Welcome to Iceland! The land where the sun never sets - or rises - depending on when you're here. The land of fresh fish, booze, and hotdogs! The one thing I always stress to people when they ask for advice about Iceland is: YOU NEED TO RENT A CAR. As I won't bore you with the monotonous details that is the car rental procedure, the one tip I will give you is that if you are visiting during the winter months is: make sure your car has studded tires. The last thing you need is to get stuck in a snow bank, or slide off a mountain road only to wake up in traction getting a sponge bath from a gentleman named Bjorn....I digress. At this point it's probably quite early as most flights from the states are red-eyes. Since most things in Iceland don't open till around 9 or 10AM, you may want to pick up a bit of breakfast. Head on over to Bryggjan cafe located at the harbor in Grindavik for a quick bite and a coffee. Upon leaving the
cafe with your newly sourced rental car, and a belly full of herring, head directly to the Blue Lagoon. It is the absolute perfect thing to do after getting off the plane. Plus, it's on the way to Reykjavik! You can't lose, finally! During the winter months, the Blue lagoon opens at about 9am, while in Summer they open at 8. Entrance tickets cost 35€, they also charge 5€ for a towel, 5€ for slippers, and 10€ for a bathrobe if desired. I suggest following the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy motto as you will need your towel later on anyway. Spend as much time as you deem appropriate sucking down Tuborg's, and making your friends jealous on Instagram all while relaxing in the incredible geothermal water, and rubbing mud on your face (everybody's doing it).
Spend the rest of your day walking around and exploring Reykjavik's downtown area which include such highlights as, SolfarAKA the Sun Voyager down by the harbor (you can totally climb all over this thing). Hallgrimskirkja, the famous MASSIVE Lutheran church (which can be used to orient yourself if you're lost around the city) which is opens 9am to 5pm and costs about 6 bucks (800 ISK) to go up in the tower. You can also spend some time strolling down Laugavegur Street which houses many of the cities' bars and shops. Some bar recommendations would be Dillon whiskey bar(specializing in brown liquor and cocktails),The Lebowski bar (obviously specializing in white russians), Micro barhas a fantastic craft beer selection (including Cantilllon). Finally, world famous craft beer gypsy, Mikkeller's, newest Reykjavik location, "Mikkeller & Friends" is one block up. After hitting a few bars, head back to the hotel to get ready for a world class dinner/tasting menu atFiskfelagid.
Going to Iceland for the first time and not doing the Golden Circle is like going to Bourbon Street and not drinking a hurricane (and a hand grenade). Most tours or itineraries usually list 3 to 5 stops along the route so I'll run right down the middle and suggest 4. Now, it's a good thing you listened to my advice in the beginning and rented a car, otherwise you would end up like the other ham and egger tourists chugging along on the embarrassing bus (for about $175 a person, total cost being about what you paid to rent a car for the week). Congrats, you won!
Thingvellir national park is where the first Icelandic parliament was founded which is basically the founding of the nation of Iceland. Here you can hike, learn about Iceland's rich cultural history, or if you're like us, you can can join a snorkeling trip at Silfra. During this trip, you get to swim in the fault line between the European and North American continental plate. Get me? You are literally swimming in a fault line where the earth has swallowed the ground like an all-you-can-eat buffet in Vegas. Mind you, it's cold in Iceland (especially in the winter when we did this) so you will be provided with a dry suit, as well as a "teddy bear suit". The tour company we booked this with was "Adventures.is" and lasted about 2 hours.
Geysir. Even if you have done the smallest amount of research, you have probably figured out that geysir is the name of the first, well geyser. Its the one that ALLLLLLLL the others get their name from. You may have also heard that geyser, no longer errupts. Luckily for you, when 1 door closes, another opens! Right next to the inactive geyser is the geyser Strokkur. This bad boy explodes every 5 minutes shooting boiling water about 100 feet into the air! It's a lot of fun and it makes for great pictures. (As a side note, if you're feeling a bit peckish, the gift shop next to the geysers tend to make a nice traditional lamb stew, as well as some smoked lamb on a pita. Enjoy with a shot of Brennevin!)
Gulfoss, or the golden falls, is often debated to be one of the most powerful waterfalls in all of Europe. If you happen to be there when it isn't raining, you will most likely get the treat of seeing a rainbow cresting over the falls. As you can see, there is quite a differece in the appearance of the falls depending on your time of visit.
Kerid is a volcanic crater lake that, if you follow my itinerary, is on your way back to Reykjavik. Look close for the signs cause it can be easy to miss. It takes about 15 minutes to walk the circumference of the crater and about 5 minutes to walk down to the water. If you're the adventurous type bring a bathing suit and hop on in if you don't mind the razor sharp volcanic rocks tickling your piggies, not to mention the ice cold freezing water.
Okay, so this is a super long day. So long, in fact that some of you may prefer to stay overnight near the glacier lagoon. We did in fact do this in 1 day, and were totally exhausted. Doing this in the summer gives you some obvious benefits, ie. the sun will be up faaaaar longer. Okay, so here we go, there are 2 ways to do this, what we did was leave at about 6am from Reykjavik, and drive directly to Jökulsárlón then made the other stops along the way home. We found that this way it helped us from falling asleep while driving!
Assuming you're following the same itinerary we did, you should arrive at Jökulsárlón around 11am. This huge glacier lagoon glows. Like for real, you can see it glowing a bright blue from about 10 miles away, it's pretty ghostly.
Basically, whats going on here is the tongue of Breiðamerkurjökull, a huge glacier, is breaking off baby icebergs and sending them straight into the good ol' Atlantic ocean. Most likely, it's like nothing you'll ever see again. There are numerous activities you can do around the lagoon such as boat tours and hikes or you can just enjoy the view! Across the street from the lagoon is a beautiful black sand beach where you can wave goodbye to the icebergs as they float into the sea.
After you've had your fill of icebergs, its time to start backtracking. The next stop is Vatnajökull/Skaftafell national park. At this point, I feel like a lot of people might want to either camp or find a hotel close to the park so they can explore a bit more. As we didn't have the time for this, we opted for a short hike to see Svartifoss waterfall. Svartifoss, or the black falls, is an awesome waterfall which gets its name from the giant black hexagonal basalt columns surrounding it. Now, you can hike directly from the visitor center to the waterfall on a well marked trail which takes about 2 hours round trip. Buuuuut, there is a shortcut if you don't have 2 hours to spend hiking. If you visit the park before June 1st you can park at the small public lot before the Bolti Guesthouse on the trail. This will save you a good hour and cut the time of your hike in half.
Vik is a good place to stop if you're hungry, or if you need gas, or if, hey you want to check out sweet black sand beaches and the Reynisdrangar Troll Rocks. Legend has it that 3 trolls named Skessudrangur, Laddrangur and Langhamar were pulling a ship to shore along the coast of Vik when the sun "unexpectedly" rose, which promptly turned them into the stupidest troll rocks ever. The drive from Svartifoss to Vik takes about an hour and a half so a lot of other tourists are going to be stopping there as well. Vik is a pretty small town and you literally have to drive through main street to get in, and out, so you shouldn't have any trouble finding the main sites.
Skogafoss. This foss is big. Big and pretty damn impressive. The falls can easily be seen right from Ring Road. You're gonna be tempted to stop on the way to Jokulsarlon because, well let's be honest, it's pretty cool. Don't give in to temptation though cause I'm telling you, all these stops on the way back really help keep you awake and break up the drive. You can pretty much walk right up to these falls (as with everything in Iceland, no one will stop you from doing any ridiculously stupid and dangerous thing that you want to do) and take a quick dip in the pool if you are so suicidally inclined. If you prefer, there is also a trail that leads to the top of the falls that you can hike for some great views. Another plus, its only about a 25 minute drive from Vik to the falls.
Seljalandsfoss is awesome, there isn't any other way to describe it. This is a huge waterfall that you can walk behind. So, the drive from Skogafoss should take you only about 25 minutes. Hope you brought waterproof clothes and a change of shoes cause damn it, you're gonna get wet, and you're gonna love it. Now, you CAN go see Seljalandsfoss without walking behind the waterfall, but what's the point?? That's what I thought, get behind that waterfall! Oh and unless your camera is waterproof, either cover it real good or don't bother bringin it.
Assuming you haven't fallen asleep at the wheel, you made it, congratulations! Now that you are thoroughly exhausted get back to Reykjavik and have some Thule, Tuborg (the beer of danish kings), Gull and Viking! The drive home from Seljalandsfoss should take you about an hour and a half. Get ready for tomorrow because its the bees knees.
***Alternative to Jökulsárlón***
Sure, some people might frown on a 10 hour car ride while they're on vacation. So, for those people we have another alternative. Sólheimajökulll glacier is about 1:45 hour drive from Reykjavik. You can set up glacier hikes through Icelandic Mountain guides. The tour guides are great and the hike usually lasts 2.5 to 3 hours.
Hotsprings! So this might be the most magical day of your whole life. Hiking to natural hotsprings in the Southern Icelandic mountains could be the most surreal experience of our life. I've mapped out 2 natural hotsprings within a 2 hour drive from Reykjavik. You could of course do 1, but you could always add to one of your other days, or expand our itinerary and stay for 5 or 6 nights!
The town of Hveragerdi has the closest swimmable hot spring area, and makes a incredible day trip from Reykjavik. When we went hiking into the mountains of southern Iceland looking for glory, all we had to go on was an internet post that said, "drive to Hveragerdi and follow the red and yellow trail markers." So, I will try to provide you with a lil' more information than that since this was one of the best things that we did while spending time in this beautiful country. Once you get to the main drag of Hveragerdi, it's actually a very good time to stop at one of the stores along the main street and pick up some water, or hey, a bottle of champagne to celebrate with once you reach the springs. After a couple of minutes you should see a soccer field coming up on your left and also the first red and yellow trail marker right at the edge of the field. Ignore these trail markers and keep following the road. You will pass a few farms and finally come to a parking lot at the base of a small mountain. Follow the Reykjadalur trail 3km up the mountain until you reach the springs. most likely you will be the only people there so hey, feel free to let it all hang out!
Hrunalaug is the second hotspring we have visited but I have been hearing reports that it has been dismantled or shut down for some reason. Even google maps reports it as "permanently closed". From what I can find on the internet, it appears that the springs were being badly damaged by the number of tourists that visited everyday. There are reports that say renovations to accommodate more people are planned, but nothing has come to fruition yet. Out of respect for the landowners and the environment, we will not explain how to access these springs, but if you're really determined, I'm sure you will find a way. Just remember to be respectful, and take out whatever garbage you bring in.