My family has an ongoing joke that it isn't my kind of summer if I haven't found myself somewhere in the world where I can throw a snowball in the middle of August.
I've always preferred cold climates over hot and humid ones, so one year, I was surprised when it dawned on me that I hadn't yet been to a place that's famous for its glaciers, its snow fields, its northern lights, and long, dark winters followed by bright summers illuminated by a hovering midnight sun.
So in 2012, I went to Iceland for the first time, and a love affair with this spectacular country began.
I never had any doubt that I would fall in love with Iceland. When I first traveled there, it was right before the internet's craze over this small island nation really came to fruition. Now, it seems that just about every photographer, filmmaker, Instagram-famous travel-blogger and their mom have all been to Iceland, so if you've spent any time perusing any travel social media, the hype for this remote country is undeniable.
Before traveling somewhere that's been radically hyped-up or is known for being a mega-tourist destination, I try and go into it prepared to be inundated with crowds, tourbuses, and groups of travelers knocking elbows while trying to get a picture of an iconic view.
While there's nothing wrong about going to super popular tourist destinations (because hey, they're usually popular for a reason, and I know I am a tourist, too), it can get exhausting when each vista, trail, cafe, and hostel is so overcrowded that it's borderline unenjoyable.
Iceland, however, is different. The glorious exception to the rule.
With only 372,000 residents in its 40,000 square miles, Iceland is most sparsely populated country in Europe, with 80% of the country uninhabitable due to its fjords, glaciers, mountain ranges, lava fields, geysers, and volcanoes (x).
Even with this knowledge, I was still surprised at how alone I often felt in Iceland, and how easy it was to become completely lost after only a few turns off a main road. Most famously, there is the Ring Road, which is the highway that circles the entirety of the country's coastline, but most visitors stick to the Golden Circle; a popular 300km tourist route in the south that makes for a convenient loop from Reykjavik in order to see some of Iceland's southern highlights. Tour buses leave daily from Reykjavik for this route, however, if you have more than a few days in Iceland, I recommend renting a car in order to take your time when visiting the sights of the Golden Circle (you'll also have the luxury of being able to see locations during off-hours when they're not flogged with crowds).
But whether you have a week, two weeks, a month or more in Iceland, I put together some of my favorite highlights.
Highlights & Must Do's
Spend a full day (or two, depending on your time) exploring Reykjavik, Iceland's charming and compact capital city. Almost everything is in walking distance here, so spend an afternoon strolling the winding streets that snake down to the harbor where you can catch a whale-watching ferry or have lunch at any of the tiny cafes where chic Icelanders sip their espressos next to burly men who just docked on their fishing vessels. Have a hot chocolate at the colorful Cafe Babalú and watch the dusky evening settle from one of Reykjavik's highest points at the Hallgrímskirkja church. And of course, you have to spend half a day at the Blue Lagoon hot springs; natural thermal hot springs warmed by Iceland's enormous underground volcanic activity (45 minutes outside of Reykjavik).
Rent a car from Reykjavik and spend a day at Snæfellsjökull National Park on the Snæfellnes peninsula. Make your way from the city (approx. 3 hours) to Hellnar, an ancient fishing village perched on rocky cliffs and the southern entrance to the park. As you drive through, you'll p
ass careening trails, vistas, and glaciers, and can end your day with a steaming bowl of traditional stew in one of the moss-covered cafes in picturesque Hellissandur (the village at the park's northern entrance).
Side note, if you want to spend more time up here or just don't want to drive the 3 hours back to Reykjavik all in one day, there are plenty of small accommodation in Hellissandur.
VISIT the WATERFALLS
Iceland is famous for its waterfalls, and for good reason; with over 10,000 falls in the small country, some of the most powerful and spectacular spots are just a day's drive away from Reykjavik. The most iconic waterfalls are Gullfoss, Seljalandsfoss, and Skógafoss, but be sure to also check out the far less visited (but just as spectacular) Gljúfrabúifoss.
If you have the time and feel like exploring more of the region, be sure to also visit Geysir, a famous geyser in the Haukadalur Valley (and - fun fact - the original geyser that gave all other geysers their name).
Watch the land bubble and explode in a valley pinpricked with neon thermal pools, and end with a picnic and hike around the basalt cliffs and meadows that make up Thingvellir National Park.
For the more adventurous, you can also go diving or snorkeling in a trench within Thingvellir where the North American and European continents divide.
VATNAJÖKULL NATIONAL PARK
As you start to head East in Iceland, the landscape becomes considerably more sparse and dramatic; and nothing sets the tone more than the enormous, glacier-capped Vatnajökull National Park.
Covering 5,460 square miles and being Europe's second largest national park, Vatnajökull boasts sprawling meadows and mountains making for epic climbing and trekking, herds of wild reindeer and Arctic foxes, and its namesake, the Vatnajökull Ice Cap.
Though I've stayed in several gorgeous hotels around the park, I always prefer to pitch my tent at Skaftafell campground, which sits in the meadow valley at the foot of the national park. Its easy access to park trails, as well as the excitement of laying in your tent listening to the glacier creak and groan as it shifts and calves, is one of my favorite aspects of being so close to such an immense glacier.
The hikes around Vatnajökull range from lovely meadow walks among the wildflowers to intense backpacking trips, as well as offering a host of ice climbing tours, from easy glacier walks to an attempt to summit the highest peak in Iceland.
JÖKULSÁRLÓN, FJALLSÁRLÓN and the DIAMOND BEACH
Jökulsárlón glacier lagoon is one of the most iconic points in Iceland, and for good reason: building-sized icebergs calve off the Vatnajökull glacier and tumble into this enormous glacier lagoon, allowing visitors get up-close with these towering, brilliantly blue icebergs.
Just up the road, however, is another (much less known) glacier lake called Fjallsárlón. Far less popular but just as spectacular, I often recommend people visit Fjallsárlón if they want less crowds but still want to take in the beauty of a glacier lagoon.
Finally, down a tributary leading from Jökulsárlón to the ocean is Iceland's Diamond Beach - which isn't covered in diamonds, but is instead adorned with hundreds of glassy, misshapen icebergs that have made their way from the lagoon to the ocean. Walking along the black-sand beach amongst these brilliantly blue and white icebergs with the imposing Vatnajökull in the background feels like walking on a movie set, or on some other planet.
Often missed on most standard Iceland itineraries is Landmannalaugar. This mountain region keeps itself off the beaten track due to its relative inaccessibility. However, those who manage to reach this region hidden deep in Iceland's interior will be greeted by multi-colored mountains painted in rich ribbons of pink, purple, burgundy, turquoise sands, sloping against a backdrop of neon green volcanic hills. Low maintenance campsites within in the Landmannalaugar valley are the perfect jumping-off points for day-hikes or extended treks through the backcountry.
To hit all of the sights I just listed, you could do it in minimum 10 days or extend it all the way into an epic month or more. This is also only the very beginning of what Iceland has to offer. Take your time and pause in the villages perched on the cliffs, talk to locals about their history and their story, visit a viking museum or two, sink your feet into the black sand, have a frisbee game at midnight (thanks, midnight sun!), follow trails of wild horses and streams of bubbling thermal waters. Be enamored by the farmhouses covered in moss, the herds of sheep grazing beneath magnificent waterfalls, the steam from a volcano rising from just over the next horizon.