It's been a few weeks since we've been back from visiting Iceland. I didn't have a chance to share anything other than images the first time around, but FINALLY(!) a post with information on what to do, where to go, etc. to go along with the photos!
We stayed in Reykjavik for a few days. It's pretty small and you definitely get a sense for what's there in that amount of time. Icelanders party on the weekends but do not party on weekdays. This may sound cliché, but everybody was super friendly and happy to speak English. There really is no language barrier whatsoever. Live music everywhere, every night. The city is totally walkable, comfortable and picturesque. No crime, no violence. People don't even lock up their bikes.
Iceland is expensive, and this definitely dictated where we went and what we did. To give you a frame of reference, a pint of "cheap" beer at a bar is about $9US. Having said that, we were able to find a hotel (Hotel Cabin) at $60/night US in Reykjavik with a decent complimentary breakfast buffet, so there are definitely cheaper options if you look for them. The hostels there are also really nice and a lot cheaper than the other accommodations as one might expect. Gas station hot dogs are a delicious staple and are super cheap.
We ate at some fancy places in Reykjavik, but only a couple of times. Some of the travel sites recommend getting a hotel with a kitchenette, or have some means of preparing food on your own so you can buy stuff at supermarkets where it's way cheaper. I guess the main thing to think about is the selection at stores. I know everyone expects to see different "staples" in stores depending on which country you are in, but Iceland had some interesting stuff in more remote areas. One restaurant I would highly recommend is a tiny little pop-owned place by the water called "the Sea Barron" where they have fresh seafood skewers that are perfectly grilled to order, awesome bread, and their specialty which is "lobster soup," so delicious!
Another option is to camp Iceland. You can rent a car, 4x4 or camper (each a little more expensive than the other), and drive around the island. There are a million places to camp, be it campsites, or bunk houses (byo sleeping bag sort of thing) or guesthouses. The only thing that sucks is that there are no campfires allowed anywhere in the country. Camp stoves are the only things allowed. If you go this route, you are only looking at the car rental fee and food. We rented the smallest car they had and it was about $100/day, and with bus tours asking for $50 per person, per attraction for relatively short trips, it was a no-brainer. Plus the freedom of doing what you want is a huge plus, including picking up hitchhikers. Gas station locations can get kind of scarce, so you need to plan accordingly –especially if you go “off road.”
We spent the second half of our trip driving around the perimeter of Iceland on the "Ring Road." It took two full days. If you go to Iceland, you have to do this. The Ring Road at its shortest distance takes about 18 hours to drive not including attractions. (We spent the first night in a super cute hotel called "Hotel Reynihlid" which is located in Lake Myvatn). There are additional fjords and peninsulas you can check out on the drive, but you'd definitely need a better vehicle than the one we had. I've read that at points you'll be driving through small streams & 4x4ing, etc, especially in the Northwest. All of Iceland is like a Martian landscape. Totally amazing. Driving the Ring Road, you will see some new, amazing thing about every 40km. We were totally caught off guard by thousand-foot waterfalls, glaciers, volcanoes, lava fields, icebergs, craters, thermal pools....the list goes on. Another popular tourist route is the "Golden Circle" which consists of the Geyser park, Skogafoss Waterfall and Thingvellir National Park. Easily done in a day and close to Reykjavik.
The western area is called Isafjordur. It's an area that is difficult to get to without 4X4/extra gas tanks, etc. It's super remote and is considered the jumping-off point for wilderness hikes. There are also a bunch of restored 18th century timber buildings. But that whole extension/peninsula is sometimes described as "deserted," so it's definitely for those who want to experience the wilderness and beauty of the Arctic North. But if you go in the shoulder months or summer, the weather isn't too cold. Thorsmork is another secluded wilderness area that is sealed off by glaciers, fjords, steep mountains and a ton of birch trees. Cool little fishing villages in that area.
You have to check out the Blue Lagoon. It's more of a commercial spa than I would prefer, but is still totally worth it. It's a really huge outdoor (albeit somewhat man-made) thermal spa with swim-up champagne bar. We easily spent 4 hours there. When we first arrived, we were greeted with a gigantic double rainbow in the sky, so epic! There are also other natural options but they are a little more rustic as you could imagine. I could go on about additional lists of what I would consider "must see" attractions --tons of waterfalls, some quaint country/farm towns, Skaftafell National Park.
As far as main attractions, I can tell you what I really enjoyed. Blue Lagoon, Golden Circle (Geysir, Gullfoss, Thingvellir), Svartifoss, Dettifoss, Godafoss, Skogafoss (All waterfalls), Skaftafell (Nat. Park), Jokulsarlon (icebergs), Reykjavik is fun, Lake Myvatn (craters and hot springs) is a cool place...Basically all the landscape and little towns around the ring road are highly recommended. Seeing the Arctic Ocean in person is one of the best highlights.
By the way, we used the Bradt Iceland Guide by Andrew Evans.