Having recently cleared four significant life hurtles – getting married, finishing my Master’s thesis, establishing my own consulting business, and buying our first house – I decided to celebrate by tagging along with a few friends on their R&R trip to Iceland. The four of us traveled from Afghanistan, Kosovo, and the U.S. in search of glaciers, the Northern Lights, and lots of hot springs… and Iceland did NOT disappoint!
My travel mates and I didn’t have much planned before we landed: just Airbnb accommodation for the first six nights, tickets to the Blue Lagoon, and a reservation for our rental car. Fortunately, we had an 18-page guide from a friend based in Reykjavik that was so helpful, I just had to pass along her advice!
You can also follow along on this interactive map…
Days 1-3: Reykjavik, The Blue Lagoon, & The Golden Circle
I highly recommend using AirBnB anywhere, but it’s especially great in Iceland, where not only are the apartments cheaper than local hotels, the dining-in option that an apartment provides is key to reducing expenses in this pricey country. Jón’s four bed apartment in central Reykjavik was just $115/night and perfectly located for our first few days exploring the city.
On our first day, we roamed around the city, snapping photos of the main sights: the uniquely beautiful Hallgrímskirkja church, dynamic Harpa Concert Hall, and even caught a rainbow over the Sun Voyager sculpture:
We also stopped by the quirky, cheap, and delicious Cafe Babalú for lunch and the sublimely helpful Icelandic Travel Market to plan the rest of the trip. While we mostly tried to cut costs by cooking for ourselves during the trip, we really splurged in Reykjavik these first two nights with glorious dinners at Apotek (didn’t love the fermented puffin starter, but the rest was great) and Grillmarket (amazing trio of fish pictured below).
Admittedly, the next day, which was spent almost entirely at the Blue Lagoon, was a bit splurge-y too. Having heard that the lagoon gets a little crowded, we arrived right before it opened and shot straight to the front of the line thanks to our pre-booked Premium tickets. Well worth it for the time savings, two free drinks, and flip flops we got to take home with us. We loaded up on conditioner before and Silica masks during our time in the lagoon and left feeling super relaxed. Back in Reykjavik that evening, we stopped by the impressive and informative Settlement Exhibition, which stays open until 8pm(!) and was a great primer on Icelandic history, culture, and language.
On Day 3, we waved goodbye to Reykjavik and set off to see the highlights of the Golden Circle. Though the country has tons of great tour companies, we were grateful to have our own car and see these sites at our own pace. We headed first for Þingvellir (Thingvellir) National Park, the site of one of the world’s oldest parliamentary institutions (dating back to 930 CE) as well as the rift between the American and European tectonic plates:
Second, we visited Geysir, home to the Great Geysir – the first geyser in recorded history and one of the highest to this day. Though Geysir no longer erupts as frequently as it once did, we got to see neighboring Strokkur erupt three times in our short visit to the site:
Our last stop of the day was to Europe’s largest waterfall – Gullfoss – where we also caught a stunning rainbow:
Days 4-5: Exploring the South Coast
From the Golden Circle, it was just over an hour’s drive to our second great Airbnb find: a cozy cottage with a hot tub(!) just outside the small town of Hvolsvöllur on the southern coast. While we weren’t lucky enough to catch the Northern Lights any of our three nights there, the cabin is in a nice quiet spot with no light pollution – a perfect view on a cloudless night – and a great home base for exploring the south.
Day 4 of our trip was spent exploring the dramatic sights of the southern coast, all arranged conveniently along the coastal highway. Seljalandsfoss and Skogafoss waterfalls are must-sees on this drive, as is the enchanting black Reynisfjara Beach with its mind-bending basalt caves and formations – all of which we hit on our way to lunch and shopping in the country’s wool capital, Vik. The charming little town, while quiet, offered some lovely views and a great bowl of bottomless cauliflower soup at a little inn called Halldorskaffi.
On Day 5, we took on the greatest adventure of the trip: a hike on the Solheimajokull glacier tongue led by our amazing guide from Icelandic Mountain Guides. We decided on the 2pm departure, which meant we were basically alone on the glacier and got some impressive evening views on our three hour hike in and around the glacier. Access to the glacier and the hike itself were easy enough for travelers of all skill levels – a MUST for any trip to Iceland.
Days 6-7: Into the Glacier & The Northern Lights
After a great day on the ice, we packed up the car and headed north in search of the illusive lights and another glacier to explore. We stayed in another cabin that we found this time on Booking.com, which was adequate for the two-night stay and in a beautiful environment at the foot of Akrafjall Mountain outside of Akranes, but was a bit more cramped than the photos let on.
Nevertheless, we settled in and were rewarded with a stunning display of the Northern Lights our first night there:
On Day 7, we explored the little fishing village of Akranes before driving an hour inland to Hotel Húsafell, where we were picked up by a massive former NATO truck to drive to the top of the Langjökull glacier and go into the manmade ice cave inside. Into the Glacier, which only just opened in June, was an incredible opportunity to learn about temperate glaciers and marvel at the sheer size of one of Europe’s largest glaciers.
Days 8-9: The Snæfellsnes Penninsula & One Last Geothermal Spring Stop
Day 8 amounted to a (rather rainy) photo tour of the Snæfellsnes Penninsula just north of Reykjavik, where the scenery poses a dramatic contrast to what we saw in the south. Our driving tour took us from the picturesque town of Stykkishólmur, across the Berserkjahraun Lava Field and Kolgrafarfjördur fjord, to Djúpalónssandur Beach, past the Londranger basalt cliffs, and through the quaint sea ports of Hellnar and Arnastapi to our gorgeous and cozy home for the evening, Hotel Budir (a winning recommendation from my locally-based friend). The drive took around three hours with limited stops due to the wind and rain, but earned us some beautiful photos and a relaxing evening with a fresh local meal at the hotel.
On our final day in Iceland, we decided to enjoy one last dip in the country’s famed geothermal springs. This time, we opted for Laugarvatn Fontana, which was on our way back to Reykjavik. The facilities seemed a bit outdated and more chlorinated than we expected, but it’s a great option should you want a quick dip during your exploration of the Golden Circle. Located on the road to Geysir, Fontana also does a great demonstration of the viking tradition of baking rye bread in the boiling hot ground near the springs.
Our great guide said Icelanders still carry on this tradition – usually reserving it for special occasions like holidays and weddings.Look carefully in the photo below for the recipe… all you need is a hot spring and 24 hours and you can bake the bread at home!
I hope you enjoyed the journey as much as we did! Safe travels!