Cover image by Lee Gale Photography.
It’s no secret that Iceland is experiencing a tourism boom. It may seem like everyone has Iceland at the top of their bucket list and for good reason. Northern Lights, geothermal activity galore, hundreds of impressive waterfalls around every bend and landscape strange enough to make you think you’re on another planet. What’s not to love?
Iceland is topping the of photographers everywhere and as you begin your research on what to see and where to go, it’s easy to get overwhelmed. Rest assured there is no bad itinerary for Iceland but knowing these few tips will certainly help get you started.
If you’re short on time and you must pick only one place to visit, Snaefellsnes peninsula is an excellent choice. It’s only a two-hour drive from Reykjavik and will certainly quench your thirst for mountains and waterfalls. Snaefellsnes peninsula is home to Kirkjufell mountain, Gerðuberg Cliffs, the Black Church in Budir, charming old fishing villages and the Basalt Cliffs. No matter the weather, this spot is a winner.
Kirkjufell mountain. Photo by Lee Gale Photography.
Yes, this is one of the more popular and touristy routes in Iceland but the scenery is just too unreal to miss. This route includes stop-offs at Gullfoss waterfall, Geysir, and Thingvellir National Park. If you're looking for a good mix of waterfall viewing, hot spring soaking and a bit of winter hiking, this area will serve you well.
Gullfoss. Photo by Lee Gale Photography.
Found in southeast Iceland, this glacial lagoon is surely one of the more popular attractions in the area but just because it’s popular doesn’t mean you should skip it. From 1920 to 1965, the Breiðamerkurjökull Glacier retreated very quickly leaving this turquoise lagoon with floating icebergs behind.
Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon. Photo by Lee Gale Photography.
A popular waterfall located about 155 kilometers away from Reykjavik on the Ring Road. You can visit year round but take caution in the winter as the rocks at the base of the waterfall will be slippery. Pro tip, you can climb to the top of this waterfall for a different perspective.
Skogafoss Waterfall. Photo by Lee Gale Photography.
Near the Skogafoss, in the back side of the Skogar museum. Kvernufooss is an easy ten-minute walk.
In 1973 a US Navy plane ran out of fuel and crashed on the black beach at Sólheimasandur. Surprisingly, everyone on the plane survived but the plane didn’t fare so well. Its remains still lay on the beach close to the sea. This is a popular place so try to get there for sunrise to avoid the crowds.
Solheimasandur Plane Wreck. Photo by Lee Gale Photography
On the south coast of Iceland you’ll find Dyrhólaey, a coastal spot with great vistas. To the north you’ll see north you see Mýrdalsjökull glacier,
beautiful black lava sea stacks Reynisdrangar to the east, and to the west, endless kilometers of coastline. You’ll also see the black arch of lava that juts into the sea.
This waterfall is relatively small compared to other Icelandic waterfalls but what it lacks in height it makes up for beauty. Often called Iceland’s “bluest waterfall,” this waterfall is part of the glacial river Brúará stemming from the glacier Langjökull but it takes some determination and good navigating to hike there and, depending on the weather, it is often inaccessible in winter.
This Lagoon is a stunning glacial lake in southeast Iceland, on the edge of Vatnajökull National Park. It developed into a lake after the glacier began receding and the size of this lake has increased fourfold since the 1970s. This is another popular place so if you want to avoid the crowds, consider coming here to get some night photography of the Northern Lights.
Vestrahorn is one of the most photographed mountains in Iceland. Located on the Stdokksnes peninsula, this mountain seemingly pops out of nowhere before plunging back into the seaside. This mountain can be reached from the ring road and is about 6 hours away from Reykjavik.
Vestrahorn. Photo by Lee Gale Photography.
Eystrahorn is practically Vestuhorn’s little brother who is a bit quieter but just as cool. It’s a little bit further east than most tourist travel which makes it a quieter mountain that packs just as much punch. This area is a landscape photographer’s dream with multiple combinations of foregrounds to make your composition truly unique.
Eystrahorn. Photo by Lee Gale Photography.
These ice caves form during the winter months in the outlets of the glacier Vatnajökull. This glacier is one of the biggest in Europe and form as canals for water to run through at the bottom of the glacier. These ice caves can be dangerous if you’re not familiar with them so best to ask a local or find a guide.
Photo by Simon Markhof.
Another beautiful and well-known waterfall in South Iceland! Standing at 60 meters tall, the water plunges over the cliff into a deep pool before flowing out to the Seljalands River. This waterfall is special because you can actually walk behind the falls. Check the trail conditions as it can sometimes be closed in winter due to slippery rock. If you visit Iceland in October, you can time the sunset so the sun is placed perfectly in the waterfall.
Photo by Josh Miravalles Gomez.
Located only a mere 1.5 hours away from Reykjavik, Gullfoss Falls can easily be a quick day trip from the city. Translated as “Golden Falls” this waterfall is unique because you actually view it from the top instead of the bottom.
Gullfoss Waterfall. Photo by Lee Gale Photography.
Described as one of the most spectacular waterfalls in all of Iceland, the Godafoss Waterfall is 12 meters tall with a wide of 30 meters wide. This waterfall is well known for its unique horseshoe shape.
Godafoss Waterfall. Photo by Lee Gale Photography.
After a long day of exploring, treat yourself to the Blue Lagoon geothermal spa. This spa is located in a lava field near Grindavík and is a popular place for tourists to visit. The water’s milky blue shade is attributed to the water’s high silica content.
Blue Lagoon is beautiful but it’s definitely not a secret. If you’re someone who appreciates fewer crowds and off-the-beaten-path-places, check out the Secret Lagoon in Fludir or Hoffell Hot Tubs. You’ll have the same experience for far less money and far fewer crowds. If you want to soak in peace while watching the Northern Lights, this is your spot.
Found on the edge of the highlands in South Iceland, this waterfall is the third highest in Iceland and its name aptly translates to “Tall Falls.” With a fall of 122 meters high, the water cuts out a deep gorge before flowing into the Fossá river.
Diamond Beach is a black sand beach found in South East Iceland belonging to the greater Breiðamerkursandur glacial plain. It’s famous for the small icebergs that wash up on shore resembling a beach filled with diamonds.
Diamond Beach. Photo by Lee Gale Photography.
Found in Vatnajökull National Park, Svartifoss is one of the most unique waterfalls found on the popular tourist track. The falls are 20 meters tall and are known for their black basalt formations the hang on the upper part of the waterfall.
Head to Northwest Iceland to visit this peculiar rock formation that defies physics. Sitting 50 meters offshore, this 15-meter high rock formation is only 2 meters thick which makes it easily prone to sea erosion. The locals have actually taken measures to secure the formation by adding cement to the base to better preserve it. A trail from the parking lot will give you views from above or you can opt to walk down to the beach.
Hvitserkur. Photo by Lee Gale Photography.
Mt. Kirkjufell can be found in Grundarfjörður and is a free-standing mountain on the Snaefellsnes peninsula. Some say it’s one of the most photographed mountains in the country and the composition of the waterfall in front of the mountain makes for a beautiful shot.
Kirkjufell. Photo by Lee Gale Photography.
For those who want to accentuate the moodiness of Iceland, the Black Church of Budir is a great spot. The solitary, minimalist church has become popular with photographers because of how the simplicity of the church contrasts the rugged Icelandic terrain.
Black Church of Budir. Photo by Josh Miravalles Gomez.
Found by the town of Malarrif, Lóndrangar are sea stacks which are the remains of a crater that has eroded over time by the sea. Reaching 75 meters tall, from a distance the cliffs resemble a castle.
This fishing village is found on the Snæfellsnes peninsula and was once a larger, bustling community of 150 people. Few people live there now but historic houses and structures still stand. The small community is surrounded by basalt columns and make for a picturesque scene.
Those who are interested in geothermal activity will not want to miss this unique stop off. Bubbling mud, copious hot springs and hissing steam making its way up through the cracks in the earth are just a few of the highlights you can expect. If you’ve ever wanted to photograph Mars, this might be as close as you get. Just don’t forget to breathe through your mouth and not your nose!
Hverir. Photo by Josh Miravalles Gomez
Stapafell is a 526 m high volcanic mountain on the south side of the Snaefellsnes Peninsula near the small fishing village Arnarstapi. The classic pyramid shape makes for nicely balanced and symmetrical photo opportunities.
Stapafell Volcano. Photo by Lee Gale Photography.
We might be biased but we would recommend seeing Iceland in winter. Many people opt to come in the winter for a chance to see the Northern Lights on display. The days are shorter and the light during the day time is the perfect glow as the morning golden hour extends into the evening golden hour. 5 hours of perfect light!
The short days and long night provide ample opportunity to capture the Northern Lights or to take night photos in general. While the northern part of the country may be inaccessible due to snow, you can still plan a full itinerary for your winter trip to Iceland. Most of the iconic peaks and waterfalls are fully accessible even in the height of winter.
As with most popular tourist destinations, summer months (June - September) are typically crawling with visitors and winter months have fewer tourists milling about. If you are looking to see the entire country, including the far north, summer might be the best option for you as the access to the roads will be less restricted. Summers in Iceland will have lush green fauna on display.
Skogfoss Waterfall. Photo by Lee Gale Photography
While more than 20 airlines fly to and from Iceland, the country’s most prominent airline carrier is Icelandair which reaches numerous US and European cities. Icelandair is known for their seven-day stopover opportunity for those traveling across the Atlantic Ocean. Visitors en route flying on Icelandair can have a seven-day stopover in Iceland for no extra charge so if you’re already making the trip and have time for a quick jaunt to Iceland, it’s worth taking a look. Of course, we’ll argue that seven days is not enough to see this amazing country but it’s better than nothing!
Hofskirkja. Photo by Josh Miravalles Gomez.
Most international flights will take you Keflavík Airport which is located on the outskirts of the country’s capital, Reykjavík. Despite a large number of visitors it hosts every year, Keflavík airport is quite small and cozy with minimal wait times for check-ins. The airport is 50km from the capital but numerous express bus shuttles or private taxis will transfer you to the city center. If you’ve rented a car for your Iceland visit, your rental company is likely to have a free shuttle service to the city where you can pick up your car.
Photo by Lee Gale.
While average temperatures may not seem too harsh, Iceland's unpredictable weather means the temperatures often feel much colder than they actually are. Winter temperatures tend to hang around 0 to -5C during the coldest months. While the temperatures don’t say below 0 for long, the wind and elements can make for a cold day so it’s best to be prepared with lots of warm layers.
While there are bus services that will take you to all major city centers, during the winter months the bus frequencies are reduced which might restrict your travel plans. Many photographers opt to rent a car which gives them the freedom to drive to all of the best remote photo locations. Iceland is a relatively small country and navigating is fairly easy.
You’re likely to spend a good amount of time on Route 1, the Ringroad (Hringbraut) which is a 1500km circuit road that follows the coast. The road is sealed the entire way and snowplows keep the road clear in the winter. Outside of Route 1, the interior roads are likely to be gravel or dirt which may require a four-wheel drive car. Check with your rental agency on what type of terrain is okay to drive on in your rental car. If you need to check the road conditions, you can do so here. http://www.road.is/travel-info/condition-and-opening-of-mountain-roads/ UK, US, Canadian, Australian, and New Zealand driving licenses are all acceptable for temporary visits.
Photo by Lee Gale.
Every town in Iceland will have accommodation options, where it’s in the form of hotels, hostels or camping. Because of their recent tourism boom, it’s best to book all of your accommodation in advance during peak season. Travelers can choose from budget accommodation where you can get a cheap bed with linen or an ever cheaper bed if you bring your own sleeping bag. For those wanting something a bit more luxurious, hotels guesthouses and farm stays are great options.
If the weather allows you to go into the backcountry, you might have the option of staying in mountain huts which are maintained by Iceland’s hiding organizations. These basic huts require you to bring your own sleeping bag and food but it’s a great option for those looking to for accommodation in more remote locations in Iceland.
Kirkjufellsfoss. Photo by Josh Miravalles Gomez.
To be frank, Iceland is not cheap. Accommodation, food and transportation costs add up quickly making Iceland one of the more expensive holiday destinations. The average price of petrol is 223.47 Icelandic Krona (1.65 Euro) per liter. Renting a car will set you back at least 40 Euros per day depending on what car you opt for (4x4 will be more expensive). Even the cheapest restaurants will be about $22 Euro so if you’re looking to save money, the best option is to cook your own meals. Depending on the meals you cook, you should budget 25 - 30 Euro a day on food. Similarly, your accommodation costs will vary greatly depending on the type of accommodation you book with budget accommodation coming in around 35 Euro/night.
Obviously, your budget will fluctuate greatly depending on your accommodation, how much you intend to drive, how often you eat out, how much alcohol you buy and how many tourist activities you want to pay for. For a budget traveler, a safe budget would be 50-65 Euro per day.
Solfar. Photo by Josh Miravalles Gomez.
The weather in Iceland is notoriously fickle and unpredictable.
Safe Travels Iceland: This website gives you daily alerts and if you have a quick question, just use their live chat feature on the site. If your trip involves trekking or hiking through the highlands, they can also give you the option to register your trip and rent a locator, in case of emergency.
Vedur: Vedur isthe website of the Icelandic Meteorological Office. They provide weather info divided hourly, wind, clouds, temperatures, even aurora forecast every night.
Roads: This website is handy especially if you're traveling in winter. Car rental companies and locals are required to use winter wheels with studs in the winter season and on this website you can see of the roads status, weather conditions, and road closures. Not all the roads are asphalted, the F-roads are closed in winter, you can drive around gravel roads too, but not all are open every time in winter.
Despite its maritime climate, Iceland’s weather can completely unpredictable, especially so in winter. Storms may completely change the course of your trip and often the northern part of the country it difficult to get to. To see the Northern Lights, you might need to be prepared for a waiting game but when they finally come out, you won’t be sorry.
Iceland is a country dominating by moody and mysterious landscapes and a winter cloak is truly the cherry on top. The crowds will be smaller than they are in summer and the addition of ice and snow allows for endless compositions and texture play. Perhaps most importantly, Iceland is a mecca for Northern Lights chasers so if you’ve always dreamed of shooting the Northern Lights, and Icelandic winter is just the ticket!
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