If you have an Instagram account, you probably know someone or follow someone who has traveled to Iceland in the past year (myself included). And when you see said people on the ‘gram post about Iceland, I’m sure your first thought is: “WOW, that’s beautiful!” Followed up by your second thought: “Is it really all the rage?” I’m here to tell you hell yes, it absolutely is.
The land of fire and ice is indescribable, breathtaking and a formidable escape from reality. Between the mountains, geysers, volcanoes, lava fields, black sand beaches, waterfalls, glaciers, hot springs and the Northern Lights, the small country with a less than 350,000 natural population is simply put, other-worldly. People aren’t just enamored with this country, they fall head-over-heels in love with it. And not that puppy love shit; I’m talking the deep kind of love that’s painstakingly unconditional, remarkably passionate and makes you die a little inside every time you realize how lucky you are to have found said true love. (Oh, and Game of Thrones was filmed there.)
So without further ado, check out highlights from our Icelandic adventure below & see for yourself how we fell in love with a country no bigger than the state of Ohio:
Day 1: The Sticker Shock
I’m going to put this out there first so we can all have ourselves a bit of a reality check – Iceland is expensive. There are ways to budget & see everything the country has to offer in an affordable manner, but when you do want to splurge just don’t freak out when you see a simple gin & tonic for 24,000 ISK (~$24.00 USD). We got our first taste of the sticker shock when we needed to do laundry during our first night. After spending approximately $30 on two loads of laundry, $26 for nachos and $9 per Viking beer we balanced it out with some infamous hot dogs from Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur (a hot dog stand which made this processed delicacy the unofficial official food of Iceland by none other than Bill Clinton – ummm, what?).
Very different from street meat, Icelandic dogs are mostly lamb meat. The two hot dogs on the end are fully loaded with diced onions, cripsy onions (think the stuff you top green bean casserole with), ketchup, mustard and a remoulade sauce. Bon appétit!
Day 2: First Stops on the Golden Circle
As you research things to do in Iceland, the first road trip (as well as the shortest & most touristy) you’ll come across is the Golden Circle, a route that takes you from landmark to landmark in the Southwestern part of the country. It’s the most popular as one could realistically do the whole circle within a day stemming from the capital (Reykjavík) if you limit your stops. Most visitors opt to break it up, or if you’re like us, use it as a starting point as you make your way from the Western side to the Eastern side of the country.
As we drove out of Reykjavík and onward to our first stop on the Golden Circle, Þingvellir National Park, it felt truly like we were on the moon. The flat land covered in snow with protruding mountains and volcanoes in the distance was like nothing we’d ever seen. The lack of trees made the land feel completely barren, yet with the sun beginning to peak over the horizon, the soft cotton candy-colored hues reflecting on the snow made the terrain also seem ethereal.
Þingvellir is the location in which the European and North American tectonic plates meet. Technically the landscape is constantly changing and one can actually scuba dive in the lake to see where the plates meet. We opted to save that for another time when it wasn’t -10 degrees.
After braving the cold for a long walk through the park, we headed to Geysir (Iceland’s equivalent to Old Faithful) and Gulfoss. While we were slightly unimpressed by the spouting thermal waters at Geysir, the Gulfoss waterfall was incredible. Gulfoss means “golden waterfall” and was named this due to the golden hue that can be seen reflecting off the water when the sun sets. The expansiveness of the waterfall was simply impressive. The wide mouth of the river spilled over the canyons in two tiers and a shimmering rainbow could be seen just above the tumbling falls at any given point.
Our last stop before heading to our hostel in Hvolsvöllur, was the Secret Lagoon in Flúðir. On our route to the lagoon we encountered many Icelandic horses along the countryside, and of course stopped to meat the beautiful creatures.
The Secret Lagoon is not-so-secret but it is one of the first natural geothermic pools in the country. Those that manage the lagoon have left it nearly untouched and natural since it’s establishment in the late 1800’s. The hot waters made for a relaxing ending to our first day of trekking across Iceland, so relaxing that we ended up soaking for nearly three hours (it’s been months since our trip and I’m still prune-y).
After the lagoon, we checked in at Midgard Base Camp in Hvolsvöllur for the night. If you find yourself in that area, I highly recommend getting a bed here. The views are stunning, there’s a hot tub on the roof and the food is delicious. We shared a bowl of traditional meat soup, an open-faced chicken sandwich and, of course, an Icelandic hot dog.
Day 3: Chasing Waterfalls
Clearly tourism hadn’t picked up in Iceland when TLC wrote this song because half the fun in Iceland is chasing waterfalls. We had two major falls on our list for Day 3 but we would get to that after a quick pit stop at the ferry docks to watch the sunrise. From the dock we could see down to the black sand beach, out past the ocean to the Vestmanneayjar islands and the volcanic peaks behind us. Again, the whimsical cotton candy-colored sky had us completely entranced to the point we barely noticed how cold it was.
After soaking in the early morning rays we stopped at Seljalandafoss. The waterfall drops nearly 200 feet from the top, making for an impressive sight. In the warmer months you can get all up in its business, but on our wintery trip slipping to our death was not on the agenda. The Gljúfrabúi waterfall was a short walk away from Seljalandafoss and is often neglected as it is hard to spot as it lives within the canyon. Steph was adventurous and headed into the gaping gorge to check it out – I on the other hand captured the moment and opted to stay dry.
Our second stop, and third waterfall of the day, was Skógafoss found in the little town of Skógar. It is equally as tall as Seljalandfoss but it’s mouth is much wider. Even in the winter months you can walk straight up to the falls and take the stairs to get a view from above (pro tip: purchase crampons for walking on the icy conditions, it will make life so much easier and more maneuverable). There even seemed to be a hiking trail at the very top that runs alongside the river, we knew we were fighting daylight and golden hour was quickly arising so we only walked briefly on the trail before turning around.
Our last stop of the day, were the infamous black sand beaches known for its basalt columns that look like a church organ and rogue waves known to engulf tourists who turn their back to the water. Either way, the Reynisfjara Beach was a great place to take in all of day 3 and watch the sun fall past the horizon. This beach and the cliffs also took the life of Old Red (my jacket) and I had to spend $20 on duct tape for a temporary repair, but the views and time here were worth it!
Before our drive out to our next hotel in Skaftafell, we stopped in Vík for some food at the restaurant Suður-Vík. We split seafood soup and a prawn salad for an appetizer and delighted in our entree of a lamb filet with mushroom cream sauce accompanied by sides of root vegetable hash and a baked potato.
Once we arrived in Skaftafell, we fought sleep with some alcohol and good company, finally seeing the Northern Lights briefly around 2:00am. We settled with the concierge for a wake-up call should the lights reappear, but also settled with ourselves for some sleep.
Day 4: A Glacial Mistake
We woke up early by Icelandic standards (pre-sunrise around 8am) to head out to our glacial hike/ice cave tour which met at the Jökulsárlón Glacial Lagoon. On a scale of 1 to 10, the excursion we went on was at best a three. It was awesome to be out on an actual glacier (and one of Iceland’s largest to boot), but the excursion did not live up to our expectations of an actual hike. The ice cave was also neat to say we did, but the amount of tourists also crawling into the caves did not make for an overwhelmingly great experience. Highlight of this adventure would be spotting sea lions swimming in the glacial lagoon. (Sorry Steph, but this photo captured our sentiments of the tour too perfectly.)
Luckily this gave us plenty of time to explore elsewhere on the Eastern side of Iceland. Our hotel in Skaftafell was nicely situated next to the entrance of the Vatnajökull National Park and the weather was just warm enough for us to go on a hike. The area had multiple hiking trails up to waterfalls and past glaciers with views of both the ocean and volcanoes. We took the trail up to Svartifoss – a grand waterfall with the basalt columns like we had seen on the beaches – passing by multiple smaller falls along the way.
We then took the trail up to Sjónarsker. Once we reached the top, we came into a great open field in which the Southern view was the ocean and all around us to the North, East and West were volcanic peaks. A view-dial was properly positioned in this area that showed us the names of all the volcanoes surrounding us (I believe I counted a total of seven). We watched as the sun began to dip below the horizon and the sky changed from the golden daylight to the pinks and purples of dusk. The colors reflected beautifully off of the snowy caps and the Skaftafellsjökull glacier. It was a magical, unplanned moment that we would not have been able to witness should we have had a better glacier-ice cave tour.
We ate dinner at our hotel in Skaftafell. Once again rationing ourselves by splitting food – mostly for our bank account but I also think our stomach shrank by living off of skyr, granola, Pringles and jerky. We split the asparagus soup, a ton of bread dipped in this amazing pesto oil and fresh arctic char with root vegetables. After this meal, it was pretty evident to us that farm-to-table wasn’t just the latest food trend, in Iceland it was a way of life.
That night after dinner we were prepared to see the Northern Lights again as we heard our best chance for a show was tonight. Around 10pm, we trekked out back behind the hotel and as soon as we set up our position behind the hill, the lights began to dance. Luckily, we ran into some Dutch hotel-goers that had a tripod and we were able to capture the images below. It was a surreal moment to watch the Northern Lights over the volcanic peaks and an expansive glacier in the Vatnajökull National Park.
Day 5: A Blue Ending
Our last full day in Iceland was spent traversing back to the Western side of the country. Sadly, the weather turned for the poor and it rained a majority of the way – luckily we survived with my driving skills (and my driving skills are horrible) – but considering we had a 4+ hour drive, it was a good day for shit weather. We stopped for coffee to refuel in Selfoss then headed to the Blue Lagoon. We certainly underestimated the time it would take to get from Skaftafell to Grindavík, or else we would have explored more in the fishing villages that are on the South-Western tip of the island.
Once we arrived at the Blue Lagoon, we instantly knew our experience would be much different than that at the Secret Lagoon. It was definitely more of a high-end spa than a natural occurrence of nature, but regardless it was neat to see water this crystal blue and it was good weather for a soak in steaming hot water.
The Blue Lagoon is actually a man-made lagoon, tourism has encouraged it to become a five-star hotel with spa and overpriced goods. But the water is why people flock to it. The geothermic water is pumped from 2,000 meters below the surface, it’s milky blue color comes from a mix of silica, algae and minerals. The lagoon holds 9 million liters of water which self-renews every 40 hours. The sheer amount of volume alone is remarkable, but what is not remarkable is the massive scale of tourists (yes, we know we were in that bucket too). After spending 4 days in the countryside, speaking with native Icelandic folk, the lagoon felt forced in the landscape. While it was nice to check it off the list, it wouldn’t be worth a second stop (just my humble opinion, however for some people this is what they go to Iceland for).
After the lagoon, we headed back to the capital for our final night to wrap up the vacation. Luckily we met some people from Ukraine and Moldova that ironically lived in Texas, and met them out for dinner and drinks. We went to an establishment called the Icelandic Bar in Reykjavík (how original) for dinner, but the food was pretty decent and seemed customary to Iceland. Maybe I say customary because we ate fermented shark and chased it down with a shot of Black Death (Brennivín). I’m going to put it on the record now that Black Death mirrors moonshine on my palette which happens to seem to taste like rubbing alcohol.
We wrapped up the evening at Lebowski Bar – and yes, this is a bar in Iceland themed after the ’98 Coen brothers film – complete with over 23 different styles of $28 white Russian cocktails. Unsurprisingly, the bar felt very American.
Day 6: Should I Stay or Should I Go?
Our time was up in Iceland, and it rained the day we left – it was almost like the country was reflecting the pain in our hearts experienced by leaving. I’m sure I can speak for both Steph and I in saying that we would have loved to stay.
The simplicity of life, the friendliness of the people and the true beauty of the nearly untouched landscape made it easy to fall in love with this tiny country. Turning off and tuning in to the present was refreshing. Leaving the chaos of an American culture that thrives on objects and possessions was a reset for our souls, and made us thankful for what we had. So thank you Iceland – even in the winter, you made our grandest adventure dreams a reality.
“What you’ve done becomes the judge of what you’re going to do — especially in other people’s minds. When you’re traveling, you are what you are right there and then. People don’t have your past to hold against you. No yesterdays on the road.”
-William Least Heat-Moon