iceland europe travel hiking ice-climbing
- The Golden Circle
- Southern Iceland
- Southeastern & Eastern Iceland
- Northern Iceland
- Western Iceland
Landing at Keflavík International Airport in the early hours of a Saturday morning was a little disappointing. It was cloudy and foggy, and my first glimpse of Iceland through the airplane window was a barren rocky peninsula barely visible through the mist. Lauren and I disembarked from the aircraft and entered the terminal, a maze of duty-free stores, restaurants, and coffee shops. We’d been advised that the duty free shops in the airport have some of the best prices you’ll find in the country for certain food and alcohol items, so we picked up some wine and beer before picking up the rental car.
Our first stop after the airport was Bláa Lónið, the Blue Lagoon. Since the start of the Iceland tourism craze, the Blue Lagoon has become a major tourist attraction, and they now boast a correspondingly insane price of entry. We visited on a dreary, rainy day, which was actually kind of cool. The contrast between the warm water of the lagoon and the chill of the drizzle was enjoyable. It was fun, and a nice way to relax after our flight. But the Blue Lagoon is absolutely not a must-see, and it’s definitely over-priced.
The drive to Reykjavík takes about forty minutes from the airport. We reached our lodgings, a lovely three-bedroom apartment near Hallgrimskirkja. We got oriented and then set out to explore the city. Reykjavík is a charming city and easy to see on foot. We checked out the shops, most which are very touristy and don’t have much unique to offer. We found a neat bar, Apotek, with some great cocktails, many of which were half-priced for happy hour. For dinner we grabbed hot dogs from a stand—hot dogs are among the very few limited options for reasonably priced food—for dinner and then returned to our apartment to sleep off the jet lag.
In the morning we bought scrumptious cinnamon rolls for breakfast from Brauð & Co., an absolutely fantastic bakery, and coffee from Reykjavík Roasters. Then we strolled down to the park in front of Iceland’s Parliament House. There we met Eric, our guide for a walking tour of the city. Eric and the tour were both wonderful. A history student, Eric gave us a great overview of Icelandic history as he showed us the sights. Iceland might have the best-documented history of any country in the world. Not permanently settled until 874, Icelanders trace their origins to a Norwegian chieftain, Ingólfr Arnarson and his wife, Hallveig Fróðadóttir, who founded Reykjavík in that year. The country remains very proud of its history and traditions; Icelanders speak a version of Old Norse that early Norwegian settlers brought with them and hasn’t changed since then. Eric related this history as he showed us Tjörnin, a beautiful lake at the center of the city; the prime minister’s office; Harpa, a beautiful modern concert hall; neat neighborhoods; and more.
By coincidence, it happened to be Iceland’s independence day. Iceland voted to become independent from Denmark in 1944, while Denmark was occupied by Nazi Germany. Reykjavík celebrated with a big parade, some of which we watched. We didn’t really understand much of the parade, but it seemed like the whole city joined in the parade once the floats passed, so it was fun to watch.
Once the parade was over, we visited the Settlement Exhibition, a museum built around the remains of a 10th century Viking longhouse, one of the oldest ruins discovered in Iceland. Then we drove to the grocery store to stock up on supplies, so that we wouldn’t be limited to Reykjavík’s expensive restaurants. We’d been told that there were primarily two grocery options in the city, Krambúð (expensive) and Bonus (cheaper). That’s probably true if you’re limited to downtown Reykjavík, but there’s a Krónan and a Nettó out on the wharf (as well as a Bonus). We found both of those options to be nicer but about the same price as bonus. We bought some salmon, which we cooked in our apartment for a delicious dinner.
After dinner, we ventured out on the town. We visited Ölstofa, a bar we’d been told is the place to go if you want to avoid tourists and see the locals argue about politics. It definitely has that vibe (though we also saw a group of very drunk Brits), but don’t order anything other than beer or whiskey. The bartenders were very confused when Stacey asked for a martini. She ended up getting a glass of vodka on the rocks with several limes. We left the bar and strolled down the waterfront. It was an unusually clear night, and a spectacular sunset began as the sun dipped toward the horizon around midnight. We admired the view as we walked, and we enjoyed watching a group of young Icelanders who’d brought a drum and guitar out on a hill to sing and dance as they admired the sunset.
The Golden Circle
The next morning we stopped at Brauð & Co. again before loading into the rental car and leaving the city. We drove northeast to Þingvellir National Park, which is a fascinating mix of history and natural beauty. Þingvellir was the site of the Alþingi, Iceland’s first parliament and, dating from 930, one of the oldest parliaments in the world. For centuries, Icelanders gathered there to resolve legal disputes, make the country’s laws, and socialize. It’s also spectacularly beautiful, set on the side of a lake and along the Flosagjá rift, which divides the Eurasian and North American tectonic plates. We wandered around the park for a while, reading about the history and admiring the views of the lake, the rift, and Öxarárfoss, our first of many Icelandic waterfalls.
Our next stop was Geysir, site of the original geyser, accounts of which date to 1294. Geysir is no longer active, but Strokkur, a nearby geyser, erupts every five to ten minutes. It was cool to see the eruption, but it won’t strike you as very impressive if you’ve ever been to Yellowstone. We drove on to Gullfoss, a massive two-stage waterfall that plunges dramatically into a steep gorge.
From Gullfoss we drove to Gamla Laugin, the secret lagoon. Set in a vibrant subalpine meadow, the secret lagoon is a public hot spring that’s a very enjoyable stop. When we left the lagoon, we drove south towards our next stay. On the way, we stopped at Seljalandsfoss, another beautiful waterfall. You can walk behind Seljalandsfoss, which we did, getting soaked by the spray but enjoying it very much. We reached Vallnatún, where we stayed in a cozy farmhouse located on a beautiful farm near the foot of the Eyjafjallajökull volcano. The farm teemed with sheep and horses, as well as oyster catchers and arctic tern, and the wild-looking Vestmannaeyjar (Westman Islands) were visible in the distance.
In the morning we drove west to Hvolsvöllur, where we met Logi, our guide for the day. We all loaded into Logi’s super jeep for a day trip to Landmannalaugar, a mountainous region in Iceland’s interior. Landmannalaugar shows unmistakable marks of recent volcanic activity, and it boasts rugged mountains and sparkling lakes. We parked at a campsite and hiked into the highlands. We admired the incredible views as we hiked among steam vents and glacial rivers. Upon returning to the campsite, we bathed in the nearby hot springs. The springs are gorgeous, but we were early in the season, so the warm water was limited to the area around the inflow. On the drive down from the highlands, Logi showed us more gorgeous lakes and waterfalls.
The next day we drove a short distance to Skógafoss, one of Iceland’s most beautiful waterfalls (which is saying something). A steep set of stairs leads up to a viewpoint at the top of the falls. The view of the falls from the platform isn’t great, but the vista beyond stretches all the way to the sea. The trail continues above the viewpoint, following the river the feeds Skógafoss and leading past numerous other beautiful falls. The entire trail passes 26 falls and typically takes 12-14 hours. We hiked until we felt like we’d seen enough, which for us was about nine waterfalls.
At the base of Skógafoss is the Skógasafn (Skógar Museum), which includes three museums dedicated to Icelandic history. One is an open-air museum that includes several examples of architecture from throughout Iceland’s history (mostly farmhouses). The folk museum includes many relics of every day life from various periods of Icelandic history, and the technical museum is the same for technology. There’s a ton of stuff, and a lot of it is really interesting, but it gets overwhelming quickly.
Kirkjufjara beach is a black sand beach on Iceland’s southern coast. It’s worth a stop; there are unusual rock formations in the ocean off of the beach as well as large basalt formation on the beach itself (which you can climb). From the beach we continued to the town of Vik, one of the cultural hubs of southern Iceland. We were disappointed; the town doesn’t have much charm. We visited Smiðjan Brugghús, a new brewpub that had some good drafts and was a fun spot to grab a beer. After that, we had a very nice dinner at Halldorskaffi before returning to our farmhouse.
Southeastern & Eastern Iceland
Lauren and I got up early the next day and drove about two and a half hours to Vatnajökull National Park. Near the visitor center we joined Icelandic Mountain Guides for a trip to the Svínafellsjökull glacier. Our guide, Elizabeth, led us out onto the ice. We began our day of ice climbing by scaling a wall of soft white ice that was an easy warmup. After that, Elizabeth took us to a deep crevasse and set up an anchor at the top. She lowered us, one by one, down in to the crevasse, and we took turns on the much more challenging climb back up. When we’d finished climbing, Elizabeth showed us an ice cave, the interior of which was glowing light blue.
We left Vatnajökull and continued east to the Lambhus cottages, our accommodations for the next two nights. The Lambhus cabins are small, but they’re located on a beautiful farm that boasts incredible views of the mountains and glaciers. The cottages are about half an hour from the town of Höfn. Unlike Vik, Höfn is a quaint, beautiful city. We bought some groceries there and had some delicious pizza for dinner at Ishusid Pizzeria.
In the morning we took a zodiac tour of Jökulsárlón glacier lagoon, zipping among the massive icebergs that float in the lagoon and admiring the massive glacier. We walked down to Diamond Beach, where the outlet stream from the lagoon reaches the ocean. The icebergs that don’t melt in the lagoon float out into the sea and dot the water around the beach. Then we stopped by Brunnholl Farm for some fresh ice cream and returned to Höfn. Iceland played Nigeria that afternoon in the World Cup, so we stopped by a bar that was hosting a watch party. We drank Icelandic beer and liquor as we watched the game, a disappointing 2-0 loss for the Icelanders. Icelandic sports fans are undoubtedly the politest I’ve ever seen. They didn’t even grumble about the questionable calls that went against their team (there were many), and when the game ended, everyone stood and applauded their team. For dinner, we went to Jon Riki, a fantastic restaurant in a converted farmhouse near Lambhus.
The next day we drove north to Seyðisfjörður, an amazingly beautiful town at the end of a spectacular fjord. We passed through Egilsstaðir on the way. Egilsstaðir has a reputation as an industrial town, but we thought it looked like a quaint mountain village. Our cottage in Seyðisfjörður was on the valley wall across the fjord from the town. Once we’d settled in, we took a short hike up above the cottage to a beautiful stream and waterfall. Numerous other small waterfalls cascaded down the sides of the valley. Then we drove into town. Seyðisfjörður is beautiful, with funky shops and restaurants. We returned to the cottage to cook dinner and take advantage of the hot tub on the porch, which had a great view of the fjord and the town.
In the morning, we left Seyðisfjörður and drove north. We stopped for lunch in the tiny mountain town of Möðrudalsleið. Our next destination was Dettifoss, but getting there was an adventure. The road we took was unpaved volcanic ash and dust. In places, the road ran atop a narrow ridge mounded from the ash. An oncoming vehicle towing a wide trailer was driving down the middle of the road, rather than to one side. Lauren, who was driving our car, swerved to avoid a collision. The right side of our car slipped off of the road and sank deeply into the soft ash of the ridge. Our attempts to drive back onto the road only caused the passenger-side wheels to submerge further into the dust, and the car began to tip at a precarious angle. We called the rental company and Iceland’s emergency number. Neither was helpful; they advised to find someone who could tow us back onto the road. After flagging down several cars that refused to help us, we finally found a friendly man driving a large SUV. He didn’t speak much English, but his wife translated as he hooked a cable to the front our car and the back of his. He managed to pull us back onto the road. I don’t know what we would’ve done if he hadn’t come along.
We finally reached Dettifoss, and the waterfall is impressive. Reputed to be the most powerful waterfall in Europe, Detifoss a large waterfall that descends into a breathtaking gorge. From Dettifoss, we drove on to the town of Húsavík, which lies on Iceland’s northern coast. Húsavík’s harbor is picturesque; it’s full of sailboats and fishing boats, and the mountains on the far side of the bay provide a gorgeous backdrop. We got a beer in Húsavík before driving on to Laugar and Einishus Cottages where we spent the night.
In the morning we drove out to Mývatn, a large but shallow lake. The lake is beautiful, with green shores, a large collection of jutting peninsulas, and weird volcanic formations. There are short walks to do all around the shore, and we did a very nice hike around a wooded peninsula. We paused for coffee at the Vogafjós Cowshed Cafe and then visited Grjótagjá, a stunning cave where a scene from Game of Thrones was filmed.
There is no more sagacious animal than the Icelandic horse. He is stopped by neither snow, nor storm, nor impassable roads, nor rocks, glaciers, or anything. He is courageous, sober, and surefooted. He never makes a false step, never shies.
After lunch we went on a horseback ride. The Lava Horses stable is located on a farm south of Húsavík. We rode through the nearby fields and meadows, experimenting with trotting and the tölt, a gait unique to Icelandic horses between a canter and a gallop. The scenery was spectacular, and we had a wonderful time.
Once the horses had been returned to the stables, we drove to Akureyri, a city on a fjord west of Húsavík. We visited Katholska Kirkjan, the Catholic church, and the botanical gardens, which are beautiful (and free). We had an incredible dinner at Rub 23 (pricey but delicious) and then had some Icelandic beers at the Einstök Brewer’s Lounge.
The next day we drove past Mývatn to Hverir, a geothermal area full of boiling mud pits and fumaroles that reminded of Lassen Volcanic National Park in northern California. We continued upwards to Kröflustöð, one of Iceland’s geothermal power stations. The power station has a neat exhibit on geothermal power that is both interesting and free. A little further up the mountain is the crater of Krafla volcano, which is filled with an aquamarine lake. On the ride back Laugar we did another short hike on the shores of Mývatn. In the afternoon we drove back to Húsavík. On the docks we boarded a boat for a whale watching trip with North Sailing. We cruised through the bay with humpback whales and dolphins gallivanting all around us. We also stopped by an island that’s home to thousands of puffins.
We left Laugar the next morning. We drove southwest, stopping at Goðafoss (another beautiful waterfall) and Glaumbær Farm (a museum with a turf farmhouse dating from the 10th century). Our next stop was Borgarnes, a town on Iceland’s west coast. We explored Reykholt, the town where Snorri Sturluson, a thirteenth century Icelandic chieftain, scholar, and writer lived. We also visited two nearby waterfalls, Hraunfossar and Barnafoss, and then we drove F550, a beautiful road through the mountains. We stopped at Steðji, a brewery in a converted farmhouse that has some really interesting (and odd) beers, including one brewed with licorice and one brewed with whale testicles.
Returning to Borgarnes, we visited Landnámssetur Íslands, the Borgarnes Settlement Center. Unlike the exhibition in Reykjavík, Borgarnes’s settlement center doesn’t have many original artifacts. But the self-guided audio tour has a lot of great information about the settlement of Iceland, and the exhibits do a really good job of explaining everything and putting the historical information in context.
The next morning was our second-to-last in Iceland. We drove back to Reykjavík and checked into another apartment. Then we walked over to Harpa, the concert hall and saw the inside. We grabbed a last drink at Apotek and then dinner at Iceland Fish Chips. The next day we walked around Reykjavík and enjoyed the city one last time before returning to the airport for the flight home.