Iceland, the land of fire and ice, is one of the most beautiful countries I’ve ever been to. Think vast plains and active volcanoes, snowy mountains and black sand beaches, ancient history and a landscape that inspired some eerie folklore. While it’s best visited in the summer if you want rolling green hills and a glimpse of the midnight sun, you’ll need to visit in winter if you want to see the northern lights and a snowy landscape that lives up to the name.
I was surprised by how big Reykjavik is, I expected a small seaside town when in reality it’s a bustling city with a backdrop of snow-covered mountains. The downtown area is easily explored on foot. Be sure to visit the Sun Voyager (Sólfar) sculpture on the waterfront, a dreamboat built as an ode to the sun. Head to the dramatic Hallgrímskirkja, the church that dominates the city skyline. You can admire the 5275-pipe organ before climbing the tower for breathtaking views over the city. Take a stroll down Laugavegur, the main shopping street of the area, selling everything from souvenirs to high-end fashion.
The Golden Circle
The Golden Circle is one of the most popular driving routes in the country thanks to its easy access from the city and the incredible range of sights you’ll see. If you’re driving yourself, check the times of sunrise and sunset before leaving to make sure you make the most of the shorter days, the sun didn’t rise until 11am and set at 4pm! The total distance is 240km which means between 2 to 3 hours of driving, depending on the weather.
You’ll have to leave the house before the sun rises and drive the 40km north to Thingvellir National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site of historical, cultural and geological importance. If you time it right you’ll be able to watch the sun rise over the rift of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, where you can snorkel or dive in between the continents, before continuing your drive around Thingvallavatn, the largest natural lake in Iceland.
61km east of Thingvellir sits the famous Geysir, the first known geyser in modern European history. Eruptions can shoot boiling water up to 70m into the air, but it rarely erupts these days. Fear not, before you even reach Geysir you will walk past Strokkur, which erupts every 5 to 10 minutes, sometimes twice in a row, and up to 20m high, so you’ll still be able to witness this incredible geothermal force of nature.
Just 10km east of Geysir lies one of the most popular and impressive waterfalls in the country, Gullfoss (Golden Falls). From the carpark, you can follow the trail down the staircase and watch as the Hvítá just disappears into the earth. As you get closer you realise the falls crash in two stages into a 32m (105ft) deep crevice. If you head back up the stairs and follow the path along the river you’ll find an incredible view of the falls from a different angle.
From Gullfoss, it’s a 38km drive southwest to the church of Skálholt, which we timed perfectly to arrive at sunset. For 8 centuries it was the cultural and political center of Iceland, and the country’s first official school was founded here to educate clergy. You can enter the church to admire the stained glass windows and there is a small graveyard outside. To complete the circle it’s an 85km drive back to Reykjavik.
The Southern Highway
The southern highway takes you along the south coast through some dramatic scenery and famous sights. There is plenty to see along the way, however, I recommend driving to your furthest point first and then stopping at each point on the way home, that way you don’t have so far to drive home in the dark after a long day.
The furthest point for us was the beautiful town of Vík, 180km from Reykjavik, the southernmost village in Iceland. We didn’t actually intend to go that far, but it’s a great point to stop for brunch and turn around. As you drive through the mountains the small town is spread out before you; there is a scenic church perched high on the hill and you can take a stroll along the gorgeous black sand beach.
12km back along the highway from Vík take a left turn into a small road and follow it to the end, you’ll find yourself on the Dyrhólaey Peninsula, high above the blackest sand you’ll ever see. To the east, you can see the basalt rock stacks near Vík, and a sandbar separating the lake from the sea. To the west, the cliffs and black sand beaches continue for miles. It was a surprising and dramatic detour, one you shouldn’t miss!
One of the most famous sights along the coast is the Sólheimasandur plane wreck. In 1973 a US Navy DC plane ran out of fuel and crashed, and only the fuselage remains. It makes for some incredibly dramatic photos if you can get to it. During the winter it’s only accessible with a 4×4, the snow was too deep for our little Hyundai.
There are two famous waterfalls you need to visit along this highway. The first you’ll come to, 33km west of Vík, is Skogafoss, one of the biggest falls in the country. It’s 25m (82ft) wide with a drop of 60m (200ft), and you can climb the narrow staircase to the top of the waterfall for stunning views. It’s completely surrounded by snow and ice in the winter, so be careful when walking around it.
The second, a further 29km east of Skogafoss, is the breathtaking Seljalandsfoss, one of the most famous and photographed falls in the country. It drops 60m (200ft) over the cliffs and it’s possible to walk behind it, but in winter the staircase is completely covered in ice. If you cross the bridge and follow the path you’ll eventually find the smaller Gljúfrafoss, hidden by the cliffs, accessible during winter only if you don’t mind getting wet. From the carpark here it’s an easy 121km drive back to Reykjavik.
The Blue Lagoon
After a week, or even just a day, of exploring this gorgeous and dramatic country in the bitterly cold snow you deserve a day relaxing at the Blue Lagoon. You may have heard people talk about how expensive and touristy it is, how there are other options that will be better, but I don’t think anything will be as magical as this place.
It’s a 49km drive from Reykjavik, back towards the airport, so it’s perfect if you have a late flight to catch. There is even luggage storage if you need it. The standard entrance is €50 (£38), just bring your own towel. You’ll pay €65 (£50) for the Comfort package which gives you a towel, drink, and Miracle Masks kit. The Premium package also includes a robe and slippers plus a reservation at the LAVA restaurant with sparkling wine, for €80 (£60). You can save €10 (£8) on each package if you book online!
You’re shown to the changing rooms where you have free access to the lockers. The attendant will force you to shower naked before entering the inside pools. As you head outside you’re met with a magical site, turquoise water, thick white mist that you can disappear into and snow-covered mountains surrounding you. It’s huge and didn’t feel crowded even with a few coach loads of people. There is a bar for cocktails, and buckets of mud to cover your face with. It’s absolutely glorious and shouldn’t be missed!
It’s possible to see all of this in just three or four days, but of course, there is so much more to see if you have the time. Pack your warmest clothes, rent a car and get ready to be blown away by some of the most dramatic scenery in Europe!
Tours and accommodation
You can easily book tours for all the highlights including the Northern Lights, the Golden Circle, and the Blue Lagoon, which is absolutely ideal if you’re travelling alone and want to meet new people, or if you don’t feel like driving anywhere yourself on your holiday. However, if you have the opportunity to rent a car I would definitely recommend it! It gives you the freedom to explore on your own schedule and can be cheaper with more people. It meant we could stay out of the city, drive at our own pace (always just ahead of the big tour buses) and saved us a lot of money.
There are plenty of choices for accommodation in the capital city of Reykjavik but it’s quite expensive, the cheapest dorm is £18 per night, and the cheapest double is £65 per night. The best way to save money, if there is a few of you, is to rent an apartment! There are some stunning options on Airbnb under £100 per night. Not only is it cheaper than a hotel, it means you can cook your own food as well. Groceries cost a lot, but nowhere near as pricey as going out to eat three times a day. We rented a beautifully modern bungalow overlooking the city and got to watch the northern lights from the comfort of our living room.