If you follow me on Instagram, you’ll have seen that I spent the first part of September in Iceland, capturing some seriously breathtaking scenery. Most people visiting Iceland seem to fall into two camps, either staying in Reykjavik for a long weekend or week and going on day excursions to popular sights, or hiring a campervan for exploring further afield. There is even a ring road around the entire island that you makes for a popular ten day road trip. We stayed in a lakeside summer cabin near ingvellir (also spelt and pronounced Thingvellir) national park, where part of the mid-Atlantic ridge is. This placed us perfectly on the golden circle, making day trips much shorter, whilst still being just an hour from Reykjavik. Plus, with almost no outside lighting, we had really dark skies and were able to see the northern lights on our very first night! All in all, it was a busy trip, so grab yourself a cuppa and have a read of my 10 day Iceland itinerary!
Flights – we flew EasyJet from Manchester early Sunday morning, with Iceland Air offering flights most days of the week as an alternative. We found EasyJet flights for 60, plus hold luggage, whereas Iceland Air was more expensive, but had daytime flights. Note: most flights fly to Keflavik, which is around 45 minutes outside of Reykjavik itself.
Getting around – To get around Iceland, a hire car is a must unless you are booking onto excursions, as there isn’t much public transport. There are plenty of options for hire cars from the airport; we used Thrifty. Alternatively, combine your accomodation and travel by hiring a van if you’re keen to go further east. We saw lots of couples in little Renault Kangoos by Rent.is and Campervan Iceland. Large motorhomes seemed to be pretty uncommon, probably due to ease of travelling on winding roads and fuel efficieny.
Accomodation – Many Icelanders have small summer houses out in the country, so head to Airbnb to find your dream wooden cabin!
Iceland is worth visiting year-round, but expect very different experiences depending on when you visit. During winter you have the best chance of seeing the northern lights, but roads become less accessible as snow and ice make conditions hazardous. Most cetaceans (whales and dolphins) have the best chance of being spotted between May and September. For the best weather for hiking, plus the chance to experience the midnight sun, visit in June or July. September is a happy medium incorportating many of the best aspects of the seasons.
Day 1 Thingvellir; day 2 Vik, day 3 Kerid crater; day 4 Reykavik; day five steam valley; day six Fontana spa; day 7 Geyser and Gulfoss; day 8 whale watching; day 9 rest.
Thingvellir is a stunning location, and important both geologically and culturally. The early icelanders held their parliment in the rift between the American and Eurasian plates, sheltered by the inland cliff of the plate boundary. We parked up near the lower tourist information centre and went on a 10km walk that took us to the remains of a shepherds hut before making our way over to Thingvellir’s parliment site. It is hard to put into words just how dramatic the scenery is. The American plate boundary towers over you, whilst crystal clear waters originating from the Langjkull glacier flow in a series of streams around you, emptying into the Thingvellir lake. The prime minister of Iceland still has an official summer residence within the heart of the park. The landscape is not far off a tundra, with dwarf trees and springy, yet delicate, moss. It gives the area around Thingvellir and much of Iceland a distinct colour during the warmer months of the year.
Just five minutes down the road from Thingvellir is Silfra, a fissure on the plate boundary where you can dive or snorkle. Despite learning to scuba dive in a drysuit I don’t have an official drysuit certification so would have only been able to snorkle and have put Silfra diving to the top of my bucket list!
Our longest drive was down to Vik, famed for its black sands. The best photo oportunities come from Reynisfjara beach, but Vik is quieter and a good spot for a picnic. Much like the Giant’s Causeway in Northern Island, Reynisfjara has hexagonal volcanic rocks forming cliffs and cave. The beach is incredibly striking, although is also a very popular with tour groups. As Vik and Reynisfjara are such a long way south, it it well worth adding a few other stops into your trip. Slheimajkull is one of the most accessable glaciers in Iceland, being close to the road and not surrounded by mountains. It is in fact an outlet of the Mrdalsjkull glacier, snaking out to the south. Much of the glacier tongue has a slightly dirty appearance, being covered in volcanic ash, but clearer patches of ice were almost blue and incredibly clear. Sadly, like most glaciers, Slheimajkull is retreating, at a rate of 50m per year.
Another popular sightseeing spot along the road is Skojafoss, one of the biggest waterfalls in the country. It stands over 60m tall and 25m wide, leaving the surrounding air thick with mist and rainbows.
After the long drive to Vik, we took things easy with a day spent closer to home. We drove out to see Kerid crater, which provided an easy stroll around. I would recommend taking an easy day if your trip involves lots of time spent travelling.
We absolutely had to spend a day in the world’s most northerly capital city. Approximately a third of Iceland’s population lives in Reykjavik and its suburbs, but it really doesn’t feel like it. There are very few tall buildings, and the streets in the centre are small and pedestrian-friendly. As with visiting any city, I made a beeline for lots of foodie places I had already picked out! Stuart and I went for lunch at Gl, a vegan cafe and restaurant that seemed to be a popular lunch spot for workers in the city. We both went for a Mexican bowl, served with an unusual alternative to tofu called oumph. I probably wouldn’t seek out, but the lunch itself was delicious, and quite reasonably priced. If you didn’t want one of the set salad bowls or sandwiches, you could mix and match what you fancied from the counter. We also stopped to buy an huge cinnamon roll from one of the traditional bakeries, which was delicious. Joe and the Juice also has lots of bars across the capital, which is a useful standby option for drip coffee or juice, and free wifi for orientating yourself.
Stuart was keen to see some of the more cultural sights, so we made our way around to the modern “Hallgrmskirkja” cathedral and the National Museum of Iceland. Museums cost about 2000 Kr, so if you like include those in your visit, make sure you budget for it.
I personally just enjoyed walking around the city and seeing the architecture of shops and nestled houses as we wound around the streets. Interestingly, Reykjavik has lots of vegetarian and vegan restaurants, which seemed to be your main healthy places to eat away from more casual dining and coffee shops.
Our second main walk of the trip was up the steam valley. A 3km walk uphill takes you along geothermally-heated stream, with many pools reaching 100C. Eventually, you find yourself at a wider stretch of the stream that is the perfect temperature to bathe in. If you have more time, there is the option to extend your walk further up the valley. We chose to go as far as the stream, and enjoyed the bath-temperature water -admittedly, alongside many other tourists! Luckily there is enough room fo everyone, if not much privacy. There were a few walls for getting changed behind if you so needed, but to avoid the crowds, consider going very early or late in the day. This is where summer trips have the benefit, as you could walk up to the valley at 9pm or later if you wanted!
If you want to go to the Blue Lagoon, it is worth going on your arrival or departure day due to its proximity to the airport. We decided to instead go to Fontana spa, which was only twenty minutes away. Your ticket covers you for the whole day, so you could go for a morning dip before and excursion, then come back later into the evening. It was the wettest day of our trip when we visited (which sadly means no photos!), so we stayed at the spa for several hours. Lake Laugervatn, on the shores of which Fontana is located, is fed by three hot springs. Fontana spa is made of a series of outdoor pools, ranging from about 32C to 40, at varying depths. The sauna and steam rooms are also outside, heated directly by the hot spot, meaning there is a definite sulphurous smell to the air! To cool off between the heated experiences, there are steps down to the lake. Whilst the hot springs keep it slightly warmer than it could be, Laugervatn is by no stretch of the imagination warm! I found a five minute swim to be refreshing every now and then, especially as just beyond the depth most people ventured the waters were slightly warmer… but don’t tell anyone else that!
Fontana has a decidedly different feel to Blue Lagoon, being made of smaller pools and without the face mask and smoothie experience you seem to see in photos. In fact, no food or drink is permitted outdoors, and you are expected to thoroughly was before taking a dip. This is to keep the water clean for all, as chlorine is not used in Fontana. I found the experience felt a bit more authentic (not that I’d say no to going to Blue Lagoon!), and we took a break for lunch in any case. Lunch is either a buffet, or soup, both of which were unlimited. We went for the soup, and had both tomato and sweet potato on offer, with geothermally baked rye bread. One of my favourite things about being in Iceland, Germany or Scandinavian countries is rye bread. The Icelandic version was a little sweeter than German, but tasty all the same. Fontana spa was definitely a highlight for me, especially with the access to lake swimming!
Did you know that geysers are all named after Geysir in Iceland? Geysir is now largely dormant, except after some earthquakes, but is surrounded by active hot springs, including the geyser Strokkur, which erupts every 5-8 minutes. The tourist site surrounding Geysir is currently undergoing some improvement to make it more accessible without harming the surrounding environment, which should make it a better place to visit for those with limited mobility. Geysir erupt suddenly, sometimes spraying the crowd with (cooled!) water droplets, making for a surprisingly interactive experience.
Nearby is Gullfoss, a huge double-drop waterfall where water descends 32 meters into the glacial canyon below. The waterfall was largely protected from development by a farmer and his daughter, Sigirdur, who spent most of her life campaigning and working to protect the site. In a case of coming full circle, there are now plans to utilise the waterfall’s energy by hydroelectrics, but hopefully in a much more sensitive way! In certain light, the twin falls are supposed to appear golden, which is where the name Gullfoss comes from.
Both Gullfoss and Geysir are part of the Golden Circle, so could be paired with Thingvellir for a day trip.
My other favourite day was whale watching! And happily, the one with some of the best weather as well. Following a recommendation from one of my marine biology course mates, Stuart and I went with Elding whale watching. Elding is a responsible tour operator that respected the space and wellbeing of marine life, as well as taking the time to have their on-board biologists educate the group about the wildlife, and the things tourists can do to help. Whale watching is a more expensive excursion; expect to spend upwards of 70 for a three hour trip. However, it is absolutely worth it. We were lucky, and saw Minke whales, white beaked dolphins and harbour porpoises several times over the trip, as well as northern Gannets and northern Fulmars. There is also a chance of seeing a humpback whale and some less common cetacean species, which I have to admit I was secretly hoping for!
When researching whale watching, look for information on their site about responsible tourism to see their policies. As well as being respectful of the animal’s needs, they also spent time educating the group on whaling in Iceland, and asking everyone not to participate in the consumption of whale meat. We also found out that Iceland has a policy that every food business should offer free tap water to anyone who wants it, so as to limit plastic bottle usage. Tourism can have hugely negative implications on the environment, so it was heartening to see a business make such an effort to be responsible.
After all our travelling, we spent our last day relaxing and tidying up the house before catching an early morning flight back to the UK.
Iceland is a diverse and stunning country to visit, and I would highly recommend visiting if you have the opportunity! Have I missed anything? Leave any suggestions in the comments below!