Are you planning your first trip to Iceland and are not sure what to see or where to stay? I love all things Iceland and am so lucky to have travelled there many times and have built up a lot of knowledge about where things are and in my opinion, the best way to travel there. I’ve already written a post about arriving and driving in Iceland , what to pack in both your suitcase and camera bag and the big ticket of how to see and photography aurora. So, I thought I would look more at what there is to see and where you might want to stay to help to get an idea of how to start planning your trip.
When to travel?
I don’t think there is ever a bad time to travel in Iceland. If you’re after seeing some aurora borealis then you’re going to need to travel between September and April when the nights are long as in summer they experience a midnight sun and 24 hours of daylight and you simply can’t see the aurora unless it is dark.
The winter months can be more challenging to drive in, particularly in the remote parts in the north, east and Westfjords but they can be the most beautiful with the land cloaked in snow! It normally snows between November and March, but the amount of snow varies on the area in Iceland.
In the summer months, the country springs into life and lupins cover the landscapes, puffins nest on the coastal cliffs, whales bask in the ocean and the days are super long. This is an idea time to go to the central highlands as these become inaccessible in winter due to the amount of snow and roughly made mountain and gravel roads. Its a great time for keen landscape photographers too who want to visit popular sites late into the evening or in the small hours of the morning when the coach tours are not running from Reykjavik, for much clearer shots of waterfalls and landscapes.
How to travel?
I personally prefer to self drive in Iceland and it is easy to hire a car and depending on the time of year, I’d recommend a 4WD in winter. I have covered a lot about driving in Iceland in a separate post which you can read by clicking here. It is possible to stay in Reykjavik and book coach tours to see parts of Iceland, but I personally prefer the freedom that having a car gives me, particularly for hunting aurora. If it is cloudy were I am staying, often you can drive to clear skies that you can see on the Iceland Met Office website to be in with a chance of a sighting. Without a car, you wouldn’t be that mobile. It is possible to get buses between towns in Iceland but these are often seasonal .
What to see?
This is so hard to answer! There is SO much to see in Iceland. For me it is so more than a package 3 night break in Reykjavik and a coach trip to the Golden Circle and Blue Lagoon. Give Iceland your time and it will give you such memorable experiences that you will hold in your heart so dearly. I have looped the whole ring road in a week but felt that we only scratched the surface, quickly seeing things on the way around. Apparently you can drive it in about 16 hours in good conditions! I’ve also stayed in one place for a week using it as a base and spending more time in one area. I personally like to stay in the middle of nowhere in winter so that if there is a chance of aurora, I am in a good dark spot!
I thought it might be helpful to group things together in what is achievable on a self-driving day or a couple of nights stay in an area:
The Golden Circle – Geysir, Gullfoss, Bruarfoss, Thingvellir National Park and Kerid
Reykjavik and surrounding area – Reykjavik, Hallgrímskirkja, Hiedmork National Forest, Reykjanes Peninsular and The Blue Lagoon
The South Ring Road – Selfoss – Vik – Raufarholshellir, Seljalandsfoss, Skogafoss, Dyrholaey, Kirkjufjara Beach, Vik
The South Ring Road – Vik – Hofn – more lava fields, Skaftafell, Svartifoss, Jokulsarlon Glacier Lagoon, Black Diamond Beach
West – Kirkjufell Volcano, Hvestikur & Westfjords
North – Akureyri, Godafoss, Detifoss, Selfoss, Myvatn, Lake Viti
East – Eglisstadir, Stokksnes, Hofn
These are all just top level ideas and you’ll need to get your google and p
Things to be mindful of….
When travelling in Iceland, it is really important to obey the paths that are laid out at popular sites. They are there for our safety and most importantly there to protect nature. The moss that you see covering the land has taken hundreds of years to evolve and can take hundreds more to recover from one foot print. When I first travelled you’d only see a handful of people at waterfalls and now there are easily 100 or more, with people desperate to get their selfie and paying little or no regard for the cordons and the nature it is protecting. It really saddens me that people approach nature with such little respect and my plea would be for you to not be that person. Iceland isn’t Disneyland, it is one of the most amazing places on our planet where we can get back to seeing how life began and how liberating vast open space, otherworldly landscapes and dramatic waterfalls can be. I am sure in time, cordons will become greater and the amazing and freeing experience of travelling in Iceland and being at one with nature will become over managed because of the actions of the careless minority. I saw a sign in one spot, ‘one set of foot prints lays out a path for thousands to follow’, which I thought was very profound and a path I beg of you not to make.
Where to stay?
This completely depends on what route you have planned. As I mentioned earlier, I love staying in airbnbs as it allows you to experience life like a local, get to dark spots for aurora, self cater which is pretty comparable to prices in the UK and usually gives you more space to relax in the evenings or if bad weather rolls in for a day. A lot of airbnbs have a minimum of 2 nights booking, so sometimes if I have been moving around, I have booked into hotels for a night. When you’re looking at Iceland as a destination, its important to remember that there are only around 320,000 Icelanders in the whole country. Compare this with London and there are that many people in individual boroughs like Bromley, Lambeth, Enfield and Newham! The main cities are Reykjavik and Akureyri and along the south coast, towns are Selfoss and Vik with smaller towns and villages along the main ring road that loops the Island. There is a good distribution of garages and supermarkets and there is more advice about these in a post by clicking here. As you’ll see in the images above and blew – these were views from one of my favourite airbnbs which you can read more about here.