Like most people, seeing the northern lights has long been at the top of my bucket list. I would have gone anywhere in the world that could offer me that view. Luckily, I ended up in Iceland, and got so much more than just those dancing ribbons.
If you want to see the northern lights, you’ll have to embrace the cold and pack your parka. The lights are only visible late-Fall through early-Spring. By going in March, we were able to avoid the summer crowds as well as the summer prices. The days were shorter, but it was worth it to stand beneath the endless stars and swirling auroras.
We opted to rent a car rather than book bus tours across the island, and rented an Airbnb in the suburbs of Reykjavik. We were able to base ourselves there to sleep and shower, but didn’t spend that much time there. Instead, we woke up before dawn and drove out to chase the sunrise. (Note: You could plan to stay a night on the southern coast to save time circling back to Reykjavik, but hotel and Airbnb options are limited in the off-season.).
*Pro Tip: If you are traveling by car, you must have a credit card with a pin, since the gas stations are unmanned and only accept pin cards. You will definitely need to refuel during your trip, as a lot of these sights take a while to get to. American credit cards with pins are sometimes not accepted, so take a debit card as a back-up.*
If you’re traveling to Iceland during the winter months, be sure to keep an eye on the weather and traffic reports. The roads tend to close due to inclement weather, and some of the stops that might be on your to-do list will be unreachable. Unfortunately, that’s just the way the glacier crumbles in Iceland, but don’t get discouraged if this happens! There is so much to see here that even if you miss out on some, you’ll still have a full trip. Plus, you’ll have an excuse to go back!
Driving through the southern coast of Iceland is incredible. There’s a definite moment when you feel like you’ve traveled Beyond The Wall, and a lot of the big stops will be familiar from movies and TV shows. You could easily extend this trip to see more of the famous “ring road” (the road that circles around the island), but the northern coast is hit hard by winter storms. Plan to pack plenty of snacks and food for your drive. Restaurants are few and far-between, plus you’ll have more time to see the sights!
The Northern Lights (Google pin here)
If you don’t have a fancy camera and tripod, you probably aren’t going to get that Insta-worthy northern lights picture, but that doesn’t make the viewing experience any less incredible. Let’s live in the moment, shall we? We were lucky enough to get a beautiful showing on our first night (we even saw some on the drive from the airport!), but the key to seeing the lights in all their glory is to know exactly where to go. About 2 hours east of the airport (an hour from downtown Reykjavik) is Thingvellir National Park, a perfect dark sky spot to catch a glimpse of the northern lights. We drove out along Highway 36, just past the Hakið Visitor Center, and simply pulled off the side of the road when we saw a good spot. The pin above is where we stopped to have a view of the lights over Lake Thingvallavatn. Pro tip: you will pass numerous pull-offs where tour buses will be stopped. If you want a private showing of the lights, keep driving further into the park to find you own area.
To guarantee the best showing, access the aurora forecast here. Remember, you’ll need a clear night with no clouds to see the lights. Forecasts are given 3 days in advance, so keep an eye on it while you are visiting the island. Activity ranges from 0-9, with 9 being the most activity (think dancing lights and beautiful colors like below). Anything under 4 will be a muted green glow.
Day 1: The Golden Circle (With Hot Springs)
Stop 1: Thingvellir National Park (Google Pin here) 40 minutes from Reykjavik
Bursting with history and geographic wonders, Thingvellir is a great first introduction to the magic of Iceland. The area’s name translates to Assembly Plains, and it was the site of assembly during Iceland’s Commonwealth period. The assembly was started around 930 AD, and Icelandic leaders met there until 1798 (it is actually the oldest democratically elected parliament that still functions to this day).
Make your first stop at Hakið Visitor Center, where you can walk along the North American tectonic plate and see its Eurasian counterpart. You can also swim in the Silfra fissure, created by the breaking apart of these two plates, which widens every year as they gradually move away from each other. It’s not every day you get the chance to swim between continents! Because the water in the fissure travels there underground, it rarely freezes, meaning that you can snorkel and dive here year-round. Read more about the fissure, and the snorkeling/diving rules, here.
Plan to spend a couple hours here walking along the fissure, seeing the frozen waterfalls, and reading about ancient Icelandic culture.
Stop 2: Kerið Crater (Google pin here) 35 minutes from Thingvellir.
Along Highway 36 about a half hour from the visitor center is Kerið Crater, a volcanic crater lake that is over 3,000 years old. There is a small entrance fee to enter this area, but the drive here along the lake is worth it. We spent about an hour walking around the crater, and peering down the 180 feet to the bottom.
Stop 3: Haukadular Geothermal Field (Google pin here) 40 minutes from Kerio Crater.
I love visiting geysers. It’s so funny to watch the crowd as the excitement grows and everyone is anticipating the next burst of water, only to have them all jump, or miss that perfect geyser boomerang for their Instagram story and have to wait all over again. In this geothermal field there are 2 geysers, Geysir and Strokkur. (We actually get the word geyser from the old Norse geysir, which mean ‘rush’.) Geysir holds the record for the largest geyser blast ever recorded, but he’s not exactly Old Faithful, and he’s dormant right now. Strokkur, the kid brother, is more reliable, setting off every 5-10 minutes. Don’t forget to check out the cute store they have at the visitors center! I forgot my hat at the Airbnb that day and it was super cold, so I treated myself to a fancy new one from here. They had beautiful warm socks and sweaters, too.
From here, you can drive an extra 5 minutes further to Gullfloss (Google pin here). This two-tier waterfall is stunning, and makes for a great stop to break up the driving.
Stop 4: Secret Lagoon Hot Springs (Google pin here) 30 minutes from Gullfoss, 1 hour and 30 minutes from Reykjavik
No trip to Iceland is complete without visiting some hot springs, and they’re even better after a long day of cold sightseeing. Of course, the most well known of these in the country is the Blue Lagoon, and if you wanted to splurge then by all means, visit there. But if you wanted the same experience at a fraction of the cost, find somewhere else! We soaked in the beautiful Secret Lagoon (the country’s oldest geothermal pool), just down the road from the geysers. It was a lot cheaper (ISK 3000, or $24 USD vs. the Blue Lagoon’s $53), and a lot less crowded (you don’t need reservations!). The springs are open from noon-8pm, so plan to hit this before closing. *Just a note for our first-timers: before you get into the pool, you have to wash in the communal shower- naked. That’s the rule of the club. Some people follow the rule, some don’t, but be prepared to see a lot of skin.
Day 2: The Southern Coast
The southern coast has some of Iceland’s most spectacular sites, but it will require a full day of driving. The furthest location for this day is 4 hours and 30 minutes from Reykjavik, and that’s without weather delays. (It took us 6 hours due to a storm.) Plan to wake up early (like 5am early), pack the car with plenty of food and water, and keep an eye on the weather. Winds and storms can be dramatic between each valley (sunny in one, angry Elsa-storm in the next one). Gas stations are sparse, so be sure to take advantage of opportunities to top off your tank. We made it a point not to drop below half a tank in case we got stuck in winter weather.
Stop 1: Skógafoss (Google pin here) 2 hours from Reykjavik
This waterfall is easy to reach (no hiking), and if you’re there in the summer you can actually climb up some steps on the side and catch the view from the top! The stairs are a bit too hazardous in the winter to do this, but the view from the front is just as nice. If you’re a Game of Thrones fan, you might recognize the waterfall as (SPOILERS!) Jon and his Auntie Danaerys’ make out spot in the last season. (Here’s a list of all the locations the show filmed in Iceland during its 8 season run.). You will also pass Seljalandsfoss on the way here. You can get a great view of it from the road, so we skipped it to save time.
Stop 2: The plane wreck at Sólheimasandur (Google pin here) 10 minutes from Skógafoss
This was a really cool experience. In 1973 a US Navy plane crashed on the beach at Sólheimasandur after running out of gas (don’t worry- everyone survived). Instead of moving the wreckage off the beach, the Icelandic government just….left it there. It’s about a 2 mile walk from the carpark to the plane, but it’s totally flat and easy. (There’s also a shuttle if you wanted to save some time.) I felt like I was on the surface of Mars walking to this plane. You’ll be traveling along a black sand beach, this one a little less magnificent than Reynisfjara visually (we’ll get to that later), but definitely an atmospheric wonder. You can climb in and on top of the plane for some great pictures, as well.
Plan to do this one early in case the weather turns in the afternoon. This never closes, so it is also a great place for a night hike to watch the northern lights over the plane.
Stop 3: Vatnajökull National Park (Google pin here) 2 hours from Sólheimasandur
Vatnajökull National Park is a massive national park encompassing the southeastern edge of Iceland (Think, Yellowstone big…but with a giant glacier). Guides say that to truly enjoy all that this area has to offer, you need to spend a few days here, but if you wanted to make a quick stop, the 5-mile round trip hike to Svartifoss would definitely be the way to go. Svartifoss is a towering, basalt-backed waterfall just a short hike from the car park, whose name means “Black Falls”. Its water comes from the Skaftafellsjökull glacier, and the basalt columns were created by lava cooling rapidly. There are a lot of basalt formations throughout Iceland, and they even served as inspiration for Iceland’s biggest church, Hallgrímskirkja. If you’re feeling adventurous, you can keep going to the Skaftafellsjökull glacier (but please don’t hike on it without a guide- glaciers can be dangerous and the proper equipment and knowledge is an absolute necessity!). This location also serves as a great base for hiking Iceland’s tallest mountain, Hvannadalshnjúkur. Here is a list of all the hiking trails within the park. While adventuring into the park is difficult during the short winter days, the drive to this location rewards you with sweeping views of the glacier dipping down into the valley (you can even walk up to the glacier from the car park pinned above!).
Stop 4: Glacier Lagoon (Google pin here) 40 minutes from Vatnajökull National Park, 4 hours and 30 minutes from Reykjavik (This is the furthest location of the day)
What a sight! It’s hard to choose a favorite spot in Iceland, but this one is definitely near the top of my list. The water is a unique blue color, caused by a mixture of glacial and sea water. The ice in this lagoon can be up to 1000 years old, broken away from the main glacier and swept into the water, where the pieces slowly melt down. Occasionally, if you’re visiting the mouth of the lagoon, you can see seals swimming around trying to catch a good meal in the clear blue waters. For you insta-explorers, all of my coolest pictures are from here. It’s just visually stunning in every way. There is a small cafe located in the car park where you can pick up a coffee or a (very expensive) Icelandic snack. In the summer, you can take a boat tour around the lagoon, but in the winter, you’re rewarded with Beyond the Wall-vibes and no crowds.
Stop 5: Diamond Beach (Google pin here) 5 minute drive from the lagoon
A beach covered in huge chunks of ice, twinkling in the winter sun and moving through the surf as if weightless. (Remember the poor grandma that got swept out to sea because of a photo op gone wrong? That happened here!) This beach is close to the Glacier Lagoon, and the chunks of ice are actually pieces that have been swept out to sea from the lagoon, polished up by the seawater, and pulled back to shore by the current. This is another one of those places that makes for an excellent Instagram post, with the bright ice standing out against the black sand of the beach. This is a good place to eat lunch in the car or stretch your legs on the beach.
Stop 6: Reynisfjara (Google pin here) 2 hours and 20 minutes from Diamond Beach
Can I just admit that I thought every site was a standout, so that I don’t keep saying the same thing about each one? Because this place was phenomenal. The black sand beach at Reynisfjara is iconic. I’ve seen it in movies, TV shows, commercials. Visually, as someone who lives in black on black on black, it was heaven. The sand tinkles in the breeze like wind chimes, there are towering rocks sticking out of the surf, and the whole otherworldly place feels like you’re in the middle of some fantasy movie. And maybe you are! Legend says the basalt columns lining the beach are trolls caught out in the sunlight after a night of luring ships to their demise. There is a nice restaurant here to grab lunch/dinner if you forgot to bring food (the Icelandic soup was divine after our parka-bound beach walk).
From here, we headed back to Reykjavik for our final night. Remember, the days are shorter in the winter time, and it’s best to try to plan to have most driving done before it gets too dark (streetlights are not a thing on most of the roads).
Bonus Round: Icelandic Horses
Don’t forget to stop and say hi to the horses! You see them quite often from the road. They’re very friendly and eager to say hello (and serve some Blue Steel looks for your pictures), even if they do like to nibble your clothes a little bit. You can touch them but stay outside the fence and please don’t feed them!
Iceland is expensive, and there’s really no way around that. You’re going to be throwing out some serious cash. However, most of these stops are free of charge! So meals, car, and accommodations can be your only expenses. There are a few reasons why the island is so expensive: They have a short farming season so a lot of the food has to be imported, raising prices quite a bit, the exchange rate is painful if you’re working with the US dollar, and finally, they have some fairly high tax rates. If you’re trying to do this trip on a budget, I would do a big shop at the start of your trip and avoid eating out to save money. We literally ate sandwiches in our car for 90% of the weekend (and they were delicious!).
Overall, Iceland was everything I hoped it would be and more. It’s a popular destination, but one that is an absolute must-see. I had no other hope for this trip besides seeing the Northern Lights, but I quickly learned that this place is so much more than what’s dancing in the sky. Go a little bit off the beaten path and try and see some of the more terrestrial sights. Your eyes will thank you!
Other points of interest:
Fjaðrárgljúfur (Google pin here): A deep, river canyon with hiking trails that you will pass on the way to Vatnajökull National Park.
Seljavallalaug Swimming Pool (Google pin here): A 10 meter-wide, hot springs pool from 1928.
Grótta, Norðurströnd Walking Path (Google pin here): An easy place to see the northern lights without leaving Reykjavik. While you still will have city lights disrupting the view, you can catch the lights over the dark ocean.
Have a location or tip that I missed? Drop a comment below to share your expertise so we can all get out there and explore! As always, thank you for every like, share, and comment!