Hit and Miss: Iceland
If you follow any travel or photography related Instagram or blog, there's a 99.9% chance that you've seen pictures of Iceland pop up. Seeing all of them was one of the reasons I was so eager to go, and while it might seem like there's an overwhelming amount of things to see and do, there are definitely a few things that you can cut out, too.
Iceland deserves all the attention its been getting. It's such a raw, untouched piece of land that contains some of the most incredible sites the world has to offer. A lot of these ended up being places that everyone talks about - but there's a reason people talk about them. Skipping things because they're "too popular" is never a valid enough reason for me.
None of these places are bad. I don't know if there is anything bad in Iceland, actually. But your trip also won't be any worse or less memorable if you don't see every last thing. I've lived in Utah for ten years and haven't seen everything, so putting that much expectation on a comparatively short trip somewhere is just ridiculous and the biggest mistake I see a lot of first time or inexperienced travelers make. Give yourself something to come back to.
From my own experience, here are some of the things worth taking the time to see, and few that you can probably skip.
Hit: Londrangar Cliffs
I've always loved cliffs, and these are definitely some of my favorite. I wish I could have spent a little more time there walking around and just enjoying the view and wind that inevitably comes with standing on the edge of the world, but I'll hold onto the hope that I get to go back.
If you're going to be exploring Iceland, this spot isn't far out of the way, and it's completely worth visiting. I'd highly recommend going either first thing in the morning or in the evening when the light is soft and perfect. There's a reason pictures of this place pop up all over social media on a regular basis.
Miss: Thingvellir National Park
I don't have any pictures of this area, so maybe that says something about how impressed I was with it (i.e. I wasn't).
Before coming to Iceland I kept reading about this place and how much of a "must" it was. Maybe we hit up the wrong area or maybe it was just an unlucky time, but it just appeared to be a sort of barren wasteland that had the occasional interesting looking rock. I've read about the church and old building ruins and I think that would be interesting to see, but if you're short on time, you won't be missing a life changing experience by visiting this place.
Hit: Blue Lagoon or other swimming area
Say what you will about it being a tourist trap, but my experience at the Blue Lagoon was one of the more relaxing times of our entire trip (even with the naked showering). I think that, ultimately, it's worth the money and one of the best things you can do after a long flight.
We went pretty early in the morning and didn't experience an overwhelming amount of tourists. I would suggest doing the same if you want to avoid the crowds!
If the Blue Lagoon just doesn't seem like your thing, visit at least one Icelandic hot spring or geothermal pool. It's part of what makes the country so fun, and there's nothing like being in a swimsuit in the middle of nowhere, am I right?
Other lagoons / hot spots:
Seljavallalaug swimming pool (requires a small hike)
Hrunalaug Natural Hot Springs (careful about this one - the increase in visitors has caused a lot of damage to the natural hot springs and the owners are considering closing it to the public!)
Miss: ...Smaller, out of the way pools / lagoons
The nice thing about the Blue Lagoon is that you pass it on your way to the airport, so it's not a hassle to go to. While there are other lagoons and swimming areas all over the country - and many of them are pretty cool - don't go out of your way just to spend a little time in the water. If it's something that's really important to you, go for it! But if you're only a little bit interested in seeing more of Iceland's geothermal waters, you might just be disappointed by what you find after driving an hour off the main road.
While the swimming areas are one of the things that are unique to Iceland, don't feel like you have to cram everything in on one trip. Trying to do that on any trip will just leave you feeling exhausted and underwhelmed. It's much better to take your time at a few places you really enjoy rather than try and pack everything in and regret the way you spent your time.
Hit: Black Sand Beaches
If you think that seeing so many pictures of the black sand beaches will just make the real thing a disappointment, I'm happy to tell you that you're so wrong! The black sand beaches of Vik are even more incredible in person. Not only are they framed by these incredible rock formations, but the sound of the powerful "sneaker" waves and the caves littering the rocks make it a truly unique Iceland-only experience.
Miss: ...Other "Special" Beaches
Chances are you might have come across the mention of others cool beaches that are a "must see" in Iceland. The truth is, there are a lot of beaches, and while they are all nice (because it's a beach, duh) only a few of them are really worth seeing and offer a unique experience that's worth your time.
Make sure you do your research about what you want to see and have your priorities straight. Iceland is full of beautiful places, but only make times for the ones that are going to make the biggest impact on you.
Hit: Seljalandsfoss, Skogafoss, Svartifoss (Major watefalls)
My logic in this is that....the major waterfalls are popular for a reason. They're impressive. Gullfoss is also pretty amazing, but can be swamped with tourists. While a little more travel is required to see Seljalandsfoss and Skogafoss, and a hike is required to reach Svartifoss, seeing the power of the water and the surrounding landscapes in breathtaking.
You might think, "What could be so impressive about so many waterfalls?" and the answer is that each of these ones are individual and unique, so it makes each one a special experience. Waterfalls and the rivers that make them are an important part of the Icelandic landscape and it's important not to skip the opportunity to see some! Hike to Svartifoss, walk behind Seljalandsfoss and climb all the way to the top of Skogafoss - trust me!
Miss: Every little waterfall on the side of the road
...with that being said about all the great waterfalls, Iceland can make you permanently tired of waterfalls if you aren't careful. There are a TON of them throughout the country, and even though they are beautiful....it's not imperative that you visit every. single. one. You'll get "waterfalled out" and soon they lose their magic.
As I said before, have priorities. Pick which seem the most important to you, whether they're major ones or 'secret' and don't try to see all of them. Eventually you'll get to the point where you don't even see the need to get out of the car for more than a minute...or at all (like me).
Hit: Jokulsarlon Glacier Lagoon
When you hear 'Iceland,' what do you think of? Ice! So it only makes sense that you experience the magic of Iceland's glaciers. Ancient ice formations and beautiful blue skies and water all combine to make the Jokulsarlon Glacier Lagoon one of the places that could easily make a whole trip to Iceland worth the price of the plane ticket.
The lagoon full of icebergs that have broken off from the nearby glacier is one of those things that you don't get to see every day. It's 100% Iceland, and it's mesmerizing to watch these ancient pieces of ice making their way toward the ocean where their life will end. You're literally watching history, and what could beat that? Plus, it's gorgeous. Drop dead gorgeous. Do me a favor and spend the money and take the ferry out into the lagoon and don't live with the regrets I have.
This little town is pretty and has a great ocean lookout, but it's not something I would say is an absolute must for your first Iceland visit. There isn't much to do there, and it's a good few hours to drive out to it.
Even though the lookout is pretty, you're only going to stay for a little while and then have to make the drive all the way back. It's the northernmost point most people driving the Snaefellness peninsula visit, but don't feel like you're missing out on a life changing experience if you can't fit it into your itinerary.
Travel is about experiences and learning, but don't let FOMO get in the way and prevent you from having a real experience. When I was young my parents would never let me attend a conference or camp with friends because they felt it was more important for me to 'have my own experiences.' It taught me that trying to live vicariously through others or replicate their adventures would never leave me as satisfied if I took the time to have my own.
Let me reiterate - don't try to do or see everything. Not seeing that waterfall or beach won't ruin your vacation, but not getting to spend enough time to reflect on the beauty of some cliffs or seeing icebergs less than 100 feet in front of you? That's what will leave you with the most regrets. Trying to quench FOMO will just leave you feeling empty...and really poor!