Finally void of my post-vacation depression, I’m eager to share all the details of our second trip to Iceland. This trip was so different than the first. We saw the northern lights (twice!), got to know people from all over the world, lounged in a hot spring stream and eat some of the best seafood that I think only the seas of Iceland can produce.
Despite our four day trip in May 2014, Nicole and I had a hard time deciding exactly how many days we needed to drive the full Ring Road. But with a little help from the internet (these two posts specifically: Alex Cornwell and Pretty Prudent) and past experience, what we ended up with was perfectly timed with long drives and heavy adventure days in equal rotation.
Below you’ll find a breakdown of each day of our 8-day trip. We went about our trip clockwise from north to south. I don’t think you can do Iceland in a wrong direction, but nonetheless, here is our itinerary around Hringvegur (also known as the Ring Road or Route 1).
Day 1 — Blue Lagoon + Reykjavik
Do: Blue Lagoon
After your red eye lands, drive straight from the rental car office and/or airport to the Blue Lagoon. It opens at 8 a.m. and we were the first two in the door. Unlike last time, we weren’t rushed, had plenty of space in the changing rooms and took photos before anyone else was in the water. We kicked off our vacation with Prosecco from the swim-up bar and applied the customary silica face masks. You have to prebook your visit online. Get the ticket with towels and drinks included — worth it!
Eat: Bergsson Mathus
We loved this place so much the first time we visited, we drove straight here again for lunch. With more locals than tourists in this is quaint little spot, you get a taste of Icelandic culture right away. We had red pepper soup that I’ll spend the rest of my life trying (and failing) to recreate, an egg and lox bagel and a fresh chicken salad, and we could not have been any happier.
Stay: Storm Hotel
For a quick one night stay in Reykjavik, this place worked. We had a great little room with a brand new modern design, great bathroom and lovely beds. Otherwise, the hotel itself is not worth mentioning. It’ll do the trick if you’re looking for a cheap, trendy room but nothing else in terms of atmosphere.
On our first trip, we stayed at the Kex Hostel which is totally trendy-hipster-on-the-verge-of-way-too-cool-for-school, if you're in to that! More tips for Reykjavik found under Day 8, too.
Find It All Here: Day 1 Google Map
Day 2 — Snæfellsnes Peninsula
Do: Lighthouses, Moss Fields and Ocean Views
This famous area of West Iceland is just a two hour drive north of Reykjavik. We drove straight to the fishing town of Stykkishólmur, where we had the best lunch ever at Sjavarpakkhusid (see "Eat" below) with backdrops made of scenes from the Secret Life of Walter Mitty right outside the window. Then we made our way around the peninsula counter clockwise ending at Hótel Búðir. There were a ton of tourists on buses in this area that we were not expecting, but we still enjoyed the orange lighthouse in Stykkishólmur, Kirkjufell (Iceland’s most photographed mountain) and the Svörtuloft lighthouse in Snaefellsjoekull National Park, which is crazy desolate — lava fields, big whimsical cliffs and very few other people.
Show me a photo of this place today and I get it minorly emotional. I think this was the best lunch of my life! Entering the small log cabin restaurant felt like walking into the heart of the Icelandic experience, like I was a fisherman coming off a long trip at sea. Sitting right on the Stykkishólmur harbor, we watched boats come in and out while eating fish stew and the biggest, most beautiful fresh blue mussels out of a copper pot. At one point, I laughed so hard and felt so happy that I also kind of cried.
Stay: Hótel Búðir
Hótel Búðir feels like a mini version of the hotel in The Shining without any of the terror. It was the most expensive place we stayed and for good reason. It’s completely removed from all civilization on the south coast of the Snæfellsnes Peninsula. With the famous black Búðir church a few hundred feet away, we saw some of the most breathtaking views of the week from right outside our room — mountains, sea, sky, waterfalls and beautiful plains. For breakfast we devoured fresh fruits, funky cheeses and flakey croissants. The lobby is what makes this place out of a fairytale; it’s old-world decor overlooking the ocean makes you want to stay, snuggle up with a Bailey's and coffee (which we did) and never leave.
Find It All Here: Day 2 Google Map
Day 3 — 5 Hour Drive + Akureyri
Do: Long Drive + Photo Ops
The drive from Hótel Búðir to Akureyri, Iceland’s second largest city, takes about 5-6 hours depending on how often you stop. This drive was one of the most picturesque of our trip. One minute it felt like we were on another planet with visibility for what seemed like miles until the next, when we’d find ourselves driving up and around mountains and through valleys at golden hour. Not stopping the car to get out and photograph everything every five minutes was a challenge for me (just ask Nicole).
Eat + Stay: Icelandair Hotel Akureyri
Icelandair Hotels have yet to disappoint. Too tired to venture out for dinner, we had fresh cod, arctic charr and bonkers sweet potato fries in the newly remodeled restaurant where we met a couple in their 90s who had traveled to 60+ countries and still refused to quit. Our conversation with Tex and Joyce was a good reminder for both Nicole and I that we’re not alone in our desire to see as much as this planet as possible and that not everyone's lives look or end up the way society expects.
See: The Northern Lights
It’s a funny and wonderful experience standing in your PJs in the middle of the freezing cold night in a parking lot with strangers watching the northern lights. If you’ll be in Iceland during the winter aurora season, use this predictor to know what your chances are and ask the front desk staff at each hotel to put you on a wakeup call list if they’re spotted. We saw the lights when the predictor was at a rating of both 3 and 4 out of 9. Sighting seem more common in North Iceland because of less cloud cover, but who knows, they’re unpredictable!
Find It All Here: Day 3 Google Map
Day 4 — Epic Day in the Mývatn Geothermal Region
See: Krafla Power Station, Víti Crater, Námaskarð, + Grjótagjá Lava Cave
First, check out Goðafoss waterfall between Akureyri and Mývatn. Then the Krafla Power Station and Víti (meaning “hell”) Crater will be a quick detour off the main road. On the way up you feel like you’re trespassing on a private power plant — you're not! Take spacey photos in front of the power domes and the random stand alone shower. Grjótagjá is an underground cave worth taking a little climb into to see the crystal blue water and, for you Game of Thrones fans, where Jon Snow apparently “breaks his vows.”
Námaskarð is literally what Mars must be like. The earth is so alive and molten here with sulfuric bubbling mud and steam springs. Imagine leaving an egg salad sandwich out in the sun for a week and then taking what’s left of it and putting it in a Ziplock bag and steaming it in the microwave for an hour. That’s what this place smells like. But aside from that, it’s amazingly beautiful and literally breathtaking.
Do: Mývatn Nature Baths
Most everyone in the Mývatn Nature Baths were younger travelers like us — drinking beer and wine in the water, hanging out at the edge of the infinite pool at sunset. We met new friends from Germany just hanging out and hopping between different pools. This is the perfect way to relax and end a long day with lots to see. The vibe here is similar to but much less touristy and stuffy than the Blue Lagoon. If you choose one over the other, pick Mývatn.
Eat + Stay: Hotel Laxá
Located in the middle of nowhere just near Lake Mývatn, this place was desolate, brand new and still figuring out it's vibe. We had a great stay, most notably because of the northern lights sighting we had here. With no lights from a surrounding city to brighten the sky, we were able to see and photograph the aurora from the parking lot. We really needed this second opportunity to try to photograph the lights, which is harder than it seems even if you’ve researched camera settings and have a tripod.
The room at Hotel Laxá left some to be desired since it kind of felt like a dorm, but for one night it was fine. The bar upstairs has an clean cut IKEA vibe and was great for grabbing a low-key drink with new friends from North Carolina, one of two couples who we ran into numerous times. You cross paths with the same people a lot, which I totally love.
Find It All Here: Day 4 Google Map
Day 5 — 5 Hour Drive + Seyðisfjörðurm
Do: Visit Seyðisfjörðurm
The drive from Mývatn to Höfn is about 5 hours and totally doable in one day, despite how overwhelming it looks on the map. One of the original reasons I wanted to go to Iceland in 2014 was to witness the windy road that Walter Mitty skateboards down with José González singing Stepping Out as his soundtrack. It felt like a very long time coming when we drove up the mountain toward this epic view, surprise waterfall and serpentine road. It’s gorgeous, remote and absolutely lived up to the hype. The road winds down to the base of the fjord to the sleepy and adorable town Seyðisfjörðurm.
Eat: Lunch at Hotel Aldan
Sitting at the end of a rainbow brick road (no, seriously), it was the only place that looked both open and packed. The lunch was insane. Nicole and I barely spoke except for ooh’s and ahh’s over the marcona almond salad, the cheesy, creamy veggie lasagna, the roasted red pepper chicken, the salad greens that were clearly hand-picked from someone’s farm that morning and the most insane warm bread with salmon and beet spreads. Eating next to a local fisherman and his wife on their lunch break made the experience even more authentic.
Between Seyðisfjörðurm and our next hotel was Teigarhorn, an old house right on the coast that is known for it’s abundance of zeolites. The Hvalnes lighthouse and the tiny village of Höfn are also quick stops to make along this drive around the eerie and majestic east fjords.
Eat + Stay: Fosshotel Vatnajökull
For being a small hotel in the middle of nowhere, our langoustine (baby lobster!) pasta, carrot soup and salad turned out to be one of our best dinners. Our room was so cozy and made us feel like we were in an adult fort. When we woke up to rain the next day, we had a hard time leaving. If you head out this way on your trip, absolutely stay here!
Find It All Here: Day 5 Google Map
Day 6 — The Glacier Party
On our original itinerary, I labeled Day 6 as the GLACIER PARTY. Looking back, I think the universe was taunting me for that. A rainstorm came through the night before and literally just sat atop the entire south coast that day.
See: Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon
Our favorite and most mind-blowing destination from trip one was practically unrecognizable to us. The visibility was so bad that we could only see a few pieces of ice in the lagoon and could not tell there was a humungous glacier practically right in front of us. We were bummed but still got some pretty epic shots and had seafood soup and coffee for lunch. Jökulsárlón is still what I consider the most iconic and beautiful thing in Iceland. If you’ve never been, chances are you’ll have the same magical experience we had the first time around.
Do: Glacer Guides Iceland - Glacier Walk
After a 15 minute bus ride with just eight others from Skaftatell National Park, we had our crampons and ice picks (lolz, really) ready, crossed a few small glacier rivers and footbridges, learned how glaciers are formed, and how global warming is melting them at a record rate. But just as we were approaching the glacier, the rained picked up and our tour was cancelled. The team at Glacier Guides Iceland was insanely friendly and accommodating (s/o to Scott & Pete!), refunding us completely. Needless to say, the glacier party was not exactly what we envisioned, but we'd do it again in heartbeat.
Eat + Stay: Fosshotel Núpar
After staying at Fosshotel Vatnajökull the night before, our expectations for this place were so high, but we were disappointed. This was our least favorite hotel. I wouldn’t recommend anyone stay here but it was the perfect location to break up the last two days of the trip. It seems like Fosshotel just bought this hotel to flip it, so maybe check it out post-2017 and see what's up!
Find It All Here: Day 6 Google Map
Day 7 — South Coast
Fjaðrárgljúfur canyon is where fairies live, I am sure of it. It’s the perfect short hike to start the day and is like experiencing real-life fern gully.
At the Reynisfjara shore (famous black sand beach near Vik), the sky was gray, the tide was in, and the tourists were hanging in masses. We looked around, realized our 2014 experience could not be matched and left. At Dyrhólaey, the wind unapologetically snapped a piece of the driver’s side car door off while I was opening it to get out. After thirty seconds of total panic and a small meltdown thinking we were about to lose a car door in the ocean (we did not), we realized these two places are must-sees for first timers, but having seen them before in better conditions, we knew it was time to seek out new adventures. Check out images from trip one, here.
Just past Dyrhólaey, you can see the Sólheimajökull glacier tongue peeking out between hill tops. We turned off the Ring Road to find we could walk right up to it. The beauty of this blue glacier in the sunlight really helped the mood.
Do: Hveragerði Hot Springs
We ended our last day with a 45-minute (each way) hike through Hveragerði, following a small stream up and around a hillside. We had seen pictures of people bathing in this stream before but never really felt compelled to check it out. That being said, this ended up being the emotional highlight of my trip. I usually get my biggest emotional highs from doing the things you can only experience right where you are traveling. So stripping down to our bikinis in the freezing cold wind and jumping in the hot steaming water with a few dozen strangers felt like the only thing to do.
It's at this point it hit me hard that I was doing it — getting out and experiencing something wholly different than my own life. This is what makes Iceland a dramatically unique experience and was a wonderful way to close out our second trip. Not gonna lie, I may have had some overwhelmed-with-gratefulness tears on the trek back to the car.
Eat + Stay: Alda Hotel Reykjavik
This hotel was kind of a splurge but had a gorgeous room and bathroom with Icelandic birch soap that I was thrilled be able to purchase in large quantities at the airport. The lobby was packed with Europeans hanging around fireplaces in sitting nooks. At the attached Barber Bistro, we had chicken risotto, lamb and $20 gin gimlets to celebrate the end of our trip. Despite being on an crowded street and having no parking lot, we loved this place and considered it a lovely retreat after seven days on the road.
Find It All Here: Day 7 Google Map
Day 8 — Morning in Reykjavik + Flight Home
Eat: Your Way Around Reykjavik
On our last morning, we gravitated to the colorful bakery Brauð & Co. for pastries (chocolate croissant = out of this world) and turmeric juice before we settled in at Reykjavik Roasters for coffee, where we could have sat all day with locals who were reading papers and chatting with friends. The final stop was Pylsuhusid Hot Dog House because well, hot dogs. It's debatable whether this hot dog or the one at the famous Baejarins Beztu Pylsur is Iceland's best, but IMHO, this place wins 1) because I can't remember the hot dog at Baejarins and 2) because it's so cute!
And that as it. We headed to the airport and all that was left were take-off tears and tissues.
Find It All Here: Day 8 Google Map
Here's a bit about some of the crucial yet less exciting stuff to keep in mind:
Plane: WOW Air
Everyone asks me about WOW because it's considered a "discount airline" but honestly, it's one of the nicest I've flown. It’s half as much as Icelandair and the planes are brand new, clean and quiet. They get you with the baggage allowances but we weighed ahead and had no quarrels with airline employees... this time.
Instead of driving from Pittsburgh to Baltimore, we flew — thank God! You can't connect another airline's flight to WOW, but picking up our bags after the first Southwest flight and going back through security was no issue. At BWI, the WOW Air check-in desk doesn’t open until an hour before the flight, so if you have a long layover, like we did go hang out in the SkyBar between flights. It has good wine, decent food and doesn’t feel like you’re stuck in an airport.
Car: Lotus Car Rental
Landing in Keflavik International can be a little overwhelming. It’s 5 a.m. Iceland time, you’ve had barely any sleep and have no idea what you’re doing. Lucas from Lotus drove us the five minutes to their office and was a warm welcome, joking about an impending volcanic eruption that was going to keep us in Iceland for months (apparently this volcano rumor was actually semi true). Lotus is lesser known but is the only company I could find that offers 4-door SUVs with unlimited mileage, which you need to drive the whole Ring Road, and good insurance coverage for almost half the price of all their competitors.
Our Suzuki Grand Vitara was in good shape and we were incredibly happy with it until 40 minutes into the trip when we realized, despite asking for one when we booked, there was no AUX input in the car. Our first trip’s soundtrack was such an important part of our experience, so I went into crisis mode and considered returning the car. Apparently none of the cars Lotus owns have AUX inputs, so long story short, we ended up spending $80 (I can barely even admit this) on an FM converter (yes, like from 2002) that we bought at Elko (the Best Buy of Iceland, which is an experience in an of itself). All in all, I strongly recommend Lotus, especially more than Sixt who we used last time, just BYO FM converter. I'll happily loan you mine. ;)
WIFI: Trawire 4G
Guys, this is a game changer. You pre-order an unlimited wifi hotspot and set a pickup location that works for you. We picked ours up at the N1 gas station in Hafnarfjord, which is the only town between the Blue Lagoon and Reykjavik. We used this in the car, in hotels, and in place of renting a GPS, which is so, so overpriced but necessary. Our first trip, we used a different wifi provider and got totally ripped off, not knowing we were only allocated 3GB of data. With Trawire, we used 16GB between the two of us and could connect all of our phones, iPods and iPads for only $95. At the end of the trip, you seal the device in the provided envelope, drop it in the mailbox at the airport and you’re done. No human interaction required.
Don’t tip! It’s included which will make you feel better when you see the cost of meals is relatively high.
Even hotels with huge restaurants in the middle of nowhere want you to have reservations. With a little heckling, you can get seated no problem. We never made reservations but almost always got asked if we had them.
Don’t get a lot of cash. We exchanged $40 at the airport, knowing we barely used any cash last year, and this year we ended up spending almost all of it on gas just to get rid of it. It’s only necessary for tolls near the Snaefellnes tunnel (surprised by that thing!) and for admission to the top of the Hallgrímskirkja church in Reykjavik, so $20 is plenty.
Get a credit card with no foreign transaction fees. I used my Discover It card everywhere it was accepted (about 75% of the time) and had a Mastercard for backup.
I booked most of our hotels through Booking.com. I'd never used the site before, but I'll definitely use it again because of the ability to cancel or change a reservation up to 48 hours in advance in most cases.
- Everything in Iceland is expensive. We spent between $140-$300 on each hotel, about $100 on dinner, and a lot on gas. Overall, we each ended up spending about $2,500 for the week. If you like to eat and sleep in cushy places like us, it racks up fast, but you can definitely do it cheaper.
- Tourism is up in Iceland 30% in the last year! The country is obviously marketing to both the US and China to keep people coming in. It's great for Iceland's economy, but if you're expecting a completely desolate experience everywhere you go, it's not. We recommend going in the weeks or months just before and after the high season (April/May and October/November) to avoid the worst of this.
If you’re planning to go for a shorter amount of time, our original 4-day trip itinerary is still something I fully recommend.
All that said, I hope this post helps and inspires you to plan your trip the way that Iceland inspires us. Feel free to leave questions below if I left anything out. Peace!