Iceland has recently shot to international tourist acclaim, with pictures of its stunning waterfalls and rugged landscapes suddenly flooding social media. You’d think these pictures were overselling the real thing, but it’s not. It’s difficult not to take a good picture of Iceland, due to its awe-inspiring natural beauty. Furthermore, with a majority of the island’s tourism being concentrated in the south, it is an incredible place for those travelers who scout more out of the way places to hike, explore, and get lost in.
How to get there
Flying to Europe/Asia from the US – or vice versa? Icelandair offers ridiculously cheap transatlantic flights when you book from their website. We would know, having done a two and a half year long transatlantic long distance relationship between Germany and the US! Every time we’d fly through, we’d see adverts for the Icelandair stopover: Do a stopover in Iceland for up to 7 nights at no additional cost to your transatlantic journey. The deal is as good as advertised – there are no hidden fees, you just have to get onto Icelandair.com and choose the number of nights you’d like your stopover to be and voila – an additional perk to your journey! We were stunned to see flights as low as $300 between Europe and the US over the summer of 2017 – what an incredible deal!
Make sure you have a Schengen visa if you’re not from a visa-exempt country!
Getting around Iceland
While there are plenty of tour companies that will take care of transport, accommodation, and even meals for you, we as independent adventurers strongly suggest renting a Jeep/SUV with 4-wheel drive to get around the island. With most of nation’s industry equipment having to be imported and the government pushing home-grown products over others, prices in Iceland tend to be so high “they border on hilarious,” to quote a fellow Irish traveler we met on the road. This goes for tours, hotels, and food. We suggest investing in a Jeep to make the most of your trip. Make sure it has 4-wheel drive, as certain roads in the country, known as F-roads, require 4-wheel drive to be driven on. It is against the law to drive on these roads without a vehicle with 4-wheel drive.
There are plenty of Icelandic car companies that will give you better rates than more international companies for car rentals. We got ours through Route 1 Car Rental, and had a fantastic experience. With their personable staff and excellent rates (compared to others in the country!) this is a no-brainer in terms of recommendations.
An adventurer at heart? Get a Jeep/SUV with 4-wheel drive and enjoy the F-roads, but avoid off-road driving. There are few things that annoy Icelanders, and this is one of them. And really, you don’t need to do any off-roading – the F-roads are adventurous enough, trust us!
Top tip: The winds in Iceland are no joke, even during the summer. Most damages to cars in Iceland occur as dents by the hinges as doors fly open if you’re not holding on to it as you get out of the car. Make sure you have a firm grip on your door as you open it.
When visiting the Westfjords, it is advisable to let a little air out of your tires to avoid flats on the F-roads. Want to drive through rivers? Make sure you judge the depths of the rivers first – or follow a local to get a sense of it if you’re feeling particularly uneasy.
When to Visit
Summer: Iceland in the summer is astonishingly beautiful. I’m trying not to use hyperbolic language here but it really is stunning. The island is almost completely open to explorers, Westfjords included. You can witness waterfalls, gorgeous fjords, and lakes of floating ice, and scale rugged mountain peaks for a trip you will never forget. It’s much more pleasant to have a longer stopover in Iceland over the summer, and enjoy the natural beauty of areas like Thingvellir National Park and the Reykanes Peninsula with its almost alien-planet-like Geopark to their fullest extent. If you want to get away from it all, make sure you visit the Westfjords, which receive less than 10% of tourism to Iceland. This area is uninhabitable over the winter, and roads are usually closed off. We suggest minimum of 7 days to explore Iceland over the summer.
Winter: Fantastic for a short stopover. The Icelandic ice-caves are best viewed in the winter. And don’t forget the Northern Lights! Depending on how you travel, we suggest a 4-5 day trip to Iceland over the winter to enjoy it’s Arctic charms.
Where to Go
We’re not exaggerating when we say that you can easily spend a month in Iceland seeing a different landscape every day. Here are the spots you must see if you’re on a tighter time schedule, grouped by proximity to each other. Our video gives you an overview of where we went in 7 days:
Here is a rough map of the route we took in 7 days. Please note that this is a rough guide: we did stop and take a few F-roads along this route!
Kerid Volcano Crater Lake
A quick stop from Reykjavik in the south, Kerid Volcano Crater Lake is a great start to your adventures. You can even hike down to watch the water lap from below!
Thingvellir National Park
This area offers stunning lakeside views in the summer. Great for a stop for a quick hike and some lunch. Don’t forget to stop by Öxarárfoss! Parking is available by the falls.
Probably the most photographed places in Iceland. Still not to be missed, Geysir and Gullfoss are located very close to each other, and are a quick drive from Thingvellir. We’ve been to Niagara Falls (thrice!) but Gullfoss is still astonishing in its power and beauty. Rugged and stunning, are the only ways we can describe it (and all of Iceland!) We suggest visiting Gullfoss and Geysir in the evening to avoid the majority of the tour buses.
One of our most memorable experiences in Iceland; in the summer, you can even go behind this waterfall! Watch your step, and enjoy the view. You’ll pass many geothermal areas on the way to Seljalandsfoss from the Reykjavik area; stop, and take it in!
You can’t miss the Icelandic highlands on your trip. Put aside at least a day to enjoy these highlands, mostly accessible through F-roads. Enjoy stunning mountain and glacier views!
If there’s one place you go in Iceland, let it be here. The most beautiful waterfall we’ve ever seen, hands down.
Dyrholaey, Reynisfjara, Reynisdrangar, Vik
Must-stop to see puffins and the beautiful black sand beach. We’re not big fans of cities and towns, so we spent most of our time in Dyrholaey, Reynisfjara, and Reynisdrangar.
Vatnajokull National Park, Svartifoss, Skaftafell
While the Vatnajokull glacier caves are best enjoyed in the winter, you can enjoy the benefits of hiking to Svartifoss in the summer. A hike up shows you the incredible flat land around this region, surrounded by mountainous peninsulas.
We definitely suggest booking a night by Jokulsarlon. This area is stunning, with many F-roads that can lead you behind the more touristy platforms built to photograph this glacier. When driving from Reykjavik, look out for roads before the main turnoff to Jokulsarlon for quieter, less crowded views. You can also walk from the main viewing area to these quieter areas.
Hofn, Neskaupstadur, Seydisfjordur
Explore the beauty of the eastern fjords by spending a night in Neskaupstadur or Seydisfjordur. Prices tend to run high in Hofn so the former towns are great alternatives – especially in terms of the view!
Iceland is teeming with waterfalls; we once counted 14 in waterfalls in one spot, all around us! Dettifoss is a part of the Vatnajokull National Park and is reputed to be one of the most powerful waterfalls in Europe.
Mvatyn Nature Baths (optional)
For travelers looking for a quick bath, in the north-east of Iceland, we recommend Mvatyn nature baths. Under no circumstances is it an “out of the way spot”: there are plenty of tourists and if you’re looking for quieter spots, this may not be your cup of tea. There are some gorgeous thermal lake views by Mvatyn though, if you’re in the area!
Hverir Hot Springs
Visited by fewer tourists than those at Geysir, the Hverir Hot Springs region is a great stopover on your Icelandic roadtrip. Fair warning: the smell of sulphur is strong here so scarves are recommended!
This is another powerful waterfall easily accessible on the roadside. You can hike up for views from on top of the falls or take a quick hike down for views from below!
A great city to fuel up, and take a break on your trip around the island. The city has a lot of modern amenities that you may want to take advantage of before you head towards the Westfjords! Do you have enough groceries for the Westfjords, for example? Do you need to visit Bonus, Netto, or Kronan?
There are also plenty of whale-watching tours offered from Akureyi. Be warned that these tours can be shockingly pricey.
The Westfjords: Nordurfjordur/Isafjordur
Indubitably our favorite region in Iceland. Coming from the crowds of Croatia, the silence and escape in the Westfjords was heaven. With stunning fjords at every turn, picturesque peaks they call “Noah’s Ark,” reputedly one of the oldest peaks in the country, and even more beautiful waterfalls, the Westfjords are a sight to witness. Plan your vacation as there is little information on getting around, even on the world wide web! We recommend spending at least 3 days here, enjoying a swim at Krossneslaug pool overlooking the ocean (open 24 hours!) and taking a drive to Dynjandi waterfall. See where you can stay below.
Top tip: Take a drive to Ingolfsfjordur to catch the sunset over Drangavik.
Explore Ofeigsfjordur for waterfalls “where the road ends” in Iceland. Only accessible with 4-wheel drive (we really mean it!)
Here’s a map to help you explore this place “at the end of the world:
Snaefellsnes peninsula, Kirkjufell, Hellnar
This peninsular is worth a visit, even for a day, as you head back down from the Westfjords to Reykjavik. With the iconic Kirkjufell and opportunities for puffin sightings, you’d be remiss to skip out on seeing the west of Iceland.
Reykanes Peninsula, Hafnafjordur, Reynakes Geopark
Top tip: Instead of staying in the ever-expensive Reykjavik, stay in nearby Hafnafjordur instead! Hafnafjordur offers lovely port views, and its proximity to the Blue Lagoon, Reykanes peninsula, airport, and affordable prices make it an ideal base to explore the area. We spent our last day in the country exploring the Reykanes Geothermal Park, and can’t understand why it’s not featured in more Icelandic travel sites: this place is STUNNING. We felt like we were in an alien planet driving through this area – do not miss this when in Iceland!
Fancy going inside a volcano – for a minimum of 400 euro per person? Then you can splurge on the Thrihnukagigur Volcano tour – accessible only via tour. Having experienced the volcanoes in Hawaii earlier this year for a fraction of the price, we decided to forego on this experience, but are interested to hear from those who have – let us know if it was worth it below!
Blue Lagoon, Secret Lagoon
We know, we know. You’re thinking – you recommend out of the way spots and you mention the Blue Lagoon? We were hesitant too, but decided to check it out anyway – and it’s definitely worth it! The service and experience is professional and extremely comfortable. The lagoon itself is very big, so you can get away from the crowds (it’s much bigger than the Mvatyn nature baths). There’s no denying that there are crowds that visit the Blue Lagoon. Top tip: If you’re not a fan of these crowds, go in the late evening. We experienced the Lagoon at 10.30pm and had an incredible experience. We highly recommend visiting the Lagoon before you fly – they have large lockers to store your luggage in for ease of accessibility! We came out feeling rested and pampered after a week of non-stop trekking.
There’s also the Secret Lagoon nearby, recommended to us as a less touristy Blue Lagoon. After our experience at Blue Lagoon we found no need to visit the Secret Lagoon as well, but let us know how it was if you’ve visited it, below!
This list is by no means exhaustive of the places to you can see in Iceland. There are countless unnamed roadside stops and gorgeous fjords that will take your breath away, we promise you! Here is our general route, save a few F-road experiences and road-side stops for waterfalls and hikes. We managed to see the island in 7 days, but that included extremely long days (made very easy by the jaw-dropping views!)
Mapping your route
While we use offline Google Maps wherever we can, you are better off with a physical map when mapping your route in Iceland. Maps usually come with your car rental; on the off chance that it didn’t, click here for a downloadable PDF of the map of Iceland. We recommend physical maps as they show you detailed F-roads and quicker ways to get to your destination than Google Maps, which usually sticks to the Ring Road (1) that runs along the semi-perimeter of Iceland (we say semi since it doesn’t cover the Westfjords).
Top tip: TripScout is a fantastic app which has maps curated by locals that you can download onto your phone, so that you don’t miss out on any highlights on your trip. It includes more out of the way spots as we’ve described above, and enough (but not too much!) information to help you with your tour. Use code acoupleonabudget to download your map for free! It definitely helped us during our trip!
Make sure that you plan your fueling stops ahead of your trip. Fueling stations can be far flung across different towns, especially in the north. Orkan offers the cheapest gas prices, especially in comparison to N1.
Where to Stay
Finding affordable places to stay can be tough in Iceland. Top tip: Use Airbnb! We stayed at some incredible properties. There’s nothing like coming home to stunning views and a cozy kitchen after a long day of adventuring. Staying at apartments also comes in handy when you have to cook your own meals – you don’t have to share a kitchen like you usually have to at most hotels/guest houses! Use this link to get $40 off your booking!
While there are enough options for lodging in the south of Iceland, accommodation in the Westfjords, especially “where the roads ends” in Nordurfjordur, can be difficult to find. We recommend staying at Urdartindur Guesthouse and Cottages in Nordurfjordur for an affordable stay in modern rooms. They also offer camping space if you prefer to rent a vehicle and camp your way through Iceland, as many travelers do (only advisable in the summer!) Click here to get $15 off your booking!
What to Eat
Restaurant prices in Iceland are no joke. Unless you’re willing to drop at least sixty dollars per person per (small) meal (if you’re lucky!) Your best bet is it hit the supermarket and cook your meals for the duration of your trip. Bonus, Kronan, and Netto are budget supermarkets with good produce, and can be found in most cities. Buy non-perishables that can be kept cooked/packed for long hours while on the road, and load up on healthy snacks! Reward yourself with a meal at a restaurant at the end of your trip like we did.
Iceland was an incredible finish to the honeymoon of our dreams, and is a must-visit on your travel bucket list. It remains one of the most beautiful places we’ve visited thus far, and we hope that the travel guide above will help you appreciate the truly rugged splendor of this country. Now, seriously, go book your flight!
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Planning a trip to Iceland? Been to the places above? We’d love to hear from you! Leave us a comment below!