"You wanna go where?"
I'm pretty sure my mother thought I was crazy when I told her I wanted to go to Iceland. By myself. For a week. But there I was: ready and willing and beyond excited to get the chance to go. The why was simple - when I was told I would get a week of paid vacation, I checked my bucket list and immediately knew "see the Northern Lights" had to be checked off. Side note: did you know, to the naked eye the Northern Lights are more of a milky white color? Still amazing to see, but not quite as colorful until you take the photo!
Scroll down to see my full itinerary!
So, being the mega planner that I am, I immediately made about four different spreadsheets and began to dig into my research. I used Google Maps to pin every location I thought was worth seeing and the good news is you can see and use that map here. I loved doing this method for planning out my trip because it allowed me to be able to see where I wanted to go on my southern tour of the country and be able to research places to stay each night. It helped me realize that it was smarter to go up to the Snaefellsnes Penninsula before heading to Vik and that I wanted to hit the Blue Lagoon on the way back to the airport. As a visual learner, this map was beyond perfect. The reality is that most places in Iceland are difficult to spell, so having these little pins of where I wanted to go meant that I never confused one place with another. And I even checked the spots on this map every morning to make sure I remembered what they were (because lol at how far in advance I preplanned this trip.)
As I reviewed my itinerary I was given a piece of good advice - I was told that I was doing too much and there was no way I'd be able to fit every single thing in. And it's true. Each day, I did four, maybe five little adventures for two main reasons: 1. Driving around for even an hour in the mornings would mean losing an hour of exploring time 2. I was tired. If you're looking for a relaxing vacation in Iceland, well that's probably not gonna happen unless you just stay at the Blue Lagoon the whole week. Because outside of that there are mountains to climb, rivers to hike, glaciers to slip on. And it's amazing! But it's also exhausting. I hiked anywhere from 8-10 miles each day, and if I slept in past 9am the next day, I lost half the day once I got up, got ready, packed my things, and began to drive. So spoiler alert: I did not see everything on that map. And some things I went to, realized I'd rather spend my time elsewhere, and left. And that's more than okay - it just means I have a whole other trip to go on!
And this is what I loved about traveling solo - I could take a 3 hour hike. I could eat lunch at 3pm and sleep in until 9:30am and stay up until 2am. I could drive two hours or twenty minutes, could eat a bag of mini muffins for breakfast, or spend three straight hours at the Blue Lagoon. And while my trip was certainly more expensive traveling solo (hello spending $300 on gas for the week 😳) it was so worth it to do what I wanted, when I wanted, how I wanted.
Before we get to the itinerary, there are a few extra tips I want to share. My number one concern was getting a good camera. Photography is more often than not a side hustle to my side hustle, so I didn't own any good gear and I knew I would want something worth while to shoot the Northern Lights. That's where my friends at Aperturent came in. I rented a Canon 5d Markiii and wide angle 11-24 lens for two weeks for less than $500 - that gear new would have cost me over $6,000 so I was more than happy to snag that price. If you decide to go with this awesome Atlanta based company, use this link to get 10% off your order!
Another great resource for your trip will be GuideToIceland.is - by far they have the cheapest car rentals (remember, most cars in Iceland are manual, so you have to specify and pay more if you want automatic!), they have locals who write blog posts about different sights and hikes, and you can book pretty much any tour through them. They answer emails within a couple hours, so don't hesitate if you have any questions for your trip!
For the Northern lights, download the app called Aurora. Aurora will give you live updates (as long as you have wifi/signal on your phone) on where the best places are to see the lights as well as a forecast for upcoming optimal spots and cloud coverage. The website Vedur will also provide you with weather forecasts.
Now if you're like me and you're taking this trip solo, I also recommend sending your itinerary and contact info to SafeIceland.is This is a just in case resort - recently a trained guide died going into a glacier solo in Iceland, so even the most experienced people can be injured or lost, whether they're alone or in a group. I'm happy the authorities never needed to use the information I gave them, but I (and my family) felt safer having that in place before I left. Now this is most important when traveling in the winter, check out road conditions at Road.is before you head out in the mornings - the last thing you want to get stuck or stranded in snow or ice with no way out.
Lastly, remember that even the most anal planner will encounter change. Embrace that! Your trip should be unique, and it will certainly be more enjoyable if you let yourself roll with the punches. Because you never know when you might, say, get your car stuck on a gravel road and have to call a tow truck. Or get to your hostel only to find that they accidentally deleted your reservation and you have suddenly have no place to stay. You never know.
Okay, okay. Are you still with me? Onto the itinerary!
D A Y 0 1
Ishestar Stables & Reykjavik
What I Did: I landed at KEF bright and early at 6am. What was cool about my overnight flight from Toronto is that I got to see the Northern Lights from the plane! A perfect introduction to the country. I decided to fly with IcelandAir over Wow, because once I added on all the extra baggage frees and comfort level prices, it was about the same price. Plus I had seen some really awful reviews of Wow. But what are you to do at 6am in Iceland? A lot of people will make the Blue Lagoon their first stop, but I ended up picking up my car from Lagoon Rentals and doing a horseback riding tour at Ishestar Stables. And while I did a group tour, you can also book a private tour to the volcano in the area! Iceland horses are a pure breed and they are everywhere, so it was cool to be able to actually ride them and experience what it was like to feel them valhopp (or glide.) Around noon, I headed to Reykavik and got some groceries for the week at Bonus - one of the cheapest grocers in the country. You'll see Bonus everywhere and they have pretty much anything you might need. I stocked up on pasta, sandwich meat and bread, and some sacks. After I got my sleeping arrangement sorted out (see below), I walked around the city for a couple hours, took some photos of the streets and Hallgrimskirkja Church, and exhausted from no sleep on the plane and the 5 hour time change, went to bed at around 9pm.
Where I Stayed: Originally, I was supposed to stay at KEX Hostel... But, by a mistake made by the hostel itself, my reservation was cancelled and I suddenly had nowhere to stay. This is how I ended up staying at FossHotel Raudara - and I would not recommended it. Not only was it overpriced, but the staff was not knowledgable or helpful, and even overcharged me so I had to get a refund and be recharged. UPDATE: KEX Hostel reimbursed me for the money I spent at FossHotel - that's what we call good customer service.
D A Y 0 2
What I Did: The Snaefellsnes Peninsula was my favorite stop of this trip! Not only do you get gorgeous views on the way up, but the land once you get there is beyond stunning. But what should have been a two hour drive up to the town of Stykkishólmur turned into a 3 hour drive as I kept on stopping to go down side roads and take more and more photos. I don't regret this one bit because the mountains were beyond stunning. Stykkishólmur was a cute little ocean side town with free wifi, gas stations, and a little bakery that I stopped at for a breather. After that, I kept driving up the peninsula to take in all the views like Kirkjufell, Búðakirkja (the black church where I may or may not have walked in on a wedding), and even a last minute hike at Selvallavatn where I ran into some fellow Georgia natives. I almost went to Londrangar as was my original plan for the day, but saved it for day 3 and I'm so glad I did!
Also note that on the way to and from the Snaefellsnes Penninsula there is a $10 toll!
Where I Stayed: Grundarfjordur Hostel was the perfect halfway point. It was minutes from Kirkjufell, where it was too cloudy to see the Northern Lights, but a perfect location had it been clearer. There was a full kitchen where I made a frozen pizza and had a secure check in process.
D A Y 0 3
More Snaefellsnes Penninsula!
What I Did: You can see why I needed another morning at the peninsula! I didn't sleep much the night before, so I caught the sunrise at Kirkjufell and then headed towards the Snæfellsjökull National Park. Here's a hint: Kirkjufell and Kirkjufellsfoss look like the same name - but which one is the mountain and which one is the waterfall? "Foss" in Icelandic means "waterfall." So Kirkjufellsfoss is the waterfall adjacent to Kirkjufell!
While one entrance to the National Park was still blocked off to snow, I just kept driving straight passed the black church and towards the Londranger cliffs. And y'all - I cannot describe how breathtaking these cliffs were! As I approached, I thought "oh cool... This is nice." But as I got to the edge of the cliffs, I was blown away. And for good reason. Look at those birds and that water! I could have stayed there all day. And despite my early rise, that was most of my day. Around noon headed out from the peninsula towards Thingvellir National Park, where my next hostel was, and by then it was 3pm and on two hours of sleep, I took a power nap, drove around the park for a little bit longer before deciding to get an early start the next day.
Where I Stayed: The most adorable boutique hostel - Heradsskolinn Hostel. Upstairs was a restaurant and sitting area filled with books and downstairs was the hostel dorm, which for a hostel was pretty comfortable.
D A Y 0 4
The Golden Circle
What I Did: The Golden Circle takes you through the most tourist heavy spots in Iceland and can be driven in a little less than 4 hours. It begins in Thingvellir National Park and stretching out to Gullfoss, Bruarfoss, and the geysir pictured above. The geysir, in my opinion, was the least exciting stop of the entire trip. It was one of those things I knew would take 10 minutes, so I went ahead and did it, but personally I didn't think it was anything special. The highlight of day 4 had to be Bruarfoss. Even though I did lose my glasses on the trail. This four mile roundtrip hike gives you two options: either drive onto private property to get straight to the peak (pictured above) or hike about 30-45 minutes from the designated parking lot and see tremendously clear blue water and stunning falls on the way up. Plus, Iceland water is so pure and clean, you can drink straight from the falls. I have never tasted such refreshing water! Despite spending half this hike in the pouring rain, I would do this hike over and over again, it was one of my top spots and I was the only one on the trail! It was again around 3pm when I had finished with these stops, so I actually headed back to the Heradsskolinn Hostel for a late lunch/early dinner.
After my lunch/dinner break, I drove through Thingvellir national park. Maybe this is an unpopular opinion, but I didn't find it all that amazing. Though I had just spent the entire day hiking and the park is full of miles of trails, so I think my sheer exhaustion caught up to me here and I decided to go ahead and drive the hour and a half to my next hostel. Plus I knew I would have the drive back near the park, so if I really wanted I could loop back into it on my way back to the city.
Where I Stayed: I cannot say enough good things about Snotra Hostel. About 20 minutes down the road from the town of Hella, Snotra is a relatively new place with the comfiest beds and warmest blankets I've experienced in a hostel. I mean, the very word "hostel" makes you think hard mattresses and scratchy sheets - but not Snotra. If they ever want me to be a spokesperson for them I will without a doubt. I wish I had booked more than one night there because it was beyond comfortable whether it was the dorm rooms or showers or kitchens. Definitely recommend!
D A Y 0 5
Seljalandsfoss, Skoka, and Vik
What I Did: What I did was spend $40 on new gloves at Seljalandsfoss because I had lost mine at the geysir 😂 Seljalandsfoss was another breathtaking sight, but be prepared to get pretty wet! This is the part where if you have a camera, you will need a protective case/bag. My biggest advice for Seljalandsfoss is to go early in the morning to avoid all the tourists, because the buses will pour in as heavy as the falls. NextI made a quick stop to the town of Skoga, where Skogafoss is located, though I knew I was coming back through in a couple days, so I skipped the falls and headed onto Vik. This is where I got into the car stuck on a gravel hill situation (#mybad) so I got a little delayed after checking into my hostel. Close to Vik is the famous D3 Plane Crash and honestly... as cool as the photos look, the walk there and back was horrible. I wouldn't do it again, it was just flat black beach and me being way too tired to be in a good mood while doing it. There was a group on 4 wheelers and I considered giving them everything I owned for a ride back.
The last stop of the night was at the cloudy Dyrholaey cliffs, a suggestion from the worker at my hostel. Not as gorgeous as Londranger but still totally worth it and completely beautiful. Those bright white birds against the black sand and cliffs is an amazing experience.
Where I Stayed: Vik Hi Hostel. And it had to be the worst hostel of the week. At almost $60/night, it was not only more expensive than my favorite Snotra hostel, but it was way less comfortable. While the staff was really nice and even let me do a load of laundry (for $10), it was just too expensive for the lack comfort. I would stay again if it was closer to $20/night.
D A Y 0 6
Skaftafell and the Northern Lights
What I Did: Day 6 was when my memory card decided it needed to be formatted, and because this was the only day I was staying in the same place more than one night, I left my laptop locked in my hostel. So I couldn't format my card without losing the photos I had taken that morning that I didn't want to lose. So this is the day with the least amount of photos. Another tip: bring extra memory cards! 2-3 at the very least, because my original CF card wore down after two days and I had to borrow a card off of someone since camera stores are few and far between.
As my memory card was giving up on me, so was my energy. At this point in my trip, I was feeling the weight of sleeping in different beds, of trekking up mountains and slugging through mud. I was tired and starting to miss home, and honestly I wasn't in the best of moods. So when I got to the Skaftafell National Park and had the option of hiking 2 miles verses 6 miles, I chose the shorter route and then went on my merry way. Skaftafell is where if you pay for the tour, you can hike on the glaciers themselves. These tours range at about $80-$100, so you can book it day of but I would recommend planning ahead. If you don't pay for the tour, you can still go to the base of the glaciers and/or to the waterfalls in the other direction.
Because it had been nothing but rain and clouds all week, I knew that this one clear days was my best day to see the Northern Lights. So instead of heading back to where I was staying in Vik, I drove all the way up to Hofn, grabbed a slice of pizza and recharged a bit, and slowly headed back after sunset. And low and behold, I got some great view of the lights. There is nothing like blasting "So Will I (100 Billion X)" by Hillsong as you roll down your window to see the smooth, dancing light above. Bucket list, checked.
Where I Stayed: Another night at Vik Hi Hostel since I would spend day 7 driving back towards Reykjavik!
D A Y 0 7
Skogafoss, Fridheimar, and Reykjavik
What I Did: One of the coolest parts of this trip was connecting with Jack over the /VisitingIceland subreddit to coordinate to take a few engagement photos of him and his brand new fiancée. Listen to this y'all: she didn't even know about this trip until the day before they left and he proposed with just the two of them under a different waterfall two days before. I so loved getting to meet them and take their photos - it even snowed while we were there! See more of the photos here. We were done at about 9am, so I went back to my hostel, took a shower and packed up, and checked out. My Harry Potter audiobook kept me sane on my two hour drive back to Reykjavík and I just had to stop at the famous Fridheimar for lunch - i can still taste that fresh tomato sauce. See, it's a restaurant inside a greenhouse. You eat the tomatoes that they pick right there on the property. Plus each table is stocked with its own basil plant - what more could you need?
Where I Stayed: My last night I stayed at ODDSSON. And while the lobby looks really cool and trendy, the upstairs rooms are in dark, kind of creepy hallways and the 8 bunk beds are crammed together in a less than comforting space. I'd give it 3/5 because it also had a nice kitchen area, sleeping quarters were just not nice in comparison to the rest.
D A Y 0 8
The Blue Lagoon
What I Did: There's a fairly big split between people who visit Iceland on whether or not the Blue Lagoon is worth it when you can visit other hot springs for cheaper. I cannot express enough how worth it the Blue Lagoon was for me. For $100, you get a towel, a private locker, access to showers that have body wash and conditioner, a free drink at the bar, a face mask, and unlimited time at the Lagoon. Since my flight home wasn't until 5pm, I booked for the 11am time slot and stayed in the lagoon about 2.5 hours. Note: You have to prebook the Blue Lagoon. To get the exact time and day you want, book at least two weeks in advance, but sooner if you can. You also will wear a blue wristband that holds your credit card information and unlocks your locker and your locker only. I knew my $6000 worth of camera gear was safe and I spent a little time going back and forth to get my phone then put it back then get my camera and put it back. It was a cold, snowy day, and the lagoon was so, so relaxing. My tired, sore muscles were in love, and with the indoor lounge area and food options, After the most relaxing bath of my life. I spent about 20 minutes eating one of my cheapest meals in Iceland - a sandwich from their cafe (not to be confused with their restaurant which is quite a bit more expensive) Honestly, I could have spent an entire day there. I had to stop myself from taking a nap on the lounge chairs because I knew I had to catch my flight soon. But because IcelandAir offers free stopovers for up to a week in Iceland, you can count on the fact that I will be going back to the Blue Lagoon on my next trip. I could not have asked for a better ending and I am so glad I saved the Blue Lagoon for my last day instead of my first!
This had to be the best trip I've ever gone on! I love traveling solo because it teaches you how to be independent, how to stop being so self conscious and just do your own thing, and personally I think it teaches resilience. Because when you get into trouble, when you find yourself trying to figure out where you're going to stay in a city that's fully booked, you have no options but to rely on yourself and to push through. You go because you have to, there is no other option. And I love that, I need that, I crave that.
So tell me - are you planning your trip to Iceland as we speak? Stay tuned over the next few weeks to see my budget breakdown, packing list, and more from my big trip!
P.S. Check out my highlight video to Andrew Belle's song "Down"