Iceland is without a doubt the epitome of “the land of fire and ice”. From volcanoes to glaciers and everything in between, Iceland has it all, and we wanted to see it all.
My friend & I spent five full days in Iceland, and when I say full, I also mean that we PACKED them full – despite the shorter days of winter impacting how much we could fit in each day!
I’m actually really proud of our itinerary as everything worked out perfectly, and with a lot of planning (which I’ll go into further detail on in a future post), we saw virtually everything on our list!
Day 1 – Snaefellsnes (Kirkjufell, Arnarstapi), Reykjavik
Day 2 – Golden Circle (Þórufoss, Þingvellir, Geysir, Gullfoss, Kerid Crater), Reykjavik
Day 3 – South coast: snowmobiling tour, Sjeljalandsfoss, Skogafoss, Reynisfjara beach, Vik
Day 4 – South coast: Svartifoss, Hof turf church, Jokulsarlon, ice cave tour
Day 5 – Fjadrargljufur canyon, Blue Lagoon, Viking Hotel
Day 1 – Snaefellsnes
Our first day was spent driving around Snaefellsnes, a gorgeous peninsula a couple of hours north of Reykjavik.
We had arrived the night before to howling winds, snow, and icy air that made us question what on earth we were thinking coming to a cold destination in the winter. I joked that the six minute walk to our hotel from the airport was the worst hike I’ve ever done.
Thankfully, by the morning it had cleared up and we headed out bright and early after breakfast to pick up our car.
As we bypassed the capital and headed north of Reykjavik, the landscape dramatically changed, beautiful snow-capped mountains popping up in all directions in the ever-changing winter light.
We soon reached Snaefellsnes and the landscape changed again, with mountains occasionally sprouting from a desolate surrounding, eliciting an excited reaction from us every time. As we moved further along the peninsula, the mountains became more frequent – while the main highlight is Kirkjufell and the iconic group of waterfalls that make that famous postcard-perfect shot of Iceland, the scenery all over the peninsula was beyond anything we had expected!
From Kirkjufell, we took a mountain pass road over to Arnarstapi, a remote village where you can do a lovely coastal walk to the next town. We didn’t have time to do the walk, so I was thrilled when I realised the highlight, this peculiar arch, is right next to Arnarstapi and barely a walk to get there at all.
Gatklettur arch is the highlight, but we were distracted as we also found this blowhole where water rushed through a cave and into the air in front of us.
After warming up with tea and cake in the nearby cafe, our final stop was the striking black Budir church on our way back, which we just caught before it got dark.
This was our longest driving day as we left straight from the airport which meant it was a three hour drive to Kirkjufell, followed by a loop back to Reykjavik which took about another three hours in total. However we mostly drove in the dark, meaning we maximised those all-important daylight hours. We got really lucky with the weather too, as it kept raining while we were in the car, but cleared up just as we stopped – every single time!
We arrived back in Reykjavik, and checked in to our “hotel”, Rek Inn, which was not a hotel at all and in fact we still can’t quite figure out exactly what it was. It had a shared common area and kitchen, so it was like a hostel but with very basic private rooms. We didn’t see a single person while we were there. Our door was open with the key on the table when we arrived, and we left our key in the room when we left. It was a totally bizarre set up, but it was within walking distance of the city centre and had painless parking, so it was all we really needed.
That evening, we headed out to explore Reykjavik in the dark, and found ourselves at Bastard Brew. Well with a name like that, we couldn’t really resist! And the food was actually excellent, too. Even better – Monday meant happy hour, so we had cocktails! Naturally, it was full of British people, and we wound up chatting to a lovely and hilarious family at the next table for most of the night. I ordered my friend a shot of Brennivin at the end of the night, which led to the entire family joining in!
The whole evening made me realise what I miss most about travel – meeting other people and sharing great stories and experiences.
Day 2 – the Golden Circle
Day two saw us traipsing the very well-worn path of the Golden Circle, but we did make a few extra, less touristed stops off the beaten track to pad out the day even more.
Thankfully the Golden Circle is really easy to do in a day from Reykjavik, and we managed to fit everything in without having to rush, and it meant we didn’t need to leave too early either. I had planned to climb up to the top of Hallgrimskirkja church for the famous view over Reykjavik before we left for the day, but we found out it didn’t open until 11am, which was a bit too late. So that’s two trips to Iceland without managing to catch that iconic view!
Most people only visit Gullfoss, Geysir and Thingvellir National Park on the golden circle route, and to be fair if you only have time to see those then they’re undoubtedly the highlights.
Helgufoss & Thorufoss
We made a couple of extra lesser-known stops too, starting with Helgufoss and Thorufoss. I have to say Helgufoss wasn’t really worth the stop (although the photo above is from the road to it), but Thorufoss was really nice.
Thingvellir National Park
From there, we headed to Thingvellir National Park, where on my first visit we were caught in a blizzard. This time, it was bright sunshine and the views were gorgeous.
Thingvellir is incredibly unique because it’s where the tectonic plates of Europe and America meet – and you can walk between them! You can also snorkel in the fissures in that water, which is on my list for next time when it’s a bit warmer.
We also headed up to Oxararfoss, a short walk from the strip between the tectonic plates, which was a waterfall I’d never heard of. It was seriously beautiful!
Next stop: Geysir.
The whole area feels like a miniature Yellowstone, and we took a short walk through the hot springs to Strokkur, the biggest geysir in Iceland. I was glad to be on our own time, as it meant we could watch several eruptions which tend to happen every seven minutes or so.
It’s so impressive but really hard to photograph as it’s so sudden! We had fun trying to predict the next one based on how much the pool was swirling.
We grabbed lunch in the information centre, which felt like a touristy indulgence, but it was surprisingly reasonable and my friend had a sandwich on black “lava” bread!
Next up was Gullfoss, which wound up being quite a short stop. I’ve now been to Gullfoss twice and both times, one of the viewpoints has been closed off! It was nice seeing it in a different light though – last time it had been covered in snow, and this time there were smatterings of snow but it was mostly clear.
Finally, we headed somewhere I hadn’t been last time – Kerid Crater. I was quite surprised as this was the only place we had to pay to get into (400kr so pretty cheap). This volcanic crater is around 3,000 years old, and has an interesting red colour to contrast with the deep blue of the water.
We only just got there in time as it was beginning to get dark, so we took the loop around the top of the crater but we didn’t take the path down to the water – which was fine, I think the views from above are probably better anyway.
We had wanted to head to the erupting volcano in the evening, but after looking up the activity, we realised it was unfortunately no longer spewing lava and there would actually be nothing to see at night. On our final day we did drive past the trailhead, but you can’t see anything from the road and it’s around a 90 minute hike to see the steam rising from the ground; something we’d seen today anyway. So sadly no active volcanoes for us on this trip!
Instead, we headed back into Reykjavik to have one of their famous hot dogs! I’d raved to Sam about these hot dogs, and she had laughed.
Anyway, we got one, and by the time we finished, a queue had formed.
“Good thing we got here when we did,” I said. “Look at that queue now.”
“I know,” said Sam, looking at me sheepishly, “but I’m going to join it because I want another one!!!”
We actually asked what the sauces were, because that’s what makes them so good. I can’t remember exactly what he said, to be honest, so the secret of the three sauces will die with me.
Day 3 – south coast – snowmobiling & waterfalls
Day 3 was our earliest start yet, as not only were we heading down to the south coast for a tour, it had been cancelled and we had been offered one at the same time, but a further half an hour away. We were checked out and in the car by 7am.
The one thing my friend was desperate to do was snowmobiling on a glacier. We were originally supposed to do this on the volcano that caused chaos back in 2010, but unfortunately the conditions weren’t great and we were offered one on Myrdalsjokull instead.
Snowmobiling was a lot of fun and despite my adrenaline junkie tendencies, I was actually a bit nervous about it and so I was happy to be the passenger and let my friend drive.
Turns out I had every right to be nervous as we fell off twice in the first ten minutes!! Apart from our dignity, we were fine! Snow makes for quite a soft landing, it turns out.
We were quite cautious after that! It’s all about the leaning, and neither of us had been leaning enough so the snowmobile would tip over. So embarrassing, but lesson learned!
Because of the tour being moved, we had to drive back some of the way we came to visit some of the must-see waterfalls.
Seljalandsfoss & Gljufrabui
Seljalandsfoss was relatively under the radar the first time I visited Iceland – now it’s one of the main attractions. It’s the one you can walk behind, which let’s face it is completely AWESOME!
However, I discovered that mere metres away (around a ten minute walk) from Seljalandsfoss is an even BETTER waterfall.
It’s inside a fricking cave!
Out of all the waterfalls I’ve seen, this is definitely one of my favourites in the world!
Skogafoss is another of Iceland’s more famous waterfalls.
Again, there’s another hidden waterfall nearby, Kvernufoss, that looks like it would be well worth a visit, but with time getting on and so many waterfalls on this trip already, we decided to get to our next destination before sunset.
Reynisfjara Beach (aka the black sand beach)
Reynisfjara Beach, more commonly referred to as the black sand beach, is well known for being pretty dangerous, and when we turned up, there were ambulances, police and search & rescue crew everywhere. It was pretty clear what had happened, although we were told completely the wrong story about the exact details.
Very tragically, a young Chinese woman was swept out to sea by a so-called sneaker wave just before we arrived. Her body was found in the water a couple of hours after we left. It’s unbelievably sad and it’s hit the Icelandic community quite hard.
I was terrified watching these waves. The current underneath sucks everything back in while the top layer crashes down. This is NOT a beach to be messed with.
Sadly, too many tourists get into real trouble here, and there’s talk of roping off the area of the beach by the cave, as most of the sneaker waves hit this area the hardest yet it’s here that most tourists try to venture to. The problem is, too many people will ignore it. Even while we were there, while the beach was packed with first responders and a helicopter flying overhead, people were going RIGHT UP TO THE WAVES to take photos while police screamed at them to get back. We couldn’t actually believe our eyes. A photo is not worth your life!
Reynisfjara is a really beautiful beach, though tainted by what had happened, and it’s absolutely worth a visit – just for God’s sake don’t go near the cave or the waves like these idiots in the photo above!
From there, we headed to Vik, where we were originally staying two nights. We had to strategically cut our stay short, which meant only one night in the brilliant Puffin Hotel.
This was the night we headed out to search for the northern lights. We didn’t have to go far, but we did have to really look. It wasn’t very strong and most of the time there was just a distant white-looking “cloud” across the sky that came out green on camera. At one point it got slightly stronger, we could actually briefly see some green and you can tell from my photos that there was movement, but it wasn’t dancing in the sky like I’ve seen them before.
Still – we saw them!!
Day 4 – south coast – icebergs & ice caves
I think I was most excited about day four. We were, once again, up bright and early to get to a waterfall by the time it was light.
For the entire journey we were treated to ever-expanding landscapes of glaciers, and we had gone from the bright white glacier that we had snowmobiled on, to the types of glacial fields that are an unbelievable looking shade of blue.
I could barely contain my excitement when they came into view!
We arrived at Skaftafell, next to one of the most beautiful glaciers I’ve ever seen, and hopped out of the car to set off in the opposite direction as my sense of longing pulled me towards the glacier.
We were off to see Svartifoss, one of the most beautiful waterfalls in Iceland (are you starting to see a theme here?). We’d allowed ourselves two hours for the hike, but it actually took us around an hour, which surprised us!
Svartifoss lived up to all expectations and more, because there was snow at the bottom of it, and icicles hanging from some of the basalt columns! It was just stunning, and we had the perfect weather for it too.
Hof turf church
It meant we had plenty of time to pop in to the village of Hof to see this adorable turf church!
And then we were off to the one place that’s been on my Iceland list since my last visit: Jokulsarlon, the famous iceberg lagoon. Once again, I found myself unable to contain my excitement. ICEBERGS. ACTUAL ICEBERGS!!
We stopped off to see a different side of the lagoon before we pulled into the main car park itself, but I kind of wish we’d gone down to Diamond Beach, where icebergs wash up along the black sand beach and make for incredible photos. We were planning to go later in the day instead, with a hope of making it there for sunset.
We really put the ice in Iceland today though, because we were off on an ice cave tour!
Ice cave tour in Vatnajokull
I didn’t think it would be easy to choose a highlight of our Iceland trip, but it would have to be this! One of the most unique things you can only do in winter is to go inside a glacier, and the colours inside the caves are actually UNREAL. You know when you see photos online and you think, “does it *really* look like that?”
Well ladies and gentlemen (and everyone else), this DOES. It was everything I imagined and more. These are some of my favourite photos I’ve *ever* taken.
We also got really lucky because we chose the afternoon tour and they basically extended it for as long as we liked because they didn’t have to be back for another tour and the guides genuinely love being out on the tours. It meant we had over an hour in the cave which was just mindblowing. We loved every second of it.
It also meant that by the time we got back to Jokulsarlon, it was dark – so we never did make it to Diamond Beach, but I can honestly say, after the day we’d had, that I do not CARE! What an absolutely perfect day.
Plus, Jokulsarlon looks really cool in the dark, too!
To top it off, Hotel Laki, a fairly last-minute addition to our itinerary, ended up being our favourite hotel of the trip. The room was perfect, they had a rooftop balcony for northern lights viewing (sadly nada), our dinner was great, and the lady working that night was so friendly that we ended up chatting for hours after we finished our meal.
I could have quite happily spent every night of our trip there, and we only booked it to strategically fit in a hike to a canyon. Funny how things work out!
Day 5 – canyon, Blue Lagoon & a stay in the Viking hotel
Our final full day in Iceland mostly consisted of a long drive back to Reykjavik, but that’s just the boring way of describing it because of course we managed to fit in a few things along the way!
We managed to get to the Fjadrargljufur canyon after all, and when we arrived just after it had got light, there was only one other car there. We virtually had the canyon to ourselves, which was pretty magical.
The canyon, despite gaining fame through a bloody Justin Bieber music video, is well worth the visit. It’s not as big as I thought it was going to be, and the walk only takes around twenty minutes each way which meant we were back in the car within an hour, rather than the hour and a half we had scheduled ourselves.
However it really is beautiful!
By the time we got back to the car, the car park had gone from two cars to 25, so our early starts really did make a difference.
From there it was a long old slog back to Reykjavik, with a quick pit stop in Vik to fill up with petrol and admire the church that we hadn’t really been able to see in the dark, and we were taking a detour to the Reykjanes peninsula for one of Iceland’s most famous attractions – the Blue Lagoon.
Now I’ve got to admit – I was not bothered about whether I ever visit the Blue Lagoon. We decided not to visit on our first trip as there was too much else we wanted to do in a much shorter space of time than we had this time. My friend was pretty keen to do it, so it was the perfect opportunity for me to go full tourist and actually give in to an extortionately priced attraction.
I actually really liked it! In the winter, it’s a tough journey from the changing rooms to the lagoon as you pray that icicles don’t start forming on your body, but once you’re in, it is pretty glorious. A face mask (not that kind) and a drink are included in your ticket, and you can upgrade to other mud masks and of course buy extra drinks.
I was quite impressed with the free drinks selection – we had Somersby ciders, and a lot of people had fruity wines! Don’t ask about the mud mask. They make your skin feel great afterwards, but my friend called me Mrs Doubtfire and some people overheard and couldn’t stop laughing!
There are also saunas and steam rooms, which we sampled of course, before a final sweep back through the lagoon before we left.
One tip: take hair ties!!! They recommended that we tie our hair up as the water in the lagoon makes your hair really dry, but I didn’t have any in the bag I’d brought in with me. How bad can it be, I thought? Well, my hair felt awful for a week! So yes, remember hair ties.
Is it worth the price? I really don’t know. It’s bloody expensive (over £40). It’s good to do it once, but I don’t think I’d go again.
What was funny was listening to other people talking about their trips, as many people visit at the end of their trip, and with its close proximity to the airport, even on their way home. Over and over again, we heard people raving about the Blue Lagoon as their Iceland highlight. Honestly? It didn’t even make my top five.
It was a stark reminder of how much there is to see in Iceland, and how much we managed to pack in to our five days, because it seemed like most people had only visited Reykjavik and the Golden Circle.
Anyway, our adventure wasn’t quite over yet, because we were heading to our most unique accommodation on the trip – the Viking Hotel!
Viking Hotel / Viking Village
I have to admit – our room wasn’t great. It was a tiny twin room, incredibly compact and I’m not sure my friend was too impressed. Also, the breakfast was the worst we had on the trip, the water was gross (the tap water was sulphurous which is pretty common in Reykjavik, but like, even the water in the machine to make our tea was, and the juice was all watered down?!) and the food pretty lacking.
However, the rest of the hotel was AWESOME. Totally my kind of place, and worth it for the novelty! Although our room was compact, the furniture was so cool. There was a hot tub outside (which we didn’t use, having just been in the Blue Lagoon!) and opposite is the best part – the restaurant!
We had a really great night in the restaurant, and opted not to try the sheep’s head, although my friend was very tempted and kept asking the waitress questions about it! We were hoping somebody would order it so we could see it, but I 100% think we would have freaked out if we’d done it and it wasn’t a £25 gamble either of us were willing to take.
Instead I had a much safer Icelandic meat soup (let’s face it, probably the rest of the sheep just without the visuals) and fish & chips, which were both delicious.
The waitress also bought us shots of the medicinal-syrup-tasting Icelandic spirit, Topas! After chatting to her for ages, it was really the perfect end to our trip.
…which is good, because the end of our trip sadly was NOT perfect! We arrived at the airport in the morning to find that our flight was delayed – by almost TEN hours… and that was if it went at all. Most of the day provided nice, gentle 68mph winds and all flights were delayed indefinitely. We were going to head back into Reykjavik for the day, but spending almost £40 on a shuttle into town just to most likely sit in a coffee shop all day made us resign ourselves to spending the whole day at the airport.
Anyway, we did leave that evening. FINALLY.
We had an absolute blast in Iceland! We meticulously planned everything which allowed us to fit as much as we could into our days without feeling rushed. I certainly feel like we made the most of the trip after having not been able to travel for so long! However apart from our hiccup with the delayed flights, we got so lucky with the weather which helped us pack everything in.
It was far from a budget trip, but then Iceland isn’t made for tight budgets. It’s one of the few destinations I’m more than happy to splurge on!
Stay tuned for plenty more Iceland posts, including how we planned the ultimate winter trip, as well as more about the fantastic ice cave tour!
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