Iceland, the land of fire and ice, does not stray far from its name. I haven’t explored much of the natural world outside of the United States, but Iceland has to be one of the most beautifully untouched places there are. I have a feeling I’ll be saying that about every place I go to, but let’s focus on Iceland for now.
With just 300,000 inhabitants on the massive island, it’s easy to find yourself lost in the vastness. Although some areas are crowded such as Reykjavik and common tourist areas, you can find yourself alone with the surroundings. That’s what I appreciated most about the trip. Compared to tourist hotspots like Paris and Amsterdam, the area takes over you rather than the other way around. It’s the best way to experience another culture and nature.
When I had originally planned this trip, I wanted to make sure I saw all that Iceland had to offer. From the city area to the majestic waterfalls, I would see it all dammit! What I actually received was even more than I could ever book on Guide To Iceland. Here are all the activities, sites, and tips that will give you a good idea of how you can experience Iceland.
If you’ve been interested in Iceland, then you know about WOW Air. It’s possibly the cheapest way to fly to Iceland, which is why it’s seen a spike in tourism. If you’re planning a trip to Europe, it could be cheaper to fly through Iceland first and then to your next destination.
There is, of course, a catch to flying “cheap”. When you’re booking on WOW, the first price you see for the flight is just a base rate. That means add-ons of luggage, seat options, and food will cost you extra. For example, the price I initially saw was about $300 round-trip to Iceland. With all the add-ons such as my one checked-in bag, regular seat choice (as opposed to XL leg space), and buying food and water on the plane (there’s no complimentary food or drinks on the flight), the cost came out to be about $550.
The flight has no entertainment, wifi, or meal included, so make sure you bring your own. Otherwise, it was a nonstop flight and met all the basics. I would definitely fly with them again.
To get there from the airport, I bought a bus ticket from Reykjavik Excursions. A charter bus takes you to the central bus station in the city. From there, there are smaller buses that take you to your hotel or hostel (it’s a part of what you pay for).
There are several popular restaurants to check out, but Iceland isn’t known for Michelin Star restaurants. Most restaurants you’ll find offer cuisines that are closely American. They have a few delicacies like fermented shark/herring and meat soup, which I highly recommend you try.
As for sightseeing, the most popular are the Hallgrímskirkja church, Sun Voyager, and the Harpa concert hall. If you’re looking for something quirky and unique, they also have a penis museum, the Icelandic Phallological Museum, which you can see for only $13. *Spoiler: if you’re not a big fan of various whale penises, you might want to skip this.
If you didn’t know Reykjavik had a club scene, now you know. They, dare I say, get “lit”. Clubbing in Iceland wasn’t on my list of things-to-do, but I’m glad I did. Among the several themed bars and pubs, they have a few restaurant-turned-clubs playing different music. Prikið, was a taste of home where they played American and the occasional Icelandic rap music. The bartenders participated in the festivities and always had the ceiling lights swaying back and forth to set the mood. My favorite club was B5. They played your typical mainstream pop music. My favorite part was having locals and other travelers join us in our group. Turns out, breaking out your California moves in a place where people usually just bob up and down can really draw people in. Don’t be afraid to get loose 😉
Rent A Car
If you want to see and explore all that Iceland has to offer, you’ll need to rent a car. I’m sure you can find a tour that will take you around, but it’ll be limited, crowded, and possibly more expensive.
I rented my car from Route 1 on Guide to Iceland. It was a great service. Like most car rentals in Iceland, you have the option of picking up your car at the airport, being picked up from your hotel in Reykjavik and brought to their office, or going directly to their office. I got picked up from my hostel, which was free compared to the extra cost from picking it up from the airport. Although my return was to the airport for ease.
Driving in the countryside is AMAZING. When I first got in my car, I immediately played my Spotify playlist, sang on the top of my lungs, and drove through the open land. The drive is scenic, but it can also be deadly.
The first few days, the weather and roads were fine. And then I was caught in a snow storm. You couldn’t see 40 feet in front of you and the winds were strong enough to flip cars. That’s no exaggeration. I passed two flipped cars and several more that veered off the 2 lane highway.
Tip: You can avoid this and be safe in two ways:
1. Check road.is for highway conditions before driving. It will tell you what the roads are like (very slippery, easily passible, etc) and if any roads are closed.
2. Download the Iceland 112 app. You can send your coordinates in in case you get stuck or lost. Do this every time you move to another major area. You can also make emergency calls from here.
Also, if you’re driving long distances outside of the city, pour gas where you can. Some gas stations only take cards that need a pin. You’ll have to find one with someone operating it which can be hard to find.
My favorite was Seljalandsfoss because you can walk behind it. The path to get behind it is fairly short and easy, but you get soaking wet! During the summer, it may be refreshing, but if you’re doing it in the Winter, make sure everything you’re wearing is waterproof. My gloves weren’t and started freezing on my skin. I stayed back there for a good 30 minutes trying to take some decent photos (no shame). By the time I was done, my hat, face, and hair were soaked and my fingers were frozen. Oddly enough, it was an amazing experience.
Obviously one of the most famous attractions of Iceland that reels people in. Before I headed to the lagoon, a fellow traveler in my hostel told me it was very touristy, crowded, it’s also known as the “Sperm Lagoon”, and none of the locals ever go there. I was discouraged, but realized she may be a true backpacker against anything too touristy. What do you know, I LOVED IT.
Granted, it’s very touristy, but wasn’t crowded at all. There were a lot of people, but there was no rubbing of elbows. In fact, you easily lose the crowd. There’s a bar in the lagoon that sells alcohol and smoothies. And when you’re feeling too hot in the water, there’s an indoor lounge where you can rest.
The lagoon itself is quite manmade/restructured. It led to me question, how clean is the lagoon? So I asked an employee. She informed me that the lagoon water completely replaces itself after 40 hours. Also, the water is too salty to let any bacteria live. So all you sanitary freaks can chill and unwind for the next unexpected 6 hours.
Black Sand Beaches
Black sand beaches are a must-see. The most popular beach is near the small town of Vík called Reynisfjara, known for its beautiful basalt sea stacks; about 3 hours out of Reykjavik. I loved it so much, I came back three times (the perks of traveling alone)! The waves are massive and will definitely pull you in if you get too close. Don’t underestimate how far the water will come in. I tried crossing to a private area and had to walk a little bit further into the ocean and got soaked by the water trickling in. Not fun…okay a little fun and hilarious.
Tip for Vík: Go super early in the morning! I arrived at 8am and there were only 5 other people there. I came again around noon and the beach was flooded with people. It was peaceful, serene, and you could actually get a clear photo without 10 other tourists in neon snow pants. One of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen.
Ice caves are another must-see in Iceland. I booked my tour on Guide to Iceland and cost about $200. The location is on the south-eastern side of the island, about 6 hours from Reykjavik. You meet at a cafe right near to the Jökulsárlón Lagoon.
Fun fact, the location of the ice caves are different every year since they melt and form again through the seasons (hope I listened correctly). That means you won’t be able to find any marked on a map since the government can’t legally mark an ice cave. You also will need to book a tour to see the caves as your rental car most likely is not allowed on the route to them.
To be honest, I wasn’t a fan of this tour for two reasons:
1. This year around, they weren’t that impressive. The cave was shorter than I expected.
2. I took the first tour in the morning and it was so crowded. I couldn’t really enjoy it. Nature, noise pollution, and foot traffic just don’t go well together.
Nonetheless, the caves are beautiful with the mixture of fluorescent blue and black ice.
Glacier Tours and Ice Climbing
One of the most fun things I did in Iceland! If you aren’t an expert adventurer, you won’t be able to access the glaciers safely without a tour guide. I booked mine through Icelandic Mountain Guides. They provide you with all the equipment you need, including crampons to walk on the glaciers. You’ll also run into some amazing ice caves (second one shown above). If I had to choose between the ice cave tours and the glacier walking, I’d take the latter. They aren’t as big as the ones you’ll see on an ice cave tour, but they are just as magnificent and can vary in appearance significantly.
Then comes the ice climbing. No worries if you’re inexperienced, they take you on the bunny slopes of ice climbing. They walk you through the steps and pull tightly on the rope if you’re close to falling. In my opinion, I wish it was more difficult. It did however give me the skills I need if I ever want to venture out on my own.
The hike is a little higher than beginners level. It will give you a rigorous workout (walking on glaciers ain’t no joke). After you’ve accomplished this whole feat, you can grab a nice hot chocolate from the cafe near the meeting point. By far the best I’ve ever had.
The Northern Lights
One of the world’s greatest natural phenomenons that seals the deal for Iceland. If you are lucky enough to capture a glimpse of them, they will no doubt strike a chord in you.
I was semi-lucky in seeing them. I spoke to one of my tour guides about the lights and he described two types of auroras: Proper and Improper. To him (and I’d have to agree), Proper auroras are when you can see the hues with the naked eye. That is, the greens, purples, and pinks that you see in photos. Improper auroras are when you can see them, but they are just a grey haze dancing around. You know they’re auroras, but the colors will only show on camera. Unfortunately, mine weren’t active enough to see any color with the naked eye. But they’re still distinguishable from clouds and remarkable to look at.
Tip: Check the aurora forecast website to see when and where you are more likely to get a glimpse of them.