Iceland, the Land of fire and ice. From geysers to icebergs and dramatic scenery that you can't help fall in love with. Iceland is the vision of myths and legends. When you see the scenery here you can understand why the Icelandic folk tales invoke such fantasy, with a landscape so wild and dramatic. My first trip to this country allowed me to take the ring road on a self driven tour with a friend. I have visited Iceland twice. The first time I did this self drive of the ring road during late March with a friend, the second was a shorter four night stay in the south east during January. (please note there are some affiliate links lower down in this post for additional activities. Whilst I may receive some commission from this, this is at no additional cost to you).
The above is just a rough guide to show the main route and some of the places we visited along the way. The towns we stayed over night are listed below and we had 8 days on this trip. I would really recommend ten days to two weeks if you are doing this trip. This will allow you the freedown to account for unpredictable weather, stay at some places for a few nights maybe more spread out and add in some additional sights and activities mentioned in this article.
Reykjavik - Stay in Blonduos
Blonduos - Stay at Myvatn
Myvatn - Stay at Stafafell
Stafafell - Stay at Horgsland
Horgsland - Stora Mork
Stora Mork - Stay at Reykjavik
You are not guaranteed to see the northern lights (two trips and I've still not seen them) and when they come they may be fleeting.
If you are going with a golden circle tour, then I would recommend making sure you have a spare day unplanned to allow for an additional place, sight or experience you may want to add onto this trip.
If you are staying in Reykjavik for a short city break Click Here to check out some of the experiences and tours available.
Give yourself time, there is so much to see in such a small country, you will want to stop and pull over so much. Expect to see some fascinating and beautiful landscapes as soon as you head out away from the airport, from the lava fields south of Reykjavic to the mountains, waterfalls and glaciers all over the country.
Check the road access as they often close some of the through roads and highlands when the weather is perceived as a potential danger to driving. Some roads and parts of the north are also closed in the winter and early spring as a general.
From Reykjavik, it is quite easy to navigate your way out of the city with the wide roads and clear signs, however I would still recommend having a sat-nav with you.
Don't be surprised that the majority of vehicles are four wheel drive or monster truck style. You will be grateful if you have a four wheel when driving here. The change in weather left us stuck and spending hours digging ourselves out.
Don't worry if they are getting close or try to overtake, just let them and maintain safe driving.
In Iceland they take speeding very seriously, with fines being the highest in Europe.
Staying on Budget
Iceland is on most travellers bucket list, however it is no secret that Iceland is not the most budget friendly of places. Here are a couple of simple tips to save your wallet.
If you can get self catering accommodation - buying food from the supermarket and cooking will work out much cheaper than eating out in restaurants or even at cheaper take away type venues. If nothing else maybe buy some or bring some dried snacks, tea bags (or coffee sachets), possibly noodles or porridge with you. If you do this and you're normally a grazer this may just help save some of your daily expense money that can soon add up.
Book ahead, whilst some trips will allow you to turn up on Reykjavik and book from the hostel they are often not any cheaper than if you booked them beforehand, in a couple of cases we heard others discussing their price (which was more than what we paid booking before our trip, so we kept quiet) and in many circumstances sold out.
Self drive, I'm not saying the coach trips to the golden circle aren't brilliant, however you may save the expense. Seeing nature is free. If there is two of you, your are undoubtedly going to save the cost, plus you can stop when you want.
Stay outside the city for the majority of your stay, the prices are generally cheaper the further away from Reykjavik you are.
Accommodation is between £60 - £100 per night for two people sharing a room or cabin. This isn't overly expensive but you aren't going to find many cheaper than this range for private rooms.
Sight Seeing and Activities
Myvatn is in the north of Iceland, it is one of the best places to see the northern lights (though we didn't) and it is known for its unique landscape. The lake of Myvatn looks somewhat peculiar and although we couldn't view clearly due to heavy snow it has small islands of miniature peaks and craters. Nearby there is also another natural hot spring to chose from and even a hidden hot spring in a cave (as seen on Game of Thrones). We tried to find this but instead got the car stuck in snow, so spent most of our day planned for this trying to get out of that and making snow angels.
Vatnajökull National Park
Here we reached the Jökulsárlón which is a lagoon that is easily accessible from the road. We could see the Breiðamerkurjökull glacier leading into the lagoon and large icebergs floating in the water and even witnessed a break and fall off the glaciers. We drove here from the east so got to see some other views of the glaciers that also fed into this lake. If you follow the river down to the beach you will be able to see icebergs that have washed onto the black sand.
For some reason this is something that I didn't expect, when researching the country I just focused on the lagoon and glacier. I knew I wanted to see the black sand beach as it always fascinated me. On our way to the lagoon we stopped at a car park just to see what was there. There was only one other car in there but, it was in the middle of nowhere. We scrambled up a dense embankment of native plants growing in the black sand and when we looked down at the beach we could see these giant blue icebergs. They looked like something out of a CGI film scene, and they were towering over the people walking around them. So we headed down and took pictures.
Our original plans of ice climbing had unfortunately been cancelled due to the climate effecting the ability of this and but we had opted to do either the blue ice caves or hiking on the glacier. Hiking it was! We were driven to the glacier from the lagoon, in a large specifically designed truck designed for group travel on hostile terrain. Once on the glacier you start to realise just how magnificent they are. Once we got to the access point where we needed to be, we followed our guide and weaved along the glacier. This lasted about 4/5 hours and was really cool to see. We managed to go quite high and the guides were really enthusiastic.
In the north lies Godafoss; at only 12m high this was still a pretty amazing place to see, when we arrived the surrounding area was covered in snow and the powerful sound of the waterfalls echoed as we pulled up. Although not high this is certainly powerful.
In the south of Iceland, this waterfall is 60m high was one of my favourite sights in the country. When we turned up there, there was quite a a large amount of people but it didn't take away from viewing this place. Due to the changeable weather there was a rainbow visible next to the waterfall which was pretty cool. You can walk up a short trail to the top of the waterfall to get a better view of the landscape but this place is definitely a must.
At 60m high, this is the waterfall you always see pictures online that people have taken from behind. And don't worry there isn't an extreme climb or daring scramble required, there is a safe pathway behind fall. But when it is cooler, it can be slippy and if you have a camera be sure its water or shower proof, there is a lot of water poring down and you will get a spray behind the fall.
The Great Geysir
In the southwest of Iceland and often attracts larges crowd. The geothermal park that surrounds this geyser is beautiful and smelly. This smell is due to the sulphur and if you stick around long enough this smell will become less distinct (well you get used to it).
Tip for catching a photo of the Great Geysir: Stand back. You'll be surprised how high the geyser sprays.
Þingvellir National Park
This national park is well known for its rift valley (the separation of two tectonic plate). Here you can walk between the rift to see rugged cliffs and waterfalls. It is probably one of the easiest places to access and visit in Iceland due to the proximity to Reykjavik.
You can also expect to see Gulfoss (the waterfall above). The water cascades on two levels where you will be looking down into the long crevasse where the water runs. Further into the national park you can even go snorkelling.
How could I write about Iceland and not mention Blue Lagoon. There is a cost involved but in my honest opinion it is worth it. If you are going to visit here then I'd recommend this for after you land or prior to you boarding for your plane home. It's the perfect way to relax. You do need to pre-book. You pay for a ticket to go in and need to chose if you want to include robes, the type of clay mask etc. and any other extras. There is also bar in the lagoon where we bought smoothies and you can also buy cocktails or beers; but the heat will make you very thirsty. You will be given a wristband that is waterproof but opens your locker and allows the bar to scan for your drinks charges. There is a fresh water cold fountain in the blue lagoon. Find it, it's safe to drink and bring a water bottle Click here to book blue lagoon.
Other Activities or places
I have written a separate article for this as some of the activities were more relevant for those visiting in winter. Click here to read my winter trip to Iceland; including husky sledding, blue ice caves, Vik and Sólheimasandur plane wreck.
We didn't spend the time wandering round the city due to our packed schedule (and us not being 'city people') but I really want to go back and see Reykjavik more and spend a couple of nights here in future (Click here for more options of tours in and from the city) and check out this article from Travellers Itch on Reykjavik.
This takes place in the northern of Iceland. This wasn't in my budget for this trip and too far north to get to on my following winter trip. But one day. I have done this in New Zealand before and had the most amazing time, seeing such a majestic creature out in the wild. Click Here to check out whale watching from Dalvik harbour, Husavik or Akureyri.
Cost: Approx. £80 - £100 per person
There are also other waterfalls dotted all over Iceland and if you like them you could plan a whole trip just searching and viewing those, we managed to see quite a lot but there were some famous ones such as Svartifoss and Detifoss. We saw a glimpse of Detifoss but was a bit harsh with poor visibility and Svartifoss was inaccessible due to weather.
On the Snæfellsnes peninsula, it is one of the most recognisable landscapes in Iceland, standing a 463m high, this mountain has a distinct steep incline to a peak shaped a little like a cone. We aimed to get here but decided not to on this occasion.
There are a number of other activities I haven't included in this that would have also been great but I am hoping to go back again and experience more. Our freak weather in the had restricted a couple of things we had hoped to see and do mentioned above. See below for more of my pictures from this trip.