A beginner’s guide to Iceland
Updated September 2020
Iceland’s fortunes are looking up. Years have passed since the volcanic eruption that resulted in flight chaos throughout the northern hemisphere. Post-economic crash and coping admirably with the fallout from the coronavirus pandemic, Iceland is fully open for business. Prices are stable and right now you can have a good value holiday. At present there’s a mandatory five day quarantine for all arriving travellers but choose your accommodation carefully and it could be the perfect base to relax, unwind and perhaps even see the Northern Lights before you continue on with your trip.
How to get there from the UK
Flights with Icelandair, the national carrier, depart from London Heathrow to Keflavik (KEF) the airport nearest to the Icelandic capital Reykjavik. Budget airlines also serve Keflavik. easyJet offer a good service from London Luton and may return to offering flights from London Gatwick as it did before. A non-stop flight takes a little over 3 hours from London. It has also been possible to use Reykjavik as a stopover destination on your way to North America, making it possible to combine an Icelandic break with a trip to New York, for example, though such routings aren’t currently an option.
Getting from Keflavik airport into the city centre
The simplest and cheapest way to get to Reykjavik is to use the FlyBus. This bus will take you from the airport to either the bus station or to some hotels. To find out whether yours is served, there’s a list on the FlyBus website – check Google maps if yours isn’t listed to identify which listed hotel is closest. Single fares to the bus station are 3499 ISK (about £19) and to your hotel 4599 ISK (about £25). The journey takes 45 minutes, there’s free Wi-Fi on board and tickets are flexible, so if your plane is late, you just take the next available bus. Departures are a little less frequent than usual due to the pandemic but the good news is that the service isn’t categorised as a public bus so it is permissable to use it if you are on your way to your quarantine accommodation.
If you are travelling as a larger group or further afield, you may prefer to hire a car. It is within the quarantine guidelines to travel a longer distance the day you arrive in order to reach the accommodation where you’ll serve out your five days. The easiest way to do this is to book with one of several car hire companies based at the airport. I’ve used Thrifty a couple of times now. They’re not the cheapest but the cars are reasonably new and the rates are competitive. Note that you’ll need special insurance if you plan to drive off road or on some of the interior’s gravel roads (the latter are closed during the winter anyway). It’s also advisable to take out an insurance policy that covers you for damage caused by sand or gravel. You might plan to drive carefully but there’s nothing you can do to mitigate against those travelling at speed who pass you from the opposite direction.
If you’ve chosen not to hire a car, it is possible to use public buses to travel between some parts of the country. Check schedules carefully as it can be a long wait between buses. Consult this useful map of the main long distance routes in Iceland to see at a glance whether the places you plan to visit are connected or not. Alternatively, use a company such as Reykjavik Excursions which can offer day or multi-day tours.
The Icelandic capital is charming and a good base for the first time visitor. Pay a visit to the unusual Hallgrímskirkja church; it’s only 1000 ISK to go up it and take in the views of the city. Also great for the views though a little out of the centre is Perlan; it features an excellent Áróra Northern Lights planetarium show. The area around Tjörnin lake is worth a stroll if the weather’s good; it’s not far from the main drag and is popular with joggers. Down by the harbour there’s a cool structure known as Sun Voyager or ‘Sólfar’ which is worth making the effort to visit; walk past Harpa, the city’s concert hall and along to the Old Harbour for a pleasant walk. In the opposite direction, you’ll come to Höfði House where Reagan and Gorbachev met in 1986 to begin the process of ending the Cold War.
Must-see attractions beyond the capital
The Blue Lagoon is a world-renowned spa consisting of a large pool fed by geothermally-heated water. It’s possible to book massages and other treatments; even if you just want a dip you’ll need to pre-book (evening slots are cheapest). There’s also a bar if you’d like a drink whilst relaxing in the warm water. Pots of white silica-rich mud are yours to try out – spread it on your face and body for an enriching treatment. Tip: in cold weather, turn left on your way out and enter the pool indoors before swimming out – it’s warmer than making a run for it from the main door. It’s possible to visit the Blue Lagoon on your way to or from Keflavik airport and lockers large enough to take a suitcase are available. The Blue Lagoon is the main attraction on the Reykjanes peninsula where the North American and European plates meet. With your own transport you can stand on Leif the Lucky’s bridge that straddles the two – but be warned, it’s one of the windiest places in the country.
The Golden Circle
The Golden Circle comprises three of Iceland’s most awe-inspiring attractions: Gullfoss waterfall, Haukadalur and Þingvellir, the site of the original Icelandic parliament. One of Iceland’s many dramatic waterfalls, Gullfoss is the spot where the Hvítá river rushes south and plunges into a chasm where the water explodes into a maelstrom of white water and eroded rock. At nearby Haukadalur, the original geyser, Geysir, has long since given up erupting, but the plume of water that spurts from nearby Strokkur is impressive and conveniently frequent. The Alþingi, or parliament, met at Þingvellir from 930 to 1798 and thus the site is important culturally and historically in addition to its stunning physical characteristics. The three sites are usually combined into a morning or afternoon tour departing from Reykjavik, but it is worth spending more time at each than the tour allows.
The Snæfellsnes peninsula
The Snæfellsnes peninsula is ignored by many but is a worthwhile day out. It’s a remote peninsula with a dramatic coastline perfect for a scenic drive. Its expanses of countryside are punctuated by small fishing villages including the charming Olafsvik. The Hollywood film “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” was filmed here, focusing on the village of Stykkishólmur whose centre is crammed with historic buildings. Another highlight is the Shark Museum at Bjarnarhöfn. There you can find out how the Icelandic delicacy of hákarl is created and, if you’re brave enough, try a cube of this dried rotted shark flesh for yourself. It’s a bargain at 1200 ISK per person.
The south coast
Take the southern ring road towards Vik and you will come across two impressive waterfalls. Skógafoss waterfall has an impressive 60 metre drop, but for sheer drama, my choice is the beautiful Seljalandsfoss waterfall. Climb up the wooden staircase to the right of the falls as you face them and the path takes you behind the curtain of water. You will get wet but it’s a lot of fun. In Skaftafell, don’t miss the glorious sight of Svartifoss, an impressive waterfall flanked by basalt columns. To ride nearby, see my post about Glacier Horses. On a secluded ash-grey beach (once accessible by 4×4 but now accessed only on foot) is the wreck of a plane. Near Vik, the DC3 crashed back in 1973 with no loss of life, and the plane has been there, abandoned, ever since. It’s worth the five mile round trip walk over the volcanic sand to see this curious and fascinating wreck but allow plenty of time to return before sunset.
Situated on the edge of Vatnajökull National Park, itself a fun destination if you’d like to try out snowmobiling on Europe’s largest glacier, Jökulsárlón is a large glacial lake in the south west of Iceland. As the Breiðamerkurjökull calves into the lake, icebergs travel the short distance to the Atlantic Ocean where they bob about on the waves, washed on and off the beach until they finally melt. It’s a magical place; though both the beach and the lagoon itself can get crowded. In summer, it’s possible to take a tour on an amphibious vehicle on the lake amidst the icebergs, but you’ll get closer to the glacier if you pay a little more for the Zodiac tour. Just west is the sometimes overlooked Fjallsárlón. It too has icebergs and boat trips though it’s not quite as impressive as its more famous neighbour.
East Iceland receives far fewer visitors than the popular south, but there are some breathtaking sights there too. A couple of the coastal villages stand out. You might recognise Seyðisfjörður for the rainbow path leading to its pretty church; it’s accessed by a tarmac road as this is also the place to jump on a ferry to Denmark or the Faroe Islands. In contrast the road to Borgarfjörður eystri, another of the area’s spectacular fjords, winds up and over a mountain pass. For an off the beaten track retreat, the Blabjorg Guesthouse with its open air hot tubs overlooking the water is a great choice. The east’s most unmissable sight is a relative newcomer: until a nearby hydro-electric plant was built which held back the water, the breathtaking Stuðlagil Canyon was hidden to the world.
The Diamond Circle
North Iceland’s answer to the well-established Golden Circle launched officially as a marketing concept in September 2020 but travellers have been drawn to its attractions for much longer. Base yourself in the delightful port town of Húsavík, where you can visit the excellent whale museum (2000 ISK) and then head out into Skjálfandi bay to see if you can spot them for yourself with a company such as North Sailing. They offer tours for a reasonable 10690 ISK with a 98% chance of a sighting. The other four stops on the Diamond Circle are Goðafoss waterfall, Mývatn (Midge Lake – in summer it lives up to its name!), Ásbyrgi canyon and last but not least Dettifoss waterfall, the largest in Europe. This part of Iceland is geothermal; take advantage of that naturally occurring hot water with a dip at GeoSea in Húsavík or the Mývatn Nature Baths. Both require pre-booking.
The north west
The north west of Iceland and in particular the remote Westfjords are often missed by visitors. From Akureyri, Iceland’s second city, the road east is relatively quiet. The old turf buildings at Glaumbær are interesting to explore and well priced at 1700 ISK. Make a detour to visit the Icelandic Seal Center in Hvammstangi (admission 1100 ISK, closed during the winter) and then head north to see if you can spot seals at Illugastaðir or Hvítserkur – the latter is also worth a stop for its magnificent sea stack. Ísafjörður is the capital of the sparsely populated Westfjords and even has its own brewery but to feel like you’ve reached the end of the world try Patreksfjörður, a fish processing settlement within easy reach of the attractive Rauðasandur – a distinctive red sand beach – and the Látrabjarg bird cliffs. It’s also handy for the ferry to Stykkishólmur in Snæfellsnes.
It’s possible to loop the ring road in about a week but you’ll be pleased that you allowed more time, at least ten days and two weeks if you can manage. Roads outside the mountainous interior still vary a lot; the ring road is tarmacked and aside from the occasional blind hill and many one-lane bridges, you’ll have no issues at all in fine weather. Keep abreast of local weather conditions online and don’t underestimate the impact of wind speeds. Another invaluable website is that showing road surfaces; gravel roads are generally simple to drive unless they are very steep, though you’ll appreciate the extra grip of a 4×4. The interior shuts in the autumn and doesn’t reopen until late spring; most of its F roads require a high clearance 4×4.