Iceland. It’s on everyone’s bucket list and with good reason. The land of fire and ice. Volcanoes, glaciers, the wind and the sea merging to create a landscape that’s so pristine it feels like another planet. We came in winter to hunt for the elusive Northern Lights… and that was just the tip of the iceberg (literally).
My winter trip itinerary covers the main landmarks along Iceland’s South Coast. It takes the short daylight hours into account and leaves you sufficient time for sightseeing, hiking, and some good old-fashioned Nordic winter fun. Seven days, hundreds of stops, countless photos. Welcome to Iceland!
I traveled with my husband and mom and I couldn’t have picked better travel buddies. We visited Iceland in mid-November and we always started our day at 8.30AM, before sunrise. By the time we were back at our hotel (5PM at the latest), it was already dark. It was light from approximately 9AM till 4PM. As you probably know, the days shorten even more once December rolls around, so keep this in mind if you’re planning to visit after Thanksgiving.
DAY 1 Arrive in Keflavik airport and drive to Reykjavik
We picked up our rental car in Keflavik and drove to Reykjavik, dropped our bags, and started out sightseeing around the city. Reykjavik is charming city and actually has quite bit to keep you busy. More on Reykjavik on this post. If you take a cab from the airport it will cost you over US $150 and Ubers about US $200 (not kidding), and depending on where your hotel or Airbnb is, so if you’re not renting a car, consider taking the Flybus to the BSI Terminal in Reykjavik. This bus goes by every 45 minutes and is about US $25 per person and its safe to book in advance here.
After dinner, we ventured outside the city to find the Northern Lights and check off the top item on my bucket list. For all the wondrous things to see and do here, the Lights were #1. We took a Viator Northern Lights Tour and they didn’t disappoint. We linked up at the Reykjavik bus terminal and departed on time. The tour guide gave us a good rundown of our plan: we were going to travel outside the city and stop at a designated area for folks to see and photograph the lights though we’d stop on the way there and back if we happened to see them unexpectedly. Although we “saw” them at the designated spot, they were faint because of the headlights from oncoming traffic (though the pictures were terrific). Bring a tripod and a quality camera. And know how to really use that camera too. I thought I knew what I was doing but if it wasn’t for this friendly fellow tourist showing me how to modify shutter speed, I’d have struck out. On the way back to the city, I was feeling like mission accomplished when the tour guide said we were going to stop at a nearby gas station because the driver had just glimpsed the lights hovering above us. We stopped and exited the bus, stared up at the clear night sky…and that’s when we got the show we REALLY came for. The naked eye could easily see this display and it was unforgettable. Dancing lights, changing colors, appearing, disappearing. I don’t think I ever heard so many people scream “WOW!” so many times but it was just…WOW.
DAY 2 – Golden Circle: Thingvellir National Park – Geysir– Gullfoss waterfall
Any trip to Iceland should include a daytime tour of the famous Golden Circle. There’s an old saying that “getting there is half the fun” and in the case of Iceland, it’s probably more than that so rent a car for your excursions…you’ll see waterfalls, mountains, wild horses, and all other manner of natural beauty that you may pass in a tour bus. The golden circle is a tourist route around 300 km looping from Reykjavík into the southern uplands of Iceland and back. This area contains most tours and travel-related activities in South Iceland and it takes about 3:30 to cover it.
We started our day at Thingvellir National Park, a place where you can see Iceland’s stark geological processes play out right in front of you. Gaze at a waterfall, literally stroll through the North American AND Eurasian tectonic plates, or go for a nice hike. Hard to believe anything could rival that, right?….but there is.
After visiting the Park, continue to Geysir. This is home to Strokkur, a geyser that erupts every 5-7 minutes. So if you get there and you feel you just missed something, just stand back and give it a few minutes, you’ll see something cool! you can watch in in action several times. And how may you know you just missed an eruption? The sulfur smell should be a clue 🙂
After you snap that instapic of Stokkur, head over to one of Iceland’s most beautiful waterfalls, the Golden waterfall or Gullfoss. Gullfoss Waterfall is unique because you view the falls from above rather than eye-level and it will look like the waterfall is actually going underground! It is a very interesting perspective and it’s one of the things that sets Gullfoss apart from Iceland’s other majestic waterfalls. We can thank Sigríður Tómasdóttir, Icelands first environmentalist, for saving this majestic waterfall.
On your way back to Reykjavik don’t forget to keep your eyes open for Icelandic wild horses. Stop by the side of the road and pet one!
DAY 3 – Kerid Crater- Skogafoss waterfall – Plane Wreck
Our first stop on day 3 was at Kerið Crater Lake, one of the lesser known sights to see on the Golden Circle. The lake was formed when an earlier volcano basically collapsed into a magma chamber. In winter, the ice sheet covering the crater has a striking blueish hue that will be a stunning backdrop for pictures.
We then headed over to visit one of the odder attractions on the coast. The wreckage of a U.S. Navy DC-3 on Sólheimasandur black sand beach. The plane went down in 1973 when her pilot was forced to land due to severe icing. Luckily all crew members survived. For whatever reason, nobody ever removed the fuselage and now it’s become a travel photography dream location.
One important note about this stop. There’s plenty of parking but it’s 5km from the plane. So be prepared to walk…a lot. And if you visit in winter, it may be the most brutal walk of your life. I felt like one of those reporters that has to report during a hurricane from the beach and seems to be struggling just to stand straight and keep the side of their hood from covering their face! The wind was so strong it literally pushed us in one direction or another the whole way to the wreckage so it’s almost as if we zigzagged rather than walked there. All the while, pebbles and icy rain drops pelt you too. And the surrounding landscape is right out of Mad Max. We loved it despite the conditions. But if this doesn’t sound appealing, check the forecast before you go. And if you’re wondering why you can’t just drive up to the site, thank all those annoying travel bloggers 😉
We then stopped at another iconic landmark– Skogafoss waterfall. If it’s not too cold or slippery on the stairs, I encourage you to make an effort and go all the way to the top of the waterfall. We got soaked but the views are well worth the damp clothes and VERY steep climb! If you are looking to have Skoagfoss Waterfall all to yourself, visit first thing in the morning or right around sunset.
DAY 4 Reynisfjara (Vik) – Hofn
We’re huge fans of Game of Thrones so we drove to a stunning black sand beach at Reynisfjara (near Vik) that is famous for imposing basalt columns and a deceptively treacherous riptide. The backdrop served as the “sea” in Eastwatch-by-the-sea. A great way to photograph the basalt facade is by facing the columns with your back to the beach. But be VERY careful…tourists have nearly been swept out to sea because they didn’t appreciate the strong currents that can wash ashore with no warning. We stayed on the beach till sunset and headed back to Hofn to rest and recharge.
Hofn is a small fishing community in the southeast Iceland. We didn’t spend much time here other than to crash and eat dinner…but man oh man did we find a diamond in the rough…Kaffi Hornið was probably our favorite meal in Iceland! This is a family-run gastropub with almost entirely locally sourced food and a really impressive array of sandwiches, burgers, soups, and desserts, that mix Icelandic cuisine with others very effectively. The chef is actually one of only two professionally trained chefs to be found outside of Reykjavík!
DAY 5 Vatnajokull glacier – Jokulsarlon glacier lagoon – Diamond beach
We had an early cave hike at Vatnajokull glacier. This was arguably the highlight of the trip next to the Lights. We booked a tour and left the Jokulsarlon lagoon parking lot in a monster truck with a few other hardy souls. After a short drive, we turned off the main road and started heading towards the glacier. Although the drive was gnarly, don’t try this in your rental car! The driver regaled us with stories of tourists who tried to reach the glacier and wound up stuck in no man’s land (and owing Hertz a lot of money). Once you approach the edge of the glacier itself, the truck basically becomes an amphibious vehicle. You’re now riding on a glacier!! The ice surface seems to stretch on forever. The tour guide/driver then stopped the car, stepped out first to check the integrity of the ice, and then provided us with crampons so we could stand firmly on the surface and led us to the first of several caves! These ice dwellings are beautiful and stunning in a way that words can’t adequately describe. My badass mom was able to do this excursion even with a broken arm, so it’s able for everyone except children. In short, if you visit Jokulsarlon, don’t just visit the glacier lagoon. Put the drone away and visit the caves!!
The Diamond Beach is just across the road from the lagoon. During winter the cold temperatures and the wind turn this coastline into an amazing winter wonderland. We stayed there till sunset and watched the light reflect gently off the icebergs. Unforgettable.I personally found it more breathtaking then Jokulsarlon Lagoon, but that’s just me!
DAY 6 Seljalandsfoss – Gljufrabui – Eldhraun
Seljalandsfoss is one of the best-known waterfalls in Iceland. Bring a raincoat because the drizzle coming off the falls could soak you as you get closer! You can also walk Seljalandsfoss and catch a rainbow on a sunny day! During the winter, the path to the fall is closed due to slipperiness but that doesn’t seem to stop everyone from chancing it.
Head over to Gljufrabui. This picturesque waterfall is next to Seljalandsfoss so you may see people walk from one to the other. But this waterfall is “hidden” in a cave that you can enter only from a shallow stream. There are some small rocks on the surface of the stream and folks will use them to walk into the cave and see the waterfall. Legend has it that little elves or gnomes lived behind the waterfall. We didn’t see any but the stop was worth it! Just think twice about venturing into the cave with an expensive camera because you will get wet!
After we dried off, we drove through Iceland’s largest lava field– Eldhraun – and made a short stop to admire this surreal landscape. The field is the product of an epic lava flow following a massive volcano eruption in 974. The dimensions of this lava field are immense – some 700km2. For comparison, the total area of Singapore is 648km2!
DAY 7 Blue Lagoon – Fly home
We spent the whole day relaxing at Blue Lagoon. Pricey? Yes. Touristy? You betcha. Worth going? Totally. I spent a few hours relaxing in the ethereally blue water here at the end of my trip and for me it was the perfect way to relax and recharge. Reservations are strongly recommended.
The Lagoon has a swim-up bar where you can get smoothies and other drinks (or silica or other mineral-based creams to lather your face), so be sure to hit that up while you relax in the healing waters.
Since the Blue Lagoon is just 10 minutes away from Keflavik Airport, we visited en route to catch our flight to Edinburgh. They’ll store your luggage for only 3 euros! Also a great first stop in Iceland if curing jet lag’s top priority.
The Blue Lagos offers several visitor packages. We picked the Comfort Package and liked it: 60 Euros per person, and that buys you entrance to the Blue Lagoon, a free drink (go for the strawberry skyr smoothie), a bathrobe, and a skin care sample kit. Not too shabby.