For nature lovers & nightlife enthusiasts, summer is a great time to make a south Iceland trip in 8 days. At least that’s how long I went for. Six years ago I was forced to travel +50 hours from Venice to get back to London (where I was studying) because a volcano erupted in Iceland that affected air travel throughout Europe. Ironically, that eruption has accounted for Iceland’s boom in tourism. So what will you learn/do/see/eat for a south Iceland trip in 8 days?
Really Fun Facts about Iceland
- Beer was prohibited until 1989. And then I was born.
- 50% of Icelanders believe in elves
- In Reykjavik, hot water smells. Like rotten eggs. And it’s pretty darn harsh to your hair. I couldn’t get over this.
- You must always be on the lookout for for sheep/ram crossing the street when driving around the country.
- Iceland was owned by Denmark. Their roots come from Vikings, and they are very proud of it.
- High school starts at age 16 (until 20), then you go to college, and most go to get a Master’s degree. The private university costs $3,000 a year.
- Book of Iceland: every resident of Iceland is in this book – a geneology database, a family tree extending very very far back. Everyone in the country is connected to one another 7 generations back. There’s also an app, though no one uses it. In theory, you can use it to see if the person standing next to you at a bar is related to you. It would literally prompt you with a message saying “You are in the vicinity of a relative” – it’s the official incest test joke.
- Last year, 29% of the country’s revenue came from tourism, the most profitable industry. The next most profitable? Fishing, then farming.
- August is the country’s warmest month (40-60 degree weather). Sunset is at about 10pm. Nonetheless, you can experience several seasons in one day, and thus should ALWAYS have a rain jacket. Even if it’s supposed to be sunny all day according to your weather app, bring that rain jacket. Don’t bring an umbrella. It gets so windy that umbrellas don’t even work.
- People: extremely kind once you engage in a conversation. Prior to that, Icelanders come off rude- being polite isn’t in their nature, and the Icelanders we spoke to actually laughed and confirmed this. Pushing and shoving is common. The word “please” does not exist in the language, causing people to be quite blunt. Plus side? Their humor and sarcasm is just as quick-witted as a New Yorker’s. It’s also incredibly endearing that they constantly ask why foreigners come to visit them. They truly don’t get how beautiful their country is.
Places We Saw/Things to Do
1. City Walk Reykjavik: free walking tour given twice a day (give only what you think the guide deserves), very comprehensive, and definitely an amazing way to get a good understanding of the people, economy, and history of the country. We had Martin, who was amazing & very funny.
2. Harpa Concert Hall: get a tour or just walk around this concert hall- the architecture is beautiful. Even better, see a show!
3. Baths: the local Icelandic way to relax is to go to one of the many city pools, which are literally a few dollars and you get to hear locals talk politics or life, and enjoy the pool, hot tubs, and some slides
4. Caving/whale watching tour: get to see some whales on a boat, or go extreme caving under the lava fields. Be prepared to crawl, not for the faint of heart or anyone who even has remote fears of enclosed places. We went through a company called Extreme Iceland– our tour guides were great, so I’d recommend.
Blue Lagoon: stop here on the way from the airport to Reykjavik (20 mins from the airport, and about an hour from Reykjavik). If you stop on the way back, you may be stressed about missing your plane and not fully enjoy it. It’s a man-made spa with water fed by a local geothermal water plant located in a lava field, with water temperature ranging from 99-102° F. It was freezing outside when we went, and it was still awesome. Overrated? Yes. Worth it? Yes. Do eat at the Blue Lagoon restaurant. More about that below.
Golden Circle: probably the most popular day trip (we devoted the entire day, allowing ourselves to make stops and enjoy). Take snacks with you or eat at the cafes there in any of the the three stops:
1. Þingvellir National Park
2. Geysers at Haukadalur
3. Gullfoss Waterfall
Dyrholaey & Black Sand Beach at Vik
Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon
Skatafell Waterfall & Glacier Hike
Seljalandsfoss & HIDDEN Gljúfrabúi – go the path after Seljalandsfoss and end up at one of the most beautiful waterfalls we saw on the whole trip. Most people probably go to just see Seljalandsfoss without realizing there’s a whole other beauty at the end of the road.
Skógafoss & HIDDEN waterfall – same here. Hike up the steps of Skógafoss and keep walking behind it to discover a whole other majestic, stunningly huge waterfall.
Nightlife in Reykjavik
Downtown – all along and down the side streets of Laugavegur (also the main shopping street), bars are open until 1 a.m. on weekdays, 5am on weekends. When we left a bar at 3:30am on a Friday night, each bar on the way home still had a massive line to get in – I had never been so astounded by the energy before. Bar11 is known to stay open just a tad bit longer.
Drinking age is 20, some bars have a 22+ age policy to get in, and drinking on the street is prohibited – none of these seemed highly enforced when I was there. Men are aggressive. Not threatening, just aggressive.
Bars/clubs we went to: The English Pub (awesome, live band every day), The Lebowski Bar (you guessed the theme), and we heard The American Bar is also a lot of fun. If you’re feeling fancy, stop at Austur (a club, and DO dress well – you don’t want to be told you look a little too “artsy” to be there, as someone I know was).
What/Where to Eat
– Blue Lagoon Seafood Restaurant: best catfish ever
– Grillmarkaðurinn (Grill Market): I’m ashamed to admit it, but we tried the mini burgers of salmon, whale & puffin. And all three were outstanding. The food seriously blew me away. We had to do it- it’s Icelandic food and when in Rome…
– Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur (Hot Dog Stand): Bill Clinton said this stand had the best hotdog he ever tried. It really was delicious. I wouldn’t go planning my trip around this or be too upset if you didn’t make it, but if you’re in the city, definitely try.
– Nepalese Kitchen: just go. I never tried Nepalese food, and here I was trying it. DEE-licious.
– Noodle Station: coming from NYC where noodles are-a-plenty, we weren’t impressed. Is it good? Sure, and it’s not a crazy expensive meal. Do I specifically recommend going there? No, I’m sure your money can be better spent.
Tips & Things to Definitely Pack
– Rent a car. You get to go at your own pace and are not limited in making stops. It’s not cheap to do so, but it makes the trip your own. The one big downfall of this is that you won’t learn about the different sites through a guided tour, which I think can be very worth it. The sites all around Iceland have very limited free reading material (surprising and honestly a little disappointing for me).
– DEFINITELY pack: waterproof warm jacket, waterproof hiking boots, water resistant pants
– Snacks for your long hikes (I brought a bag of protein powder, protein bottle, and many protein bars). Lifesaver.
And if you need a general packing list, here’s my one-page travel checklist. Saves me and my friends every time!
Where we Stayed
Airbnbs all the way. Let me know if you need recommendations in the city, in Vik, or by Jökulsárlón. Mostly we did our own apartments, but we also did bed and breakfasts, which was a great way to connect with locals, get recommendations, connect with other travelers, and just a day away from the city.