My hotel stays featured in this blog were complementary, but the rest of the trip was paid for and organised by myself. All opinions are my own
Iceland has been top of my photography bucket list for as long as I can remember. The plane wreck, the colourful houses in Reykjavik, black beaches, waterfalls, lupines and ponies. Iceland ticks every box for adventurous and dramatic images.
I had always wanted to see the midnight sun, I loved the idea of endless daylight (time to shoot), golden hours that lasted several hours, and the lush fields of lupines that cover acres of Iceland in the summer months.
One thing that worried me was everyone I asked seemed to go to Iceland for ages! By ages I mean 10 days or 2 weeks. I didn’t have ages, I never do. Getting away for even a night or two is usually super complicated for me, and most of my trips away are very brief.
Ok, so there is heaps ands heaps to see in Iceland. If you do have 2 weeks, you still won’t see it all – please don’t be deterred! It’s easy to feel totally overwhelmed by alllll the things to see, but here are the facts as I see them.
- It’s only a 3 hours flight
- The flights are not expensive (although hotels may be) so it’s not like you are going to Australia, and need to make it worthwhile.
- Reykjavik is less than an hour from the airport, so no different to visiting most cities.
- There is loads to see within easy reach (2 hours drive) of Reykjavik.
My point is that I was put off going for a long time, because I felt it was too epic and difficult to organise. It doesn’t have to be that way, and it’s most definitely worth putting on the list for a short break or weekend away.
So if you find yourself with 2-4 days to spend in Iceland, here are my top tips of things to do!
You can’t go to Iceland and not see the capital city of Reykjavik. It’s small but perfectly formed with a kind of nordic charm, and delightfully colourful corrugated iron buildings. It’s fairly easy to cover on foot, and I would spend at least a day exploring here.
You will soon get a sense for the lay out of the city, and you can’t go wrong just wandering around the side streets off the main street leading up to Hallgrimskirkja. The colourful houses are utterly charming, and will brighten your day whatever weather Iceland throws at you.
The iconic church itself Hallgrimskirkja is well worth a visit. It costs 900ISK (about £5.70 or 6.70 Euros) to enter and go up the tower. The view is fantastic, even on a rainy and misty day like when I was there. You get a great sense of the city, and the colours of the houses look wonderful.
I also decided to walk to the old harbour. It’s lively and charming, with loads of great looking places to eat and drink. The views are beautiful across the bay to Mount Esja, offering lots of photo opportunities. Head here if you have an extra day and want to do a whale watching or puffin watching tour – high on my list for next time I visit!
I stayed in the beautiful Tower Suites which I can’t recommend highly enough. This friendly, cosy boutique hotel has the most amazing position and views across the city. As one of the very few high rise buildings in Reykjavik, it’s views are uninterrupted. The breakfast was also incredible. If you’re looking for a very special place to stay, then this is just perfect.
So after all that walking, it’s time to head out of the city and explore!
The Blue Lagoon
The Blue Lagoon is one of those experiences that divides people. Some love it and some think it’s overrated. I’d never done anything like this before, so for me it was really unique and special. It costs from around £45, so it’s really not the end of the world if you go and don’t love it. It would cost waaaaay more than that to spend a morning in a posh spa in the UK.
It’s located about 45 minutes out of Reykjavik, down towards the airport. Lots of people suggested to me to go either to or from the airport, but personally I didn’t think I’d be in the right frame of mind at either of those points in the trip. Plus trying to get organised and putting wet things away in a suitcase just before you fly sounds frankly rubbish to me.
I booked for my second day at the first time slot of the day – 7am. It’s no big deal – you get up at 6am, drive down there, have a couple of hours and can still be back in time for your hotel breakfast. I would definitely recommend doing it this way! When I arrived there was only a handful of cars in the car park, and the whole place was very, very quiet until around 8am when more people started to come into the pool.
The water is amazing and it’s so relaxing bobbing about in the warmth with the cold air nipping at your cheeks. You get a free face mask (which is by the way incredible) and a drink included in the basic ticket price, and there’s no time limit to how long you spend in there. So you can really get your money’s worth if you choose to!
Photography wise, your mobile phone really is your best bet in this situation. I came out with my camera, took a few photos and then put it away in the changing room again. Then I just relaxed for an hour or so, and then nipped back in to get my phone. I took a few snaps on a timer – there are handy rocks in the middle of the pool where you can balance your phone! I do think a waterproof case would be a good idea though. I didn’t have one and was anxious about an accident!
Don’t forget to book this online in advance. I don’t think you can just turn up on the day.
After returning from the Blue Lagoon I enjoyed my breakfast and spent about an hour lathering conditioner into my hair (they warn you about this, and they are not joking!! Use the conditioner on offer before you go in!) Then I decided to head out in my hire car towards the Snaefellsnes Peninsula. Lying to the north east of Reykjavik, the peninsula offers many of Iceland’s greatest attractions in one place. Be warned though, the peninsula is 90 km long, so even once you have reached it driving around it is no small undertaking.
A lot of the websites you read will suggest this is easily doable in a day, but I was out in my car for 10 hours, reaching the village of Arnarstapi towards the end of the southern coast road, before turning around and heading back again. There are many, many beautiful places to stop at along the way, but remember each one takes you off the main road and therefore adds onto that journey time. Plus you will want to get out, maybe hike a bit and take some photos!
I do think this is worth doing though, especially in Summer when the roads are clear and easily passable. It’s an easy and beautiful drive, and there are plenty of refreshments stops at the roadside.
A word about driving in Iceland
A lot of people go to Iceland and only go on organised tours. This is possibly sensible in winter (when was sensible ever a consideration 😉), and a great way to make sure you get to see your quota of sights. However if you go in the summer hiring a car gives you a great amount of freedom and flexibility. You can head to the main attractions at the quietest times, or even in the middle of the night. You can stop whenever and wherever you choose.
I would always rather travel this way, but was a little nervous about how easy the driving would be in Iceland especially as I was travelling alone. However I found the roads to be very well maintained, long, straight and fairly quiet. Everything is extremely well signed, and well set up for tourists. Unlike in the UK where you’ll barely find a phone signal if you spend a week in Norfolk, I had 4G on my phone almost all the time. I could use my maps, search online for information, and was never worried about being stranded if I were to break down. Every parking machine I came across took cards and contactless payments, and even the refreshment vans at the side of the road had contactless machines. There we’re also clean and free toilets to use at the roadside around the peninsula.
I can’t speak for how this may change when the snow comes to Iceland, but I found the country to be simple to navigate and incredibly tourist friendly.
Anyway, there is SO much to see around the peninsula, but here a few of my highlights. If you want more information, this is a good blog post I found with more details.
The Budakirkja black church
This is one the classic Iceland photo opportunities, and it’s definitely one worth taking. The church is well signposted from the main road, and it was fairly busy when I was there. You may find parked cars in the way of your shot!
Don’t forget to walk around the back of the church for the view towards the snow capped volcano in the distance. The surrounding area was very peaceful, and filled with wild flowers when I was there. Just as I was leaving a bride and groom arrived to have their weddings photos taken, just to finish off that picture perfect moment!
The village of Arnarstapi
I must confess, by this point of my day I felt like I was never going to reach Arnarstapi. The volcano seems to get closer and closer, but never bloody close enough! I finally got there at 9pm, and I went for a lovely walk along the cliff tops. There is a stream rushing down from the volcano to the sea, and thousands of nesting birds on the cliffs. The coastline is dramatic and wild, and at times the path almost disappears into the ocean. Be very careful if you go with children.
It was an absolute breath of fresh air and I loved it. The village itself is adorable, and there’s several cafes which looked like they served really nice food but you can also just get a coffee to take away. If you walk through the village and head down the hill, you will eventually reach the harbour with the famous tiny white cottage perched on the cliff edge. I couldn’t find it and was texting my friend Sean to get instructions while I was there! What did I say about always having a phone signal!
There was loads of waterfalls, rock formations, villages, churches and beaches that I didn’t get to see on the peninsula, and another time I would most definitely make more time for this and head to the fjords. If you’ve already done the golden circle or would like to stay away from the main tourist traps, then the Snaefellsnes peninsula could be for you!
The South Coast
The south coat of Iceland is definitely one of the most popular parts of the country to visit, and with good reason. Within a few hours of Reykjavik you can see some of Iceland’s most iconic sights.
The hotel is set away from the road and near the river Ranga, which guests have free access to. It’s really lovely being able to wander down the the river where fishermen catch the salmon that swim up it. The hotel itself is quite a traditional hunting lodge style, but it’s super cosy and the restaurant offers a really unexpected astronomic experience. There are also several geothermal hot tubs in the grounds which are free for guests to use.
As you head down towards the south coast of Iceland, the countryside becomes even more beautiful and wild. There are dozens of ponies by the roadside, and lush meadow planes that soar into seemingly vertical cliffs in the distance. Nestled at the foot of the cliffs are little villages, farms and churches. I would absolutely love to see these landscapes in the snow, with the red roofs of the building standing out.
As you head out of the hotel gate you will soon see the first of the waterfalls. You can’t miss it, just be careful not to crash your car! Seljalandsfoss is one of the highest and most famous waterfalls in Iceland. It’s really accessible and very simple to pay it a visit. Parking is plentiful and the parking machines take contactless payments.
Don’t forget to walk around to the left too and admire the smaller and more hidden waterfall a short distance away. You can walk all the way around the back of Seljalandsfoss, but prepare to get yourself and your camera absolutely soaked!
When I was there the sun was beginning to set over the sea, to the front of the waterfall, which offered lots of opportunities for beautiful rainbows!
Heading a little further down the coast you will soon see another of Iceland’s most famous waterfalls, Skógafoss. As you approach this area the lupines become more dense and the view of the waterfall from the road is amazing. It’s well worth standing back and admiring it from afar.
You can walk right up to this waterfall, although again you would get completely soaked! I managed to put my camera on my tripod near a rock, out of other people’s way and walk closer to the falls to get a few photos. Standing at the foot of Skógafoss is a completely awe inspiring and exhilarating experience. You heart pounds in your chest and the noise of the water is incredible.
There is a very, very steep climb to the top of this waterfall, and a viewing platform near the top. If you are able, I would definitely do this! Don’t stop at the platform though, walk along the cliff path that runs next to the river before it reaches the fall. It’s incredibly beautiful and much quieter up there. Not many people seemed to bother to do this. The view back towards the fall and out over the sea is amazing.
Reynisfjara Black Beach
Next up along the south coast is the black beach at Reynisfjara. For the first time in my driving experience this is where I encountered some very twisty and steep roads, and warnings signs that the route may in impassable in winter. So if you do visit Iceland when there is snowfall, this may be where you will have problems.
I reached the beach at midnight expecting it to be quiet, but it wasn’t. There was even several coaches parked up and loads of cars. However on the beach itself most people had headed left, straight toward the incredible basalt columns and the caves. I headed right, towards the sunset of course, and there was only myself and one other photographer in sight.
I loved this beach, it’s really incredibly special and well worth a visit. It was perishably cold and the wind was like a knife, but I still spent about an hour here taking photos.
My sensible head kicked in at this point and I decided to head home. It was 1am and the light still clinging to the horizon over the sea, but it was pretty dark and very chilly. The drive home was an amazing experience in itself. You can read more here about my experience with the horses and the midnight sun, but it was a pretty special time.
The next day I revisited some of these places to take more photos, and went a little further to Vik. The church there is instafamous, and in summer has a field of lupines growing at the front of it. It makes a beautiful picture, but I didn’t find much else to see or do here.
There are numerous other things I would have loved to have seen along the coast, but time (and exhaustion levels) in the end stopped me.
The DC3 Plane Wreck – I pulled up in the car park here at 10pm one evening all ready to get my epic fuselage shot, however there are warnings signs when you park telling you it’s a 3 hour hike. There was other things I wanted to see so decided against it. One day though, one day.
Vestmannaeyjar – also known as the Westman Islands. This looks like an incredible trip, and definitely a good one for puffin watching.
Jökulsárlón – this glacial lagoon is probably the thing I’m most gutted I didn’t reach. I have seen incredible photography from the beach here, with large shards of diamond like ice washed up on the shore.
Ultimately, I will just have to go back! Having seen Iceland in summer, I would now absolutely love see it in the snow. It’s an incredible, magical country, and if next time I can still only make it for 3 or 4 days I will take that chance, because I know it’s worth it.
I hope you find these tip useful, and I hope I’ve remembered everything correctly! Thank you for reading x