Last month I traveled to Iceland, a beautiful country that I highly recommend taking a visit to if you like pretty things. If you like ugly things, may I suggest the hotel I stayed for my high-school after prom in Seaside Heights, New Jersey?
While the Northern Lights are apparently gorgeous, they are sadly non-existent in the summer. However, I still think June was a perfect time to visit Iceland. Coming from LA, I can’t handle bone-chilling temperatures so Iceland, where it never gets hot, was bearable this time of year with temperatures ranging from 50℉ to 60℉. Also, during the summer it stays light out all night–I never once saw the sky get black–which is odd but also, kinda awesome. This meant we had longer days to explore, and unintentionally, later dinners at around 10 PM every night.
Many people choose to stay in the main city of Reykjavik and take day tours but since we had five full days we instead rented a car and moved hotels most nights. I liked traveling this way because it meant less organized tour buses with that one woman who always asked THE DUMBEST QUESTIONS and more freedom for four friends to have ridiculous conversations as we road-tripped along Southern Iceland. Driving is pretty easy there–you are driving along one main road the entire time–only turning off to find very well-marked tourist destinations. Expect to see tons of sheep, wild horses and very few people.
Here are the spots we hit up on our Icelandic adventure (Fun fact: I just learned that more than half the people in Iceland believe in elves!)
The Blue Lagoon: This is one of the wonders of the world but here’s a buzzkill: it is actually man-made! Regardless, the milky-blue water and steam coming off of it made for a pretty backdrop and after a long flight, the warm water, about 100℉, is just what your body needs after your legs are shoved into the seats on Icelandair. It’s pretty close to the airport so I’d recommend going directly there upon landing. There are lockers where you can store your luggage and given the hefty cost (about $100 US dollars) the locker rooms are more spa-like than public-pool-like.
Ride an ATV in Grindavík: Nothing like jolting your body with a shot of adrenaline after relaxing in a warm geothermal bath. This is located close to the Blue Lagoon so we went straight there to ride ATVs with 4×4 Adventures. I thought it was thrilling albeit scary AF. While the tour description said we’d be riding along black sand beaches, we did none of the sort. Instead, our guide took us up VERY rocky terrain, along a mountain of lava rocks. There are two to an ATV and let’s just say, reviews were split amongst our group on if this was enjoyable or emotionally scarring.
Hotel Ork: Not all of our hotels were worth mentioning (unless you like sleeping in a dormitory with the creepy composite of students past looking over you) but this first hotel was clean, modern, and a great location to set out seeing the sights of the next day.
A favorite dinner of ours was in a small town called Selfoss, about 15 minutes from the hotel. We looked like garbage after roughing it on ATVs, and the restaurant, Tryggvaskali, was so kind as to not refuse us dinner. It’s an adorable house converted into a restaurant and the complimentary bread was so good that we continued to reminisce about it the rest of the trip. Also, the salmon. Get it.
Seljalandsfoss: A beautiful waterfall that you can actually walk behind. Wear rain gear because you will get wet!
Skógafoss: Do you like waterfalls? I hope so, because otherwise, this trip ain’t for you. You can walk up several stairs built into the side of the mountain to get a top-down view of the waterfall. On a sunny day, as we luckily had, you could catch rainbows everywhere. Also, before you post an Instagram photo using a hashtag relating to a particular Destiny’s Child song, ask yourself just how basic you want to be.
Hike Sólheimajökull Glacier: Thanks to global warming, what would have been a glacier several years ago, is now just a dirt path. We walked for a good 20 minutes until getting to the foot of what is now the glacier. There, we put on crampons (Can you think of a more fun word to say?) which allow your boots to become ice picks so you don’t slip as you hike up the glacier. A unique adventure but be warned, nothing labeled “easy” in Iceland is comparable to an American “easy.” The hike was slightly challenging but luckily, involved a ton of stops, as our guide imparted knowledge, using many food analogies like burgers and Mars bars to describe glacial formation.
After this, our tour guide recommended dinner in Vik, another tiny-ass town (they all are) at a place called Smiðjan Brugghús. After a long day of hiking waterfalls and glaciers, beer and a burger really hit the spot. Also in Vik, is Sudar Vik, another cute restaurant in a converted old house. It was surprisingly packed at 10 PM when we sat down to eat!
Dyrhólaey: This reminded me of Australia (humble brag, I’ve been there); it’s a beautiful spot overlooking the ocean with rock formations jutting out of it. If you’re driving along to the black sand beach (Which you will be, because you’re a tourist) it’s along the way!
Reynisfjara aka Black Sand Beach: Black sand, kinda cool, but basalt columns that naturally formed there, (why it’s not just called “salt” I don’t understand) are even cooler. This is another scenic point to check out along your southern Iceland drive.
Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon: This is a bit of a drive from the rest of the sites in southern Iceland but it was also my favorite! We drove out to what we assumed was a small town yet our guide on the boat ride we took corrected me: “It’s not a town, it’s a parking lot.” A parking lot next to the most awesome site: glistening glaciers amongst crystal blue water. At the very least, do the boat tour, and dear god, don’t make an “Iceberg, right ahead,” joke.
Skaftafell: So, I liked this hike, but again, “easy” is a lie. It was about a mile to, you guessed it, another pretty waterfall but it was mostly an uphill climb. Once there, you could hop on some rocks right below the falls and just chill after a pretty heart-pumping trek.
The Golden Circle: Tour bus central, this is the route along southern Iceland that everyone and their mother does. I think instead of a circle, we did a Golden smile, only making it to two of the three stops the route is known for. We visited the Geyser which if you’ve been to Old Faithful in the US, you pretty much get the gist. Then, we checked out Gullfoss Waterfall. It’s two-teared and massive compared to the other waterfalls we saw. The last stop on the Golden Circle which we didn’t make is Thingvellier National Park so if you go, tell me how it is!
Ride a Snowmobile on Langjokull Glacier: Instead of completing the Golden Circle we hopped onto snowmobiles on our tour with Arctic Adventure. Part of the tour was supposed to include exploring ice caves (which look amazing in photos) but the downside to the good weather we had was that the caves were flooded. But, there was still a snowy glacier we could snowmobile on. We took a bumpy bus ride halfway up to their basecamp to get suited up. We’re talking helmet, do-rag (this may not be the correct term but you get it), snowsuit, gloves, and goggles. Then, we got back on a bus for another “Is this going to tip over?” trip to the foot of the glacier. Similar to ATVs, there’s a learning curve before the terrified-ness wears off (or for some, it never does) but it’s a much smoother ride and there are guides in both the back and the front of the line looking out for you. Who would have thought it was possible to make snow angels in the middle of June?
The Secret Lagoon: This was what I imagine is the equivalent of a town pool to Icelanders. Again, after a very active few days, the warm jacuzzi-like water was very needed! Much smaller than the Blue Lagoon, this one is the size of a large pool with free noodles included with admission!
Reykjavik: We spent our last two days in the city and I’d definitely recommend ending your trip this way. After tons of adventure and feeling like we were covered in dirt 90% of the time, it was amazing how a shower and a blow-dry made us feel reborn as we hit the town for our first night out.
We had dinner at Dill; it was the only Michelin star restaurant in Iceland but it has since lost its star. Sad, but true. But, it is still the most gourmet experience you’re going to find there. We had a seven-course dinner that began with nine plates of “snacks.” These aren’t your typical granola bar or bag of almond snacks, these are teeny tiny bites of items you’ve never heard of like “beetroot & mysingur” and “reindeer moss.” Some were good, others were just… interesting. The best course we had was the “pork belly, rhubarb, lovage & whey” and we paired it with a wine tasting which made for a really fun experience and a nice buzz at the end of the night.
Leaving dinner at around midnight, the sky was lit up but it was still early for Icelanders to hit up the bars. Apparently, they are all about the pregame and then they tend to head out around 1 AM, staying out all night. The light helped us feel more awake but as mid-30-somethings after a full day of travel, we still couldn’t handle a full-on rage as well as the hangover that would likely ensue the next day.
Instead, we were up and at ’em exploring Reykjavik the next morning. There are tons of cute little shops, as well as souvenir ones that all started to look the same, along Laugavegur. For lunch, we decided to try what I had read was “the best hotdog in the world.” I rarely eat hotdogs, but after being sent to the most famous place for them, Baerins Bestu, I was expecting to become a convert. Nope. The other girls agreed; we were all confused about where this “best in the world” reputation came from.
There’s a very pretty church you can check out called Hallgrimskirkja and if you feel like paying some money, you can go to the top and see a view of Iceland. We skipped that because we’re Jews so interpret that as you will.
We stayed at Skuggi Hotel which was a perfect location, right in the city, so we could easily walk everywhere. That evening, we walked to KOL for dinner. Another pricey meal but everything was very large, fresh, and left us stuffed. Also, I gave up trying to convert Iceland dollars (where everything is in the thousands) to US ones, which makes overspending easier.
The next day, which was our last, we walked along the waterfront as well as by city hall and the Tjorn. You could take a boat tour from there to see puffins, tiny little birds that are supposed to be adorable. However, we met some drunk Icelanders the night before whom if I understood correctly, said it wasn’t a guarantee we’d see them this time of year. So naturally, I trusted their word and didn’t do the boat ride.
I flew back to the East Coast (where I’m originally from) and the flight was a quick four-and-a-half hours. If you live there, you have no excuse but to add Iceland to your future travel list. And even if you’re not as close, it’s still a great trip to take either on its own or as part of a larger Euro trip. Happy travels!