Iceland: Land of Fire, Ice, and Tourists
Tourism to Iceland is booming, and it’s too late to get in under the radar. I’ve heard it called “The Starbucks of vacation destinations”, as in, “you can’t get much more basic than this.” But we get it – what’s not to love? It’s a fantasy landscape dotted with geysers and hot springs. The Land of Fire and Ice boasts some of the world’s most interesting landscape, to say the least.
So now, the question is how can Iceland be experienced as authentically as possible? Can you still visit Iceland without fighting through the hordes of tourists and gift shops? The answer, thankfully, is still yes.
Your answer lies in time management, and knowing the country forwards and backwards BEFORE you get there. In this blog I outline the do’s and don’ts if you want to avoid the crowds, the tourist spots that ARE worth a stop, and the off-the-beaten path destinations that will make your trip truly unique.
Follow along on the map below where I have highlighted some of the places I will mention, as well as a few others.
First and foremost... stay away from The Blue Lagoon:
The Blue Lagoon is probably the most un-authentic experience Iceland has to offer. This overcharged and overrated spa is (quite literally) swimming with tourists. I cannot stress enough that you should stay as far away from this tourist trap as possible. Iceland has thousands of natural hot springs that are not only private, but placed in unimaginably picturesque landscapes. Oh, and did I mention they’re free?
And... The Golden Circle
The most important thing that most people don’t know before visiting is that Iceland's tiny population is incredibly spread out across the country, while the majority of tourists are heavily concentrated to one general area. With that said- the golden circle is Iceland’s Disneyworld. At just about an hour’s drive from Reykjavik, this destination is the go to for weekender’s and long layovers. Tour groups will claim that this is the ultimate overview of the Iceland experience, but the only real advantage is its proximity to the airport and luxury hotels.
Skip the Summer crowds
Summer is prime tourist season, but don’t blindly follow the pack! Winter/Spring can be far better for many reasons. First and most importantly, the Northern Lights (but you already knew that).
What makes winter even better is the weather – which summer nearly entirely lacks. Sure, sunny skies are nice – but they make for pretty boring photos. The moody skies winter brings add to the wildness of the landscape in a way that clear skies just can't. And with snow still scattered on the ground and mountaintops, you will have the chance to see Iceland's varying landscapes (green fields and black sand beaches) in contrast with white snow. And even better than that, weather changes so rapidly in that it rarely rains or snows for longer than about an hour at a time.
BUT – if you do decide to go in the summer, be sure to head to the West Fjords. The West Fjords are completely shut down and off limits during the winter because the roads are not plowed and it’s basically an impossible death sentence. In the summer though, this remote landscape opens up and boasts some of the most amazing views in the country (if you’re willing to hike).
Road trip the Southern Coast (but don't stop there)
So the biggest tourist population tends to hang out in the Golden Circle, and they slowly disperse the further east you travel. Most travelers give themselves 1-2 weeks in Iceland, and as we all know by now, Iceland is prime road trip material. So the tourists that are here longer than a weekend will eventually wander out past an hour’s proximity to the airport, and almost all of them head east along the south coast. Why? Because this is where 99.99% of all the most famous Iceland pictures are taken.
Now here comes the surprise: I’m not going to tell you to skip these densely packed tourist spots. Because they are in fact, undeniably awesome. But here’s the trick: they are all super quick stops. You can hit them all on day 1-2. These spots are right off the road (you can see them a mile out) and the walk from the parking lot is less than a couple minutes. This is where doing your research comes in handy: know your drive times, and plan how long you want to spend at each spot.
Venturing past the crowds:
Most tourists will go as far as Hofn before heading back, and it’s because the most dramatic Icelandic landscape seems to be packed into this general area of the Ring Road. Venturing past this point though, is when the country transforms into a wild untouched landscape. The energy out there, past all the cars and civilization, feels magical. It’s a different world.
Wander through the tiny towns like Seydisfjordor. When I visited in March, this town had one guesthouse open, and we had to check in at a cafe across town because there was only one girl working in town that night. The same girl took our dinner order and served breakfast at the hotel the next morning. Wandering around the town the next day, there was not a single other person in sight.
As we drove further north, towns became more and more sparse, and the raw landscape took over. For some, this can be a scary thought. For others, it is just the added element of adventure they need.
It can help to have accommodations panned out ahead of time in the Northern regions, if only so that you can ask a local for their personal recommendations on sites to see near their home. Despite Iceland’s booming presence on the internet, there are still many secret local’s only spots that are waiting to be discovered.
And my last piece of advice: leave time to get lost
The best sights you will see in Iceland are often the ones you did not plan. Driving from place to place is an experience all its own because the landscape is dramatic and surprising at every turn. Be sure to give yourself the time and leeway to get a little lost, maybe follow the sketchy dirt road that might lead nowhere.
While driving along the east coast, we got lost and ended up taking a 3 hour detour along the most beautiful (and isolated) cliff-face I have ever seen. We arrived on this road mere minutes after a small landslide, and had to get out of the car every few feet to kick the larger rocks out of the way. The entire time we were in this area, not a single other car drove by. Now, when I look back on that trip, it was that moment that sticks out more than any of the amazing tourist spots. It was the ridiculous situation I found myself in, and the unbelievable beauty that I was surrounded by.
These places, off the beaten path, are where the best memories are made. When you get away from the expected, there is only room for the unexpected. And after all isn’t that what all our best stories start with?