It’s been about a year since my wife and I voyaged on our first international trip together. Since then I have been yearning to go back across the narrow sea to Iceland. I was asked several times when planning our trip… Why? Meaning why would I want to go to Iceland.
The historical context of Iceland and the Vikings is a very interesting one. I don’t know much about the history of Iceland, but the little that we were able to learn while we were there was fascinating.
If you are a fan of Game of Thrones, or just about any other show or movie that has snowy glaciers then you may want to visit. Iceland is where a large part of Game of Thrones has been filmed, as well as parts of movies like Batman Begins. That fact was enough to send me on my way. If you enjoy the outdoors, vast landscapes, gorgeous beaches, and waterfalls, then Iceland is definitely a place for you to visit. While there for a week, we saw 10 different waterfalls. Some were very public, and others were very private. The beaches are amazing.
The volcanic rock makes them black, and the location creates massive waves that crash into rock formations. You don’t come to the beaches to swim.
Continental drifts in Iceland have created unique splits in the earth where you can literally stand on the North American and Eurasian continents at the same time. Learn more about the tectonic plates and continental drift here.
Was it Cold?
We visited in October so winter had not set in yet. It didn’t snow anywhere that we visited but was averaging 35 to 45 degrees Fahrenheit every day. Night got down below freezing regularly. I wore Jeans, boots a hoodie, and a goretex rain jacket and was perfect. The key is to layer. When we went on the glacier, it was much colder and I wore a base layer under my jeans. The weather is quite unpredictable so a sunny day can turn rainy quickly and you need to be prepared. I opted to bring 8 inch hunting boots which are warm and waterproof. I brought heavy wool socks as well as some lighter hiking socks. I think we dressed perfectly for the time of year.
Summer time it can be a bit warmer so a light jacket, jeans and boots would be recommended. Weather can still be unpredictable so you need to be prepared for sudden changes.
Winter can be brutal and you need to be prepared for snow drifts and flash blizzards.
The last think you want is to be stuck in a rental car, under a snow drift with no contact with anyone else in the country. Be prepared and know what to do in the sudden event of poor weather. We were lucky on our trek and experienced very little bad weather. We did hike 5 miles with an onset of a heavy wind and rain storm. We were soaked to the bone and freezing when we were done.
To Tour or Not To Tour?
When doing research for our trip, I was trying to find all the places to visit. Obviously the golden circle came up as well as a few whale watching sites and snowmobiling on the glacier. Of course that all sounded great, but they were from Reykjavik, meaning they were all day trips and we would stay in the city. We opted to go without the tour. This meant we would have to rent a car. Which turned out great. A bit more of an expense, but it was nice to not have to conform to schedules.
We passed several tour buses on the first two days in Iceland and they were cram packed with people. We really got the tour experience when we would get to a few locations and got to join in with the same group that was at the last location.
I looked at the offerings of the tour groups and compiled my own tour. The golden circle doesn’t need to be explored over three days when it is just you and your spouse. We took the time we wanted but also got to explore a bit. Once we got off the golden circle, things got better.
If you decide not to take a tour, you will need some way to get around the country. A rental car will be your best bet. Depending on where you are going and what time of year you visit, you may want to consider going with a 4×4. From our experience, stay away from the GPS add on, unless you know the names of where you are going. Google works much better since you are able to search.
The rental car places were not located at the airport, there were shuttle drivers that meet you with your name and reservation to take you to get your car. We were the only ones renting from our company. Waiting 30 minutes with no contact with the company and no idea how things work was a bit stressful and not how I wanted to start our vacation. Be sure to book your car in advance and save the phone number of the company to give them a call.
I recommend you figure out how to switch your phone to international mode and make sure you can search before getting in the car. We got to the airport at 5am, and was at the rental car place about 5:30 or so. After not sleeping all night on the airplane we tried finding the location we wanted on our phones. Unfortunately we were unable to connect because we had not enabled roaming. We opted for the GPS and because we didn’t know the names or how to spell anything, the GPS was a waste of $100 for the week.
The rental will be a bit expensive. We opted for the cheapest one we could find which had fairly good reviews. Our car was a KIA 4×4 of some kind with 185,000 miles on it. They had just switched to winter studded tires and they were too big. They grabbed the bumper every time we reversed. The car itself felt like it was falling apart. But it got us all the way around the country. We complained when we returned it and they didn’t charge us any extra for the bumper, but didn’t refund us for the GPS.
The Golden Circle
The golden circle is very interesting, however it is the most popular area of Iceland. Being less than 2 hours from Reykjavik, makes it an easy target for tour guides and buses. After 2008, the economy had tanked, and the country embraced tourism which has ultimately saved it. But because of the number of visitors to this area, we felt that it wasn’t a true Icelandic experience.
By all means do the golden circle while you are there, but don’t feel like that is what the entire country is like. The attractions around the golden circle are easy to find, both online and in person, and it is part of the experience. I would recommend two days to see these parts.
Beyond the Golden Circle
When you look at photos of Iceland, you typically will see the waterfalls and locations on the Golden Circle, which are memorable and should be seen, but they don’t usually show the spectacular villages around the country. At the southern tip is the town of Vik. Very small, the town is easily identifiable in photos with the cliffs behind it and a church upon a hill overlooking the town.
It is quite a beautiful place and should be added to sights to see or at least drive through.
Just before you get to Vik, if you are driving around the ring road from Reykjavik there is a spot that you can visit the black sand beaches. In fact there are several. The first we found when we woke up. It was still twilight and the fog made it eerie.
The wind blew in and we were able to see the beaches below. The ocean had an incredible force unlike I have ever seen on a normal day.
I snapped this photo of my wife on the edge of the cliff photographing the waves in front of her. The drop below was at least 200 or so feet straight down. Unfortunately the photo from my cell phone doesn’t do it much justice. The waves amazing to see in the morning light against the rocky cliffs, and black sand.
The beaches have become quite popular and these near Vik, are the most populated. Our photos, we positioned so it looked like we were the only ones there. Some of them, we were and others we were surrounded by a bunch of tourists. If you look up Black Sand Beach on google, you will find the one that we visited and has the vertical rock formation. There is also a restaurant just outside the parking lot. It wasn’t anything special but being able to sit and watch the waves crash was pretty cool.
Staying on the Golden Circle means you will miss out on the amazing sights around the more remote parts of the country. The Glacier Lagoon would be one of them. Nestled at the bottom of the larger glacier, the lagoon catches blocks of ice and they slowly float out to sea. The beaches have both blue ice and clear ice. Blue ice is glacier ice that has been frozen for thousands of years.
Some tour groups will bring you out this far, but being able to go at your own pace was nice.
Lodging in Iceland
We stayed in one hotel while we were in the country, and I would recommend that hotel to everyone. It is on a working farm, and has fresh ice cream sold right there. The restaurant was great for an evening meal, but the breakfast was a bit expensive for a traditional Euroupean style breakfast.
Other than the hotel, we stayed primarily in Air bnb around the country. The price was good and ranged from $60 a night for a pod, to $200 a night or more for larger places. We stayed in moderately priced places that averaged about $100 a night.
The longest we stayed was 3 days in a single place. These cabins were great for us. Remote enough to feel alone, but also large enough to feel like home. Bragdavellir Cottages are located just west of Djupivoger. Most of the Air BnB were very nice. Specifically built for this purpose. There was only once instance that it was a person’s house and it was a bit strange. Air BNB were definitely the best way to go. Be sure to get the directions to the place prior to looking for it.
It was amazing to see the scenery and how much it was changing from place to place. There were several spots in the middle of nowhere that had a place for one car to pull off.
This photo was one of those spaces, and one of the prettiest locations we visited. There was no one for miles and this stream was lit perfectly in the setting sun.
Mid October was a great time to go. Plenty of sunlight to explore with ample chances of seeing the northern lights.
Eating in Iceland
Iceland’s tourism industry has changed how things go especially related for food. There a lots of options in Reykjavik, but not so much further out.
Eating out was a little different. Everything was counter service, even the places that seemed like regular sit down restaurants were not really. Some of the smaller towns we had some really bad food, most people do not eat out who live there. You should surely check out some of the local bakeries, and coffee shops. There are a few that are out of this world.
Brauð & Co. is the place we visited our two days we went to Reykjavik
16,, Frakkastígur, 101 Reykjavík, Iceland
There was a few places that I feel were noteworthy. In Reykjavik check out Icelandic Street food.
8, Lækjargata, 101 Reykjavík, Iceland
They have fantastic authentic Icelandic food.
At Skogafoss was the best fish and chips we found. At $15 per person, it was reasonable but worth every penny. Every other place I got it was not very good.
If you are heading north, check out the Settlement Center. It is a restaurant and gift shop, but had amazing food. This place is quite expensive, so be prepared.
Brakarbraut 13-15, 310 Borgarnes, Iceland
We snacked for the most part of our trip. We would get things from grocery stores, or gas stations and live off of those while driving around the remote parts of the country. It would be a good idea to keep something on hand if you are headed out a ways from a larger town. It may be several hundred kilometers to the next restaurant or gas station.
Answers to Common Questions
What do they speak?
Most people know English, because of the amount of tourism. But they also speak Icelandic.
What did you do for food?
In the cities we ate at local bakeries and a few restaurants. In less populated areas we ate from gas stations and markets where we could get groceries. One night in the remote farm, we had bread from a market toasted in the toaster oven and dipped in olive oil that was left in the Air BnB.
What is the cost?
The flight was fairly cheap. Food was very expensive averaging $20 per person per meal.
How was it driving?
They drive on the same side as America does. The speed limit is in Kilometers, but so are the rental cars. F roads (mountain roads) are closed at the beginning of October so we didn’t trek on them. The roads are all gravel and most bridges are one lane. The person that makes it to the bridge first has the right of way.
I heard Blue Lagoon is amazing. How was it?
Well it is interesting. The price to get in starts at about $150 per person. For swimming in the run off from the geothermal power plant, it didn’t seem all that thrilling to me. They had good drinks. The experience was nice, but I would have rather gone to a lesser known hot springs and skipped the fee and all the tourists. Though doing it before we boarded our flight was very smart.
There was a prohibition in Iceland for a long time, and the only alcohol you can get is in state run liquor stores. Mostly it is wine and some spirits. If you are looking to bring some back to the states, wait until you are in the airport. There is a much bigger selection than any federal owned store and its much cheaper.
Any Recommendations for first timers?
Do your research. Plan ahead and figure out where you want to go. You can see the whole country in a rushed 9 days, or you can take 2 weeks and really enjoy your visit. I would opt for the latter. I would love to go back and visit the north, go whale watching and see the northern lights.
Are you really that alone at the landmarks?
While our photos generally show that there is nobody around us, it was quite populated in many places. Selijalandsfoss, and Skogafoss were two of the most populated areas outside of the golden circle. Geysir was one of the most populated places. The more remote you get the less people were there.
I have more photos than I know what to do with. I would definitely recommend doing things on your own. Take your time and make it a vacation of a lifetime. All the photos here are done with my cell phone and do not do it justice.
I recommend finding some remote areas to explore. My wife and I found a remote black sand beach where no body was, another lagoon at the bottom of a glacier that was hidden beyond the hills off the road.
We even got to explore a waterfall at the farm where we stayed that was unseen from the road. Iceland is a truly unique wilderness that will capture your sense of adventure and exploration. I hope to go back real soon. If you are looking to visit Iceland for the first time I would love to talk abut our excursion and help make your trip the best it could be.