Before visiting Iceland, I had envisioned grey, foggy landscapes with volcanic rock covered in snow year-round and engraved with hot springs. While Iceland is famous for its hot springs and is indeed a sparsely populated country, its landscape is actually quite varied and has a lot to offer its many tourists from rolling green landscapes decorated with tall waterfalls, to gigantic mountains topped with glaciers tens of thousands of years old.
When visiting Iceland, there are two major options for planning an activity itinerary. The most popular option is to base yourself out of Reykjavík, the seaside capital of Iceland that is located on the west edge of the island, and travel out and back each day to some of the many incredible sights that usually require less than a day’s worth of travel from the main city, including the Golden Circle (a road that loops around the center of the island and includes several touristy, must-see sights).
Alternatively, if you have more time and a stronger desire to explore the island away from the typical touristy sights near Reykjavík, you can travel the Ring Road, a road that circles around the coast of the whole island and requires that you either rent a small camper van to sleep in or plan ahead of time by strategically pre-booking lodging around the island along your journey.
The Ring Road unofficially requires at least eight days to make it worth while to get in some sights along the way and since we “only” had six days in Iceland, we opted to station ourselves in Reykjavík the entire time and make our way out of town each day to see the sights.
Day 1 – Sleeping, eating expensive food, and hot springs
After an incredibly long, dramatic, and restless 10-hour direct flight from Denver, hubby and I finally arrived in Iceland, our first destination of our 2-week European vacation.
It was 6 o-freaking-clock in the A.M. (yawn!) and our first order of business was checking into our Airbnb in Reykjavík, 45 minutes away from the airport. Hubby questioned my decision to book our Iceland apartment an extra day early in order to check in the morning we arrived and thought we should have saved some cash and started exploring the island right away; however, in the battle of extra sleep vs. excitement to see the island on the first day we arrived, extra sleep won by a long shot! We were both insanely tired after the long flight, long drive from the airport, and lengthy ordeal to locate the apartment in downtown Reykjavík along the harbor.
After a 7-hour “nap” (which still didn’t feel like enough rest), we had our first taste of how expensive the food was in Iceland. We felt confident that we would not be shocked by the supposedly expensive meals in Iceland — since we were coming from a big city ourselves — but sure enough, the prices just about knocked our socks off! $40 USD for 3 tacos at one food establishment and $15 USD for a happy hour cocktail at another food establishment. We pouted, but eventually caved and enjoyed our $25 salmon and $25 burger (with the best waffles fries I couldn’t get out of my head the whole trip!) so we could move on to exploring.
One of the best perks of visiting Iceland in the summer was that sunset was around 10 pm and sunrise around 5 am, which translated to many hours of sunlight and exploring. Even though we were leaving the restaurant around 5 pm, we still had time left to do something other than blow $80 on food… and guess what, our first activity was free!
We decided to visit some hot springs that were about an hour outside Reykjavík, called the Reykjadalur Hot Springs and Thermal River. A steep, one-hour hike was required to get to the thermal river you could lay in, but it was a good way to get in a dual-activity of exercise and relaxation.
Iceland Fun Fact #1 – much of the landscape outside Reykjavík is actually very flat and bare. There are no trees or bushes; just volcanic rock covered in moss. Visiting the Reykjadalur Valley was a nice assurance that all of Iceland wasn’t going to be boring, flat volcanic rock. Not only that, you could turn a corner and unsuspectingly run into the most grand, tiered waterfalls, or even just random small ones. I’m a sucker for water, especially waterfalls, so this place was magical!
Not so surprising, we met our first Icelandic sheep during our hike. At first we could only hear them “baa’ing” in the far distance, hidden in the hills by the fog, but once we started looking closely enough, we could see them densely dotting the green valley all around us with white and black. I had assumed that the sheep would be fearless and let us get close, but most times when they were close enough to snap a photo of, they would ungraciously scurry off, sometimes with clumps of dirty wool trailing behind them. Needless to say, we have many photos of sheep butts.
The valley had several hot springs that we could spot from a distance due to the steam rising out of them. Most of them were much too hot to get in, as evidence by the milky sulfur bubbles boiling to the surface, but some we might have never suspected without the warning signs!
When we arrived at the geothermal river, it was not shocking to see quite a few people still soaking in it at the late hour we had arrived. Although there are supposedly many hot springs in Iceland, most are probably not the right temperature for bathing in or not quite as close to the main city of Reykjavík.
We decided to keep hiking past the thermal river, hoping to find a less-visited waterfall that hubby had read about. We had thought that we would be able to lay in a quiet, hot, relaxing pool beneath the waterfall, but the water ended up being very chilly and much too shallow. As it turns out though, the only reason the thermal river down the valley below this waterfall is a perfect temperature is because it is a confluence where a hot river merges with a cold river.
Even though the waterfall was not very grand, the extra little hike afforded us some great views of the valley below. As a bonus, by the time we walked back to the thermal river, there were less people around, so we had a better shot of trying to find a spot to lay in the river that wasn’t only two inches deep.
We spent about 30 minutes soaking in the luke warm water of the thermal river and hiked out of the Reykjadalur Valley around 10 pm. There was still just enough light to take in a few glimpses of the mystical, foggy, green valley before we hopped in our vehicle for our long drive back.
Day 2 – South coast touring
On day two, we reluctantly woke up at noon… and so began the vicious cycle of us waking up late, staying out late, and waking up late yet again; this cycle pretty much went on for our entire vacation.
The one perk of waking up late was that there was one less expensive meal we had to try to buy. On the other hand though, I still desperately needed a latte. Eager to get on the road and start our activity for the day, we ate a quick breakfast in the apartment and left the city in search of a coffee shop along our route.
Iceland Fun Fact #2 – coffee shops are hard to find outside of Reykjavík! We ended up driving almost an hour outside of Reykjavík before we ran into a real coffee shop with espresso beverages. After fueling up on coffee and getting another small bite to eat, we were ready to start exploring the south coast.
Although I had thought our hot spring hike the night before was beautiful, I still wasn’t that impressed with Iceland until we began our drive this second day. The roadside scenery of the south coast was so incredible!
Our first stop was Dyrhólaey, a small peninsula that leads out to views of a rocky arch formation in the sea. We had read reviews that the drive up to the parking lot was only for 4WD vehicles, but before I finished yelling at hubby to stop racing up the hairpin turns of this rocky road in our 2WD vehicle, we had already arrived at the top of the trail and safely parked.
It was a good thing, too, that we had been able to drive up the road to the overlook, because the hike up it would have been a long and somewhat boring one and we were already pressed for time to see all our planned sights along the south coast.
And as it turns out, the views from the top of this peninsula were the see-and-go kind and not worth a long hike in my opinion. We snapped some pics of the expansive mountain views behind us, the black sand beach below us, the rocky formation not far out in the sea in front of us, and the old church-looking lighthouse beside us, and we were on our way!
Our next stop was Reynisfjara Black Sand Beach, which definitely wasn’t the kind of beach you pull out a beach towel to lay on while sipping on a piña colada, but this moody beach was very fun to explore with its tall basalt rock formations and sea stacks pointing out of the ocean not far from the beach.
By the time we finished exploring the Reynisfjara Black Sand Beach, it was already getting late in the day. I had hopes of visiting Svartifoss, a waterfall with a unique backdrop of tall black lava columns, much like those at the Reynisfjara Black Sand Beach, but this waterfall was almost two hours away, which would have put us over four hours away from getting back to our Airbnb, not counting the additional tourist sights that we still wanted to visit on our way back. Sadly, we had to scratch this sight off our list.
Iceland Fun Fact #3 – free public bathrooms are scarce at the tourist attractions in Iceland. Our only bathroom stop this day was at the coffee shop at the start of our road trip… before gulping down two glasses of water and my tasty swiss mocha latte. While Reynisfjara had public bathrooms, they were paid restrooms and no way was this girl going to spend $2 to pee when that money could go towards a $15 happy hour cocktail. So we hit the road back to Reykjavík, hoping to find free restrooms at one of our next stops half an hour away.
Tired of all the touristy places we had been to on this day, we couldn’t help make a couple of small detours along the way to our next official stop — once to snap a photo next to the glacier water runoff right beside the road and another time to do a short 1-minute hike to a waterfall that was not far off the road. It felt nice to pretend for a moment that we were adventurous travelers winging our road trip and discovering hidden gems rather than visiting all the obligatory, crowded tourist sights along the south coast.
Our final stops for the day were popular waterfalls you could easily walk up to including Skógafoss, a wide and tall waterfall; Seljalandsfoss, a tall waterfall you could walk behind; and Gljúfrabúifoss, a waterfall hidden behind a narrow canyon. We had strategized visiting these waterfalls later in the day so they would be less crowded, but they were still quite busy.
Despite the annoyance of the tourists, it was a unique experience to be visiting waterfalls at 9 o’clock at night to conclude our abbreviated tour of the south coast.
Day 3 – Glymur waterfall hike
Per usual, we woke up on the third day very late in the morning and contemplated what we would have time to do. I had been feverishly planning all the sights we had seen the previous day, so it was a nice surprise when hubby came up with a suggestion that actually sounded like a good one: hiking to Glymur waterfall, the second largest waterfall in Iceland.
Before we hit the road up north for our hike, we had one errand to take care of: getting bottled water. Iceland Fun Fact #4 – the water in Iceland smells really bad. I had read prior to our trip that we could expect the water in Iceland to be very sulfurous and smell like an egg fart, but it still took me by surprise that even the shower and faucet water smelled bad, particularly the hot water. While it was a naive, touristy thing to pay for bottled water in Iceland, I couldn’t help but be turned off by drinking smelly tap water, even if the cold water wasn’t so smelly. It was bad enough showering and brushing teeth with the water!
We did all of our grocery shopping in one of the only grocery store chains that Iceland has called Bónus. I chuckled every time I saw the logo to this store. Nothing says grocery store like a creepy pig that looks like it’s on drugs. So we had our laughs, bought some touristy bottled water, and hit the road!
Along the hour-long drive, we spotted some Icelandic ponies and I demanded that hubby stop. We had seen plenty of them around Iceland during our initial two days, but they were never in areas that we could pull off to. This time, not only could we pull off, but the ponies were in front a beautiful, classic Iceland backdrop.
When we arrived at the trailhead parking lot for Glymur, I felt a bit disappointed starting our hike and seeing two unimpressive waterfalls in the far distance, one of which was possibly the waterfall we were ultimately hiking to.
Luckily, the waterfall we were hiking to turned out to be an entirely different one that couldn’t be seen until we hiked through a cave and crossed a river.
The waterfall was an extraordinary sight to see from top to bottom and pouring down the narrow, mossy canyon with hundreds of birds swirling above. The hike itself was equally as impressive. If the touristy “walk-up” waterfalls were putting us to sleep, this one definitely woke us up!
We had not read reviews of the hike before tackling it, but after the fact, it was interesting that most hikers seemed to dismiss this as a moderate, no-big-deal hike. Hubby and I have done some hair-raising hikes, including Mooney Falls in Arizona, Angel’s Landing in Utah, and Kalepa Ridge in Hawaii and this hike definitely ranks up there with the best of them. Nonetheless, every intimidating ridge overlook we reached that brought us closer and closer to the waterfall was more exciting than the last.
It didn’t seem possible that we would ever reach the top of this powerful and stunning waterfall, where the obligatory thing to do was tread across the top of it and loop back down the other side of the canyon, but two hours and many, many, many photos later, we were finally there, calf-deep and crossing the top of this giant, beautiful beast.
Even though the hike took us a whopping four hours to complete and it was filled with many visitors on the trail, it was worth every minute. This ended up being one of our favorite sights on our trip, and as a bonus, we finished early enough to be able to enjoy a nice dinner in Reykjavík at normal dining hours.
Day 4 – Golden Circle sightseeing
On our fourth day, hubby slept in while I woke up early, stressing about putting together an itinerary for the day. We were going to get another late start on the day, but it didn’t seem like it would hinder our plan for the day, which was to visit the sights along the popular Golden Circle route.
Our first stop was to visit a less-traveled stop to a waterfall called Þórufoss. The waterfall was indeed so much less popular than other waterfalls that it only had six parking spots, but the waterfall was still impressive. The hike to get to it was a steep down climb, which is the only thing I could blame for the lack of crowds.
After a short visit to this waterfall, I wandered off to a waterfall in the distance that ended up not being worth the extra trek.
And onward we continued to our next stop, Þingvellir National Park.
I am normally not a big fan of national parks because they are often crowded and overrated… and Þingvellir National Park was no exception.
Þingvellir is an interesting geological site because it’s where two continental plates meet and it’s one of the only places in the world where you can actually see this above ground.
Despite how intriguing the natural history of this area is, I only had interest in one sight, Silfra, a deep fissure in the ground where the two plates meet that is filled with crystal clear glacial water. Snorkeling tours are a popular activity at Silfra and I had debated whether we should splurge and book this once-in-a-lifetime activity, but decided swimming in freezing water to see a bunch of rocks and no sea life didn’t seem like a worthwhile activity.
We made Þingvellir a stop on our Golden Circle tour, thinking that it would just be a quick see-and-go for this one activity, Silfra, but it ended up being the most underwhelming and wasteful activity we did in all of Iceland.
We made the mistake of walking a long distance to Silfra fissure, as well as to an interesting waterfall we spotted far away, not knowing that we could just drive to these sights that were spread pretty far apart. Not only was it frustrating to waste an hour walking around on boring paved paths through the park, but the amount of tourists at this park was overwhelming.
In the end, I was at least very glad we had not chosen to do the snorkeling at Silfra. It looked like the biggest tourist trap with huge groups of people dressed head to toe in black dry suits, waiting a long time to get their turn to go into the cold water that didn’t contain anything interesting that you couldn’t already see from above the ground.
Due to this national park tour taking longer than planned, we decided to cross off all the other quick touristy stops on our Golden Circle tour for the day and skip to the one activity we knew would be promising, Brúarfoss waterfall. Brúarfoss is not a grand waterfall by any means, but it has unreal blue water that pours over contrasting black volcanic rock. Oh là là!
Brúarfoss sits on private land and in the recent years, has dealt with an overwhelming amount of visitors parking where they shouldn’t and not respecting the trail. We had read rumors that the trail was closed indefinitely right before our trip and this was so disappointing because I had looked forward to it so much. We decided we would try to locate it anyway and see if it was true that it was closed.
Fortunately, the hike was not closed and rather the area that people were illegally parking at previously was closed and contained new gated access for the residents only. We had a lot of difficulty locating the correct parking lot for the trail head, but eventually found the correct area that is downstream from the Brúará river and by the road bridge — which is incidentally and conveniently labeled on Google Maps as “Bruarfoss Waterfall Official Parking”.
At the start of the hike, one would never imagine that there are blue waterfalls hidden two and half miles into the uneventful and plain landscape of this hike.
There are supposedly three waterfalls worth seeing on this hike, but we were only able to find Brúarfoss, the most popular one, and another smaller one downstream, Miðfoss. The third one, Hlauptungufoss, was supposedly further downstream from Miðfoss but signs indicated “no trespassing” due to private property, and by that point we were running out of time to keep exploring and decided to head back.
In fact, we were running so behind on time that we decided to run the entire 2.5 miles back to our vehicle. We really wanted to get back to town by 10 pm for a date with some fish and chips at the Reykjavik Fish Restaurant below our Airbnb apartment. Priorities!
Although I was very bummed we had wasted so much time walking around Þingvellir National Park earlier that day, which could have been better spent exploring Brúarfoss, I was so glad we had the opportunity to visit Brúarfoss and it wasn’t closed after all. Brúarfoss ended up topping our list as one of three best sights on our Iceland trip.
Day 5 – Secret waterfall hike
Day five was our last full day in Iceland and although I woke up very early researching what we would do for the day, we still didn’t get out of the apartment until around noon time due to indecisiveness on what activity we would do.
I really wanted to visit a place called Gjáin in the central highlands and about two hours away from Reykjavík. Gjáin is supposedly an unreal, magical, fairytale-like place situated in a beautiful canyon and adorned with none other than a stunning waterfall flowing through the green canyon. Unfortunately, the road to Gjáin supposedly required a 4WD vehicle and we only had a 2WD vehicle. On the other hand, some reviewers said the trail was just really bumpy and they were able to drive it just fine in a 2WD.
I contemplated all morning whether we should attempt this trip and in the meantime, happened to come across a photo of a waterfall in Iceland I had saved on my social media from long before our trip. The waterfall was close to Reykjavík and not well known. In fact, it was so unknown to most, that directions to find it were also elusive. Eventually I was able to find how to get there and it ended up being an easy decision to drop the idea of visiting Gjáin in order to visit this beautiful waterfall.
The visit to this waterfall ended up being one of our favorite, if not our absolute favorite activity, of our whole trip, mainly because it was so incredible having this surreal place all to ourselves; as such, in the spirit of keeping it that way for future visitors, I have no desire to reveal its location.
Before we visited Iceland, I had no idea that the country would be so touristy and crowded, which is kind of what you get when you stay in the capital of Reykjavík and don’t travel far from the main city; but by day five of our trip, I was ready to be done with Iceland and move on to our next stop, the Faroe Islands, in hopes it would be a lot more remote and less touristy.
I was so grateful for this last activity we did that changed my feelings about our visit to Iceland. Visiting this stunning waterfall that was hidden down a valley covered from cliff edge to floor with grass and moss on a misty, overcast day felt like the perfect, classic activity to leave in our thoughts as we said our last goodbyes to Iceland.
With our hearts full and our boots heavy from our amazing rainy waterfall hike, we headed back to town. Even though I didn’t think I could possibly tolerate another touristy activity on Iceland, we still had one more touristy, cliche thing left on our agenda that we couldn’t get out of: the Blue Lagoon.
We booked the Blue Lagoon, a geothermal spa featuring incredible blue water, prior to our trip because the time slots often book up. We also tried to save a little bit of money on the pricey reservation by booking a later time slot at 9 pm. While I was fully aware that the Blue Lagoon is a pricey, sometimes overrated, and stinky (it smells heavily of sulfur!) tourist trap and isn’t even a natural hot spring, I didn’t regret spending time there… and yes, that’s coming from someone who was ready to book an early flight out of Iceland after dealing with all the touristy crowds and sights.
The Blue Lagoon was a welcome activity for us to finally relax after all our non-stop sightseeing and hiking. If we ever returned to Iceland, I would still visit the Blue Lagoon again and save it for our last day to unwind.
Day 6 – Saying goodbye to Iceland
Our flight out of Iceland to the Faroe Islands on our last day wasn’t scheduled to leave until 7:35 pm; however, the day before, we had realized one very important detail about our itinerary. Our flight to the Faroe Islands was not leaving out of the Keflavík International Airport where we had arrived, but instead, out of the Reykjavík Domestic Airport.
Coincidentally, the Reykjavík Domestic Airport was no more than 10 minutes walking distance from our Reykjavík Airbnb, but we had to figure out how to return our rental car to the Keflavík International Airport, 45 minutes outside of Reykjavík and then return back to the city.
While we felt frustrated that we hadn’t noticed this detail sooner and planned better, I’m not sure we could have done anything differently in hindsight. It was just a good thing we noticed this small detail about the airports or we would have never left Iceland at all, particularly because flights to the Faroe Islands only leave on certain days.
This put a bit of a monkey wrench in our plans, especially since we wanted to take advantage of having to check out of the Airbnb by 10 am (the earliest by far that we had been up in the morning) by squeezing in one last road trip.
We had yet to really explore downtown Reykjavík and the harbor, so we decided to take it easy (after our mad dash to pack and be out the door by 10 am) by strolling around the city a bit, relaxing at a coffee shop, and having a quick lunch before hubby headed off on his long, solo adventure to return the car and catch a bus back to Reykjavík.
Meanwhile, I stayed at the Reykjavík Domestic Airport for hours counting down the hours until we could finally see the place that I had been yearning to see much more than Iceland.
Up next, the magical Faroe Islands!