If you haven't read it yet, check out Part One: The North!
I’ll admit: I enjoyed the northern parts of Iceland far more than the south.
Something about the north gave me this fulfilling feeling like I was traversing another planet and discovering all these places that most people will never see. So many of the stops we made didn’t show up in any advertisements or top ten blog posts and to me, that made it feel really special and unique.
The south had a very different vibe. In many cases, the hot spots were overrun with snapshot tourists and their giant buses. It felt closer in experience to visiting the Statue of Liberty than it did another planet.
This, of course, makes sense when you consider that most of these places are an easy day trip from Reykjavik. No long road trips necessary, no need to stock up on food; you’ll be back before dinner time. Not unlike visiting the Statue of Liberty.
If you look up popular excursions in Iceland, that first one that pops up is usually the Golden Circle. A quick half-day trip with a tour company will take you around to see some waterfalls and other miscellaneous sights and get you back to town for an all-inclusive price.
But if you travel like we do, then you know you’ll be disappointed if you follow the path of the tourist. Beyond the Golden Circle, you can leave the well-worn tour bus paths behind and set out on your own course of discovery.
To use the map, simply zoom in and click on the area you're interested in to see more details. When viewed in full screen mode, you can choose which layers you'd like to see (directions, information, etc.).
GOLDEN CIRCLE — JOKULSARLON — BLUE LAGOON
By Google: 7h, 7m / 540 km
In Reality: 3-5 Full Days
What You Will See:
Waterfalls (so many waterfalls)
Geo-thermal hot springs
Towns with Hella cool names
A plane wreck
Black sand beaches
Sheer cliffs with great views
Quaint fishing towns
What You Might See:
A ferry ride to an island
THE GOLDEN CIRCLE (but better!)
1 Full Day
Yes, I realize that I just told you to avoid the Golden Circle and now I’m adding it into this trip as if that never happened. But I find that despite the notion of avoiding tourist hot spots, curiosity will always get the best of us. So the question is less about how do we avoid it but how can we reduce it?
Not to worry, you will still see everything the Golden Circle tour would give you but with some surprises you would be crazy to miss.
The key to the golden circle is to get there before the tour buses do. Some even say to do the tour in reverse to arrive when the others have left but I’ve always felt better about hitting the road at sunrise. The buses start their engines around 8 or 9 AM so the simple solution is to start yours sooner. This will get you a solid 2 or 3 hours of slower paced sight seeing.
Not only that, but this mentality also opens up a lot more possibilities for detours and impromptu photoshoots throughout the day — and trust me, there will be plenty.
So prep your lunches the night before and get a good night’s sleep so you can get there nice and early.
1. For this adventure, you will use the small town of Hella as your middle checkpoint. There are many great countryside airbnbs (and a few hotels) in this area or you can look in nearby towns like Selfoss and Stokkseyri for other options.
If you’ve got plenty of time, there’s a tiny island just off the southern coast called Vestmannaeyjar. You can take a short ferry ride and stay the night in a variety of different accommodations like yurts, cottages or rental houses.
If you don’t, you’re going to have to head back to Reykjavik or pitch a tent because there isn’t much else for another few hours drive.
2. Much like the rest of Iceland, there aren’t many options for food outside of truck stops. I’d suggest packing plenty of food and snacks because your first stop is a bunch of hiking.
Midway you’ll find an Ethiopian restaurant that will fill you right up for lunch or dinner (depending on the depth of your impromptu photoshoots). Plan wisely and stock up in Reykjavik before you leave.
3. Get some rest with an early bedtime. You’ll be walking a lot tomorrow.
2-3 Full Days
Okay, so you want to get away from the Golden Circle? Well, hope you followed the instructions and got a good sleep because these days are going to be strenuous!
East of Hella, you’ve got at least two days worth of exploration. You will travel the same highway on the way there as you will back so the order in which you make your stops is all up to you! But I’d suggest starting early in the morning and heading straight for the glaciers. From Jokulsarlon you can slowly work your way back to Reykjavik over the next couple days.
However you choose to line up these stops, empty your photo memory onto your laptop and prepare to take way too many photos! You can expect to get up close and personal with some Puffins, get some more waterfall photos (‘cause you don’t have enough yet), sink your toes into some black sand beaches, wander the adorable town of Vik, and of course stand in awe over the glaciers.
1. Aside from the glaciers, arguably the best experience ends with a 4km hike to a plane wreck. You can only get there by foot as it’s located on private property (like many landmarks in Iceland). The path to the plane is clearly visible once you’ve found the inconspicuous entrance (just watch for the plethora of parked cars on the side of the road). The environment is flat, varying between mossy lumps and black gravel. When we were there is was eerily foggy and raining but the ocean was loud enough that you could tell it was very close.
2. Aside from what you might find in Vik (pronounced Veek), food gets increasingly scarce the further east you go! I can’t say it enough — plan and pack your meals!
3. Do your research well in advance to determine what you’d like to participate in around Jokulsarlon because you’ve got endless options in terms of the way you’d like to view the glaciers. There are boat tours, jeep tours, snowmobiles, cave tours, etc. But its important to note that many of these, like ice caving, are seasonal for safety reasons so read up on it before you drive all that way.
4. I’m sure you already packed it but I’ll throw it out there anyway: bring a waterproof jacket! Just as we arrived at the plane wreck hike, it started pouring rain. But we didn’t come all that way to turn around… so we braved the weather. Even with our light-waterproof jackets, we were absolutely drenched and some of us were miserable. Don’t let the weather ruin your fun — pack properly!
5. Finding accommodations here is an expensive task. Vik is your best bet for options though, unless you drive back to Hella each day.
1 Full Day
Now that you’re back in Reykjavik, you can partake in a couple monumental experiences closer to the city. Before you venture out though, be sure to take some time to explore the city. There are so many spectacular places to see.
But today we’re talking about road trips. So let's hit the road!
I’m going to assume that at some point, this trip of yours is going to come to an end, yes? If you’re fortunate enough to have a late evening flights, you can follow this road trip as I’ve planned it on the map. If not, you can wrap it back around to Reykjavik and make it a full day.
Wake up early, drive south and you’ll come across one of many lava tubes in this area. This one is particularly wonderful because its suitable for just about anyone, depending on how deep you go in. So long as you’re moderately able-bodied, the most photogenic portion of the tube is well-lit with built in stone stairways.
After that, well, it’s not photogenic whatsoever because it’s pitch black.
Take your time making your way deep into the Earth (with proper gear of course) and when you’re all caved-out, drive over to the famous Blue Lagoon for a relaxing dip in geo-thermal, blue-as-can-be water. You're just a short drive to the airport from here.
What better way to end an exhaustively fulfilling adventure and begin an exhaustingly boring flight home than in a de-stressed and refreshed state?
1. The lava tube is a play-at-your-own-risk adventure. There is no admission, no information booths, barely any other tourists. Please explore with caution, listen to your body's limitations and do not go alone! This is a ton of fun but don't forget that it's a pitch black tunnel going deep into the earth with slippery rocks and no set path.
2. There is a small village near Reykjavik called Hafnarfjordur and it is a great place to stay! We found this cozy little cottage on AirBNB and we fell in love. In general, the rates are lower in this town and the location is superb, with quick access to the airport and the city.
Don’t be afraid to adapt your route to work with the time you have. I encourage you to explore and ask yourself “what’s down this road”. That’s the best part about Iceland and precisely how we found a lot of these things in the first place. We decided to turn right when they told us to turn left (although that may not be sound advice in the winter – always drive with caution).