A couple of years ago my partner surprised me with a birthday trip to Iceland. We’d both wanted to go for a long time and it was the perfect chance to explore this beautiful country. I fell in love. There’s just something about Iceland that drew me in right away, from the capital city Reykjavik to the stunning countryside, I loved it all. I wanted to visit again far sooner, but I only just recently returned from my second of what I am sure will be many trips to Iceland. My initial feelings held true – I still love this small island. But I also learned a lot more about traveling around Iceland, including a few things I wanted to share that will help any traveler, no matter their level of expertise with the country.
Best part of Reykjavik is just being there
The capital of Iceland, Reykjavik, isn’t a large city but there’s just something about the downtown core that I love. The colorful Scandinavian buildings, the dark winter mornings and plenty of fresh coffee found all around town have all endeared it to me. It’s homey, cozy and for me is a great place to explore and just do nothing. That’s pretty much what I did on my second visit to the city. On my first trip I saw all the sites, visited museums and did what every first time tourist to Reykjavik should do. That frankly doesn’t leave a whole lot for a second visit, and guessing this I planned just one day and night in the city, which was more than enough. Instead of trying to find new things to do, my partner and I instead revisited parts of the city we enjoyed most. We walked through the main commercial area, grabbed a Nutella crepe at a café we like, went to the top of Hallgrímskirkja Church, strolled along the harbor front and ate at an Italian restaurant we found on our first sojourn to the city. The weather didn’t always cooperate, but it was a fun way to spend the day. Instead of killing myself trying to find quirky little tourist sites, I decided to just enjoy myself and go with the flow. The more I think about it, that may be the best thing for any tourist to the city to do, no matter how many times they’ve been.
Staying in the countryside was key
More than anything, I wanted to see much more of Iceland than I did on my first visit, which was primarily relegated to places along the Golden Circle. Thanks to social media, I discovered a company a friend used and reached out to them. Icelandic Farm Holidays offers a number of packages combining car rental with stays in some amazing rural locations. Bed and breakfasts, country hotels, self-catering cottages, apartments and traditional farm stays are all part of their repertoire and for me, offered the best way to see more of the ‘real’ Iceland and to get to know the countryside a little better. I will devote a separate post about them, but it was one of the best travel decisions I’ve ever made and not only will I recommend them to anyone who will listen, but I fully intend on only using them in the future. They made our experience easy, from picking up the rental car, to providing maps for our self-drive journey and of course the rural farm hotel deep in the Icelandic wilderness. It provided us a home base from which we probed even deeper into the countryside, nearly overwhelmed by the beauty of the place. I think this combination of time in Reykjavik along with several nights out in the countryside is key for anyone who visits Iceland. The day trips from the capital are fine and fairly comprehensive, but you’re going to lose something by not staying out in the rural areas.
Road trip made the difference
The first time I visited our trip was part of a larger package, which was fine since we were short on time. It included transfers, hotel and activities every day. A robust set of day trips is actually a very normal way for many tourists to visit Iceland and while it was fine that first trip, my second visit to Iceland was made all the better by renting a car. Coordinated along with our hotel through Icelandic Farm Holidays, we had maps and a GPS and a general idea of which direction to go. It was perfect though, and allowed us total freedom to go and see whatever we wanted to. Random waterfall 30 kilometers away? No problem. Tiny bakery in a small fishing village? Perfectly manageable. I’ve said this before, but road trips are probably my favorite way of seeing any new place, there really is nothing like having that freedom to do whatever your heart desires. For Iceland though it becomes a necessity if you really want to see and experience the rural landscapes. The day tours are ok, but it’s not until you drive through frosty snow-covered mountain ranges as the sun rises, basking everything in a light pink hue that you really start to appreciate and love the beauty that Iceland enjoys in such abundance.
Changing plans is ok
I’ve written about my own need to overplan trips, recently I even devoted a post to the over thinking traveler. Iceland was a perfect example of my overplanning an otherwise good trip, but one thing I did do successfully was to ignore my plans. Our trip wasn’t very lengthy, but we were confronted with new options and choices almost every day, ideas that went against my all so precious spreadsheets and guidebooks. By going with our gut feelings and turning left instead of right we had a better experience than I think we would have had otherwise. Instead of spending two days exploring a certain peninsula, we compressed it to one and spent the other day snowmobiling around a glacier. I never thought I’d do it, but it quickly became a great memory from the trip. Of course this holds true for any trip, but is especially the case in Iceland. There are so many hidden wonders found around the island that you need to give yourself more than enough time to explore it and to frankly be surprised by it. The most beautiful places you’ll find there won’t be included in that trusty guidebook.
I have a lot more to say about my recent experiences in Iceland, but I thought I’d offer up my first thoughts about visiting multiple times and why, more than many other places around the world, it calls for more and more return visits.