I’ve been out of the country a few times. However, never have I felt like I was literally out of the PLANET until I visited Iceland last September. I mean, if you don’t want to take my word for it, they literally filmed parts of Interstellar there. You trust McConaughey, don’t you? Alright alright alright.
Iceland was never really on my bucket list. Excluding walking to and from my car, I think I’ve literally been outside seven times in the past 22 years, so beautiful landscapes and adventurous experiences weren’t on my mind. However, a few months prior to our visit, my mom was offered the opportunity to judge the Miss Universe Iceland pageant. My mom is a celebrity makeup artist with her own makeup school, studio and cosmetics line, and she works with a lot of beauty queens to help create their looks and teach them how to do the glam thing. In a nutshell, she’s a BOSS. That being said, she judges pageants often, and the opportunity to travel the world to do so was one that my fam couldn’t pass up!
My first Google search was: most Instagrammable places in Iceland. Does this make me a bad person? That’s for you to decide and for me to push to the back of my brain forever. I learned as much as I could about Iceland, and made a list of all the things we should do and the places we should visit. Then, of course, I learned a few things along the way. With Iceland rising in popularity, I’ve had a lot of people ask me for planning tips and ideas for what they should do. I compiled all of my best advice below just for you!
Climb a Glacier
This was the most insane experience of my life. Let me preface this with the fact that I am TERRIFIED of heights. When I booked the glacier walking tour, I thought it would literally be like walking on an ice skating rink. No – you’re literally climbing a mountain, but it’s made of ice and if you fall there is nothing and no one that can save you. All that aside, I am so incredibly glad I got out of my comfort zone and did it. It was exhilarating, beautiful and so worth it. You can even drink water right from a stream! Obviously I was the first person in my group to volunteer.
See the Northern Lights
I cannot believe we got to actually see this! The week we arrived in Iceland, the Northern Lights had just started to make an appearance in the skies. It’s a lot easier to see them later in winter, so we thought we’d probably miss the opportunity. I downloaded an app called Aurora Forecast, which I would check periodically to see if probability was high. On our last night in Iceland, probability was a bit higher than usual, so we drove away from the city for about 15 minutes to get to a nice dark spot. Most people don’t know this, but most of the time, you actually can’t see the Northern Lights with the naked eye. So basically what I’m saying is… every Windows screensaver for the past 20 years has been a huge lie (almost). For the best chances of seeing it, you need to be in a really dark place, and to get it on camera, you need to take a photo using a long exposure. On this night, we got really lucky because it was literally so bright we could see it cascading over a mountain from miles away with no camera. It was a magical moment, despite the car parked next to us blasting Drake with their brights on (your guess is as good as mine TBH).
Tour the South Coast
In the middle of Reykjavik, there are a few tourist centers that help you book tours. I booked my South Coast tour there and it was beyond easy. With the South Coast tour, you could choose to break off and do the glacier hike (which is what I spoke about above), or you could continue further along the coast and visit the black sand beaches. On the South Coast tour, I checked two sights off of my list: Skogafoss and Seljalandsfoss. These were the first waterfalls I have ever seen, and I was literally in awe. Skogafoss is amazing because, typically, there is a huge rainbow across it. It was rainy and foggy when I went, but I still caught a little glimpse. Seljalandsfoss, which is what you can see in the picture above, is very unique because you can literally walk behind the waterfall. Prepare to get soaked (for the ‘gram).
Swim in the Blue Lagoon
When people think Iceland, they think Blue Lagoon. Checking out this Iceland hot spot (pun intended) was definitely on my to-do list. The lagoon is heated by a nearby power plant called Svartsengi, and it was created completely on accident. Now, it’s an amazing geothermal spa with saunas, restaurants, locker rooms, etc.
The water temperature is about 98-104°F year-round, so no matter when you visit Iceland – you need to stop by! You have to book a check-in time for the Blue Lagoon in advance, but once you arrive, you can stay as long as you’d like. There are buckets of free silica mud all over that you can use as a mask, and if you purchase a more expensive package, other masks are available as well. Plus, of course, don’t sleep on the swim-up bar. I enjoyed a delish smoothie made with one of Iceland’s most famous exports: yogurt!
One thing to note: your hair will literally feel like concrete the second it gets wet. This is due to the minerals in the lagoon water. A lot of people had on swim caps, but I decided to go in with flowing locks because aesthetics. However, I soon realized this was just not going to happen. EMBRACE THE ROCK HARD HAIR and enjoy your time!
Drive the Golden Circle
The Golden Circle is a 300km route that has tons of beautiful landmarks along the way. It makes for the perfect day trip because you don’t have to do much planning and you have a whole day filled with activities! The first stop along the way is Þingvellir National Park, pronounced Thingvellir, which is where you can see the Silfra Fissure (I’ll talk more about that later on).
Other stops include Strokkur Geyser, Gulfoss Waterfall and Kerid Crater Lake. I planned on taking an EPIC picture at Kerid Crater Lake, which involved me looking over the edge of a rock that we hiked twenty minutes to get to. However, after my boyfriend walked me out, set me up and then walked back to take the pic, I went into instant fear paralysis and legit collapsed like those goats that fall over with their legs straight. I was filled with pure, unadulterated fear… I literally could not stand up to walk back. I begged Kyle to come save me, but instead he decided to laugh and take more pictures before actually rescuing me. V petty.
There are a few other interesting things to see along the way, but honestly, all of those stops had me tuckered out! On the way back to our apartment, we saw Icelandic ponies chillin’ on the side of the road and OBVIOUSLY that was a necessary pit stop.
I didn’t have time to go on a riding tour during this trip, so this was an awesome way to at least get some face time with these ponies… especially the one I took a picture with (that looked suspiciously identical to me).
Reykjavik is such a fun little town to explore. I stayed in an Airbnb downtown, so the heart of Reykjavik was just a few feet away. Check out this view from the balcony!
My favorite places in the city were Cafe Babalu, The Royal Pig Pub, Reykjavík’s Cutest, Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur and Hallgrímskirkja.
Cafe Babalu was a great place to get out of the cold for a few minutes and grab a latte. It’s cute, quirky and filled with knick knacks! Also, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t get the grilled cheese and tomato soup. 10/10 would slurp again.
The Royal Pig Pub is a restaurant and bar that serves the most delicious tapas. It’s expensive, but we ate a lot of meals at home, so it was fun to get out and try some local grub and experience the Icelandic night life!
Reykjavík’s Cutest is a souvenir shop with tons of awesome finds. There are quite a few touristy shops, but Reykjavík’s Cutest sells more locally made items and great gifts to bring home to friends and family.
Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur, which translates to “Best Hot Dogs in Town,” is pretty much just that. These hot dogs are so delicious, and definitely something you need to try. Icelandic hot dogs taste a bit different than American hot dogs because they’re made mostly from Icelandic lamb, along with a bit of pork and beef. When I spell it out, that probably sounds gross… but just trust me on this one. I honestly had at least one a day.
Lastly, you definitely have to check out Hallgrímskirkja.
It is the largest church in Iceland, and also one of Iceland’s tallest structures. You can go inside, light a prayer candle, and even take an elevator ride to the top to get a full view of the whole city from every angle.
Go Whale Watching
Photo Cred: Visit Iceland
I dare you to tell me that you didn’t sob while watching Whale Rider as a child. I’d love to go whale watching next time I’m in Iceland to live out all of my childhood dreams of being one with the whales. I know there’s a self-depricating fat joke hidden somewhere in that sentence, but I’m not going there because #NewYearNewMe.
Visit the Black Sand Beaches
I mean, need I say more?
Scuba Dive in the Silfra Fissure
I got to visit the Silfra Fissure, but when I saw divers getting ready to jump in, I wished I had planned to join them! The water is apparently FREEZING, but the fissure is a crack between the North American and Eurasian continents, so you would literally be swimming where the continental plates meet and drift apart. Although I’ve never seen Frozen – and I never will so just accept it – “the cold never bothered me anywaaAaaAaAy.”
I didn’t just eat hot dogs and climb glaciers all day. I also learned a thing or two that might be helpful for your trip!
The Water is Stinky
Something you would not expect when turning on a nice hot shower is smelling the putrid odor of rotten eggs. Well, EXPECT IT. The hot water in Iceland smells strongly of sulfur, which is due to the fact that it is heated by volcanos. I’m no scientist, so that’s about as much info as I’ve got on that, but just be prepared to plug your nose during your rinse off.
Food is Expensive
A simple breakfast for four at a local diner was literally ~$200 USD. Don’t be afraid to eat out, but try to stop by a local market to pick up essentials, snacks and some meals to avoid spending all of your money on food.
Everything is Hard to Pronounce
I learned a few things in Iceland that, knowing prior, would have prevented a lot of confusion/general dumb sounding-ness. Here are some quick tips:
Reykjavik is pronounced RAKE-YEAH-VIK.
Þingvellir is not pronounced PINGVELLIR, it’s THINGVELLIR. That funny little P looking letter is pronounced TH.
“Foss” means waterfall, so names of waterfalls all end in “foss.”
“Jökull” means glacier, so names of glaciers all end in “jökull.”
Are any of these a make or break? Definitely not. But I’m all about being extra… and if you are too, then these are some items to consider bringing to the land of the ice and snow.
I’m not super cool or fashionable. I’ll be the first to admit it. However, I decided that in Iceland, I wanted to wear a trendy hat. This was very important on my personal packing list. I went to American Eagle and found a fashion blogger version of the Arby’s logo, which was a staple in my Iceland attire. I also found an amazing sweater at Aerie that I paired with the hat, and Aerie actually reposted my pic on Insta!
Obviously, I decided that wandering around Iceland = I’m now an adventurer… and every adventurer not only has a hat, but also a backpack! I found the perfect backpack at Target. I couldn’t find the exact one, but the one linked is very similar!
These cameras don’t take the best pictures, but they create great memories. I obviously brought my phone and DSLR everywhere I went, but this little camera was fun for roaming around the city and taking quick snapshots.
This is the sunrise I got to watch right outside of our Airbnb while we got ready to head to the airport. This moment was bittersweet; I had an absolutely magical time with my family and boyfriend, but I was sad to leave this island that I had fallen in love with. I can’t wait for my next visit! If you plan on making a trip, comment your questions below! I’m more than happy to answer.