Iceland feels like another world. Epic shows are filmed here for a reason! You can go from huge expanses of empty land to roaring waterfalls, deep canyons and black sand beaches. It's one of the most gorgeous places to visit and packed with adventure activities. This has easily become one of my favorite destinations - despite me being a total sun bunny.
We planned this trip with the help of a close friend who had visited a few times and has family in Iceland. She guided us through maps, must-sees and unique activities. Without her guidance, it would have been tough to pack in all the stuff you see in this guide! Her planning made this trip special for us and now for you. (Obrigada lady!)
This mini guide has all the highlights from our trip. It will help you plan your own Icelandic getaway with experiences that are not just must-dos but worth-doing.
Iceland is like Paris in that everywhere you turn, there's something majestic; only it's usually natural rather than manmade and could be hundreds of thousands of years old!
The pictures truly don't do this place justice. You can hop over for a few days and see so much but you could just as easily stay for a few weeks and not see enough.
I'm going to share with you the activities and sights that made our trip the most memorable (and some that didn't.) Don't worry if you don't get everything into the first trip, you'll definitely want to go back!
You'll get enough exercise just sightseeing and exploring in Iceland but if you want something extra, this mini workout hits all the right spots. It only takes 10 minutes and will get you all warmed-up for each day's adventure.
TRAINER'S TIP: Pack a mat "blanket" for quick indoor workouts. Even if you don't plan to do any workouts, you will still get stiff muscles from the activities. It's worth having something that you can whip out and stretch on for 10 minutes at the end of each day. A mini trigger ball like these are also a good for those especially tight spots!
You can quickly build up a sweat and lower body burn with these sights!
This was my favorite of all the waterfalls because it's an adventure to get there and, once you do, the surrounding area is just so picturesque. There's a steep incline and windy path that is a mini hike in itself, followed by a very narrow hillside that you have to climb down until you reach the base of the waterfall. If you're coming during winter, it's worth bringing some crampons. I'd say we were borderline chancing it without them in early March; there were a few icy steps that were tricky!
The hike there and back is filled with 180 degree panoramic views of the surrounding area and a few smaller waterfalls along the way. Once you get to the waterfall, it's hard not to feel the urge to explore the gorgeous sights around you. Leave ample time for this one - at least 2 hours.
Secret Waterfall at Seljalandsfoss
I wasn't impressed when we first walked up to Seljalandsfoss; similar to the other bigger waterfalls, it was overcrowded. I took a few photos and then was ready to move on to the next thing. (Note: They closed off a lot of the areas because of slippery ice so we didn't get to see that famous "behind the waterfall" view. This might have changed my mind.)
The more interesting waterfall (for me) is just beyond this one. Walk further along the path to explore the "Secret Waterfall." This one is only fully viewable after you climb up alongside it or enter a wet cave from down below. We went for the climb of course! Not only for the adventure, but also because there was no way in hell I was going to get wet in that cave in those freezing temperatures. It was some tricky footwork but I'm glad that we did it in the end. Those who entered the wet cave didn't look as pleased!
About an hour is enough to view the "Secret Waterfall" and Selandfoss.
Gulfoss & Skogafass waterfalls are overcrowded and touristy because they're so easily accessible. Skogafoss was beautiful with the rainbow arching over it but would have been even more magical with less people. Seeing this one early or late in the day is a good idea.
For Gulfoss, it's up to you. I don't think it's a necessary stop if you're short on time or have to go out of your way but many people will disagree with me because this is the most impressive one. (Note: If you do snowmobiling, the meeting point is at Gulfoss so that's a good way to see what you need to and do something more enjoyable.)
Iceland is beautiful all around, at every turn. It's difficult to narrow down the most stunning spots. I've done my best!
This beach lies on the other side of the more famous Reynisfjara. You should definitely visit the famous one to tick it off the list (and it is impressive) but afterwards make your way to Reynisdrangar Beach for one of the most gorgeous sunsets. The black sand and clear water are lovely contrasts to the purples and pinks of the setting sun.
The biggest highlight of this one is that you could have it all to yourself! Come an hour before sunset to stake out your dreamy viewing spot.
We didn't have high expectations for this one. It was nearby and we thought we'd be back to the car within ten minutes. Note: There is nothing in Iceland that takes just ten minutes. You will spend at least thirty to forty minutes everywhere you go!
It's a steep climb to get up to the canyon. Be careful on the slippery slopes during the winter. This is the only place that I slipped during the trip.
Once at the top, the panoramic views of the canyon against the sky and river below are surreal. Be sure to go while the sun is good so that you can see the river below without too many shadows.
Oh and we spent about an hour and a half here!
This was the one of the most popular ones that lives up to the hype; it's truly unique even with loads of people. Massive chunks of glaciers are scattered across black sand. Every time the sun hits one of them, they shine like colorful glass prisms. Much of the ice had melted when we visited but Diamond Beach was still stunning.
Come for sunrise or sunset for fantastic photos! If you're visiting in Winter, bundle up because it gets cold with those winds rolling in off the back of the giant waves!
This was my favorite part of our entire Icelandic trip. Where else can you swim in the icy waters that divide two tectonic plates!? Just walking around the fissure in Thingvellir National Park feels like being part of something wild and ancient. The views around you and down below the water are equally gorgeous!
I know it sounds crazy to go diving in winter, in icy water but you will be given a dry suit AND you can wear your thermals underneath as well as TWO pairs of socks. The only place that water enters is inside the gloves that they give you. However, your hands will warm that water up to a slightly comfortable temperature (nothing so nice as bath water but the less you move the hands, the more tolerable it is and, unlike normal gloves, your fingers won't go numb.)
Why do this? Well the water is crystal clear and you can see down to the bottom. This is one of the few times in my life snorkeling that I could get a similar view as a diver. That's how pure this water is...you can even sip it!
Will you get cold? Most definitely. Is it tolerable? Eventually. Is it worth it? COMPLETELY! Also a side bonus is that if you do this early in your trip, your body will acclimate to the colder temperatures outside that much faster!
Official site here.
All your adventures will have you tired. Unwind at these geothermal pools.
We almost skipped Blue Lagoon because of the negative reviews regarding overcrowding. I'm really glad we didn't. Yes, it took almost twenty minutes in line just to walk to the entrance of the building because of all the tour buses but once you're inside the lagoon, it's big enough that you can find your own little corner without having to fight for it.
You can get the hot spring experinece at other spots (see below) but the view at Blue Lagoon is incomparable. You think you'll stay for less than an hour but I guarantee you'll stay here for at least two!
Tip 1: Try visiting during off-peak times such as 2 or 3pm to avoid some tour buses. Our 1pm slot was a peak one and it was only from 2:30pm that the lagoon became emptier. (Most tour buses won't stay too long so even if you do get stuck in a rush, you can stay long enough to wait them out. Obviously, it you're part of a tour, you have less flexibility here.)
Tip 2: Splurge for the robe option especially if you're coming on a cold day. You only get one towel with the more basic pacakge and you'll need that for when you shower. Also that towel hardly gives any protection against the strong, chilly winds that smack in the face and bum every time you leave the lagoon for a break, drink or food.
Official site here.
The "Secret" Lagoon is not so secret. It's very publicly announced and tour buses stop here. However, it feels much less commercial than Blue Lagoon and more like a hot tub party in someone's (big) back yard. There is still the infrastructure there of a typical tourist spot: lockers, hair dryers, showers, coffee and a bar but it's still relatively no-frills compared to Blue Lagoon.
The views are not even close to those of Blue Lagoon but this is a good option if you want a more relaxed environment for much cheaper. Even if you do decide to do Blue Lagoon, I still highly recommend doing this one too because it feels more authentic.
Official site here.
En route to the Secret Lagoon is Friðheimar. This charming horse farm and local greenhouse gives you a very unique foodie experience. You can eat directly in the greenhouse, surrounded by tomato vines! All of the food is made from their fresh tomatoes and it tastes incredible. This is one of those places in Iceland where the dining experience is worth the price. Try the unlimited tomato soup buffet and the tomato ice cream.
Tip: Reservations are a good idea if you're going to be coming at a peak lunch time as tour groups also stop here.
Official site here.
I never thought I'd care much about snowmobiling and then I saw this video. We booked asap the second it ended. You'll start the activity in a super jeep that drives you about an hour into the middle of nowhere, towards the glacier. Some of your journey is on real roads...a lot of it's not! Be prepared for an experience just in driving there!
Once you arrive, you get kitted out in a very unflattering but very warm snowsuit. If you're on the shorter side, like I am, you'll look especially ridiculous but you won't care because you'll be so warm you can roll in the snow and make snow angels (which I did of course.)
They also give you balaclavas to cover most of your face and snow goggles. You can wear your normal clothes underneath (no need for a coat or hat.) You're then given a short tutorial and it's off to driving!
Unfortunately, this is a very popular tour; expect a big group of at least fifteen to go with you. Everyone drives single file so if you know you're going to be a slow driver, go towards the back. If you want to go as fast as possible (still behind a guide) then you'll want to be more towards the front. I have a need for speed so I didn't budge from that first position once I got behind the wheel!
The full tour (with pickup and dropoff) is roughly three hours. The snowmobile portion itself is fifty minutes. You don't want it to go much longer because a) you get cold and b) your thumbs will feel sore from holding down that gas lever!
I left with the biggest grin on my face and that exhilarated feeling that you only get from a great workout or playtime as a kid. Don't pass this one up!
Official site here.
This itinerary is for those that are going on a small tour or hiring a car. If you're going with a tour, they'll have planned most of this out for you already.
As Blue Lagoon is close to the airport, most people will go here either before or after a flight. There are spots to store your luggage, lockers, showers and hair dryers available.
What you wear in Iceland makes the difference between enjoying your trip or dreading every time you step outside. It is COLD. Even if you come in summer, there's a few essentials you should have ready. My top ten items are below:
This really depends on what you want. Not only will the landscape look different depending on the time of year, there will also be different activities available (e.g. you can only enter the volcano or go rafting when it's warmer but winter activities like ice caving will be difficult to do because of melting ice.)
There are trade-offs. If you go in the winter, around December, it will be less crowded but also colder and you'll have less daylight hours to see what you need to see; your exploration will have to be faster paced and better organized. If you go in summer, you'll miss the gorgeous wintery scenes but it will also be warmer and you'll have more daylight to do activities, deal with less crowds, etc. Your pace can be more relaxed and less organized, although it might be more challenging to get some shut-eye with all that light!
We went in March. Although it was unseasonably warm, it was the ideal time for me; there was a natural amount of daylight, doable temperatures and still pretty wintery scenes. November and August are also both recommended by locals and travellers alike.
There's so much accommodation available in Iceland. You can go as chic or as bare bones as you like; you'll find cute country-style bed and breakfasts as well as upscale hotels. The choice really depends on your budget and what you want to see. If you're staying in southern Iceland, both Vik and Hof are were great hubs; we could explore everything within a few hours drive.
Just make sure you book sooner rather than later (e.g. at least two months prior to your trip) as the best options to fill up quickly.
The food is good and hearty in Iceland. It's also insanely overpriced. Think fifteen pounds (twenty dollars) for a soup. Now that soup is big and it comes with bread but still...that wasn't at fancy restaurants. I would highly recommend that you stay at places with breakfast included and pack your own lunch. We did a mix of bananas with peanut butter, protein bars, dried fruit and soup. Pack these in your luggage or stop by the supermarket shortly after you arrive. You'll be seeing so much that realistically you won't have time to stop and eat a big lunch anyway!
In terms of what to try? The bread is incredible and I'm not a bread girl!
You won't have any problems getting around with just English in Iceland. The main consideration to prepare for is extreme weather. Make sure you're kitted out with the right clothes and shoes if you come during the cold seasons.
Also be extremely careful if you drive during winter. We got hit by a huge snow storm which was pretty terrifying because the winds are strong enough to knock over your little 4x4. If you're an experienced driver (or with someone who is) it should be fine. Just be sure to check the weather each day for any warnings.
If you have any questions about Iceland, leave them in the comments or email me firstname.lastname@example.org. I'd love to help you get this one off the bucketlist!
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