Iceland road trip
Iceland. A place that needs no introduction, it has become a travel favourite in recent years and it seems like you can’t open Instagram without a stunning Iceland shot somewhere in your feed. Despite this, when you first start researching it you think there can’t be that much to see, that a lot of it might be a barren and unpopulated with a few cool sights and things to do along the way.
But once you start researching Iceland, you quickly realise that there’s enough to see and do to fill a whole month of travel and it’s hard to know where to start. For one thing, Iceland is almost two different countries; Iceland in the winter and Iceland in the summer. So, the first thing you need to decide is what time of year you want to go.
There are lots of things you can see and do in the winter (visiting ice caves, for example) that you can’t do in summer, and conversely Iceland’s beautiful interior is impassable in winter, so you need a summer trip if you don’t want to be confined to the coast.
Having never ventured much further north than Scotland, I was fixated on the Northern Lights, so my trip was shaped around looking for the right conditions. My research uncovered March as a good time of year to see the Northern Lights as the country is emerging from the snowy skies of winter but not yet nearing the 21 hours of daylight it enjoys in midsummer.
I had originally intended to put together an overview blog post with the whole trip condensed neatly into a thousand words or so, but as soon as I went back through my camera roll from my time there it was clear that was a pipedream. So in order to fit in all my best pictures, it looks like it’ll be spread over quite a few posts!
Day 1: delays and beer
We arrived at Gatwick to the news that an Atlantic storm was causing havoc for planes in Keflavik and we would be delayed several hours. Still in the UK and afternoon Blue Lagoon plans already scuppered. Everyone tells you to visit when you first arrive or before you leave due to its proximity to the airport (about a 20 minute drive). Luckily they were very accommodating and allowed us to book an afternoon slot for 2 days hence to give us a chance to see Reykjavik and stop by the Lagoon on our way out East.
When we arrived the storm was still blowing a gale and we were temporarily terrified that we had badly misjudged the Icelandic climate as 100mph icy winds tore through us as we struggled to load out luggage into our rental car in a small car park set in a barren moon-like terrain.
We dutifully plugged in the sat nav we had rented and headed for Reykjavik. Driving is pretty east in Iceland, the roads are largely long and straight, there aren’t very many people, and driving seemed pretty safe and disciplined. So don’t ever worry about driving there- renting a car gives you maximum flexibility to stop and start whenever you see some dramatic landscape to photograph (this happens every 15 minutes or so in Iceland).
Two good driving tips, however, are: don’t bother with a sat nav, get your friend to use their phone and tell you where to go. The functionality is better and someone can just shout left and right at you rather than trying to decipher the 16 letter placement the sat nav has just told you to follow signs for.
Quite aside from the fact that our appreciation of Icelandic was pathetic and we couldn’t understand where it was telling us to go, it didn’t seem wonderfully up to date and Google Maps did an admirable job in its place. Safe your money.
Second, I agonised over whether we needed a 4 x 4. Everything you read will tell you that if you don’t have one you can’t go down this and that road. We never found this a problem. If you were travelling in ‘proper’ winter or were staying much longer and thought you might want to go up some side roads that are 4 x 4 only, then you might want to think more carefully.
But spring / summer driving was absolutely fine and we never felt the urge to go up any 4 x 4 only roads, and the times that we weren’t sure whether we were on one or not, they were well gravelled and it never presented even the smallest problem. A normal car is much cheaper and, depending on when you go, will probably be sufficient.
I lied, I have three driving tips. Take some CDs for the car, or some other way of playing music- your radio isn’t going to work, and when it does, it’ll just be Justin Bieber on a loop.
We made it to Reykjavik as night was falling (probably a good thing when you’re still adjusting to left hand drive and spend the journey punching the driver’s side door looking for a gear stick) and waited to be escorted into the apartment we’d rented (Live as Locals Apartments). The place was great, bedroom, bathroom and kitchen / living room. Our host was good enough to walk us into town as she was heading there to meet her friends. We arrived just in time for our dinner reservation.
We decided to go all out on the first night and had the tasting menu (with beer pairing!) at Fiskmarkaðurinn. Go here, eat the food, it was amazing. The food looked amazing as well with wonderfully dramatic staging. I don’t remember all of the courses as the beer pairing started to take it’s toll (I woke up to find photos on my phone I don’t remember taking!). They have a sister restaurant, Grillmarkaðurinn, which we didn’t go to, but I’m willing to bet is also very good.
Day 2: hello Reykjavik
We finally got a chance to see Reykjavik during the daylight and set about exploring. We headed into town to grab some breakfast and had a look around some of the shops on our way to the Reykjavik Art Museum. We weren’t expecting much, but the museum was great, lots of unusual exhibits in all sorts of different media, including a sandpit you can climb in, building bricks to play with and yet more black sand, this time on top of a light box so you could move it around to make your own art.
The museum is spread over 3 sites, but we only went to Hafnarhús, which is near the harbour and housed in an old harbour warehouse. It was definitely worth a visit- I don’t know a huge amount of contemporary art but always enjoy looking at it for a change, probably because it’s unknown and therefore always very surprising and stimulating.
After this, we did some more wandering around, booked a whale watching tour for the next morning and enjoyed learning about Reykjavik’s history at the Reykjavik 871 settlement exhibition, which also had a display of illuminated manuscripts while we were there.