a great menu as well – definitely worth checking out!!
DAY 6: EGILSSTAÐIR > GERÐI
Storm watch 2017 was supposedly coming to an end, but after extensive road research and googling, I decided to get off the Ring Road for this portion and drive along the Eastern Fjords – and I’m so glad I did! Not only did they actually end up closing that portion of the Ring Road (it was through the mountains), the drive along the coast was completely stunning, even in the wind and rain!! The road was literally between the base of the mountain and the ocean cliffs and it was absolutely breathtaking. The ocean was tumultuous and the waves were massive (I’m talking bigger than El Niño in Southern California big). I stopped in Breiðdalsvík to find a bathroom and coffee (fun fact: DON’T DRINK A LOT OF WATER. There are not as many gas stations as you think in some areas!!), and I spoke to the man behind the counter about the wind. He said that what I was about to drive was so pretty but the wind could kick up to 50 mph gusts suddenly. He advised that if that should happen, I needed to pull over ASAP and wait it out – then he told me that he lost 2 windows in his car over New Years in that area. #thanksdude
I tried to stop in Höfn because I’d heard so many people rave about it – but at this point the storm was about a Category 4 hurricane so I continued on to my guesthouse intending to beg them to let me hang out until I could check in. Luckily, I didn’t need to pull over at any point and managed to get to the guesthouse as the wind picked up even more. WOOHOO ICELAND!
Where I stayed: Gerði Guesthouse. The guesthouse was situated at the base of the Vatnajökull glacier, but I’m guessing you can figure out what I’m about to say…I never saw the glacier because of the clouds. Whomp whomp. I ate an actual dinner here (#adulting) and it was SO GOOD. Or maybe it was because I’d been living off of salami sandwiches and yogurt for 6 days #idk.
DAY 7: GERÐI > EYVINDARHOLAR
This was one of my favorite days!! The storm blew through in the night, and even though when I woke up the wind was still howling, it was only misting and cloudy. It remained like this until I literally drove around a corner and the clouds opened up and the sun shone on the glacier and I’m pretty sure angels actually sang.
WHAT TO SEE:
Jökulsarlon: the guesthouse was about 20 minutes away from the Jökulsarlon (the bay where the glacier calves off into icebergs and they float out to sea). Even though it was still super misty and cloudy when I got there, it was beautiful and otherworldly and kind of haunting to see the gigantic icebergs just floating offshore.
Skaftafell National Park: Before the actual national park entrance, I found a pull off that led to the sketchiest most pot-holed road I’d ever driven on, but it lead down to the foot of Vatnajökull (the missing glacier!!) and WOAH. My mouth literally fell open when I saw it and I said, “THIS is what I imagined Iceland looks like!” It was like being inside of a postcard!! You can do glacier tours, and I would definitely do this next time!!
Svartifoss: This is a 20 minute hike up a mountain inside the national park, and its completely worth it! It’s comprised of basalt rock columns and is incredible to see in person. The views hiking up alone are worth it!! The national park has miles of trail to hike, AND you can camp there!! Can you even imagine waking up to these views??
Vik: The town of Vik is famous for their black beaches and rock formations, and it doesn’t disappoint!! The clouds were back after I left the national park, but the mist gave the beaches an air of mystery.
Dyrhólaey: Just past Vik, it’s on a peninsula and features a rock formation with a hole caused by erosion. Dyrhólaey literally means “the hill island with the door hole” and it’s a great lookout point!!
Where I stayed: Hotel Lambafell. Hands down, my favorite lodging! It was at the literal base of a mountain, with private bathrooms (????????) and a hot tub that you can sit in and watch the mountains (did that, it was amazing!).
DAY 8: EYVINDARHOLAR > HVOLSVÖLLUR
I didn’t have enough time on Day 7 to hit all the things on my list, so I backtracked to the Sólheimasandur plane crash (this was actually the #1 thing on my Iceland list) and hiked out. The wind had picked back up and it was raining (sideways), so this was a super pleasant 40 min walk to the wreckage. Ooooh, so worth it though!!
WHAT TO SEE:
Sólheimasandur Plane Wreck: While there’s no actual sign for it, there’s a large parking lot thats always packed, so you won’t miss it! It’s quite a hike out (about 40 min each way), so be prepared for that!! The weather was so terrible when I was there that there was a handful of other people around it and they all left fairly quickly.
Skogafoss: this is about 15 minutes east of the plane, and it’s always packed. If you have the energy, HIKE to the top of the waterfall!! There are a ton of trails off this as well, so if you’re into that, Skogafoss is the place to start!!
Seljalandsfoss: this is one of the most famous waterfalls in the country, and it’s actually busier than Skogafoss! You can walk behind the waterfall (wear a rain jacket!) and it’s the coolest view!!
Þórsmörk national park: It’s past Seljalandsfoss and absolutely breathtaking land!! It’s a huge hiking area in the south, so if you’re into hiking and/or camping, go here!!
Where I stayed: Hotel Hvolsvöllur. Really nice hotel, big rooms & a fairly large breakfast spread!! < That’s big in my book!
DAY 9: HVOLSVÖLLUR > REYKJAVIK
This is an easy ride through some beautiful ranch country up into the mountains and down into the city. I stopped and saw some Icelandic horses and took it easy on the way back.
WHAT TO SEE:
Downtown Reykjavik: there are so many little side streets and stunning graffitied buildings in the city!! I walked around for HOURS and could have kept going! Laugavegur Street is their primary shopping street with lots of cafes and restaurants. There were so many cool shops ($$$$$$) that were beautiful to poke around in!!
The waterfront: The waterfront is beautiful with the rugged mountains in front and the modern city behind. You can walk all the way down to their old port.
After a while, my feet got tired so I found a bar with a happy hour and read a book for a few hours! For dinner, I found a cheap Pad Thai (always check Yelp when you’re in a new city!!) and headed back to my hostel.
Where I stayed: Galaxy Pod Hostel. Super modern (I slept in an actual pod), really clean and perfectly located.
DAY 10: REYKJAVIK > KEFLAVIK
I flew out of Keflavik in the afternoon so I found a grocery store in the morning and walked a few blocks to the waterfront and ate my last Skyr. I meandered back along Laugavegur St and grabbed a coffee in one of the few cafes open. After that, it was a quick drive back to the airport and I headed home!!
WHAT TO SEE:
Blue Lagoon: It’s actually located between Reykjavik and Keflavik, so most people end up going in the beginning or end of their trip – but be warned, it’s quite expensive and you need reservations!
Because this is already such a long post I’ll leave you with this – if you can only do a few days in Iceland, you should definitely spend them in the south & southeast!! There are so many different types of terrain there with so many different attractions that you’ll feel like you have seen more!! I cannot wait to get back there – I already have a list of places I want to go!!
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