Travel – 1 Week in South-East Iceland (Tips & Itinerary)
If you consider yourself a travel junkie or a nature lover, you need to add Iceland to your bucket list. There’s a reason why they call it ‘the land of ice and fire’ – lava fields mingle with snow-capped mountains. You find yourself surrounded by majestic landscapes and beautiful natural wonders, away from all the hustle and bustle of regular civilisation.
Some practical tips
When to visit:
We visited Iceland in September. September is considered a ‘shoulder’ month – an inbetween stage. Weather is mild – though I think we were quite lucky! Most of our days were bright and sunny, with just a fresh, chill breeze. It did rain on one day, but luckily for us, it began right after we completed our glacier hike.
It’s important to consider the time of year when planning your trip, as the weather varies drastically from month to month. June-August are the warmest months (10–15 °C), and prime tourist season. Although the weather is more pleasant, this is the season of the midnight sun. The lack of a darkness at night may sound lovely, but it means you have little chance of seeing the famous Northern Lights (which require darkness to be visible). From Oct-April, conditions can be harsh and very very cold (anywhere from 5 – -8 °C), especially around Jan-Feb, when daylight is limited to just a few hours. However, this makes your chances of seeing the Northern Lights far more promising (though we saw them in September, as you’ll see further on!).
Getting there: We flew from Gibraltar > London Heathrow > Reykjavik
Getting around: Rental car (we used Atak)
I’d definitely recommend hiring a car if you’re visiting Iceland. Most of the sights are free, it’s just nature afterall! But you will need to get to them, and it’s just not practical to do so otherwise, unless you want to spend all of your money booking tours, or all of your time travelling back and forth from one hotel. Oh and you don’t need a 4×4, unless you’re planning some adventurous off-roading!
We planned the whole trip ourselves, without the use of a travel agent. We only actually pre-booked two tours – a Snorkelling Tour of Silfra and an Ice Climbing glacier hike (see details further on).
An essential packing list for Iceland:
- A good waterproof & windproof jacket – A must-have for all seasons, as the weather is notoriously unpredictable
- Hiking boots – You are most probably going to hike, walk on ice and get wet near the waterfalls. Worth getting a comfy pair!
- LAYERS – The temperature can vary widely, even throughout the day. The best thing to do is take lots of basic layers that you can put on or take off as required.
- A thermos flask! – Filled with coffee or hot chocolate, to keep you going through those long chilly nights camping out waiting for the Northern Lights!
- A GPS device – An obvious one for any road trip, if your car doesn’t already have one
- A Revolut card – see below
Iceland is EXPENSIVE. Like, really expensive, especially food and drink, but also for clothing and gear, so definitely come prepared. The local currency is Icelandic Krona (ISK), and a surprising fun fact about my trip is that I didn’t touch any cash on the whole trip. I used my Revolut card literally everywhere, even in the most remote areas which were basically in the middle of nowhere. You save quite a bit on the exchange rate using Revolut, compared to a bank card, so I would definitely take one to make the hole in your wallet a little less deep.
Day by Day itinerary:
Day 1 & 2 – Reykjavik
Reykjavik is the country’s capital and largest city. I instantly fall in love with the fresh Nordic air, the cute colourful buildings and the quaint feel of the city. Reykjavik doesn’t even feel like a big city, let alone the northernmost capital in the world.
The streets are lined with colourful graffiti and quirky independent coffeehouses and cafes (the coffee is very very good and you will be drinking a lot of it). There are no big tall buildings in sight. The whole city runs entirely off renewable energy (Iceland is the only country in the world which obtains 100% of its electricity and heat from renewable sources. 87% from hydro-power and 13% from geothermalpower).
The locals are generally very polite and speak good English. Service was good and friendly pretty much everywhere.
Some more great reasons to love Reykjavik – It’s the only Western European capital without a Starbucks or a McDonald’s AND anyone who visits will notice that there are a lot of cats around. The Icelandic Cat Protection Society has estimated that there might be as many as 1 cat for every 10 people in the capital. Basically, it sounds like my idea of heaven.
Food & Drink in Reykjavik
Gló is a cute little restaurant offering casual healthy meals, including various raw & vegan options. The system is simple – you select one main from the board (which changes daily), with either rice or salad, and then you can select 3 different sides from an array of vegetable dishes displayed in the counter.
Gló is a walk-in restaurant so there is no need to book. You simply order your food at the counter and take it to your table. It had a cute hipster vibe and the food was delicious.
A cool restaurant concept – SmakkBarinn offers a variety of Icelandic tapas, each served in a cute little jar. They have set prices for 4 jars, or 6 jars. I thoroughly enjoyed each one, although portions were clearly small, each jar packed a lot of flavour.
It’s a good way to try the local cuisine without committing to a large dish, but not one to visit if you’re very hungry. The menu also features “fermented shark”, and you’re recommended to eat this with a shot of Icelandic schnapps on the side. Not always the best sign so, none of us were brave enough.
Trust me to find, and eat, gelato while in Iceland. Delicious gelato, at that, and vegan-friendly too.
The ice cream making process in Joylato happens as soon as you order, since the ice cream is made using liquid nitrogen to flash-freeze the mixture right in front of your eyes. This is the key to the creamiest ice-cream, by the way.
The ice cream bases use milk straight from the Icelandic farms, or coconut milk as a dairy-free alternative (any flavour can be made vegan). They claim you won’t find refined sugar, high fructose corn syrup, or artificial sweeteners and flavorings in their kitchen. Instead, they use maple syrup and dates.
Pictured above: Salted Caramel gelato with peanut butter crumble topping.
Located in a cosy little ‘pub’ in the heart of Reykjavík, this tiny place offers only one specialty – a perfect winter warmer that will definitely feel appetising in the Icelandic climate. And not just regular soup, it’s served in a giant bowl of bread, complete with the lid and inner ‘stuffing’ on the side.
The menu consists of just 2 soups, a veggie soup and a ‘meatbomb’, which change daily. On our visit, the options were a mushroom soup or African meat soup. Both were thoroughly enjoyed. The whole thing is extremely filling since you’re essentially eating a small loaf of bread at the same time.
They also had a wide range of interesting Icelandic draft beers.
Day 3 – Start of the road trip
From Reykjavik, we began our tour of the South-East coast. Glued to the car window, watching a constant stream of beautiful mountain scenery go by.
Gullfoss is one of the most popular tourist attractions in Iceland. A powerful waterfall, fed by Iceland´s second largest glacier, the Langjökull. The water plummets down 32 metres into a rugged canyon. As you follow the path along the waterfall’s edge, expect to get hit by some of the spray.
Kleifarvatn Lake is the largest lake on the Reykjanes Peninsula in Iceland. After realising there was a high KP index that night, and a forecasted clear sky, we chose this beautiful lake as the first spot we would hope to see the Nothern Lights. We headed out here to catch the beautiful sunset, set up the cameras and wait patiently. As the skies darkened, the temperature dropped drastically (This is when we realised we needed thermos flasks).
The wait was worth it though. The lights eventually appeared. Although not the strongest or brightest show, this was my first glimpse, lighting up the sky as they danced above our heads.
Day 3 – Snorkeling in Silfra
Iceland is one of the only locations where you can dive between two of the Earth’s tectonic plates. The Silfra Fissure sits between the North American and Eurasion plates. It’s home to some of the clearest water in the world, thanks to constant filtering by a lava rock. This makes it so pure, you can drink it straight as you swim! (and we did!)
I know what you’re thinking, it must have been FREEZING. Well yeah, the water is actually 2°C, but you’re given a dry-suit! Unlike a wet-suit, this prevents any water from getting in, so your body stays dry beneath. You’re also given an undersuit for extra warmth (and I wore a base layer beneath it), a hood, and gloves. The only parts of your body that will get wet are basically your face, your hair and your hands (as the gloves do let some water in).
Your guide will give you all of the equipment, including the drysuits, snorkels and flippers. They’ll also help you get into them, as those suits are tricky and it’s really hard to put them on by yourself! They also feel really heavy while you’re on dry land, waddling along to the water, but once you get in, you’ll feel weightless. One fun thing to do is roll over and float on your back, as the suits are so buoyant. But then you’ll miss the amazing underwater scenery!
The clarity of the water is astonishing, which is what makes this dive spot so unique. The world beneath you is filled with vibrant shades of blue and green, and you can see all the way down to the very bottom with your bare eyes (well, and goggles).
We booked the snorkelling tour with dive.is and our guide was Tanya – she was awesome! And had some hot chocolate and biscuits waiting for us once we got out. 🙂
(Qualified divers can go for a full scuba dive in Silfra, as one member of our group did!)
Day 3-4 – Road to Hella & Vík
We then continued our journey along the south-east coast towards Hella, making stops along the way to see some more beautiful landscapes, waterfalls and black sand beaches.
We stayed in the Stracta Hotel Hella, located along the Golden Circle, surrounded by nothing but mountainous views. The hotel accommodation is made up of long lines of cute little cabins. Just be aware that if you go for the most basic option, you will have to share a bathroom…We made this mistake! Though it was fine, the bathrooms were clean and there was one for every 4 cabins.
Outside, there are some outdoor geothermal hot tubs where you can relax while you stargaze.
Day 4 – Sight Seeing
Seljalandsfoss is a waterfall located in the South Region on the road that leads to Þórsmörk. The waterfall drops 60 metres and is part of the Seljalands River. You can walk right up to the gushing water and even walk into the small hidden cave that sits behind it – though make sure you’re wearing waterproofs for this, as you will get wet!
We were lucky enough to get a rainbow shining across the waterfall! Can you see it in the pictures below?
Reynisfjara (Black Sand Beach)
Reynisfjara is a black sand beach found on the South Coast of Iceland, near the small fishing village of Vík. It’s famous for its basalt columns, lava formations, cliffs and caves.
The symmetrical columns were shaped when, once upon a time, lava flowed out of the volcanoes, cooled and contracted. The slow speed at which the lava cooled made it crack and create these hexagonal forms. This process is known as columnar jointing.
The columns themselves are home to thousands of nesting seabirds, including puffins! But unfortunately this was not the right season to see them. It can also be hard to get a good photo without crowds of tourists in the way…
Solheimasandur Plane Wreck
On Nov 24, 1973, a United States Navy Douglas Super DC-3 airplane was forced to crash-land on Sólheimasandur’s black sand beach. Luckily all crew members survived, but the airplane’s fuselage was abandoned on the beach. Now it still sits on the black sand and has become a popular hotspot for photographers.
What they don’t tell you: It’s a 4km walk TO AND FROM the plane. That’s 8km in total, about 40 minutes walking each way. The worst part isn’t actually the distance, it’s the fact that you can’t see the end destination, and your surrounding look the same throughout, so you feel like you’re never going to get there. Mental torture, more than physical.
Ah, the things we do for a good photo. But it is an awesome sight to see, and you can even climb around inside and on top of the plane.
Day 5 – Glacier Hike & Ice Climbing
On Day 5 we went on a hiking tour of Sólheimajökull glacier. It was an intense journey through a maze of ice formations, jagged ridges and deep crevasses, finishing with magnificent views from the top of the glacier. The whole hike was 4 hours long, and left us feeling like we’d done a tough leg workout by the end.
We booked our hike with Arctic Adventures, who were waiting at the site in an old school bus, filled with ice-climbing equipment. They provided us with ice boots, crampons (metal ‘teeth’ that attach to the bottom of your boots, to help you walk and grip on the ice) and ice picks.
Walking with crampons took me some getting used to, and there were times when I was a little slippery, but luckily I didn’t have a ‘glacial facial’ (as our guide Bori called it!). You basically have to stamp your feet as you walk, to anchor your feet into the ice with each step, so you look like you’re doing some kind of little march.
The picks were often needed to clear a path in the ice. Bori, our guide, said that each time he ventures out, the path is completely different, as the glacier is constantly melting and re-freezing in different layers.
At the beginning of the hike, the glacier ice appears dirty, covered in a thick layer of volcanic ash. As we climbed deeper, the ice became a beautiful blue colour. The contrast between the different layers of the glacier was quite spectacular, especially amidst the mountainous backdrop.
We walked over streams of water flowing through the glacier, and again, we were encouraged to drink. After all, this is some of the purest water, and the water that feeds Iceland’s water supply.
Once near the top, we were able to be a bit more adventurous. Bori showed us a ‘moulin’ – a circular, vertical shaft in the ice, similar to a deep well. It was 50 metres deep. This is where we were going to do our ice climbing.
Using ropes and grappling hooks, one by one, we could be lowered into the depths of the ‘moulin’, before climbing our way back out, using our crampons to cling and grappling hooks to cling onto the steep icy walls. Quite scary, even to watch, but you’re secured by the rope and your guide will pull you out if you get into any trouble.
Day 6 – Kalfafell
We stayed at the FossHotel Nupar in Kalfalfell. An awesome hotel surrounded by panoramic views of Vatnajokull’s lava fields and mountains, with cabin accommodation again. Good food and lovely decor, but the best part about this hotel was the view of the night sky – a perfect spot for some astrophotography.
Situated so far away from the city, the night sky was pitch black, allowing all of the stars to be seen visibly from just outside our cabins. I have honestly never seen a night sky like it. You could see every star, every constellation, with just your bare eyes. You could even see the milky way faintly if you looked straight up. The photo below, by my very talented travel buddy Natalia, shows you what I’m talking about.
One of the nights, we also got lucky and the aurora came out to play once again. We didn’t have to go further than right outside our cabins to see it. And to top it off, amongst the backdrop of the aurora borealis, we saw a meteorite fly past and break up into millions of fragments before our eyes. So brightly, it didn’t even look real! But unfortunately nobody reacted quickly enough to capture it on camera!
Day 6 – Glacier Lagoon
Jökulsárlón is a glacial lagoon, bordering the National Park in southeastern Iceland. Huge blocks of ice constantly break off the glacier, Breiðamerkurjökull, and large icebergs float along the blue waters, which flow through a short waterway into the Atlantic Ocean.
We even spotted a few seals swimming around in the lagoon!
The icebergs that float down the river from the Glacier Lagoon then end up getting beached onto black sand, creating stunning contrast. This beach has been suitably named ‘Diamond Beach’. The beach is littered with icebergs of all shapes and sizes, glittering in the sunlight. I’m sure it would be even more spectacular in the winter months, when colder conditions would prevent the icebergs from melting.
Special shoutout to my buddy Rahul for telling me I needed to see this place!
Dyrhólaey is a 120-metre high promontory, not far from Vík, with a large lighthouse. The place got its name from the massive arch that the sea has eroded from the headland. (The name literally means “door-hole”). To get there, you need to drive up a dirt road that is steep and narrow in places, with occasional ruts and potholes, but the view from the lighthouse is well worth it, providing remarkable overlooks in all directions.
To the north you see Mýrdalsjökull glacier, to the east you will see the beautiful black lava seastacks Reynisdrangar, and to the west you can view an endless black coastline.
There are amazing rock formations eveywhere, and birdlife is abundant. Noted to be a great spot for seeing puffins, if you visit in Winter!
Worth a stop – Eldstó Art Café
We stopped at such a cute little cafe while passing through Hvolsvöllur. Owned by a couple who create art and pottery using volcanic clay from Mount Hekla, which is displayed all around the cafe. All the tableware is handmade too. It’s also a guesthouse, with rooms available.
We had a lovely lunch here, but what really caught my attention was the display of cakes and baked treats by the counter. Every cake looked incredible. I opted for the carrot cake and it definitely didn’t disappoint (see photo below).
Worth making a stop for on your way to or from Vík! Tip: Order the sweet potato fries with your meal, and DEFINITELY grab some cake.
Day 7 – Blue Lagoon
Our final day was spent driving all the way back towards Reykjavik, as we were flying back the next morning. So we decided to spend our final evening relaxing in style, in the famous Blue Lagoon.
Hot water from beneath the earth forms the spectacular lagoon. The geothermal water is rich in minerals, making it known for being good for our skin.
Originally, we were hesitant about going, since it’s such a popular tourist hotspot. We imagined it would be bursting with tourists and the whole experience just wouldn’t feel very authentic. However, by going at night, around 9pm, we avoided peak time and it was actually really relaxing.
We were given towels and a robe upon arrival, along with a locker, and told to shower before entering the lagoon area. We were provided with special shampoos and bodywash to use, to keep our skin and hair hydrated, as the minerals in the water can be very drying. All the facilities were extremely modern, in stark contrast to the rugged lava landscape.
The outside temperature was around 8°C, but the water was a warm, steamy 38°C. There are bars around the edges of the lagoon, where you can order drinks, and we were given a free drink of our choice on entry (which included things like smoothies, juices and even beer or wine!).
Finishing the trip in style. 💆♀️💦✨ Late night dip, complete with complimentary drinks, in the famous blue lagoon. . Time: 9pm Outside temperature: 8°C . . #iceland #bluelagoon #grindavik #geothermal #hotsprings #latenightdip #relaxing #chills #roadtrip #travel #travelgram #tourists #lastnight #dontwannaleave
Not a bad way to end the trip.
Hope this has been helpful. Let me know if you’ve been to any of the spots mentioned above, or if you have any additional tips that I might have left out!