Iceland is all about seeing the natural wonders that are unique to Iceland. It isn’t the type of trip where the fun finds you. You have to find the fun which means one thing; PLANNING!
I didn’t really understand the gravity of what this meant until one week before me and my husband’s 10 year wedding anniversary he turns to me and goes, Want to celebrate in Iceland?
Part of me was like, Um, I don’t know…do they have pina coladas there? But then the other part of me that gets wide-eyed with the idea of adventure, got up and sprinted to the computer to book a flight. And this is when things started to get real…real quick.
When you talk about landmass, Iceland is roughly about the same size as the state of Georgia, US. And when it comes to population, Georgia rolls in right around 10 million compared to Iceland’s 330,000….which is about half the size of the city of Boston’s population. Now of that 330,000, about two-thirds lives in the capital city of Reykjavík with the next largest township rolling in at around 18k. All of this to say, there are only so many hotels, hostels, AirBnB’s etc…like once the country is full, IT’S FULL.
Rental car companies sell out, popular tours and attractions like The Blue Lagoon book up, reservations become scarce and the next thing you know it’s a huge logistical nightmare.
The other thing you have to take into account is the time of year you want to go. If you go in the summer, it’s quite possible you can show up in flip flops and a t-shirt, never have to check the weather and there is a 99.9% chance all the access roads will be open.
However, you won’t be able to tour the ice caves, see the northern lights or experience the true winter wonderland that the land of fire and ice has to offer. Whereas if you go in the winter you can experience all of that and more but you could also show up, have all the roads be closed due to weather and then have to pivot and enjoy a week on the 66th latitude on total lockdown.
The other big thing you have to decide is what you want to see and how you want to see it.
One of the most popular routes is to take is what’s called Ring Road. A drive that circles the entire island taking you past the waterfalls and glaciers of the south, the fjords of the east and west and the unique terrain of the north. A lot of people rent a camper van and take 1-2 weeks to drive and explore at their own pace. This sounds fun to me but also like, where do you shower?!
As far as deciding what we wanted to see, I really wanted to make this vacation adventurous but also with a bit of luxury. I mean I’ll climb a glacier any day but I want to know I have a warm tub, a glass of cab and room service waiting for me when the sun goes down…..which doesn’t happen until like midnight in the summer in Iceland but I digress.
How to book Iceland on the fly…
I didn’t even know where to start but then my friend Kristin of Live Simply told me to check out Jeannie from Iceland With A View and all of a sudden my Icelandic adventure became a reality!
Jeannie makes traveling to Iceland A BREEZE. I ended up buying her course ICELAND PLANNING MADE EASY and it was the best $97 I spent my entire trip. Jeannie has everything you need to know like:
- Travel broken down by season
- Highlighted popular attractions and hidden gems
- Discounts on car rentals, tours and local attractions
- Sample itineraries
- Preset Google Maps with plug and play travel itineraries for day trips, Ring Road, the Highlands….THIS WAS WORTH THE $97 ALONE!
- Packing lists
- Rules of the road, customs, travel etiquette, app recs…
- Where to camp
- Best hikes
- Money saving tips
- Emergency info and how to stay safe
I mean I basically watched a couple of her segments, downloaded the preset Google Maps and called it a day. IT WAS SO EASY. And we had THE BEST TIME!
I would say if you are pressed for time, definitely invest in ICELAND PLANNING MADE EASY. It’s $97 but you will get all of that back and more. She even has a Facebook group where you can ask specific questions and crowdsource other travelers who have been, who have just gotten back or who are also planning a trip. AND even if you are not under the gun, she has it set up so nicely where you can go through a couple modules at a time and plan at your own speed. Jeannie really holds your hand through the entire planning process and makes it practically fool proof.
In the end, we decided to stay 7 nights in Reykjavik as our home base and take day trips from there. That way, we didn’t have to pack up every night or every other night and head to the next place. Shlepping is like the anti-definition of vacation IMO. Plus Jason and I really like city life and we enjoy going out “at night” to dinner, local bars and hitting up the nightlife.
Honestly, I didn’t really know what to expect. After spending a week in the land of fire and ice, here some interesting things I didn’t realize about Iceland before going.
First of all, Iceland is like The New Knew’s utopian dream come true. Fresh wild caught fish and pastured lamb abounds. The cleanest drinking water on the planet via the melting glaciers. For example, you can literally pull over at any stream or river and fill your water bottle. And coming from a place where I filter my filtered water, this was mind-blowing. Not to mention, the cleanest air….you can literally buy a can of Iceland air to bring home. And get this; no dogs! You have to get special permission to own a dog in Iceland and because of that you really don’t see any dogs anywhere. A pro to some but not all.
Also, the crime rate in Iceland is LIKE ZERO. I think we saw one police officer during our entire 7 day stay. And they don’t carry guns. In fact, there is so little crime, it’s not uncommon to see a mom leave a baby stroller outside of a coffee shop or grocery or store unattended….like, with a baby in it. I legit didn’t believe this until I saw it happen. Just the norm in Iceland.
Also, the Iceland population is still 93% Icelanders and my tour guide confirmed, the question is not, Are Icelanders related? It’s HOW MUCH ARE ICELANDERS RELATED? In fact when people are dating they use a national database that has records of all Icelanders since Iceland was settled back in 900 to see what exact relation Icelanders are to each other. Just to make sure…
Also, over the years there has been very little influence from outside countries and Iceland has remained mostly uninfluenced by world wars and major historical events. In fact, the Icelandic language is so close to it’s original (Old Norse) back in 900 that elementary aged school children can pick up old historical documents from that time and read them as they would a document of today.
Vaðlaheiðarvegavinnuverkfærageymsluskúrslyklakippuhringurinn is the longest word in Icelandic. I heard someone say it and it took him like a minute to get it all out. It literally means “the key ring to the tool work shed in the road works of Vaðlaheiði, a mountain road in North Iceland.” #essential
Also, because the continental divide between North America and Eurasia runs right through Iceland, there is an abundance of geothermal activity which is arguably the cornerstone to Icelandic culture (natural geothermal hot pools are to Iceland as Dunkin’ Donuts is to New England) but it also means free heat. Residents actually pay a nominal tax every year for this but essentially you could take a hot shower for 3 years and the hot water would never run out. In the same vein, it’s common practice to run the heat and have the windows open at the same time because #whynot – And just a side note, Iceland’s top three industries are fishing, tourism and aluminum manufacturing. Iceland itself doesn’t actually mine the aluminum but New Zealand ships it to them to manufacture because with Icelands free heat/energy, it’s cheaper to manufacture it halfway across the world than it is to manufacture it in New Zealand.
Oh, one more thing. Iceland doesn’t have any predators. Their biggest predator is the Arctic Fox which has evolved so much over time it’s now considered it’s own species and no longer of the fox family. I did read that once and a while, a polar bear will float over on an iceberg but they don’t last long after that. Overall, I’m talking no bears, no snakes…not even mosquitos!!!
Also, last but not least, Iceland is home to a bar called Boston who’s first online review says “What happens in Boston, stays in Boston. Duh.” Someone just had to go there, didn’t they…
7 Day Itinerary in Iceland
Day 1: Touchdown + The Blue Lagoon
Take the red eye in to Reykjavik arriving at 8:30am.
Hit up Joe & The Juice for a snack. There’s two of these. Make sure to hit the arrivals location because you have to show your boarding pass and the departures location won’t serve you.
Grab some organic duty-free wine for the room. Organic options are clearly labeled in the duty-free shop!
I also stopped to get kroner (cash) at the ATM just incase I needed it but I never did FYI.
Took shuttle to pick up our rental car. The shuttle was easy to navigate. Most rental car companies are on the airport campus via the shuttle.
Signed up for ALL OF THE RENTAL INSURANCE. The cars get wicked beat up in Iceland. Let me put it this way, I never saw a new-looking car and between the possibility of me opening my car door and the door getting blown off by the wind and also the potential charge for undercarriage damage, I only had one thing to say; SIGN ME UP.
It took us less than an hour to deplane, pick up our rental and get on the road.
First stop on our agenda was the The Blue Lagoon. I made lagoon and lunch reservations at Lava here in advance – both were awesome. Lava had some of the best fish I ate all week and if you eat there before 4pm, you can eat in your robes. This was just an all-around great way to wind down after a zero-sleep flight. There are also lounge chairs inside on the second floor and we ended up squeezing in a quick cat nap too. Some people poo-poo The Blue Lagoon saying it’s too touristy but I loved it, I mean the wow factor here is off the chain.
We stayed at The Blue Lagoon from about 12-5pm and then headed back to the hotel, 41 A Townhouse Hotel right on Laugavegur. This boutique hotel is located in the HEART of the city on one of the best shopping streets. Great location. Beautiful hotel. The only thing missing here was they don’t provide parking so you have to fend for yourself on the street. Also there was no room service or hotel restaurant but we had a kitchenette and all the restaurants were within walking distance.
From there we took the evening to walk around and explore the city “at night”. I also made it my mission to get some cute Icelandic gear. Scored a cute zip up from 66 North and a hand-knit beanie from one of the mom and pops.
Day 2: Drive The Golden Circle
The Golden Circle is one of the most popular day trips to do out of Reykjavik because it’s a quick way to see a lot of different natural elements all in one day. There are so many things to see, you could really do this in two days but I picked some things that looked the best off of Jeannie’s recommendations, downloaded her preset Google Map and went it it.
Pingvellir National Park – This is the spot where the North America and Eurasia continents meet and you can LITERALLY walk between them both like, Oh haaaay North America! Oh haaayyyy Eurasia! There are also some other sights to see here like Öxarárfoss, the old Parliament and you can even dry suit snorkel in the Silfra Fissure.
We bypassed Laugarvatn Fontana, a geothermally heated pool because we wanted to leave enough room for The Secret Lagoon at the end of the day. But if I wasn’t severely allergic to gluten, I would have worked this into the itinerary FOR SURE just to check out their geothermal bakery.
Instead we hit up Efstidalur for some REAL Icelandic ice cream. This is a family run farm turned into a ice cream parlor and restaurant. They were only offering two flavors the day we went: strawberry and vanilla/licorice. Now, I’ll be the first to say I hate licorice but I ordered it because it’s one of Iceland’s national flavors and guys. It was SO GOOD.
Two minutes up the road from Efstidalur is a parking lot where you can hike to two waterfalls: Burarfoss and Hlauptungufoss. This hike is about 3 hours round trip and it was by far one of the highlights of our trip. Both waterfalls were incredible, brilliant blue and the landscape? Straight-up breathtaking.
Next we stopped for late lunch/early dinner at Fridheimar – a greenhouse that grows the cleanest tomatoes in the world, free of pesticides and nourished with glacier water. Like, we literally sat in-between rows of tomatoes and enjoyed bottomless bowls of tomato soup garnished with fresh basil from our own table, homemade GF bread, Happy Mary’s and Green Tomato Apple GF Pie. Fridheimar is only open from 12-4pm daily and reservations are required! WORTH IT! (Thanks Jeannie!)
Next we hit Geysir. The original geyser as in the one that all others have been named after since. I didn’t realize this was a dormant geyser until we got there and waited forever for it to erupt. And it didn’t. Thankfully there are other geysers right next to it like Strokkur which shoots boiling water 65-130 feet high every 5-10 minutes.
Gullfoss Falls was next. So big. So beautiful. But we were bushed by that time and you can’t really get too close to the falls so this was a quick 10 minute stop.
Excited to end our day at The Secret Lagoon – this pool was made in 1891 and is the oldest swimming pool in Iceland. All the pictures make this hot spot seem so elusive but we arrived and there were drinks flowing, a beautiful changing facility, lifeguards patrolling and everyone was propped up on complimentary noodles. Still, I was able to cut out the scene above for a cute pic but behind the photographer (thanks Jase!) it was party city – see below.
Day 3: Sleep in + Explore Reykjavik
Two things I love about exploring new cities; taking the city tour and poking around cute shops. If you feel the same way, definitely plan on taking the Reykjavik Free City Walking Tour. It’s free but they encourage donations. It’s two hours and I learned SO MUCH! Worth every penny.
Here are some more of of my personal Reykjavik highlights;
- Sundhöllin – The oldest public baths in Iceland and chalk-full of locals. We felt like we were really IN ICELAND here.
- Nauthólsvík Geothermal Beach – A stoned off section of the bay that is geothermally heated from May to August to a cool 59-66°F. I always wondered if people in Iceland went to the beach and now I know!
- Gló – A hip superfood fast casual haven.
- Bergsson – Old world style bakery/deli. I got a full flavor shredded ginger carrot soup here that I wolfed in .2 flat.
- Petersen Svítan – A chic rooftop bar with stunning views.
- City Hall – Where they have a massive 3D topographical map of Iceland that just puts it all in perspective.
Also. There are 9 Michelin recognized restaurants in Reykjavik. We ate at two of them: Dill and Matur og Drykkur.
Dill – This was a prefixed tasting menu with 15 tiny plate courses + natural wine pairings that lasted over two hours long. Dill embraces the New Nordic Cuisine focusing on fresh ingredients from Iceland. It was crazy expensive and an “experience” for sure. Like our first course of beetroot & mysingur that was served utensil-less encouraging us to swipe and lick off our fingers to two fried chicken skins (each the size of a dime) served over a bed of leaves to frozen beetroot, almonds and bilberries for dessert which was insanely good. Jason hates dinners like this. I love them. Reservations required.
Matur og Drykkur – Classical Icelandic cuisine with a modern twist. This was real food, real delicious. The Halibut Soup with Mussels Apples and Raisins was TO DIE FOR. We ended up ordering Foal Croquettes too only later realizing foal = horse. I mean they were really tasty too which just makes me feel bad for saying but it’s true. I would definitely go back next time.
Didn’t really care for Kolaportid flea market. We didn’t do the fermented shark because legit EVERY review said it was nasty but we anted up and tried the whale…turns out it wasn’t for me either. Chefs serve whale raw because it’s too tough cooked – I just couldn’t get past it. I couldn’t do the Icelandic hot dog either made famous by Bill Clinton because of the gluten. But we did go for the Black Death AKA Brennivín and ended up bringing a bunch back for friends as souvenirs.
Day 4: The South of Iceland
Day 4 we were up early to start our two-day road trip along the south of Iceland with a stay overnight just outside of Jökulsárlón. This was our one night away from Reykjavik. The south offers a unique landscape of mammoth waterfalls, lava fields, natural hot pools, black sand beaches, glaciers and more. Again, A LOT to see and do here but we only had two days so I picked what looked the best from Jeannie’s itinerary.
Seljalandsfoss – One of the most popular waterfalls in Iceland with a 200 foot fall that you can walk behind. Also a great place to fill up your water bottle!
Gljúfrabui – A second waterfall that is a 5 minute walk down from Seljalandsfoss. The only way to access it is by walking into a cave. So glad I brought my rain boots with me because I was able to bypass the line of people waiting to walk on the rocks to get in so they could keep their feet dry – I even saw one guy with his shoes off so he could get in – and that water IS COLD!
Next we hit Seljavallalaug – A pool at the base of a glacier with natural hot spring water pumped in. This took about 20 minutes to walk to from a near by parking lot but was well worth it. My eyeballs were basically blown out of their sockets from the beauty that surrounded. Put it this way, the beauty was enough to help me get over the slimy bottom of this pool. Jason liked going from the abutting glacier stream to the pool and back for a little contrast therapy.
Skógafoss was next up. And this waterfall will take your breath away. It’s 200 feet high and 82 feet wide. You can get right up to the base of it and also climb to the top via a built in staircase too.
Dyrhólaey Lighthouse on top of a huge cliff offers STUNNING views of the black sand beaches that stretch for miles and miles. Viewing the coastline from above was so unique. In some ways it was hard to tell where the ocean stopped and the sand started and then again where the sand stopped and the land started. No signs of human life along the coast. No houses. No restaurants. No people. No umbrellas. No surfers. Nothing.
After that we grabbed dinner at Halldorskaffi in Vik. I had some awesome tender salmon and potatoes. Jason got a pizza….and it came with a side of jelly. This place hit the spot at the end of a long day.
Spent the night in a suite at the Fosshotel Glacier Lagoon in the middle of nowhere. Loved that breakfast was included here.
Day 5: Sleep In + Jökulsárlón
Because what’s a vacation if you can’t sleep in!? Fosshotel was about 25 minutes away from Jökulsárlón and Diamond Beach which were both on the agenda for Day 5. So we enjoyed a slow morning in our big suite with a complimentary big breakfast of pastured eggs and Icelandic yogurt and then set out to see some icebergs!
We took a boat tour via Ice Lagoon Adventure Tours that allowed us to get as close as we could to Vatnajökull, Europe’s biggest glacier. And the glacier lagoon we were in was littered with icebergs that calve off the glacier all day, everyday. I was like, ICEBERG! RIGHT AHEAD! (And Jason was like *EYE ROLL*).
After the boat tour we drove across the street to where the glacier water lets out into the ocean at Diamond Beach. This was one place I was really dying to see! Icebergs from the glacier wash up on these black sand shores for a stunning display of natural WOW.
We spent the the rest of the day driving back to Reykjavik, checking out the lava fields, hitting up The Soup Company for bottomless bowls of lamb soup in Vik (a must!!!) and Reynisfjara Black Sand Beach to see the famous basalt stacks.
Day 6: ATV Tour of Hafrafell & Úlfarsfell Mountains
Day 6 was a “free day” and we decided to check out more of Reykjavik and do this ATV tour. I’ve never rode an ATV before so this was a fun way to sightsee plus we got some pretty views of the city. Then we spent some time checking out downtown which is included in my list of Reykjavik faves above.
Day 7: Pack and head home
We left this day open to pack stress free and take our time. I hate stressful travel so this is how we do.
What to bring home!
Here are some of the best things I brought home from Iceland to share with friends and family:
- Icelandic wool hats, gloves and scarves. Make sure you check the tags and/or ask to ensure they are made local if that’s important to you. Some of the shops export their wool and manufacture off shore.
- Icelandic artisanal sea salt.
- Icelandic vodka. Icelandic vodka like Reyka is make from glacier water, distilled using geothermal energy and filtered through lava rock.
- Artisan black porcelain earring studs cut to honor the basalt stacks.
If we ever go back, I am looking forward to seeing the Aurora Borealis, natural ice caves, more of the remote natural hot pools and I want to get to the northern most point in Iceland where it is straight dark for 2 weeks in the winter and straight light for 2 weeks in the summer. Have you been to Iceland? What was your favorite part?
If you are planning a trip to Iceland or thinking of planning a trip to Iceland, be sure to check out ICELAND PLANNING MADE EASY – It will save you so much time, effort and money!
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