I write this post at Keflavíkur International Airport on the last day of my eleven day trip around Iceland’s famous Ring Road. Having recently accepted a new job offer, this would likely be my last chance to travel in a while, and I wanted to make it count.
Mary, my fiancé: “Want to go to Iceland?”
A week later we touched down on the remote Atlantic island. The following is my account of our experiences, complemented by my best attempt at photography.
A quick note: Iceland can be many things to many people and planning a full trip can be quite daunting. While I hope this post inspires others to visit the country, I don’t intend it as a guide. To those in need, I’ll refer you to [the resources I found instrumental](L) in doing my own planning.
Prices and Planning
Let me start by saying that planning a trip to Iceland on a budget sounds /hard/. We didn’t try. We chose comfort, privacy, fun, and flavor over thrift.
Not everything was expensive. The plane tickets, for example, from SFO to KEF via Wowair were less than $400 per person. I’ve paid more than that to fly home to Minnesota for Christmas.
With lodging, we basically got what we paid for, and prices ranged from just over $100 up to $400 per night to stay at the breathtaking ION Luxury Adventure Hotel (more on this later). Between Airbnb, VRBO, and booking.com, we found 10 different places to stay. Some nights were in traditional hotels, some in guest houses with shared bathrooms, and one night was in the most charming little cabin we’d ever seen.
Food in Iceland is incredible! Most of it had heavy European influences, particularly Scandinavian. Think: fish, lamb, and beef. We also encountered Skyr everywhere, like greek yogurt, but a touch more sour. Mary told me that her Skyr-infused cake from Geitafell in North Iceland was the best cake she had ever eaten. The beer wasn’t great.
Food in Iceland is also extremely expensive. We struggled to eat lunch for under $75 and dinner was routinely $150. Cocktails alone were typically $25 a piece. Luckily, tax and tip is always worked into the cost and there’s no expectation from workers to add tips.
Gas is expensive too. Iceland only offers diesel or 95 octane and a typical fill costed us nearly $100. Other guides online unanimously recommended getting a 4WD vehicle, but we found that it was really unnecessary for this season. Some roads were bumpy, but we never had to turn it on. Still, the extra room and height of an SUV was comforting.
The speed limit around all of Iceland, at least to a Californian, is /painfully/ slow. It maxes out at 90kmh on roads that Mary and I felt comfortable driving 130kmh. There’s basically no speed enforcement outside of Reykjavík, so we used the as an opportunity to make up some time against our schedule each day.
Finally, a note on the language: In the eleven days we stayed in Iceland, we didn’t meet a single native who didn’t speak English. Road signs are clear, menus all have translations, and the only true language barrier is trying to pronounce Icelandic words such as “Eyjafjallajökull” without sustaining injury.
Those who know me or follow me on social media know that I get pretty excited over abandoned places and urban exploration (urbex). While our vacation wasn’t really meant to be about this, I still couldn’t help seek it out.
Prior to visiting the country, I had stumbled on a series of guided hikes that touched on abandoned farmsteads. This led me further to discover the holy grail of Icelandic urbex: an incredible project known as Eyðibýli á Íslandi (eydibyli.is).
A quick aside: It is insane how many abandoned homes pepper the Icelandic shoreline. As best as I can tell, almost all structures were built in mid to late 1900’s with some older outliers here and there, and as these buildings aged, many fell into disrepair and were abandoned. Rather than bulldozing them, families often built more modern homes next door and kept the old structures around.
Eyðibýli’s mission was to document, in great detail, the history behind every single one of these abandoned homes. Sponsored by Icelandic Academy of the Arts and University of Iceland, students visited over 500 sites, taking pictures and writing detailed histories. Each home lists building materials, years, base areas, and best of all — locations plotted on a map. Listings were collected into regions and each region into a book, seven in total.
Upon landing in Reykjavík, my first order of business was to visit the publisher and buy the set. The books are gorgeous! They’re also expensive at 38.500 ISK, or roughly $370 USD. They’re also written solely in Icelandic, so I spent the next few days with a book in one hand and Google Translate on my phone in the other.
In total, Mary and I stopped at a half dozen deserted homes, a couple rusting fishing vessels, and one world-renowned crashed airplane. You’ll see the photos sprinkled throughout below.
Day by Day
Day 1: KEF to Hveragerdi
- Groceries in Reykjavík
- Hotel Frost and Fire
We did our best to sleep on the plane but landed with tanks half empty. Despite this, our first day was busy. We had to pick up the car and hit the road.
Lunch was at a charming family restaurant near Geysir. Our bill was roughly $120, our first experience with Iceland food cost. Worse yet, we screwed up the conversion rate and tipped our waiter $240. Ouch!
Next we visited Geysir which lends its name to all geysures. It was extremely touristy and barely worth the stop. The nearby Skógafoss was more interesting and would be our first taste at about a million waterfalls.
Day 2: Hveragerdi to Vestmannaeyjar
- Hveragerdi River Hike
- Ferry to Vestmannaeyjar
- Ribsafari Boat Tour
- Heimaklettur Hike
- Guesthouse Birkihlið 4 nh. Vm
By day two, I had already ruined the schedule. We had tried to buy Eyðibýli á Íslandi (see above) from a book store the day before, but it was sold out. Instead of starting our day according to plan, we drove back to Reykjavík and went to the book’s publisher. Eyðibýli in hand, we set out speeding to Landeyjahöfn to catch the Vestmannaeyjar (Westman Islands) ferry.
Westmann Islands is basically a tiny island on Iceland’s southern shore that is home to one big city and millions of birds. We could’ve brought the car on the ferry, but everything was easily walkable. A boat tour on a Ribsafari speed boat was a cool way to get acquainted with the surrounding area.
At sunset, Mary and I went on one of the coolest hikes I’ve ever been on in our lives (and that’s saying a lot!). The Heimaklettur hike starts with a series of steep steps, ladders, and cliffside paths that basically put you 1,000 feet above the city. Not for the weary of heart, but not actually very dangerous either. Puffins peppered the hillsides and a couple sheep came and licked Mary’s hand. We signed the log book at the very top.
Day 3: Vestmannaeyjar to Vík
- Ferry to Landeyjahöfn
- Seljalandsfoss and Gljúfrafoss
- Sólheimasandur Plane Crash
- Farmhouse Lodge
The earliest ferry put us back in Landeyjahöfn and back on Ring Road. First order of business was visiting more famous waterfalls. Seljalandsfoss is gorgeous and allows visitors to walk behind and around. The nearby Gljúfrafoss was a waterfall inside a fissure in the rock that felt like it was straight out of Indiana Jones.
Taking a break from waterfalls, Mary and I took a dip in Seljavallalaug, the oldest outdoor swimming pool in Iceland (built in 1923). Next up was another famous waterfall: Skógafoss.
Daylight ended with dinner in Vík, but our night wasn’t over. We set out on the cold hike in howling wind to the Sólheimasandur wreckage at 10pm and didn’t reach our car again until after 2am. Along the way, we saw the northern lights for the first time in our lives!
From guidetoiceland.is: In 1973 a United States Navy DC plane ran out of fuel and crashed on the black beach at Sólheimasandur, in the South Coast of Iceland. Fortunately, everyone in that plane survived. Later it turned out that the pilot had simply switched over to the wrong fuel tank. The remains are still on the sand very close to the sea.
Visitors with 4x4s used to be able to drive the 4km (8km round trip) over barren landscape to reach the location, but it’s been fenced off in the last few years. Visitors are still welcome, but they must walk.
Day 4: Vík to Höfn
- Mossy Lava Fields
- Jökulsárlón Lagoon
- Dilksnes Guesthouse
Our fourth day started by checking off the last few sights in Vík. Reynishverfi was a basalt formation extending out of black sands on the beach. It would’ve been an amazing place to visit if not for the hundreds of other people who had the same thought.
Svartifoss was yet another waterfall, but this one was in the middle of a basalt outcropping making it one of the most picturesque falls I’ve ever seen.
Roadside stops brought gave us a great contrast. First, endless fields of lava rocks covered in moss. Next, rapids in a stream with sweeping farmland all around. And lastly, the Jökulsárlón Lagoon, home to tons of icebergs floating away from the Breiðamerkurjökull glacier.
Day 5: Höfn to Egilsstadir
- Skaftfell – Center for Visual Art
- Gistihúsið hotel and mud spa
- Skipalaekur Cottages
Today was intermission. We didn’t drive long and didn’t have much to see or do. Mary and I hung out in Skaftfell, a modern art exhibit with a charming café below it. We opted for a “cheap” dinner at a diner and headed back to our cottages.
If you ever find yourself in the Egilsstadir region, stay in the Skipalaekur Cottages. They’re adorable, and actually quite affordable!
Day 6: Egilsstadir to Myvatn
- Dettifoss and Selfoss
- Krafla / Power Station / Viti Crater
- Myvatn Nature Baths
- Skútustadagígar pseudo-craters
- Grjótagjá cave
- Vogafjós Farm Resort
Another day, another couple of waterfalls. Dettifoss is the most powerful falls in all of Europe, but not nearly as good looking as the nearby Selfoss, which lets you walk (hop across rocks) to the edge of the falls.
The Krafla region marked a big change of scenery. This area is home to a great deal of geothermal activity. This means it’s great for power generation and nature baths, but comes at the expense of a strong smell of rotting eggs everywhere.
Our hotel, Vogafjós Farm Resort, was on a fully functional farm. After eating lunch made entirely of self-harvested foods, Mary got to go pet the cows in the stable.
We finished our day exploring another feature nearby — the Grjótagjá cave. Formerly a swimming hole for locals, volcanic activity in the 1970’s shook up the structure of this fracture. The sapphire-blue water now stays nearly 110ºF year round. Fun fact: Jon Snow and Ygritte chose this location to seal the deal in a season three Game of Thrones episode.
Day 7: Myvatn to Hvammstangi
- Dinner at Geitafell
- Hotel North West
Goðafoss was a roadside stop. Aldeyjarfoss wasn’t. Driving to Aldeyjarfoss was our first back-country driving experience in Iceland. Signs everywhere warned of vehicle stream crossings and necessary 4WD, but we never encountered either. Still, we were two of only 10ish people at Aldeyjarfoss, and the only ones to scramble down to its base.
Just as far off the beaten path was Hvítserkur, a giant rock formation said to be the remnants of a giant stone troll who forgot to retreat from the morning sunlight. Mary and I both agreed that climbing Hvítserkur would be a blast, but too dangerous without safety gear.
We at dinner at Geitafell, a restaurant that seemed to be located at the end of Earth. Seriously, this place is out there! But, man, was it worth it. Mary declared the Skyr cake to be the best cake she’s ever tasted in her life!
Day 8: Hvammstangi to ION
- Hang out in Reykjavík
- Akranes Lighthouse
- ION Luxury Adventure Hotel
Today was another light day of driving, and because we didn’t take the time on our first day, we decided to check out Reykjavík. Apparently, Icelandic hot dogs are a big deal. Mary and I thought they were too gamey.
After a short stop at the Akranes Lighthouse, we made our way to the main destination: ION Luxury Adventure Hotel. This place is a marvel of architecture placed in a gorgeous river canyon complete with its own geothermal pool/spa. We even spotted a number of arctic foxes playing nearby. As if that wasn’t enough, the meal was absurdly tasty. ION was our most expensive stay on the trip, but worth every ISK.
Day 9: ION to West Fjords
- Vatnshellir cave
- Ferry from Stykkishólmur to Brjánslækur
- Garðar BA 64 ship
- Látrabjarg bird cliffs
- Fosshotel Westfjords
Our ninth day on the trip was one of our busiest. We had tons of places to visit and a strict time to catch the ferry up to the Westfjords. We started the day snapping a few shots at the seaside rock formation Gatklettur, then tried spelunking at the massive Vatnshellir Cave.
The Stykkishólmur ferry carried us and our car up to the Westfjords, a region only visited by 3% of tourists. A quick drive brought us to the beached Garðar BA 64 ship, built in 1912 and retired in 1981. A sign read “Do not climb,” with graffiti adding, “but if you do, be careful.”
Our last stop before the late arrival to the hotel was to the Látrabjarg cliffs, the Western-most point of Iceland. Typically, Látrabjarg is home to swarms of puffins, but they were told that they had migrated away a mere two weeks before.
Day 10: West Fjords to The Castle
- Belgian waffles in Dýrafjörður
- Ísafjörður, information center
- Icelandic Sorcery & Witchcraft
- The Castle Guesthouse
Voted the most beautiful waterfall in all of Iceland by the native population, Dynjandi did not disappoint. Mary got soaked playing in the spray.
In search of more arctic fox photography, Mary and I made our way to the Arctic Fox Center in Melrakkasetur. They had a small guided tour with exhibits, but the main attraction was Ingi and Móri, two captive fox brothers whose parents were killed. They’re like giant chipmunks — extremely fluffy, curious, and adorable.
Our second museum of the day, the Museum of Icelandic Sorcery & Witchcraft, was enlightening and creepy. Apparently Salem wasn’t home to the only witches and sorcerers in the Western world. Icelanders had all sorts of incantations and rituals to help catch thieves, to ensure wealth, and to maim and murder rivals, and many people were burned at the stake for these practices.
Day 11: The Castle to KEF
- Lunch at Grillmarkaðinn
- Hang out in Reykjavík
After eleven days in Iceland, we had had enough. We finished our last day with a tasting-menu lunch at Grillmarkaðinn in Reykjavík, perhaps our best meal of the entire trip. Here, we got to try Whale for the first time; gamey, but not bad.
We did our best to find a wool sweater as a practical souvenir, but $200+ seemed a bit too steep. We had to settle with some junk food for the long flight home.
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