This magical island has gained a lot of exposure and attention over the last few years, and it is definitely for the right reasons. This small island is packed tight with so many natural wonders. Iceland is comparable in size to Ohio, yet it has 32 volcanoes, at least 200 geysers, over 10,000 waterfalls, and sometimes the scenery changes from mountains to barren moon-like desert in just a few moments.
While Iceland is absolutely breathtaking, provides once in a lifetime experiences, and is overflowing with magic, it is also very expensive and needs more protection to preserve its wonders for future generations. I highly recommend visiting this beautiful land but do so with awareness and respect for the place, people, and all it has to offer.
When planning a trip to another country it can feel overwhelming to plan all of the details and make decisions. Below I give some recommendations based on how I planned my journey and my experiences.
Deciding when to visit
The best time of year (high season) is from mid-June to August. This is when the days are longer (20-22 hours of sunlight), the temperature is warmer, and there are so many festivals and activities going on. The downside to this time of year is that the prices are higher, there are more people everywhere, and it may even be hard for you to find accommodations at all.
People tend to avoid going in off-season and while it can be more uncomfortable to be cold, wet, or have little sunlight, there are perks to this side as well. You will find cheaper prices, have more intimate moments with the island, there are often amazing Christmas festivals during the holiday season, and you may even be lucky and see the Aurora Borealis.
The right time to visit will vary for you, depending on what activities you want to be available, your budget, and overall preferences. We visited during May and while this gave us cheaper prices, less people, and a good amount of sunlight, it was still cold, rainy, and very windy.
Transportation on the island
Iceland is very raw and natural in its infrastructure, which is amazing for preserving and protecting the wildness of this island but not for finding public transit. In order for you to get around you will need to either rent a car and have airbnbs/campsites/hotels booked, or you rent a campervan.
I HIGHLY recommend a campervan because it opens the doors to so many more possibilities on exploring this country. Since Reykjavik is pretty much the only main city on this island it can be hard to find places to stay elsewhere and having Reykjavik as a home base can add a lot of driving depending on what your plans are.
We went with the campervan option. This provided us with transportation, a bed, a camping stove, and everything we really needed all in one. This also saved us money in the long run. We used GoCamper and had a really great experience with them! Their van was in great condition, we had no issues with it, and it was the least expensive option we could find.
One things I recommend is learning to drive manual if you don’t already know. This will cut down your costs immensely, at least it did for us. The majority of Americans struggle to drive manual and since European cars are mostly manual, it was cheaper to rent than an automatic.
Also note that these vans do take more gas to fuel and gas here is EXPENSIVE so prepare for that, although you may be saving gas if you aren’t driving back to Reykjavik every day.
There is so much to see and do in this small, yet bustling city. This is where the majority of the Icelandic locals live so it is easy to see their cultural traits; don’t be shocked when you see people going to and coming from work at all hours of the night.
Explore the old famous churches, the modern infrastructure, the street art, good food, and the fun bar scene. Just keep in mind that food and drinks are extremely expensive in Reykjavik and be mindful not to blow your entire budget in your first few meals. I recommend grocery shopping or packing food to bring with you on your trip.
Snorkel in Silfra
If you are looking to add additional excursions and adventures to your trip other than hiking and sightseeing I highly recommend this awesome experience!
The Silfra Fissure in the Thingvellir National Park is a rift between the tectonic plates. So what I am saying here is that you can actually snorkel between the North American and the Eurasian plates! In addition to this already cool (and cold) exploration, this glacier water is said to be the clearest water in the world, which makes it unbelievable for snorkeling or scuba diving.
We used the tour company Arctic Adventures and had an amazing experience with them! Our guide was so informative, patient, and helpful throughout the journey. We were also the only ones on our tour which made for an intimate experience.
This loop is great if you are looking for a day trip from the city or have only a short amount of time to spend in Iceland. It is close to Reykjavik and packed full of beautiful sights.
Thingvellir National Park
Located just a short ~45 minute drive from downtown Reykjavik is this phenomenal national park. If you are planning to snorkel the Silfra then this is the same park you would be venturing to for that excursion, so maybe plan some extra time for hiking and exploring the park. This is not only a park, but also a UNESCO World Heritage Site and it is where a lot of historical moments took place.
While this waterfall may be smaller than other famous ones in this country, it has an obviously unique difference from them due to its bright and breathtaking icy blue color.
When I visited this waterfall it was open to the public, but since then I have read that it is closed and on private property, so do your research and respect the area and landowners.
This is the well-known valley of hot springs and geothermal area. Geysir and Strokkur are the two main erupting hot springs. Geysir doesn’t erupt as often anymore, while Strokkur erupts around every 10 minutes or so. If you arrive and grow impatient, just wait a few more minutes, because it is definitely worth the wait. There are also other small ones in the area so explore this site, but make sure you stay on the trails to protect the ecosystem and yourself.
This powerful and large waterfall is a favorite of travelers in this area. You can hear this waterfall roaring as your approach and will be rewarded with a stunning scenery, massive falls, and if it is sunny out then you will most likely be gifted a beautiful rainbow to enjoy.
There are many other sights on the Golden Circle so I recommend just stopping and exploring when anything looks interesting, you never know what you may find.
Heading off the Golden Circle onto Route 1 – Ring Road
(these sights are in order on the road, leaving the Golden Circle and heading east around the island)
Standing at ~213 feet tall, this towering and mystical waterfall is another popular spot in Iceland. This waterfall is unique since it gives you a chance to explore behind its falling water and completely circle the falls. Be prepared to get wet and be chilly as you begin getting sprayed with water long before you reach the falls. This was definitely a highlight of my trip.
Just a short walk down from Seljalandsfoss, is this misty waterfall tucked into the mountains. The name of the falls means “dweller of the gorge” and is almost entirely covered from the outside with another rock formation. You will definitely get wet if you venture in to view this beauty. Most people choose to wade through the gorge at the bottom of the falls; ducking under the rock and getting a personal view of the falls. You can also climb up the side of the rock in front of falls. It can be hard to get quality pictures because of all the moisture and mist, so be careful with any electronics. I also highly recommend this waterfall, as it is a short hike, an easy approach and it is especially convenient if you are already nearby at Seljalandsfoss.
Built in 1923, Seljavallalaug is one of the oldest swimming pools in Iceland and is filled with natural water from a nearby hot spring. This pool has a short but rewarding hike to reach it as it is tucked back into the mountains. If you choose to venture to this awesome spot make sure to bring your bathing suit, towels, and anything else you would want during your time here. The old pool structure is covered with moss and algae as it is a naturally filled pool, so be prepared to embrace the pool for all of its elements.
There are two different ways to view and enjoy Skogafoss. You can either walk up the stairs to the top of the falls, get a birds eye view, and see the river flowing into the falls along with other small beauties up top, or you can go right up to the waterfall at the base. Both are awesome views and it is definitely a stop you need on your list.
Abandoned DC 3 Airplane
A US plane ran out of fuel and crash landed on the island of Iceland in 1973. Thankfully, everyone survived this crash and since then the plane has been left on this beach and is now a tourist site. It is about an hour walk towards the plane, and when I visited there were no real signs or markers for this trail other than small orange flags, so just follow the crowds of people and the used trail. This is an interesting place to stop and it will add something unique to your tour.
This famous black sand beach is a phenomenal place to stop and enjoy a picnic, go for a walk, or explore the basalt stacks. As you are enjoying this beautiful beach be aware and mindful of the waves and the ocean. There have been many deaths and injuries here due to “sneaker-waves” that will come out of the stillest water and are stronger than you could imagine. Be sure to never turn your back on the ocean, especially after the rocky ridge-lines begin.
Tucked in the green mountains is this waterfall surrounded by black basalt stacks. This hike is about 3.4 miles RT and is located in Skaftafell, in the Vatnajokull National Park. You can view the falls from afar or you can hike down and get much closer to it. Within this area there are many small falls, trails, and other hikes you can explore. Some of our favorite waterfalls were on random side trails and we were able to really enjoy the peace and wildness of the land.
As the largest glacier in Europe, this is a well known area for adventures and explorations of this mysterious icy world. You can do glacier hikes, boat tours, or even explore ice caves with various tour companies.
This glacier lagoon is less populated than the well known Jokulsarlon lagoon (diamond beach) but is still sprinkled with beautiful floating glaciers and has the same feel.
This lake includes the well-known Diamond Beach, which is a black sand beach home to many glacier water ice chunks. I highly recommend this stop on your list, as it is something that you most likely haven’t seen and is a phenomenal sight!
WWII US Navy LCM Shipwreck
This was something we added onto our itinerary last minute as we were looking for more things to do. If you do decide to go see this shipwreck be prepared for a windy and sketchy drive downhill into a valley in order to reach it. This ship was really cool and has a lot of history with it, but it is hard to reach so keep that in mind.
The main waterfall, Hengifoss, has the black basalt columns around it as well which makes it a really beautiful sight. There are many waterfalls along this trail and in this area so I recommend wandering around and exploring the area as much as possible. There are also some museums and historical buildings in this area.
While this waterfall isn’t very tall, it is extremely wide and considered one of the most spectacular waterfalls. It was extremely cold and rainy while we were visiting this waterfall but I hope to go back and really enjoy it in the future.
Explore the Glaumbaer Farm which is said to have been standing since 900 AD. Many re-creations have been built and this allows you to see the culture as it was many, many years ago.
This waterfall is more of a collection of small creeks, streams, and waterways which create a bunch of small waterfalls. This is peaceful waterfall and it is very different from the rest on the island.
Explore the cities and small towns you come upon! This is a great way to experience the unique culture that exists here. There are so many gorgeous churches, homes, good food (eat the hotdogs!), and just so much to experience. Remember to respect the island, the people, and this beautiful and magical country for all that it is.