Iceland is one of those places. It’s my favorite. I fell in love with Iceland on my first visit in 2012, and have never gotten it out of my system. I keep going back, guiding small group trips mostly these days. The landscapes are incredible and it’s a country full of nice, welcoming people. What’s not to love?
Well… there are a few things not to love and you need to be aware of them before heading out. There are also a lot of easily missed places, and so many options that it can be overwhelming trying to plan a trip here. Hopefully, this guide will help take some of the uncertainty away, save you some time and give your trip planning a boost. Yes, I do guide trips to Iceland most summers. But I also realize that’s not for everyone. This guide is to help those that want to go on their own (there are a lot of things that make the guided trip well worth it, but that’s a different topic for another day).
What this guide is not (at least not yet) is a guide to hiking and backcountry camping. I plan on adding that, probably as a separate guide at some point. For now, this guide will include information about campground camping and some hiking activities, but is not geared for heading into the Highlands, the Hornstrandir region, etc. to walk for a week or four.
**This data is current as of 8/14/2018. Be aware that any advice, suggestions, ideas, or other information on this page is taken at your own risk, and there are no guarantees or promises that everything is 100% correct. Do you own research, confirm what you find, and plan a great trip. Just don’t blame me if it doesn’t go the way you want or expect. You can only do that if you go on one of my guided tours 🙂. Also, any companies, hotels, etc. listed below are not paid inclusions – I receive no compensation for including them in my guide. Their addition here is solely based on my experiences.**
When To Go
There are benefits to going at pretty much anytime throughout the year. But cons as well.
June, July, and August are the busiest months, which means tourists are everywhere. Especially along the Southern coast. If you know where to go, it’s not hard to get away from the masses, but know that the most popular desintations and attractions are likely to be crowded. During most of June and July there isn’t much darkness at night (if at all during the weeks surround the summer solstice on June 21st). That means you can visit a waterfall or other natural attraction at 1am and you will not only have sunlight, but most likely some solitude. The downside to this is there is no chance of seeing the aurora. It’s there – but it will never be dark enough to see it. This is also the high season so prices will be higher for hotel rooms, car rentals, etc. Hotels will book up in Reykjavik and there will likely be waits at restaurants. These are the warmest months though, and typically (not this year in 2018 – so much rain) better weather. You will also have access to the highlands starting usually late June and through August and into September. The rest of the year the interior of Iceland will not be accessible without a special vehicle and guide.
Mid-October through February is pretty much the opposite. Daylight hours start to shorten and the weather grows colder and more harsh. In mid-December there will only be 4-5 hours of daylight. This leaves less time for visitiing attractions and going on tours. But the opportunities to see the aurora are much greater. It used to be that the vast majority of tourists visited in the summer months and the rest of the year it dropped significantly. These days, people visit year round, so it becomes more difficult to escape the crowds of tourists, but there are definitely less in the winter. Driving during the summer months is straightforward. During the winter it is only recommended if you have experience driving in snowy conditions, high wind and ice. Winter storms can be severe. If you do decide to drive, always check the forecast and listen to the warnings. Especially once you leave Reykjavik and are driving through smaller towns. Stop and ask. If winter driving isn’t for you there are plenty of tours and options for guided travel during the winter that makes it considerably easier.
The other months – mid-March through May and September are shoulder seasons. These are my favorites. They are a little more risky in that both have potential for more severe weather than the summer months (the summer months can have significant storms too – don’t underestimate the weather in Iceland). During the shoulder seasons there is a good mix of light and dark hours giving you plenty of time for activities during the day, but also the opportunity to see the aurora. During the mid-March through May months, the highlands will still be inaccessible and there is a chance it could snow. Things haven’t really greened up yet, but you’ll get great contrast between white snow patches and the black sand and rocks, and the greenery that is there in photos. Roads are usually clear, but it’s important to pay attention to the forecast.
September is my favorite month to visit. High season used to end in early September, but lately its seems hotels keep pushing high season prices further into the month. There are usually less tourists, the highlands are still accessible, and the colors of the landscape are a beautiful mix of gold, orange and green (especially in Thorsmork if you catch it right). The annual sheep round-up is also in September and that’s a site to behold. Seven thousand sheep trotting past and around your car, while riders on horseback try to keep them mostly together, is quite an experience. If you go late enough in the month the prices for most tourist services (hotels, car rentals) drop and you can save some money. Hotel vacancies are easier to find. The aurora starts to make an appearance as well.
There are direct flights from many US cities across the entire U.S. now. Unfortunately, that doesn’t include Atlanta. Boston, JFK, BWI, Miami, Denver, Seattle, San Francisco, LA… and others, all have direct flight options. If you are like me and near Atlanta, you still have a couple of options. Icelandair usually partners with a carrier during the spring and summer months out of Atlanta. In the past, they have used Canada Air (connects through Toronto) and JetBlue (connects through Boston). Delta also has flights (I believe year-round now) that connect through JFK. Personally, if I can avoid JFK or LaGuardia, I do so at all costs. I have had enough bad experiences at both to gladly spend a little extra to route through a different airport.
Another option, which can work out cheaper is to buy two separate tickets. For example, from Atlanta in the past, a flight may run $950 with a connection through JFK on Delta. But an Icelandair flight from Boston was $350, and a separate roundtrip ticket on JetBlue between Atlanta and Boston was only $89. If you check a bag, you will need to leave enough layover time to go to baggage claim and get your bag and go back through security once in Boston, but it can potentially end up saving you a good bit of money.
Budget airlines have been pushing cheap airfare to Iceland over the past couple of years. WOW Air being the primary one. Icelandair, which used to be a full-service carrier, has taken on a lot of the same policies and service levels as WOW, and operate very similar to a budget airline now as well. Basically, you pay a low base fare and then a fee for each add-on. In my experience, they draw you in with an outrageously low airfare, but by the time you add up all of the additional costs and fees you don’t save very much money. I think there are definitely deals to be had, but be careful and know what you are getting for your money.
You made it to Iceland! Now what?
Most flights from the US arrive in Iceland in the morning, anywhere from 5am to 10:30am. Depending on daylight savings time, Iceland is either 4 or 5 hours ahead of EST. So, if you leave Boston at 9pm, it is approximately a 5-hour flight, so that will be landing around 6am in the summer. Adrenaline and excitement will take you a little way, but exhaustion will eventually set in that first day. If you give in to it and take a nap, it will take you longer to acclimate to the time change, potentially days. I highly recommend staying awake until late evening or early night if possible. You will wake up the following day well rested, adjusted to the local time, and ready to go (this applies to all European travel).
The airport you will fly into is actually in Keflavik, which is about 45 minutes by car from Reykjavik. If you aren’t renting a car (if you are, I’ll add some tips about that below), then you will want to take the FlyBus: https://www.re.is/flybus/. No need to reserve it in advance, there are always buses available from the airport, and you can buy a spot when you arrive. After you exit baggage claim, bypass customs if you have nothing to declare, then go through the exit doors, you will find a ticket booth with a big sign. It’s easy to find. You can buy a FlyBus ticket that will take you all the way to your hotel, which is what I would recommend. You will switch buses at the BSI terminal in Reykjavik, but it’s easy. You get off one bus and there will be a smaller van right there waiting for you to take you to your hotel.
A quick note about alcohol in Iceland. It is only available for sale at bars, restaurants, and state-run liquor stores. You will find what looks like and is marketed as beer in convenience stores and grocery stores, but don’t be fooled. This is called near-beer, and is non-alcoholic. The only place you can buy beer, liquor or wine is at officially designated, state-run stores. And it is expensive. If you plan on drinking while in Iceland, before leaving the airport hit the duty-free shop. You will still have sticker shock compared to prices in the US, but it is significantly cheaper at the airport than the state-run stores you will have to visit later.
I highly recommend not planning a lot on the first day. The first day is a great day to spend exploring Reykjavik. The famous Blue Lagoon is between the airport and Reykjavik – only about 15 minutes from the airport itself. Flybus (Reykjavik Excursions is the company that runs it) also has a package that will take you from the airport directly to the Blue Lagoon. Hours of operation change through the year and can be found here: http://www.bluelagoon.com/plan-your-visit/opening-hours/. If you want to go to the Blue Lagoon, you need to buy a ticket in advance. The Blue Lagoon is cool. It really is. It’s also the biggest tourist attraction in the whole of Iceland. It sells out of space every day in advance and is always crowded. It’s also not cheap. But, I can’t say it’s not worth doing at least once. They recently expanded it, so that may have alleviated some of the crowds trying to get in. If you go straight from the airport, the earlier you get there the better. When you get off the bus, you’ll want to take your bags and they have a place that you can pay to store them right by where the bus will drop you off. Buses will run about every hour, and so when you are ready to go, you just grab your bags and get on the next bus that will take you to Reykjavik. The area around the Blue Lagoon is worth exploring – as you are walking down the path to the entrance, you will see a trail that goes off to the left just before going in the doors. Follow that path and you can walk through the middle of the 800 year old lava fields. If you skip the Blue Lagoon on arrival and go to straight to Reykjavik instead, you can always go from Reykjavik to the Blue Lagoon later. However, go in the evening. It will likely be less crowded than morning and afternoon times. The timing, early morning or late evening applies whether you are taking a bus or if you have a car.
Moving about Iceland is not difficult, and you have a number of options at your disposal. Many visitors stay in Reykjavik and just book tours that visit destinations with a few hours distance, traveling by bus or van provided by the tour company. Nothing wrong with this at all, especially if you are visiting during the Winter months when there is limited daylight and driving conditions can be dangerous, or if you have a very limited amount of time in the country. Obviously, you are severely limiting the things you can see and the experiences you can have. Another downside is you will always be with a large group of tourists.
Another option is to buy a bus pass with one of the main bus lines, with Reykjavik Excursions (re.is) being the biggest. This gives you hop on, hop off priveledges so you can ride the bus to one of the stops somewhere in the country, get off and explore, staying as long as you want. Hop on any of the other buses from that company that stop. It is important if this is your plan to have a bus schedule. Especially as you get further from Reykjavik, the number of stops per day may be as few as two, and you don’t want to end up being stranded somewhere with no place to stay. This method is easiest if you are traveling with a backpack and plan on getting off the bus at an area with a hotel where you have a reservation. There are bus routes that will take you by all of the major destinations, and many you may not have heard of.
Renting a car is the best way to get the most out of your trip, especially in the Summer and Fall months. It’s also the best way to see the most in the shortest amount of time. Summer months, September and into October are the best times for self-driving trips. I would not recommend driving during the Winter unless you have significant experience with driving in heavy snow, ice and high winds. It is not difficult to drive in Iceland; if you’ve never driven in a foreign country and are nervous, don’t be. Basics are wearing your seatbelt, headlights must be on at all times, follow speed limits (typically 50 km/h in cities, 80km/h on dirt roads, and 90 km/h on paved roads). Most cars have a manual transmission, but you can rent an automatic if you are more comfortable with that type of car. A great resource for driving in Iceland can be found here: https://safetravel.is/driving/driving-in-iceland. One big rule, that you must follow: no off-road driving is allowed anywhere in Iceland. There are heavy fines (10’s of thousands of USD) if you leave a roadway to drive through any other terrain. More on driving on dirt roads (the F roads) below. If you have had a valid U.S. driver’s license for at least one year, that is all you need to legally drive in Iceland – an International driver’s license is not required.
The main roads in Iceland are generally in good condition. The ring road is a two-lane “highway” that makes a loop around the entire country, though it does require a side trip to go into the West Fjords region. It is paved, for the most part. Many people base their trip around driving the ring road. You will pass by many of the most popular destinations, go through small towns and have plenty of options for adventure and sight-seeing. A small two-wheeled drive car is all that is needed for this type of driving. There are other paved roads within towns, and in some parts of the country into other towns and areas off the ring road, especially along the Southern coast. But be aware while driving as some paved roads switch to dirt and gravel with no warning.
Dirt roads that go into the interior of Iceland or the Highlands are called F-roads. They are designated by the letter F and a number. For example, when looking at a map you may see F-208 goes to Landmannalaugar. Most rental cars are not allowed on F-roads. If you plan on driving on the F-roads, make sure you rent a car that has been designated ready and allowed on F-roads by the rental car company. Driving a normal car onto the F-roads can result in heavy fees and a loss of insurance coverage. Most rental car companies have 4×4 vehicles available that are rated for F-road use. They are typically a little more expensive, but it can be well worth it, as leaving the main road helps you escape the crowds of tourists and makes some of the most beautiful parts of Iceland accessible. Most of the F-roads in the interior of Iceland are only accessible from mid-to-late June through September. F-road driving isn’t for everyone. You should be familiar with driving a 4×4. It would be very helpful to know how to change a tire, as flats regularly occur. Some F-roads have river crossings. Some should never be attempted in a rental car, while others are perfectly safe. You should be comfortable and experienced before attempting to cross any rivers in your car. Further, while it’s virtually impossible to drive on F-roads without crossing a river at some point, insurance does not cover any water damage to the car – meaning if you get your car stuck in the river or otherwise cause damage to the undercarriage you may be stuck with a large bill. All of that said, if you are careful and drive safely, you should be fine. I always get a 4×4, and while the Land Rover Defenders are somewhat of the “in” car to get photos within Iceland, I typically get a Land Cruiser. They are significantly more reliable and comfortable. I’ve never had a problem, and have crossed dozens of rivers.
If you do decide to rent a 4×4 and tackle the F-roads, please keep in mind that this is wild territory and you need to be comfortable with reading the water in river crossings and finding a suitable path to cross (or to know when to say it’s too risky and turn back). You’ve got to have the right kind of vehicle and skills or you put yourself and your passengers at risk – not just from losing a lot of money if something happens to the car, but even death. https://icelandmonitor.mbl.is/news/news/2018/09/03/american_woman_dies_in_river_accident_whilst_honeym/. This was at a crossing I have made numerous times (and turned back from once after a big rain). I’m is not to scare you away from a great adventure, but know what you are doing and getting into.
There a number of options for car rental companies, including American-based brands such as Hertz, Budget, etc. Even though the brands are recognizable, these are independently owned and operated (as they are anywhere outside the U.S.), and you won’t receive any help if you need it by calling the 800 numbers for the companies in the U.S. In fact, there a large number of horror stories that you can find online about renting from these companies (and several Icelandic and European branded rental companies. When renting a car in Iceland (or anywhere really) take a video using your phone as you walk around the car highlighting any scratches, dents, etc. If you drive on the F roads with a car not meant for the F roads, they will know. And likely decide there is gravel damage to the undercarriage. Follow through rules, document any dents or scratches you find before leaving the car rental parking lot and you should be fine.
I highly recommend considering Blue Car Rental (www.bluecarrental.is). I don’t receive any type of benefit for recommending them, it’s based solely on personal experience. When guiding tours I needed a reliable rental car company. I chose Blue because they were locally and family owned. Their customer service has been excellent, and they have always worked to make sure I had what I needed. They have an office at the airport, a short walk across a parking lot, as well as an office near downtown Reykjavik by the harbor (about a 10 minute walk from the main shopping area. They offer a shuttle service, but you don’t need it. Both are short walks, and if it’s raining, you can try to wait for it to pass or grab an umbrella.
Even if you have insurance coverage at home or with your credit card that covers rental car damages, I highly recommend signing up for the additional insurance your chosen rental car company offers. All of them will include CDW insurance in the rental price. You can add on SCDW insurance which lowers your deductible (and I highly recommend it). Blue Car rental includes SCDW insurance in the base rental price already. You can add on additional insurance coverage, but whether it’s needed depends on where you’re going. Theft protection is completely unneeded, regardless of what an unscrupulous car rental agent may tell you. Car theft is almost unheard of in Iceland. SAAP (Sand and Ash Protection) is an add-on that if you are traveling across the South of Iceland and plan on going East past the town of Vik, I would highly recommend. If you are not going to this part of the country it’s unneeded. No insurance covers water damage due to river crossings. You are taking on that risk if you choose to do so.
Buying gas (petrol) for your rental car works slightly different than it does in the U.S. You will need to have a credit card and know the PIN. I would recommend not using a debit card as they place holds on the card and it can take time to clear. All gas stations are self serve. There is typically one pay station for all of the pumps, and when you insert your card you are required to enter the PIN as well. Some petrol stations will have cash cards, like a Visa check card inside the store that you can purchase and then use to buy your gas at the paystation if you do not know your PIN or only have cash to use. But not everyone sells these, so don’t rely on it. The gas pumps remain on 24×7, so even if the attached store is closed, you can still get gas.
Finally, hitchhiking in Iceland is common, safe and easy to do. If you have plenty of time and don’t need to stick to a strict schedule, hitchhiking may be a viable means to get around for at least part of your trip. Keep in mind the more remote areas you reach, the less number of vehicles that will pass by. I have both hitchhiked there myself, and picked up hitchhikers and it has always been a good experience.
Lodging in Reykjavik
Hotel prices have increased dramatically over the last few years. Many rooms that were $225 in 2015 were going for $400+ in 2017. Iceland is one of the most expensive countries in the world to travel to, and it is getting more so. That said, it is still possible to find deals at nice hotels in Reykjavik and beyond. Most rooms are smaller than typical American hotel rooms and will fit two people max. There are some suites available that are made for 3 or 4.
In Reykjavik, it is best to stay in the area around Laugavegur St. That is the main shopping district, and most everything you will want to visit in Reykjavik is within walking distance, with a few possible exceptions. Hotel Fron is an option directly on Laugavegur St. I have stayed there several different times, and each time I was very happy with the room and service. In my experience, their rooms have been larger than average, especially if you choose to stay in a suite. Through 2017, they had rooms available in the $200 range which is a steal for the location. Any Centerhotel brand is a good option as well, though they have steadily increased in price. CityCenter Hotel is very nice, and they have a craft beer bar in their lobby named MicroBar. Their room prices can vary dramatically depending on availability and time of year. I’ve stayed in a room there for $200 that at another time was going for over $900. The Centrum hotel has nice rooms, a large lobby and bar and is just off of Laugavegur.
Airbnb is another option if you prefer an apartment. There are many apartments available in the downtown Reykjavik area, just make sure you know exactly where the apartment is as you want to be near the Laugavegur St. area, or somewhere between Laugavegur and the harbor. There has been some controversy in Reykjavik (as in many other cities around the world) as apartments are being bought up solely to be used for Airbnb rentals, driving locals further out and prices up. Another issue is the lack of taxes that are paid by these rentals vs the taxes hotels must collect. I typically prefer apartment rentals when traveling in European countries, but have never stayed in one in Reykjavik.
There are several hostels in the downtown area, with Kex Hostel being the most popular. I don’t have much to add, on the hostel options as I have always stayed in hotels while guiding tours. But it is a popular choice for many traveling to Reykjavik to help save money. If you are up for it, there are a couple of campgrounds around Reykjavik as well.
A Few Things To Do In Reykjavik
There are many, many more things than what is listed below. This should just get you started.
There are many great restaurants around Reykjavik (and Iceland in general). One of my favorites, though a bit pricey, is Kol. The food is excellent, and they are known for their cocktails, including some special house blended liqueurs. My favorite is the duck fat infused bourbon.
My favorite place for a beer in Reykjavik is a brewery by the harbor named Bryggjan Brugghus. They are a full service restaurant as well. It is a large space, nicely decorated, a long bar and has views of the harbor. If the weather is nice, there is outdoor seating. Plus, they make fantastic beer.
When facing Hallgrimskirkja, to the right is a big squarish building that is the museum for the famous Icelandic sculptor Einar Johnsson. You can buy a ticket to go inside, but if you go around to the back, it’s free to wander through the garden area where numerous Johnsson statues are on display.
The harbor is worth a visit. You can do whale or puffin tours from there. Most get good reviews. Puffin visits are best in early summer. By August, their numbers will have already started to dwindle as they head back out to sea. The harbor area has seen a revitalization in recent years, with new restaurants and bars opening.
The famouse hotdog stand, Baejarins Beztu is about the cheapest way to eat in Reykjavik. Just order a hotdog with everything and it will be the best hotdog you’ve ever had. It’s a little stand, and there is usually a small line. Open very late – usually through the night.
If wine is more your thing, check out Cafe Paris. They have good French food as well.
I like to stop in at the library, located between Laugavegur and the harbor. They have a photography museum upstairs with usually fantastic work. This used to be free, but recently they began charging the equivalent of ~$10 USD. That’s pushing it for the value, based on the small size of the gallery, but depending on the artist it can be worth it.
Harpa Music Hall
Inside of Harpa Music Hall, you can get drinks and go up to higher levels to find tables and areas to sit and hang out with a cool viewWalk along the bay to find the Sun Voyager, a viking ship sculpture made completely of stainless steel. A view across the bay and the distant mountains sit behind it.
The beer culture in Iceland is growing, with several great places to grab one on draft (foss). Microbar is the oldest and is in the lobby of the CityCenter hotel. Fairly small, but a great beer selection. Mikeller & Friends is larger, will have more locals and a more local feel, and an even bigger tap list. Mikeller is a Dutch company. Kaldi is a local beer brand and they have their own bar downtown. Skuli is a nicely decorated craft beer bar with a focus on Borg beers (though others are available).
The famous church with the large tower. You can buy a ticket to ride the elevator almost to the top (there are some stairs that you have to climb) to gain a view over all of Reykjavik. Definitely worth the time and money. In front of the church is a statue of Leif Eriksson, a gift to Iceland from the U.S. It was erected in 1932, and was there prior to the church being built.
Walk along the bay to find the Sun Voyager, a viking ship sculpture made completely of stainless steel. A view across the bay and the distant mountains sit behind it.
Avoid the Puffin named tourist stores unless you just want stuff that says Iceland on it for cheap. It’s all Chinese made and these stores have started popping up everywhere. Service will be slow (by American standards) at every restaurant. It’s just how it is. Tipping isn’t expected, though that is slowly changing. It is not uncommon to see tip jars out at take away spots. If you see a tip line when paying at a full service restaurant, you are in a touristy spot.
South Coast Area
The area along the southern coast is amazing and easily accessible. This also makes it the most crowded. But with a limited amount of time in Iceland, it is a good option. You’ll take Route 1 (the ring road) East from Reykjavik. Most of these stops are available just by taking the Reykjavik Excursions bus East without a specific tour in mind. It is also easily driveable outside of the Winter season.
As you head East out of Reykjavik, these are (some) of the notable spots to visit in the order that you will reach them. I highly encourage you to explore more though. There are so many amazing places to see if you are willing to look for them.
- Reykjadalur is a valley with hot springs that you can hike to and soak in. It’s about an hour walk each way, and the trail starts in a town Hveragerdi.
- Seljalandsfoss is a cool waterfall that you can walk behind. It is also extremely popular. You can’t miss it from the ring road – you’ll see it way before you get there. There is a small fee to park, and it’s possible the lot will be full. After viewing Seljalandsfoss, walk down the trail that follows along the cliff face towards the farm. There is another waterfall that is hidden in a narrow canyon right behind the farm, named Gljufrabui. It’s my favorite waterfall in Iceland. This is a bus stop.
- Continue on the ring road, look for a dirt road, on the left with a sign for ‘242.’ Follow the dirt road until it ends and you will see other cars parked. Follow the river upstream and you’ll come to the warm water swimming pool Seljavallalaug. There is an old dirt floor changing room in disrepair that can be used for changing, but I recommend just doing it in your car. Buses do not visit the pool.
- Next is Skogafoss waterfall. You will have seen it in a million photos. It is still awesome in person. There is a trail that goes up beside it and actually continues up and over Eyjafjallajokull and down the other side. There are tons of amazing waterfalls within the first few miles and you can always turn back whenever you want. I hiked this trail from the opposite direction in 2012 and it’s fantastic. If you were interested in hiking the whole thing is possible to arrange it so that you catch a Reykjavik Excursion bus on the other side. There is a museum near the Skogafoss waterfall as well – it is a nice stop if it’s rainy and you want to do something inside for an hour or so. There is a campground here, a few hotels, and a few restaurants. This is a touristy area and a bus stop.
- Just past Skogafoss, you will find road 221. This leads to Solheimajokull, a glacial toe that you can walk right up to. There are tours offered to walk on the glacier or even ice climbing. Do not walk on the glacier without a guide. Heed the warning signs and do not go past the areas where it is advised to stop.
- As you continue East on the Ring Road, Dyrholaey will be on the right. And past that Reynisdrangar. There are black sand beaches and amazing basalt cliffs here. You must be very cautious and vigilant. They have rogue waves on this beach, where the water seems calm and then a giant wave comes up the beach and pulls people out to sea. They have had tourists drown at least once a year recently, and several other near drownings. It’s beautiful, but keep some distance from the water.
- Next, you will come to Vik. It is a cool little town, famous for its black sand beach and three rock spires out in the ocean. You will have seen these spires from the opposite side at Reynisdrangar. Vik also has an iconic red-roofed church up on the hill. There is a wool shop in Vik that is a good place to check for souvenirs.
- If you have the time, I highly recommend continuing East from Vik, across the floodplains and to Skaftafell and then Jokulsarlon. Skaftafell is a national park, and there is a trail that will take you to a toe of the largest glacier in Europe, Vatnajokull. If you continue 30 minutes past Skaftafell, you will come to Jokulsarlon, the iceberg lagoon. After crossing the bridge there, turn to the right instead of the parking lot and walk down to the beach. This is where you’ll find icebergs washed up on the black sand. Go back across the bridge instead of going into the Jokulsarlon parking lot (it’ll be packed), and instead turn into one of the areas on the right on the far side of the bridge. Walk over the hill and you’ll have the glacier lagoon all to yourself.
Lodging In The South of Iceland
There are numerous lodging options, from camping, hotels, hostels, homestays, farm stays, and rental properties. Here are a few that I can recommend:
- Hotel Leirubakki sits near the volcano Hekla and has a very well-done museum on-site. This is also on one of the Reykjavik Excursions bus routes. It is an old horse farm and sits in the countryside with not much else around. It is a good home base if you plan on venturing into the highlands and Landmannalaugar. The on-site restaurant has good food, which is lucky as it’s the only option around.
- Hotel Fljotshlid is a working horse farm between the town of Hvolsvollur, Seljalandsfoss and looks down towards the valley of Thorsmork. They have delicious homemade skyr in the restaurant for breakfast. The rooms are nice and clean, and the view is beautiful looking back towards Thorsmork. A great option if you plan on heading into the highlands on F261.
- Hotel Ranga is an expensive, “luxury” property. They have a well-regarded restaurant and make great cocktails. During the months when the aurora is visible, they offer viewing programs. Some of their rooms are themed.
- I am not a fan of any of the hotels around Skogafoss. I think driving on to Vik offers better options, and it’s only 30 minutes away. Icelandair Hotel Vik is one such option. This hotel has increased in price dramatically over the last couple of years, but it is in a nice spot and if you have a room on the coast side of the hotel you can see the rock spires out in the sea. The rooms are good size and the breakfast has many options. If you can find a good deal on this hotel, it’s a good choice for the South Coast.
- There is a campground at Skogafoss, directly in front of the waterfall. Pick your spot carefully, as some spots on the grass will pool up with water. This is a great spot to camp as you are onsite and can visit the waterfall for photos when everyone else is asleep. It’s the only way to get photos of this popular spot without other people hanging around in your photo. Even in the times of year when it does get dark at night, seeing the aurora here is special. Also, if you take your headlamp (use the red infrared light if it has it to save your night vision), wear a raincoat and rain pants, and walk all the way up to the side of the waterfall. Then turn your light off. The sound, mist, and power of the waterfall in the darkness is an incredible experience. At the campground there are paid showers, and a restaurant available just up the hill.
- Fosshotel Glacier Lagoon sits right on the ring road, beneath Vatnajokull glacier (the largest glacier in Europe), between Skaftafell National Park and Jokulsarlon. This is a new hotel with a prime location near two must visit locations.
- Skaftafell also has a large campground on-site. There are paid showers here as well. A cafe on-site provides access to meals during most of the day if you don’t want to cook. Several trailheads are located around the campground, as well as outfitters for excursions onto the glacier.
Other Places To Go
This is just a quick section with a short description of some other areas of Iceland worth researching and visiting. I am planning on expanding these sections in future updates, as there is a lot of information still to add.
From Reykjavik another direction you could go is North and East. The most popular tour in Iceland is the Golden Circle. Think busloads of people. It’s all cool stuff to see, but it will be crowded and super touristy. It includes Gullfoss (giant waterfall), Geysir where a geyser named Strokkur erupts about every 7 minutes, and you can get really close, and also Thingvellir. Thingvellir is where the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates are pulling apart and you can walk between them. This is also the site of the world’s very first parliament, Althing, back in 930A.D.
Near the Golden Circle route are two hot spring opportunities. One is a natural hot spring named Secret Lagoon, the town of Fludir. Laugarvatn Fontana is a hot spring and spa with lodging opportunities between Thingvellir and Geysir.
There are many places in the highlands to head to. Some of my favorites are Landmannalaugar, Thorsmork, Eldgja… and several others that you will have to find on your own. Do you research on these. I’ll update the page with more information about traveling in the highlands in the future.
Other destination options include Snaefellsnes peninsula, the Westfjords, Akureyri and the North, and the Eastfjords.
If you end your trip staying in Reykjavik, you can arrange for the Flybus to pick you up directly from the hotel. If you just ask the receptionist in the lobby the night before they will arrange it all. Everyone knows everyone there and those kind of requests are expected.
One last tip, for those of you that have persevered and made it this far. If you do happen to rent a car as soon as you arrive at Keflavik and are hungry for breakfast, you will want to do this. Follow the signs for the Blue Lagoon, but go past the entrance and instead continue to follow the signs to the town of Grindavik. It’s an old fishing village. There find the little coffee shop named Brygjann. It will be the most authentic (and best) Icelandic breakfast you will have on the trip. It’s a massive amount of food, he gives you a little bit of everything. Typically in the morning it’s full of old fisherman sitting around talking and the owner always comes out and talks to you and tells you fishing stories, history of the town, and secret little tips of things to see on your stay. In a word, he treats you special. They just recently expanded (Aug. 2018) and have a little bit bigger space. It is a great way to start off a trip in Iceland.