Iceland is a nature-lovers dream. It’s formidable landscape has a very special way of making you feel the size of an ant and like you’re the only person there. Being one of the safest countries in the world, with a population of only 335,000 people, travelling in Iceland is sort of like travelling in a very large village.
It’s a magical experience, and though (much like trying to pick a favourite child) I don’t have a favourite country, I do get a very warm fuzzy feeling every time I think about my time in Iceland.
Iceland has had all of the usual, run of the mill, guidebooks written about it. But, with names you can’t pronounce, huge sprawling areas and maps that don’t really impart the sense of scale of things, it can be hard to wrap your head around planning a trip to Iceland.
So, I decided to present the 3rd instalment of my Iceland series. Let’s go over a few of the basic questions to help you get a handle on Iceland.
How long should I spend in Iceland?
Iceland is a great destination, whether you have 3 days or 3 weeks.
You can use it as a stopover between a Euro/USA flight, especially with the competitively priced transatlantic deals from WOW Air. 3 days visiting The Golden Circle and Reykjavik; you will have enjoyed a reasonable slice of Icelandicness without too much effort.
But, if you really want to get the most out of this little gem of a country, you need to seriously consider dedicating 2-3 weeks to an itinerary. Yes, Route 1 can be driven in (very much approximately) 17 hours. So, theoretically you could comfortably cover this in a 1 week holiday.. Theoretically.
However, Iceland’s real charm lies in taking it slowly, not sticking to Route 1 and finding magical, deserted places that are off the well beaten track of Route 1.
Plus, if you do stick to Route 1, you’ll never see the West Fjords and to me, they are perhaps the most breathtaking part of the entire country. The East Fjords are beautiful too, but they are nowhere near as formidable and exciting as the dramatic west.
WHAT IS ROUTE 1?!
Route 1 is the main road around Iceland, sometimes referred to as the “Ring Road” because it forms a nice neat circle around all of Iceland. It’s well maintained (with tarmac no less!), and generally the only road you can rely on to be open year round.
When should I go?
Throw all usual weather expectations out the window on this one. Normal rules do not apply in Iceland when it comes to year-round tourism. If you are looking to explore the entire country (outside of Route 1 and Highlands), forget any time other than mid June to early September. That’s your only real opportunity to guarantee you’ll be snow-free and won’t encounter weather disruptions.
That said, even during June-September, that will not guarantee you’re wind, volcano or flooding free. There’s always some random occurrence in Iceland to keep you on your toes!
The good news is Iceland has a fantastic natural disaster warning system. They’ll text your phone if anything kicks off, no matter what nationality (as long it has signal). You should also keep your on eye SafeTravel.is every day and check Icelandic Met Office for regular weather updates. Consider lodging your route with SafeTravel, especially if you’re travelling during the quiet season.
WHEN WOULD PHOEBE GO?
I think the best time is around the second week of September. Yes, this is very specific. But, it’s the golden window of opportunity between most European holidaymakers going home (flights are likely cheaper!), it’s before the weather gets bad but most activities are still open (just!), and…
I’ll let you in to a secret; early September is one of the best times to see the Northern Lights!
But I want to visit outside of June – September!
Great. Be flexible. Your accommodation are (generally speaking) flexible too, as they understand weather can disrupt plans if you’ve made prior bookings. Consider sticking to Route 1, seriously consider choosing a 4×4 and be hyper vigilant about checking government websites for warnings.
On the plus side.. Visiting outside of the peak tourist season means it’s quieter, prices are usually cheaper and guesthouses happier to bargain for your business.
On the not so good side.. The majority of Iceland’s great activities are only available during summer season, less accommodation open their doors and you’re much more limited on what roads you can take because great expanses of the country become uninhabitable.
TOP TIP: YOUR ACCOMMODATION IS A MINE OF INFORMATION!
One thing I could never understand when I worked at a guest house, was how few of our guests would ask us for advice. The people I worked for had lived there all their lives, they know the area inside out and are the best people to give you insider tips, great places to go and offer advice on road conditions. Never under estimate local knowledge, especially if you are considering straying off Route 1.
Where should I go?
Everywhere! No, really. I would have, if I could, during my 2 week trip. I didn’t have that luxury and I doubt you will either, unless you’ve got a 3 month excursion planned.
So, here’s a break down on the key areas in Iceland, to help you narrow down what you want to see…
Head north of Reykjavik, then west a bit, and you end up on the Snaefellsness peninsular. The road is varying degrees of quality, some gravel (when you get on to the peninsular), but mostly easy driving. You’re rewarded with great views and rugged coastline. There’s a glacier (hiking tours available!), a large national park, and the quaint town of Stykkishólmur which I can note down as another Icelandic town name I can’t quite pronounce properly.
Snaefellsness is perfect for… A sneaky few days from Reykjavik and back again, enjoy a taste of Iceland without straying too far and spending your entire holiday driving.
Dedicate.. Spend a couple of days in Reykjavik and take 3 days to enjoy the peninsular, a neat 6 day break awaits.
WHAT DID PHOEBE DO?
We drove all the way from Reykjavik to Stykkishólmur in one day, had a night there after enjoying a slap up meal and then headed on to tackle the West Fjords.
In hindsight? Maybe should’ve allowed more time to stop for the glacier hike.
Many tourists skip on exploring the West Fjords in favour of other parts of Iceland. A mere 3% of all tourists bother to visit. Fair enough, you don’t need to stare at the squiggly lines of the road map to understand that undertaking the West Fjords circuit is a bit of a mission. However, if you do, you will not be disappointed. There’s nothing quite like driving up and down over fjords, or nearly getting blown off the cliffs of Latrabjarg.
The West Fjords are almost a no man’s land, even during summer the population of the entire West Fjords is tiny (less than 7,000 and shrinking!), and with a distinct lack of tourists you really do have the place to yourselves. It’s a glorious feeling.
Granted, if you’re looking for a long list of exciting activities, the West Fjords won’t deliver. But, if you’re looking for some of the most breathtaking scenery in Iceland? You’re headed to the right place.
WHAT DID PHOEBE DO?
We drove: Stykkishólmur > Flókalundur > daytime stop a Latrabjarg > Bíldudalur > Heydalur > day time stop in Holamvik > Hvammstangi aka 3 whole nights in the West Fjords.
On our first night we made the interesting mistake of booking a not-yet-finished container conversion, somewhere near Flókalundur. It made for an unusual nights sleep, but thankfully we had a glorious fjord to look at.
In contrast, on our third night in the fjords, we stayed in the incredible Heydalur where we met an arctic fox(!) and enjoyed one of the most beautiful surroundings of the entire trip.
Westfjords: Latrabjarg aka a place that has one road in/one road out
Latrabjarg is a popular choice thanks to it being a top puffin spotting area, though it does require a bit of a detour if you want to visit; it is out on a limb so you must return on the same road. We ended up there on the most blustery, rainy and crazy weather-day you can imagine. Despite this and not seeing a single puffin, Latrabjarg was absolutely worth the drive; the views are amazing and the dramatic cliff face is well worth a trudge up and down the edge of, even in high winds and rain!
Westfjords: What to expect from the rest of the West Fjords
Lots and lots of amazing looking fjords. In addition to some of the best, untouched, fjord scenery going, there’s a few hidden gems of geothermal pools around and plenty of waterfalls. Perhaps maybe one of the most impressive waterfalls in all of Iceland in fact, Dynjandi (Fjallfoss in Icelandic).
Westfjords is perfect for.. True adventure, exploring, dramatic landscapes and some fun (albeit challenging!) driving.
Dedicate.. If you skip Snaefellsness, you could explore the West Fjords at a leisurely pace with a 7-10 day holiday.
East of Laugarbakki on Route 1, there is a right turn on Road 715 to a rather spectacular waterfall called Kolugljúfur. Our accommodation in Hvammstangi recommended it and it was a surprising gem that we enjoyed alone.
When you say “North Iceland” you’re talking about a huge area and it’s a pretty vague description. Few people use the official regions when discussing areas in Iceland and the north in particular often gets lumped together.
Geographically, “North Iceland” is very spread out, though the main gem of an area is in and around Myvatn.
“North Iceland” has a lot to offer, so lets break it down a little…
North Iceland: Forget Route 1, lets take Road 76!
Just after Varmahlíð (on Route 1), you can take a sneaky detour that is Route 76; a road that skirts around the corner of Northern Iceland. It doesn’t look all too remarkable on the map but it takes you past some noteworthy sites including Hólar (a short same road in/out detour off Route 76), picturesque Dalvik (Dalvík) and neatly back to Akureyri. If you’re not too short on time, it’s worth doing as it is prettier than Route 1.
North Iceland: Akureyri – That town with the incomprehensibly difficult name
Akureyri will feel like a bustling metropolis after 5 days in the West Fjords! It’s a beautiful town, nestled amongst yet more fjords, affording a stunning backdrop. Though there are a few museums, it’s worth spending more of your time heading further east to get to Myvatn once you’ve had your fill of seeing more than 20 people at once again.
Stop here for.. Good food and shopping. There’s even a delicious Indian cafe! And if you’re around for the last weekend of August, don’t miss the Akureyri festival.
A must do for all Christmas fiends is Jólagarðurinn (that’s The Christmas Garden in English), just outside of Akureyri. Slightly surreal if it’s not actually Christmas, this treasure trove of sparkly Christmas things is surprisingly wonderful and never fails to feel cheerfully festive, no matter the time of the year!
Stop here for.. A bag of the delicious Christmas spiced roasted nuts.
North Iceland: Akureyri to Myvatn
Aside from being a downright lovely drive, 45 minutes east of Akureyri, you will come upon Godafoss (Goðafoss). Yet another ludicrously impressive waterfall. It’s worth a stop, a walk around the rocks and should be viewed from as many angles as possible, to really appreciate it.
GODAFOSS TOP TIP: AN OFT MISSED OPPORTUNITY
Make sure you stop on the hill, as you’re driving east towards Myvatn, to look back and appreciate the amazing view of Godafoss from afar. You can see the way it has carved its self out of the valley; incredible.
North Iceland: Almighty Myvatn
Myvatn (Mývatn) is a little confusing, as you may think that Myvatn is the name of a town or village. Really, Myvatn is used to describe an area and is the name of the lakes in the middle of that area. The only real ‘hub’ of Myvatn is Reykjahlid (Reykjahlíð) which has a shop (noteworthy if you’re self catering) and a petrol station. The rest of the accommodation and activities are spread out around the area – Route 1 skirts around the north of the lake, whilst road 848 circuits the south, completing the circle.
Myvatn is where I spent 3 months working in a guest house, so I was able to explore this area very thoroughly during my summer. I can safely say, Myvatn offers lots of cool things to do and is well worth at least 3 days of anyones holidays. Though you could whirl away a week here, especially if you love bird life.
Check out my post on Top Things To Do in Myvatn – Coming Soon!
SHH, SNEAKY SOUTHERN WATERFALL!
If you are visiting Myvatn, have a 4×4 vehicle and fancy an adventure; Aldeyjarfoss is a geologists dream. A gravelly hour and a half hour south of Myvatn, offering incredible rock formations, water carved canyon and a breathtaking drive through a stunning valley, it’s well worth the trip if you have the time for yet another waterfall.
North Iceland: Leaving Route 1 at Myvatn for Road 85
A worthwhile detour north from Route 1 will take you on to Road 85. If you head north from Myvatn you can easily join up with 85 and visit Husavik (Húsavík) along the way.
Perhaps more importantly, you can visit Asbyrgi (Ásbyrgi) which I think is a very special place; a huge U shaped canyon which has a small forest inside as the trees can survive thanks to being protected from Iceland’s harsh wind. It also has the best “duck pond” I’ve ever seen and a magical vibe. Worth an hour or two to tromp about, and an top picnic spot.
North Iceland: Husavik – A whale of a time?
The most popular thing to do in Husavik is to take a whale watching tour. You can see all sorts of delights from boat, depending on the time of year. Humpbacks are a common sighting, and perhaps even an orca. Be warned, it’s very cold on the boat and usually fetching boiler suits are provided to stave off the cold.
North Iceland: Don’t Forget Detti
Up there as one of the most famous waterfalls in Iceland and Europe’s most powerful, Dettifoss has to be seen to be believed. The sheer volume of water is so great, it can fill your full range of vision and create a dizzying optical illusion. Accessed from two sides, east (road 862) is paved and usually open year round, west (road 864) is gravel and the quieter option. There’s also a bonus waterfall of Selfoss a short walk up stream from east Dettifoss.
North Iceland is perfect for.. People who want to stay in one place a bit longer; high concentration of things to do, without moving every day.
Dedicate.. At least 3-4 days in Myvatn, more if you’re especially in to birds, and easy to whirl away a week or more if you explore off Route 1.
The East doesn’t really get going until Egilsstadir (Egilsstaðir), which is the main hub of the area though I found it to be rather unremarkable except great for a supermarket stop if you’re self catering.
By far the standout town of the east is Seydisfjordur (Seyðisfjörður), situated at the end of a dead-end road nestled in a fjord, it takes a bit more effort to visit but is well worth the trip. Known as being a bit of an artists retreat, it offers (yet more) stunning views with some lovely cafes and artisan shops to boot. As if that wasn’t enough, there’s an impressive roadside waterfall (Gufufoss) just before you reach Seydisfjordur.
East Iceland offers lots of exciting detours aside from Route 1 and some interesting dead end roads to more fjord-land if you haven’t had your fill.
East Iceland is perfect for.. A taste of fjords if you don’t make it to the west and some wild drives if you stray off Route 1.
Dedicate.. If you’ve made it that far east, you’ve already been in Iceland a few days; tag on an extra 2 or 3 days to see the East properly, especially Seydisfjordur.
I’m choosing to lump all of the South together, as far east as Höf, as doing a southern drive is an easy activity-filled hop from Reykjavik.
Laying at the doorstep of South Iceland is the southern entrance to Vatnajokull (Vatnajökull) National Park, covering a staggering 13% of Iceland and containing Europe’s largest glacier. It is a huge area compromising of two very different climates; the lowlands and the highlands. Day trips to hike the glacier are popular from Skaftafell, if you’re not confident enough to explore Vatnajokull independently.
South Iceland: Hiccup or Hof?
Hof makes for an obvious, though quiet, stop over and offers a useful supermarket stop, but little else. The usual nice views.
South Iceland: Glacier-a-gogo
If you push on a little further (when traveling from East to West) from Hof, you reach Jokulsarlon (Jökulsárlón) right alongside Route 1. Jokulsarlon offers the very unique experience of seeing great chunks of glacier (courtesy of Vatnajokull) floating around a ginormous lake before they melt in to the sea. During summer you can even take a fun boat ride through the icebergs, whilst donning yet another attractive boiler suit.
South Iceland: Black sand beauty
Second on the South’s “Top Spots” list is Vik (Vík), the famous black sand beach. I’ve visited black sand beaches before in other countries, but few match up to the dramatic scenery that surrounds Vik, where the black sand frames the rough rolling seas and incredible rock formations. Exciting geology and delicate flora make Vik a very special place indeed.
South Iceland: Like something out of My Little Pony
A short way west of Vik, and slightly north from Route 1, is Skogafoss. The ultimate rainbow waterfall and the start of an impressive hiking trail that winds it’s way between the two glaciers of Eyjafjallajökull and Mýrdalsjökull. Skogafoss is probably the most photogenic of all Iceland’s waterfalls, from a distance or close up.
A BONUS FOLK MUSEUM
Randomly located near Skogafoss is Skógasafn, the Skogar Folk Museum. There are several ‘folk’ museums dotted around the country, which are varying degrees of size and quality. Skogar is one of the better and larger collections, and can easily eat up an hour or two of your time if you peruse meticulously.
South Iceland is perfect for.. If you’re short on time, you can pack a lot in; do awesome activities, see icebergs and your fill of waterfalls. You’ll miss out on the truly dramatic fjord scenery in the West but the beautiful black sands of Vik will make up for it.
Dedicate.. At a push, you could do an insane amount in 4 days if you’re willing to have long days and drive several hours each day. Comfortably? I’d dedicate a week.
All that stuff near Reykjavik
As you get within 2 hours of Reykjavik (to the South East and East), the concentration of roads and access to sights becomes more abundant and easier. It still has a sense of adventure, and wilderness about it, but is noticeably more inhabited and well connected than the rest of Iceland. There’s stacks to explore, and several roads which offer different detours from Reykjavik dependent on how much time you have to spend.
Thanks to the 2010 volcanic eruption of Eyjafjallajökull that disrupted European flights for weeks, Iceland gained two things; plenty of free media exposure and a wonderful visitor centre called “Eyjafjallajökull Erupts“. For a few euros, you can watch the most amazing documentary about a family who lived through the eruption. It’s the perfect way to truly understand Icelanders sheer resilience and nonchalance to mother nature. Included is an exhibition about the eruption.
All that stuff near Reykjavik: Highlights Reel
As I said above, there’s an abundance of things to see not far outside of the city by some of my favourite popular spots include…
Seljalandsfoss – a popular contender for “most popular Icelandic waterfall on Pinterest”, because you can actually walk behind the cascading water. Unique and worth a stop!
Porsmork – A picturesque national park, which is also a popular starting point to begin a hike to Landmannlaugar (approx 4 days). A detour off Route 1.
Landmannlaugar (by road) – Though I never visited myself, I heard rave reviews about the stunning Landmannlaugar, as it offers incredible ‘colourful hills’. Hard to say, hard to reach; it requires a 4X4 due to bad roads. An easy shortcut is to book a day tour from Reykjavik.
Þjóðveldisbærinn – Yes, this is a real place and (thankfully) is commonly known as “Stöng” (sort of said like “stonk”). A slightly off the beaten track farm, dating way back to the Vikings. Part of it is recreated, part of it original. Perfect if you love a good saga tale.
Selfoss – Another very popular and dramatic waterfall. Similar to the sort of formations you see at Dettifoss and Godafoss, it is sometimes included in the ‘Golden Circle’ tour.
Geyser Geothermal Area – Just before Gulfoss is a hot spot geothermal area. Stokkur Geyser reliably erupts every few minutes (with no human intervention required!), it’s an impressive spurt of water and always draws an ‘ooh’ and a ‘ahh’ crowd.
Gulfoss – Probably Iceland’s most photographed waterfall, thanks to it’s easy access from Reykjavik and dramatic cascades. It’s worth seeing, but you’ll likely to be more impressed by the off-the-beaten track waterfalls, if you venture further in Iceland.
Thingvellir (Þingvellir) National Park – Worthy of day to its self for exploring, Thingvellir is a stunner of interesting coloured moss and mountains. It’s also home to the fissure between the North America and Eurasia tectonic plates. If you want to get up close and personal, consider a snorkelling tour between the plates in a dry suit – where water temperatures hover above 0c!
Reykjanes Peninsula – Home to the airport, Blue Lagoon and yet more nice scenery, this can be an easy arrival or departure tour, especially if you’re only enjoying a short layover.
THE FAMOUS GOLDEN CIRCLE DAY TRIP
Usually this includes Gullfoss, Thingvellir National Park, a few geysers, hot pools and maybe a crater. It’s an easy trip to do independently or with a tour. It’s the most popular tour in Iceland so prices are significantly more competitive than any other day trip and groups leave daily (weather dependent).
Exploring around Reykjavik is perfect for.. Those who only have a short layover or trip and want to maximise on Icelandicness within minimum time.
Dedicate.. If you’re in to the National Parks, you could easily whirl away a week or more here, otherwise to see the best of it 3 or 4 days is more than enough.
What did Phoebe do again?!
My friends and I did all of the above in 2 weeks, in a Honda CRV. In hindsight, it’s hard to imagine now just how much we packed in. We chose to move to a new accommodation most nights (except in Myvatn) and averaged around 3-4 hours of driving a day. If you want explore more and move less, 3 weeks is a healthy amount of time to dedicate to most things but you’ll need even longer if you want to visit everything, plus the Highlands, avoid Route 1 and take in some hikes!
What about The Highlands? Or The Lowlands?
Ah that mysterious and wild central area of Iceland. I never made it there myself, but as a general rule the middle of Iceland (commonly referred to as the “highlands” or “lowlands” depending on which bit) is very hostile and hard to access. Tours can be taken from both the North and South of Iceland, to areas like Askja (from the North) or Vatnajökull National Park (from the South). But, you need to get really serious about the gear you take and be ready for some mega adventure if you’re considering venturing independently. Weather fronts are even more changeable and amenities sparse.
Watch this space for a Reykjavik-filled post coming soon!
- Iceland: How best to see Iceland on a budget
- Iceland: 10 Unusual Things To Do
- Iceland: So, you want to visit Iceland?