We first went to Iceland in May 2012. We rented a car and drove the ring road. We saw black sand beaches, a massive glacial lagoon, and a handful of waterfalls we'd only read about in books. We walked along the edge of an active volcano, saw whales and puffins and Icelandic horses (don't call them ponies), and Thom ate fish that was pulled fresh from the sea while I filled my belly with copious amounts of root vegetables. Although we were there for two weeks, the trip felt like days. We came home exhausted, and I came home thinking that Iceland was beautiful but did't feel like I had enough time to really experience all the beauty we'd gotten to see.
Fast forward to this past July. We'd just finished watching The Secret Life of Walter Mitty and our wedding photographer had just returned from her own trip to the land of fire and ice. I remember looking at Thom and being like DUDE. Iceland is calling. We have to go back. And although we tend to be the impulsive type when it comes to travel (case in point: on Christmas morning, Thom bought tickets to India for October) (?!), we sat on the idea of a second trip for a good two weeks until we finally took the leap and purchased plane tickets without taking into consideration the fact that going on a trip at the end of November meant that December was going to be a little.. crazy.
(It was. And I'm so happy it's over.)
Although cramming as much as we can into one trip is my favorite way to travel (more bang for your buck, yo!), we took a different approach this time around and decided to revisit our favorite places (Reykjavík, Jökulsárlón, Vík, etc.), and then spent upwards of a week out at a remote cottage in the west. We had originally planned on having the cottage be our headquarters while we explored the Westfjords and Snæfellsnes Penninsula, but after arriving to a basket of hand knit sweaters and waking up to Icelandic horses in the front yard, we decided to scrap our plans and stay at the cottage all week. And although it wasn't productive as far as sightseeing goes, it was exactly what we needed at that particular moment in time.
If you're visiting Iceland for the first time and have at least 10 days, I recommend renting a car and driving the ring road. Vík, Höfn, Húsavík, and Akureyri were our favorite places on the route, but each of the stops has something to offer. A lot of people will tell you otherwise, but skip the Blue Lagoon. It's insanely expensive and there are so many other options (both less commercial and cheaper/free) that it should come as your last resort. Like if you're stopping over for a weekend and heading there on your way to the airport (which I'd actually recommend).
If you only have a few days in the country, I'd stay put in Reykjavík. But if you want to get out and see a few things, I'd recommend a morning drive to Jökulsárlón then heading back West for a night in Vík. Wake up early and explore the surrounding area, then make your way back Reykjavík to wander around the city for a day. Although you can drive the Golden Circle in a couple days time, I'd skip it and do the route we did below. Jökulsárlón and Vík are not to be missed when visiting Iceland. Someone needs to inform the Iceland tourism board.
If you've been to Iceland before, I recommend spending time in your favorite places as well as some time at the hillside cottage in the West. Or any cottage, really. Basically, any place where you are surrounded by unspoiled nature. A place where you can relax and take it easy; where the days feel effortless and the nights involve nothing more than an itinerary of swimming at the local pool, cooking dinner, and gazing at the stars (or Aurora, if you're lucky).
And because I can't do a post about Iceland without mentioning it: Iceland is expensive. The most expensive place we've ever visited. Gas was the equivalent of $6.50 a gallon and there's no such thing as a cheap meal unless you're eating day-old sandwiches from the 24 hour convenience store. Alcohol comes with a hefty tax so drinks will set you back a pretty penny, but most (if not all) of the things worth seeing are free. So there is a glimmer of hope for your bank account, after all.
I love Reykjavík. Like, really, really, really, really, really love Reykjavík. Of all the capitol cities I've visited, Reykjavík is my favorite. Not only is it highly walkable and visually stunning, but I'm 99.9% positive it's impossible to get a bad meal or sub-par cup of coffee in that little city.
One of the things I love most about Reykjavík is that there aren't a lot of things you have to see. Meaning you can spend more time eating and drinking and wandering aimlessly and less time trying to cram a bunch of museums or monuments into your agenda. The only three things I highly recommend is that you at least go inside Harpa, take the elevator up to the bell tower at Hallgrimskirkja, and catch up on the history of the settlement of Iceland's oldest city at Reykjavík 871±2.
Eat Some of the best vegan food I've ever eaten has been in Reykjavík. Graenn Kostur (temporarily closed for renovations), Gló, Gardurinn, and Cafe Babalú are all favorites that I would highly recommend. The Laundromat Cafe doesn't have many vegan options but it does serve up a mean brown toast that's loaded with alllllll the veggies. So you should go get that, too.
Fine dining in Reykjavík doesn't cost much more than regular dining. Most meals ran us $20-30 and a really good meal will only set you back $15-20 more. Grillmarket, Fish Market (spring rolls for vegans, holla!), Hannesarholt, Snaps, and Sushi Samba all came highly recommended and have at least one vegan option that isn't just a bowl of leafy greens. Although, if not stated specifically on the menu (some of them change with the season), you'll have to call ahead and ask. If you're trying to eat on a budget, Cafe Babalú and Noodle Station have vegan meals for $10-15.
Thom's favorite doughnut in the world is at a little cafe called Sandholt. They have delicious breads and pastries, but he always goes for the caramel doughnut and says it's unlike any he's ever had before. If you're down with dairy, you should give it a try. If not, you should pick up a loaf of their super seedy bread and spread it with one of their homemade jams.
If you rent an apartment with a kitchen, or even if you don't and just like to keep a stash of snacks with you (this lady!), Heilsuhúsið will be your new favorite grocery store. It stocks everything from raw desserts and energy bars to coconut milk and tri-colored quinoa. They also serve up fresh-squeezed juice and vegetable heavy smoothies, which I enjoyed more than a few of the mornings we were in town.
If you eat meat, Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur is the most popular hot dog stand in Europe (according to our travel guide) and has a consistently long line from the time they open until the time they close. Icelandic Fish and Chips (not to be confused with Reykjavík Chips) serves up amazing battered fresh fish. But if you're not down with fish, you can feast on one of their many salads and/or the roasted potatoes. Which are out of this world good. Like, so good that I'm currently salivating just thinking about them.
Coffee + Booze I go to Reykjavík Roasters any morning I'm in Reykjavík. The coffee is consistent, the tunes are fucking fantastic, and the baristas are incredibly kind. Earlier in the trip I left my MacBook there by mistake (alllllll afternoon) and not only did I go back in to find that they had safely tucked it into their back office, but they also gave it a charge. Which basically means I'll be a customer for life. Get an oat milk latte and grab some beans to go take home - they roast in house, almost weekly.
If you'd prefer a little variety in your coffee excursions (I'm a creature of habit, what can I say?) Mokka serves up a mean cup of jo, Brennslan makes a good soy latte (and they serve beer), and Stofan Café is a great place to cozy up with a book and/or people watch.
If you're looking for a night out on the town, your first stop should be Kaldi Bar. Kaldi is a must. Go in and visit Siggi (the nice gentleman pictured above) then ask him for beer and a shot of Brennivín. The place is packed during happy hour so make sure you get there early to secure a spot, otherwise you'll find yourself standing in the corner of a crowded room. Loft Bar has live music on the weekends and has a huge open space with couches for lounging. Kex Hostel is known for their drinks (possibly only by travelers), but they also serve caffeinated beverages and hella delicious food. The space is super funky and awesome, so you should definitely head that way to at least check it out.
Sleep We've stayed at several places in Reykjavík and our new favorite is guesthouse Numer 29. The owners (a former banker and Russian visual designer) restored a house just down the hill from Hallgrimskirkja and right across form the bus station (that will carry you from and to Keflavik International Airport). The finishings were truly impeccable (pink Smeg! bathroom tiling! lava sauna!) and the rooftop spa made for insanely relaxing evenings after spending our days roaming around the city.
JÖKULSÁRLÓN + VÍK
We drove to the South for two days and a night. It was a bit hurried but we left Reykjavík early in the morning and made it to Jökulsárlón just before sunset. It was wildly foggy but the conditions made for an interesting contrast to the view we saw the first time we visited a few years ago. From there we drove back to Vík and stayed on a nearby farm. If you're going during the high season, we recommend staying at the Volcano Hotel. Although we tend to prefer renting apartments compared to hotels, this place (the ambiance, the food, the hosts, etc.) cannot be beat.
We woke up early the next morning and caught the sunrise on one of Vík's black sand beaches. It was the first time we had seen the sun since leaving Denver and to say it was nice to feel its warmth on our cheeks would be an understatement. We also got stuck in a short downpour and then a rainbow appeared, so that was pretty fucking awesome. Dyrhólaey and Reynisfjara beach shouldn't be missed and, if you can find it (it took us a while), the wreckage from a US Navy plane that crashed in 1973 is pretty spectacular.
We left Vík shortly after noon and headed up to Gullfoss. Thankfully we arrived just before sunset, which seemed to be a common theme during our time in Iceland. We grabbed a bite to eat (him) and a caffeinated beverage (me) from the cafe and then we hauled ass to the cottage. But not before going out of our way to stock up on groceries and booze in Borgarnes.
When I originally booked the house on the hill, I had zero intentions of using it for anything more than a base while we explored Snæfellsnes Penninsula and the Westfjords. Neither of which happened. Partly because we decided that the West would best be experienced under meteorological conditions more conducive to things like hiking and camping (ahem, summer), but mostly because we arrived at the cottage and were, for lack of better words, totally blown away. So we spent all five days cooking our meals from scratch, soaking in nearby hot pots, and exploring the mountain pass in which the cottage is situated. I also spent a lot of time sipping coffee while watching the horses from that cozy green chair. Best five vacation days of my life? You bet your ass they were. We can't wait to go back.