Why Iceland? That was the first question our friends and family asked. With a volcanic landscape of geysers, hot springs, waterfalls, glaciers and black-sand beaches, it’s a nature lover’s dream. Iceland has become a trendy place to visit in the last few years, but most places are still native, family owned and not commercialized.
We chose to visit Iceland in April, before the prime tourist season began. The temps are cool, but not as cold as you might think. However, the weather in Iceland is very unpredictable, so we chose destination that would be safe to drive, mostly West and South.
Day 1 | Landing on the Moon
Landing in Iceland was otherworldly. The drive from the airport is a flat expanse of black volcanic rock. No trees in sight. Wasn’t sure what we had gotten ourselves into. The diversity of landscape on this small island is truly amazing.
Our first stop was the Blue Lagoon, one of the 25 wonders of the world. Even though man made, the water comes from natural sources over 6,500 feet below the earth’s surface. The unique composition of silica, algae and minerals provide many health benefits including anti aging and pain relief and also gives the Blue Lagoon its blue milky color.
We chose the Blue Lagoon as our first destination due to its close proximity to the airport and a facility with lockers, showers, and basic conveniences like soap and hair dryers. Much appreciated conveniences after overnight flight. Tip from Teri – there is an indoor entrance into the water, definitely the way to go on a cold day.
Tip from Ann – next time, I would do the Blue Lagoon as the last event before leaving. Coming from Dallas, we had a long tiring trip, the weather was a freezing shock and my immune system didn’t like the hot/cold of outdoor spa so I ended up with a slight cold for the next few days.
After the Blue Lagoon we drove to Reykjavik, the capital of Iceland and home to the majority of island’s population. Reykjavík is surrounded by the Atlantic Ocean with waterfront paths stretching around the entire peninsular. Things to see in the city include:
- The Sun Voyager (Sólfarið Sculpture) – a steel sculpture which resembles a Viking ship, but is in fact a dream boat and ode to the sun.
- Hallgrímskirkja Church – a beautiful church that is the city’s main landmark. It has a distinct tower which can be seen from almost anywhere in the city.
- Icelandic Philological Museum – the only penis museum in the world! We had to do it and it was worth it. There is also a number of other museums and cultural centers in the city, we didn’t explore those but you can find the list here.
- Laugavegur Street – The main shopping street is also the place to go for Reykjavík’s nightlife.
Day 2 | The Golden Circle and Dog Sledding
On our second day we headed to the Golden Circle. We had several stops along the way:
Skálafell Ski Resort was our first stop. Not for skiing but for dog sledding. This was a highlight of our trip, especially playing with the dogs and their puppies. If you’ve never done it, it’s definitely worth it. This was also the only place we got to see full snow cover. The resort was crowded even in off season and the road was not really cleared, so it could be a tricky drive if you’re not used to driving in snow.
Þingvellir National Park is a single place that epitomizes the history of Iceland. Major events in the history of Iceland have taken place at Þingvellir and therefore the place is held in high esteem by all Icelanders. The park includes a lake with stunning views of the mountains. Tip for photographers: there is a small white church in the background that provides for a very photogenic scene.
Stokkur Geyser is located in a geothermal area and erupts once every 8-10 minutes to the height of 50-70 feet. Since it’s along the way, it was worth seeing, but it’s pretty busy with tourists and looks similar to other geysers.
Gullfoss Waterfall is one of the most popular tourist attractions in Iceland. The view is truly spectacular and pictures don’t give it justice. As you first approach the falls, the edge is obscured from view, so that it appears that the river simply vanishes into the earth. Tip for photographers: mist from the waterfall kept drizzling on our camera lenses making it difficult to take good pictures, bring protection for your camera and some wipes. Be sure to have a good rain jacket too.
Day 3 | Roadtrip to the West
We took an overnight roadtrip to the West part of Iceland. The drive was about 2.5 hours to get to our destination in Olafsvik. Here are some highlights of the places we saw:
Akranes Town is a small port town was the first stop on our roadtrip. We also stopped to see the historic Akranes Lighthouse.
Horses Along the Way – we stopped several times to enjoy the Icelandic horses that were on pastures along the road. They were very friendly. These horses are a unique breed of smallish horses that came to Iceland with the first settlers from Norway 1,100 years ago.
Hellnar Town & Cliffs is an ancient fishing village, a cluster of old houses and buildings situated close to Arnarstapi on the westernmost part of the Snæfellsnes peninsula. We spent a couple hours walking around taking pictures of the Cliffs of Hellner, a very photogenic stop with no one else around.
Vatnshellir Cave is located in Snaefellsjokull National Park. The cave is 8,000 years old. We followed the path of the lava flow, about 650 feet into the cave and 114 feet below the surface to see amazing colors and lava formations. The walk down the ladder was very steep and slippery.
One thing to realize while traveling in Iceland is that most restaurants and food places are family owned and have limited hours. When we stopped for the night in Olafsvik the only still open dinner place was a gas station – and they had the best burger in Iceland or we were really starving by then!
Day 4 | Prison, Waterfalls and Lava Fields
Our first stop was Kirkjefell, the most photographed mountain in Iceland. As usual we let GPS guide us, and we landed in a prison. Well, we stopped at the prison gate and then Google said, “you’ve arrived.” On top of it, there was a guy walking along the side of the road coming from the prison — all I could think of are the signs outside of Vegas that say “Do not pick up hitchhikers.”
When we finally stopped to photograph Kirkjefell (which was in front of us), we saw the Kirkjefellfoss waterfall right across the street and forgot all about the mountain. We were there early in the day, and the lighting was bad for the mountain anyway. But the waterfall was amazing and mountain reflections in the water made for some stunning photographs.
Along the drive, we stopped to walk around the ancient lava fields. They create amazing formations and are covered in moss.
Next, we drove to the Eldborg crater. It rises 200 ft above the surrounding lava and its last eruption was about 5,000-6,000 years ago. The crater itself is not much to look at, but we lucked out and the sky was amazing for our shots.
Stykkishólmur is a fishing town and municipality situated in the western part of Iceland. Across the bay you can see the island Landey.
Day 5 & 6 | Exploring the South Coast
For these days we took a two day guided bus tour along the south coast with Extreme Iceland. The reason we chose the tour versus driving is because the weather is unpredictable and we weren’t sure if we could drive that area. We found out we could have driven, the roads are pretty good and we didn’t have any snow/ice storms during our trip. Tip from Teri: Driving will give you more time and flexibility to see what you want to see. Next time I would drive and stay two nights in the South, there is a lot there.
Seljalandsfoss Waterfall – our first stop on the tour was the Seljalandsfoss waterfall, which drops 200 ft over the cliffs of the former coastline. The hill south of the waterfall is very steep, but if you climb to the top you get an amazing view of the waterfall and surrounding plains from an angle looking behind the waterfall.
Skogafoss Waterfall – the next stop was for another beautiful waterfall. It’s one of the biggest waterfalls in Iceland and you can walk right up to it, be prepared to get drenched. Photographer tip: it has beautiful rainbows on sunny days.
Reynisfjara Beach – the world-famous Reynisfjara shore, near the village Vik, is widely regarded as the most impressive black-sand beach in Iceland. Reynisfjara is a black pebble beach and features an amazing cliff of basalt columns resembling a rocky steep pyramid. Safety tip: be warned this is a very dangerous beach. Every few waves one comes up much farther on the beach, the currents are unbelievably strong and you could be swept into the ocean. Several people have died here – stay alert and stay away from the water.
Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon – we made it here just in time to watch a beautiful sunset over the glacier lake and seals enjoying the last rays of sun on the ice. Jökulsárlón is a large glacial lake on the edge of Vatnajökull National Park. It developed into a lake after the glacier started receding from the edge of the Atlantic Ocean. While walking along the cliffs saw a couple getting married.
We spent the night at a nearby guest house. The next day we explored glacier areas more:
Jökulsárlón Beach – a beautiful place where the glacier river meets the ocean and pieces of the glacier ice wash out on the black beach. The place is being called a Diamond Beach, as the ice chunks resemble diamonds glistening in the sun. Note from Ann: this was one of my favorite places in Iceland, I wish the tour would have spent more time there.
Skaftafell Glacier Walk – as part of our two-day tour, we got to do a glacier walk. The weather was beautiful and the glacier was very pretty. It was different than what we imagined though, it’s all covered in frozen snow, so you don’t see too much of the actual ice. Also, the Iceland glacier ice has black veins running through it from ash created by various volcano eruptions. Since we were there in April, the were no ice caves to see.
Dyrhólaey Cliffs – the southern most point in Iceland. We walked along cliffs enjoyed the amazing cliff and beach views. This an amazing place to see forces of nature at work, including wind (it’s really windy and cold).
Reflections and Thoughts
Our trip was amazing, Iceland is beautiful and the people are really nice. It’s a true land of fire and ice fully worth visiting. Here are a few things we learned and will do differently next time:
- Spend more time in the south coast.
- Go closer to summer time so we can take the Ring Road around the entire island and explore northern parts.
- Don’t spend a lot of time in Reykjavik, one day was perfect.
- Do more research about best times of day to visit places from photography lighting point of view.
- Do more hiking, we mostly stayed around tourist spots and didn’t venture out too much.
If you’ve visited Iceland and have some more ideas and thoughts, comment below, we’d love to hear from you.
Check out our Iceland Packing Essentials post for packing list.