Day 1: Preparing for the Perfect Road Trip
Only a short 5 hour flight from North America's east coast hubs and 3 hours from London, Iceland is closer than you might think. Once you arrive in Keflavík International Airport, the clean design and modern feel of Scandinavia will be readily apparent. Multiple dining options, and more importantly a hot cup of coffee, await after passing through customs. Breathe it in, you're in Iceland! Now, proper preparation can make or break a road trip into these remote landscapes so let's quickly review the easiest way to get you on your way.
Rent A Car:
While there are alternative methods to exploring Iceland - group tours, bikepacking, hitchhiking - in order to get the most out of your adventure, I strongly recommend renting your own vehicle. Iceland continues to be a hot destination, so make sure you book far enough in advance to secure a reservation and look for companies that offer free airport pickup or a minimal fee. Keflavík is about a 40-minute drive from Reyjavík, so this especially important if your rental company is located in the capital proper. Depending on time of year and your intended destinations, there are a variety of options to consider including smaller fuel efficient cars, 4x4 vehicles and fully outfitted campers. If you are sticking to the Ring Road during the summer months, a normal car will suit you just fine though it is important to note a 4x4 is required to travel on the F-Roads and a must if you plan on heading into the highlands. Whatever adventure-mobile you have your heart set on, our recommendations is to use Bali Car Rental, a small family owned operation with the most amazing service imaginable.
Finish Your Packing List:
Reykjavík is the largest city in the country and the only place to get a few critical items. Here are four items you should pick up that you won't have in your luggage.
Rent a Wi-Fi egg or buy a prepaid SIM card for your journey
It is cheap (as long as you don't plan on streaming movies in your tent, and if that is the case just stay at home), pretty reliable and more than worth it to help you navigate the country. We used a Nova Wi-Fi egg that the amazing staff at Bali helped us procure.
Pick up a couple (extra) towels
Towels are a pain and bulky to pack when you are trying to travel light, so this is the perfect opportunity to grab a few and toss them in the car. Trust us, we didn't do this and the only towels we could find en route were a few hand towels we picked up at a gas station. Remember, Iceland is not Hawaii and you are venturing out into the elements - wind, rain, hotsprings, waterfalls, camp showers when you're lucky, you get the point.
Grab some groceries
Third, pick up some basic, non-perishable groceries that you can always have on hand in the car. A few large jugs of water, chocolate bars and some shampoo will go a lot further than you think. Furthermore, the natural water in Iceland is some of the finest drinking water you can find in the world so you will be able to refill the jugs as you go to keep your water bottle full - talk about a win-win. Though grocery stores are pretty common across the country, you will want to continually restock on the non-perishables and treat yourself to the local yoghurt Skyr regularly. Regularly reliable and affordable grocery chains include Bonus, Kronan or Netto, though they aren't all created equal. If you have a choice, look for the pink pig and hit the Bonus for the best selection and prices.
Carry a Tent
This is crucial for a camping adventure with a passenger vehicle sans motorhome and plans to stay in hotels and guesthouses. The campgrounds are the cheapest way to see the country at $10-20 per night with access to common kitchens, bathrooms, showers and lounge areas. Some campgrounds have more and/or better facilities, but all of them have well-maintained grounds to pitch a tent on flat ground. If you do not bring your own, there are vendors who rent and/or sell tents in Reykjavik and it is a must to secure one. Compared to the exorbitant prices (sometimes per person) per night in even the sleepiest of towns, a tent affords the protection and flexibility needed to maximize your trip. Bring your own sleeping bags.
Explore Reykjavík & Head Into the Golden Circle
Depending on your adventure-level, this may be the last time you see a warm bed for a couple weeks. Although the accommodations are relatively expensive, we recommend ponying up for a private room near the city center to get your feet under you before hitting the road. Furthermore, you can use your room as a central hub to explore the city streets and sights during your first day in Iceland. Call it a little posh, but after a trans-Atlantic flight, squaring away your road trip needs, and roaming Reykjavik all day on pure adrenaline, you'll be thankful for a hot shower and a comfy bed to get your beauty rest before heading out into the wilderness.
Now that you're locked and loaded, time to start exploring. Known as a cultural hub of Iceland, Reykjaík is a small city that has a lot to offer. Here are 5 sights you shouldn't miss:
Combining natural hot springs with a touch of modern luxury, the Blue Lagoon is a must for every visitor to the Reykjavík area. Though the water is actually white, the silica minerals give the geothermal pool its milky blue color in the sunlight. The water renews itself every 40 hours and is said to harness natural healing powers. Oh, they serve cocktails in the spring as well…is this heaven? The rub, pre-booking is required and you have to reserve a time and buy a ticket online. Pro tip: Save this gem for the perfect way to end your road trip. The Blue Lagoon is located out towards the airport and you can stay in Grindavík the night before your flight (it's cheaper than Reykjavík, closer to the airport, and right next to the Blue Lagoon) so you can enjoy your last moments in Iceland relaxing in bliss.
Try saying Hallgrímskirkja three times fast. Yeah, me neither. One of the most recognizable landmarks in Iceland, this iconic Lutheran church seemingly guards the skyline of the city. Entry to the church is free and the interior, paying particular attention to the massive pipe organ is worth a peek, and for an extra fee you can head up to the tower for a panoramic view of the city.
Harpa (Opera House)
Built in a completely different but equally stunning aesthetic, the Icelandic Opera House is impossible to miss. Sitting on the harbour's waterfront, the massive geometric glass panels invite everyone to have a look. You can walk in to browse the gallery for free and attend frequent shows in the concert hall for event admission.
Downtown City Streets
One of the best things of traveling is not having an agenda. Well neither do the downtown streets of Reykjavík. Wandering the wide streets and narrow alleyways is an experience in itself, offering up small souvenir shops, specialty boutiques and various restaurants around every corner. Naturally, I had an affection for a tiny camera shop.
Golden Circle (Day 2)
The closest and most popular attraction to Reykjavík is the Golden Circle. After getting your beauty rest, rise early and hit the Golden Circle at sunrise to beat as much of the crowds as possible. Touring this popular route (read again, overcrowded tourist warning) is full of history and a nice sampling of Iceland's unique landscape, but if you are on a really tight schedule it is worth skipping (yes, I said it) in order to hit the Snæfellsnes Peninsula or the Southern Coast instead. The "Big Three" of the Golden Circle include:
Þingvellir, a national park that showcases the rift valley of the North American and European tectonic plates and the historic founding site of Iceland's first Parliament in 930 AD (a UNESCO World Heritage Site);
Stokkur, Iceland's most famous fountain geyser that erupts every 6-10 minutes;
and Gullfoss, a powerfull waterfall that drops over 100' into the Hvítá river gorge.
After hitting the main attractions, head out on Route 35 towards Selfoss and hike the rim of the Kerið Crater on your way back to Route 1. It's a peaceful respite from the crowds of the Golden Circle and offers a colorful view that constantly changes with the moving sun. Remember, the country's best sights lie outside of this "low-hanging" attraction, so move quickly through the crowds and check it off your list. The best is yet to come.
What You Can Miss: The Viking Museum - small and charming, but not worth hitting on a tight timeline or for any information you can't read online. The main attraction is a life-size replica of a Viking ship, that isn't quite worth the entry fee.
Where/What To Eat: Try the quaint, Icelandic café Ostabúðin for a hearty local lunch, Apotek for a fancy Argentinean dinner, and cozy up to the famous Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur hot dog stand for the cheapest eat in town.
What We Missed And Are Sure To Hit Next Time: The nightlife and a trip up Hallgrímskirkja's tower.