We visited Iceland from October 4th - 9th 2018. Around this time is considered the start of the winter season in Iceland where the days are much shorter than in peak Summer.
There is a lot of driving in Iceland, and we definitely under estimated how much driving it really is, as well as how often we would stop and stay at points throughout the trip. So prepare to be flexible and expect to change plans as you go.
We arrived in Iceland around 9am from London and rented two cars from Blue Car Rental which we highly recommend (more on that below). For the first 3 days, we got ourselves an Airbnb in the South Coast, which meant we were in for a long drive on arrival. Luckily we only flew from London, if travelling from somewhere further we suggest resting in Reykjavik on arrival before doing any long distance driving.
From the Airport we made our way to Route 1 which is the main ring road of Iceland. The first destination was Seljalandfoss Waterfall (approx. 2h30m). On the way we stopped at at Hveragerði where we first got our amazing view of Iceland on foot. We then visited a nearby Bonus Mart to buy food and supplies for the day, Bonus is a the most budget friendly super market in Iceland.
A slight change
Initially the plan was to cover the main South Coast Waterfalls and the Plane Wreck, which we realised was too ambitious to do in half a day. This was our first amend to the itinerary which you should expect to do a lot! We dropped off our items at the Airbnb and left for Seljalandfoss.
Be prepared to get wet in Seljalandfoss especially as you walk behind the waterfall. It was an amazing experience to view the fall from the foot of the waterfall and behind it.
Following a trail on the side of the main fall is a 10 minute walk to Gljufrabui Waterfall, an often missed waterfall inside a cave. You'll have to wade through some shallow water to get to the waterfall and once inside, be prepared to get even more wet as you are sprayed by the fall.
Wet and tired, although amazed by our first encounters of Iceland, we decided to call it a day as sunset arrived and dried off for the night back home in our Airbnb cabin in Hvolsvollur. (more on accommodation below)
Starting the day at 8am we were ready to explore the South Coast to reach as far as Jokulsarlon Glacier which from our Airbnb at Hvolsvöllur was a 4 hour drive one way (the same amount back) so this was going to be a long drive day.
We visited Skogafoss the famous waterfall of the South Coast, its roaring waters were a sight to behold especially from up close.
We then drove to the nearby Solheimasandur Plane Wreck. From the car park there, it was a 45 minute walk one way to the plane, which we also under estimated and can eat up a lot of the day. We stayed there for around an hour before doing another 45 minute walk back.
Prepare to skip out on a few sights
Due to the time at the wreck, we made a decision to skip Fjaðrárgljúfur Canyon which was on the way and go straight to Jokulsarlon Glacier so that we make it there before the sun sets. We also skipped a hike to Skaftafell which would've taken much of the day also. We suggest getting accommodation around the glacier area for the night, to avoid having to drive all the way back to the initial accommodation, so that you can cut out the round trip drive, and save a couple hours.
Jokulsarlon Glacier was jaw dropping as you see the giant pieces of ice bergs floating around you. Across the road from the Glacier car park was Diamond Beach, where varying pieces of ice wash up on the beach. You can walk across from the Glacier car park, but we suggest driving across as the beach has its own car park also.
fill up the tank as much as possible
One mistake we made was not filling up at every possible, we got to the glacier with an almost empty tank thinking there was a Gas station there. There is only an electric car charging point, with the nearest Gas Station being 20 minutes away. Luckily our car managed to reach it by a small margin, otherwise we would've been stuck on the road.
Dark drive with The northern lights
By the time we drove back home to a 3 hour drive, the sun had set and we drove in the dark, which you have to take extra care as there are no street lights, and only reflectors. On the way home the Northern Lights decided to make an appearance and we witnessed its greatness for the first time.
The goal for today was to leave the Airbnb and transfer to Kex Hostel in Reykjavik since we were almost done with the South Coast, but we still had a couple more sights to explore.
Since we missed out Fjaðrárgljúfur Canyon the previous day, we decided to drive back out east to revisit it (approx 2h drive). It was worth it. Seeing the grand scale of the canyon as we walked along it was astounding. We were greeted by snow which made the experience even more magical.
It was now time to head back west to Reykjavik. We visited Reynisfjara, which was also known as the black sand beach, on the beach was also Hálsanefshellir Cave surrounded by basalt columns. The area was dramatic and breath taking.
We then drove across the otherside of the beach to Dyrhólaey Lighthouse to view the Dyrhólaey Arch. There is a road to get up to the lighthouse, but it was only for large 4x4 cars which we did not have, even then, the road was steep and narrow and not for the faint hearted. We instead suggest going to the car park and hiking up to the lighthouse.
On the hike up you will be greeted by the infamous strong winds of Iceland as you are right by the coast on high ground, so be careful on the hike up. On the way you will see the dramatic arch sitting on the bay. Reaching the top where the lighthouse stands, you'll get a stunning birds eye view of the surrounding black sand beaches.
unexpected strong weather
After the breath taking views of the South Coast, we then made our way to the main city of Reykjavik. However, on the way we encountered a storm and roads were temporarily closed to the city to wait out the storm. As roads re-opened, on the drive we were then greeted by a blizzard which was one of the scariest experiences we had, with low visibility and slippery roads on high roads, you had to stay calm and watch your speed.
We finally made it to Reykjavik and stayed at the lovely Kex Hostel where we were based for the rest of the trip (more on that below).
The aim for today was to visit the under appreciated and often over looked Snaefellsness Peninsula on the west coast and end at Kirkjufell Mountain. We suggest going around Snaefellsjokull National Park to reach Kirkjufell (Road 574) as roads crossing the the peninsula are steep and recommended for 4x4 cars only. Plus you'll miss out on the untouched beauty of the National Park.
Take a couple of days in this area
As we drove through the peninsula we would see the most gorgeous surroundings and attractions, and it was hard not to stop. It's worth spending a couple of days in this area, but since we only had one day to explore, we pushed on and skipped a few sights.
Our first stop was the old fishing town of Arnastapi were there is a coastal trail and a spectacular stone bridge to walk across on the trail.
one of the most gorgeous areas in iceland
We then decided to push on to Kirkjufell but via the National Park, which was one of the best decisions ever. We passed through what seemed like a trip back in time to the untouched beauty of the park, it was as if we were in Jurassic Park, minus the Dinosaurs. You would pass through lava caves and coastal passes with amazing views and quaint little seaside towns.
Reaching Kirkjufell was astounding, as the perfectly shaped cone mountain dwarfed its surroundings. There were waterfalls near the base of the mountain for the perfect photo op and position to appreciate its beauty.
We then drove back via the National Park again, and visited the Saxholl Crater to watch the sunset. The crater was an exploded volcano, covered in gorgeous red sand and rock. It's a couple hundred steps up the crater and from the top, you would see the vast coastal land and mountains around, which was even more spectacular during sunset. A highlight of the trip for sure.
a night made for the northern lights
Upon arriving back at Reykjavik at night, we were lucky to arrive on a night with strong solar activity, which meant the perfect time for the Northern lights. We were planning to drive away from the city for the lights, but a tip from a local pointed us to the Reykjavik lighthouse. As we approached the dark car park of the light house, there was the Northern Lights up above in all its glory, the clearest and strongest we've seen in throughout the trip. It was an unbelievable sight and a bucket list item off of our list.
This was our final full day in Iceland, but still so much to see on the list. We started the day with a trip to the Blue Lagoon, we got the tickets 6 months prior to the trip as they sell out fast and cannot be bought on the day. We suggest going for the earliest slot which for us was 8am, as the place was still devoid of tour groups. Read Grace's post on the Blue Lagoon here.
We ended the trip on the famous Golden Circle trip, which featured some of the highlights of Iceland, where most tour groups go, due to shortage of time, we did not visit Bruarfoss a clear blue waterfall and Pingvellir National Park where you could walk between the tectonic plates of North America and Europe. Our first stop was Kerid Crater Lake, pretty self explanatory, a lake in the middle of a crater, a truly amazing sight.
Further down the circle was the Geothermal area which housed many exploding geysirs which you can watch erupt every couple of minutes, as well as astonishing and powerful Great Geysir.
Our final stop in the Golden Circle, and final sight of Iceland was the powerful and iconic waterfall: Gullfoss. The waterfall is a spectacular display of the forces of nature amongst a truly untouched area of Iceland.
We ended the day, and drove back to Reykjavik to prepare to fly out the next morning and leave the unbelievable Iceland.
Trip notes and information
We rented from Blue Car rental which is a well known rental company in Iceland, their offices are a short shuttle ride from the airport. We rented two medium sized cars from them to accommodate the six of us.
We also suggest getting the sand and ash protection from them to cover any damage from sand and ash, especially if you're visited the South Coast.
Upon picking up the car, make sure to take ALOT and we mean ALOT of pictures and videos of the car and its condition, if you spot damage which is not marked on the paper work, return to the office and point it out to them, as they may have missed an previous damage, which you would end up paying for when returning. We had to pay £150 for a small chip on the wind shield which we did not manage to capture in our photos, luckily that was all, as damage expenses can be pricey in Iceland.
We suggest bringing some food from home such as soup packets and pasta/sauce if you're on a budget in Iceland. Bringing a good amount can save you from spending on food in Iceland, which adds up. Bonus is a cheap market in Iceland with fairly priced goods, so try to shop there when possible.
We also suggest bringing flasks, so you can store soup for your car journeys which you can have for lunch, or to warm yourselves up. Pack a couple of bread/sandwiches for the car rides and the hikes.
Try to wear clothes in layers, as the weather can change through out the day. You will be able to remove or add layers much easier when the weather changes.
Try to have as many waterproof items as you can, as you will be sprayed by water in most of the waterfalls you visit, along with rain and snow also.
Gloves and hats are a blessing in Iceland and can make a big difference. Also bring a lot of spare clothes or at least plan the allowance of spare items you can use.
Thermal layers are also very handy, as they are usually light to pack, and will keep you warm and dry during the trip.
We suggest definitely having a luggage to check in to carry large coats and food to Iceland. Wear the large items on the flight if possible. Also try to share checked in luggage, as you may not be able to fit much in the car (depends on what car you rent also).
Always stick within the speed limit in Iceland to avoid dangerous situations and speeding tickets, the speed limit in Route 1 is 90km/h and 50km/h in towns and cities.
Roads marked as F roads are for 4x4 vehicles only, and closed around winter, this is for a reason, as these roads are off road or unpaved roads or in mountain passes which can be dangerous.
If driving within winter, always make sure you have experience driving in winter conditions, and know what to do in certain winter situations. Even then, always be extra cautious as the roads and weather can be unpredictable in Iceland. We suggest not driving a 4x4 if you don't drive one at home, as the winds in Iceland are strong enough to push cars around. Always be careful when opening doors, as strong winds can blow them off, and cost you a lot for the rental damage.
Also always fill up the tank when possible, as gas/petrol stations are far from one another, and no guarantee they would be in order.
Always try to book your places to stay way in advanced prior to the trip, as lodging is limited in Iceland and can go very fast. Plan accommodation relative to your road trip to minimise driving back and forth, as the distance and time can add up. Try get a place to stay near your final attraction of the day, to avoid having to drive all the way back.
For our South Coast leg we stayed in an Airbnb, which was a cute cabin Hvolsvöllur. Always try to check the exact location of the Airbnb, especially in rural areas in the South Coast, try to be as close to the main road as possible to minimise driving on gravel roads. Our Airbnb was 30 minutes away from the main road, as we had to slowly go through gravel and unpaved paths, which ideally we didn't have to do.
Another budget friendly accommodation is Hostels, there are many Hostels around Iceland, try to stay in the more well reviewed and well known hostels. Prices vary from more expensive private rooms to cheaper 6/8 or 12 person sharer rooms, depending on how comfortable you are in sharing a room with strangers. We stayed at Kex Hostel in Reykjavik during our last leg of the trip. We stayed in a 12 person sharer room on the first night as they were fully booked for our preferred room, but the rest of the nights we stayed in 6 person sharer room, which was a bit more pleasant as there weren't much strangers. We had a positive experience there, especially for the price that we paid.