Southern Iceland – WOW!
Yes, that was the airline we took for our Southern Iceland adventure and yes that pretty much summed up our experience! Unfortunately, WOW airline no longer exists, but there is a new discount airline called Play.
Finding a cheap airline flight to Iceland makes it easy to pick a great girls' long weekend destination. We arrived in Iceland mid-morning on a Thursday and returned to Detroit late Monday. Read more about our 5-day adventure in Southern Iceland!
Day 1 – Thursday
The airport and rental car experience
The airport in Iceland was a bit confusing. Unfortunately, none of the four of us had read much about what to expect when we arrived. Currency exchange was downstairs, near the passenger pick-up area, as you reach the bottom of the stairs you will hang a left and you will find it tucked around a corner. It’s easy to spot if you stand by the information desk.
The next debacle was the bus to the rental cars. We were able to find the place to stand in line for the bus, okay, but we waited a long time for it. Supposedly, the one bus runs the loop every fifteen minutes. The bus did not have luggage racks, thus everyone just stands on the bus next to their luggage.
Let’s put it this way, it made it nearly impossible to get off the bus once it reached the car rental. It was probably a little worse for us since we were one of the first on the bus and got off at the first rental car stop. There are five stops in all.
Oh my, the rental car facility. After waiting nearly two hours in line, we finally got the keys to the car and were able to hit the road. It is widely known that you need to take photos of rental cars in Iceland. There are many gravel roads, so watch out for rock chips. Fortunately, we did not get charged for any damages to our rental car.
We opted to check out one of the highlights of Southern Iceland – the “Golden Triangle” first since it pretty much ended at the town we rented a house, Selfoss. Selfoss served as a great base point for our entire Icelandic trip since most of the destinations we planned to visit were within a two-hour drive.
Thingvellir National Park
Parking cost 750 ISK (passenger car 5 seats or less – 2018), which is payable inside of the building via credit card. Be sure to know the license plate number of the rental car. There are numerous locations to park, but we choose the visitor center and just walked everywhere from there. Be sure to check out the Thingvellir church (the current church dates back to 1859) and Oxararfoss waterfall.
Also, if time permits you could go snorkeling along the tectonic plate in Silfra. Silfra is often in the top five places to dive (be sure you have the requirements if you want to dive – snorkeling only requires you to be 12 or older and be able to swim). Allow 1-2 hours, or an additional 3 if snorkeling
It is no surprise that Thingvellir is one of the most visited sites in not just Southern Iceland, but all of Iceland. The park is less than 45 minutes from Reykjavik and the site is full of history and geology.
Kerid Crater Lake
This park charged a per person rate of 400 ISK (2018). The Crater is a 55m deep volcanic crater that was formed about 650 years ago! The site is located just off the main road and is very easy to find. Once the fee is paid, you are welcome to walk around the rim of the crater and have the option to walk down to the bottom of the crater. Plan to spend around 30-45 minutes walking around the top.
Before heading out we checked the Aurora forecast at: https://en.vedur.is/weather/forecasts/aurora/ The website lets you check the forecast a few days in advance and we picked the day that looked the best during our visit.
We took recommendations that we had found online and chose to try and view the lights from Thrensli. There is a turnout on the left side of the road just before you reach the town of Thorlakshofn. We had the place to ourselves, which was nice.
We did see some active northern lights, but it was very short-lived, maybe 5 minutes and it was just as we arrived. Unfortunately, I did not get any photos.
Other recommended viewing areas that we found noted were:
Thingvellir –about 10 minutes past the information center there is a hill. The top of the hill provides a great viewing area over the entire park.
Seltjarnares – the area by the lighthouse is supposed to be a nice viewing area. This is the closest place to Reykjavik.
DAY 2 – Friday
We decided to get the mega driving done early in the trip with the drive to the west.
Jokulsarlon & Diamond Beach
What a neat glacial lagoon! Jokulsarlon is a part of the Vatnajokull National Park. What an amazing place to visit! You can see the icebergs detach from the glacier and flow into the sea! There were a lot of seals playing in the water during our visit.
Across the road from the lagoon is Diamond Beach. It is a black sand beach known as Diamond Beach because the icebergs come ashore and glisten in the sun.
Skaftafell and Svartifoss
More waterfalls! The Skaftafell waterfall is gorgeous! The falls are surrounded by basalt columns – very unique. The walk is a little bit strenuous but well worth it (plan to spend about 40-45 minutes to get there)! A parking fee is charged, so check in at the visitor center. You will pass the Svartifoss falls along the way.
Reynisdranger and Reynisfjara – Black Beach
Vik is a decent size town and the home of Reynisdranger and Reynisfjara – Black Beach. Basalt columns and sea stacks are viewable from the black beach. There is ample free parking.
DAY 3 – Saturday
Geysir – Strokkur
This geyser spouts off every 1-4 minutes, reaching heights of up to 40 meters. Notably, Strokkur is more faithful than Old Faithful. Parking is a short walk to the geyser. The gift shop area here is one of the largest we saw during the trip. Plan to arrive early to avoid the bus crowds.
This waterfall provides beautiful views. The waterfall is fed by Iceland’s second biggest glacier, via the White River. The waterfall is a two-stage fall, the first falls are about 32 meters and the canyon fall is about 20 meters. If you are lucky you can see a rainbow over the falls – no such luck for us. Allow 45 minutes to an hour. The restrooms inside of the gift shop are free – the restrooms outside charge.
Gamla Laugin – The Secret Lagoon
Gamla Laugin is the oldest swimming pool in Iceland. The water is warmed between 36-40 degrees Celsius from the hot springs in the area. It was an amazing experience and it was well worth the fee (2800 ISK – 2018). Reservations are recommended.
The water is only 3 feet deep or so and the bottom is a weird rock material. There are pool noodles in a bin that you can borrow. It is nice to float around on the noodles – you could keep your feet off the bottom that way.
The weirdest part was that the lifeguard sat in a shack wearing blue jeans and a heavy coat. I guess if there is an emergency they jump in with that on? Oh, and there was a sign on the lifeguard shack that said no photos (of the lifeguard).
Tip: Forgot your swimsuit or towel? Not a problem, both are available for rent.
You scream, I scream, we all scream for ice cream! Efstidalur is a family farm that has promoted itself as a tourist location. The restaurant and café opened in 2013 and make their products from the milk that is produced on-site.
.We went to the ice cream barn for afternoon treats and ate our ice cream next to the cows! The ice cream is organic and homemade. There was a large variety of flavors available.
This waterfall falls off a volcanic field. The volcanic field here was the greatest lava flow on earth since the Ice Age!
DAY 4 – Sunday
This waterfall is one of the most popular waterfalls in Iceland. The waterfall is super close to the main ring road (Road 1) and you can walk behind it. The trail is not very long, but it is VERY wet and the rocks are slippery. Plan to wear waterproof gear and don’t forget to protect your camera. The mist tends to create camera issues.
There are a lot of tourist buses that stop at the waterfall, so plan to visit early or late in the day to avoid the crowds. The best time to visit is sunset since the falls face the west. There is a parking fee charged (700 ISK – 2018).
Just down the path from Seljalandsfoss, about 5 minutes, is Glufrafoss. Flufrafoss is a waterfall that is partially hidden in a canyon. If you would like to explore the canyon prepare for the possibility of wet feet.
Skogafoss is one of the prettiest falls in Iceland. The parking is free and it is a short walk to the falls.
Keldur is one of very few preserved turf houses in Iceland. The site is located in the Hella area. (We tried super hard to find a good Hella sign, but failed – maybe they get stolen by visitors?) The turf houses were closed during our visit, but we were able to explore the grounds. We were the only visitors at the site. The parking is a little way down the road, but the sheep and cattle will keep you company as you walk to the turf houses. Plan to spend 30 minutes or so exploring.
Have you caught on yet – “foss” means water in Icelandic! This waterfall is rather unique, as it is a double-sided waterfall that joins at the base.
Again this was not a very popular place to visit, there were maybe 3 other cars in the parking area. Just down the stream from the waterfall is Iceland’s second-largest hydroelectric power station.
The area has other waterfalls, but 4-wheel drive is required and unfortunately, we didn’t splurge on that. Plan to spend 30 minutes to an hour.
We did try out some local food – hotdogs with funky toppings! For some reason, hotdogs are very popular in Iceland. Hotdogs were pretty much the only “fast food” that we saw besides gas station food.
DAY 5 – Monday
The Perlan provides great 360-degree views of Reykjavik and surrounding areas. There is ample free parking. We opted not to check out the museum, since time wise we didn’t know if it would work for us, but in hindsight, we wished we would have! You can find information regarding hours and costs here.
There are many exhibits at the Perlan: Virtual Aquarium, Forces of Nature Exhibit, Glacier and Ice Cave Exhibit, and the Latrabjarb Cliff. The exhibits were created to make you get a real feel of being there – the ice cave is over 100 meters long and is -10 degrees Celsius!
It is recommended that you allow 3 hours to visit this interesting museum.
Harpa is a concert hall/conference center that is considered the heart of Reykjavik. The building has an interesting colored glass façade that is inspired by the basalt landscape found in Iceland.
There is underground parking available at the facility for a fee. The fee seemed consistent with other rates in the area. There is some shopping in the building.
Located near the Harpa is the Sun Voyager sculpture. The sculpture is constructed of stainless steel and sits on a circle of granite slabs and was intended to convey the promise of undiscovered territory, a dream of home and progress, and freedom. The sculpture is not meant to represent a Viking ship.
Hallgrimskirkha is a Lutheran parish church in Reykjavik. It is the largest church in Iceland (244 feet tall) and Iceland’s second highest building. The church, which took 41 years to construct, was designed to resemble the trap rocks, mountains, and glaciers of Iceland’s beautiful landscape.
The church serves as an observation tower that, for a fee, allows you to ride the elevator to the top to view the city and the surrounding mountains.
Reykjavik Botanic Garden
The city manages roughly 5000 species of plants in the garden. Granted, during our fall visit there were not a lot of flowers in bloom, but the scenery was beautiful. Bonus: ample free parking and the garden is free to visit.
The garden café has great food reviews but was closed during our visit; however, the building was open and there were some neat plants inside.
The Bridge Between the Continents or Midlina
If you find yourself will some extra time before heading to the airport you may want to visit the Bridge between the Continents or Midlina. The 50-foot-long bridge spans the Eurasian and North American tectonic plates. From the surface, it is a much more obvious rift than what you see at Silfra. If you enjoy geology you will probably enjoy this site.
Final Thoughts: Iceland in 5 Days
Five days in Iceland was enough time to explore the southern portion, but another day would have provided more time to explore Reykjavik. I am looking forward to being able to return again to explore other areas of Iceland. Consider camping to make the most of your adventure – somethings we did were a bit far for a day trip.