Your Questions Answered - A Guide to Visiting Iceland
Iceland is probably near the top of everyone’s bucket list, and for good reason—it’s magical. This summer I finally checked it off. Since then, all of my friends and followers have been asking for advice on Iceland, so without further ado, here’s the scoop.
Is Iceland as pretty as it looks on Instagram?
Yes! There is just something so rugged and pure about Iceland that leaves you in awe. Obviously people edit their photos to enhance how they look, but in my opinion, seeing any of the sights in real life is even more beautiful.
If I only have a couple of days, what should I make sure to see?
This is the toughest question to answer. I’m a fast traveler and barely sleep on vacation, and to me that’s fun. Not everyone enjoys traveling like that though, so I’d recommend going at a pace you enjoy. That being said, here’s what I’d recommend seeing if you only have 48-72 hours. These are written in the order that I saw them so if you go add stars to your Google Map, you can just follow this route around when you get there. Tip: “foss” indicates waterfall so if you want to chase waterfalls, just stop at anything on the map you see labeled “foss.”
This crater lake is gorgeous and there is a short trail around it so you can take in the views from all angles or walk down rock stairs to to the edge of the lake. It’s an easy stop along the Golden Circle. There is a small fee and there are no restrooms.
A massive waterfall with a near-constant rainbow hovering over it? Enough said. This is a short enough hike that anyone can do it and you can even see it from the ledge above without walking down any stairs. Definitely walk the trail down to the viewpoint that is over the falls since this gives you an incredible view of the valley and is lined with wildflowers.
I think half the reason why people are intimidated by planning a trip to Iceland is how unpronounceable the names of its must-see sights are. Seljalandsfoss is the perfect example of this. I’ve seen it irl but I still have to look it and every other place up to type it every single time.
Anyways, it’s one of my favorite waterfalls in Iceland and definitely should be on your list. Ever walked behind a waterfall? This is your chance. You can follow a trail that takes you under the fall and it’s incredible. Wear a good rain jacket and bring something to keep your camera dry. This is also one of the falls that you can camp in front of and I’d highly recommend it.
Located just a short walk from Seljalandsfoss is another equally brilliant waterfall. Be prepared to hop on rocks in a stream or to get your feet wet to get to it as you have to walk through a shallow gorge. Don’t worry though, it’s 100% worth it. Bring waterproof shoes or quick-drying sandals and have dry socks ready for when you get out because your feet will be freezing.
This waterfall reminded me of the Energizer Bunny—it just kept going and going and going. Sure, you can just look at it from ground level and be in awe for days, but why not hike up the stairs embedded into the cliffside for a unique view? Then when you get to the top a trail runs alongside the river that feeds the fall and it has smaller waterfalls every hundred feet or so.
I honestly could have spent an entire day hiking along the edge of the river. I kept saying, “just a little bit further” but was drawn in more and more by the beauty of the area and did end up spending around three hours there despite being on a tight schedule.
This is another fall that you can camp right by. There are also some lodging options nearby that looked warm and welcoming.
This black-sand beach has a basalt stack reminiscent of the Giant’s Causeway in Ireland. It creates a cave window and provides a nesting area for the area’s many puffins—the world’s cutest bird in my opinion.
While beautiful, this was one of the more crowded places during my trip so make sure you go during the wee hours of the morning if you want it more to yourself. There is a restaurant on-site and a small hut next to it that sells coffee and pastries. Treat yo self.
If you’ve seen the red-roofed white churches surrounded by greenery and overlooking the countryside, you’re probably familiar with VIk i Mydral church. From it’s vantage on the hill, you can see the small town of Vik below. During summer, the area surrounding the church is strewn with wildflowers. I’d recommend stopping by after you visit Reynisfjara since the parking lot being empty would make it a lot easier to get photos than it was for me.
If you’re gluten free, I highly recommend a stop restaurant that is a couple blocks away. They have gluten free carrot cake! It’s so expensive (like all food in Iceland) but yum. It’s called Restaurant Sudur Vik.
I had a sprained ankle when I was in Iceland so this was the most painful stop for me, but it was still so worth it. It’s basically a canyon overlook that has a river running through it. The jagged nature of the cliff edges gives it an ominous look (especially in the rain). You can just go to the first overlook but if you follow the very-muddy-when-wet trail up along the canyon, it will eventually end at a roaring waterfall.
My ankle hated me for doing this trail because it was so muddy that I ended up slipping and rolling it about five times. Bring shoes with good grip and that you don’t mind having covered in mud.
Other places to add if you have more time
Jökulsárlón - a lake filled with glaciers floating around. You can kayak here and maybe even see some wildlife. It seemed to be “a thing” to strip down to your undies, jump in the water, then run around screaming bloody murder because you’re so cold you feel like you’re going to die. It was storming when I was here so I didn’t get a good picture but I did enjoy watching people run around screaming with their hands waving like a wacky-inflatable-arm man. I would’ve joined in if my ankle wasn’t the size of a grapefruit by this point.
Vestrahorn Mountain - I was so sad to not be able to make it here. If you’ve seen the videos where it looks like people are walking on water toward an epic mountain in the distance, this is the spot. It’s a good place to go in the wee hours of the morning or night so that you have it to yourself and other people’s ripples aren’t messing up your shot.
Kirkjufell Mountain - Visiting this incredible vista with a plummeting waterfall in front of a conical mountain means going north once you leave the airport and sadly all my main must-sees are to the south so I missed it. I regret going to the Blue Lagoon instead of spending my final day driving up to witness this iconic sight. Definitely plan to be there for sunrise or sunset if you can (the view is north so it’s pretty for either time). Pictures of the mountain in winter with the Northern Lights are also drool worthy.
What time of year should I go?
Personally? I’d vote for summer because you have almost nonstop daylight and can cram in more activities. I went in July and it never got completely dark outside so I cat napped when tired but could visit sites at pretty much any time or day or night. This allowed me to avoid crowds and meant that I didn’t have to switch to Iceland’s timezone for my short trip so when I returned to Seattle, I didn’t have jet lag.
However, if you want to see the Northern Lights in Iceland, you need to go during Fall through Spring when it gets dark enough for them to be visible. Whatever time of year you go, bring very warm clothes and a waterproof jacket. The wind is insane in Iceland and you never know when you’re going to get soaked from rain or waterfalls.
Where should I stay?
The towns in Iceland are tiny and driving to the main attractions takes a long time from the main city of Reykjavik. If you’re doing the Golden Circle, you could get away with staying in Reykjavik but I’d recommend looking for an AirBnB near Hella.
I opted for a camper van and think that is the best way to go since it means you don’t have to backtrack at all. Finding a place to park at night is easy as you can park pretty much anywhere and no one will bother you. I rented from Northbound.is and had a great experience. All the random car insurance you need is covered through them and included in the price. They even picked me up from the airport by holding a sign with my name on it. I felt like a celebrity. My rental was around $400 for 5 days which isn’t bad considering that it was both my bed and my car.
If you love camping, bring your gear and pitch your tent in some of the most beautiful places in the world. There are campsites near the base of many of the waterfalls and you can hike in and camp for free on trails all over the country. Just make sure to bring very warm clothes because I imagine that it gets very cold at night no matter what time of year you’re camping. Bring an eye mask during summer to help block out the midnight sun.
How should I get around?
My number one recommendation is listed in the question above but I’ll elaborate on other options here. Whether you’re going the car or camper van route, I’d recommend Northbound.is because in Iceland you have to have car insurance for the most random things and they offer all the insurances in the main price. For example, you will want wind and ash insurance. The wind blows so hard in Iceland that my camper van had seatbelt material that served as an extra connection between the door and the car so that if the car door blows off, it is still strapped on and you don’t have to go chase it down. Yep, that’s a real concern.
Another consideration when renting a vehicle is whether your route includes any F roads. Basically, these are the roads that go toward the center of the country. They can be treacherous and require a 4-wheel-drive car. The weather in Iceland is very unpredictable even in summer so make sure you rent something very reliable.
The other two options are hitchhiking and tour busses. Hitchhiking is perfectly safe in Iceland and you’ll see people of all ages and types doing it as their main means of transportation. If you’re camping and hitchhiking, that cuts down on your daily budget immensely and means you could stay longer. As for tour busses, I’m really the wrong person to ask as they aren’t my cup of tea. It seems pretty easy to arrange them from the airport or your hotel in Reykjavik and the Golden Circle is their main route. There are also ginormous off-road versions of tours that did seem pretty epic and take you to a lot of the interior attractions that would be more difficult to navigate to solo.
Should I go to the Blue Lagoon?
This is the most iconic thing to do in Iceland, and I did it but if I had the choice to make again, I wouldn’t. Why? It’s expensive, takes too much time, and ultimately just feels like you’re in a large swimming pool with a ton of adults. My hair was gross for two days after and I felt disgusting during the flight home despite showering. I think it’s important to note that I don’t mind going a week without showering and am not a super clean person, so for me to say I felt gross after is meaningful.
If you decide that you need to check it off your bucket list, go for it! Let me know what you think after. If you’re the type of person who enjoys spa days, you may just love it. I’m not and regretted that it took time away from other adventures.
Tips if you do go:
You have to book a set time online before going and will need to book a few days or weeks in advance in busy season. If you want to make a day of it, book an early time and you can stay as long as you’d like.
The restaurant is very expensive so eat before you go or just budget about $70 per person for that meal.
The Blue Lagoon is just a short drive from the airport so schedule it for the day you arrive or the day you leave if you have a later flight.
Set aside around two to four hours for the Blue Lagoon. Five if you opt to eat at the restaurant.
Bring a waterproof necklace for your phone if you want to take photos while floating around. You’re not allowed to set your phone on the edges on the lagoon. There are lockers so you can also just go snap a couple of photos and then take your phone or camera back to your locker.
What should I pack?
No matter what time of year you’re going to Iceland, you’re going to want to pack all your warmest clothing. In summer, you’ll want to pair that with some lighter wear just in case you get lucky and have a warm and windless day.
Clothing must-haves: warm gloves, a beanie to keep your hair from ending up in a million knots from the wind and to keep your ears warm, plenty of warm socks, thermal shirts and pants to go under your regular clothes, a thick waterproof jacket with a hood that pulls tight around your face, and something (probably your jacket) that is very colorful because it looks incredible in photos.
I’d also recommend packing a small bag full of snacks from home. Food in Iceland is crazy expensive and if you’re not staying in Reykjavik, then you won’t have a lot of options from what I could tell. Side note: I’m not a foodie so I’d recommend find a blog about the must-try restaurants elsewhere.
For equipment, bring your usual gear and stuff to keep it dry. I brought my drone but you’re not allowed to fly it at any of the main stops really and when you can fly, it’s usually too windy to risk. If you want to get the best possible images of waterfalls, bring a tripod and a ND filter. I left my tripod on the plane and was a sad panda.
What am I not answering for you?
You tell me! If you have any other questions about Iceland, I’d be happy to answer them in the comments below or to add to this blog. Or send them to me at firstname.lastname@example.org.