Iceland is a destination like no other. Its weird, wonderful and vast landscape provides endless adventure but it also has a modern culture, as everything is new and innovative in design. It lacks the chain hotels, restaurants and coffee shops from globalisation in favour of local businesses, providing a truly unique holiday. Even though its popularity has grown rapidly (as tourists fly in with hopes of seeing the Northern Lights) it still has a traditional feel of small-town rural life due to its sparse population.
Visit in summer and you’ll find lush green valleys and clear blue skies. Visit in winter to explore snow-capped mountains and a winter environment like no other. We opted to visit in February with an aim to return in summer for a different experience.
Tours or self-drive?
If you’ve started your research on Iceland you’ll know that’s it’s an expensive place to visit. At first, we considered highly rated tours from top sites (such as the famous Golden Circle tour), but we decided to rent a car and drive everywhere ourselves for the following reasons:
- It’s much cheaper than tours – the average price for a tour is £80 per person for a full day tour but basic car rental is only ~£100 for 4 days will full insurance.
- Driving allows you to stop off when you wish. There’s so many hidden gems and photo opportunities out on the road and you have a sense of freedom.
- You can fit in more sites in one dayas you’re not waiting around for people. Similarly, you can spend longer in places that you enjoy. You get to set off and return to Reykjavik at your leisure.
However, driving can be a little bit tricky on the icy roads of Iceland and harsh winter storms, so only rent a car if you’re feeling confident. Tours are an excellent way of seeing the top sites without worrying about navigation or road safety.
What we decided on:
We used Reykjavik as a base to visit the South-west of the country, which is the most popular choice for a first visit. We planned out our full itinerary and decided on the following:
Day 1 – Skip to this section
A customised Golden Circle self-drive trip
Dinner and nightlife
Day 2 – Skip to this section
Day 3 – Skip to this section
A self-drive trip around Iceland’s South Coast
Day 1: The Golden Circle
The Golden Circle is the most popular tour for first time visitors in Iceland. It covers some amazing countryside views, geysers, the mighty Gulfoss Waterfall and more, giving a good variety to the things you see.
Join a Golden Circle Tour or drive it yourself. The full round trip is around 3 hours without stopping, but of course you want to stop and see everything properly.
Thingvellir National Park – Thingvellir is a huge national park that sits on the rift of two tectonic plates. It was historically the location of the Icelandic Parliament but today it’s a protected tourist site. Explore the national park on foot to find a stunning backdrop of cliffs, small streams and an old church and cemetery. There’s also a number of bridges and canyons to explore; you can even snorkel between continents in one of the underwater tectonic plates! In the summer you’ll find a luscious green valley and crystal-clear water, whilst the winter presents vast, snow covered ridges.
Haukadalur geothermal geysers – The Haukadalur area is home to two of Iceland’s must-see thermal geysers, The Great Geyser and Strokkur. Park up and wander this eerie area on foot. Volcanic gases linger in the air in what looks like a scene from Braveheart and the geysers explode 6-8m up into the air every 4 minutes or so. This attraction is very unique and one of the first discoveries of its kind in Europe so time your photos right to capture an action shot!
Gulfoss Waterfall – In our opinion, Gulfoss is the most impressive site to see on the Golden Circle route. This staggeringly vast waterfall stretches out between two mountain faces to a river that flows into the distance. We visited during the winter to find the surrounding mountains covered in snow and ice. Visitors can climb a set of steps to the cliffs above the waterfall and this is where you’ll capture the best pictures and impressive panorama of the valley. During the summer there’s a narrow path opening that’ll take you even closer to the falls.
Skaholt Cathedral – Taking an alternative route south on your way back to Reykjavik, Skaholt Cathedral is located in a small village surrounded by beautiful scenery. Take a walk around the village for a peak into rural Icelandic life and take pictures of the cathedral overlooking the green or snow touched backdrop. By the time we reached Skaholt, the sun was starting to set and the low sun in the sky provided excellent photo opportunities.
Kerið – The final stop on the Golden Circle route is the volcanic crater of Kerið. It is believed that Kerið was once a cone volcano that erupted and emptied all of its magma. These days it’s dormant and a bright blue lake has formed on the crater opening. The area surrounding the crater is made up of red volcanic rock and you’ll find impressive scenery of mountains and flat land. In the winter, the crater lake is frozen over and ice frosts over the upper edges of the volcano remains. Walk around the edge of the crater or descend to the lake at the bottom, but remember to watch your stepping as it’s quite a steep drop.
Some Golden Circle tours include a visit to one or two thermal power stations on the return route to Reykjavik but we preferred to just see these from a distance and spend more time at the key sites.
Dinner and nightlife in Reykjavik – As with any capital city, the nightlife and choice of restaurants in Reykjavik is plentiful and lively on weekends but a little quieter during the week. Wander the city at night to see the small coloured houses and the mighty Hallgrimskirja church lit up. Although nightlife in the city is expensive, there’s plenty of moderately priced places to try and you can always have a few drinks at your hotel before heading out.
Our recommended restaurants and bars:
Fish and Chips Vagnin (closed in the winter)
Lebowski Bar (based on the movie)
Day 2: Reykjavik and Blue Lagoon
Although there isn’t a huge amount to see in Reykjavik, there’s plenty to keep you entertained in one day and it’s a unique city to visit, very different to the vast capital cities of mainland Europe. Spend your morning and early afternoon walking around the city and marvelling at the colourful shops and houses and seeing the main sites. The top things to check out (in the order we’d recommend) are:
- Hofdi House
- Solfario – The Sun Voyager
- Old Harbour
- City centre shops
- Hallgrimmskirja church
- National Museum of Iceland
- Perlan Observation Deck and bar/restaurant
The Blue Lagoon of the south-west is one of the most talked about attractions in Iceland and it’s a very cool experience. It’s also great for relaxing after a long day of walking around Reykjavik. Drive 45 mins or catch the paid-for transfer bus to the lagoon and you’ll be welcomed by a luxurious relaxation centre with modern changing rooms, a café and spa facilities. Blue Lagoon is located on an 800-year-old geothermal lava field that has been manipulated to form a series of warm to hot pools of geothermal water that’s renewed every 40 hours. The bright blue colour of the lagoon is apparent due to its high silica content and the natural environment will amaze you. Put on a face mask and relax in the water, visit the steam room/sauna, kick back in an outdoor cave or sit outside and marvel at the lagoon.
Being such a popular attraction, tickets to Blue Lagoon have to be pre-booked in advance to ensure you secure a place. We’d recommend booking at least 3 weeks before arrival and booking a late afternoon slot. That way you get to see the lagoon in the light to take pictures, only for the sky to darken at sunset shortly after. This is the time to take the best pictures so have your camera at the ready. Also wear plenty of conditioner on your hair as the sulphur gas and salt water can do a lot of damage.
Day 3: Iceland’s South Coast
A slightly longer route than the Golden Circle, Iceland’s south coast is home to giant waterfalls, glaciers, caves and black sand beaches. It’s quite a different environment to the Golden Circle and the second most popular tour option. Tours of the south coast cost around £100 per person but we opted to drive it ourselves, which we’d highly recommend! Our recommended path takes you from Reykjavik to the town of Vik and back, with plenty of amazing things to see along the way.
Selfoss town – Being a 2-hour drive to the first waterfall on the route, Selfoss is a good place to stop off and grab a snack whilst seeing how locals live in this fairly large but rural town. There’s plenty of snack bars and cafes if you want to grab breakfast. Selfoss is not to be confused with Selfoss Waterfall, which is actually in the far north-east of Iceland.
Urridafoss Waterfall – Urridafoss is the first of many waterfalls on the southern path to Vik. It’s a small waterfall but worth visiting for the overall view of the river opening and fierce river rapids. It’s like a much smaller version of Gulfoss and you can walk alongside the river trail to get up-close pictures.
Seljalandsfoss Waterfall – Seljalandsfoss and Skogafoss are equally as impressive. Seljalandsfoss is the largest of multiple streams, overflowing from a large mountain range to a vertical drop and small lake. Visitors can walk underneath the falls or climb the stairs alongside it to get a view of the sheer drop below.
Skogafoss Waterfall – Just along the road from Seljalandsfoss, Skogafoss is a standalone waterfall with a much higher drop to the rocks below, giving off a powerful impact spray of water. Take pictures at the base of the falls alongside the winding creek and then make the challenging climb up the steep staircase to the top of the falls for an overhead view. Free parking is available at Skogafoss and there’s a great Fish ‘n’ Chips street food stall for lunch 2 minutes from the main road.
Solheimajokull Glacier Walk – Solheimajokull Glacier was undoubtedly the most impressive thing we saw in the entirety of our Iceland trip. The glacier is best to see in winter for the deep snow coverage and arctic-style landscape; a huge ice formation in between two cliffs. Once you arrive at the car park, you can access the glacier from a long cliffside path that takes you to the glacier within a 10-15 minutes walk. The glacier itself is dangerous to climb on but is quite something to look at. You’ll see glistening pale blue ice caves and ridges and a towering glacier face that’s challenging even for professional climbers. For the best view of the glacier, join a glacier walking tour at the car park. They’ll provide you with specialist equipment and lead you to the lower path of the glacier. This takes some time so set off earlier if you plan on taking a tour.
Solheimasandur Plane Wreck – Just along the road from Solheimajokull Glacier is the famous wreck of the US Airforce DC-3 plane from 1973. This hidden gem can only be accessed on foot due to the vast black sand beach it’s located on. Park at the nearest car park and walk 4-km on foot to find the wreckage. It’s a cool and quite rare site to see due to the difficulty of reaching the location. Our advice is to only explore the wreckage in clear weather and pack a GPS so you don’t veer off path.
Dyrholaey Lighthouse – Once you finally reach the black sand beaches of Vik you’ll notice on the map that a large cove and a thin strip of sand split the beach. We’d recommend driving to the westerly area of the beach, Dyrholaey, and ascending the cliff to the lighthouse. Here you’ll capture overhead views of two sides of the beach and a great view of the crashing waves against the rock faces and land formations. You can drive down to the Dyrholaey beaches afterwards or opt to drive straight to the Vik side of the beach.
Vik Black Sand Beaches – Vik is the final stop on our long and adventurous itinerary and one of the highlights of the day trip. Drive around the cove to the eastern side of Reynisfjara beach and stop off near the café. Here you can explore the beach on foot, wandering on the jet black volcanic sand and steering clear of the ferocious waves. Walking along the beach you’ll see caves, rock formations in the sea and views of the whole bay if the weather is clear. Stop off in Vik town for dinner and a rest before heading back to Reykjavik.
A note on the northern lights:
The northern lights are very difficult to see. They require clear skies and a specific time of the year (November – February). Try and keep your nights fairly free so you can head out to a viewing point if the weather is looking good and an Aurora Borealis is on the horizon. We’d recommend checking the updates on Iceland Meteorological website daily.
Some of the best places to see the Northern Lights are:
Grotta Island Lighthouse – the far west of Reykjavik city centre, away from light pollution. View the map location here.
Thingvellir National Park – a 40-minute drive north of Reykjavik
‘Guide to Iceland’ have a great article here for the best locations to see the Northern Lights.
If you’re staying for longer or you’re visiting for a second time
Although most people stay in Reykjavik as a base and choose to visit the South-west on their holiday in Iceland, the country has a lot more to be explored. There’s an amazing national park and lake to the south-east, more waterfalls, whale watching and ice caves to the north and plenty of rural towns and villages to explore.
Use our itinerary as a base guide for your own and feel free to add and substitute more of Iceland’s amazing places to visit if you’re staying for longer. We’ll definitely be returning to see everything else it has to offer!