In August, the southern coast of Iceland is brighter than most other countries would be at 5 a.m. The blackened landscape, spotted with the pointed peaks of volcanoes and steam rising from hot springs, was completely illuminated by the unusually golden and picturesque sun.
Looking out at my surroundings, I didn’t think I would ever stop smiling. Here I was, in Iceland(!!), with four more months of beautiful places in front of me.
The walk from the Reykjavik bus station to the city’s downtown was just over a mile. Easily doable, although I wasn’t quite used to the 45 degree (F) weather yet.
“I can totally handle this whole ‘traveling alone’ thing,” I thought to myself.
That is, until I strolled into an eerily quiet, empty Reykjavik city center. It was eight hours too early to check into my hostel, and two hours too early to grab myself a cup of coffee or food for my now empty stomach.
By then, I also realized I didn’t have any sort of plan for myself for the day. Actually, I didn’t have one for the next day, either. Or a car to get anywhere. Or a general idea of where exactly I was going.
That was about the moment I started saying more than a few expletives in my head.
Fortunately, as it turns out, Iceland is wonderfully welcoming to the clueless traveler. The country is full of adventures and places to explore–but they won’t just fall into your lap. Here’s a few tricks to try if you happen to wander into Reykjavik, too.
1. Walk Around, Just Because It’s So Beautiful…
After my initial WTF moment along my walk into downtown, I decided to just keep on walking.
The city is truly beautiful, with a cascading cathedral and a few geese-filled parks along the way. The one I found was named Hijómskálagarđurinn…Just try pronouncing that one.
There’s also fountains, statues, a beautiful town hall and an oceanfront view with mountains dotting the background.
2. …Or Because You Could Run Into Some Very Interesting People
Unfortunately, without coffee, my energy for walking around with an increasingly heavy backpack was waning.
“Hello!” I heard from a group of guys around the corner from the Reykjavik Tourism Center. “What are ye doing?”
That man turned out to be John, a music therapist from Ireland. He sailed here with his friend, Paul, to raise money for a charity that supported low-to-no-cost mental health services for low-income patients.
I told them about my current mad quest for coffee, so they offered me some of their tea. We exchanged names and hellos. My own name, Bridget, was followed by John exclaiming, “That’s a fucking Irish name!”
Then they pulled out their guitar and fiddle, and performed traditional Irish tunes and lullabies for more than an hour, right there in city center!
I really couldn’t help but laugh–Ireland was supposed to be my next stop. And the Icelandic locals waking up for work gave the two Irish men and the American girl more than a few weird looks. But at that moment, I knew I’d be just fine in Iceland.
3. Talk to the People in Your Hostel
I was able to check into my hostel around 2 p.m., where I met plenty of other young, solo travelers. There were people from Canada, Spain, Sweden, Australia and tons of other countries–all with equally large backpacks and varying degrees of preparation.
Other travelers can give you recommendations on where to go and what to try. You can also make friends who have similar itineraries as you. A few people were set to be in Amsterdam at the same time I was; another person would be traveling in Croatia when I would be there. As long as you have Facebook, or some other form of social media, keeping in touch is easy.
4. Try Out The Blue Lagoon
I made fast friends with Tess from Canada. Iceland was her last stop of a three-month trip before she headed home. Then we met Cristobal, an Andalusian turned San Franciscan. He planned to visit the Blue Lagoon that night, so we hopped in his rental car and went along.
The Blue Lagoon is worth visiting once. It’s a beautiful, man-made geothermal spa that consists of mineral-rich water output from a nearby geothermal power plant. Basically, it’s a huge, supposedly “healing” hot tub.
Admission is pricey, starting at about 6,000 Icelandic krona (or around $60). But it does come with a detoxing silica face mask, and you can stay in the Lagoon for as long as you please until close.
5. Go For A Swim
Despite its colder temperatures, swimming in Iceland is extremely popular. The country has tons of clean public pools and hot tubs. If you have the urge to swim in a natural hot spring, skip a second trip to the Blue Lagoon. The region is spotted with smaller, less touristy pools–plus they’re free!
6. Grab A Beer & A Shot
The nightlife in Reykjavik is famous, and for good reason. Like everything else in the country, though, it can get expensive. Luckily, there was a small pub around the corner from the Hard Rock that served a pint of beer and a shot of Icelandic liquer or vodka for about $10.
The upstairs had both touring and local musicians playing their instruments and singing. Meanwhile, like the tourists we were, Tess from Canada, our two new Australian friend, and I played drinking games in the corner. I mean, you have to feel at home somehow.
7. Take A Bus Anywhere
Iceland is undeniably an expensive country. Most basic tours cost 10,000 krona ($100) or more, and you’ll be stuck on a massive tour bus making speedy stopovers in places that deserve more than a five-minute rushed visit.
Luckily, the country has a pretty extensive bus system. They usually cost about $15-$20 for a one-way ticket, and there are bus stops all over the place.
8. Hitchhike…No, Seriously
For people on a much tighter budget, like myself, Iceland is one of the most friendly hitchhiking countries in the world. So, I gave it a try, along with Amelia from Sweden, who I met in the hostel.
After close to ten minutes, an older man who sold Icelandic fish abroad picked us up. We couldn’t have been luckier, because Igbi from Iceland was the kindest man either of us had ever met.
He drove us over to the Icelandic president’s house, smoked while we toured the grounds, then treated us both to coffee after we finished exploring the town of Hafnarfjörður. We literally started calling Igbi our grandfather, and he dropped us off north of Reykjavik, in Mosfellsbær, so we’d be in a good spot to hitchhike again.
Almost immediately after Igbi left, a sweet Polish woman and her teenaged nieces picked us up on their way to Glymur. At 198 m, Glymur is the second-tallest waterfall (or vodospad in Polish) in Iceland.
That’s the beauty of hitchhiking without a destination–you’ll go places you never even knew existed. We hiked 6 km to see a breathtaking waterfall, walked barefoot through an icy stream, shared skyr with strangers and pet Icelandic horses on the side of the road.
Plans can be useful. Sometimes, they’re downright necessary. But, at least in my first destination, not having a plan worked out better than I could’ve ever hoped.