When: March 2018
Hotel: AirBnB (the link doesn’t work – I think it’s been taken down)
Why Iceland: As many are, we were pulled into Iceland with the promise (and reality) of incredibly inexpensive airfare (we’ll get back to why this is a trick in a minute). We had talked about going with our friends Chris and Jenna, so when airfare dropped super low – we jumped on a 4-day getaway. This trip was planned during an exceptionally stressful period at work, so I’ll be honest – I literally didn’t do any of it. Jenna is also a planner, thankfully, and she took on the details of the trip. Normally, this would make me nervous but I trusted her and had very little time to really be concerned. She would make suggestions, we would booked excursions and tours, but for the most part I was looking forward to just being a passenger.
The Trip: The only direct flight was from Frankfurt to Keflavik, so it was an early morning for us to drive 1.5 hours (totally worth it for tickets to Iceland for under $200 for two people total), before hopping the 3.5 hour flight. It sits about 45 minutes outside Reykjavik, and while there is public transportation, we rented a car because we planned to do a lot of driving. It’s important to know two things before even leaving the airport: 1. If you want to have alcohol, definitely buy it in the duty free store on your way out because as you will soon learn – prices in Iceland are outrageous, and 2. If you plan on doing your own thing – rent a car. It is surprisingly normal pricing for car rentals (where you have to budget is gas…it costs almost $8 a gallon, which is why we didn’t leave without a diesel).
Finding an economical place to stay in Reykjavik is a challenge because everywhere is so expensive, to include hostels. We settled on an AirBnB about 15 minutes from downtown. It was a 2 bedroom, 2 bathroom and cost us $945 total for three nights. Split between two couples, it is definitely manageable, but we did sacrifice location. It was a really nice quiet place with a good view – and was definitely better than spending over $500 for a so-so hotel room.
Our first day, we didn’t actually get to the apartment early evening, and the only thing on the itinerary was heading into downtown Reykjavik for exploring and to eat some hot dogs! Unless you are a museum person, you do NOT need a lot of time spent in this capital city. It is super cool, and colorful, and eclectic but it is more like a cute coastal town rather than a capital city. There is only one building that could classify as a skyscraper, and that is the very recognizable Hallgrímskirkja church. It is over 244 feet tall, with a very unusual design.
Any trip to Reykjavik should start on Laugavegur, the main shopping street. What I didn’t know before we went was that most buildings in this area are concrete, and artists were actually commissioned to paint these buildings – so it’s actually more like an outdoor art gallery. Laugavegur has so many boutique stores with interesting shopping, and thankfully the stores were open when we arrived to pop in and out. (Another tip – there is no need to exchange money as credit cards are excepted everywhere – I didn’t use cash once in four days). It is also just off this street where you will find the famed Baejarins Beztu Pylsur hot dog stand. It sits in a parking lot and very easy to pass by if not looking for it. It was a yummy snack, and didn’t give us a heart attack at the prices (that would come later).
Before heading home that night, we stopped by the local grocery store to pick up some snacks for our big day of road-tripping around the Golden Circle the next day. This is normal for us, as we not only love to see the local goods for sale, but it also tends to be a money saver.
Except in Iceland. For a bit of an idea, John wanted a box of six Krispie Kremes and they set us back $15. We just picked up waters and road trip snacks – that would maybe cost us $30 in Germany…but it was over $70. Yikes! So we learned quite quickly we weren’t going to get a relief on prices.
The next day, we were off to explore the Golden Circle – a very popular, and easy, day trip from Reykjavik. If you have a week in Iceland, you can drive Iceland’s Ring Road that literally circles the entire country. But if you only have a long weekend or a long layover, the Golden Circle route is a good alternative. It covers 190 miles, with stops by waterfalls, geysers, a crater and if you keep an eye out, a chance to pet an Iceland pony. You can do it through a tour group, but I recommend renting a car and doing it yourself. The roads are very good, the drive is easy and that way, you can take your time exploring.
After a stop for a cappuccino and a croissant (which totaled $11…it would be $4 in Germany), we set off on our way to our first stop – which was the Thingvellir National Park. It is a UNESCO World Heritage site, as it was once the site of Iceland’s first Parliament (back in 930 AD). It is also where the North American & Eurasian tectonic plates are slowly splitting apart from each other, creating deep fissures. If you are into scuba diving, you can book a tour to touch where the two plates come together in the Silfra Fissure. Above ground, it is an absolutely beautiful landscape.
The Icelandic ponies have become a popular stop for folks driving the Golden Circle – but a couple of things to remember: Don’t just stop anywhere, especially if you see them right off the main road. Make sure to find a safe place to stop and then go pet these ponies. We happened upon our stop with the horses as we saw them in the distance and followed a couple of cars into a parking lot.
Even though it was quite chilly, we didn’t pass up the chance to try the famous ice cream at Efstidalur, a family farm in the middle of the Golden Circle. You can buy products direct from the farm (including the ice cream), there is a hotel on site and a restaurant as well (using only local ingredients).
Our next stop was my absolute favorite stop, and is not only not usually mentioned in most guides when talking about the drive around the Golden Circle, but has become exponentially harder to reach thanks to disrespectful tourists. But when we went, the easy, shorter path was available and we were able to enjoy the Brúarfoss waterfall all to ourselves. It is a beautiful hidden gem, and even on the easy path we took, it wasn’t easy to find.
When we went, we were able to park in a small lot that is shared with a vacation home development. But the residents got fed up with the debris and other trash left by the tourists, so there is a gate up. Instead to visit the waterfall, you have to walk 4.4 miles round trip – or about 2-3 hours walk. So we got very lucky.
The next popular spot on the Golden Circle was Haukadalur, home of two famous geysers called Geysir and Strokkur. The original Geysir stopped erupting following an earthquake, but Strokkur bursts water 100 feet in the air about every 10 minutes.
The next stop was arguably the one most well-known and recognized: the Gullfoss waterfall! It translates to “gold waterfall,” and while we missed seeing the iconic shots with rainbows over it, it was equally pretty in winter. To get there, you have to descend a long staircase before reaching the top platform.
The last stop of the day was the Kerid Crater Lake, which is over 6,500 years old. It is also the only stop on the Golden Circle that charges admission. It was once a volcano that collapsed, and the very bottom is now filled with water. We caught it at sunset, but I feel it would be prettier in the summer. We didn’t get the vibrant colors normally associated with the crater. We walked around the top and headed out – it was a quick stop.
It was a loooonnnggg day of driving, but it really didn’t seem like it. While it would take only 3 hours to get around without stopping, it took us eight hours. It was gorgeous and pretty and really gave us a good idea of everything Iceland has to offer in a short amount of time.
We thought we would be frugal that night and stopped for dinner at Kentucky Fried Chicken, but there was no such relief, For the two of us, dinner at KFC cost $60. Iceland prices are no joke – I still have sticker shock, even writing this!
Final Impressions: The Golden Circle is truly beautiful and definitely worth doing, especially on your own to be able to really enjoy each stop as much as needed. While the prices were starting to make me a little wary of Iceland, the landscapes and company more than made up for it. Next up, an ATV adventure and closing the trip with the must-see Blue Lagoon!