For nearly three years, I had a Google Doc saved to my drive entitled "Theoretical Iceland Extravaganza 20__." I dutifully updated the year whenever another 365 days had passed.
WOW Air ads on the T here in Boston mocked me with their claims of 5-hour flights to Reykjavik. Blue Lagoon pics threatened to outnumber Machu Picchu selfies when it came to dating app profiles. Everyone and their mom was going to Iceland. Everyone except me.
Every year, I exhausted my list of people I could potentially go with, throwing out invitations left and right, and still came up empty. Every. single. year — until now. After many, many pep talks (from others and from myself), I finally bought a plane ticket and prepared to explore the island solo.
(Spoiler alert: Once she got wind that I was definitely going, my aunt jumped on board. So now everyone and their mom's sister were officially heading to Iceland.)
Wanna go, too? Please feel free to reap the benefits of three years of research and nine days of actual experience. Enjoy.
Disclaimer: I'm gonna be pretty sporadic with my use of proper Iceland accents and punctuation. There's only so much copying and pasting I can handle. Also? THIS IS HELLA LONG.
DAY 1 (BOSTON --> KEFLAVIK)
Does this even count as part of the trip? If you're cheapskating it like I was, your flight likely leaves in the evening and you arrive at the crack of dawn in Iceland the next day. I left work early, booked it to the airport, and made myself comfortable on the plane with hours of podcasts, downloaded Netflix shows, and two books to keep me company. For the first time in my life, I even took the time to wash my face before the flight, took out my contacts, and applied extra moisturizer. Let's call this the Forever35 effect. I also popped a melatonin and inflated my camping pillow, but maybe you're someone who has no trouble sleeping on planes? If so, I'd like to know your secret. I managed a couple of subpar hours.
We landed at 4:30 a.m. and made the bleary walk past all of the food vendors that were for departing guests only. I've never encountered this rule before, but it's a real thing that is actually enforced. Someone please tell me why.
The first perhaps crucial tidbit of the trip: I rented our car from Hertz after spending waaaay too much time researching car rental options, including reading nightmare stories about ash and gravel insurance, picky agents, and the state of roads in Iceland. ("Do I need 4WD? It sounds like I do. Everyone is recommending it.") (In fact, more likely than not, you don't. For reals.)
To save money, I chose a basic sedan (a Nissan Pulsar — no, I'd never heard of it, either) and opted to pay for it upfront. That locked me into the trip, and I had a few hours of panic thinking this would be the one time in my life where I'd fall ill or be injured and unable to travel, but... it was fine. Hertz had our car ready on time, they weren't insane about it, we pointed out one small thing that might be construed as damage that already existed so we wouldn't be blamed, and then we were off. Way to go, Hertz! Also important to note was that Hertz didn't require an insane security deposit like some other local rental dealers did. Just FYI.
Arrive @ KEF, 4:30 a.m.
HELLNAR SEA CLIFFS & ARNARSTAPI BEACH
I remember very little about this stop aside from the fact that we first stopped at this hilarious stone statue of what looked like a giant, and then ended up here. At first, we started walking down a mysterious path along the water, but it soon became clear that it went on for potentially miles and we had no idea where it went. So then we backtracked to the car and continued driving. There's supposedly a black church around here, but we completely missed it (though we were looking!).
This is mostly a scenic area that's pretty but lacking in the way of actual things to stop and see. Lots of horses along the way, and if you're into it, you can arrange to go horseback riding. You can also see the glacier in the distance, but we didn't do any excursions related to it.
Apparently, this mountain was in Game of Thrones. Sure, if you say so! There's a parking lot across the road from the mountain, and a small waterfall on the lot side with a pathway to go up and take pictures.
We stopped at our first Bónus here to grab provisions, but arrived too late to take the ferry to the Westfjords. (We literally missed it by minutes. But in our defense, it wasn't on the official itinerary to take the ferry, so it's not like it was an official failure. Stay positive, folks.)
Good things to know about Bónus:
- It's your best bet for buying the cheapest food possible.
- Its logo is a giant pig that puts Piggly Wiggly to shame.
- The produce and dairy items are kept in separate rooms from the rest of the store (at this one, at least), and they carry the biggest lemons known to man (the produce in question apparently tastes like nothing, according to the local woman we ran into).
- They aren't super abundant, so if you see one, you should probably stop and get whatever you need. Another decent option is Krónan.
- I'll blather on more about what I survived on in a separate packing/buying post.
Since we missed the ferry, we drove on to our original destination for the evening — this campsite that is almost unsettlingly in the midst of a town. Aside from the lack of nature, it was a pretty impressive site, complete with kitchen setup (sink, hot plate, and toaster oven), washer & dryer, and piping hot showers. Cost? About $15 a person/tent, which includes a shower voucher (you scan it, the shower runs for about five minutes).
We set up our tents next to some German dudes and fell asleep at around 10 p.m. The sun was 100% still shining. (Hellooo, Iceland summer!)
Lotsa driving today. This is a road trip, after all. One thing to note: When Google Maps gives you an approximation of how long it will take to get somewhere, it's not taking into consideration the fact that these roads might become unpaved. And even though the suggested speed on unpaved roads is 80 kph, you miiight feel the urge to go, like, 40 kph because you're paranoid that rocks will kick up and ding your car at any moment.
Basically, it can take a while.
OMG Látrabjaaaaaarg. This was one of the stops I was most looking forward to, and one of the most treacherous to get to. AND I LOVED IT. So, so much.
Látrabjarg is the westernmost point of Iceland and one of Europe's biggest bird cliffs. It's also really freaking hard to get to, involving miles and miles of winding unpaved roads and a memorable stretch of cliffside dirt road where we got stuck facing a tractor that was coming the other way. I'm not sure how he managed to pass us without falling off the cliff or scratching our car, but you better believe the encounter involved me gesturing wildly at the operator not to come any closer to us. He just laughed.
This experience was seriously everything I wished the Puffin Cruise had been and MORE. Just ask and I will gladly show you all of the 400 puffin photos that I took. (I may or may not be joking.)
Dynjandi is an enormous waterfall that cascades down rocks like a staircase, making it pretty distinct from the other dozens of waterfalls we encountered on the trip. By the time we finished checking out Látrabjarg and drove to this area, it was past 10 p.m. But, since it was June in Iceland, it looked and felt like it was the middle of the afternoon. Yes!
There are a bunch of smaller waterfalls right by the parking lot, but you really need to make the climb all the way up to the main one. It's amazing and slightly terrifying — Iceland doesn't seem to believe much in protective barriers, and the top consists of slippery rockface and a cliff's edge. And people were not shy about getting right up to that edge.
This was the campground I had planned on us staying at and was where we ended up, but I just want to note that we did a crazy amount of driving on this day, so if you're not sharing the work or just don't have the stamina, then spreading the Westfjords across two days is probably wise.
I would also like to take this moment to dispel some rumors: my aunts and uncles seem to think that my tent rolled down a hill with me in it at this campsite. False. My tent tipped over early in the morning, with me in it, because of how strong the wind was blowing. It was so windy that I couldn't even get it re-secured, so I gave up and broke down my setup. I ended up with some bent tent poles, but on the bright side, we got a head start with our drive and spotted a waterfall on the way to breakfast.
Like most of the "big" towns in Iceland, this one didn't have much worth stopping for. It'd be a good place to stock up on gas and groceries if you're in need; we took advantage of the local library's WiFi to figure out if we'd be able to visit the nature baths in Myvatn before they closed and tried to scope out lodging since it looked like it would be too cold to camp that evening.
MYVATN NATURE BATHS
We made the somewhat controversial decision to NOT visit the Blue Lagoon (I know, I'm never going to attract a man now), and instead opted for this soaking spa. I'm told it offers much of the same in terms of amenities (poolside bar service, a restaurant, a sauna) but is much less crowded and less expensive (only $47 vs. about $100). Unlike the Blue Lagoon, it's not necessary to make a reservation ahead of time.
As someone who is fairly cold-blooded and seems to possess little body fat (as evidenced by how easy my tent can blow away with me in it), I like it hot. Showers, hot tubs, weather — what most people find unbearable, I find comfortable. So for me, the temperature of the main pool at the nature baths was disappointing. (Oh wait, did I mention that it was also supposed to snow that evening and plenty of guests opted to wear their knit beanies into the pool? No? Well, maybe take that into consideration.) The sauna and hot tub more than made up for it, though, and by the time I was done with stints in both, the chilly walk back to the changing room was less daunting.
Things to keep in mind: At these nature baths (and with the cheaper Blue Lagoon packages, as well), towels are only available for a rental fee. I brought my tiny microfiber camp towels in with me to use, but they were no shield from the freezing cold during the brief outdoor trek from the showers to the pool. Also, I had totally packed shower sandals specifically for these situations but forgot to bring them in from the car. If you go, don't make the same mistake.
This is also probably a good time to warn you that Icelanders are fanatic about washing before going into these geothermal pools since they aren't chlorinated or anything. That means washing, ahem, key areas with soap before putting on your suit. Makes sense, but also very different from what we're used to at pools in the U.S.
Restaurant options were fairly limited in this area, but I dug the vibe of this bistro and my spicy lamb pizza with tomato chutney was delicious. Everything sounded pretty good, honestly — it's all just (unsurprisingly) expensive.
The original plan was to camp this evening, but the weather proved too harsh for us to bear. We came upon this guesthouse — a series of tiny cabins, really — and they happened to have a one-bedroom cottage available for us. Despite being a drop-in, the price was pretty reasonable and the cottage was super cute. It included a well-stocked kitchen, so would have been great for a longer stay, as well.
My absolute favorite part of our stay here was the complimentary breakfast. After several days of having nothing but granola bars, yogurt, and instant coffee for breakfast, I was pumped to see the insane spread that was provided. Smoked trout, lamb, hard-boiled eggs, cheese, fruit, hearty loaves of bread, and, yes, skyr (yogurt) were all laid out first thing in the morning. I was really bummed when I wasn't hungry enough to go back for a third round. (Be sure to try the homemade "hot springs" bread!)
Also, there were two resident dogs (!!!) and the main gathering house overlooked directly onto Myvatn Lake. A really great find.
I really like that this cave has more recently gained notoriety not for its geological significance or brilliantly blue water, but because it was the setting for the love scene between Jon Snow and Ygritte in season three of Game of Thrones.
While this hot spring used to be enjoyed by locals, these days the temperature is too unpredictable to be safe for bathing, so it's more about getting a peek at that beautiful water. Totally worth it. (Try to go early and avoid giant groups of tourists taking selfies inside the cave.)
HVERIR GEOTHERMAL AREA
Right down the road from Grotagja is a wildly different landscape (and pungent smell) that has been compared to the surface of Mars. Having never been to Mars (yet), I can't attest to that, but it's certainly a barren, red, rocky expanse. Most notable, though, are the glistening pools, bubbling mud pits, and thick pillars of steam everywhere you look.
A group of tourists from a bus trip was all equipped with disposable booties to put over their shoes, and I gotta say, it looked silly but was genius. The mud here is super thick and you will be a mess afterward. Just be prepared to throw your shoes into a plastic bag immediately until you can clean them off. (Or simply be careful in the car until you get to the next stop, because spoiler: more mud is coming.)
This crater, formed by a volcanic eruption, features a dazzling blue pool in the center. Though hiking down to the lake seems unwise, you can easily walk around the perimeter of the crater in under an hour. On the day we went, it was snowing and the wind was still blowing pretty hard, so the one small stretch of narrow pathway felt a bit treacherous, but it doesn't last more than a half a dozen steps.
As I mentioned before, the landscape can be extremely muddy (there's no vegetation, so duh), and my boots were literally weighed down with mud toward the end. Have a fresh pair of shoes ready to change into, and take advantage of the no-longer-random shower station that's by the side of the road on your way back to the main road.
Our Air BnB for the evening was situated a bit farther away from the next day's locations than I would have liked, but this town ended up being quite pretty and enjoyable to stay in. If you want to cut down on driving the next morning, however, I'd recommend finding lodging further south.
We made a failed attempt to see a local waterfall that was recommended by our guide, Einar and then ended the evening with a meal of seafood gratin and reindeer meatballs at Randulff's Seahouse. The place was almost completely empty when we got there, so the hostess was happy to chat and tell us about the history of the area and the restaurant's former life as a museum. It's still filled with artifacts and the upstairs has exhibits about the area, so it's easy to stay entertained while you wait for your meal.
Seafood? Delicious. Reindeer? Legit delicious.
JOKULSARLON GLACIAL LAGOON
The night before, we'd checked the various booking sites to try to secure a spot on one of the amphibian boats that tours the lagoon, but found that all the trips were full until at least 5 p.m. We had plenty of other stops still to make after the lagoon, so it seemed as if we'd have to give up on the idea... but! when we arrived the next day at around noon, there were still spots available when we walked up to the ticket booth. Just goes to show: sometimes not having your shit together still works out.
The view of the glacial ice from the shore is still breathtaking, but I'm glad we got to get a different (and often closer) look with the boat ride. It lasts about an hour, you get to hear a bit about how glaciers are formed (and subsequently melt), and if you're feeling curious, you can even taste some pure glacier ice.
After the boat ride, we walked across the street to the black sand beaches, where the chunks of ice that make their way out to sea often wash up. There was a massive piece of ice that tourists were taking turns snapping pics on and we, of course, could not resist.
This was another highlight of the trip, so if you can't make it around the entire island, I highly recommend you at least find a way to get this far.
VATNAJOKULL NATIONAL PARK
This place wasn't on anyone's list of recommendations when I talked with people who'd already been to Iceland, and I'm honestly not sure why! Maybe because there's another glacier not too far off and everyone only went there? Regardless, I think this place is worth a stop, and if you time it right, it's an option for camping, as well.
Aside from the ice in the lagoon, this was the first glacier we encountered up close on the trip, and it's a little startling to discover that they aren't these pristine blocks of ice that you imagine — the majority of the surface, I'd say, is actually blackened with dirt and gravel that gets ground into the ice as it moves.
You can opt to do a guided glacier walk here, though we didn't have time to. It's strongly discouraged (dare I say forbidden?) to walk on these glaciers without guides, so we settled for checking it out from afar.
Uh, don't tell her I told you this, but I'm pretty sure my aunt was sick of camping at this point. I, on the other hand, was just settling into a groove: Sleep in several layers of clothing and avoid seeing my legs for days at a time. Hoard outlets and charge devices whenever possible. Subsist on a diet of ramen noodles and madras lentil from Trader Joe's. Bury into the cozy depths of my sleeping bag each night, sleeping mask firmly in place.
All this is to say that the campgrounds in Iceland were pretty impressive. Well-equipped. Easy to access. And boasting pretty clean facilities. This one was no different, and I especially enjoyed my evening spent eating my ramen, drinking white wine straight from the bottle, and listening to my fellow campers cheer as they huddled around phones, watching Iceland compete in the World Cup.
Okay, so this one tripped me up. There's a black sand beach almost immediately across the street from the entrance to the campground, and at first, we thought that was Reynisfjara Beach. It most certainly is not. It wasn't until we drove all the way to Dyrholaey (pretty meh) and talked to some fellow tourists that we realized we'd completely missed the beach we'd meant to see.
The backtrack was well worth it but unfortunately meant that it was almost noon by the time we got there, and it was swarming with tourists. (Again, go early if you want a little more breathing room.) Even still, the basalt columns and roaring waves were a sight to see, and I hear you can sometimes even see puffins in the area.
This is a popular spot for guided glacier walks, but we were able to get really close to the glacier even though we weren't part of a tour. Highly recommend stopping at both of the glaciers on this itinerary.
If you have the proper rain gear and are confident in how waterproof your equipment is, you can walk very close to the base of the waterfall where the water hits the ground. It looks very cool.
BUT, if you're like me and had already spent plenty of time cold and damp, it's still enjoyable to view from afar. The surrounding area is lush and green in the summer, and there's a rickety staircase leading to the top of the waterfall, as well. It's a pretty decent workout, but totally doable for most folks.
One thing to keep in mind is that this kicks off the portion of the trip where we're deep into Reykjavik-driving-distance sights, so the crowds are much larger and the bathrooms and parking start to cost money. (Have I mentioned how much I loved the Westfjords?)
The best part of this waterfall is that there's a campground right next to it, so that's where we set up for the night. (There's even a small waterfall in the campsite, and we parked our tents right next to it.) We took a quick stroll to see the main waterfall in the evening, but then went back again in the morning when we were dressed to walk behind it, as well. You'll definitely want to throw on your rain pants and raincoat for the quick loop, but it's worth it.
We stopped here for lunch at Kaffi Krus, which my friend Jess recommended. She raved about their burger, but my aunt and I were both big fans of the seafood soup. Definitely a great place to stop with a really chill vibe and delicious menu.
KERID CRATER LAKE
Okay, not gonna lie... at this point, my aunt and I were both turning into crater snobs (and waterfall snobs, to boot). This lake is fine, but Viti was by far my favorite of the two as it felt bigger and less crowded. There's also a fee to visit this one ($4).
HAUKADALUR GEOTHERMAL FIELD
Again, I thought the other geothermal area (Hverir) was cooler, but if you've never seen a geyser before, then this would be a neat stop. The namesake, Geysir, goes off pretty frequently and regularly, so you're guaranteed to see it erupt a few times, but other than that one, the rest of the area is pretty ho-hum. I'll put it this way: it's no Yellowstone.
Another waterfall. But this one was, in fact, quite lovely, and as promised, we saw several rainbows.
THINGVELLIR NATIONAL PARK
Jess warned me that this wasn't worth going to, and I was ready to skip it, but somebody in the car still wanted to check it out, so... away we went. Seriously, don't bother. Save your time and drive directly to...
One thing we still hadn't accomplished on the trip was a soak in a roadside hot pot. Since we'd decided to skip the Blue Lagoon, it seem paramount to make this, at least, happen. The problem was that we hadn't really planned for it, so a lot of the ones I could find info about were too far out of the way.
However, when I was making the original itinerary, I'd including a hot river that Jamie (of P-Town fame) had recommended, and I saw that it was on the way to Reykjavik, still, so definitely within the realm of possibility. It would be a long day, but hey, we'd already had 8 long days at this point, so what's one more? The sun was STILL out, guys!
After some trial and error, we found the way to where the parking lot was, awkwardly changed into our suits in the car, and started the hike to the river.
I've linked to the article that I initially read about the river in, and the writer describes the hike as "relatively easy." Friends, I vehemently disagree. It was, as she described, long ("45-60 minutes"? More like definitely 60, at least), but felt even longer due to how steep the inclines were. Plus, the wind was blowing viciously when we went, so there was the added effort of hiking uphill into the wind.
Still, even with all that, I can't recommend this stop enough. The hot river is really like nothing else I've ever experienced — and it has amazing amenities, too, with a boardwalk alongside that includes occasional changing screens for privacy. I was worried that the river wouldn't be warm enough to make the trip worth it, but we found a spot where it was as hot as any man-made hot tub I've been in. (I believe the water gets progressively warmer the farther you walk.) It felt amazing. I only wish we could have stayed longer, but it was already past 10 p.m. when we got there, and we still had to find a place to stay for the night.
We opted to crash at the nearest campsite. It wasn't the best, but it did the trick. Sadly, it was too late to eat out by the time we got back from the river, so we missed out on trying any of the local restaurants. Instead, I shared a picnic table with some tourists from France and Germany; we were all eating different variations of ramen. Cheers!
Finally! The place where the majority of people stay when they go to Iceland. We made it... 9 days after arriving. We made reservations to go on a free CityWalk Tour, which started near the Parliament building, and spent two hours wandering the city with our delightful guide/my dream husband, Eric. When I wasn't distracted by his beautiful face, I learned plenty of new and interesting facts about Iceland. Because let's be real, U.S. public schools DGAF about Iceland.
Seriously, though, I highly recommend attending one of their tours. It was entertaining, fascinating, and culminated with a ton of local recommendations. It's called "free," but is actually donation-based, so... cough up something.
Sooo... not only did we end up doing the hot river, but we also decided to check out a local pool, as well. Since it had ben raining and cold in Reykjavik since we arrived, it seemed like as good an option as wandering around downtown any more. Plus, it was within easy walking distance from our AirBnB.
The pool was nothing impressive from the outside, but inside? Guys. There was a lap pool, a waterslide, four hot tubs, a wading pool, a sauna, and an entire indoor workout area, too! It was insane. Even though it was raining, there were plenty of people in the (outdoor) pools, and I spent most of my time relaxing in the hot tubs, listening to the locals and imagining that they were sharing all the hot gossip. It was fascinating.
THE LEBOWSKI BAR
Duh. I had to go in. (Was slightly dismayed, though, by the crowd of drunk bros that circled the front entrance.)
The famous church in Reykjavik, known for its striking architecture and amazing views of the city from the very top. Worth the elevator ride fee.
And then it was time to head to the airport, turn in the car, and wave goodbye! Thanks for being such a great host, Iceland. You were magical.