Iceland… or the Land of Fire and Ice. An island born out of volcanic eruptions (it’s home to over 130 active or extinct volcanoes), which eight thousands years ago was completely covered by ice (10% of its area is still covered by glaciers). A mixture of fire and ice, a major contrast. But this unique combination makes Iceland what it is today: a true wonderland! And three months ago, right in the middle of autumn, I was prepared and eager to find out more and discover a different type of paradise: an icy one.
It took me quite a while to plan this trip. There were many questions that needed an answer. I had to determine the best time to go there, to find the most convenient flights and, of course, to organize pretty much everything, from accommodation and car rental to all the places worth visiting in one week. And almost two years after my initial searches, I had finally achieved it. I have to admit that I started to be fascinated by this country back in 2016, and hoped ever since that one day I’ll make a trip and uncover its raw beauty and its wilderness.
Here’s a fun fact about Iceland: it is the least densely populated country in Europe, having just over 3 inhabitants per square km. And almost two-thirds of the population live in or around the capital city, Reykjavík. It’s interesting that many times throughout the trip I had the feeling that I had found a lost world, especially in the Northern and Eastern parts of the country, because there was absolutely no one around.
I had set myself two major goals, before the trip: the first one was to see the whales, while the second was to experience the Northern Lights. And luck was on my side, as both have been accomplished. To be honest, I had hoped to capture that perfect shot of the aurora borealis, but it just didn’t happen. You need a tripod (and the truth is that I did not have enough room in my backpack to take it with me) and you must go out there and search for that perfect location, a thing that I didn’t understand from the beginning. But I do plan to visit Northern Norway one day, during the aurora season, so that shot will come.
How to get to Iceland
Well, if you don’t live close to an airport that has a direct flight to Keflavík International Airport, the country’s main air gateway, then I recommend using London as a stop, and even spend a few days there (I did that, because I didn’t visit London before, and it was great – you can read more here). I paid only £52 for a round trip ticket with Icelandair, which is insanely cheap. And London can be reached at an affordable price from pretty much everywhere in Europe, since there are so many low-cost carriers that fly to one of the city’s airports.
How to travel in Iceland
If you really want to discover the country, then you’ll have to move around, and avoid staying in a single place. There are three main options for this: renting a car, hitchhiking or taking a bus. Of course, you can chose either one, depending on your style and preferences, or even combine them. But have in mind that the buses schedule is influenced by the season and weather. I had big plans and a tight schedule, therefore I chose the first option: car rental. Most of the time, I use Rentalcars to search for the best deal. The website offers full protection as well, and the price for Iceland is very good – believe me when I’m telling you that, I did a lot of research. My advice is to pay a bit more and be on the safe side, because the gravel roads might damage the paint or the windshield of the car. In the end, I paid around €260 for a Ford Fiesta from Budget, for seven days of use, with full protection included, which is not a bad price at all. This was the first time I drove a car with studded snow tires. It was really annoying at the beginning, but after a while, I got used to the feeling and the noise.
Iceland is an island at the confluence of the North Atlantic and Arctic Oceans, located far from the continent, with limited natural resources. In other words, it’s a pretty expensive destination, a fact reflected in all the prices, from accommodation and petrol to food and alcohol. Still, this doesn’t mean that you won’t find value deals, but it’s best to put some money aside, if you don’t plan to spend your nights in 6-bed or 8-bed dorms. A thing that I highly recommend is to try to find accommodations with breakfast included – a buffet in the morning will save you a lot of money. Here are the places where I stayed:
- 1st / 2nd night: Norðurey Hotel (Reykjavikurvegur 72, 220 Hafnarfjordur) – a budget-friendly hotel, 10 km away from downtown Reykjavík. Perfect to check out the capital and the Golden Circle, since I had a car and the distance was not an issue.
- 3rd night: Hafnarstræti Hostel (Hafnarstræti 99-101, 600 Akureyri) – not your ordinary hostel, a place with tens of modern capsule beds (I was really looking forward to such an experience). A lot of travelers around and an excellent location.
- 4th night: Laxá Hótel (Olnbogaás, 660 Mývatn) – the best hotel experience of the trip. I loved the Scandinavian design and the amazing views. The only downside: there was no aurora borealis that night… but you can’t control the weather.
- 5th night: Glacier World Guesthouse (Hoffell 2B, 781 Höfn) – a bit overpriced for what it offers, but the view of the Hoffellsjökull glacier in the morning, throughout the glass wall of the restaurant, was priceless.
- 6th night: Hörgsland Guesthouse (R2VW+2M Kirkjubæjarklaustur) – probably the least pleasant experience, a costly basic room, with paper thin walls. But so is pretty much everything in the southern part, because of the large number of tourists.
- 7th night: Hotel Kanslarinn (Dynskálar, 850 Hella) – the final accommodation… although the location is dull, in a small town, right next to the main road, it is clean, comfy and offers good value for the money. This makes it great for a one night stay.
Guide to Iceland
Creating an unforgettable itinerary was probably the hardest thing to do. In seven days, I wanted to visit Reykjavík and drive Iceland’s most well-known roads: the Golden Circle and the Ring Road. That’s over 1,500 kilometers in total. It wasn’t easy, and sometimes it was tiring, but it was totally worth it. Let’s start exploring:
- Day 1 (discovering Reykjavík and seeing the Northern Lights)
A 45 minutes drive separates the center of Reykjavík from the Keflavík International Airport. The world’s northernmost country capital, Reykjavík is a popular destination, because it’s Iceland’s cultural and economic hub. Still, we are talking about a relatively small city, with an enjoyable center, that can be easily explored on foot. The buildings that caught my attention were the traditional multi-coloured houses (some of them with large graffiti), Hallgrímskirkja (the tallest church in Iceland, built to resemble the trap rocks, mountains and glaciers of its landscape) and the modern Harpa Concert Hall, with its glass façade, inspired by the spectacular basalt rocks.
You should do a short trip to the Seltjarnarnes Peninsula, north-west of Reykjavík, to discover Grótta, an area recognized as a natural reserve. Surrounded by black sands and rocky shores, the peninsula hosts a lighthouse, and is the perfect place to enjoy a beautiful sunset. If you’re lucky, you might even see the Northern Lights.
When the night comes, temperatures drop significantly, so you should start looking for a place where to grab something warm to drink. My suggestion: one of the locations of Te & Kaffi, the largest local coffeehouse chain. There are several locations in Reykjavík, including one on the top floor of a book store.
I’ll probably never forget this day… it was the day I saw the aurora borealis for the first time. It happened in Hafnarfjörður, right next to the Atlantic Ocean, and it was freezing cold outside. But it was one of those magic moments.
- Day 2 (the Golden Circle)
The Golden Circle is Iceland’s most popular route and attraction. No wonder there are so many tourists and cars along the road. The question that pops-up is: can it be done in only one day? From my point of view, the answer is pretty simple: yes, it can. The drive itself is just under 250 km (leaving from and returning to Reykjavík), and even if you include sightseeing and a few stops along the road, it’s doable in half a day – I did it in six hours. But if you’re into trekking or you’re interested in discovering the landmarks in detail, you’ll probably want to spend a few days here. There are three major sights along the way – that’s the reason why this route is also known as the Golden Triangle:
- Gullfoss Waterfall (Golden Falls), a two stage powerful waterfall, 32 meters high. Both spectacular and impressive, it’s probably the most iconic waterfall in Iceland.
- Haukadalur Valley, home to the erupting hot springs, mineral springs and mud pots. The most popular exploding geysers are Strokkur and Geysir. The first one is still very active, erupting every few minutes, while the second one, much larger, is mostly dormant.
- Þingvellir (or Thingvellir) National Park, a World Heritage Site since 2004. It’s an area containing stunning rift lakes, rivers, canyons, waterfalls and hiking trails.
- Day 3 (the Ring Road – from Reykjavík to Akureyri)
This day marked the longest drive of the whole trip, and can be described as “the day I chased waterfalls and rainbows”. I mean, it was unbelievable. I lost count of the number of rainbows that I saw that day. And the scenery was surreal. There were so many different landforms, and such a great diversity of the nature. The weather helped as well, changing several times throughout the day.
The first stops were made along Hvalfjörður (Whale Fjord), a 30 km long, 5 km wide and 84 m deep fjord. To its east, you’ll find Botnsdalur, a beautiful hiking area; one of the trails leads to Glymur, the second-highest waterfall in Iceland (198 m). Due to the lack of time and the long road ahead, I had to give up on the waterfall. The hike is 3.5 km in length, and will take you about one hour – or at least that’s what the sign at the entrance stated.
The whole experience of driving in this part of Iceland is one of a kind. I would do it again anytime, it was one of the best days in my life. Here are a few other places on the road that are worth a stop: the areas around the municipality of Húnavatnshreppur, the town of Blönduós and the village of Varmahlíð.
Akureyri, the end point of the day, is a major port and the second largest urban area in the country. Despite having such titles, the town’s center is formed out of two-three short streets, so you will finish exploring it pretty fast. But it has a few interesting museums and a prominent church up on a hill, Akureyrarkirkja, towering the area.
- Day 4 (whale-watching in Húsavík and experiencing the natural hot springs in Mývatn)
Húsavík is one of those picturesque small towns, which you see regular on the social networks. Just that it’s way up on the map, close to the Arctic Circle, so it’s not a common destination. Nicknamed “the whale capital of Iceland”, Húsavík is the go to place, if you want to see the whales in their natural habitat. There are multiple companies located in the harbour, offering different several hours tours. I went for North Sailing, and paid 10.500 kr (that’s around €80) for a three hours tour. Those were some well spent money! Skjalfandi Bay is full of humpback whales, and although it took some time to find the first one, in the next hours I saw over ten in total, including two pairs – which is not extremely usual.
After such a unique experience, I had some free time and checked out the harbour area and the wooden church, Húsavíkurkirkja, a fine example of the Icelandic traditional architecture.
The next destination of the day was actually the hotel, situated close to Lake Mývatn, because the plan was to have a relaxing evening at the Mývatn Nature Baths. But before arriving there, I took a short detour to see another natural wonder, Goðafoss (Waterfall of the Gods), where the water of the river Skjálfandafljót falls from a height of 12 meters, over a width of 30 meters.
So how was the visit to the natural baths? Interesting (the temperature of the water was 40 degrees Celsius, while outside it was close to zero), somehow relaxing (in spite of the large number of people), and the location of the pool probably offers one of the world’s best sunset spots. Would I do it a second time? I am not sure, because I am neither a fan of large crowds, nor of the sulphur smell. The entrance fee (with towel included, because you have to pay extra for it) was 5.350 kr (approx. €40). You can find out more details about this place from their official website.
- Day 5 (Lake Mývatn, Seyðisfjörður, driving on gravel and in the sleet)
Lake Mývatn was formed following a large basaltic lava eruption, which means that you will spot many captivating volcanic landforms in the area, like lava pillars or rootless cones. There is even a large crater nearby, called Hverfjall. The landscape around the lake is distinctive and diverse, and feels out of the ordinary. It was delightful to spend a few hours exploring the area.
The drive from Mývatn to the Eastfjords takes a few hours. My plan was to leave the Ring Road and go over the Fjarðarheiði mountain, to reach Seyðisfjörður. Surrounded by mountains, this port town is the only place where you can find a car and passenger ferry between Iceland and the European continent. But you can guess that this wasn’t the reason why I wanted to visit it. The Blue Church, one of the most recognisable landmarks in Iceland, was the real reason. If you’re using Instagram, then I’m almost sure that you have seen it already.
Everything seemed to be perfect. I was enjoying the day so much, that I did not even realise how late it was. Night was just around the corner, and the weather had its own plans, very different than the ones I had. It started raining, and in a matter of minutes, the rain turned into sleet. My hotel was about 3 to 4 hours away from Seyðisfjörður. Visibility became a big problem, and the fact that the asphalt turned into gravel (for a section of 30-40 km) was a bit frightening, at least at first. But in the end, thanks to the studded tires, I didn’t encounter any issues, and arrived safely to the destination.
- Day 6 (the glaciers of Southern Iceland, Jökulsárlón lake, Svartifoss waterfall and the basalt columns)
The day started at Hoffellsjökull, one of the many glaciers in Southeastern Iceland, part of the Vatnajökull National Park. There is a trail that leads to a point from which you can see the whole glacier, including many elements from the slipping zone and terminus, like the tongue and the moraine. The lake has continuously developed in the last tens of years, and is a clear proof of the present global climate changes and global warming process, that so many ignore.
The second stop: Jökulsárlón, a glacier lagoon filled with icebergs, considered as one of the natural wonders of Iceland. Located right next to the main road and the ocean, it is a popular tourist spot, and once you’ll see the area, you will immediately understand why. There are no words to describe this place. Thanks to its beauty, it has been featured in multiple Hollywood blockbusters, such as James Bond: A View to a Kill (1985), James Bond: Die Another Day (2002) and Batman Begins (2005). There’s also a spectacular small black sand beach nearby, with large ice chunks.
And the day wasn’t over yet. In Skaftafell National Park, there is a waterfall like no other else, surrounded by tall dark lava columns. Its name is Svartifoss (Black Falls), and can be reached after an easy hike of 20-30 minutes. The paths that take you to it are well maintained and delimited. Although the waterfall is neither that tall, nor that large, the hexagonal basalt formations are incredible. If you want to take a closer look at them, similar columns can be found next to the Ring Road, not far from this waterfall, at a place called Dverghamrar (The Dwarf Cliffs).
- Day 7 (the Fjaðrárgljúfur canyon, Vík í Myrdal, Reynisfjara black sand beach and the stunning waterfalls of Southern Iceland)
The final day was packed with amazing scenery and dreamy views. Not far from where I had spent the night, I found a canyon with sheer walls, 2 km long and 100 meters deep, named Fjaðrárgljúfur. There is a walking path along its length and several observation decks, from where you will have a bird’s-eye view of the winding waters of the Fjaðrá river.
The main highlight of the day was Vík í Myrdal, the southernmost village and warmest place in Iceland, and its surroundings. Vík is a great place for a stop and for recharging your batteries, before heading to the nearby landmarks. And here I’m referring to Reynisdrangar (a group of basalt sea stacks), Reynisfjara (the world famous black sand beach) and the cliffs of the Dyrhólaey peninsula.
Reynisfjara Beach was voted as one of the world’s most beautiful non-tropical beaches. The landscape is marvellous: to the right, you have the massive basalt columns, in the middle, the black sand beach, and to the left, the rough waves of the Atlantic Ocean and the rocky basalt sea stacks. It’s not hard to understand why it’s a hotspot for tourists. But be careful and stay away from the roaring waves. There were cases in the past when the waves surged up the beach far further than expected and took people by surprise, which led to casualties.
Moving on to the Dyrhólaey peninsula, which was a complete surprise. It offered me the best panoramic view from the whole trip, it was simply mind-blowing. And I almost wanted to exclude the peninsula from the day’s itinerary, since I was running a bit behind schedule. In its front there’s a large rock arch, while at the top of the formation there’s a small lighthouse. The promontory is one of the best places to see the puffins from land, but only during summer.
The final day included two more stops. Skógar is a small village on the Ring Road, home to a museum which preserves the cultural heritage of Iceland (check out the traditional turf houses), and to the Skógafoss, another impressive waterfall, having a drop of 60 meters and a width of 25 meters. You could feel the power of the fall from tens of meters away.
And last, but not least: Seljalandsfoss, a fairy tale waterfall, one of the very few that offers visitors the opportunity to walk behind it, into a small cave.
How did the day end? Well, exactly how day one ended. With the Northern Lights above my head. An intense and speechless experience, despite the low quality photo:
The trip to Iceland has been probably the most interesting travel experience I’ve had so far in my life. I have to be honest: I was expecting a lot from this trip. All the articles that I read and photos that I saw prior to the trip created a perspective that seemed just too good to be true. I had high hopes (and that doesn’t happen often at all), but somehow Iceland was able to fulfil these hopes and even to surprise me. Do I recommend such a trip? Definitely. I would travel back tomorrow. But the truth is that it’s not a country for everyone.
Við sjáumst, Ísland!