Last weekend my friend and I traveled to Iceland. What was once a mysterious land to most has in the last few years come and gone as the most popular summer destination. In large thanks to the 2010 Volcanic Eruption and the country’s near-bankruptcy help put it on the map and made people realize that there is a lot of amazing things to do here. Furthermore the two airlines WOW Air and Icelandair’s big push for layovers in Iceland on cheap fares from the United States to mainland Europe has made it that much more popular. In addition to these low cost carriers offering great fares from multiple U.S. Cities, Delta Airlines flies daily from Minneapolis (seasonal) and JFK (year-round).
On our way to Minneapolis to connect to Reykjavik, I was reading Afar magazine and stumbled upon a recent article on Iceland, that did a fair job of describing traveling in Iceland these days. It also offered some nice insights into possible itineraries for a short trip, a lot of which we ended up following. Despite what the article says about Iceland feeling overrun by tourists and especially Americans, we did not feel that way at all during our trip except maybe at the Blue Lagoon.
Iceland is beautiful, the landscape is incredible. The grass is extremely green and the volcanic rocks give the landscape a mighty touch. The weather is temperamental, and changes constantly, it was mostly cloudy when we were there. However, we did encounter moments of clear skies, fog, mist, wind and rain. This is also why folks say never make the purpose of a winter trip to Iceland about the Northern Lights as it is all about your luck with weather. In the summer months the sun barely sets so its basically light out all day, which is an odd sensation if you’ve never experienced it before. NOTE: It almost doesnt get warm at all in Iceland, it was still very cold and chilly in mid-July.
American arrivals arrive in the morning which is great. There are many options to how you plan your day. You can book a layover tour or any of the half or full day tours that pick up and drop off at the airport. You can take the shuttle bus directly into Reykjavik center. The best option to explore this incredible country is by renting a car. NOTE: unless you plan a little ahead or are willing to shell out more money, you will likely only be able to rent a manual drive car, as automatics are either booked in advance or expensive. The roads here are well-paved and easy to navigate, the main roads that is.
Icelandic people are known to be amongst the happiest and friendliest people on Earth, and I can tell you this is no lie. It is beyond safe here. Everyone also speak English, and Icelandic is quite difficult to say, read and spell. I would exchange or go to the ATM and have some ($50-$100) of Icelandic Krona for highway tolls and other situations that might require cash, otherwise everywhere accepts cards. NOTE: Iceland is insanely expensive, so just be prepared.
We booked an AirBnB on a private farm 40 minutes north of Reykjavik. This is what I would recommend as hotels and even hostels can be expensive during peak summer season, and the vast selection of AirBnBs are often located in gorgeous landscapes.
- On our flight, the flight attendants and captain made sure to inform us to look out the windows as we flew past Greenland because apparently it is very rare to be able to actually see Greenland, since its usually covered in clouds.
- Morning arrival at Keflavik Airport, Reykjavik has a small inner-city domestic airport, but the main international airport is 40 minutes outside in Keflavic.
- Took the rental car shuttle to the rental car facility, got ourselves a handy little Toyota Yaris for around $120 for 24 hours.
- And away we drove to the Southern coast of Iceland.
- First stop was Seljalandsfoss, about a 2 hour drive from the international airport. This area has about 4-5 waterfalls, the main one being Seljalandsfoss. It is beautiful but what makes it spectacular is that you are able to walk behind the fall itself. NOTE: it is slippery and you will get very wet, so make sure you have good rain gear. But it is worth it and it is magical. The water in Iceland is so crisp, pure and clean, you absolutely can drink it right off the rivers.
- We then drove another 20 minutes down highway 1 to Skogafoss. Which is an even larger and more spectacular waterfall than Seljalandsfoss. While you cannot go behind the falls here, you can do a short hike to the top of the falls and here more surreal landscapes await as the river flows through smaller falls and meanders through hilly, grassy and rocky landscapes before reaching the mighty fall. It was still gorgeous and mystical in the fog and clouds.
- We didnt know this at the time but just another 20 minute drive down highway 1 from Skogafoss is Solheimasandur Plane Wreck, a DC-3 crash wreckage on the beach. As two aviation nerds we were a bit sad to find out later, but relieved to also find out that it would have required 4-5 hours to do since the wreckage itself is not off any main roads and requires a bit of a trek. But just a note in case you want to check it out, pictures look gorgeous.
- We then drove back towards Reykjavik and our AirBnB, about a 2 hour drive.
- On the way we stopped at Lava Center for a restroom and coffee break. What we thought was a cool looking rest stop was actually a earthquake/ volcano education center and souvenir shop that happens to have a cafeteria and cafe. It was a bit random but the facility and cafe was nice so cant complain.
- Onwards we drove through the dramatic Icelandic landscape, even stopping for Icelandic horses to cross the road.
- Arrived at our AirBnB just north of Reykjavik in Hvalfjaroarsveit. After taking in the breathtaking views from the property we took a much needed nap.
- After our rest we were ready for our evening and night activities, even though it was still bright out.
- We drove into Reykjavik to have dinner at Loki Cafe, which is right across the street from Iceland’s tallest structure, Hallgrimskirkja Church. This restaurant serves traditional Icelandic cuisine. We had Icelandic meat stew with smoked lamb flatbread (tasted like pancake), the Traditional Icelandic plate 1: Sheep’s brain jelly flatbread, smoked trout on rye bread, and mashed fish on rye bread, with pea and carrot and potato salads; rye bread ice cream, and Brennivin, Icelandic liquor.
- NOTE: the Fermented Shark is not for the faint of heart. Anthony Bourdain claims it is one of the few things he will never eat again and regrets having tried it. It really is that bad of an experience.
- We then walked around Reykjavik and made our way to the cheapest food you can find in Iceland, the famous Baejarins Betzu Pylsur hot dog stand. $4.50 for a hot dog, best deal in town. Make sure you order it with everything, mustard, house made ketchup, raw onion and fried onions. It is one of the best hot dogs I have ever had. The hot dog is lamb meat.
- We then walked around some more, taking a look at the architecturally stunning and modern Harpa Concert Hall and Conference Center.
- Then it was time to drive 40 minutes to the Blue Lagoon, which is next to the International Airport. It was nice to be here at 11PM, while it was still relatively light out. Still crowded but definitely not what we imagine it to be like during the day. Tourists from all over the world come here, the locals go to another hot spring further inland called Secret Lagoon. It was soothing to get in the hot spring, though to be honest the Blue Lagoon is not that hot, its more lukewarm, but if you find the right spots in the lagoon you will be near the pipes and as such be immersed in hot water. The mud-mask was fun as well. Over all, an expensive but unique experience.
- NOTE: you need to pre-purchase your time-stamped blue lagoon tickets online. By the time we knew we were heading to Iceland all the times were sold out except for last entry at 11PM. They have multiple ticket packages, which come with different things. The most basic package is almost $80, and simply comes with admissions, locker and shower access and a mud mask. The lagoon closes at 12AM, but guests are allowed inside the waters until 12:30AM.
- At around 12AM we exited the waters, showered and headed back to our AirBnB, just over an hour’s drive. At 1:28AM when we arrive, it was barely dark out. The sun literally dips into the horizon and comes right back up.
- After a short 4 hour sleep, we woke up and headed into Reykjavik for breakfast.
- We arrived at Brauo & Co. bakery at 6:30AM, must visit this delicious bakery for their cinnamon roll, their chocolate croissant and just about everything else.
- We then slowly meandered through downtown Reykjavik in the early morning before hopping back into our handy Yaris and drove to the airport for our 11:30am departure to JFK.
Iceland is for sure worth visiting, if you do, perhaps spend a week or more there. There is so much more to see and do than what we did in our whirlwind 24 hours. There is an entire West, East and North coast that we barely got to. The country is a lot bigger than it seems. Personally I want to return in the winter to experience short days and long nights and maybe try my luck at the Northern Lights.