No one has ever thought of coming to Iceland until the recent tourism boom (Thanks viral Northern Lights videos). Now, plenty have flocked to this beautiful country to witness, experience and marvel at the rawness and solitude of the land. I, like many other travel-hungry monkeys hopped on board the Iceland madness and boy do I tell ya, it’s well worth every cent.
Before our trip, I really made a point to do my due diligence and research as much as I can. Unfortunately, since Iceland is a fairly new place to visit, there was not much material to work with. That being said, I wanted to put this piece together to serve as a travel and itinerary guide for those planning to visit the land of Ice and Fire.
Let’s start with the pre-planning-A couple of things you guys should know before packing:
- Icelandic weather is unpredictable and quite fickle. Once minute it’s sunny, cool and perfect then the next it’s windy and storming. Locals say that if you don’t like the weather in Iceland- just wait 5 minutes!
- Daylight is limited in the Fall and Winter. You’ll only be getting about 4.5-6 hours of daylight compared to 11-21 hours in the Spring and Summer.
- The land is rugged and rough and there are so little trees. Expect the terrain outside the city to be icy, rocky, mossy and/or wet and the winds cold, crisp and strong.
- Everything in Iceland is pretty expensive – especially the food– so if you’re on a budget I suggest you buy food in the grocery (Bónus is probably the best known budget store in Iceland and it’s usually considered the cheapest.) and book an Airbnb that allows you to cook your own food and brew your own coffee. If not, there are plenty of restaurants to choose from.
- Bring a water bottle to lug around everywhere. DO NOT BUY WATER IN ICELAND as you’re in a country where water comes straight from thousand-year old glaciers. Honestly, you can drink unfiltered water from the faucet, or a running stream and it will be the BEST water you’ll drink in your life.
- Side note: shower water smells like rotten eggs — This is because the hot and cold water come from two different sources. The “rotten eggs” smell is due to the geothermal origins of the hot water, making it really good for bathing, but not drinking.
- There will be a lot of driving so polarized glasses can come a long way.
- Reykjavik is full of stylish locals BUT I HIGHLY recommend you choose comfort over style.
What to Wear:
- Jackets: At first I thought I could get away with a water resistant jacket as opposed to a water proof one– FALSE. Pack a water proof jacket. You will need something to keep you both warm and dry- remember fickle weather! I personally recommend (I’m not being paid to endorse this) the North Face TriClimate Jacket or any fleece/down-waterproof shell-dual/triple-purpose- jacket.
- Shoes: Comfortable waterproof hiking boots is a MUST. I brought the KEEN Delta Brown Leather Waterproof Winter Hiking Boot it both kept my feet and toes warm and squishy-free!
- Under garments: 3-4 Thermal Underwear- went the extra mile and bought the Uniqlo ULTRA WARM HEATTECH thermals and it did not disappoint.
- Socks: Wool/Thermal Socks (5-7 pairs) is another MUST! Let me tell you- Wool Thermal socks really helped keep my toes from freezing off my feet. Also, I advice to bring more socks than you think you need- especially if you’ll be doing hikes and swims.
- Bottoms: Ski Pants: For Caving and Glacier Hikes or any activity of that sort. You’ll thank me later. There were 3 girls in our Glacier hike tour that wore jeans and leggings- and boy were they soaked (and freezing). Thermal Leggings (3 Pairs) for Hop on Hop off tours like the Golden Circle. You’ll be inside a bus/ van pretty much the whole time going out for 45 minutes to 1 hour each stop, thermal leggings are okay for that. Lastly, Jeans (1 pair) for going around the city and dining in nicer restaurants.
- Tops: Long Sleeved Shirts – I suggest bring 8 shirts for a 7 day trip so that you have an extra shirt to change to if (and when) it gets wet in one of your activities.
- Bathing Suit/ Swim Trunks: Despite the cold weather, you will soon learn that hot springs and baths are crucial to the Icelandic culture. You’ll want to bring appropriate swimwear for the Blue Lagoon or (if you’re brave enough) maybe a dip in the Ice cold beach water.
- Shades: For snow and road glare.
- Wool Beanie: I swear by wool and I swear by quality beanies. Mine kept my head and ears warm during 0 degree weather.
- Water/Windproof Gloves: Another must in my opinion. If you’re doing outdoorsy activities, I highly recommend that you pack yourself water proof gloves with fleece linings. If you have the extra bucks to spare, it would be helpful to get a pair the allows you to operate a touch screen phone while keeping your hands warm.
What to Bring:
- Go Pro: With fast paced activities you very rarely have time to stop and take pictures. A brilliant plan we had, was to continuously take videos with our GoPro, then took screen shots of the stills and saved as JPEGS. Not only was it convenient in documenting our fast (and slow) paced activities, the shots look like stills from movies! Lastly, it’s water proof so you need not worry about it while swimming or walking in the rain/snow.
- Laptop or Multiple SD cards for GoPro: The downside of bringing a GoPro is having to bring an external outlet to store your thousand pictures per day.
- Portable Gadget Chargers/ Extra Gadget batteries: cause…duh.
- Waterproof case for your phone- side story: I had a Lifeproof case for my phone and swam with it in the Blue Lagoon. I wish this story had a good ending but the hot water opened my Lifeproof phone and let sulfuric water seep into my case, and killed my phone completely. haha So… users beware. I’m not saying it wont serve a purpose but probably best to leave in the locker while swimming in hot water.
- Jerky & Protein Bars: Whether you’re on a tour or driving, You’ll find yourself on the road a lot, driving kilometer after kilometer. Protein bars and Jerkey helps in suppressing h-ANGER before you reach the next gas station.
Car & Lodging :
Car: If you decide to rent a car, please make sure you invest on a 4WD. The roads are slippery and sometimes icy or muddy and you’d really hate to get stuck in the middle of no where. City Car Rental has superb customer service and are fairly flexible. I recommend renting a car from these guys as the prices are cheap and the agents are pretty easy to coordinate with.
Lodging: I highly suggest you opt for an AirBnb in downtown Reykjavik so as you can walk to the nearest hotel for tour pick ups and drop offs. Also, almost all restaurants, coffee shop, and bars are located in downtown- staying in the area gives you access to walk everywhere and not have to pay extra for bus fares and parking (for people driving). When deciding what area to stay in, I used “Hallgrimskirkja” as a landmark.
Now, for the itinerary and list of activities–
Day 1: Arrival/ Blue Lagoon/ Exploring Reykjavik
From LAX to KEF via WOW Air: We landed about 4:00 AM and City Car Rental shuttle was not going to pick us up till 5:00 AM. We used that hour window to check Duty Free (tax-free shopping!) out, Buy an Icelandic sim card and withdraw Icelandic Króna (note: 1 Icelandic Króna is 0.0090 USD)
After we picked the rental car up, we had about 2+ hours to kill before we could head over to The Blue Lagoon – honestly there isn’t anything open at this time of the day as Keflavik is a pretty small town. That being said, my husband and I hung out and slept in our car (in the cold) outside a gas station. haha
The Blue Lagoon is about 15 minutes from the airport and 45 minutes from Reykjavik so some people choose to go in the morning after a long flight into Iceland, or some choose to go before their flight out. We chose the former. There are a few reasons why The Blue Lagoon is better in the morning; two of which being- A) the spa had just opened so there aren’t a lot of people yet so it’s less crowded. B) Seeing the morning approach from the lagoon is a pretty dope experience 🙂 At the Blue Lagoon we opted for the Blue Lagoon Comfort Package. That included:
- Entrance to Blue Lagoon
- Silica Mud Mask
- Use of Towel
- 1st drink of your choice
- Algae Mask
What you’ll essentially be missing are:
- Use of Bathrobe
- Table reservation at LAVA Restaurant
- Sparkling wine at LAVA Restaurant
- Entrance to the Exclusive Lounge
- Spa Journey Product Set
After the Blue Lagoon, we explored nearby sites like the ReykjanesViti – a cliff the overlooks the beautiful Atlantic Ocean and Krýsuvík– an area that features geothermal fields, hot springs & yellow, green & red soil.
After that, we made our way to the capital and did more exploring there. Hallgrimskirkja is one among the many sites to see in Reykjavik.
Day 2: Golden Circle/Night Adventure in Reykjavik
Golden Circle Express is an awesome tour that features the top 3 most popular sites in Iceland: Gullfoss, Þingvellir National Park and Strokkur (Since its big brother, Geysir is now dormant). I personally think that these sites aren’t the most glorious and beautiful tourist attractions, but definitely worth see it while you’re in the country. While booking, you’ll come across two very popular Golden Circle Tour options: The Golden Circle Classic and The Golden Circle Express. The main differences between the two are the following: A)The Express is 2 hours shorter than the Classic and B) The Express does not include a stop at the Kerið crater- which honestly, was not a deal breaker for us. We much rather wanted to spend the extra 2 hours of daylight in the city.
- Duration: 6 hours (approx.)
Day 3: Cave Exploring and Snorkling in Silfra
On day three, we spent the whole day caving and swimming in 2 degree glacier water. We explored the Leiðarendi cave- a very good example of an Icelandic lava tube. Honestly, when booking this activity, I thought it was going to be a light sight-seeing/ picture-taking activity- BUT NOoooooo! This one was a full on workout that felt pretty much like training for the end of days. Several times during the tour we were in all fours, crawling, bending and dodging sharp rocks . This activity was plenty of fun but it’s not for those who are claustrophobic or want a more relaxed activity.
On another note, if there’s one excursion I insist you experience while in Iceland, it’s definitely snorkeling in the Siflra fissure. The Silfra is a rift formed in the divergent tectonic boundary between the North American and Eurasian plates located in the Þingvellir National Park. The tour provides everything for you. You do not need to wear a bathing suit under your clothes because the dry suit (yes, not wet suit) will keep you warm and your clothes dry (correct, you’ll be wearing your clothes under the dry suit). Also, find comfort in knowing, as the dry suit is very buoyant, so you’ll be floating all throughout the activity and will barely even need to use your legs to kick. But! prepare for your lips to go numb and for some water to seep in. It’s a tiring and very cold experience but honestly, snorkeling in between two tectonic plates , in crystal clear glacier water- that you can literally drink while swimming– is totally an experience of a lifetime. There’s literally nothing like it!
- Duration: 8 hours (approx.)
Day 4: Glacier Hiking and Ice Climbing
If you’re up for a day of serious adventure, you might want to book a Glacier Hiking and Ice Climbing tour. The surreal landscape of Iceland’s Sólheimajökull Glacier is breathtaking! Although no previous glacier hiking and ice climbing experience is necessary, please know that ice climbing is really difficult… (and optional).haha The Glacier hike is moderately easy but is tiring enough to be considered another day’s workout. 😉 Most companies provide you with all the safety gears including the crampons. All you have to bring is water, an extra shirt, socks and maybe even pants because you’ll (more likely) be soaking wet after this activity.
- Duration: 11 hours (approx.)
Day 5: Game of Thrones Tour
I personally am a HUGE fan of the show, and geeked out the whole time- but not all who join this tour are Game of Thrones fans. Regardless, I think it’s a really good tour because you get to drive around and sight-see hidden Icelandic countryside gems like Nesjavellir- the largest geothermal power station in the country, Lake Thingvallavatn and Thjorsárdalur valley. Also, in this tour you’ll learn more about the Viking culture, and that by itself is always interesting 🙂
- Duration: 8 hours (approx.)
Day 6: Drive to Vik from Reykjavik
Vik is a village in the south of Iceland and is a little short of a 2.5 hour drive from Reykjavik. Though there are tours that offer a south-coast tour of the country, my husband and I opted to drive it ourselves as we wanted more control over our time (and needed to complete a very important errand). The road is long and the drive, fairly easy. There are pretty wonderful stops along the way. You’ll want to stop almost every where as the scenery is just to damn beautiful. That being said, here’s a list of “must-see” places:
Seljalandsfoss– A waterfall that people can actually walk behind and view from inside out. It’s powerful and majestic beyond words. Caution: you WILL get wet so bring/ pack/ wear everything waterproof. Needless to say, despite the slight discomfort of getting wet, it’s a really cool experience.
Dyrholaey – The arch with a hole. Although there is limited access to the cliff (Tour busses cannot get up there), it’s definitely worth driving to as it homes a number of different birds (including the famous puffins) and also, you’ll get to take stellar pictures of not only the lighthouse but the marvelous horizon as well.
Reynisfjara– Popularly know as the Black Sand/Pebble Beach, here you can stand in awe watching the big and strong Atlantic waves crash into shore while the basalt cliffs act as a backdrop. Please know that the waves are really powerful and unpredictable and a number of fatal accidents have occurred here. That being said, please do not be wreck less trying to take pictures and stay away from the shore. Other than that, this place is wonderful and a MUST see for anyone driving to/through along the south-coast.
Day 7: Drive to Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon from Vik
Drive another 2 hours and 20 minutes east from Vik and you’ll hit Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon, a must must must visit while you’re in Iceland. Jökulsárlón Glacier lagoon is right next to Vatnajökull glacier, Europe’s largest glacier. It’s a photographers playground as it’s filled with large and small chunks of ice that pretty much resemble diamonds (hence the nickname “Diamond Beach”). There are a number of tours offered for that area, none of which we chose to do. Merely observing the glaciers from where we were was breathtaking enough.
Day 8: Vik to Keflavik
On our last day in Iceland, we drove from Vik to Keflavik. The drive is approximately 3 hours but unlike other city/country in the world, there is little to no traffic in Iceland. In fact, there were barely any stop lights. We left roughly around 10 am, dropped our car off back to the rental car office and took the shuttle to the airport to catch our 4 PM flight.
To conclude this entry, here’s a Budget Summary sans our meals, souvenirs, drinks and groceries:
WOW Air : $1550 for 2 ($775 / person)
24,600 ISK or $215.60 USD
$441 for 5 nights
EUR 120 or $128 for 2 ($64 USD per person)
$152.78 for 2 ($76.39 per person)
$431.72 for 2 ($215.86 per person)
$426.44 for 2 ($213.22 per person)
$154.98 for 2 ($77.49 per person)
35,000 ISK or 314.01 USD
$217 for 2 nights
Although food and drinks were not the highlight for us (though while on that topic- DO try the Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur– BEST HOTDOGS EVER), every experience we had in this island kept us full and satisfied. Some come to Iceland as a stopover, I highly suggest you make this beautiful country a destination by itself. Trust me, you won’t regret it.