I have always been very vocal with my love for Iceland. Ever since I first learned that we can visit this island country, I immediately include it in my ultimate bucket list journal.
To be honest, Iceland wasn’t really in the radar of the countries that I want to visit. I was ignorant to think that you can’t see anything there (SHAME), but after visiting some of the countries in Scandinavia, in a hostel in Stockholm, Sweden, my roommate told me that after Sweden, he will be flying to Iceland, another friend told me over dinner that her next destination is Iceland….whaaaat? What is with Iceland, and why I never thought of including it in my trip? So I went home, forgot about my confusion, but after watching (my favorite) The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, the idea of “I need to visit Iceland soon” got established!
Fast forward, I left work in Dubai and backpacked around Europe. You guessed it right, part of my trip was a month long visit in Iceland! YASSSS!
If you are reading this, you are probably also dreaming of someday exploring the land of Ice and Fire or you might be on your way there now. I will be lying if I’ll say that it is easy to travel in Iceland – if you have tons of cash, it can be a different story – but for those who are traveling on a budget, Iceland can be a little challenging. Don’t fret, it is still very doable (heck, I was able to stay there for a month with a tight budget and got to explore the whole island).
To cut the story short, I created a list of attractions and also tips for those who are traveling / planning / dreaming to travel to Iceland.
WHEN TO GO (THE PERFECT TIME TO PLAN YOUR TRIP)
You can visit Iceland in 2 different periods. It really depends on what you want to experience. This is where the tricky part of planning will happen.
During the summer months (mid-June to early September) will bring you more day-light and the famous “Midnight Sun” – read more about this below. You should note that summer months are considered as peak season, meaning accommodations and tours will be more expensive than its winter packages.
During winter months (mid-September to late March) will have lesser daylight especially around December to February but during this period, you will have a chance to see the elusive “Northern Lights” – read more about this below. Also winter will be very cold…I mean, V E R Y C O L D.
I visited during winter. There really is a charm seeing everything covered in ice. I found myself at one point walking on knee-high snow and relying on just the car heater to survive. The main reason why it opted for this season is to catch a glimpse of the dancing northern lights (like mosts tourists). Although I already fell in love with Iceland, with what I’ve done and what I saw, many locals told me that I should comeback during the summer months and I will definitely see a different country, where there are more people basking in the sun and also an opportunity to set up a camp in the mountain and watch the sun perfectly kiss the horizon —SOMEDAY…SOMEDAY.
ATTRACTIONS (WHERE TO GO – WHAT TO DO)
Reykjavik is the country’s capital. Two-thirds of the whole Icelandic population resides here. With a little more than 300,000 of the county’s population, that isn’t saying much. The city still feels very remote compared to other larger European cities.
Although Reykjavik is the central business district and tourism hub of the country, the city will still give you a small fishing village vibe. You will not see skyscrapers towering over its roads or big shopping mall trumping over small boutiques. Here you can freely walk and appreciate the quiet and simple Scandinavian life. Everything is so artsy and hip! – also very expensive (sorry to burst your bubble but this is really a fact).
If you are visiting Iceland, there is a very slim chance to miss a day in Reykjavik as it is the main meeting point of all tours around the island. Most (if not all) tour companies are based in Reykjavik, just walk around the town center and you will easily find travel agencies that will help you get the most out of your stay in the country. Reykjavik also is the best place to buy souvenirs (if you are looking at getting ref magnets, you can find tons of it here!).
And of course I am highly recommending to at least stay here even just for a day or two. Being believed to be the location of the first permanent Icelandic settlement, this city not only gives you a beautiful town to explore, but you will also learn a lot about the island and its history.
THINGS TO DO IN REYKJAVIK
FREE WALKING TOUR
A must in any major European city: look for a free walking tour! Reykjavik is no exemption. I was so happy to find a local “free” walking tour in Reykjavik. City Walk Reykjavik is one of the famous and I must say recommendable tours to get in Reykjavik. The famous two hour walking tour focuses on the history of Iceland, the evolution of Reykjavík as a town and Icelandic culture in general, laid out in an informative and comic way. I enjoyed this tour so much. Very educational and fun! Plus as a bonus, you’ll get to meet like-minded people on your trip (yey for new global friends!). You can book your slot here: https://citywalk.is/
The Perlan probably has the best viewing point in Reykjavik. Seated on a hill overlooking the city. At the observation deck of the Perlan you can see mountains, volcanoes, ocean, geothermal areas and even glaciers surrounding Reykjavik.
HARPA (CONCERT HALL)
The most modern building you can find in Reykjavik. The Harpa is a concert hall and conference center with its architecture mimicking the basalt landscape you can find around the island.
If you are obsessed with Viking history, the Saga Museum is a must visit. It shows wax figures of Viking heroes bringing to life the first settlers in Iceland.
NATIONAL MUSEUM OF ICELAND
With over 2,000 artifacts, the National Museum of Iceland is full of Icelandic history and culture both then and now. You’ll get a dose of everything Icelandic and also will learn on how this nation was built to what it is today.
Hallgrimskirja is Reykjavik’s most iconic landmark (and probably the most unique church I’ve seen in terms of architecture). Situated at the center of Reykjavik making it visible throughout the city. In front of the church, you will find a statue of Leif Erikson, a Norse explorer from Iceland who is known as the first European to have discovered continental North America.
Although spending time in Reykjavik can be worth your while, the real beauty of Iceland can be found away from its capital. The country’s charm is not its cities but its magnificent and dramatic landscapes worthy of photography tours in Iceland. If you are heading out of the Reykjavik, one of the popular (and most accessible) route to explore is the Golden Circle.
You can find post-card ready landscapes including the crest of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge and the boundary between the North American tectonic plate and the Eurasian (mind blown!!)—a location of the clearest water in the world.
There are three major tourist spots comprising the Golden Circle
PINGVELLIR NATIONAL PARK
Pingvellir National Park is a UNESCO heritage site where the country’s parliament was established (930 AD). It is the location of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge where the North American and Eurasian Plates pull apart. Between these plates you will find a rift filled with glacier water called Silfra which is notable for its crystal clear waters.
Among the sites to be visited around the Golden Circle, the Gullfoss was probably the place that I was excited the most. It was my first waterfalls in Iceland and seeing it surrounded with snow and ice was indeed a very magical moment for me.
The combination of its huge span, height, and force makes the Gullfoss worth being called one of Iceland’s most popular tourist destinations. If you are lucky, you will even see a rainbow spanning across the whole stretch of the falls.
HAUKADALUR / GEYSERS
Haukadalur is the location of Iceland’s most famous and biggest geysers, the Strokkur and Geysir (where the term geyser came from).
As geysers are known to be a temporary geological feature around volcanic areas, the actual Geysir doesn’t erupt anymore (I felt bad passing by the Geysir, it seemed as if I was seeing a has-been while I walked towards a new star of the show).
Strokkur, being the new star of Haukadalur, was showing off during my visit. It erupted perfectly every 10 minutes.
If you are watching close by, there is a big chance that you will get wet (depending on the direction of the wind) but be warned that the water coming out of the geyser is boiling hot and very dangerous. So keep a proper distance and follow instructions when visiting here.
There are two ways to visit the Golden circle, one is by renting a car and drive. Driving around Iceland and finding these sites are easy, just get a tourist map and follow (trust me it’s that simple). However, if you fancy not driving and opted to get a tour guide to explain these sites thoroughly.
If you are looking for an epic road trip around Iceland, then there are only two-words that you need to know, RING ROAD! It is literally driving around the island creating a ring formation (hence the name). Because almost all the roads in the island are paved with 2-lanes (with only a few single lane bridges) it considered as an easy drive but will also depend on the season. It is said that during summer time, you can explore Iceland within a span of 1 week, while 2-weeks during winter (also with a lot of precautions as roads can be slippery, foggy and sometimes you’ll get snowstorms).
Because you are actually exploring the whole country, you’ll see the best sites around Iceland while taking this route. During our trip, we saw unique landscapes in every part of the country. The south with its gigantic waterfalls, glaciers and black rocky beaches, the east with its snow capped mountains and fjords (we also saw reindeers and horses there), volcanic and geothermal sites in the north and rocky cliffs and whale watching in the west. Some sites even look like you got transported to another planet.
The best thing about the Ring Road is that 98% of the sites are free! They are just by the road, you can hop and explore! I LOVE IT. What is amazing about this route, though nowadays it is becoming more and more popular to backpackers, because you (and the rest of the people driving this road) are taking time exploring and not bound to a certain time, in most of the sites, you will find yourself sharing the view with just 2 or 3 other people, such a wonderful feeling basking with nature’s beauty peacefully.
I will be writing a separate detailed blog about the Ring Road and its attractions but to name a few famous sites make sure to visit the Seljalandfoss, Vatnajökull, Skógafoss(my favorite falls), Eyjafjallajökull (yheap, the volcano in Walter Mitty), Jökulsárlón, Dettifoss and Goðafoss
Though technically not part of the whole Ring Road, if you have time to spare, a detour going to the West Fjords and Snaefellsnes Peninsula is highly recommended. You will need to add 1-2 days to your trip to cover this, but I assure you that it is worth it!
Just like the Golden Circle, you can do a trip around Iceland’s Ring Road through booking a tour from a local travel agent to help you find the most ideal package for you but to have more flexibility (which is what this route is demanding) renting a car and driving on your own pace is the most ideal option. During summertime, you can also take a bus, but with only 1-2 trips a day, this option will be very challenging. Carpooling with other backpackers is the most common tip to conquer the Ring Road. Aside from having a number of people to share the cost of petrol and the car rental, you’ll also have companions exploring Iceland. Check out bulletin boards in your hostel for announcements or ask people in your accommodation (this is what I did). There is also a website where people post plan trips and looking for someone to ride along with (I tried this but only got heartbroken haha). On a more extreme situation, I have a friend who hitched hike from town to town and guess what? He was able to go around the Ring Road using this technic! I love travel minded people!
The main reason why I visited Iceland during the freezing winter season (I went early March) is to get a glimpse of the magical dancing northern lights! I was in Norway prior to flying to Iceland where I really didn’t make an effort to get out of Oslo because I know that there is a huge chance for me to see it in Iceland (thinking that I will be spending a month in the country). I saw it! Yey! But only during my last few days in Iceland. Chasing the lights will bring you heartache and happy tears (if you’ll get the rare chance of seeing it!).
What is are Northern Lights? Northern lights also know as the Aurora borealis is a dancing skylight caused by the collision between electrically charged particles from the sun that enters the earth’s atmosphere. This can be seen only in a few countries in the world such as Norway, Greenland, Iceland and New Zealand (where they call it as the Southern Lights). They said that it is always there, but because during summer, the sky is too bright so winter is the preferable time to see it (also will vary on several conditions such as light pollution and presence of clouds). The best place is away from the city and also on a cloudless night. With Iceland’s unpredictable weather, hunting for the lights really feels like hunting.
As a guide to where you can see the lights (or your chances of seeing it) there is a website showing the northern lights activities along with the weather (mainly clouds presence).
I’ve met several people who stayed for a week who were unsuccessful with their northern lights hunting but there are some who came on perfect day when nature wanted to showe off. When I saw the light the first time, I cried! I cried because of two things, 1: The lights itself is magical, definitely a once in a lifetime experience. 2: Finally after all our hard work there it is! I am seeing it with my own eyes.
The key here is, visit Iceland and enjoy everything that the country can offer, and let watching the lights dance as a bonus. This will lessen the heartache haha…sorry 😛
I will be updating the blog (a new blog perhaps) on some tips on catching the elusive northern lights!
This is something that is still in my bucket list. Aside from being “The Land of Ice and Fire” Iceland is also known as “The Land of the Midnight Sun”. Because of longer days during summertime, Iceland’s nights are relatively bright as early as May till August, with June as the peak of the Midnight Sun.
According to a local friend, this is their favorite time of the year. Most people are outside, camping and enjoying the longer days. Watching the sun just kiss the horizon before rising again is such a magical experience. The only problem is, it can be hard to sleep haha (there are large demands for window shutters and eye masks).
In most countries, an after work hangout place is normally a bar or a pub where we can have a chat with a buddy over a pint of beer, but in Iceland, surprisingly, the preferred hangout place is a thermal pool! Almost every town has its own public thermal pool. Icelanders love their pools – this is a fact!
The most famous ones are the Blue Lagoon and the Mývatn Nature Baths. The Blue Lagoon Geothermal Spa is considered as the most visited attraction in Iceland, mainly because of its close proximity to Reykjavik. It is a manmade lagoon with water coming from a nearby geothermal power plant. The Myvatn on the other hand is a natural bath, a counter part of the Blue Lagoon which is located at the North of Iceland. Both are known for its water rich in minerals like silica and sulfur which is said to be good for the skin (and remedy for skin diseases).Also a subject of debate on which one is a better pool.
If you want a more local experience, going to a town’s public thermal pool is the place to be. Aside from it is relatively cheaper, only 900 ISK compare to 4,200 ISK (for Myvatn) and 6,990 (for the Blue Lagoon), you will be soaking (pun intended) in a true local activity and also far away from the crowded tourist.
Thermal pool temperature ranges from 36 to 40 degrees Celsius and some even reaching up to 50 degrees. The best part of this experience is relaxing on a hot (outdoor)pool during winter, while the worst part is getting out of the pool with the cold winter breeze.
Last but not the least! I am capping this list with the thing that helped me survive Iceland. It is this amazing food called HOTDOG!! Haha.
As mentioned earlier, no doubt, Iceland is one of the most expensive countries I’ve been to and eating outside can really break your budget. Even buying food from the grocery can still be painful as it is still ain’t cheap (though obviously cheaper than eating in a restaurant).
To survive not getting hungry especially on road trips, we munched on hotdogs day and night! Hotdog can be considered now as Iceland’s national food, trumping over the (disgusting) fermented shark (I’ll prefer hotdogs in any given day). They costs around 300 (3 USD) – 420 ISK (4USD) and available in every petrol station. Add toasted onions and mustard and you’ll get the best of Iceland! Haha. Oh my! I want one now!
The most famous hotdog stand is the Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur. Almost everyone I know who went to Iceland (also locals) tried it and recommended it. For me, it tasted the same as the one you can get from the petrol station, but it is still worth trying as you are already in Iceland, so trying the country’s most famous hotdog will not hurt (even your wallet).
Note: Iceland doesn’t allow the import of any live animals, so the lamb eaten today are free-range, grass-fed, organic and hormone-free, no wonder why it tasted AMAZING! I feel healthier haha.
Clearly, there are still a lot of things that I haven’t covered about Iceland in this blog (parts 2 and 3 are coming up soon) but in a nutshell, these are the things that will help you plan out what you can do in the country. Obviously you don’t need to do all of them, pace yourself and choose the one you think is more suitable to your time, budget and capability.
Iceland is a beautiful country so just being there is already a win for your wanderlust soul!
More blogs about Iceland coming up soon! Check out my Instagram as I’ve been posting more photos and video stories about my trip in Iceland.
Have you been to Iceland or read about it? Let me know in the comments below what are your experiences and tips in visiting the Land of Ice and Fire.
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