Several people have asked me for recommendations on things to do and see in Iceland. I've answered them each in turn, but I thought I might as well write down a comprehensive post and link to it. Well, here we are, 7500 words after that thought.
If you’re reading this because you’re actually planning to travel to Iceland, all I can say is: lucky you!
The easiest way to move around in Iceland is definitely by car. Public transport exists, but it's expensive and very infrequent outside of the capital area. Public transport in the capital area is actually quite good, with buses going almost anywhere and the price being 350kr (about 2.5US$, as of June ‘15) and there's a 90-minute transfer. All info on buses, local and intercity, can be found here: http://www.straeto.is/english/plan-your-journey/schedules-and-maps. Make sure you’re checking the appropriate schedule, as there’s a lot of variation between summer and winter.
If you are planning to rent a car, keep in mind that rental prices in Iceland are higher than anywhere else I’ve seen. In high season, because there are so many tourists (and the number is growing every year), the amount of rental cars isn’t keeping up and prices soar. Some people told me that they were paying 100EU a day for a small compact car. I’ve heard of a couple of cheaper options, like Sadcars and Cheapjeeps, and there's probably more. But if you’re gonna be traveling in Iceland in high season, mostly mid-June to mid-August, it’s probably a good idea to research and reserve in advance. Another good option is to try and find travel partners. After all, everything divided by 4 or 5 will be quite a bit cheaper. Many people use two Couchsurfing groups to find people to share trips, rentals, a beer in Reykjavik, or whatever:
You should consider renting a camper van – there are some smaller and cheaper ones that are not bad at all, and while rental expenses will be higher, you will not have to worry about accommodation. Another dilemma is whether to rent a 4X4 or not. There are many places where it will come in very handy, especially if you’re planning to go on mountain roads. In fact, rental agencies strictly prohibit driving on mountain roads (the ones marked with an F before the number) unless it’s a 4X4. And even if they allowed it, you probably don’t want to get stuck in the middle of the Icelandic highlands. But obviously 4X4s are more expensive. Most people who want a cheaper 4X4 option rent the small Suzuki jeeps – I would say the most common jeeps on the roads in Iceland are Suzukis.
Hitchhiking works pretty well, especially in high tourist season (June-August or so), and especially on the ring road and other main roads. Once you get onto unpaved roads you’re in for an adventure, and trying to hitch on mountain roads should only be done by the very patient, with good equipment and enough supplies to be able to weather a storm and eat and stay hydrated for a couple of days if you’re not picked up. Do your homework, do research, and don’t put yourself in physical danger for no reason. Having information in advance is a also good way to avoid frustration, boredom and failure. Having said that, I have done it, so it must be possible. Check out http://hitchwiki.org/en/Iceland for some good info.
As for places to stay, since there are so few big towns in Iceland (1000 residents is big by Icelandic standards), outside of Reykjavik and Akureyri options will often be pretty limited. A lot of the hotels, guest farms and hostels are quite nice, but also pretty expensive. It’s common for the same room to have different accommodation options: sleeping bag accommodation (meaning no sheets, blankets or covers on the bed), getting the sheets and covers but making the bed yourself, and having a pre-made bed. If you’re traveling in high season a lot of beds get booked months in advance. In short, my recommendation is to have a tent ready just in case. And if you must have a bed, make your plans in advance. Outside of mid-June to mid-August there shouldn’t be much problem, though, and a lot of places lower their prices as well.
My personal preference for sleeping arrangements would be camping. There are campgrounds literally everywhere, both in towns and outside of them, and they will very rarely run out of room. Many farms have them, some towns have free ones, and if you really can’t find any then you can always wild camp. If you’re within a fenced off area or there’s a house nearby it’s always better to ask for permission. And of course don’t forget to get good warm sleeping gear. Campground usually charge around 7-10EU, and it’s pretty common for them to charge extra for wifi, hot showers and charging your camera or phone. In some campsites they'll have a kitchen with a gas stove for your use, but sometimes it's only for people staying in cabins and sometimes there is none. I would suggest bringing a small gas stove and a small pot to cook for yourself, you can save lots of money that way. At the very least, a container of some sort to store pre-cooked food can come in very handy.
If you want to travel on a low budget in Iceland, your best bets would be hitchhiking, wild-camping and buying food only in supermarkets (Bonus, the one with the pink pig on yellow logo, is considered the cheapest). Doing that, I traveled for less than 10EU a day for about 10 days. Another option is trying to find one of the many farms and hostels on Workaway and HelpX. That way you’ll have accommodation and food covered. Of course that means you'll have less time to travel around and sightsee, but you can make up for it by staying longer in the country.
Expect the unexpected. Weather in Iceland is fickle and often treacherous. And, let’s face, it’s generally cold. Surprising, I know. Any month of the year temperatures can (and will) get in the low teens or lower, strong biting winds are common, and a day without any rain feels almost like a miracle. The good news: a day without any sun is also quite unlikely. And you know what sun and rain together create – rainbows! Tons of them, in angles you didn’t think were possible, full ones, pot-of-gold ones, double ones, and more. I’ve had days where I saw 8 different rainbows in a matter of 5-6 hours.
Always remember the popular saying “if you don’t like the weather in Iceland, wait five minutes”. Be prepared; always have rain gear and warm clothes ready, even if it’s clear, sunny and a scorching-hot 20 degrees out there (all degrees anywhere in my writings are always Celsius. I refuse to acknowledge the folly that is Fahrenheit). Not much need for sunscreen, though.
Sometimes the weather can get scary and dangerous, too. Ice and snow storms, really strong winds, and blinding fog are not uncommon, and roads get icy and slippery in a hurry. Make sure to check these websites and keep yourself updated:
http://www.safetravel.is/ (general safety)
http://www.vegagerdin.is/english (road conditions - especially relevant in winter)
http://en.vedur.is/ (info about weather, floods, gas pollution from volcanic eruptions and other hazards, and aurora forecasts).
A lot of people go to Iceland to see the Northern Lights. And for good reason! If that’s your plan, avoid frustration by researching a bit first. First things first: it has to be dark and at least part of the sky has to be clear to see them, which rules out most of the high season as an option. The earliest there is enough darkness to see the aurora is mid-August, and September is a much better bet. The latest is probably around end of April. From my experience the closer you are to midnight the better, but if they’re strong enough you’ll see them as soon as it’s dark. Once I even saw them just after the sun had set and twilight had barely started! And of course the longer you’re in the country, the better chances you’ll have. Can’t really do much about it, it’s a natural phenomenon, a matter of random chance and luck and statistics. I spent a month and a half in Iceland in 2014, all of September and half of October, and saw the Northern Lights well about 10 times.
You can improve your chances by getting as far away from big light sources as possible. That’s very easy in Iceland! If, for example, you wanna get out of the main urban area of Reykjavik to be somewhere where it's darker, you can do that with city buses. Probably your best bet would be number 27, that goes out of Mosfellsbær, the northernmost suburb of Reykjavik. In any case, in my opinion you should definitely not bother with Northern Lights tours – from what I’ve heard, they basically just drive you somewhere where there's less light and hope for the best, and charge you a lot for it. There will always be an easier and cheaper way to do it by yourself.
Icelandic culture is fascinating and often surprising. Obviously I can’t presume to write an overview of a country’s culture, but I will say that I never ceased to be surprised by how you can find museums, art galleries or residences and festival and cultural events in the smallest places imaginable. Icelanders are said to be the most well-read people in the world, Icelandic music and cinema is popular way beyond what would be expected from the size of the population, and sometimes it seemed to me like every young Icelander is in a band (or three). Also, the history about the settlement, the Viking way of life and mythology, the forced Christianization, the ancient parliament, combined with the very secluded and isolated way of life in harsh conditions, create fertile ground for informational exploring. There are so many museums and visitor centers with great information all over, you just have to reach out, be curious and spend some time on it. One of the Icelandic sagas could make for an interesting - if laborious – read while traveling in the country, or a book by Halldor Laxness, the nobel literature laureate.
If you’re in Iceland on the first weekend of August there’s a long weekend named “Merchant’s Weekend” with lots of events, including, among other things, a big music festival on the Westman Islands that’s supposed to be really good. If you’re there in September, try and join a réttir, or sheep round-up. In many places in Iceland the sheep are left to graze by themselves out in the highlands for the summer months, and live with no human intervention for months. In September, they’re gathered up by the farmers, and big réttir-s can include thousands, maybe tens of thousands of sheep flowing down one valley. I can recommend the one at Fljótstunga, which is the one I experienced, but they happen all over the country.
Finally, let's talk about places to go to. There are so many it’s hard to know where to start. I’ll break this up into a few different trip options. And one of the great things about Iceland is that you can just drive around without knowing anything, and just go by road signs that mark places of interest. It’s a square with four circles in its angles, what I like to call the Icelandic Flower. You never know what you’re gonna get, a crater or a waterfall or a rock with a story. It’s a nice, fun and flexible way to travel, especially if you like the unexpected.
Now, it might seem that I just made a list of all the places I visited in 4 months in Iceland, but it’s actually not even half of it! Of course there are many more places and sights anywhere you go, and you can't really go wrong anywhere in Iceland – I’m tempted to call it inherently beautiful. These are just some suggestions from the places I visited and impressed me the most. Any name or activity that I wrote about here can be googled to find more info, or feel free to ask me in the comments and I can expand on it.
I didn’t write much about Reykjavik, Akureyri, or other towns. I feel this post is long enough already…
The Ring Road (At least one week)
One of the first things you’ll hear about when planning a trip to Iceland is the Ring Road. It’s route number 1, the main highway of the country, and mostly follows the coast around the central highlands and a large part of the island, going through or close to a lot of the main natural sights. Driving the whole ring road from Reykjavik to Reykjavik is about 1300KM, so I would suggest having at least a week to complete it. I’ve met people that did it in four days, and heard of people that drove through the whole thing in 48 hours, but I would not recommend that at all. There’s so much to see! Why hurry through it instead of experiencing it and giving the places the time they deserve?
People often discuss the clockwise or anti-clockwise dilemma. I don’t think it matters too much, but it seems to me like there are more detour options outside of the ring road on the western side, only a few hours from Reykjavik. So my personal preference would be to do it anti-clockwise, to allow for more flexibility with time. That way you’ll be in a better position to know if you can manage one or more of the detours I mention below.
Some of my favorite spots on the road:
- Hveragerði : This small town is full of thermal activity. The main park of the town is actually a hot spring area, there’s a golf course where you play golf surrounded by geothermal vapor, and a couple of kilometers north of town there’s the hot river. True to its name, it’s a river that has several hot springs flowing right into it. Right where you can leave your car there’s the Hot River café, and just as you begin the hike there’s a small hot stream and a tiny hot waterfall next to the main, cold stream. After this, you need to hike for about an hour to get to the next hot water area. When you get there you’ll know it, and then it’s just a matter of finding a good spot where the balance of hot and cold water give you the uncommon feeling of hot flow. You can also do a longer hike in the area between Hveragerði and Thingvallavatn Lake. Other options in town include an art gallery, an earthquake museum, and buying Hverabrauð (hot spring bread), which is baked underground in thermally active areas.
- Seljavallalaug: There are many hot pools in Iceland, but not many of them can boast of having the kind of natural setting that Seljavallalaug has. Located in the lower folds of Eyjafjallajökull volcano (yeah, the famously unpronounceable one that wreaked havoc on air travel for a few weeks in 2010), the pool is sheltered in a small valley, and surrounded on 270 degrees by green-black hills, with small streams flowing down on all sides. It’s a great place to spend a couple of hours, and an even better place to wild camp. The pool itself is made from cement and fairly big, the water is hotter the closer you get to the source and there’s the still usable ruin of old abandoned changing rooms. To get there, turn off the ring road onto road 242, continue straight to the end of the road, park the car and walk to the right. There might be a sign pointing towards the pool, but if there isn’t, just following the trail to the right, towards the small valley, should do the trick.
- If you’re not going to walk the Laugavegur, one option for a long day-hike or an easy 2-day hike is Fimmvörðuháls. You can begin in Skogar, climbing the staircase to the right side of impressive Skogafoss, and walk up and up and up for a few hours, seeing more waterfalls in one day than some people see in their lifetime. The 40+ waterfalls are created by “steps” in the volcanic layers of the Eyjafjallajökull volcano, coupled with the glacial river that is formed by the melting of the glacier that tops it. When you reach the highest elevation, you will have views of two glaciers: the one on Eyjafjallajökull and the neighboring Myrdalsjökull, which covers the Katla volcano. You will then walk for an hour or so in the lava field created by the 2010 eruption, and will have the option to stay in one of two mountain huts: the first one is Baldvinsskali hut, it’s free and well equipped but probably illegal to sleep in without persmission (it didn’t stop me, but ymmv); the second one if the official and paid one, called Fimmvörðuskali. From there it’s a fairly easy and extremely beautiful walk down to the valley and small (yet big by Icelandic standards) forest of Þórsmörk. There you can also stay overnight in several huts or campground options, or take a bus back to the ring road – there should be an option going back to Skogar, and if not, it’s a short hitch there from Hvolsvöllur, where the bus to Reykjavik would join the road.
- The famous black sand and rock beaches in Vik, and the little less famous but maybe more beautiful one in nearby Dyrhólaey, are impressive, with a stark, jagged and dark beauty. In Dyrhólaey you can go down to the beach or up for views from atop the cliffs, and feel the sheer power of the waves as they carve their way through a natural rock arch. Vik is more similar to a “classic” beach, but in negative, with basalt columns and views of a circle of rock formations called Reynisdrangar. Don’t swim in either beach! The water is freezing cold and the currents are worse than treacherous.
- Núpsstaður: This is an abandoned farm, with traditional turf-houses, a small chapel and a very scenic location, complete with its own waterfall and basalt spires towering over it. It’s a bit confusing, because there was a NO ENTRY sign, yet it was marked as an attraction and had explanation signs within it. You can make your own mind about whether to go in or not – it’s about 150-200m in from the road, so you wouldn’t see much if you don’t walk in.
- Skaftafell National Park: It’s a great spot to camp, right next to a glacier tongue that comes out of the biggest glacier in Iceland (and third biggest in the world), Vatnajökull. It’s also a great place to hike, with many trails with different lengths and difficulties. An easy and short hike will take you to Svartifoss, which isn’t big but makes up for its size with the basalt columns that frame it. You should at least do that short hike, but I would highly recommend taking a full day and hiking further, to Kristinartindar. I have hiked a lot in my life, and consider this most satisfying one-day hike I’ve ever done. The views that you get to in less than 3-4 hours are well, well worth it – you hike up on an elevated area between two glacial valleys, the east one filled with a glacier tongue and the west one with a glacial river. And when you get to the top, you will have a breathtaking panoramic view. It is a bit of a hard climb, though, especially the last few hundred meters. Nothing technical, but the path is steep, with loose pebbles and not much on either side of you. It’s not easy, but you will not be disappointed.
- Jökulsárlón: It’s one of the most famous spots in Iceland, and for good reason. It’s a small glacial lake with many icebergs breaking off from the glacier tongue and floating out to see. You can take a boat tour to see seals and to get close to the edge of the tongue, stand on the bridge and see the icebergs breaking, rolling and crossing below you, head to the coastline and see the icebergs off on their sea-voyage, or just sit there for a couple of hours and take it all in. The variety of colors and hues of blue and white, the different shapes the icebergs take, their slow and calm flow followed by a tumultuous fight to get under the bridge – it’s well worth a couple of hours, and arriving early for sunrise or staying for sunset would not be a bad idea.
- Here I must admit a hole in my knowledge, since I didn’t pass through the eastern part of the ring road, and missed Höfn and the Eastfjords. It’s the least visited part of the ring road, and many travelers drive through it quickly and don’t visit any of the fjords and towns (there’s basically a town for every fjord). You would probably do well to choose at least one of them, but I can’t say much more about it.
- The Jökulsá á Fjöllum canyon, Ásbyrgi and Detifoss: A little north of the ring road, roads 864 and 862 follow the canyon of the second largest river in Iceland. It’s a glacial river flowing out of Vatnajökull. Within the canyon there are at least three lookout points from which you can see large waterfalls- the largest one being the 44m high Detifoss, the most powerful waterfall in Europe. If you can, I would suggest visiting the lookouts on both sides – the eastern one is more impressive, you feel the sheer power of the falls and can get as close as you feel is safe and even touch the waterfall’s water; the western side has a better, more complete view, and is more beautiful in my opinion; why not get the best of both? At the northern end of the canyon, where the two roads meet paved road 85, you’ll find Ásbyrgi, the horseshoe-shaped valley said to have been made by Odin’s horse - it’s a good place for a half-day hike around and a has really nice campground. On 862, the western road following the canyon, there’s also Hljodaklettar, the echoing rocks, also and area full of strange formations and well worth a few hours of exploring. 862 and 864 are both at least partly unpaved, but passable with any car. Another option you can consider is doing a 2-day hike following most of the canyon from Ásbyrgi to Detifoss, camping overnight in Hljodaklettar and returning from Detifoss with the bus back to Ásbyrgi. Check availability and be mindful that the bus only runs in high season.
- Lake Myvatn: The whole area around this lake is a veritable Geologist’s paradise. You can spend anything from half a day to 3-4 days just exploring the myriad Geologic phenomena all around the lake. You could probably do the whole thing walking, since distances are so small between the locations. Among the thing you will find just next to the lake or in the nearby area (no more than 5-10KM away): Hverir, a hot-spring, fumaroles and steam vent area that I consider the most beautiful one that’s easily accessible (the most beautiful one would have to go to Kerlingarfjöll); Hverfjall, a huge volcanic crater that you can climb and then walk the circumference of; Dimmuborgir, the place where Satan fell when he was expelled from heaven, with lots of strange and interesting volcanic formations; the pseudo-craters, a series of small craters on the lakeshore that were created by big steam explosions under a lava flow; Grjótagjá, an elongated crack in the ground that has created a kind of elevated tunnel you can go into, with thermal water that is just a bit too hot to feel comfortable in – but give it a try, how often do you get the chance at underground hot-pool immersion? (note: when we were there, locals cautioned us that there have been slabs of rock that have collapsed in the near past. Try to get recent info and decide whether to go in accordingly); and the Krafla area, which has had a recent (1986…) eruption, with a lava field where you can still see steaming and hot-to-the-touch rock, the Viti crater-lake, and a geothermal power plant with an interesting and free visitor and information center (there’s free coffee, too!); and more.
- Akureyri, the second biggest city in Iceland at ~17 thousand residents. It sits on a fjord, is very pretty and picturesque, and its Salvation Army store is probably your best bet to find an Icelandic sweater for cheap – I bought 5 for about 50EU. Since the new ones usually go for 100EU each, I consider that a very good deal.
- Vatnsnes: A smallish peninsula that you can drive around in 3-4 hours. It’s considered one of the best places to see seals, and there’s even a seal museum at Hvammstangi. You can also visit Borgarvirki, a volcanic plug that past Icelanders turned into a fort, and Hvitserkur, an arched rock formation a few dozen meters off shore, that if you’re lucky will be surrounded by birds and swimming seals.
- Glymur: It’s a bit of a detour off of the ring road, but I really recommend spending the time and fuel for it. It’s the highest waterfall in Iceland, but that distinction is not the only reason why. The hike up to where you can see the waterfall is a great hike, a bit challenging, and the view of the narrow canyon in which the waterfall hides is worth much more than the hour and a half of walking to get to it. After a river crossing on a steel cable and a fairly steep climb to the far side of the canyon, you will have the option to continue further and further up, getting closer to the waterfall. You will need a minimum of 2.5 hours for the hike, just to get to the first lookout and back to the parking lot. The more time (and willingness…) you have, the higher and closer you can get. Glymur on road 47, at the end of Hvalfjörður, a pretty fjord in its own right, and one that is very close to Reykjavik, so this can also easily be done as a day-trip from the city.
Long detours off the ring road
The Golden Circle
Probably the most popular trip that people take in Iceland, more so than the Ring Road because you can do it in one day. Honestly, there is so much info about it that I will not even bother. I will just say that if you take a tour, I would recommend one of those that continues onwards past Gulfoss and gets to the glacier lagoon at Hvitárvatn, for a boat tour and glacier walking. If you find one that also goes to Kerlingarfjöll, even better – it’s an amazing place. (more info below, under the highlands).
Look at a map of Iceland in Google Maps. See that huge area in the middle where there are no yellow roads? Those are the highlands. Welcome! They’re a bit more challenging to get to, but I would say you should definitely see at least a bit of the highlands on a trip to Iceland. Going without a tour or a 4X4 car will be a problem almost everywhere on the highlands, but there are some options. First of all, in high season there are buses through the two most famous mountain roads: from Reykjavik to Akureyri via Kjölur (F35) and from Reykjavik to Myvatn via Sprengisandur (F26). There’s another bus that goes to Landmannalaugar from Reykjavik. And the road to Landmannalaugar, while not exactly comfortable for a 2X4, is passable, and is probably the most hitchable mountain road- just make sure you go on road 32 and not 26, even though on the map 26 might look better.
On Kjölur, you can visit the glacial lagoon at Hvitárvatn, with an option for a boat tour that will take you to the end of the glacier tongue, and possibly glacier trekking; Kerlingarfjöll, a small mountain range in which you will find the most beautiful hot spring area in Iceland, as far as I’m concerned, and in which – if the weather, mostly the fog, permit you – you can do a 3-day hike around the mountains; and Hveravellir, another beautiful hot spring area. You can do an easy 2-3 day trek from Hvitárvatn to Hveravellir as well.
Landmannalaugar is arguably the most scenic campsite in Iceland, surrounded by colorful rhyolite hills. My first reaction when I arrived, just around sunset and with perfect light, was that I had stepped into a painting. The campsite is “equipped” with a natural hot pool that is nothing short of perfect – two streams go into it, a cold and a hot one, so you can just choose whatever temperature you want and wade around until you find it. It is also the most natural looking of the natural hot pools I’ve seen – I couldn’t find anywhere where it looks like there had been human intervention in the pool’s creation.
There are many hiking routes around, for any length and challenge level you could ask for, but by far the most famous is the Laugavegur. This trek from Landmannalaugar to Þórsmörk is the most popular in Iceland, and for good reason. The scenery changes at least once a day, and sometimes twice. You go through rhyolite hills speckled with snow and grass, an obsidian field with black mirror-like rocks shining all around you, hot spring areas in various colors, some of them with water in a pale, pale blue shade that was hard to believe existed, green cone-shaped hills rising from a plain that looked like something out of a fantasy story, cold deserts of black, red and brown rock and sand, a glacial canyon, and more. There are views of several glaciers on the way, most notably Myrdalsjökull and Eyjafjallajökull.
The trail is pretty straight forward and very well traveled. You’re certain to be accompanied by many other hikers, but it doesn’t feel crowded. Keep in mind that Icelanders are tough people, so if a river can be waded, they don’t build a bridge over it – so you will have to wade through at least two freezing rivers, maybe more. It’s supposed to be a 3-4 day trek, but I walked it in 2.5 without exerting myself too much, and then continued onwards to Skogar through the Fimmvörðuháls pass, which took me another 24 hours.
One small sidetrack that I really really recommend is climbing up to Reykjafjöll, near Hrafntinnusker hut – it’s the second tallest peak in the area, is not too challenging of a climb and shouldn’t take more than an hour up and down, and gives you a truly breathtaking panoramic view all the way from the rhyolite hills of Landmannalaugar to the two large glaciers in the south.
Snæfellsnes peninsula (at least 2 days)
It's a beautiful peninsula north of Reykjavik that is said to be a microcosm of Iceland. You can find a big variety of landscapes there, and many different phenomena. You can drive around it in a day, but I would suggest giving it at least 2, preferably 3 days. To get to it, take road 54 off of the ring road just north of Borgarnes. You can follow road 54 to where it loops and turns back east, but taking the unpaved 574 all around the volcano will be much more satisfying. Among other things in the peninsula, you’ll find:
- The massive basalt columns at Gerðuberg, which will look all the more impressive if you climb up from the road and stand right below one.
- The crater at Eldberg, which is considered one of the most beautiful and well-preserved craters in the country. To get to it you’ll need to hike about an hour each direction.
- The natural mineral water spring at Olkelda farm- you can drink the water and fill up bottles, but be sure to leave some kronas in the trust box.
- The whole rocky and cliff-y coast on the south-western corner of the peninsula is great for hiking, especially the hike from Arnarstapi to Hellnar, which is a fairly easy one-hour walk with great views of crazy rock cliffs, arches and pillars.
- The black and red sand and rock beaches at Djúpalónssandur & Dritvik. Besides the stark and desolate beauty of these beaches, you will also find the remains of a boat that sunk and washed ashore here, and some very heavy lifting stones that were used to test sailors’ strength in the past.
- The very narrow canyon, basically just a crack in the mountain, at Rauðfeldsgjá. When I was there in late September there were a lot of injured and dead birds in there, which might be a seasonal thing when the young birds learn to fly. It wasn’t the most pleasant sight, but if they weren’t there you can probably just keep climbing up boulders and tiny waterfalls further and further into the crack. Better bring watershoes or sandals, or just walk in barefoot, because your feet will get wet.
- The volcano Snæfellsjökull with the glacier on top of it. It might be the most perfectly shaped volcano in Iceland. Plus it was used as the entrance down towards the core in Jules Verne’s A Journey to the Center of the Earth.
- Kirkjufell mountain, an isolated and extremely photogenic mountain in a small peninsula just off the northern coast. If you’re a good hiker you can climb up to the top, but beware of strong winds.
- Berserkjahraun, a rugged but colorful lava field, full of weirdly shaped rocks.
- The town of Stykkishólmur, a nice town with a beautiful harbour on a fjord with many small islands. You can take a boat trip where you’ll see puffins and other birds and various islands with distorted basalt columns growing every which way, and you’ll eat the freshest oysters possible. There’s also a small but really good museum about volcanism, founded by one of the most famous Geologists in Iceland, and has rocks from his private collection and, strangely enough, an Andy Warhol painting (amongst others).
Roads 50 and 518 inland into West Iceland (at least a full day)
Here I must confess I’m biased, because this is the area where I spent most of my time in the four months I spent in Iceland. I worked as a tour guide in Fljótstunga Traveler’s Farm (http://www.fljotstunga.is/), an amazing place because of its surroundings, the lava field and the caves, its extreme quiet and isolation, and most of all its lovely owners. I highly recommend going there, even though it is a ~70KM detour off the ring road. At Fljótstunga there are cabins you can stay at, and you can do several short day hikes to a lovely waterfall called Dalfoss, up through mossy hills to the Swan Lakes, around on the lava field to the Glacial river Hvitá, and more. But the biggest attraction here is Viðgelmir, the largest lava cave in Iceland and the place that I had the pleasure of considering my workplace for a couple of months each in 2013 and 2014. I love that cave, I think it’s fascinating and beautiful and surprising and challenging and you can always find something new in it. You might not get all of that from the tour, but I think it’s a very powerful place. And huge – it’s more than 1.5km long.
Other things in the area include Husafell, one of the most popular campgrounds in Iceland, with its amazing views of Langjökull, the second biggest glacier in Iceland, and Eiríksjökull, the highest table mountain in Iceland. In the campground there are hot pools, and the “studio” of Pall Gudmundsson, who makes sculptures and musical instruments from natural rock and has played with Sigur Rós. From Husafell you can head up Langjökull on road 550 and then 551. On the glacier there’s dog sledding and snow mobile tours, and you can take an 8X8 bus all the way to the top of the glacier. Unless you have a 4X4 and good offroad driving skills, don’t pass the turnoff to F551 – the road beyond it, Kaldidalur, is considered one of the most challenging mountain roads in Iceland. If you have a 4X4 and said driving skills, you should probably go for it – it’s also considered one of the most beautiful.
A bit west of Husafell you’ll find Hraunfossar, a very wide waterfall in which the water comes out from the middle of a wall of basalt that marks the edge of the lava field. There are a lot of waterfalls in Iceland, so it’s hard to be original, but these ones are quite unique. One of my favorite spots is when you head a bit further upriver from the falls, cross the bridge, and follow a small footpath down to the river’s edge. There’s a spot where the walls surrounding the river are very narrow, and the water goes crazy for a few dozen meters. You can get very close to the water (carefully!), see a place where it’s flowing through a ring of rock, and just sit there and feel and hear the immense power of it all. It’s a great spot for turbulent meditation, or just plain old awe from nature’s strength.
Before you reach Fljótstunga or Husafell, you will cross Reykholt, a tiny town of some importance in Icelandic history. That’s because it was where Snorri Sturluson lived, an important Icelandic historian and poet. You will also pass Deildartunguhver, which at about 180L of boiling water per second is the most productive thermal spring in Europe and one of the most productive in the world.
You can visit all of these places in a day or two – stay at Fljótstunga if you can, the cabins are great, and the campground is one of the cheapest in the country.
The Westfjords (at the very least 3 days)
When you look at the Icelandic map, the Westfjords are that highly distorted and multi-fingered palm that juts out of the island on its north-western corner. It is one of the most isolated and least densely populated areas in a country that in many ways is defined by its isolation and non-density. It’s the oldest part of the island, geologically speaking, and relatively inactive volcanically, which makes for different landscapes. There are few bridges cutting across the various fjords, and a lot of the roads are unpaved, so driving around is quite slow and can get problematic. And some areas can be foggy as hell, and you might spend days inside a cloud.
But it’s one of the most beautiful areas in the country, has the largest amount of natural hot pools that you can immerse yourself in and camp next to, there are a lot of quirky museums (sea monster museum, nonsense museum, etc.) in the middle of nowhere, and spectacular views even relative to the “average” spectacular Icelandic landscape. And it’s the best area to see arctic foxes, your only choice in Iceland if you want to see wild land animals. I wouldn’t recommend venturing into the Westfjords if you don’t have at least 3 days for it, and probably 5 would be better. I spent 5.5 days driving around the area and felt that it was just barely enough. And keep in mind that fog can be an issue both for your enjoyment and for driving safety. Having said all that, I’ll mention some great spots in the area:
Hornstrandir: Speaking of isolation, Hornstrandir is the tip of the biggest and most isolated peninsula in the Westfjords. You could say it’s the end of the road, but there’s no road leading there. You can only get there by ferry from Ísafjörður, in high season only. And then you’ll have to walk. It’s supposed to be an amazing place for some days of hiking, but you need to be self-sufficient and able to survive a few days by yourself, knowing that there’s almost absolutely nothing where services are concerned. This is one of the two places that are on the top of my list whenever it is I go back to Iceland.
The abandoned herring factory at Djúpavík: On the unpaved 643 road, this tiny village at the tip of a fjord is worth a couple of hours. A rusted ship skeleton and the very large and round cement fish tanks is most of what is left of the factory. The place is quite eerie and I’m a fan of abandoned buildings. I recommend crawling into the empty fish tanks and enjoying the extreme echo inside. Bonus points if you sing!
Sorcery and black magic museums: The Westfjords are considered the center of Icelandic folk beliefs, black magic and sorcery. There are two museums you can visit to learn about it. One is in Hólmavík, costs about ~1000kr and has information about the displays and the history; the other is a small turf house, called the Sorcerer’s Cottage, and is in a farm where they have a hotel, campground and an old turf hot pool – entrance to the cottage is free, and displays are interesting, but don’t expect anything large or much written info.
Drangajökull: A glacier, relatively small by Icelandic standard, but it doesn’t matter much because you’re probably not planning to walk across it. It’s located at the end of a mini-fjord that is filled by a glacial lagoon, and it’s about a 1.5 hour hike from road 635 to where you can touch the ice itself. The hike will take you through the narrowing U-shaped valley created by the glacier, next to the meltwater river and surrounded by streams flowing down from all sides. It’s a bit of a challenging hike, and you might need to wade in water up to your knees.
Dynjandi waterfall: This is a stepped waterfall, with a comfortable path to walk up between the different steps and as close as you want to the main fall.
Látrabjarg: Literally the end of the end, this is the westernmost point in the Westfjords (and in all of Europe). And it ends with a bang – huge basalt cliffs, up to 400m high. You can walk on the edge, get close and peer down into the rocks and sea hundreds of meters below you. Be careful though! Don’t approach the edge standing up, strong gusts of wind might give you a little push, and you don’t need much more than that to take the long way down. There are lots of puffins here, in season, and the sight of the unending ocean coupled with the sheer rock walls is inspiring in a “how small am I?” kind of way. It’s far, maybe the farthest you can go, but hey, you already made it this far, so why not?
There’s a ferry that goes from Stykkishólmur on Snæfellsnes peninsula to Flókalundur in the Westfjords. You can take a car on it, and you would pass through the many islands of Breiðafjörður, including a stop on the inhabited Flatey.
Reykjanes peninsula (at least a full day)
This is the peninsula south of Reykjavik, where the airport is located. You can probably drive around the peninsula in one day, so it can work well as a day-trip from Reykjavik. You can find some impressive geothermal areas there, like Krýsuvik and Gunnuhver; a geothermal power plant that has tours at Reykjanesvirkjun; some cool lighthouses in the southwest and northwest corners; impressive cliffs with lots of birds around in Krýsuvikurbjarg and Hafnaberg; lovely lake Kleifarvatn and some small lakes with pretty colored water next to it; and of course the Blue Lagoon, which is super popular and touristy, and actually quite nice, but too expensive in my opinion: about 35EU for a spa and hot pool in an interesting setting.
Short, 3-5 day trip
If you only have 3-5 days in Iceland, my recommendation would be to not try and go too far. There’s plenty to see and do close to Reykjavik. Some combination of a trip on the ring road until Jökulsárlón on the southeast corner and back, the golden circle, Reykjanes and Snæfellsnes is probably your best bet, depending on how much time you have. If I only had 2-3 days, I would personally choose driving to the southeast and back – you get varied sceneries, a nice long drive, lots of options on where to stop and hike some short hikes, and you get to have your breath taken away by the amazing Jökulsárlón.