What to Do in Iceland: West Coast

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Ice stripes. Continental divides. Knife-edge cliffs. Mysterious glaciers shrouded in clouds. 

And the west coast of Iceland isn’t even my favorite part of the country.

Ice stripes in spring

Ice stripes in spring

Writing about Iceland is an emotional experience for me, as I have been to the country over a dozen times and still find new reasons to visit. I feel a kinship with the earth there that I find nearly impossible to describe. It’s really only a feeling, and one that I continue to revisit.

The west coast is very much an enigma for a lot of reasons:

  • It’s easy to get to from the east coast of the US
  • It contains a lot of the history and most of the population and culture of Iceland
  • The variety of nature is stunning
  • Most of it is within a days’ drive of Reykjavik, the world’s northernmost capital
Snaefellsjokull - a very magical glacier

Snaefellsjokull – a very magical glacier

For this article, I consider the “west coast” of Iceland to include the peninsulas of Reykjanes and Snaefellsnes and the area in between, with the exclusion of Reykjavik (it deserves its own post). The Westfjords also deserve their own post.

Taken on my first visit to Snaefellsnes. I was 22

Taken on my first visit to Snaefellsnes. I was 22

The highlights I want to focus on for western Iceland are Snaefellsjokull, on the Snaefellsnes peninsula, and the Blaa Lonid (Blue Lagoon) region on the Reykjanes peninsula.

The area in between contains the “Golden Circle”: Thingvellir, the site of the oldest parliament in the world, Geysir, the famour geysir, and Gullvoss, a magnificent waterfall. But for the Golden Circle, you can simply stay in Reykjavik, which I will cover later.

The "west coast"

The “west coast”

Arrive

You will be flying into KEF no matter how you slice it, and your best bet from there is to rent a car from the airport. You can rent a car in the city of Reykjavik, but you may end up paying more, and it might be difficult to pick up and return. For my Iceland trips, I like to visit the stands in the airport and drive away in a rental.

Most of the cars are standard (stick) drive, but there are a few automatics, though you will pay extra for them (like most of Europe).

Stay

I’ve put some thought into this, and honestly, consider Airbnb. I have a link that I can give out that will save you $25 when you book for the first time.

There are no chain hotels in rural Iceland, but Icelanders love to share their homes. Their hospitality is a brand of its own, and their sense of humor is unique in the world. If you get the chance to talk at length with an Icelander, by all means do so. Some of my favorite moments in Iceland have been the stolen ones over coffee with ranch owners and farmers. They have the right ideas about life.

Another website I’ve used before for accommodations all over Iceland is Farm Holidays. Basically, Icelanders love to have a country house, and when they’re not using it, they are happy to rent them out to people on vacations. You should take advantage of this, as they’re usually a good deal as well as an authentic experience.

Most of them are pretty basic. But, they’re clean, well-heated, and have stunning views of the country. You will most likely have to self-cater, and don’t expect frills, but it’s completely worth it to watch wild Icelandic horses roam in the distance with no one else around for miles. And they are always happy to welcome new guests (the Icelanders and the horses).

The famous black church in Budir

The famous black church in Budir

If you stay on the Snaefellsnes peninsula, by all means stay at Hotel Budir. Please please please.

It is a beautiful boutique hotel with amazing rooms, lovely service, and a world-class restaurant attached to the lobby. There are a limited number of rooms, and they are full well in advance, but if you book early on, you should have no trouble. It’s just a short drive to Snaefellsjokull, and if anything, you must stop in for dinner on the way.

Snaefellsjokull in the distance

Snaefellsjokull in the distance

Knife-edge cliffs

Knife-edge cliffs

Goosenecks in a mountain valley on Snaefellsnes

Goosenecks in a mountain valley on Snaefellsnes

Iceland is unique in that some of its best dinners are actually at hotels. Even the locals go to the hotels to eat, as the cuisines tend to be more inventive to please many palettes.

If you stay on Reykjanes, near the airport or Blaa Lonid, stay at the Northern Light Inn in nearby Grindavik. It’s so close to the Blaa Lonid (Blue Lagoon) that you can walk there, soak up the minerals, and walk back to rest and see the Northern Lights if they’re out. It’s also close to the airport just in case you need a long weekend in Iceland (I have done this before!).

Also, the coffee here at breakfast is literally some of the best coffee I’ve ever had in my entire life. It was to the point where they had to kick me out of the breakfast hall because I could not stop swigging the delicious coffee. I was a jittery mess for the entire day but, hello, WORTH IT.

Eat

As mentioned, you will probably be eating dinner at your hotel. That’s just how it goes in the rural places. Either that, or self-catering.

In the town of Grindavik, near the Blue Lagoon, there are a few cute little restaurants with fried foods and burgers. There is a cafe in the Blue Lagoon itself, as well as a rather upscale (and pricey) restaurant, and other than that, there are plenty of cute places in the town of Keflavik, including a magnificent Thai restaurant – the only one in town. You’ll know when you see it. The food there is great – the locals love it for a date night.

Beautiful light before dinner at Budir

Beautiful light before dinner at Budir

In Snaefellsnes, you will most likely have to eat at either Hotel Budir, or at gas stations. Yes, gas stations. Aside from restaurants in hotels, the gas stations in Iceland have grills and treats and pastries, and have tables set up for people to hang out and eat. It’s totally a thing to make an hour-long trip to the gas station to fuel up, get some food, and do some socializing. Be sure to grab snacks when you pass a Bonus, one of their bigger grocery store chains. I like to get some chips, snacks, sandwich stuff, cold cuts, and sweet treats to much on while I drive. Oh, and grab some Skyr and kokomjolk (yogurt and chocolate milk – both so so good!).

I pull over so much to take in the beautiful countryside that it takes me nearly all day to drive from point A to B in Iceland. And I’d have it no other way.

When you drive to the north coast, stop in Blonduos at this little blue cafe. Get the fish soup. It will change your life. Ask for extra bread. You’re welcome.

When you see this place in Blonduos, pull over!

When you see this place in Blonduos, pull over!

Do

When you are in western Iceland, these are the things you must do:

  • See the damn Golden Circle. It’s touristy as all hell, but just do it. Thingvellir is stunning. It sits on the continental divide between Europe and North America, and has a deep crevasse filled with water running through it. It’s beautiful in the fall, as it is in one of the few “forested” areas of Iceland – the leaves are wonderful

    Rocks near Thingvellir

    Hardened lava near Thingvellir

  • Blaa Lonid. Also touristy as hell. Lots of people pouring in for layovers from KEF. Just do it, it’s amazing. But know there is a better, less touristy one on the north coast. Also, prepare to pay out the wazoo. It’s $60 to get in and $10 to rent a towel. Not kidding. Food is astronomical too. Talk about monetization
  • Grindavik. A cute little town right on the water. If you stay at Northern Light Inn, drive down for dinner. It’s charming and lovely
  • Keflavik. A cute town with a few cute shops and eateries. Make an effort to walk along the ocean while you’re there. Seeing the planes come and go as you feel the salty ocean breeze is kinda magical
  • Snaefellsjokull. The famous glacier. Its summit only appears for 10 days out of the year, so it is said. If you see it on a visit, it’s considered good luck. Overall, a very mystical and magical place with a lot of natural earth power. You will feel different, more alive, after you visit here
  • Budir. Famous for its black church and rugged coastline. Staying here was a wonderful experience

    The top of Snaefellsjokull - I saw it on my birthday!

    The top of Snaefellsjokull – I saw it on my birthday!

Go

Go any time. The Northern Light Inn is perfect for a mid-winter getaway. And Blaa Lonid is magical in the snow. Thingvellir is gorgeous in the fall. Budir is perfect for spring or summer, as is Snaefellsjokull. Be careful of the snowmelt.

The snowmelt  can be beautiful and dangerous at the same time - it forms new streams, but can wash out roads - be careful!

The snowmelt can be beautiful and dangerous at the same time – it forms new streams, but can wash out roads – be careful!

There is not a bad time to visit the west coast of Iceland. Winters are not severe, but it can get snowy. Summer can be really rainy. But the weather is unpredictable at all times of year, so don’t even try to plan a visit around “good weather” – in Iceland, it’s an oxymoron.

Bottom line

Has anyone else ever been to the west coast of Iceland? Anything I missed? I found myself hitting the 1,300-word mark… I could’ve gone on forever. But if there’s something that should be here, I’d love to hear about it.

Now I’m sentimental about visiting Iceland again. What an amazing place.

Editorial Note: Opinions expressed here are author's alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, hotel, airline, or other entity. This content has not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of the entities included within the post.

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About Harlan

Just a dude living in Dallas.

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