Renting a car and exploring a country I haven’t been to before is becoming one of my favorite types of adventures. My first experience was in Switzerland and my most recent road trip was in Iceland. The ability to stop at any given point to enjoy a cliffside chat or an hour long hike on the side of a mountain to reach a glacier makes things interesting, relaxing and unforgettable.
You can also expect to experience some of the most prodigious and dramatic landscapes that will leave you shaking your head. If you can’t make the trip to Iceland any time soon you can catch landscapes from Iceland in movies and shows like Game of Thrones, Interstellar, Tomb Raider, James Bond, Thor, Batman Begins and many more.
What I Brought
For the trip I brought along my Nikon DSLR, GoPro HERO4 and DJI Phantom 4 equipped with PolarPro lenses. Because I brought more electronics than clothes I’ll be able to provide a variety of photos and videos from my trip, but it definitely came at a cost.
The lack of clothing I brought during this trip is something I will not repeat again. I thought exploring Iceland at the end of May would allow me to keep the hats, gloves and bulky clothing at home, but that was a mistake. It’s a safe bet to bring a set of winter clothes with you because the backup plan of buying what you need once you’re in Iceland is going to cost you. I’ll probably repeat the fact that Iceland is pretty expensive and I’d like to prevent unnecessary purchases next time and hopefully save you from the same mistake.
Another tip is to purchase your alcohol at the duty free shop in the airport. Alcohol at the stores and bars will cost you much more once you leave the airport.
Starting out in Reykjavik
I flew into Reykjavik early in the morning with two of my friends, rented a 4×4 vehicle and headed to an Airbnb downtown. I highly recommend renting a 4×4 vehicle because there are roads your typical Euro economy car can’t go, especially if you visit in the winter. 4×4 vehicles are obviously more to rent, but if you do it before you enter the country you can save about 15%. You’ll also want to stop at a grocery store and stock up on some food for your road trip since eating out for every meal is even more expensive in Iceland. Look for a pink pig and stores called Bonus.
Reykjavik is a cool city with a lot of character, but I recommend staying there for a max of two days. If you come in on the weekend and plan on going out to the bars be prepared for a late night. Since alcohol is quite expensive a lot of people drink at home and then visit the bars after 1:00 am. Staying out past 6:00 am is also normal so if you plan on closing the bars down with a few locals be prepared for that.
Most tourists fly into Reykjavik and explore the Golden Circle, which is a 185 mile loop containing most tours and travel-related activities in Iceland. I recommend driving the circle one of the two days that you’re in the area because you will see a few of the popular waterfalls, Geysir, Þingvellir National Park and a bunch of random spots that you’ll want to stop at along the way. However, do not end your trip there. Some of my favorite spots were beyond the Golden Circle.
You have to stop at a natural hot spring and I recommend Secret Lagoon (pictured above) over the Blue Lagoon. I don’t enjoy overly touristy locations and that’s what you can expect at the Blue Lagoon. Secret Lagoon is a smaller spring that’s more relaxed, less crowded and about a third of the price compared to Blue Lagoon.
Secret Lagoon is also only 30 minutes away from one of the most popular waterfalls, Gullfoss. So, after a few hours relaxing in the spring head on over to Gullfoss and then make your way back to Reykjavik from the circle. It might be worth pointing out that the Blue Lagoon does offer more “luxurious” services like mud masks, algae masks and massages, but all I really wanted to do was experience a natural hot spring. If you want to be pampered you might want to consider Blue Lagoon over Secret Lagoon.
If you’re scuba certified you HAVE to dive at Silfra while you’re in the Reykjavik area. If you’re not then you should at least snorkel it. Silfra is the only place where you can dive or snorkel directly in the crack between two continental plates (North America and Eurasian continents). It’s also the clearest water you can dive in with visibility around 500 feet. AND, you can drink the water at any time during your dive. Let me tell you something about the water. It is the best tasting water you will ever drink and the experience will turn you into a water snob. Brita filtered water? No. I want 30-100 year lava rock filtered water and only that kind of water with my meals.
Next Stop, Vik
From Reykjavik we continued on to Vik, which is about a two hour drive, not including all your stops. On the way you’re going to see the popular waterfalls Skógafoss, Gljúfrabúi and Seljalandsfoss. Those are all worth a stop and I have more on the waterfalls in the next section.
Once you pass the waterfalls you should head to the downed US Navy DC-3 plane that crashed in 1973 at Sólheimasandur beach. Once you find the location of the DC-3 it’s about a 45 minute walk from the road since you can no longer drive to it. The parking location is between Skógafoss waterfall and the city of Vik. Some people miss it so if you want the exact coordinates they are 63.4912391,-19.3632810.
Plan on the DC-3 stop taking about three hours including the walk there and back. Below is a short clip of my experience.
When you’re done at the plane and reach Vik, you’ll want to visit the Black Sand Beach, which you can see in the picture below and the first picture in the previous section. It’s such a powerful, yet relaxing experience and provides a landscape that’s tough to beat.
Northeast of Vik
About an hour away from Vik you’ll run into one of my favorite stops, Fjaðrárgljúfur Canyon (pictured above). You’ll see the trail that most people go up, but if you want to see views from below before you climb to the top look for a small bridge near the parking lot. There is a little hill that you can go down that will take you to the water. Once you’re done at the bottom you can follow the normal trails to the top and enjoy views from the edges.
One hour up the road will get you to the Svínafellsjökull glacier. After walking the glacier and surrounding area it’s no wonder you’ll find it in parts of Interstellar. I thought this was a really cool experience and would recommend stopping for this. You can see it pictured below and also at the :45 mark in the main video.
45 minutes beyond Svínafellsjökull and you’ll be able to experience the glacier lagoon in Jökulsárlón. The lagoon is a lake formed because the Breiðamerkurjökull glacier started receding from the edge of the Atlantic Ocean. Below is what you can expect to see.
Waterfalls of Iceland
There are many waterfalls throughout Iceland that you need to stop at. These include Háifoss, Skógafoss, Gljúfrabúi, Seljalandsfoss, Öxarárfoss, Dettifoss, Svartifoss, Glymur and Gullfoss. Gljúfrabúi is located in the same area as Seljalandsfoss (the one you walk behind) and is a must stop. You enter a small cave and are welcomed by water crashing a couple feet in front of you. It’s where I was able to capture the first photo in this section. The second photo is a pretty common one that you see of people standing on the rock at Skógafoss. Below is a short video of the waterfalls visited during the trip.
Final Thought is Don’t Have a Full Plan
One of the best parts about renting a vehicle is that you’re able to explore any part of Iceland on your own time. When you go with a touring company you’re always going to be on a schedule and with a larger group. It was nice to stick around some of the waterfalls when the buses left or late at night because less people were there.
One of the benefits of visiting in the summer is that you have at least 19 hours of sunlight so you don’t have to rush your stops. Two of the nights I was in Iceland remained light out for 24 hours and the other nights were never completely dark. This is great for photos and also gives you an opportunity to visit typically busy locations when nobody is there. This also means you might want to pack a sleeping mask if you need complete darkness.
Summary of Tips and Locations
- Pack warm clothing regardless of the time of year and what the forecast says. The unexpected happens in Iceland and it’s better to be prepared.
- Rent a 4×4 vehicle before you enter Iceland. I used SADcars for this trip.
- If you plan on drinking, purchase alcohol at the duty free store in the airport.
- Stay in Reykjavik for a maximum of two nights and get on the road for the rest.
- Drive the Golden Circle on your own one of the days you’re in Reykjavik.
- Bars start to get busy after 1:00 am and people stay out past 6:00 am.
- Visit Secret Lagoon instead of Blue Lagoon unless you’re looking for a mud mask, algae mask or massage. The next time I visit Iceland I plan on doing a hot spring tour and found this article helpful.
- Dive or snorkel at Silfra.
- Popular Waterfalls include Háifoss, Skógafoss, Gljúfrabúi, Seljalandsfoss, Öxarárfoss, Dettifoss, Svartifoss, Glymur and Gullfoss. You can see a full list on Wikipedia.
- DC-3 is about a three hour experience and worth the walk
- Fjaðrárgljúfur Canyon is a great stop and has photo opportunities at the base near the parking lot.
- Glacier Lagoon in Jökulsárlón has boat tours and other activities, but I didn’t do any of those. I was happy walking around the area where you can park.
- Try skyr after one of your meals.