Iceland Road Trip
We visited Iceland in September, for a 6 day road trip that covered the Golden Circle and south of the island. We chose mid-September so that we could stand a chance of seeing the Northern Lights (and we did) but also to avoid the freezing weather and short days that set in from late October onwards. I’d thoroughly recommend this time of year to visit.
Following a plan for Iceland will really make your trip more enjoyable. It’s such a sparse country, that generally you can’t just rock up to a cafe on the side of the road because you’re feeling peckish. You might need to drive another hour to do that! So knowing where you’re heading, and where you are stopping off on the way meant that we ate at some wonderful hidden gems rather than paying £10 for a sandwich at a service station each day.
Day 1 - The Blue Lagoon & Reykjavik
After a 3 hour Iceland Air flight from London to Reykjavik we landed on the lunar landscape of south west Iceland. Steaming craters, jagged rocks and little greenery, it really did feel as though we had landed on another planet - in a good way!
First, we picked up our hire car from the airport. An Iceland road trip like this is impossible without your own car, and to have the flexibility to stop whenever we wanted to take photos - ie. every 5 minutes - was worth it. Some websites suggest that you need a 4x4 car. However, we travelled in September, and there was no need for one at all. 4x4s are required during the winter, and to drive on particular back country roads which we were not going to attempt anyway.
From the airport, our first stop was the world famous bucket list destination - The Blue Lagoon. As it is situated near to the airport, visit the Lagoon at this point, or on your way back to the airport. As you’ll get cold and get your hair wet, I think it works best at the start of your trip rather than before boarding a plane. It is also such a memorable experience that it’s a great way to kick things off. Make sure you book ahead, as it’s always busy.
The Blue Lagoon is a geothermal spa in a lava field and is one of the most visited attractions in Iceland. The turquoise water and steam against the black lava landscape was an unforgettable sight. We hopped into the lagoon, which was the temperature of a hot tub, got a drink from the waterside bar, and smeared some of the silica mud from the bottom of the spa across our faces. The mud has healing and exfoliating properties, and it’s come straight from the earth. Don’t worry - they provide piles of the mud ready for you. And everyone’s doing it, so it’s not embarrassing.
After a couple of hours at the Lagoon, we drove to our Air BnB in Reykjavik. We didn’t love our Air BnB - and would recommend you pick accommodation as centrally located in the city as possible. Down by the harbour is a great place to begin your search.
Dinner at Sjávargrillið that night came highly recommended and with good reason. The food was incredible, and set a trend for our experiences in Iceland: If you’re a foodie, you’re going to be in your element.
We both chose tasting menus because they represented better value for money and would be getting a taster of local specialities. I went for the freshly caught fish and locally sourced meat - my boyfriend Alex, on the other hand, went totally authentic picking European shag (a bird, before you start googling and getting dodgy images!) puffin and marinated minke whale. I just didn’t feel cool about the whale. Alex said it tasted like a cross between tuna and steak.
The standard of the food really was impressive and could easily warrant a Michelin star despite it also feeling very accessible. When we asked them if they had one, they asked us why they would bother with such things. They don’t need it, they explained - they’re always packed - and you have to pay to apply for a star. The Icelandic people are very, very laid-back!
Day 2 - Reykjavik
Day 2 was our Reykjavik exploration day. We spent the morning exploring the (pretty bleak) harbour area, until our much anticipated lunch of world famous lobster soup at the Sea Baron restaurant . I say restaurant, but Sea Baron only has a couple of long wooden tables covered outside, and a few indoors, and appears to be a very basic cafe. It just happens to have garnered a reputation for excellent lobster soup - and we can attest to that too.
After lunch, we walked up to the dramatic Hallgrimskirkja Church that dominates the skyline of the city, and can be seen from pretty much everywhere in the city. It was designed by the late Guðjón Samúelsson in 1937, who was often inspired in his endeavours by the fascinating shapes and forms created when lava cools into basalt rock. We decided to pay a nominal fee to take the lift to the top of the church and get a birds-eye view of Reykyavik.
We were devastated that we forgot to visit the notorious Penis Museum (The Icelandic Phallological Museum) - which, by the way, is meant to be great.
We booked dinner at Kopar, down by the water, and decided to go for tasting menus again - they represented such good value in Iceland. They also represented weight gain. But hey, we’re on holiday, and finished the night with drinks at The Laundromat Cafe, a popular American-style diner that is also known for great brunches.
Day 3 - Golden Circle Road Trip
We checked out of our Air BnB first thing and got set for the real adventure as our road trip kicked off today. We picked up brunch at Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur- prizes for pronouncing that - which translates from Icelandic into English as "the best hotdog in town”. It is the world's most successful hotdog stand. I kid you not. It reached global fame in 2004 after President Bill Clinton stopped off at this food truck for a sausage. Day or night, a queue snakes around the block. I can’t say I’m fully sure it lives up to it’s global reputation, but it was certainly very tasty.
Not more than a few minutes out of Reykyavik and we were in wild vast flat landscape, painted brilliant shades of autumnal orange, rust and green. One thing we couldn’t get our heads around was the sky - there was so much of it. Endless clear blue sky. It was spectacular.
Our first stop was Þingvellir National Park. Guidebooks told us that in AD 930, this dramatic setting was chosen by the island’s chieftains as the site of their annual General Assembly. The rocky landscape against the vast lakes made for endless photo opps.
Following Þingvellir we had lunch at Laugarvatn Fontana where there are geothermal baths. This was one of my absolute highlights. The cafe is small and totally unassuming, but it’s nestled into steaming volcanic landscape that is so powerful that they cook their bread in the ground there! We watched a demonstration as one of the chefs dug up their freshly baked rye loaf from the black volcanic soils. And was it delicious! All the food was lovely, and if we had had more time we would definitely have taken a dip in the spa pools there, all labelled with different temperatures and completely heated geothermally.
From here we began our tour of the traditional Golden Circle road trip. And, after days of desolate roads, driving up to Haukadalur geothermal area - the Geysirs - to see dozens and dozens of coaches and throngs of selfie-stick toting tourists was totally bizarre. Where had they come from! Thankfully, none of the stops felt too touristy - but the balance was close to tipping the other way.
The first thing that hits you at Geysir is the pong of sulphuric steam wafting from the deep earth below, mud pools bubbling. There are two famous geysers here called Geysir and Strokkur. Strokkur provided us with the most amusement. Crowds excitedly encircle it as water sighs and sinks before exploding over 50 ft into the sky every 10 minutes or so. Of course, these moments are unpredictable, which was unfortunate for the aggressive drone pilot who was extremely keen to get a bird’s eye view. Needless to say, I think that drone was swallowed up by the earth below it.
Our next stop was Gullfoss waterfalls - enormous, impressive - an absolute must-see. The two-tier waterfalls thundered deep into a canyon, and for the majority of our visit, a vibrant rainbow framed the vista. We walked the slippery paths to see the water cascade from every angle. Be warned - there are surprisingly little safety measures in place here, to the point that I was scrabbling with my hands and feet on slippery rocks. The views, though, were worth it.
From Gullfoss we drove for just over an hour to our splurge for the night - the ION Adventure Hotel. Sitting amid a landscape of mountains and lava fields, you guessed it, in the middle of nowhere, the modern glass and concrete structure of the ION disappears into the landscape. The contemporary, minimalist Scandi-chic interiors were totally Instagrammable but at times it felt like it lacked a bit of heart. As soon as we arrived we ditched our bags and, despite chilly drizzle, we immersed ourselves in the hotel’s spectacular thermal pool. In that 45 minutes we saw, blue skies, black skies, sunshine, heavy rain, and three - yes three - different rainbows. To be out in the elements and observing nature like this, while soothing my bones in the steaming pool was very cool. And by this point we had become used to the smell of sulphur when swimming!
We ate dinner in the hotel that night - there was, to be fair, no alternative option unless we were to drive back to Reykyavik - and we enjoyed have lots of plump pillows and gorgeous bedding to get us rested for our busy day ahead.
DAY 4 - End of Golden Circle to Southern Iceland
We kicked the day off with a visit to Kerið crater lake. I’d leave no more than half an hour for this one, but it’s definitely worth stopping for. A rich red volcanic crater covered in vibrant green vegetation and filled with exquisitely turquoise water, it was once a volcano that has since collapsed into an empty magma chamber.
From here we drove towards our base in southern Iceland for the next two nights - Hotel Laekur, near Hella. We stopped many times along the way to take in the vast and barren landscape, and to pet the extremely friendly wild horses - which, to my horror, Alex went on to eat in a restaurant later that night.
Bumping down a very long driveway, we finally saw in the distance the Hotel Laekur, a small family run hotel, comprised of a main barn and outbuildings set in front of a huge snow-capped volcano. I can’t say the accommodation in Iceland focuses on luxury, and for the price you may expect to be getting it. But this is a warm and friendly hotel, and staying in the outbuildings in the middle of a field felt like an adventure in itself (bearing in mind, I’ve never even been camping!)
I’m not going to dwell on dinner that night. As I said, it was the horse-eating evening. But if that tickles your fancy, it was on offer at the nearby Arhus Restaurant - which in retrospect sounds alarmingly similar to "our horse".
That night, my obsession with the Northern Lights really took over. I followed the forecast hour by hour on this website which is the only accurate means to measure the aurora. Our hotel was tipped as a prime viewing location because it is in the middle of nowhere (so no light pollution). We decided to go outside on a rotation to check, wondering is this it? Is it??? Our minds began to play tricks on us. No - it was just a cloud.
Day 5 - Southern Iceland
Our fifth day exploring the south coast of Iceland was full of double rainbows and wild horses. The landscape is wild and raw, but being so close to the elements is also calming in its way.
The drive from Hella down to Vik took us through lush green valleys and steep hills, craggy volcanic plains and coastal stretches. On the way we explored the beautiful and dramatic waterfall Seljalandsfoss, which you can walk behind, and experience the thundering water seemingly enveloping you. I felt particularly intrepid doing this!
Down the road, we had our most unusually situated meal - lunch at Sveitagrill Miu, a food truck serving the best fish and chips we’ve ever had - 5 star reviews galore online. To top it off it sits casually in front of Skogafoss waterfall. Brilliant.
Arriving later to Kirkjufjara, Vik’s iridescent black sand beach, lapped by the sparkling ocean was unforgettable and it’s a real shame that so many visiting Iceland miss it because it’s not on the typical Golden Circle tours. Turning from the beach inland, we witnessed our favourite view of them all- another double rainbow.
That night, we ate at the hotel and decided to further extend our Northern Lights chasing efforts. After everyone else had gone to bed, we relocated to the main barn, and sat, in the pitch black, staring out of the window. After about an hour, nearing on midnight, we saw what initially looked like a pale green cloud suddenly gain momentum, and whip across the sky, dancing and flickering in shades of green, then red, then purple. Standing in our pyjamas in the freezing cold under the vast Icelandic skies watching this natural phenomenon was a bucket list moment.
Day 6 - Driving back to the airport
Our flight was mid afternoon, so on our way back to Keflavik airport we decided to drive through the little villages of Grindavik, Seltun and Krysuvik - don’t dedicate any time to stop in these but you will pass by houses that look like the one below. Our biggest revelation was a tiny restaurant in the middle of nowhere that we stopped in for lunch - Bryggjan in Grindavik. We thought the lobster soup at Sea Baron was good - but Bryggjan’s lobster soup was one of the most delicious meals I have ever had. So fresh, such depth of flavour, and so authentic. This wasn’t a place jam packed with tourists. We loved it.
After that we boarded our Iceland Air flight back home, windswept, exhilarated and captivated by the best ever plane gimmick I’d seen - twinkling “Northern Lights” above the overhead lockers, all the way home.
- Iceland is expensive, and I mean, really expensive. We had a brilliant time but I think we both came away stunned at how much money we blew. Bear this in mind before booking. If you want to have a fantastic trip, you’ll want to budget for meals where the main course is likely to be £20 or more. This is for a mid-range restaurant. Accommodation is equally pricey.
- When you get off the plane, buy your alcohol - it is much cheaper in duty free.
- When people say pack for all weather, they mean it. In 10 minutes, we had warm sunshine, sudden gusts of wind, hail stones, a downpour, then a double rainbow. I was forever taking off my thick parka coat, to be wearing just a thin jumper - but I couldn’t have done without either.
- If you want to take photos of the Northern Lights, you won’t be able to on an iPhone. Bring an SLR camera and practice beforehand.
- Bring shoes with decent grip.