Iceland lives up to the hype. Trendy? Sure, I guess. Worthwhile? Oh, hell yes.
It's dramatic, barren, raw and moody–guaranteed to be unlike any other vacation. The landscape transforms with every season, offering new reasons to return any time of year. Every 50 miles, the scenery changes wildly from farmlands, glaciers and waterfalls, to black sand beaches, craters and miles of curious Mars-like terrain. It's paradise for lovers of landscape sightseeing, photography, hiking and road trips, and a worthy destination for travelers seeking any level of adventure.
What I love most about Iceland is that you can have a rich and diverse experience whether you're there for 4 days or 2 weeks, in winter or summer. And while the entire island has non-stop natural attractions, you can experience much of the best sights by sticking to one general area - the southern region. This makes itinerary planning very easy, especially since all the points of interest are along one main road, with the furthest about a 6-hour drive from the airport.
Basic things to note when planning:
Iceland roads are few but very well-maintained. For most of the country (aside from the northwest), the Ring Road remains very flat. There is always just one road anywhere you go, and its only two lanes. The speed limit tops out around 60 MPH, and if there's traffic or inclement weather, plan to go 40. We saw several flipped cars, so drive the limit and don't try to pull off the highway for pictures or other stops unless there's an actual turnout. The road is usually elevated with no shoulder, and a hard-to-see embankment on either side. Winter driving can be intimidating with the possibility for snow drifts, but they plow regularly, and if you rent a car with studded winter tires and you should be fine.
Summer can be quite pleasant, and winter seems to average around freezing. Due to its location somehow, it gets warmer weather than you'd assume with it being so far north. I'll spare myself the google search and you the science lesson, just know it's not as cold as you'd think.
Once you leave the busier region of Reykjavik and the airport, it is mostly farms and vast, undeveloped land. There are very few gas stations, hotels, markets, and restaurants. And while not a problematic deficit, it requires a little planning to ensure you don't go without a decent meal or gasoline. Never go below a half tank, and don't expect to just stop for food when you get hungry. Only book hotels with free breakfast and available dinner (most of them have both) to ensure you have at least two solid meals each day. The Southern region has more facilities and infrastructure than anywhere else outside of the city, due to its concentration of tourist attractions... but it's still not that much.
Northern lights (Aurora Borealis) - It needs to be dark to see them, so you will not see them in summer months when the sun never fully sets. So if that's important to you, plan accordingly. It is not a given you'll see them, since they just come out when the conditions are right and the sky is clear. Some hotels offer to call your room to wake you if they are active in the middle of the night, just ask the front desk. The best way to catch them is to follow the forecast at en.vedur.is and plan to go outside away from the hotel lights for while. If you fly into Iceland at night from the USA, get a seat on the left side of the plane for a chance to see them from your seat.
The Golden Circle
The Keflavik airport and Reykjavik are in the southeastern region. A few minutes northwest of town, you will find the start of the Golden Circle—a road that takes you in a giant circle, passing by some of the country's most popular points of interest. This is mostly why Iceland is such an excellent candidate for quick stopovers. You can technically drive the whole thing in 4-5 hours, but it's best done in 2-3 days. The landscape here can get a bit uninteresting in parts since it is mainly vast, flat farmland. But don't worry, it gets very interesting the further east and south you go.
What are the must-see/do experiences?
Thingvellir National Park - Famous for the crystal clear fissures you can scuba dive through. A nice, leisurely walk on paved walkways makes for a casual hour or two of exploration. Not the most incredible of sights in the area IMO, so if you're short on time I would skip.
Gulfoss waterfall - These massive cascading falls are a must, and mark the westernmost point of the circle before it turns back to town. In winter you have to observe from afar, but in non-icy conditions you can walk right up to the edge. There are restrooms and large parking lots to accommodate the massive crowds.
Bruarfoss waterfall - Off the beaten path, you will need to walk an unmarked trail to this very cool hidden spot.
Geysir (aka, Strokkur) - Right before Gulfoss, you pass a field of geothermal vents you'll see/smell from a mile away, including a huge geyser that erupts every 15 minutes or so. A large restaurant is across the street, so take advantage of the restrooms and food services.
Kerid - A very small and accessible crater lake right off the road. Pay a small fee to enter. Definitely worth a 30 min stop to walk around, especially near sun down/sun up.
Farms - There are endless farms with those famously cute and furry Icelandic horses, so be sure to stop and take pics with them here and there.
Blue Lagoon - This is the most famous tourist spot in Iceland, and is so convenient from the airport that it's been known as doable layover excursion (if you have 5-6+ hours, you can take a bus straight to/from the airport). Technically not near anything but the airport (30-45 minutes south), this detour is best suited for right after you arrive or right before you depart. Hanging out in sulfur water makes you stink, so I'd prefer at the start of the trip so you don't stink on an 8 hour return flight. And while the lagoon is a resort with locker facilities, the smell stays even after a shower. If you don't want to pay the $100+ to swim in the water, it's worth a stop to walk around the outside of the facility where you can still get up close to see and photograph the electric blue waters that surround the parking areas. Book well in advance, since you need to secure a reservation to enter.
Southern Region - This is where all the action is, and is the best for photography. There is one road (Route 1 or Ring Road) that circles the entire country. If you take it west from the airport, you will hit all those iconic waterfalls and beaches you see on Instagram. If you have under 5-6 days, I suggest just taking this as far as Jökulsárlón, the glacier lagoon filled with massive icebergs. The lagoon immediately empties in the ocean, right across the road. This makes for some VERY cool photo opps, with the black sand beach covered in chunks of iceberg (hence its name, Diamond Beach). There is so much to see along the way to this point, and even though it's just 5-6 hours from here to the airport, there are days worth of excursions along the way. It will be impossible not to stop every 20 minutes.
Seljalandsfoss - Waterfall that you can walk behind. Time it to visit at sunrise/sundown. There's a hidden waterfall next door, but you'll get soaked.
Skógarfoss - The best waterfall! It's MASSIVE and you can walk right up to the base or walk to the top of it. Just wear rain gear because you will get soaked.
Vik - There is a strip of incredible coastline just before Vik, including a massive cliff you can observe the dramatic shoreline from. The black sands of Kirkjufjara beach and Dyrhólaey's Arch and Lighthouse are worth an hour or two stop for photos and meandering.
Solheimasandur Plane Wreck - You park in a small lot off the highway in the middle of nowhere, then walk down a wide path on the black, rocky sands of the beach for about 3 miles. It's not an easy detour, but if you like to photograph, its otherworldly at the right time of day. The abandoned plane sits close to the water and is surrounded by nothing but rolling black hills of sand.
Jökulsárlón (Iceberg Lagoon) & Diamond Beach - This may be my favorite spot in Iceland. Tons of incredible views of this giant glacier and its equally impressive lagoon, filled with mammoth icebergs all slowly being pulled out to sea via a small channel. The neighboring beach, aptly named Diamond Beach, is lined with icebergs big and small that look like diamonds against the the black sands. See this place at sun up/down for the best lighting and pictures. This is also a perfect turnaround spot for visits under 5-6 days, and it only takes about 5.5 hours (barring bad weather or traffic) to get to the airport from here. The Fjallsárlón lagoon is smaller and slightly less impressive, but just next door, so also worth a spot if you have the time.
Fjaðrárgljúfur Canyon - This is another insanely cool stop you shouldn't miss. You can drive right up to this massive canyon and walk an easy and beautiful trail along the top. You'll see some folks taking dramatic cliff-edge pics for the gram up here, be safe. One of the quintessentially diverse landscapes of Iceland.
Skaftafell Waterfall - This is a famous basalt column waterfall in the middle of nowhere, that requires a couple-hour hike up a gentle hill. Very popular photography spot, and slightly less crowded due to the level of effort to get here (considering most sights are right off the parking lot).
Hálsanefshellir Cave - This is an awesome basalt column cave that sits on a black sand beach outside of Vik. You can drive off the Ring Road 5 minutes to a parking lot next to the beach, and walk a couple minutes to the caves. It can get very busy, so arrive early to avoid crowds.
Northern Region - The norther region requires at least 10 days to 2 weeks to accomplish, and warrants a separate post. This requires you commit to driving around the entire country on the Ring Road, and while I personally think its worth it (as you get to see the geothermal parks in the north which are very Mars-like), you can still experience all the best of Iceland by sticking to the South.
Glacier hiking - The Vatnajökull National Park contains a massive mountain and Europe's largest glacier that cover about 8% of the island. There's a ton of glacier hikes and tours that will take you way into the mountain to hike otherwise inaccessible caves and glacier peaks. If you don't have $300 to spare, then Svinafelljokull is an accessible glacier that you can hike along for a short ways. The trail hugs the side of a mountain and opens up to the lagoon and glacier, and since its such rocky terrain, its probably safest to just cut your trek short and appreciate the views from the awesome vantage. We only walked a quarter mile until it felt unsafe, with footing being a little questionable in parts, so a full hike it is probably best suited for those with proper gear. You can also hear the glacial ice cracking as it slowly melts and moves below you. There are many side roads that take you directly up to the dozen or so miles of glacier you drive past along the Ring Road. These are all unpaved dirt roads, so be careful if you don't have a 4x4 or high-clearance vehicle (which is all I'd recommend you rent here).
Where is the best area to stay?
I'll start with this: Reykjavik is not a destination. IMO I think it's a waste to spend a night in Reykjavik, let alone use it as the base for a trip (which is quite popular for some reason). It's cool for a couple hours if you have time to spare before/after your flight, but it's nowhere near the classic Icelandic experience you'd get at any of the remote hotels outside of town with sulfur hot tubs or on-site farm animals. Depending on your route, I recommend you stay at various hotels along the Golden Circle and Ring Road.
While I usually opt for Airbnb first when I travel, I would not recommend it here. There are not a lot of them since there are few residential areas outside of Reykjavik. The hotels have concierge that offer late check-in and recommendations, and nice amenities like hot tubs and free breakfast. Plus, I think you're better off moving around every couple of days to cover more ground. Having one place as a base for more than a couple days means you may have to start backtracking to the hotel as you move further down the highway.
A couple hotels I recommend are:
Frost & Ice Hotel ($$) - Older hotel sitting directly on a hot spring creek. Outdoor sulfur hot tubs. Nearby hike/walk to natural hot springs. Excellent breakfast. Located in Hveragerði, one of the last full-service towns before heading south. Very convenient stop for when you end the Golden Circle route, before you start to the Southern Region.
How much will it cost?
The most economical time to go is in winter, which is the offseason. Airfare deals begin in September where rates start to fall. Summer rates can shoot up to $1000/pp so book in advance, or aim for shoulder (autumn/spring) or off (winter) seasons. Many of the major US airlines have routes here, including the resident airline, Icelandair. The era of $99 flights may have come to an end unfortunately, with the closure of the discount carrier Wow Airlines.
Food is VERY pricey in Iceland, so a restaurant dinner could easily cost $60/pp. We pack a huge bag of familiar snacks from home and stop at the market before leaving town--this covers us for lunches since there's nowhere really to stop on the road other than gas stations. Plus we're busy hiking or exploring all day and never near any food establishments.
I'm not a tour person, but I think it's worth it here. The glacier tours take you places you cannot reach on your own, and supply all the gear you need. It's also just one of those things I think you should splurge on, since there's not a lot of other opportunities to hike through a glacial cave in the world. They also have tours for helicopters and other day excursions, but if you've got time and money for one (around $300/pp), I'd make it a glacier tour. All the guides are highly reviewed.
Here's a sample budget for 5 days in winter: $3,300 Total
R/T airfare & baggage fees (x2 people) - $1200
Car rental (4x4) at $150x5 days - $750
Hotels at $150x4 nights - $600
Meals at $50/day/pp - $750
When is the best time to visit?
The daylight is nearly 20 hours+, making it easier to cover more ground in a day, yet no opportunities for northern lights. Everything's more expensive and there are way more tourists. I prefer early winter. The low sun makes for constant twilight lighting, as if the sky pauses at sunset for hours. It makes for amazing photography. The weather can be more dark and wet, and sometimes snowy, but the drama of the sky really pays off the landscape. If you wait too long into winter, the snow blankets the island and you miss out on all the most interesting terrain features. Plus, driving can be treacherous with snowdrifts that take over the road. I prefer autumn and spring.