A personal guide to traveling in Iceland
Kenneth has kept rambling about the wonders of Iceland as long as I can remember. I honestly had a hard time imagining exactly why he loved it so much. I mean its cold and barren with no trees? This was right until I experienced it myself. I completely lost my heart to the Icelandic serenity and dramatic landscapes. Trees or not.
Here’s a travel diary from 8 days on the road and my personal tips an tricks for traveling in Iceland.
We had eight full days and decided to divide them between a trip to the tourist deserted Westerfjords (north west) and the more classic route 1 (south east). We could easily have spent double the time and had to skip a few locations. Thus, if you want to have a stressfree trip I would generally recommend spending at least 7 days on one of the directions alone. I have intended to list our itinerary based on days, locations and specific spots (much inspired by my talented friend Anne-Sophie who did an great interrail guide to the nordics).
Direction — Westfjords
Day 1 Copenhagen → Reykjavik → Djúpavík
Day 2 Full day in Djúpavík, Krossneslaug
Day 3 Djúpavík → Snæfellsnes
Day 4 Snæfellsnes → Reykjavik
Direction — Route 1
Day 5 Reykjavik → Geysir, Seljalandsfoss & Skogafoss
Day 6 Rain all day
Day 7 Fjallsárlón, Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon and ‘Diamond beach’
Day 8 Fjaðrárgljúfur & black beaches → Reykjavik → Copenhagen
In addition to our itinerary here’s my personal google map with location pins to the spots we visited or starred - click on this private link.
heading towards westfjords in snowstorm
We landed in Reykjavik in the early afternoon. After meeting the 66 North team and picking up our rental, we headed towards Djúpavík — our furthest destination in the Westfjords. Google map estimated a four hour drive, however, it turned into just under seven hours because of a massive snowstorm. We and google completely underestimated the terrain and the Icelandic weather conditions, which we later learned are famous for changing rapidly. Its very common to see everything from sun, rain, storm and snow in very short distances. One of the charms and challenges of the country. It requires a lot of flexibility of your travel plan, why we ended up evaluating our itinerary several times a day. Unknowing of the heavy snowstorm on the first night though, we ended up driving for five hours in complete darkness on snowy roads while feeling stressed to our stomachs and with nasty tunnel visions.
Car tip —
We drove this Nissan 4x4 car which got us around safely. Although its not the most fuel-efficient car, I would generally recommend to rent a bigger and more powerful car as you will spent a lot of hours on the road. Often unable to predict the weather and road conditions and sometimes for long distances without any civilisation.
intimate ‘Homestay’ in seaside village Djúpavík
Djúpavík really felt like it was in the middle of nowhere, an old fishermen town with ruins of a herring factory overviewing the sea and the characteristic brownish mountain as far as you could see. The last hour of our night drive leading us to Djupavik was a steep and narrow dirt road with the sea just on our right the whole time. We arrived tense and completely exhausted at Hotel Djúpavík around 1:00 AM in the night and was greeted by the kind hotel owner, Maggi, who had been keeping the road open for us. We quickly realized we were the only visitors staying there. They were closed for the season and there were no other members of the hotel team but the owners. Apparently they had opened up for us when 66North called about our trip. Talking about local heroes. During our stay we ended up eating most of our meals in the small restaurant at the hotel in the presence of the two owners. A son (Maggi) and his mother who had such beautiful personalities and plenty of interesting stories to tell about life in Iceland. A month prior to our visit a production crew filming a scene for a Justice League movie had stayed at the hotel for 1,5 months in total. Apparently lots of partying had taken place in the little hotel with stars like Ben Affleck attending.
All in all, staying at this hotel felt so intimate and special — almost like a homestay. Its the kind of place where shepherd dogs belonging to the owners lol around the property and come and say hi, nothing seems to be too much trouble and you quickly get a sense of belonging. Definitely recommended for those seeking authentic travel experiences where you engage with the local people.
full day in the area around Djúpavík
After a much needed night of sleep, we went out to explore with the only plan of making it to a naturally heated pool located next to the ocean. We followed this old school paper map that Maggi gave us, and besides that, nothing else was scheduled. The best thing about traveling through Iceland is that you often decide on a main sight and head that direction, but its never just about getting from point A to B. There’s usually so much breathtaking nature to see on the way so be sure to schedule enough time to make several stops on the way to a location.
Taking that time to explore and not just going from one famous spot to another made our trip in Iceland feel unique and like our own. In these hyper documented days where you can basically google or make a search on Instagram and see all the wonders of the world from every possible angle its really easy to get obsessed. Where to go, what to see and how to take a specific photo…
…That being said, I’m a massive planner and I generally think its important to make some conscious thoughts about what you wish to do in order to make things happen. However, I’m also not the kind of person who rigidly stick to the plan for the sake of it. Mainly because that true feeling of fulfillment, and core joy of traveling and discovery, is really depended on keeping your eyes open, seizing the moment and just be. At least thats how I’ve been feeling more lately. Like a crazy longing for getting carried away by the place rather than trying to curate and control the experience. Kenneth and I are trying to make a conscious effort to live and travel in this way and its been referred to it as “like life bf Instagram” (lol how have we gotten to this point?). Iceland is perfect if you can relate.
Krossneslaug Geothermal pool
At what felt like the end of the world this geothermal gem appeared. We almost did not make the effort of swimming in it because it was too damn cold outside the car. But we managed to pull ourselves together and stripped down in the icy air. The Krossneslaug pool and hot tub are provided with a continuous flow of hot water from natural springs, which seriously blows my mind just to think of. It sits on a black-pepple beach with the most scenic view; the wild North Atlantic Ocean. Swimming here for an hour or a little more - just the two of us - was definitely one of the most memorable experiences we collected during the trip.
Soul nourishing experiences
The more I’m thinking of the afternoon at Krossneslaug, the more I realize it was such a soul and body nourishing moment to finish off the day with. It might also be what made me appreciate spa experiences in this profound way that I do today. Always aching to re-experience the hours we spent there. Needless to say, Kenneth and I returned to Hotel Djupavik for our last night in a state of nature high.
Driving from Djupavik to Snæfellness peninsula
Just before sunrise we left Djupavik and departed on a 280km drive south west towards our next hotel: Hotel Budir which is located on the Snæfellness peninsula.
On our way we came across this beautiful infinity type of road. I don’t have a location point, but you will find many of its kind while driving around Iceland.
One of the main sights we had marked was Kirkjufell; one of Iceland’s most famous and photographed mountain tops. Some of its popularity is due to its appearance in Games of Thrones season 7 episode 6, but also just the practical circumstance that its quite easy to reach by car. Its only 2,5 hours away from Reykjavik in good weather conditions, and it’s located quite close to the little village Grundarfjörður.
Grundarfjörður has a few hotels, inns and a camping ground, and a handfull of small restaurants. Before driving the last stretch to our hotel, we had an early and very cozy dinner at the old restaurant Bjargarsteinn with an exceptional view to the ocean and Kirkjufell. I believe we tried the set menu and I especially remember the local grilled fish. Just perfect. I remember feeling completely at ease and like I’ve completely calmed down after the first couple of days in Iceland.
While visiting Kirkjufell make sure to also check out the waterfall Kirkjufellfoss right next to the mountain. I remember thinking it looked unreal. So beautiful and quite rare to have this size of a waterfall with such a majestic mountain backdrop. Its very easy to reach and walk around the waterfall. But bare in mind that due to the easy access this is also a popular destination for tourbusses. Thus I would recommend travellers to come early to avoid the bigger and more invasive groups of tourists. We waited for so long to get a picture without the groups in it and I did remove four people in photoshop. Just being honest here!
Spending the night at the little pearl: Hotel Búðir
We arrived in complete darkness late in the evening at Hotel Búðir located 35km from Kirkjufell. With its darkly painted walls, chesterfield furnitures, and chandeliers en masse, the atmosphere at Hotel Búðir was definitely laidback luxury. After unpacking our bags and showering all dust off, we had built up a late evening hunger. I don’t know about you, but my appetite always sky rocket from being outside. I got the most creamy and soul warming lobster bisque while snuggling up in the comfy lounge area next to Kenneth, editing footage from the day, and skyping my family at home.
Arriving in the darkness of the night, it was only in the following morning that we realized how absolutely stunning the hotel’s surroundings were. The area felt very remote. The ocean on one side, and a river and the mountains with snow-covered tops on the other. Búðir sits within the Búðahraun lava rock field, which is an expansive environment of torn-up earth that has grown over with grass.
Just 200 meters from the hotel you will find the rather famous Buoakirkja Church. Buoakirkja has in recent years become a very popular object for photographers probably due to its minimalistic feel and black color, in combination with the rough nature around it.
Beginning the second part of the roadtrip: route 1
After seeing the church we drove towards Reykjavik where we slept at a random hotel I no longer remember the name of. The following day we began our second part of the trip; the scenic route 1. I was both excited to see a new part of Iceland, but I also felt like we left Westfjords and Snæfellness with so much left to see and experience. Next time I’m on Icelandic ground there’s no doubt that I will advocate for going back to the more remote Westfjords with more time on our hands.
Not too far from Reykjavik you’ll find Geysir - the oldest and most famous hot spring in Iceland located in the geothermal area of Haukadalur Valley. You don’t need a lot of time at this spot to see it all, but I would still prioritize going if you’ve never seen geysers erupt before. Just a short 15minutes drive from there is the famous Gullfoss waterfall. It is 32m tall with 2 drops and worth a visit too if you’re in the area. For reference, these two spots are part of the classic Golden Circle route which you can read more about here. We skipped Gullfoss on our first trip to Iceland as we were headed towards two other waterfalls on route 1.
Seljalandsfoss & Skogafoss
These two waterfalls are located very close to each other. If you’re coming from Reykjavik you will reach Seljalandsfoss first and you are able to see it from the road 1 (pictured below). I would say that Seljalandsfoss is a ‘do not miss’-spot with its 60 meters high with a foot path behind it at the bottom of the cliff. It is the only known waterfall of its kind in Iceland, where it is possible to walk behind the cascade of water. So surreal to stand behind a waterfall and definitely what made it my favorite of all the waterfalls we saw. Skogáfoss is also a 60-metres high waterfall and if the sun conditions are favourable - you will often see a vivid rainbow in front of the waterfall. Insanely beautiful and again; surreal. The river below the falls is said to hold a large salmon and char population. The path leading to the top of the waterfalls continues following the river upstream - where numerous more dramatic waterfalls are to be found. We didn’t do the hike - simply because we ran out of day light.
Hotels on route 1 / Hotel Ranga
As soon as we headed in the direction of route 1 we did not stay at any memorable hotels or inns. We simply forgot the names of the places and haven’t noted them down anywhere. They were nice, but mostly just picked based on their location and how far we had gotten on the particular day. Depending on your travel style, my advice is to do the same: see how far you get and estimate a good location to stay for the night, rather than driving somehere for the sake of a specifically great hotel. You are likely to change your mind on sights or meet obstacles on the way like we did in terms of the weather on the first night.
I have one specific recommendation for a place to stay in the area of Seljalandsfoss and Skogafoss, which the four starred resort Hotel Ranga. We stayed there on our second (and much shorter) trip to Iceland in February 2019 on another shoot for 66 North). Don’t expect too much, but it is definetely considered above average in the area. Ranga also has a decent restaurant if you are looking for a better place to eat than what you will meet randomly on route 1.
It rained all day long on day 6 so we decided to stay in. After days of constant exploring it was a treat to rest for a full day. It wasn’t something we realized we needed until forced by the weather, thus I would recommend you to prioritize time and room enough in your travel plan for pulling out a day if needed for one or the other reason. We spent the day in our comfy clothes eating a slow breakfast, editing photos, and recharging everything both camera batteries and our own.
I’ve never seen so many rainbows in such a short time as we did in Iceland.
We woke up really early and headed towards our furthest point in our south-eastern direction. Here we had marked Fjallsárlón, Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon and ‘Diamond beach’ as must sees. The route you are driving towards Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon is the exact same as you will drive on your way back to Reykjavik (via route 1) meaning that it is also the same spots you will pass on your way out and back. Therefore we decided to save some of the major spots (like the black beach in Vík) for our way back to Reykjavik. In this way we were able to divide the trip into more days, rather than having to drive all 340 km back to Reykjavik in one overwhelming stretch.
The first glacier lagoon we stopped at was Fjallsárlón. It’s a small walk from the main road, but absolutely worth stopping for. I had tears in my eyes at some point. It was just so overwhelming in a way that is impossible to captivate in words and in pictures. So beautiful. So saddening. Saddening because they stand there as an instant reminder of the fact that they - these massive glaciers - are in fact slowly but steady disappearing due to global warming. Because of us.
At Fjallsárlón you will primarily see floating icebergs that calve from the edge of the glacier. We didn’t see ice chunks break completely loose, but just the sound of the ice is like nothing else I’ve heard before. A silent and deep sound of cracking or booming, or clinging when the icebergs breaks or hit each other in the water. Like nothing else.
Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon & Diamond beach
Jökulsárlón glacier lagoon is the most famous lagoon in this area. Right next to it is Diamond Beach; one of my favorite stops on the trip. Diamond beach is a strip of black sand belonging to the greater Breiðamerkursandur glacial plain. At Diamond beach the icebergs which fill Jökulsárlón glacier lagoon wash up on shore, standing in stark contrast to the black sand. Many seals call this beach home, and it should also be one of the best places in the country to see orcas from the shore. Unfortunately we didn’t see any when visiting. Again the glacier lagoon and Diamond Beach are fantastic, however, the rate of their expansion is, unfortunately, a consequence of climate change. With the rate that the glaciers are melting, there may be no ice left at either sites within decades. It was such an emotional dilemma; I was so incredibly stimulated by the natural phenomenon and its beauty, while feeling so extremely sad about the environmental development. I decided to cherish it and mentally pay my respect and thankfulness, and now write about it. What a privilege it was to be able to experience.
An anecdote: The cold took out our drone
Kenneth lost his drone at this glacier spot that I was unable to find on our map (maybe a reader recognizes it and would be so kind to let me know?). The cold had killed the batteries which let the drone to crash. We left feeling bummed out because of all the footage we had lost, but suddenly the drone appeared in Kenneth’s app when we were back at the road. It had crashed on land so we drove back an hour and searched for it in the darkness. Never had I seen a night as pitch black. Kenneth forced me to stay in the car, but after 40 minutes of waiting without hearing anything back from him, I went out there to find him with only the flashlight on my iphone. I was worried at this point. Luckily after 15 minutes of walk next to the glacier pool I found him - but without the drone. After a little while we finally managed to find it. Retrospectively, this was just incredible stupid and we should never have done it. But we got it, the footage wasn’t destroyed and we are a good story richer.
On day 8 - the 8th of November 2016 - we went down to have breakfast and found a big TV placed in the room for visitors to follow the american election. Trump had just been elected a few hours earlier while we were sleeping. It was such a surreal experience. We had just seen the most insane glaciers and were left with this burning feeling of seeing the consequences of climate change, and here was the next american president. A man notoriously known for calling climate change a “hoax”. Everyone was silent at the breakfast that morning. Almost like we were all mourning.
A bit thrown of by the election results we approached our last major sights on the trip; Fjaðrárgljúfur and the black sand beaches near Vík. Fun fact is that all of these spots appear in the music video “I’ll show you” by Justin Bieber. There are even guides to all the spots he visits make a quick google search and you will find different versions.
We first reached Fjaðrárgljúfur which is this massive canyon, about 100 meters deep and about two kilometres long. The canyon has sheer walls, and is somewhat narrow. The river Fjaðrá which floats in the middle of the canyon has its source in the mountain Geirlandshraun and falls off the heath edge in Fjaðrárgljúfur until it makes it down into Skaftá river.
The river Fjaðrá has changed a lot in the course of time. Today Fjaðrá is often rather low in water and therefore one can safely choose to walk inside the canyon as pictured. Most people like us, however, choose to walk along a walking path up on the canyon's righter edge while simultaneously enjoying the view above the canyon as seen on the next pictures.
Black sand beaches — the many spots
There is no doubt that the black sand beaches are a must do for most travellers going to Iceland. Seeing the black sand particles was alone big experience for me. The most famous spots to see the black sand are Reynisfjara, Reynisfjall, Renisdrangar and Dyrhólaey where it in one way or the other is the center of attention. I would go to all spots as they are all unique. But please be aware that the area around the cave Renisdrangar at Reynisfjara beach is quite dangerous due to the powerfull waves. Many underestimate how far up the waves reach and some have even been killed from being pulled back into the ocean. Its no joke.
The most obvious choice of accommodation is to stay at the nearby village called Vík which offers a handfull of hotels and inns.
The above photo is taken from the view point called ‘Dyrhólaey’. Dyrhólaey is this beautiful arch with a hole in the middle of it out in the ocean and its definitely worth seeing. But going up there you will also find this view, which for some reason appealed more to Kenneth and me. The endlessness of the black beach and the wild ocean. Many actually miss this spot and stay at the lower point on the beaches at spots. So when driving on the main road #1 or ring road direction east you should take a turn to the right to road 218. Drive that road to an end here you should make a right turn up the hill instead of going straight ahead as Dyrhólaey is divided into two parts i.e. the higher and lower part.
The end of one of my favorite travels of all time
With the black sand beaches as our last stop on this trip, we drove the last 2,5-3 hours back to Reykjavik and flew flight back home to Copenhagen early the following day.
There is no doubt that Iceland gained a piece of my heart and immediately became one of the best and most moving travel experiences (nature-wise) I’ve had in my entire life.
Kenneth and I are dreaming of going back at some point with even more time on our hands. Maybe a month or more over the summer in a van to explore all of the unknown and more remote places in Iceland.
Having seen Iceland both covered in snow and ‘uncovered’/ as green, I personally preferred the experiences I had when the landscape was green. The reason being that when everything is covered in snow you miss out on all the different textures and shades of colors in the landscape. Thus, I would personally recommend going in the months between late March - late November, however this obviously depends on what you want to see - e.g. the chances of seeing northern light is usually higher in the winter season.
There’s nothing left to say than; get your ass to Iceland. You won’t regret it. Safe travels!
— click this private link to get our favorite spots in google map —