Road Trip: 7 Days in South Iceland
I’ve been sifting though photos since we returned from Iceland about two weeks ago, trying to do this amazing country the justice it deserves. Photo editing is a tricky thing — there’s always something that could be tweaked further to more closely match the rich colors that we saw and the vast wilderness that we experienced. But I realize it may not be possible to communicate all of that through a lens, so it might just be something you need to experience for yourself.
So today, I thought I’d share with you the details of our trip in case Iceland has found it’s way into your heart on onto your short list of places to visit, as well.
It all started when we found a flight deal through Scott’s Cheap Flights, a newsletter we subscribe to regularly, but hadn’t found anything worth pulling the trigger on until this offer arrived in Brian’s inbox. It outlined a cost of $370 per person (round trip) to Iceland if we spent a week or more in England first. Traveling around Thanksgiving would give us the flexibility we needed to be able to jet off for two weeks. And so, we booked.
Now, we knew from our research that our days would be short because Iceland’s geographic location leaves the country with very short days in the winter and very long days in the summer. However, hopeful that we’d be able to see the northern lights and eager to travel during off-season to avoid the crowds, we decided it was worth the sacrifice of daylight hours.
I actually found that this worked out relatively well. Many of the hotels served breakfast, and by the time we had eaten it was about 9:30 am and the sun was beginning to rise. At first it felt strange, but we quickly grew used to making the most of the daylight hours that we had.
Now that we have those logistics out of the way, let’s talk itinerary. Weather in Iceland is notoriously unpredictable, so while a summer itinerary encourages driving the Ring Road (the one main highway that circles the country), we doubted our ability to drive it safely with the timeframe winter offered. After some research, we opted for driving just the southern portion. Here are the details of how that unfolded:
Day 1 — Reykjavik
We landed at the Keflavík Airport around 5pm and headed over to the duty free store to pick up a SIM card for Brian’s unlocked cell phone — thus giving us the ability to navigate around the country. Money well spent. Next, we took the shuttle to pick up our rental car. We were really happy with the Suzuki Jimny 4x4 we rented through SADCars. We were also grateful for the studded tires in the sometimes snowy conditions.
From there we headed to Centerhotel Klopp in Reykjavik to check-in for the night. Eating out in Iceland is notoriously expensive, so we opted for hot dogs (widely available and pretty much the nation’s version of fast food) at the semi-famous Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur stand, and fries from Reykjavik Chips. (And before you ask, no, this was not a good vacation for eating gluten free.) It wasn’t the healthiest meal, but after a day of travel it hit the spot and we were ready to call it a night.
Day 2 — Blue Lagoon
If there was one thing that I refused to leave Iceland without experiencing, it was visiting the Blue Lagoon, so we decided to make that our first priority. We made a noontime reservation (it was highly recommended to book in advance) and despite the freezing cold air, I loved soaking in the geothermal water. It’s crystal blue color (a result of the mix of silica, algae, and minerals), contrasting black lava rock, and eerie steam made for a spa unlike anything I’ve ever experienced. It’s safe to say the prosecco included with our visit didn’t hurt either, making this one of my favorite parts of the trip.
After we had taken all of our photos and felt sufficiently prune-y, we showered off and headed to our Airbnb.
Day 3 — Geysir, Gullfoss, and Þingvellir National Park
Now this might just be one of the cutest Airbnbs I’ve ever stayed in. I loved its tiny footprint, modern architecture, and of course, its hot tub. It also included a small kitchen so we were able to stop at the Bonus (grocery store) in Selfoss and cook for ourselves to keep costs down.
The next day we explored the Golden Circle, which included Geysir, Gullfoss, and Þingvellir National Park. We were a bit underwhelmed with Geysir, having visited Yellowstone before, which had more impressive and frequent eruptions. However, Gullfoss, in all its frozen beauty and grandeur, was a sight to behold. The national park was also well worth the visit as it holds a lot of historical significance for the country, as well as a stunningly beautiful frozen landscape.
Day 4 — Travel Day
Next came our most driving-intensive day of the trip as we headed to Vatnajökull National Park. However, I knew it was well-worth the effort when we pulled up to Fosshotel Glacier Lagoon. This place is seemingly located in the middle of nowhere, but its modern architecture, black and white exterior, and equally beautiful interior made me feel right at home. Coupled with the amazing spread they had for breakfast (included in the cost of our room), I was in my happy place.
Day 5 — Vatnajökull National Park
I mentioned that the weather in Iceland could be unpredictable, so I shouldn’t have been surprised when the winds were strong enough to nearly blow us off the road. Our original intent was to do a glacier hike during our time there; however, we decided on ice caving instead when our lovely hotel receptionist informed us that the glacier hike would likely be cancelled. We opted for the basic ice caving expedition with Local Guide and were happy we did. We usually prefer venturing out on our own as opposed to tours, but in this instance we saw a part of the glacier and caves that we never would have found otherwise.
Our tour ended in the early afternoon and we debated what to do with our few remaining hours of daylight. On a whim, we decided to explore further down the road (again, there’s pretty much one main highway in Iceland), and happened upon these amazing glacial lagoons, icebergs, and seals splashing around in the water. I couldn’t believe our luck. As we drove back to the hotel that night, the supermoon was rising — there aren’t words to describe how incredible it all was.
Day 6 — Vik
The next day we checked in to Icelandair Hotel Vik. If you stay there, be sure to book a room in the new wing of the hotel. Our room was in the older wing of the building that looked as if it was tacked on, and we were extremely unimpressed given that it was roughly the same cost for rather lackluster accommodations. Based on the interior design of the lobby, I think being in the new wing could make or break your stay if you’re one that delights in aesthetics (as I am).
As our tour guide from the previous day informed us, “It’s always raining in Vik.” Whelp, he was right on that one. Our plan for Vik was to see the popular black sand beaches and hike to the DC 3 plane wreckage. Given the weather, we instead made a quick stop at the beach, did some shopping, and headed out for dinner. We had an amazing meal at Sudur Vik that night, and I’d highly recommend you make it a part of your visit. Afterwards, we cozied up at the hotel bar for a nightcap.
Day 7 — Keflavík
On our final day we drove back towards Reykjavik to do some shopping (we had been on the hunt for an Icelandic wool blanket) and grab a bite to eat. We had amazing blue cheese burgers at Vitabar before heading to our Airbnb near the Keflavík Airport (this wasn’t especially noteworthy as far as accommodations go so I’ve purposely left this one unlinked).
Now, according to NASA, our last night was our best chance of seeing the northern lights. While I do think we saw a wisp of them, they weren’t the impressive bands of color you see in photographs. I guess we’ll just have to come back one day. ;)
What you should know:
- Credit cards are widely accepted in Iceland (even at the public restrooms) so there’s no real need to carry cash around. In fact, we never took cash out of the ATM while we were there.
- Liquor stores in Iceland are controlled by the government. From what I read, it's about 50% less expensive if purchased at the airport’s duty free store. Pick up a bottle in duty free either before you get on the plane or in the airport when you land to keep costs down. You’ll see locals doing this too.
- The days in Iceland are very short in the winter. When we were there at the end of November, the sun would rise around 9:30 am and set around 4:30 pm. Plan accordingly.
- Do your research regarding insurance for your car rental. We heard horror stories of people being dinged for every little thing and opted for additional insurance during our stay (not something we normally do).
- Hot dogs are surprisingly popular in Iceland, and essentially the country’s version of fast food. They’re also a great option while you’re on the road exploring. Our favorite was Pylsuvagninn in Selfoss.
The weather in Iceland can change in an instant and the road conditions are heavily monitored because of that. Always check road.is before heading out.