If the outdoors is what you crave then few places will satisfy that appetite better than Iceland. There are approximately 300,000 people in Iceland and of that some 200,000 live in the capital city of Reykjavik. Basically, this means that the rest of the country is blank canvas for anything outdoors and void of the large cities/towns you will find in mainland Europe.
Getting to Iceland
Iceland sits in the middle of the North Sea directly north of London. WOW Air is an Icelandic discount carrier that runs many flights to and from mainland Europe at relatively inexpensive prices. The main airport is Keflavík Airport.
The City of Reykjavik
As mentioned above, Iceland is small, both in size and inhabitants which means public transportation is scarce. More than likely it will be in your best interest to rent a car at the airport as this will provide the greatest amount of flexibility while in Iceland. It will take you about 45 minutes to get from the airport to Reykjavik (probably where you will be staying). Don’t worry about getting lost on your way as there is only one main road that connects the airport and the city.
Of the 300,000 people in Iceland, 200,000 call Reykjavik home. Small in comparison to other cities, Reykjavik has plenty to offer as far as museums, shopping and eateries are concerned. There is a main street that will capture the bulk of your attention and houses many of the shops and restaurants you will be interested in.
Waterfalls, Geysers, Volcanoes and the Great Outdoors
If you’ve gone through the effort to make your way to Iceland, it’s safe to say that it’s probably not to see Reykjavik alone. Not to say that Reykjavik isn’t worth a visit but the outdoor escapes that Iceland has to offer easily trumps a day wandering through the city.
When you are researching your trip to Iceland you will undoubtedly stumble across two possible itineraries to take out of Reykjavik. The first and probably more popular is the ‘Golden Circle’. This comprises the Strokkur geyser, Gullfoss (Golden Falls) waterfall and the Thingvellir National Park. This will be the more touristic itinerary and there are many services that are more than willing to take you to all the locations and sites. The second itinerary you will find is the ‘South Shore’. This route takes you, wait for it, south out of Reykjavik and hugs the southern, wait for it, shoreline. On this route you will see Seljalandsfoss waterfall, Skógafoss waterfall, Black Sand Beach, lighthouses, Eyjafjallajökull volcano (the one that caused travel nightmares in 2010) and coastal towns such as Vik. Again, you will find services that will take you along this route.
My buddy and I opted for the South Shore route. Now, understand that if you are spending a week in Iceland you can easily do both the ‘Golden Circle’ and the ‘South Shore’ routes. They each take a full day but are definitely manageable. Anyway, my buddy and I decided on the less traveled South Route. We also opted for a self-guided tour instead of a paid one. Driving out of Reykjavik you quickly realize how barren and desolate Iceland really is. It doesn’t take long to reach the outskirts of the city via one main road south. Once outside the city limits there really isn’t much, which was a welcome site when you are trying to escape the city. For a good while, all you will see are mountains in the distance, rock and snow. Trees were scarce and forests were nonexistent. You will see the occasional geothermal plant and steam fissures but other than that, the only thing that keeps you from thinking you’re on another planet is the occasional car that will pass you by. It’s interesting to note that Iceland is able to produce all its electricity via renewable sources.
Depending on when you set off in the morning you may be treated to a pretty spectacular sunrise as we were. The beauty quickly waned however when it became impossible to see and we had to pull off the road for a bit. I did manage to snag this photo though.
As we continued southward we approached our first stop of the day, Seljalandsfoss waterfall. As you’re driving you will probably notice a white line running vertically down a cliff face out in the distance. At first, you’ll probably think that there is no way this can be a waterfall, it’s too high. But as you get nearer you do in fact realize that it is a waterfall and a spectacular one at that. Pull over and make sure to hike up to the waterfall and even behind it.
After you’ve had your fill at Seljalandsfoss waterfall get back in your car and head on. The next stop on the South Shore Tour is Skogafoss waterfall. I personally preferred this waterfall out of the two as you could hike to the top and get a different perspective.
As you continue southward the next stop will be a location you will not be able to pronounce, Eyjafjallajökull volcano. This is the volcano that erupted in 2010 and sent an ash cloud that disrupted air traffic for weeks. It might not be the lava flowing cone volcano you had in your mind but it’s impressive nonetheless. Fun fact is that the volcano is located on a family farm.
Continuing on you will come to a lighthouse stop point that will offer the best panoramic view of the coastline and Icelandic countryside. Stop here and take in all it has to offer.
Not 15 minutes down the road you will see signs for the Black Sand Beach. Follow these signs down to the coastline and there will be a cafe on the beach. Eat lunch here, grab a coffee and recharge. After lunch, walk down to the beach where the sand is in fact black. The Black Sand Beach is regarded as 1 of the 10 best beaches in the world by many outlets. I think I’d have to agree. While it’s not your typical warm weather beach where swimming is the norm it is beautiful in its own regard. I took the time to climb the basalt columns for a photo opportunity.
After you’re finished at the Black Sand Beach drive another 15 minutes to the town of Vik (I’m pretty sure this is where the skateboard scene in the “Secret Life of Walter Mitty” was filmed). Vik is a quaint Icelandic town and it marks your turnaround point. If you are only doing a day trip down the South Shore you will want to turn around here as it will take you a good 3.5 hours to get back to Reykjavik.
Iceland In Conclusion
If escaping the city is what you crave then look no further than Iceland, the outdoor paradise. With plenty to see and do you can easily make this a long weekend trip or spend weeks exploring the entire island. Iceland is a place not too many get to see, simply because it’s off the beaten path. But for anyone that has been there, they will tell you it’s well worth it.