TRAVEL | Iceland Road Trip in Four Days
In all honesty, we’re not usually ones for traveling to cold locations. It could be the nine years of winter in New York that really did us in with cold weather. Somehow, we’ve made exceptions twice already this year, with a trip snow skiing (blog post coming soon!) and an extra-long weekend in Iceland.
Ben had already traveled to Iceland a few years ago during the summer months when the sun never sets, but this was my first time, and both of our first times during the winter. Despite our tendency toward warm locations, winter is hands-down the best time to travel to Iceland-- being there felt like an out-of-world winter wonderland! Although I’m sure it’s just as magical in the summer months, the opportunity of seeing the Northern Lights (which you can only catch during the winter) made up for the chilly weather.
I should preface by saying that the weather wasn’t really that cold. It stayed between 29-34°F, and during our last day there we even got a big rain that melted a lot of snow.
How we got there
Flights from Paris were convenient and rather cheap. I had been seeing ads for Iceland Air offering a free stopover in Iceland on the way from the U.S. to Europe, so it’s always a good idea to check their website directly for promos.
How we got around
We rented a car from the Reykjavik airport and decided on booking an all-wheel-drive SUV. Even though it had snowed before our trip, we noticed that the roads in Iceland are in great shape, snow-plowed, and are well-marked. Nevertheless, some roads did have a good bit of snow and ice still on them, and we felt safer having four-wheel drive.
Our rental car agent explained that road conditions can change due to the quick-changing weather in the country. They recommended that we consult this official website for road conditions in Iceland. Luckily, we never had any issues, but I did make sure to check the road conditions throughout the day.
Where we stayed
As per our usual, we found our accommodations on Airbnb. There wasn't a whole lot of variety in the rentals, most of them are in modern buildings and within walking distance to Reykjavik center. We ended up in this apartment. I made sure it had covered parking connected to the building, and we were so happy to have it, especially driving back late at night after looking for the Northern Lights!
Where we ate
Seeing the natural side of Iceland really was our top priority on this trip. That being said, Reykjavik was a great base with lots of good restaurants, bars, and shopping if you need to grab an extra layer or a Viking mug. We found an awesome little vegan restaurant called Veganæs connected to a dive bar that served up plant-based home cooking. I’ve starred some other restaurants we enjoyed in my Google map linked below. I've also included a real Icelandic restaurant that apparently serves up some creative cuisine. We didn't venture out too much in our food tasting in Iceland, as whale and reindeer are really beyond my comfort zone.
During January, there are only six hours of daylight, from about 10:30 - 4:45, so we tried to maximize the sunny hours we had each day by planning to see a few attractions within the same area. Take a look at my Google map below to see our favorite stops.
A word of warning, the cellphone connection was not always reliable in the countryside, so I downloaded an offline version of the map previous to us hitting the road.
For our first full day, we went to the Blue Lagoon. I had reserved our entry ahead of time, which is actually required before your visit. For the price of the Confort entry (the least expensive option), you get access for the whole day to the Blue Lagoon, a locker in the common dressing room to secure your things, a mud mask and free drink while in the Blue Lagoon, and a towel when you finish. Although I read that most people stay for about two hours, we ended up staying from sunup to sundown! Our entry was at 10 am, so we enjoyed the Lagoon until we got hungry, then had lunch at the Lava restaurant within the complex and went back to the lagoon after lunch. By the end of our day, we were completely relaxed!
Something I wish I would have known before going to the Blue Lagoon is that the chemicals in the water turn gold and silver black. While I had no problems keeping my jewelry in the locker, I think I would have rathered leave them at the safe in the Airbnb. Also, the silica in the water can make your hair dry and brittle, so make sure to load up on the conditioner in the showers before and after you head into the lagoon.
We did a tour of the Golden Circle on the second day, with a few detours. The main stops we made I’ve saved on the Google map below that you can access. The final destination of the day was the waterfall, Gullfoss Falls, so we made stops on the way there at the Kerid Crater and the geyser Geysir.
We also had lunch at Friðheimar, which is a greenhouse and a restaurant. Their greenhouse is warmed by geothermal energy (like the Blue Lagoon) and is totally self-sufficient. Friðheimar is known for its tomatoes that are said to be better than those grown in the Mediterranean. We did some taste testing to see for ourselves. As you can expect, the menu had lots of tomato-based products. We got Bloody Marys and hit up their tomato soup and homemade bread bar. Next time we’ll have to save room for the tomato deserts! This was such a highlight to the day, and it was also a nice reprieve from the cold outdoor activities.
Laugarvatn Fontana Thermal Baths
Once the sun went down and we couldn’t see much outside the car windows, we made our way to another Icelandic thermal bath at Laugarvatn Fontana. While not as insta-worthy as the Blue Lagoon, the entry cost for both of us was much less than the price for one at the Blue Lagoon. There are a number of geothermal-heated baths and saunas that you can soak in and move between, and if you’re feeling courageous, you can even take a dip in the Lake Laugarvatn. I touched my toes in the lake but got cold feet when I saw some ice floating nearby!
Thingvellir National Park
On our last day in Iceland, we did a road trip in Thingvellir National Park. There are lots of cool rock formations and small islands in the lake. You can hike to a dramatic valley that marks the boundary between the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates.
We tried all four nights that we were in Iceland to see the Northern Lights and were somehow able to spot them on the second night we were there. The Aurora Borealis is apparently very finicky and tricky to find. I had been trying to follow the forecast by using this guide and this one, but each night it said that the activity was 2 on a scale of 0-9. We compared these forecasts and cloud coverage maps to the suggestions I found on this map from the Icelandic blogger Happy Campers.
Luckily enough, the spot that was easiest for us to get to and is just ten minutes outside of Reykjavik is where we ended up catching the lights! Seltjarnarnes is just on the tip of the peninsula by Reykjavik and is just far enough from the city to evade the light pollution. It lasted on and off for about twenty minutes-- a perfect amount of time for us waiting and watching in the cold field! As we quickly learned, the Northern Lights do not like to be photographed by an iPhone, although this kind of made the experience even better as we only had to worry about watching and enjoying through our own eyes!
Some say it's best to book a guided tour to see the Northern Lights. Many of the tours guarantee the light show during your tour and will take you out each night until you see them. We were happy to have the flexibility of the car and felt really happy with ourselves for hunting them down all on our own. Also, it was nice to be able to head back to our warm apartment on our own watch instead of waiting for a tour.
Here’s a short clip of some of our highlights on the trip.
If you follow me on Instagram, you can also find more video captures of this trip saved in the “Iceland” saved stories.
Have you ever visited Iceland or is it on your bucket list? If you have any experience in Iceland, I would love to hear where you stayed and what you did!
Thanks so much for reading and sharing!