With landscapes that look like they’ve been lifted straight out of fairytale books, it’s easy to see why Iceland has been tipped to top travel trends this year. The need to breakaway from smog-filled cities and breathe non-toxic air is heightened when you step outside at 8am in the morning, head bleary eyed to the nearest coffee shop and find you are the only one there. So far removed from your commuting Starbucks fight that you’ll shake your head in disbelief.
Take back the feeling of adventure as you wander across the island; bringing you to shooting geysers, vast ice-sheened volcanic plates and gravity defying crystal caves. Immerse yourself in stripped back terrain, where clusters of trees get called a forest and hundreds of miles pass without signs of a single house, let alone town. Have your breath taken away at the extreme geography that confronts you, daring to be challenged. Throughout your whole trip in this spellbinding country, you’ll feel inferior to the wonders of nature. Waterfalls will gush over you and glaciers will loom behind you, standing the on top of mountains, legs a stride, glancing down at the jaggered edges, you’ll be reminded that we are just a tiny speck on this giant planet of ours.
Easyjet now offers flights from London airports to Reykjavik for as little as £69 return making it the perfect time to tick Iceland of the bucket list!
Where to start?
You’re most likely fly into Keflavik Airport, Iceland’s main international hub and here begins the exploring. Reykjavik’s positioning means that travelling to all the featured landmarks is relatively easy. The drive to Vik (and the rest of the Southern attractions) takes anything from 6 – 8 hours (thank ice, snow and wandering cattle for the varied journey times.)
What to see?
Gulfoss – The highlight of the Golden Circle Tour. The Golden Circle tour takes wanderlusters to visit three famous sights just outside of Reykjavik, including the hot spring Geysir’s, Thingvellir national park and the crown jewel: the gushing Gulfoss waterfall. Saturated in rainbows and gleaming icicles, standing on top of the Gulfoss is an empowering feeling; that is until you glance your eyes downward and realise the sheer force of the waterfall!
Geysir – The shooting Geysir’s are an Icelandic bucket list essential. They are a rare form of detonating water, similar to jet-like explosions. A true natural phenomenon to behold on your Icelandic exploration.
Auror Borealis (Northern Lights) – The allusive Northern Lights is something that you can’t leave Iceland without at least attempting to see. There are plenty of tours that will take you away from the major towns (the lights are brighter in complete darkness) with a coach full of other people. For a more intimate viewing, you can also take a 4 x 4 that will help chase the lights until they make their magical appearance.
Laugarvatm Fontana Hot Springs – Hot springs are a casual pastime in Iceland. Many Icelanders will spend their Sunday mornings submerged in boiling waters to relax. You’ll see men recounting the morning news to one another, women exchanging town gossip and teenagers planning a night out. Head to Laugarvatm Fontana as a cheaper alternative to the Blue Lagoon, it’s round the corner from the Gulfoss so it makes for a very relaxing refuel stop.
Blue Lagoon – If there’s one Icelandic attraction people have heard of, it’s this one. Yes it’s incredibly touristy, but it’s also undeniably spectacular. Make sure you coat your hair in conditioner to avoid suffering from a straw like texture in the upcoming weeks and definitely make use of the organic mud mask that lines the edges of the lagoon. The mud is filled with natural minerals that will leave your skin feeling refreshed and radiant and it’s also the same masks which are sold in the gift shop, so see it as kind of a free sample! Most travellers also choose to stop off before their flight as it’s on route to Keflavik. I guess there are worse ways to prepare for a flight home…
Skogafoss Waterfall (South) – After climbing 370 steps, you’ll be rewarded with a mesmerizing view over the island’s southern coastline. The heavy veil of water comes from not one, but two glaciers, and legend has it that the waterfalls hides Viking gold! On sunny days it promises a double rainbow, so close your eyes and make a wish!
Sólheimasandur Black Sand Beach (South) – When you’re visiting the black sand beach, don’t forget to drop by the famous US Navy 1973 plane crash. Now a photographers dream (and the ultimate landscape for the perfect profile picture) there is something both alluring and eerie about the skeletal aircraft remains.
Vatnajokull Glacier (South) – Deep under the glacier are magnificent crystal ice caves. Glaring, defiant icicles dart out in all directions in this illuminated treasure trove of gleaming blue hues. Showcasing nature’s extremities, you’ll feel like you’re entering a secret supernatural lair.
Unfortunately, visits during the Spring and Summer are forbidden due to the danger of the caves collapsing, so save this one for your Winter visit when the freezing temperatures solidify this almighty structure.
Hike! – Whether you choose the 55km Laugavegur trail or the slightly shorter (easier) Fimmvörðuháls trail (which is equally as stunning, but less brutal on the knees!) both feel like stepping onto a Games of Thrones set. Walk across expansive mountains, gaze at mirrored lakes and as the light reflects, catch the odd rainbow or two.
Where to stay?
Basing yourself in Reykjavik is a good start. If you are travelling to the south of the island, check out Hotel Ranga and Welcome Hotel Lambafell as they are both only a few miles from the Selijalandsfoss waterfall. Both feel more like staying in a friends mountain lodge, than a hotel!
Save – Kex Hostel used to be a biscuit factory and equips itself with its very own library. As one in ten Icelanders have written their own book, this is the ideal place to start.
Spend – Stay Apartments Einholt is in a super convenient location and boasts basic cooking facilities for late night snacks and cuppa soups. It is only a short walk to Laugavegur where all the main shops, restaurants and bars are. Keep basic groceries in the fridges instead of dining out, to avoid empty stomachs and enjoy fatter wallets!
Splurge – Alda Hotel features luxurious leather furnishings and faux fur throws draped artistically over armchairs. Combining modern with a classic, gentlemanly interior makes it’s the perfect place to indulge. It’s located right on Laugavegur, Reykavik's main shopping street.
What it costs?
Extend the term ‘shoestring’ a little and you should be ok. Iceland doesn’t claim to be a budget break, but it also doesn’t have to break the bank. There are plenty of free things to do in Reykjavik and we found if you combine your tours, you’ll get a better deal. Feel free to shop around, but most excursions are priced pretty much the same.
If you’re planning on staying for more than a few days, think about renting a car. Renting a car is a great way to see Iceland as you’ll have the freedom to explore at your own will, stopping as frequently (very frequently, there is a lot of beautiful landscape to devour) as you wish.
Things to splurge on and things to save on…
Standing in an empty field, stomping your feet and blowing into your hands for several hours is worth it when seeing kaleidoscopic greens, blues, purples and pinks dance across the sky, telling you their own story. Framed by a backdrop of piercing stars, the shape-shifting Aurora Borealis (Northern Lights) is worth the, slightly steep, tour price. Make sure you check the weather beforehand as forecasts can often predict how likely you are the see the mystical lights, and a lot of tour companies will also offer a secondary chance at viewing them if you do not see them on your first trip!
Mount Esja provides the backdrop to Reykvaik and protectively frames the skyline. It is often misconceived to be just a single mountain, but is in fact a volcanic range that dares you to come closer – and you can do just that. There is a easy walking trail that leads you right to the base of Mount Esja, and it provides some pretty epic photo pit stops on route too! Treat tentatively though, in the winter small lakes freeze over and camouflage themselves amongst higher tufts of grass, so carefully watch where you’re walking to avoid breaking the ice and falling in!
Public transport is quite sparse in Iceland due to its small population; Reykvakik is Iceland’s largest city with only 119,000 residents. Renting a car is a good idea, but only if you’re a confident driver. Icelandic weather is extremely unpredictable, especially in winter and roads are often devilish with large patches of black ice. Alternatively, most transport is included in tour and excursion bookings. Plus, there is always the option of snowmobiles if you fancy channeling your inner Bond villain (evil white cat optional.)
Okay so this a tough one. Icelandic isn’t the easiest language to learn, and you’ll often find yourself awkwardly pointing at a menu or shrugging your shoulders in confusion at trying to pronounce the name of a national park, but don’t worry the majority of tourist spots have English speaking guides / signs / information packs.
If you want to add to your global tongue, however, how about getting started with these phrases? We’ll start with the basics:
Hæ/ Halló – Hello… (v.basic)
Já/ Nei – Yes and No …(basic)
Góðan daginn – Pronounced: go-thah-n die-in
The most common greeting in Iceland, translated to mean good day. Repeat after me go-thah-n die-in (moderate)
Mastered those? Try these!
Hjálp ég er villtur (difficult) – Help, I am lost!
‘Hjalp’ kind of resembles the English equivalent and the word villtur almost sounds like wilder, so if you stick them together when you’ve backtracked past the same record store four times in Reykavik, most locals will kind of get the hint and push you in the right direction!
Hvar er klósettið? (some what difficult) – Where is the bathroom?
My goal is to be able to say this phrase in as many languages as possible because it is by far the handiest. Kloset sounds like the English closet so if you wave your hands a bit, cross your legs and say it slowly and loudly, you should be pointing in the right direction…
Follow it up with ‘Takk’ short for thank you. (v.easy)
Best place to get coffee?
As a self-confessed coffeeologist, I feel I am now passing on the holy grail of caffeine tips. In Reykjavik there is a hidden gem of a coffee shop, Stofan. Now whilst it looks fairly inconspicuous from the outside, after you’ve purchased your first cup of coffee they provide free refills. Yes this is not a drill. Unlimited caffeine. For. Free. Warm your hands and feet whilst exchanging tips with other nomads or cuddle up with a good book, either way your caffeine kick costs less than your daily designer brew!
Best place to get soup in a bread bowl?
Nothing quite compares to the homely feel of Svarta Kaffi, with its checkered tablecloths and worn wick-candles after a day exploring glaciers and volcanoes in sub-zero temperatures. Sink into a steaming hot portion of homemade soup in a novelty bread bowl. Svarta Kaffid is the authentic version, however lots of restaurants in Iceland off the same winter warmer.
Best place to snap a sunset selfie?
Race to the top of Hallgrímskirkjafor a few Icelandic króna and snap the perfect hashtag no filter sunrise selfie. An enchanting palette of pink, orange and golden hues set over the sea of toy houses with Mount Esja framing the picture – it’s postcard worthy.
Can I drink the water?
Most definitely – the water often streams straight from the mountains and glaciers.
Oh, and when you’re taking a shower, just ignore the slightly eggy smell. It’s just the geothermal hot water, which is why Icelandic hot water is perfect for bathing!
112 is the single emergency number in Iceland to reach fire, crime, search, rescue and natural disasters.
British passport holders do not need a visa for a stay of up to three months. For further country specific information, please visit www.gov.uk/travelaware and www.gov.uk/foreign-travel-advice.
Travelling from the airport?
Landing in Reykvaik you can take The Airport Shuttle, operated by Gray Line Iceland and priced at only 3900 ISK return. They offer a door-to-door service so will take you right outside your hotel. Super easy and super quick. The same bus can also take you back to the airport via the way of the Blue Lagoon, to save paying for the journey twice.
Where to go next?
Iceland’s main international airport, Keflavik, also flies to multiple USA cities and a variety of electic European destinations. Why not continue your Nordic adventure and head to Copenhagen, Denmark or Begern, Norway?
About the Author
Hi, my name is Fleur Rollet-Manus and travelling is my favourite form of education. I continually seek to submerge myself in other cultures, marvelling at the wonders of the world and being in complete awe of my surroundings. I am a fully-fledged traveling addict and avid passport stamp collector. You’ll often find me with an overstuffed backpack, swapping stories with other travellers over a cocktail or two!