One of the questions I get asked most frequently is: “What should I do in Iceland?” While this is a loaded question, after many, many trips to Iceland, I’m going to try to condense as much information as possible to give you a basic Iceland Primer.
Iceland is a country I’ve had a fascination with since childhood. As an adult, I’ve made the trip out there more than ten times, but my love for Wilderness and the North has long been rooted in childhood dreams of adventure, escape, and wonder. To be sure, one of the greatest sources of inspiration for my work and the way I see the world can be summed up in the question: “What is North?”
Now, I’m finally taking the time to put down my thoughts and experiences into one place—I hope it’s as helpful for you as it has been for me to learn all these things (sometimes the hard way).
Introduction to Iceland
To start, everyone speaks English, so bear that in mind. With that said, it’s always polite to learn a few words. To start, here are some key phrases and words to knowso that you can be an A+ traveler.
Iceland has an incredibly rich and interesting history, and I won’t try to sum it up here, just know that a lot of the landscape, vision, and culture is shaped by 1000+ years of democracy, isolation, and literary traditions. That’s a pretty beautiful thing.
And finally, for our intro, the last thing to keep in mind is that Iceland is expensive. You’re going to pay a lot of money for things that you’re not expecting. It’s an island, everything is important, and it’s just the way it is. Better to know that up front so you can budget and plan for your trip than to figure that out when you’re there and feel slighted. It’s not their fault, I promise.
Rental Cars: The 411 and 4x4s
If you’re going to visit Iceland for more than a day, you need a rental car. I know there are plenty of excursions and day trips, and these experiences can be amazing, but if you want any freedom while you’re out in the countryside, a rental car is going to be your best bet. Renta Cars are not cheap, and expect to pay about $8 USD per gallon of petrol (3.8 Liters). If you’re only staying in Iceland for about 3-5 days, I wouldn’t spend the extra money on a 4×4 unless you have specific plans to see something that is on an F-road or only accessible by 4×4. For most things in Iceland, a 2WD vehicle will be just fine. If you are going to be in Iceland longer, or if you want more flexibility, then a 4×4 can be incredibly useful and come in handy—but if you do go this route, make sure to have plan on what you want to see so that your money doesn’t go to waste. The upgrade to a 4×4 can be fairly expensive, so keep that in mind.
I’ve rented from a handful of car companies, but the most affordable one is SADcards. These cars are indeed “sad” but because they’re beat up, you don’t have to worry about scratching them or taking them on gravel roads. I’ve never had problems with a standard rental, but if you want the extra flexibility, SADcars can be a great compromise (know that what you’re compromising is comfort, though).
If you do plan to get a 4×4, I would definitely make sure to buy a local Icelandic SIM card so that you can have some kind of cell access in the countryside and on F-roads. Of course, in the country, your service will be limited, but the extra opportunity for cell service can be helpful if you ever find yourself and your car stranded. If you have an unlocked phone, or are on Verizon, simply pop in the local SIM card and you’re good to go. If you’d like, there is a Vodafone at the Kringlan where you can get a SIM card. Park your car on the top level, and when you walk in the main entrance (not the Bonus entrance) there will be a Vodafone straight ahead.
The Real Deal About Food
The most important thing to factor into a trip to Iceland is the food, because nobody wants to be hangry. You can always find food to eat in Reykjavik, but in the countryside, your food options are extremely limited. In the countryside, you really only have three options: the few-and-far-between, expensive hotel/guesthouse restaurant, gas station hot dogs, and grocery stores. Most grocery stores close by 7PM (unless it’s a 10/11 which can be found in Reykjavik) so make sure to have snacks with you if you plan to be gone for the whole day. You’ll save yourself a lot of stress by planning for this, because if you’re anything like me, being hangry without a way to solve that problem is very frustrating. Icelandic food is very fish forward and they have a lot of lamb, burger, and meat options, so keep that in mind. If you’re trying to eat healthy, you won’t have as many options as you’d like (but things are changing pretty rapidly) and it’s good to know that up front. Expect to spend about $25/person at a restaurant, at least, even for breakfast. If you’re looking for healthy food options at the grocery store, I’ve found that Netto seems to have better options than Bonus.
In Reykjavik, you can usually find awesome Airbnbs, but the best ones tend to book up quickly, so planning ahead is great. If you’re looking for other accommodations, some places I’d recommend are:
Kex Hostel– They have dorm style rooms, but also have regular hotel style rooms as well. They have a great restaurant in-house and it’s a very “hip” location
Icelandair Hotels – available around the country, these are typically very nice in comparison to other options available, especially when you’re outside Reykjavik.
If you head to booking.com, you will find a ton of options. Iceland has high standards, so you can assume that most places are going to be fairly nice. I’ve never really had a bad hotel experience in Reykjavik, however, good places are certainly more expensive. One of my favorite places to stay in Reykjavik is near Laugavagur, east of Snorrabraut. This area is close to the 2nd location of Reykjavik Roasters, but is much quieter than the one downtown and allows me to get work done while still drinking great coffee, and only being a 15 minute walk from the mai
n things in town.
For restaurants in Reykjavik, there are some really phenomenal places to eat:
The Sea Barron (Sægreifinn) – They serve amazing Lobster Soup that is well priced and a great warmed on a cold day (which is a lot of them)
Forréttabarinn – They have tapas style dishes that are great, and they also serve a more traditional Icelandic lobster soup (that is based on an old recipe from the countryside, Stokkseyri to be exact)
Slippbarinn – This is the best cocktail bar in Reykjavik. Great atmosphere and great bartenders—a drink will cost you $19-24, but hey, you only go out once, right?
Baejarins Beztu Pylsur – This is the “Hot Dog Stand.” Best hot dogs ever, in my opinion—worth a visit and it’s the only thing that will fit every budget.
Vinyl – A vegan restaurant just outside the main center. The food is phenomenal and while I’m not vegan, I still eat here a handful of times when I’m town because the food is fresh and unlike most Icelandic food, isn’t unnecessarily heavy. When I’m traveling for weddings, I do my best to eat as healthy as possible so I can stay on top of my game, so this is always a go-to when I’m passing through Iceland.
Snaps Bistro – Great restaurant if you’re after a nice meal that’s approachable and nicer than a diner.
The Laundromat Cafe – One of our favorites, but it’s very much diner. They do have very large breakfast options and it’s a fun spot to go at anytime of the day, but you’ll still walk out paying about $23 for breakfast.
Fiskfelagid – If you want something fancy and upscale, this should be the place to go. Food comes out in all kinds of crazy ways and is plated very well.
Kex – This is the hostel restaurant and I think they have great food, it’s very lively though, so a bit more of an active environment than other restaurants
Reykjavik Roasters – Best coffee in Iceland. Don’t go anywhere else. There are two locations: the main one is really beautiful, but very tight and the second location has a lot of room and is my ‘local haunt’ when I come to down because it allows me to get work done in my down time while drinking great coffee: two great passions of mine.
Kaffihús Vesturbæjar – If youdogo anywhere else for coffee, go here. They serve good food and are more likely to have some healthy options as well
The Landscapes and the Sights
First, you will. not. see. everything. You need to be prepared for that (unless you’re planning to be there fore 3+ weeks). If you want to see as much as possible in the shortest stretch, the South Coast (Between Hella and Vik) is where a lot of major sights are at—there are countless waterfalls and trails out this way. It’s touristy, but there’s a reason for it—just because there are tourists shouldn’t be a reason to avoid it.
The most iconic views are along the Golden Circle – Geysir, Thingvellir, and Gullfoss. They’re all great, but you won’t stay at each location very long (most likely). Gulfoss is certainly a sight be behold and is worth seeing in person, Geysir is exactly what you expect, and Thingvellir is worth taking time to actually plan your trip and explore and hike around. I made the mistake for the first few years of simply passing through this area, and it wasn’t until I spent time hiking around that I was able to properly appreciate Thingvellir. A great place to start, if you’re unsure of where to start, would be to visit Öxarárfoss.
From here, you’re likely to cut across and south to Highway 1 (you’ll get there right before Hella) and then head out South. If you come down Highway 1 and pass through Selfoss, make sure to stop at Bonus, if needed, as this will be your last chance for cheaper groceries until you hit Höfn. Along Highway 1, enroute Eastward, you there will be a handful of the “main” sights:
Seljavallalaug – This is an old abandoned pool with warm water still coming into it (in one tiny corner). It’s amazing if you can get it alone and it’s in such a pretty area that you’ll want to stay and hike around. To make it to the pool itself you’ll need to take a small hike, but if you get up super early and make it here before the crowds, it’s worth it. (It’s also worth it if there are lots of people, but it’s less of an intimate experience)
Seljalandfoss – A very popular waterfall, and you can hike behind it, which is really unique, but also be prepared to get dashed with a lot of mist and moisture. The majority of tour groups begin their last departure between 4-6pm, so if you arrive after that, it’ll be less busy (and of course, the later you go, the less busy it will be).
Skogafoss – This is the most “iconic” waterfall and you can climb stairs to the top (do it) and you can even hike back there a good bit (nobody does, so it’s a great way to get away from tourists). The same truth applies to Skogafoss as Seljalandfoss: the later you go, the more likely you are to have access with fewer other visitors.
You’ll also come across some other iconic things, like the DC-3 Plane Wreck and Reynisdrangar, all of which worth stopping for, depending on how much time you have. The black sand beaches are some of my favorite, but when you go to Reynisdrangar, make sure to drive up to the lighthouse and hike around up at the top—the views are breathtaking.
At the end of all of this is Vik, which is a super cute, small town. You can access the black sand beaches in Vik too, but be mindful since they are known to have huge waves come out of nowhere into torrential riptides. If you want to see Black Sand, untouched, then drive about 4-5km past Vik, and then pull over at any of the pullouts (you’ll see these large, black sand dunes) hike back there and you’ll reach the beach and almost surely you’ll be alone.
Also, just about 1-2km outside of Vik, there is a pullout on the left that goes down to a kind of hidden waterfall that’s just a really beautiful, and calm spot. Most people don’t stop there as it isn’t quite as “epic” but it is very serene and, as you’ll find, along the South Coast, serenity can sometimes be few and far between when you’re fighting against crowds of tourists.
Once you leave Vik, you’ve got about an hour of driving before things start picking up again. Of course, there are some amazing landscapes, parks, and hiking along the way, but these are things you will discover on a map and need to plan for. Something unfortunate about Iceland is that Instagram has made certain places the “it” spots. There areso many incredible places—take time to look at google earth and examine the landscape. Don’t get tied down to just the places you see on Instagram or else you’ll only see 10% of Iceland, and what you will see has been so consumed and regurgitated that the experience can feel like an apparition.
As you continue along Highway 1 eastward you’ll see a huge lava field (rocks covered in moss) and you’ll want to get out and explore the area. Be mindful of the moss, however, as it’s a fragile eco system. In the past, I haven’t been mindful of this and it’s one of my regrets in regards to discovering Iceland. There are ample trails that lead through the moss, so take one of those and help preserve the region for future visitors.
One thing you can’t miss is the pull out for Faðrárgljúfur canyon. This is one of my favorite places in Iceland and it’s breathtaking. It’ll sneak up on you and it’s easy to miss the small sign for it. The Canyon is beyond words and, while now there are large parts that are partitioned off, it’s still an incredible sight to behold.
After that, you’ll be headed out on your way towards Hofn. Make sure to fill up on gas because after the canyon, there is a small gas station (+ restaurant) and then after that it’s a few hours before you’ll have gas and/or food. I always try to make sure to have ample snacks to prevent getting hangry.
On this next stretch, you’ll come across a few glaciers, Fjallsárlón and Jökulsárlón. These Glacial Lagoons are both very different, but equally beautiful and worth exploring, depending on how much time you have. There is ample room and space to hike around these and explore—take your time here. These places are very easy to “consume” as tourists, but it doesn’t take much effort to find a place where you can be nearly alone and enjoy the isolation, nature, and wilderness of Iceland. It’s here that I would suggest taking a longer hike to get a chance to really experience these places in solitude and quiet.
After this, you’ves successfully hit themainthings along the South and the Southeast, but there are still other things out there, such as Skaftafell and Svartifoss. Make sure to figure out how far East you plan to go so that you can really establish which of these places you want to stop at and visit.
If you do drive the East Coast, you’ll end up driving a long way without seeing any “major” landmarks. It’s beautiful, but it’s not as common to head that way and there aren’t any main “attractions.” However, you can still pull your car over and do some mini-hikes in the region at certain pull-outs, roads, and parks. Again, if you aren’t encumbered by needing to see the “Instagram Iceland” there is so much you can discover and you’ll very quickly find yourself completely alone, which can be a magical feeling.
If you want to something along the South that most people don’t decide to do, I’d consider hiking Landmannalaugar. I’ve never done it personally, but it’s on my bucket list because it’s a serious commitment of time and energy. In addition to Landmannalaugar, there is access to the Highlands and Thórsmörk, all of which will take time and planning, but it’s a whole other part of Iceland that many don’t get to fully experience.
If you’re trying to get away from large groups, I’d honestly consider doing a tour/booked activity. Something like a glacier hike on Sólheimajökull, or something like Ice Caves, or Snorkeling in Thingvellir. These aretotally unique experiences and you’ll have a small group (most likely 5-12) and you’ll see things that simply aren’t possible if you’re planning a trip on your own. We did a glacier hike on Sólheimajökull and it’s still one of my favorite memories. A company like Arctic Adventures would be a great place to start if you’re looking for opportunities. An excursion to Landmannalaugar or Thorsmark, would almost certainly be worth it, because they’re so hard to get to on your own and you can have a more controlled experience without having to worry about fording rivers in your rental car.
If you decide to head up west to Snæfellsness peninsula, there are some amazing landscapes, but less “attractions” to see along the way. If you have a 4×4, you can drive across the peninsula (not around, across) and there are some beautiful rock formations, volcanoes, and mountain passes. If you want a great dinner at the end of the peninsula, stop to get lunch or dinner at Hotel Budir. It’s the best food around, well designed, and a beautiful place to break up your trip.. You’ll splash out, but it’ll be worth it.
The last place I want to mention is the West Fjords—this magical region of Iceland is beautiful, serene, majestic, and isolated. Because it is so far removed from the rest of the country, it’ll take commitment to make it out this far north, but you’re perseverance will be rewarded with a part of Iceland that most people say they’ll do “next time” (but never do). The hiking in this region is unmatched, and while it will required a lot of time in your car, a well planned trip up this way is one that will stay with you for the rest of your life.
Of course, there is so much more to Iceland, and I hope this information is helpful, and only a small starting place for you during your time there. If you information and experiences you’ve loved, please share them as I’d love to include as many tips, travel hacks, and information as I can for future travelers. Enjoy Iceland, preserve the landscape, and don’t get trapped inside of Instagram Iceland. Make your own way.