Last April 2017, I spent 7 days in Iceland by myself and I decided to do the Ring Road (driving around the country). It was quite an experience, but there were things many other travelers and I wished we have known beforehand.
List out specific places where you want to go with pictures so you can plan your trip more accordingly to the time you have.
Detailed tips of what you should know before visiting Iceland are at the end of my blog. Feel free to jump there for those quick tips or hop in my car for a quick visual ride around Iceland.
I landed at Reykjavik around noon after a-9 hours flight. I picked up my rental and went grocery shopping. I didn’t spend much time exploring the capital city but had a late lunch at Noodle Station. A nice hot bowl of noodle soup was perfect for the cold weather. :)
For my first night, I made the mistake of booking my hotel in Akranes, the north of Reykjavik, while I should have stayed in the south since I’m doing the Ring Road in a counter-clockwise direction. However, it turned out to be a nice little unplanned change since I got to meet people from Ukraine and Florida who just completed their trip and Akranes was their last stop.
1. Thingvellir National Park
My first stop and the beginning of the Golden Circle was the national park. I got here early around 8 am when there were only a few people. It was cloudy and cold so I didn’t explore much around the park. I read that this place can get very crowded with tourists, so get here early if you can.
2. Geyser Strokkur
The geothermal shooting up was a great thing to see. Make sure to have your camera ready to catch a good shot. A local told me that they used to charge about 500 krónur to go in here, but it’s free now.
3. Gullfoss Falls
Close to Geyser Strokkur is Gullfoss Falls. This waterfall is beautiful and worth the stop. There’s is a cafeteria but the price seems to be higher than the one at Geyser Strokkur.
Once in a while I would see some hitchhikers along highway 1. As I exited the area and was on my way to Seljalandsfoss, I gave a guy from France a ride. This was his third time traveling around Iceland after backpacking around the world for three years.
We made a quick stop at the road to take pictures with these beautiful horses.
Somehow I forgot to put this place on my list so I almost missed it. It was a beautiful place, but cost 400 krónur to enter.
“I don’t like how people in Iceland start taking advantage of tourist people, try to charge them for everything.”
I met a local Icelandic person who has lived in Iceland for twenty years. He said before Justin Bieber promoted Iceland and many people started coming hereafter, things in Iceland were 70% more expensive.
5. Keldur Turf House
I wanted to stop by Keldur Turf House but I had the incorrect name so I couldn’t get there. However, I ended up seeing these three random Jadar houses.
You should try to come to Keldur Turf House where you can see houses covered in grass and plants.
6. Seljalandsfoss Waterfall
The waterfalls here are big so be careful when you get near them. Make sure to wear a waterproof outfit if you plan to get inside the falls. You can get wet easily. There are also other small waterfalls along the mountain that you can walk down to explore.
It was raining so I couldn’t get any good pictures here.
7. Gljúfrafoss Waterfall
This waterfall is just right behind Seljalandsfoss Waterfall (not at the same stop) so make sure you don’t miss it as I did. This one is supposed to be better for pictures. I was tired, hungry, and soaked wet from visiting the ones above, so I let this one slipped my mind.
8. Seljvavellir Pool
This is a hidden gem. It’s one of the best places to visit in Iceland. It’s not touristy because it’s hard for big busses to get here. The inside road is very rocky, so be careful driving here. You will need to walk for 15 mins from the parking lot, but the scenery is beautiful.
There are 3 changing rooms here and they are very dirty since no one really maintains the place. Lots of people just trashed their stuff here and didn’t know how to keep the place clean. The bottom of the pool is very slippery because it’s formed by lots of moss, so be careful as you go in.
Before going into the pool. I would recommend exploring the mountains around it first since they are the most beautiful ones I have seen.
1. Black Sand Beach.
First of all, all the sand here is black, so nothing really special about this place except the 2-mile walk to the famous plane crash area. I didn’t do it since I had lots of places on my list to go on that day. Some people I met said it was worth it and some said it wasn’t. I guess it’s up to each person. However, the walk there is super windy.
Oh, the restroom here is not free. You have to buy a ticket and scan that ticket to use the restroom. So far this was the only place I have seen that charge for regular restroom
Vik is a small well-known town near the black sand beach. I just drove past here and didn’t stop because I had dinner here the night before.
3. Skaftafell Snow Cave Tour
The main reason I visited Iceland was to explore the snow cave. As I mentioned above, it is a must to have a tour guide person with you to explore Skaftafell if you are not a super experienced hiker. I’m not sure they still allow people to explore the snow here without the tour guide.
You will need to book the tour online ahead of time. There are two companies that do this tour at Skaftafell. I originally wanted to do the Crystal Cave tour but it only opens from November to March. The Snow Cave opens till April. The price for the tour can be pricy (about 19,000 krónur or $180) but it’s not too bad for a 4 hours experience.
Meet up at the Skaftafell Nature Reserve
When you buy the tour ticket online, they will ask if you need to rent hiking shoes for another 2300 króna. I didn’t pay for it online and they let me rent the shoes for free since the guy said their tour sold out often. Also for safety issues, they would ask you to change your shoes to theirs if they don’t think your shoes would be safe for the hike.
Once everyone is ready, a bus drove us to the location.
The tour lasted for 4 hours. It was not bad, but I’m not sure if it was worth it since the cave we saw was pretty small and we didn’t stay long in the cave. I’m guessing because of the timing.
4. Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon
This was an awesome place. It made me feel like I was lost in some animated movies with a beautiful snow scene.
5. Diamond Beach
This is just right across the road from the Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon
Driving to Egilsstaðir
It was almost 6 pm as I started driving to my hotel in Egilsstaðir which was 4 hours away from Diamond Beach. After a short while on the road, the snowstorm started to hit. It was one of the scariest storms I have seen.
The road was completely white and I couldn’t see where I was going. Somehow I managed to get through the storm. When I was only 45 mins away from my destination, the road was closed due to a heavy snowstorm. I was too tired and hungry to take a detour. I decided to look for a hotel nearby and spend the night there.
Egilsstaðir is a medium size town. I stopped to have brunch at Salt.
It wasn’t good. The fish was still cold (even after fried) and the butter layer on the calamari was too thick.
Leaving Egilsstaðir, I picked up a hitchhiker from Germany a ride since we were heading in the same direction. It was nice to have someone to talk to during the 3 hours drive :)
2. Dettifoss Falls
This is known as the biggest waterfall in Europe. However, it wasn’t impressive to me because it was cloudy and snowy at that time. I guess if you go in the summer or fall, the scenery would be better.
3. Asbyrgi Canyon
Unfortunately, the road was closed due to the snowstorm :( (I really wanted to go here though)
4. Námaskarð Hot Springs
This is a pretty cool place. Although your clothes will smell like rotten eggs afterward.
5. Mývatn Nature Baths
This was one of my favorite places in Iceland. Although it was not as fancy as the Blue Lagoon, I like this a lot better. It was not too touristy like the Blue Lagoon. It was cheaper, more chill, relaxing and had a better view. I felt like I was bathing in the cloud with mountains around me.
Resting at a guesthouse in Lake Mývatn
Nice view from the window
1. Lake Mývatn
If you look up Lake Mývatn on the internet, you would see how beautiful it is, I didn’t get to see that during the snow season. It was still kinda cool that the whole lake was covered in snow.
2. Goðafoss Falls
Akureyri is the biggest city in the North of Iceland. I didn’t spend much time here or in the north in general since most activities in the north are seal or whale watching.
The storm started again. It was super windy. The car almost got lifted at some point. I had to drive in the middle of the road so when the wind hit, it moved my car to the right lane. It was dangerous. A lot of vans couldn’t make it to the storm so they had to stop in the middle. I didn’t want to miss the Vatnshellir Cave tour I schedule at 11, so I powered through the storm. >,<
1. Vatnshellir Cave
It is a must that you have to go here for a tour because it’s a historic cave. It’s not accessible to the public. It was worth it since it was not pricey like other tours. It costs about 3,250 krónur.
2. Hellnar & Arnarstapi
These two areas were really closed to each other. It was super windy and cold so I couldn’t go out further to see more of the beauty here. If you google the place, you will see how beautiful it is.
3. Deildartunguhver Hot Spring
You probably can skip this since there was not much to see here. However, I believe there is a hot spring bathhouse nearby.
4. Hraunfossar & Barnafoss Waterfalls
Out of all the waterfalls I have seen, this was the best for me. The waterfall is big and beautiful with crystal blue water. You would want to spend a good amount of time here. The picture doesn’t really do the place justice since it’s really big and I was only able to capture a small portion of it.
5. The Blue Lagoon
This was supposed to be for the next day before I head to the airport but I couldn’t get a reservation for the right time. The experience here was not bad but as I mentioned it is a tourist place. It was super crowded despite how hard the rain was. Overall I felt like I didn’t enjoy much here since there were so many people even at 9 pm. Most tourists don’t have the common courtesy. They left stuff all over the place here and it could look very messy at some point. I felt bad for the people working here because they had to constantly clean up after those tourists.
Well, the silica mask was nice. Take advantage of this because the silica mask is not cheap. It’s 8000 krónur for a small bottle.
At the end of my last night, I met these three lovely ladies from NYC who stayed at the same guest houses. We grabbed pizza together and vented about things we wish we knew before coming to Iceland.
I think Iceland is a fun country to explore (better with friends). It has lots of beautiful and unique scenery. However, the activities can get repetitive. They usually fall into 3 categories: waterfalls, hot spring river/bath, hiking to snow caves or exploring volcano caves. If you plan to do the ring road, I would say plan accordingly and it’s ok to skip some. I spent most of my time in Iceland driving to places because sometimes it took 3, 4 hours drive to see a place then move to the next place. Below are my recommendation for the activities you should enjoy depending on your length of stay so you won’t feel rushed or miss out on anything.
How long should I stay in Iceland?
- 1–3 days: You can focus on just exploring the south of Iceland (Golden Circle, Blue Lagoon, hot river, all the way down to Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon)
- 4–7 days: Explore the ones mentioned above plus a little bit of the north side which has different types of activities and sceneries than the south. I suggest you skip the East or North Eastside because it’s mostly snow and there is nothing much to do on the East side except driving for hours to go past it :D
- 8–10 days: The ring road is a good experience for this length of stay. Just remember that there will be a lot of driving involved. Although I did this by myself, I do think it’s better to go with someone so you guys can take turn driving and split the expensive cost.
Tips: How to prepare for Iceland.
What you should know before going to Iceland? (Especially if you are from the US)
After bumping into so many Americans along the road and shared our stories. I found lots of common things we all wish we knew before or someone told us.
1. Car Rental
- 4x4 Car: If you plan to do the Ring Road, I would recommend you to get the 4x4 one because some roads are restricted to 4x4 cars only, especially in the East and Northside. Although I had a 2x4 and could get around fine I had to take a detour to avoid some restricted shortcut roads that were only for 4x4.
- 2x4 Car: If you don’t plan to do the Ring Road then a 2x4 car should be fine. I survived the snowstorm with that :)
- Gas vs. Diesel: If you can get a diesel car you would save more money because the gas in Iceland is super expensive (2, 3 times more than the US).
Note: make sure to choose the right airport for your car rental because there is another airport near the capital Reykjavik (domestic). I made the mistake of choosing the wrong one. However, the guy was nice and still let me pick up the car at Reykjavik after letting me know.
2. GPS and Map
You don’t really need to rent a GPS driving around Iceland since it’s expensive ($20/day) and not up to date. Although my car came with a built-in navigation system, it was not reliable. Luckily, I came prepared. I downloaded Iceland map on the Here App (previously owned by Nokia) so I can use it offline without using any data. If you have data then you can also use Google Map (I think you can also download Iceland map beforehand to use it offline with Google too).
3. Paying for Gas/Diesel
If you plan to use your Credit Card to pay for gas as most people do, make sure to know the PIN of your credit card. You will need the PIN in order to pump gas just like how we need to enter our zip code here in the US. Lots of people including me did not know about this beforehand so most of us had to use our debit card. Some US credit cards don’t even have a PIN system.
Some people I have met avoid this by going into the store and pay there. However, you should not rely on this because not all gas stations will have a person inside.
One thing that the car rental people did not tell me or any other tourists was that there is an Olis tag attached to your car key where you can get the discount at Olis gas stations or convenience stores. I did not know about this until my 3rd day when the sales lady saw the tag on my car key and told me about it.
4. Driving in Iceland
- Speed Limit: the common speed limit on highway 1 is 90kph which is around 55mph. I know it’s kinda slow compared to the US and most people would drive a little bit above that. However, when you are near some big cities like Reykjavik, you will see there are cameras around to enforce the speed limit. My friend who went a couple of months before did not know about this until he returned his car. The guy said he got a ticket. He had to pay a fee for them to process the paperwork there.
- Traffic Circle: when you are in the big cities. There are lots and lots of traffic circles. Almost every 2, 3 mins you would see one. It was kinda annoying to me because I rarely see one in the states.
- One Lane Road: it’s very common in Iceland when some part of the road turns into a one-lane road especially before you cross the bridge.
5. Phone Services/ Data
At the convenience store or at the airport, you can buy a refillable sim card. There are three options, voice + data, data only, or voice only. I bought the data only for 2000 króna per 1GB just in case but I did not use it because I got unlimited 2G speed with T-mobile. The free data from T-mobile worked fine (just a little slow). You also have the option to rent a car with Wifi included.
- Waterproof gears: I would recommend you to have at least one waterproof outfit and shoes because you don’t want to get soaked wet when visiting some big waterfalls.
- Hiking shoes: It’s better to have good hiking shoes because you would not want to fall on your butt while walking on the snow like I did.
7. Water and Food
It’s known that water in Iceland is really clean, so bring a reusable water bottle and you can use it to get tap water.
It was hard for me to find decent food in Iceland when doing the Ring Road since most places open around 11 am and close around 7:30 pm. Food in Iceland is expensive. It’s common that many tourists here buy food at the grocery store and cook at the guest house for dinner since most places close early. If you have space in your luggage, I would recommend stocking up a good amount of snacks for the trip since the convenience stores here have a limited amount of snacks. This is one thing I wish I could have done differently. :)
8. Blue Lagoon, Ice Cave, Volcano Cave
It is a must that you book these tours or reserve your time ahead if you plan to do these activities. These usually sell out fast.
9. Buying gifts
I believe if you spend more than 6000 krónur at a gift shop then you have the option to get a tax refund at the airport. You would have to talk to the store to get the paperwork.
I hope these tips are helpful. Let me know if you have any questions. Follow me for more travel adventures.