Just call me Céline Dion, because it’s all coming back to me now.
A friend of mine just got back from Iceland, and as she traversed the Golden Circle and posted similar pictures on her Instagram as I had a year before, the thrill of it began to hit me all over again.
Tourism has revitalized Iceland’s modern economy, so pretty much anywhere you go in the country, you have to share it with a bunch of other foreigners. But it’s not a big deal, really. If you’re always focused on places being crowded with travelers, you’ll miss out on the fact that other curious people are enjoying the experience of a place as much as you are.
I have to remind myself of this constantly, as someone who now takes up a bit of space in a metropolitan area that holds 8.5 million people. Living in New York City has taught me to walk as often as I can and to always look around, look around. This city is expansive, overwhelmingly so at times, but it has little pockets of beauty if you take time to notice them. I always try to Instagram the ones that stick with me most, like this gorgeous wall in my neighborhood and this little waterfall on 53rd Street in Midtown.
Reykjavík is like New York, not in size, but in substance. It’s a small city, but it’s charming and full of surprises. There’s unusual street art, colorful houses and a mix of cultural influences that make it pretty unforgettable and totally remarkable.
It welcomes you in when you arrive, with its ocean views, mountains in the distance and wide, winding streets that remind me of those in Paris. When it snows, everything is so still you can almost hear it fall.
Part of the fun of traveling is exploring the local cuisine, or drinking at the village pub. I try to make sure to do both, no matter where I am! The food in Iceland is pretty good: because of its coastal proximity, seafood is a prime ingredient in most dishes, so keep this in mind if you’re not a fan of fruit from the sea. However, my good friend is a vegetarian and she didn’t have any trouble eating when we went out, or finding things on the menu that are veggie-friendly.
If you’re a beer aficionado, you won’t have to look too hard to find it. We spent an evening at MicroBar, named one of Reykjavík’s 11 coolest bars. As the name suggests, this place is Iceland’s newest microbrewery and supports small brewers, both local and foreign. I’m no expert, but my favorite is the Northern Lights beer. The name may seem cheesy, but don’t let it put you off. It’s delicious! If it’s not your thing, there are plenty of other obscure-sounding brews to try, like the Tactical Nuclear Penguin from Scotland. (I desperately wish I could have been in the room when they named this beer.) Or better yet, get a flight and try them all!
The Frederiksen Ale House is also a fine place to have a drink or share a meal. It’s family-owned and operated, and the staff is super friendly and also amazing at guest photography. I mean, any place with an appetizer of JUST bacon is fine by us.
After getting our fill of the city, we went back to our AirBnB and prepared for the next day’s road trip across Iceland’s southern coast. We’d booked a tour of a glacier four hours east of Reykjavík, so we had an itinerary of scenic locations to see along the Ring Road, the main route which connects all of the inhabited parts of the island.
KNOW BEFORE YOU GO: Unlike other popular destinations, Iceland has left much of its natural land the way it is, withholding development. As such, it’s not like driving the coast in the States. There aren’t a lot of rest areas or restaurants along the way aside from gas stations, which don’t offer much by way of full meals, so make sure you pack some sandwiches, snacks and plenty of water if you’re going to make the drive. There are several supermarkets in the city where you can stock up the night before you go.
The trip to the east coast and back takes about eight hours total, and with four of us in our travel group, it divided up nicely into two-hour driving segments for each person. The stopping points are spaced out relatively evenly to coincide with this equation, too.
We left Reykjavík around 7am, and I still wasn’t quite awake as we piled into the rental car. The sun was just rising in the distance. It was cold, but the sky was slowly waking behind the snow-topped mountains. We had good music, interesting conversations and nothing but time and adventures ahead of us. And my thoughtful friends knew that as long as I had coffee, I could navigate the morning just fine.
As you travel the Ring Road, it’s apparent that it was built for a reason: to conveniently link most of the tourist or scenic locations along Iceland’s coast, effectively in a neat circle that follows the shape of the island. It can get pretty snowy the further out you go, at least in winter. In my experience driving it, the snow makes visibility tough in some areas, because everything quickly turns into a blanket of white and the road disappears to blend in with its natural surroundings. There aren’t many dividers, guardrails or reflective surfaces to guide you through the weather. Additionally, sometimes the snow can cause road closures, and because there’s one lane in either direction and few other routes around, be sure to check the forecast as you’re mapping out this journey.
The first stop on this route is the stunning Seljalandsfoss, a small waterfall with a cave behind it. If you leave the city early enough, as the sun is just taking its place in the sky, it hits perfectly in the background to give you your first breathtaking view of the day, of which there will be many.
You can get out and walk here. It’s freezing as you near the falls, but you can walk behind them, and that’s pretty rad. The falls originate from a river off the Eyjafjallajökull volcano glacier. It’s a popular spot for its panoramic beauty, having been featured in Justin Bieber’s “I’ll Show You” music video. I never exactly caught Bieber Fever, but I’ll give him points for showcasing this place. It makes for a lovely way to start a long and scenic journey.
Seljalandsfoss is a great photo op, but more waterfalls are ahead at Skógafoss. This is probably my favorite place in Iceland, simply for its majesty. The falls, named for their proximity to the Skógá River and the nearby village of Skógar, formed here when the original coastline receded, leaving sea cliffs behind. Because of the large drop and the volume of spray the falls produce, a rainbow is usually visible next to the falls on sunny days, which is inexplicably cool.
This is the place that convinced me that Iceland is a magical planet we don’t deserve.
There’s a climbing path here, steep like a hiking trail. It’s a long way up, but it provides an overhead view of the falls, which are crowded with tourists down on the ground, making it hard to get a good photograph without a wayward head or hand in your shot. The upper view also provides a solid lookout point for the Icelandic countryside.
One of my favorite things about driving the Ring Road is passing through valleys of scattered mountains and volcanoes, some of which are still active or have recently been active, as is the case with Eyjafjallajökull, near Skógafoss. It last erupted in 2010, disrupting air traffic over much of Europe for over a month. Seeing this grandeur outside the car windows right next to me was part of the amazing wonder of Iceland. It made me think about the people who live in the tiny villages below the mountains, far away from civilized life. It made me think about the land and how untouched it is and how it remakes itself with each new volcanic eruption or shift in the earth. It made me think about how much we, as humans, underestimate the natural capacity this world has, and how much we should appreciate it.
After the falls, it takes another couple of hours to reach Vík í Mýrdal, more commonly known as Vík, a town famed for its black sand beaches at Reynisfjara. This is the southernmost point in all of Iceland. The water here is surprisingly dangerous, known for its “sneaker” waves, an Icelandic term for what I can only equate to riptides. It was February when we were there, so we had no intention of even going near the water, but I desperately wanted to walk the beach. I’d never seen black sand before I got here. It’s strange, different in both color and texture than what I’m used to. There are also enormous basalt towers, naturally carved, much like those of the Giants’ Causeway in Northern Ireland, which is one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been, and a tale for another day.
You don’t need more than 20 minutes or so at Vík; there isn’t much else around, and you have a schedule to keep. But take time to marvel at the ocean. I grew up in South Jersey, only ever an hour away from the shore, and so the ocean is a part of my being. Nothing lies due south of Iceland except Antarctica, so the view is pure sea, as far as the sightline goes.
Back in the car once more! It’s time to go explore a GLACIER.
Vatnajökull is the largest ice cap in Iceland, covering more than eight percent of the country, and it can be seen from space on satellite images of the island. Its name means “water glacier” in English, and the most remarkable thing about this place is that due to the way the water melts, new ice caves form as the seasons change, meaning the ice here is never the same. We had the great fortune of being guided inside, but it’s also stunning from the exterior.
It’s quite a famous location, having been used for the opening sequence of the James Bond film A View to a Kill, starring Roger Moore, in 1985, a year before I was born. More recently, it served as a filming location for Season 2 of one of my all-time favorite series, Game of Thrones. In Iceland, winter is always here.
If Jon Snow were here, he’d most likely agree with me when I say that winter hits you totally in the face in Iceland, but not in the ways you’re used to. For instance, it feels completely surreal to walk INSIDE OF A GLACIER. Like, here I am in an ice cave that Earth naturally made, which will melt and then refreeze next winter into something completely different. EXCUSE ME? HOWWWWWW.
The tours here are guided, because you need to wear crampons over your boots to ensure you don’t slip on the ice, and you have to ride over the glacier in a van to get out to the ice cave you can walk through. But what an isolating, remarkable experience.
Iceland is more than anyone bargained for, and I will stand by that statement until I die. It’s easily one of the coolest, most interesting and unexpected places I’ve ever visited in the world, and as I reminisce on this trip I took just over a year ago, I’m still marveling that I got to be there at all. What a beauty and a privilege.
Thanks for inviting me into your beautiful country. I hope I get the chance to go back someday.