Iceland has quietly risen as a trendy destination for Americans. It’s easy to see why: the flights are cheap (if you pack light), the citizens speak English, and the sights are magical. There is something to satisfy any type of traveler in Iceland, from luxurious spas to remote volcano-heated pools.
My journey to Iceland consisted of a five days with five people and one tiny rental car. We researched activities and itineraries for months and finally decided to limit our visit to the southern part of the island (one day, I’d like to return and visit the rest). This area includes the most-well known spots: the blue lagoon, the Golden Circle, black sand beaches, icebergs, and more waterfalls than we could count.
Iceland is a relatively expensive country; the taxes are high and everything has to be shipped across large distances. Because we were staying in Airbnbs equipped with kitchens, we brought as much food as we could from the States (mostly dry goods such as oatmeal, quinoa, and beans). Our most prized possession was powdered peanut butter, which we stirred into pancake batter. The only regret we had was not buying alcohol at the duty free store at the airport, since beer and wine will set you back several thousand Kronas.
We flew in from Boston on a red eye and arrived in Keflavík at about 7 am. From there we took a bus to Reykjavík, Iceland’s capital and most populous city. We picked up our rental car and drove downtown.
Upon first glance, Reykjavík seems tiny, especially in comparison to Boston. It features tiny cobblestone streets and brightly colored cement houses. During a tour of downtown, we learned that approximately a third of Iceland’s population (which totals 330,823) lives in Reykjavík and another third lives in the surrounding area. We also discovered that Iceland is one of the leading countries in the feminist movement (especially the “free the nipple” campaign) and features one of the lowest crime rates in the world.
That night we went to the Blue Lagoon, which is probably the most famous attraction in Iceland. Unlike many of the other geothermal pools, the Blue Lagoon is not natural. The water is a by-product of the neighboring geothermal power plant, and the resulting minerals have proven to be good for your skin. The water is an incredible milky blue and ranges from warm to hot. The pools were crowded, but it was the perfect post-flight activity. One a side note: do not let your hair get wet. The silica is great for your skin but will dry out your hair!
We spent the night in Grindavík, the town next to the Blue Lagoon, and in the morning we made our way to the Golden Circle. The Golden Circle is a highway loop that passes many unique attractions, such as Geysir (a geyser and hot springs field), Gulfoss (the largest waterfall in Iceland), and the Secret Lagoon (Iceland’s first geothermal pool). If you drive the loop without stopping, it will take about four hours, but you should allow all day in order to get the full experience.
My favorite stop was Þingvellir National Park, where you can see the rift valley between the separating North American and Eurasian tectonic plates.
We spent the next night near Hella at an Airbnb on a sheep farm. We slept in a charming cottage that had a family of sheep periodically wandering through the front yard. In the morning, our host gave us a tour and let us hold lambs that had been born the night before.
We continued on to Seljalandfoss, a small park with no fewer than four waterfalls, the largest of which you can walk behind.
Back on the highway, we drove past idyllic fields of Icelandic horses. This breed of horse is incredibly well preserved; horses are allowed to leave Iceland but none are allowed in, thus preventing any foreign diseases and keeping the bloodline pure.
We also passed Eyjafjallajökull, the famous volcano that erupted in 2010, blanketing the mainland of Europe with ash.
At its base, there is a pool heated by the volcano itself, called Seljavallalaug. It’s not as warm as the blue lagoon, but it is much less crowded and surrounded by towering volcanic rock formations. Around the corner there is an incredible gorge that seems like it is straight out of Avatar.
Our third day ended with a visit to Skogafoss, Iceland’s tallest waterfall, and Reynisfjara black sand beach, which was home to a flock of puffins.
Being the adventurous group that we are, we spent the next day hiking in Skaftafell National Park, which features waterfalls, glaciers, and an iceberg lagoon.
We first hiked to Svartifoss, a waterfall surrounded by crazy geometric rocks.
We then made our way through an alpine meadow (in the pouring rain) to a glacier overlook. When I stood on the edge of the cliff, I felt like I was on top of the world.
The nearby Jökulsárlón and Fjallsárlón lagoons are filled with crystal blue icebergs. Everything seems to come to a standstill there.
On our final day, we visited Kerið, a volcanic crater with a deep blue lake in its center. We walked around it on a trail made of rust-colored rock.
Our trip ended with a stay in Reykjavík, which, after having spent days in remote places, seemed huge and bustling. We got beers at a bar during happy hour, which was the perfect end to an incredible trip in a land that felt like it was straight out of a fairytale.