Iceland is one of the easiest places to travel for the independent wanderer. Its most populated urban area, the vivacious and eccentric Reykjavík, gives off a warm, welcoming vibe and is easy to navigate – not to mention it is virtually void of crime! A large majority of Icelanders speak near-perfect English as a second language (with the exception of some more remote areas), and have been touted as some of the friendliest people in the world to visitors. Though rural Iceland can be quite rugged, the island comes well-equipped with a huge variety of four-wheel drive and standard car rental organizations to help solo travelers navigate the landscape.
Furthermore, Iceland is ideal for the more inquisitive solitary explorer. Even though the island has a few world-renowned “staple” sites and tour routes, it is perhaps even more notable for the miles and miles of extraordinary landscape open for travelers and locals alike to explore. That very wilderness will also force you to tear your eyes away from your tech, unless you’re clutching at your phone to take a picture of course. There’s no service all the way up on the top of glacier mountain peaks like Vatnajökull, so if you find yourself addicted to your apps, you’ll be relieved of that compulsion and able focus on the beauty of your immediate surroundings. In short, Iceland is the perfect place for you if you’ve ever wanted to travel solo.
Opportunities for travel are just as varied for solo travelers as they are for the group tourist in Iceland. You can join in on an organized group tour and make some new friends, but if you’re electing to take this journey solo, it’s likely you have some interest in ushering yourself around. In that case, you might want to consider a self-drivetour, which can be either organized by your rental organization or mostly self-directed and exploratory. We say “mostly” because you will want to have some form of guidance (like GPS) at your disposal even if your route is not pre-laid out for you. This is especially true f you’re driving during the winter, during which time you can run into adverse weather-related dangers or run out of fuel in an inconvenient spot. Even though Iceland is prepared with the emergency services to rescue the odd lost tourist, it’s better not to put yourself in that situation.
Safety Tips: What to Do?
We can provide a variety of recommended adventures for the self-drive explorer. But before we get into that, let’s get those safety tips out of the way:
Don’t speed on Highway 1
You will almost certainly find yourself on Iceland’s Highway 1, colloquially known as the Ring Road, which circles the entire island. Though it is essentially Iceland’s primary road, it is pretty sparsely populated most of the time, and thus it might be tempting to go faster than recommended. Well, don’t! The gravel alongside the highway can be slippery and you may not be as adept at maneuvering through it as you think. Furthermore, you’ll be weaving through a lot of rugged mountain ranges, and it can be hard to see who might be coming around the edge of a sheer cliff. Finally – and this might surprise you – but there are cameras everywhere on Highway 1! Obey the speed limit, because you definitely don’t want to receive an unflattering image of yourself behind the wheel alongside a hefty fine in the mail after a fun solo trip – or ever, really.
Mountain roads and roads in Iceland’s interior are loose, earthy, and gravelly. They are also often quite narrow, and the small bridges interconnecting various swathes of land can only accommodate one vehicle at a time. For that reason, your journey from Point A to Point B is likely to take you a bit longer than anticipated. Just be patient and careful, and budget for some extra time when you depart.
Know where the filling stations are
In the greater Reykjavík area, filling stations are generally open from 7:30 AM to 8:00 PM from Monday to Saturday, and from 9:00 AM to 8:00 PM on Sunday. However, many filling stations remain available for automatic use until 12:30 AM. They accept 1,000 krónur bank notes and credit cards.
Check road conditions
We’ve mentioned Vegadergin before, but we can’t emphasize enough what a great resource this website is. It provides up-to-the-minute road conditions and weather reporting and even allows you to access web cameras installed on various roads. If you’re a particularly nervous driver, feel free to participate in the Driving in Iceland online class provided on road.We highly recommend that you make use of this website and take advantage of the most comprehensive and immediate insight into Icelandic road conditions you can get before you embark on your off-road adventure.
Know the laws
The minimum age for renting a car in Iceland is twenty, and the minimum age to rent a four wheel-drive or a minibus is twenty-three. Make sure you have your driver’s license, which has been valid for at least one year, ready to present to your rental agency. You also need to have driving experience for more than one year. It may seem extreme, but we promise these rules are here to keep you safe and comfortable! Oh, and people drive on the right side of the road in Iceland.
Watch out for wildlife!
Much of Iceland is still very wild, and many car accidents among tourists are caused by the odd roaming sheep, goat, or fox frolicking across the road. Keep an eye out for them and remember that this is their territory first and foremost!
Think about car insurance
Car insurance is generally added in the rental price when you purchase a vehicle. Optional additions to insurance are available, and we advise you to add gravel protection if you plan on driving far out of the greater Reykjavík area.
Top Attractions: Where to Go?
Now that we’ve got the safety bases covered, let’s talk about a few places you ought to consider roaming to on your solo adventure. Iceland can be loosely divided into seven geographical sections: North Iceland, South Iceland, East Iceland, the Central Highlands, the Westfjords, and central Reykjavík. There are plenty of things to do in each region of the island, but for the purposes of this article, we’re going to focus on three big geographical regions that offer opportunities that suit the solo traveler: South Iceland, the Westfjords, and the little big city of Reykjavík.
The Golden Circle
We definitely recommend that you rent a car and take on the Golden Circle route. Traversing the world-renowned path yourself promises to be particularly fulfilling, since you can wander off the beaten path and explore any and all of the detours at your leisure. If you have checked out our Golden Circle article, you are likely already familiar with the “Big Three” of the famous route. For the purpose of thoroughness, let’s review here.
Þingvellir National Park
It is unquestionably one of the most historically significant locations in Iceland, if not the whole of Europe. Simply put, we can think of Þingvellir as Iceland’s national “shrine. Its title translates into “Parliament Plains,” which refers to the Alþing parliamentary assembly that convened on the site until the late 1700s. Alþing was the European continent’s first official parliament, conducted first in 930 AD. Þingvellir offers travelers a double dose of both historical richness and topographical beauty and lushness.
Just north of Iceland’s southern lowlands you’ll find the Geysir field. By its title you can likely infer what you’ll find here. Powerful geothermal geysers, toasty hot pots bubbling with mud, and boiling hot springs are active with subterranean-fueled energy and vivacity here. You’ll definitely want to locate Strokkur, the Geysir field’s most powerful geyser, which forces thick streams of boiling water thirty feet into the air every few minutes – it shouldn’t be too hard to find. And if you haven’t had enough of the powerful geysers in the Geysir field, travel northwest to find “The Royal Spring” or west to see Blesi. “The Royal Spring,” whose Icelandic name is actually Konungshver, is named in commemoration of King Christian IX, who particularly liked this gentle spring.
Finally, Gulfoss, or the golden waterfall, is Iceland’s most famous. It acquires its nickname from the ethereal golden light that casts its glow throughout the waterfall’s plummeting gorge in the fall months. This unique aquatic structure flows in a slightly unusual manner; it cascades down what is essentially a natural three-step “staircase” of solidified magma and then plummets into the mist where the rushing water almost seems to disappear.
As we’ve mentioned, these “Big Three” attractions constitute the primary stops on the Golden Circle tour. However, since you’re traveling on your own, you are more than welcome to stop off at any point and explore whatever catches your eye. And in Iceland, there’s something exciting to see around every rocky corner! Here are a couple of stops you ought to consider exploring on your own:
Fontana Geothermal Baths
We spoke of these baths extensively in our Hot Springs article. This spotis a popular stop-off for travelers along the Golden Circle route. Nestled just off the edge of the charming town of Laugarvatn, the Fontana baths promise tranquility, quietude, and nourishing geothermal waters for their patrons. Notwithstanding the baths’ well-received reputation as a source of relaxation and healing over the decades, they remain sparsely populated given their slightly concealed location. For that reason you may end up having the place all to yourself! After you enjoy the hot springs and their associated health and wellness facilities, you can enjoy a lunch buffet at the baths’ on-site restaurant. Laugarvatn Fontana is also one of those delightful attractions in Iceland that promises geothermally-baked rye bread, but make sure you’re there around 14:30, when staff “opens the oven.”
Secret Lagoon in Flúðir
The Secret Lagoon is Iceland’s oldest hot pool, located in the tiny southern village of Flúðir, which is populated by roughly 400 people. Though it perhaps not as much of a secret as its title would have you believe, the Secret Lagoon is definitely off the beaten path and surrounded by nothing but verdant farmland, towering mountain ranges, and rivulets of geothermal steam. Its recent re-furbishing was a labour of love by Björn Kjartansson, a local committed to protecting the location and promising a quiet, naturalistic bathing experience for visitors. There is definitely something special, haunting, and nostalgic about bathing all by yourself in a secret lagoon!
Most guided tours through the Golden Circle stop at the Kerið crater, so you might consider doing so as well if you’re traveling solo. The crater is a bit of a geological anomaly as it forms about as close to a perfect oval as a crater can get. The descent into its middle is dotted with stark black volcanic rocks and tufts of green flora, but its soil is a startling shade of brick red. Kerið has a small body of water at its base, which omits an unearthly green-blue hue. You’ll feel a bit like an alien visitor on a Martian planet here, particularly if you’re the only one there.
We haven’t mentioned in a while, but we definitely recommend that the independent traveler consider making the trek to the Westfjords of Iceland to experience the “island in miniature.” Established not fifteen years ago on June 28, 2001, the Snæfellsjökull National Park was instituted to protect West Iceland’s endemic flora and fauna, regional sites of local significance, and delicate yet powerful landscape. National parks in Iceland are essentially free for anyone to explore, and the ninety-kilometer stretch of peninsula upon which Snæfellsjökull is situated is crammed with things to do and see.
It goes without saying that the majestic Snæfellsjökull glacier at the westernmost part of the peninsula is worth seeing. It towers above a series of surrounding peaks, which are not unimpressive in themselves, and reaches 1,446 meters above sea level. Do a cursory Google search of the mountainous structure and you will see striking images of Snæfellsjökull’s peak rising above layers of low-hanging cloud cover. Its surrounding extraordinary alien landscape impacted author Jules Verne so deeply that he selected Snæfellsjökull to serve as the entrance to the subterranean adventure Otto Lidenbrock embarks on in Journey to the Center of the Earth.
The saddle near the summit of the glacier’s mountain can be reached easily and safely by walking, but to truly reach the summit you need to have solid ice climbing gear. You can participate in several guided walking tours of Snæfellsjökull during the summer months.
While you’re on the peninsula, make sure you stop by Vatnshellir Cave and sign up for a guided tour. This may not be an entirely solitary activity, but you can certainly sign up as a single guest and make some new like-minded friends in your assigned group! Vatnshellir is approximately eight thousand years old and plummets about thirty-five meters into Earth’s interior. Like all of Iceland’s lava tubes, Vatnshellir boasts a shocking array of natural colours caused by the mineral interactions of rapidly solidifying magma; you’ll see eggplant purple and tangerine orange streaks lighting up the dark, cavernous walls and truly feel like you’ve journeyed to the center of the earth.
The closest village to Snæfellsjökull is Stykkishólmur, the primary center for services, tourism, and commerce for this region. It is a delightful little place, and part of its beauty has been cultivated by its commitment to environmental conservation and protection. In fact, in 2008 the village was presented with a planning award for its thoughtful and impact-conscious renovation of its old houses. There are definitely a few unique places you might enjoy best as a solo traveler here. First of all, make sure you hunt for the Viewing Disc perched atop a verdant, craggy hill. Local landmarks will direct you to the site; it’s never too hard to find given Stykkishólmur’s petite size. Here you can get a spectacular 360° rotating view of Iceland’s entire stunning Westfjord region! This is definitely best experienced as a quiet, thoughtful moment in awe of all of the island’s stunning, ancient scenery.
Next, check out the Library of Water, where you can peruse an eccentric collection of old texts, play chess with a partner, and observe the stunning refractive glass installation designed by American artist Roni Horn. Each glass tube on display is filled to the brim with pure Icelandic water from various aquatic bodies and glistens magnificently along with the movement of the sun.
Since you’re traveling solo, you may be one of those romantic folks who enjoy a movie theater in your own company. In that case, head on over to The Volcano Museum in Stykkishólmur, which is a renovated version of the town’s oldest cinema. Here you can observe a series of dynamic volcano art pieces and a collection of “magma bombs” and artifacts from recent and past eruptions curated by vulcanologist Haraldur Sigurðsson. Then you can head upstairs and enjoy the film screen still kept there – movies are displayed each day for visitors.
Oh, and do bring your cameras for both the cultural and natural attractions in the Snæfellsjökull region. This place is a visual artist’s paradise as well as every hiker’s dream.
Many travelers – particularly women – don’t initially gravitate towards urban metropolises in any country when planning solo travel. One immediately has visions of being pick-pocketed, mugged, or worse and not being able to identify the perpetrator amidst the masses of distracted city-goers. Reykjavík is a one giant exception to this rule. This northern city is clean, safe, accommodating, and very navigable. You should exercise appropriate caution wherever you travel, particularly on your own, but you can certainly enjoy the uncommon security and comfort Reykjavík provides its residents and visitors. We’ll provide some examples of activities to engage in as a solo traveler here, and you can check out our Four Days in Reykjavík article if you’re interested in learning about more potential attractions to visit.
You’ll notice Reykjavík has a very “big small town” vibe; you can easily walk from place to place oryou canenjoy the scenery while rolling comfortably along on a bicycle! Check out Bike Company , Hike and Bike, Borgarhjól, and many more for bike rentals and guided bike tours through the city.We definitely recommend that you bike along the Old Harbour, across the bay to Mount Esja. And make sure you stop by the Sun Voyager, the striking steel structure depicting an ethereal “dream boat” in the style of the Vikings sculpted by Jon Gunnar Arnarson. Pictures just don’t do it justice.
Speaking of the Old Harbour, we recommend that you consider a whale watching tour with Special Tours while you’re in the city. This organization is famous for getting its hopeful passengers to prime areas for whale watching in record time (about twenty-to-thirty minutes) on its many impressive, sleek vessels. They are also known for being highly educational and interactive when out to sea; on some boats you can actually see and touch whale bones and teeth! And if you just can’t get enough of Reykjavík’s marine life, you can hop on the Special Tours’ puffin-watching boat Skúlaskeið, or “Old Skuli,” and visit hundreds of the stately yet undeniably adorable birds on the island of Akurey. Special Tours founded the original Puffin Tour in Iceland (in 1996), so it’s safe to assume they know where to find them!
In the event that you’re not a fan of being out to sea, you can also easily take to the air as a solo traveler. Take a private Reykjavík Summit Helicopter Tour for truly breathtaking views of the city and its surrounding mountain peaks. These tours generally run for thirty-to-forty-five minutes and depart from the East side of Reykjavík airport. You’ll just need warm clothes, sturdy shoes, an adventurous attitude, and of course a great camera!
Finally, Reykjavik is a wonderful, idiosyncratic place to get some highly eclectic shopping done on your own schedule. The big shopping districts are on Laugavegur, Austurstraeti, Laekjargata, and Skolavordustigur. From the uniquely Icelandic design house Kraum to Asta Créative Clothes, a line of one-of-a-kind handcrafted fashions inspired by Icelandic nature, to charming crafts and design in Aðalstræti, Reykjavík’s oldest house, you are sure to find something irreplaceable in Reykjavík’s vibrant shopping quarters. Also make sure you stop by the Reykjavík flea market, Kolaportið, where you can find everything from the traditional Icelandic hand-knitted wool sweater (lopapeysa) at Spúútnik to traditional fermented shark and flatkökur in the food court.
- 1 Safety Tips: What to Do?
- 2 Top Attractions: Where to Go?