September 4-5, 2018
Icelandair and WOW airlines are always dropping incredible seat sales to Europe so it was only a matter of time before I jumped on one of these deals (tip: Icelandair allows a reasonable amount of carry on luggage so you can skipped checked bag fees, WOW does not). Included in these deals is a free stopover in Iceland so… why not? I spent 1.5 days in Iceland and wish I had given myself more time to explore this amazing place.
My flight landed at Keflavik airport at 5:55 am. I had arranged to get picked up by a fellow solo traveler with the shared goal of seeing the golden circle. We arranged this using the carpool website www.samferda.net which I recommend for any solo traveler wanting to save some money and have some company in Iceland. The passenger pick up area at Keflavik isn’t completely obvious but Lester from New Jersey and I found each other in the short term parking area (first 15 minutes is free) – you may want to discuss a meeting spot ahead of time.
We set off to do the traditional golden circle itinerary along with every other tourist in Reykjavik but with a few additional stops making the self drive option hands down a better idea. It was significantly cheaper for the two of us, we got to go at our own pace, and we were able to add a few stops. Our hope of beating the tour buses was slightly dashed when we hit rush hour traffic (yep that’s a thing in Reykjavik) and my navigational skills had us circle around a couple times.
We started by visiting Porufoss waterfall. There was only one other person there making this a special little spot. I sure was happy I packed a waterproof jacket and toque. It was raining and cold. Apparently this is typical end of summer weather in Iceland.
Next, we got to Thingvellir national park just as the parking and visitor centre opened at 9 am. Parking was 750 isk, but entry was free. We walked 1600 m to Oxararfoss
waterfall. When we walked back we took another route past the little church and cemetary. Total time was maybe an hour and by the time we left, the tour buses had arrived. Get here early to avoid insane crowds.
Next suggested stop was Laugarvatn town where there’s a hot springs spa like experience for much cheaper than the blue lagoon. We skipped this and keep reading to find out why.
We were excited to check out Bruarfoss waterfall next but unfortunately the road turn off was road was closed. If it’s open, it looks like a great spot.
Next we checked out the Faxi waterfall. It was a little out of the way (10 minutes) and so it may make sense for you to do it on your way back if you’re wanting to do the big 3 stops as early as possible.
When we reached the Geysir, so did every other tourist coming by tour bus. The crowds didn’t take away from the magic of this place. The main Geyser (called Geysir) is dormant but watching the Strokkur geyser explode every 3-5 minutes was incredible. There were plenty of other geothermal hot pools to observe as well. If you want to break up this day into more than one, there is a hotel here which would be an ideal spot to stop as there’s a nice hike overlooking the hot pools, and you’d be able to dodge the crowds.
Gullfoss waterfalls were the most crowded but understandably so. The two tiered waterfalls were stunning and had the most beautiful backdrop.
Next on our list was Skaholt. We skipped this cathedral but it’s an option to check out if you have time.
The Kerid crater was the only place with an admission fee. A fair 400 isk for the relatively uncrowded stop. You can walk around both the top of the crater and inside around the lake. The coolest part was finding out that occasionally concerts are held here with the band on a raft taking advantage of the acoustics of the amphitheatre style crater.
The last (and best) stop was the Hveragerdi geothermal park. This was an absolute highlight and a must do – even if you only do it as a day trip from Reykjavik. The hike is an hour walk up – some say 45 minutes but you need to factor in all the photo taking you’ll be doing. We spent a good hour or two soaking in the
geothermal river, better than any hot springs I’ve ever visited and definitely a solid alternative to the pricey Blue Lagoon. Bring beer and water shoes or sandals. There is minimal privacy for changing so you may want to arrive prepared for this soak. This is one of my top travel experiences ever. If you do nothing else in Reykjavik, this is a must!
After the hike back down, we drove back to Reykjavik. The total day was about 13 hours at a leisurely pace, stopping to enjoy each spot.
The total we spent in gas for this endeavour was 5600 isk, definitely making carpooling a good idea.
On a practical note, most of these spots all have cafes, gift shops and washrooms. There are very few service stations along the way. I realized when I got back that the Vega bar and stout beer I had were not enough for the day and I was starving, regretting not stopping for the vegan pizza in Hveragerdi. After checking into the Oddsson hostel and a quick shower, I made the 35 minute walk to the Hlemmur Matholl food hall looking for some good Mexican food. Pro tip: check the hours of operation before heading out for dinner at 10 pm or you may end up with a sad Subway sandwich at the end of an epic day. Still better than the minke whale on the menu in several restaurants (wtf Iceland?!?)
When I arrived back to Oddsson, I overheard some people saying they were going to try to see the northern lights. Doubtful me didn’t believe they’d see them. Not this time of year or this close to the city. Yeah sure enough, I found out later that they had been out. So yes, you can see northern lights from Reykjavik- you just need to make sure you get far enough from the city lights of downtown.
Since my flight was leaving at 16:10 and the airport is quite far from downtown, I had to decide how to spend my half day. I opted to do the city walk “free” walking tour. This is a fantastic way to see Reykjavik and learn a bit if history. It isn’t actually free, but you’re encouraged to pay what you think it is worth. Before the tour I grabbed breakfast and a sandwich to save for later lunch later at a cafe called Lemon. I noticed this place the night before when I had been out walking and it was definitely worth going back for. The food was incredible, atmosphere super comfortable to relax in on a cold morning and at 2080 isk for breakfast and lunch, prices reasonable for Iceland.
After the tour I had to go all the way back to grab my bag at the hostel just to turn around and make the 20 minute walk back to the Gray Line meeting point. Pro tip: book your accommodations close to transportation. Oddsson was a fantastic hostel with a hot tub, yoga classes, beautiful huge windows overlooking the water, but for a one night stay, something closer would have made more sense for me. Yes I could have done hotel pick up for a small fee but I absolutely hate those airport shuttle buses so opted for the free pick up spot. I paid €19 for the bus to the airport from the pick up spot at bus stop 6 beside the culture house in downtown Reykjavik. After walking 20 minutes and arriving 15 minutes early, driving to the main bus terminal, waiting for everyone else, and then the 45 minute ride to the airport, it ended up taking me 2 hours. The argument for the shuttle bus over the public bus is the amount if time as the shuttles advertise 45 minutes to the airport. From their station outside of downtown. I doubt the public bus would take more than 2 hours from downtown. So if you’re wanting to save money (and possibly time!) have a look into the public bus #55 as an option. If you are wanting to take a shuttle bus, Gray Line is cheaper than Flybus and seem to offer similar schedules and service.
It turns out I didn’t need to worry about time as my flight ended up being delayed 3.5 hours. As much of a hassle this was, a delay of over 3 hours warrants mandatory compensation by the airline of €400 for medium haul flights. Since this was more than I paid for my entire flight, it wasn’t the worst thing that could have happened. There are of course many exclusionary reasons a claim could be denied so I’ll wait and see the outcome…
– pack toque, water proof jacket, warm layers (yes, even in summer)
– if you’re on a short stopover, stay central
– there is no Uber and taxis are expensive. – If you’re staying in Reykjavik, stay centrally and walk everywhere. If you plan to leave Reykjavik, rent a car so you can do your own epic self guided golden circle tour!
A few things I would have done if I’d have had a bit more time…
– Top of church & 5th floor concert hall for best views of the city
– Phallogical museum – this seemed random and interesting.
– Toured around the rest of this amazing country!