Nature is the greatest artist. Never has that expression been more true of a place than of Iceland. From epic rainbow-pierced waterfalls to geysers that shoot hot water twenty feet over your head, frozen lava fields, endless snow-topped mountains, and a glacier lagoon where you can get up-close to giant, glittering icebergs that seem to have been pristinely carved by the hand of god themselves, each day will bring you a WOW moment around every corner.
Fitting in everything Iceland has to offer in one week is a challenge, but it is possible to see all of the above if you are willing to do a pretty intense itinerary, with lots of driving. I’ll lay out what we did below, but first, some practical points:
- Transport: You are going to need to rent a 4×4. While there are some busses, they’re very expensive tourist traps that only go to highlights like the Golden Circle. If you want to get out into the wild (and you should) and away from other people, the flexibility of your own car is a must. You will need a 4×4 because apart from the one main road, a lot of the driving is ‘off-road’ or on unpaved roads that will bust the tyre of a normal car immediately. We rented a Suburu Forrester which also came with a tent that popped out of the roof, offering greater protection from the winds while camping than a regular tent and meaning we woke up to mornings like this.
- Equipment: we hired cooking gear, and a table and chairs from https://www.iceland-camping-equipment.com/ . It was super easy to pick it up in Reykjavik, everything was in good condition and they even gave us some spare extra gas.
- Weather: Bring a very thick sleeping bag, and lots and lots of sensible layers. Even travelling in summer, my sleeping bag, which is supposed to be warm to 0 degrees, was not sufficient. While some days can be sunny and mild, the wind can be biting at times.
- Costs: Everything in Iceland is very expensive. Even paying for camping spot is around $15 (per PERSON). A beer is about £6-7 and a gin and tonic, £22. So bring booze from duty free, and pack food to cook with if you and make picnic lunches if you can.
- Back-up funds: (related)- have more cash available than you think you need in case of emergencies. One night we were unable to camp because a storm, glacier eruption and 90mph winds made it impossible (the government safety website was advising against it) and had to hire a cabin at the last minute. Hopefully it won’t happen, but it’s better to be prepared.
- Photos: bring a good camera. Believe me, you are going to want to take photos, and although I got some good shots, I got some major camera envy. If you are thinking of upgrading, this would be the trip to do it on.
Day 1: Starting from Reykjavik, pick up your rental equipment and car and get on the road to Þingvellir where Europe meets North America. This National Park is literally the point where the two tectonic plates meet. There are lots of beautiful places to stop for a picnic lunch. Then make your way to Kerið Crater, a volcanic crater lake of intensely blue water that formed inside the collapsed volcano.
From there, make your way to Seljalandsfoss, my favourite of the very, very many strikingly beautiful and unusual waterfalls in Iceland. Not only is it dramatically high, if you get there at the right time of day, rainbows form in the spray where the water meets the light from the sun. You can walk and scramble right around the back of the cave that is formed behind it and look out at the sheer force of the waterfall. Just remember to wear waterproofs and keep your camera and electronics in a dry place or they WILL get too wet and shut down, as I found out.
Day 2: The Jökulsárlón glacier lake was the most incredible moment of this trip, and one of the most mind-blowing moments of my whole life. DO NOT MISS IT. Tired from a rough night of camping in poor weather, when we drove over the bridge and the lake came into view from behind the ridge, we literally could not believe our eyes. It was like walking into your vision of the arctic and the photos do not do it justice; a piercingly blue lake in which floated vast, imposing sculptures of ice. A seal swam near the bay. You suit up in proper arctic gear and can go right out into the lake to float amongst the glaciers and gawp at the structures, wrought by nature that tower over you in glittering ice. I have never seen anything like it.
Then, camp at Skaftafell National Park, it has the most stunning landscape and some of the best camping facilities I’ve ever experienced. From here, you can also do a short hike to see the Svartifoss black waterfall.
Day 3: Fjadrargljufur Canyon is the dramatic sort of place that is used as a backdrop in movies. Literally, it was apparently the backdrop of a Bieber video which I have never seen but I can see why. It’s a very short hike around to take photos, but you will want to factor in longer for gawping. Then head back on the road to see the Skógafoss waterfall. If you are luckier with the weather, you can even camp right by it with it in view.
Day 4: Did you know in Iceland they bake bread in a pan under the earth in the heat of the volcanic springs? Well, they do. And it’s delicious. At great expense you can visit Laugarvatn Fontana, see it being made, and try the bread yourself. It’s really interesting and the bread is sweet and delicious (it later turns out it is not suitable for vegans which I did not realise, whoops). Then, head to the black beach around Vik. Whatever happens, do not camp in Vik. However, the black beach was more remarkable than I was expecting, and with puffins swooping over you from the dramatic and unusual cliffs behind, it’s a great spot for nature photographers.
Day 5: Drive to Landmannalugar to fit in a bit of the highlands. To get here, you have to go seriously off-road, driving through an alien landscape of frozen lava fields that make you feel like you’re on another planet, ford a couple of rivers, and scale some seriously steep and windy mountain paths. It is worth it. From the campsite, you can do a variety of hikes in the mountains around including the famous Laugavegur trail if you have more time. We did the ‘Brennisteinsalda’ route which is long and challenging enough to give you a work out but easy to do within 3 hours, or 4 including time to take photographs. I would recommend camping here because waking up to this site in the morning is quite something. There is also a hot spring on the campsite which you can use, though the temperature fluctuates rather dramatically.
Day 6: Drive back to Reykjavik, and of course you have to at some point do the Blue Lagoon. I’ve been to a fair few natural hot springs but with the mountains framed all around behind it, perfect blue water, and natural mud facemasks this might be my favourite. It’s the perfect place to treat your aching muscles after the camping and hiking, and your skin that will have taken a beating from the wind. In Reykjavik, I strongly recommend eating at Kaffi Vinyl, a jazz café and record shop that offers up delicious vegan nosh and wine at decent enough prices for Iceland.
Day 7: the ultimate sadness of returning equipment and flying back home. If you can spend longer than a week in Iceland, I would strongly recommend 2-3, in order to take a slower pace, hike more, and see more of the highlands than we were able. That said I have rarely seen so many dramatic and life-altering landscapes in such a short time as on this trip, so if you only have a week, do it anyway! Iceland, I will be back, and next time, I hope, for the Northern lights.