August 9th – 13th, 2019
I went to Iceland in the summer of 2019. I was studying abroad in London at the time and decided that I would fly to Iceland as a quick stop on my way back to New York. My mom flew from New York to meet me so that we could travel together since I had been without her in Europe the whole summer. It had been my dream to go for a while I had seen so many beautiful pictures of the country and had serious FOMO when it came to going to the Blue Lagoon. It was one of my favorites and one of the most beautiful countries that I have been to. It felt like going back in time to before humans seeing all the undisturbed lava fields, mountains and glaciers all around us. It was probably the most untouched country I have ever been to. My mom was afraid we would run out of gas or something would happen the the car and we would be stuck in the middle of miles upon miles of lava fields with no one to help.
Day 1 (Arrival Day)
The first day we flew into Iceland and met at the airport. My mom landed first (coming from New York) so she picked up the rental car and checked out the Reykjavík area while I was flying in from London. We reunited in the parking lot after my two months away from each other and headed to the Blue Lagoon.
The Blue Lagoon was great especially after a long day of flying. We put on our bathing suits and went out to the lagoon. You have to cover your hair with conditioner before you go in because the water is so harsh it will dry out your hair for days. The tickets include a drink and a face mask so we did the face mask first which was very refreshing and then went to the edge to lounge by a warm spot. We each got a glass of wine after our masks had washed off we enjoyed the warm water as we sipped on it listening to all the different languages being spoken around us. After we had finished our wine we were pretty wrinkly and prepared to get out. We washed off and headed to Reykjavík where we bought a few groceries (some pasta, sauce, peanut butter, jelly and bread) and headed to our airbnb. Our Airbnb was beautiful it was in an apartment building on one of the busy streets with lots of shops and a balcony. We were on the top floor so we had a great view of the small city. We ate dinner early and headed straight to bed since we had to be up early the next day.
https://abnb.me/lyNuzC9vw5 here is a link to the Airbnb if you are looking to stay in something similar.
The second day began early since we had to get to Silfra by 9am. We spent the whole day traveling the Golden Circle which is the most popular route through Iceland. Our first stop was Thingvellir National Park where we experienced our only pre-booked excursion, snorkeling in Silfra between the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates. This was absolutely remarkable, the water was crystal clear and you could even drink it since it came straight from the glaciers in the mountains. To be warned though it was incredibly cold, like can’t feel your face or hands level cold even though we were practically fully covered by dry suits. The whole thing was about an hour long and was an added cost that you should factor in if saving for the trip. It was definitely worth it it was like seeing a completely new world under the water. Full of deep caverns surrounded by rocks and the occasional fish. Before we went I was scared that it was going to be like snorkeling above an abyss like in the movie Piranha but it wasn’t like that at all. It felt more like snorkeling through a cave that was so clear you could count the rocks. We then walked around the park to see the waterfall and the overlook of the tectonic break. The waterfall was beautiful but it didn’t compare to the beauty of Silfra.
The next stop on the Golden Circle was Strokkur Geyser. This is one of the easiest to see and most frequently erupting geysers in the world and it erupts every 5-7 minutes so it is worth a short stop. There are a lot of other geothermal pools and streams to look at in the area so you can take a break and walk around but don’t step off the trail or you could burn your skin off which wouldn’t be a good way to spend your legendary trip in Iceland. While we were there a woman reached over and put her fingers in the water. Luckily it was not one of the thermal pools but our hearts stopped for a minute waiting for her to start screaming in pain.
Our final stop of the day was Gullfoss. This waterfall was explained to us as the Niagra Falls of Iceland. I’ve never been to Niagra falls but I was in awe of the power of this waterfall it’s hard to imagine something that is double or triple this size what it could power. You could only see it from the top cascading over the rocks and sort of disappearing down the cliff. The waterfall was so powerful that the path down to the top was wet and you could feel the mist the closer you got to the falls.
We ended the day by driving to our hotel the River Hotel in Hella. This was by far our favorite hotel that we stayed in in Iceland. It was right on a river where people went salmon fishing from dawn to dusk. The hotel had a restaurant (make reservations early that day if you want to eat there), a bar and a hot tub. The rooms weren’t incredibly lavish but it felt really authentic. We didn’t make reservations early enough for dinner so we ended up eating at a restaurant that was less than 10 minutes away. It was good and had a nice view overlooking a golf course.
Day 3 had a lot of driving but the destinations were worth it especially the stop on Day 4 which was our favorite and like something we had never experienced before. The day started early, we drove from Hella along Route One for about half an hour until we reached Seljalandsfoss.
Seljalandsfoss is one of the most famous waterfalls in Iceland. It is right outside the Golden Circle so you will probably encounter a lot of tourists in that area so getting there early is ideal. Seljalandsfoss is the only waterfall I’ve ever visited that you can walk behind. The path is wet from the water blowing back on it so make sure to wear waterproof clothing or have extra clothes in the car so you don’t get wet. Make sure to wear suitable foot ware as well so you don’t risk slipping since you have to do some climbing up and down hills including scaling a few steep rocks. The main waterfall is really amazing it is really cool to be able to see the falls from the back. If you want to keep the waterfall experience going there’s another waterfall tucked away in an alcove in the rocks that is something not everyone takes the time to see. To see it just follow the path to the left if you are looking at the main waterfall it is less than a 5 minute walk. It involves some balance especially after a lot of rain you have to step on rocks next to the gorge wall in order to get to the falls. The day we were there the river was pretty full and you couldn’t walk to it without getting your feet wet in the freezing cold water. From what I have read you usually can walk there without hopping from rock to rock. Regardless of possibly getting wet it is a really cool waterfall and worth the few extra steps.
Following these two waterfalls we drove to our third waterfall of the day. This waterfall was called Skogafoss, it is about thirty minutes further and it is another main attraction of the Ring Road (Route 1). It is a big waterfall that you can stand at the bottom of and even go swimming in the water at the bottom but brace yourself for the cold. The ground is flat so it is a perfect waterfall to stop and take pictures in front of. After you’ve seen the bottom of the falls you can hike up the stairs to the top of the waterfall and the hiking trail beyond. From up at the top you can see the ocean in the distance and the mountains and glacier in the other direction. After you walk up the stairs there is a platform where you can see over the top of the falls. If you continue up the trail you can see more of the glacier and there are a few other smaller waterfalls that you can look down at along the way. This is a popular hiking destination so you a lot of people camping out preparing to hike to the glacier the following day or setting off on their journey with their big packs and hiking poles.
The next stop is yet another 30 minutes further. This is probably the most photographed location I see of Iceland. I see it on guys Tinder profiles about once a day if that tells you anything. It is also probably the most dangerous location we went to. This location is the Reynisfjara Black Sand Beach. This is one of the two beaches we stopped at on the south coast. It had large rock structures that stand up in the water and unreal shapes carved out of the cliff face that is closest to the water. It was surprising that these shapes could be made in nature. The cliff face looks like a geometric step like pattern that you can climb up or sit on. This beach is increasingly dangerous if you catch it on a rough day. It is known for having “sneaker waves”, these are waves that come out of nowhere and drag people into the water into the strong current where they inevitably drown. There are signs all over the beach about not getting too close to the water or turning your back to the ocean and news articles posted about the people who have died by doing so. There is about tourist a year that ignore the signs and end up paying with their life. It was honestly a little scary thinking something like that could happen but on the day we went the water was extremely calm so there wasn’t much need to worry. This is the reason we don’t really have any pictures of the beach. So if you decide to visit this beach especially on a rough day please be careful and don’t turn your back to the water.
We took a short break from sight seeing to get lunch in Vik and stop at a popular church at the top of a big hill there. The church has a beautiful view of the cliffs and a far off view of the rock structures at Reynisfjara about 10 minutes away. We got lunch at Halldorskaffi a small pub-like restaurant that is connected to the Vik Information Center. Another thing we learned about Vik during our short time there was that it is one of the best places to see Puffins in southern Iceland. This was something that I wish we had been able to see. The only chances to see them, however, are either at dusk or very early in the morning neither of which we were in Vik for.
After lunch it was time for us to continue our sight seeing. Our next stop was Fjaðrárgljúfur Canyon an hour along the road from Vik. The canyon is a nice hike there are different places to stop and get close to the canyon from above. You start at ground level and hike up the hill (about 30 minutes) there are about three places to stop and look down at the river and canyon walls. The final look over is a platform that is over part of the canyon. I didn’t stay on the platform very long since heights make me dizzy especially when I feel like I’m looking down at the heights. We took a few pictures on the platform and then started the walk back down the canyon.
We stayed in Hof for the night which was about an hour from the Canyon. Make sure you have plenty of gas since there isn’t much along the road other than lava fields, plateaus, mountains and towards the end a large glacier. It was a beautiful drive with a great view. Hof was the only place possible for us to stay since the very few hotels in the area were either sold out or not finished yet. We ended up staying in a “hotel” that was made up of a bunch of different little houses. The only one that was available when we booked the trip was the largest with probably six different rooms, a kitchen, living room, hot tub and all glass exterior. It was insanely expensive but our only option other than that was a tent so we took it (like I mentioned I was traveling with my mom – she doesn’t do tents).
The forth day had our favorite location which was Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon. The lagoon was unlike anything I have ever seen before. It was a body of water right under a glacier so chunks of ice would fall off of the glacier and into the water and become icebergs. You could take boat trips on the water or just walk around and enjoy the scenery. There were probably 50 chunks of ice in the water some being so large they made the boats look small and other being small enough that you could pick them up. They all varied in color from white to blue to translucent. As the icebergs sit in the water they break apart so some if you are lucky you can catch them breaking. They break and fall into the water creating the smaller icebergs and then float out to sea. The lagoon ended in a fast moving river that lead to the ocean some of the ice landed on the beach and created sort of a crystal looking shape. Honestly if you go anywhere in Iceland this would be my top recommendation. I have been to plenty of waterfalls, glaciers, canyons and cities in my lifetime but I have never seen this anywhere else in the world and I don’t think I will again.
From the lagoon you are just a five minute walk along the river, under a bridge to Diamond Beach. You can watch the icebergs travel along the river and float out to sea. Some of them wash up onto the beach and create sort of a ice-made diamond look, hence the name Diamond Beach. They catch the light and create a contrast with the black sand beach in a really beautiful way. There are signs along the river talking about the wildlife in the area and what the different colored ice means. On Diamond Beach there are big signs that explain the meaning of the beach and talk about the northern lights which you can see in the area during the winter.
About a ten minute drive down the road is another smaller glacier lagoon called Fjallsarlon Glacier Lagoon. This one is less of a tourist spot and is smaller so the ice is concentrated which leads to some great pictures. They also offer boat rides and I believe they offer glacier tours as well so make sure to book these things in advance if you are interested. If you only have time for one I would still pick the larger lagoon and the beach but it was still a great stop.
If you have some extra time in the day consider making a stop at Skaftafell National Park on the way back west. There are a lot of trails at Skaftafell leading up to the glacier, to waterfalls and other beautiful sites. In that area you can also take a helicopter or plane up onto the glacier to walk around or (in the winter) explore some of the ice caves.
*WARNING* The one mistake I made when planning our trip was booking a stay in a Volcano Hotel. This is honestly one of the worst experiences I’ve had with a hotel in all of my traveling. We wanted to book a hotel near Vik to stay in our last night since that was about half of the way between the Glacier Lagoon and Reykjavík. I booked a hotel on one of the travel websites that said it was in Vik but when we arrived back to Vik (around 4pm) we discovered that the hotel was an hour and a half away and was only reachable by 4×4 bus. When we called saying we were unaware of this they said that by the time we arrived all of the buses would have departed and our only option would be a 18km hike. When we said that wouldn’t work they said they would offer us a private ride up to the hotel but it would cost us an extra $400 so we took a hard pass and decided to email the travel site and just find another place for the night. I don’t believe this hotel is even still running (I couldn’t find it on Google when I looked) but the lesson we both took away was to read the fine print when booking a hotel you don’t want to lose money by finding out there is no way to reach the hotel you booked other than a long hike or $400 ride.
We ended up having to book a hotel from the road while we were driving and picked Hotel Ork which was great for our last night it had just recently been renovated so it was an extremely nice room plus the man who worked at check in was extremely cute. We ended up eating at their restaurant which was equally good we had our last lamb meal nof Iceland and got ready for our flight home the next day.
Day 5 (Departure Day)
Day five was our last partial day in Iceland. We had a couple hours of free time before the flight so we decided to spend the day checking out the shops in Reykjavík. The drive there took us a little less than an hour which was nice since we had done so much extra driving the day before having to go further than we planned to stay in the hotel we ended up staying in. We enjoyed the time we had left in Iceland and then headed to the airport.
If shopping isn’t your thing there are a fair amount of hot springs in the area around Selfoss where Hotel Ork is. This would provide some relaxation especially if you happen to be a nervous flyer. These hot springs are more popular among locals and usually they are a lot cheaper than pools like the Blue Lagoon. Some of them may even be free. If either of those options don’t sound appealing you could also use this time to tour some of the more popular attractions in Reykjavík such as Hallgrímskirkja (a very unique looking church in the center of the city), the statue of Leif Eriksson, the sun voyager (a boat shaped sculpture) or one of the many museums in the area.
Iceland was one of my favorite places I’ve ever traveled to. The people were so nice and it was probably the safest place I had ever been. My mother dropped her wallet while we were at the black sand beach with the structures in the water and we didn’t end up realizing until the next day. We decided to retrace our steps even though we figured it would be near useless but it turns out someone had returned it cash, credit cards and all to the near by restaurant. We were honestly stunned we never expected to find it let alone the money we had left in it. People there watch out for eachother since it the communities are so small and isolated.
The food was also amazing. We ate some of the best lamb and salmon we had ever had. We originally heard that Iceland was unreasonably expensive, being it on an island in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, but it ended up being fairly reasonable. We bought bread, peanut butter and jelly and ate that between meals and for breakfast everyday which saved us some money and two nights we had rooms with kitchens in which we were able to make pasta with marinara sauce and share a bottle of wine we also bought in Reykjavík at a small store. I usually do this on most trips since I have a lot of food restrictions but it also saves a lot of money and time being able to make a quick meal on the go with things you have in the car. (See my article about traveling with Dietary Restrictions here https://rileyrecommendstravel.com/2020/02/06/how-to-travel-with-food-restrictions/). If you have read my other pieces you also know that I typically carry cards that state my allergy in a variety of languages. I had my Icelandic card with me and was able to show it to all the servers we had along the way although a few weren’t originally from Iceland so I had to communicate my allergy in English which was our shared language.
We loved Iceland are we’re glad we went. At first we had planned to not rent a car and just spend time around Reykjavík but that would’ve been a huge mistake. If we hadn’t left Reykjavík and the Golden Circle we wouldn’t have seen so many of the amazing waterfalls and the glacier lakes that we ended up being the highlights of our trip. So if you get the chance to go to Iceland make sure you rent a car or choose a tour that takes you outside of the Golden Circle. I promise you won’t regret it.