Iceland was named Travel and Leisure’s Reader’s Choice Destination of 2018 and it’s not hard to see why. An Iceland road trip promises visitors a unique adventure filled expedition with more waterfalls than you can count, natural hot springs, and glaciers galore.
Iceland in December is a must as the nights are longer however magnificently more beautiful than one could possibly imagine. Regarded as one of the best times to visit, Iceland in December has the darkest nights which makes the possibility of seeing the Northern Lights almost guaranteed.
Our Iceland road trip consisted of four days and because we love going at our own pace we conducted our own Iceland self driving tours. We wanted to experience the best touristy 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 Iceland road trip.
Without further ado, here are our 4 days in Iceland in December road trip itinerary complete with a map of stops and driving distances in between.
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How to Get to Iceland in December
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. Unfortunately, we had to hop on a connecting flight. Check out our post on how to use Skyscanner to find the cheapest flights.
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: Iceland Air only offers to buy onboard meal options. So if you are not keen on airplane food bring your own.
Blue Lagoon Iceland and Reykjavik
Blue Lagoon Iceland
Because we were only spending a few days in Iceland, we wanted to make the most of our Iceland road trip so we decided to stop at the Blue Lagoon Iceland as soon as we landed and rented our car. Being only a 20-minute drive from the Keflavik International Airport and in the same direction as Reykjavik it was a no brainer.
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 southwest of Reykjavik city center. 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), a second mask of your 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 unusually windy that morning.
The Blue Lagoon Iceland 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 by going early in the morning. You will be able to have the amenities and the lagoon all to yourselves, for a little while at least. Also, if you go early you will be able to see the beautiful sunrise.
We truly loved our time at the Blue Lagoon. At first, we had a bit of sensory overload, you remember this is Iceland in December. There were 40 mph winds, it was 30 degrees Fahrenheit outside (felt like 18 with the wind chill), however, the water was still a cozy 102 degrees Fahrenheit. Even with all these elements, the overall experience was still so relaxing!
If you are looking for more of these relaxing thermal baths in Europe check out the Rudas thermal baths in Budapest. Pro Tip: We recommend bringing a dry bag for your mobile phone so you can have it in the lagoon. They sell these in the gift shop but it would be much more cost-effective to bring your own. You can find an inexpensive one on Amazon.
After staying at the Blue Lagoon Iceland for most of the day and flying all night we were beyond tired. Even so, we had one more errand to run and that was grocery shopping for provisions for our Iceland road trip.
Grocery Shopping in Iceland
Grocery shopping in any foreign country can be a bit intimidating even for the seasoned traveler and shopping in an Iceland grocery store isn’t much different. There is a difference though and that is that the price of Iceland groceries is considerably higher than most of the Americas and Europe.
There are somethings you can do to mitigate these Iceland grocery shopping costs. Here are our 6 tips for eating cheap in Iceland
6 Tips for Eating Cheap in Iceland
- Shop at Bonus – It is a discount Iceland grocery store comparable to Lidl or Aldi.
- Have a list prepared before you shop – You don’t want that “jaw drop” moment at the counter because of non-essential purchases.
- Buy items that do not need constant refrigeration – Non-perishable items are best. However, we brought one of these cooler bags with us to keep things cool if need be. If you need it colder save the grocery bags a put a little ice in them and then stick those in the cooler with the food.
- Buy ALL the alcohol for your entire Iceland in December road trip at the duty-free shops in the airport. All alcohol is extremely expensive in Iceland. Don’t say we didn’t warn you.
- Bring dry goods from home. For example granola bars, nuts, oatmeal, Cup O’Noodles. You can ask for hot water from your hotel or if you are staying in a guesthouse you will have access to a microwave or stovetop
- If you are staying in a hotel opt for the free breakfast booking price. It will be well worth it in the end and Iceland food is really quite good.
Thingvellir National Park
On day two, we set out to start our own Iceland self drive tours. Our Iceland road trip over the next few days covers the southern part of Iceland’s Golden Circle Route.
About a 45-minute drive from Reykjavik the first stop on our Iceland road trip was 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 Reykjavik, are on the North American tectonic plate, while others, such as Vatnajokull glacier and the East Fjords, are on the Eurasian plate. The valley in 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.
Geysir and Haukadalur Geothermal Field
As our Iceland in December road trip continues we drove about 1 hour and 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 right before each eruption, you can see a large bubble boiling, seemingly out of the ground. Our overall thoughts of this stop were “meh” but who are we to judge mother nature. An added bonus to this stop was the fact that the visitors center had shops with local handmade goods (including the famous Icelandic wool sweaters), there is also a restaurant and clean bathrooms.
A measly 10-minute drive away is a not so measly 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 National Park, we drove 2 hours and 20 minutes to our hotel for the next 2 nights, Hotel Kria (FREE breakfast included BTW). We chose this hotel because it would position us well to see as much as possible in the time we had left. Plus it is an amazing property and 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. If you follow this route we definitely recommend a stay at 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. After dinner, we wanted to venture into town and check out the local vibe so we asked 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, but she also offered to give us a wake-up call if the Northern Light were visible that night.
If you decide to venture 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. We highly recommend a stop here. After all, it’s where the locals go too.
Glacier Lagoon and Diamond Beach
On day three of our Iceland in December road trip, we drove 2 hours and 20 minutes to Glacier Lagoon and Diamond Beach. Read on to find out why our journey took a little longer than expected.
Iceland in December is a site to see and you literally want to stop every 5-minutes for a picture. Good thing because that is when I noticed our camera batteries were almost dead. How did this happen you ask? To this day we have no idea because they were plugged in all night. At that point, we kinda went into panic mode because you can’t go to Diamond Beach and not take pictures (As the saying goes if you don’t have any pictures were you really there?).
We saw a local hotel (Fosshotel Glacier Lagoon) on the way and decided to stop and asked if they had a converter we could borrow. The good spirits of Iceland were on our side because they did, WHEW. Crisis averted! While we were there waiting for the batteries to charge they even offered us complimentary coffee.
One of the beautiful things about Iceland is that even on your way to a destination, there’s natural wonder all around you. While driving to Glacier Lagoon, we saw beautiful waterfalls, mountain ranges, and Icelandic horses. The unique landscape, of lava rock and moss, makes it look as if we were on a different planet. The great thing about renting a car and going at your own pace is that you can stop whenever and wherever you want to take in the beauty. As long as you abide by the laws and respect mother nature.
Glacier lagoon is formed naturally from melted glacial water and is perpetually growing while big blocks of ice crumble from the ever-shrinking glacier. Glacier Lagoon and it is exactly what the name says it is, a lagoon filled with many small glaciers. 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!
Literally right across the highway from Glacier Lagoon is 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.
We highly recommend Diamond Beach and Glacier Lagoon as one of your stops while on your Iceland road trip. Plan to stay awhile as you will be mesmerized.
After the 2.5-hour drive (each way) to Glacier Lagoon and the mishap with our camera batteries, we were ready to relax and unwind. So we decided to venture back out to Smidjan Brugghus to try their burgers and enjoy some more of their great 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. Next time Iceland and yes there will be a next time!
Seljalandsfoss and Reynisfjara
On the last day of our trip, we drove 47-minutes to Seljalandsfoss one of the most beautiful waterfalls Iceland and one you definitely don’t want to miss on your Iceland in December road trip. 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.
Reynisfjara is a 50-minute drive from Seljalandsfoss and in the direction of Keflavik Airport. Reynisfjara is a world-famous black sand beach and was voted as one of the top 10 non-tropical beaches to visit on the planet. Fun fact: It 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 that it is so close to the arctic circle, and daylight during the winter is usually brief. That is why they say Iceland in December is the best time of year to come and see the Northern Lights.
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.