Iceland holds a dear place in my heart. I first visited in February 2013 on a school trip when I was 16 and I would argue it’s been a main contributor to my “travel bug”.
I visited again in December 2017 with Chris and this time we had the freedom of hiring a car and the advantage of me already knowing some good spots to visit. We visited from 27th to the 31st December, where day light hours are at a maximum of 4-5 hours – so although we had 5 days it was important to prioritise and limit the number of activities we did.
Flights to Keflavik and back cost us £95 each and the 4 different accommodations we stayed in totalled at £200 per person – 2 I’ll recommend in this blog, and 2 I won’t (to put it nicely). So, on the front of it a 5-day trip over the Christmas break for £300 each doesn’t seem so bad… But you’ll soon realise where Iceland can become an expensive trip!
We rented a car from Lotus car rental for £300 (pre-booked) and found the whole driving experience reasonably easy. There had been no recent snowfall when we visited, so we only had to tackle the ice which only seemed a problem on side roads.
We travelled from Keflavik Airport – Reykjavik – Reykholt – Lindartun – Selfoss – Keflavik Airport, visiting some of Iceland’s most famous waterfalls, glacier & geothermal spots along the way. The main road-trip route is more commonly known as the “Golden Circle” and many similar coach tours run from Reykjavik if you are not a confident driver. The only difference to our trip is that we headed off-piste to visit Solheimajokull Glacier and Skogafoss. I have attached a map of our route below.
Day 1 – The Blue Lagoon & Reykjavik
For those who haven’t visited, it might surprise you to learn that the famous Blue Lagoon is only a 20-minute drive from Keflavik Airport – making this the perfect place to either start or finish your road trip.
Our flight landed at 11.40am and we had a 1pm slot booked. I would advise booking to secure your time slot online before visiting to save waiting around because as you can imagine, this is a very busy tourist spot… which is also priced to suit! Admission to the Blue Lagoon will set you back approximately £45 per person (based on exchange rate July 2020).
I loved the Blue Lagoon both times I visited and although the changing rooms can be cramped when it is busy, the lagoon itself is so big that you can always find some privacy. The steam that comes from the lagoon almost shields the crowds of people too! One recommendation I would have here, is listen to the advice about applying conditioner and not dunking your hair in the lagoon water. I made this mistake and it took 2-3 washes to even get a hairbrush through my hair again! However, despite having loved the Blue Lagoon, I don’t know if I would visit again for a 3rd time considering the price tag.
The city of Reykjavik is a further 45-minute drive from the Blue Lagoon, and with daylight hours so short in December it was already dark by time we had arrived. In hindsight, we weren’t there for a city break so the attractions of Reykjavik didn’t interest us much – but you can see the famous Hallgrimskirkja Cathedral if you are there!
Be wary that food can be really expensive in Iceland, and in the city – as you can imagine – the prices are hiked up even further. Reykjavik is one of the more expensive places I visited, only beaten by Oslo so far!
Day 2 – Thingvellir National Park & Gullfoss Waterfall
We left Reykjavik at what felt like an early hour, but it was about 9:30am and still pitch black! We were heading to a pre-booked excursion at Thingvellir National Park – which marks the boundary between the North American and the Eurasian tectonic plates.
We had booked to go snorkelling within the Silfra fissure, marketed as the “only place in the world where you can dive between two continents”. I did this back in 2013, and I loved it so much that I had to take Chris to enjoy it too. The fissure is full of melted glacier water, so not only are the waters crystal clear, it’s also safe to drink! This may sound like a horribly cold experience, but dry suits, gloves & hoods are provided which you wear over your base layers – so the only things to get wet on you are you head and hands. You will be left a bit of a dribbly mess as your mouth becomes numb around the snorkel and your hair will potentially freeze as you take your wet hood off – but surprisingly enough when we visited it was a warmer temperature in the water than the air anyway! Its an unforgettable experience and it’d something I would recommend to any able swimmer.
Tickets for this excursion are close to £100 per person and we booked it through Artic Adventures. Alternatively, if you haven’t hired a car you can purchase excursions which will pick you up from Reykjavik. We booked onto the 10:30am start, which allowed us in the water as the light was full at midday.
A further 50-minute drive from Thingvellir Park is Strokkur – Iceland’s most active geyser. You will find Strokkur at the Haudakadalur Valley which is home to many other smaller geysers and hot springs. The lands around are also coloured by the iron, sulfur and copper in the ground so the ground appears different shades of red, yellow & green. Strokkur erupts every 5 -10 minutes and can shoot water up to 40 metres in the air!
By driving 10-minutes further you’ll reach Gullfoss waterfall – translated as the “Golden Waterfall”. This is considered another main stop on the Golden Circle & the photos don’t give it enough credit!
Accommodation on the Golden Circle can feel a little “in the middle of nowhere”. I have to recommend where we stayed, at the Blue Grove Guesthouse in Reykholt. Be careful, there seems to be two Reykholt’s in Iceland! It’s a sweet cabin guesthouse which provide a continental style breakfast – the hosts were very friendly and made us feel at home.
Day 3 – Solheimjokull Ice Cap Hiking & Skogafoss Waterfall
Our third day in Iceland saw us biggest stint of driving as we drove 1h45 to Soleheimajokull glacier to partake in another pre-booked excursion – ice cap hiking! Ice cap hiking is only accessible in the winter because the glaciers tend to reshape in the summer and popular routes can become unstable. This tour was also operated by Artic Adventures, but we purchased it through GetYourGuide and it cost approximately £80 per person.
It’s almost a no brainer, but you’ll have to make sure you’re wearing a good pair a walking boots to fix your crampons to! (I’ve attached a photo of crampons below in case you don’t know what these are – they’ll be provided by your tour operator, as well as a pickaxe or whatever equipment they require you to have).
When I visited Iceland back in 2013, I went on an ice cap hike on Vatnajokull – which is the largest ice cap in Iceland! This is admittedly much more impressive, but it is also further away from the traditional “Golden Circle” route. If you’re not pressed for time, I would definitely recommend the extra drive to visit Vatnajokull! If you do decide to drive the extra distance you can also visit the picturesque basalt columns and black beach of Reynisdrangar.
After ice cap hiking at Solheimjokull, we drove to Skogafoss – arguably the most famous waterfall of Iceland! This is the waterfall that is pictured everywhere when you Google Iceland. I like whenever it pops up on Eurovision, Vikings, or the Skyr Yogurt advert I can say “Hey, I’ve been there!”.
Day 4 – the Lava Centre & Laugarvata Fontana
Our Scandi-styled 3rd accommodation at Lindartun was located only a 12-minute drive from the Lava Centre – a museum that stands proudly on the side of Route 1. With a busy few days, we had reserved this day for chilling out, amongst driving to Selfoss which got us most of the way back to Keflavik Airport. For any Geography nerd (like me) the museum certainly lives us to its claims of being the “most awarded exhibition in Iceland”. Admission costs around £17 per person and tickets can be booked in advance, although we didn’t.
We also decided to drive back up towards the direction of Gullfoss, as I had found a local geothermal pool that we could spend the afternoon in. In contrast to the Blue Lagoon, this cost us £11.50 each for admission and honestly was a huge highlight of the trip for me. Here, the geothermal pools are situated next to Laugarvatn Lake. The idea is that you start in the lake and increase the temperature in each pool before maxing out in the sauna and then dipping in the freezing cold lake again! It was an experience, and it was certainly relaxing. This is one of the activities in Iceland that I actually felt like I 100% got my money’s worth. If you prefer to avoid large tourist crowds, I would avoid the Blue Lagoon and spend your time and money here instead!
In hindsight, we should’ve also stopped at Kerid crater on this part of our journey but because of the shortness of the days we missed it!
Our 4th night saw us stay in Selfoss, which is a town so there is plenty more food choice than the more remote locations of Reykholt and Lindartun that we had been staying in. We opted for burger at Tommi’s Burger Joint – they were fabulous!
Day 5 – Fly home!
When I visited back in 2013, Iceland felt like quite a raw and exclusive holiday destination. In just the 4.5 years between my visits Iceland has evidently become used to the tourism. When I snorkelled at Thingvellir in 2013 the guides encouraged you to jump from rocks into the water (which is now prohibited), and I don’t recall there being any restrictions at the foot of Skogafoss waterfall. All in the name of health and safety I imagine! I managed to dig out some awful quality photos of me when I was 16, enjoy…
Iceland is only set to become much more of a popular tourist destination. In recent years it has starred in Game of Thrones & Vikings, as well as the introduction of Icelandair offering free stopovers to Iceland when travelling to New York. Also, a new geothermal lagoon is opening next year, which will rival the Blue Lagoon.
I will most probably go back to Iceland; I would love to spend a little more time in Reykjavik and explore the North of the country – which is a lot less travelled. I imagine the South will continue to become more tourist-facing whilst the North maintains the beauty of feeling secluded. I also haven’t discussed the Northern Lights in this post as seeing them isn’t guaranteed! It has been cloudy throughout both of my visits to Iceland, so unfortunately, I am yet to see them! Hopefully I will see them next time…
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