Iceland: What to see, what to do, what to bring
Iceland felt like the closest anyone could get to the moon while living on Earth. It was freezing, the sun barely came up, and the terrain was a barren rocky desert for hundreds and hundreds of miles. But, for all the flatland and crumbly, broken, alien-planet landscape, there were also hundreds of reasons why I would go back over and over again: I snuggled beautiful long-haired Icelandic horses. I gaped in awe at the Northern Lights. I walked behind a waterfall. I walked around an incredible blue-green crater lake surrounded by red mud. I bathed in the natural hot springs, and I paid $23 for a mediocre pizza. But, I also had an incredible adventure.
Here are a list of things to see, to do and to bring to help your trip to Iceland be everything you imagined – and possibly, some things you can’t imagine. Let’s go!
Language: Icelandic. However, everyone speaks English – probably better than most native speakers.
Currency: Icelandic Krona, 1ISK = $0.90 to $0.95USD. Visa or Mastercard can be used almost everywhere, but if you want to have cash with you, just withdraw some at the ATM once you pass through security at the airport. (No, you don’t need to order some from your home country. I actually didn’t withdraw or use cash at all while in Iceland.) In this article, I’ll use the USD conversion rate.
Outlet: standard Europlug socket with two round prongs
HOT TIP #1
Be prepared for most items to be insanely overpriced, even for NYC standards, but these jaw-dropping amounts are the norm in Iceland. One meal easily costs $35-50 per person per plate. I had a small cheese pizza for $23. Hot dogs were $9. Add fries? $7.50 extra.
What to see
Located in southwest Iceland, Reykjavik is the country’s capital city and central hub, with easy access to the airport, shopping, museums, restaurants, gas stations, local buses and the beautiful coastline. The highlights were Hallgrímskirkja (the iconic church in the middle of town), the Sun Voyager (an eclectic metal statue on the coast), the picturesque lighthouse at the southern tip and nearby mini bubbling hot pool, colorful bakeries, the Phallological Museum (“The Penis Museum”) and dozens of brightly colorful houses. There were 2-3 story apartments interspersed between welcoming restaurants, impossibly priced clothing stores and twinkling souvenir shops.
Seeing the Northern Lights is a toss up in the winter or anytime that it’s cloudy, but you’ll most likely catch a least a few minutes of them if you’re outside of Reykjavik. The farther out of the city you get, the higher the chance you have of seeing them. I would avoid going on a tour if at all possible. Northern Lights tours require a huge time/monetary commitment, and you have the same chance of seeing them as you would if you rented a car and drove out of town (cheaper and tailored to your schedule). We were staying out in the country when they appeared, and it was so neat! Much smaller than I’d seen in any fabulous pictures online, but they still glowed and shimmered and then suddenly, they were gone. Disappeared just as fast as they came. What a surreal experience!
If you tell your host/hotel that you are specifically looking for them, they will keep you informed. There is an app for finding the Northern Lights, but we found our hosts to be much more helpful with spotting them! (Have you seen the Northern Lights? Tell us below!)
This beautiful location should not be missed. The aqua-blue water is just as breathtaking from above as it is from straight on, amplified by the rusty red colored dirt all around the lake. Tiny red, yellow and orange flowers grow along the dirt, making for a spectacular view. This was one of my favorite Icelandic sights, as it was so unusual. The water rises and falls in accordance with another lake on the island, as they share the same water supply.
You can park directly next to the hill, pay the little unfriendly man the $4 fee, and stay as long as you like. Be sure to climb down to the water’s edge, as it’s absolutely lovely. If you are not too sure-of-foot, I’d stay on the top of the crater and enjoy the view from above. Either way, Kerid is the main attraction and there’s literally nothing other than farmland around, so maybe plan for 20-40 minutes of visiting time. Kerid sits a few miles from a pricy restaurant, and about 10 miles away from Selfoss, a city with some great “cheap” restaurants.
HOT TIP #2
The Selfoss waterfall is NOT in the city of Selfoss. In fact, the Selfoss the waterfall is nowhere near city with the same name. The waterfall, a major tourist attraction, is located in the north. The town sits just south of Kerid Crater and has some “affordable” restaurant options.
We saw four waterfalls: Seljalandsfoss, Faxafoss, Gullfoss and Öxarárfoss. All show stopping gorgeous, each location had wonderful viewpoints, but preparations for each widely vary.
Faxafoss can easily be reached with a car, only a few steps from gorgeous sweeping views. Faxafoss (above) was better for a quick but lovely visit, as there wasn’t much else around. Parking was free and we found a manmade, decorative aqueduct sitting next to the falls, perfect for closer-range pictures.
Gullfoss is a big tourist destination, attracting thousands of visitors, with its two-tier setup and water that curves around and falls a different direction from whence it came. There is a little souvenir shop and a take-away coffee shop, as well as a pricy clothing store to help replace whatever items of clothing that the wind blew into the waterfall while you were taking pictures.
Parking is free. Be mindful of your footing on the long metal staircase down to the viewing point. There is a parking area at the same level, but it is often full or closed to the public.
HOT TIP #3
Please respect the caution zones. They are there for a reason. Right after this guy took this picture, he slipped and almost died. Please don’t be like this guy.
Seljalandsfoss doesn’t look big from far away, but within a mile or so, you start to understand just how large it is. Parking is $7 (pay by card) and enforced by security. Rain gear is somewhat of a necessity here, as the mist from the falls is overpowering. It’s one of the bigger waterfalls that you can go right up to, and it is surrounded by rocks. The best part about this waterfall is that you can walk behind it! Make sure to wear good shoes, bring waterproof pants and maybe wear sunglasses, as the reflection and light splashes from the water can sometimes make it difficult to see.
There are also signs everywhere that say to hike at your own risk. For as breath-taking and earth-shattering as this view is, make no mistake – walking the full circle around the waterfall is a DIFFICULT and dangerous climb. Unless you can recover from a fall quickly, do not go behind the waterfall. There are no guard rails, no lifeguards, and no flat surfaces. Below is a giant pool with freezing cold water that the waterfall drops into. Always use caution and go slowly, and be kind to those around you. With that said, if you’re healthy and strong, be careful and always watch where you step, and you should be fine.
I loved going behind the waterfall, looking back at the golden field and the sky through the crashing water. The feel of this giant dangerous force between me and the safety of the parking lot was an exhilarating experience. For those of you traveling with elderly folks, do make sure you have time to get out of the parking lot and walk up to the main vantage point, as the view from straight on is quite fantastic.
Schedule time to walk along the grassland next to the falls, as there are about 4 smaller waterfalls along the path. It’s a bright and sunny spot, perfect for long strolls and cute couples pictures on the romantic bridge. We were surprised when a rainbow appeared instead of the predicted rain, making this an extra special affair. This place is not to be missed.
Öxarárfossis the safest waterfall to see, but being that it’s located within Thingvellir National Park, hiking up to the falls is not an easy task. It truly is a hike, with dirt paths and crumbling rocks, but this is all part of the Icelandic experience.
The hike to Öxarárfoss is a very popular spot, filled with dozens of people on the paths at all times, so you will not be alone. We had the pleasure of experiencing the whines of many young children, upset that their parents ripped them from their summer vacay to hike on the land of ice and rock. The waterfall itself is small but lovely. You won’t get wet unless you want to, and it’s easy to stand on the little platform and take pictures, smiling back at the dozens of other visitors who are quietly waiting their turn in line to pose in that same great selfie spot. (Embarrassing, but literally everyone behind you is waiting to do the exact same thing, so don’t be shy – get yourself a good picture!)
The views from the waterfall are spectacular, so make sure to bring your camera! There are no bathrooms nearby, but you can drive here, as the parking lot is just up the hill. No matter if you drive or walk, make sure to explore the area, as we found a beautiful patch of greenery as we headed down the hill back toward the park.
Geysir is the official name of the original geyser…what all other geysers were named after. No one realized that this was the given name of the specific geyser, not the event in itself. As you walk up to the geyser, you are greeted by streams of swift flowing warm water, creating small green trails along the highway. The water comes from the roped off areas of smaller geysers, most of which steam of bubble from deep within the earth. I’ve never experienced something that showed me just how alive the earth is. It felt like the entire area could rise up and burst at any moment. The path leading to the main attraction is roped off, as it protects the visitors from the is boiling hot water intermittently spirting from the earth.
Geysir, a powerful and unstoppable force, erupts every 6-10 minutes and is legitimately one the coolest things you’ll ever see. It’s basically a steaming hot swimming pool bubbling and blistering under the earth until the pressure becomes too much, and then it looks like a whirlpool exploding upwards in front of you. Gallons and gallons of hot water fly into the air, cooling just enough on its way down as to not burn the visitors. Make sure not to get too close – or on the wrong side of the wind – or you’ll get all wet!
Thingvellir National Park
Thingvellir National Park is one of the biggest and most in depth attractions of the Golden Circle route. The views are spectacular – the intimate church, the crumbling pathways, the Silfra Fissure, Öxarárfoss Waterfall and the mountains looming in the background.
Thingvellir Church opened in 1859. Only big enough to hold a dozen or so people, but what it lacks in size, it makes up for in beauty. It stands next to a small graveyard, gated off to the public.
The Silfra Fissure
The Silfra Fissure is the underwater space between the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates. According to the local guides, the fissure was formed in 1789, and it widens by 2cm every year. It has some of the clearest water in the world. The water is filtered for up to 300 years before reaching the streams, also making it some of the cleanest water in the world. I wouldn’t use it as your main source of water, but apparently you can drink it. The temperature sits just above freezing all year around.
Visitors can get even take a dive in the water with one of the organized snorkeling or diving tours. It is illegal to get in the water without a guide, so make sure to research the tours before arriving.
The Secret Lagoon is crowded, but the tour groups usually depart after an hour or two, so grab some outrageously priced soup inside and relax before heading to the water. There are lockers to store your belongings, but you are not allowed to bring your towel out onto the deck. Be prepared to freeze your tushy off while walking to the water. The changing rooms are actually very close to the water’s edge, but when you’re a naked walking icicle, the water seems so, so far.
HOT TIP 4
Bring a waterproof camera case, because you will want to take pictures. You can get them on eBay or Amazon for a few bucks.
There are plenty of warnings about how far away the plane crash is from the main road, but I didn’t find it as treacherous or as time consuming as the signs estimated. They predict a 3-4 hour trek there and back. My travel partner and I walked briskly both ways and only stayed at the crash site for maybe 10 minutes (all the time you really need unless there are gobs of people). There and back took us exactly 2 hours. It’s 3.5 kilometers each way, so bring snacks and water. Once you park and start your hike, you’ll walk for what feels like forever on a sci-fi type black beach full of loose rocks and uncomfortable sand. It’s not what one might call pretty, being more of a barren crumbly-rock movie set, but it sure is photogenic.
You can see for miles, making for a surreal view, but this type of journey leaves very little room for breaks – sitting down or using the toilet. There were no toilets anywhere near the plane or on the hike or in the parking lot (the downfall of this location). If you’re in a pinch, you can always take a quick “rest” next to one of the rocks. Be stealthy, though, because they are only a foot or so tall and the ground is entirely flat, so anyone walking within a mile can see you.
What to do
Here are a few tips to help you navigate Iceland from the minute you arrive. I hope they will help you prepare to have a wonderful adventure!
Rent a car
The shuttles from the airport to Reykjavik were anywhere from $40-100 round trip, the primary determining factor in my renting a car. A small four-door automatic was $130 for 5 days (including insurance, but plan at least $100 for gas. Remember to fill up before returning it to the airport!). A car gives you the freedom to go at your own pace, stop for cool look-out points and pet the Icelandic HORSES!! (more on horses below) Also, long range public buses are basically nonexistent, so planning how to get from one place to another is extraordinarily difficult. There are no trains in Iceland. The absolute best way to explore Iceland is by renting a car.
HOT TIP 5
Stop for horses
We stayed in two different Airbnbs that owned horses, which was an incredible experience in itself! One of the owners told us that if Icelandic horses ever leave Iceland, they aren’t allowed to come back into the country, for fear of infection or diluting the specific gene pool that allows them to survive in the extreme cold.
HOT TIP 6
What to bring
I hope these stories, tips and tricks have helped prepare you for a grand exploration of this beautiful and surreal country. Make sure to leave a comment telling us your favorite part about Iceland!
Do you have a great tip about Iceland? Leave it below, and don’t forget to subscribe! 🙂