7 days in beautiful Iceland

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While many people plan winter escapes to the sun, I organised a very different trip: Iceland in November! With incredible landscapes to explore, interesting folk histories, and world-class spas, I was in! Here’s a run down of my 7-day itinerary.


As a keen fan of volcano tourism (see my account of a trip to Hawaii!), Iceland has been on my travel bucket-list for a long time as another Geographer’s dream destination. I had ummed and ahed about the timing of this trip as choosing the winter or summer seasons has a significant impact on the schedule recommended. Winter won out and I’m so glad it did- the snow and ice made for a challenging experience on some days, but one that I valued for allowing me to appreciate the power of natural forces that shaped the rugged landscape.


we were very often the only car on the road for many kilometers, and we stayed in towns and villages with only three or four hotels and restaurants...

As you can see from the map location stars, my partner and I focused on the south of Iceland, exploring Reykjavik, travelling inland following the famous “golden circle”, and then journeying east along the South coast past many waterfalls, and ending at the second largest ice cap in Europe. I found the environment dramatic, vast, and “wild”- despite visiting mostly well-known locations, we were very often the only car on the road for many kilometers, and we stayed in towns and villages with only three or four hotels and restaurants.

Our visit locations in Iceland


This was also very much just a taster visit- I definitely wish to return and explore further, hopefully driving the entire ring road! But, until next time, here’s what we explored…


Day 1: Northern Lights hunt


We arrived in Iceland at around 7.30pm and our first stop was to pick up our car for the week- a fabulous BRIGHT ORANGE Toyota Aygo! It was the teeny tiniest car they had and the only vehicle we saw that wasn’t white, silver, or black for the entire trip. I loved our little “Clementine” as we named her!


Clementine facing off against a giant road-hog!


We travelled the 45 min drive from the airport to Reykjavik and did a quick change at our guesthouse to get ready for a northern lights adventure coach tour into the countryside…. Spoiler alert: sadly, we didn’t see the northern lights on this trip, but still had fun exploring some sand dunes in the pitch dark (a bit dangerous!) and visited a very pretty church, plus they fed us hot chocolate and delicious wafer biscuits that I hunted down and was subsequently addicted to for the rest of the trip. Our tickets are valid for another tour within 2 years, so fingers crossed for next time!

Day 2: Exploring Reykjavik


After a late night, we headed out on Sunday for a fortifying brunch and coffee, for which there are many appealing choices in trendy central Reykjavik. We then wandered past some key points of interest, including the beautiful Sun Voyager statue, visited the geese on the lakes by City Hall, and the impressive Harpa music hall and Hallgrimskirkja cathedral, both inspired by basalt columns of Iceland’s natural landscape. 


Sun Voyager statue


We next learned about the history of Iceland by visiting The Settlement Exhibit, a slick, interactive museum set up around the ruins of a 10th Century Viking longhouse, the oldest building discovered in the city so far. I had wondered whether Iceland had a native population, but it’s thought that it was first populated by enterprising Scandinavian and Hebradean Vikings who were drawn by the ample free land available and good fishing. I was also surprised about how much importation went on – soapstone, for example, was imported from Norway as it is more pliable than other rocks and used to make many tools, and decorative glass beads have been discovered, likely brought in from Asia.  


Harpa music hall inspired by Iceland’s basalt columns


After this wholesome experience, we wanted to shake things up a bit and visited the Icelandic Punk Museum! This dinky museum is located in a former public toilet, making it literally and appropriately, underground. This place is small but mighty, with lots of interesting historical information glued to the walls, graffiti- style, and listening stations to hear albums from Iceland’s finest rebels.


We continued our day browsing along the main shopping street and participated in “happy hour” at a few bars to enjoy a reasonably priced tipple and embed ourselves in local culture, as is our duty as ethical tourists 😉 Our favourites were the very characterful Big Lebowski themed bar, complete with bowling and rug-based decor and an impressive selection of variations on a white Russian cocktail! We also popped into the newly opened Lemmy, and absolutely loved it! The high vaulted ceilings and balcony with low lighting are atmospheric and we enjoyed a special Christmas edition of the local Viking beer.


Day 3: The Golden Circle


After experiencing city life, it was time to head out into the countryside on the next phase of our adventure.  We set out in the darkness and arrived at our first stop, Thingvellir National Park, by 10am, just as the winter sun was rising. 


This UNESCO World Heritage Site was the location of the first annual parliament of Iceland in 930. Known as Althing, this general assembly of chieftains was a meeting to settle disputes and make decisions and is credited with the eventual formation of a unified Icelandic nation and national identity. The location is also geologically significant in a rift valley at a crest of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, dividing the Eurasian and North American plates.  The imposing fissures in the rock here can be thought of as “stretch marks” between the tectonic plates- pretty cool! 


Thingvellir National Park


The weather tunred, as it is famous for doing, and so we pushed on through the rain, wind and poor visibility to our next impressive stop: Geysir.  The “OG” geyser at this site, from where the term is taken, is no longer active, but its neighbour, Strokkur, has taken over and performs about every 5 minutes or so. We had fun trying to capture a burst on video and I couldn’t contain a delighted shriek every time! It was wonderful and so exciting! 



Rounding off the day was a visit to the largest waterfall in Iceland, Gullfoss. This giant gorge is flanked by snow-covered plains stretching off into the distance, at one of the highest altitude points on our journey. This was extremely impressive, despite the weather conditions deteriorating to what I can only describe as foul, with rain coming in sideways and a very cold wind. This only enhanced the drama and we were amazed at the scale and the roaring sound of the water.



By this point our “waterproof” clothing had started to fail (even my usually very reliable hiking boots had started to take on water) and we were pleased to have only a 45 minute drive to our hotel in the village of Flúðir. This area is extremely geothermically active and our hotel had naturally-heated hot tubs for guests to enjoy. We had them to ourselves and this was a definite highlight to end the day on!

Day 4: Journey to the South Coast


This day started with many incredible waterfalls and ended at a dramatic black sand beach and a stay in the most southerly town in Iceland, Vík í Mýrdal. Our first stop was at the Seljalandsfoss (“foss” meaning waterfall). This was a unique (and wet!) experience in that you can walk behind the water as it thunders down 60m from overhead. 




At the same site and a little further along the path is a magical, hidden waterfall, Gljufrabui, that can only be seen by squeezing through a gap in the cliff face and walking through a stream. This was one of my favourite things on the trip, partly as it felt as though we’d found a “secret” place, and it was incredibly beautiful!


The magical Gljufrabui waterfall


Our second stop was at another impressive waterfall, Skógafoss. We took on the challenge to walk up the steep path to the top to get a view of the river as it plummets down 60m and look out over the coastline and the pretty farm buildings with red roofs. Fun fact about this one: it has been featured many times in TV and film, including as the location in Game of Thrones of a kiss between Daenerys and Jon Snow!


I was amazed to think of the early settlers of Iceland arriving by boat on that bleak beach, seeing potential…

Further along the south coast road is the Dyrhólaey peninsula, a high point of rock with a lighthouse perched on top. This was another highlight for me as it was an opportunity to take in the vast scale of the landscape.


The view reflected the distinct colour story of the Icelandic countryside: a black sand beach stretching into the distance with fierce white waves crashing. Flat lowlands with ochre yellow grasses, leading inland into the brown, grey, and white of imposing snow-capped volcanic mountains. The cliffs of the peninsula itself are covered in deep green moss and provide a home for hundreds of gulls circling and cawing, and a sculptural black rock arch strides out into the sea. Standing here as the only two people in sight for miles around, the landscape felt like one of the most “wild” places I’ve been. I was amazed to think of the early settlers of Iceland arriving by boat on that bleak beach, seeing potential and setting up homes, despite their limited technologies- what a people! 


View from the Dyrhólaey peninsula. Early settlers arrived here and thought: “Yeah, let’s do this”- utterly amazing!


Next, we had our first glimpse of the basalt columns that inspired so much of the architecture of Iceland while exploring the Reynisfjara Beach and the Hálsanefshellir Cave. This was another example of incredibly impressive geography in action! We took some obligatory “king of the world” photos on the 66m high basalt stacks, and took in with awe, one of the most beautiful beaches in the world.


Indulging in some dramatic photos at Reynisfjara Beach (more on Insta)


Our home for the night was in Vík í Mýrdal in a hotel with a beautiful view of the sea stacks off the coastline. If anyone has seen the Netflix series, Katla, this town is the setting for the action and lies in the shadow of the very real Katla volcano located underneath the Mýrdalsjökull glacier (yes, this will one day be a recipe for major flooding!). Despite being in such a remote location, we grabbed coffee at a unique micro-roaster on a school bus, and visited a brewery, Smiðjan Brugghús, that could have come straight out of East London!


The beach at Vik


Coffee shop in a school bus-  like being in Shoreditch, but with enormous cliffs, a volcano, and the North Atlantic…


Day 5: Vatnajokull National Park and Diamond Beach


Today saw us traverse along the south coast to take in the sites, visit the Vatnajokull glacier, and journey down to a glacial lagoon and a beach with icebergs glistening like diamonds.


We watched the sun rise at the Fjaðrárgljúfur Canyon, a 100m deep canyon created by erosion from meltwater at the last Ice Age. Three river tributaries intersect at this site, with two waterfalls joining the river below, one of which runs orange due to the high iron content of the surrounding rocks. 


we made the scenic 30-minute hike to, likely, the most Gothic waterfall in the world…

We continued our drive along the coast through scenic “green lava” fields, covered in moss and watching the tongues of the second largest ice cap in Europe loom into view. We parked at the National Park visitors centre and we made the picturesque 30-minute hike to, likely, the most Gothic waterfall in the world, Svartifoss! Seemingly out of nowhere, water tumbles over the cliff edge, created by a lava tube, and surrounded by hexagonal basalt columns. It felt like being in a dragon’s lair from a fairy tale – an absolutely stunning sight!


The Gothic, Svartifoss


The most easterly point on our trip would be the Jökulsárlón iceberg lagoon created by meltwater from the Jökulsárlón glacier. I have never seen an iceberg before and I was surprised at how blue in colour they are (as compressed ice absorbs longer yellow/red wavelengths of light) and large in scale! We were lucky enough to witness a chuck of ice break off and crash into the lake with an enormous splash. I’d like to return in summer when you can take a boat trip to see these natural sculptures up close!


Actual icebergs!


Across the road is a black sand beach where the lagoon water flows into the ocean. This is nicknamed “diamond beach” as the icebergs eventually travel out of the lagoon as they melt and are washed up onto the black sand where they sparkle like diamonds. This was yet another out of this world sight! We watched the sun set and the sky turn an orange-red and then headed to our hotel to rest before another epic day of adventures.


Ice shining like giant diamonds!


Day 6: Glacier hike


These are words I didn’t think I’d be writing, but we spent our sixth day on a guided hike across a glacier to a giant ice cave. Not my standard Thursday!


We were kitted out with crampons, a helmet, climbing harness, and an ice axe, so we knew it was going to be a challenge…

We met up with our group of six people, plus our guide, Bart, and headed to one of the most southerly tongues of the Vatnajökull ice cap. We were kitted out with crampons, a helmet, climbing harness, and an ice axe, so we knew it was going to be a challenge from the outset! 


Hiking/stomping across a glacier…

To remind myself to “stomp” my feet and avoid slipping, I sang Metal and Industrial songs in my head…

First up was a little training session to acquaint us with how to walk in crampons to grip on to the literal meters of ice over which we’d be trekking all day. This required a flat footed stomp that was quite tiring for the legs, but you soon noticed if you hadn’t hit it right! Going downhill also required a confident posture, planting the feet facing straight down and leaning the shoulders and body backwards, which was counterintuitive and quite scary at first. To remind myself to “stomp” my feet and void slipping, I sang Metal and Industrial songs in my head, including Rammsten’s Du Hast– this was extremely helpful and meant I also kept up a good pace!


Some sections where we traversed between crevasses in the ice required us to clip on to fixed lines with our harnesses and travel one at a time between sections for safety. I felt like a proper mountaineer at this point, aided by the fact that we were the only people on the glacier!


Navigating crevasses on the glacier


We had plenty of opportunities to ask our lovely guide questions and learn about the geography of where we were, including fissure formation, moulins, and the ice cave itself. We were also visited by a raven (yes, a WILD RAVEN!!), who sat on a rock and made various attempts to communicate with us, until, frustrated that their universal translator was clearly broken and we weren’t volunteering any food, they eventually flew off. We also saw the tracks of an Arctic fox in the snow. Seeing these signs of life in such a harsh place was astonishing!


A massive ice cave! The orange dots are helmets of our fellow hikers getting a closer look…


After traversing the glacier tongue, we reached the ice cave – a sight which didn’t disappoint! It was amazing to see the ice close up and observe the trapped air bubbles organised in layers representing one year of melt and refreeze, going back through history. Comparing analyses of atmospheric makeup from air bubbles like this, taken from larger and older ice caps, are used as evidence of climate change, while analysing soil sediment layers gives us clues into past vegetation- very cool to see this in person!


Glacier ice, up-close: air bubbles and sediment layers


After a break for some leftover pizza (totally recommend as a mid-hike snack btw!), we headed back and enjoyed a fabulous sunset over the terminal moraine and glacial lake out towards the ocean. Another magical day!


Sunset on the glacier


Day 7: Blue Lagoon


a day of ultimate decadence!

Determined to go out with a bang, our last day involved a prolonged dip in one of the natural wonders of the world: the Blue Lagoon, a mineral-rich outdoor spa heated by geothermal energy. We arrived at opening time to see the spa with magical lighting and enjoy the sunrise, which is something I’d definitely recommend. We chose an intermediate package which included three facemasks and a drink at the in-water bar – a day of ultimate decadence!


Daybreak at the Blue Lagoon

We took some obligatory silly photos involving face masks and enjoyed sparkling wine while exploring the many coves, happily bobbing through the milky waters, feeling our stressed out muscles gradually relax. A wonderful end to a spectacular adventure! 

Being totally normal at the Blue Lagoon…


To sum up, just “wow”! Iceland was as I’d been promised: incredible landscapes, certainly “icy” (I may have slipped over after just 2 hours of arrival!), and changeable weather! I’d love to return in the summer as this would be a very different experience as it’s possible to travel the full ringroad and see the north of the island during the almost 24 hours of sunlight. I’d definitely return to the Blue Lagoon and visit as many other spas as possible for recovery time between hikes. There is also an occasional Goth club in Reykjavik, so I must go back for a clubbing visit too!


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