Renowned for its many stunning natural wonders and surreal landscapes, Iceland is an experience like no other. And in the wintertime, it’s just magic. A true winter wonderland that with leave you in awe of mother nature, and wanting to stay forever.
Widely known as ‘The Land of Fire and Ice’ with its stunning scenery and extreme geological contrasts, – volcanoes, geysers, natural hot springs, and lava fields; there really is just so much to see. Oh, and the Northern Lights too of course, if you’re so lucky to catch these dancing across the sky!
So, to make your trip that little more seamless, and to save you loads of time with research and planning, we’ve prepared a realistic 5-day winter itinerary on a budget (that is similar to ours, though with some added tips and tricks) to help give you the best impressions of this beautiful corner of the world, at this time of year.
Travel safe & enjoy!
It’s no secret that Iceland is expensive. Dining out will be sure to set you back, and the price of fuelling a small car could be mistaken as an SUV elsewhere. However, with a bit of planning, you can enjoy this otherwise expensive, albeit beautiful corner of the world on a budget, and still enjoy all that it offers.
Note: If you can, it’s highly recommended that you hire a car so that you can explore at your own pace and travel deeper, – more so than a tour would permit. After hours spent researching and reviewing, (as well reading many horror stories) we opted for Blue Car Rentals, and they were fab! The cars are priced inclusive of unlimited milage and most mandatory insurance add-ons, as well are fitted with studded tyres for the winter. We hired a Kia Rio, and though the many reviews gave preference to SUV’s (given the time of year), we felt more than safe in our sweet little ride (as well, saved some extra cash!).
It’s also worthwhile noting that the weather can change drastically within moments, so it’s important to be flexible with your plans. In the 6 days that we were there, with just 4-hours of daylight each day, there were 2 instances of dangerously high winds (90km/hr.), whereby weather officials (and our AirBnB host too) advised against venturing outdoors. But hey, board games and hot drinks ain’t so bad.
Some handy websites to bookmark for reference to weather and road conditions are:
www.vedur.is (it even has a Northern Lights radar!)
www.road.is (alerts to road conditions and closures)
Day 1. Keflavik Airport – Selfoss.
Depending on what time you flew in, and if you took a budget airline like we did (from Toronto, CA with Wizz), chances are sleep levels are well below sub par, and it’s 4am on arrival.
Luckily, Keflavik Airport is cozy and well equipped. There are plenty of benches to catch some extra zzz’s (until the car rental opens for the day), an abundance of power ports to charge electronics, as well a grocery-store down stairs to stock up on snacks. On that note, we each bought 3kgs of non-perishable food items with us (permitted), as well a trusty thermos mug for warm drinks on the road, that doubled as a bowl for 2-minute noodles on the run!
The drive from Keflavik to Selfoss is 1.5 hours. The national speed limit is 90 km/hr., so the roads are relatively slow moving. And with snow to contest, it really slows things down. The drive itself is an interesting and stunning landscape that winds between fields and smaller mountains laden with snow. You’ll be ‘wowed’ within minutes by the natural beauty of this place. And even if you did no more than drive from A>B this day, you won’t be disappointed.
By the time we arrived to Selfoss and explored the streets, as well bought our weight in 2-minute noodles (for dinners on the cheap, and other non-nutritious snacks) at Netto (inexpensive Danish grocery chain), the sun was beginning to go down. Given we had spent the previous 48 hours across 3 times zones, we were in for an early night at our lovely accommodation – Bitra Guesthouse.
Dinner (first night spoils) was the most delicious home cooked meal of traditional fish stew at $20.00 AUD each provided by the guesthouse. There were other options to choose from, but this one definitely hit the spot!
Note: The Blue Lagoon is often atop most travelers ‘to do’ lists with it’s endless ‘gram worthy’ opportunities. As well, the beautiful space it offers to relax and recharge. It’s conveniently placed between Keflavik Airport and Reykjavik too. So either, for a warm welcome, or to wind down before boarding the plane home, this should be something to consider.
We’d previously been to geothermal pools in our travels so opted against visiting this one and saved $160 AUD between us. And instead, jumped into nature at the Seljavallalaug hidden pool (en route to Vik) and pretty much had it all to ourselves. It was a little chilly though in the summertime with beers in hand, I’ve no doubt this would be heaven!
Day 2. Enjoy a Slow Morning. Visit Urrioafoss Waterfall & the Kerid Crater, Feed the Icelandic Horses & Channel your Inner Child with a Game (or 5) of ‘Guess Who?’
First things first. Wake up slowly to delicious breakfast spread at Bitra Guesthouse before touring the sights of the Golden Circle.
Given perfect weather conditions, a full loop of the Golden Circle is achievable in a single day. For us, the weather gods presented 90 km/hr. winds, and from the previous evening we were advised to stay indoors until mid-morning.
The Urrioafoss Waterfall is a smaller waterfall that is a ten-minute drive from Bitra Guesthouse, just a right-hand turn off the main southern route (Ring Road toward Vik). Being much smaller than its more renowned counterparts, it’s therefore less touristic. it’s incredibly picturesque and the floods of water are an impressive show. One of which we were lucky to enjoy all to ourselves.
Following the waterfall, the drive to Kerid Crater (back through and past Selfoss) took around 1 hour from the falls, which is precious daylight spent (when you have only 4 hours to manage). The majority of sites are free to enter, however this site cost 400 KR p/person.
The colours of the natural landscape are incredible. Bright aquamarine water within a red clay crater adorned by snow, with the glow of the sun on the horizon. Albeit incredibly windy, it was nothing short of stunning! You can walk around the crater to the highest point for the most impressive views though be willing to be blown about.
On returning to our accommodation in the late afternoon, our host offered that we feed the horses on the property. He gave us several slices of bread and we hiked through the fields to find the pack of Icelandic horses beneath the rise, just where he said they would be. It was a beautiful experience to feed them, making sure they each received their share. As well, watching my boyfriend contemplate the electric fences was added entertainment!
Day 3. Tour the Golden Circle. Faxi Waterfall, Geysir, Gullfoss Falls, Sjelandefoss Falls & Skogarfoss Waterall.
These extraordinary landmarks are more or less the sites of the Golden Circle. And the drive itself, less the attractions is worth doing in itself. The landscapes are incredibly contrasting and picturesque. One moment the land is barren, wide with mountains on the horizon covered in blankets of snow. The next, you’re winding through the hills with volcanoes in site, passing beautifully coloured rivers and streams that are partially frozen, as well trying your hardest to not stop at any opportunity to capture the scenery! Particularly with the sunrise in view.
Tip: As common sense would have it, please do not stop in the middle of the road to take photographs. As tempting as it might be, it’s just dangerous for obvious reasons. You would be surprised to know how many times we did see this happen, despite reading many other blogs that suggested otherwise.
From Bitra Guesthouse, the sites were an hour’s drive away. This was a full day with more than enough time spent at the attractions to enjoy them; arriving to our final destination and accommodation – Skogafoss in the early evening.
Note: If you’re hungry and in need of a snack/warm drink; good news! There is a café/restaurant (with bathrooms) at the Geysir. As well, if you’re feeling generous on the gifting front, or in need of beautiful keepsakes (clothes/accessories), there is also a lovely (moderately priced) retail store (also called Geysir) to tempt you.
Tip: Sjelandefoss Falls has a small carpark fee. Unfortunately, the entry to walk behind the falls was closed due to ice. There is another falls quite close to this one however (5 minutes further drive toward Vik) that is free to enter and supposedly equally impressively. (Unfortunately we weren’t aware until afterwards and didn’t have time to stop and wander).
Day 4. Climb Above Skogafoss Waterall, Explore the Plane Wreck, Absorb the Views of Dyrhólaey, Reynisfjara Beach, Vik Beach and Swim in the Seljavallalaug Hidden Pool.
Phew! This sounds busy just reading the headline. Though with an earlier start, it’s completely possible to enjoy all of the activities without feeling rushed.
Get up early and hike above the Skogarfass Waterfall. There is a marked cattle track at the top of the stairs that walks toward the mountains. (I wish I had known this was there prior to seeing it when we arrived). These falls are amazing and you can get quite close to them, as well become pretty wet from the spray! The rocks are also quite icy – do be careful.
On the way to Vik, stop off at an unmarked gateway on the right-hand side of the road. Be prepared to walk for 45 minutes – 1 hour down this gravelled lane to the plane wreck. (former USA army plane). It’s incredibly windy on the way back, but it’s an interesting sight to see. (yes, the flight crew did survive). We visited prior to 11am and there were few people there. Once we walked back to the car however, (around 12.30pm), the car park was full. So to get those snaps less tourists climbing all over the wreck (as we also read), I’d suggest going earlier as we did.
On returning to your car, and having gained sensation back into your fingers, continue driving toward Vik and stop off at Dyrhólaey. It’s a beautiful arched formation of rock in the ocean and the views are equally impressive. The black sandy beach is quite interesting and watching the local birds circle the sky and land into their cliff-edged nests was incredible to see. The wind that day was next level, so be sure to rug up!
As you continue to drive toward Vik, there is a quaint white church (Reyniskirkja) with a red roof that’s often photographed. You could stop along the way to see this too. We confused this church with another (Myrdalshreppur church) that was closer to Dyrhólaey. But with the small cemetery within its parameters, of which the tomb stones were adorned with Christmas lights, it was quite interesting to see and spend some moments.
For the night’s accommodation you could stay in Vik and explore the town and spend extra time driving further in the morning, or drive back to Selfoss this same afternoon as we did. Again, we stayed at Bitra Guesthouse so we were able to hike a short way into the valley to swim in the beautiful Seljavallalaug Hidden Pool. After the busy day, we tucked into a relaxing evening of board games, warm drinks and two-minute noodles. Occasionally looking out to try and catch the Northern Lights (but unfortunately to no avail).
Day 5. Reykjavik. Explore this Quaint and Colourful City.
After yet another delicious breakfast spread of breads, jams, cheese, fruit, fish, cereal, etc. (whatever you could possibly dream of, – almost), we made our way back to Reykjavik to spend the day and our last evening. It was a Sunday and there was a local second-hand market – Kolaportið (Iceland’s only flea market), whereby you could pickup locally knitted jumpers at a bargain price, vintage clothes, books, bric-a-brac, and food items. Afterward we wandered the town a little and visited the Hallgrimskirkja church to enjoy the views of the city. The ticket to the top of the bell tower was the equivalent of $8.00 AUD each. Perhaps a little expensive for the ten minutes you would spend up there, but the views of the coloured rooftops patched with snow were beautiful to see.
Note: With regards to parking in the city, there are different zones that are different costs per hour. Generally speaking, the further you park away from the CBD, the cheaper the rate. And for a country whereby life is that bit more expensive, parking is incredibly reasonable. Almost the equivalent of $2.00AUD p/hour. That’s cheaper than Melbourne. And, Sunday’s are free!
Feeling a little tired from the drive, as well that the short days completely messed with our sleep patterns, we opted for an early afternoon and retreated to our hostel. It was a little further from the city than expected so we stayed in that evening and used this time to hatch further travel plans.
As well, due to our flight the following day being in the late afternoon (which was then delayed for almost 3 hours due to extreme winds (do be mindful of this) time was on our side to further explore Reykjavik. After a yummy breakfast at Brauð & Co. (a colourful and very affordable) pastry store in the centre of town, we wandered the streets some more and picked up last minute Christmas gifts in the Geysir stores (there are 3! – Man, Woman and Home) and sipped tea in the Kattakaffihúsið cat cafe whilst writing some postcards, before needing to say goodbye to this beautiful place.
For the time of year, limited daylight, as well restricted access to the North, we felt 5 nights was a good amount of time to gain a good first impression of this wondrous country. Of course, with a bigger budget if would have been great to hike the glaciers and explore the ice caves further in the east, but there’s always next time. And for then, longer days and a camper van are most definitely calling!
If you got through this far, well done and thank you for reading. I hope you find this helpful in planning your next escape to a true winter wonderland. As well, that some of the tips provided enable you to allocate funds elsewhere (than otherwise intended) and therefore you’re able to stay a ‘lil longer.
Safe travels. x