Iceland: an island nation inhabited by more sheep than people, surrounded by the frigid waters of the Arctic ocean and home to a lunar landscape reminiscent of something from a science fiction novel. It is these eccentricities that leave the traveller without words as they stand at the foot of a frozen glacier or trek through a mossy lava field.
We were not spared. Within hours of touching down we bore witness to the mystical qualities of the landscape and joined a clan of travellers with wide eyes and dropped jaws. Iceland simply, is a country that deserves to be explored not vacationed.
With 7 days at our disposal we were keen to see as much of the island as possible. Here are our top 7 ways to make the most of your time.
1. Rent a car and road trip
Renting a car in Iceland is essential and the best way to experience the vastly different geographical landscapes of each region. While car rentals are abundant so are the throngs of travellers heading to the island so book early!
Don’t worry about the excessively long street names, the Ring Road will serve as your primary route and is easy to navigate. Gas stations however can be infrequent once you have left town so make sure to fill up when you can. Most importantly enjoy traversing the wildly beautiful landscapes as you make your way from place to place, the opportunity to self drive and stop whenever you like will beat sitting on a tour bus any day. We recommend using SIXT
2. Start with the Golden Circle
This will be the most touristy part of your trip but is definitely worth seeing. The Golden Circle is a 4 hour loop that includes some of Iceland’s most popular sites.
The first stop: Þingvellir National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site as it marks the location of the world’s oldest existing parliament. It is also home to the boundary between the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates.
The second stop: the Geysir geothermal area where you can watch the famous Strokkur geyser emit water 100 ft into the air.
The third and final stop: Gullfoss.
3. Travel south
The south side of Iceland is home to an array of breathtaking scenery and not to be missed. Travelling from the West leads you through rolling sheep pastures, haunting lava fields and expansive black sand beaches. Our top pull over points included:
Seljalandsfoss. Take some time to wander the area and if you’re not afraid of getting wet you can follow the path to walk behind the falls.
Skogafoss. Hike the stairs and check out the nearby bistro.
Eyjafjallajökull. The location of the 2010 volcanic eruption, the event that disrupted air traffic across Europe.
Sólheimasandur plane crash. If you are feeling adventurous the 1973 abandoned plane is a photographer’s paradise. The trek is worth it but will take at least 45 minutes each way.
Dryholaey. Coastal cliffs overlooking endless black sand beaches, unique rock formations and an array of bird life, including puffins.
4. Visit a glacier
Approximately 11% of Iceland’s total area is made up of glaciers. The largest of these is Vatnajökull. A stop at Skaftafell will allow you to hike to the base of the glacier.
If you are a movie fan you may recognize the glacier lagoon that has resulted from melting ice caps. Jökulsárlón, located on the edge of Vatnajökull has been featured in films such as Die Another Day and Batman Begins however is only truly experienced in person.
5. Drive the Snaefellsnes peninsula
The west side of Iceland is home to local fishing villages, golden beaches, dramatic cliffs and the setting of Jules Verne’s novel Journey to the Centre of the Earth. A day trip around the peninsula will transport you back in time.
Budir. The location of a black church.
Arnastapi and Hellnar. Quaint cottages where locals are likely to be found in the summer months.
Londrangar and Djupalonssandur. Lighthouses, black sand beaches and basalt columns believed to be a troll church.
Cave Vatnshellir. On the side of the road sits a small hut that runs cave tours every hour. Reserve 45 minutes to descend underground into an 8,000 year old lava tube.
Ondverdarnes. More lighthouses!
Kirkjufell. The most photographed mountain in Iceland and for good reason.
Stykkisholmur. An idyllic fishing town and jump off point to explore the Fjords across the bay. Grab dinner at one of the lovely restaurants overlooking the water.
6. Spend time in Reykjavik
Home to 3 out of 4 Icelanders Reykjavik is a lively European city complete with cobblestone streets and fantastic coffee shops. Easily walkable the perfect day in Reykjavik is spent casually strolling the streets.
Make your up way up the hill to see the famous Hallgrímskirkja.
Explore Old Reykjavik to see City Hall and Tjörnin, a small lake in the centre or town.
Wander down Laugavegur to visit quaint gift shops, stop for a coffee at Babalu and grab lunch or dinner and any one of the numerous restaurants that line the street.
Walk through the Old Harbor and towards Harpa, the architecturally stunning concert hall and Sun Voyager, a steel sculpture that serves as an ode to the sun.
With extra time visit one of Reykjavik’s many wonderful museums including Reykjavik 871+-2, the National Museum of Iceland or the Reykjavik Art Museum.
7. Enjoy the geothermal pools
We have all seen the stunning photos from the famous Blue Lagoon and thought to ourselves, is it really that blue. The answer is yes! As you approach the parking lot geothermal streams run next to the road and the overwhelming smell of sulphur fills the air. The indoor facilities alone are impressive however as you enter the pools a wave of calm washes over you. The lagoon is natural and rugged with caves and volcanic rock throughout. Take advantage of the opportunity to try the silica and algae masks and be sure to grab a drink at the outdoor bar. We planned our Blue Lagoon trip for our last day before heading to the airport, allowing us to be refreshed and relaxed for our trip home.
Iceland, despite its arctic location and sharp contrasts is vibrantly stunning, full of rich culture, and home to warm, welcoming people.