Here are some ideas to help you plan your trip to Iceland. These will get you out of Reykjavik, and you’ll see a lot of the natural beauty Iceland offers, but all in manageable day or overnight trips. I’ve covered more basic information already.
Drive around Snæfellsnes Peninsula
Let me know if you learn how to pronounce it. My friend Kait and I refer to it as the Snuffleupagus Peninsula. We don’t mean to be disrespectful, we just have a lot of trouble with Icelandic pronunciations.
If you’re a literary nerd like me, Snæfellsjökull volcano might sound familiar because it’s the setting of the Jules Verne novel Journey to the Center of the Earth. Even if you’re not, it’s an absolutely beautiful sight.
Snæfellsnes is the perfect roadtrip because it’s known as “Little Iceland.” See a volcano, black sand beaches, fishing villages, natural springs, and absolutely stunning waterfalls and mountains all in one day’s drive. And all of this only a couple hours drive from Reykjavik! I recommend making it an overnight and spending more time. Courtney and I spent two full days on Snæfellsnes in August 2015 before ferrying up to the West Fjords (the West Fjords will have their own post soon!)
Our first night we stayed at Guesthouse Snjofell in Hellnar. This is a small village near gorgeous cliffs; get up early and take a walk along the cliffs.
If you make this at least an overnight trip, you’ll have time for some whale-watching. Summer months are the high season for whale-watching, but it’s also possible in the winter months, and 23 species of whales are spotted in Iceland. Courtney and I went on a tour through Láki Tours that departed from Ólafsvík, a town on the northern side of the Snæfellsnes penisula.
Go See Kirkjufell
Luckily, Kirkjufell is located on Snæfellsnes Peninsula. Now I’m about to drop some knowledge that will make deciphering Icelandic maps much easier. If a word ends in “fell,” it’s describing a mountain. If a word ends in “foss” it’s describing a waterfall. “Jökull” is glacier, “eldfjall” is volcano. Icelandic is difficult to pronounce, but really quite a logical language once you learn how to decipher it. Go learn more!
I’ve heard Kirkjufell is most-photographed mountain in Iceland. Kikjufellsfoss refer to the lovely waterfall in front of it. Sunset is especially gorgeous at Kirkjufell. If you’re looking at the falls, the sun sets behind the mountain. An overcast, foggy morning there was also beautiful.
If you’re a Game of Thrones fan, Kirkjufell made an appearance in Season 6.
Fun fact: I didn’t watch Game of Thrones until after my first trip to Iceland. Dragons, people, really? But then on a glacier hike everyone was talking about how it looked “so Game of Thrones.” Well, if the show is that pretty it can’t be all bad. After we got back, I watched the first four seasons in three weeks. Now I’m working on the books.
Waterfalls & Rainbows!
Icelanders probably came up with a whole system for naming waterfalls because there are just so many on the island.
Glymur, about an hour from Reykjavik, was the first Icelandic waterfall I saw. This was on my first trip, in November 2014, and while it’s a nice hike even in the winter, it’s probably best to visit Glymur in the warmer months. Some of the hiking trails actually close later in the year.
Iceland did not disappoint, however. Iceland NEVER disappoints. We were lucky enough to see rainbows at not one but two waterfalls on that first trip. I visited Skógafoss a couple times on my own, and then once after meeting up with friends. Third time is the charm, because on a beautiful sunny day we got a rainbow! Whatever type of weather, Skógafoss on the south coast of Iceland is worth a stop!
Our trio also got a rainbow over Gullfoss.
Do the Golden Circle
The Golden Circle is probably the most famous tour in Iceland, consisting of Geysir, Gullfoss, and Thingvellir National Park. The three of us paid for a tour on my first trip to Iceland, which was nice because then none of us had to drive. If you’re seriously into photography, however, I would drive the Golden Circle yourself to make sure you have plenty of time at each stop and can get good light. None of the driving is challenging. I plan to head back and re-visit all three sites on my own.
I wasn’t expecting much from Geysir. Having seen Old Faithful in Yellowstone, I figured once you’ve seen one geyser, you’ve seen them all. And this stop is misnamed, since Geysir (for which all other geysers are named, apparently) doesn’t spout anymore. But Strokkur does, and it’s stunning. Gullfoss is not the biggest waterall in Iceland, either in height or power, but there are rainbows there fairly often and it’s an impressive sight.
I can’t say much about Thingvellir National Park because our tour got there right as the sun was going down. I can tell you that the signs will say “Þingvellir.” Icelandic uses a few letters that we don’t have in English, so I guess the closest we can get is Thingvellir. Anyway, the word means, “Parliament Plains,” and Iceland’s general assembly (or Alþing if you’re Icelandic is getting really good) began meeting there around 930 AD. There’s tons more info here.
Þingvellir is also where two continental plates meet. In fact, you can snorkel or dive between them. I’ve heard it’s amazing, and it’s on my bucket list!
But consider skipping the Blue Lagoon
I know, I know, it’s the most-visited attraction in Iceland, National Geographic named it one of the 25 Wonders of the World and it sounds totally awesome. Not that I have anything against the Blue Lagoon, I just think there are far more wondrous things in Iceland.
On our first trip, my friend Lauren and I spent an afternoon at the Blue Lagoon. We soaked, we drank, we put mud on our face and took silly photos. It’s a fun time.
But one of the best reasons to visit Iceland is its natural, almost otherworldly beauty. Water in the Blue Lagoon comes from a geothermal plant nearby. Now, I’m not at all suggesting there’s anything wrong with this; the people of Iceland deserve a gold star for ingenuity. But the country offers hot springs and steam baths at much, much lower prices in, frankly, more beautiful settings. I can vouch for Laugarvatn Fontana near the Golden Circle.
If you do visit the Blue Lagoon, you must now make reservations. And a couple things to know: 1) when we went, there was a three drink maximum, 2) you will have to get completely naked to shower before entering the lagoon (it’s Europe, no one cares).
If you have any more questions as you plan your trip to Iceland, get in touch!