ICELAND TRAVEL TIPS: what to see in 1 week on the Ring Road
Iceland is a one of a kind travel destination. Many travel just to Reykjavik and attempt to make day trips out from the city and don’t get much farther than the golden circle. Alas, this is only a glimpse of this beautiful country. The east coast of Iceland was the #1 most beautiful drive of my life. Up north, you will feel as if you’ve been transported to the Game of Thrones universe. In fact, you should drive the entire ring road and see most of the country. Many would disagree, but I think the golden circle (outside of Reykjavik) is great, but there are better sights to see if you aren't the typical tourist that's hesitant to face adventure. And that's why you're here, right? You are not a tourist: you are a traveler and a wanderer. We have many miles to go before we sleep, my friend.
- Book your tours/adventures ahead of time (Blue Lagoon, Ice Cave/Glacier tours)
- Get a rental car (SadCars is easy, we liked them)
- Iceland is one of the most expensive nations in the world - each meal at a restaurant will run $30-40
- You MUST see the whole country (drive the ring road) or make a return visit, but overall, be sure to visit the Blue Lagoon, DC-3, Black Sand Beach, Glacier Lagoon/Diamond Beach/Ice Cave Tours and a few of the many waterfalls along the way
- Plan for at least 7 days if you want to see the whole country
- Booking.com / Airbnb.com / Hotels.com for lodging
- Weather is temperamental - it will change quick, but overall, it’s cold (surprise!)...go in winter for northern lights
- Alcohol has a heavy tax, so be prepped for $10-15 beers (or buy it at a grocery store)
- Some specific gear you might not think of: hand warmers, ice cleats, & microfiber towel/shower shoes for hot lagoons
- Download maps ‘offline’ from Google Maps and you’ll have zero navigation issues and won’t even need a cell signal/international data plan (your phone has GPS at all times)
A sample google map with sights marked/driving directions is below. You choose your own pace, but these are the major sights we saw (you should obviously add more!) and it can be accomplished in 6/7 days. Choose your lodging as you see fit according to the driving distance between locations.
Things to see in Iceland - (first 2-3 days)
The first two/three days will be jam packed because everything is relatively close to each other. After you land, hit the Blue Lagoon, spend a day in Reykjavik, and off you go on the ring road. See the majestic waterfalls, DC-3 wreck, black volcanic sand beaches, glaciers and diamond beach.
Things to see in Iceland - (after first 2/3 days)
After your activity filled first two or three days, you're going to be in store for some of the most scenic driving you can imagine. Make your way up the east coast fjords and towards the Myvatn region. Here you'll see more natural baths, thermal vents, and volcanoes. After this, you can head back south along the ring road and tour a couple things on the Golden Circle that should be seen if you have the time. Lots of driving for this portion of the trip, but you'll be stopping at random waterfalls and other things you see despite them not being marked on this map.
That’s the bottom line up front on the “who/what/where/when and how” of Iceland. If you want the “why” - just click the video above and watch our adventure. If you don’t have the time, and just want info on a specific activity/scene, scroll through the post below and click the thumbnail for that particular section and the video will start at that point. You can take the simple info given in the BLUF and plan a very decent Iceland adventure, because everything else is normal travel stuff. However, if you’re a planner that lives and dies by schedules and little trip details, you’re going to want more on the “how” aspect...keep reading!
BEFORE YOU GO:
The one thing you should do prior to heading to Iceland is, at the very minimum, book some of your activities. Specifically, you should book your admission to the Blue Lagoon near Reykjavik because they have a somewhat strict schedule of check-in times to keep the traffic flowing into the locker rooms/showers and eventual entry to the waters. There are a couple packages you could spring for - we stuck with the very basic. Anything above the basic entry seems to be superfluous; you can pay extra to use one of their towels (we brought our own microfiber towels that fold/pack up pretty small), you’ll need to bring flip flops/shower shoes, and you can also pay extra to gain access to the green silica for your face. Do you want to spend an extra $20-30 for these things?
Another activity you should book ahead of time is the tour of the ice caves on the various sites that offer it. For ease, we used blueiceland.is because they were slightly cheaper, and guess what, they take you to the same cave/glacier that the expensive companies do.
You will need a rental car to get around Iceland. If going in winter, it will need four wheel drive! SadCars has the best rates from what we saw and they are easy to work with.
WHAT TO PACK FOR ICELAND:
There are two distinct ways to see Iceland: the summer and the winter months. Both have their advantages, but we chose winter to increase chances of seeing the northern lights. If you decide to go during the winter, there are a couple things you should bring that maybe you wouldn’t typically think about:
-Micro-fiber towel that packs/folds small to save space if going to lagoons
-Hand-warmers (if going in winter, just bring tons of them, they’re great)
-Under-armour cold weather base layers are fantastic
-Yak-traks or similar ice cleat foot gear to allow walking on ice
I can’t speak highly enough about my northface jacket. I’m super bummed that I accidentally left it in a hotel room, which made our last day of the trip a bit chilly (for me).
THE BLUE LAGOON:
This is one of the most highly rated attractions in Iceland. And for good reason, because it’s actually pretty neat. Most folks will plan this for first thing on their itinerary...or as the very last. It’s relaxing, for sure, and it’s halfway between the airport and Reykjavik, so those are your two windows to visit. It is a bit pricey, however, and if you want to save funds, there are cheaper lagoons up north (this is definitely the touristy one).
Fun fact: in the Blue Lagoon scene, you see some giggling. That’s because we had just realized the silica you see behind us on the rocks and the sludge layer on the bottom is NOT what everyone else is putting on their face. Fate would have it that we didn’t notice the hut where everyone was getting fresh scoops and applying to their face...yes, imagine the horror when we realized we were using second hand silica! It’s still good for the skin, right?
“Wow, look at those people. Their silica mask is really thick and staying on their face. Why is ours so runny?" -Silly Girls
Admin detail: you will be given a locker with entry, use this to your advantage to snap some pics with your camera and then put it back in the safe/dry locker and enjoy the Lagoon.
Iceland should be called Waterfalland, because there are literally waterfalls every 10 minutes. In fact, there are some that would be considered beautiful anywhere else, but most visitors don't even stop for a second look because they don't even register compared to others in the land of epic waterfalls. Remember when I mentioned those ice cleats? As we journeyed up and down to the path behind Seljalandsfoss we almost lost our lives. Slip on cleats would have been fantastic and kept our heart rates down. Also, be wary of the chunks of ice falling from the top of the cliff - they were upwards of 20 pounds and if one were to hit you on the head...well...you know. Another fantastic waterfall is Skogafoss, which has open fields below it for some unique photo opportunities as well as some gnarly, cardio testing stairs to the very top for an elevated view.
DC-3 PLANE WRECK:
My gosh, what a long walk. Why didn’t any of the travel blogs I read tell me how long the walk is to this plane? It’s nearly 2.5 miles from the parking area. Why is this important? Well, don’t think you’ll just wear a light jacket because you’ll see the plane real quick and be back in the car. Also, we lucked out: a storm was blowing in and it started to rain but only lasted 5 minutes. We had our winter jackets, but I was scrambling to hide my camera and we would have been soaked if it didn’t blow over. Bottom line, you don’t have a quick retreat to your vehicle like most other sights...so think about that when you set out (handwarmers? umbrella? poncho? snacks? waterproof bag? snacks?)
The wreck is beautiful in it’s own way, with the coastline as the backdrop on one side and mountains on the other. If you get there mid-day, there will be people climbing in and on it, so don’t count on that magical desolate photo. You can wait your turn, ask people to move (please?), or arrive early/later in the day. If you have some photoshop skill, you can just edit them out of the shot later.
ICE CAVES/GLACIER LAGOON & DIAMOND BEACH:
Look, three sights in pretty much one location! Chyea, but be prepared for a long day. Here’s the strategy: book your ice cave tour as one of the first to leave that morning. You’ll probably have to get up super early (we did) to arrive on time, but you’ll finish your tour around mid-day and be able to spend the next 3-4 hours at the glacier lagoon and driving across the street to diamond beach. It’s a lot for one day, but you’ll have be taking advantage of the limited daylight and be able to continue heading north along the ring road (because you’re seeing the whole country, right? Right!). Also, the ice cleats you saw in the video came with the ice cave excursion, which is how we realized how awesome they would have been on other parts of our trip. Days like this are why I recommend making the commitment to travel around the ring road in its entirety and find lodging along the way. It would be extremely difficult to accomplish all of this if you were forced to drive all the way from Reykjavik. Rewatch these scenes to get a sense of everything you can expect to accomplish in a single day.
After this point, the remainder of the video takes place in the Myvatn region of Iceland. Thermal vents and geothermal activity abound! You’re now in the portion of Iceland (and Earth, mind you) that has been formed very recently (around 700,000 years ago).. That’s right, it’s new earth and extremely cool to ponder as you walk across the hardened lava fields. There are lagoons for bathing, lava fields for sightseeing, and the infamous love cave from Game of Thrones. If you venture to the vents at Hverir, read the travel secrets below (you’ll thank us).
Iceland Travel Tips!
SECRET ICELAND LOCATIONS
This section is all about bring value to you, the traveler, the wanderer. If you've read this entire post, fantastic! I hope you enjoyed it. If you're an efficient travel planning machine, you probably watched the video, read the BLUF, and came straight here for the pro-tips. I appreciate that as well; it's one of the reasons I'm even working on this guide. Below are a couple things you might not think about and/or just wouldn't know without having already gone to Iceland:
When you get to glacier lagoon, you will not be alone. You may struggle to get a photo without 4-5 drones in the air and folks throwing up peace signs in the background. That’s to be expected! It’s such a beautiful location, truly elegant and reminiscent of some long forgotten ice age. However, on your way to the lagoon, you may notice these small dirt roads or dirt parking lots slightly before you approach the main parking lot. After the Glacier Lagoon scene in the video, you see us completely alone with everything Iceland has to offer. That’s the result of parking off the side of the road and climbing over a small hill. It is a well kept secret because you simply can't see what's over this hill, and frankly, we stumbled upon it. In fact, in the embedded google map below, you'll see this 'alternative carpark' only has 34 reviews on google, with zero actual comments. Clearly some folks are keeping this a secret (by the way, there are several spots to park, I just chose the one that google offered up on the map). It isn’t a must see tourist spot, but it was one of the most memorable because it was us, the glaciers, the seals, and a quietness that just can't be described. It was truly calming and we stayed here for at least an hour and a half. This is where I snapped the photo of Maggie in the yoga pose used as a thumbnail on the homepage.
In the Myvatn region, you’ll come across some thermal vents at Hverir that are awesome to behold. However, they are in the middle of sulfur enriched mud. Tons of mud. The kind of mud that fills the treads of your shoes (it’s like clay) and wants to stay there until death do you part. We spent 30 minutes cleaning our boots before we could get back into the rental car, which involved fistfuls of snow and trying to ablate it from the soles. If you were to acquire three shopping bags (or something similar/disposable) for each foot and tie them around, you’ll be renowned as a genius traveler and many onlookers will bow to you in respect of your preparedness and obvious experience conquering this world. Anyway, this is another tip that I never found in all of our trip research and felt compelled to pass on to you.
At Skogafoss, you'll have some very unique photo opportunities if you have some kind of high rain boots or somethings you can wade in. The water is only a foot deep or so across the spillway, and I was extremely jealous of the two people that were able to wade out and get photos of the waterfall without 30 tourists in it.