This past august Jeremy and I went on a two week trip to Iceland. It was my third time visiting this beautiful landscape, but my first time driving the whole Ring Road. The Ring Road is Highway 1 in Iceland and goes all the way around the island, with *many* different beautiful natural wonders and a wide variety of landscapes along the way. I’m sharing our itinerary here on the blog, broken up into several blog posts, each focusing on a different region of the Ring Road route. And with this first post, I’m focusing on our time in Iceland’s capitol city, Reykjavik, and the southwestern part of the county.
I’d fallen in love with this country about 6 years ago when I stayed for a week during an Iceland air stopover on the way to Sweden. After that week was over, I had tears streaming down my face as the plane took off because I wanted to stay in Iceland so, so badly. It’s hard to describe the feeling of this place….so much of Iceland is uninhabited, and humans are a relatively new addition to the Icelandic landscape. We didn’t immigrate there until about the ninth century when we came over from Scandinavia. I think because of this, there’s a feeling built into the earth in Iceland that’s incredibly ancient and strong, and deeply peaceful. Seeing someplace so wild and so untouched by human hands—there’s really no other way to describe the energy of the place other than magical. It literally feels like you’ve wandered into a fairytale and you can expect giants and elves to wander out from the fog.
One of the most incredible aspects of Iceland is the huge variety in the landscape there. From lush green fields to steaming boiling orange-crusted earth resembling the surface of mars to miles of neon green moss-covered rocks to glacial mountains to black sand beaches, you will never get bored of the scenery. And even if you’re not a hiker, there are such a variety of trails here that you can easily find beautiful short trails or just visit the sites that are pull-offs right off Highway 1. You don’t need to be a rugged outdoorsman to enjoy the beauty of this place.
As for preparing for your trip, I definitely recommend packing some snacks (in rural areas the restaurants can be spread out), and waterproof gear (especially comfy waterproof shoes) in case of rain. Make sure to research the weather before you go, too, and pack accordingly. We went in August and the weather was sunny and 70’s on some days and rainy and 40’s on others, so packing light layers and a couple sweaters served us well. Because I’m a planner, Jeremy and I researched a lot of different hikes, restaurants, and interesting places to stay before our trip, and I plotted them on this google map I made. You can feel free to reference it for your trip, if you go. I also have written about our experiences with COVID precautions + safety at the end of this post, as well, if you’re interested in traveling to Iceland.
Also, none of this is sponsored or trade. Every place we stayed, every restaurant, was what we chose + paid for. There’s nothing wrong with trade etc, but I just wanted to be transparent about it. This trip was meant to be our babymoon but after the miscarriage it turned into a really good recovery vacation, and we splurged a bit on it. If the hotels we stayed at our outside of your budget, I definitely recommend checking out Airbnb, too. There’s always so many great places to stay all over Iceland on that platform.
Now, before I dive into what to see + do, I wanted to share some advice for interacting with nature while you’re there. The natural landscape is the main reason why people come to Iceland in the first place, so before you go it’s important to understand how to be respectful of the fragile ecosystems there. And with that, let’s dive in!
IMPORTANT – Rules for Hiking + Sightseeing in Nature
Leave No Trace
This means don’t leave anything behind or damage anything while you’re there. A common misconception among hikers is that it’s okay to leave biodegradeable things like food out in the wild. This applies to some hikers that I saw throw banana peels into Braurfoss. This is NOT okay for several reasons. 1) Every ecosystem functions with what naturally exists within it. When you start adding new plant materials to it, like a banana peel, apple core, old sandwich, etc, you’re potentially introducing new bacteria, parasites, and fungal diseases that the current environment hasn’t developed any natural immunities for. There is a real potential for these new introductions to devastate the beautiful environment you’re there to see. 2) A good rule of thumb is to ask yourself “What is everyone did that?” So with braurfoss, what if everyone who visited that waterfall left a piece of trash there? That beautiful waterfall would be full of rotting smelly garbage. 3) When you leave food garbage at natural landscapes, you’re also introducing a new food source to the animals that live there, which can throw off the whole delicate balance of their ecosystem. It also encourages the wildlife to get closer and closer to human beings, which can lead to poaching, animals being hit by cars, or larger predatory animals attacking people.
If there is a trail, stay on it. If there is a railing to keep you in a certain area, stay in there. The reason those boundaries are there are to protect these delicate environments from human destruction. In Iceland, for example, the moss takes hundreds of years to grow. And after being stepped on only 3 times, it dies. When we were at Svartifoss, 80% of the tourists had climbed over the metal railing that was there and were wandering around right up next to the waterfall, walking on all the plants that grew around the pond it empties into. I think they thought the boundary was there to protect them from the waterfall, and that since the waterfall was fairly small they would be safe. But the truth is, the barrier is also there to protect the waterfall from us. So please, stay on the trail and be mindful of barriers.
How Long We Were There
Jeremy and I spent about 5 and a half days in this area, but you could easily spend several weeks here because there are SO many beautiful trails and hikes in this region. Between Reykjavik, the golden circle (the nickname for the area around Thingvellir Nation Park, the Geysir geothermal area, and Gullfoss), and alllll the beautiful waterfalls along the southwestern coast, there’s a LOT to see and do in the region. This was my third time exploring the southwestern part of Iceland, and I still want to come back and see more. But if you’re looking for the highlights and want to spend about 2 weeks doing the Ring Road route, I’d recommend setting aside about 5 days for it.
The COVID requirements to enter Iceland are changing every couple months, so definitely make sure to confirm what the requirements are before you go. Iceland has a great website that provides answers to all the current entry-related restrictions + requirements here. When we went, it was required that you had a valid vaccination certificate, and that you had a negative covid test within 3 days of boarding, and you needed to present both at boarding in addition to your passport. They also checked it again when you landed and went through customs in Iceland. It made us feel a lot safer knowing that everyone who was allowed into the country had recently tested negative for covid and was vaccinated. We had to get another covid test in the capitol before our flight to leave Iceland, but it’s very easy to schedule it here.
As for once you’re actually IN Iceland, they were extremely on top of COVID precautions. Every restaurant (even the rural ones) we visited had a sign in sheet at the front desk for you to leave your name and phone number, and they would notify you via Iceland’s Rakning C-19 app if you had been exposed to Covid. Everyone wore masks indoors.
My Essential Stops in Reykjavik and South Western Iceland
Mokka Kaffi (casual coffee + breakfast)
Emilie and the Cool Kids (casual coffee + bagels)
Kaffihús Vesturbæjar (casual coffee + food)
Grandi Matholl (casual hip food hall)
Fish Company (higher end)
Kopar (higher end)
Fish Market (higher end)
Mat Bar (cocktails)
Silfra Restaurant at ION Adventure Hotel (casual)
Fjöruborðið (casual, langoustine soup is a MUST)
Fish and Chips (no website, food cart in parking lot of Secret Lagoon, hands-down the best fried fish of my life)
See + Do
Kolaportið (flea market)
The National Gallery of Iceland
Danau Tjornin (small lake in Reykjavik w/lots of birds)
Secret Lagoon (hot springs, lots of space)
Laugarvatn Fontana (hot springs, slightly crowded)
Blue Lagoon (hot springs, near Reykjavik, very popular + touristy)
Thingvellir National Park (lake in the middle, lots of hikes)
Bruarfoss Hike (waterfall)
Skogar Museum (Icelandic cultural museum + turf house museum)
Gljufrabui (waterfall crevasse)
The Reykjavik Residence (beautiful converted apartments in the old town area of Reykjavik within walking distance of restaurants and bars)
Torfhus (turf house hotels with private little hot tubs behind each one. Absolutely loved staying here!)
ION Adventure Hotel (didn’t stay here but had lunch in their restaurant and the hotel looked really nice)
Skalalot Hotel (beautiful hotel with lots of fun activities like horseback riding)
- Install the Rakning C-19 app, Iceland uses it to track COVID exposure and notifies you if you’ve been exposed
- Install the AllTrails app if you plan on hiking, it makes it really easy to find nearby trails and get a visual of what’s in store + the difficulty of the hike before you start. You can make a profile on their site and bookmark the hikes you want to go on, which makes it easy to find them quickly and navigate to them.
- Make sure your cell phone will let you use it in Iceland and call them beforehand to see if it needs to be “unlocked” and enabled on a global roaming plan for the time you plan to be there. You can also get an Icelandic SIM card instead at the airport and use it in your phone while you’re there. You definitely want to have a signal while you’re there so you can navigate to all the hikes and sights.
- This is the google map I made of all the places relevant to our trip.
Golden Circle + Bruarfoss + Hjalparfoss
Skogafoss + Sejlandafoss + Skoga Museum