Unlike my other trips, this was the only trip I carefully picked the dates of my travel. For a lifetime, I have always longed to see the Northern Lights myself. I was told that tourists aren’t exactly lucky largely because of the weather or they came when there was no solar activity. Months prior to my trip, I studied the solar cycle, weather trends, squeezed in free dates in between my lectures and my shifts. All of this triangulated me to the first week of April, also incidentally, the first week of Ramadan. Eventually, all of that effort paid off as I got to see the Northern Lights clearly for 2 days in a row. While I did come to Iceland mainly for the Northern Lights, Iceland unexpectedly gave me so much more, making this one of the best weeks I’ve spent in my life.
To be honest, I didn’t plan my trip until I actually got there. I got a little too caught up with my coursework. In fact, I spent my first night underneath my blanket Googling what’s interesting to see or do. While I initially hoped to rent a car, eventually, I decided to join tour groups instead over the course of the next week. I found some really good ones on platforms such as Viator and GetYourGuide. Plus, they provide hotel pickups as well! I stayed in the north side of Reykyavik, in full view of the Esja mountain range, and the view was like something out of a postcard.
The morning after my flight, before my scheduled Horseback Tour, I decided to have an aimless sightseeing walk around Reykjavik. Everything was pretty much accessible on foot as the city isn’t exactly that huge. Down the streets, I found a mix of old and new buildings, all kinds of street art, as well as parks. Basically, I walked a loop around the city starting from the Sun Voyager, through the streets surrounding the Hallgrímskirkja area, into the city centre, and back.
The main landmark towering over the city is the Hallgrímskirkja. Built in the 1980s, it has since become an icon of Iceland. The church was designed in such a way that it represented the natural features of Iceland. Its winged structure resembles basalt columns, while its triangular structure resemble that of mountains and glaciers.
I was able to enter the church’s chamber and occasionally, there are organ concerts that anyone can sit in and listen to. The organ pipes were huge and were featured prominently in the middle of the chamber.
The church also had a bell tower that I was able to climb to catch breathtaking sweeping views of Reykjavik.
On my way back to my accommodation, there was a glass building called the Harpa, which was a concert and conference hall. The design was inspired by a honeycomb structure and it was a nice building especially to take photos of.
For the 2nd half of the day, I booked a Horseback tour with Solhestar to visit some red lava formations somewhere southeast of Reykjavik. Our driver took us to a place called Rauðhólar which was a cluster of remnants of pseudo-craters, common across Iceland. Pseudo-craters are formed by explosive steam when hot lava traverses over a wet surface such as a lake or a swamp. At the stable, we had to gear up a winter riding jacket and I was introduced to my horse, Valiant, who was going to take me around the area.
Icelandic Horses are pretty unique. Like other horses, they are able to walk, trot, and canter. However, unlike other horses, they are also able to, what Icelanders call, tölt and skeið. All you need to know is that they have the capability of moving stably at high speeds. There were points in the tour where the horses sped up, and as how I was taught how to trot back in England, I naturally lifted my back up and followed the rhythm of the trot. However, the guide insisted that I leave my back on the saddle, and surprisingly, it was pretty smooth.
The tour was about an hour long; it sounds short but felt really long, especially when you’re on the back of a horse the entire time. There were some really good photo opportunities along the way, however, it is not advisable to take your phone out on the move as there were many puddles and mud, and the horse will be traversing small bodies of flowing water.
For dinner, I had a really cheap but sumptuous meal at 101 Reykjavik Street Food, a small restaurant on Rainbow Street. I was served traditional Fish Stew (mashed fish with potatoes) and some sweet rye bread. It doesn’t sound much but it’s absolutely delicious, and it’s one of my favorites from Iceland.
After dinner, I headed over to the central bus station to catch a bus to see the Northern Lights in a remote area to get away from all of the light pollution. Before moving off, I was ecstatic to learn that there was good solar activity and clear weather, which were ideal conditions to be able to see the northern lights clearly. When we arrived at the sighting location, I was completely mesmerized by the sight of the lights. The lights are a little different from what you see in photos; from a first glance, they looked white, like a long huge cloud across the sky. I didn’t waste time to take a couple of photos, unfortunately however, they weren’t clear due to windy conditions that didn’t allow my phone to remain on a stable foundation. However, I was a little lucky the night after (spoiler).
The Northern Lights can only be seen between September and April, and the high chances of activity are every 20-25 days.
On Day 2, I boarded a tour of The Golden Circle. The Golden Circle is a route northeast of Reykjavik and serves as a fantastic introduction to what Iceland has to offer. The route goes through a number of natural wonders including Þingvellir National Park, Gullfoss, and the Haukadalur Geysir area. On our way to Þingvellir, one of the most interesting things that I’ve noticed is that the landscape changes dramatically every 20-30 minutes. For one moment, the landscape is covered with snow, and then greenery in the next. This is pretty much a recurring theme for my road trips in the coming days where the scenery would change completely every couple of miles. This is due to a combination of many environmental factors such as topography, weather, as well as geothermal activity.
Þingvellir, our first stop, is an important historical and natural location. Firstly, located here is the world’s oldest parliament established in the 900s. It also used to be where historically, travelers during the Viking Age would gather in July to trade goods.
Secondly, this site is also only one of the few places in the world where the rift between the North-American and the Eurasian plates is visible. Every year, the two plates drift at an average of 2cm. There is a pathway between the two plates that you can walk through and gaze at the two huge ridges that represent each plate. Interestingly, this pathway used to be a road and in the process of converting it into a pathway, they were surprised to find a huge gap underneath the road.
Next, we headed over to Gulfoss, a canyon waterfall. It’s also known as the Golden Waterfall as it takes a golden color on a sunny day. The waterfall is fed by Langjökull, a long glacier that you can see from afar.
Afterward, we went over to Haukadalur Valley, where we got to visit a Geysir park. Geysers are made possible due to shallow bodies of flowing magma underneath the surface that heats groundwater. The constriction at the mouth of the geyser, causes water to burst, giving the occasional eruptions that you see at the surface. One thing to note when visiting the Geysir park is to never get too close to the geysers due to hot boiling water. Also, like most volcanic areas in Iceland, the area will smell like rotten eggs due to the presence of hydrogen sulfide, a gas produced from volcanic activity.
I headed back for dinner at Café Loki where I got myself a platter of a mix of different Icelandic food such as salmon on rye bread and fish stew. I also got a chance for the first time to try fish jerky which makes a really nice snack when combined with butter.
On my way back to my accommodation, I got a notification that there was high solar activity through a Telegram channel that I was in. I quickly went to the Solar Voyager area to spot the lights, and lo and behold – the Northern Lights manifested before my eyes.
On Day 3, I decided to do some whale watching. Honestly, when I first booked this tour, I wasn’t very optimistic. I have always had the thought that the whales would likely avoid areas where large ships would traverse – I was wrong. We first set out from a historic harbor towards Akranes, a small town up north of Reykjavik. The area is also known Hvalfjarðarsveit, or Whale Fjord, due to the whale activity there. As we were on the way there, another boat reported seeing dolphins which I didn’t get to see for myself. However, soon, we got to see our first sight of humpback whales.
There are numerous tricks to anticipate spotting whales. Firstly, keep a lookout for birds. As whales rise to the surface, some of the seafood that whales feed on would be ejected through their blowholes, attracting marine birds. So wherever birds are anticipating food, that is where a whale would most likely have been. Secondly, blowholes usually would appear a couple of seconds before the whales would rise to the surface. Also, the blowholes are very visible from afar especially on a clear day.
For the rest of the day, I spent some time exploring more of the city centre, just going in and out of shops just to burn time.
For dinner, I went to another Icelandic restaurant called Salka Valka, and hands down – this was the best restaurant I’ve been to all of my time here. I had one of their mixed platters with fish of the day, sweet potato, some salad, rice, and sweet rye bread.
On Day 4, I went on a tour of the south coast of Iceland. I visited places such as Seljalandsfoss, Skógafoss, Reynisfjara Black Sand Beach, Vik, and Jökulsárlón Iceberg Lagoon. Along the way we saw breathtaking views, Icelandic horses, as well as lone, red churches standing out in contrast to the landscape.
For our first stop – the Seljalandsfoss waterfalls area is fed by Eyjafjallajökull, a glacier atop a volcano with the same name. This volcano is well known to be the volcano that erupted in 2010 causing a huge disruption to European aviation. There is an area around the falls where you can walk around behind the falls to get a different view. However, due to icy conditions, this was closed.
Just a 5-minute walk from this waterfall, there is a hidden waterfall called Gljufrabui, which makes for a very nice photo spot.
Afterward, we headed over to Skógafoss, which is one of the largest waterfalls in Iceland. There is a trail that leads up all the way to the top of the waterfall that gives you a nice bird’s eye view of the area.
Next up was the Reynisfjara Black Sand Beach. The sand is black due to volcanic activity when hot lava cools to form black sediments. There are also other geographic formations on the beach as well such as caves and basalt columns. Just some things to take note – don’t get too close to the beach as the waves are really powerful (you can draw a straight line from the beach to Antarctica) and it is advisable not to go into the caves as there are reports of boulders falling from the roof.
Nearby, we headed to Vic, a small but important town for ships due to its location in the middle of the south coast. There is nothing much here but the town makes for a very picturesque place.
Next, we made our way to Jökulsárlón Iceberg Lagoon through Iceland’s largest desert. This was where the landscape completely changed every 30 minutes. There was a grassy plain, a snow-covered lava field, and a black-sand desert; and these rotated and shuffled every now and then. It’s one of the main reasons why I’m so intrigued by Iceland’s geography.
At Jökulsárlón Iceberg Lagoon, we first made our way to Diamond Beach where the residue of icebergs from the lagoon would get pushed back to the beach by the wave, creating this blue, ice-lined beach. Apparently, if you’re lucky enough, you’ll be able to see seals going up and down the lagoon from the beach. However, since the river was flowing faster downstream at the time, this wasn’t the case.
We then walked upwards to the lagoon itself. It was strewn with icebergs of different sizes separated from Vatnajökull, Europe’s largest glacier. This is possible due to the effects of global warming with the lagoon growing in size every year.
On Day 5, I went on a tour of the Snæfelsness Peninsula which was on the west coast of Iceland. The key places that we visited were Kirkjufell Mountain, Lóndrangar, Búðakirkja (Black Church), Ytri Tunga Beach, and Gerðuberg Cliffs. I was quite optimistic about this tour given that the weather was sunny in Reykjavik. However, once we stepped foot onto the peninsula strong winds and snow hit us in the face. Literally. And it was painful. The visibility got pretty bad and the roads were unsafe for driving. For the whole tour, our guide had to drive really slowly to get from point to point and stop concurrently due to strong winds. None of these exactly dampened my excitement though, as I felt that the experience as a whole really fun (maybe not quite for others).
After Kirkjufell Mountain, we headed over to Lóndrangar where we had views of the ridged-coastline which look like something out of a fictional movie. The winds were especially very powerful considering that we were facing directly against the Atlantic Ocean.
We then paid a visit to Búðakirkja, also known as the Black Church. The church was painted in tar, giving it its black color. Given the weather conditions, the church makes for good photos due to the contrast.
Next, we went to Ytri Tunga Beach where there was a colony of seals. The seals are pretty shy so most of them would lie on the rocks far from the shore. However, we got to see some up-close either lounging in the waters or fighting/playing with each other, whatever it is that seals do.
Finally, we visited Gerðuberg Cliffs, which was a long line of basalt columns. They weren’t exactly clear due to the snow but the area makes up to be very scenic.
They say that one of the few things that you have to do in Iceland is to go on a hike. So, I booked a hike on one of the glaciers on the south coast of Iceland called Sólheimajökull, or Home of The Sun Glacier. This glacier is part of a larger glacier called Mýrdalsjökull which sits on top of Mt. Katla, which is an active volcano that is long overdue for an eruption. This hike was the best experience I’ve had in Iceland and it’s something I would recommend many to do.
At base camp, we were given a harness, a helmet, an ice pick, and ice crampons for us to be able to walk on the glacier. Safety is of paramount importance here. As long as you follow instructions from your guide and remain attentive to your surroundings, you’ll be fine. The area itself risks things such as boulders falling from cliffs leading to the glacier itself, falling caves, as well as cracks as deep as 40 metres opening up. If anyone is thinking about climbing or even getting close to a glacial area, do closely follow the advise of a guide.
Once we got our equipment and a briefing, we followed our guide to the glacier itself. It was a little scary thinking about slipping walking on pure ice but once we got the hang of how our crampons worked, everything seemed fine. The glacier was covered in a mixture of snow and volcanic ash, and it is important that we kept a single file to avoid dropping into deep cracks or holes (that’s what the harness is for in case you fall into one).
One of the things that struck me from what the guide told us about the glacier is that it was progressively shrinking and breaking largely due to the effects of global warming. Additionally, the glacier changes its shape beyond recognition every few weeks or even days. This tour was the closest you can get to see for yourself the effects of climate change. From the expanding cracks to melting pieces of ice.
One of the best parts about this hike was that I got a chance to try and climb an ice wall. Our guide gave a quick tutorial on how to do it and the rest of us simply followed. Essentially, we had to lean forward, kick our crampons towards the ice, and use the ice pick as support.
So that was all I did in Iceland! One of the best experiences I’ve ever had in my life.