Iceland was named Travel and Leisure’s Reader’s Choice Destination of 2018, and it’s not hard to see why. Iceland promises visitors a unique adventure filled with more waterfalls than you can count, natural hot springs, and glaciers galore.
We recently spent four days in Iceland, experiencing the best tourist and off-the-beaten-path adventures the island nation has to offer. We, however, wanted to be conscious of our impact while traveling in Iceland so we could minimize our contribution to the current over-tourism dilemma.
With Iceland’s increasing popularity, over-tourism is becoming a rising predicament. Being a small island nation, tourists in Iceland now outnumber locals six to one. To contribute to the local economy and minimize our impact we opted to, to the best of our knowledge, do business with locally owned and operated services for the entirety of our trip.
Here is our four-day, three-night itinerary for Iceland.
Getting to Iceland
Because we live in the U.S., getting to Iceland isn’t terribly difficult. It’s a popular tourist destination, and many international airports along the east coast offer direct flights. We, unfortunately, had to hop on a connecting flight.
Starting in Atlanta, Georgia, we took a short flight on Southwest Airlines to Washington Dulles in order to catch a direct flight on Iceland Air to Keflavik Airport. The flight from Washington Dulles was only 5.5 hours so not a long flight at all. Pro Tip: if flying Iceland Air bring your food on-board because they only offer a buy on board food service.
Because we were only spending a few days in Iceland, we wanted to make the most of our trip so Immediately upon arrival, we rented a car at the airport and headed straight to the Blue Lagoon.
The Blue Lagoon is Iceland’s most iconic claim to fame, and a tourist magnet. The Lagoon itself is a natural geothermal spa located 45-minutes southeast of Keflavik Airport. The spa and resort at the Blue Lagoon offer visitors a wide variety of experiences.
We opted for the Premium experience which included entrance to the Blue Lagoon, silica mud mask, use of towel, 1st drink of your choice (alcoholic or non), second mask of choice, slippers, use of bathrobe, table reservation at Lava Restaurant and sparkling wine if dining. The towel, bathrobe and slippers were a must because it was so cold and windy.
The Blue Lagoon is the ultimate romantic destination for you and your partner. You can soak in the lagoon, enjoy spa experiences together, dine at the restaurants and spend the night at the Resort as well! Nothing will bring you and your significant other closer than steaming in the lagoon and huddling together to stay warm once you get out! Pro Tip: Beat the crowds and go in right when they open. You will be able to have the amenities and the lagoon all to yourselves. Also, if you go early you will be able to see the beautiful sunrise.
We truly loved our time at the Blue Lagoon. It’s a bit overwhelming at first — there were 40 mph winds, it was 30 degrees Fahrenheit (but felt like 18), and the water was 100 degrees Fahrenheit — however it was still so relaxing! Pro Tip: We recommend buying a dry bag for your mobile phone so you can have it in the lagoon. It was seriously windy so we couldn’t set up a tripod. They sell these in the gift shop but it would be much more cost effective to bring your own.
After staying for most of the day and relaxing at the Blue Lagoon, we drove to Reykjavik, checked into the hotel, then made a grocery run for our upcoming adventures.
On day two, we set out on a little road trip along the Golden Circle Route to see some of the beautiful countryside in Iceland. The first stop on our road trip was Þingvellir National Park. Also written as Thingvellir National Park, this awe-inspiring landscape is part of a fissure zone running through Iceland. Divided by the Mid-Atlantic Rift, some parts of it, such as the Westfjords and Reyjavík, are on the North American tectonic plate, while others, such as Vatnajökull glacier and the East Fjords, are on the Eurasian plate, and the valley between, where Thingvellir is, is the rift valley! Iceland is the only place in the world where this rift is above sea-level.
Nowhere else can you see the edges of both plates as clearly as in Thingvellir. The tectonic plates move apart at approximately 2.5 centimeters a year and have done so for millennia at Thingvellir National Park. The effects of this movement are very clear within the park. Lava fields fill the valley, caused by magma that welled up as the continents spread, and the whole area is littered with ravines, ripped open by centuries of earthquakes. Earthquakes continue every day in Thingvellir, although most are far too minor to be felt. No volcano has erupted in the area in 2000 years, however they are not considered dormant. More eruptions are expected; the only question is when.
Continuing on, we stopped at the Haukadalur Geothermal Field to see the valley of hot springs and boiling mud pots, along with the record-holding Geysir. We walked up to the Geysir with bated breath and anticipation! It spews about every 10 minutes, and each time you can see a large bubble boiling, seemingly out of the ground, right before eruption. There are shops and restaurants at this location so you can relax, take your time and enjoy the area.
Next up was Gullfoss Waterfall. Gullfoss Waterfall, meaning golden falls, is a waterfall located in the canyon of the Hvita river in southwest Iceland and is one of the most iconic waterfalls in Iceland. The water flow between summer and winter is almost cut in half and you can see from our picture that the waterfall is almost frozen solid. Although we rented a car, you can see Gullfoss waterfall on any “Golden Circle” tour.
Following our adventures in Thingvellir, we drove to Hotel Kria and checked in for our two-night stay. The ambiance at the hotel was moody yet contemporary. The design of the room was modern and simple, and highlighted and embraced the landscape of Iceland. Check them out and book here (Hotel Kria).
We decided to dine at the hotel that evening and we were not disappointed. The food was amazing and so was the staff. Later we wanted to venture into town and check out the local vibe so we asked the Claudia at the front desk to point us in the right direction. Claudia, by the way, was one of a kind. Not only did she tell us where we should go, she offered to give us a wake-up call if the Northern Light were visible that night. If you decide to ventured out in Vik, Claudia’s recommendation is exactly what we were looking for. Smidjan Brugghus, is a low-key brewery with various beers on tap and they are also known for their burgers.
On day three of our Icelandic adventure, we drove out to Glacier Lagoon and Diamond Beach.
Before we managed to get to the beaches and lagoon, however, we actually realized our camera batteries didn’t charge overnight as we thought they did. If there’s one thing you should do while visiting Iceland, it’s taking pictures! We stopped at a local hotel on the way and hoped they had a converter we could borrow. Guess what…. they did, WHEW. Crisis averted! They even offered us complementary coffee while we waited for the batteries to charge.
One of the beautiful things about Iceland is that even on your way to a destination, there’s natural wonder all around you. Driving to Glacier Lagoon, we saw random waterfalls, mountain ranges and Icelandic horses. The unique landscape makes it look as if we were on a different planet. The great thing about renting a car and driving is that you can stop whenever and wherever you want to take in the beauty.
Glacier lagoon is formed naturally from melted glacial water and is perpetually growing while big blocks of ice crumble from the ever-shrinking glacier. While stunningly beautiful, climate change threatens this one-of-a-kind phenomenon.
Tourists aren’t the only people who find Glacier lagoon beautiful. It’s actually been used in quite a few films, such as Die Another Day, Tomb Raider, Batman, and Interstellar. We agree that the lagoon is out of this world!
Our first stop was Diamond Beach. This is a particularly unique beach in Iceland, as icebergs from the lagoon wash up on shore. That is actually the inspiration for the name “Diamond Beach,” because the icebergs actually look like huge diamonds against the black sand beach. Literally, across the highway is the Glacier Lagoon and it is exactly what the name says it is, a lagoon filled with many small glaciers. We stayed here for a while observing the beauty and taking many pictures.
After the 2.5-hour drive (each way) out to Glacier Lagoon, we stayed another night at Hotel Kria because we loved it so much! The staff was incredibly welcoming and accommodating, and just generally amazing. We decided that night that we would go experience the burgers at Smidjan Brugghus and of course have more beer!
The only disappointing thing about our Iceland trip was that we didn’t get a chance to see the northern lights while we were there. Everywhere we stayed the night, it was too cloudy. The hotel will normally give you a wake-up call in the middle of the night if they are visible, but it just wasn’t in the cards for us.
On the last day, we stopped at Seljalandsfoss and Reynisfjara. Seljalandsfoss is a beautiful waterfall in Iceland. Due to the waterfall’s close proximity to Ring Road and impressive natural features, it is one of the country’s most famous and visited falls. What is especially cool about this particular waterfall is a pathway that stretches all the way around it. The cliffs behind the falls have a wide cavern, and rocks and paths allow guests to fully encircle it in summer. Because we were there during the winter months the pathway behind the falls was covered with layers of ice, therefore deeming it closed.
After Seljalandsfoss, we headed out to Reynisfjara. Reynisfjara is a world-famous black sand beach. It was voted as one of the top 10 non-tropical beaches to visit on the planet, and was actually a filming location for Game of Thrones!
Upon visiting the beach, you will notice the basalt stacks. According to local Icelandic folklore, these large basalt columns were once trolls trying to pull ships from the ocean to shore. However, these trolls were dim and went out too late in the night; dawn broke on the horizon, turning the trolls into solid stone.
This is also the only day we saw the sun while in Iceland and it was only for a couple of hours. The winter in Iceland is especially dark, being so close to the arctic circle, and daylight during the winter is brief. We still managed to have fun and enjoy the country, though!
Every day we were on the road in Iceland, we stopped along our route for random photos in beautiful off-the-beaten-path areas all the while, respecting the rules of Iceland and only venturing out on market road ways. Beauty in Iceland is all around so you don’t have to follow the tour buses to get to the best locations. We felt like Iceland as a whole was an epic trip, full of adventure and never-ending scenery.
Brief Note on Over-Tourism in Iceland
Now one of the world’s most popular destinations, over-tourism is becoming a larger problem in Iceland, and other parts of the world. In 2010, just 490,000 people visited Iceland. In 2017, the number of visitors rose to 23 million.
One of the biggest issues with over-tourism in Iceland is housing in Reykjavik. Most visitors to Iceland stay in the capital, and with a limited supply of available hotel rooms, apartments are now going to tourists, causing rent prices to rise for local residents. Most of the economy in Iceland depends on tourism, so it tends to be a compounding problem.
With all of this in mind during our stay in Iceland, we wanted to be conscious of how we were contributing to the problem. We decided to stay outside of Reykjavik while following the Golden Circle Route, supporting local hotels and local businesses along the way.
Another main concern with tourism to Iceland is the landscape that draws so many visitors in. Nature is the biggest selling point for those visiting Iceland, but the environment in Iceland is fragile, and the recent influx of tourists poses a new threat.
We were mindful of environmental concerns while staying in Iceland, ensuring we only traveled on marked roads, and leaving our surroundings the way we found them.
These issues aren’t to drive you away from visiting Iceland. We simply want to highlight the issues plaguing the country, and illustrate that you can be an informed traveler to minimize your impact.