Sunday, April 09, 2017

How to make the best of Iceland in 7 days

Destination: Iceland
Travel Companion: Rita
Duration: 8 days
Budget: 3,200$ pp

Originally, Iceland was never top of list for me to visit, specially not in regards to seeing the Northern lights, I always felt that North of Norway and Sweden have higher chances. Still, I knew Iceland was something else and decided to just go for it. I wanted to see all of Iceland and knew it was exactly the kind of country where you can rent a car and go about all of it. Here's a video summary of my trip in 1 minute.

Many friends asked me for the itinerary and recommendations of what to do in Iceland. One week there taught me about the Do's and Don'ts, so I hope you find it useful. I will be covering the following sections:
  • Duration & Budget
  • Location & Itinerary
  • Accommodation
  • Transport (Rent a car or Tours)
  • Money (Cash or card)
  • Places to visit
  • Activities to do
  • What to wear
  • How to chase & shoot the Auroras 
  • Food & Drinks
A night I will never forget! Kirkjufellfoss - Iceland

1) Duration & Budget

  • If you're going in Aurora season, I recommend at least 7 nights for higher chances of seeing the aurora. There is a sort of a weekly solar activity, and it is bound to peak for few nights, therefore if you stay a week you have more chances. Having said that. it's not as simple as this, please see section "How to chase & shoot the Auroras" for more details. 
  • If you only plan to hang out in Reykjavik and Golden Circle, 3 nights are more than enough.
  • If you're planning on road tripping through the whole country (Ring Road), aim for a whole week (please see more details in the "Caveat" section below)
The Ring Road - Iceland
For 8 days, expect a budget of ±3,000$ (11,000 AED).
  • Flight: ±800$ (3,000 AED)
  • Accommodation: ±100$ (360 AED) per night per person
  • Food: ± 30$ (110 AED) per person per meal, in Reykjavik it's at least 1.5X that. I recommend you get some bread + cheese + eggs if you're staying in apartments, and biscuits + snacks while road tripping.
  • Drinks: Get them from duty free :P
  • Tours: Ranging between 70$ (250 AED) and 270$ (1,000 AED). The ones where we needed a guided tour were Snorkeling in Silfra, Ice Caving, Lava caving... rest we drove to them ourselves.
  • Car Rental: This varies on the car and car rental place, our car rental was around 85$ (310AED) per day including full package insurance. Unfortunately, Lagoon car rental charged us around 700$ for a 1 inch scratch on the door. So I don't recommend this company.
Black Diamond Beach - Jökulsàrlon
South Iceland

2) Location & Itinerary

Again, if you're just there for 3-4 days with no car, stay in Reykjavik and take tours as they can all pick you up.
  • Day 1: If you're going to road trip, and grabbing your rental car from Keflavik airport, Blue Lagoon is only 20 minutes away, so it's good to start or end with it (depending on flight time), I recommend you stay close by to the Blue Lagoon in this case for the first night. We stayed in an area called Vogar, quiet but short drive from there..
  • Day 2: Drive to the Golden Circle (Thinkvellir National Park, Geysir, Strokkur, Gulfoss falls), then drive to Selfoss. You can choose to stay in Hella or Hvolsvöllur. 
  • Day 3: It's a good location to be based in for few nights and go to the South of Iceland (Vik & surrounding) from there.
  • Day 4: Drive towards Jökulsàrlón Glacier Lagoon, on the way you can do several stops in South Iceland specially in Vik area if you haven't already. Once you get to the lagoon you have to also visit the Black Diamond Beach. If you booked Ice Caving / Glacier climbing the next day, then it's worth staying in Skalafell area.
  • Day 5: Now this is where it gets interesting, you can either keep driving east and then up north towards Lake Myvatn then to Snaefellsness Peninsula and finalize trip in Reykjavik (Itinerary 1), or go back to Selfoss and drive to Snaefellsness Peninsula and finalize trip in Reykjavik (Itinerary 2). The Ring Road, in winter, wasn't as fun as I would imagine it would be in summer. At times, it was raining hard or snowing, and the wind was strong and actually impacting our car so you need to keep both hands on the steering wheel for more control, and finally the view was mainly clouds and snow. We did Itinerary 1, I would recommend Itinerary 2 though, as most of the beautiful places we saw can be covered in Itinerary 2, except for Akureyri area, which was a very nice town!
  • Day 6: Head to Peninsula, see Kirkjufell & Peninsula. This was my lucky night when I finally saw the Northern Lights having Kirkjufell mountain as a foreground.
  • Day 7-8: Come back to Reykjavik, spend at least one night there. I really liked the city, it's well worth spending few nights there (preferably aim for a weekend) and checking out the night scene, the restaurants, doing some shopping. Expect expensive cost though, it's the most expensive city I have ever been to. We used Reykjavik as a base and took two tours from there (Snorkeling in Silfra + Lava caving tour, and Northern Lights tour).

Crystal Cave - Jökulsarlon - Iceland

Blue Lagoon - Iceland

3) Accommodation

We stayed in 6 different hotels, here are my favorite 3.


This cabin is situated in Hvolsvöllur, quiet area, but well located for a stop between the Golden Circle and South Iceland. We were there for 2 nights, but I enjoyed the cabin so much, if I choose to go with Itinerary 2, I would probably make it a base for more nights.

Guesthouse Skálafell was super nice. Unfortunately we only had one afternoon there and it was raining, so we didn't get to do any hiking towards the waterfall that is right behind it.

South of Iceland

Gudafoss Falls

Finally, we stayed in an apartment in Reykjavik that was really well located in the busy part of the city center. Good news though, even if Reykjavik was the busiest and most crowded town in Iceland, it was still a very very small town (specially its city center).

4) Transport: Rent a car or tours

If you're alone, then of course I recommend you stick to Reykjavik and go on tours from there as they all do pick-ups from Reykjavik. But if you're 2+ people, I recommend you rent a car and get going! Having a car allows you go visit many spots in Iceland without the need of a tour. You can always do the math and see what makes more sense to you financially, I would assume renting a car would come down to be more cost effective. Make sure you get a Wi-Fi dongle as roaming is completely unreliable and you need the GPS massively.


When driving towards a Glacier, you need a monster truck!

5) Money (Cash or card)

We were in the remotest areas in Iceland and they all took cards, even when buying a bottle of water, or paying for a night of accommodation in a guesthouse.



6) Places to visit

The below map from Guide to Iceland was super helpful, it really helped us not miss any of the amazing places. As I mentioned above, you can have two different itineraries. One place I would add that was missing from this map in the Golden Circle is the volcano "Strokkur".

My favorites were: Blue Lagoon, Thinkvellir, Geysir, Seljalandsfoss, Dyrholaey, Reynisfjara, Reynisdrangar, Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon, Diamond Beach, Myvatn, Akureyri, Kirkjufell (Snaefellsness Peninsula) and of course Reykjavik.

Thinkvellir National Park

Also stopped at: Gulfoss falls, Skogafoss falls, Vik, Hellnar, Budir Black Church & Arnarstapi. I do believe though weather and sky color affects how I view certain areas, perhaps if it wasn't cloudy or it was a color sunset, I would assume Hellnar would've been a beauty to capture on camera.

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Reykjavik is such a nice city center, I had low expectations of the city when I scheduled two nights there, thinking the only highlight is the nature in Iceland. However, even though I had a tour out of it for a whole day, after spending few hours, I still enjoyed it. If I had the chance I would dedicate at least one day and one night for it. It's quite hip, nice looking, great restaurant, plenty of pubs and easily walkable. Plus it's worth checking off the list "been in the northernmost capital city of Europe"!



7) Activities to do

  • Swim in blue lagoon or the hot springs near lake Myvatn 
  • Snorkeling between the two continents in Silfra
  • Ice caving (e.g. Jokulsarlon glacier lagoon), can also do ice / glacier climbing and snow-mobiling 
  • Dog sledding (snow or dry land) 
  • Northern lights chasing 
  • Whale watching 
  • Horseback riding 
  • Lava caving 
  • Hiking and trekking (Thinkvellir National Park, around Lake Myvatn) 
  • Kayaking 
  • Elf school 
  • Northern lights by boat 
Black Sand Beach - Vik - South of Iceland

8) What to wear

  • Layers: 3-4 tops (dry fit breathable down layer, fleece, wind breaker + waterproof Jacket)
  • Bigger size hiking + waterproof shoes to wear double socks (preferably made of wool)
  • Two pants (base layer + waterproof & warm pants)
  • Neck warmer / scarf
  • Ear muffs or beanie (preferably waterproof & breathable)

9) How to chase & shoot the auroras

  • Settings: I had a good DSLR, but my lens was the normal kit lens with limited aperture, mounted on a Tripod. I was able to get the photos and timelapse you see in my post. I shot in Raw mode, with F3.5 / ISO above 1600 / Shutter speed between 10-15 seconds depending how bright the Lights got. The most important function you have to get right is the Manual focus (aim towards a bright star, zoom in and then manually try to get the focus on it, this should do the trick. One small tip, your eyes will get used to the dark, so you might think that your shots are too bright at one point (happened to me on the first night)
  • Forecast is usually relying on several factors combination of:
    • Dark skies (avoid full moons and city lights, and obviously the longer the nights the better the chances, so mid September to Mid April is the season)
    • Few light clouds to no clouds at all (clear skies). Rain means clouds which means no visibility.
    • Strong solar activity: It can be translated into KP measure, usually higher than 3 in Iceland is good.
    • You can download aurora apps to keep track of their activity and also monitor cloud forecast.
    • Sometimes though, just go with your guts if there are clear skies even if Aurora KP is low. You never know! 
  • Chasing the lights: As I mentioned earlier, if you want to increase your chances in seeing the lights, perhaps being in same place for a whole week is better as it is bound to happen one night there. You can also drive 1-2 hours out of the capital or whichever area you're in and go to a dark place with clear skies. Here's a helpful article. You can also book northern lights tours. Caveat is that they take you to flat places mostly, so not necessarily a good foreground for photography.
 Bjargarsteinn House of Food

10) Food & Drinks

  • Fish (salmon was great on more than one occasion). You can also try shark and whale, but I personally chose not to.
  • In general, food was quite delicious in Iceland with nice presentation. Here are few restaurants I recommend:
    • Vogur area: Gamla Pósthúsid. 
    • Hvolsvollur area: Eldstó Art Cafè Guesthouse
    • Akureyri area: Bautinn
    • Snaefellsness Peninsula - Kirkjufell area: Bjargarsteinn House of Food (it's funny that in this area there are only 3 restaurants, but this was was genuinely awesome, beautiful decor, great view to the mountain and delicious food)
    • Reykjavik area: For coffee, Kaffibrennslan was a very cute place, for pastry, check Braud&Co (photo below) and for food we tried Ristorante Caruso, we wanted to try Snaps (it had great ratings, but unfortunately was fully booked, try it on my behalf and let me know!)
  • Iceland drinks: They have a local drink, "The Original Icelandic Spirit" and it's called Brennivin. Try it!



This bakery was amazing! It had the best cinnamon roll I have every tried in my life. The place is called Braud&Co.

Quick tips:
  • Make sure you pre-book for the Blue Lagoon entrance ticket.
  • Keep snacks and water on your if you go on a road trip
  • Fill gas whenever you see a gas station specially when driving between the South and North through the East.
  • Rent a wi-fi dongle for your car, you will need it for GPS as roaming / road signs are not reliable / can be confusing.
  • Don't underestimate preparing music for the road. Make sure you have around 2 playlists of 2-3 hours each. 
  • You can use your UAE Driver's license as in when renting a car. 
  • Don't turn your back to the ocean when visiting Reynisfjara. Winds and waves are too strong, and there has been instance when tourists have drowned.
Reynisfjara - See the formation of rocks due to wind?

Caveat:
If you choose to drive the ring road:
  • The drive from South through East up until the North can be tough at times specially if it's raining or snowing (in summer I would assume it would be better). And there is a part between North and West that is all gravel, and not the good kind, so experience in a bit of off-roading will help, speeding can be dangerous as one small swerve you end up in the ditch or lake or with a flat tire (which car rental + insurance won't reimburse you for). There are rarely any fences or side margin for temp stopover. There were times we were completely alone for over an hour and with very low visibility. 
  • You will have 6-7 hours of stretches for that specific drive, must have at least 2 drivers in the car as it will get tiring. 
  • My takeaway is that you can't maximize both seeing the whole country and still having the energy to be awake at night chasing the northern lights. We did both and unfortunately missed out on the lights the first 5 nights because we were always at the right place but wrong time :( my recommendation is see what your priority is and plan accordingly, if it's the lights then maybe stay in same area (preferably Selfoss, Hella or Vik) as the drive is easy from there East or West in order to chase the lights and also not be that far from Reykjavik. 

Magical night, seeing the Aurora Borealis for the first time dance above me :)

Don't be afraid to get out of your comfort zone and Travel with Funk!
FROM ICELAND WITH FUNK

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