First off: Iceland is currently at the top of my list of favorite countries in the whole wide world. Go there, if you can!
30 second pitch: Iceland is a perfect destination for your next adventure because it is in a sweet spot between undiscovered/isolated and investing in infrastructure to allow for tourism. The only negative thing about this place is that it is incredibly expensive.
How long to spend in Iceland? I spent 8 days in Iceland, which was a nice amount of time. If I were to do it again I would take a full 2 weeks so I could visit 2 things I did not have adequate time for: Hornstrandir and the Interior. Both can also be harder to do properly in June since they are very much back country and the snow hasn't always melted. They also require more advanced planning due to their remoteness. I also want to go back for a quick winter trip to see the northern lights and more ice caves, but alas, for another time.
Assuming you don't feel the need to go wandering in the wilderness, in 8 days you can actually drive around the entire island. It is a bit of an aggressive itinerary so if you are more low key just pick 1-2 regions and stick with that (south and south east, west side and the fjords, north and northeast, etc). As far as I could tell, a majority of the people who visit Iceland only spend 1-3 days doing so and visit primarily the golden circle (which includes Gulfoss waterfall, Thingvellir, and Strokkur) as well as Reykjavik and the blue lagoon. This is because all these places are in decent proximity to the airport, roads are good, and they are magnificent attractions, which offer a lot of variety of scenery. They are well documented though so I won't be mentioned them in this post.
Useful things to know before going:
- If you are only hitting the main attractions listed above, you can actually pay to take a tour bus to them which would be a much cheaper option than renting a car. However, if you want flexibility and get away from the other tourists, you need to rent a car, which can be pricey. And even though you don't truly need it legally, I think having a 4x4 car was fantastic since not even all parts of the main “highway” are paved. It gives you a bit of a sense of ease to have a stronger vehicle.
- You don't really need cash.
- You won’t be sleeping much at night because of the lack of darkness (in the summer), so consider that in adding time to your days to explore!
Where to stay? Our accommodation decisions were mostly based on price and all was booked through airBnB, which was a magnificent way to go and was much cheaper than the hotels in the summer. We spent:
- 1 night in Stokeyari (in the south)
- 1 night in Hofn (southeast)
- 1 night in Akureyri (north)
- 2 nights in Holmavik (northwest)
- And 1 night on each end of the trip in Reykjavik.
Must Do's (by region):
1. The Southwest:
- Fridheimar Tomato farm: This place is a must stop for a quick dinner. You get to dine on all you can eat tomato soup and bread in the middle of a tomato green house, one of the few in Iceland (just try growing tomatoes on an island that is covered in darkness 9 months of the year!).
Snaefellsnes Peninsula: Home to some weird lava landscapes, you can basically just drive around the peninsula in a day trip from Reykjavik or spend a night here to go at a more relaxed pace. Highlights include Kirkjufell (the mountain/volcano) and Kirkjufellsfoss (the waterfall), Gerðuberg basalt columns which basically looks like The Wall from Game of Thrones, and the Búðahraun lava field and church.
- Hveragerdi: We had so much fun getting to this hot spring. It is a few miles hike in but it is so beautiful, with lots of sheep wandering around and hot springs gurgling up from the river. When you get down to the part of the river that is deep enough and wide enough to sit in, there are planks and areas to change in, as well as rock damns where people pool together to soak in the riverbed. A lot of people brought beers and a picnic and seemed to make a day of it (we showed up at 8pm without having dinner so were not as well prepared).
2. The westfjords: There is something both exhilarating and terrifying about being somewhere so remote. Come prepared with gas in your tank and food in your car because there is nothing for miles and miles. The towns that do exist have about 1 restaurant or convenience store each. It is absolutely gorgeous though and unlike anywhere else I have ever been in the world. There is also great hiking throughout the westfjords.
- Holmavik: An incredibly cute town along an inlet of the Norwegian Sea, this place is a great base camp for the rest of the Westfjords. There are a few restaurants but not much else (still bigger than most towns in the area). We stayed in an incredible AirBnB here for 2 nights.
- Puffin watching: we stumbled upon this puffin watching tour to the island of Grimsey (careful, there is more than 1 of these islands in Iceland! This is the one that is NOT 40km away in the arctic circle), which can be picked up in the town of Drangsnes. I assume you can call ahead to book a tour, but we basically just showed up in the harbor as the boat was leaving and convinced a group of national geographic-esk Frenchmen to let us tag along. They were nice enough to say yes, and we had an incredible time exploring this uninhabited island, which has puffins, arctic turns, and sheep galore!
- Drangsnes: The reason to go here, if not for the above mentioned puffin tours is to visit the awesome hot springs right off the main road. There are a bunch of tubs against the sea wall which are fed by a hot spring coming down off the mountain. They are more established than the hot springs at Hveragerdi, but super relaxing especially since you are right on the water!
3. The north: Akureyri is essentially the capital city of this region and it is an adorable little town on a fjord inlet. You can base yourself there and drive the diamond circle which includes: Husavik, Asbyrgi Canyon, Lake Myvatn, and Dettifoss waterfall. Though we didn't, you can technically fly into this town from Reykjavik if you don't want to drive the approximately 380 kilometers to get there.
- Laufas farm house: this is a farmhouse which memorializes the life of Icelandic people of about 200 years ago, and is beautiful as it has lots of turf houses.
- Godafoss & Dentifoss waterfalls: The first is right off the main road and easy to get to, and the second is down a 35km gravel road. It shakes you up a bit but was totally worth it (4WD vehicle recommended).
- Myvatn Nature Baths : These super relaxing sulfur swimming pools make up essentially the Blue Lagoon of the North (and way less crowded, no reservations needed).
4. The South/Southeast: I think the whole drive through this region I kept saying out loud, “this place can't be real”. Though there are less things to “do” (unless you go glacier hiking, for a price), every turn is just absolutely magnificent, and you pass through so many different natural things – glacial tongues, lava fields, mountains, sea- that it is dizzying. In a good way, of course!
All in all, a dreamland of a country which I hope to return to soon. I should add that I flew on WOW airlines, which is a budget Icelandic airliner that also has the only direct flights to Iceland from San Francisco. Though it was "budget", if you get on prepared with food and water and your own entertainment, the prices can't be beat. Happy travels!