A couple of years back, I did an Iceland road trip – and to this day, despite countless other trips and adventures, I still come back to Iceland as one of the coolest places I’ve ever been.
The photos you’ll see of Iceland may make it seem super remote and extreme – a place where very few dare to visit. But unfortunately you’d be totally wrong: nowadays it is somewhat overrun with tourists. As a country, it’s experienced a huge increase in the number of visitors (in 2017 there were over 2 million visitors – which is more than 6 times the total population of the country!), so if you really want a proper Icelandic experience – and photos that are not crawling with tourists! – you need to get off the beaten track. No Blue Lagoon for you, and definitely no coach tour round the Golden Circle. Trust me, where you’re going will be worth the extra effort – and you won’t be missing out (the Blue Lagoon is man made anyway, the waters warmed by the nearby power plant!).
So book your flights to Reykjavik, hire a car, and maybe aim to visit in the “shoulder season” (i.e. avoid the peaks of winter and summer – although this may reduce your chances of seeing the Northern Lights). These are my must-see places along the south coast…
Reykjavik is actually a pretty small city with a limited number of things to do, so I’d recommend spending just one day there.
Where to stay:
There are lots of design-led hotels in Reykjavik, so you can’t go hugely wrong, but check out 101 Hotel for boutique luxury, Skuggi Hotel for affordable design, or Kex Hostel as a trendy budget option.
Best coffee: Reykjavik Roasters
Reykjavik Roasters have a few cafes around the city – the Kárastígur cafe is cosy and eclectic, and Freyjugata is a bit more polished. The roaster takes centerstage, and you’ll often find them roasting during opening hours which is cool to watch. Great coffee and light bites.
Best bakery / breakfast: Brauð & Co.
This graffiti-covered bakery is heaven – and the glass-fronted kitchen gives you an insight into how it’s all done. In general, food is incredibly expensive in Iceland, but this bakery was pretty reasonable. We therefore opted to live off cinnamon buns during our trip – stock up before heading out!
[Be warned, eating out in Iceland is very expensive! Always check the menu/prices before ordering.]
Snaps: Trendy greenhouse-esque interior, for dinner or brunch.
ROK: Cosy spot serving small plates – great if you want to share a variety of Icelandic-style dishes (although a less extreme version of Icelandic cuisine – think reindeer tartare rather than fermented shark!).
Fiskmarkaðurinn: Unsurprisingly, Icleand’s seafood is pretty decent, so this sushi spot is well supplied. This place is quite upmarket (there’s a tasting menu if you want to try the best of everything), and booking is advised.
THINGS TO SEE & DO:
Hallgrímskirkja: A beautiful, modern church – which from the outside resembles Thor’s hammer! You can climb the spire for expansive city views.
The Culture House: An interesting museum dedicated to Iceland’s cultural history – although I was most appreciative of the building itself, previously the Central Library.
Harpa: Reykjavik’s concert hall is an impressive structure, with light streaming in, and right on the water. Even if you don’t manage to see a concert, it’s definitely worth checking out the building itself.
After a day in Reykjavik, it’s time to get out and see some natural wonders!
EXPLORING THE SOUTH COAST OF ICELAND:
Where to stay: A cabin on the black sand beach
The black sand beaches at Vík are Insta-famous – so the ultimate place to stay is in a cabin on said beach! This Airbnb host, a former farmer, now rents out his cabins, and we loved our stay. The location is great for exploring from, the cabins are cosy, with a little kitchenette (great if you fancy eating in and avoiding paying through the nose for a restaurant dinner!) and stunning sea views.
POINTS OF INTEREST:
Cool rock formations, biting wind and moody weather make the black sand beach of Reynisfjara all the more stunning. If you do manage to rent one of the cabins I recommended above, this is basically on your doorstep. Try and visit at dawn to beat the crowds.
Reykjadalur Hot Springs:
Park up then it’s a short hike to the hot springs (through clouds of sulphur, along stunning ridges and past boiling bubbling springs). And unlike the Blue Lagoon, this thermal bathing area is 100% natural – there is literally hot water coming up out of the ground in several places, combining with the cool stream, and you can just leap in and wallow wherever you like! The trick is to find a part of the stream where there’s a good balance of hot and cold water coming together (be careful, because some areas are boiling!). There are no changing rooms – you’re really at one with nature here – but the short hike required to reach the springs means it doesn’t get too busy, and it is free (unlike many of the springs and pools which are all setup for tourism, with showers etc – but charge a premium for entry).
That famous waterfall – you’ll have seen the photos I’m sure. Expect tourists (but also parking, bathrooms and coffee!) but it’s easy to access, and very impressive, so you can’t miss this one. There are, however, plenty of waterfalls in Iceland – just keep an eye out for signs that include “foss”.
Sólheimasandur plane wreck:
Park up on the road, and then it’s a long walk of nothingness to reach this spectacle – you’re walking through a black sand desert and can’t even see your destination – until you’re almost upon it! The Sólheimasandur plane wreck is a 1973 US military plane that ran out of fuel and crash landed onto the black sand beach of southern Icelands (deaths: 0). Unfortunately Justin Bieber filmed a music video here, skateboarding along the top of it (idiot) so it’s become more well-known in recent years – so I definitely advise getting up super early to beat the crowds. It’s worth it – this was a bucket list tick for me!
Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon:
The bucket list ticks came thick and fast in Iceland – and the Glacier Lagoon was right up there for me. This place was magical, beautiful and peaceful. I could have sat and watched the slow movement of the icebergs for hours and, having looked at so many photos of the lagoon before arriving, I found it pretty moving to finally see it myself.
Just across the road from Jökulsárlón you’ll find Diamond Beach, so named because of the perfectly clear icebergs that sparkle on the shore. This will be more or less impressive depending on the time of year (the icebergs were pretty small by the time we arrived in April, but would have been more impressive in winter), but still amazing. We also spotted seals in the water here.
Mossy Lava Fields:
Around Eldhraun you’ll see these green fields stretching away into the distance. They’re lava fields that, over the years, have become covered in moss, and they’re very impressive to behold. Their beauty masks their creation, which was one of the most devastating eruptions in recorded history: 14 cubic kilometres of basalt lava poured from the Laki fissure for 8 months between 1783 and 1784, killing over half of Iceland’s livestock, decimating the fish stocks in the sea – and the resulting famine killed a quarter of Iceland’s human population. The smoke and debris from the eruption affected as far as North America, India and Egypt (full details here).
The serenity of the scene these days gives no hint of its destructive past – helped in part by the thick green moss that has softened the landscape. Be sure to stay on the designated paths when exploring (the moss takes decades to grow). This is definitely another bucket list location.
This deep and winding canyon looks like something out of Lord of the Rings. Formed over a couple of million years, the jagged edges, river and carpets of green make this another breathtaking landscape for a stroll.
It’s a 40-minute hike from the parking lot to reach this waterfall, which falls down into a canyon against an impressive backdrop of 3D hexagonal basalt columns. I came to appreciate the tourist attractions that required a walk to reach, however – the extra effort reduces the number of tourists, and the hiking routes were always rewarding in themselves.
Golden Circle highlights:
Although we tried to avoid the Golden Circle (since it’s the main tourist route, and therefore rammed with coach-loads of tourists with selfie sticks), it does include some spots that are worth braving the crowds for. My picks would be Þingvellir (steeped in history and folklore, and situated directly between two tectonic plates – a rare spot to see the Mid Atlantic Ridge above sea level) and the Geysir geothermal area (if you’ve come all the way to Iceland, you should definitely see at least one geyser erupting! The Strokkur geyser pumps boiling water 10-40m in the air every 6-10 minutes).
We were lucky enough to have a drone during our Iceland trip – take a look at our highlights:
You can see all my recommendations on Instagram via the #HYHOIinIceland hashtag.