When it comes to planning a trip to Iceland, especially during the winter months, it’s best to accept prior to your trip that every day may not go exactly as planned. While going through security before our flight home, we heard numerous groups complaining that all of their tours had been cancelled or that they hadn’t been able to experience every single thing they thought they would.
So before we continue, take a deep breath, and accept that your plans may perhaps fall through. Winter weather in Iceland is wildly unpredictable, but at the same time, winter there is so visually stunning. I would’ve been fine if we did nothing but drive around “oohing” and “ah-ing” at volcanic ranges. Secondly, if you or another person in your party has experience with harsh winter driving, rent a car. I’m not saying that it is necessarily a smart idea to drive into a blizzard despite all tours being cancelled, I’m just saying that on certain days we drove into a blizzard despite all tours being cancelled.
All joking aside, renting a car gives you a lot more flexibility when it comes to your schedule. Whereas booking a tour could result in a wasted day, driving gave us the option to change our plans at last minute notice if roads were closed or there was inclement weather in certain areas. We definitely left Iceland having missed out on a couple things we had originally wanted to see, but to be honest, we experienced so much that those things were barely a thought. Plus, that just means we have to go back.
Day 1: Reykjavik
Day 2: The Golden Circle
Day 3: Snæfellsnes Peninsula
Day 4: The Langjökull Glacier
Day 5: The South Coast
Day 6: The Blue Lagoon
Day 1: Reykjavik
Coming from New York meant that a majority of flights we could’ve booked would get us to Reykjavik at approximately 4:30am-6:30am the following day. Personally, I always prefer earlier arrival flights because I’m able to run on adrenaline for almost twelve hours after landing; but also because it can often mean a whole extra added day to your trip.
First things first: get your rental car. When you exit the “arrivals” area of Keflavik, you’ll find various car rental depots for popular car rental companies, such as Budget, Hertz, Enterprise, etc. However, if you’re like us and booked your car through a company exclusive to Iceland, you’ll have to hop on a shuttle to the actual rental car office. This shuttle is a bright yellow bus that you can catch at the designated bus stop about a minute walk from Keflavik. I’d assume if it were summer and you had minimal luggage that you might be able to walk to the rental office, because Blue Car Rental was the second stop and we were there in what felt like three minutes.
- While I highly recommend Blue Car, please be smarter than we were. Just because a car says “7-seater” does not mean it’s the type of 7-seater you may be used to. In fact, once we stored our luggage, it only really fit five of the six of us. Sitting awkwardly atop two of my friends while my head was bent in an a 90 degree angle, definitely did not make for the most comfortable 45 minute ride to Reykjavik. To make matters worse, even after we unpacked our luggage, we consistently rotated since the back two seats were suitable for people 4″11 and under. Long story short, if you’re more than five, get a second car.
- We opted to have Wi-fi included with our car rental and it was the greatest choice we made. Your wi-fi comes in the form of a portable little egg shape device that one us kept in our pocket even when we left the car. Because what’s better than being able to Snapchat data-free virtually everywhere you go?
- Purchase all the car insurance. It’s better to pay upfront than have to worry about a potential large payment later.
Next stop: Breakfast.
It had been a goal of mine to have breakfast at the Laundromat Cafe, and luckily that’s exactly where we ended up at 8:00am on our first morning in Iceland. The Dirty Breakfast which consists of eggs, bacon, potatoes, tomato, sausage, and yogurt is just as heavenly as it sound, and the ambiance is a liberals paradise.
Unfortunately, I found out a few days ago that the Laundromat Cafe shut its doors just a week after we left. But never fear! The owner insists they are currently seeking another Reykjavik venue to re-open. Until then there are a boatload of other great spots for breakfast in Reykjavik like Bergsson Mathús, Cafe Bablu, and C is for Cookie.
After breakfast, head to the Saga Museum; but don’t forget to stop along the way and appreciate the beauty of Mount Esja, which isn’t actually a mountain at all, but an entire volcanic range. We spent a good fifteen minutes just gawking at its beauty – this was before we realized that the entire country is one giant scenic view.
The Saga Museum uses life-like figures to depict different moments in Iceland’s history, and is a great way to learn a bit more about the country you’re visiting before diving right in.
The Saga Museum is open daily, from 10:00am-6:00pm and entrance is 2100kr ($20).
The next two stops are quintessentially Reykjavik. First, stop by the Sun Voyager statue for a quick photo opportunity. Jón Gunnar Árnason, the sculpture of the statue has said its design was meant to convey, “the promise of undiscovered territory, a dream of hope, progress, and freedom.” In a way, it reminds me of the meaning behind the Statue of Liberty back home.
When visiting you’ll also have an excellent view of both Thufa, an outdoor art piece by Ólöf Nordal; and Harpa, the majestic concert hall of Reykjavik.
From here, head over to Hallgrimskirkja. This structure which took 41 years to build is not only the largest church in Iceland, but is also among one of the largest structures of Iceland in general. I guess that’s why most visitors can’t leave Iceland without heading to the top to take in the view of Iceland’s largest city. And once you’ve descended, don’t forget to check out the statue of Norse explorer, Lief Erikson who greets visitors as they enter.
Hallsgrimskirkja is open from 9:00am-5:00pm during the winter months, and 9:00am-9:00pm during the summer. Note that on Sundays, the tower is closed from 10:30am-12:15 due to mass. Admission to the tower is 1000 ISK.
If you’re a history buff, your next stop should be the not-to-be-missed National Museum of Iceland, which is home to over 2,000 artifacts.
The National Museum of Iceland is open daily from 10:00am-5:00pm, though it is currently closed on Mondays. Admission is 2000 ISK, and free for anyone under 18.
At this point you may be getting smacked by hunger pangs and sleep deprivation. So run over to Baejarins Beztu Pylsur and order one (or two) with everything, and take a relaxing walk around pond Tjornin. Then when you’re done, do a quick grocery run at the closest Bonus, stock up Skyr, and head to your accommodations for a much deserved nap.
NOW WAKE UP, because you have to spend a night experiencing Reykjavik nightlife at least once. Literally, maybe just once, because the booze prices in this country are astronomical.
The first bar we stopped at was the Lebowski Bar, where we ordered White Russians all around. If you don’t get the reference, add watching the Big Lebowski to your list of post-Iceland activities. The Lebwoski Bar has a list of about a dozen different White Russians, though I prefer a classic.
If you’re feeling lucky, for 2500 ISK you can have the bartender spin a wheel which might leave you with 10 “free” beers. Our first friend to spin actually hit the jackpot and won 10 (really 8 if you subtract payment) free beers to start the night. But don’t get too cocky; the next two to spin both hit “gutterballs” and walked away 2500 ISK poorer.
Hopefully you didn’t spend all your money spinning the prize wheel, because Lebowski’s bar food is surprisingly delicious. After all, nothing goes down better with a White Russian than mozzarella sticks and a Honey Boo burger.
Side note – our bartender was beyond awesome! By the end of the night we felt like she was part of the gang.
American Bar was next, which also had a spin-to-win wheel, but thankfully we had learned our lesson by then. One of the best parts of Reykjavik is that a majority of the bars are all in a five block range, so walking between them is super easy. Others worth checking out: The English Pub and The Dubliner.
Day 2: The Golden Circle
The Golden Circle is one of the most popular sightseeing routes in Iceland and offers an array of different stops along the way. The weather was a bit back-and-forth on this day and due to the minimal light hours during the winter, we had to cut out some of our hidden gems off the itinerary. That being said, it’s definitely possible to hit more stops than we did depending on the weather and time of year, so definitely pick out your favorite gems to add to your own itinerary.
Stop one: Thingvellir National Park
How much you enjoy your time at this park is going to be based on how adventurous you are willing to be. At first glance, the park seems pretty barren, though even barren is stunning with the sun shining through. The deeper into Thingvellir you go, the more there is to see – from towering lava rock to a small church with adjacent buildings, which was apparently the site of Iceland’s first parliament in 960 AD.
Many of the paths had been snowed over but we, along with a few other visitors, trekked through the slush to experience as much as we could.
- If you’re traveling in winter, make sure you have a pair of waterproof winter boots. There is nothing fun about attempting to make your way in sopping wet sneakers, or injuring yourself by slipping on an icy patch.
At one point on our adventure, we accidentally stumbled upon Öxarárfoss, a small waterfall that remains semi-frozen during the winter months. This ended up being one of those accidents we questioned not originally having on our itinerary; though it may be much smaller than some of the more popular Iceland falls, it’s slight seclusion and simplicity make it that much more beautiful.
After your excursion through Iceland’s only UNESCO Heritage Site, head over to Strokkur, Iceland’s most famous geysir that erupts every 6-10 minutes. Though on our trip it seemed a bit more frequent. Not every eruption is as dramatic, so it may be worth sticking around for a two or three.
After freezing your fingers off trying to capture an image of Strokkur blowing its top, head over to Fridheimar for a late lunch/early dinner. I highly recommend making a reservation to be on the safe side, though we had made the latest reservation available and were dining with only four other groups.
Fridheimar is located inside one of Iceland’s geothermal tomato greenhouses, and hence every menu from the entrees to the desserts are tomato-based. This restaurant is more of an experience than a meal, and is worth every penny.
Fridheimar is open daily from 12:00pm-4:00pm.
Finally, it’s time to visit the majestic and popular, Gullfoss. Gullfoss is one of those natural wonders that leave you wondering why so many places to choose to pave over beauty for skyscrapers. Be sure to do some walking among the open space surrounding Gullfoss as you’ll be able to get a few differently angled views of the falls.
This is one of those rare occasions where I’ll suggest stopping at the visitor center gift shop before departing. Were some of the items overpriced? Of course, it’s Iceland. But I was able to grab some stunning post cards and prints that actually didn’t break the bank.
Other stops you may want to make during your Golden Circle self-drive tour:
Faxi Waterfall (64.2254° N, 20.3372° W)
Porufoss (64.260707, -21.369836)
Kerid Crater (64.0413° N, 20.8851° W)
Solheimar Eco-Village (64.0656° N, 20.6419° W)
Gamla Laugin Geothermal Pool (64.1377° N, 20.3097° W)
Day 3: The Snæfellsnes Peninsula
Often called “Little Iceland” due to the varying landscapes that exist in one location, the Snæfellsnes Peninsula had been calling out to me from the initiation of our trip planning.
If you’re driving from Reykjavik, which is about 2.5 hours, this definitely requires an early start if you’re attempting to see much of the peninsula in the same day. So quickly down some of that Skyr you purchased at your local Bonus supermarket and hit the road.
- Reminder: Though not quite as north as the Westfjords, in winter this area was approximately 8-10 degrees colder than Reykjavik. We also experienced some intense winds that at times were almost painful if your face wasn’t covered, so I’d recommend bringing along some extra layers and a ski-mask.
Stop 1: Búðir
You’ve probably seen snapshots of the Búðir or “the little black church” without even realizing, as it’s become a common stop for photographers visiting the peninsula. To many, this may seem an odd spot for church – secluded from much else. But this little hamlet provides an erie but stunning break from the snowy surroundings.
Stop 2: Bárður Snæfellsás
Legend has it that Bárður Snæfellsás, half troll and half man, was the settler of the Snæfellsnes Peninsula. In 1972, co-founder of the Icelandic Sculptors Society, Ragnar Kjartansson built a stone figure of Bárður, which now stands tall in the fishing-village of Arnarstapi watching over his land.
If traveling in winter, don’t be surprised that Arnarstapi is almost completely deserted. It seems that this town is mostly utilized during the summer season, which makes sense considering how dramatic winters in the area can be.
Stop 3: Hellnar
Hellnar is an ancient fishing village one stop over from Arnarstapi, and is a great place to stop for the perfect view of Snæfellsjökull, a 700,000 year old glacier.
Stop 4: The Londrangar Basalt Cliffs
- Warning – If you think the rest of the peninsula is windy, just wait until you stroll along the Londrangar Cliffs. In the wintertime, there are also some difficult-to-see ice patches, and one almost sent me flying off of a ledge. So walk slowly, take your time, and pay attention to your surroundings.
The view, however, is completely worth it.
Stop 5: Vatnshellir Cave
Vatnshellir is the cave that apparently inspired Jule’s Verne’s, “Journey to the Center of the Earth” and with Summit Adventure Guides you can journey down into the 8,000 year old lava tube. We had a great tour guide who went by “Gummy” during our 45 minute tour, and his knowledge, jokes, and Marvel references really added to the experience.
At one point, once you’re two stairwells, a bridge, and a walk deep into the tube, everyone is asked to turn of their lights, leaving you absolute darkness. This is the level of darkness that your eyes will never be able to adjust to. Despite this proclamation, we all still attempted to stare at our own hand, thinking at some point we’d make out an outline. But nothing.
Summit Adventure Guides provides several tours including the Vatnshellir Cave Tour, which runs all year. Tours should be booked in advance and run 3750 ISK, roughly $37.
Stop 6: Djúpalónssandur & Dritvík
While Djúpalónssandur is known for being the “black-lava pearl beach”, Dritvík is known for something a bit more somber. In 1948, an English trawler ship slammed into the beach, killing 14 of the 19 crewman. The few iron remains of the ship remain in the same location out of respect and memory of those who passed.
Despite the snow covering much of both areas, these destinations are not to be missed.
Stop 7: Feast in Ólafsvík
We had asked our Vatnshellir tour guide for some restaurant recommendations, considering a majority of businesses in West Iceland were closed for the winter. He eagerly suggested two spots over in his hometown of Ólafsvík, one he described as “a black house with a green roof”. This restaurant ended up being “Hraun”, which was not only run by some of the most accommodating staff, but also is home to some of the best tasting burgers you will ever eat.
Stop 8: Hunt the Northern Lights
We had booked an Airbnb for one night alongside Kirkjufell to experience the countryside and hopefully catch a glimpse of the northern lights. We had accepted the day prior that we probably were going to leave Iceland without having seen them; after all, we had daily snow, almost complete cloudy skies, and on that night the aurora forecast was extremely low. But hey, at least the views from the cabin were stunning.
While we hung inside, I made a point of running outside every twenty minutes or so to see if we could at least get a view of a dark starry night sky. But due to the weather, all I kept seeing was solid darkness. But luck was on our side. On my fourth time out, there finally seemed to be a gap in the cloud cover, and I was greeted by a strip of stars like I had rarely seen. If this was all we got, I’d have been happy. However, after calling my friends out, one pointed out what appeared to be a mild bright, white light from behind Kirkjufell.
Slowly these light patches lightened and began to spread out and few snaps of my camera proved we were finally getting a glimpse – a few green stripes were in fact streaking the sky. During the peak, there were even what appeared to be some vertical moving lines. But just as quick as they appeared, the cloud cover regained its position over West Iceland.
Taken with NightCap
We might not have experienced the most intense aurora borealis, but the experience was still memorable – and waiting it out was half of the fun.
Day 4: The Langjokull Glacier
We had originally planned to wake up early and drive the almost three hours to the Husafell Base Camp, where we would begin out Snowmobile Into the Glacier tour with Mountaineers of Iceland.
This tour would’ve taken us snowmobiling on the second largest glacier in Iceland, followed by a cave tour. However, there are only so many experiences that can be saved by self-driving in Iceland. And it is extremely dangerous and never okay to enter an ice cave or take part in activities like glacier hiking without certified professionals.
But if the weather wasn’t a deterrent, this would’ve been a great chance to take part in some action-packed activity on your way down from the Snæfellsnes Peninsula.
On the flip side, Mountaineers was great to work with and processed our refund in a timely manner with no issues.
The Snowmobile Into the Glacier Tour with Mountaineers of Iceland must be booked in advanced, and runs 29.900 ISK for two guests on one snowmobile. All drivers must have a valid driver’s license.
Day 5: The South Coast
Stop 1: Seljalandsfoss
Seljalandsfoss is the first of the two main waterfalls you will hit on your South Coast drive. Though it appears smaller in comparison to Skogafoss, it actually drops about 197 feet. During the summer months or when icy paths are no issue, guests can walk a path behind the falls for a unique view.
Stop 2: Skógafoss
Skógafoss is one of the biggest and most accessible waterfalls in Iceland, making it a popular stop all year round. Pictures really don’t do this waterfall justice, as you really don’t understand its power or size until you’re there in person, walking right up to it.
- If you’re traveling in winter and want to get up close and personal, make sure to bring a waterproof jacket or poncho. You do end up walking right into a thick wall of mist, and wet clothing isn’t a great combination with potentially strong winds.
Stop 3: Sólheimasandur Plane Wreckage
On November 24, 1973, a US Navy plane ran out of fuel and crash landed on Sólheimasandur’s black sand beach. Later on it would be found that the pilot actually just switched to the wrong fuel tank. Fortunately, all onboard survived but the wreckage still remains on the beach as a popular tourist attraction.
Though driving to the wreckage used to be allowed, in order to preserve the beach it has since been prohibited. In order to reach the wreckage, you now have to walk approximately 45 minutes there and 45 minutes back. This walk, I’m sure, can be relaxing in the appropriate weather. We chose to do walk in an almost zero-visibility blizzard – and let’s just say, I would not ever recommend it. But in general, I do recommend taking the walk to the site. It’s really something.
Stop 4: Reynisfjara Beach
Despite Iceland being home to primarily black sand beaches, Reynisfjara has always been the iconic black sand beach to visit. This is due in part to it’s unique features, like Hálsanefshellir Cave, basalt columns, and stunningly tall rock formations.
- When exploring the beach, be sure to avoid walking to close to the shoreline. Reyinsfjara is home to sneaker waves, which can appear suddenly and are strong enough to pull you out to sea. Putting yourself in dangerous situations is not worth the photo op.
If you feel you didn’t take in enough of the sites on your drive, never fear, because you just might get a glance when you turn around to drive all the way back to Reykjavik!
Day 6: The Blue Lagoon
The Blue Lagoon is the perfect last stop before your flight home, due in part to it being not too far from Keflavik Airport.
- Be sure to look up sunrise time for the day you’re planning to visit when booking your tickets. Watching the sun come up behind the bridge of the lagoon was the highlight of our time there.
Tickets for the Blue Lagoon run from 6990 ISK – 53000 ISK depending on your package. We went with the cheapest package, which ended up costing about $80 for our time slot, and have no regrets. Just a heads up: bring a towel, as the cheapest option does not include one.
While the Blue Lagoon can seem a bit pricy, the entire experience seemed worth the price of admission. The staff, premises, shower/changing rooms (which are even equipped with blowdryers) are clean, spacious, and top of the line. If you’re envisioning a giant swimming pool, yes, $80 is a bit steep. But if you appreciate the Blue Lagoon for the spa experience that it truly is, then it’s a steal.
Plus, when it begins to hit you that your spectacular Iceland trip that you spent months planning is finally coming to an end – you can drink your sadness in beer and Skyr smoothies at the pool bars.
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