iceland recap

2:51 PM

Iceland has been on my bucket list for YEARS. It wasn't until Alyssa and I were there on a short layover at Keflavik International Airport in September when I realized how high on my bucket list it had reached; as we took off to Copenhagen, I couldn't get the sunlight flooding around the cliffs and through water of Iceland out of my mind. I had to go. Luckily, I have some fantastic friends with the same kind of spontaneous travel bug as myself, and before I knew it Crystal and I were texting farewells from LA to New York and reuniting in another country hours later. 

I will start this post by setting the expectations high for Iceland - as you would imagine: it is beyond what you think it is. Everybody says the same thing: "It feels like you're on a different planet", "Do the Golden Circle", "Eat the hot dogs", right? They all say these things for a reason, but there are some moments where a photo or even words simply cannot do the overwhelming mysterious beauty of Iceland justice. I felt like I knew what I was going to see, but when the trip quickly approached, I started feeling quite clueless. I was lucky to have stumbled across Joey Ruocco's post when I was feeling this way and dropped him a message. He sent me an entire itinerary that was perfect for Crystal and I.

We had 4.5 days and 4 nights in Iceland. Here's how we broke it down with some helpful changes and tips along the way and at the end: 

DAY 1: Head East
Seljalandsfoss waterfall 
Skogafoss waterfall
Reynisfjara Black Sand Beach/Basalt Columns

Crystal landed at around 4:30am and I landed shortly after around 5:30. Keflavik International Airport is pretty small and I was out of customs and through baggage claim in less than 20 minutes. The line to pick up our rental car at Hertz Europe was short and the staff was super friendly, including the free upgrade! By 6:30 we were on the road and heading into the unknown. 

Our goal was to get to Jökulsárlón, the furthest east we were planning on heading, then backtracking about 30 minutes to our hotel near Skaftafell/Vatnajökull National Park. The beginning of the drive is breathtaking, but the real fun, in my opinion, doesn't start until you hit Seljalandsfoss -- that's where the landscape gets dramatic. We breezed through Seljalandsfoss, Skogafoss and Reynisfjara without a hitch. All amazing in their own right, all swamped with tourists but still enjoyable. We stopped and played in the mossy lava fields at one point - a tour guide of our later told us this was illegal (so don't be tempted, even if you see other tours doing it like we did!). 

As we were making our way to Jökulsárlón, we started to see this incredible glacier peeking out from the mountains. We spontaneously just started driving toward it, and when we got there, I knew it was easily one of the best parts of the trip. The greatness of this glacier cannot be explained - the feeling this triggers is even more inexplainable. I just didn't expect it, and I wouldn't trade that feeling for anything that day. We finished the day at Jökulsárlón and played around on the ice then headed back to our hotel. 

Finally taking our boots off and getting into a hot shower was everything I needed. Crystal went off to bed and I headed to the upstairs bar to get some work done. After about 30 minutes, there was a great deal of commotion outside from other guests - the Northern Lights were out to play! I went and grabbed Crystal as quickly as I could because I knew how badly she wanted to see them, and they did not disappoint. They start off so dim, I would have thought they were simply clouds in the sky; there were moments where the Aurora just lit up - rays of green and pink light wildly dancing through the sky. It was as magical as you could possibly imagine. As my eyes filled with tears, an Icelander I met humorously muttered "typical American". HA!

DAY 2: Head West
Ice Cave Tour with Goecco
Black Diamond Beach
Black Sand Beach Overlook
Arrive in Reykjavik

We woke up early the next day for the excursion I was looking forward to the most: the Ice Cave Tour! We stuffed our faces with our hotel's complimentary breakfast and made our way back to Jökulsárlón. We were greeted by two very friendly guides who worked for Goecco. We hopped in their truck and were off on an adventure! The ride from the meeting point to the caves was longer than I thought -- we went off-roading around lakes and over glaciers for around 30 minutes until we reached our destination. I'm going to tell you all about our Ice Cave Tour Experience in a blog post tomorrow - so stay tuned. I highly recommending using Goecco for any of their experiences - not only are they a fantastic company, but they're a local family run business. 

Directly after the Ice Cave Tour we headed across the street to Black Diamond Beach. It was freezing and pouring down rain, but it was also a completely unforgettable experience seeing the crystal clear chunks of glacier washing up the black sand beach. This is the stuff you only see on the internet, and we were seeing everything in person. We were cutting it close to getting back to Reykjavik by sunset, so we got on our way with one short stop at the Black Sand Beach Overlook off road 218 (you take road 215 to the actual Black Sand Beach). It was really nice, but also SUPER windy. We enjoyed it as much as we could have with the weather conditions. 

We got back to Reykjavik with plenty of time for a hot dog from the famous Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur, then settled into our Airbnb and drifted off to sleep. 

DAY 3: The Golden Circle
Þingvellir National Park - Tectonic Rift
Geysir Geothermal Area – Strokkur Geysir
Gullfoss Waterfall
Explore & Dinner in Reykjavik

Another early morning, another CLIF bar, another adventure. We were off to do the infamous Golden Circle drive. Just a note - the Golden Circle is not a destination, so when you're using your GPS, start with Þingvellir National Park. We had an action-packed first two days in Iceland full of driving, rain and wind, so we were excited for a shorter day trip where we could explore what Reykjavik had to offer in the afternoon and evening. 

Crystal and I breezed through the attractions of the Golden Circle with ease. Each sight equally as stunning as the next - no disappointments, no let-downs, and the gift shop at Geyser is actually the coolest shopping spot I found in Iceland. Iceland is an incredibly simple country to navigate and self-drive and if you do your research, it will absolutely meet and exceed your expectations. 

Following the Golden Circle, we headed back to Reykjavik for dinner. Our Goecco tour guide told us the best place for Icelandic cuisine was Grillmarkaðurinn or Grill Market. We tried whale, puffin, and of course, lamb. I highly recommend coming here for a meal (others have suggested doing the tasting menu). It's not cheap, but you can't go to Iceland to be cheap my friends.

DAY 4: Drive to the Snæfellsnes Peninsula
Búðir Black Church

Our last full day in Iceland was spent driving north. My roommate was keen on doing this when he visited months earlier. Admittedly, it's the day I did the least amount of research on, and it showed. We started for Kirkjufell, and as soon as we got into the mountains, the rain hit us pretty hard. Looking back on our trip, as temperamental as Iceland's weather is, we should have loosely scheduled our trip so we could adjust anything according to the weather. A "Plan B" and "Plan C" could have been useful at some points. Kirkjufell was nice and we enjoyed it as much as we could have with the weather, then headed to Búðir Black Church. This was by far the most interesting drive of the trip as we headed up a steep gravel road, and by up, I mean up a mountain. Before we knew it, the narrow gravel road was surrounded by thick fog, snow, and wind. There was no turning back. Crystal was a great co-pilot and our Toyota from Hertz Europe was an absolute life saver - after a while (with white knuckles) we were heading down to flat land and arrived safely at the Búðir Black Church. I wish we could have stayed there for hours. 

We stopped for a hot dog on the way home and ended the evening walking around the shops of Reykjavik and enjoyed a warm, filling soup from Noodle Station - a suggestion from Crystal's colleague. It was just what we needed.

DAY 5: Blue Lagoon
Oh, the Blue Lagoon - what most Instagrammers think of when Iceland comes to mind. When I really thought about the Blue Lagoon, I got a little anxious about how it was all going down -- Was it safe? Would I have privacy? Was it clean? After the fact - my worries were smothered flawlessly. You get a wristband with a chip in it - this will get you in and out of the locker you choose. The showers are clean. There are enough changing rooms for everyone. There are only a specific number of reservations so it's not overcrowded. Plus, you get a free drink (hello, prosecco!) and can walk around in one of their face masks looking like a zombie in the fog for as long as you'd like. The tips that everyone suggests? NEVER let your hair touch the water, and go on your way to the airport so you're relaxed on the flight. There's a reason everybody gives these tips! Lastly, there's a ton of hair dryers so you're not heading out in the cold all wet (they're powerful, too!).

Buy an SD card for your phone at the beforehand or airport! 10GB should get you though 5 days as long as you're not using the GPS on your phone all the time. It was around $25USD. No need to buy a second, you can money to the first card you buy. Make sure you have earrings with you to replace the SD card in your phone and a safe place to keep your regular SD card throughout your trip. I still advise to use wifi whenever possible to conserve your data.

Crampons are a must when it's icy. If you don't use them, take them home and return them! 

Food IS expensive. It's not a joke. It's around $20 for a bowl of soup at a gas station in Iceland. Bring some protein bars, jerky, and other easy travel snack in your carry on so you spend your hard earned money on the good food.

We skipped the Sólheimasandur Plane Crash becasue it was a long walk and it looked like a LOT of people were parked to go there. It kind of takes away from the appeal of it being deserted - so maybe next time. 

Renting a car and self-driving is a must-do. Yes, gas is expensive, but it doesn't take much gas to drive around the entire country. You have a safe, warm place to return to at all times. And it's a place to keep extra jackets and socks that you should bring should you get wet during the day.

Make sure you know the PIN number for your credit card. Many gas stations will ask for this! (Yes, you do have one, just call your bank).

I also really wanted to see Fjadrargljufur Canyon, but I think some sights in Iceland will be best saved for when I go back in the warmer months! 

While most of Iceland is credit card friendly, make sure you have a little cash. When we stopped to see the horses, there was a little booth where you could give them "horse candy", but you needed to leave cash for them. Of course this is an honor system, but honesty is key! 

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