How to See Iceland Without Organized Tours

Iceland is a beautiful country with an incredibly unique landscape. Unfortunately, I (like most people) had a relatively short stay in the country and considered the "Golden Circle" to be the most important/worthwhile part of my trip. While there is so much more to do and see in Iceland than just this "standard" one-day tour, most other activities are further inland and don't work so easily for those needing/wanting to stay in Reykjavik. For us, it was more out of necessity rather than desire. We would have loved to go further north and east to see some of the major glaciers and fjords, but it just wasn't in the cards for this trip. Instead, we stuck to Reykjavik and the surrounding areas. For those that are unfamiliar with Iceland and its geography, below is a map (with the Golden Circle route highlighted in blue). Note that Reykjavik, the capital city, is generally the starting and ending point of the route and is at the furthest west point of the ring. 

There are dozens of tour companies (if not more) that offer one-day Golden Circle tours as well as other excursions which leave (mostly) from Reykjavik. But if I was only to have two or three days in Iceland, I didn't want to confine myself to their hours, the inevitable crowds, and the inability to stop on the side of the road whenever I may feel like it. On top of that, had we taken the tour we would have likely not opted to rent a car. That would mean having nothing to do but walk around downtown Reykjavik for the rest of our time there. No way I was going to let that happen! Of course, it was a no-brainer that one day we'd drive the Golden Circle route, but what about the other free day we had? Since we had a car, we had the chance to plan a mini-route for us to get a feel for the country, it's landscape, the architecture and the people. Upon landing at KEF - the airport is actually in Keflavik, a city about 40-minutes (by car) to the west of Reykjavik - I made my way to what loked like a tourism infomration booth. There was a gentleman sitting with a computer and I asked if he'd be able to help me plan out a fun day of driving that began at the airport and would eventually end in Reykjavik. It was barely 11:00am and we really had nothing to do before 8:00pm, so I let him know time was certainly no issue. With that, he flipped through three or four pocket guide books until he found the map he was looking for - the south-western penninsula. He ripped out the page with the map and started making some notes and explaining what we should do. Admittedly, we knew this wasn't going to be the "stellar" natural experience like the Golden Circle, but we were still excited to see what other parts of the country had to offer. Sorry for the crinkles, but here's a picture of the map we had to get us around on our first day in Iceland. 

While we didn't necessarily stop at each place, our goal for this little side-trip was to have a well-planned route that had natural beauty, perhaps some unique landmarks and great photo-taking opportunities. Lucky for us, Iceland is full of those and this drive did not disappoint! The funniest part of the whole planning process though, was when - after he answered questions and spent about 20 minutes helping me - this guy said he was a private guide waiting for a client's flight to arrive and that he had no affiliation with the tourist information booth at which he was sitting. Haha. Oh well... He has happy to help and we were happy to get the advice. In short, his routing had us driving through Garòskagi, Hafnir, Reykjanes, Gunnuhver, Grindavík, Krysuvik, Lake Kleifarvatn, Hafnarjördòr and Garòar, before heading back into Reykjavik for the night. No, we didn't stop at each place; honestly, I'm not sure if we even drove through each city (well, town really)! But the drive was spectacular and we absoultely loved the time we had together in the car and taking in the sites. Of note, were the numerous golf courses, the beautiful rocky shores, the moss-covered volcanic-rock landscape and the bridge between two continents where the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates meet. I'd love to share at least a dozen photos with you all from this drive, but in the interest of time and space, here are just a few of my favorites. 

The next day it was time for the Golden Circle route. We had heard that most of the tours pick up geusts from the Reykjavik hotels between 8:00 and 8:30 in the morning, and usually get going by 9:00. The two huge advantages you have by not going with a tour are time and freedom. To avoide the potential traffic and near-certain crowds at the big attractions Sarah and I headed out by 7:30. This not only allowed us to get a head start on the tours, but also allowed us some wiggle room; if we saw something worth stopping for along the way, we could pull over, hop out and enjoy the view and take some photos. We certainly enjoyed the three main attractions of Thingvellir National Park, the Strokkur and Geysir hotsprings and the mighty Gullfoss falls, but also managed to stop at a few other "off-the-beaten-path" spots for some great relaxation and photo opps. Whether it be a rushing stream (or mini-waterfall) on the side of the road, or a half-hour of watching a single man flyfishing in a huge, postcard-like picturesque lake, we really took full advantage of being on our own. We did all of that, and barely saw anyone else until we got to the Strokkur and Geysir hotsprings, while still managing to get back to our hotel by five or six o'clock in the evening. The great thing was (since we were visiting in late April) the sun didn't begin to set until close to 10:00pm, so we still had plenty of free time!

Now, I know what you all must be thinking.... Ari, the biggest attraction in Iceland is the Blue Lagoon; did you really NOT go there?! In short, the answer is no - we didn't go in. Allow me to explain. The Blue Lagoon is a man-made pool/spa filled with natural, thermal waters. Is it beautiful? Yes. Is there merit to the claims of the minerals helping your skin? Quite possibly. Is it worth the $60++ USD admission price? Hell no (in my humble opinion)! Our new tour-guide friend had mentioned two other things to us at the KEF airport. First, there was a way to go into the Blue Lagoon restaurant/café (and thus see the "lagoon" itself) without paying the admission, and second, that there were several other "local" thermal pools around Reykjavik. Great! So no, Sarah and I did not spend the money just so we could say "we swam in Iceland's Blue Lagoon" but we did go to the cafe to see what the hype was about and to take some photos. As you'll see - excuse the photos, they were taken from behind glass from the warmth of the café - it doesn't seem quite as extravaggant as many may think. And while we didn't get any photos of our local experience, it was quite fun. Imagine a public pool in any major city, but these pools were all 85-95 degrees (farenheit) and were warmed with thermal energy. Apparantly, over 90% of Icelands energy comes from renewable sources... Pretty cool! 

During the rest of our visit, we mainly walked around the city of Reykjavik, did some shopping and just enjoyed to fresh air - something we don't get so much of in Los Angeles. That said, I wanted to mention two other things before ending this very long post (sorry!). First, a restaurant recommendation. Our favorite restaurant was a family-owned establishment that recently relocated to the ground floor in the city hall building. That is located right on the "duck pond" in downtown, in the large modern-looking City Hall. Inside, before getting to the museum (and very cool large-scale Iceland-map replica) you'll see a tiny restuarant nestled in on the left. Just one room with about six or seven tables. The food is great and the service is even better; you will NOT be disappointed. And lastly, the question I got most often from some of my other travel friends: "Did you see that awesome cement church downtown?" Yes, we did. Sarah and I did not go in, but it is a dramatic-looking building. For those that don't know what I'm talking about, I'll throw in one last photo here. Enjoy!

Sorry for the long post everyone. I hope you were able to enjoy it and that it didn't bore you all too much. Have any of you been to Iceland? Did you go on your own or take organized tours? What were your experiences? Hopefully this post (and possibly the comments as well) can help future travelers make educated decisions on how to best explore this beautiful country!

Again, for those wanting a summary of this trip report, here is the breakdown: 

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