Holidays in Iceland have always had a reputation for being on the expensive side, but with Iceland Air’s great flight and accommodation deals and Iceland’s depreciating currency we thought it was a great opportunity to visit the land of waterfalls, fire and ice.
With so much natural beauty to see and do outside of Reykjavik we pondered whether to take the many guided coach tours or to self drive to see the natural beauties around the Golden Circle and the Icelandic Southern Shores.
- The Golden Circle was a must see with sites such as Þingvellir (Thingvellir) National Park, Strokkur, Geysir, and Gullfoss.
- We also wanted to see the amazing waterfalls of Skogafoss and Seljalandfoss along the south shore of Iceland.
- Not to mention other Icelandic wonders such as the Aurora Borealis Northern Lights, dog sledding, the Blue Lagoon, and the capital city Reykjavik.
Researching the Iceland activities and tours we wanted to do, we calculated that it would cost £554 for two people. Pretty expensive, especially when you consider that most of the tours require you to be stuck on a coach for half a day.
We looked into hiring a 4×4 to do our own self drive tour, which surprisingly came out much less than the combination of tours, totalling £311 for 4 days hire including petrol via Thifty. Not only was it cheaper, but we would have more flexibility and could drive off in any direction at a whim (we did get stuck up a mountain though), and we wouldn’t be stuck on a slow coach for most of our time.
Obviously having a car meant that we didn’t have to pay for transfers to and from the airport and to other activities such as the Blue Lagoon. Obviously with all these factors we decided to self drive around the south of Iceland.
An Iceland Cost Breakdown: Tours vs. Self Drive
Despite arriving in Iceland in November we were unable to go dog sledding due to the lack of snow, and the foggy weather meant that we couldn’t go hunting for the Northern Lights (best seen between October and March). We could have potentially saved £243 (£554 – £311) had we done these two activities.
Even without doing these 2 activities we still saved £13 (£324 – £311). Ok not a massive saving but we had the luxury of flexibility, convenience, speed, and a comfortable Suzuki Grand Vitara which had heated leather seats – very useful for Iceland!
The Golden Circle and Southern Shore Waterfalls in a Single Day
Had we done the Golden Circle Tour and the South Shore guided tours, they would have taken a total of 18 hours across 2 days on 2 separate trips. By having our own car we were able to easily pack in the Golden Circle and South Shore highlights into a single day without rushing and returned to Reykjavik from our 400km trip just as the sun went down.
Þingvellir / Thingvellir National Park
The UNESCO World Heritage Site of Þingvellir National Park was a great introduction to our Golden Circle tour. It is a key site in Iceland’s history, with the world’s oldest parliament being assembled there in 930AD. Even in the winter it was a beautiful park to walk around, with the natural beauty of land and water sprouting from the North American and Eurasian techtonic plates. It felt like we were the only people on the planet free to walk around the stunning wilderness, then we saw a sign of civilisation in the simple beauty of Thingvellier Church which dates back to the 14th century.
Everyone loves a water show, even better than that though is a natural one. There are 3 geysers grouped together on the north eastern part of the Golden Circle: Strokkur, Geysir and Little Geysir. We hit Little Geysir first and laughed at its might (or lack of it). To be fair though it wasn’t falsely advertised and was indeed small.
Next were Geysir and Strokkur which were much more impressive. Geysir is the bigger one but rarely erupts, Strokkur erupts every 8-10 minutes and can reach 40 metres so you can take a tourist photo to make your friends jealous.
It does smell a bit of rotten eggs due to the sulphur but not as bad as expected, the visuals and sounds will distract you enough from the smells anyway.
A quick drive away is Gullfoss, one of Iceland’s most famous waterfalls showing off its rugged beauty and power to visitors before you even get up close to it. It’s a double waterfall too so twice as good as most other waterfalls.
We parked up and could immediately sense the power of Gullfoss even though we were a good 5 minutes walk away, or so we thought. It was winter and the only path down to Gullfoss was covered in thick ice. Luckily there was a rope railing which we grabbed hold of as we slid down the path. We love a good waterfall and were awestruck by the beauty and power of Gullfoss.
There’s a story that Gullfoss was saved by Sigríður Tómasdóttir who protected Gullfoss from being used to generate electricity in the early 20th century. She highlighted the importance of preserving Iceland’s natural beauty and is often called the first environmentalist. So you can thank her not only for Gullfoss but perhaps many other sights which the Iceland government protects.
After a double waterfall, it could have been difficult to find another waterfall to live up to those standards. But this is Iceland. Along the south shores of Iceland is Skógafoss which is one of the bigger waterfalls in Iceland with a 60 metre drop and a width of 25 metres.
So we’ve had a double waterfall and one of the largest waterfalls, how could Sejalandsfoss compete? Well, you can walk behind Seljalandsfoss making it very immersive and easy to feel the force and power of this waterfall. A great experience for waterfall lovers or not.
Driving Back to Reykjavik
It was a 100km drive back to Reykjavik, but the scenery was amazing as it had been throughout Iceland. At times it was as though we were on a different planet or in a different time, perhaps in a winter scene from Game of Thrones.
We stopped at various villages, saw some Icelandic horses, and went through some minor roads that looked interesting. Despite some odd occurrences of black ice; driving around Iceland was hugely enjoyable, especially as we were lucky enough to avoid the mass tourist invasion of the Golden Circle.
Getting Stuck Up a Icelandic Mountain
Before we arrived back in Reykjavik, we did get stuck up a mountain. We took a small road that looked interesting and it led us uphill, and uphill and uphill. Before long, snow was falling as we continued to climb along a narrow unpaved road. What an adventure! We reached the top and found a cute wooden building and decided to explore.
When we returned to our car, the snow was falling heavily and the road and our tyre tracks were hardly visible. But I thought I knew the way back down the same road. As I started to drive down Sacha suddenly screamed “No! It’s one way”, so I turned the wheel only to find a big ditch that the 4×4 could not get out of.
As much as we tried ourselves we couldn’t get out without the help of emergency services. Sacha called the emergency services and provided them with the coordinates we found using our GPS, a £38 very well spent! So a big thank you to that big black pickup truck that winched us out.
The Safety of Urban Reykjavik
Reykjavik is a beautiful city, not big, but beautiful with lots of brilliant design details. Even all the suburbs we drove through were well kept and seemed ever so homely.
We stayed at the Einholt Apartments which was only 300m from the main street, Laugavegur. It was a spacious and clean room with wifi and also had a kitchenette to help us to keep within our budget. As the most northern capital in the world we were prepared and packed our thermals and thick winter clothes. We had also prepared ourselves to go whale watching from Reykavik’s old harbour but due to the high winds the boat was unable to go out.
The largest church in Iceland is a great way to get orientated with Reykjavik. Designed to resemble the basalt lava flows of Iceland’s landscape you can climb to the top for £3.85 and get great views across the capital city.
The Icelandic Phallological Museum
For £5.50 per adult, you can see as many penises as you can handle at the Icelandic Phallological Museum, over 200 in fact from various mammals. You’ll see ones that are big, small, silver, and even ones which are phones. If you don’t have a laugh here, well I don’t know where you will – I have no more travel tips for you.
Food in Reykjavik, Iceland
Sacha loves a pizza and she loves cheese. When she heard that cream cheese was a popular pizza topping in Iceland we had to find one of the best pizza joints for this. We didn’t delay and raced to Eldsmidjan on our first night in Iceland to get our fix of creamy gooey pizza.
Baejarins Beztu Pylsur
Visited by then President Bill Clinton, chosen as the best hot dog stand by the Guardian, and featured in Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations we had to visit Baejarins Beztu Pylsur when we walked down to Reykjavik’s old harbour. Order “eina með öllu” and you’ll get the works which includes: ketchup, sweet mustard, fried onion, raw onion and remolaði, a mayonnaise-based sauce with sweet relish.
We had heard good things about Icelandic cuisine so decided to splash out for one meal at Grillmarkadurinn which focuses on using local ingredients. We went for their gut busting tasting menu available for a reasonable £58 excluding alcohol. We ate possibly the best bread in the world ever, which was almost cake-like yet still light. Every one of the 8 courses they served us after the bread was delicious and cooked perfectly.
We forced everything down despite getting fuller and fuller by the second. This was one of the few times in my life that I felt drunk from a meal, but I just couldn’t stop eating the delicate yet flavourful food. As plate after plate came the fellow dinners sitting next to us were just as amazed as we were in terms of the amount we were being fed and just how much we managed to consume.
The Bonus supermarket allied with our apartment’s kitchenette was a great way for us to save money and keep to budget. Bonus may not be the cheapest supermarket in the world, but it’s surely cheaper than eating out in Reykjavik for every meal. You won’t be missing out on Icelandic cuisine either as Bonus offers a wide range of Icelandic and European foods.
Iceland is one of the few countries in the world that does not have a McDonald’s but it has Taco Bells in Hafnarfjörður, Reykjavik and now at Grafarholt, Reykjavik. I do wish I made a stop at one of these, it’s been so long Taco Bell.
Before we left Iceland we visited the geothermal spa of the Blue Lagoon. Of course the Blue Lagoon is a tourist attraction but it is deservedly a popular one. The geothermal spa is relaxing and huge, even if it’s busy you can still find your own little spot to relax in. Also available are a sauna, a steam room, a waterfall to massage your shoulders, and even a swim up bar. Leaving Iceland and leaving the Blue Lagoon proved difficult.
If you book online you get a 10€ discount. The Comfort Package (winter prices) is 55€ which includes entrance, mud mask, algae mask, use of towel, and a drink. Alternatively for entrance plus a free mud mask it is 40€, just remember to bring your own towel.
Bonus Iceland Travel Tips and Fun Facts about Iceland
- To see the most outside of Reykjavik we definitely advise renting a 4×4 for a self drive trip over the guided coach tours
- Be flexible, certain activities are very weather dependant e.g. northern lights, dog sledding, and whale watching.
- It was freezing in winter (obviously!) so bring thermals and wear good shoes capable of handling icy paths
- During summer you may experience daylight nearly 24 hours a day, but you’ll only get 4-5 hours of daylight during winter so plan activities accordingly
- Bring your own alcohol from duty free: it will either save you a bunch of money if you plan of drinking and partying in Reykjavik or you could make some money as some hotels will buy any unopened bottles at a premium
- There is a Bónus Stykkishólmi supermarket near the airport, stop there to get provisions
- More than half of Icelandic people believe in the possibility of elves, trolls, and hidden people
- Babies in Iceland are left outside to nap as it is thought to improve their immune systems
- There are no polar bears in Iceland. Every ten years or so a polar bear may arrive as an accidental tourist on an ice flow from Greenland, however they aren’t invited to stay