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My Guide to the South-West Coast of Iceland

For most people, Iceland isn’t the first pick for a European vacation. My first visit wasn’t even deliberate, but rather for a 24-hour layover in Reykjavik to save a couple hundred on airfare to the Netherlands. However, coming home from studying abroad this past spring, I knew that I had to dedicate more time to this beautiful nation for my second visit. So here are some tips and highlights from my time road-tripping around Iceland!

Know before you go

Here are a few tips that I felt made my experience a 10/10:

  • My first suggestion is to rent a car. I loved the freedom of being able to maneuver on my own and truly choose my own adventure. Same as the U.S., they drive on the right, which makes it pretty easy. Like a lot of places, Keflavik Airport had a bunch of rental car companies just a free shuttle ride away. I rented through Booking.com and found the process to be easy but definitely do your research first to see what is best for you.
  • Iceland is generally expensive since they need to import lots of their food and other goods. So, I really recommend stopping at a grocery store once or twice during your trip. I went a bit overboard and ended up having to chuck things before my flight, so stay modest. I would recommend a few snacks for driving (like granola bars and chips) and easy dinner foods like pasta with a side of veggies. This leads me to tip three, which is…
  • Find places to stay that have kitchens. I would recommend eating out once or twice, but then mostly cooking for yourself to cut down on costs if you are looking to budget. Booking.com was a lifesaver, and since I reserved a bunch of spots, I now get discounts! Score!
  • Check the weather and bring plenty of layers. I went in mid-May when it was still pretty brisk. I recommend packing a quality rain jacket/windbreaker, a couple of warm sweaters, leggings to layer under other pants, warm socks, and boots. This is definitely not a super glamorous vacation. I also recommend a small backpack for hiking. In terms of shoes, hiking boots are super but if you don’t have those, sneakers are great.
  • Plan your route with designated pit stops. Iceland is a land of spectacular views of forests, lakes, mountains, oceans, waterfalls, geysers, and volcanos. Google Maps is great because it will recommend popular destinations on all the major routes, but also take your time to do research on what you would like to see. There are lots of websites (like this one) from people who have also traveled there already.

Places you *absolutely* cannot miss on the Western and Southern coast

Now for the good part. Here are a few of my favorite places that I was so lucky to have visited during my time in Iceland. Truthfully, every spot took my breath away. I was a solo traveler for the first half of the week (my first time ever), making this trip especially serene and special. Traveling by yourself can be a bit terrifying, but I felt pretty safe in Iceland by myself until my boyfriend at the time joined me. Travel at your own risk, and definitely bring a buddy if that is your jam!

  • Black Sand Beach, Reynisfjara: my number one fav spot. This expansive beach is a sight to see with its volcanic sand and towering cliff views. Before going, make sure to stop at Skool Beans in Vik, a school bus converted into a cafe. If you are lucky, you might see their cat roaming around! What made this experience so cool was that we saw a couple get engaged on the beach. Like I said, magic. before leaving, I recommend going up the Dyrholaey Viewpoint to get see what is like from atop the cliffs. Truly spectacular.
  • Seljalandsfoss, Gljufrabui, and Nauthusagil: all in the same general area, but all require their own carved-out time to admire. Most likely when you picture the waterfalls of Iceland, you think of Seljalandsfoss where you can walk behind the massive water stream. Close by are a couple of other waterfalls, equally as beautiful. Better yet, it is right off of route one, making this an easy destination.
  • Snæfellsjökull National Park: My first stop and a place I will never forget. This national park is located on a peninsula on the western coast of Iceland, about a three-hour drive north of Reykjavik. The night before going here, I stayed in Borgarnes at Englendingavik Homestay (highly recommend) so I could get up bright and early to cruise around. Take route 54 up north, then take the road around the entire coast and hop out to explore the many beautiful mountains, waterfalls, beaches, and churches. A few places I recommend getting out to take a look: Saxhóll Crater, Svörtuloft lighthouse, Bjarnarfoss and Baejarfoss (waterfalls), Ingjaldshóll (on old church), and Írskrabrunnur. I think I stopped 20+ times! As always, please be respectful of all of the people and places.
  • Glanni waterfall and Grábrók: A little more inland, but definitely sites to see. Here you can see even more spectacular views of waterfalls and mountains. I will never forget hiking down the trail a bit to find a gorgeous emerald pool, and wishing that I could dive in. Just a couple minutes drive away from Glanni is Grábrók, a spectacular and easy hike up into a dormant volcano. This had some of the most amazing views from high up, so stopping here is a must.
  • Þingvellir! Another beautiful place to stop and explore with easy hiking trails and sweeping views of Pingvallavatn. Also, it is pretty close to Reykjavik so it might be nice to visit here first to ease into your Iceland adventure.

Tried and Loved places to stay and eat

To stay

To eat

I would write even more, but I am restraining myself so my editors won’t hate me too much (sorry!) Truly, I can’t say enough about the pure majesty and wonder this place possesses. I am dying to get back there once I graduate to tackle the rest of the nation (and maybe stop at my favorite places). Hopefully, this inspires you too to give Iceland a go!

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Julia DeFilippo

U Mass Amherst '23

Julia is a junior biochem and women's studies major at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. She enjoys listening to music, spinning, and painting.