Whether you’re there on a free stopover to Europe or as a final destination, Iceland is sure to amaze you with its dramatic and otherworldly landscapes, Viking history, and interesting culture.
Iceland is known as the land of fire and ice and is home to some of the world’s most active volcanos and Europe’s largest ice cap. The island country lies in the North Atlantic Ocean near the Arctic Circle in the midst of the continental drift, of which you can clearly see. More on that later, though. Our first stop after arriving at Keflavík International Airport (KEF) was the capital city of Reykjavík.
After picking up our rental car, we drove 45 minutes from the airport to Reykjavík. We are happy with our decision to rent a car because we wanted the freedom to explore at our own pace and allow for some spontaneity.
Reykjavík has a population of around 120,000 (the country’s population is around 324,000). We didn’t stay in the capital long as we couldn’t wait to hit the road, but we did manage to check a few items off our bucket list.
Hallgrímskirkja is one of Reykjavík’s most popular landmarks. It’s the tallest church in Iceland at 74.5 meters high and the unique architecture, both outside and inside, is striking. We bought tickets (~$6 per person) to take the elevator to the top of the tower for a wonderful view of the colorful city below.
Next, we headed to the waterfront to see Sólfar (Sun Voyager), a steel sculpture that resembles a Viking long-ship.
Our final stop before spending one night in the city was Iceland’s most famous restaurant… a tiny hotdog stand barely the size of a walk-in closet. Made famous by Bill Clinton’s visit, Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur has managed to make it into many guidebooks as a must-try. The lamb-based hotdogs are ~$3 each and it is recommended to order them “with everything”, everything being ketchup, sweet mustard, fried onion, raw onion and remoulade, a mayonnaise-based sauce that contains sweet relish. Some say they are the best hotdogs in the world. You be the judge!
We were so excited to hit the road the next morning and start exploring. We made the decision before we arrived in Iceland that we would not attempt to drive the Ring Road around the whole country, but instead to spend more quality time in less places. I think we would have had enough time (it took my office-mate four nights), but we are okay with our decision to skip it. Next time!
We first drove north of Reykjavík to Snaefellsnes Peninsula and to some of the most remarkable landscapes I’ve ever seen including lava fields and various mountain formations. Snæfellsjökull is a mountain topped by a glacier that was made famous by Jules Verne as the entrance to the center of the earth in his book Journey to the Center of the Earth.
Somewhere along the southern part of the peninsula, we stopped for one night and then continued our journey the next morning to Þingvellir National Park, the first of three stops of what is known as the Golden Circle.
Þingvellir National Park is a UNESCO World Heritage Site where the Althing, an open-air assembly representing the whole of Iceland, was established in 930 and continued to meet until 1798. Not only interesting for its historical value, this is also the place where you can see clear evidence of the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates drifting apart at about 2cm per year.
The next stop on the Golden Circle tour is Geysir, a geyser that gave all other geysers their name. Geysir itself doesn’t spout water as often as its neighbor, Strokkur, which spouts water every few minutes.
The final stop on the Golden Circle tour is Gullfoss (Golden Waterfall). The waterfall is located on the Hvítá (White) river which is fed by Iceland´s second biggest glacier, the Langjökull.
While we didn’t drive around the whole Ring Road, we did explore a decent amount of the south part of it. On the drive, we were able to stop and see many of the things we hoped to see: gorgeous Icelandic horses (they have better hair than I do), stunning waterfalls, sheep (known to run out in front of cars), glaciers, and a black sand/pebble beach.
Sadly, it was almost time for our trip to end. We made our way back to the area of the airport, where we had one night booked. The plan was to visit the Blue Lagoon, which is much closer to the airport than to Reykjavík, the morning before our departure flight. Some choose to visit immediately upon arrival into Iceland and some choose to visit the morning of departure. I think either option is fine, but next time I think I’ll opt for BOTH. It’s that good. It was a great way to relax and be pampered before the long travel day ahead. Note: You must book tickets and select a time for this in advance! You might get in without a reservation if you’re lucky, but I wouldn’t count on it, especially if your plan is to visit the day you leave the country.
The approach to the Blue Lagoon smells a bit like Sulphur and I got a little nervous it would smell like that the whole time, but that wasn’t the case at all. When you check-in, you’re given a bracelet to wear that will be scanned when you make any purchases. Yes, you can buy drinks in the lagoon (I had a green smoothie). You can also get a massage, although that should be booked in advance.
The lagoon itself was so nice that we spent a few hours there. It was a cold and windy day, but we didn’t notice as the lagoon was nice and warm. The temperature varies throughout the lagoon, which is great because everyone has different preferences for how warm they like it. Contrary to popular belief, the white mud that people put on their faces is not scraped off the bottom. There are boxes placed around the lagoon and the use of the mud is included with the entrance fee.
Tip: If you have long hair, it is recommended that you wet and condition it (you have to shower before you get in anyway), leave the conditioner in, and put it up so that it won’t touch the water. I read this tip prior to the trip and didn’t have any problems, but the silica in the water has been known to dry out hair and make it really hard to manage for days afterwards.
What a fabulous way to end a wonderful trip. I plan to go back to Iceland someday and explore some of the areas I missed the first time. Góða ferð (bon voyage)!