Day 1 – Arrive Reykjavik
Day 2 – Reykjavik to Jokulsarlon
Day 3 – Jokulsarlon to Vestrahorn and back to Vík
Day 4 – Vík to “Tourist Stops” and back to Reykjavik
Day 5 – Blue Lagoon and Depart
What to Expect:
Burgers. Mink whale. Hot Dogs. One lane bridges. Roundabouts. Monster trucks. Panoramic views. Tour buses. Wool. Razorblade winds. Ponies. Sheep. Glaciers. Craggy peaks. Mars-like terrain. Black sand. Melting ice. Methane.
What to Bring:
Gloves, gloves, gloves. Especially if you’re going to be taking photos on an icy beach. A good beanie. If you forget anything, you can always buy it in town, but it will cost you.
What You’ll See:
Black sand beaches, waterfalls, lakes, ice, sand, hot springs
Planning a 5 day road trip through southern Iceland as your next adventure is like a big fat high five with mother earth. Reconnecting to the frozen majesty of the Northern hemisphere reminds us of the fragility and fierceness of our planet, and will leave something inside you that lasts longer than a 7 day tan.
Instead of rolling around on the beach with a book, roll with the homies past the icy black sand beaches, craggy peaks and stunning blue glaciers of southern Iceland. Ditch the crowds, and enjoy this surrealistic landscape on your own terms in your own little heated spaceship – complete with good company, awesome music, Wi-Fi, GPS, and armed with a camera and a big smile – an adventure like this has never been possible before.
Now it is – so go and do it! This is a professional and amateur photographer’s wet dream. A road trip across the southern coast of Iceland will renew your lease on life.
“The Land of Ice and Fire” really has everything – and I have literally only seen the tip of the iceberg. Five days in Iceland only instilled in me a deep thirst for more Iceland, and I can’t wait to go back. We didn’t really have a plan going into it, but I think we made the absolute best of our time with this exact schedule.
We lucked out with weather for November with 4 1/2 days of clear skies. The snow was a welcome and only crept up in the evenings. Wind was harsh and felt like razorblades after only a few minutes of being out of our heated car, so being prepared is half the battle. Driving on icy roads was only an issue in the early mornings, if at all. I’m not sure if being in a giant tour bus would have made me feel safer. The landscape boasts a magnificent array of features that will leave a lasting imprint on any viewer. I still think about Iceland every day.
This trip was planned on a whim with my friend Chris, who is an awesome photographer and one of my best friends. I was more than happy to tag along, taking photos in a weird place with a good friend. I actually purchased the Iceland airfare while in Bocas del Toro, Panama about a week and a half earlier – so you can imagine how awesome the month of November was for me!
Road tripping through Iceland is easy.
The airport is clean and modern, the rental car company will pick you up right at the gate. Icelandic people speak perfect English, arguably more fluent and casual than the rest of the Nordic countries – and Scandinavians speak great English. Icelandic people have an extreme sense of national pride – and understandably so. The place is majestic beyond words. The majority of Icelandic people also believe in Elves – if that gives you a little hint about the vibe of the place.
Day 1 – Arrive to Reykjavik and The Loft Hostel
Reykjavik is a tiny little city with an awesome vibe, cool street art, good food. I tried whale for the first time, and it was better tasting than I could have ever imagined, sadly. During the week the streets are a ghost town, but the weekends are pumping with nightlife. It’s amazing the difference between a Monday night and a Friday/Saturday night in Reykjavik. I thought that Oslo was the coolest little capital city on earth, but Reykjavik is like a miniature version of Oslo, whatever that means. The Loft was definitely not cheap by hostel standards, but we loved it. The room was fresh and clean and it basically looked like a hallway with a dorm-room bunk bed, and a bathroom. We got a private double room which has a queen size bottom mattress and a twin size top bunk. After a single glorious coin toss, I won the big bed.
The hostel itself was 4 stories tall (I think) with the top floor being the reception, a bar and lounge. The balcony has a nice view of one of the main streets in Reykjavik and there are bars and restaurants within walking distance. There’s a fooseball table where you might be bullied into playing or shamed for not. We had to wake up as early as possible for the long drive the next day, so we hit the sack early. It’s extremely normal in November in Iceland to be up, dressed, showered, pooped, fed and out the door while it’s still pitch black outside. So be mentally prepared for that.
Day 2 – Reykjavik to Glacier Lagoon
Navigating Iceland is pretty simple – once you get out of Reykjavik there’s one main ring road circling the island, and the further along you get, the more impressive, bizarre, and awe-inspiring the terrain becomes. This is a long drive, but the scenery is entertaining, and I would suggest the addition of a “internet box” when you rent your car. It’s nice to be able to stream music, have GPS directions, and whatever else 21st century psychos do on their phones all day. If traveling in the winter, you will definitely want to plan on getting up as early as possible, as the sun can set as early as 3 or 4pm in the winter. Google Maps will say it’s a 4 hour drive, but as with any road trip, if you’re stopping at all to take photos of what you’re driving through, stopping to eat, go to the bathroom, and enjoy your surroundings a bit it’s more like a 7 or 8 hour drive.
Expect to see varying types of terrain for the first two hours, some relatively boring and some resembling outer space. Once you reach Vík you’ll have your first “mega” Iceland view of some massive cliffs and black sand beaches – setting the tone for the rest of your day. The “Icewear” factory (a touristy brand of Icelandic wool clothing) makes for some good souvenir shopping, if you’re a sucker like me.
The next few hours expect to see craggy peaks and glacial flows spilling out of the mountains along your left hand side. It’s hard to grasp the scale of the surroundings, as the roads are not altogether close to the mountainsides. We opted to charge past all of the notable features on our first day and get as far around the island as we could, which I would suggest you do as well – as we arrived at Jokulsarlon glacier lagoon just around sunset, and it was the most magical couple hours of our entire week. I would imagine that most of the major decisions you should make on your Iceland tour is where to be at sunrise and where to be at sunset – as it can make all the difference in the world for turning a ho-hum photograph into an “oh shit” photograph.
The glacier lagoon is equal parts depressing and awe-inspiring. It’s one of the most remarkable land features that I have ever seen, that’s for sure. Definitely drive out towards the beach as well, I don’t know if there’s an official name for this place, but we dubbed it “Ice Beach” cause it’s basically an ice beach. Sunset at ice beach was mostly me and Chris walking around aimlessly with our jaws dropped taking photos and kind of trying to stomach geographically where we were standing and the immense beauty creating the situation around us. I still can’t believe how lucky we were.
We drove about 30-45 minutes past the lagoon to the next semblance of a “town” which was mostly a cluster of buildings that kind of looked like a motel. The “reception” building looks like a row of books on a bookcase for some reason. I guess that would be the landmark to look for. We ate a nondescript meal and slept in a nondescript room, drank Nicaraguan rum and looked at photographs while the wind howled mercilessly outside.
Day 3 – Jokulsarlon to Vestrahorn and back to Vík
This day is a bit of a zig zag, but we figured if we drove all the way out here and just barely scraped the surface of seeing the gnarly peaks that Iceland has to offer, I would feel cheated to turn around. We opted to drive further East toward one of Iceland’s most photographed peaks, Vestrahorn – to get some nice shots and play around in the black sand. We decided we would end this day in Vík instead of Reykjavik so we had more time to play around and shoot some photos.
After driving through a lot of farmland, you’ll see many sheep and ponies lazing about, and lots of old abandoned buildings. This was a very cool drive, with much more mountainous surroundings. You’ll eventually come to a Y in the road, the left side being a tunnel and the right side a dirt path leading around a blind point. You’ll take the dirt road for 20 or 30 more minutes until you stumble upon some sort of space-station looking weather equipment and an abandoned coffee shop with a wooden viking statue outside. Vestrahorn is easy to miss if you stop at the coffee shop. Put a small donation into the box and drive out on the straight road towards the space station thing. The further down this road you get, the larger Vestrahorn will appear along your left hand side. This is super popular in Iceland Instagram photographers repertoire, and the black sand beach has even been featured in a wedding photo I’ve seen! Exotic.
Shot a bunch of photos here, drove back to Jokulsarlon for another peak at the glacial lagoon and ice beach which were mind-blowing in their own right, but not nearly as spectacular looking as they were during golden hour the night before. So we pressed on towards Vík with the intentions of chowing down a massive burger. There’s literally NOTHING to do in Vík. There’s a wool factory, a truck-stop cafe, a really nice hotel and a smaller hotel with a restaurant next to it with decent burgers. We plowed a burger and a big beer and went and checked into the nice hotel. Had an awesome dinner there as well.
Day 4 – Vík to waterfalls & geysers and back to Reykjavik
Stop 1: Skógafoss
From Vík we got up a little bit later than normal and headed towards our first stop, Skogafoss. We saw this from the road on the first day and drove by, but up close it’s a whole different story – massive and roaring and powerful. Perhaps we enjoyed it more fully because due to our rather odd location that morning most tour groups were in other places. I would recommend walking to the top of the massive staircase and getting the view from the top looking down, if you are in shape and have the time.
Stop 2: Seljalandsfoss
This waterfall was relatively lame in size and power compared to Skógafoss, if you can call a magnificent Icelandic waterfall “lame” and not be struck by lightning. Perhaps it was due to the number of tourists who were coming out of cars in droves as the morning progressed. I don’t think I took many photos of this, the lighting was bad, there was tons of watery spray and people everywhere. If you are low on time, I would say of all of Iceland’s waterfalls this would be the one to “skip.”
Stop 3: Gullfoss
“No waterfall in Europe can match Gullfoss. In wildness and fury it outdoes the Niagra Falls in the United States”
You won’t truly appreciate the luxury of the rental car experience until you see a parking lot filled with giant buses unloading long lines of people past restaurants and smelly bathrooms towards the viewpoints at Gullfoss. It’s almost like after being alone in the car through such a weird place that other human beings felt like disgusting aliens. This waterfall itself is the craziest waterfall I’ve ever seen, and I bet it would have been a sort of religious experience had I the pleasure to experience it alone. Something about the chaos really takes away from the beauty of it, or perhaps that’s the human defect anyways. I had no idea what I was about to witness when walking up to the edge of this cliff. It’s more like if 6 huge cliffs were chopped up and smashed together and thrown in a pile and had a torrential river poured down it. Since it was winter, many of the pathways that led closer to the falls were closed due to snow and Ice, so we had to enjoy the waterfall from afar. No biggie. Truly memorable sight.
Stop 4: Geysir
This stop is a little bit out of the way, but essentially is on the way back to Reykjavik while driving in the direction we took. It was also the most tolerable of the “tourist traps” due to the live element of the geysers. At first it’s a bunch of ho-hum steamy bubbly ponds, but up the road a bit are two totally remarkable, huge geysers. One of them apparently does not fire often. The other had a sizable crowd of photographers around it and was going off roughly every 5 minutes or so. Definitely worth checking out.
Stop 5: Kex Hostel and Paloma Bar
We ended up booking a room at Kex Hostel because The Loft was full for our return on Saturday Night. It was considerably more expensive than The Loft, but still cheaper than other options in town. If you want the experience of being an invisible person on the set of a Wes Anderson film, Kex Hostel is for you. (They even play Wes Anderson soundtrack music at times). Stefan from SNL would recommend this place for sure. If you don’t want to sleep in an iron box with two cots next to each other, you must opt for a private deluxe room – which boasts musty secondhand furniture from god knows where, the presence of which apparently drives up the price of your room significantly. Sprinkle in the most difficult vintage bathtub/shower situation you can imagine, and if you survive the zombie staff and blind bartenders – you’ve officially got yourself the weirdest hotel on earth. Kex Hostel is another example of anti-American sentiment mixed with over the top American ambiance. Truly strange.
We went to Paloma Bar on a friend’s recommendation because they had a pool table. Chris and I destroyed everybody in the place with big smiles on our faces, making friends along the way. The two person DJ group consisted of an old man with Beetlejuice hair wearing red Santa pants, and some other guy sitting in a chair. After a few hours we went upstairs and listened to loud music and bought tons of beer. Someone asked me if I was “an Icelandic rapper who sucks” and that pretty much made my night.
Day 5 – Blue Lagoon and Depart
If you aren’t so hungover that you want to die, we reckon this would be a good day to check out the Blue Lagoon before your flight home. Actually, Blue Lagoon with a hangover sounds pretty tight as well. Either way, I was too braindead from the night before to be driving, and we opted to sit in the car with the heater on and eat french fries. We tried to order bloody mary’s at two different restaurants – one resulted in a man on a barstool calling us “hippies” and the other one told us there’s no tomato juice in Iceland.