Iceland was surreal. It felt like driving through a nature documentary, surrounded by towering mountains and… nothing. One of, if not the most incredible vacations I’ve ever had – I was already planning the return visit before I left!
After having an incredible time on my vacation, I thought I’d share some dos and don’ts for your first trip to Iceland! We struck a balance between driving around ourselves and booking several guided tours. I could easily have spent another week there. If I’d had more time, a few extra nights exploring Reykjavik would have been top of my list.
- Be brave and do it yourself! Car rental is fairly straightforward and, with only one major road, navigating isn’t an issue. There were many times we pulled over just to take a look at something beautiful and driving ourselves meant it really felt like a remote adventure, rather than being one of the crowds.
- Join some of the adventure tours: there are several companies that run half-day adventure tours usually near Skaftafell, heading on to the glacier. These were some of the highlights of our trip!
- Spend enough time in Reykjavik, Iceland’s capital, and be sure to see the Hallgrimskirkja, a stunning modern cathedral in the city.
- Visit Jokulsarlon. This glacier lagoon and seal playground was perhaps the most beautiful place we saw on the whole trip.
- Visit Vik, a town in the South of Iceland, popular for being halfway between Reykjavik and the Skaftafell National Park. While you’re there, I’d recommend checking out Reynisdrangar, Vik’s black sand beach, with large basalt rock formations jutting out of the sea.
- Take plenty of money. There aren’t many ATMs on a typical glacier, and Iceland is really expensive: dinner for two at a gas station cost us around 7,800 Icelandic kronas (approx. 65 USD)! With fuel and food, we spent around 1000 US Dollars in five days on top of hotels – and that was despite making our own lunch and dining at cheap spots.
- Prioritize the Blue Lagoon. It feels strange to say this about such an iconic site, but it was a bit of a let down. The Blue Lagoon felt crowded, commercial, full of tourists, and there was a lot of construction going on. If you do visit, remember to pre-book online, turn up a while before your booked slot, and bring sunglasses, as the color of the water makes it extremely bright, even on a dim day.
- Go for the food. I left Iceland not wanting to see a burger or sandwich for a long time. Restaurants don’t really make sense in very remote areas, so most food is at gas stations. Occasionally you might find meatballs and mashed potatoes, but, in general, it was pretty terrible!
- Plan your trip around the Northern Lights. Getting up in the middle of the night for a week doesn’t make for a relaxing holiday. Ask locals for recommendations of where to spot the lights, or just follow tour buses. If you can’t see the lights, give it half an hour: I was amazed by how much the intensity varies in even just a couple of minutes. We were lucky enough to see them, but it turns out taking a photo is almost impossible unless you’re willing to get your head around long exposure and be very, very patient.
- Get too excited about Gullfoss, the Niagara Falls of Iceland. It’s very much on the Golden Circle tourist trail, so expect to fight for elbow room!