Iceland at summer's end?
January 31, 2016 3:43 PM   Subscribe

I will be in Iceland from August 25-September 2nd this year. So far all I have booked are my plane tickets and two nights in a youth hostel in Reykjavik to start off the trip. What should I do? What are some places that are must sees?

I have wanted to take a trip like this forever, but now that I am at the serious planning stage I am a bit overwhelmed with all my choices and all the places to possibly see. Some things to consider:

-I'd really like to experience as much of the country as possible, both the city life and more rural areas.

-I'm currently trying to decide if I should rent a car for part of my trip, or go with a bus pass situation such as this.

-I will be traveling alone as an American twenty something female.

-Things I like: hiking, history, animals, alternative scenes and music

If you have been to Iceland, what was your absolute most favorite thing you experienced there? What would you not do again?
posted by aspenkf to Travel & Transportation around Iceland (15 answers total) 31 users marked this as a favorite
Iceland is great! You will have a blast.

My comment about renting a camper van is here. I got the impression from my research before going that bus travel would be tough. However, you could definitely rent a car and then camp.

My favorite areas were around Myvatn, Vik, and Jokulsarlon. There isn't anything I would skip. We chose to drive clockwise around the Ring Road from Reykjavik. For time reasons, we skipped Snafellsnes and the West Fjords, but they are supposed to be cool. We drove from Reykjavik to Akureyri on day one, then took our time with the rest.

Iceland is super cool. Have a great time!
posted by TrarNoir at 4:14 PM on January 31, 2016

I stayed in Reyjkavik for 1.5 weeks for work trip and was able to leave the city for one day and visit the sites. The Golden circle is the drive to the main attractions that are a few hours outside the city. These include Geysir, Thingvellir and Gulfoss Falls. All of those are must see especially if you are interested geology. The fish stew in the cafeteria in the parking lot at Geysir is some of the best I've had.

Another must see is the Blue Lagoon hot springs which is between the city and the international airport. Its a giant pool of warm milky blue water.

Reyjkavik is very small. You can hit most of the sites by walking. Most of the action is on or near the main street is called Laugevegur. There is a large church in the center of town on a hill. Make sure to check out the Harpa concert hall on the harbor which is a new stunning glass and steel building. I found food is very expensive there but most of the meals were very good. I ate breakfast at the Bakarí Sandholt several days which was good and not too pricey. Kyr is the yogurt that is very popular. Kol was a really good restaurant. Kopar was also good and on the waterfront with a niece view of the harbor. Bæjarins Bestu had good hot dogs.

Atop a hill overlooking the city is the Perlan which is a collection of 4 water towers. Its a nice view of the city and they have a cafeteria with standard Icelandic food.

There's a beach with sand imported from Morocco just south of the city. Its a bit tricky to find as you have to be looking for it so here's the link with directions.

There was a public pool fed by geothermal spring which are popular throughout the country. It's a giant jaccuzi. The etiquette is to shower before going in. I went swimming in the ocean but didn't get very far. The water was about 10deg C.

I went in August and it was not too chilly for me and didn't get dark until ~1am.
posted by euphorb at 4:21 PM on January 31, 2016 [2 favorites]

I looooved Iceland. You're in for a treat.

I would highly recommend renting a car for at least a couple days if you can swing it. It's so much nicer to experience the country at your own pace, rather than packed into a big tour bus rushing from stop to stop. That's so counter to how such a uniquely beautiful place like Iceland ought to be experienced. Also, unless you plan on making Reykjavik your "home base" every night (which is totally cool to do but it will limit how much of the country you'll be able to see), you're pretty much gonna have to rent a car. Public transit options are extremely limited once you leave the city.

If you do rent a car: Driving the entire Ring Road might be doable in the amount of time you have, though it will mean you have to really rush the drive and skip a lot of stuff on the way -- especially since you mentioned you're staying at least your first 2 nights in Reykjavik. My trip was about the same length as yours and I ultimately decided to focus half of my time on Reykjavik and the surrounding sights, and the other half on the South Coast + Jokulsarlon. And I still didn't get to see everything I would have liked to!

I don't think there was anything I did or saw that wasn't awesome, but some highlights were: Dyrholey cliffs, Vik (black sand beach), horseback riding in the South Coast, the Solheimajokull glacial tongue, Jokulsarlon glacial lagoon, and all the waterfalls. I was also quite fond of just turning down random f-roads and seeing what I came across. But be forewarned: 1- do not do this if your car doesn't have 4x4 capabilities as the f-roads are not always in the best shape, and 2- do not EVER drive off-road in Iceland, it's illegal.
posted by darkchocolatepyramid at 4:45 PM on January 31, 2016

I have too many favorites from Iceland, so I will probably forget some. I spent a week driving the ring road, starting from Reykjavik. I went in early June and just stayed in hostels, which I did not prearrange. Outside of Reykjavik, they tend to be much smaller than what you think of as a hostel. In fact, some appear to just be large farmhouses set up for boarding. I only had trouble finding a room one night, and it was mild trouble -- the second hostel I tried in the same town had space. I possibly had a guidebook listing the various hostels, perhaps picked up from my first few nights in Reykjavik. Also, I booked my rental car through the Reykjavik hostel when I arrived, and it was a FAR better deal than anything I could find online. I was there before the high season hit, so you'll want to find out how much busier (or not) it will be during your visit, to see if you are willing to leave such things to chance.

The Blue Lagoon is fairly touristy, but I still think it is worth a visit. In particular, if you arrive at like 9/10am on a redeye and can't check into your hostel until noon or something, it's a great place to stop off for a super light activity and gorgeous views while you acclimate.

I went to Thingvellir as part of a conference trip, and the geysers are pretty neat. However, I arranged the best part on my own -- diving in Silfra fissure, where you can touch both the European and North American continental plates at once. It has its downsides (mostly having to wear a drysuit due to the fact that you will be in near-freezing glacial meltwater), but it was one of the most gorgeous things I have done ever. The water is crystal clear and has an amazing prismatic effect. Snorkeling is also an option, and you will get the same beautiful views.

I splurged on an excellent meal at a fish restaurant in Reykjavik; it should be easily googleable. Definitely worth it.

I did lots of short (1-2 hour) hikes throughout my trip to break up the driving. Always excellent.

The Myvatn area was fantastic to see. The bubbling mud, hiking on steaming volcanoes, steam vents, gorgeous views all around.

I loved pretty much every waterfall (and I was constantly stopping to check out waterfalls), but especially Dettifoss, even though I had to drive a somewhat sketchy country road to get there.

The glacier lagoon (Jokulsarlon) is stunning. Keep an eye out for leopard seals :)


In theory, the whale watching should have been amazing, but I tried it twice, and it was a total bust. Most offer a guarantee -- if you don't see whales, you can go again for no extra charge. But you will not be especially motivated to spend another too many hours on the freezing damp boat and possibly get seasick again. I tried from Reykjavik and also Husavik, which is billed as the whale capital of Iceland. Literally zero whales in sight. I would definitely recommend passing on this. Possibly relatedly, eating whale meat is NOT a local tradition, as some restaurants will try to tell you.

The other main thing I would be more careful about is safety. Crime is a nonissue in my opinion, but Iceland is quite wild, and traveling alone as I did, I should have had a much better safety plan. If there had been trouble while I was hiking, or if my car had broken down in the white-out snowstorm I drove through in the mountains, things could have gotten quite dicey for me. I'm not sure exactly what I would adjust, but this is something to put some serious thought into.
posted by ktkt at 4:50 PM on January 31, 2016

Iceland is lovely and there are wonderful suggestions here already. I would add that you should take a hike out to Reykjadalur Hot Springs. One of my favorite things when I was in Iceland. I believe there is a tour out there, if you google around for it, but we drove there ourselves and hiked out. It's right off the Golden Circle.
posted by weeyin at 5:03 PM on January 31, 2016

The National Museum of Iceland was a pretty decent exhibit, gives you some orientation about the history of Iceland, and suitable for a rainier afternoon.

I visited a geothermal power plant, and thought that was pretty neat and unique to Iceland.

I didn't really like the public pools. Aside from being fed by geothermal springs, it didn't seem like anything special.
posted by gemutlichkeit at 5:35 PM on January 31, 2016

Everything already said is great advice, and I'll add that if you can work it, going to the Vestmannaeyjar islands was totally a highlight (got to hold a puffin!), and a week in a small village in Greenland was a life-changing experience, like hiking on the moon.

I did the whale watching, and we saw tons of whales. On another boat tour they dredged the floor for urchins and scallops and dumped them on a big table, gave us knives and spoons, and oh my god.

Definitely hike a glacier.

The Herring Era museum was really good.

I toured a geothermal plant, which I didn't really care about, but it was pretty interesting. Cleanest place I've ever seen.

All the viking stuff. The Settlement Exhibition.

Really, there's not much you can do there that isn't pretty awesome. The one thing I would skip is river rafting, but that's because I've done it many, many times where I live.
posted by Huck500 at 5:36 PM on January 31, 2016

I was there in September 2015 and was quite surprised how booked out the accommodations were in Reykjavik and surroundings. You will need reservations in advance unless you have a tent. We could not find anything at any price point in Vik so ended up at the town campground, fortunately we had our tent! Public transportation in the city is great, but out is very hard. Iceland is one of the only places I've been to date where I really wanted to have a car. (If you are just doing the golden circle, it is not necessary, you can take the bus). Food is expensive and not very interesting (truly a sad combination) but the coffee and chocolate were both quite good.

In Reykjavik there is enough to do for several days (museums, the main Laugavegur street, harbor sightseeing, a great independent movie theater showing international films with English subtitles called Bio Cinema). Walk to the church on the hill, the concert hall at the harbor is also pretty nice.

That said, Iceland is a very interesting and fantastic place. Nature is the draw, so see as much as you can. I hiked the Laugavegurinn trail, which is one of the most amazing multi-day treks I've done, and also did some short hikes in Thingvellir and camped there two nights. You can take the bus (tourist buses, not city buses) to Thingvellir and do the Silfa diving/snorkeling and some nice hikes along the lake. I don't know of any overnight accommodation in the park other than the camping. The waterfalls by Skogar, Gulfoss and Skogafass are pretty cool and don't miss the geyser if you haven't seen one before.

Most of our trip was on the hiking and camping excursions so we didn't leave the West and Southwest regions, need to go back! You will have a great time, but make sure you have a place to stay in advance. It is not a place for spontaneous travel due to the super-high demand and very limited supply of hotels/restaurants.

Memail if you have any specific questions about the hikes. Have a great time.
posted by perrouno at 8:02 PM on January 31, 2016

Note: be careful with the wind, it can be very strong, so open the car doors with caution. The stories you will hear about the wind are all true! Also, check out the Grapevine, it's chalk full of resources about bars, events, and things to do.
posted by perrouno at 8:04 PM on January 31, 2016

Response by poster: Great, helpful answers everyone! Renting a car and planning out at least where I'll be spending the nights seems like the way to go. Cannot wait for this.
posted by aspenkf at 8:58 PM on January 31, 2016

Paging Kattullus....
posted by brujita at 10:20 PM on January 31, 2016

I've been twice. Once we were based in Reykjavik only, and once we spent some time there and some time driving around. I'd recommend Jokulsarlon, Vik, Dyrholaey--all on the south coast--over Snaefellsness if you have to choose. Love Blue Lagoon but be aware it's Disneyland in a giant hot tub. With a swim up bar. The Golden Circle is my least favorite thing, though we did drive through it on our own. Try an adventure tour, like snorkeling in 33F degree water in Thingvellir National Park, and then check out the desolate beauty of the park itself. Ride Icelandic ponies. Do a glacier walk. Get to the beach next to Jokulsarlon at dawn to take fairly mind-altering photos of icebergs being beached. (Arrive early to get a place among the dozens of other photographers, many of them professionals.)
posted by ImproviseOrDie at 2:47 AM on February 1, 2016 [1 favorite]

I'm going to be in Iceland this August (driving the ring road & a bit of the West Fjords) - it's my first trip so I can't give any advice except BOOK YOUR ACCOMMODATION NOW. I mean NOW.

We are travelling mid-August so more high-season than you, and we did it this weekend, and we found that 90% of the places we had wanted to stay, or were in the guidebooks, or were recommended, were sold out already. I couldn't get *anywhere* in Myvatn for a weekend in mid-August. Air B&B seems less booked out, as do farmstays, but they aren't actually much cheaper than hotels or hostels. I don't want to scare you, but it took us totally by surprise - anywhere out of Reykjavik should be a priority for booking asap if you want to stay anywhere other than a campsite.

I had a recent past askme on Iceland, and in the end we went with hiring a 4wd & booking accommodation; it seemed to cost about the same as hiring a camper of any kind - but that would give you much more flexibility and time to plan and consider where to stay, so it might be a better option for you at this stage.

(alternatively, if you suddenly discover all the magical unbooked places in Iceland, do let me know).
posted by AFII at 3:17 AM on February 1, 2016

Pricey but amazing (and you're picked up by bus from Reykjavik): Inside the Volcano. One of the most interesting things I've done anywhere.

Very cool and somewhat-ish off the beaten track: this crashed plane. You need a 4X4 or to take a tour to get to it (i.e not a rental car), but it's not far off the main road and there is constant tourist traffic.

Also expensive but hell of a trip: snowmobiling. I don't recall which company we used I'm afraid, but there are lots of reputable ones around Reykjavik.

Finally, we stayed in el-chepo hotels in Iceland and found that there was often no receptionist. To check in, there was a code in the booking confirmation email which you used to open a lockbox in which were the keys to the room. Can be difficult to figure out after a long day and a few beers.
posted by StephenF at 4:53 AM on February 1, 2016 [1 favorite]

I'm sure you've seen this AskMe here, but if not, it includes my recommendations.
posted by SpacemanRed at 6:14 AM on February 1, 2016

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