In January 2017 I took my mom to Iceland for her birthday. She's done so much for me my life that I wanted to try to pay her back! I picked it because of the cheapness of flights and AirBnb and because it was, from my research, the best place to try to see the Northern Lights. One of my sisters came along for the week long trip in mid-January and we explored the absolute beauty that was Iceland. It was an incredible trip – below you'll find my fast tips and my full itinerary with notes to plan your own trip! NB: I only explored the eastern part of the island. I know there are some amazing things in the west but they are a far drive from Reykjavik and that's where I rented our lodging for each night. There are more than enough amazing things to see in the east, especially if you're there in the winter!
+ The number one thing I recommend to everyone who asks about their own Iceland trip is to rent a car!! In the winter the roads can be a bit slippery and windy but if you feel comfortable driving I'd one million percent recommend a car because a lot of the things to see in Iceland (like geysers and waterfalls) you can only spend max 1 hour at. With bus tours you aren't able to stop along the way to admire all the amazing sights and you also aren't able to craft your own itinerary as easily. It's only an extra $100 or so for a GPS and so so worth it.
+ We went in the dead of winter. We chose mid-January because of work schedules and my mom's birthday, but also because the winter is the best time to see the Northern Lights. However, there is also no daylight in the winter. The sun rose around 11AM for us every day and set around 4:30PM. It was kind of amazing to be able to sleep in with the jet leg and also to only have to do a few things per day without feeling overwhelmed. (Sometimes I feel like when I have the whole day abroad and I don't do a million things I'm missing out.) In the summer you'll have 20 hours of daylight, which means more packed days of amazing sights and also the possibility of seeing adorable puffins.
+ I'm happy I chose to go in the winter. It was super fun to go out and chase the Northern Lights. (We used this website to find the best spots to look.) But....... we didn't see them. It was cloudy the entire week we were there. It was disappointing because that's still something to check off our bucket list, but Iceland was otherwise amazing. The best advice I heard about traveling to Iceland is to add Northern Lights to your trip but not make your trip about the Northern Lights. If you know you'll feel like you had a bad vacation if you didn't see the lights, Iceland may not be the place to go. If you want to see the amazing, incredible beautiful landscapes and interact with the nicest people ever and maybe see the Northern Lights but if you don't it's okay – then Iceland is the place for you!
+ Food and alcohol are prohibitively expensive in Iceland. Although flights and lodging are cheap if you eat out every meal it ends up being more expensive overall than a trip to Europe. However, supermarket prices are much more equivalent to ours and I would highly recommend planning for half of your meals to be home-made (another great reason to do AirBnb over a hotel – having a kitchen!).
+ Everyone in Iceland speaks perfect english, but if you're interested in learning the survival phrases, I made a set of online flashcards. In another post I'll get more into why I think learning basic phrases before traveling anywhere is so important!
After picking up the car, we dropped our things off at an AirBnb and headed out immediately so we could catch the Seljalandsfoss waterfall at sunrise. The waterfall was really cool, especially because you can hike up into it and walk behind it, and the views from the waterfall (like of the perfectly colored little house above) are also awesome.
After the waterfall we drove back towards Reykjavik, stopping at the Kerid crater. (And on the way we obviously stopped of course to get some photos of the beautiful churches that we passed like above. Plus to grab some photos of the adorable little Icelandic horses!) In the winter the crater was frozen over, so it wasn't much to look at but it was cool to be able to walk down close and made for some nice photo opps.
After we visited the crater it was already getting dark so we stopped on the way back to our AirBnB at a little lodge for a long dinner. Then we went back to change into PJs and took the car out for a few hours to look for the Northern Lights.
The sun rose at 11AM so at 10:30 we headed out to the Icelandic Horse Park that was about 35 minutes SE of Reykjavik. On the way we pulled over, of course, to catch the most beautiful sunrise. (Without fail every sunrise and sunset we got there was amazing and it was really great that we always got to see the sunrise without waking up ungodly early.)
At the Icelandic Horse Park they let us go back to watch one of the horses train a course which was awesome and so nice, although this wasn't my favorite interaction with the horses. We found later that you can absolutely just pull over on the side of the road when you see the Icelandic horses to pet them and that's way more fun because you can't really pet the horses at the Horse Park.
From there we drove two hours to Reynisfjara Beach (in Vík) – the beautiful black sand beach that you see all over Instagram – so we could catch it at sunset. It totally lived up to the hype. The darkness of the beach was gorgeous in photos, as were the huge rocks jutting into the sky on the horizon. These large rock formations (actually columns of basalt), according to Icelandic folklore, were once trolls that lured ships from the ocean who turned to stone. If you're visiting in the summer be warned: the waves are extremely powerful and it is not advised that you swim.
On the beach there is also an incredible cave made of basalt. It looked like something out of a fairytale! This was one of my favorite places to take photos in Iceland.
On the other side of the beach parking lot was the cutest cabins and lodge.
We stopped in there to warm up with hot chocolate after spending 45 minutes in the freezing wind taking photos on the beach.
On the way back for dinner we stopped to take more photos of the amazing Icelandic architecture in the dark.
The third day was our Reykjavik day. Reykjavik is a lively city with so much to do – we absolutely loved spending the day in that quaint city.
We headed to Hallgrimskirkja, an amazing modern-style church that dominates the landscape in the heart of Reykjavik. We took the elevator up (there can be a long line for the single elevator so make sure to budget time for that!) so we could get photos of the sun rising over Reykjavik. It was beautiful and another highlight of the trip.
After we grabbed some breakfast at an adorable cafe nearby we went to the Culture House Museum which was only a 10 minute walk away. We loved the Culture House Museum – if you're a museum fan I'd highly recommend it. You start on the top floor and work your way down through 6 floors of Icelandic art, some dating back thousands of years. The art is super cool and it's a great way to learn more about Iceland's rich history, especially the cool folkloric history. I ended up buying an amazing ancient map of Iceland for my wall with folklore creatures on it.
After a couple hours at the Culture House Museum we walked another 10 minutes to city hall. The inside of city hall isn't anything special but the swan/duck Tjörnin pond next to city hall was gorgeous and it was so fun taking photos of the birds.
Then we walked along the coast to check out the Solfarid (Sun Voyager) statue on the way to check out Harpa, the opera hall. The coast is stunning – especially the beautiful mountain view.
The Harpa was really cool. The outside and inside of the building were gorgeous (and the gift shop was pretty awesome too). When you enter Harpa, go to the front desk and ask for a program. We found an incredible free show for after dinner of super talented young performers. One number was even played on glassware! It was a really unique experience that we felt so lucky to have.
Reykjavik also has some great shopping – we all got amazing Icelandic wool sweaters! Hot tip: you only wash your sweaters once a year and we were told that if you wash it in the bathtub with some conditioner it helps soften the wool!
Another must-visit in Reykjavik is Baejarins Beztu Pylsur, which serves famous Iceland-style hot dogs. They're pretty cheap and delicious!
On the fourth day we did a driving tour of the Golden Circle. We started at Hveragerdi, a geothermal park with little hot springs where you can see the smoke rising. It looks absolutely magical in the winter, even though it smells like sulfur.
After this we drove to the Strokkur Geyser – another one of the must-see Icelandic spots that you'll see all over Instagram. It's a popular destination because the geyser erupts every 5-10 minutes so you'll get to see it a few times and make sure you perfectly time that boomerang.
Just a short drive from the geyser are the Gullfoss falls which are pretty impressive, although in the middle of winter you can only look for a minute or so before the waterfall splash in the cold froze our faces.
After the waterfall we headed to Pingvellir National Park. On the way we finally stopped to pet some adorable Icleandic horses! They were so friendly and cute.
Pingvellir National Park was also stunning and such a fun place to hike. It was a medium-level challenging hike that was fun even in the winter.
We had a great blue light as the sun had just set.
On the fifth day we did an all-day soak in the Blue Lagoon. Because it was the middle of winter and one of the earlier appointments in the day it wasn't too crowded. I did hear that there are other thermal lagoons around the island that are less touristy and just as good. But it was fun to do mud face masks and soak in the lagoon while it snowed on us! I brought my phone in its waterproof case to take photos. It was a lovely, relaxing day that ended with making dinner at our AirBnb.
The Blue Lagoon is right near the airport so it is a great place to go on a layover or if you have an afternoon flight it's great to visit in the morning.
Our day six it was pretty rotten outside so we went into Reykjavik to shop. We had planned to drive along the Reykjanes Peninsula, hitting Hafnarberg Sea Cliffs then Gunnhuver mud pools and steam vents and then the Krisuvik hiking paths on the way back. I think it would still be a great addition to any trip if you have the time for it!
We caught our plane home the next day. Overall, I left Iceland feeling inspired to keep traveling in the winter – it was so beautiful and calm! Plus, we got to interact a lot with the locals in Reykjavik which is heard is nearly impossible when it's warm because there are so many tourists. I'd love to see the Northern Lights someday but first I'd like to go back to Iceland during the summer so I can experience the warmth and lush greenery of the country!
Are you going to Iceland any time soon? Do you have any tips from your own trip? I'd love to see photos!