Iceland. This mystical Iceland probably is right up there on your travel list as well. No wonder, because it has a lot to offer to nature people or those looking for solitude: breathtaking waterfalls, black beaches, swimming icebergs, deep gorges, massive mountains, icy glaciers, hot springs and smoking earth holes. Iceland’s sights are amazing! In September the season of the northern lights starts, a fantastic spectacle which you really should have seen at least once in your life!
What awaits you on Iceland
For starters: if you think Island is only worth the visit in summer you’re wrong – it is a dream in winter as well! The weather can be pretty instable, it will change within 5 minutes which creates a mystical atmosphere and you will find yourself waiting for an elf to appear from behind the next hill. Summer (July and August) of course is a little warmer with temperatures of around 14 degrees and you have the fewest rainy days but you also miss out on the snow-covered mountains! And in fall and winter you have all those beautiful places to yourself or at least don’t have to share them with as many people as in the main season.
On Iceland you can really switch gears and unwind. You could almost call it oppressive solitude, because you really can’t simply go and grab something to eat here, not to mention going to a bar – the capital Reykjavík is an exception of course. But that is precisely what is so great about Iceland! The second largest island in Europe is inhabited by only just over 323,000 people. So you can imagine how rarely you encounter other people or houses here!
Iceland has been a dream destination for a long time for me too and now finally I got to go! I wanted to see as much as possible and decided to drive around the entire island for a week with a friend. We would be circling it clockwise. This is easily doable if you are willing to do 5-6 hours of driving on some days, the total route is 1,700 km without detours. You can stick to the ringroad or do a detour to the heartland and the Snaefellsnes peninsula like we did.
And now join me on my journey through possibly the nicest place for nature and adventure people!
Ringroad Iceland: The most beautiful stops all around the island!
Day 1: Isn’t Reykjavík lovely!
We boarded a WOW air plane around noon that brought us from Berlin Schönefeld directly to Keflavík close to Reykjavík in 3,5 hours. WOW air is the only low cost airline and most punctual airline of Iceland. Tickets start at 75 Euro one way with hand luggage. Best is to book directly with WOW air itself. They also offer really cheap flights to the US (Boston and Washington D.C) via Iceland. Our flight was great, the flight attendants lovely and we had enough space to take a nap.
Upon arrival in Icelands capital and the Northernmost capital in the world we first went to pick up our rental from Sunny Cars and even received a car two categories higher than what we had booked. A real family mobile with lots of space that really came in handy on the trip!
After 45 minutes we arrived at our accommodation Hlemmur Square which has a great concept: Luxury hostel on the bottom and upscale hotel on top. The cool bar by the entrance which is open to the public could have been a Berlin joint. We moved into the most beautiful room, a corner room with a view of Reykjavík and the sea.
Then we took off to explore the city. We fell in love immediately on the main shopping street Laugavegur: there are so many great stores that are really fun to shop at be it furniture and deco, designer clothing or typical Norwegian pullovers. The Icelanders have great style and taste!
One of my favourite shops was Myconceptstore, definitely stop by there! If only things weren’t so expensive here!
In front of the Christmas Shop there is a mailbox where you can leave your wishes for Santa Clause all year round. Maybe he will send you your favourite piece from Reykjavík? Now in October that mailbox already was pretty full!
For dinner we treated ourselves to fresh fish at the nice Sea Baron fish stall down by the harbor. Two fish skewers, a beer, a lobster soup and no sides: 41 Euros. Welcome to Iceland!
On our walk back we stopped by the Harpa, the Iceland philharmonic, illuminated by purple lights where we saw Francois Hollande leaving the building. He was in town for a congress on the Arctic.
We had booked a Northern Lights Tour with Reykjavík Exkursion but due to the clouds and the weather forecast predicting rain it was cancelled. So we hit Hlemmur Square Hotel Bar, which is pretty popular among the locals as well, for a nightcap (beer 7 Euros). It was especially crowded that evening because liquor stores were on strike so the only place to get a drink were bars and restaurants with a license. You will find more cool bars if you simply walk along the main street.
Day 2: Lonely Snaefellsness peninsula
Since we had not nearly seen all of Reykjavík on the first day we set out again after a breakfast of warm croissants and headed towards Hallgrímskirkja church. The building’s architecture is impressive, it looks like a volcano with streams of lava petrified on its flanks.
And of course we had to see the sculpture of the famous Sólfar Viking Ship on the coastal road.
We skipped the odd penis museum this time with exhibits ranging from hamster (mini!) to whale (huge!) as well as the Hallgrímskirkja plattform and the Perlan hot water tank where you can soak while looking out onto the city, because it just rained too much. Instead we stopped by the record store 12 Tonar and went for a good cup of coffee. Definitely go to Reykjavík Coffee Roasters where you get the best coffee in town! A cappuccino is 3,70 € here, which is pretty ok.
In the end Reyjkavík is a really nice town with not too many highlights, lots of cozy cafes, restaurants and great shops for treasure hunting!
Our next destination for the day: Snaefellsnes peninsula. It took us around 2 hours to get to our remote accomodation, the first of four farmstays on our trip. These farmstays are a great opportunity to get to dive into the Icelanders’ daily life and are usually wonderfully located in the mountains, nice and quiet. In rural areas there often also is no alternative. You can book them through Icelandic Farm Holidays.
The Kast Guesthouse farmstay is beautifully situated in front of the mountains, the rooms are simple but have wonderful floor heating and total silence. We were the only guests there!
We were still to really experience the solitude of this season today. But for now we drove to the desolate church in Búðir. The wind and rain blew in from the sea so after taking a few photos we fled back to the warm car. Unfortunately I had lost my glasses somewhere in the grass and even after extensive searching they were nowhere to be found. Oh well, this way a piece of me stayed in Iceland…
After that we went to look for a restaurant – turns out that is not the easiest endeavour at this season. All the places we tried had already closed for the winter now that the main season was over. At Olafsvík hotel we finally met a nice gentleman who made us a tasty fish soup for 12 € and lit candles and put on music just for us.
Note: Always carry an emergency ration of snacks, because the scarse supermarkets often close pretty early in the afternoon!
Day 3: Riding Iceland Horses and the first waterfall!
On this day my great dream came true: to ride the typical toelt on an Iceland Horse in Iceland. The Lysuholl farm was right next to our accomodation where we filled up on warm bread. A truly idyllic place for horses! Just before we were due to start the sun came out, I mounted my horse Galdür and was ready to go! Really funny to ride Toelt, and super comfortable.
After an hour, enough for a ride to the beach, I had to say good bye to the cute chocolate brown one with blond mane because we still had 6 hourse of driving ahead of us.
On the way to our next farmstay in Laugar we were able to take in Iceland’s beauty in mostly great weather: massive mountain slopes, endless lonely streets without a single car, green headland with sheep and Iceland Horses grazing and the blue sea in between.
Around 4 pm we arrived at our first waterfall: Godafoss. From afar we could see the spray and a few other photographers that had wondered out here. Very impressive! It must be pretty crowded here in the main season, a good reason to explore the island in the off season.
There was exactly one restaurant in Laugar which was still open and even that one was only going to be open for another week. Lucky us! With a pizza in our stomachs we put on our bikinis and got into the hot outdoor pool at Stóru-Laugar, our accomodation for the night. What a treat! 40 degree water from the volcano, a star spangled sky and a beer, the perfect ending to this day!
These hot tubs are the Icelandic version of a sauna, you emerge all red and steaming and are totally wiped out. After an ice cold shower however, you feel great and will sleep like a baby!
From here it is only a 30 minute drive to Húsavík from where whale watching boats depart! Whale watching season is from June to August.
Day 4: Volcano craters, bubbling mud holes and rotten eggs!
On the fourth day we did not have to drive as far for a change so we could take our time to explore the Mývatn area with its geothermal corners. First we drove a little further to the Dettifoss, another waterfall, but no comparison to the Godafoss. Dettifoss is gigantic and carries the most water of all the European waterfalls: it is 100 meters wide and drops 45 meters! You really don’t want to fall into the masses of water gushing down here!
On your way back to the main road turn onto the road to Hafragilsfoss viewpoint. From here you have a spectacular view of the valley and the Hafragilsfoss waterfall. A little like the Grand Canyon in the US.
And on to Vití Crater, passing by a power plant and through smoking earth holes and streams, we reached a crater lake. From there you can hike up the crater wall which reminded me a little of the landscape of Tongagiro Crossing in New Zealand. At the top you have a wonderful panoramic view of Mývatn lake and the craters and mountains from which smoke rises into the air. From here you can nicely hike on and spend several hours in the nature.
On the way to Hvrir/Námafjall we passed an absurd scene: a desolate, old, rusty shower from which hot water was flowing. We thought about getting into the shower for a second but then decided not to.
Once at Hvrir/Námafjall we had to wrinkle our noses, the smell of sulfur hit us full force: a field of bubbling mud pools, brooding and whistleing witch couldrons and smoke. You can take a (relaxed) walk in the field and get up close to the bubbling hot holes, well, maybe not too close!
On the way to our wonderful accomodation Vogafjos Farmstay we drove around the entire Myvatn lake again which created a pretty sight: the snowcoverd mountains which reflected in the sun, moss-covered cliffs in the water, dark clouds paired with sunshine and sheep idly grazing in the front. We could have stayed forever!
The Café Vogafjos at our accomodation where you really have to make a stop was right by the lake and so we had ourselves a coffee behind the large glass front. Beautiful localities like this really are rare in Iceland!
You can also eat very well there, the lamb is fresh from the meadow, cheese, milk and the meat in your burger are from the cows in their barn, you can even see them in the barn from inside the cafe. Naturally, this kind of quality has its price: 28 Euros for a burger, but it was a good one!
If you feel like warming up in a thermal bath, go to Mývatn Nature Baths. 3 pools with mineral volcanic water that will make your skin nice and soft and a view of the Mývatn lake are especially great at sunset! If you buy the ticket Vogafjos Guesthouse, you receive a 10% discount.
I would have loved to stay even longer here, there is so much to see. The area must really look great from a plane. Next time then!
Only problem here: the stench of rotten eggs which I had a hard time coping with when lying in bed. After Rotorua in New Zealand I thought that I was done with disgusting sulfur smells! Nevertheless I had a good sleep in the cozy wooden cottage of this lovely farmstay.
Day 5: Rain and slippery ice!
Today we again had a longer stretch ahead of us: 5,5 hours to Jörkulsárlón. But first we had the best breakfast of the entire trip at our Vogafjos Farmstay! We had never had such a large variety of muesli, fruit, cheese, meat cuts, bread and seets! And on top all of that the view of either Mývatn lake in the sun or the barn on the other side. Pretty cool!
Since we had not filled up our bottles because the water smelled of sulfur and were now driving through endless mountain ranges we wanted to fill them in a river. Not such a good idea, the water tasted really musty. When trying to stop by the river we were cought off guard by the ice which almost sent us into the ditch. You really have to pay attention in the mountains at this time of the year, the rain freezes and turns the road into an iceskating rink!
We arrived at our accommodation in the afternoon and it was pouring so we spent the rest of the day lounging in bed and postponed the ice lagoon to the next day.
Day 6: One highlight after the other!
The weather forecast for today had been good so we got up early to drive down to the sea and were rewarded with a fantastic sunrise. The beach across from Jörkulsárlón offered a great spectacle: black sand, bizarre ice mountains breaking the waves and foggy mountains in the background. We could not have asked for a better start into the day!
On to Jörkulsárlón, the impressive ice lagoon with its meter high icebergs and a well known sight in Iceland. There was only a hand full of people there with us so we had enough peace and quiet to take in this magical place. We were even lucky enough to see a seal poke up from the water for a couple of seconds to catch its breath.
If you drive a little further from here there is a parking lot on the righthand side of the road. You have a great view of the lake and the reflection of the mountains and ice formations in it. We could have sat here forever but we still had a lot ahead of us. Make sure to make another stop at Fjállsárlon, another breathtaking glacial lake!
Our next stop was Vík where there is a great shop for the typical knit sweaters, hats and gloves right next to the gas station on the left side of the road. You can get a bargain here and buy a pullover for 40 Euros.
In Vik there is a road that goes out to Reynisdrangar, the black beach with pointy black cliffs in the sea. Unfortunetaly it was pouring again wo we only had a quick look and drove on to Kap Dyrhólaey, where you have a great view of a stone arch in the sea.
One of our highlights that day was the deserted and decaying plane wreck by Solheimasandur. It is a little hidden and there are no signs. Look for the 222 exit on the righthand side, then turn left onto a street. You might see a car coming from the sea like we did, then you know you are on the right way. This wreck was a US Navy plane in the 70s that must have landed there because of a fuel shortage. It is hard to believe that all the passangers survived the way the plane looks now! In any case a creepy scenario in front of a great backdrop of black sand and the sea on one side and the mountains on the other!
On our Westward drive we also stopped at Skogafoss and Seljlandsfoss. From below you see Skogafoss hit with great force but you can also climb several stairs to its top. When you reach the top you will find several hiking trails past other smaller waterfalls. At the foot of Seljalandsfoss there is a great little shop selling self-knit pullovers and blankets. You will get real Icelandic work made by a nice Icelandic woman and with a unique pattern here, a far cry form what you find in the big stores in Reykjavík.
And finally we set out to look for a deserted bath in the mountains: Seljavallalaug. To get there you have to turn onto road 242 Raufafell (the second exit coming from the East), drive to the end and then hike down into the valley. Keep to the left and you will find the lonely pool with warm water from a natural volcanic source. We didn’t hesitate, there was no one around, undressed in 5 degrees and jumped into the pool naked. Wonderful! Later we were joined by a couple from Berlin and we warmed up before we made our way to the next farmstay Sólheimahjáleiga.
From here you can also go on to Landmannalaugar, a landscape of colourfully shining mountains (due to different minerals). It is another 2 hour drive towards the heart of the island so you have to calculate a whole day for the detour which, sadly, we did not have the time for.
Day 7: Surprised by the snow!
The last day held another highlight: a tour of a glacier near Husafell. We got into the car at 8, the ride there would be around 3,5 hours. The departure from the meeting point was at 12, 12:30 at the latest. We started driving towards Reykjavík in high spirits and passed through the beautiful Þingvellir national park.
There you find the ‘golden circle’ with the famous Geysir, Gullfoss waterfall and the Blue Lagoon which we skipped because it is pretty touristy. But you also have the Secret Lagoon, a natural alternative to the touristy Blue Lagoon.
In short: we ended up on a gravel road full of potholes in the middle of nowhere, at times without cell phone network and then we even eded up in the snow. The road we had wanted to take was closed and after checking in with our tour operator we turned back home after 5,5 hours in the car for nothing.
Granted, it was a really nice route and the snowcovered landscape was beautiful to behold, but this trip really showed us that in Iceland you have to be prepared for everything and never know what the roads are like towards the center of the island because they all look the same on the map!
On the way back from Husafell we decided against taking the tunnel in the North of Reykjavík and took the coastal road 47 instead. You should definitely do this, the views along the tongues of land are amazing!
Since there also was no northern lights tour on the last evening we indulged in delicious Sushi at Sakebarinn, which is located on the first floor of an old house and is nicely decorated.
We hit the sack at 10 because we had to get up at 4 again to make the early WOW air flight back to Berlin. The beds are so comfy at Hlemmur Square hotel by the way!
Tips for your stay in Iceland
Gas stations are very scarce in Iceland! Always keep an eye on your tank and fill up if you have a longer stretch ahead of you. Especially inward, away from the ringroad you can go for hours without meeting another person or a gas station, it is almost like Australia. One time we really only just managed to make it to a gas station on the last liters left and were already sweating it!
You don’t need to buy water in Iceland, the tap water is delicious! Just refill your own water bottle, this will save you money and hassle if for many hours you don’t come across stores.
You don’t need to withdraw cash in Iceland. Just like in Sweden or Norway you can pay everything with your credit card. Every meal, your morning coffee or just a packet of chewing gum, credit card will do!
Especially in winter shops and supermarkets don’t open long. If you want to get something to eat for the evening, do so in time! We have even stood in front of closed doors at 5:30 pm.
Restaurants and the kitchens of tourist accomodations will often only be open until 8:30 max in the off season. You might have to eat a little earlier than you are used to.
I have to admit I pretty much lived off of soup because the prices are pretty rough. A decent main course will be at least 25 Euros, even in a small restaurant. Lamb is the most commonly offered meat, burgers and pizza (starting at 10 Euros) are pretty popular, as well as arctic char. And then there is puffin, a bird that comes to Iceland from April to September which the people here apparently like to eat. But I find it way too pretty to eat it.
GPS is pretty pointless in Iceland. As long as you have a good map and write down the essential information before you leave or take a screenshot you will be fine, even if you venture off of the 1, the ringroad. The only thing you will miss in Iceland is signs indicating the distance to the next city.
What you need to look out for is that some roads are only accessible with a 4×4, especially in the heartland. And like I said, the roads all look the same on the map.
Gravel roads with potholes, snow and blocked roads are not uncommon and appear without a warning. Still you can easily navigate the ringroad with a normal car.
Check out www.vegagerdin.is for information on blocked roads.
As soon as you leave Reykjavík you will see how thinly Iceland is inhabited. Hotels are scarce, but farmstays all the more common. You get a really good overview at Icelandic Farm Holidays. Especially in summer you can of course rent a camper, try happycamper.is for example. Wild camping is permitted in many parts of the island.
You find the typical Norwegian pullovers all around Island. They usually cost around 120 Euros or more. Reykjavíks shops are full of them. But beware, 80% of them are ‘made in China’! If you want to buy one, do so at a smaller shop and support the local craftsmanship!
I got to know very different kinds of people in Iceland. The younger ones were friendly and open, the older ones a little reclusive and introverted. But maybe that was the season, we too tend to be a little grumpier in winter than in summer. Apart from Reykjavik social life takes place at home. There are not many restaurants or bars where you can meet up.
Ringroad Iceland: This island is brimming with unique natural wonders!
My highlights in Iceland were definitely the surroundings of Mývatn in the North, Jörkulsárlón in the South and the Snaefellsnes peninsula in the West. But even 6 hours of just driving through the landscape are incredibly beautiful!
Of course one week is not enough time to see much of the heartland, I really need to come back for that. In any case I have to come back to Iceland to see the Northern lights. And then I will have some more time and maybe a comfortable camper to get the ultimate outdoors experience.
Have you traveled Iceland and what are your highlights? Or what would you want to see in Iceland?