Over the past couple months, I noticed more and more of my photographer friends were visiting Iceland. Even more of the Instagrammers I follow were visiting, too. No doubt this is because the scenery here is stunning–with tall, snowy mountains, winding dirt roads, tall pine trees and striking black beaches. Iceland is a no-fail, picture-perfect location with its harsh, but beautiful landscape it has year-round. As a professional photographer, I specialize in weddings, so I was more than excited when I got booked for a wedding here last November.
Our flight was just six hours from New York City to the Keflavík International Airport, which is just 45 minutes outside of the largest city and capital of Reykjavik. (Book a spot on the FlyBus+ to travel from the airport terminal to Reykjavik in about 45 minutes.) Most flights to Iceland are red-eyes, with just enough time for a cocktail before dozing off and waking up in this fascinating new landscape.
From New York City to Reykjavik, Iceland
I was surprised at how big and modern the city was–a stark contrast with the countryside. My husband and I stayed at CenterHotel Plaza, with reasonably priced rooms that included breakfast every morning. The location is very central, and the concierge helped us arrange everything for us, including a car rental, which was about $90 daily. (Don’t skimp on the insurance they offer–sand and wind damage is common here!) Amazingly, our car had WiFi, which was the best thing ever because we could use our phones for GPS directions. It not only helped us getting around, but it helped us stay connected too: we’d step out of the car to take photos in the middle of nowhere, snap some photos, then be able to post them right away! Most places in Iceland have free wifi too, so there’s no need to get global data or sim cards. If you don’t see a WiFi password combo, just ask, and they’ll give it to you.
We spent a couple days in town before our roadtrip, so we were able to explore a lot of the dining options around Reykjavik. Iceland is famous for it’s seafood–after tourism, the biggest industry is fishing. Our hotel had free breakfast, which included cereals, breads, eggs, ham, cheese, bacon, sausages, and biscuits–this was a huge help, since dining in Iceland can be pricey. Speaking of which, note that alcohol is super expensive in Iceland… We were warned, but skeptical. Unfortunately the rumors were true, but you can avoid it by buying liquor duty free at the airport.
For lunch, head to ATUR OG DRYKKUR which is housed inside the Saga museum, which is worth a visit in itself. Though it’s also open for dinner, their lunch menu is the almost the same and has better prices. Another fun lunch option is to eat a hot dog (or five) at Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur, a cute little Icelandic hot dog stand right in the center of town. For dinner, a great mom and pop restaurant is Resto, a tiny place with fantastic seafood. Make a reservation, and try the five-course tasting menu–this was our favorite meal! Another stand-out meal we had was at Kopar Restaurant, with seafood and Scandinavian fare, and overlooked the harbor and mountains. The food, location and decor were all beautiful. Last, when you can’t stand Icelandic food anymore, or if you just want something familiar–Noodle Station to the rescue! The menu is simple, with three options: chicken, beef, or vegetable. The soup is about £9 (12 USD) and comes packed with yummy noodles.
Though most of the really scenic stuff is outside the capital in the countryside, there’s a couple places in Reykjavik that are worth checking out. For starters, Halgrimskirkja is the largest church is Iceland, and the sixth tallest structure there; you can see it from most parts of town. Nearby, have a cup of coffee at Reykjavik Roasters then walk around the the area to take in the cuteness of the Icelandic houses there. Another great place to visit is Harpa, a music hall and conference center, whose facade is made of steel framework with geometric shaped glass panels of different colors. Hit the cafe for a light meal or coffee, then take a walk around the building and enjoy the architecture.
Roadtrip to the South Coast of Iceland: Black Beaches and Countryside
Vik is a beautiful black sand beach on the south coast of Iceland, and a short roadtrip from Reykjavik, about two hours away. In town, there’s a large gift shop and a small museum–but the real draw here is the otherworldly black beach. The glaciers, mountains, turbulent sea, black volcanic sand, and huge rock formations made me swear I’d stepped into an episode of Game of Thrones. The landscape is so breathtakingly dramatic!
Just outside of Vik, make a pitstop at nearby Sólheimasandur black sand beach to check out the “Falling Plane” wreckage. It’s a very famous photography location; every mega-Instgrammer seems to have photographed it recently. (Or even gotten married there!) Directions can be found via Expert Vagabond.
Last, another two hours from Vik will take you to Jokulsarlon Lagoon, about 4.5 hours from Reykjavik. This huge glacial lake has been the location of many popular films, and is considered one of the natural wonders of Iceland. All my photographer friends told me this was the must see, so I was really bummed we didn’t make it that far!
Roadtrip to the West Coast of Iceland: Geothermal Paradise and the Golden Circle
This part of Iceland was much more bucolic, with rolling hills and farmland as a major part of the landscape. The highlight here is Buðir black church, which has been part of the Icelandic landscape here for over 300 years. It’s painted black to survive the harsh environment, akin to the hull of a ship. We got lucky as we drove through this part of Iceland; not only was it snowing, but we also got to see a ton of roadside horses. They’re super friendly and approachable–probably because they equate humans with treats!
If you can’t commit to a more than a day of actual driving around Iceland, you can do the “Golden Circle” which hits many scenic locations. While actual driving time is only 3 hours, with all the stops along the way you’re looking at 6-8 total, depending on how many places or how long you explore. It includes þingvellir, the closest place to see northern lights from Reykjavik, the Geysir geothermal area, and Gullfoss, the queen of Icelandic waterfalls. If you don’t want to drive, you can take a bus tour–or do it yourself following this map.
Last, the west is also home to the Blue Lagoon, which is probably the most popular tourist attraction in Iceland and rightfully so. The geothermal spa is bright blue in color, and a perfect 100º year-round. It’s recommended you go early or late to avoid the crowds, and buy tickets before you go to make you get in. While you’re here, skip the restaurant and head to the bar at the lagoon to enjoy a cocktail or two, and put on the white mask they give you with special minerals. Despite its popularity with tourists, it’s totally decadent and totally once in a lifetime–much like Iceland as a whole.