Planning a trip to Iceland in winter on a budget seemed like an extremely daunting task for my friend Ashley and I. In some instances, we even had to drop certain places/things we wanted to see because they were just too far away or we didn’t have enough loot to cover it. However, we came up with 10 tips that turned our 10 days of exploration into a great success.
10 Tips for Success:
- Eat only 1 meal at a restaurant per day and grocery shop for the rest.
- Use Airbnb to find the cheapest local rooms.
- Ask the locals questions.
- Book your Blue Lagoon tickets at least 1 month in advance.
- Look into having cell service, or a GPS in case you get lost.
- Have a rental car. (Read about our horrible rental car experience here)
- Walk everywhere you can.
- Download or acquire accurate currency conversion tables.
- Plan where you want to spend money, and know that souvenirs are expensive af.
- Take at least 1 trip to explore using tip number 6.
Doesn’t sound too hard right? That’s because it’s totally doable, and I’m here to share all the fun we had doing it!
Where to Start
Ashley and I didn’t have a day-by-day itinerary by any means, but our plane tickets, rental car, and Airbnb in Reykjavik were booked. When we arrived at the airport, we took a short ride on the free shuttle provided to our rental car company (and if you want to read all about our bad rental car experience, click here). Researching where everything was at, we knew that it would be a decent drive into downtown Reykjavik, and made sure to give ourselves about an hour to get there. Once we got to our Airbnb, which was so conveniently located by downtown, we unpacked and tried to plan our days out.
To be quite honest, I didn’t keep a super accurate record of what day we ate at certain places or did things, but I definitely wrote down our favorite spots in Reykjavik as well as all our stops on the two trips we took in the car. With that being said, we woke up pretty early (even though most of the city is closed in the morning) and found only a couple restaurants open for breakfast. My two favorites were Café Loki, which is right across from Hallgrimskirkja, and Café Babaloo, a little further down that same road. The easiest way we found to navigate downtown was to use Hallgrimskirkja (the giant church) as the center point. From there, we could easily orient ourselves, and figure out where we’re trying to go. Even the furthest point away at Whales of Iceland (definitely suggest!) was a decent walk, and I absolutely recommend walking everywhere you can in Reykjavik. This is mainly how we found local bathing pools, restaurants, shops, and even the Fish Spa!
Personally, I’m not a coffee drinker, but Ashley loved getting coffees from various places including the chain-like Te & Kaffi we went to. Other notable downtown restaurants we ate at include The Laundromat Café, Kex Hostel, and Fiskmarkadurinn. Some of the main sights we saw in downtown include the Sun Voyager (by the water), going to the top of Hallgrimskirkja to see the view, Whales of Iceland (which has replicas of every type of whale found around Iceland), the Phallalogical Museum of Iceland (not for anyone squeamish around genitalia), The Fish Spa (to let fish eat the skin off your feet), the National Museum of Iceland (self explanatory), and Safnahusid – Culture House (another museum style place). Obviously we didn’t do all of that in one day, but those are some of the highlights from our downtown exploration. Also note that most of these places have entrance fees, and the museums usually do a 2-for-1 type of deal, so that’s nice.
Most of you are probably wondering about our two car trips, and if you’re not the type of person who enjoys tours or being rushed around to different sites, this is probably the best and most flexible option around. One of the biggest things I wanted to see in Iceland besides some waterfalls (duh), was the DC-3 plane crash remnants. Looking into it, normal tours don’t actually stop there (it includes a 4km hike to get to the actual site), so that was another part of the reason we decided against tours. Important to note: both trips we took started and ended back at our Airbnb in Reykjavik.
0530: Wake up to annoying alarms
0630: Depart the Airbnb via rental car all the way to Vik
* En route we stopped at a small bakery next to a gas station for sustenance*
Stop 1: The DC-3 plane wreck (close to the city of Vik if you’re trying to map it).
Parking out front is plentiful in the morning, and the trail is only marked by a couple of wooden poles and orange cones. It was pretty darn cold, and the whole walk out there was very foggy for us, so just try to plan for the weather. The walk out there is just gravel and flat ground, so easy but feels like an eternity. Most tours do not stop here!
* En route, we stopped at a hill off one of the roads with a troll nook and abandoned barn. Just a great photo op!*
Stop 2: Dryholay Arch
The road up to this site is very steep, narrow, and dirt/gravel. Our compact rental was definitely not a 4×4 and at some points a little sketchy.
Stop 3: Skogafoss
Took our first bathroom break. The waterfall was magnificent with a double rainbow and stairs all the way up to the top (only 400 steps, I counted.). At the top of these stairs is a glacier hike, but is closed in the winter for safety reasons. Back at the bottom, there are two restaurants/convenience centers for both types of budgets (the one that’s just slightly behind the other, and just looks not as fancy, is cheaper) with great food and drinks.
Stop 4: Seljalandsfoss
The best decision we made here was bringing ponchos! There is a trail that leads behind the waterfall and you WILL get wet (except for us in our awesome purple ponchos!). There are 3 separate waterfalls at this location, and one of my biggest regrets was not walking down to the 3rd more secluded one, so I guess I’ll just have to do it on my next trip out there.
Stop 5: Non-existent Selfoss
Using my GPS to find this waterfall, we ended up in the middle of a town at someone’s house. The town is called Selfoss, and the waterfall is in the NE corner of Iceland… whoops.
* Started to get dark around 1730*
Stop 6: Kerid Crater
This is a very straightforward site. There are signs everywhere, lots of seating/benches, and is not at all crowded after sundown. We also walked down the stairs on the left hand side to go all the way to the water at the bottom, which was a very nice view.
1900: Back to the Airbnb in Reykjavik.
0730: Departed Reykjavik
Stop 1: Thinglevir National Park
Absolutely gorgeous views here with some great photo ops.
Stop 2: Gulfoss Waterfall
In the winter, it’s pretty frozen all the way around, and the trail leading closer is shut down for safety reasons. Up the stairs there is a souvenir center with food and drinks as well.
* En route we stopped to say hello to some friendly Icelandic ponies! Make sure you bring some snacks for them or just don’t let them try to eat your hand off like Ashley did. At least there was no shortage in laughter!*
Stop 3: Geysir
There is tons of parking next to the hotel just across the street from the trailhead. Ashley felt the need to put hand warmers in her shoes from how cold it was there and said I should tell all of you. Having our tripods there to video record the eruptions was a huge bonus as the one called Stroker erupts every 7 minutes, but the others are far less often, so we didn’t waste our time.
Stop 4: Fridheimar Greenhouse
This was actually recommended to us by some people we were talking to a day or two prior, and it was one hundred percent worth it! Reservations are required if you want to sit down at a table (which we didn’t know, and therefore didn’t do), but the people there are so nice and let us grab some of the best soup and bread I’ve ever had in my life while walking around the tomatoes they grow right in front of you. We rate it 5 stars.
Stop 5: Laugarvatn Fontana
These geothermal baths were some of the best we experienced during our 10 days in Iceland. We parked out front in the snow, somehow just walked in without paying (it’s supposed to be 4.200ISK, whoops), and was totally enjoyable amidst the hail/snow. Don’t let the weather keep you from going into a bath! I was skeptical at first, but it’s still totally worth it.
Sunset: Arrived back in Reykjavik
Ashley and I had plotted all these stops on our map to make sure we had enough km on the car to use and still see a lot of sites with enough time, but the GPS was the real life saver. Being able to make sure we were on the right path saved a lot of time and made sure we didn’t get turned around. Another big thing we learned was that if you see something and the weather is decent, just do it then and there because when you come back to it, the weather might have completely changed and you may have given up your only chance. This also applies to looking for the Northern Lights! We didn’t do much tracking or researching into it, so we ended up not seeing as much as we had hoped for on our last night in Reykjavik. Make sure you’re tracking it before/during your trip, expect to travel to get a better view, and don’t be disappointed if you don’t see it. Such a fleeting sight!
Keflavik + The Blue Lagoon
Since we only scheduled our Blue Lagoon visit 2 weeks prior, we were BARELY able to get a spot at 1900 the night before our departure. The weather that day was forecast to get so bad that all the roads on our way back to Keflavik were going to be closed, so we determined that we would cancel our last day at the Airbnb in Reykjavik, and schedule another one closer to the airport. Since we got to Keflavik before our scheduled check in time, we decided to look around. We found that it’s not too touristy, and mostly contains fast food or bakeries. At one of these bakeries was our famous rental car disaster (click here for the post about it), but we also stumbled upon the Viking World Museum! We took shelter from the 70mph winds outside, and it turned out to be the most awesome, educative, and interactive museum I have been to. It had a full size ship and a walk through audio story that was all painted and told many stories.
Finally, we checked into our Airbnb and went to the Blue Lagoon. We thought if we arrived a little prior to our actual time, we might be able to get in early, but with the weather that day everyone had arrived later than their time and created a huge line. That was a nightmare. Once we got to the check-in desk, we upgraded our tickets (which was totally worth it), and headed out to the vast pools. There’s tons of space to swim around and relax while looking like a ghost with your facemasks on. Even at night, everything glows and it’s a beautiful sight to see; however I’m curious to know what it would be like in the daytime. Just getting in was a blessing anyways so no complaints from me! After that fantasticness, we slept and headed to the airport in the morning on our way back to sunny San Diego, therefore concluding our trip to Iceland without loot.