If you’ve been on Instagram lately, you’ve probably noticed that everybody is going to Iceland. A small Viking nation in the middle of the icy Atlantic, Iceland is a wild and remote island nation full of waterfalls, black sand beaches, volcanoes, glaciers, and hot springs—all the stunning natural beauty you need for a gorgeous escape from the daily grind. But while the Land of Fire and Ice often looks like something out of a fantasy novel (Game of Thrones, anyone?), it’s surprisingly easy to get to. Just a short, cost-affordable flight from the US, Iceland is a lot more accessible than it appears in the photos, and practically everybody on the island speaks English, despite most of the towns’ names being largely unpronounceable. So what are you waiting for? Here’s a handy guide for how to plan your Icelandic adventure with a few must-see spots to see along the way.
Extend Your Layover – Planning a European vacation and have a little wiggle-room in your itinerary? Iceland is a common stop for flights crossing the Atlantic in either direction, and extending your layover in Reykjavik from a few hours to a few days is an easy way to squeeze two adventures into one trip. The best part is that it won’t cost you any extra—both Icelandair and WOW Air allow free layover extensions of up to seven days on both one-way and round-trip flights. It’s a cinch to do: Just select the “Stopover” option when choosing your flights. One important thing to keep in mind is that there’s no Uber in Iceland, and the airport is about an hour away from the city, meaning a taxi to your hotel could run you over $100USD. There’s a bus service located at the baggage claim which is not only much cheaper, it also has WiFi.
Explore Reykjavik – We know you’re here for the black sand beaches and volcanic vistas, but Iceland’s capital city has a ton to offer, from bumping nightlife to world-class restaurants serving high-concept takes on traditional Icelandic cuisine. Adventurous diners can feast on horse meat and dried fermented fish, or opt for the simpler (and delicious!) local lamb soup to warm up if you’re visiting in the colder months. The city is small enough to walk your way around, barhopping from the Lebowski Bar (yes, it’s a Big-Lebowski-themed bar, complete with White Russians all day and a rug that really ties the room together) across town to Slippbarinn, a funky cocktail bar on the docks credited with starting Iceland’s modern mixology scene. History buffs can check out the Viking Museum, and sightseers should take a stroll on a clear night to see the Sun Voyager, a modern sculpture commemorating Iceland’s Viking roots that looks spectacular beneath the Northern Lights.
Beat the Crowds: Rent a Camper Van – While a volcanic island in the middle of the ocean seems remote, tourism is Iceland’s main attraction, and there’s nothing worse than being stuck in line for hours to see a waterfall. The best way to evade the crowds is to make your own itinerary, and with a Ring Road encircling the entire country, Iceland is an easy place to navigate on your own. A number of companies rent a variety of vehicles, from small, self-contained camper vans to big SUVs capable of navigating the off-road interior, so there’s something suited to everyone’s level of adventure. The advantages of exploring this way stack up quickly, starting with the fact that your transportation and lodging costs are combined. You won’t be a slave to somebody else’s schedule, you don’t need to sit on a bus for hours with strangers, and you can sleep practically wherever you want (though never on private property without permission). Embracing #vanlife gives you the freedom to fall asleep to the sound of crashing surf, wake up on a beach before dawn, drive to a waterfall, and be the first to catch the sunrise through the mist.
Hot Springs – However you choose to see Iceland, you’re missing out if you don’t take some time out of your day to take a dip in one of the country’s amazing volcanic hot springs. No matter the season or the weather, lounging in the piping-hot mineral water heated by liquid-hot magma is one of the best ways to relax. The Blue Lagoon gets all the press, just a short drive from the capital city, but there are more secluded springs all around the country. If you’re touring the south of the island, the Secret Lagoon isn’t exactly a secret, but it’s a gorgeous place to sip some champagne or crack a beer and float around in some natural steaming water. More intrepid travelers should try The Seljavallalaug Pools (don’t worry, we can’t pronounce it either), which require a drive down a dead-end dirt road and an easy half-mile hike up a canyon to an old, abandoned (but beautiful) pool with nothing but gnarly rock formations, mountains, and sky surrounding you while you soak.
Northern Lights – The Aurora Borealis, or Northern Lights, are a show-stopping phenomenon that’ll leave your jaw in your lap, and there’s no place better to get a good look than Iceland. Its sparse population means low light-pollution, and the northern latitude makes it the perfect spot to see the night sky light up in dancing coils of purple and electric green. If Aurora is what you’re after, you’ll want to avoid the summer, as Iceland is subjected to eternal sunshine from April to August. Late September through November is dark enough to see the lights without being too cold to stand outside looking up for an hour, though they’re visible all winter long.
Ryan Polhemus is a freelance writer based in Boston. When he's not scribbling about (or sampling) the local food and drink scene, he can likely be found on a cheap flight to a strange destination, where he will scribble about and sample somebody else's local food and drink scene.