I just returned from my second trip to Iceland. In 2007 I did a 7 day trip using the Icelandair stopover option on a flight to London. This time I spent a bit over three weeks driving the ring road with Anne, exploring and working remotely in Reykjavik’s cafés and bars and visiting Thorsmork National Park.
Visiting Iceland is a surreal and unmissable travel experience. The raw natural beauty, mind-blowing landscapes and unique natural features give every new moment the possibility of blowing you away.
In this post I want to answer some questions I’ve gotten about visiting, talk about both of my trips and provide some general tips for planning a trip. I also spent more than two relatively relaxing weeks living and working remotely in Reykjavik so I’m including my mini city guide of the best cafes, bars, eats and unusual places worth visiting in Iceland’s capital. If you’re just looking for Reykjavik tips click here to jump.
My trips and suggestions
I came through Iceland for a week in August 2007 and just finished up 3 weeks starting in late September 2014. If you’re a puffin fiend then definitely do June or July as most of the puffins were gone by my first visit in August. In my opinion there are three epic ways to visit Iceland: 1) A quick stopover late enough in the season to get a taste of Reykjavik and potentially see the Northern Lights. 2) A 7-day trip in the Summer including 4/5 days of the Laugavegur Trek. 3) A minimum of 10 days to see Reykjavik and travel the Ring Road that circumnavigates the entire island.
What’s that? Nothing, just the glow of lava from an active volcano with a streak of the Northern Lights overhead. No Big Deal (!!!!!!) A photo posted by Tyler Tringas (@ttringas) on
The main tourist season is June thru August when the weather is best for all the amazing hiking and natural sights. Most of Iceland sits just below the Arctic Circle so it goes without saying that during the high season you’ll get nearly 24 hours of daylight and basically 0% chance of seeing the Northern Lights. The Aurora season is October to March. While we definitely faced some pretty terrible weather at times, visiting in early October gave us the chance to see lots of the outdoors (in the sunlight) and see some pretty epic Northern Lights.
To give you a rough sense of the odds, in 24 days in Iceland I had 3 days of really impressive Northern Lights and 2 more of pretty good shows. It really is luck of the draw. The Iceland Meteorological Service has an aurora forecast website which rightly focuses on the only predictable variable you should care about for aurora hunting, cloud cover. If it’s cloudy, no Northern Lights for sure, if not, you’ve got a chance, and it’s up to you how long you want to sit outside, freeze your butt off and wait for them. For this reason and others I think a Northern Lights tour is a big waste of money and time. The only predictable way to see great Northern Lights is to get a car and drive to clear, dark skies for several nights, sit outside a lot and wait for a good show.
But it’s totally freaking worth it.
My number one tip for Iceland: rent a car
Trips to Iceland of more than 3 days or so are usually organized around three options: stay in Reykjavik and take excursions, hop buses from city to city or rent a car. Even if you’re not familiar with renting a car while traveling, I strongly recommend you go this option for Iceland.
- Most of the sights and places to visit and stay in Iceland are organized along the Ring Road, and 830 mile loop that circumnavigates the country. If you go anywhere outside of Reykjavik, odds are you’ll be taking this one road in either direction.
- It is by far the cheapest option. You can check bus prices on the Iceland Your Own website. If you are traveling alone it’s possible that one of the “passport” options would be about the same price as a car. For example, a Circle Passport, which gives unlimited bus rides all the way around Iceland runs about $350 per person, which is about what we paid for an 8-day car rental (excluding gas). If you are more than one person, the car is a huge savings.
- The countryside is stunning in Iceland. You will want to pull over a lot and take pictures, go for a little hike, pet some horses or look at your 27th but still amazing waterfall.
- A lot of enjoying Iceland is outdoors and thus weather dependent. On our trip the Southeast got completely socked in with rain for days. Because we had the flexibility of a car we were able to book out of there and were rewarded with great weather and beautiful Northern Lights after a 6-hour drive.
- It is impossible to get lost. You take the same road in one direction all the way around. Signs are clear, gas stations are frequent with helpful attendants with perfect English.
- Some of the excursions in Iceland are a total rip-off when compared to renting a car. The Northern Lights tour and Golden Circle are $60-100 per person for a seat in a bus that drives you to a few places. If you want to see the Northern Lights, get in a car and drive until it gets dark then stop and look up. Same with the Golden Circle. It is super easy to get to all three stops and you can pack 5 people into a $50 rental car and do it on your own.
We booked a car for pick-up in Downtown Reykjavik using www.dohop.is
Camping in Iceland
On this recent trip we went fully equipped: tent, sleeping bags, camp cooking gear. But Iceland’s notoriously unpredictable weather conspired against us and we ended up not spending a single night outdoors. In the summertime campsites are more hospitable. A few things to know.
- Camping can save you a ton of money. Registration for a campsite can be $10-15/night.
- Campsite in Iceland are amazing. Delicious drinkable tap water is everywhere along with geothermal-heated showers. Many campsite include access to a kitchen.
- Towns in Iceland are tiny and campsites are frequently very conveniently located. Walking distance to a grocery store or restaurant or bar is common, though it’s likely the only one in town.
- You can buy camp stove fuel at any gas station if you ask at the counter (remember everyone speaks perfect English). I was able to get canisters for my MSR Pocket Rocket at a random N1 on the Ring Road, but it wasn’t on the shelves.
- In the very peak season you might need to register ahead but I don’t think it’s necessary to book campsites in advance. Show up and find a spot.
- Campsites officially start to close around 15 September. We didn’t even arrive until after that but we were universally told that you could technically camp on the sites, nobody was going to care that you didn’t have a permit, but the facilities may or may not be locked up for the winter.
Even if you don’t plan to camp you should still bring a warm sleeping bag. Many hostels and guesthouses charge $8-10 extra for clean sheets. A bit crazy but now you’ve been warned.
Thorsmork & The Laugavegur Trek
Iceland’s most popular hike is the Laugavegur Trek. It starts at Landmannalauagur, a tiny inland outpost East of Reykjavik, and runs 50km South to Thorsmork. For most it’s an easy 4-5 days of hiking. The road to both points is very rough and requires some intense river fording so most of the area is inaccessible by rental car. You can however book a ride on these incredible super-mountain-buses to/from either location and Reykjavik on the BSI website
Campsites are plentiful along the way and you can either bring your own gear and setup a tent or book a bunk in the mountain huts. The huts are fantastic, heated and have functional kitchens so you can do the hike with just a sleeping bag and some food. Great if, like me, you do it on a stopover en route to Europe and you don’t want to lug a tent and cookware around the rest of the trip. Check the website for information on booking specific huts but if you are going this route I would strongly recommend calling them directly to verify availability and booking procedure.
Thorsmork, the end location for the trail is a fantastic place to visit on its own. I went for three days on this last trip and did several stunning day hikes. It is only accessible by the super-bus or on an insanely expensive super jeep tour. I came back on the last bus of the season on Oct 15. The Volcano Huts are the only accommodation in the area and offer private and dorm accommodation. There is a pricey but good restaurant and good kitchens, I recommend bringing at least some food if you don’t want to spend $80 a day on meals while you’re there.
If you really want to see Thorsmork as part of a rental car road trip, you can do this clever hack that one couple on my trip did. Head to beautiful Seljalandsfoss and park in the parking lot. Check the Reykjavik to Thorsmork timetables from the bus website above and it will tell you when the bus will have a 10 minute stop in that same parking lot. If there’s room you can buy a cheaper ticket with cash from there to Thorsmork, the next stop on the bus. You can take the same bus back out a few hours later or the next day and it will stop in the parking lot again.
Cost of things
A lot of people have asked about the high prices in Iceland. It is definitely not a cheap destination. When I first came to Iceland in 2007, not long before, what they call here “The Bank Crash,” it was appallingly expensive. I spent two days in Reykjavik, paid $16 for a beer and $30 for a panini with potato chips and headed for the hills (literally, I spent the rest of the trip camping). At that time the exchange rate was around 65 ISK to the dollar. Now at 120 ISK/USD, prices in Iceland are still expensive, but feel more or less like a big US or European city: NYC, London, Paris. Mid-range dining in Iceland I found to be pretty good value, ~$30 for a very tasty entree and a beer, but cheaper options are sparse and not great. You can easily spend $15 for a pretty unsatisfying breakfast. Here are my unscientific estimates of random things (Appx October 2014):
hot dog: $3
beer: $8 (happy hour $5)
light lunch (panini, soup & bread): $12 The annoying part of Iceland is that these options are both rare and not particularly good. You’ll pay the $12 for a pretty bad sandwich with chips in something that approximates a Subway or a gas station. For most meals out you’ll end up paying something like…
Decent entree (burger & fries, fish special of the day): $18 – 25 Prices for these meals can really add up over a trip but they are pretty good value. A good dinner in Iceland is really delicious and it doesn’t feel like you are overpaying relative to expensive international cities like NYC, Paris, London.
Specialty entree (Icelandic lamb, salmon, whale, steak frites): $30 – 50
Very fancy and very delicious high end meal in Reykjavik: $100 including wine. Same as above, it’s expensive but it doesn’t feel overpriced as it’s delicious and very well done.
Groceries: Virtually everything in Iceland is imported or grown in greenhouses. You will pretty much pay Whole Foods prices for below-average quality. But it’s still a good way to save a ton of money.
Rental Car: We were able to easily book an automatic for around $45/day (we booked a compact but got a free upgrade to a 4×4 with Sixt). Booking a 4×4, required if you plan to go into the highlands or anywhere far from the main Ring Road, runs around $70-100/day
Gas/Petrol: Our rental car, a mid-sized SUV, made it around the Ring Road completely in a bit over 2 full tanks of gas at about $140 per full tank. Really expensive gas but MUCH cheaper than taking the buses.
Conclusion: Before the Bank Crash Iceland was a painfully expensive place to visit alongside destinations like Oslo and Zurich, but after the value of the Icelandic Kroner fell by 50%, it’s manageable. I learned that tourism revenues in the country have grown by more than 20% every year since 2008 and it shows. I’m not a foreign exchange expert by any means, but based on my recent visit I’d guess Iceland is likely to get more expensive rather than less over the coming years. On the whole, it’s definitely not cheap, but it’s not that bad. We ran into Nomadic Matt on our trip who was out to prove that Iceland could still be done on a budget. With hacks like hitch-hiking and couch surfing he was able to get it down to $54/day; here are his tips and tricks. Before settling back into Reykjavik our totals were higher than that, probably around $120/day per person for two people including car, gas, hostels/Airbnb, food and attractions.
Reykjavik mini city guide
7 years later, still a great view. #iceland #reykjavik A photo posted by Tyler Tringas (@ttringas) on
I spent about two weeks in Reykjavik, working from the many awesome cafes and exploring. It’s a very cool town even at only 150,000 people. At the end you’ll find a web and printable map with most of my recommendations
If you do one tour from Reykjavik do
The free City Walk. Meeting most days in the square in front of the Parliament building is a free, ~2 hour walking tour of the city by a history grad student. The content is great and it is a good way to orient yourself around the main spots in Reykjavik. Tip well at the end 🙂
bars, craft beers and happy hours
Reykjavik is a cool town but most of the stuff you flew nearly to the Arctic Circle for lies outside the city. The museums and coffee shops are fun but the only thing world-class about Reykjavik itself is the nightlife. The Friday and Saturday night runtur goes at least until 5a the next day. I am NOT a nightlife expert but here’s my list of the best boozy spots in the city to get you started.
The best beer selection: Micro Bar Iceland is not a phenomenal beer destination. Beer was only legalized in the late 1980s. The popular brands like Gull and Viking are pretty boring euro-lagers but newer craft brewers like Linstock and Graedinger make a really decent selection of pale ales, IPAs and stouts. The Micro Bar has a selection of everything including smaller brewers. I really enjoyed the Lava smoked porter from Ölvisholt. They also have a fantastic, but very expensive, selection of Danish and Belgian brews. It’s also the only bar I’ve ever seen selling Westvleteren 12. Definitely start your night out with happy hour here.
Most social bar: Kex Hostel Bar The bar in the Kex hostel is one of the busiest bars on typical evenings (e.g. before 10/11p). It’s a hostel bar so there are a lot of tourists, but a decent amount of locals as well. Live jazz is solid, frequent and free. Free wifi, lots of seating and power outlets. If you’re like me and you like to work in a bar until late and then switch right into drinking and socializing, this is the best spot. The food here is solid.
Most kitsch/best party starter: Lebowski Bar Yes, this is a Big Lebowski-themed bar. Specials on White Russians, retro themes and ridiculous music. Icelanders go absolutely nuts on Friday and Saturday night and this is a great place to kick it off if you mean to join them. Booze is expensive so Icelanders don’t go out until midnight or 1am but this place will be hopping a few hours earlier. It’s the opposite of where I would normally hang out. The beer and cocktails are pretty crappy, there’s a 50% chance you’ll end up doing shots with a stag party of 20 dudes from Glasgow. Still totally worth checking out.
You are not trendy enough for Kaffibarinn I don’t really do clubs much so an ultra-trendy bar with a DJ is about as trendy as I get. And this place is that. Apparently Damon Alban used to be an owner but no more. At 1 AM you can walk right in and grab a seat the bar, at 130a there’s a line out the door. If you’ve done Friday night right you’ve probably hit up Micro, met some friends at Kex, gone to Lebowski for shots. At Kaffibarinn you’ll likely mistake an Icelander for Bjork and make a fool of yourself. Welcome to runtur.
The after after after party: Bar 11 On Friday and Saturday nights all the bars in Reykjavik are open until 430a. This place stays open until 5a. Enough said.
cafes, coffices and the best coffee in a coffee city
Downtown Reykjavik is packed with excellent cafes. I spend most of my day working out of some kind of coffee shop so I explored every one I could find.
Reykjavik Roasters is the best coffee in town. Single origin imports roasted on the premises and expertly prepared. Try an Aeropress or the eitt sett a pairing of espresso and cappuccino. Free wifi but limited seating and not much in the way of food, just a few pastries, bread and cheese.
Reykjavik Roasters. By far the best coffee we’ve had in #iceland #reykjavik A photo posted by Tyler Tringas (@ttringas) on
Stofan Cafe is my favorite all around cafe in town. Lots of seating, decent food, great coffee and a cool crowd. It transitions right into a hip bar at night with good happy hour from 4-8p.
Kex Hostel Bar is the best coffice in town for nomads, travel writers and freelancers. Lots of spots with power outlets, free wifi, good coffee and free bread and jam on the sideboard. You can also do laundry here for 1000kr in the afternoons after 4p. Kex is right by the water so on clear nights, have a fortifying beverage and go for a late night walk along the harbor for some aurora hunting.
Kaffi Brennslan is right in the middle of the downtown on Laugavegur, the main shopping street. Great coffee and good cheap eats. Pop in for a strong coffee and a tasty waffle (with jam and whipped cream) to recharge after a day exploring the city.
Kaffitar is the closest thing in Iceland to a coffee chain with six or seven cafes and a distribution throughout the country’s gas stations. Iceland has zero foreign coffee chains. The main cafe on Laugavegur is worth a stop, though it can get really busy and is my least favorite on this list.
Good cheap eats
Bunk Bar The best burger in town. They have great daily specials
Tiu Dropar My pick for weekend brunch. Adorable little cafe on Laugevegur. Very hearty brunch options at around $16-20.
Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur: The best hot dog stand in town and a Reykjavik classic. Cheap and tasty and open late. Get two with all the toppings.
Dominos: After 10/11p on a week day this is likely to be your only option for food. What, you need to know these things.
Random things to do
12 Tonar: Every guidebook recommends a stop at the local record store and indie label and the hub of the Icelandic music scene. Customers are encouraged to take any of the CDs over the pile of CD players on couches and have a listen. Usually someone will offer you a coffee while you listen. Great selection of Icelandic music.
Laugardalslaug Baths: The geothermal nature baths of the Blue Lagoon and Myvatn are the main hot water attractions in Iceland, but the country actually has 170 man-made baths or geothermal swimming pools that are an integral part of Icelandic culture. Locals of all ages go swimming or to chat in saunas and hot tubs. Laugardalslaug is a big facility about 40 minute walk or 10 minute cab from downtown Reykjavik with a myriad of hot tubs, saunas, pools and water slides. Best of all it costs about one-tenth of the Blue Lagoon and is open late, until 10p most nights.
Einar Jónsson Museum: The once apartment and now museum of Iceland’s most famous sculpture is just across from the Hallgrimskirkja. Check the website for the very odd opening times and head downstairs and through to the excellent sculpture garden behind the building.
The Perlan (Pearl): The giant shining dome building visible from most of the city is worth a visit. A pleasant hour-long walk through Reykjavik’s parks to and around the area is a good way to spend an afternoon. The 360° view from the top is the best overview of the city. There is a cafeteria and a world-class restaurant on the very top. Check the website for what’s on in the various galleries.