There's no denying Iceland is having a moment right now. It seems everyone I know is going to, or has been to the land of fire and ice recently. We spent 2 weeks in Iceland this past August and it was nothing short of spectacular. While we didn't make it around the entire ring road, we certainly packed in a lot of adventure with two littles (6yo and 3yo) in tow. We all had a grand time.
Time away from the regular grind should be awe-inspiring (read about the science behind that claim) and there is no shortage in Iceland. At every turn you'll find something wild and beautiful. Nothing like you've ever seen, because there really is nowhere on earth that compares (geologically speaking). I'm no expert, but I thought I'd share a few of my top 5 tips for travelling in Iceland, just in case you're making the journey yourself for the first time.
It's a bit of a mish-mash, and I'm not going to tell you about the top sights or restaurants - there are tons of other great posts about those things (see resources way down below). Instead, here are a few tips that are a little different.
1 - GET OFF THE BEATEN PATH
There are countless places to seen off the beaten path. Iceland is fascinatingly full of natural wonder and "secret" places you can have to yourself. At least, for a little while. You'll need a vehicle (likely a 4x4), but it's worth the trek. Don't be afraid to veer off the Golden Circle route and explore some little known gems in the area. Bring a picnic too!
The same goes for any part of the country. Whether you head to the south or east coasts, or around the entire island, wonders are yours to discover. Definitely, go west (see tip 4). Just be sure you don't take F-Roads unless authorized by your car rental provider.
- Brurafoss Falls - These elusive icy blue falls are tricky to find, but worth the trek and just minutes off the Golden Circle. This short hike was one of the highlights of our trip because we were the only ones there. Here are the best directions.
- Gjain Valley + Haifoss Falls - Past Fludir, head east to the magical land of Gjain. Another tricky spot to find. It's named one of the most beautiful spots in Iceland. Here are the best directions. If you've made it this far, you may as well visit the jaw-dropping Haifoss falls as well. Here are more directions!
- Fjaðrárgljúfur Canyon - Heading east? After you pass the curious and mossy Eldhraun lava fields, be sure to make a stop at this majestic canyon with a calm river that meanders through it. This otherworldly sight is a must visit.
- Gljúfrabúi Falls - You'll no doubt visit Seljalandsfoss as you drive the ring road, but don't overlook Gljúfrabúi falls. Just a mere 600m from Seljalandsfoss, it's slightly hidden and often missed. Do the extra walk and you won't be disappointed. How often do you get to enter a cave and walk directly under a cascade of water?
- Vestmannaeyjar Islands - Do you have an extra day or two to relax? If so, head to the Vestmannaeyjar islands for a slow-paced visit to a beautiful collection of volcanic islands with an intriguing history. Some of the country's most idyllic hikes, best restaurants and friendliest people can be found here.
2 - EMBRACE WATER
In Iceland, there is water, water everywhere. For us, it became a consistent theme throughout our trip. Whether we were chasing waterfalls (too many to count) or bathing in the the country's warm community pools or lagoons. Much of Iceland's water comes from natural geothermal sources and it's as pure as you'll ever find.
Don't buy bottled water! You can drink from the tap the entire time you're there. Just bring a re-useable bottle.
The choice is yours, you can wade in natural hot pots and rivers, old lagoons or brand-new community pools with plenty of room to wallow and even slide. They're inviting and warm all year round. The pool is to Iceland, as the pub is to Britain - a place to de-stress and enjoy conversation with your neighbours and friends. Here is a great list of top swimming experiences Iceland. And more specifically with kids, here is another list.
Just remember, you're required to have a full shower with soap (naked), unless you want to be stared at in the pool. It's a huge faux-pas to not shower beforehand. Chlorine is almost non-existent in Iceland. Do your part and keep the water clean.
- Blue Lagoon - While it's the largest (busiest) attraction in Iceland, you can't come to Iceland without taking a dip in the Blaa Lonid. The images of serene blue water are probably what peeked your interest in Iceland in the first place. Go! Enjoy. It's as dreamy as it looks.
- Secret Lagoon - Just off the Golden Circle route in Fludir you'll find one of Iceland's oldest and original community pools. Taking pride in providing a natural experience, Gamla Laugin, still has all the amenities you would find at a posh pool. Float around looking for natural hot spots while watching bubbling geysirs. There's also a wonderful bakery in town for a treat after (just look for the signs).
- Seljavellir - Nestled in a narrow valley in the shadow of the infamous Eyjafjallajökull volcano, this is the oldest swimming pool in Iceland. Take a short hike through a valley where you'll be treated with this humble warm pool tucked amongst the mountains. Here are directions.
- Reykjadalur Hot River - Take a short hike and wade in a hot river. Yes, that's right! Pack your suit and towel and experience the real Iceland. Here are directions.
- Community Pools - From Reykjavik to Hofn and every small town in between, you'll find some of the loveliest community pools. It's a civic right to have a well-appointed pool in your community in Iceland. They're warm, clean, and fun (slides!). It's the best way to experience Icelandic life. Not sure where to go? Just look for a sign with a head above wavy lines in any town, and you've found the pool.
Laugardalslaug is the largest pool in Reykjavik and worth a visit. It's also part of the city's largest park complete with botanical gardens and a dreamy cafe. And a zoo with epic playground! Make an afternoon of it. Here is a complete list of pools in the Reykjavik area. The one in the Vestmannaeyjar islands was our favourite, complete with various slides and a climbing wall. Here is another great list of the best community pools across the country.
3 - LIVE LIKE A LOCAL
While staying in Iceland, live like a local and rent apartments or rooms through booking sites like AirBnb. This will undoubtedly give you a peek into local life and provide a comfortable stay. Places are available across the country. From cabins to farmstays, you'll experience the real Iceland and meet friendly locals.
You've probably heard, Iceland is expensive. It's true. You'll feel the pinch most when eating out, which you should definitely do (it's worth it). However, if your accommodation has cooking facilities you can save some money by shopping locally at grocery stores like Kronan. Buy local seafood, lamb, cheese/dairy and other goodies so you don't feel like you're missing out. Bakeries are tremendous with loads of local sweet treats. They also offer very reasonably priced sandwiches to pack for road trips or picnics. For wine and beer, head to the Vínbúðin shops for the best prices. We're Canadian and didn't find the prices of groceries and liquor to be that much more than home. You'll notice a lack of fresh produce though. Remember how far north you really are!
As mentioned above in tip 2, one of the best ways to experience Iceland is through its pools. To understand Iceland's water culture, read here.
- Bakeries - Delicious and resonably priced. Bakeries are the best way to stay on a budget and treat yourself to something local. Try the kleinur (twisted donuts) and cakes. Just try it all. Sandwiches for picnics are a "steal" at local bakeries.
- Hot Dogs - When in Iceland, do as the locals do and try pylsur with everything on it. These aren't your typical North American hot dogs. Local, free-range lamb and pork hot dogs are served with ketchup, sweet mustard, remoulade and crispy onions. One isn't enough (they're small), so save yourself lining up twice and get two. You might want to pick up Icelandic mustard to take home from Kronan. It's so tasty!
- Dairy - Icelander's are proud of their dairy, and rightfully so. Try the skyr (yogurt) and ice cream. It's the best you'll ever have. Well-crafted and pure, Icelandic dairy farms are still small and it shows in the outstanding products.
- Seafood - Iceland is surrounded by the sea making it an ideal place to try seafood. Salmon, cured fish, lobster and langoustine. Seek what your heart desires and you'll not be disappointed.
- Music - Sure, you know Bjork is from Iceland; but did you know that Of Monsters of Men, Kaleo and Sigur Rios are products of this proudly creative country as well? Listen local.
- Design - Like other Nordic countries, Icelanders have an innate sense of design which I can only assume comes from a culture that has boundless inspiration from its natural surroundings. Of course, they also greatly support the arts and design.
Just look at the Harpa Concert Hall and Hallgrímskirkja Church in Reykjavik, where inspiration comes from the basalt columns found throughout Iceland. Visit the country's many sculpture gardens, galleries and design shops. They are well-curated and inspiring. You might even find something to take home.
4 - GO WEST
Many travellers arriving in Iceland head straight for the Golden Circle (after the Blue Lagoon). In keeping with tip 1; why not head the other direction and go West to the Snaelfellsnes Pensisula, or even further to the West Fjords? Visit a glacier, see charming fishing towns, countless waterfalls, secret hot pots, and take in coastal views (dramatic cliffs to rolling beaches). All in one day.
The paths are less traveled, but equally stunning. It's a nice quiet way to ease into your time in Iceland if you have more than a few days. Some of these sights are only one hour from Reykjavik. It's easy to explore something different even if you're short on time. Here's a a great guide.
- Glymur - Iceland's second tallest waterfall is within reach with this quick, but stunning hike. Here is a guide.
- Kirkjufell - Iceland's most photographed mountain is on the Snaelfellsnes Pensisula. Complete with waterfalls that have a remarkable view of the mountain, it's postcard perfect. Plus, the drive to the falls is breathtaking. You'll spot waterfalls dropping off nearly every cliff in sight. It's magical.
- Branafoss + Hraunfossar - Take a detour to see this set of famous falls near Husafell. A collection of countless creeks and cascades small and big streaming out of the lava over a distance of about 900 metres.
5 - STAY CONNECTED
It's fun to get lost, but you don't have to! Stay connected with wireless spots (including IN your car rental provider) to find directions and stay connected with hosts and friends.
If you plan to venture to the back country, always register with Safe Travel. Even in the best conditions, Iceland can be unpredictable so it's a good idea. Plus, it's a great place to stay up-to-date with any alerts that may affect your adventurous plans.
That's all, swell friends. Simply put, it was a dream come true. We'd been dreaming of a visit for years and we finally had a chance. I could go on and on about Iceland. Perhaps, I'll do another post in the future and break some spots down in more detail.
Thanks to great resources like Unlocking Kiki, Guide to Iceland, I Heart Reykjavik and the Reyjavik Grapevine for guiding us through our trip full of spontaneous adventures.