In August 2012 I traveled to Iceland with my friends John and Alex. We were there for a week in total, and saw a multitude of amazing things. While we didn’t want to make an exact plan of what to do, we also didn’t want to waste time needlessly backtracking. While Googling was useful, the most useful things were the two other itineraries provided by friends. I thought I’d return the favor to the world-at-large by providing a rough sketch of what we ended up doing - mistakes and all. I would add one caution: depending on what time of year you go, some things on this list may be impractical or physically impossible due to the weather or number of daylight hours. We had a fantastic time, and I hope you will too if you get the chance to go!
I wrote most of this post immediately after getting back in a series of emails. I’ve gone back and edited them to clarify and add more details, but it has been almost a year since the trip so I may have got some details wrong. All the fantastic photos in this post were taken by Alex.
Our flight was at about 9:30 pm with Icelandair on a plane named Hekla, a very active volcano known as the “Gateway to Hell.” We bought direct round-trip tickets in mid-April for $600 from StudentUniverse. We also rented a SUV/4WD/”4x4” (from Go Iceland) for 138670 ISK which is roughly US$1150.
We arrived at about 6:30 am at Keflavik Airport. Passport control is very relaxed - walk up to a window, asked simply “staying?”, “yes”, stamp, done. It is part of the Schengen Area so if you have a European passport you probably don’t even need to do that. Someone from the rental car company was there at the arrival area to take us a few minutes away to the rental car company base. One of my friends had cash she needed to exchange for kronor but the rental car guy said it’d be better rates downtown than at the airport. While that sounded totally reasonable at the time, not doing it then turned out to be a mistake, as nothing in Reykjavik was open at that time (or in general) on a Sunday!
We left the rental car base and headed down the highway to the Blue Lagoon, which is a collection of geothermal pools that are a great light blue color in the middle of a big lava field between Keflavik and Reykjavik. The rock was covered in really thick moss, that was very soft. Unfortunately we got there before it opened (9 am), so we continued to Reykjavik. By this time I’m really tired (can’t sleep on planes) and hungry too. Unfortunately pretty much nothing seemed open downtown! Eventually we found a 24 hour supermarket, and also got some cash from an ATM. In general I was fine using a Visa card for everything and hardly needed the cash. One catch: like most of Europe, credit cards use chips and have pins. This means that unless your credit card has a PIN, you are not going to be able to use unattended things like gas pumps. My Mastercard debit card worked fine though, because it has a PIN, so all was not lost.
After all that drama we headed back to the Blue Lagoon, which I really enjoyed and was a great temperature. Its not cheap, so if you are budget conscious you might want to hold off on it. There are other hot springs around the country that are cheaper, but might be a bit off the beaten trail. In the early afternoon we headed back through the outskirts of Reykjavik on our way out into the countryside. We were pretty hungry again and finding places to eat that weren’t a chain of some sort proved difficult - we ended up at a combination KFC/Taco Bell!
Our next goal was Geysir. If you look at routes on Google Maps/GPS you will see a couple of routes - we took the southern one. Along the way we stumbled upon Kerið, a beautiful volcanic crater just sitting by the side of the road. Geysir is both a small area and the name of a geyser. There is campsite right next to the geyser area that costs about $10/person/night, and had nice bathroom facilities. There isn’t much man-made in the area except a hotel/tourist center across the road from the campsite and geysers. We had dinner at the cafe there; I had kjötsúpa (traditional Icelandic lamb stew/soup), which was probably the most expensive soup I’ve ever had, but it was tasty. After dinner, we checked out the geysers. Geysir itself doesn’t explode anymore but its neighbor Strokkur did blow every few minutes, quite impressively. We clambered up a big hill nearby and were rewarded with a great view. The light levels didn’t really change much between 5pm and 9pm, so we were active until kinda late. Overnight the weather deteriorated and it rained. I slept very solidly - exhausted. The temperature in late August was pretty consistently around 10C, plus/minus 5C, so keep in mind what kind of sleeping bag you bring, or what you wear to sleep - I was a dumbass and didn’t really wear enough for the thinness of my sleeping bag, got cold without realizing it, and woke up feeling not-very-good!
On the first night we slept in two tents, which were both a bit soggy. Our solution was to shove them into the trunk and back seat, crank up the heat, and try to dry them out a bit. Our next goal was to get to Þingvellir (Thingvellir) is the traditional home of the Alþingi (Althing), which was the Icelandic seat of government for a very long time. On the way we saw a hill overlooking a lake that we climbed. It turned out to be a lot taller than it looked, and we got blasted by wind that was so strong the rain felt like hail.
Thingvellir is quite a cool location. It sits right on the tectonic plate boundaries, so lots of long crevasses of various depths. There was not really any ruins to see - apparently the volcanic nature of Iceland is not suited for preserving historical structures! On the way out of the area we pulled over and clambered over some fields to check out the top of a waterfall - the water was beautiful, clear and cold. I didn’t drink from it (paranoid), but Alex and John did.
We set course for the western fjords, which took us along unpaved roads through a countryside of grand landscapes. We stopped at a gas station for lunch in Borgarnes (after another unsuccessful attempt to find an “actual” restaurant). While there I started reading an English language newspaper that had GPS coordinates for some natural hot springs that were relatively nearby. Luckily I saved the newspaper, so I’ve still got the co-ordinates: the first was the Sturlungalaug pool (64.52174, -22.17024) and the second was the Landbrotalaug pool (64.49933, -22.19110). So we plugged them and headed off. The pools turned out to be not that great, but the journey was amazing - we headed way off the beaten path, saw some landscapes that wouldn’t look out of place on Mars, and some that were quite green and grassy for Iceland. At the first spring we found a French family having a picnic, but it was too hot to get in the water. The second spring was tiny, and had perhaps seen better days. On our way out the area we ended up finding another waterfall that was comprised of three small falls, which we named the “Three Johns” for reasons best left unsaid on the internet. I did have a drink of the water here, and it was great, although even better tasting free-flowing water was to come. On the way off the road to the waterfall I nearly ripped the bottom of the car out on a rock (or at least thats what it sounded like) - a good lesson to learn early because we’d be going off-road a lot more later.
We kept making our way north and ended up in Blönduós. The clouds had come in very very low and we were trying to find a campground. Perhaps fortunately we didn’t find it and instead found a place that had little huts for a very reasonable price (~$20 per person) - I think it is here. The only place to eat in town that was open was a restaurant, which apparently was called Potturinn og Pannan. As with most restaurants we did find in Iceland it was pretty pricey. However it did serve seal, which John and I decided we had to try given the opportunity. It was quite salty and dark, and looked a bit like steak. I didn’t really know how to describe it, but the waitress said it was like liver. Neither John nor I really liked it that much, so I’d probably never order it again, but it was worth trying!
I couldn’t sleep so I got up early at walked out to the edge of the harbor in Blönduós - the current/tide was very strong, quite a sight to watch. The cloud was still low was the others got up and we set course for Akureyri, which is the biggest city in the north and I’d believe is the second biggest city in Iceland. The drive there was beautiful; the road runs between mountains and steep valleys, and as the cloud lifted it revealed some beautiful views. In Akureyri we were at a bit of a loss as to what to do. At a friend’s recommendation we checked out Brynja, which sells delicious icecream that was somewhat like a thicker-than-ususal soft serve. I recommend getting candy mixed in!
After getting some maps from a visitors center, we departed Akureyri. Our general destination was the Mývatn area, which was described on main map as follows: “few words do justice to this place, it is like being on another planet”. Along the way we saw Goðafoss, which was a grand waterfall. It is very wide, and makes a fantastic sound. Mývatn is a big lake area with volcanic rock around it - although most of that volanic terrain was on the far side of the lake, so at first I was a bit disappointed (relatively). On the far side we saw more of the rocky volcanic plains and moss. We headed off down a little unpaved road but reached a gate. We climbed up some rocks and saw a cool looking volcano which turned out to be a scoria-ish cone, which we climbed up - no greenery to be seen, just rock! This was Hverfjall, and you can see it on Google Maps really clearly.
From the top we could see steam billowing in the distance. This was coming from another hot spring similar to the Blue Lagoon, but a bit less touristy, called Jarðböðin við Mývatn. We figured we’d already done that, so didn’t go in, but thought that it may have been a better idea to skip going into the Blue Lagoon and go here instead. Just over a hill from there is a volcanic hotspot (Hverarönd) that is reminiscent of Rotorua, New Zealand. Complete with boiling mud pools and steaming sulfur-yellow vents, its quite fun, but I think was particularly exciting for John, who hadn’t really seen anything like it before.
Next was a decent drive to what would end up being one of my favorite things, the Dettifoss waterfall which was massive. It is really in the middle of nowhere, and the GPS got very confused, possibly due to a new road. It got very bleak landscape-wise, just fairly flat and not much life - the recurring volcanic events periodically seem to reset life in Iceland back to moonscape like conditions. The waterfall was definitely worth the trip though - a tremendous amount of water flowing over it and a big drop. The mist that was thrown up obscured the bottom, making it hard to figure out exactly how tall it was.
We were not totally clear on where to go next. One of my friends really wanted to see puffins, and we thought we might see some in the very north-east, based on some tourist maps we had. Besides, we needed a place to sleep, so we set course for þórshöfn which is pretty much at the end of the world. Getting out of the Dettifoss area required first driving over a very rough road with lots of blind hills and turns for something like 30 to 45 minutes - needed that 4WD! At one point came across a tour bus coming the other way, which seemed like madness given the road condition. After we got out of that we had dinner at a gas station/diner. Things soon got crazy when the GPS took us on a very rough road over a mountain, which looked like a normal-ish road on the paper map and was the only option that wouldn’t add another hour travel time. Again I was the paranoid one - I wasn’t even sure it was a road! In fact, it had a farm gate tied up with rope blocking the entrance. The other two were keen, so we did it, and I’m glad we did. It soon got really spooky and you realized we were a long way from anyone and anywhere. It was also about 7 pm so still light but on its way out - when the cloud closed in it was quite intense. The sheep provided much merriment: a select few sheep couldn’t figure out that best way to get away from the car was not, in fact, to run down the road in front of us. Since we seemed to be giving them such a workout, we called this “P90Xing” the sheep! At one point the road was pretty washed out, requiring some careful maneuvering to avoid getting stuck. The highlight of this trip into the highlands for me was when we found what looked like an abandoned house, which was not an uncommon sight but more often along the coast. The windows were cracked and it definitely wasn’t lived in. The door was stuck so I kicked it open (!!!). It flew off its hinges and we went inside. The ground was covered in dead flies (the cold kills them I guess?) and there was a diary on a table as well as three really old looking mattresses. In the diary were occasional messages from passer-bys who had done the same thing.
We ended up getting to þórshöfn without any additional drama. Its a pretty small town, with a campsite that was basic but nice enough. We were weighing up the possibility of staying in hostel that was apparently nearby. We drove out of town out on the peninsula to check it out, but it was pretty expensive per person and given that the campsite seemed OK so we drove back and camped. Unlike the first night, we shared the bigger tent, but like the first night, it rained. This wouldn’t have been an issue except that tent design was flawed and let water in through the zipper somehow, resulting in some wet feet! Overall though, given our lack of well-planned equipment, things went relatively well with regards to outdoor gear.
On Wednesday morning we got up but had to wait for the grocery store to open before setting out. In search of the puffins, we drove to the end of the Langanes peninsula, which took a lot longer than I think we all thought because it was such a rough road. The road mostly ran alongside the coast, and was near sea-level for large sections. For some reason the coast was littered with debris, wrecked ships and miscellaneous buoys and timber. At the end was a lighthouse, a lot of seagulls, and beautiful desolation. We were slightly below the Arctic Circle, and felt very alone. That is until we realized suddenly that someone seemed to be in the lighthouse, because there were shoes at the door, and Alex possibly heard noises, but it seemed crazy because there was no vehicle there, and no sign of power generation. Very creepy… we decided to leave.
As we returned to town, we made a detour down a turnoff and found the remnants of what was once a town called Skálar, which has a very interesting history. I kept a beautifully smoothed rock from there - my only souvenir apart from our annotated tourist maps. As we continued back we stopped briefly to walk in the ocean, which was as cold as you’d expect! All this took quite a bit of time, and we didn’t get back until near noon. We got food from a grocery store, including the fantastic Icelandic yoghurt skyr, which tasted great. John and I made salami sandwhiches, which due to our less-than-ideal diet of late tasted amazing. We tried to buy some beers for that night, but it turned out the liquor store was only open one hour per day… I must make a brief mention of our beer experience earlier. On the first night, when we had the lamb soup in Geyser, Alex and John both got beers. Both were local lagers, but John’s was a lower alcohol content and didn’t taste very good. Alex’s one was OK, but not great. To me at least, matter of taste.
The rest of the day involved driving down the eastern coast towards Höfn, which is where we were planning to launch our trip to the glacier from the next day. Compared to our adventures so far it was relatively uneventful, but we did stop to admire the regular waterfalls and seascapes. Mostly we were back on Highway 1, which we had left the previous day to go to Dettifoss. It was good to be back on it! On the way down the coast we were on the lookout for a liquor store, which we eventually found. We were getting some beer (which turned out to be decent) and heard some Americans asking about something called the “Black Death”, which turned out to be Brennivín. So we got some of that too - strong, interesting taste, like rye bread liquor.
When we got to Höfn, the hostel was completely booked out. Fortunately a nearby campground still had a couple of huts available. It was pretty pricey, but given we didn’t pay for the campground the previous night (didn’t figure out how to!), we figured it averaged out OK. After getting settled, we headed out to find somewhere to eat. We again had a bit of trouble finding a place that wasn’t fast-foody but was not super expensive. After driving around for a bit we ended up at the first restaurant we had found. John and I had the lamb, which was delicious, but maybe not as good as New Zealand lamb (biased!). After dinner we headed back to the hut and played cards and drank our beer and brennivin - it was a good night!
We left Höfn at about 9am, a bit short on food at this point, and headed towards Jökulsárlón - the famous glacial lake. The lake is emptying steadily into the sea , and is filled with chunks of ice breaking off the end of the glacier! The ice itself is flowing out to sea too, so you’ll see bits of ice sailing off into the ocean to meet their fate. There were a lot of people there, more tourists in one place than we’d seen since the Blue Lagoon at the start actually. We considered going on a boat tour around the lagoon, but passed, partly because money concerns and partly because we planned to do a glacier walk and didn’t want to miss a place on that. This was probably the right choice, because the glacier was so awesome that it blew everything else away. The ice was very blue looking, apparently because it has very few imperfections/air bubbles in it.
We got back on the road after not too long at the lake and headed to Skaftafell, where all the Vatnajökull glacier walks seemed to be based. We had picked up some brochures in Höfn and picked one that seemed the best value for money. We got there around 11:30 and got a spot on the 1:30 tour, paid, found out that the Icelandic guide had been to New Zealand for long periods - she even spoke a bit like a Kiwi. We then looked for food, but didn’t fancy the overpriced cafe. We looked at a map for the nearest town but nothing was close enough, but eventually we saw a food symbol on one of our maps and headed for it - turned out to be a gas station with a big cafeteria. Ended up having vegetable soup and potato gratin, didn’t fancy the prices for everything else. Filled us up with warmth, and kept us going for the afternoon - we picked up a few extra snacks too while we could.
Got back to start of glacier walk, they took one look at our sneakers and told us to hire boots. So we did, they were really good ones too. I had forgotten to bring gloves (to be precise, I for some reason didn’t think I’d need them at that time of year so consciously decided to not bring them!) and they didn’t have any left so I went gloveless. Thankfully it wasn’t raining, as I just had two hoodies and a pair of jeans on, which wouldn’t have done well. If you had any kind of water-resistant outerwear it would be a good idea to bring it. Anyway, the weather was weirdly good (according to them), so we got issued our crampons, ice pick, harness, and helmet, and set off in a van to the foot of the glacier. Its hard for me to figure exactly where we were on Google Maps but I’m 99% sure this is the right place, one of the tongues of the glacier.
We walked out for a bit over exposed rock towards the glacier, which was somewhat “dirty” on the surface because of the ash trapped in it, especially at the base where it was melting the most. We went down a steepish climb with a rope to help, then put on our crampons and headed on to the ice, which was initially quite rough. Got showed how to use crampons to go up and down slopes, and got told that the glacier has definitely been melting faster in the past few years, and that in the act of flying there to see it, we had contributed to it - food for thought. As we headed up the tongue of glacial ice I found it to be pretty easy going once I got the hang of it, not too strenuous at all. It wasn’t even that cold, and in fact I needed to unzip jackets eventually because I was getting too warm! The harnesses we were wearing turned out to be so we could be attached to a rope at a couple of bits where we had to walk between two crevasses. Apparently the ice crevasses are dangerous in a way I had never considered - if you fall in one, your body heat warms the ice enough for you to slip further down and you can eventually suffocate! There were also little streams everywhere that disappeared into seemingly bottomless holes - apparently there is flowing water all under the glacier. At one point our guide encouraged us to drink some of the melt - it was unique and very tasty. If you scraped the surface of the ice, which was white with sometimes ashy black ribbons, it was blue underneath - very pure ice. The ice axe/pick things we were carrying were pretty much for show, but were pretty satisfying to swing around all the same. I cut my finger at one point somehow (not from the pick) and it bled a surprising amount for a shallow cut - I probably left blood all over the glacier… We got a decent way up the tongue, the group was all pretty fit and we maintained a good pace. On the way up it seemed like the guide was following a planned path, but on the way down we just sort of wandered down any old way, which required some backtracking, which I thought was cool. We had to walk single file to stop people straying into crevasses. I think we were all glad we did the 4 hour one, it was the perfect length for us.
We set course for Vík after getting back from the glacier. Its a fascinating place - it lies beneath a glacier which covers Katla, the volcano our plane was named after. An eruption would melt the ice causing a flood that could destroy the town - a type of lahar, and potentially fatal. We set up our tent at the busy campground, then again found ourselves picking between a hamburger diner (Iceland seems to quite like hamburgers!) or a pricey restaurant. We almost went with the diner until I noticed the restaurant had whale - which we had to try. For an entree I had shark, dried fish, and a shot of Brennivin. The whale was seemingly cooked rare, and was pretty tasty. It was hard to describe in terms of other flavors - steak-like in its consistency, but salty in a way steak would never be. I have no idea what the whale was, or even if it was whale , but it was most likely minke whale, which is not endangered. We walked along the blank sand beaches after dinner in search of puffins, but it was too dark to see anything. We did see some impressive rock formations out in the water and could see many birds flying around hunting bugs and fish. We headed back to camp to rest for our final day (and to drink a beer or 3).
Our puffin failure in the north-east did not deter us from the puffin hunt, and one of tourist maps suggested that a coastal area just along the coast from Vik had some sort of puffin nesting site. It certainly did - lots of puffins, everywhere! The rock formations in the area were also very impressive, and we walked out on a large spit of rock that had massive holes eroded into it.
The views on the southern coast were great, with black beaches that extended far out of sight. There was another waterfall on the road to Reykjavík, Skógafoss, which was pretty and large. I think I was almost natural-beauty-overloaded at that point though because I remember not feeling as excited about it. The number of tourists rose dramatically on the southern coast, which gave it a different feel too.
We eventually made it to Reykjavík in the early afternoon, and headed to the accommodation we had booked before leaving Höfn. It was an AirBnb-type setup where rooms in the bottom floor of house in an inner suburb were being rented out to travelers. The room was fantastic, beautifully decorated with a great natural hot water shower that smelled a bit of sulfur. The only downside - the homeowner was a crazy conspiracy theorist who cornered us at one point and lectured us about numerology, who shot JFK, and the imprisonment of Bobby Fisher. We were somewhat exhausted by this point, and it was hard to get motivated to see a city after the amazing natural things we had seen. Having said that, we did check out an Icelandic hotdog chain that made some pretty fantastic hotdogs. The woman making hotdogs did so with such amazing precision and speed that when John and I went back for seconds, I think it was partly just to see the process again. We had a quick look at The Pearl, a very fancy hot water storage tank, and the only thing in Reykjavík that I had to see: the Hallgrímskirkja church. The exterior was as impressive as I thought it would be, but the interior was a real surprise. It is very simple and austere, apart from small notes of detail and color: the organ, a small number of stained glass windows, and a couple of sculptures.
We returned back to our accommodation for some rest before dinner. After considering the various options, we decided to go with the charmingly-named Cafe Loki, which serves sampling plates of traditional Icelandic fare as well as interesting teas, including one that had moss and birch in it! After dinner we headed to a Beatles-themed bar we had spotted earlier called Ob-La-Di Ob-La-Da that was full of… eccentric older gentleman. We fled after one drink to a The Big Lebowski themed bar called, simply, Lebowskibar. They served (pricey) Lebowski-themed cocktails, had dance-able music playing, bowling memorabilia everywhere, and featured some couchsurfing-friendly locals that we chatted to for the night. It was a pretty successful end to our trip. The next day we left for the airport early in the morning, and returned to Boston later on the Saturday.
There were many maps we used during the trip, including the sometimes-very-wrong GPS device in the car. However one map in particular was valuable throughout, and I’ve still got it:
A map that might be more useful to you if you want to explore the path we took is the following map that I made with Google Maps. Each day is its own color, and I’ve labelled a majority of landmarks mentioned in the text. I think this really shows the pace you need to sustain to make it around in 6 full days - something that is hard to estimate a priori.
Iceland is definitely not the cheapest place to visit, although getting a good price for your flights helps. The approximate breakdown of my expenses was as follows (all USD). I would know more precisely but I paid for some things in cash, and sometimes one of us would get the gas and the other person would get dinner, and so on.
You probably could not cut down on the biggest components of the cost without doing a very different trip. Some people seem to just visit the lower area - e.g. Reykjavik, to Geyser, to Skogafoss, to Jokulsarlon, and back. There quite a few buses on the roads in the south, but I’m not sure if you can hop-on hop-off with them. Hitchhiking not recommended - we saw a few people trying it and it didn’t seem to be going great. We couldn’t even fit them in usually because it was hardly ever one person and we had all our gear too. You could cut down on your food budget by stocking up in Reykjavik and doing cooking on a burner, or just avoiding restaurants entirely.