This article has been a long time coming! My trip to Iceland was pretty damn epic to say the least, but I have had a lot going on and have also been lacking motivation for my own projects lately, so I’ve been putting this article off because I wanted to make sure I had the right energy to post everything I wanted to and actually make it a helpful read. So without further ado, here is your planning guide to Iceland: The Land of Fire and Ice!
The first thing I think most people consider before heading out to Iceland is what time of year to go. All I really knew about Iceland before I went was that it was the “green” island, contrary to it’s name. Beyond that, I was really surprised to learn about how volatile the weather there is.
In my case, my sister had already booked her flight to Iceland due to a sale that she found on Wow Air’s site, so I didn’t really have a choice but to book my flight for the same dates obviously. Luckily we went at one of the best times, in my opinion, because winter hadn’t started yet but we were at its heels and were able to see the Northern Lights which begin right around mid September. To give you exact dates, we went from September 7-15th.
Where to stay: As usual I used AirBnB to book my place. While we got a super nice (and newly built) apartment, it was in the outskirts of the city. This had it’s pros and cons. Because we didn’t have a car, it proved more difficult to get around. Looking back on it I think it would have been better to stay in the city center. There is a really cool hostel in the city called Kex that my sister found (see pic below), we went to eat there and get drinks a couple times but like everything else in the city center it is pricey.
Keep in mind even using AirBnB, the city center will be more expensive for less square feet. Also most of the cheaper options in the city center had no shower so they suggested going to the public thermal baths as an alternative. I’m not much of a cold-weather person in general, so the thought of having to walk somewhere in the morning cold just to shower was not appealing.
One thing to note is that all the tours we took gave the option for hotel pickup/drop off, and most places in the city center are walking distance, so if you are staying at an AirBnB in the city center you are almost guaranteed to be able to easily walk back to your place after getting dropped off. Unfortunately for us, staying in the outskirts of the city, and in a new development, we had to get dropped off back at BSI (the bus terminal) and from there get a cab back to our apartment which no cab driver was familiar with (thank god for GPS). However, one of the MAJOR pros of staying in the outskirt was that we were closer to nature and, more importantly, we got TWO spectacular Northern Lights shows! It was an experience I’ll never forget and hope to see again.
Transportation: This was something that we deliberated on a lot. In the end we chose not to rent a car but if I had to do it again I would have gotten one. The price for the car and gas, the ever-changing weather conditions, and because we had already booked our AirBnB for the entire duration of the trip (i.e. only staying in one location), we opted to not get a car. The funny thing is, at one point we had actually booked the rental (although they don’t actually charge you until you get there) and at the last minute decided to cancel it.
We decided the best course of action was to rely on the bus system. Our AirBnB host was really helpful in telling us which bus routes we could take to get to the city center, however it took us a while to figure out the direction that the buses are going (inbound/outbound). One thing that came in super handy was the Straeto website (their transportation system) just make sure you click on the little British flag in the top right area to get the English site. I would also highly recommend you download their app and verify your phone number before leaving the states. When I downloaded the app and tried to verify my phone number in Iceland, I never received the text, probably because it didn’t recognize my number or something.
The reason I was trying to verify my number was so I could purchase bus tickets. Otherwise you have to walk somewhere where there’s an ATM to get cash out and then get exact change out for the bus. Since we were never able to use the app to purchase tickets and we had no rental car, we had to walk our little asses all the way to the closest convenience store (at least it was a pretty walk; see pic below) to do this. We also found out that the price that’s advertised online isn’t the price that they ask for on the bus, so we got an annoyed bus driver who let us stay on the bus even though we were a little short. From there on out, we would purchase tickets directly at Hlemmur which is the last stop in the city center before the buses turn around and reverse their route. The bad part about this is that this place closes pretty early so you need to plan ahead and buy tickets in time. They do offer some multi-day passes as well.
If you decide to rent a car, here’s some things to consider.
- Don’t stay in just one place. If you’re going to go to the trouble of getting a car, make the most of it and roam the country as much as you can, staying in different places every few nights.
- Speaking of roaming, if you’re feeling especially adventurous you should consider renting a caravan! These are usually equipped with utensils for cooking, wi-fi, and sleeping accommodations.
- Gas stations can be scarce once you leave Reykjavik so it’s recommended that you take a gas can and fill those up when you do get to a gas station.
Money: The great thing about Iceland is that pretty much every place takes credit cards. Just make sure you have a card that doesn’t charge international transaction fees. Thanks to this, we took zero cash with us (although we could have used it for the bus fare our first day).
Food: Everything is expensive and food is no exception. Because of this we grocery shopped to try to save a little bit. When we would go out on our all-day tours, we would pack sandwiches and snacks the night before to take with us so we wouldn’t have to buy food at the tourist traps. For the most part this worked out well for us but the bad part was that since we had no car, we were limited to buying in smaller quantities so that it wouldn’t be too heavy to carry back to the apartment. My sister did try the staple, Icelandic Soup, and was not impressed. We’re Mexican; we own soups, sorry guys.
Must Sees: Keep in mind these are just from my own experiences. Had there been more time and more flexibility in transportation for me, I’m sure this list would be a lot longer. But these are my must-see’s from my time there!
- The Blue Lagoon– This iconic geothermal (technically man-made) area is incredible! I didn’t realize how many negative comments are on sites like Trip Advisor for this place and it astounds me because it was the highlight of my trip besides the Northern Lights. The key, I think, is to get there as soon as it opens before it gets crowded. This means waking up really early (at least for us it did since we had more travel time involved, being in the outskirts and all), but I promise it will be worth it! When we got there it was windy as hell, super cold, and raining. I was almost scared to get off the bus! Once we got there, everyone ran towards the entrance to escape the weather and this was also the case once we finally were about to get into the water. If the weather hadn’t been so bad, I definitely would have shelled out the money to get an in-water massage. The water is as blue as you see on the pictures and it feels amazing! When you’re there you’ll also notice that some spots are warmer than others. My sister and I found that the hottest spot was kind of behind the little area where you can swim up and get drinks, at the end of the dock that’s connected to the drink hut. That area was super hot, in fact it was almost too hot! Now lastly, if I had a rental car I also would have liked to drive out to the country and do some skinny dipping in an actual natural hot spring lol, but alas I didn’t have that opportunity. Either way, I’m so so happy I got to experience the blue lagoon!
- Skogafoss– This is one of the most stunning waterfalls I’ve ever seen and probably will ever see! You can walk right up to the waterfall and there are also stairs to go up behind it but our tour didn’t have time to do that. It’s surrounded by lush green grass, birds flying up high, and a double fucking rainbow. It was magical.
- Jokulsarlon Lagoon– Wow! This is an ice lagoon made up of constantly changing icebergs (hello climate change) that fall from Europe’s biggest glacier, Vatnajokull. Can you say, Titanic? You’ll be on a boat packed w/ other people so take a selfie stick or be tall so you can get the best pics over everyone else’s head.
- Reykjavik– While my main calling in Iceland was nature, I actually fell in love with the city as well. The tiny streets are perfect to meander from bar to bar, cafe to cafe, or shop to shop. Every nook and cranny is interesting and we couldn’t get enough exploring done.
Because of the amount of time we were there and due to our limited transportation we decided that taking tours would be the best way to see Iceland. Here are the tours we decided on:
- Blue Lagoon/Gulfoss/Geysir Tour– What I liked about this tour is all the things we got to see including Phingvellir, Geysir, and many more. The downside was how many things were packed into one day, so time at any one place was extremely limited and didn’t do some of the places justice. My biggest regret from these was not having enough time. So while we did technically visit Phingvellir, we only got the see the entrance. It was cool to drive over the fault where the North American and European continental drift meets, but it would have been cooler to have time to snorkel in there! If you’re in a time crunch then I would recommend this tour, otherwise take your time and dedicate a full day to each place if you can.
- South Coast and Jokulsarlon Lagoon Tour– This was an incredible tour but again very limited time as all the activities were packed into one day. Skogafoss alone was breathtaking and was a huge highlight of the trip. The downside of this tour is that it leaves from Reykjavik but the drive alone is what takes up the most time. I was very disappointed that one of our last stops was Vik yet we only stopped there to eat. No time to really explore this iconic area or go into the famous caves (which remind me of the cave in Harry Potter!). Another downside was the fact that we stopped at night to see Seljalandsfoss which really kind of made it pointless as pictures were impossible unless you had a professional camera, plus it was freezing at that point and all I wanted to do was stay inside the bus. The waterfall was very badly timed as there was time/daylight to see it on the way to Jokulsarlon. However besides Skogarfoss, the lagoon itself was magical and worth the trip. We got to go on a duck tour into the lagoon and also got to taste and hold fresh ice that was about 1000 years old.
- Hunt for Northern Lights– If you are staying in the heart of the city, this is probably a good tour to go on as you won’t get very good views of the Northern Lights due to all the light in the city. For us, however it ended up being pointless as we got the best show in our own (airbnb) backyard. The lights are a MUST SEE so do whatever you can to see them. I promise the cold and the time and the late night will be worth it!
Need to Know:
- If you’re flying into Iceland in the wee hours, get a window seat if possible. The person at the window on my flight was able to catch some glimpses of the Northern Lights!!
- Iceland is expensive! Being a European island, I guess its no surprise, however I had no prior knowledge of what their currency or economy was like so it was a bit of a shock when we were doing research prior to our trip and found out what the exchange rate was.
- The stop lights in Iceland go from green, to yellow, to red, back to yellow (!!), and then green. I’ve never seen a traffic light warn you before it’s about to turn, but it’s actually pretty cool. I also noticed that the lights never last very long on one color, so traffic is always flowing.
- One thing you do need to be aware of is that Icelanders are very open about nudity and it is in fact required to shower before going into any public pool. Now when I say shower, I mean you are in an open, group-type setting and you have to shower naked! As an American this was a big shock, even though I played sports (swim team coincidentally) we would shower as a team but in our bathing suits, so this was not something I had ever actually done. There is even a “shower police” woman in the bathrooms whose job it is to make sure everyone is showering properly! Luckily at the Blue Lagoon there are a few stalls that are more private, although you can still make out the silhouette of people. Unfortunately this is probably the only place in Iceland that has these private stalls. My sister and I went to a local swimming pool that had thermal springs and it was just one big, open shower for all to see lol (girls only bathroom that is).
- Icelanders are good looking, especially the men. So single ladies bring your game!
- Speaking of Icelanders, people there for the most part are very friendly. While I was there I happened to run into an old high school girl friend and her fiance. We all hung out a few times and her fiance had a friend of a friend meet up with us, along with her friends. We ended up at a great little bar in the city center with new local friends and they taught us probably the most important Icelandic word “skal” aka cheers!.
- Towels are not included at the Blue Lagoon so bring your own or pay to rent one there.
- While the Northern Lights tour was promising, it was disappointing. The tour started around 9 or 10 pm and we drove around to a few spots where we could faintly make out the lights in the freezing cold. Luckily for us staying in the outskirts, we got a much much better show in our own backyard! The previous night before our tour we had an awesome light show but the night we got back to our apartment from our tour was the best by far! I don’t even know how long we stayed out, but my sister got some ridiculous shots and I felt like I was tripping on acid. You don’t always have to pay to get an incredible, awe-inspiring experience in Iceland. Again, this is where having a rental can come in super handy.
- While one of our tours made a super quick stop at Skaftafell, we didn’t actually get to explore the park or see the iconic waterfall there. I would recommend booking a tour and dedicating a day exclusively for this, or drive yourself if you have a car.
Whatever your reason for going to Iceland, whether it’s your first time or not, you can’t go wrong in the land of Fire and Ice! This magical place is something everyone should experience at LEAST once. If I could do it all over again I would have more sense of adventure as far as venturing out on my own and exploring more of the rural countryside.
So what do you think? Have you been to Iceland? What are your must-see’s?