My sister and I take a sisters trip annually and do our best to choose locations both of us have never been before. We’ve always gone during June because that’s when her school usually has their break so most lf our locations have been chosen with the dreamy summertime in mind. In the past we’ve gone to Rhode Island, Montreal, London, Paris, and Amsterdam. All destinations I’ve throughly enjoyed and are the perfect spots for a sisters trip! With my days on the East Cost numbered, I knew this year I wanted to finally check Iceland off the list. Iceland is only a 6 hour direct flight from JFK, thus making it an ideal 4-5 day trip. This time around I took a break from being the trip planner and let my sister create the trip itinerary. She didn’t disappoint! Iceland is one of those places where there are many famous iconic spots, but if you want to escape the tourist crowds and find the hidden things more research is needed.
How to Get Around
Renting a car is a must. Our rental car gave us the freedom to make our own itinerary and go to places that tour companies don’t go to. I was a little nervous about driving a car in a different country (it was my first time doing that), but the Iceland roads are well paved and once you leave Reyjkavic there aren’t too many cars on the road. Its also a lot more affordable to travel Iceland this way- a tour company usually charges around $200 a person for a Golden Circle 1 day tour, while we spent around $100 total for two people.
Where We Stayed
Iceland is not cheap and the accommodation prices definitely reflected that. We also had to consider parking costs because we had a rental car with us. Somehow we managed to find a true hidden gem on Airbnb. Our spacious basement Airbnb (with windows and blackout curtains) was located 8 minutes outside of the Reykjavik city center and came with a free parking spot. It wasn’t too hard to drive into the city center to explore or eat so we didn’t mind staying in a local neighborhood. In fact, it was interesting getting to see how Icelandic people lived and where they went to school. For 3 nights, we paid a total $350, which is well below the market rate for hotels.
What We Ate
Iceland isn’t really known for their food so we weren’t expecting too much, except that we knew we would have to shell over a pretty penny for subpar food. However, once getting there we were pleasantly surprised that the food was quite decent. Nothing special, but not as bad as we were expecting. It is definitely pricier that the same food we would have paid for in America, but hey it’s a vacation. We went to a few budget restaurants (Vagninn Fish and Chips, Iceland Street Food, Café Mokka, Reykjavik Roasters, Cafe Babalu, Braud Bakery, Sandholt, and Saegreifinn) we had looked up online and they all provided a glimpse of Icelandic cuisine. Braud had the best bread in the city and we came here twice during our stay to enjoy the delicious aromas and warm pastries. Cafe Mokka is the first espresso cafe in Reykjavik and served up a strong (and giant) cup of chocolate mocha. At Saegreifinn, my sister and I sampled our first taste of whale meat and fermented shark. Neither really appealed to our taste buds, but it was interesting to try!
What We Did
The capital of Iceland is probably the least dense major city in the world. With around 300,000, there aren’t many native Icelanders around, but that doesn’t mean their city is any less of an attraction. Most visitors will choose to make Reykjavik their base while exploring the country just because its where the majority of hotels and Airbnbs and restaurants are located. While we ate almost every meal in downtown Reykjavik, we only spent around 2 hours exploring its streets. There’s always plenty of parking and never too many people! Its also a great place to learn more about the unique Icelandic architecture.
If I could describe the Blue Lagoon in two words, it would be: tourist trap. You can probably tell I wasn’t a huge fan of this place. Yes, it was beautiful and worth visiting as an one time experience, but boy was it crowded. I felt like the crowds of people took away from the spa like environment. Later on we went to a few other geothermal hot springs which were much more tranquil and felt more natural. The Blue Lagoon is not cheap either- we paid $100 per person as an entrance fee. This fee included towels, locker rental, a silica face mask, and one drink. Did we feel like all this was worth $100? Not really. Our original goal was to stay there all day, but after about 3 hours, we had our fill of the hot water and constant steam and pruny fingers. If you must go to the Blue Lagoon, I would suggest just going and walking around the front area (for free) to see the signature blue waters and scenery. The Lagoon is also located next to the airport so its best to go there either right after you land or before you leave.
Harpa Concert Hall
Since living in New York, I’ve grown to appreciate and be curious about architecture. There is so much creativity and thought that goes into desiging and building buildings that I now love attending tours and talks on well known buildings. Harpa Concert Hall, the home to the Icelandic Symphony, is shaped like a cube with double layered walls that light up based on the occasion. Each hall was constructed with extensive thought to what kind of performances would take place there and how the sound and space could be maximized. A 30 minute tour of Harpa costs $10 and provides a wealth of information.
My sister and I created our own Golden Circle tour filled with the must see sights as well as some hidden places we found. This was the main reason why we wanted our own mode of transportation. Many tours only take you to the first thing spots we hit and leave out many other Iceland wonders.
Thingvellir National Park - The first stop for most Golden Circle goers, this Park is beyond gorgeous. The Visitor Center brochure recommends 5 stops in the Park that are located in an easy circular hike. The brochure said that the hike would take about 1 hour, but because we kept stopping to take pictures and little detours, it actually took 2 hours for us. Everywhere I looked there was so much natural beauty. I loved looking out over the fissure that divided two continents and I loved the adorable little church that was located randomly inside the park. The Park is crowded so I recommend getting there as soon as possible in the mornings so you’re able to walk through in peace. While there is no entrance fee, parking costs $6 per car.
Geysir - Geysir and Gullfoss are both staples on a Golden Circle tour. Every guide will bring their tourists here, which only means thats both locations are extremely crowded and overhyped, but at the same time still must sees. Both don’t have any entrance fees and are very well maintained with spacious parking lots, gift shops and cafes, clean bathrooms, and paved wooden walkways. My suggestion would be to stop at both places, but don’t waste too much time at either location and move on to less crowded and beautiful stops.
Efstidalur Ice Cream - Although neither of us could pronounce the name, Efstidalur was the hidden find my sister was most proud of! Who can pass up homemade ice cream from a cow farm? The ice cream here was a sweet snack while we were in the midst of our Golden Circle drive.
Secret Lagoon - The oldest swimming pool in Iceland and it only costs $24 to enter (a huge price drop from the Blue Lagoon) and spend a few hours relaxing on a pool noodle here. The waters are heated at a nice warm degree and its interesting to be swimming in the same pool that people swam in so many years ago.
Kerid Crater - One of my most favorite places in Iceland and mostly overlooked! Kerid Crater was our last stop on the Golden Circle drive for us and we almost didn’t even stop here because we wanted to make it back to Reykjavik in time before all the restaurants closed. Thank god we decided to make a quick detour anyways! It was the best $3 ever spent. The Crater wasn’t crowded at all (I’m guessing by the end of the Circle most people were just tired like we were) and the hike around the top of it provided all sorts of amazing views.
Icelandic horses are different from American horses so it was definitely on my bucket list to ride one of them while in Iceland. They looked so cute in pictures! The horses are smaller and shorter so they were perfect for first time riders like myself. There were several tour options online, but we ended up going with Extreme Iceland which matched us up with the Ishestar Riding Stables where we met the most amazing tour guides and the sweetest horses. There were a variety of horses that differed in size and disposition so it was easy to find one that matched your riding style. My horse Lassie was so fun to ride and was the perfect photo companion! There are also different routes you can take on horseback. WE chose to ride through the lava fields and were met with beautiful (how many times have I used the word beautiful already?) Icelandic scenery.
If you’ve been following along with Toast and Travel for a while now, you’ll know that I’m sort of obsessed with caves. They’ve always seemed mysterious to me and I love how every cave is different. After doing some research, I discovered that Iceland has a lava tunnel that is similar to a cave. 5000 years ago when a volcano erupted in the country, lava spewed out of it in full force and a lava tunnel was created. The tunnel isn’t well paved at all so it was pretty fun getting to scramble over rocks and use the headlights on our helmets. A standard tour which lasts an hour costs $50, while an extreme tour which lasts 3 hours and involves crawling through holes costs $100.
My sister found this hike while she was researching for the Golden Circle, but we were way too exhausted after a day’s worth of events and decided to postpone the hike until a different day. The end point of the hike is the REykjaladver geothermal river. Personally,I felt like the river, while not luxurious at all and very very natural, was a way better experience than the Blue Lagoon. If anything, the river was a nice reward after a semi challenging hike. The hike is pretty well organized in that the path is clearly marked and there are helpful signs along the way. There’s also plenty of free parking and no entrance fee. Guidebooks told us that the hike would take around 45 minutes, but (again) we stopped to appreciate the views and take pictures so it actually took us 1.5 hours to hike up. There are some steep parts, but for the most part its not too difficult. Just make sure you use the bathroom before because there aren’t any on the trail. There also isn’t a covered changing room at the river, so its best to change into your swimsuit in your car before the hike.
We were only in Iceland for 4 days and I felt like we barely scratched the surface of this big beautiful country. If we had more time, I would have liked to drive down to Southern Iceland and the black sand beach. Like I always say, there’s always next time!