Church in Vik Iceland

1 Day in Iceland? Here is How to Make the Best of It!

The Best Things to Do with one day in Iceland

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When my twin brother, Alex, and I were planning our two-week Amazing Race style trip around Europe, there was one place outside mainland Europe we knew we had to visit first: Iceland.  How could anyone watch The Secret Life of Walter Mitty and not want to visit? 

So we went on Momondo and began looking at flights. While checking out flights, we were shocked to see how cheap it was to fly to the Nordic Island country. Fortunately, we grabbed a flight through now bankrupt Wow Air #RIP. We got an incredibly cheap round trip flight for $318.00 and were soon off to experience the stunning Icelandic landscape.

Getting There

Since Iceland is an island, you are definitely going to get there through air travel. To do so, you’ll want to fly into the Keflavik International Airport (KEF). It’s the largest airport, and the country’s main hub for international travel. 

See above . . . I’d be impressed if you could reach Iceland by car.

Alex and I opted to do a red-eye flight and were lucky enough to get a direct flight. We both vowed not to sleep during the flight because we wanted to be able to sleep on Icelandic time later that night. Looking back, I don’t think this was a wise choice.

Unfortunately, as we descended into Keflavik, it was dark, and we weren’t able to get a first glimpse of the country’s beauty. We did, however, get to experience the beauty of the airport, and it’s a nice one. The bathrooms were straight out of an Ikea showroom. I was impressed already!

Upon landing, we went through their immigration process which took about two minutes. We didn’t bring any checked bags since we were trying to travel on a budget. Alex and I both packed everything for our entire two-week trip inside our Osprey Porter 46L backpacks, and we headed off to get our rental car. 

Rental Cars

Rental cars in Iceland can really cost a lot, and a country like Iceland pretty much has to be viewed by car. Keeping this in mind, and trying to do the entire trip as cheaply as possible, Alex and I decided to rent a car from SADcars

SADcars uses older used vehicles to maintain the lowest possible price. Don’t expect a nice new vehicle. I think Alex and I were rocking an early 2000’s Toyota Corolla Wagon (I didn’t even know that they made a Corolla Wagon). We had no issues with our trusty steed throughout the trip and honestly developed a little attachment to the car. It does, however, look like SADcars offers happier cars now with some newer options.

Driving in Iceland

Before we continue, it’s worth discussing a few items that would make your experience driving in Iceland a little less stressful.

Driving in Iceland is similar to driving in the United States. You drive on the right side of the road, and the steering wheel is on the left hand side of the car. Also, like some places in America, there are speed cameras. Pay attention to the signs because a speeding ticket in Iceland carries a hefty price tag (roughly $195-$690 depending on the speed).

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Being in a rental car won’t help you.  They will track down the rental car company, and then they will charge you. The funny thing is they will even send you the speed camera picture. I have a friend that this happened to and there is no denying that it’s them!

Also, gas in Iceland is EXPENSIVE, one of the most expensive places in the world. As I write this article, gas is about $7 USD per gallon. Either way, definitely factor in the price of gas (by liters) into your budget. Lastly, if you have half a tank, just fill up. Gas stations are few and far between in some locations and getting stranded would certainly put a damper on your experience.

Alright, enough of the boring stuff. You’re here because you want to know where you should go if you only have one day in Iceland. So let’s get to it!

Seljalandsfoss

Seljalandsfoss, Iceland

After grabbing our wagon, we set off from Keflavik and headed to our first destination, the waterfalls of Seljalandsfoss and Gljufrabui (don’t ask me to say them). The drive from the airport will take you around two hours depending on traffic, weather conditions, and how many times you stop for a picture. As you’ll see, every passing kilometer of the drive is beautiful. 

Seljalandsfoss is located right off of the Ring Road, Iceland’s main road, Route 1. Simply turn onto 249 from Rte. 1, and you’ll see the cascading water from the road. Parking at the location is no longer free and costs 800 ISK (roughly $6 USD) and is valid for the entire day. 

The waterfall is unique because it is one of few waterfalls of its size, 60 meters, that you can walk behind. Due to this, you can get some incredible pictures. Alex and I were so excited to get behind the falls and take some shots. Sadly, when we were there, it was too cold, and the path behind the falls was closed off. So definitely take that into consideration. Also, if you are planning to go behind the falls, make sure you are wearing some rain gear and your equipment is protected. This bad boy shoots off some serious mist.  

Regardless, the waterfall is absolutely stunning. But you won’t be alone admiring its beauty. The site is definitely a favorite amongst tour buses and fellow travelers enjoying the Ring Road.

Gljufrabui

Gljufrabui Icelannd

A lesser known waterfall within walking distance (150m) of Seljalandsfoss, is Gljufrabui. To get to it, you have to walk on the trail that leads you north from Seljalandsfoss. Once you get to the riverbank, you can either (1) look through to see the waterfall (although you’ll only see the bottom of the falls), (2) wade through the water to get closer or (3) climb–which I would not recommend if you are scared of heights.

We chose the third option and followed a little dirt path on the side of the mountain towards where the falls were. Beware- at some points on this the path, it gets very high and only a few feet wide. You’ll reach a wooden ladder which is propped up against the dirt and rock covering the falls. 

As you approach the ladder, you’ll see the water flowing down (although most of it is still covered) and can hear the water as it hits the bottom, but you don’t really know what you’ll see on the other side. Just as we peered over the top, my jaw dropped. You are greeted with an incredible view of the entire 40 meter waterfall.  To date, it is one of my favorite completely unexpected travel memories. 

Seljavallalaug Pool

After freezing from the cold mist of Seljalandsfoss, Alex and I headed off to Seljavallalaug Pool. It is Iceland’s oldest pool in the country and is heated by a geothermal spring. 

The pool is located approximately 22 kilometers from Seljalandsfoss. If you have a GPS you can input “Seljavallalaug parking lot,” and it will get you there. Without a GPS, take the Ring Road until you reach the road 242. If you are coming from Seljalandsfoss, it will be a left turn. Continue on that road, staying to the left, and you’ll reach the parking lot. Unlike the parking lot at Seljalandsfoss, parking is free. 

So before we left for our trip, we were researching this spot and read in a few locations that you would be greeted by a black labrador retriever who would guide you to the pool. Alex and I thought that it was a joke but look who met us in the parking lot.

I’m not sure if the black lab, who we named “Odin”, is still around but he/she made the perfect companion. Once you get out of your vehicle, you’ll hike approximately twenty minutes north of the lot walking mostly on a dry riverbed surrounded by an incredible mountainous landscape. You will make a few river crossings, but there are little bridges to get you across (or you can just leap). You’ll walk further than you think you need to walk, question you’re on the right path, and then the pool will appear. “Odin” led us the whole way.

Once at the pool, Alex and I couldn’t wait to jump in. There is a changing room, but don’t expect a Planet Fitness locker room with amenities. It is dirty but it gets the job done. Also, it’s a co-ed changing room so just be aware of that.

We suited up and opened the door to some freezing cold Icelandic air. We made a beeline for the pool and cannonballed right into its lukewarm waters. Don’t expect a hot tub, but it was warm enough that you didn’t want to get out and brace the cold again. Odin stayed up there with us the entire time. 

We learned that the changing room only gets cleaned once a year, so we grabbed some trash and followed Odin back down to our car. It was very tempting to bring him with us on the next leg of our trip to Skogafoss.

Skogafoss

Skogafoss, Iceland

Skogafoss is a powerful waterfall 60 meters high and 25 meters wide. It is a beautiful location and a must stop if you are cruising around the Ring Road. 

Skogafoss is approximately six kilometers away from the Seljavallalaug Pool parking lot. Exit the lot and continue down the Ring Road until you reach Skogar Road. At Skogar Road, turn left and continue north. You’ll see the waterfall in the distance (and can even see it from the Ring Road). 

Once you reach the huge parking lot, grab a raincoat and your camera, and head towards the plummeting water. Since Skogafoss is a huge destination for Ring Road tours, chances are you won’t be alone.

If you’ve got the time and the legs for it, I highly recommend climbing the 370 steps up to the top of the waterfall. At the top, once you catch your breath and your legs stop burning, you can truly see how magnificent the falls are. While there, you can also soak in incredible views of the Icelandic countryside. 

After soaking in the view and hearing the sounds of the falls, Alex and I ventured back down the stairs and got back in our trusty wagon. If you know me, you know I love the ocean, and that is where we headed. But first, we had to go to church.

Vik i Myrdal

Church in Vik Iceland

As we continued towards the southern coast, Alex and I were ready to see the beautiful Icelandic coastline and famous black sand beaches. We headed towards the town of Vik i Myrdal (“Vik”).

Vik i Myrdal is located 33 kilometers from Skogafoss and is a beautiful seafront village with beautiful black sand beaches. As we neared Vik on the Ring Road, Alex pointed to a little white and red church situated on top of a hill and suggested we check it out for the views.

He wasn’t wrong. Víkurkirkja or more simply, The Vik i Myrdal Church is definitely somewhere you need to visit. The church sits on top of a hill overlooking the entire village of Vik and offers incredible coastline views. 

After taking some pictures of the church and the surreal views, we decided it was finally time to walk on the famous black sand beaches. Using the high ground to our advantage, we spotted the beach we wanted to go to and headed towards it. 

As we got within an earshot of the violent Atlantic Ocean, we found a parking lot, parked and decided to check out the area. Unlike most of our beach outings, we opted to put more layers on. 

Jeep on the Black Sand Beach, Iceland

At this spot, there is a rock jetty jutting out into the ocean. If the tide is low, the waves aren’t too rough, and you’re feeling up for it, walk out on those rocks. Looking back to the shore, you will see snow capped mountains to the right, the village of Vik in front of you, and crazy rock formations on the coastline to your left. To the left was Dyrholaey, and that was our next stop.

Dyrholaey

Vik was supposed to be our final destination before we went back to Keflavik. However, after seeing the rock formations of Dyrholaey and justifying that they were “on the way back”. We made an exception.

Dyrholaey is located 20 kilometers from the “Black Sand Beach Parking Lot” on the 218 off of the Ring Road. As the 218 splits, stay straight and drive towards the sea. You’ll end at a large parking lot.

We walked on the path towards the cliffs and saw the incredible ocean views and rock formations. To really gain perspective of the landscape, I suggest going down to the beach where you can see basalt columns and some sea caves.

Alex and I didn’t know about the Dyrholaey lighthouse and arch. If we went back we would definitely do that as well, we just didn’t have the knowledge or the time. 

If you were able to visit all these spots in a day, and a day is all the time you have, then it’s probably about time that you head back towards Keflavik. Be careful on the drive back though. Iceland’s weather conditions can change rather rapidly. On our way back, our car was surrounded by the thickest fog I’ve ever been in. 

After one of the most incredible days of our lives, we arrived at Disa’s Homestay around midnight, and I’m pretty sure we fell asleep before our heads hit the pillows. Luckily, Disa’s Homestay was just a ten minute drive to the Keflavik airport. Our incredible, albeit brief, Icelandic adventure was sadly over. 

Book for the Trip

I couldn’t think of a better book for the trip than Gary Paulsen’s classic Hatchet. This book was one of the first books that made me enjoy reading and is just as good now, as it was when I was in high school.

Andrew Schloe

I love surfing, scuba diving, and soaking in a good sunset at the beach. There is a good chance you will find me by water. Favorite Destination: Great Ocean Road, Australia.

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