A Guide to Iceland

50675792_UnknownIceland has been at the top of my bucket list for years and I finally checked it off! My boyfriend and I went with another couple for about a week in mid-September and it was such a great trip!!!! Iceland is magical. It is every bit as dreamy and beautiful and picturesque as people say. Pictures really don’t do it justice. There are rainbows EVERYWHERE. It’s honestly like leaving Earth and entering a completely different planet. What’s even more interesting is that the landscape can change so quickly with just 5 minutes of driving. Surreal. This post is my detailed summary of the trip. Warning: it is VERY long.

Basics

  • Everything is expensive AF, especially alcohol.
  • Currency is Icelandic Króna (ISK) and 1 USD = 106,42 ISK at the moment. I liked to think about it as 1 USD to 100 ISK. Note that the decimal separator (i.e., the “.” and “,”) is different compared to the US. Example for one thousand dollars and 4 cents: 1,000.04 USD (for US) = 106.434,26 ISK (for Iceland).
  • Waterproof everything is your best friend.
  • Icelandic weather is insanely unpredictable.
  • F-roads (mountain roads) require a 4×4 rental. A ton of sites we visited required a 4×4.
  • Tax is 11% on groceries and 24% on everything else (all included in the pricing).
  • Gas is approximately $8/gallon (crazy I know).
  • Everyone speaks English. Icelandic is very hard to pronounce.

Accommodations

The trip was broken up into several parts: 3 nights in Reykjavik, 2 nights in Hvolsvöllur, and 2 more nights in Reykjavik.

  • For both Reykjavik stays, we rented this AirBnB just outside of Reykjavik. The host was super nice and allowed us to keep any extra things there while we ventured to Hvolsvöllur since nobody booked in between our stays. The two bedrooms were really nice, the shower had great pressure and got pretty hot (which then made the bathroom smell like eggs because of the sulfur), everything was so CLEAN, and the internet was very fast! The only drawback was the lack of a stove/oven so we were limited to eating things that came out of the fridge or microwave. That being said, we didn’t mind too much since there are a ton of places to eat in the area and in Reykjavik.
  • For our stay in Hvolsvöllur, we rented this AirBnB so we had a central location to explore the southern region of Iceland. This place was a total bachelor pad with a pool table (which the boys LOVED), juke box with bluetooth, bar area, and even a natural hot tub (drawn up by request though). There was an electric burner plate that looked underwhelming at first but was actually very good at cooking our spaghetti dinner! Also, the hot water here didn’t smell like sulfur at all which was awesome!!!! Only drawbacks really were that the second “bedroom” was a lofted area with small twin beds and the internet was pretty darn slow.

Food Recommendations

  • Tokyo Sushi – If you’re into sushi, you NEED to come here. Hands down some of the best (if not the best) salmon I’ve ever had. Multiple locations. Cool concept where all the simple items (nigiri, sashimi, simple rolls, etc.) are packaged to go in a refrigerated area (like at the grocery store) and you pick what you want to eat. They’re constantly replenishing the supplies so it’s fresh! Once you pay, you can take it out to go or find a table. If you want any hot rolls/food, you order at the register and they’ll bring it out to you. For a decent amount of sushi to make 2 people full, we ended up spending $55. Not bad.
  • PHO Vietnamese Restaurant – Surprisingly good. Run by a Vietnamese family. Hella expensive. A small/medium sized pho is $18. Great after a day of being cold, but not a must try by any means. Green tea mochi is on point though.
  • Saffran – Pretty good Indian?-influenced food. I’m not sure how to categorize it to be honest because there’s tikka masala but also a version of pizza. Pricey but less pricey than other places. Maybe $15-20 for a LOT of food. Multiple locations.
  • Núðluskálin – Delicious Asian-influenced noodle joint. Lots of great reviews. Personally liked the coconut based soup noodle thing. $17-20 for a bowl.
  • Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur – If you’re only going to have one hot dog in Iceland, make sure it’s from this Reykjavik food stand. It is SO yummy!!! Make sure you add the fried onion and rémoulade toppings!! I ate two of them and for $4 each, it was pretty much a steal compared to everything else in Iceland. Of course, it’s no Costco hotdog, but what is?
  • *Note that Icelandic people will warn you of things being spicy when you order something spicy but it’s not ever actually spicy…
  • PEANUT BUTTER AND JELLY SANDWICHES – So we ate a lot of these. Pretty much every lunch was a PB&J. Honestly it’s the easiest thing to do when you’re out exploring. We would generally sit in our car and make the sandwiches. There are little cafes/restaurants sprinkled around the routes we took, but PB&Js are also the most cost effective considering how $$$$$ Iceland is.
  • For the two nights in Hvolsvöllur, we bought groceries to make a spaghetti dinner and a taco dinner. If you can cook, you’ll definitely save some money there. Plus there aren’t as many appealing restaurants when you’re not in the city.
  • Breakfasts consisted of whatever we bought at the store: yogurt, cereal, oatmeal, toast, rice cakes, granolas, etc. Go to a grocery store first day.

Itinerary

  • Day 1: Arrived in Reykjavik, rented a 4×4 from Blue Car Rental, checked into AirBnB
  • Day 2: Explored Reykjavik
    • Drove into the city and parked at a deck for ~$1/hour. This Reykjavik parking guide is very helpful.
    • Harpa Concert Hall – AMAZING architecture. Very insta worthy.50146352_Unknown
    • The Sun Voyager – Unique sculpture on the side of the road (can park in a lot right next to it)
    • Hallgrímskirkja – THE iconic church in Reykjavik. It’s just under $9 (hours and prices here) to go to the top but we didn’t since it was foggy af that day. I do think the views could be awesome though, weather permitting.
    • Wandered around the streets/shops. All souvenirs are priced the same.
  • Day 3: Golden Circle Day
    • Snorkeling in Silfra fissure between 2 tectonic plates with DIVE.ISF6AF5DE6-DAE6-4C0C-A756-9B3A1AC46E2E-4587-0000048BEABC01D0
      • 16.990 ISK ($160) / person (more like 18.000 ISK or $170 after taxes though). Pick up service costs an additional 5.000 ISK so we drove ~40 min from Reykjavik to the dive spot. Other tour details listed here.
      • Our guide was Stefanino and he was really great!!!!
      • We were provided dry suits which kept us pretty warm in the 2 degree Celsius (36 degree Fahrenheit) water. The gloves are wet though and are flooded with the cold water so your fingers will be VERY cold. That’s the worst part. Only a sliver of your face is exposed to the water and that was honestly not bad.
      • It’s the most beautiful and serene 30-40 minutes! Afterwards, they give you hot chocolate and cookies to warm up. Also, there are bathrooms!
      • Highly recommend
    • Þingvellir/Thingvellir National Park – Area where the Eurasian and North American tectonic plates are diverging. Silfra is a crack between these continents and where we went snorkeling. Very cool.
    • Geysir Hot Spring Area – Geothermal field with an active geyser Strokkur which erupts every 5 minutes or so! There are food options and, more importantly, a gift shop WITH FREE BATHROOMS!
    • Þingvellir Lookout – Really great views overlooking the tectonic plates. There’s a bathroom here. I think there’s a fee but when we went, it was free.
  • Day 4: (Water)fallin for Iceland
    • Háifoss – Magnificent view of two tall waterfalls in a canyon. Would recommend a 4×4 for the bumpy AF gravel road with potholes and big rocks to get there. 10/10 would recommend and not super touristy.Snapseed
    • Gjáin – Little fairy tale of a valley with small waterfalls and ponds that looks like you stepped into the world of Fern Gully or Lord of the Rings. We found cute little mice running around that were chill enough to LET YOU PICK THEM UP. F-road so NEED a 4×4. 10/10 would also highly recommend.50674672_Unknown
    • Hjálparfoss – Very pretty, liked this one a lot!
    • Tröllkonuhlaup – To be completely honest, I’m not sure if this was the one we went to.. The names are hard to keep straight. If so though, this one was only okay. You should probably make your own conclusions on this one based on reviews and stuff though…
  • Day 5: The coldest, windiest, most miserable day that was still pretty awesome
    • Seljalandsfoss Waterfall – Easy to get to and impressive. You can walk behind the waterfall. Great photo opportunities. Definitely recommend waterproof gear. Very crowded.
    • Skógafoss Waterfall – Easy to get to and also impressive. You can get really close to the waterfall. You’ll also get really wet if you do so (but you might as well do it). There are stairs that you can climb to the top for some pretty cool views. We did this and I rediscovered how abysmal my athleticism still is. Very crowded.
    • *Note about these waterfalls: Do these last if you are not wearing completely waterproof gear from head to toe. We did these first and spent the rest of the day miserably damp and cold because most of us didn’t bring waterproof pants or gloves.
    • Dyrhólaey Lighthouse – The road up to this area is sketchy AF especially in the foggy conditions we experienced because it is narrow and windy and gravelly and feels like you could drive right off the side of the hill/mtn/unsure what it is. Probably recommend a 4×4. Not worth it if it’s foggy because we could barely see a couple feet over the edge of the cliff. Supposedly you can see puffins here. (I am VERY sad that we didn’t see any puffins!!!!)
    • Reynisfjara Black Beach – The famed black sand beach with iconic basalt column structures. Definitely a must see. We pocketed a couple of black rocks from this beach as souvenirs. Crazy waves and insane wind. Easy roads.50939328_Unknown
    • Eyjafjallajökull – Glacier that is one of the smaller ice caps of Iceland and covers the caldera (volcanic crater – yep had to look it up) of a volcano. Pretty crazy to get that close to a glacier!IMG_20170923_181600
    • Seljavallalaug – Oldest outdoor swimming pool in Iceland build in 1923. Didn’t come here but had it been nice weather, this would have been cool. Reviews say that the water is only warmish though.
    • Sólheimasandur Plane Wreck – Abandoned WWII American plane wreck. Was very excited to see this but it’s a 3.6 km / 2.2 mile  / 45 min walk from the road ONE WAY and it was raining hard and super windy and pretty foggy. Read the walk was very boring too. Opted to skip this.
    • Fjaðrárgljúfur – A really beautiful canyon in south east Iceland that we didn’t get the chance to go to. The weather was too crappy to venture much farther from our home base in the limited amount of time that we were in the southern region. 
  • Day 6: Drive back to Reykjavik / Golden Circle waterfalls that we skipped earlier
    • Brúarfoss Waterfall – BEAUTIFUL icy-blue waterfall that I 10/10 highly recommend. Follow the directions that people give in the Google reviews. Everyone says that the trek there is super muddy and they’re not lying. When you’re at the beginning of the trail it’s not bad so it lulls you into a false sense of comfort BUT THEN IT GETS SOOOOO MUDDY. Good waterproof shoes with grip are a must. We saw someone wearing white Nike Air Force 1s and he was not having a good time. My duck boots saved my life. You can wash off the muddy gunk in the stream at the beginning of the trail when you come back.51202368_Unknown
    • Faxi Waterfall – This waterfall was cool because you can TOUCH it if you really want to. We did.
    • Gullfoss Waterfall – Yet another huge and pretty waterfall. Touristy. Impressive but not my favorite.
  • Day 6 special shout-out: THE NORTHERN LIGHTSSnapseed (1)
    • The Northern Lights made an appearance this night in Reykjavik! We had been trying all week to view the lights but had no luck. Even this night, the forecast wasn’t all too promising at a 1 which is pretty low. The forecast is on a scale from 0 (low chance) to 9 (get tf outside). We checked at 10pm and didn’t see anything but when we checked at 11pm Aurora was dancing around in the sky!!!! Forewarning: The Northern Lights somehow appear BETTER and more vibrant on camera than they do in real life with the naked eye. It’s still a crazy awesome surreal experience though! Advice: if there aren’t clouds covering up the sky, look for the lights every hour regardless of the forecast.
    • Camera Details: To my surprise, my Canon PowerShot G7 X was able to capture decent shots of the Northern Lights. I shot in Handheld NightScene on the SCN mode and increased the Exposure to +3.
  • Day 7: The Blue LagoonIMG_7243_Facetune_25.09.2017-12-29-46
    • Geothermal spa that is touristy AF but you have to go because it’s just a thing you need to do. Pre-booking on the website in advance is required. There are a number of packages to choose from but we went with the Standard which is the cheapest, starting at 6100 ISK / person. It only includes entrance and the (unlimited) Silica Mud Mask so you will need to bring your own flip flops and towel, probably from your hotel/AirBnB. Bathing at their showers beforehand is a requirement and bathing afterward is a strong suggestion so I wouldn’t worry about getting your towels dirty. I strongly suggest booking as early as possible (and booking parties together) because the price for a specific time slot increases as availability decreases. Since we didn’t book early enough, we ended up paying something like 8000 ISK / person for the Standard package at the time slot we needed.
    • They suggest slathering your hair with the provided conditioner. DO IT and reapply often, like every 30 minutes. Your hair will suffer and be brittle and unmanageable otherwise. Guys– maybe you want to try conditioning your body hair as well. People suggest doing this right before going to the airport but I’m personally happy I didn’t. The water made my skin and hair very dry (I’m prone to dry skin though) and I’m happy I was able to have a proper shower back at the AirBnB. Alternatively, you could bring all your shower products/essentials into the facility.
    • The Silica Mud Mask is amazing. I brought empty bottles so that I could take some home with me. I’m not sure if this is frowned upon.. I did this at the recommendation of other travel blogs I’ve read. Nobody else was doing it which made me feel sketchy…but in the end I’m happy I did it. Alternatively, you could buy this stuff from the gift shop. It’s obviously very expensive.
    • We arrived a couple minutes earlier than our 8am appointment (first time slot of the day) and there was already a long line. It took maybe 45 minutes until we checked in and got into the locker rooms. There are lockers to store your stuff and again, showering is a requirement before entering the lagoon. We spent approximately 2.5 hours relaxing in the lagoon! Go early or go late– it was super crowded by the time we left at 11:30am.
    • Highly recommend a waterproof phone case like this, everybody had these. I used one as well and it perfectly did its job.
  • Day 8: Returned the car rental and left Reykjavik 😦

Cost Breakdown Per Person

2017-09-30

*We bought a RT from Atlanta to London and then a RT from London to Iceland because that was cheaper than a direct RT from Atlanta to Iceland. Again, the cheaper Iceland flights are offered for months with less than ideal weather.

General Advice

  • Timing: I specifically planned the trip for mid-September because I wanted to see the Northern Lights. This phenomenon is visible in Iceland from early September to end of April. I figured that the end of summer would be a better option than the tail end of spring, so that’s what we opted for. If you’re not keen on seeing the Northern Lights, I would personally recommend going during the summer months. It’s a bit warmer, there are more light hours during the day (almost 24 hours of daylight and midnight sun May-July), and less rainfall. In September, it’s considered to be more globally “normal” in that there are 12 hours of daylight. However, peak precipitation occurs October to February and our group definitely saw a ton of rainfall while we were there which made our outdoor adventures (which is pretty much 100% of Iceland activities) less enjoyable. If not for seeing the Northern Lights one night, I would have wished that we went during the summer to avoid all the rainy days. I wouldn’t necessarily recommend going in the winter due to the rain but also the lack of daylight hours. By January, there’s only 5 hours of daylight and I was so not about that life. Of course, the flip side is that the Northern Lights are probably very prominent and crazy beautiful. Also, there are cheaper flights during this time period.
  • Car Rental: Renting a car is absolutely necessary. We rented from Blue Car Rental and they were great and reasonably priced. We opted for an automatic 4×4 (Toyota Rav4) and we’re super happy with the decision. Since we had a party of 4, it was nice to have a little extra space since we spent a TON of time in the car driving around. Also, the 4×4 obviously came in super handy for the rough roads we had to take to reach some of the sites so I definitely recommend splurging for the 4×4. FYI, there is a shuttle from the airport that will take you to all the different car rentals.
  • Duty Free Shopping: You should 100% buy alcohol duty free from the airport you’re flying OUT of, NOT the Keflavík (Iceland) Airport and definitely NOT at a store in Iceland. We got a liter of Tanqueray for £13 ($18) at the Heathrow Airport. For less than a liter of the same gin, it was something like $50. A liter of Captain Morgan was $82 when it’s less than $30 in America. INSANE. You’ll also see a frenzy of people doing some duty free shopping at Keflavík. Join them for your basic needs.
  • Tap Water: Drink the Icelandic tap water. It is the purest most amazing water you’ll probably ever have in your entire life and it’s free! It’s better than bottled water. I was a little apprehensive at first because the hot water smelled like sulfur but it’s only the hot water! The cold water is pristine. *Be sure to bring a large water bottle!!!!
  • Clothes – what to pack: I did a post on what I packed here. These clothes sufficed for the mid 40s to low 50s September rainy weather. My advice/regrets in the following bullet point.
  • Waterproof Gear: Absolutely necessary to have a waterproof rainjacket and shoes. Definitely recommended to have waterproof pants and gloves. My biggest issue was that my rainjacket is pretty fitted so it was actually difficult to have enough warm layers underneath. I did pretty okay with my Patagonia and long sleeve layers underneath, but I wish I had a small warm scarf that my rainjacket could cover for when the wind was trying to kill me. Kind of wish I brought a beanie. My dri-fit Nike leggings were fine for the most part, but they didn’t fare well getting soaked by waterfalls and heavy, heavy rain. It was really only an issue the one day we went to Seljalandsfoss and Skógafoss. I half wished I had brought waterproof pants but I also think they are very ugly. Fashion vs Comfort…
  • Money: Credit cards with chips are accepted everywhere. May be helpful to carry ISK cash just in case, but we never NEEDED it.
  • Travel Buddies: I truly believe 4 is a magical number when it comes to traveling in Iceland. 4 people fit nicely in a car. Many/most AirBnBs sleep 4. These facts alone help reduce the cost by spreading car rental, gas, and AirBnB costs among 4 people. Of course, you could go the hostel route or rent a tent/camper thing if less than 4 people but I personally don’t like roughing it. For more than 4/5, you may want to rent a larger vehicle. However, that means you’re driving a larger vehicle on the smaller roads and also more gas $$$$.
  • Weather: The weather forecast will likely say that it’s going to rain. It will probably rain. However, it won’t last all day!!! The weather is SO fickle and changes very quickly. It’ll be overcast and rainy and then the clouds will move out of the way for the sun to come out and the rain will stop for a bit and it’s beautiful and then it’ll probably drizzle and then there will be some misty foggy weather like in the movie The Mist. My point is that the weather is unpredictable. Don’t let it stop you from exploring!

If you’re still reading this, congratulations, you have a great attention span! I hope this terribly long post is helpful for someone planning their Iceland adventure!!! Feel free to ask any questions that I haven’t answered!

With love,
Sallie

6 thoughts on “A Guide to Iceland

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