There’s no denying it. Iceland is so on trend right now. Instagram is flooded with influencers posing perfectly at the edge of glacier lagoons in perfectly planned outfits taken by professional photographers. The rush of tourism to Iceland has even been known to turn off certain travelers who claim it is becoming “too touristy.”
After an eight-day trip driving a full loop around the country, I can confidently say this. Iceland is wild, breathtakingly untouched, stunning land that soothes and refreshes the soul in ways I could never have imagined.
The heart of Iceland is not just perfectly planned photoshoots…
It’s wet, messy hair stuffed under a hat and layers of thermals that you’ve worn for 3 days in a row.
It’s cold mud that gets in your boots, in between your toes and splatters your car from top to bottom.
It’s hot dog dinners at gas stations in 50-people towns in the middle of what seems like nowhere.
It’s driving for 4 hours without seeing another car on the road.
It’s the heart-pounding moment that you lock eyes with a baby seal playing just a few feet away, as you stand on the edge of a lagoon filled with creaking, massive glaciers floating by.
For the traveler seeking glorious, exhausting, non-stop exploration, Iceland is the place. While there is a fair share of luxury for those who seek it, and even more rugged adventure for those who seek that—my trip to Iceland was somewhat in between. And to me, it was perfect.
The trip started with an email from a friend with the subject line “Iceland Itinerary and What You Need to Do to Join.” This map was attached.
With only roughly a month before the departure date, my husband and I decided that we were in.
Starting at the Reykjavik airport, my husband and I, plus our two friends, set off in two Dacia Dusters on our road trip. In the end, our final road map looked like this:
To create a tour guide of highlights is a perfect way to call out the special places that you might circle on a map like the one we made above. But it almost does an injustice to the in-betweens—the hours of driving across breathtaking land that held some of the most memorable moments of the trip. Stopping alongside a beautiful waterfall or to pet a pony on the side of the road. Each car had a walkie-talkie (I highly recommend this if you are traveling with another couple) and some of my favorite moments where hearing my friend Sera yell, “Ponies on your right!” over her walkie-talkie, or, “Apparently, you can drive into a crater if you drive down that dirt road coming up on our right…. Want to go?”
So if you looked at that map and, like I did at first, thought Nope. No way am I driving that much and covering that much space in 8 days. I understand. And it’s not for everyone. I might even eliminate some detours and stops if I were to go back for a second trip. But I wouldn’t have changed one thing about this trip.
For the sake of a traditional travel guide, here are some highlights for you to circle on your map when you plan your adventure. But know that there is so much more in store!
*Did I mention that one of our friends is a professional photographer? It’s thanks to him that many of these beautiful photos exist! Thank you to Richard Pardon for letting me share the stunning photos in this guide.
Waterfalls… so many of them
Iceland’s waterfalls are so glorious that a “Waterfall Guide to Iceland” would be long enough for its own article. The waterfalls are so massive and majestic that they’re just humbling to witness in person. A few of our favorites that are easily accessible were:
Although there were countless more that we didn’t have an opportunity to see that are on our list for our next trip!
Jökulsárlón, or ‘Glacier’s-River-Lagoon’, located right next to the famous “Diamond Beach” is another popular tourist destination, also for very good reason. Approximately 5 hours from Reykjavik (if you don’t stop for other attractions), this lagoon is a must see.
Knowing that it is popular with tourists, we got to the lagoon just as the sun was rising before the café and tour boats opened for the day. As a result, we were completely alone—making this my most memorable moment of the whole trip.
Standing at the edge of the lagoon, you find yourself in complete silence, outside of the creaking and crashing as glaciers make their way through the lagoon and out to sea. I remember hearing the subtle splish-splash of water as two little seals playing right in front of me as I stood by the water. Not to sound dramatic, but this was probably one of the most peaceful moments of my life—feeling completely in awe and overwhelmed by God’s wild, untouched masterpiece that I was seeing in a way that I never had before. I challenge you to go there and not feel the same!
*Note: I stress, go early! As soon as the boat tours opened and the tour buses arrived, the tranquility was not the same.
Walk across the road to Diamond Beach, named after the thousands of ice chunks lying across the sand that resemble diamonds glistening in the sun.
Otto Matur & Drykkur, Hofn
While many of our meals consisted of quick, roadside sandwiches, our meal at Otto Matur & Drykkur was the highlight meal of our trip. As you pass through Hofn, I highly recommend stopping to eat at this stylish, beautiful restaurant. The restaurant describes their style as taking good old traditional Icelandic recipes and the best local ingredients to create fun and tasty food. The homemade bread and butter is reason enough to stop, alone!
The “Walter Mitty Road” into Seyðisfjörður
If The Secret Life of Walter Mitty was an inspiration for your Iceland adventure, you definitely need to visit Seyðisfjörður, a town in the Eastern Region of Iceland at the innermost point of the fjord of the same name. As you drive towards the town, you go down the same windy road that Walter Mitty longboards down in the movie. And if you haven’t seen this film and are planning a trip to Iceland, I highly recommend watching it.
The picturesque town is home to lovely restaurants, shops and hotels that are even worth a couple nights stay to leisurely enjoy. Make sure you see the famous rainbow road leading up to the church in the center of town!
Ólafsfjörður, and into Siglufjordhur
Ólafsfjörður is a town in the northeast of Iceland located at the mouth of the fjord Eyjafjörður. The town is connected to Dalvík on Eyjafjörður by the 3.5 km one-lane Múli tunnel (through the mountain, itself!) and to Siglufjörður by the 11 km Héðinsfjörður Tunnels. We stayed in Ólafsfjörður at the Brimnes Hotel and Cabins, located right on Lake Ólafsfjörður. There, we took kayaks onto the lake, hiked the surrounding mountain paths, went berry picking (a local specialty!) and enjoyed the local cafés.
But just a short drive through the mountain tunnel lets out to beautiful Siglufjörður, a small fishing town in a narrow fjord—this fjord was once bustling when the herring industry was strong in the 40s and 50s, no longer productive in the region today. Now, it is a small, sleepy town that is a beautiful place to stay for a few nights on your Iceland adventure.
Visit The Herring Era Museum and make sure to have some beer and herring at Hannes Boy—also stop by Frida Chocolate for a hot drink and delicious treat! The Siglo hotel is a beautiful stay if you are looking for a little bit more upscale hotel in Siglufjörður—not Ólafsfjörðurl, which consists of more casual lodging and restaurants.
Whale watching is available at multiple points throughout Iceland, however, we decided to go when we were in Húsavík, a town in Norðurþing in the northeastern region. We loved it and were lucky enough to see dolphins and a whale!
Note: The waters are choppy and the tour is long. I recommend taking motion sickness pills or refraining from the tour if you know that you tend to get motion sickness easily.
By far the most “luxury” moment of our trip was at the Blue Lagoon, one of the most talked-about destinations in Iceland at the moment. Despite definitely being “touristy” in terms of the crowds, it did not disappoint. With a face mask bar, sauna and in-water bar, floating around the warm geothermal lagoon surrounded by freezing, rugged landscape is pretty unforgettable. Most of the tourist buses come in the morning, so an evening reservation is best if you want to avoid the crowds.
The hotel and restaurant attached to the lagoon are just the luxury addition needed to make the Blue Lagoon even more special. We went at the end of our trip, and after days of muddy feet and dirty hair, it was just the pampering we needed to recharge. I recommend this order over starting at the Blue Lagoon.
Reykjavik, the capital of Iceland was our last stop before flying home. While we spent very little time here, it was clear that the stylish, beautiful city has a lot of culture, food and art to explore. We did get to do a bit of shopping and stop by the famous Hallgrímskirkja chapel.
These highlights simply scratch the surface of what Iceland has to offer. The in-betweens—the detours down remote fjords, dirt roads, small towns, long stretches of road, sheep, horses, Airbnbs—are some of my favorite memories. So this wouldn’t be complete without a few photo memories of those moments. If you’re planning a trip, these are a snapshot of the moments that breathe the spirit of Iceland…
Cheers to your Icelandic adventure that awaits!