One Week in Iceland - Everything I Wish I'd Known16 January 2019
Last September my wife and I spent 8 days in Iceland - the country, not the awful British supermarket chain. I’ve wanted to visit Iceland for years, and it didn’t disappoint.
Here’s the review of the trip, along with all the things I’d wish I’d known beforehand. Hopefully it will be of interest to anyone planning a trip to the world’s 172nd-most populous country.
Why Visit Iceland?
In a word, nature. When I hear ‘volcanic island’, I think tropical heat - but Iceland is on the edge of the Arctic circle, and this strange combination of hot and cold gives it a unique landscape that’s like nothing I’ve ever seen.
And it’s diverse. In a few days’ drive you can see mountains, glaciers, tundra, enormous waterfalls, plains, geysers, and more - not to mention gigantic expanses of igneous weirdness which look like the surface of another planet.
I’m not a photographer; my photos were taken on a smartphone and don’t do justice to the sheer majesty of Iceland’s scenery. There wasn’t a single day of the trip when Iceland’s nature didn’t blow me away.
We flew into Keflavík Airport, 40 minutes’ drive from Reykjavik and the only international airport in the country. From there we rented a car and spend most of our time driving around the island exploring.
We booked a hostel in Reykjavik for the whole trip. This was, without a doubt, the biggest mistake we made. It would have been a much better idea to drive around the whole island staying in a different place each night. (Iceland’s main highway goes around the edge of the country in a loop.)
Instead we made a series of day trips, returning to Reykjavik most nights to sleep, which of course meant we could never venture too far, and didn’t get to see the eastern side of the island at all.
On a couple of nights, having realised our mistake, we booked a room out in the countryside as a stop-off point to allow us to make some longer trips - but of course this meant we were now wasting money on a hostel bed back in Reykjavik that we weren’t using.
(The hostel itself was Hlemmur Square, a decent place in which I’d happily stay again. It was pricey, but then so is everything else in Iceland.)
I’m not too upset - we didn’t run out of interesting things to see within a two-day-drive radius of Reykjavik - but if I could do it again, I would definitely try to circumnavigate the whole island. Supposedly this takes about a week.
Where to go?
Our first excursion was the so-called “Golden Circle”, a popular tourist trail that starts and ends in Reykjavik and can be completed in a day. The three main stopping points here are the Gullfoss waterfall (very large and impressive), the rift valley in Þingvellir National Park (former location of the Icelandic parliament), and Haukadalur, a geothermal area full of geysers. One of them is called Geysir, and it’s where we get the English word “geyser” from. Betcha didn’t know that!
The whole route was very crowded - in fact, it was the only busy place we went in all of Iceland - but it didn’t matter. It’s popular for a reason and it’s definitely not one to miss.
From then on we just mostly drove around the island without much of a plan. It was never hard to find interesting things to see: such as the Jökulsárlón glacier lagoon in the southeast:
(As seen in Batman Begins)
And the waterfalls - God, the waterfalls. I already mentioned Gullfoss on the Golden Circle, but that’s just one of christ-knows-how-many we saw throughout the week. I’ve never seen so many amazing waterfalls in such a short space of time. Any one of them by themselves would have been worth the whole journey. By the fourth day I’d seen so many that I barely even noticed them anymore as we drove past. “No big deal, just another stunningly beautiful waterfall.”
One of the coolest attractions in Iceland is the wreckage of a U.S. Navy plane that crashed on a beach in 1973 after running out of fuel in bad weather. (Check it out in this Google Maps satellite image.) It’s a long walk - about an hour’s trek from the road, over crazy black rocks that look like the surface of the moon - but it was definitely, definitely worth it.
Then there’s the Blue Lagoon, a big hot spring near Reykjavik where you can bathe in the naturally-heated water; basically a glorified outdoor swimming pool. It’s one of the most famous and popular things to do in Iceland - but we didn’t go because it’s absurdly expensive. Instead we found a smaller, cheaper alternative and went swimming there instead. It was an enjoyable outing and I don’t regret missing the main show. (I’d tell you the other place’s name… but it’s a Secret 😉)
We took one day off from driving to explore Reykjavik itself. It’s a fairly interesting place, but we didn’t need more than a day to feel like we’d seen it all. We didn’t do much except wander around to get a feel for the place, and sample a few of the city’s many museums.
My favourite one was the ‘Saga Museum’, a smallish place full of wax models and exhibits where you can learn about Icelandic history. (Spoiler alert: Vikings are badasses.) They even have a bunch of replica weapons and armour that you can dress up in.
I'm the one dressed as a polar bear
Reykjavik is also home to the world-famous Icelandic Phallological Musem, which according to Wikipedia “houses the world’s largest display of penises and penile parts”, including “55 penises taken from whales, 36 from seals and 118 from land mammals”. We didn’t have time or the inclination to visit (I’ve already seen a penis, thanks) but if staring at shrivelled-up animal dicks in jars of formaldehyde is your idea of a good time, look no further than Iceland’s capital.
Renting a car and driving in Iceland
In my opinion, If you plan on spending more than a few days in Iceland and/or doing anything outside Reykjavik, you’d be nuts not to rent a car if you have the budget. It’s by far the best and easiest way to explore, and Iceland is an easy place to drive because it’s so unpopulated that most roads are usually empty. (This was a particular concern of mine because, as a Brit, it was my first ever time driving on the wrong side of the road. I’m proud to report that I made it all the way through the week with only one or two near misses.)
One piece of advice: if you’re planning on a long trip, pack more food than you think you’ll need. We often struggled to find a decent meal while on the road; Iceland is just so goddamn empty.
Unless you have a 4x4 it’s illegal to drive on certain mountain roads, and some roads are closed during the winter months in any case. It’s all clearly signposted and the rental place explained the rules to me, but I can’t remember them now. All I know is that it was never an issue; we were more than able to get where we needed to go on the available roads.
The maximum speed limit in Iceland is an infuriatingly slow 90kph (~55mph). While I of course kept within this stupid limit at all times, I’ll note that speed cameras in Iceland are few and far between, and are clearly signposted. (PSA: don’t speed through tunnels! Every single tunnel in Iceland contains speed cameras without exception - or at least that’s what I read online somewhere.)
Parking was a non-issue, even in Reykjavik. We never had any trouble finding free parking within a five-to-ten minute walk of our hostel - and we were staying fairly close to the centre. (It helped that many of the paid parking spaces are only non-free during the daytime, and we usually only needed to park overnight.) Outside of the city things were even easier. The only places we ever had to pay to park were at a couple of busy spots in the most popular parts of the tourist trail, and even then it wasn’t much.
Seeing the Northern Lights in Iceland
The best time to visit Iceland is probably in June or July for the sake of the weather, but we waited until September for one reason: we wanted to see the Aurora Borealis, otherwise known as the Northern Lights. Who doesn’t have this on their bucket list?
The Aurora is visible at night from roughly September to March. To see it you need clear skies, patience, and luck - it’s brightest at different places on different nights, and there’s never a guarantee you’ll see anything. The Icelandic Meteorological Office maintains a website showing you the best spots to look for the Lights on any given night.
Naturally, there are tour companies that can take you out into the wilderness to the spot where they think the Lights will be most visible, so that’s what we did. It’s the safest option, because if you don’t see anything on one night, they’ll keep taking you back out for no extra charge until you get lucky.
We got lucky on our second attempt. We didn’t take any photos, because smartphone cameras are useless here. But even if I had a nice camera, the photo would look far more impressive than the real thing.
Type “northern lights” into Google Images and you’ll see stunningly beautiful images of the sky ablaze with crazy greens and reds. What no-one told me is that these pictures are generally taken with a very long exposure (several minutes or more), scooping up every stray photon with an end result that’s far more impressive than what be detected by the naked eye. On the camera screen of the guy next to me, the sky was on fire. All I could see was a faint blue streak through the stars.
Don’t get me wrong - it looked cool, and I’m glad I got to see the Northern Lights at last. But I have to admit I was a little disappointed. By all means do a Northern Lights tour if you can, but set your expectations accordingly. And take a better camera than my iPhone.
How Expensive is Iceland?
Iceland is not cheap. Despite our best efforts to be frugal - we cooked every single meal ourselves, didn’t drink any alcohol at all for the whole trip, and stayed in the cheapest accommodation we could find - we still went over our budget.
The total cost of our seven-night trip was something like £1400, including two return flights from the U.K., accommodation, car rental, fuel, food, and tickets for a few touristy things like Reykjavik museums and the Northern Lights tour.
With a bit more planning I’m sure we could have reduced our costs slightly… but only slightly. Unless you want to hitch-hike and camp (see below), you’ll be hard-pressed to travel in Iceland for much cheaper than us - and it’s possible to spend a lot more. Other than the Northern Lights tour, we did basically no other organised touristic activity - and those can get very expensive very fast.
I’m sure the costly options - guided hikes in the mountains, cave exploration, climbing, helicopter tours and more - are fantastic, and I’d love to give them a go if I ever come back when I can afford it. But I don’t regret skipping them this time around - there were more than enough free and cheap things to see and do in Iceland to keep me thoroughly entertained for eight days.
One thing you don’t need to budget for in Iceland is ATM fees. Literally everywhere we went on the entire island accepted card, even tiny, remote establishments in the middle of nowhere. I still don’t even know what Icelandic currency looks like; I didn’t handle a single physical Kroner in my entire time in the country.
(If you’re a UK resident, I highly recommend the Halifax Clarity card if you want to get the best exchange rates while travelling abroad. If credit cards aren’t your thing, I used to use Monzo, who are great, and I’ve heard good things about Revolut too. You’re throwing money away if you go abroad without using a service like this. And no, I’m not being paid to say this.)
Hitch-hiking and camping in Iceland
I hitch-hiked thousands of miles across Europe in my early twenties, so I know what a fun and unique way to travel it can be. Since then I’ve always stopped to pick up hitch-hikers whenever I can, and in Iceland I got plenty of chances.
Hitch-hikers are everywhere; the practice is extremely common among tourists. If you want to see Iceland on a budget, hitch-hiking is the way to go. Everyone I picked up told me they’d had a positive experience: finding rides was easy and they were generally able to get to where they wanted to be.
They were all camping as well - another great way to see Iceland on a budget. “Official” campsites are plentiful, and are a nice option if you want to do your business in a real toilet, but like everything else in Iceland they’re stupidly expensive. Every hitch-hiker I spoke to told me they’d had no trouble finding secluded places to camp outside of the designated areas - technically prohibited, but tolerated as long as you don’t leave a mess, and in a country as sparsely populated as Iceland no-one’s going to catch you anyway.
So while I’ve neither hitch-hiked nor camped in Iceland myself, I’m confident in vouching for them as a fun and safe way to see the country for cheap. My only recommendation is that you don’t camp unless you know what you’re doing; Iceland’s climate and remoteness are unlikely to be forgiving if you forget to bring the right kit.
That about covers it! Enjoy your trip.