Hey wait a minute, this isn’t whisky!
It isn’t (though I did pick up some Icelandic whisky on the way home) but the wife encouraged me to share our trip given how much we both enjoyed it. Hopefully our experience will be helpful or at least entertaining to read!
We went to Iceland towards the end of May of 2022 and stayed for 7 days and 6 nights (with only real time for 6 days). It was probably a little shorter than I would have liked as there is plenty we didn’t get to see, but at the same time we didn’t feel like we were super rushed and unable to do what we wanted to. Our trip was driving around Iceland’s Ring Road (Route 1) and visiting most of the country as we did a big loop around it loosely following an itinerary found on findingtheuniverse.com. Please check out their website, as they’ve got some fantastic guides on traveling in Iceland that are immensely helpful.
Rental Car & Driving
Across 7 days, we drove ~2000 km in a Kia Xceed HEV (believe the equivalent model in the US is a Niro). This car was just about exactly what we wanted and needed. It was able to handle all of the roads we went on, ranging from the nicely paved highway that is Route 1 to the gravel roads going through the mountains. You won’t be able to go on Iceland’s F-roads with it (basically off-roading trails) but you’ll be very comfortable driving elsewhere. It got great gas mileage as well, our average was 20.1 km/L (47.3 mpg or 4.98 L/100km), which is a big bonus given how expensive gas is (average was ~$9.60 per gallon / ~$2.55 per L).
Regarding the rental car, there are plenty of websites and reviews of various rental car companies and options, but Reddit seemed to recommend Blue Rental Car heavily so we went with them. Our rental experience was pretty seamless from contact-less pickup at the airport to a very quick drop-off. Sign up for their email ahead of time as we ended up getting a 15% discount code from them which made the rental nice and affordable. While you can get rental car insurance via other means (such as Amex’s premium coverage), we ended up buying the comprehensive coverage (Sand/Ash/Gravel included) from Blue for a total cost of 88,479 ISK ($675.52) for the week.
Driving in Iceland was extremely easy for the most part. Aside from no right turn on red (for the very few stop lights in the country), there wasn’t a whole lot I needed to be worried about as far as driving is concerned. Very few other cars were on the road most of the time so we had a pretty relaxing drive. There is so much to see just driving around, the pictures above are just from some of our random and unplanned stops along the road.
Day 1: Arrive at Keflavik Airport, Blue Lagoon, Thingvellir National Park
Day 2: Geysir, Gullfoss, Selfoss (the town), Seljalandsfoss, Skogafoss, Dyrhólaey
Day 3: Reynisfjara black sand beach, Lava Fields, Fjaðrárgljúfur (kinda), Vatnajökull National Park, Svartifoss, Fjallsárlón Glacial Lagoon, Jökulsárlón Glacial Lagoon, Höfn
Day 4: Vestrahorn, Djúpivogur, Sveinsstekksfoss, Folaldafoss, Egilsstaðir, Lake Myvatn Nature Baths, Grjótagjá Cave (kinda)
Day 5: Goðafoss, Akureyri, Kolugljúfur Canyon, Hvammstangi, Wool Factory Sheep Dog, Seal Chasing
Day 6: Reykjavik, Blue Lagoon
Day 7: Depart from Keflavik Airport
Day 1: Blue Lagoon & Þingvellir
We flew on a Delta flight to Keflavik from New York (JFK) that got us in at around 9:30 in the morning. Customs was pretty quick and so was grabbing the rental car. First stop was the famous (for good reason) Blue Lagoon! While it’s a bit touristy, there definitely is a reason why it’s so popular. The water was very pleasant and warm (and salty) with plenty of room so that you didn’t have to bump up against some other group outside. We had gone with the most basic package (“Comfort”) which got us in the door for 11,990 ISK each ($181.52 total). While pricey, it’s probably worth visiting once. If you don’t feel like going in, you can see part of the lagoon outside of the facility (see picture above). One thing to note, if you’re like the wife and I, you might be a bit drowsy after the long flight plus a couple hours here. Be careful driving (we ended up taking a nap in the car after getting to the national park).
About an hour down the road is Thingvellir National Park where you’ll get decent view of this lake. There’s a visitors center here that’s really clean and serves pretty good coffee. We walked briefly down a nature trail but didn’t make it to Öxarárfoss, a waterfall that was in Game of Thrones. A little further down Route 36 there’s another observation point (Hrafnagjá Observation Deck) that offers a better view of the national park and lake.
We spent the night in Fludir at the Icelandair Hotel there. This was probably the most unique hotel we stayed in as each of the rooms were basically little cabins. There was a gas pump across the street and a grocery store that we ended up eating breakfast at. Really lovely place and it was the wife’s favorite place we stayed at throughout the trip.
Day 2: Golden Circle & South Coast
We got a bit of a late start to Day 2, leaving the hotel around 11:00 AM. Our first stop was up the road at Geysir, about a 20 minute drive. We got to watch the Strokkur Geysir erupt 4 or 5 times in the 30-ish minutes were there which was a treat. The Great Geysir didn’t so much as bubble for us, though that seems to be the norm these days.
After Geysir, we made a quick 10 minute drive over to the Gullfoss waterfall which was an absolute treat. There’s a little trail that gets you really close to the water as well as a good view from the lower parking lot. We got sprayed a little bit by the falls as we walked down the path to the further lookout but for the most part, we stayed pretty dry.
From Gullfoss, we drove down Route 30 towards the Ring Road. Here, I made a bit of an mistake. I saw a sign that pointed to “Selfoss” going right as you come up to Route 1 and headed toward that direction expecting to come across a waterfall (“foss” meaning waterfall in Icelandic). Turns out, there is a Selfoss waterfall….but that is in Northern Iceland. The Selfoss here is a town. It does have a few food options, which was nice. A friend of mine told me to make sure I stopped at “The KFC” on the Ring Road because of the food (more on that later), it is in Selfoss so you can swing by to get some if you’d like.
Next down the road were a few more waterfalls. Seljalandsfoss was one of my favorites on the trip. The waterfall itself is probably not as impressive as far as size goes but you can walk up and behind the waterfall, which is quite a fun experience! Make sure you take a waterproof jacket if you do end up doing it as you will get sprayed by tons of water.
Skogafoss was the last of the named waterfalls we saw on this day, though we did see dozens more on the drive (there are smaller/less known waterfalls everywhere). I will have to admit, we were a little waterfall-ed out by this point and probably spend a lot less time here than we might have otherwise. There is a path that leads to an observation deck at the top of the waterfall, we didn’t go up it so we could get to our next stop before it closed. Near this waterfall are a few hotels so you might find yourself mixed in / trying to beat a tour group or two to being able to see it.
If you’re looking to see puffins (how could you say no to those cute little birds?), Dyrhólaey near Vík is probably the best place along the Ring Road to see them. You’ll get some spectacular views of the black sand beaches from up by the lighthouse (including the image at the top of this post) as well as being able to look for those orange beaked bundles of cuteness. We started going straight to the top where the lighthouse is before coming down to the Reynisfjara viewpoint where we found the puffins. They’re smaller than you think, smaller than a lot of the stuffed animals of them, so you’ll have to keep a sharp eye out to see wherever they might pop up. If you do plan on making the drive up here, please check the summer hours for the nature reserve. They closed a little early (7 PM I believe) so just plan accordingly.
There are a number of hotel/lodging options around here. We ended up staying at Hotel Dyrhólaey. The place was clean, though a touch sparse in the rooms, and affordable. If you’ve ever stayed in a large retreat center, that is what this place felt like. There’s a restaurant where we had breakfast, more on that later on in the post.
Day 3: South Coast to Höfn
We started day 3 driving down to the Reynisfjara black sand beach of Interstellar fame. The hexagonal basalt columns really grabbed my attention here while the small pebbles that make up much of the beach grabbed the wife’s. There’s a small convenience store/restaurant right in the parking lot here so if you hadn’t grabbed a bite to eat, you could do so while watching this other worldly beach.
Next stop for us would have been Fjaðrárgljúfur, a large canyon in south Iceland, but the road leading up to this was closed for construction (which Google Maps didn’t tell us in advance unfortunately). Hopefully the work would be completed quickly as the estimated time to walk one way was 45 minutes from where you could park your car. We chose to get back on the road as there was plenty more to do. The drive from the Vík area to this canyon also goes straight through the Lava Fields, so plenty to see even if you can’t get up to the canyon.
Vatnajökull National Park and Svartifoss is where we headed to next. Svartifoss is about a 20-25 minute hike from the visitors center at the national park though the wife would remind me that it isn’t a “simple” hike. You’ll be at a very steep incline for most of the way up, though the road is very well maintained to make it as easy as possible. Everyone we saw going up (and we were the same way) did so in relative silence and with lots of focus on the climb. Everyone we saw going down (us included) did so in a far happier state since the trip down is so much easier. Personally I thought the hike was absolutely worth the views, but you might think differently after you start the climb up. There are a few other hiking paths that you can see laid out at the visitors center, one of which will take you pretty close to the glacier.
Before making it to our final destination for the night, Höfn, we stopped at two glacial lagoons. The first one was the Fjallsárlón Glacial Lagoon. From the parking lot it was a pretty brief, maybe 5 minutes?, walk over to where I took the black and white photo above. You’ll get an incredible view of the Vatnajökull glacier though there isn’t a whole lot else. The water here is much muddier than what you see at the Jökulsárlón lagoon as well, but there were also a lot fewer people so you can enjoy the glacier views in peace.
Our last stop was the famous Jökulsárlón Glacial Lagoon. The water here was as clear as could be and there was enough chunks of ice floating around that I could really understand where the term “diamond beach” came from.
We stayed the night at the Hotel Edda in Höfn. Honestly, this was probably the worst place we stayed though the location can’t be beaten as it is right in the Höfn harbor within walking distance of all of the restaurants in town. There was no wifi and there was a very strange odor in the rooms, though the staff claimed that was just because the rooms had been recently painted. Hopefully other people have better experiences, but that was the only hotel I didn’t think I’d stay in again. If you’re planning on eating out in Höfn, you’ll want to get on a waiting list quickly as all of the restaurants will fill up. All the locals recommended a place called “Pakkhus” but we weren’t able to get a table there given the long wait times.
Day 4: East Iceland Speedrun
Up until this part of our trip, we had been following the guide from findingtheuniverse.com somewhat closely. Given we were short on time being there for fewer days than the guide recommends, we went on a bit of a speed run through eastern Iceland. Starting in Höfn in the morning, we were gunning it to make it the Lake Myvatn area in north Iceland by evening.
Our drive started hoping to get a decent view of the Vestrahorn, a mountain on the southeast corner of Iceland that the Ring Road runs right past. Unfortunately for us, the weather wasn’t cooperative and the entire mountains was covered in clouds. We did end up pulling over at the Hvalnes lighthouse just up the road to get a nice view of some mist covered mountains though. The town of Djúpivogur was where we stopped next, though that was more for a quick pit stop more than anything.
Sveinsstekksfoss was the only waterfall we really stopped for in this part of the country. It is right off of Highway 1 and just up the road from Djúpivogur. You’ll want to be careful on the drive up as it is a touch steep but our Kia had absolutely no problems handling it. From here, we were on our way to the city of Egilsstaðir. If you read the guide on findingtheuniverse.com, you’ll see that they recommend sticking to Highway 1 despite your GPS wanting to take you to another road (939 was the road they pointed out). I’d second this recommendation unless you are comfortable with winding mountain roads. We took the highway a little further down from the 939 turnout to where it met the 95. The first part of the 95 is paved but then turns into a gravel road just as you go over the mountains. Given how many clouds were in the air, we had a hard time seeing much ahead of us and probably would have been better off sticking to the longer route. We did get a nice view of Lake Heidavatn on our way to the city, so that did make up for some of the long trek.
After zooming past Egilsstaðir, we made our way straight to the Lake Myvatn Nature Baths. For both the wife and I, this was easily one of our favorite stops on the trip. Unlike the Blue Lagoon, there are a lot fewer people at these baths and it certainly feels a lot less like a tourist trap. There is a strong smell of sulfur when you get out of your car, the baths are heated from a dormant volcano, but we got used to it very quickly. The one quirk we noticed about the actual water was that heat distribution wasn’t the greatest so you’d get some really hot spots and some really cold spots. Minor quirks aside, the view was fantastic and it still feels like something out of a dream.
Right outside of the nature baths is Grjótagjá Cave, a cave of Game of Thrones fame, that we tried to go in to. It is billed as a easy trip in but we found it a lot more challenging than expected. Perhaps a different time of day would have been better as it was completely pitch black after you went down just a few steps. We were obviously underprepared to go in, I’m sure it would be much more accessible with the correct preparation.
We stayed the night at Hótel Laxá right near the lake. It was the most expensive hotel on our trip but well worth it for location and breakfast being included.
Day 5: North Iceland
Heading west from Lake Myvatn, we were only able to stop at one part of the “Diamond Circle” in North Iceland. Goðafoss, left image, was our first stop and was definitely the most impressive for waterfall we saw for size along the way. It was also the coldest place we had stopped at, the little store near there was full of people trying to warm themselves up a bit after a quick walk over to the observation areas. The right picture was taken on the road somewhere in North Iceland, unsure of where. From Goðafoss, we drove on through Akureyri (stopping for some hot dogs) until we made it to the Kolugljúfur Canyon in northwest Iceland. We did make a few stops on the road along the way, but this felt like the most “boring” part of the drive, largely because we’d been spoiled all the way up here.
Kolugljúfur Canyon was definitely worth the stop along the way. There’s a little bridge that goes across it right where this water fall is and you can go underneath it to get an even better view. The road leading down to the canyon from Highway 1 is a touch steep, we had to put our Kia in low gear here but it seemed to handle it alright.
From the canyon, we went up the road to Hvammstangi in search of the Icelandic Seal Center and seals. Unfortunately, no seals were found going up the road from the town though. We did, however, end up stopping in at the wool factory shop there and met with the wool factory sheep dog! Píla was her name and she made us feel so welcome and tended to our every need as well as made us homesick for our own dog.
We spent the night a little further down the road at Hotel Varmaland, which was easily the fanciest hotel we stayed at along the way
Day 6: Reykjavik
Before we had made the trip, we’d read and heard from several of our friends that you didn’t need more than a day in Reykjavik. We got to the city center a little after noon and still found we had more than enough time to do everything we wanted to. The Hallgrimskirkja church is a must see, with white halls that made me think I was in Minas Tirith from Lord of the Rings. The trip up to the bell tower is probably one you could skip though, while you get a nice view of the city, there really isn’t a ton to see.
There are a lot of museums in the city, we breezed past a couple and had to look twice at the names of a few more, but there’s nothing I’d say is a must-do. The Sun Voyager monument was nice to see, though a bit far away from everything, and the flea market was fun to walk through. We did have a fantastic dinner at one of the restaurants in town, which I’ll cover in the food section, and found a Korean street food place for snacks before heading over to Blue Lagoon for one last view of the water and staying near the airport.
Day 7: Depart from Keflavik Airport
No international trip is complete without a visit to the Duty Free! I plan on posting reviews for all of the whisky (at least) and will link them here as I complete them:
- Jura 19 Year Travel Exclusive “The Paps” PX Sherry Finish.
- Flóki – An actual Icelandic single malt whisky.
- Grábrók – A blended Scotch whisky bottled in Iceland using Icelandic water to water it down to 40%.
We heard plenty about the food before we went to Iceland and I’m sure anyone who has looked into traveling there has probably heard the same – “it’s expensive and doesn’t taste great”. While we definitely took lots of measures to keep eating expenses in check, perhaps the unexpected benefit of recent inflation in the US was that the prices didn’t feel that outrageous as long as you were away from the more tourist-trap-esque places (such as Blue Lagoon’s restaurants). A sit down meal in most restaurants we looked at would cost around $25-35 a person (which includes tax and tip), a fast food or convenience store meal cost around $12-17 a person, and you could buy groceries to make sandwiches or similar meals for less.
We chose to take a duffel bag full of food, almost all Korean instant foods such as noodles and rice bowls along with snacks, to help us along the way. None of the hotels we stayed at in Iceland had a microwave, all of them had an electric kettle so we ended up having to use that to heat our meals. We found microwaves in every gas station, convenience store, and grocery store so you could easily heat up food in those places if necessary. Most of the cheaper food options were alright, filling enough but perhaps not the best tasting. The KFC was easily the best fast food we had along the way and all of the skyr products we had were amazing.
About half of the hotels we stayed at had breakfast included in the room rate, the others offered a breakfast option for around $14 a person. All of the breakfasts buffets we saw were very similar to an English breakfast of eggs, beans, sausage, bacon, and then baked options. The bread everywhere was fantastic and the butter even better. Every breakfast we saw had a cold meats and cheese selection as well, we may or may not have made a few sandwiches for the road from these.
There were a couple of nights we decided to go eat out. The first was in Höfn at a place called “Z Bistro”. A hearty order of Arctic char (similar to salmon and trout), lamb from the family farm, lobster soup, and a giant beer set us back 9400 ISK (~$68). The wife still talks about the lamb, so we hope this restaurant will still be there whenever we can make another trip!
The other big meal we had out was in Reykjavik at Sjávargrillið (Seafood Grill). We went a little nuts here with the 6 course meal (23,800 ISK / ~$174) but it was worth every penny (and króna!) we spent on it. Bread with butter on a rock, beef carpaccio, lobster taco, poached white fish, a grilled fish sampler, Icelandic ribeye (served with some of the most deliciously prepared vegetables I’ve ever had), and dessert were what the chef sent out. Each course was fantastic and I’d happily do it again.
The wife also has an incredible knack for stumbling across Korean food everywhere we travel. We came across this Korean street food place in Reykjavik, just down the street from the Hallgrímskirkja. We grabbed some tteokbboki (떡뽁이) and a rice bowl. Not the most authentic but certainly enough to scratch the itch!
That all came out a bit longer than I had planned it to be. Writing this was a blast to through some of the memories and photos from our trip. I hope you enjoyed this and I’ll be sure to post any other travel journals as they come up!