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I don’t often return to the same place twice, mainly because there’s so much world out there to see and I don’t want to get FOMO, but certain places end up holding a special place in your heart. For me one of those is Iceland.
March 2019 marked my first (and unforgettable) trip north. We didn’t stay for long enough, we tried to do it so cheap that we only ate two hot service station meals and supermarket snacks in four days, and we exhausted ourselves by cramming too much into too few hours. But I’ve never once regretted anything about that trip because it confirmed that I had to go back one day.
This time around things were more spontaneous, a way of travelling I’ve only adopted since working in aviation, so just three weeks before Christmas I Googled “the best places to spend New Year’s Eve” and Iceland kept coming out on top due to their wild firework-focused celebrations.
I snapped up some flights which had conveniently dropped in price, booked a five-night stay at Grandi by Center Hotels, and began sifting through my stash of thermals…
Day one in Iceland: Reykjavik
We flew out on Friday 29 December, my 29th birthday, and honestly I had the time of my life above the clouds with a tiny bottle of Prosecco and a sunrise view that chased us the whole way there. You can see more from that flight on my Instagram.
By the time we landed the sun was only just rising for the day, because visiting the north in winter means limited daylight. During our trip we only had around four solid hours to play with, so we swiftly collected the keys for our hire car (keep reading for car hire advice) and hit the road, Reykjavik bound.
Once we’d checked into our hotel and layered up, our first stop was Brikk Bakery across the road. Pizza rolls and cinnamon buns make a great birthday lunch, FYI. As the hotel was located on the edge of the city, we spent the last remaining hours of daylight exploring the water’s edge and trudging through the deep snow.
Hack: you’ll find a lot of happy hour offers in the city, but you can save further by packing some bubbly in your suitcase. We popped a bottle in the room before heading out to Grandi Matholl for dinner, a food hall that had an array of street food options which thankfully didn’t break the bank half as much as other Icelandic restaurants would.
Day two in Iceland: The Golden Circle
This is a popular driving route, and with good reason as it’s not too far from Reykjavik. We completed The Golden Circle on our first visit also, but this time the landscape was layered in several feet of that gorgeous squeaky snow that you can spend hours getting lost in.
We filled up at the breakfast buffet, slipping some extra sandwich supplies into our bags to see us through lunch, and headed east so we’d arrive at our first stop as the sun was rising. On that note, not all stops on the route will be worth seeing so be sure to research every route before you set off.
We started our day in Thingvellier National Park, before visiting Geysir, Gullfoss, Kerio Crater, and ending in Selfoss for dinner at Tommis’ Burger Joint. There’s a ton more you can see with more hours of daylight, but these are key sights of the Golden Circle in winter (minus the burger place, of course).
Day three in Iceland: Sky Lagoon and the Reykjanes Pensinsular
Our third day was the last of 2023, so we splurged on a spa day with a difference. Previously we visited the Blue Lagoon which I loved, but as it was closed due to nearby volcanic activity this prompted us to try another. Although manmade, the Sky Lagoon experience just south of Reykjavik is dreamy.
There are different packages available, but as it was so busy we only had the option of the top package called Sky which includes access to the lagoon and the seven-step ritual. Some say it’s not worth the extra money, but personally I enjoyed the saunas and scrub. Not so much the cold water plunge, however. You can also get a costly drink from the swim-up bar, normally I would skip this but as it was NYE it felt appropriate to sip on sparkling wine whilst submerged in the steam.
We spent roughly three hours here and then set our sights on the Reykjanes Pensinsular. A few roads were still closed because of the recent eruption, but eventually we found ourselves at Kleifarvatn Lake and the Seltun Geothermal Area. These two spots ended up being my favourite of the entire trip.
As the sun began to set on 2023 in the most insane burst of golden pink, we ventured back to Reykjavik to get ready for the New Year’s celebrations. It’s hard to put this experience into words, but expect fireworks every second of the evening from sundown until the sun is ready to rise again. Head to the church on the hill for the biggest displays, all set off by locals, but keep your wits about you as there is absolutely no health and safety involved here. See more from that night on my TikTok.
Day four in Iceland: the Snaefellsness Peninsular
Whilst most were nursing sore heads, we were up 06:30 ready to drive north. The Snaefellsness Peninsular is again a route we’ve driven before. but realistically you’d need a lot more time in Iceland or a base elsewhere if you wanted to see entirely different sights every time. For context, driving from one side of Iceland to the other takes almost an entire day without stopping.
We stopped at a few of the key tourist hotspots along the way, such as Ytri Tunga beach (often home to seals) and Budir to see the photographic black Church set in front of the mountains, before circling on round to the star of the show – Kurkjufell Mountain. Both in 2019 and 2023 we were only able to see this mountain through thick falling snow, but on a clear day it’s meant to be a stunner.
The weather really turned at this point, so we continued on the loop before tucking into fish & chips back in Reykjavik (at a whopping cost of £39) before attempting to see the Northern Lights. Again I’ll share more tips on this later in the post, but we managed to spot a faint display from the edge of the city which was the cherry on top of an already amazing holiday.
Day five in Iceland: exploring the South Coast
For our final full day in Iceland we travelled south, stopping at some of the most impressive waterfalls: Urridafoss, Seljalandsfoss, Gljufrabui, Skogafoss and Kvernufoss. Pulling into a car park to see the wild horses on the way, we continued onto the black sand beaches of the south found at Reynisfjara Beach and in the town of Vik. Be careful of the sneaker waves here.
If you have more time you can also visit the plane wreck of Solheimafjara, but as we’d seen this previously and it was too dark for the long beach walk, we decided to skip it this time. Instead, we drove back through Selfoss and enjoyed more street food from The Old Dairy Food Hall.
Sadly that marked the end of our five-day winter road trip in Iceland and we caught our flight home the next morning, but not without a send off from the tectonic plates that decided to shift as we were boarding!
Below you can find all my tips and advice on driving in Iceland, what to pack and spotting the Northern Lights, but don’t hesitate to reach out with any questions.
Things to know about hiring a car in Iceland
- It’s a great option to save on numerous excursions, and to have the freedom of going wherever you please
- There are plenty of good companies to book with, this time around we booked with Budget
- You can usually collect and return the car from the airport, or Reykjavik depending on what suits you better
- Get the full insurance, it’s pricier but having hired two cars in Iceland I can assure you it’s worth it just in case
- Fill the car with layers, emergency items, water, and snacks
- Get fuel before every long journey, sometimes you might not see a station for a while and (trust me) that’s a scary feeling
- Read up on the rules of the road beforehand, such as national speed limits and weather related warnings
- Keep an eye on the every-changing conditions at www.road.is
- Map out your route before your leave, often there aren’t easy places to stop for long periods of time
What to pack for a winter trip to Iceland
- Thermal tops and leggings for each day
- Snow trousers or similar, and a few basic jumpers or thick tops, to cover your thermals
- Warm hats, proper winter gloves, and a cosy scarf and buff
- Proper walking boots and thick thermal socks to wear inside, other shoes for non-exploring activities
- Ice grips for your boots
- A thick waterproof coat, and a thinner base coat to wear underneath
- A few safety items such as a torch, thermal blanket, and power bank
- Your camera, lenses, tripod, memory cards and charger, if you’re into your photography
- Swimwear, if you plan to visit a spa or geothermal pool
- Your usual skin and hair care, with plenty of lip balm, face and body moisturiser as you’ll dry out from the harsh conditions
- Sunglasses, because that low winter sunlight can be blinding
- An umbrella for those rainy days, just hold onto it tightly
How to spot and capture the northern lights in Iceland
- Check local apps and websites such as Aurora, the higher the KP Index the more likely you are to see them, plus you can also see local sighting reports and predictions for the nights ahead
- Find a dark and remote spot to see them, a lot of people flock to the lighthouse in Reykjavik which is often a good base despite the bright car lights driving in and out
- Avoid looking at any light, stay off your phone and keep your eyes on the sky so they can adjust properly
- If you’re taking photos on your iPhone, rest your phone somewhere stable and use night mode to take a long-exposure photo
- If you’re taking photos on your DSLR or mirrorless camera, set it up on a tripod and play with the settings to capture the best version of the lights you’ll ever see (a quick Google will guide you on the rough settings)
- If they’re not blindingly strong, look for whispy clouds that change shape frequently and chances are it’s the aurora
- If in doubt book a northern lights excursion, we did this in 2019 and had a great experience