When it comes to planning a trip to Iceland, especially during the winter months, it’s best to accept prior to your trip that every day may not go exactly as planned. While going through security before our flight home, we heard numerous groups complaining that all of their tours had been cancelled or that they hadn’t been able to experience every single thing they thought there would.
So before we continue, take a deep breath, and accept that your plans may perhaps fall through. Winter weather in Iceland is wildly unpredictable, but at the same time, winter there is so visually stunning. I would’ve been fine if we did nothing but drive around “oohing” and “ah-ing” at volcanic ranges. Secondly, if you or another person in your party has experience with harsh winter driving, rent a car. I’m not saying that it is necessarily a smart idea to drive into a blizzard despite all tours being cancelled, I’m just saying that on certain days we drove into a blizzard despite all tours being cancelled.
All joking aside, renting a car gives you a lot more flexibility when it comes to your schedule. Whereas booking a tour could result in a wasted day, driving gave us the option to change our plans at last minute notice if roads were closed or there was inclement weather in certain areas. We definitely left Iceland having missed out on a couple things we had originally wanted to see, but to be honest, we experienced so much that those things were barely a thought. Plus, that just means we have to go back.
Day 1: Reykjavik
Day 2: The Golden Circle
Day 3: Snæfellsnes Peninsula
Day 4: The Langjökull Glacier
Day 5: The South Coast
Day 6: The Blue Lagoon
Day 1: Reykjavik
Coming from New York meant that a majority of flights we could’ve booked would get us to Reykjavik at approximately 4:30am-6:30am the following day. Personally, I always prefer earlier arrival flights because I’m able to run on adrenaline for almost twelve hours after landing; but also because it can often mean a whole extra added day to your trip.
First things first: get your rental car. When you exit the “arrivals” area of Keflavik, you’ll find various car rental depots for popular car rental companies, such as Budget, Hertz, Enterprise, etc. However, if you’re like us and booked your car through a company exclusive to Iceland, you’ll have to hop on a shuttle to the actual rental car office. This shuttle is a bright yellow bus that you can catch at the designated bus stop about a minute walk from Keflavik. I’d assume if it were summer and you had minimal luggage that you might be able to walk to the rental office, because Blue Car Rental was the second stop and we were there in what felt like three minutes.
- While I highly recommend Blue Car, please be smarter than we were. Just because a car says “7-seater” does not mean it’s the type of 7-seater you may be used to. In fact, once we stored our luggage, it only really fit five of the six of us. Sitting awkwardly atop two of my friends while my head was bent in an a 90 degree angle, definitely did not make for the most comfortable 45 minute ride to Reykjavik. To make matters worse, even after we unpacked our luggage, we consistently rotated since the back two seats were suitable for people 4″11 and under. Long story short, if you’re more than five, get a second car.
- We opted to have Wi-fi included with our car rental and it was the greatest choice we made. Your wi-fi comes in the form of a portable little egg shape that device that one us kept in our pocket even when we left the car. Because what’s better than being able to Snapchat data-free virtually everywhere you go?
- Purchase all the car insurance. It’s better to pay upfront than have to worry about a potential large payment later.
Next stop: Breakfast.
It had been a goal of mine to have breakfast at the Laundromat Cafe, and luckily that’s exactly where we ended up at 8:00am on our first morning in Iceland. The Dirty Breakfast which consists of eggs, bacon, potatoes, tomato, sausage, and yogurt is just as heavenly as it sound, and the ambiance is a liberals paradise.
Unfortunately, I found out a few days ago that the Laundromat Cafe shut its doors just a week after we left. But never fear! The owner insists they are currently looking for a new location to open. Until then there is a boatload of other great spots for breakfast in Reykjavik like Bergsson Mathús, Cafe Bablu, and C is for Cookie.
After breakfast, head to the Saga Museum; but don’t forget to stop along the way and appreciate the beauty of Mount Esja, which isn’t actually a mountain at all, but an entire volcanic range. We spent a good fifteen minutes just gawking at its beauty – this was before we realized that the entire country is one amazing scenic view.
The Saga Museum uses life-like figures to depict different moments in Iceland’s history, and is a great way to learn a bit more about the country you’re visiting before diving right in.
The Saga Museum is open daily, from 10:00am-6:00pm and entrance is 2100kr ($20).
The next two stops are quintessentially Reykjavik. First, stop by the Sun Voyager statue for your photo op. Jón Gunnar Árnason, the sculpture of the statue has said its design was meant to convey, “the promise of undiscovered territory, a dream of hope, progress and freedom”. In a way, it reminds me of the meaning behind the Statue of Liberty back home.
When visiting you’ll also have an excellent view of both Thufa, an outdoor art piece by Ólöf Nordal; and Harpa, the majestic concert hall of Reykjavik.
From here, head over to Hallgrimskirkja. This structure which took 41 years to build is not only the largest church in Iceland, but is also among one of the largest structures in general; I guess that’s why most can’t leave Iceland without heading to the top to take in the view of Reykjavik. And once you’ve descended, don’t forget to grab a peak at the statue of Norse explorer, Lief Erikson who greets visitors as they enter.
Hallsgrimskirkja is open from 9:00am-5:00pm during the winter months, and 9:00am-9:00pm during the summer. Note that on Sundays, the tower is closed from 10:30am-12:15 due to mass. Admission to the tower is 1000 ISK.
If you’re a history buff, your next stop should be the not-to-be-missed National Museum of Iceland, which is home to over 2,000 artifacts.
The National Museum of Iceland is open daily from 10:00am-5:00pm, though it is currently closed on Mondays. Admission is 2000 ISK, and free for anyone under 18.
At this point you may be getting smacked by hunger pangs and sleep deprivation. So run over to Baejarins Beztu Pylsur and order one (or two) with everything, and take a relaxing walk around pond Tjornin. Then when you’re done, do a quick grocery run at the closest Bonus, stock up Skyr, and head to your accommodations for a much deserved nap.
NOW WAKE UP, because you have to spend a night experiencing Reykjavik nightlife at least once. Literally, maybe just once, because the booze prices in this country are astronomical.
The first bar we stopped at was the Lebowski Bar, where we ordered White Russians all around. If you don’t get the reference, add watching the Big Lebowski to your list of post-Iceland activities. The Lebwoski Bar has a list of about a dozen different White Russians, though I prefer a classic.
If you’re feeling lucky, for 2500 ISK you can have the bartender spin a wheel which might leave you with 10 “free” beers.Our first friend to spin actually hit the jackpot and won 10 (really 8 if you subtract payment) free beers to start the night. But don’t get too cocky; the next two to spin both hit “gutterballs” and walked away 2500 ISK poorer.
Hopefully you didn’t spend all your money spinning the prize wheel, because Lebowski’s bar food is surprisingly delicious. Because nothing goes down better with a White Russian than mozzarella sticks and a Honey Boo burger.
Side note – our bartender was beyond awesome, and by the end of the night we felt like she was part of the gang.
American Bar was next, which also had a spin-to-win wheel, but thankfully we had learned our lesson by then. One of the best parts about Reykjavik is that a majority of the bars are all in about a five block range. Others worth checking out: The English Pub and The Dubliner.
Day 2: The Golden Circle
The Golden Circle is one of the most popular sightseeing routes in Iceland and offers an array of different stops along the way. The weather was a bit back-and-forth on this day and due to the minimal light hours during the winter, we had to cut out some of our hidden gems off the itinerary. That being said, it’s definitely possible to hit more stops than we did, so definitely pick out your favorite gems to add to your itinerary.
Stop one: Thingvellir National Park
How much you enjoy your time at this park is going to be based on how adventurous you are willing to be. At first glance, the park seems pretty barren, though even barren is stunning with the sunshine breaking through. The deeper into Thingvellir you go, the more there is to see – from towering lava rock to a small church with adjacent buildings that was apparently the site of Iceland’s first parliament in 960 AD.
Many of the paths had been snowed over but we, along with a few other visitors, trekked through the slush to experience as much as would.
- If you’re traveling in winter, make sure you have a pair of waterproof winter boots. There is nothing fun about attempting to make your way in sopping wet sneakers, or injuring yourself by slipping on an icy patch.
At one point on our adventure, we accidentally stumbled upon Öxarárfoss, a small waterfall that remains semi-frozen during the winter months. This ended up being one of those accidents we questioned not originally having on our itinerary; though it may be much smaller than some of the more popular Iceland falls, it’s slight seclusion and simplicity make it that much more beautiful.
After your excursion through Iceland’s only UNESCO Heritage Site, head over to Strokkur, Iceland’s most famous geysir that erupts every 6-10 minutes. Though on our trip it seemed a bit more frequent. Not every eruption is as dramatic, so it may be worth sticking around for a two or three.
After freezing your fingers off trying to capture an image of Strokkur blowing its top, head over to Fridheimar for a late lunch/early dinner. I highly recommend making a reservation to be on the safe side, though we had made the latest reservation available and were dining with only four other groups.
Fridheimar is located inside one of Iceland’s geothermal tomato greenhouses, and hence every menu from the entrees to the desserts are tomato-based. This restaurant is more of an experience than a meal, and is worth every penny.
Fridheimar is open daily from 12:00pm-4:00pm.
Finally, it’s time to visit the majestic and popular, Gullfoss. Gullfoss is one of those natural wonders that leave you wondering why so many places to choose to pave over beauty for skyscrapers. Be sure to do some walking among the open space surrounding Gullfoss as you’ll be able to get a few differently angled views of the falls.
This is one of those rare occasions where I’ll suggest stopping at the visitor center gift shop before departing. Were some of the items overpriced? Of course, it’s Iceland. But I was able to grab some stunning post cards and prints that actually didn’t break the bank.
Other stops you may want to make during your Golden Circle self-drive tour:
Faxi Waterfall (64.2254° N, 20.3372° W)
Porufoss (64.260707, -21.369836)
Kerid Crater (64.0413° N, 20.8851° W)
Solheimar Eco-Village (64.0656° N, 20.6419° W)
Gamla Laugin Geothermal Pool (64.1377° N, 20.3097° W)
Day 3: The Snæfellsnes Peninsula
Often called “Little Iceland” due to the varying landscapes that exist in one location, the Snæfellsnes Peninsula had been calling out to me from the initiation of our trip planning.
If you’re driving from Reykjavik, which is about 2.5 hours, this definitely requires an early start if you’re attempting to see much of the peninsula in the same day. So quickly down some of that Skyr you purchased at your local Bonus supermarket and hit the road.
- Reminder: Though not quite as north as the Westfjords, in winter this area was approximately 8-10 degrees colder than Reykjavik. We also experienced some intense winds that at times were almost painful if your face wasn’t covered, so I’d recommend bringing along some extra layers and a ski-mask.
Stop 1: Búðir
You’ve probably seen snapshots of the Búðir or “the little black church” without even realizing, as it’s become a common stop for photographers visiting the peninsula. To many, this may seem an odd spot for church – secluded from much else. But this little hamlet provides an erie but stunning break from the snowy surroundings.
Stop 2: Bárður Snæfellsás
Legend has it that Bárður Snæfellsás, half troll and half man, was the settler of the Snæfellsnes Peninsula. In 1972, co-founder of the Icelandic Sculptors Society, Ragnar Kjartansson built a stone figure of Bárður, which now stands tall in the fishing-village of Arnarstapi watching over his land.
If traveling in winter, don’t be surprised that Arnarstapi is almost completely deserted. It seems that this town is mostly utilized during the summer season, which makes sense considering how dramatic winters in the area can be.
Stop 3: Hellnar
Hellnar is an ancient fishing village one stop over from Arnarstapi, is a great place to stop for the perfect view of Snæfellsjökull, a 700,000 year old glacier
Stop 4: The Londrangar Basalt Cliffs
- Warning – If you think the rest of the peninsula is windy, just wait until you stroll along the Londrangar Cliffs. In the wintertime, there are also some difficult-to-see ice patches, and one almost sent me flying off of a ledge. So walk slowly, take your time, and pay attention to your surroundings.
The view, however, is completely worth it.