An Insanely Useful Iceland Packing List: Summer Edition

By now, I should know how to pack for pretty much anything. After all, I’ve been traveling more or less full-time for the better part of the last two years, from climates as diverse as the tropical beaches of Bali to the arid summer deserts of Morocco to the far Arctic north of Sweden in the middle of winter.

And yet somehow, nothing had me spinning my wheels in confusion than figuring out what to pack for Iceland in summer.

I had packed pretty carefully for a 6-week summer trip that would encompass Eastern Europe (warm but rainy), the Faroe Islands and Iceland (cool, windy, and occasionally stormy), and Portugal (hot AF). But still, the day before I left Kiev for Copenhagen to begin my Iceland and Faroe Islands trip, I found myself tearing through the city’s malls hunting for extra clothing.

Spoiler: my summer Iceland packing list that I originally made sucked. I had to pick up some emergency leggings in Denmark at a premium, right before heading north. And I spent my first two days in Iceland freezing my ass off as a freak wind storm made the normal-seeming temperatures feel like ice cold daggers. Luckily, the weather picked back up and I didn’t succumb to hypothermia in Iceland in the middle of summer.

A moody summer day in Iceland

The Dumbest Mistakes I Made When Packing for Iceland in Summer

Since I screwed up so royally on packing for Icelandic summer, I thought I’d outline a few of the most bone-headed mistakes I made so you don’t do the same.

Underestimating the wind

The enemy in Iceland in summer is not the cold, but the wind. I made one of the worst jokes of my life when I joked to a friend that Iceland should be called Windland, not Iceland. I know, I cringed too. The first two days I spent in Iceland were some of the windiest days I’ve ever experienced.

Not packing a hat

I remember wondering if I should bring my hat with me to Iceland and then apparently deciding against it. Well, I surely regret that on my first days in Iceland which I spent with my flimsy hood of my rain jacket drawn as tightly as I could aroound my head. If there is any wind or cool weather, it will feel even colder because the combination of high humidity and low temperatures can get nasty quickly.

Iceland can be way colder than you might think in summer!

Not bringing enough layers

Despite the wind my first two days in Iceland, I had objectively good weather for the rest of my time. Daytime temperatures in August were pretty stable around 10 °C / 50 °F, with a few days even exceeding that. Mornings and evening were a little chillier but not by much. Still, like I said about the humidity, 50 °F in Iceland feels a lot colder than it will somewhere else. I had packed a nice rain jacket and some long sleeve Ts but I was often cold on top. Meanwhile, had I not packed some last-minute leggings to layer under my jeans on the colder and windier days I would have been quite unhappy. So, even though the weather report in the week before packing may seem warmer than expected, it doesn’t mean that you should suddenly bring a bunch of light clothing. The wind and humidity from being surrounded by ocean will make everything feel much chillier, even in summer.

What to Pack Everything In

Most people who travel to Iceland do a road trip around the country, which is by far one of the best ways to experience Iceland. This is what I did, embarking on a 7-day road trip through Western Iceland. If you are doing a road trip, you’ll want to be sure you have an organized packing system, because you’ll be changing hotels every night or every few nights, and packing and repacking your bag will get annoying.

Meanwhile, I usually swear by having a backpack for travel, but if you are doing a road trip I think having a suitcase isn’t a big deal as you’ll never really have to take your suitcase much further from the parking lot to the hotel. Still, I’ve included my best backpack recommendation below, which is carry-on friendly.

Beautiful basalt columns in Arnarstapi, Iceland
    • Travel Backpack (carry on size or check-in size): Iceland is actually pretty friendly for people with rolling suitcases, because most people end up road tripping through the country. I don’t really like using rolling suitcases so I am team backpack all the way. Since I am a light packer, I end up using my Tortuga Backpack for this 6-week, multi-climate trip.
      • Why do I recommend Tortuga so much? Here’s why: this bag is 45L and has got three main compartments: one for a laptop and other flat objects, one giant rectangular compartment perfect for packing cubes stuffed with clothing, and one smaller compartment with pockets for passports, pens, odds and ends, etc. that I stash all my extras in – plus one small outer zipper pocket for anything you want quick access to. It also has a water bottle holder on the outside as well as buckles so that you can strap something like a yoga mat to the outside. Plus, it’s quite comfortable to wear, with a padded hip belt and comfort-molding shoulder straps complete with a chest strap so that you can distribute weight perfectly across your body in the event that you need to wear your backpack for longer than usual. Check out more specs and details here.
      • Does it pass budget airline requirements?  For WOW Air – it will work as a cabin item (PAID), not a personal item (free). I haven’t flown WOW before. However, on other budget airlines, I’ve never once had to check it in, and I’ve taken probably 50+ Ryanair and Wizzair flights at this point. I just buy priority boarding so that I have a guaranteed spot on board for my bag (plus a second personal item bag), which adds about $5 onto my total flight cost instead of the $20-40 or so that a heavy checked suitcase or backpack would. This adds up massively over time – with a bigger bag, I would have paid $1,000+ extra in baggage fees over the past few years. That’s massive savings.
      • I’ve also seen lots of recommendations for Osprey backpacks, so if I ever needed a larger travel backpack, I’d probably opt for one of those.
    • Packing Cubes: I mentioned above how indispensible quality packing cubes are for travel, especially on road trips where you are often moving from night to night. These useful zipping pouches help organize your luggage, so that you can easily find what you need without getting stressed every time you open your backpack or suitcase. I  use these packing cubes for every trip I take.
    • Laundry bag: In addition to packing cubes, I like having a separate laundry bag to keep my dirty stuff separate. I do like having a cute one like this travel-themed bag from Kikkerland though, because I’m impractical and like cute stuff.
    • Hanging Toiletry Bag:  If you’re moving around a lot you’ll want a way to keep your toiletries organized and tidy. I like to keep my toiletries in a simple hanging toiletry bag. This toiletry organizer has the most insane ability to fit a ton of stuff while keeping it ultra-organized: perfect for the organizationally obsessed packers amongst us. It fits a ton without taking up space – I swear I feel like it manages to compress things. The shape is perfect for travel because it’s flat so it’s easy to squeeze into an outer pocket of your backpack or lay it on top of your clothes in your suitcase.
    • Comfortable daypack : My everyday backpack is this awesome PacSafe Citysafe backpack – it has a lot of awesome security features that make it insanely useful for city travel. While Iceland is insanely safe (as in, people leave their keys in their cars and leave it running in the winter) and you don’t really need these security features, I find them useful for other trips. I still used this bag in Iceland because it’s great at fitting all the things I need for my day (mine can fit my camera and lenses, my drone, a bottle of water, some snacks, and a few other odds and ends).

Most Essential Things to Pack for Summer in Iceland

When packing for Iceland, I actually recommend to overpack rather than underpack. Things in Iceland are so expensive that it’s better to pay for extra baggage than to go shopping once you arrive. I needed to buy a hat in Iceland and the cheapest one I could find was $40 – until I got lucky and stopped in a gas station and found one for around $10. So, better to pack well beforehand and avoid any surprise expenses.

Views in the Westfjords
    • First, travel insurance. While this isn’t something you pack, it is indispensible and should be part of the packing and planning process. Iceland is an unpredictable place: weather can change quickly and dramatically, and I only need to remind you of the Eyjafjallajökull volcanic eruptions in 2010 that caused havoc on air travel for more than 6 days, stranding travelers in Iceland and beyond, to convince you that being protected against flight delays and cancellation is ultra-important. I have been a paying customer of World Nomads for years and recommend them highly for travel in Iceland. The contract is very clear as to what it covers, the prices are affordable, and the deductible is low if you find yourself needing to make a claim.
    • Reusable water bottle: The tap water in Iceland is drinkable everywhere and of the highest quality. If you don’t carry a reusable bottle, you will spend a ton of unnecessary money on bottled water, and you’ll waste a lot of plastic in the process as well. While in the past I’ve carried a water bottle with a filtration system, for traveling in Europe where the tap water is drinkable, I like a simple streamlined metal bottle, like this one from Klean Kanteen. If you want to further reduce your footprint, I recommend bringing along a reusable tote bags as well if you plan on doing any grocery shopping during your Iceland trip.
    • Basic medicine: I like having a few basic medicines on hand because I hate having to deal with pharmacies abroad. I carry Pepto-Bismol tablets for standard stomach troubles as I find it can be difficult to find in some countries. I also carry some sort of painkiller like ibuprofen for headaches and minor pains, and also some sort of motion sickness tablets for boat or long car rides as I am prone to travel sickness. I also suggest bringing some kind of cold medicine as Iceland summer can really wreak havoc on your immune system – I left Iceland with a bad cold.
    • Travel towel: You’ll want a lightweight, packable microfiber travel towel for impromptu hot springs dips!
    • Bathing suit: For aforementioned hot springs dips and the Blue Lagoon – you won’t be doing any ocean swimming in Iceland in summer (unless you’re well and truly crazy)
    • Granola bars and other snacks: Eating out at restaurants in Iceland is extremely expensive, and I was so glad that I brought a ton of granola bars for my trip to minimize my expenses.
    • Waterproof and warm layers: I’ll go into more detail on this in the section below, but make sure you pack for the worst and hope for the best!

What to Wear in Iceland in Summer (Women)

Like I said above, I found it surprisingly hard to pack for Iceland in summer. I felt like I was getting mixed messages: the weather patterns suggested that Iceland would be warmish, but knowing Iceland, I felt like I’d need to dress even warmer than what I would normally wear in those temperatures.

I ended up underpacking for Iceland because I was trying to keep my backpack light and Iceland was but one small (cold) part of an otherwise warm, European summer trip. That was a mistake and as I checked the weather reports for Iceland in Kiev I ended up panicking and needing to buy a bunch of extra clothes as well as new hiking boots for Iceland a few days before my trip.

I ended up needing all of those things (and still could have done with some extra layers) so learn from my mistake and pack extra for Iceland.

This part of the packing list is for women but for men, just bring plenty of layers and a waterproof jacket and waterproof boots and you’ll be good!

You’ll definitely want warm layers if you do a whale watching cruise – I was freezing!
    • 1 rain and windproof jacket: Trust me, if there is one thing you simply can’t forget for Iceland travel, it’s a durable jacket that will keep you warm against wind and dry against rain. I love my Marmot PreCip rain jacket and wore it every single day in Iceland. Just bring a nice sweater or fleece layer underneath as it isn’t exactly super warm on its own
    • 1 warm hat: I love tight-knit beanies in colorful colors or with pom poms for keeping my ears warm and adding a bit of color and cuteness to my photos. I forgot to bring one and had to buy an ugly one in Iceland that I didn’t like much. Here’s a cute choice!
    • 1 pair touch-screen friendly gloves: In case it’s super cold but you still want to be able to touch your phone and use your camera.
    • 3-5 sweaters: Thin but warm is your best bet. Pullover style acrylic or wool sweaters would be ideal. You can wear your chunkiest, coziest sweater on the plane.
    • 3-5 tees: I often layered a thin cotton T-shirt under my pullover so that I could wear the same pullover multiple times before it got funky.
    • 1-2 hoodies or fleeces: Having a hoodie or fleece as an additional layer between your sweater/long-sleeve and your rain jacket or outer layer will come in handy. This simple fleece jacket would be a good addition.
    • 2-3 pair jeans: In summer in Iceland, it’s too cool to want to wear anything but jeans.
    • 2-3 pairs leggings: I needed to layer leggings under my jeans for some of the trip. On some of the other days, I just wore my thicker, more structured “jegging”-like leggings as pants.
    • 1 pair hiking boots: Hiking boots will serve you. well in Iceland: I was glad to have them for hikes, caves, beaches, waterfall walks, etc. They keep your feet nice and toasty and the right pair can look quite cute. I love my Ahnu boots but if you have a pair at home already bring those so you don’t have to break them in. Sneakers could work in a pinch but I much prefer boots for the added warmth and ankle stability (volcanic gravel is not the most steady surface).
    • 1 pair sneakers: For days when you spend a lot of time on your feet, but aren’t necessarily traversing difficult ground, these will do the trick. I usually wear a pair of black Nikes which are good for warmer days.
    • 1 pair flip flops or sandals: If you are staying in a hostel or hotel and just want something quick to put on your feet, I find it helpful to have slip-on sandals even if the weather is too cold to put them on. I’m obsessed with my Birkenstocks but rubber flip flops will do, especially if you are staying in a hostel and need to use communal showers.
    • 1 thin down jacket: Nights can get cold so a small packable down like the UNIQLO ultra-light down (cheaper knockoff available here) would be a great but tiny addition to your Iceland summer packing list.
    • 1-2 bras: I trust you’re all big girls and you know what you need when it comes to bras!
    • 1 pair of underwear for each day of travel: Bring one for every day you’ll be on the road
    • Bathing suit: Visiting a hot spring in Iceland is a must, so don’t forget a cute bathing suit!

What to Pack for Staying in Hostels in Iceland

If you plan to stay in a hostel in Iceland, there are a few extra things you should be sure you have on your Iceland packing list.

Historic Isafjordur, Iceland
 
    • 1 pair flip flops: Athlete’s foot is not an urban legend and it’s miserable to get rid of. I’ve had ringworm before (which is basically athlete’s foot on any part of your body that’s not your foot – I got it by touching a street cat) and I can readily confirm that it is absolutely miserable to get rid of. Save yourself the trouble, trust me. Buy a pair of cheap waterproof rubber flip flops if you don’t already have a pair. /end PSA
    • 1 travel towelYou’ll want to bring this anyway for hot springs in Iceland, but be doubly sure to have one if you are staying in a hostel as many hostels do not provide towels and will charge you extra to rent one!
    • 1 eye maskGreat for inconsiderate bunk mates AND that pesky midnight sun!
    • Some earplugs or good noise-canceling headphones: I bring Hearos ear plugs when I stay in hostels, but if you like to listen to music while you sleep, I recommend some noise-canceling headphones.
    • Combination locks: In ultra-safe Iceland, you’re probably at the greatest risk of theft from your fellow travelers. Prevent crimes of opportunity with simple measures like having a combination lock and keeping your valuables locked away. When I stay in hostels, I always check hostels on Hostelworld to ensure they have lockers available because I travel with so many valuable electronic that it’d be idiotic to leave them unlocked.

What Toiletries to Pack for Iceland

You should bring pretty much everything you need so you can avoid high Icelandic prices. Here’s a quick cheat sheet, but bring whatever you would for your normal trip but pay extra close attention that you have facial sunscreen and a moisturizer, my two biggest travel essentials for Iceland in summer.

You’ll want to bring a travel towel for visiting Icelandic hot springs!
    • Sunscreen: My skin is really sensitive on my face, so I use this fancy Japanese sunscreen to prevent acne on my face. Don’t forget this – I actually got a really bad sunburn in Iceland one day because the sun is at its closest to the earth in the far north in summer.
    • Moisturizer: The wind and the sun did a number on my skin in Iceland and I felt like my skin was always insanely dry there. Do your skin a favor and pack something ultra-moisturizing for your time in Iceland. I love a moisturizer with SPF for day like this one from Aveeno and then I use a thicker moisturizer like this Olay night cream for replenishing moisture over night.
    • Hand sanitizer: In case of a lack of soap in gas stations or restaurant bathrooms, I like having hand sanitizer just in case.
    • Kleenex packets: In case of a surprise cold or lack of toilet paper in public restrooms.
    • LUSH solid shampoo: Life-changing. Just trust me. Buy online or in store from LUSH and you’ll save serious money over Amazon, but you can also source it on Amazon for convenience. My favorite is the Seanik seaweed shampoo – it makes my hair gorgeous and it also doesn’t take up any space in my liquid toiletry allowance.
    • Face wipesGreat for nights when you’re too exhausted to take your make-up off properly or for a quick face clean up  after a  dusty hike.
    • Menstrual cup or your favorite tampon/pad brand (if applicable): If you have a specific brand allegiance, you may not find it in Iceland. I switched to a Diva Cup for travel and love it!
    • Deodorant: I can’t rant enough about how much European deodorant sucks, plus I absolutely hate the smell of the aerosol deodorants that are so popular in Europe. Do yourself, everyone around you, and the planet a favor and buy some decent deodorant from home. I love Secret Clinical Strength and stash up on it every time I’m home in the US, but then again, I am sweatier than most people are.
    • Travel-sized liquid toiletries: If you want to bring your favorite toiletries from home, I recommend these awesome reusable silicone GoToobs.
    • Razor
    • Lip balm with SPF

What Electronics to Pack for Iceland

Obviously, you’re going to want to bring plenty of photography gear! I highly recommend having a professional-grade camera as opposed to your smartphone if you are serious about getting the best photos. A tripod and some ND filters will also come in handy if you want to step up your photography and get good waterfall photos, high quality selfies, and sunset/sunrise shots.

Of course, what you will want to bring on your trip will depend on how seriously you take photography and how much you want to “unplug” on your trip. As a travel blogger, I bring my entire life with me on the road, which includes a laptop, camera, multiple lenses, smartphone, GoPro, and more.

For pretty streaky water photos, you should bring a tripod + ND filters!
  • Laptop, if necessary: I bring my 13″ MacBook Air everywhere but other people may prefer a tablet or an inexpensive netbook. I work on the road so a user-friendly, lightweight laptop is a must for me.
  • Kindle PaperwhiteI love having a Kindle for travel but if you don’t think you’ll be doing much reading on your Iecland trip or your flight over than you can give this a pass. You might want to load it up with some books about Iceland to get you excited on the plane over!
  • Travel camera: I use a Sony A6000 because it’s lightweight for a professional caliber camera, inexpensive, and a HUGE step up from a smartphone.
  • Extra camera batteries: Trust me, you’ll use plenty of battery taking photos in Iceland!
  • Portable hard drive: You’ll want to back up your photos to keep your memory cards uncluttered and protect your precious photos. After my previous hard drive failed even though I never damaged it (never rely on WD My Passport) I am extra paranoid with my hard drives. I recommend Transcend hard drives instead – they are drop resistant and super sturdy.
  • Travel tripod: If you are serious about your photography you should invest in a sturdier tripod as wind in Iceland is no joke. There were several days I didn’t use my tripod because it didn’t feel steady enough in the gusts. I have a cheap tripod from Amazon but a sturdy tripod with a hook so that you can use that to hang your camera bag on and balance the camera would be your friend on windy days.
  • ND filters: The size of ND filter you will need depends on the size of the lens you’ll be using so check it before buying. I use these ND filters.
  • GoPro or similar camera for video: If you plan on doing anything adventurous like snorkeling in Silfra or if you want video of your trip then I recommend bringing something like a GoPro
  • Portable charger: You’ll use your phone battery more than you thought in Iceland – whether it’s using it to take photos or videos, or to navigate as you drive around the country. Bring a portable charger to save yourself many headaches! Anker is a reliable brand and what I personally use – make sure you get one that can hold several charges at once so you don’t have to charge it every single night.
  • Adaptor, if necessary: Iceland uses the standard EU adaptor so purchase an adaptor beforehand if necessary.

***

While this sounds like a lot, I was able to fit it everything on this summer Iceland packing list into my 44L backpack and my daypack  – mostly because of packing cubes, picking multi-purpose clothing, and wearing my heaviest layer on the plane!

Is there anything I’ve forgotten? Is there anything else you’re wondering if you should bring? Let me know in the comments!

Iceland Off the Beaten Path: 19 Unusual Places to Visit In Iceland

It’s no secret that Iceland has some issues with overtourism. The beautiful Nordic island was mobbed by nearly 2.2 million people in 2017, and tourism has increased by a factor of 5 over the last decade. Tourism in Iceland doesn’t seem to be likely to decrease, either, with WOW air looking to increase its transatlantic presence and offering flights so cheap they nearly seem economically impossible.

When I recently spent a week in Iceland, I admit I was a little nervous to come – afraid I was contributing to their massive overtourism with my mere presence. As I spent 8 days road-tripping through some of the lesser-known parts of Iceland, covering the Westfjords extensively, I was surprised to find that Iceland isn’t as crowded as it appears by the numbers.

The real problem is that many tourists in Iceland never stray off the beaten track of tourist musts.

They go to the same 5 or 10 places: the plane wreck on the black sand beach, Skogafoss, the glacier lagoon, and repeat. People begin to think this is the only way to experience Iceland.

And while Iceland’s top 10 sights are certainly gorgeous, unless you are waking up at the very crack of dawn you are likely to share them with at least a few hundred other people.

Planning an Iceland road trip? Bookmark this page with this handy mobile-responsive map for your trip.

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However, what I quickly discovered when traveling Iceland’s west is that tourism is hyper-concentrated in a few places, namely all along Iceland’s South Coast. But there are several smaller towns, lesser-known waterfalls, and other Iceland hidden gems that are also well-worth exploring. They may take a little more effort or time to get to, but the rare feeling of having a place in Iceland all to yourself is worth it, no?

I can only cover so much ground, so I asked travel bloggers who have visited Iceland to recommend their favorite off the beaten track and unusual places to visit in Iceland. Check them out below!

Landeyjahöfn

Contributed by Julianna of The Discoveries Of

When people think of a black sand beach in Iceland, they tend to think of Vik or Diamond Beach – but Iceland actually has a number of black sand beaches to explore. My favorite was the one at Landeyjahöfn.

Extending for several miles from the Landeyjahöfn port, the beach is like something out of another world. A seemingly endless view of black sand, battered by powerful waves – the contrast between the seafoam and the sand is pretty incredible.

Landeyjahöfn stands across from the Vestmannaeyjar Islands. In the day I visited, they hovered on the horizon in a cloud of mist, which only added to the appeal.

Sea birds, seals – if you keep your eyes open, there are enough wildlife spotting opportunities at Landeyjahöfn to make it worth the trip alone.

Landeyjahöfn is pretty under-the-radar, and if you visit, the chances are that you will have it to yourself. But this solitude comes at a price… it’s a bit of an adventure to get there – bumping over small sand dunes and into puddles of water in a super-jeep. The journey was half of the thrill.

As a much tamer alternative, you can park up at the port and walk down onto the beach from there. But where’s the fun in that?

Hraunfossar

Contributed by Natasha and Cameron of The World Pursuit

One of my favorite waterfalls in Iceland is far off the beaten path and less heard about than many others. It’s not the beautiful Skogafoss or Dettifoss though. Located near the small town of Husafell is a beautiful series of cascading waterfalls called Hraunfossar.

Hraunfossar translates to “Lava Waterfalls.” Hraunfossar is a combination of creeks and large and small cascades streaming out of lava over a full distance of 900 meters. Cascading waterfalls flow over the Hallmundarhraun lava field and finally pour into the river Hvíta below. The spectacle is peaceful and quiet and reminds me of the famous Plitvice lakes in Croatia. The became my favorite waterfalls in Iceland because they were so different and unique.

If you can I would highly recommend traveling to Iceland in the fall season so you can see the falls surrounded by yellow, orange, and red trees. The autumn sight is simply stunning!

After checking out Hraunfossar make your way to Husafell. The surrounding area is great for hiking around. There is also a fantastic pool at Hotel Husafell nearby.

Fjaðrárgljúfur Canyon

Canyon in Iceland - off the beaten path

Contributed by Sam and Natalia of Something Of Freedom

It’s perhaps surprising that Fjaðrárgljúfur canyon isn’t found more commonly on people’s Iceland itineraries. The canyon is home to some of the country’s most spectacular and dramatic landscape, which promises to stay etched in the memory of those who do choose to visit.

Formed over 9,000 years ago, the Fjaðrárgljúfur canyon meanders for around 2 kilometers reaching a depth of 100 meters. Carved out by glacial waters, the steep canyon walls are covered with a distinctive moss, which only adds to the beauty of the landscape.

A trail runs along the top of the canyon, with multiple magnificent viewpoints along the way, allowing you to stop and truly appreciate this natural wonder. At the end of the trail, a viewing platform offers even more brilliant views and the chance to see the waterfall, which feeds into the Fjaðrá river below. If you want to walk within the canyon itself, you’ll have to wade through the river – although thankfully the water levels are generally quite low!

The canyon is just over 3 hours away from Reykjavik by car, and is far less busy than tourist hotspots like Gulfoss and the Blue Lagoon. That doesn’t mean it’s not worth a visit though, as the impressive landscape make it one of the must see places in Iceland.

Aldeyjarfoss

Contributed by Laurence of Finding the Universe

Whilst Iceland’s ring road has many attractions that are easy to visit without much of a diversion, there are a few stops that warrant getting a bit into the backcountry.

We’d suggest that one of these stops that is worth the detour is Aldeyjarfoss, found in northern Iceland in the Lake Myvatn area. Aldeyjarfoss is an impressive waterfall which requires around an hours drive each way along dirt roads.

The reward if you make the effort is a waterfall with far fewer visitors than many of the others in Iceland, with a fast flowing rush of water squeezing between multi-colored basalt pillars into a large pool of water. The hard basalt restricts the water into a relatively narrow jet, making it a very impressive and quite unique sight to see.

The surrounding landscape is also impressive, as the river carves its way through the rock and flows out to the distance.

Access to Aldeyjarfoss is via a dirt track that is in relatively good condition, but access in winter in particular can be more challenging. You don’t specifically need a high clearance 4×4 vehicle to come out here, but you might find it to be more comfortable a journey if you do.

Westman Islands

Westman Islands - Iceland off the beaten path

Contributed by Wanderlust Crew

Several miles off the south coast of Iceland lies the Westman Islands, or Vestmannaeyjar in Icelandic. The most inhabited island, Heimaey is home to the now dormant Eldfel Volcano, which famously erupted in 1973, causing all of the inhabitants to quickly evacuate the island and resulted in the loss of many homes and the expansion of the island as well as a downsizing of the harbor, which was the lifeblood of the fishing community.

The Westman Islands are now home to several hundred inhabitants with a unique way of life. The islands are easily accessible by a ferry from the south coast of Iceland that leaves several times a day during good weather.

On Heimaey Island visitors can hike the dormant volcano Eldfel, take boat trips around the island, visit puffin colonies, play a round at the golf course, eat fresh fish at one of the local restaurants, and play at the playground in the shadow of a volcano.

Don’t miss the Eldheimar Museum where you’ll learn about the Eldfel eruption and its lasting effects on the community. The museum is literally built around an excavated house that was buried by the eruption where you can see artifacts from every day life preserved just as they were left in 1973.

Reyðarfjörður

Contributed by Christine of Christine Abroad

Reyðarfjörður is a beautiful small village in East Iceland. It’s not the typical tourist place, but if you’re driving around the ring road, I highly recommend it as a stop along the way.

The beauty of the mountains with reflections, the small fishing boats and the fact that you feel like in the middle of nowhere. We were there for 2 hours, and in that time, we barely saw a person. The total population of this little town is about 1000.

You can also go hiking here and walk up the mountains for some spectacular views. Make sure to bring good shoes though as the walk up is quite steep, and there are no real trails.

In Reyðarfjörður you get the chance to see a real and untouched side of the Icelandic beauty and tranquility. This is definitely one of the best places to visit in East Iceland if you want to get away from crowds and experience something unique outside of the ordinary Iceland itinerary.

Nearby, you can also visit 2 quaint villages called Fáskrúðsfjörður and Eskifjörður. These are also worth a visit and make an interesting stop if you want to experience the authentic daily life of East Icelanders.”

Krossneslaug

Contributed by Inma of A World To Travel

This open-air geothermal pool by Strandir in the Westfjords is far enough from the main ring road to be uncrowded. Yet, for anyone exploring this peninsula, it should be a mandatory stop. With 38ºC water, a nearby 42ºC jacuzzi and shower facilities, the turquoise paint of the pool surely balances the dark blue of the sea in front of it, near the Arctic circle.

I visited it while doing my EVS (European Volunteer Service) in Djupavik, a tiny village less than one hour away by car along with other volunteers. There was no one else there at the time, so we dropped a few coins in the donation box before jumping in.

It would have been great to watch the sunset from there but as it was June that would only happen around 1 am, so we left knowing that next time in Iceland, this gem would be again on our Iceland road trip itinerary. And as if we needed more reasons, soon after our micro adventure, we were told that sometimes it is possible to spot whales swimming in the ocean from Krossnes pool. I mean, what else do you need to make it happen?

Arnarstapi

Arnarstapi - Iceland off the beaten track

Contributed by Sonja of Migrating Miss

Arnarstapi is a small village located on the southern side of the Snæfellsnes Peninsula. It was once a busy port and commercial area but is now more popular with tourists and Icelandic people who own second homes here. 

Many travelers pass through Arnarstapi on their explorations of the area, but it is worth a stop and is a great place to stay to explore the area for longer. There are plenty of attractions on the Snæfellsnes Peninsula like Kirkjufell, the Gerðuberg cliffs, Lóndrangar basalt cliffs, Vatnshellir Cave, the black sand beaches of Djúpalónssandur and Dritvík just to name a few! 

In Arnarstapi itself you can walk along to Hellnar village across the Hellnahraun lava field. If you’re brave, there’s also Gatklettur, or Arch Rock, a natural rock bridge you can walk across, although there are no rails! There’s also a quaint Icelandic Church and a rock formation that is said to represent Bárður Snæfellsás, a half troll, half man who is the protector of the peninsula. 

The town is also overlooked by Mt. Stapafell and the Snæfellsjökull glacier which are covered in snow during the winter time in Iceland. It is also a fantastic place for keeping an eye out for the Northern Lights that appear across the skies in the darker and colder months. Another reason to stop and stay in Arnarstapi!

Stykkishólmur

Contributed by Veronika of Travel Geekery

The cute town of Stykkishólmur is located on the Snaefellsness Peninsula in the West of Iceland. It’s an area just a few people venture out to, and thus it’s still void of crowds. Stykkishólmur is the most populous spot on the Peninsula and there’s more than a 1,000 inhabitants living there. When you visit, though, it won’t feel that way.

Stykkishólmur is known to travelers as a few scenes from the movie ‘The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” were filmed here. Some people just drive through, take a photo by the harbor and continue their way. I’d urge you, though, to stop at least for a few hours. Apart from walking around and admiring the typical Icelandic architecture, you can observe fishermen in the harbor or indulge in tasting some of local delicacies.

We visited a restaurant called Sjávarpakkhúsið located right by the harbor. The meals we had – fresh catch and veggie pasta, were delicious! My husband flushed them with the local ale and we went on with our journey.

It might not be apparent at first sight, but Stykkishólmur is a rare example of how a town can be 100% environmentally friendly. Not only do they sort the waste impeccably, they use the hot water from the ground for heating and then inject it back into the ground. The ecological approach has earned Stykkishólmur an environmentally conscious award every year since 2008.

Reykjadalur Valley

Contributed by Elisa from World in Paris

Reykjadalur Valley is a beautiful area located in the vicinity of Hveragerði town, in Southwest Iceland. This is a highly active geothermal area not far from the famous Geyser, and it is known for its lava fields and natural steaming vents. In Reykjadalur Valley there is a hot river where people can bathe in.

This unusual place is a very popular attraction among locals and tourists and we definitely recommend to have a look (and of course take a dip) if you are around. To reach the hot river there is a 3 km hike (one way) up to the valley. This is a beautiful and easy hike where you can see mud holes, hot springs, and a little waterfall.

It is also possible to reach the river by horse, as there is a place to rent the typical Icelandic horses not far from there. We decided to do the hike, starting at the car park in front of the restaurant called Dalakaffi.

Because this is an easy hike, and not really steep, there is no special equipment to take apart from the swimsuit and a light towel, of course! However, a pair of sturdy hiking shoes and a waterproof jacket are always a good idea, especially if it starts to rain. The river is long enough for everybody but we recommend going early in the morning to avoid the crowds.

Glaumbaer

Contributed by Emily of Kids and Compass

Glaumbaer Turf Farmhouse is a small open-air museum.  You’ll find it just off the ring road in the north of Iceland, near the town of Varmahlid.  The main turf farmhouse is a great example of traditional Icelandic life.  In addition to the large farmhouse, there are two other historical wooden houses on site at Glaumbaer, although they’ve both been moved from their original locations.

Glaumbaer is a historical site: it’s thought that there’s been a farmhouse here ever since Iceland was first settled, although the main turf farmhouse that you see today dates from the mid 18th century.  As you walk around the outside of the farm buildings you can easily see the herringbone pattern of the turf bricks – it’s surprisingly effective way to waterproof a home if built properly.  It’s definitely one of the finest and prettiest examples of turf buildings you’ll find in Iceland.

Inside the farmhouse, you can see how the farmers and their families would have lived.  The corridors are dark and gloomy but several of the rooms are lined with wood and brightly painted. Others, such as the storerooms, have bare earth walls and floors.  The rooms are filled with objects, tools, kitchen utensils and the like to give you the impression the farmhouse is still lived in.

Outside, make sure you find the statue of Gudridur Thorbjarnardottir whose son farmed on the Glaumbaer site – they were among the first westerners to visit the Americas and return to Iceland.  Their lives are recorded in some of Iceland’s Sagas.

Glaumbaer is open every day from May to September, during the week in April and October and by request only from November to March.

Arctic Henge

Contributed by Jess of How Dare She

Iceland’s Arctic Henge (Heimskautsgerðið) is one of the most remote and northernmost spots in the country. Raufarhöfn is a small village on a peninsula at the top of the island and Arctic Henge lies right on the coast. The roads to access it are quite nice, but if you’re going to Iceland in the winter, be sure to check conditions as it can be a very tough drive, located about 130km from the nearest larger village.

While it may look ancient and reminiscent of other pagan monuments, like Stonehenge, it’s actually modern. Construction started in 1996 and isn’t completed yet, but it’s still worth checking out. It is designed, like other henges and stone circles, as a large sundial. By using the chosen location, there is nothing blocking the horizon in any direction, meaning nothing blocking the light from a rising or setting sun, any time of year.

Arctic Henge is about 50 meters in diameter and consists of two main rings. In the outer ring, there are four, 6-meter-tall gates, facing each cardinal direction. The inner ring has a 10-meter-tall column, with four pillars. The column will eventually be topped with a prism to reflect light throughout the structure. In addition to the goal of attracting tourists, it is also designed to serve Iceland’s modern pagan population, approximately 1% of the population.

Hellulaug

Contributed by Patrick of Adventographer

Nestled deep in the often overlooked, yet spectacular, Westfjords are some of Iceland’s least trafficked but most beautiful places. Along this rugged, off the beaten track section of coastline you’ll find countless small towns full of Icelandic charm. Taking in that charm and talking with the locals provides a great insight into the history of the area and if you’re lucky they might just share with you the location of one of their favorite Icelandic hot springs.

That’s exactly how we found the stunning, seaside hotpot, Hellulaug. Tucked into a cliff, trapped between the road and sea, in a remote fjord, this naturally fed hot spring was a welcome reprieve from the road. With no amenities (aside from a short stone wall to change behind) this truly feels like the Iceland we all want to experience.

Dipping in the comfortably hot 40° water and listening to the waves crash just feet away it’s easy to get lost in your thoughts. If you keep your eyes open when you’re done and moving on you’ll find more than a few more amazing hot springs in the area!

Landbrotalaug

Contributed by Danni of Livein10countries
Although the Blue Lagoon is fun, I’d definitely recommend that anyone keen to explore Iceland off the beaten path to try the country’s free hot pools as well. It’s a glorious experience, and part of the culture!
Landbrotalaug is special because it’s only an hour to an hour and a half from Reykjavik. Admittedly, that doesn’t mean it’s easy to find, so take a look at my guide to this hot pool in West Iceland  for detailed directions, especially as there’s quite a walk from where you can park.

This thermal spot has pools at varying temperatures since only one end is fed by the hot springs, so you can position yourself to feel like you’re in a delicious bath or in cool waters – depending on what you like.

It even has natural places to sit, thanks to ridges formed in the volcanic rocks around it. Handy!

Unlike your average spa sesh, however, this trip will require some prep. You might not have signal, so download Google Maps offline. The route to the pool is marshy, so bring wellies (or rubber boots, as the rest of the world calls them) and an anorak, You’ll be toasty in the pool but it’s cold when you get out, so take some warmish dry clothes to change into – and a towel of course!

Dimmuborgir


Contributed by Constance of The Adventures of Panda Bear

Dimmuborgir is not only unusual, but also one of the most unique landscapes to visit in Iceland. Its eerie and haunting landscape is one in a million. The area is located in northern Iceland, at the eastern end of Lake Myvatn. It is one of the most unusual places, not only in terms of looks, but also due to its Icelandic folklore and its creation.

The name Dimmuborgir translates to “dark castles” in English and is a great description for the unusually shaped lava field formations. The area consists of varying shapes of lava rocks as well as volcanic caves.

Its ominous appearance lends itself to lots of folklore from traditional Icelandic to the Christian. Prior to Christianity, there were legends of mischievous Icelandic trolls called The Yule Lads terrorizing Icelanders. These stories were probably told to keep children from leaving the home during cold, dark Icelandic winter nights.

After Christianity was brought to the country, new folktales were told. Many came to believe that Dimmuborgir was where Satan landed when he was exiled from heaven and the area became the gates to Hell.

Dimmuborgir’s landscape was formed when lava flowed over a lake, boiling the water underneath. The steam from the hot water pushed up the lava forming the large lava pillars. As the lava continued to flow, the crust collapsed, forming the hollowed-out pillars you see today.

There are several hiking trails that take visitors around Dimmuborgir some can take as little as 30 minutes, others can take hours to wind around the tall pillars of lava. Don’t forget to explore some of the caves!

Lóndrangar Cliffs

Contributed by Nina of Where in the World is Nina?

As if every corner of Iceland isn’t beautiful, here’s another one that makes your mouth gape… Lóndrangar Cliffs are certainly a sight to behold but they are very easily missed if you don’t purposefully visit them.

Located on the Snæfellsnes Peninsula, most people drive by without a second glance. They are certainly worth the stopover though. As you get closer and closer to the cliffs you can feel and hear the waves crashing against its fragile volcanic rock and then you see its bizarre peaks that define the cliffs and make you wonder if you stepped onto another planet.

These cliffs were one of my favorite spots in Iceland and I spent a good few hours pondering thoughts as the wind chapped my lips and the mist from the waves blew on my face, luckily I packed well for Iceland and my jacket prevented me from getting wet. The cliffs are a stunning sight but after all, this is Iceland, and quite literally the entire island is breathtaking.

Hafnarfjörður

Contributed by Shobha of Just Go Places

Traditional Icelandic folklore says that there are hidden people (huldufolk) living in the country alongside everyday Icelanders. These hidden people engage in traditional work like farming and fishing. Most people in Iceland may no longer believe in these hidden folk but they are happy to take a you-never-know approach.

One of the hot spots in Iceland for these magical people is the town of Hafnarfjörður which is about a 10 minute drive from Reyjkavik.  In this fishing town, there is an Elf Garden in a local park, Hellisgerdi Park, which is supposed to be inhabited by the hidden people. The park also has a center for learning about Iceland’s hidden people which serves Elf Tea! There are guided tours twice a week from the Hafnarfjörður tourist office which explains about the Icelandic folklore traditions of magical creatures while also visiting the Elf Garden

When we went to the Elf Garden, we did not see any elves much to my children’s disappointment. The park itself felt magical with woodlands, waterfalls and mossy steps. There were a lot of hidden nooks and crannies for my kids to explore and use their imagination. A beautiful place without many people, it’s hard to believe that we were only a short walk from the town centre of Hafnarfjörður because it really did feel a world away.

If you haven’t had your fill of elves and hidden people in Hafnarfjörður, there’s also an Elf School in the capital of Reyjkavik. We missed out on Elf School because my kids weren’t going anywhere near anything with the word ‘school’ in it – not even to learn about magical people!

Rauðasandur

Contributed by Greta of Greta’s Travels

If you’re looking for a truly unique place in Iceland you need to visit Rauðasandur, the Red Sand Beach. Beaches in Iceland are characterized by black sand due to high volcanic activity, however, Rauðasandur distinguishes itself from its neighbors, thanks to its red sand. The Red Sand Beach is 10km long and surrounded by the cliffs of the Westfjords, which make for a very pretty backdrop as you walk along the beach. There are parking lots and camping grounds on both ends of the beach so you can access the beach from either end.

Rauðasandur is in the Westfjords, Iceland’s most rural region also known as Iceland’s “best-kept secret”. Most of the roads in this part of Iceland aren’t paved, and the one that leads to the Red Sand Beach is one of them. It’s an extremely winding gravel road that some people have labeled as the most frightening road in the Westfjords. I can’t comment from a drivers point of view since I don’t drive, however from a passenger point of view it’s not scary at all, in fact, it’s pretty spectacular. At every turn of the winding road, you get a view of Rauðasandur from a different perspective.

Rauðasandur is also a popular location where seals come to bask in the sun, if you’re lucky enough you might spot them chilling on the beach! Couple your trip to Rauðasandur with other natural wonders in the Westfjords and you’ll have an epic off the beaten track itinerary!

Heydalur

Contributed by me

Located 12 kilometers off any main road, Heydalur is not a place to “stumble upon” – but it is a true Iceland hidden gem. To call Heydalur a village is to be generous – really, it’s a cluster of a few small farms, centered around one main guesthouse and restaurant, Heydalur Guesthouse.

This is your hub for all things in the area, including hiking in the beautiful nearby fjords, relaxing in one of the geothermal hot pots, swimming laps in their heated greenhouse pool, going horseback riding on beautiful Icelandic horses, or sea kayaking with arctic seals and puffins if you’re lucky.

I loved my day at Heydalur and it was the highlight of my Westfjords trip for sure.

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An Epic Week in Iceland’s West: An Itinerary for 7 Days in Iceland

Iceland tops many people’s bucket lists, and with good reason. This country has natural beauty nearly everywhere you look, and the variety of landscapes you’ll see on a trip to Iceland simply boggle the mind.

In a small package, you can see everything from glaciers to volcanoes to continental rifts to fjords to lava formations and black sand beaches – and I could go on and on. Iceland is a bit like the world in miniature – very miniature, in fact, as it’s roughly the same size as the state of Ohio.

Still, despite the small size of Iceland, you do need to dedicate a good bit of time to truly see the country’s magnificence. I think 7 days in Iceland is a good start: one week in Iceland will give you enough time to get away from the crowds surrounding Reykjavik who don’t stray far from the capital on their short trip to Iceland.

While many Iceland itineraries will have you heading south, I wasn’t interested in rehashing everyone’s Iceland bucket list, but instead checking off my own. In partnership with Iceland Travel, I rented a car with their companion app to help me travel around the country smoothly.

The benefit of booking a rental car with Iceland Travel (who partner with Hertz) is that they help with the itinerary planning and hotel booking part of your trip, so that all you have to do is use their companion app to help you decide what stops you want to make that day. It’s got the convenience of a guided tour in terms of planning but with all the benefits of traveling independently with your own rental car.

You can make your own booking here, or you can replicate my 7-day Iceland itinerary below to get off Iceland’s beaten path and explore beautiful Western Iceland.

I should note that I traveled solo during my trip to Iceland, and Iceland is a great country for first-time solo female travelers. This itinerary for Iceland was created with solo travelers in mind, focusing on nature and incredible scenery, but it’d be great for groups or families as well.

Day 1: Arrive and pick up your car (Overnight in Reykjavik)

It’s inevitable that you’ll start and end your week in Iceland in Reykjavik. Most flights get into Keflavik International Airport (KEF), which is located about 45 minutes away from Reykjavik proper.

I actually was the rare exception to this rule, arriving at the teeny tiny Reykjavik International Airport in the city center because I was flying in from the Faroe Islands on Atlantic Air, one of the few airlines that serve REK. Most airlines, however, will fly into Keflavik, so you’ll want to double check that your rental car is reserved at the proper airport.

Some people skip Reykjavik entirely, but I think that’s a mistake. Nearly one-third of Iceland’s population lives here, so understanding Reykjavik is crucial to understanding Iceland as a country.

Luckily, Reykjavik is more like a big small town, so it’s pretty easy to see the highlights of Reykjavik in just a day’s sightseeing. However, keep in mind Reykjavik is the most expensive part of Iceland, so limit your time here if you’re visiting Iceland on a budget.

I recommend starting at the beautiful cathedral in the center of Reykjavik, Hallgrímskirkja. Whereas many capital cities have incredibly old and historic churches, Reykjavik does it a bit differently with an ultra-modern expressionist church which was completed in 1945. I recommend splurging on buying entrance to the top of the tower, where you can get the best view of Reykjavik for 900 ISK (about $9 USD).

Be sure to walk around the church a bit, as it looks super different from different angles. It’s a lot of fun to photograph – each side gives you a totally different idea of its shape and size.

After checking out the church, walk through the center of town, admiring all the cute shops along the way. Head over to the Harpa concert hall on the waterfront, which is Reykjavik’s other most iconic piece of architecture.

I love how the structure seems to blend into the harbor behind it during the day time (then puts on a light show at night!). Be sure to go inside (entrance is free, unless there is a private event happening) – the interior is even more interesting than the exterior, in my opinion. It’s a great place to get some unique Instagram shots!

After checking out the concert hall, you’ll want to walk along the waterfront a little bit. Keep in mind that it can be insanely windy along the waterfront, especially if you’re in the middle of a wind storm (not uncommon, even in the summer!).

When I was in Reykjavik, the wind was gusting up to what felt like 50 mph. No matter what time of year you visit, you’ll want to wear a strong, wind-proof jacket (I brought my Marmot PreCip as my outer layer in the summer).

When you’re walking the waterfront, be sure not to miss the Sun Voyager sculpture just a few minutes’ walk from Harpa. While the sculpture looks like a Viking ship and is widely interpreted that way by tourists, in actuality, the sculpture is supposed to represent a “dream boat”, oriented towards the sun.

(I still see Vikings, though).

For dinner, there are a ton of options – it really depends on your budget. Unfortunately, everything you’ve heard about Reykjavik is true – it is insanely expensive, probably the most expensive city I’ve ever been to outside of Switzerland. Restaurants will eat up your Iceland budget quickly. If you’re curious about Icelandic cuisine, you could do a food walk through Reykjavik to get a lot of tastes of different things all at once.

I ate at Block Burger, which served up super tasty hamburgers for a relatively reasonable price. A small burger is about 1200 ISK ($12) and around 1900 ISK ($19) for a complete meal with fries and a soda. While this isn’t a good ‘deal’ in the global sense, it is one of the cheaper options in Reykjavik.

Other people will recommend you eat at the place that serves up “Iceland’s best hot dogs” if you’re on a budget, but I honestly don’t recommend you do that – trust me, by the end of your week in Iceland, you’ll have eaten so many hot dogs on the go that you’ll never want to even see another hot dog again!

There are plenty of other nice restaurants to eat at in Reykjavik but be prepared to spend at least $30-50 USD per person for a simple meal without alcohol.

Hotel to Stay At: I stayed at Centerhotel Arnarhvoll just across the street from Harpa Concert Hall and highly recommend it! The location in the center of Reykjavik is fantastic: the Harpa concert hall (and its nightly light displays) are literally right outside your window, and you are just a few minutes’ walk from some of Reykjavik’s best attractions and restaurants. The room is spacious and modern, and I loved the bathroom which had a great tub to soak in and relax before starting my week in Iceland. The breakfast in the morning was fantastic as well!

Day 2: The Snæfellsnes Peninsula (Overnight in Hellnar)

Nicknamed “Iceland in Miniature,” you’d be foolish to skip the stunning Snæfellsnes peninsula on your Iceland itinerary. In this small 90-kilometer-long finger of Iceland, you’ll find black sand beaches, stunning sea cliffs, ancient glaciers, gushing waterfalls, and natural hot springs all in one beautiful package that can easily be seen in a single day.

Get an early start when departing from Reykjavik and start driving towards the Snæfellsnes peninsula, which should take about two hours if you don’t keep pulling over every 5 minutes to photograph random waterfalls like I was. (Note: Only pull off on roads and designated stopping points and never in the middle of the road. You’d think that’d be a given, but it needs to be said.)

This is a whistle-stop tour of the highlights of this peninsula, but Iceland Travel also has a road trip itinerary for a more in-depth 4-night tour of the Snæfellsnes peninsula, which you can check out here.

Kirkjufellsfoss

To maximize your Iceland itinerary, I recommend starting at Kirkjufellsfoss and then working counter-clockwise through the peninsula to avoid doubling back and to get better light at Kirkjufellsfoss. However, if you chose to stay somewhere closer to Kirkjufellsfoss, such as Grundarfjörður, Olafsvik, or Rif, then you could do this day’s itinerary in reverse.

Kirkjufellsfoss is truly spectacular and it’s one of those waterfalls that likely influenced you to buy a ticket to Iceland in the future. It’s rather popular and unless you show up at sunrise you’re likely to share your view of Kirkjufellsfoss with quite a few of your closest tourist friends — it is one of Iceland’s most recognizable Game of Thrones filming locations, after all.

Kirkjufellsfoss can be a bit difficult to photograph. If you go there in the evening, there will be a big shadow cast on Kirkjufell (the mountain in the photo) by the mountain behind you, leading to unevenly lit photos.

To get the best possible photo, you’ll want to use a wide angle lens, a tripod, and some ND filters which will block light from streaming into your camera so you can get a nice long exposure to smooth out the water. On the day that I was visiting the Snaefellsness, there was a massive windstorm (continuing from the previous day in Reykjavik) and the wind was too strong to set up my flimsy tripod. You may want to consider investing in a sturdier tripod for photographing in Iceland as the wind gusts can be really strong.

If you want, you could make a small detour while you’re here to Grundarfjörður to do a puffin tour, where you go out on a boat to see one of their favorite nesting spots, Melrakkey Island. However, this tour only runs if you are visiting during puffin season, between early June and early August. Check out and pre-book a tour here.

Ólafsvík and Hellissandur

After admiring Kirkjufellsfoss, start driving towards the coastline, passing through Ólafsvík. This is a “big town” by Icelandic standards; in fact, it is the westernmost town of more than 1,000 people in Europe!

If you’re a fan of modern architecture, check out the beautiful, eclectic Ólafsvíkurkirkja (and be sure to turn around and gawk at the beautiful waterfall behind you, which I believe is called Bæjarfoss). If you have a nice zoom lens, you’ll be able to photograph this from the church parking lot! Yup, waterfalls and churches all in one panorama – that’s Iceland in a nutshell for you.

Betweens Olafsvik and Hellissandur you can make a brief stop at Svöðufoss, another one of Iceland’s beautiful waterfalls — y’know, just in case you haven’t gotten your waterfall fix yet today.

In Hellissandur, many people enjoy visiting the Maritime Museum there, which is housed in traditional turf roof houses. If you’re a history geek curious to learn about the region’s former significance as a fishing hub, it’s a can’t-miss.

Djúpalónssandur

Next up, you’ll pass by a beautiful black sand beach at Djúpalónssandur, which is nicknamed a “black lava pearl beach” for its sand made of tiny, rounded pebbles of ancient lava rock. This is due to the uniquely strong tide, which churns the chunks of lava into perfectly polished stones, like rocks in a tumbler.

That said – please do not take any rocks from the beach, as lovely as they are, as you can disturb the habitats and ecosystems of the tiny creatures who call Djúpalónssandur home.

There are signs everywhere warning you not to go in the water, which you should heed. Again, the tide is extraordinarily strong here, so now is not the time for a ‘polar plunge’ – there are plenty of other beaches in Iceland that are safer for swimming. Just look at the scraps of metal left from shipwrecked boats and you’ll understand why this isn’t a place to dip your toes in.

As a result of this extreme tide and the unique rock formations that result, several legends have arisen about this area. Some Icelandic people claim that the rock formations of the beach are actually the work of trolls and elves. I’d put my money on time and erosion – but who’s to say?

Vatnshellir Lava Tubes

A little further down the peninsula in Snæfellsjökull National Park, you’ll find Vatnshellir Cave, which is made of a series of lava tubes that erupted 8,000 years ago. You can only visit on a tour for safety purposes: the lava tubes are pitch black and you’ll need a strong flashlight and guide to know what to look for. I recommend pre-booking your lava tube tour here.

My friend Stephanie always teases me for being a cave nerd but I truly find geology fascinating. It was amazing to learn how this cave formed nearly instantly as a result of a lava flow. Whereas in a typical cave, stalagmites and stalactites may have taken centuries upon centuries to form, the rock formations in this lava tube took mere days to shape and cool.

You can go quite deep into the cave — so deep that there is absolutely no external light — and experience true pitch blackness when your entire group turns off their flash lights. It made me realize that true, impenetrable darkness is actually quite rare: the feeling of pure darkness is disorienting, almost like floating. It was quite the experience.

Be sure to keep an eye on the ground when walking in the cave, as the rock is not level and is quite craggy. You’ll definitely want a pair of closed-toe shoes for it. (These are the hiking boots I brought to Iceland).

Lóndrangar Cliffs

I had wanted to visit the Lóndrangar cliffs for ages, since I watched one of my favorite landscape photographers do a photography tutorial featuring the cliffs. It’s quite a close drive from the Vatnshellir lava tubes, so it’s definitely worth visiting.

This pair of marvelous basalt sea stacks (the taller one is 75 meters; the other, 61) were once part of a crater. But time and the elements have eroded them to this marvelous cliffside vista that is a popular hike today. Along the hike, if the time of year is right, you may even spot a few puffins!

There’s a big parking lot just off the highway, and from there you can get this excellent viewpoint, or you can hike through an old lava field to the Lóndrangar sea stacks, which takes about 45 minutes to an hour roundtrip.

Arnarstapi

At the base of the beautiful, imposing Mt. Stapafell is the quaint fishing town of Arnarstapi, which is famous for its beautiful sea cliffs.

This was one of my favorite stops in the Snæfellsnes peninsula – I loved the seeing the basalt columns against the sea, which was an especially lovely vibrant shade of turquoise.

The Arnarstapi visitor center is also the meeting place for the Snæfellsjökull glacier excursion, which takes place daily in the summer months – weather permitting. Unfortunately, there was a wind storm when I was in the Snæfellsnes peninsula, so my glacier tour was cancelled.

However, it’s hard to miss the beautiful Snæfellsjökull looming nearly everywhere on the peninsula.

Búðir

In a country famous for its churches, perhaps one of the most famous is Búðakirkja. Located in the tiny village Búðir, which is home only to a hotel, a desolate lava field, and a lone black church, Búðakirkja is one of those places that attracts people from all over the world.

If you have time, there are some hiking trails in the Búðahraun lava field around this church, which is a truly otherwordly landscape.

It’s also worth making a brief stop for a coffee in the marvelous lobby of the Hotel Búðir, which looks out onto an amazing bay which is also a nature reserve. The restaurant is supposed to be world-class as well, so definitely make a reservation for dinner here if you are looking for a memorable meal.

Hellnar

Finally, head back towards Arnarstapi and continue a few kilometers onwards to the cute little seaside town of Hellnar, the ideal resting point for the night.

Don’t miss photographing the picture-perfect church near Fosshotel Hellnar, which looks amazing at the pre-sunset golden hour, especially how the red roof juts against the backdrop of the beautiful Atlantic.

Where to Stay: Fosshotel Hellnar is a fantastic base in the Snæfellsnes peninsula due to its central location – within 20 minutes, you can be at the black church, the Vatnshellir caves, Arnarstapi, or the Lóndrangar cliffs. The restaurant is supposed to be excellent and offers beautiful views over the coast – and if you’re lucky, you may spot a whale from the restaurant as you’re dining.

I stayed at a number of Fosshotel properties during my time in Iceland and always found them to be great options: clean, modern rooms with plenty of space to spread out, delicious (and included) breakfasts, speedy WiFi, plentiful parking, and central locations. Check out ratings, reviews, photos, and availability here.

Day 3: Flatey Island and the beginning of the Westfjords (overnight in Patreksfjörður)

Ready to start heading towards the Westfjords? There are two ways to get to the Westfjords: several hours of driving along Highway 60 or taking the beautiful Baldur ferry to cut off 200 kilometers of driving distance between you and the Westfjords.

Considering how much driving is still yet to come on your 7 days in Iceland, I highly recommend taking the ferry, not least because it offers you the unique opportunity to stop off on the picture-perfect Flatey Island in the middle of Breiðafjörður Bay.

Stykkishólmur

Start your day with a drive to Stykkishólmur, which is about one hour away from Hellnar. This peaceful harbor town is where you can catch the ferry over to Brjánslækur, cutting your driving distance by several hundred kilometers.

While the 9 AM ferry requires an early morning, try giving yourself at least an extra 30 minutes and try to get there early in the morning so you have time to photograph the beautiful harbor town before boarding the ferry.

Of course, the ferry isn’t the cheapest option at 4,460 ISK (about ~$40) per adult, plus an additional 4,460 ISK for the car. However, considering the high price of fuel, that will offset the price a bit. A stopover in Flatey comes with no additional charge.

Flatey Island

I highly recommend taking advantage of the stop in Flatey option on your way to Brjánslækur. Flatey Island is a cute, off the beaten path island about halfway in between Stykkishólmur and Brjánslækur, in the middle of the beautiful Breiðafjörður Bay. Flatey Island is the only inhabited island of the 3,000 or so islands and islets that dot Breiðafjörður Bay. This bay separates the Snæfellsnes Peninsula from the beginning of the Westfjords region and cuts down the drive time between the two regions of Iceland significantly while offering stunning views to boot.

Should you choose to stop in Flatey Island, they will give you a small envelope where you write your name and license plate number and place your keys in. Go down to the bottom level of the ferry, where the restaurant is, and drop off your keys with the restaurant. This is because no cars are allowed on Flatey Island. They will drive your car off the boat for you and leave it at the ferry dock in Brjánslækur. When you get back on the ferry when you leave Flatey Island, you can pick your keys back up at the restaurant, and when you disembark you’ll see your car waiting for your in Brjánslækur – it’s super easy.

Should you choose to make the stop in Flatey, you will have about 7 hours to explore the island, which is more than enough (it’s a small island!). I recommend starting your day in Flatey by walking into town and photographing the colorful houses, traditional of a 19th-century Icelandic village. Flatey used to be a major commercial fishing hub around the turn of the 20th century, but like many fishing villages of Iceland, its fortunes have waned considerably. It’s now more of a spot for tourism in the summer – albeit a quiet one.

After strolling around the ‘town center’, visit the church and the world’s smallest library, where you can see a copy of the Book of Flatey, an ancient manuscript with one of the famous Icelandic sagas.

The library is super cute and it’s pretty amazing that this island with only 2 (!!!) year-round inhabitants has a library all of its own. Of course, being so small, there is no need for a librarian to check out your books. It’s all based on the honor system. There’s also a small, peaceful graveyard where you can walk amongst the graves of those who once called Flatey home.

Stop back in town for lunch at the only option in town before you go on your walk around the perimeter of Flatey. I had delicious fresh fish tacos that were surprisingly spicy for Iceland (in a good way!).

Afterwards, I made my way around the perimeter of Flatey Island, stopping to photograph errant sheep snacking on seaweed on rugged beaches. The path isn’t super clear, but just walk along the edge of the beach – there’s pretty much no way to get lost on an island like Flatey.

I was having a lovely and peaceful walk along the beach when I was startled to stumble across a strange statue.

A statue that seemed strangely excited to see me.

Unbeknownst to me, I had stumbled across “the Penis Man,” a Flatey Island legend. I thought it was a crude, creepy joke by locals – turns out I was dead wrong, and this was a planned statue by the famous sculptor Jón Gunnar Árnason — yup, that same guy whose Sun Voyager statue is emblematic of the Reykjavik waterfront’s “skyline.”

I’ll admit that when I wasn’t suspecting it, it gave me a creepy, Castaway-ish vibe — not at all helped by the fish skeleton being swarmed by flies at its base.

I headed back into town from there to wait for my ferry.

Hellulaug

Once you arrive in Brjánslækur, you’re not far from the town of Flókalundur, outside of which you’ll find the Hellulaug hot springs. After my day on Flatey I was feeling exhausted and just wanted to head to my hotel in Patreksfjörður so I gave it a pass.

But looking at this photo, I think I may have been wrong:

Photo credit: Visit Westfjords Media Gallery

If you have the energy, this looks like one of the better natural geothermal pools in Iceland. A lot of the geothermal pools I’d see later would be more akin to actual hot tubs, just fed with geothermal water. I like that Helluaug is actually a natural formation, which gives it a more rugged, otherwordly feel in my opinion.

Patreksfjörður

Even with a population of 660, Patreksfjörður is actually the largest city in the southern Westfjords – that’s how off the beaten path this part of your Iceland itinerary is.

I didn’t spend too much time in Patreksfjörður, mostly using it as a convenient crash pad for the next day’s activities. Patreksfjörður is a great place to stop and rest your head, as it’s in between several highlights of the Westfjords, namely the Látrabjarg bird cliffs, the Rauðasandur red sand beach, and the world-famous Dynjandi waterfall.

But that’s tomorrow’s adventure!

Where to Stay: I stayed at another Fosshotel, Fosshotel Westfjords in Patreksfjörður. As with my previous Fosshotel experience, it was excellent: spacious and clean rooms with gorgeous views over Patreksfjörður, which is beautiful even by the insanely high Westfjords standards. There’s a hotel restaurant (always super convenient after a long day of driving!), rooms with gorgeous fjord views, friendly staff, and ultra-generous included breakfasts. Check out photos, rates, availability, and reviews here.

Day 4: Highlights of the Westfjords (overnight in Þingeyri)

On your first full day in the Westfjords, get ready for beautiful places — and terrifying drives. I’m not going to sugarcoat it – nearly every single place on this list had roads that had me nearly in tears. If you’re not a pansy American like I am who is used to driving on monstrous 8-lane highways, you’ll probably be fine. But I had spent 4 days in the Faroe Islands prior to my Iceland trip, and I found these roads even more terrifying than anything I encountered in the Faroes.

Still, the rough roads will be worth it – these are some of the most beautiful places in the entire Westfjords. Just drive slowly and take it easy – you’re in no rush. There isn’t much driving distance in pure kilometers between these places, but it will take you some time just due to the poor quality of the roads. Still, the outstanding views everywhere you look will egg you on, so be brave and put your car to use!

Note: I had a 4 wheel drive during my time in Iceland, but I don’t think it’s entirely necessary – none of these roads are 4×4 mandatory, and renting a 4×4 can incur a lot of extra rental fees. However, when you rent a car, you will want a car that is not super low to the ground. I was in a Toyota RAV4, and it was perfect. There are lots of potholes in the gravel roads, and no matter how careful you are, you’ll inevitably hit one or two a little faster than you were intending. Having a car with high suspension will help immensely.

Látrabjarg Cliffs

I had been looking forward to the Látrabjarg Cliffs since I began planning my Iceland trip. I knew I’d be in Iceland at the beginning of August, which is technically still puffin season. However — I missed the puffins by a few weeks. I was pretty devastated to be honest, especially because the drive to Látrabjarg is neither easy, on the way, nor quick.

To be sure you see the puffins, visit in June or July, when they are far more likely to be nesting. Otherwise, in early August they may have already left for their seasonal migration, like they did in my case. Climate change affects several things – bird migration patterns being one of them – so give yourself an extra buffer and go right in the middle of puffin season if you are dead-set on seeing puffins while you are in Iceland.

That said, even though I didn’t spot even one puffin at Látrabjarg, I don’t regret going. The landscape is remarkable. The Látrabjarg cliffs are the westernmost point in Iceland, and with the exception of the Azores islands, they are the westernmost point in all of Europe. The road out there feels every bit the end of the world. And the water there was stunningly blue, despite the clouds overhead.

Be sure to stop in Breiðavík on your way to Látrabjarg. The views of the bay are absolutely stunning, plus the setting of the small town church against the backdrop of the bird cliffs is one of the most beautiful views in all of Iceland.

Rauðasandur

Iceland was forged in fire, the result of volcanic activity over the span of many millennia. As a result, most of Iceland’s beaches are made of black sand – which is beautiful. But that means that a red sand beach like you’ll find at Rauðasandur is especially rare. I’ll be frank, though – while it’s called ‘red sand,’ I think in reality, it’s more of a Sahara-ish orange, and even that depends on the light. If you are there on a moody dark day, the sand won’t have its distinctive orange hue that separates it from other beaches in Iceland.

With that in mind, and the fact that this beach is located 10 kilometers (each way) from the main road, down a crappy gravel road with some of the scariest hairpin turns I’ve ever seen, I’d only really recommend going to this beach on a day with excellent weather, or all the effort may be for nothing. The day I went was pretty gray, so the sand wasn’t that amazingly vibrant, but in photos I’ve seen of it in the sunshine it is extremely beautiful!

If you’re lucky on a sunny day, there are some hundred-odd seals who like to sunbathe on the beach – but bring a zoom lens, as they aren’t known for being friendly! You can do a seal-watching tour of Rauðasandur which also includes transportation from Patreksfjörður, so if you’re terrified of the drive this is a great option!

Dynjandi

If there is one photograph that emblematizes the Westfjords, it’s Dynjandi. Literally meaning “thunderous” in Icelandic, never has a name been more apt. This is one powerful waterfall.

Dynjandi is actually a composite of seven waterfalls,  but the main waterfall is the real show-stealer. With a total height of 100 meters, it spans out like a bridal veil, starting at a width of 30 meters and spanning outwards to 60 meters at the bottom of the ‘veil’.

There are several angles where you can get amazing photos, and despite being the most photogenic place in the Westfjords, when I went there actually weren’t very many tourists – maybe some 20 or 30 or so, who are easy to avoid given the massive size of this waterfall.

Þingeyri

After the wonderful Dynjandi, you’ll end up in the peaceful village of Þingeyri, a driving distance of about 30 more minutes past Dynjandi.

If you’re hungry – and I’d be surprised if you weren’t after so much driving – stop by Simbahöllin café for their incredible authentic Belgian waffles (one of the owners is from Belgium!). They also serve soups and a delicious-looking lamb tagine for dinner.

Rest up because tomorrow you’ll start the day early with a horse ride in the lovely valley of Þingeyri.

Where to Stay: I stayed in Hótel Sandafell in the small town of Þingeyri – which, in a town as tiny as Þingeyri, is literally your only option. The in-house restaurant is excellent and served up delicious pizza at surprisingly affordable prices for Iceland. My room was small but comfortable, with everything I needed for a short stay. The staff was lovely and the breakfast, as usual in Iceland, was super generous and got me fueled up for a big day of adventure ahead. Check out reviews, photos, rates, and availability here.

Day 5: Horses, Old Towns & “The Big City”  (overnight in Isafjordur)

After many days with tons of driving, you’re in for a treat – the next two days are low on the driving and high on the relaxing and enjoying. Today’s Iceland itinerary brings you to the tiny towns of Flateyri and Bolungarvík before settling down in the “capital” of the Westfjords, Ísafjörður. Ísafjörður has only 2,000 or so residents, but it feels properly huge after all the tiny towns that you will have seen elsewhere in the Westfjords!

Horse ride in Þingeyri

Simbahöllin is not just a café but also a horse stable – and they have some of the sweetest horses in Iceland, against some of the most beautiful backdrops in the country.

While I have a lot of experience riding horses, my last horse experience was, quite frankly, terrifying — I ended up riding a nearly feral horse around the island of Gili Air while it spooked and bucked at everything, all without proper protective gear.

I shared my reservations with my guide at Simbahöllin and she kindly made sure I got a horse who wouldn’t give me too much trouble – a beginner-friendly horse without a lot of attitude, whose only character flaw is stopping too much to eat grass (same, dude, same).  I wish I could pronounce his name without butchering it to give him the credit he deserves — but I will always remember that little dude.

Icelandic horses are amazing and unique in the world, the result of 1,000 years of isolated breeding. They’re a bit squat and short, a little chunky but super muscular – all the better for surviving those harsh Icelandic winters. And they have super cool mohawks and a hell of a lot of swag.

With my guide, we went on a ride for about an hour and a half through the beautiful valley in Þingeyri, from the stables, across a few rivers, and nearly to the beach before heading back. We even tried tölting, a special gait that only Icelandic horses have (they have 5 gaits; most horses have only 4). Tölting is somewhere between a trot and a run, way smoother than a trot, but also way sillier looking — like an insanely fast walk. It’s super smooth and super fun, and something you can only experience with an Icelandic horse.

I was sad to leave my horse friends (not to mention the lovely dogs who kept them company) but soon it was time for the next stop on my Iceland itinerary!

Flateyri

After tearing yourself away from your beautiful horse friends and promising to never forget them, make your way over to the cute town of Flateyri.

It’s about 30 minutes of driving along some of the most scenic parts of the Westfjords, Önundarfjörður.

I  mean, this is literally what the drive to Flateyri looks like. It’s insane.

Flateyri is an interesting place.  Established as a trading post in 1792, the town thrived during the 1800s as it was the base for several fisheries, particularly shark-hunting and whaling. The town once numbered some 500 or so people, but the population has been trickling away from Flateyri slowly. A massive avalanche in 1995 killed 20 people and destroyed much of the town, causing many people to move away; the subsequent financial crisis in the 2000s ended up encouraging even more people to leave Flateyri as employment opportunities diminished. Tourism is one of the few remaining industries left in Flateyri.

The town of Flateyri is tiny and quiet, but the town packs a lot for tourists to see in its diminutive size of just a few blocks. Be sure to check out the bookstore in Flateyri, its most important attraction. It’s the oldest original store in the entire country, and much of it has been preserved in perfect condition since its old days, like an ant trapped in amber.

There are a number of other quirky museums in this small town of about 200, including a Nonsense Museum, which has a collection of random bits and bobs such as teaspoons, Pez dispensers, matchbooks, and other random odds and ends.

I was in Þingeyri around 11 AM and the museum is only open from 1 PM onwards (and only open in mid-May to mid-September, like much of the Westfjords — the area is almost entirely closed down in the winter due to the harsh weather). There’s also an International Doll Museum with collections of dolls from around the globe, so if you’re a fan of niche museums — Flateyri will be a paradise.

Besides the Old Bookstore, I found the town church to be well worth a visit (although it was locked when I was there so I wasn’t able to see inside) with its gorgeous fjord backdrop. I also just enjoyed strolling up and down the main street, Hafnarstræti, and checking out the harbor and other cute sights in town. Flateyri is just adorable – I mean, look at it.

   

Bolungarvík

After checking out Flateyri, head on over to the town of Bolungarvík, which with its population of some 900-odd people seems positively bustling after quiet little Flateyri and Þingeyri.

It’s worth checking out the Ósvör, which replicates an old fishing post, which were common in the region around Bolungarvík for much of the 18th and 19th centuries but have since fallen out of fashion with industrialization.

There’s also a beautiful beach in the town which is worth a quick visit, though of course this being Iceland you probably won’t want to go for a dip.

Ísafjörður

Finally, you’ll want to finish your day in the honorary capital of the Westfjords, Ísafjörður. After seeing all these tiny Westfjords villages, Ísafjörður has a real “city” feel – even though it has a population of just 2,600 or so people.

While by my standards that’s a small city – more of a town, really – it’s Iceland’s 13th largest, and the largest city in the Westfjords by a long shot.

There are quite a few excellent restaurants in Ísafjörður, including the beloved Tjöruhúsið, which supposedly has some of the best seafood in Iceland. But after several days of seafood, I was craving something a little different, and when I discovered there was a small, authentic Thai restaurant in Ísafjörður — I was sold instantly.

What is authentic Thai food doing in Iceland, you may be wondering? The fishing industry has been falling out of favor with native Icelanders for the last few decades, due to tough working conditions, depopulating seaside villages, and better economic opportunity in Reykjavik. As a result, Eastern European and Southeast Asian immigrants have been filling the gaps in the labor market – and some have brought their cuisines with them.

The food I had at Thai Koon was delicious, flavorful and authentic without being overly spicy, but that was easily remedied with a few dashes of the Sriracha on every table. The food was so good – I was able to choose 3 different curries plus a rice for 1500 kronor, about $15 USD – and I had so much leftover that I ended up taking a good half of it home.

Where to Stay: I stayed at Hotel Edda Ísafjörður and thought it was a great base. My room was cozy and clean and just a short 10-minute walk from central Ísafjörður. The room and bathroom were both quite spacious and I had a nice view of the city. The building lacked a little charm but it was a fine place to rest my head for the evening. Check rates, reviews, availability, and photos here.

Day 6: Sudavik, Heydalur (overnight in Heydalur)

Start your day in Ísafjörður with a leisurely morning walk through the town.

I did a guided walking tour where I learned about the 19th-century history of the town, when it was one of the biggest fishing posts in the prosperous Westfjords. It was helpful to understanding the changing role of cities and towns in the Westfjords throughout the past few hundred years.

There’s quite a bit to see in Ísafjörður, including the Gamla Bakaríið – the old bakery – and the Culture House, which used to be the local hospital and is often referred to just that way – Gamla Sjúkrahúsið.

I recommend doing a walking tour so that the history of Ísafjörður isn’t lost on you, but in lieu of that, you can do a self-guided walk down some of the main streets ofÍsafjörður. Aðalstræti is one of the most scenic and bustling streets in town, where you’ll find bakeries, museums, cafés, clothing stores, and cute historic houses.

I spent a morning doing some work in the cozy Café Edinborg, which had delicious coffees and a great view over the fjord and harbor.

Besides checking out the main street, there are plenty of outdoorsy things to do in Ísafjörður during the summer, such as hiking to Naustahvilft, a depression in the earth in the middle of one of the fjords overlooking the city. Naustahvilft means “The Troll Seat,” as the legend goes that a troll passing by got tired and sat on the mountain, forever leaving behind a huge ‘seat’ in the earth. This hike gives you one of the best views over Ísafjörður.

You could also take a boat to Vigur from Ísafjörður, where it’s possible to see tons of native birdlife, including – if you’re lucky – puffins.

If you don’t have so much time for a hike, simply strolling around the hills around the town itself is really beautiful. Going up in the hills behind the main ‘highway’, where you can get a scenic view of the city of Ísafjörður sandwiched in between two beautiful fjords. Walking in the hills, you’ll notice the avalanche-prevention mechanisms that have been installed in Ísafjörður and several other villages in the Westfjords such as Flateyri.

Alternately, you could go calm water kayaking in the fjord, although I went kayaking in Heydalur later on and highly recommend that as well.

Walking in these hills, looking down on these fjords, it was amazing for me to remember that for two whole months in the winter, the town of Ísafjörður gets zero sun, as even when the sun rises it rises too close to the horizon to ever make it above the fjord-line. It isn’t until the end of January that this true, dark winter starts to end for Ísafjörður, and residents celebrate with pancakes and coffee to celebrate the return of the sun.

Being in a land of such extremes, amongst people who have made these extremes, is humbling.

Súðavík

After leaving Ísafjörður, the town of Súðavík feels incredibly small. But it’s not even the smallest town on today’s itinerary!

Súðavík is best known for the Arctic Fox Center, which tells the history and present-day reality of Iceland’s only – yes, only – native land mammal. You see, even Iceland’s horses and sheep were imported, and the only native land mammal is the arctic fox, who scientists believe became trapped on Iceland after the last Ice Age, when the frozen-over ocean began to thaw.

As a result, the arctic fox has thrived for over 10,000 years,  surviving winters where temperatures drop lower than -70 C with relative ease. In fact, the arctic fox doesn’t so much as shiver until the weather drops below -50 C. With no natural predators in Iceland, hunting arctic foxes is permitted and has been an important part of the economy for centuries. Controlling the population of arctic foxes is crucial to ensuring Iceland’s bird life and domestic animals have a chance at survival.

There are two arctic foxes who live at the Arctic Fox Center. Their mother was killed by a hunter, who didn’t know she had just had two babies. They rescued the babies, but because they were raised by humans, the foxes were never fit to return to the wild, so now they live in Súðavík at the fox center. They’re pretty ridiculously cute, even if they seemed a bit tired in their warm coats in the freakishly warm summer sun that day.

Heydalur

Heydalur was one of the highlights of the Westfjords for me. This small ‘town’ isn’t even really a town, but more of a farm turned guesthouse out in the rural countryside, about 12 kilometers off the main road.

They offer several activities at Heydalur so it’s perfect for a longer stay if you have time. You can take a horse ride through the scenic landscape or go sea kayaking (which I did the following morning and highly recommend, but more on that later!). You can also hike in the hills, go birdwatching, or simply relax in the geothermal hot springs on the property.

Where to Stay: Heydalur Guesthouse is pretty much the only option in the area, but it is a wonderful one! You can camp here or stay in one of their cozy guesthouses. Staying at the guesthouse or camping grounds gives you access to their heated swimming pool and hot pots and they are also able to organize any activities in the area for you. Waking up in quiet Heydalur is definitely the among the highlights of my time in the Westfjords, so I definitely recommend an overnight here. Check reviews, prices, photos, and availability here.

There is also a restaurant on the property that served one of the best meals I had in Iceland at a reasonable price for the country. If you have been saving money by cooking for yourself, I’d suggest treating yourself to a meal at the restaurant at Heydalur tonight – it was delicious! They have a greenhouse on the property where they grow a lot of their own vegetables so the food is really local and fresh.

Day 7: Seals, whales, & waterfalls on the way back to Keflavík

It felt like all my Icelandic luck came at once on my final day! The thing about any Iceland itinerary is that so much depends on luck. Whether that’s luck with the weather or luck with spotting certain animals or luck with the Northern lights, you simply can’t plan for everything on your Iceland trip.

As my week in Iceland drew to a close, I finally go to tick off several bucket list items all in one go: I saw puffins, arctic seals, humpback whales, and epic waterfalls all in one day.

I went sea kayaking in the fjords by Heydalur in the morning and it was probably my favorite thing I did in my entire 7 days in Iceland. The feeling of kayaking through glassy calm waters just meters from sunbathing seals, as a few errant puffins bobbed on the water or flew past — it was pretty amazing.

I don’t know what I was more excited to see, the puffins or the seals, but I was giddy as a child by the end of it.

Hólmavík

After seeing the arctic seals and puffins in the waters by Heydalur, I thought I had had all the luck I could have for the day. Little did I know how my day would pick up even more after. I went with Láki Tours, who have been offering whale watching tours in the Snæfellsnes peninsula of Iceland for years but just recently opened a new outpost of their tours in the Westfjords, in Hólmavík. Check out their tour availability here.

Their expertise in whale watching was clear – we were able to track humpback whales nearly our entire two-hour boat ride. Láki Tours does an excellent job of tracking whales without chasing them or getting too close, following ethical whale watching protocol. We were lucky to see several humpbacks during our ride, but most special was that we got to see two whales swimming together. While normally, humpback whales are solitary animals, occasionally two will swim side by side for a few hours. It’s rare to see, so it was pretty special to see these two hanging out!

After you’ve finished your whale-watching tour, you could stop back in town for the Museum of Icelandic Sorcery and Witchcraft, which is unique in the region. An interesting fact about Iceland is that Hólmavík’s region, Strandir, has historically been one of the most shrouded in mystery in all of Iceland, and where the first execution for sorcery took place in 1652. A witch hunt then swept the region for the rest of the 17th century, taking the lives of 16 men and 1 woman.

But easily the most famous (and grossest) part of this museum is the replica of the “Necropants,” made of a dead man’s skin and guaranteed to give the wearer an unending flow of money so long as he wears them!

There is also a modern church overlooking the harbor and near the Museum there is a highly-rated seafood restaurant called Galdur if you want to have lunch before the long drive back to Reykjavik!

Glanni Waterfall

On your way back to Reykavik, you can make several stops for waterfalls and views. I recommend definitely making a stop at Glanni Waterfall, as it’s just off the main road you’ll be using to go back, but it is quite under the radar and not a lot of people know about it so it is quiet compared to a lot of the other waterfalls.

It’s nothing particularly spectacular compared to Iceland’s other waterfalls but it is rather scenic and under the radar, so it’s worth the 10 minute stop!

Barnafoss & Hraunfossar

To see Barnafoss and Hraunfossar involves adding on an extra hour of driving (30 minutes there and another 30 on the way back) on your way to Keflavík, but I think it’s well worth it, even on a long driving day like this.

It is quite popular because it’s only 100 kilometers from Reykjavik, but it’s well worth braving the crowds for. Hraunfossar is a series of gorgeous turquoise waterfalls that began flowing out of a massive lava plain called Hallmundarhraun. The combination of the lava field plus the waterfalls of Hraunfossar is truly spectacular.

Barnafoss is just a few minutes’ walk past Hraunfossar so you can’t miss it. Barnafoss is an insanely powerful torrent of water that has an incredibly milky blue color, and it’s insanely photogenic.

Blue Lagoon

Finally, why not end your offbeat Iceland itinerary with one of Iceland’s most beloved attractions? The Blue Lagoon in Iceland is beloved for its geothermally heated, water, enriched with minerals like silica and sulfur that make amazing skin treatments.

Contrary to popular belief, the Blue Lagoon is not natural, but rather supplied by water used in the nearby Svartsengi geothermal power station. That doesn’t mean it’s dirty – anything but! It’s pure, mineral-rich water that is renewed every two days.

It is pricey, and it is popular, but for many people it’s an Iceland must, so consult your budget and decide.

Where to Stay: If you are leaving from Keflavik the next day, I recommend staying in a hotel near the airport and not in Reykjavik. Hotels are cheaper out by the airport plus it is really convenient to just be able to do a short 5 or 10-minute drive to the airport rather than going all the way from Reykjavik, which takes nearly an hour.

I stayed at Hotel Berg and thought it was an excellent place to end my Iceland stay. The hotel has a heated roof pool overlooking the harbor which is a great way to end your time in Iceland. The rooms are cozy and spacious, with really lovely design details that made everything feel extra special. I was delighted that breakfast was available from 3 AM on, so if you had an early morning flight (as many WOW air and Icelandair flights depart early) you wouldn’t miss out on getting breakfast before heading to the airport. Check reviews, prices, and availability here.

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Well, that wraps up an epic 7 days in Iceland’s beautiful West! Is there any place I missed? Have you visited this beautiful part of the country? Let me know in the comments.

Note: Thank you to Iceland Travel for sponsoring my stay in the country and providing me with a car, tours, and accommodations during my stay. All opinions remain my own!

7 Reasons to Visit the Spectacular Westfjords, Iceland

It’s 2018. Every single person you know has probably already been to or is planning a trip to Iceland. It’s not surprising: Iceland is pretty much Instagram-perfection.

We’ve all seen those photos of the Blue Lagoon, picture-perfect waterfalls, and pristine black sand beaches. But let’s pull behind the curtain a bit.

People are everywhere you look — everywhere. And yet one of the most beautiful parts of Iceland is within a half day’s driving distance from Reykjavik, and it is just as stunning as it is blissfully empty of tourists.

I spent 8 days in Western Iceland, and the difference in the number of tourists in the area around Reykjavik and the Westfjords was striking.

Not far from Reykjavik, I visited beautiful Hraunfossar and Barnafoss — along with what felt like several hundred tourists.

Meanwhile, the thunderous Dynjandi waterfall – easily one of Iceland’s most beautiful waterfalls  – was surprisingly free of fellow tourists despite being the literal highlight of any Westfjords itinerary.

Just try to take a photo without tourists in it at any other waterfall in Iceland!

The Westfjords are probably the most visually dramatic part of the most aesthetically dynamic countries in the world. And yet, because they’re best seen in the short summer season and they’re on the other side of the country from some of the most iconic Icelandic sights, the Westfjords have remained wonderfully under the radar. It’s true that to properly visit the Westfjords, you need to dedicate a good chunk of your time in Iceland to exploring this region alone. Personally, I spent 5 nights in the Westfjords and felt like that was perfect. However, if you were a little more ambitious, you could certainly see the highlights in 3 days.

The Westfjords are also perfectly suited for road tripping, as the driving distance between the major sights is never that long, and you’ll find countless places to stop for photos without anyone else around. The roads are in generally quite good condition, though there are a few hair-raising gravel roads (I for one will never forget the drive to Rauðasandur, easily the most terrifying of my life and I’m not even afraid of heights). The road between Þingeyri and Hólmavík is especially well-maintained and easily one of the most beautiful roads to drive in all of Iceland.

I was road tripping around Iceland as a guest of Iceland Travel, who gives everyone who books their road trips a rental tablet with an exclusive companion app. I especially liked the itinerary feature, which suggested stops and highlights along the route, giving important historical and cultural context to each stop on the way. It’s a stress-free way to get all the freedom of a road trip without the logistics of planning. If you’re curious to follow in my Westfjords footsteps, this is pretty much the exact road trip I did with Iceland Travel.

If you need more convincing than just that to visit the Westfjords in Iceland, here’s why you really should prioritize this off the beaten path region on your next Iceland trip!

Sunny summer days in the Westfjords are the stuff of dreams

You’ll find some of the most stunningly beautiful landscapes you can imagine

The Westfjords isn’t just a clever marketing name – this region of Iceland is rife with fjords, mountains sloping down to the sea in impossibly beautiful ways. Iceland is home to whopping 109 fjords, about half of which you’ll find concentrated in the Westfjords region.

And while the Fjord Norway region is slammed with tourists in the summer, Iceland fjords slink by under the radar. While it isn’t “undiscovered” by any means, the Westfjords region of Iceland is so vast that you will barely see another tourist as you enjoy some of the island’s most dramatic and impressive scenery.

Fjords everywhere, and a fraction of the tourists

Westfjords summer days are literally never-ending

The further you go north in Iceland, the longer the days are in the summer. So much so that in Ísafjörður, there are actually two full weeks in summer where the sun doesn’t dip below the horizon. From June 20th to July 1st, you can enjoy the midnight sun.

I visited the Westfjords in the middle of August and the sun was setting at 10:30 PM and coming back around 4:30 AM, for a whopping 6 hours of ‘night’. Even then, the sky never got much darker than a deep blue. I thought this was a perfect time to visit the Westfjords – tons of photography hours while still getting dark enough to not confuse my Circadian rhythms into total sleeplessness. Luckily, all hotels in the Westfjords (and in Iceland in general) will have good blackout curtains, so sleeping through the midnight sun will not be an issue for light-sensitive travelers.

Golden light at 9 PM in Þingeyri – a late-rising photographer’s dream!

Of course, the inverse is also true as well. Life in the Westfjords is full of extremes, and winters there are not for the faint of heart. The ‘capital’ of the region, Ísafjörður, is nestled between fjords that reach so high at a latitude so north that the sun is not visible for about two months in the winter, from late November to late January. As a result, the town celebrates the sun’s first rays reaching the town each winter with a holiday called sólarkaffi, where they drink coffee and eat pancakes with rhubarb jam to welcome the return of the sun to their town.

The Westfjords is Iceland at its most off the beaten path

Thanks to airlines like WOW Air offering cheap flights to Europe that stop in Iceland, tourism in Iceland is accelerating at an insane rate, literally quintupling its tourism numbers in less than a decade. In 2017, the country saw over 2 million tourists, more than 6 times Iceland’s local population.

With numbers like these you’d begin to think that Iceland is completely overrun with tourists… but not so in the Westfjords! Only some 10-15% or so of Iceland’s 2 million tourists make it to the Westfjords, and an even smaller number of these tourists will explore the tiny towns and villages in depth, leaving them all to yourself.

“Urban sprawl” in the Westfjords most populated city, Ísafjörður

Where else will you find red sand beaches with not another soul around? Or empty spring-fed hot tubs looking out onto an impossibly beautiful fjord? Not along the South Coast, that’s for sure.

Tourism is a crucial but fickle part of the Westfjords economy

Once, the Westfjords was one of Iceland’s most prosperous regions. Settled in the 10th century, the Westfjords’ prime location on the Atlantic enriched the locals despite the obvious hardships of living in such an extreme place. But the last century has not been kind to the Westfjords. Severe avalanches, quotas put in place to avoid overfishing, and the economic crisis of the 2000s drew people away from the Westfjords, urbanizing rapidly the area around Reykjavik.

Despite all the odds stacked against them, the people of the Westfjords are resilient. Those who have chosen to make these rugged, unforgiving mountains their home will continue to do so. But as the importance of fishing and whaling has decreased in Iceland’s Westfjords, tourism has to some extent taken its place. Travelers are a critical part of the equation in preventing population drain from the Westfjords region.

Once a major fishing post, quiet Flateyri is now more dependent on tourism

Still, the majority of the Westfjords are truly open for tourism only a few months of the year, typically from mid-May to mid-September. While some parts of the Westfjords are still open for business during the harsh winter months, in general, the conditions are simply too unpredictable to welcome the few brave tourists who would even venture all the way up north. In Þingeyri, one of the owners of Simbahöllin told me that the drive we made from his coffee shop to his horse farm – which took us a mere 5 minutes on summer roads in a car – would take 1.5 hours in a tractor after a snowfall. Compare this to the rest of Iceland, where winter tourism is growing rapidly and hotels, tours, and restaurants are open year-round to meet the demand.

Tourism in Iceland tends to follow a very well-worn path, mainly along the Golden Circle, Ring Road, and South Coast. In particular, Northeast Iceland has experienced a huge drop in tourism – a decrease of some 33%, in fact. While the Westfjords haven’t experienced such a critical drop off, likely because it is better-connected to Reykjavik and thus more suited for shorter trips, it is still seeing a drop in tourism compared to the rest of Iceland. So if you’re concerned about the environmental impact of being one of the 2+ million tourists Iceland expects annually, head on up to the Westfjords, where your tourism dollars make a difference for the better.

Also, you get views like this without having to share. Win/win.

It’s heaven for spotting bird and marine life

The Westfjords region of Iceland is inhospitable to all but the most intrepid animals. Squat but strong Icelandic horses, sturdy sheep, steely people, and a few wily arctic foxes — Iceland’s only native land mammals — are the few creatures equipped to survive the harsh Icelandic winters.

But for what Iceland lacks in land animals, it makes up for with vibrant birdlife and sea life. The Látrabjarg cliffs, the westernmost point of Iceland, is one of the best places in the world for bird-spotting as the cliffs are too steep to allow the arctic fox to dine on the birds who make the cliffs their home. Just don’t visit too late in the summer season to spot puffins – I visited in early August and the puffins had already left!

Despite my lack of puffin-spotting luck at Látrabjarg, all hope wasn’t lost for me. During my time in the Westfjords, I kayaked through calm fjords with harp seals and puffins keeping me company. On my last day in Iceland, I glided in the fjords around Holmavík in a small boat, spotting humpback whales who serenely passed within feet of our boat as they dove acrobatically under the water. It was pure magic.

Our guide at Láki Tours explained that humpback whales are typically solitary creatures, so it was rather unusual and quite lucky to see these two swimming side by side for some time in the fjord waters.

Needless to say, I was floating on a cloud the entire drive back to Reykjavik.

Visiting the Westfjords feels like going back in time

In many ways, the Westfjords feel like they belong to a different time. The pace of life is undeniably slower. Aside from the odd gas station or supermarket here and there, you’ll find very few modern conveniences in the Westfjords. Even the city of Ísafjörður, which is decidedly bustling compared to the sleepy seaside towns that radiate out from it, feels like it’s from a previous decade.

While you’ll certainly enjoy the benefits of modern society – credit card readers are ubiquitous and central heating is everywhere – there’s also a strong sense of tradition that has been preserved in the Westfjords. Whether it’s the small museums that preserve the local tradition and folklore such as the Old Bookstore in Flateyri or the Icelandic Sorcery & Witchcraft Museum in Hólmavík, there are so many places in the Westfjords that feel unstuck in time in the best possible way.

Old-school vibes in Flateyri

There are amazing – and free – geothermal springs everywhere

Everyone knows about the Blue Lagoon (and mostly everyone know just how costly it is to visit). But there are so many amazing hot springs located all over the Westfjords in Iceland, and nearly all of them are completely free to visit.

If you book a car with Iceland Travel, they’ll point out geothermal pools not to miss along the way, which is super handy when you want to take a break from driving and go for a dip along the way t your next destination. A few of the most famous hot springs include the Hellulaug hot springs in Flókalundur, the hot springs in Krossnes (which I didn’t have time to drive to), and my personal favorite – the hot pots in Drangsnes. But part of the fun is just finding the hot springs as you discover the Westfjords at your own pace with a rental car.

A handful of fellow travelers enjoying some free hot springs

Note: Thank you to Iceland Travel for hosting me during my time in Iceland. All opinions expressed are my own.