Iceland. It’s a country that is on every nature lovers bucket list. A country full of natural beauty and wonderful people. A country that’s been voted to have the nicest people world wide for the better part of the last decade. A country that will break the budget within the first day if you don’t prepare properly. A country that will pull out the adventurous side of everyone and will leave you wanting to come back for more.
“Want to go to Iceland?” Sure, why not!
The idea of a trip to Iceland came about when a good friend of mine said we needed to start looking into our next international trip. Both of us are frequent international travelers and his next destination was in Europe so Iceland seemed to be the perfect middle ground for our next international trip. Coming from the midwest, it was an easy international destination, one 1 hour flight followed by a 6 hour flight. Not bad for someone wanting to visit a completely different culture and trying to add a stamp to the Passport.
Similar to most of my international adventures, there was very little research done before heading on the trip. I heard from a few friends that visited the country to be prepared for everything to be expensive so making this a super budget friendly trip was going to be a bit of a difficult time, so I had an idea before hand this was definitely not going to be like my super inexpensive trips to Southeast Asia. This was going to be an adventure of a lifetime, so I was okay with having to leave a bit more money in the budget.
Hostel Life at a Hotel Price.
The first day and night in Iceland was on my own so I did what I always do. I checked Hostel World for the best hostel deals in Reykjavik, the capital of Iceland. I was surprised when I noticed the average price for hostels was $65USD+ a night. Thinking that all the hostels there might be private rooms, I dug a bit deeper to discover that that was not the case at all, for that price I would still find myself in a bunk room with 4 people. Quite a bit different than the price I’ve paid for similar accommodations in the past.
I ended up staying at a hostel called the Hlemmur Square Hostel which was situated less than a block away from one of the main bus stops in Reykjavik, making it easy to catch a ride to and from the airport and anywhere else I needed to visit. The hostel was quite nice, the main level included a large lobby area, complete with plenty of space to relax and a nice coffee/bar area. The hostel hosts were full of knowledge and had a lot of useful information to share along with a nice list of great local restaurants, bars and sites to see. The room itself was very similar to many of the hostels I’ve visited. Bunk beds complete with large personal lockers with a restroom and shower room right down the hall.
City Life – Adventuring around Reykjavik
The capital and largest city in Iceland is Reykjavik, which is located about 45 minutes from the international airport located in Keflavik. To be honest, I would call it Iceland’s only city. While there are countless towns sprawled across the country, the only one with a larger population from what I saw was Reykjavik. The city of Reykjavik is beautiful and full of history, an abundance of shopping and local restaurants and bars and a wide variety of local hotels, hostels and even a couple campgrounds.
As a summer traveler I thought spending one day and night in the city gave me plenty of time to visit the sites I needed to see and enjoy the local dining and nightlife options. One of my favorite activities I did during the day was joining in on a two hour walking tour hosted by City Walk Iceland. The tour began right outside of the Parliament building and visited many of the sites that Reykjavik has to offer. Our guide was full of useful information and had quite the humorous personality which made the tour very worth the while. The tour is considered “free” but a collection of donations is taken at the end of the tour. Donating what you feel the tour is worth made it very stress free and the tour guide himself didn’t walk around holding a bag to donate, he just set a bag no the ground and went around answering questions while people walked up and gave their donation.
The dining experiences in Iceland are extraordinary, but also fairly expensive. I had a nice local lunch which included a local fish casserole and couple side items as well as a beer which set me back about $40. Later on in the day I enjoyed a light dinner with an appetizer of raw salmon followed by another appetizer of raw yellow fin tuna and a local cocktail for around $80. The service charge is built in to the price of most restaurants so if you pay with a credit card there is no line for extra gratuity and it was a welcoming surprise to see that if you didn’t leave any extra money on the table you were thanked with a large smile and asked to come back soon. A big difference from many of the European countries I’ve visited where service charge is included and you felt like you were being stared down if you didn’t leave an extra tip.
My favorite dining experience happened the last night I was on the island. My friend and I decided to make a quick trip into the city after a 2 1/2 day adventure around the island where we ate nothing but snacks and felt the need for a real Icelandic meal. We stumbled across a restaurant called The Fish Market and expected to just sit down and enjoy a couple local appetizers and beers, but what it turned into was much more. Due to there only being two of us and no reservation, there was no seating available unless you sat in front of the area where the chefs prepared the food. We waited about 15 minutes and luckily 2 seats became available. Honestly, these were the best seats in the house! To see the culinary creations made right in front of our face was quite the experience!
We settled in, ordered a couple local appetizers and drinks and kept a close eye on the others being served around us to see what was being ordered. An older couple next to us had small plates being delivered every few minutes and we found out that the restaurant ordered a tasting menu which included four appetizers, three main dishes as well as an assortment of deserts. It was a bit expensive, but to have a wide variety of local food it seemed like quite the deal, saying the average price for one appetizer was $30+ and the average main course was between $60+. Each plate that was serviced was beautiful to look at and the unique flavors of each dish were incredible! If you’re looking for a culinary experience, this is the place to do it! Just remember to bring some money! The tasting menu was set at about $110 per person, drinks not included.
Iceland Adventures and Unique Accommodations
The only real research I did before arriving to Iceland was looking into vehicles to get us around the island. Thanks to a tip from my cousin who has visited previously I figured the only proper way to see the island was by renting a 4×4 vehicle with some time of attached camper or tent. There is a wide variety of different options when it comes to this. You can rent a super rugged lifted 4×4 that looks more like a heavy duty military vehicle that can crush everything in its path (for a small fortune), you can rent your typical 2-5 person RV’s, trucks with campers on the back or my favorite option: a smaller 4×4 with a pop up tent ON THE ROOF! Of course we had to go with the final option, not only because it was hilarious to look at, but at $200/day it wasn’t breaking the bank!
Ring Road and The Golden Circle
Two of Iceland’s most well known adventures include a tour around the Golden Circle and the Ring Road.
Ring Road is Route 1 around the island. An 830 mile 2 lane highway that goes around the perimeter of much of the island. It’s a narrow highway with twists and turns through the mountains and valleys with stops in many of the small towns across the country. Most travel sites recommend leaving around 5 days minimum to do the route, we decided to do the entire route in 48 hours. Lucky for us, we enjoyed 22 hours of sunlight each day and the 2 hours between sunset and sunrise we enjoyed some of the most spectacular colors in the sky that I have ever seen. Needless to say, it never did get anywhere close to dark.
Our first day on the Ring Road included spending the first 12 hours detouring off to adventure around the Golden Circle, an area of Iceland outside of Reykjavik filled with beautiful waterfalls, geothermal areas full of mud pots, geysers and hot springs as well as many other natural beauties. It seemed like every 10 minutes we were making another stop to see another amazing natural beauty.
After our 12 hour detour we hopped back on Route 1 and visited a few beautiful beaches and as 1am approached we decided it was about time to find a camp ground. Lucky for us, the 4×4 rental owner recently found a great camping site located 25 miles off of route 1 at the end of a 4×4 road that pulled into a beautiful valley. We listened to his advice, pulled in at about 3am and set up shop for the night.
We woke up the next morning, pulled out the map to start planning our day and thats when we discovered that we really didn’t make much ground at all in our first day of travel. Honestly, we made it less than 1/8th of the way on the route so we knew we had a lot of ground to make up. We packed our belongings, and folded up our tent (a process that took less than 5 minutes) and were on our way! The only issue we had was we kept running into incredible sites that we had to stop at! We saw incredible waterfalls, giant cliffs, monstrous glaciers and the clearest of lakes filled with Icebergs so we continued stopping time and time again. Before we knew it, it was already 9pm and we had only covered another 200 miles of land!
Knowing that we had plenty of things we wanted to see the final day, we decided to pull an all nighter. We would take turns driving, blasting tunes and listening to documentaries and drive as far as we could safely drive. We would just push through to get as far as we could! Mother Nature decided she was going to help us out and when 11pm hit the sun started to set while we were in the highlands and the sky was lit up with beautiful colors from sunset to sunrise. Thoughts of sleep disappeared as we were both extremely wide eyed and just in awe of the beauty we saw. As 4am rolled around we had covered an additional 400 miles and finally felt like we were in a comfortable spot to finish our journey the next morning. We pulled about 100 feet off the road, popped the tent and were sound asleep 5 minutes later for a quick 3 hour nap.
The morning of our final full day on the island we woke up and decided to once again adventure off of Route 1 and adventure around Iceland’s West Coast. We quickly discovered that we were pretty spoiled with the weather over the past couple days as it was extremely windy and rained for the rest of the time we spent on the west coast. We did cross some pretty spectacular lava fields and visit black sand beaches that were quite stunning, however the weather put quite the damper on our spirits and after very little sleep we seemed to be a bit edgy and less than impressed. Our last stop before heading back to Reykjavik to repack, eat and relax would be a geothermal pool we found on Trip Advisor that came with some very unique reviews. The pool itself which is a heated geothermal pool is also filled with green algae which gave a very unique look to the pool. It was quite slimy and if we saw anything like it in the US there is no way you would consider entering. However, there are plenty of health benefits due to the algae and the pool was quite busy with locals so we decided that it would be a unique place to visit and enjoy. At the very least we would be able to shower for the first time in 3 days and relax for a bit and regroup.
Overall Experience: A++
Overall, Iceland lived up to all the expectations. The people, the food, the sites and the experiences were all incredible and something that everyone should see at some point in their life. Would I recommend spending 3 1/2 days on the island and attempt to see it all? Absolutely not! We are sure that we missed out on plenty of amazing sites, but we knew what we were in for from the start and made the best of every moment. Would I recommend spending 5 -7 days adventuring around Ring Road like every other informational site recommends? YES! If time allows, it would be well worth it.
Summer is a magical time in Iceland and while some of the sites are a bit crowded, overall there wasn’t much traffic on the highway and you were truly able to enjoy the country without feeling stressed due to the amount of other tourists.
Do I see myself coming back to Iceland in the future? If given the opportunity, I would love to! Will I be back during the summer any time soon? Probably not. There is too much of the world to see. Plus, I can already hear the Northern Lights of winter calling my name.
Thanks for the adventure Iceland, you were a treasure!