11 Tips for Driving Iceland’s Ring Road

Traveling around Iceland is easy by car due to Route 1, otherwise known as the Ring Road. Route 1 circles the entire country (minus the Snaefellsnes Pennisula) and allows visitors to easily see many of the different landscapes and tourist attractions Iceland has to offer. Check out our Top 10 Things to See & Do Around Iceland’s Ring Road for just a glimpse of what this road trip has to offer. To make your road trip a little easier, here are some tips we learned from our trip:

#1 Stop at all the Scenic Viewpoint signs along the Ring Road – Some of the stops were
weren’t super exciting but others had hidden waterfalls, glacier views, craters to climb or beautiful lava fields

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One of the many surprising “scenic viewpoints” along Route 1

#2 NOT ALL OF IT IS PAVED! – This was the most surprising things for us. There is not much warning before the road changes from paved to gravel so keep an eye out especially if you have a 2 wheel drive carimg_7926

#3 Be careful of one lane bridges – Most of the bridges along the Ring Road are only wide enough for one car to cross at a time. Slow down and check the other side before crossing.

#4 Watch out for sheep on the road – Sheep in Iceland are free to roam the mountain sides to graze. There’s fencing set up to try to keep them off the roads but fairly often (mainly on the northern side of the country) the sheep were walking and crossing the roads as we were driving by.dsc_0437

#5 To get gas you need a credit/debit card with a pin – In order to pay at the pump along the Ring Road be sure to bring a credit or debit card with a 4 digit pin number to go with it! There aren’t a lot of gas stations along the route, especially in the north, so fill up whenever you have the chance.

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#6 Know the tourist attraction symbol – When you see a road sign with this squiggly symbol that means that it is directing you to a tourist attraction. Even if you don’t recognize the name, if the symbol leads you nearby it is probably worth the detour!

#7 Stock up on snacks and drinks when you are in a larger city, there aren’t many places to stop – We stopped at the grocery store and got sandwich supplies to eat for lunches along the road and it was a good thing we did. It allowed us to eat on the go wherever we wanted but there was never many other options along the road

#8 Use the bathroom every chance you get – similar to the limited food options along the road there aren’t very many places to take bathroom breaks. Thankfully many of the tourist attractions have some form of bathroom

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#9 Addresses for destinations are usually just town names – We had a bit of a scare at the beginning of our trip when we realized we were given what seemed to be town names for our Airbnbs. Turns out we had nothing to worry about since the “towns” were basically just house names

#10 If you aren’t driving in winter you can get by with a 2 wheel drive (2WD) car – we rented our 2WD car in mid-Sept and didn’t have any major problems along the way. Note, as said before, some of the roads are not paved so a 2WD car will slow you down a bit for some stretches

#11 Download a music playlist or audiobook for the drives as there will be long periods of time spent between destinations. While Iceland’s landscape is beautiful to watch along the way, a little extra entertainment can’t hurt.dsc_0716

Now that you’ve read your tips, you’re ready to get started planning your own road trip around Ring Road! Check out our top things to see on the Ring Road to help plan your itinerary!

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Whale Watching in Northern Iceland

During our 8 day trip in Iceland, we knew one thing we had to do was go whale watching! While there are multiple areas in Iceland to take off on a whale watching tour, we chose to embark from Akureyri, the “Capital of North Iceland”, with the company Ambassador.

From Akureyri, we boarded a boat and headed out to sea. After about an hour ride we slowed and scanned the top of water until we had our first whale sighting. After just a few minutes we were able to see the fins of a humpback whale! The boat sped over to its location just in time for it to take a deep dive flapping his tail to push him deep in the water. We were able to see 3 whales total, one alone and one pair. The whales stayed near the top of the water swimming around for a few minutes before taking deep dives further down into the ocean that usually lasted around 5-6 minutes.

The reason Iceland is a great place to whale watch is that humpback whales travel north to feed. These whales eat in Northern Iceland, building up enough fat to stay warm in cold waters before returning south to breed. Each whale has a unique design on their flute (aka the back of their tails) making them fairly easy to track. The same whales found in Iceland have also been spotted in the Caribbean and even the Horn of Africa!

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Overall the tour took about 3 hours, 1 hour at the whale watching sight and 2 in transit. The guides were very well informed, full of fun facts about the whales. Having spotted 3 whales, multiple times, I’d say overall the trip was a success!

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Sneak Peek: Photos from Colombia!

We started 2017 with our first trip to South America, spending 4 days in Colombia! We’re working on more posts from the trip, but couldn’t wait to share some of our pictures…

We began in Bogota:

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Plaza de Bolivar, the main square of Bogota

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Exploring La Candelaria neighborhood of Bogota

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Visited the Botero Museum, Botero who is known for playing with volume did his own version of the Mona Lisa

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Artifacts from pre-Colombian indigenous cultures at the Gold Museum in Bogota

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Took the telerico up to the top of Monserrate to see incredible views of Bogota!

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Stopped for a snack at Monserrate – Coca tea and giant roasted ants (yes that’s one in Kathryn’s hand!)

After a day and half in Bogota, we flew to Cartagena on the coast of Colombia!

While in Cartagena we took a day trip to Palenque, the first free town in America. It is a UNESCO Heritage Site, the village was founded by escaped slaves in the 17th century and their African heritage is still important to the community today.

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Statue in the main square of Palenque

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Houses in Palenque

And of course, we got to see a lot of Cartagena itself while we were there!

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We climbed to the top of San Felipe fortress that once defended Cartagena from Pirates!

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At the top of San Felipe fortress

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Walked through the Old City of Cartagena

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Colorful houses in Cartagena’s Getsemani neighborhood

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There’s street art all over Cartagena’s Getsemani neighborhood!

And that’s our sneak peek! Stay tuned for more from our trip….

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Visiting the Other Islands of Venice, Italy: Murano, Burano & Torcello

The city of Venice, Italy is made up of many islands – over 100 of them! Most of the islands that make up the city are all connected by hundreds of bridges crossing canals and it’s so easy  to walk from one to the next that you almost forget they are separate islands. There are also a few islands outside of the city that you won’t just stumble upon. You have to take the water bus to get to them but they are definitely worth the trip out to them… 

  1. Murano

Murano is known as the glass making island! There are shops up and down the main canal where local glassmakers sell their beautiful creations, everything from earrings and charms to chandeliers. There is the Murano Glass Museum and other glass making demonstrations that you can pay to visit, but if you’re lucky, you can find a shop where you can watch a local craftsman at work. At one of the shops we came across, the owner was creating tiny glass Christmas tree charms!

  1. Burano

While Murano is the glass making island, Burano is known for its lace making! Similar to Murano, if you’re lucky, you can find a local lace maker at work.

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Burano is also known for color – all of the buildings are painted in bright colors. Having seen pictures of the beautiful colored houses in Burano, I had expected it to be just one street. I was happily surprised to find the colorful buildings cover the entire island, even once you get away from the bustling touristy streets to the quieter, more residential areas!

  1. Torcello

Unlike Murano and Burano, Torcello doesn’t have a trade that it is known for – in fact, it is practically deserted now! It was actually one of the first settled islands in the Venetian lagoon, but eventually became too swampy and most of its residents left for Burano, Murano or Venice. According to Wikipedia, the island only has 10 full-time residents today.

Arriving on the island, as you walk down the one main street, there’s a small souvenir shop and a little café. After stopping for gelato, we walked the rest of the way into the town. The main attraction was the cathedral, which we unfortunately got there too late to go inside. But we did take turns sitting on Attila’s Throne, an ancient stone chair sitting in the middle of the courtyard that likely once belonged to a governor or bishop.

A few tips for visiting these islands:

  • These islands are about a 45 minute water bus ride from Venice, but once you’re on one of the three, it’s a much shorter trip to the others, so I’d recommend trying to fit them all into the same trip.
  • Make sure to note when the last water bus leaves – it’s likely in the early evening and you don’t want to miss it!
  • Murano and Burano are great places to shop for souvenirs, but shop around before you buy – you’ll probably find better prices further away from the water bus stops.
  • If you’re looking for an authentic souvenir, one sign that something might not be is if there are others like it (we saw several shops selling lace scarves of the same design in multiple colors). Stay away from duplicates if you are looking for something truly traditional, but know that you will spend more on it!

If you are visiting Venice, I definitely recommend making time to visit these islands, especially Burano and Murano!

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Snorkeling in Silfra Fissure in Iceland

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Snorkling at the Silfra Fissure at Thingvellir National Park was one of the highlights of our trip around Iceland’s Golden Circle (more about the Golden Circle here!). Fissures are long narrow cracks in stone that are the results of an earthquake and the Silfra Fissure is the only place on Earth where you can dive/snorkel between the American and Eurasian tectonic plates! Though there are multiple fissures in Iceland, another unique thing about Silfra is that it is filled with crystal clear water from an underwater spring.

We booked our snorkeling tour through Dive.is and were not disappointed! There is an option to get a ride to and from Reykjavik but as we were finishing our Ring Road trip we opted to meet the group at Thingvellir National Park. We met our snorkel guide, Eric, and he helped us learn about all the gear that Dive.is provided. The water in the Silfra Fissure varies between 2-4 degrees Celsius (33-39 degrees Fahrenheit) year-round so we definitely needed dry suits to stay warm! The point of the suits is to not let water inside so they can be fairly tight around the neck and wrists, it was a little hard to breathe in them before we got in the water. After suiting up, we grabbed fins and snorkel masks and headed over to the loading platform.

Before we got in the water we had to spit in our snorkel masks to keep them from fogging up. Saliva does the job and they don’t want to add any non-natural chemicals into the fissure. Getting in the water was a cold process. While your body is still warm (hopefully you don’t have leaks!), your face and hands can feel the chilling water. The gloves you wear allow water in, but are insulated so as long as you don’t move your hands through the water much they’ll stay fairly warm.

As we snorkeled through the water we were able to see the incredible underwater landscape of lava rock, sand and algae. While you won’t find any animals in the water, the visibility exceeds 100m making it some of the clearest water in the world! Luckily we brought our waterproof camera to capture some of the awesome views (note if you don’t have a wrist strap you cannot take your camera). But if you don’t have one your guide takes photos along the way that you can purchase afterwards.

After we got out of the water we got a couple of much needed cups of hot chocolate and cookies to warm up!

Snorkeling in the Silfra Fissure was awesome and it is a year round activity! According to our guide, there are a couple of  differences between the seasons: In the winter, the visibility gets better whereas during the summer you can see rainbows in the water. We snorkeled in mid September and loved the high visibility!

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Around Iceland’s Golden Circle – A Day Trip from Reykjavik

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If you don’t have much time in Iceland but still want to see some sights outside of the capital, Iceland’s Golden Circle is the perfect day trip from Reykjavik! The Golden Circle can be visited either by renting a car or going on a tour bus with one of the many companies leaving from Reykjavik. We did the route by rental car as the end of our trip around the Ring Road. Our first stop was at Thingvellir National Park. The park itself is beautiful with plenty of paths to explore and even Oxararfoss waterfall.

Thingvellir National Park is also home to the Silfra Fissure. Silfra is a freshwater fissure between the American and Eurasian tectonic plates. The water is some of the clearest in the world with visibility exceeding 100 meters! We opted to go on a snorkeling group with Dive.is to experience the 2-4 degrees’ Celsius temperatures for ourselves!

Our next stop on the Golden Circle route was at Geysir, the inspiration for the English word geyser. A geyser is an underground hot spring that intermittently builds up enough pressure from the heat to release a burst of steam into the air. In Geysir there are actually three different geysers: Geysir, Liti Geysir and Strokkur. Geysir can erupt to a height of 70-80 meters but typically only erupts after earthquake activity so it’s not very likely you’ll see Geysir or Liti Geysir go off on your visit. The main attraction is actually Strokkur.  Strokkur erupts regularly every 8-10 minutes and shoots between 25 and 35 meters into the air! The water in this geothermal area can get up to 100 degrees Celsius so be sure to stay on the designated paths!

 

The last major stop around our Golden Circle route was Gullfoss. With its proximity to Reykjavik, Gullfoss is possibly the most famous of Iceland’s many waterfalls (check out other awesome waterfalls here!). The total falls are 32 meters (105 ft) tall but it is split into 2 waterfalls. A combination of regular rains and glacier runoff makes Gullfoss the largest waterfalls in Europe by volume.

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To finish up our Golden Circle tour we made a quick stop at the small not very well known Faxifoss waterfall. Located just off of road 35, Faxifoss doesn’t even have a sign leading to it! Look for the sign “Faxi” and turn there for a pretty waterfall view all to yourself.

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The Golden Circle is a great way to see the beauties of Iceland on a tight time frame. If you have more time to travel, check out our favorite things along the Ring Road which wraps around the entire island!

 

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Visiting the Blue Lagoon in Iceland

The Blue Lagoon, a geothermal spa known for its milky waters, is a easily one of the most recognized places in Iceland. We visited the Blue Lagoon to unwind on the last day of our 8 day Iceland adventure. Ordering your tickets online in advance is a must, or else it may be too full to go in when you get there! If possible the Blue Lagoon makes a great stop either to or from the airport. If you are like us and didn’t have that opportunity don’t fret! There are buses running the ~45-minute drive from the BSI bus station, in Reykjavik, to the Blue Lagoon entrance.

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Entrance to the Blue Lagoon comes in 4 standard packages: Standard, Comfort, Premium and Luxury. Prices differ by season and by times of day that you plan to arrive at the lagoon. We chose the Comfort package which includes the entrance fee, silica mud masks, algae masks, a towel to use, and a drink of your choice from the poolside bars. When ordering a package, you will have to choose a time to arrive at the Blue Lagoon – this time is just the hour window that you plan to get there and from there you can stay as long as you want! At the entrance you will receive a wristband that does everything you need in the spa. It is the key to your locker, gets you any upgrades you purchased, and is how you charge any purchases.

After you check in, put on your bracelet and change, it’s finally time to head into the water! Be sure to put plenty of the free conditioner in your hair and leave it there before heading to the water, it can dry out your hair for a few days! Contrary to popular belief, the Blue Lagoon is not a natural phenomenon: the heated water and its healing properties are actually run off from the nearby geothermal plant! As you wander through the water you’ll notice some spots are warmer than others and there are multiple sections of the lagoon to spread out away from crowds.

We strolled over to the bar area for our drinks that were included in our entrance package. They had both alcoholic options (beer and wine) and non-alcoholic options (smoothies, soda pop, juice). Another included feature was the silica mud mask and algae mask. There are buckets of the mask to grab some with your fingers and spread on your face. After about 10-15 minutes you can wash the mask off in the water and notice your softer, smoother skin!

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Visiting the Blue Lagoon is definitely an iconic attraction for every tourist to do when visiting Iceland. I would definitely recommend trying to work it in on the way to/from the airport or during a long layover!

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Visiting Piazza San Marco in Venice, Italy

visiting-piazza-san-marco-venice-italyOur last stop on our two week Eurotrip this past spring was in Venice, Italy! We spent two and a half days there and knew that we had to see Piazza San Marco, one of the busiest squares in the city and home to the Doge’s Palace and the Basilica of San Marco.

Hoping to beat the crowds, we headed there first thing one morning and even though it was early April and not quite busy season yet, the square was already full of people. First we visited the Doge’s Palace, where Venice’s head of state, the Doge, lived for hundreds of years. Unlike the monarchs of other countries, the title of Doge did not pass from father to son through generations but rather the Doges of Venice were elected to the highest ranking position for a life-time term.

Like we did when visiting the palaces of Vienna, we opted to spend a few extra euros for an audio guide to listen to as we explored the palace. We began in the courtyard and then went inside and up the Gold Staircase. Unfortunately several of the rooms in the Doge’s apartments were closed that day, but we were able to see many of State Government rooms – huge extravagant chambers with paintings depicting Venetian history and portraits paying tribute to the past Doges.

We also saw the rooms of the armory and the collection of weapons and suits of armor from the 15th and 16th centuries. And the last stop on the tour was the prisons – including the corridor connecting the palace to the prison known as the“Bridge of Sighs.” It was nick-named as such because it was here that prisoners got their last glimpse of freedom looking out the tiny windows at the lagoon.

After leaving the Doge’s Palace in mid-morning, heading back out into square, we got in line to visit the Basilica of San Marco right next door.  Again it was hard to believe that it wasn’t even the busy tourist season, as we waited in line for about a half hour before being able to go inside. Though we were somewhat rushed going through due to the long line, we  were still able to take in the huge gold mosaics on the walls and the intricate marble floors.

Lining another side of the square is the long arcade of buildings that were once government offices and homes to high ranking officers. There is also the blue and gold clock tower with the winged lion, the symbol of Venice, at the top.

While it was definitely one of the most crowded places in the city, Piazza San Marco and its sights are must-sees while visiting Venice! Stay tuned for more from our time in Venice!

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Going on a Glacier Hike in Southern Iceland

going-on-a-glacier-hike-in-southern-icelandOne of our Top 10 things to do on Iceland’s Ring Road was a glacier hike at  Sólheimajökull  glacier. The glacier is very accessible off of route one (the Ring Road) in Southern Iceland. Sólheimajökull  glacier is a 14 km long outlet glacier for the much larger Myrdasjokkull glacier.  We went through Arctic Adventures and had a wonderful guide. Overall the experience took about 3 hours with about 1.5 hours actually on the ice.

Before heading onto the glacier you need the right equipment. You’ll definitely want to wear sturdy hiking boots from home but the rest of the essentials were provided by our Arctic Adventures guides. First they’ll fit you with crampons, which are spikes for the bottom of your shoes. With every step on the glacier you are supposed to stomp down so the stakes can keep you from slipping. The second piece of equipment they hand out are ice picks, we used them mostly as walking sticks on the ice. Be sure not to set it down though as it might slide away on the ice!

When the parking lot was originally built it was at the base of the glacier. Now, a decade later, the glacier has moved almost 1 kilometer making it a bit of a hike to get onto the glacier. The glacier is constantly moving our guide told us they have to reroute the trail they take to the high points of the glacier every 3 days!

All of the black dirt on the galcier is actually volcanic ash that froze into the glacier from  the volcano Katla when it erupted in 1918.The volcanic ash insulates the ice beneath it making the surrounding ice melt much faster leaving behind the cone shaped ice forms. At the top of the glacier there were a few glacier water rivers. The flowing water is fresh and drinkable. Our guide taught us how to drink it the “Viking way”. Stick your ice pick into the ground and do a push up on it down the to water for a drink!

Once we got our fill of glacier water and photos on the high point of the glacier we started the trek back down  to end our hike. Overall the experience was unforgettable. There aren’t many places left to hike on a glacier!

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6 Must-See Waterfalls of Iceland

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Along our 8 day trip around Iceland’s Ring Road we got to see hundreds of waterfalls. Here are six of the most notable ones and where to find them:

Skogafoss – Located in southern Iceland between Reykjavik and Vik, Skogafoss is an easy day trip from the capital or a stop on your way around the country. Be sure to climb the stairs to the top of the waterfall for the gorgeous views!

Dettifoss– Located in Northern Iceland, Dettifoss is about a 40 kilometer, gravel road, detour off route 1 (aka the Ring Road). Dettifoss is considered the most powerful waterfall in europe with an average of 96,500 gallons of water flowing over its edge every second!

Godafoss – Godafoss is located in northern Iceland between Lake Myvatn and Akureyri. Godafoss is considered to be the “Waterfall of the Gods”. Legend has it when Iceland was converted to Christianity, Thorgeirr, a priest and chieftain, dispensed of the heathen Norse Pagan Gods by throwing them into the falls.

 

Oxararfoss– Situated in Thingvellir National Park, Oxararfoss is easily accessible from Reykjavik as part of Iceland’s Golden Circle. The falls are small by Icelandic standards, only about 20 meters tall, but definitely worth a visit if you are already on the Golden Circle route.

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Gullfoss – A main attraction on Iceland’s Golden Circle route, Gullfoss is possibly the most famous of Iceland’s waterfalls. The total falls are 32 meters (105 ft) tall but it is split into 2 waterfalls. A combination of regular rains and glacier runoff makes Gullfoss the largest waterfall, in terms of the volume of water flowing over the falls, in Europe!

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Faxifoss – A small, not very well known waterfall just off the Golden circle route is Faxifoss. There wasn’t even a sign on the road leading to it! Look for the sign Faxi to know where to run and its right off the road.

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Miscellaneous Waterfalls – As mentioned before, we literally were able to see hundreds of waterfalls on our drive around the Ring Road. Most of them didn’t even have names! Even though they are nameless they are no less beautiful and definitely deserved a mention!

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