Travelogue: 3 days in Athens, Greece (and why 1 day is enough)

Athens conjures up visions of ancient historical greatness. Thousands of years of history have left behind rich legacies studied in classrooms all around the world – Socrates, the home of the first modern Olympic games, origins of famous philosophers and scientists, and really old ancient ruins. From the “things to do” front, it seemed that there would be plenty to do – museums, ancient archaeological sites, and without a doubt, feasting on Greek food. So it was just terribly unfortunate that I found myself deeply regretting spending 3 days in the city in mid August, peak tourist season.

But I digress. If I could do it all over again, I would not spend more than 1 day here unless I was:

  1. An avid archaeologist
  2. Interested in old, abandoned, decrepit buildings
  3. A graffiti artist

Athens is filthy. Trash is everywhere, pigeons swarm the streets, and the city reeks of motorbike emissions mixed with choking cigarette smoke. Leave any area outside of the touristy zones and you’re met with an unrelenting display of struggle. Few buildings and walls were spared from splatters of graffiti. A haven for urban exploration, to be fair.

Walking to the Archaeological Museum

This is actually a university building. It was fenced off and the gates were covered in protest signs.

The city is sprawling and extensive, but areas worth exploring are concentrated to a small area. There was no point in taking public transportation – the most we had to walk was 2 miles, and that was to the National Archaeological Museum, which was located in a not so   nice area of the city. In the sweltering heat of Athens, walking 2 miles felt like an eternity. Water bottles were a must, and we took great care to get chilled bottles.

Acropolis is the only worthwhile archaeological site

…unless you’re an avid archaeologist or history buff.

The archaeological sites are really the only “attractions” in the city, save a couple of touristy neighborhoods and Lycabettus Hill. We stayed in the south side of the city, so we passed by the Temple of Zeus and Hadrian’s Arch on our way to Syntagma Square to exchange some euros at Kapa Change. We didn’t know it at the time, but to actually go into the sites costs money. Hadrian’s Library, for example, cost 4 euros. The lady at the booth told us we could purchase a pass package to most of the archaeological sites (including the Acropolis, but excluding the Panathenaic Stadium) for 30 euros. It would be cheaper than paying for them individually.

What we didn’t know was that the bulk of the ruins could pretty much be experienced without actually paying the entrance fee – you could view most of the interiors simply by looking at them from outside the fence.

You can see this before going into the site.

Not a better view…why do I need to see ruins up close?

In the end, I decided that the only one really worth visiting was the Acropolis which was 20 euros by itself. The only benefit to buying the multiple site pass at Hadrian’s Library was skipping the long line to buy the entrance ticket at the Acropolis.

Odeon of Herodes Atticus, part of the Acropolis

Temple of Athena, Athens, Greece

Escaping the heat in the shade

Still, I felt like it wasn’t worth it. The Acropolis is the only site worth paying for; everything else is just the same thing with slight variations. We were so tired and hot that we didn’t even have the heart to go into our third archaeological site, instead opting to sit in the shade for a half hour just outside of the site. The 30 euros felt more like a donation than anything else.


Walk around any of the touristy areas in Athens and if you just happen to glance at the menu (or even just literally be passing by), someone working at the restaurant will come out and practically demand that you eat there. The conversation would be more like “Are you hungry? We have kebabs, souvlaki…” or “Please come in and sit! Here is a table for you!” or “What would you like to eat?” These guys are unapologetically in your face about it – they will usher you in, go over the menu, and ask you where you want to sit, as though you had already made up your mind about eating there. Maybe it’s just part of the Greek hospitality culture, but it was a turn-off for me. I think that some of the waiters genuinely wanted you to feel welcome – in truth, the people were mostly pretty friendly, but I couldn’t help but think they were just trying to lure naive tourists.

That being said, restaurants in touristy areas definitely tended to be more expensive, but that didn’t mean the food they served was bad – in fact, I quite enjoyed the food there. I had some seriously good gyro meat. The food was truthfully the only redeeming thing about Athens.

3 euro gyro!

>3 euro gyro…best chicken I’ve ever tasted at Smile Restaurant

Classic Greek Salad

My friends and I really enjoyed the meat pies at Bougatsadiko Thessaloniki, which had outdoor seating and a friendly waitress.

Meat Pie, Athens, Greece

I’m not crazy about baklava, and traditional Greek dessert is basically a bunch of variations on syrupy, flakey, greasy stuff. I did have my fair share of Greek yogurt though.

Traditional Greek dessert

Lycabettus Hill

Other than the Acropolis, watching the sunset from Lycabettus Hill is the only other thing worth seeing in Athens. It’s a bit of an uphill walk to the top, but if you’re in decent physical condition, you should have no trouble. At the top is an expensive restaurant and a church where you can sit on the ledge and look out over the city. It was swarming with tourists, but the view from the top was spectacular.

On the way to the top…a mild climb.


There was a huge crowd of people I had to swim through to get a view without people.

Lycabettus Hill is in the distance.


Checking the weather forecast, I knew it would be hot. Every day had a low of at least 80 and a high of at least 90. The Greek summer sunshine is no joke – I acquired many tans, and the UPF 50 hat I purchased from REI the day before my flight was one of the most useful items I brought. The heat was exhausting and made walking and exploring a greater endeavor than normal. If you’re a native Floridian or someone who has no qualms about hot weather, the weather will not bother you as much.

Other Thoughts

Honestly, I feel bad about not having much good to say about Athens. The city is old and decaying and I feel sorry for the people who are struggling to keep it alive and running. They really do try to make you feel welcome, but the economic depression is heavy in the air. Mainland Greece gets overshadowed by the allure of the Greek islands, and for good reason (Santorini will be covered in a different post).

My friend said it reminded her of China.

Decay and graffiti

More decay

Not sure I’d want to park a car in there?

That said, there are gems.

A pretty church roof…couldn’t get a great view of it though.

Hadrian’s Arch

If you’re a cat lover, you’ll find yourself enamored by the numerous strays. They probably help keep the rodent and bug population down.

Stray cat

Life is hard for strays, though.

Poor cat is probably overheating under the midday sun

Athens does have its prettier areas, but they are concentrated, and you can definitely hit most of them in a day.

Ancient Agora

All in all, if you’re flying into Athens, it’s worth a stop – just not a long one. Like I said, unless you identify with any of the 3 things I listed at the top of my post, your time will be better spent at the islands.

How To Plan Your Own Ring Road Self Drive Tour in Iceland (Part 2 – South Coast)

So you decided to take the plunge and drive the Ring Road on your own? Awesome! Just writing about its cinematic landscape gives me jitters of excitement. Welcome to Part 2 of my Planning a Ring Road Self-Drive Tour in Iceland series!

In this post, we are going to go over the attractions along the road and the scenic detours that I’ve personally taken and my experiences with each, including what to expect and how much time to allocate at each location. This is only going to cover the south coast up to Höfn – Part 3 will continue up through the east and north.

Important note!! I’ve done this drive once, in April, and drove the south coast again last month from Reykjavík to Höfn and back. All in all, I’ve spent about 15 days in Iceland. Not enough to make me an expert, but hopefully enough to get you started. By no means should this blog be your only source of information! As I was planning, I spent a lot of time reading other blogs like, tinyiceland, Be My Travel Muse (who wrote an awesome post about driving the Ring Road in a 4×4 camper van), and Young Adventuress, synthesizing all the knowledge and trying not to under-plan or over-plan. I also found the Lonely Planet guide (I prefer the physical version – the eBook is harder to flip through) very handy as I was looking for places to visit while on the road. But as I was planning the first time, I wish I had a more broken down version with visuals of how to decide which places to go to, and I also did not think about how the sunrise and sunset hours would affect my trip. But again, there are many itineraries out there, and mine is just one of many.

The Importance of Knowing Your Daylight Hours

February caught me off guard. I wasn’t really prepared for just how much fewer hours there would be in February vs April. I knew that the sun wouldn’t rise until after 9:00 AM, and it would set around 5:30-6 PM. That gave us about 8-9 hours of daylight. When you factor in the driving time, it’s not a whole lot of time to spend in daylight. Not having spent much time in the far northern hemisphere in the winter, it was an interesting experience. And when it’s dark out there in Iceland, it’s really dark. I’ve spent my entire life in largely urban areas, and according to the Dark Site Finder, I don’t really know true darkness unless I spend some time in the rural western United States, which I have in my childhood, but I was probably sleeping instead of stargazing at the time.

Keep this in mind, because you’ll need to make your estimates on what you can do each day based on the time of year you are visiting. Use this site to determine how much daylight you’ll have. I’m building this guide off of the assumption that you’ll start sightseeing around 9:00 AM and be done for the day around 5:00 PM.

Driving Distance

In my first post, I mentioned that driving 150 km per day was a reasonable pace. HOWEVER…this did not include any backtracking or driving off of the Ring Road, so you after I added up the numbers, I found that I generally end up driving closer to 200-250 km per day. Daylight and weather will heavily influence this, so keep that in mind.

Day 1: Reykjavík to Skógar

Time (hours)
Distance (km)
TOTAL12.7 hr
222 km
Arrive at Keflavík; exchange for some Icelandic króna
Take rental car shuttle or walk to rental car area & pick up rental car
Drive to pickup location & pick up Trawire if you rented one like I suggested in part 1 (distance is to Reykjavík)
Grab coffee and/or breakfast at Kaffitár
Drive to Selfoss & pick up groceries if you didn't do so in Reykjavík
Continue on Ring Road
Visit Seljalandsfoss
Drive to Mýrdalsjökull
Visit Mýrdalsjökull
Sólheimasandur Plane Wreck (3 hours)
Drive back to Skógar
Stay the night in Skógar

Depending on where you fly from, you can consider taking it easy the first day and spend the first day relaxing in the city. The advantage is if you get delayed, you don’t have to worry about being behind your driving schedule. The disadvantage is, well…you don’t get a head start on your drive. If you’re going to Iceland, you’re probably going there to experience the scenery anyway, and you’ll want to spend more time away from Reykjavík. Seeing as my flights were both in the 6 hour range, I’ve concluded that for travelers from the US (unless you’re coming from the west coast), hitting the road right away is not a problem. Flights from the US typically arrive in the very early morning (think 4 or 6 AM Icelandic time), so you’re going to have plenty of time to go pick up your rental car, grab a coffee (or a “jökull” which is basically a delicious frappucino) from Kaffitar (opens at 7:30 AM), and get your Trawire if you reserved one. Maybe it’s just me, but as soon as I land at the airport of a new place, I get all excited and anxious, wanting to embark on my new adventure without delay. There isn’t much to do early in the morning before hitting the road anyway, and even if you are delayed a bit, there is so much to do in the Skógar/Vík region.

Cash: You will rarely need cash. I’ve only used cash once – to buy a hand-knit beanie at the Skógar guesthouse. But if you’re caught in a sticky situation, cash might still come in handy. I took out $100 USD worth from the airport.

Rental Car: If you land at 4 AM, you’ll probably be out of the plane and through customs by 5 AM. Heck, you might even already be at your rental car facility and talking to the agent by 5 AM – Keflavík Airport is tiny and pretty easy to navigate. The rental car area is a short walk across the road and through a parking lot from the airport entrance (though most people will take the 2 minute shuttle if they have a lot of luggage with them). But…you’re a minimalist traveler, right? Right?

I used Thrifty car rental for my April trip and Blue Car Rental for my February trip, both without incident. In my April trip, there was really no need for a 4×4, so we got by with a 2×2. You should only rent a 4×4 if you’re worried about driving in the snow or if you plan to drive on F roads (unpaved paids with little to no maintenance – these are usually only open in the summer). In February, my car from Blue Cars was a 4×4 Suzuki Vitara, and I was nervous while rolling down the windows because they made a really awful screeching noise. I know these cars take a beating from Iceland’s harsh climate, but the car felt like it had been well-used. I wasn’t given any strife after returning it though, so I didn’t have a truly negative experience. Still, just something to be aware of.

Trawire: After you pick up your car, if you rented a Trawire, make sure you know where you’re going to pick it up.  Typically it will be at a gas station that you chose when you reserve the device (I picked N1 Lækjargata as my pick-up, which was just off route 40 on the way to Reykjavík). All you need to do is drive to the gas station and mention that you are picking up your Trawire to one of the workers inside the gas station store. They will give it to you in a small paper package. You can return it using the prepaid return envelope included in the package – just find a red Pósturinn mailbox somewhere in the city. If you aren’t navigating to the pick-up location with international data, you can either print out instructions or download an offline Google map (paper instructions are more reliable, I’ve found, but it doesn’t hurt to have both).

Kaffitár: I’m not a coffee drinker, but basically everyone I’ve travel with is, so head to Kaffitár to get some quality European coffee. They have some pastries too if you need some edible fuel.

Nothing like warm hot chocolate to start the day!

Stocking up on Groceries: There are several grocery store chains in Iceland and you can read about them here. There are some 24 hour Hagkaup grocery stores in Reykjavík, but I have personally not visited them. I built my itinerary around grocery shopping in Selfoss, but it’s really up to you whether or not you want to pick up food while you’re in Reykjavík. In general, grocery stores in Iceland open later than I’m used to – between 9 and 11 AM normally. If you’re flying in between 4 and 6 AM, it’s likely still too early in the morning to buy groceries in most places. In any case, you can also drive to Selfoss. The Krónan down in Selfoss (the next city on your way to Vík) opens at 9:00 AM and is considered a budget store. Bónus (similar to Aldi), is even cheaper, but opens later and has fewer choices. Also, if you have any special dietary needs (gluten-free, dairy-free, etc.), Krónan will have more options.

In general, I recommend buying non-perishables when you can. If you’re going to buy any perishables, plan to eat them the same day. You’re not always going to have a refrigerator where you’re staying, though you’ll usually have hot water (but not a microwave).

Seljalandsfoss: Continue along the ring road, passing through lots of farmland and getting a taste of the steep mountains that decorate your view to the north. The first main attraction on the south coast is Seljalandsfoss and it’s just off the Ring Road on the left. You can’t miss it because you’ll see it from miles away if the weather is clear. It is Iceland’s most iconic waterfall; you can really get behind it (literally).

I can’t get over its beauty.

I recommend spending an hour here is because Seljalandsfoss is just one of several waterfalls in the area, so an hour allows you to enjoy the other waterfalls tumbling down the cliffs. Going behind the waterfall is a piece of cake, but there is also a flat ~1 mile trail that takes you to the hidden waterfall known as Gljúfrabúi, where you can either scramble up a steep rock nearby to get a view from the top or wade through the rapids to get a view from the bottom (you’ll need to be in decent shape to get up the steep hill while keeping your balance!).

Also, don’t fall.

It gets very crowded here if you’re not there bright and early. If it is icy, authorities might rope off the path going behind the waterfall because the steps can get icy (this is one situation where if you followed my packing list advice, you’d be prepared to walk on the ice with crampons!). Even if it is not icy, you will almost definitely get wet from all the mist, and your shoes will probably take a nice, muddy bath. Forget having a clean car.

Mýrdalsjökull: A glacial outlet (or glacial “tongue”) from Iceland’s second largest ice cap can be accessed in this area. You’ll drive a-ways on an unpaved road and park at the trailhead and walk an easy 1 km to the base (or “snout”) of the glacier. The small cafe at the parking lot is usually jam-packed with tourists and the bathroom costs a small fee (these bathroom “fees” use the honor system if there aren’t turnstiles blocking the entrance).

There are some glacier walking tours that leave from this location. You’ll find that, depending on the time of year you’re visiting, that the glacier will look strikingly different.

It was foggy in February…but the blue ice is stunning!

If you’re never seen a glacier before, seeing it will be quite a sight, and it’s hard to get a sense of just how huge the glacier is until you see all the tour groups walking single-file on the glacier in the distance. You can see little mounds of volcanic ash from the 2010 eruption of Eyjafjallajökull peppering the ice and a little milky glacier lagoon. The meltwater creates braided streams that make their way to the outwash plains (I did in fact look up proper glacier terminology for this post). You can continue to walk to the foot of the glacier, but they don’t fence off any of the hidden crevasses that the melting ice and puddles can hide, so do exercise caution when approaching the glacier. They are truly formidable, dynamic things.

Mýrdalsjökull. See the little lines of glacier walkers?

This glacier is a good appetizer for what’s to come on day 2.

Sólheimasandur Douglas DC-3 Plane Wreck: Google maps has this marked already, but when I went, there were lots of cars parked on the side of the road with a fence in front of it to prevent people from driving to the plane wreck. It’s about 1000 ft east from the road to Mýrdalsjökull. It’s not marked as an actual attraction, but you can’t miss it if you look out for the parking spot with the wide gravel road/trail that goes off into the black sandy wasteland. The trail is super wide and gravelly, taking you through Sólheimasandur for about 2.5 miles. It is a long and boring hike that takes about an hour each way depending on how fast you walk and you’ll probably have plenty of company while you’re there.

People. People everywhere. In February.

As long as you follow the trail, you’ll eventually find the plane, not quite perfectly preserved (it lost some parts over the years) and covered in graffiti.

Why do people feel the need to ruin it?

I recommend 3 hours for this side trip. 1 hour to walk there, 1 hour to walk back, and 1 hour to get a photo without anyone in it. Good luck!

If you’re patient enough, anyway. You did walk a good while to get there.

In all seriousness, if you are going to make the long walk, you should try to get there before the sun rises and then get photos of the plane during sunrise. It used to be an off-the-beaten path treasure, but now it is hard to get any solitude there because everyone knows about it.

Skógar: Skógar is the perfect base for Day 1, seeing as it is not terribly far from all the attractions you visited. I’ve stayed at Hotel Skógar and the Skógar Guesthouse – the guesthouse is wonderful if you are okay with thin walls and shared bathrooms. The host, Sigga, is the sweetest lady and knows hospitality. Her guesthouse is wonderfully homey.

Sigga will make sure you’re adequately fed with pancakes, toast, deli meat, greenhouse grown cucumbers and tomatoes…a typical Icelandic breakfast.

Hotel Skógar only has 2-person rooms, so if you have 3 people, you’ll need to book 2 rooms. If you can tolerate shared bathrooms, I’d pick the guesthouse, though the hotel does have a restaurant.

Day 2: Skógar to Kirkjubæjarklaustur/Skaftafell region

Time (hours)
Distance (km)
9.05 hr
250 km
Visit Skógafoss
Drive to Dyrhólaey
Visit Dyrhólaey and the Dyrhólaey Lighthouse at the top of the adjacent hill
Drive to Reynisfjara
Visit Reynisfjara/Reynisdrangar
Drive to Vík and refill your gas tank/provisions
Drive to Fjaðrárgljúfur
Visit Fjaðrárgljúfur
Drive to Skaftafell; but stop at Foss á Siðu along the way
Briefly visit Foss á Siðu
Continue to Skaftafell
Hike to Svartifoss -OR- Sel turf house farm
Backtrack to Kirkjubæjarklaustur if you are not staying overnight in Skaftafell
Stay the night in either Skaftafell or Kirkjubæjarklaustur

Visit Skógafoss if you didn’t do so on day 1, then continue along the Ring Road. This is black sand beach day and there are lots of attractions to visit. When I visited in April, we drove all the way from Skógar to Höfn, and that was too much packed into one day. In this itinerary, I split one day into two to account for fewer daylight hours and more time enjoying the attractions. The difficulty lies in figuring out accommodations in the Skaftafell region. Most places are at least an hour of driving from Skaftafell (though Skaftafell has its own hotel). Definitely book your accommodation in this region as early as you can, keeping daylight hours in mind when booking tours.

Skógafoss: Both times I visited Iceland, I saved this for the morning of the next day. If you stay in Skógar overnight, you have the option of visiting Skógafoss before all the tour bus crowds come and ruin your photos.

Hope you don’t mind stairs.

Joking aside, there is a long staircase that leads to the top of the falls that will provide you with a nice side view. There are some scary small paths that branch off the staircase where you can get even better views, but they are not fenced, so I would not recommend bringing kids up there. One misstep and you will pretty much fall to your death.

View from a scary ledge.

Skógafoss is part of the town Skógar, where I recommend that you stay on your first night. This town does have a small folk museum which I personally have not visited, but if you do want to visit, take note of the hours. If you want to visit the museum, you should do this after visiting Seljalandsfoss.

Dyrhólaey/Dyrhólaey Lighthouse: You can spend a surprising amount of time here. First, it is a bit more of a detour off the ring road to get to the parking lots, and second, there are quite a few trails in the area that will net you breathtaking views of the black sand beaches, mountains, and ocean.

Eyjafjallajökull in the backdrop of an untarnished black sand beach. I won’t spoil the rest of the view for you.

The main parking lot has two trails in different directions. One trail leads east and gets you a far-away view of Reynisdrangar; the other trail leads west and gets you a view of the promontory and takes you to a unique basalt rock arch. In the past, you were free to explore the area, but it is now roped off to discourage tourists from accidentally falling into the water while scampering across the rocks.

Dyrhólaey (Cape of the Doors) itself is a majestic promontory that is usually swarming with birds. There is a natural hole at the bottom which makes the rock formation look all the more majestic. What’s even better is that you can’t access it (not without some risky/impolite walking off the trail, anyway), so your photos won’t have any people in it.

If you look in the direction of the promontory (east of the parking lot), you’ll see a steep gravel road leading up to the lighthouse. It is very much worth the slightly scary drive up the steep hill because you get fantastic views of the promontory, the lighthouse, and the black sand beaches below.

Getting up close and personal.

It was foggy, but you could see pretty far.

Allow an hour and a half to drive to and thoroughly enjoy these two attractions.

Reynisfjara/Reynisdrangar: The famous pipe organ-like basalt rock formations are most pronounced on this section of the black sand beach, and you’ll have plenty of tourist company. The Reynisdrangar are the three basalt sea stacks in the water that symbolize trolls in Icelandic legends. You can take a  walk on the beach, use the bathrooms on the outside of the building (more honor-system bathroom costs), and enjoy the towering cliffs of pleasantly geometric rock. Beware of the “sneaker waves” – the waves here are very dangerous and can suck you in if you’re not careful. Tourists have actually died here just from being too close to the water.

Basalt makes interesting shapes.

I’d recommend about an hour to enjoy this area.

Vík: You are extremely close to Vík, where you can fill up on gas and maybe get a gas station hot dog. Then continue up north through the mossy, lumpy lava fields until you reach Fjaðrárgljúfur.

Fjaðrárgljúfur: This 100 meter deep canyon is *surprise!* not as packed of a tourist attraction because it is a bit off the beaten path. I don’t think a tour bus would be able to get to the parking lot easily, because the road is a loose gravel road with huge potholes. Small groups in vans will have an easier time. I’m sure this will change, because this is what I saw at the end of the trail that traverses the ridge of the canyon.

Construction of observation deck at Fjaðrárgljúfur

That’s right – they’re building an overlook. This is just one of many places where Iceland is in the process of building infrastructure to support the huge influx of tourists. This was probably the muddiest trail I walked on the whole trip, but I’m sure that will change soon. The canyon is next to a massive moss-covered lava field and the views are exquisite – worth the drive on the unpaved, pot-holey road. It’s no Grand Canyon, but it’s unique in its own way. From the parking lot, you can also walk to the bottom where the water is, but if you want to walk through it, you’ll need rubber boots or the willingness to get everything below your knees soaked.

Drinking water!

Kirkjubæjarklaustur: This tiny town was the closest town I could find that was within a reasonable drive from Skaftafell, so I chose to stay overnight here on my second day. I finished up with all the attractions above around 2 PM, so I decided that it was worth spending the rest of the afternoon at Skaftafell which is an hour away. The drive back to Kirkjubæjarklaustur was very dark and scary though, so I caution you in advance to not take too much time at Skaftafell if you’re not comfortable with nighttime driving. If you manage to find accommodation close to Skaftafell, you’re in luck – that is the the next main destination.

Foss á Siðu: Along the way, you’ll pass Foss á Siðu, a thin waterfall that tumbles down a super high cliff. There are many like it, but this one is accessible from the road. It is next to a tiny town and you can drive closer to it to get a better look. It’s lit up at night by the town lights. Skip it if it’s not too special, but I like its uniqueness. My photos don’t do it justice, so I’ll let you google it instead.

Continue to drive past the huge outlet glacier of Skeiðarárjökull, which by itself is already quite a sight, and continue to the Skaftafell visitor center.

My first thought upon seeing Skeiðarárjökull for the first time: what the heck is that?

Skaftafell: This is more like Skaftafell part one. I love this area. I’d recommend spending at least an entire day exploring the area, especially if you have a glacier walk booked. There are so many hiking trails in this area and you can probably spend more than 2 days if you want to do them all.

Svartifoss: The hike to Svartifoss is the most popular and it does go uphill a bit. Fortunately, they’ve installed some really nice grippy trail sheets into the ground which makes the sloped portions easy to walk. You’ll enjoy traversing through glacier-carved valleys and excellent views of snow-capped mountains. Svartifoss is an easy 1.5 km hike unless you’re out of shape, in which case the trek uphill might be taxing. This is another area where crampons may come in handy if it is icy.

Lonely Planet describes this waterfall as “gloomy.”

Alternatively, you can take a “history hike” to the turf house farm Sel, which I’ll cover in the next section. It’s about the same hiking distance as Svartifoss.

Head to your accommodation for the evening in Skaftafell or Kirkjubæjarklaustur. Kirkjubæjarklaustur has basically one restaurant, Systrakaffi, and it serves decent food (think burgers and fries). There is a tiny grocery store in the gas station where you can replenish your food supplies.

Day 3: Hiking at Skaftafell; continue to Jokulsarlon & Höfn

Time (hours)
Distance (km)
10.8 hr
209 km
Drive back to Skaftafell
Svínafellsjökull glacier hike
Hike to Svartifoss -OR Sel turf house farm
Drive to Jökulsárlón/Diamond Beach
Explore Jökulsárlón/Diamond Beach area
Continue to Höfn

Honestly, I’d be happy to come back here a few more times. Even with one full day of hiking, I still didn’t get to all the trails I wanted to do. You do have to be pretty fit to do some of them, so bring able-bodied companions if you want to spend more time here. Detail on the trails is available on the Vatnajökull National Park website, but you’ll probably get more insider information from people who have hiked the trails.

Sjónarnípa: This hike is actually not hard at all unless you’re horribly out of shape. Both times I asked the front desk about this hike, they discouraged me from walking it by telling me it was too difficult while dropping subtle hints that they wanted to stop tourists from damaging the area. When I did the hike, I honestly had no idea what they were talking about. The view of Skaftafellsjökull was incredible and was the best view of the glacier I could get.

You can walk right to the edge of the cliff, if you wanted to. Another one of those “exercise sound judgment” situations.

I should also note that the water here is so clean that if you ever traverse a stream, you can literally scoop some up in your hands and have a sip. Mmm, fresh glacial water!

Skaftafellsjökull: I didn’t include this in the itinerary because I don’t recommend this hike. You pretty much just see a towering wall of glacier not too different from what you saw at Mýrdalsjökull. The only reason you’d do this hike is if you want to walk on flat ground the entire time. It’s a boring walk through some high grass and your view is limited. Sjónarnípa is a way better view.

I mean, it is formidable too…

Svínafellsjökull: You can technically drive here yourself – it’s just outside of the visitor center area – but it’s mainly the access point for the glacier tour guide companies. Also, I should say that you shouldn’t walk on a glacier without a guide and proper crampons. If you don’t book a glacier tour, you can still get a pretty good view from the parking lot. I did a glacier walk with Icelandic Mountain Guides, but Extreme Iceland and Glacier Guides also do similar tours. Our tour was fantastic and I highly recommend Icelandic Mountain Guides for their no-nonsense professionalism and transparency. I’ll save the bulk of the review for another post.

Walking on a glacier is amazing, especially in the winter when they turn blue.

Sel Turf House Farm: If you choose to walk to Sel, you can also make a detour through the grassy area on your way back where various signs educate you about the farm life during the settlement of Iceland. You’ll be rewarded with an up close and personal turf house farm with an excellent panoramic view of the Skeiðarársandur.

So soft and cuddly!

Next time I come here, I will probably choose one of the more lengthy hikes. Apparently, you can also book a 12-15 hour ascent of Iceland’s highest mountain, Hvannadalshnúkur, with Icelandic Mountain Guides, but you can only climb it in April. It apparently requires no technical climbing skills, so it’s basically a really long hike. It’s a crazy 6k+ ft elevation gain though, so…you definitely need to be pretty fit.

Jökulsárlón/Diamond Beach: The drive to Iceland’s most famous attraction is my favorite drive. You pass all sorts of twisting glacier outlets tumbling down the steep mountains with unique jagged icefalls amidst snow-capped peaks and cliffs. Jökulsárlón is 45 minutes from Skaftafell and the views along the way are fantastic. You’ll be rewarded with Iceland’s crown jewel attraction right off the Ring Road.

Jökulsárlón in April 2016

Jökulsárlón panorama, February 2017. Stitched with Autostitch. A very different look.

Make it to Jökulsárlón around sunset and you’re in for a special treat, particularly if you’re the photographer type. Thousands of erratically shaped ice chunks drifting about in the lagoon before being sent off into the pounding ocean waves. Sunset creates a beautiful light reflecting off the crystalline ice chunks on Diamond Beach. You should definitely enjoy this area for at least an hour, but if you want to walk around it a bit or take lots of photos, add more time.

Just a beach full of ice cubes.

Keep in mind that there are effectively four parking lots in this area – two on one side of the bridge and two on the other. The lots by the ocean are for visiting Diamond beach and the lots by the lagoon are for gazing at the lagoon and walking the trail that goes around it.

Also, don’t drink the water here or you’ll be in for a salty surprise.

Höfn: Höfn marks the end of your glacier/black sand beach days and you’re on to the East Fjords the next day. There is usually plenty of accommodation in this area and the area surrounding it. Stay a little further from the city if you want a chance to glimpse northern lights.

This concludes Part 2! To me, this part of Iceland is a must-do – moreso than the Golden Circle. Stay tuned for Part 3, where I’ll cover the East Fjords and Lake Mývatn region. If you visited any other off-the-beaten-track attractions, I’d love to hear about them for my next visit!

How to Plan Your Own Ring Road Self Drive Tour in Iceland (Part 1)

Iceland is the perfect country for a road trip. The landscape is untamed and wild, but the Ring Road lies mostly flat. There are a few hilly/mountainous areas – particularly up north – and a few unpaved areas out east, but for the most part, the road is very easy to drive.  For the more adventurous road trippers, the Westfjords is more rugged terrain with steep cliffs and might be intimidating to urban drivers. Attractions are often just off the road; if not, you don’t usually need to drive more than a few kilometers to reach them.

This series is meant for someone who wants to travel Iceland using the Ring Road to get around the island  and does not know roughly how much time to spend at each attraction. The truth is, you could easily spend a couple weeks on the road if you want to venture off the Ring Road and explore some of the towns and off the beaten path attractions. That’s a lot of time, though, and most people have limited, precious vacation time.


  • Plan for at least 7 days on the road, preferably 9-10
  • Bookmark and check and every day
  • Booking a self-drive tour will save you planning time but be a little more expensive and give you less flexibility
  • Drive about 150-200 km per day – 100 km for a slower pace, 250+ for a speedier run (dependent on attractions within the route)
  • My suggested beginner’s route (will be reproduced later in this post):

How many days should I spend?

The Ring Road, or Route 1 (Icelandic: Þjóðvegur 1 or Hringvegur), is 1332 km or 828 miles total. Ambitious drivers will try to do this drive in 5 days, but I recommend at least 7 and preferably 9-10 to allow flexibility for going off the beaten track, resting, and unexpected weather conditions.  Iceland’s weather changes suddenly and without warning. You might be driving through bright sunshine for a while and then suddenly plunge into fog with 50 feet of visibility. In the winter, a storm could completely wipe out any chance of driving for several hours or even a day, leaving you stranded at your current location. Note the short daylight hours in the wintertime too – you need to be very comfortable with driving in the dark if you’re driving the entire road with 4 hours of daylight per day.

Foggy night visibility can be pretty scary. Most of the Ring Road has no lighting, so you’re relying on reflectors to see where you’re going.

What resources do I need to be aware of while on the road?

First, download the 112 app. 112 is Iceland’s 911.

Second, either rent a Trawire or some other portable hotspot through your rental car company so you have 3G or 4G signal at all times. That app can send your GPS location to the emergency authorities at the press of a button so they can initiate a search-and-rescue if you run into trouble.

Third, every morning before you do get out on the road, always check and for the day’s road conditions and weather conditions. It’s futile to check any more than 24 hours in advance because of the unpredictable nature of Iceland’s weather. You could also leave your itinerary with and follow their Twitter account for live announcements. All their websites have English versions and virtually everyone I’ve met there speaks English (though trying a little Icelandic is polite).

Screen capture from

Should I book a self-drive tour?

There are lots of tour companies offering self-drive tours. They will take care of the car rental, tour booking, and accommodation for a set number of days. You don’t have to worry about how to space out your trip as it’s done for you. You don’t have to stress about the prices of guesthouses and hotels, let alone the rental car. The itinerary is all planned out for you; all you have to do is follow it.  Prices aren’t off the charts expensive either – they’re generally in the $1,000 range for 6 days (for 2 people) and $1,500 range for 10 days. These prices don’t include eating or fuel and are for the bare minimum of every option (2w drive, shared bathroom guesthouses, and so on).

My last 7-day trip, including airfare (flying from Newark on WOWair), was about $1,700 per person. The cost also included accommodation at 3 star hotels or guesthouses, two tours (glacier hiking and ice cave), a 4×4 Suzuki Vitara, and all the food and gas for the trip. If I had been more skimpy on eating out and brought more companions, it would’ve likely been less than that. Booking everything yourself will give you more freedom to choose your accommodations and what kinds of side trips to take. If I had done the exact same trip using a self-drive service, I probably would’ve spent another few hundred dollars. For you, it may or may not be a huge difference. For me, even $100 in savings is totally worth it. After my first trip last year in April, I know I want to be able to choose how to spend my time. I like being able to choose between a guesthouse, hotel, and AirBnB. I like being able to design my own itinerary because maybe I want to spend more time in a specific region. Sure, it requires more upfront research, but you’ll know better how to navigate the country once you’re out there, and get the satisfaction of doing it on your own. I am sure you can figure it out, and I hope that what I write in this series will help you.

How far should I drive each day and where should I stay?

Along the way, there aren’t too many major towns. The limited accommodation in Iceland is a blessing in disguise – they’re spaced out just enough to allow you some flexibility in deciding where to sleep, but there aren’t so many that you get decision paralysis.

I’ve created this little map below to help you get a sense of which cities usually have accommodation available. Search these areas on and AirBnB to find accommodation options. This is my suggested route for an average trip (excludes Golden Circle and Snæfellsnes) around the island:

Using a free template of the map, I drew the road, outlined the glaciers, and labeled everything myself, so use this map for approximation purposes only. Also, the east portion around the fjords is NOT Route 1, but is a very worthwhile scenic drive recommended by locals.

I included Skaftafell and Mývatn (light blue dots) because those are two areas with a cluster of attractions within its vicinity that you can spend a lot of time exploring. Otherwise, I’d recommend driving about 150 km (about 93 miles) a day for a relatively relaxed pace. You could drive 100 km per day for an even more relaxed pace and 200+ for a more rapid pace; again, this all varies based on what attractions you’d like to spend more time at, and I will provide some suggestions in a later part of this series. As an example, you could write an itinerary with the following places to stay overnight:

  • Day 1: Reykjavík/Golden Circle
  • Day 2: Skógar
  • Day 3: Kirkjubæjarklaustur
  • Day 4: Höfn
  • Day 5: Egilsstaðir
  • Day 6: Mývatn
  • Day 7: Akureyri
  • Day 8: Hvammstangi
  • Day 9: Reykjavík (city)/Reykjanes (southwest peninsula between Keflavík Airport and Reykjavík)

Note: I did go to Snæfellsnes in my first trip around the Ring Road, but failed to thoroughly explore West Iceland. The drive between Hvammstangi and  Reykjavík is a long 190 km and I think there are attractions along the way that I missed. #reasonstogoback

Again, scour and AirBnB for guesthouses and hotels as soon as you have a rough sense of places to stay overnight, taking note of cancellation policies. Expect to pay at least $50 per person per night, though more bare bones places can be less and accommodations in smaller towns cost more in my experience. Rising tourism is driving prices up too and you’ll definitely want to book at least a month or two in advance, and maybe even earlier if you’re traveling during the summer.

That’s it for Part 1! Hope that can at least help spark some ideas on how to start planning your trip. Feel free to leave comments on anything I missed.

Stay tuned for Part 2 and possibly a Part 3, where we will cover:

  • Attractions and estimations of how long to spend at each
  • Tour companies I’ve had experience with
  • How to be a respectful tourist
  • Hotels vs guesthouses
  • Flying with WOWAir

What to Bring to Iceland: Ring Road Packing List


I’ve traveled to Iceland twice in the past year now, so expect some more posts about my favorite country to visit (so far, anyway). I haven’t gone trekking in the highlands or done any off-the beaten path explorations, so this list will be more suited to the average road tripping traveler. Iceland is rapidly developing into a tourist-friendly destination and has become very easy for anyone to visit. Still, it helps to know what you’re getting into. I’m fresh off the plane, so while it’s on my mind, here is a list of the essentials you’ll definitely want in your bag.


  1. Windproof/waterproof shell & pants
  2. Waterproof/durable hiking boots or shoes
  3. Weather resistant daypack
  4. Toilet paper or tissues
  5. Plastic shopping bags/ziploc bags
  6. Reusable water bottle
  7. European outlet adapters and associated charging cables
  8. 112 app
  9. Wool socks
  10. Hat/gloves


1. A windproof and waterproof shell and pants

If you’ve done any research on the climate in Iceland, you’ll know that it changes rapidly and without warning. On my last trip, it rained every single day. It wouldn’t necessarily be a light misting, either – it would sometimes be full-on heavy rain accompanied by a helping of gale force winds. Heck, even my expensive Arc’teryx shell nearly soaked through on a 20 minute impromptu hike in Reykjanesbaer. I don’t care if you’re visiting in the summer or winter – this shell will save the clothes you’re wearing underneath, not to mention blocking out the wind chill and flying sand, rocks, ice, or snow.

You’ll probably survive without the pants, but you will definitely not regret having them if you’re doing any hiking, especially near waterfalls that will blow water in your face, and if you’re driving the Ring Road, you’ll probably be foss’ed out by the end of the trip anyway. So just suck it up and invest in a gore-Tex shell that can be worn over any base layers you’re bringing with you.

2. Waterproof, durable hiking boots or shoes (if winter: consider crampons)

Especially in the winter. You’re going to be roughing it in the terrain there, tramping over wet sand, mud, rocks, gravel, deep puddles, and maybe snow and ice. I’ve stepped in pretty deep mud on leisurely strolls – most of the trails aren’t paved. Get something with treads and a durable upper if you’re going to slip on some crampons. Unless the forecast calls for ice, snow, and below freezing temperatures, you probably won’t need crampons, but if the ground was icy, they will come in handy. I brought these, but if you’re going to wear crampons, you’ll need something with a stiffer upper.

Make sure that if you’re bringing crampons that you learn how to wear and walk in crampons before going to Iceland.

3. Weather-Resistant Daypack

I’ve talked about my Patagonia Travel Tote Pack before, and that was the daypack I brought. It was suitable for dumping extra clothes, my battery bank, camera gear, and so on.

4. Toilet paper or tissues

Iceland has been cracking down on nickel and diming tourists, charging a buck or two for using bathrooms at some of the tourist attractions. You’ll also occasionally find yourself at odds with your bladder in extremely remote stretches of road, which means it’s pretty handy to have a pack of wipes in your coat pocket. Just sayin’. Also, there have been several occasions in which the bathrooms in the touristy parts had no more toilet paper, so even if you didn’t have to hunker down in the wild, you’ll probably need them anyway.

5. Plastic shopping bags and ziploc bags

For dirty clothes, dirty shoes, leftover eats – you *will* find a use for these on a road trip like this. I guarantee it. Also, none of the grocery stores in Iceland give you shopping bags, so if you buy more than what your daypack can fill, they will come in handy for the extra foodstuffs.

6. Reusable water bottle

If you spend any time around locals, they will likely make it a point to boast about their exceptionally clean  and pure drinking water which you can get straight from the cold water tap (would not recommend the sulfur-y water from the hot tap in geothermal regions). This basically means there is no point in buying bottled water. Heck, I ate glacial ice and filled water bottles at the streams in Skaftafell – and that water is exceptionally tasty.

7. European outlet adapters and associated charging cables

Most of my devices are charged by USB, so I brought this. It’s a bit on the chunky side, but I like having an all-in-one.

8. 112 app

Not really a “thing,” but you should definitely download the 112 app to your smart device if you have one. This app can send your location to the Iceland emergency authorities if you get caught in a bad situation.

9. Wool socks

I’ve probably raved about wool already in my previous post. Nothing beats a nice pair of wool socks in a wet and potentially (very) cold climate like Iceland. If you’re still a cotton sock person, you’ll never go back after wearing wool socks. They are naturally insulating and dry more quickly than cotton.

10. Hat/gloves

Mainly for winter travelers – you’ll find that having a good hat or earmuffs and windproof/waterproof gloves will greatly improve your resilience in the harsh arctic climate. I spent less than $20 on a hand-knit Icelandic sheep wool (known as “lopi“) beanie from a local knitter and it kept me warm when the wind blew.

Purchased from my host while staying at Skogar Guesthouse.

Me in my new Icelandic sheep wool hat. Icelandic wool tends to be thicker as it is made of two layers. The outer layer is coarse and repels water; the inner layer is shorter and insulating.


1. Swimwear and towel

If you’re taking a dip in any of the country’s hot springs or the famed Blue Lagoon, keep in mind that swimsuit/towel rental are add-on costs. I’m of the opinion that soaking in the springs while checking out the barren landscape around you is an experience worth having after long drives and days packed with sightseeing. You don’t need to bring a bulky one, necessarily – this waffle towel from REI worked perfectly for me.

2. Trawire

Not really something you can “pack…” but you’ll want to do this in advance anyway: reserve a handy little hotspot with the Trawire Basic plan for having unlimited data in Iceland. I kept it in my daypack linked up to my battery bank because its battery life is only a few hours. Some of the more remote stretches of the Ring Road don’t have service, but for the most part, this is super useful if you want to stay plugged in. It’s very easy to pick up at a gas station of your choice and it comes with a prepaid return envelope that you can drop off at any post box in Iceland.

4. Battery bank

Your rental car will probably have a plug, but if you have travel buddies with you, it is likely that you’ll want to charge multiple devices at a time, and this will usually be a useful backup. I recommend this one.

5. Tripod

This is a must if you’re going to be taking any long exposure photos of northern lights or waterfalls. I highly recommend this one for portability and ease of use (if you’re more professional though, I’m sure you’d prefer to bring your full kit).

6. Eye mask 

If you’re going to be in Iceland when the midnight sun is around, this might be a good idea to have if the curtains where you sleep are not adequate for blocking out light. You can also use the highly versatile wool Buff which doubles as a thin scarf.

7. Shower slippers

These are great in shared bathroom guesthouses. I like having an extra layer of protection between me and the floor in case someone spills oils or soap water on the floor, so I always make sure to bring a pair of cheap rubber flip flops. Generally, when going into Icelandic guesthouses, you are expected to remove your shoes (similar to Asia) and wear indoor slippers anyway.

8. Sunglasses

Mainly for the summer, but the reflection of the sun off bright snow can be pretty blinding as you’re driving.

What items have you found invaluable when traveling to remote places with harsh climates like Iceland? Let me know in the comments!

Review: Patagonia Lightweight Travel Tote Pack 22L Bag / Backpack


Patagucci, Patagonia…boy, people have mixed feelings about this brand. I’d say that if the product is made well, and bonus points if it’s made ethically and sustainably, kudos to the brand. This post is a review of the Patagonia Lightweight Travel Tote Pack 22L which I’ve owned and used regularly for about a year. I’ve traveled to multiple cities and countries and have been wearing it daily on my commute to work, so I’ve put it through some bad weather as well. This bag has held up well enough that I’m willing to review it in depth. I bought this bag myself and no one is asking me to review it on their behalf, so all of my opinions below are my own with no commercial biases whatsoever.

I love ultralight gear and I am afflicted by a bad case of upgrade-ism, so naturally, I have a bad habit of always searching for the Perfect Version of everything I own. This is hardly ever a good thing for my wallet, but it is a great thing for my readers, because I’ve already done the field testing for you! For intercity travel, a 20-25 liter pack is sufficient for my needs (though if you can go lighter, have at it!). I’ve taken it to a 4-city adventure in Europe (during the winter), a couple trips to Seattle, a 9 day trip to Iceland, and I use it as my workhorse commuter bag when I bike to work. It weighs a mere 14 oz and for a sub-one pound bag, it is still full of pockets and features. There are two tote handles for shoulder or handheld carrying and lightly padded backpack straps coupled with chest/waist straps for backpack carrying with some extra loops for hanging other things or adjusting the heights of the straps.


The 2.1 oz 7 denier ripstop nylon makes it easy to clean with a wet cloth and is lightweight yet durable. The fabric is coated with polyurethane and silicone for weather resistance. I have worn this bag through rain and snow with no damage to the contents inside, though some moisture will seep through in a downpour, so it’s not waterproof (nor is it marketed as such). The bag has a simple zip top closure for easy opening and closing – no curvy zipper paths here.


There are two water bottle pockets on the sides and side compression straps above them which can also help secure anything you’re stuffing into the water bottle pockets that are too tall (I like putting my flip flops in there). You can clip an S-biner to the compression strap and hang a Platypus water bottle, which is what I did on my recent trip to Seattle. No worries about spilling your water all over the inside of your bag!


I love the zippered pocket on the front which is very handy for maps/guidebooks or anything you need easy to reach. My iPad mini does fit into the front pocket, though you’ll want to be careful not to put weight on it.


Clearly, the bag has taken a beating. Despite that, there is not a single rip or loose thread to be found.

There is also an an open pocket on the back you can tuck the backpack straps into or even to insert a tablet/small laptop.


The interior of the bag has a pocket that I personally use for my wallet and phone, and you can also stuff the entire bag into that pocket.

Paired with Eagle Creek stuff sacks and cubes, you can stuff a great deal of things into the bag. I can definitely get an entire week’s worth of clothing in there (especially if I limit the number of bulky clothing items I have). For my Europe trip, I packed a toiletry bag, two pairs of long pants, a pair of Tieks, a DSLR camera, 2 sweatshirts, 2 sets of workout clothes, and underwear/socks to go along with everything, still with room to spare for small souvenirs. I stuffed all of the items in the photo below into the bag and there is still plenty of room to spare. That Eagle Creek bag has 2 dresses and 3 sets of workout wear.


It’s lightweight and packable, which are two of my favorite features for any bag that I own. Is it stylish? Well, that’s kind of a subjective question. It’s most certainly a practical item, and I do consider it unisex – doesn’t really look out of place on males or females. It does come in several different colors though, so it’s got that going for it..

Buy it on the Patagonia website, or other retailers where you might be able to snag a discount.

Travelogue : 9 Day Iceland Ring Road Trip in Late April (Early Summer)

Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon

Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon

Welcome to my first travelogue! My writing hiatus is due to my hasty preparation for a 9-day Ring Road trip in Iceland. Iceland’s scenery is truly spectacular, and while I tried my best to capture its otherworldly beauty in photos, you really do have to see it in person if you can. I was very fortunate to have two willing travel companions (my parents) to experience Iceland with me, and we were not disappointed.

The Ring Road is an 828 mile road that circles the entire island. We rented a 2×4 car from Thrifty Car Rental which cost less than $400. We stayed on the Ring Road for nearly the entire way, making detours to explore the East Fjords, Tröllaskagi, and Snæfellsnes.

For the uninitiated, here are some thoughts I had during the trip with accompanying photos.

1. Iceland has hardly any trees.

Reykjanestá Lighthouse and Lava Field

Reykjanestá Lighthouse and Lava Field

The first thing I noticed when driving from Keflavík Airport to Reykjavík was the absence of trees. The day I arrived at the airport, it was snowing and raining. It was so foggy you could hardly see anything beyond the road. As I eyed the desolate landscape right and left, I wondered why there were no trees. I’ve traveled extensively in the Pacific Northwest, so I’m used to sprawling evergreens on mountains. But my first impression of Iceland consisted of snow-dusted, jagged lava rocks.

Kleifarvatn Lake


As we drove around the island, the treeless-ness continued. This led me to believe that houses were constructed with metal due to the lack of wood, but corrugated steel is used because it withstands the harsh weather better than other materials. I actually ended up appreciating the lack of forestry, because that meant unobstructed views all around.

Egilsstaðir Region

Egilsstaðir Region

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