Iceland: My Happy Place
Do you like rainbows and unicorns and magical fairylands? If the answer is yes, Iceland is the place for you. I remember seeing the Icelandair ads all over NYC and thinking to myself, "why in the world would anyone wanna go there? It sounds cold, boring and I literally haven't heard anything about it". Then one day I was aimlessly scrolling through my boring Facebook feed, and I noticed a picture of these horses with the coolest haircuts
Thanks to these beautiful babes, I started doing some research to see what Iceland was all about. Waterfalls, rainbow mountains, hot springs, black sand beaches, glaciers, a blue lagoon and pretty squiggly neon lights that dance in the sky at night? Yes please. I stayed in Iceland for five full days over Labor Day weekend and wish I’d stayed twice as long. To me, Iceland should be considered a mandatory rite of passage for everyone to experience at one point in their lives.
Hotels: It seems to me that most visitors prefer to stay in Reykjavik (usually because Iceland is a popular quick layover) but I strongly suggest renting an SUV and staying in a few different hotels to avoid spending hours driving the same route back and forth to see all the sights. But if you're more comfortable staying in the main city or would like to experience Icelandic nightlife, there are certainly plenty of affordable hotels or hostels in Reykjavik. There are also tours that will pick you up right from Reykjavik and take you to the most important sights.
Rental Car: Once you hit the road, the "we're not asking for directions" fight evolves into a "why didn't we pay extra for the nav and Wifi?" fight. Trust me, there's no one to ask for help and no WiFi anywhere. If you have an international cell phone package, you should get service in most areas unless you're on top of a glacier somewhere (very possible), but if you'd like to avoid missing out on amazing sites and experiences, opt for the navigation system and WiFi upgrade. I found the best rate at Sixt and had a great experience with them overall. They have a location right at the airport with a shuttle to take you back and forth so it's super convenient. If you plan to rent a car, I’d suggest hopping on google maps and starring all of the sites you’d like to see, then working your way through the list.
What to pack: It's not going to be hot, but it’s also not as cold as you'd think. Iceland doesn't really care what you look like so bring outfits you can wear over and over again but be prepared for everything. I alternated between a pair of hiking sneakers, comfy Sorel boots (these are my favs) and havaianas for the hot tub, hot springs and Blue Lagoon. I wore a light jacket during the day and a puffy jacket at night with layers underneath. When the sun is shining, you may even strip down to a tank. Honestly, I wore pretty much the same thing for 5 days and could probably have packed half as much as I did.
Reykjavik: The capital city is filled with amazing restaurants, coffee shops, museums, live music, shopping, street art and nightlife. Stop by Hallgrímskirkja (Lutheran parish church) for a great view of the city. Catch a live performance at Harpa Concert Hall and at the very least, check out the impressive architecture.
Icelandic Hot Dogs: While you’re in Reykjavik, make sure you have some cash to try what will undoubtedly be the greatest hot dog you ever had in your life at Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur. Seriously. Just order two with everything (they’re small). You won’t be sorry. Look out for the picture of Bill Clinton just inside the order window - that’s how you’ll know you’re in the right place.
Aurora Borealis: Yes. I managed to catch an all-night display of The Northern Lights. This magical moment has been permanently etched into my long-term-memory brain (is that a thing?). I am super grateful that I was lucky enough to actually see them for myself because as I understand it, it’s very far from a guarantee (weather, pressure, season, solar activity and pure dumb-luck all play a part). I spotted them through my window at the Silica Hotel by the Blue Lagoon on my first night as I was sitting, staring at my laptop Googling “how to spot the Northern Lights” (not kidding). To be perfectly honest, at first I wasn’t really sure what I was actually looking at. Turns out the Northern Lights are much less colorful than I expected them to be (they were more white than neon green or pink) but they were WAY more active. They were like stardust dancing in the sky and I felt like they were putting on a show just for me. Sadly, it also turns out that they’re kinda tricky to photograph if you don’t have the right camera with specific settings and my iPhone really wouldn’t pick up any color. Fortunately, this awesome guy from Taiwan was taking amazing photos on a point-and-shoot and managed to catch this shot:
Vik: If I could redo my trip, I would have hopped in my rental car at the airport and driven down the Southern Coast all the way to Vik. I ended up staying a bit more central which meant driving the same road back and forth several times. I’d suggest spending your first day/night in Vik to check out the black sand beach, drive up the winding steep hill of Dyrholaey to spot some Puffins, Reynisfjara Beach and the often photographed Vik Church.
Vatnajökull National Park: A two hour drive from Vik is Vatnajökull National Park. Take a hike through the glaciers and make your way to Svínafellsjökull glacier in Skaftafell (an early scene in Batman Begins was filmed there). For safety reasons, I’d recommend a guided tour which basically becomes a geology class.
Sólheimasandur: I have a terrible fear of flying and I’m certainly not one to celebrate plane crashes, but visiting this fallen DC plane was a must for me. Quick summary: In 1973, a US Navy plane ran out of gas and crashed on this black sand beach. Thankfully, everyone on the plane survived so this is more of a celebratory crash site. I used these amazing directions to guide me there.
Landmannalaugar: Hike the rainbow mountains, swim in the hot springs or set up a tent and camp for the night (not for me). This area is almost exclusively accessed by guided tour as this is a very rough drive and you may even have to drive through actual rivers to get there. I booked a tour through Mudshark Tours and ended up having a private tour with an extremely smart guide who also happened to be a Scientist and Professor of Botany (or plant sex as he called it). On the way you’ll stop to see the Ugly Pond and will learn about the leaping trolls at Tröllkanulaup.
Snowmobiles: I’m not usually the most adventurous but I wasn’t going to go all the way to Iceland and not snowmobile on a glacier. I booked a tour through Snowmobile.is (Jay Z and Beyonce did too). You hop in a monster truck, take the bumpiest ride of your life (it was actually pretty fun at 5 mph) and end up on Iceland’s 2nd largest glacier, Langjökull. The tour itself lasted about 3 hours from start to finish and they provide you with all the gear you need (except snow boots). Added bonus was the giant snow rainbow that appeared mid-ride to make my day complete.
Golden Circle: Our snowmobile tour pick up was at Gullfoss waterfall so it makes sense to make snowmobile day Golden Circle day too. The Gullfoss waterfall meaning “golden falls” is an impressive giant waterfall that you and all the other tourists will be visiting at the same time. It’s worth it and it’s beautiful. The visitor’s center is also a great place to grab a quick lunch or buy some Icelandic sweaters. Next stop on the Golden Circle is the Strokkur Geysir which erupts every 8-10 minutes. Be patient and keep your eyes peeled. I missed it twice before successfully capturing a photo. Þingvellir National Park (Thingvellir) is the third stop on the Golden Circle tour. Snorkel in a wetsuit between the crack of two continental plates in the Silfra Fissure or go for a hike through the park.
Bruarfoss Waterfall: Hard to find but absolutely worth the stop. You have to drive through a residential area and look for a very tiny parking lot that only fits about two cars. Once you park, you’ll walk over a low gate, through a dirt path in the woods until you find the footbridge. I just listened for the falls and followed the people with the most expensive looking cameras until I stumbled upon this magical multi-waterfall.
Hotel Ranga: This hotel holds a special place in my heart. This log cabin themed hotel is right off Ring Road but makes you feel like you’re in the middle of nowhere. They actually have a Northern Lights wake-up call sign up sheet so you don’t have to stay up all night staring at the sky. They’ll make sure you don’t miss them. After a day of sightseeing, you should eat at their amazing restaurant or just relax in one of the hot tubs located right outside.
Skógafoss Waterfall: You may remember seeing this waterfall in the Secret Life of Walter Mitty (if you haven’t seen that movie you should). If it’s a sunny day, you can see an incredible rainbow due to the spray of the waterfall.
Seljavallalaug: Very close to Skógafoss is this amazing hidden swimming pool set alongside the beautifully green Eyjafjallajökull. The pool is free to swim in and is heated by the hot spring water trickling from the volcano. When driving on Ring Road, turn on Road 242 marked Raufarfell, just past the Iceland Erupts exhibit. Once you find the parking lot, you’ll walk towards what seems to be the middle of nowhere, passing a beautiful stream and seeing some steep trails on either side. Stick towards the middle and follow the main path. I’d hardly call it a hike but more like a 20 minute walk through the mountains. You’ll eventually run into the pool equipped with a changing facility on your left.
Langoustine: As you make your way back to Reykjavik from the Southern Coast, take a detour and stop for some langoustine tails (basically a cross between crayfish and a lobster) at Fjorubordid in the village of Stokkseyri. There is a very short menu but they really only do two things here - “Lobster in Magical Soup” and “Village Lobster” which is just a big pot of lobster tails sauteed in Garlic and Butter. It’s pricey, but insanely great and totally worth the spurge.
Blue Lagoon: The incredible Blue Lagoon should be on your bucket list if it’s not already. Entrance prices range from $40-$195 depending on how luxurious of a visit you’d like. They will give you a waterproof wristband with RFID (linked to your CC) to purchase drinks while you’re in the water so you won’t have to worry about bringing cash into the lagoon. If you’re interested in spa treatments, there is a Geothermal Spa on site. Taking a dip in the hot, clear but blue-looking water is a spa treatment in itself and there’s enough silica mud everywhere to cover yourself head to toe (they process and purify huge buckets of the stuff for sale in the gift shop and leave 5 gallon buckets of it all along the side walls so you don’t have to scoop it up with your toes). If your hair is long, slather on the deep conditioner prior to heading in and throw it a topknot. You can still look cute for your instagram photo but you definitely don’t want to dry your hair out. Buy a waterproof pouch to protect your phone so you can snap away while you play. They also sell them for a much steeper price when you get there in case you forget.
Silica Hotel: I highly recommend you splurge and stay at the Silica Hotel for either your first or last night in Iceland. You’ll wake up thinking you’re on Mars because of the lava landscape outside your window and it’s just a 10 minute walk from the public Blue Lagoon. The best part is you get access to the hotel’s private lagoon and entrance to the public Blue Lagoon included free.
Iceland is jam packed with amazing activities and otherworldly sites so no matter what you plan to do, you really can’t go wrong. My best advice: JUST GO. My second trip to Iceland can’t come soon enough.