Adventures in Iceland
When we were picking out our honeymoon location in late March 2015, we immediately looked into Iceland. It was at the top of our travel list after seeing the incredible Bon Iver video. But the idea of a romantic getaway after an exhausting wedding weekend sounded more like fancy drink umbrellas and guacamole by the beach. Plus, Iceland in late March is FREEZING! And us Floridian natives don't really comprehend 20 Fahrenheit.
So we said Iceland would be our "second honeymoon," and shook it out of our minds for the time being. By late July, we were both feeling the travel bug bite, so we revisited the Iceland conversation. It took a little research about different flight options and a lot of back and forth about bigger life decisions, but one late July morning we sat down with peach toast and black coffee and suddenly we were on our laptop buying flights!
With me hitting the reset button after leaving my job, and Justin winding down his first peach season, it was the perfect excuse (and time of year) to road trip around Iceland. Our trip finally came together in waves, and somehow ended up being the perfect combination of adventure and serenity. But planning for this trip had its set of challenges, and since we're always getting questions about our time in Iceland, we wanted to sit down and share with the masses.
Below we outline a basic FAQ and then provide our itinerary.
Frequently Asked Questions
Question: Did you do the IcelandAir stopover?
Answer: No. We wanted to combine it with a European destination, but we also wanted to stay in Iceland for more than 7 days. We went with Delta for our roundtrip flights to Iceland, and later decided to pair it with a roundtrip flight to Amsterdam via WOW Airlines. This saved us a couple hundred bucks and allowed us to spend a few more days in Reykjavik on the back end of our trip before heading back to the states. Our advice in hindsight? If you skip the West Fjords (more for the intensely outdoorsy traveler), you can do Iceland in 7 days and pair it with a stopover via IcelandAir.
Question: Which way did you travel around the Ring Road?
Answer: We went counter-clockwise, because why not! There is no right answer to the direction you travel.
Question: We've heard Iceland is expensive!
Answer: That's not a question, but more of an intensely accurate statement. We love travel hacks and did a lot of research on how to save money where we could, but by no means is our trip a good model for those that want to travel cheaply. We are of the mindset that travel is for the experience, so we didn't shy away from spending money if it genuinely felt worth it.
Question: Ok, but what were your travel hacks?
Answer: We found four money-saving hacks that we recommend for Icelandic travel:
- We brought snacks and made sandwiches - think energy bars, Justin's almond butter, oatmeal and trail mix - so that we didn't always have to stop for lunch.
- We bought groceries at the Bonus (local grocery store): think eggs, bread, cheese, skyr, veggies and fruit.
- We didn't pay for a single tour; we decided to research & explore on our own (the Lonely Planet Iceland Guide is amazing!).
- We didn't do this, but we recommend traveling in groups of four. We decided this was the ideal way to keep car rental & Airbnb costs down.
To sum it up: We ate out - on average - once a day, but we also grocery shopped and cooked at the house when we had kitchen access.
Question: How did you decide where to stay?
Answer: After a little research and deciding to travel counter-clockwise around the Ring Road, we booked our stays based on how far we wanted to drive each day (no more than 3-5 hours) and how many scenic stops we wanted to hit (all of them!). We used a combination of Airbnb & Booking.com to stay in a range of places: houses, hotels and guest houses (shared common area/bathroom, private room). We highly recommend this for a mix of quiet time with your travel partner(s) & the opportunity to meet new people!
Question: Is renting a 4-wheel drive vehicle necessary?
Answer: YES. Most of the roads are paved, but you're going to hit a few unpaved roads if you travel off the main road (a requirement to get to some great sites!). When we say unpaved, we don't mean cobblestone. We mean intensely rocky. Get the 4-wheel drive if for nothing else than the peace of mind that you won't miss out on something awesome because your car is stuck. (Note: We had 4-wheel drive and still got our car stuck in the black sand beach. See below for those fun details!)
DAY ONE | Keflavik to Vik
We started off by arriving early morning at KEF, and headed directly to Reykjavik to pick up our MiFi (personal hotspot) and have the most incredible breakfast at Reykjavik Roasters. After cappuccinos, cinnamon scones, cheese, butter and jam, we found the closest Bonus to grab some mostly non-perishable basics: bread, cheese, apples, bananas and Smjor (it's like butter, but made from angel tears). Fortunately it's always cold outside, so what dairy/fruit we didn't eat, we kept in the car overnight like a personal refrigerator.
We hopped on the road and headed towards Vik. On the way, we stopped and worked on our understanding of the N1 gas stations.
Here's the deal: You put money on a gas card. We highly recommend you do this so that if there is a gas station without an attendant, you can still fill up! We tried not to let our gas tank get below half full, because Iceland is extremely remote.
SITES WE SAW
Seljalandsfoss Waterfall. While this wasn't our favorite, it was our first waterfall, so we were really impressed and in awe of the scenery. You get to walk behind the waterfall, which is slippery but so refreshing and wakening. The grass was so green, the earth was cold and dark, and the sky was misty and grey. Just as one would picture Iceland to look like in early September.
Skogafoss Waterfall. Insanely massive waterfall that you can walk directly up to if you want. We walked pretty close, and even got to watch a bride and groom take wedding photos. We also hiked to the top, but the real photo op is at the base of the waterfall. We watched little rainbows scatter across the base as we took in the cool, foggy air.
Sólheimasandur Plane Crash (DC3 Plane Wreck). This was definitely the most adventurously spirited part of our day. The DC3 was a US Navy plane that wrecked near Vik due to severe icing; all crew members survived, but the plane was abandoned and remains untouched. It is one of the most eerie, and yet magical place we've ever visited. But it's not visible from the road, so you have to find it via geo-coordinates. There is a very tiny sign just off the road by the entrance to the fence (that you can't see until you find it), but other than that, there's no sign of this crash. It's just past a river called Jökulsá, and the coordinates are: (63 27.546-19 21.887). If you have MiFi, you can match your map to the one below. Also, when we went you could drive up to the location, but we have heard from friends that it's now a 4k trek.
WHERE WE STAYED
Farmhouse Lodge found via Bookings.com.
DAY TWO | Vik to Hofn
We started off pretty slowly after adjusting to the overnight air travel. The lodge offered complementary breakfast, which was more of that delicious cheese, hard boiled eggs, yogurt, fresh tomatoes, coffee and homemade breads & jams. We packed up our car again and got back on the road.
SITES WE SAW
Mossy Lava Rocks: Along the way from Vik to Hofn, you'll see a lot of these moss covered rocks. Fields of them, in fact. They're not a landmark, per se, but they are SO COOL. We pulled off the road and jumped around on them for about half an hour, taking pictures and imagining what it's like to walk on the moon.
Fjaðrárgljúfur Canyon: Seriously, this place was incredible. We've never felt more small in this world. You hike alongside the top edge of the canyon. About two thirds of the way up, there is this crazy looking peak jutting along the very edge of the cliff. You can walk out to the edge for a picture, but be CAREFUL. There are zero ropes or caution signs. We watched a guy backing up trying to take video of his girlfriend and nearly falling off the edge to his death.
Skaftafell/Vatnajokull National Park: The hiking here is insanely gorgeous. We ate our lunch near the base of our hike at some great picnic tables and then took off. It's a hilly hike, as is most of Iceland's terrain. Make sure you hike all the way to Svartifoss! This waterfall is stunning, and you can walk around the base of it, much like Skogafoss. The cool lava columns make this waterfall a unique site.
Jokulsarlon Glacier Lagoon: We drove by this in complete awe, but we spent too much time exploring other sites. Fortunately with our loose plans (no planned tours), we were able to backtrack on Day 3 so we could truly enjoy this magic.
WHERE WE STAYED
Airbnb Álaleira Álaleira 14, Höfn í Hornafirði, East, Iceland
We had tea at our guest house (Alaliera) with a couple from Slovenia, the wife was a test engineer and the husband was in the music industry. Such a fun, older couple, who was actually taking a public bus across the island to avoid driving and the insane costs of a rental car. Once we got warm, we headed out to grab a bite at a restaurant by the water. Here we discovered that Iceland can really rock a gin & tonic. We also learned that "salad" in Iceland means root vegetables. No leafy greens were found anywhere on this island.
DAY THREE | Hofn to Egilsstaðir/Seydisfjordur
We left Hofn pretty early so that we could get on the road, since we decided to backtrack to Jokulsarlon. So we ate our little homemade breakfast (oatmeal with almond butter) and got to driving.
Jokulsarlon Glacier Lagoon: Holy crap. This place is incredible! Whether the sun is shining or the clouds are rolling in, the lagoon is a magical blue color and you can see seals swimming around the floating sheets of blue ice from the receding glacier above. This is one site you cannot miss. We walked around and then enjoyed this view by snuggling up to each other with a cup of hot chocolate from the visitor's center. We met some folks who took a tour and they loved it, if you're looking for a way to see more.
As we traveled back past Hofn, we found a cool, black sand beach. Since both of us grew up near the coast, we wanted to drive on it! With fresh tire marks in site, we figured our 4-wheel drive could handle a little black sand. It could. Handle a little. But suddenly we were door-deep in black sand beach.
PSA: 4-wheel drive does not prevent you from getting stuck in the sand.
It didn't take long with us walking around blindly and trying to reach our car rental company before we looked lost to any passersby. After only seeing two cars on the road in roughly an hour, we started to lose hope. And then suddenly, an Icelander came to our rescue. Erik the Icelandic God, as he shall be named -- since we never exchanged names! He helped dig us out and pulled us back to safety. We are forever grateful to you, Erik the Icelandic God!
Once we got back on solid ground, we stopped at a lookout point and hugged and laughed our way back to reality. We also thanked each other for staying cool during one of the most terrifying moments in our travels.
Next we stopped at an N1 gas station and tried out the hotdogs. Word on the street was that they were actually pretty delicious. The streets didn't lie! Maybe it was the near-death experience or the incredible view from the gas station, but we scarfed them down while standing outside looking into the abyss.
WHERE WE STAYED
We got in pretty late, so we stopped at the Bonus in Egilsstadur on our way and made dinner at home and relaxed in our adorable cottage, just steps away from the fjord.
DAY FOUR | Seydisfjordur
We woke up slowly, made a huge Icelandic breakfast and ate outside while enjoying the expansive beauty of our surroundings. Then we drove a little further down the fjord and hiked a couple miles to enjoy the coastline.
After that we made our way into Seydisfjordur to spend the rest of the day. We sipped beer on picnic benches, enjoying the mountains behind us and the water before us. We even took a little time to FaceTime with family. The rest of the afternoon was spent walking around the marina, buying local jam and eating soft serve ice cream cones.
After walking around all day, we stopped into a local bar to enjoy another beer and happened upon an Iceland National Team viewing party (futbol!). We enjoyed beers, warm soup with freshly made bread, locally caught salmon and roasted potatoes. Best bar food we've ever had!
A perfect, relaxing day in the East Fjords. This, by far, ended up being our favorite city in Iceland.
DAY FIVE | Egilsstaðir to Lake Myvatn
As fate would have it, just a couple weeks prior to our trip, we found out some friends from Boston had a trip planned around Iceland at the same time! They decided to travel clockwise, so we chose to meet in Lake Myvatn and again back in Reykjavik for a couple days. On our way to meet our friends we had a few must-see spots.
WHAT WE SAW
Dettifoss Waterfall, a breathtaking site. It's incredibly powerful, with the loud rush of water and intense mist keeping all of our senses in awe. Definitely a hidden gem along the way to Myvatn.
Krafla Power Station, I don't know if this is considered a "site-seeing" spot, but we certainly thought it was! It was incredibly windy (and stinky), as it's a geothermal power plant, but it honestly looks like something you would see in a sci-fi movie. We couldn't resist stopping here and getting a few futuristic photos of ourselves.
Viti Crater, a spot that absolutely no photo we could ever take would do it justice. It's one of two well-known craters in Iceland and it's completely worth the trip and short walk to see it.
Namafjall Hverir Geothermal Area, hands down the most surreal landscape in Iceland. We kept feeling like we were on Mars, with blueish, silvery liquid bubbling out of clay earth. Highly recommend spending time here, and also recommend not taking out any snacks within a five mile radius of this place, as it is definitely the stinkiest spot in all of Iceland.
We met our friends at a cafe in Lake Myvatn and spent the first hour catching each other up on our lives and offering each other advice for the trip ahead. After that, we toured around a few fun spots before heading to dinner and staying up late to try and see the northern lights.*
Grjotagja, a small lava cave that you climb down into and explore. We spent about 30 minutes here, staying warm in the midst of the geothermal spring (too hot and crowded to get into the water itself).
Hverfell Cone, a tuff ring volcano near Lake Myvatn. We enjoyed getting warm as we hiked to the top of the steep peak of the cone, but didn't make it all the way around so that we could go see some cool lava fields before it got dark outside.
Dimmuborgir, the cool lava fields! We followed a few trails and explored the castle-like structures and vast landscape at the higher points of the trails. A must see if you're in Myvatn!
WHERE WE ATE
Vogafjós Cowshed Cafe, an awesome restaurant on a farm. We all got burgers and wine and talked until we closed the place down. You can walk into the shed and visit with the milking cows next door. How's that for "farm to table"?
WHERE WE STAYED
Hótel Laxá through Bookings.com. A modern hotel with stunning views of Lake Myvatn.
*NOTE: Turns out we did get to witness the northern lights! While you can try to plan to go when the northern lights are the most likely, it's hard to plan. We felt lucky that one of the few nights we were awake late enough, we got to witness them. Our bartender at the hotel even turned off the lights so we could get a better view.
DAY SIX | Lake Myvatn to Skagaströnd
Day six we decided to sleep in a bit, since we only had one stop planned for the day.
WHAT WE SAW
Godafoss, no matter how many waterfalls you see, they are all so unique and beautiful. We just so happened to stop by on an extremely windy day. In fact it was so windy that it almost took our car door off (this is a serious concern that rental companies will warn you about happening).
WHERE WE STAYED
We stayed at a cabin that we booked on Airbnb. In hindsight, we never would've booked it, but our options in the area were limited as it was incredibly remote! We won't share the link with you because the place was awful, but with our good luck so far we figured we were due for a travel snafu.
DAY SEVEN + EIGHT | Skagaströnd to West Fjords
The West Fjords is a hiker's/backpacker's paradise, with plenty of remote hiking and places you can't get to by car. We did none of that and had an amazing time! What we did instead is both hilarious and magical.
WHAT WE SAW
Ísafjörður, a cute town with an incredible bakery, amazing coffee shop and the best soup we've ever had (at a cafe called Húsið).
Holmavik Museum of Witchcraft and Wizardry, yes, really. It was weird and informative at the same time, and we highly recommend it if you end up in the West Fjords!
WHERE WE STAYED
Country Hotel in Heydalur through Bookings.com. This was another favorite spot of ours! They have a PET ARCTIC FOX. Yes, you're reading this right! He even went on a hike with us around the grounds to the river. We enjoyed the delicious dinner and breakfast provided by the hotel.
DAY NINE | West Fjords (Heydalur) to Snæfellsnes Peninsula (Grundarfjörður)
We chose not to drive the significant distance from the West Fjords to the Snæfellsnes Peninsula because we needed a break from driving/navigating. Instead we took the Ferry Baldur and brought our car aboard. But before heading to the dock, we had some time to explore the West Fjords a bit more.
WHAT WE SAW
Dynjandi, one of the impressive and majestic waterfalls in Iceland, and definitely the least visited due to how far it is from the path most traveled. If you go to the West Fjords, DO NOT miss this one!
Blueberry picking, there is nowhere and everywhere to do this! We found a hike off the beaten path and noticed what we thought were blueberries and bilberries along the way. We grabbed heaps of them and stored them in our hats until we could verify they were edible! Once we verified, we snacked on them and gave ourselves a pat on the back for our foraging skills.
WHERE WE STAYED
A guesthouse we found on Bookings.com.
DAY TEN | Snæfellsnes Peninsula
We woke up pretty early and set out to grab coffee and snacks for the day. This was definitely our fullest day, as the peninsula is densely dotted with beautiful sites!
Kirkjufell, a 10-minute drive from where we stayed and made famous from The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. Justin even skateboarded down the road to pay proper homage to the movie! Thank you to Salemtown Board Co. for the rental!
Snaefellsjoekull National Park, full of so many places to stop and see. We visited cliffs where you could see puffins, saw the Snaefellsjoekull glacier, walked along Djúpalónssandur beach, practiced yoga (self-led) at a bright orange lighthouse and climbed black lava rocks on golden beaches.
WHERE WE STAYED
Hotel Hellnar, a beautiful hotel on the water that had a dock and a cute restaurant nearby that had a really long wait while we were there. We ended up eating dinner and breakfast at the hotel - both spectacular.
DAY ELEVEN | Back to Reykjavik
After a trip around the island, we were tired and finally ready to make it back to meet our friends in Reykjavik.
WHAT WE SAW
Wild horses, if you travel around the island, take your time to stop and see some of these beauties! They are pretty friendly. We tried to feed them carrots, but being wild, they very obviously didn't care about our domestic snacks. It was incredibly disappointing.
Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur, because hot dogs. If you decide to go experience the magic, snag a corner of a nearby picnic table and enjoy!
Harpa, the gorgeous concert hall in Reykjavik. Definitely worth the walk around and see the impressive architecture.
Hallgrímskirkja, the gorgeously famous Lutheran church, also in Reykjavik. An absolute architectural beauty.
Bakari Sandholt, a savory and sweet bakery full of every kind of pastry you could ever imagine or want. It was around the corner from our Airbnb so we went multiple times.
Lebowski Bar, DUDE. If you're a fan, it's worth the stop to grab a drink (some version of a White Russian, obviously), and check out the kitschy vibe.
Valdis, we drove a bit off the beaten path to get gelato, because why not! We enjoyed them outside and it was worth every shivering moment.
WHERE WE STAYED
Airbnb right in the heart of the city (downstairs from Bakari Sandholt)
DAY TWELVE, THIRTEEN + FOURTEEN | Nearby Reykjavik
We spent about 10 days in Europe traveling before spending another three days in Iceland prior to coming home, so most of Day 12 was spent traveling. With the remaining time in Iceland, we covered the most visited tourist destinations and sprinkled in a few quirky, less known places.
WHAT WE DID
Reykjavik Roasters, we visited here every day because those cappuccinos and scones were out of this world! 10/10 would visit daily.
The Golden Circle, which includes several incredible sites along the way. The Geysir, Gullfoss, and Thingvellir National Park. All worth the trip, but definitely packed with tour buses and droves of people.
The Blue Lagoon, our favorite tourist destination by far. Maybe anywhere, ever. Enjoy the silica face masks, grab a drink, stay as long as your heart desires. We did NOT want to leave, but we closed the place down and still had to get back to the city! PRO TIP: Hit up the Blue Lagoon either on your way into or out of Iceland, as it's very close to the airport.
The ION Hotel, a modern, architectural beauty in the middle of nowhere. We had a great time exploring this place - inside and out. Highly recommend staying out here if you want a bit more of a remote experience or to really try to see northern lights in all their glory.
WHERE WE STAYED
Airbnb right in the heart of the city.
We realize this is an incredibly extensive blog post, but we wanted to share our experience since Iceland requires a bit more research than most travel destinations. It's taken us just over two years to finally put this all together, but we think it's worth the wait.