Our Iceland itinerary - 5 days in the land of ice and fire
Welcome to Iceland!
Keep your eyes peeled as you come in to land - out the right hand side of the plane you will get dramatic views of glaciers, black lava fields and the Blue Lagoon. David even swears he saw a whale.
Collect your hire car from the airport and spend today exploring Reykjavik. We recommend gently strolling, visiting Tjörnin Lake with its surrounding historic buildings, sculptures and swans, the towering space rocket-like presence of Hallgrimskirkja, the harbour and the traditional colourful houses that line the streets. Be sure to follow the waterline east of the Harpa Concert Hall, along to the Sun Voyager sculpture created in the 80s to celebrate Reykjavik's 200th anniversary. This beautiful "dream boat"symbolises light, hope, progress and freedom.
We would recommend grabbing a traditional Icelandic hot dog from Streetdog, just down the hill from Hallgrimskirkja. Served with 2 types of onions and 3 kinds of sauce, it's not only tasty but also the cheapest lunch you'll find in town!
Book your Northern Lights tour for this evening. Most companies offer a free re-booking if you don't see the aurora, and so by booking your tour early in the trip it gives you plenty of other nights for a second attempt if needed. We went with Reykjavik Excursions, who for a small extra fee picked us up and dropped us off from our accommodation. They were fab, very knowledgable and found us a brilliant spot where we were able to watch the Lights for over 2 hours.
Speaking of accommodation, we stayed at the Circle Hostel which was ideal. Extraordinarily well priced, rooms are simple but comfortable, with shared bathrooms and a very large communal kitchen. Only 20 minutes walk from the city centre, situated on the ring road by the sea and with free parking, this was a fantastic base for our trip. We stayed here for three nights.
Start your South Coast road trip!
Take your time driving as far as the tiny seaside village of Vik. This stretch of road has some of the most beautiful and dramatic landscapes in all of Iceland. Here are our recommendations for key stops along the way:
Seljalandsfoss and Skogafoss - stunning waterfalls. Seljandsfoss is slender and beautiful - in warmer months you can walk behind it! Skogafoss is massive. Wide and tall, it thunders down past cliffs of sea birds. You can climb up to a viewing platform overlooking the top.
Loftsalahellir Cave - A hidden gem on the way to the Dyrhólaey peninsula. Climb up to this mysterious cave, which from the inside looking out reveals the profile of a face!
Dyrhólaey - a rocky peninsula with views of black sand beaches and a sea arch in the rocks. You can also climb up to a lighthouse.
Reynisfjara Beach - famous for the iconic wall of basalt columns at one end, the volcanic black sand and white sea foam reminded us of Guinness!
Vik - this little village is the perfect stopping off point along the south coast. Check out the black sand beach and the tiny church up on the hill. In summer, the cliffs nearby are full of puffins.
Have dinner at the bright canteen-like Ice Cave Restaurant and head to Smiðjan Brugghús for a pint of Icelandic craft beer.
We stayed at the Puffin Hostel, in a basic but comfortable room in a building which is more than 100 years old. Like in Reykjavik, there are shared bathrooms and a communal galley kitchen, as well as a lounge are with books and board games. It has a really nice community atmosphere! It was a lot more expensive than our Reykjavik Hostel but still the most affordable accommodation we could find in the area.
* We skipped the Sólheimasandur plane crash site - far too crowded (we drove past the car park and it was mayhem).
While the 120 miles from Vik to Jökulsárlón technically only takes 2.5 hours according to Google maps, we reckon you'll want to double this estimate. The landscapes you drive through are so gorgeous that you'll want to pull over every 20 minutes. Here are our top stops:
Foss This lovely waterfall (simply named Waterfall in Icelandic) is about an hour from Vik. Low and wide, it tumbles next to the road.
Vatnajökull Glaciers - the main reason for all our pull overs. Oh my goodness the Glaciers. Dramatic and simply vast, the long straight road runs towards them, beside them, around them...
Fjallsárlón - a smaller glacier lagoon with floating blue icebergs and a dramatic wall of ice running along one end, where the glacier meets the water.
Jökulsárlón - The famous Glacier Lagoon. First, stop in the alternative car parks on the left before the bridge to the main lagoon car park and walk up and over the hill to get to the black sand beach at the far end of the lagoon. Beautiful and virtually empty when we were there- it's serene, the ice bergs were more spread out, casting lovely blue reflections. Next drive over the bridge to the main car park to see a vast number of icebergs crammed together.
Diamond Beach - drive back over the bridge and park on the left to wander the long stretch of black sand, scattered with sparkling icebergs washed up on the beach. You can also watch them flowing from the lagoon, under the bridge and out into the sea.
Kirkjubæjarklaustur swimming pool - Here's a top tip hidden gem. On the drive home from Diamond Beach back to Reykjavik, stop in the small town of Kirkjubæjarklaustur. Tucked away in their sports centre, they have a geothermally heated outdoor swimming pool, and two hot pots to relax in. It's only about £5 to go in, and usually pretty quiet. In daylight you can watch a waterfall from the hotpots, and in winter it's lovely to sit under the dark skies in the warm water.
Have dinner in the Systrakaffi (petrol station on the roundabout out of town) for a hot, inexpensive meal.
Golden Circle Self Drive
While most coach trips visit Þingvellir National Park first, then Geysir, and then Gullfoss, we would recommend reversing the order, to hopefully avoid the biggest crowds. But first, an additional stop: Drive from Reykjavik to Kerið Volcanic Crater.
A satisfyingly complete and circular caldera, Kerið is strikingly beautiful with red rock walls, green moss and a vivid blue lake of water at the bottom. As the crater is on private land, there is a small fee of 400 ISK per person to visit. You can walk a path around the crater rim, and also descend to the lake down a flight of steps.
Now drive to Gullfoss, a stunning waterfall about 45 minutes away north on route 35. One of the most popular waterfalls in Iceland, the two tiers of Gullfoss turn sharply left, then right, before plunging dramatically 21 meters into a canyon. The thundering water can be viewed from 3 different platforms - from above, from the front and from up close. It's such an impressive waterfall! The lower tier in particular, as it crashes into the canyon, is incredibly powerful. In peak summer, Gullfoss has 140 cubic metres of water PER SECOND flowing over it!
The next stop on the Golden Circle is Geysir, just 10 minutes away from Gullfoss, but about halfway in between is another amazing find that we stumbled upon: Brú horse stables. Run by a super friendly husband and wife team, here you can park up and pet some Icelandic horses. There are usually a few horses to meet in the field by the road, and if you head further up the driveway you'll reach the stables and more beautiful horses! Small and stocky, with beautiful full manes over their eyes and sweet faces, the Icelandic horse has been pure bred for over 1000 years (it has been illegal to import horses into Iceland since the 10th century) and is basically still the same genetic animal ridden by the Vikings.
The farm owners are very friendly and will happily talk to you about the different horses, the breed, their shoes, and they sell "horse candy" (grass pellets) for you to feed the animals with for 200 ISK.
Onwards to Geysir and the hot springs at Haukadalur! While Geysir itself (the first geyser known to Europeans and where the English word comes from) very rarely erupts these days, its neighbour Strokkur is much more obliging and blasts water up to 30m into the air every 6-10 minutes. The whole of the geothermal area is fascinating to explore, with bubbling mud pools, colourful minerals and sulphurous (eggy) steam. Just be careful not to step off the path, as below the thin crust water can reach 100 degrees.
The final stop of the day is Þingvellir National Park. This beautiful rift valley is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, significant for geological, historic and cultural reasons. It sits in no man's land, in the divide left between the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates as Iceland is slowly ripped in half. From 930 AD to 1798, this was the site of Alþing , the open air Parliamentary assembly of Iceland. The valley is revered today as a spiritual centre of the nation's identity. As well as exploring the dramatic cliffs, grass covered lava fields and fissures, you can see the lovely Öxarárfoss Waterfall, Þingvallavatn, the largest natural lake in Iceland, and the quaint little 19th century church down in the valley.
You're only 45 minutes or so outside of Reykjavik here, so if you didn't have any luck with the Northern Lights on your first attempt, you have time to drive back and rejoin a rebooked tour this evening.
Otherwise, enjoy a free evening strolling around Reykjavik. We really like the intriguingly named Bastard Pub at 4 Vegamotastigur. Reasonable (for Iceland) beer prices and friendly staff, with a great local atmosphere.
Blue Lagoon Day!
Ahhh the Blue Lagoon ! Trust us, while this is a bit of a splurge, it's the most wonderful treat to finish your trip with. You need to book in advance, and we would recommend going for the 8am slot. It's an early start, but you'll have a good couple of hours before the masses turn up and in later months of the year it will still be dark. There is something magical about sitting in the glowing blue water with steam all around and dark skies overhead.
We booked the comfort package. It's the cheapest available but includes everything you could want - entry to the lagoon (and time isn't limited - if you arrive at 8am you could stay all day if you wanted!), as much silica mud for your face as you want, use of a towel AND a free drink, which includes the prosecco on the menu. Fabulous! They also have delicious fruit smoothies available for about £5, so we had the prosecco first (vacation mode fully on!!) as our freebie, then bought a smoothie for breakfast later on. The drinks all come in plastic cups from a swim up bar which means you can enjoy them in the steaming water.
The lagoon is big enough that even as it gets busier, it never feels crowded, and as well as relaxing in the water, there are saunas and steam rooms, and a warm waterfall to help pummel the knots from your shoulders. Absolute bliss, and the perfect way to wind down after your action packed trip.
From here it's a short drive back to Keflavik airport, or if you still have a bit of time before your flight, you could check out the geothermal area of Krysuvik, about half an hour's drive away. Walk on boardwalks between bubbling mud pots, steaming vents and multi-coloured mineral soils, and drive through some stunning volcanic landscapes, before returning your car at the airport.
What an adventure!