Toronto, or The Six as Drake would say, felt a bit like a mini New York, only friendlier! My favourite thing about Canada in general is how nice the people are and Toronto doesn’t fall short. This city is full of amazing restaurants, alot of greenery, and of course, is the gateway to visit the famous Niagara Falls. We spent a week here: wandering the streets, taking in all the street art, going on a few days trips and dancing the night away with new friends at a local bar. There’s so many parts of Toronto to see and I feel like I only saw the tip of the iceberg so am keen to head back one day.
Feel The Love at Kensington Market
One of my favourite places in all of Toronto was actually Kensington Market and is great if you like a more bohemian and eclectic vibe. It is very arty with street art everywhere, plenty of food places and is great if you’re vegan, there is a green space too called Bellevue Square Park and there was an impromptu music performance when we were there too and everything is locally owned so it was super refreshing to not see any brand names.
Wander Around the Art Gallery of Ontario
Just down the road from Kensington Market is the Art Gallery of Ontario, aka AGO, with many modern art paintings, photography and sculptures as well as running exhibitions. I specifically came here as they had a Yayoi Kusama exhibition on at the time and it was amazing. You could honestly spend hours wandering around and marvelling at the art.
Experience Old and New at The Distillery District
There are so many parts of Toronto that feel quite arty and different and The Distillery District is another one of these. This was the home of a distillery previously but has been renovated into a pedestrian area with plenty of shops, bars and yummy restaurants – we ate in El Catrin Destileria and it was so good, we came back and ate here twice! The Distillery District is a cool mix between Victorian architecture and modern life with alot going on.
Eat Classic Canadian Food
Of course, Canada is know for the classic food poutine and it’s a crime to come here and not get some! We went to Smoke’s Poutine which is a chain across the country to get out cheesey chips with gravy fix and it was mouth-watering. Also, throughout Canada, you will see Tim Hortons, which is just a fast food restaurant but fun to try! We had a classic burger meal (they were selling Beyond Meat when we were there but I think they’ve stopped now) and some Timbits, which are basically donut holes, and they were soooo good and super cheap. Apparently their coffee is pretty good too.
To pick up any other Canadian treats, we headed to St Lawrence Market where I tried a butter tart and a nainaimo bar which were lovely sweet treats. Lastly, at the harbour front, I tried a beavertail from… BeaverTail which is essentially a big, flat doughnut with toppings and is delicious if you have a sweet tooth.
Climb the CN Tower
The infamous CN Tower became even more well known from Drake’s album cover on ‘Views’ so of course, we had to follow in his footsteps and go to the top. To be honest, I’m not too fussed to go up towers in cities as often, the tower you are in is what you want as part of the view but it is still pretty fun and the CN Tower also has a glass floor at one spot which is quite exhilarating to walk over.
Become a Shopaholic
If you want to have a shopping day, the place to go is Toronto Eaton Centre which is a huge shopping mall in the centre. This is just down the street from Yonge-Dundas Square which reminded me of a small Times Square in New York or Piccadilly Circus in London. Queen Street West is a really nice street to stroll down with lots of independent shops or check out is Yorkville is you want more upscale, designer shops.
Day Trip to Niagara
You can’t go to Toronto and not do a day trip to Niagara Falls! We booked our tour really last minute and I can’t actually remember who we booked with but we were taken, of course, to Niagara Falls but also some whirlpools, to try ice wine, see the worlds smallest chapel and a flower clock which was all pretty cool and a nice way to break up the day! When at the Falls, we also paid to do the boat trip up to the waterfall which I would HIGHLY recommend. Put your little red poncho on (red for Canada and the American side are in blue) and get up close and personal to the waterfall itself – but be prepared to get sprayed! I was amazed by how much mist comes off from the waterfall.
Sail Over to Centre Island
On our last day, we got a boat over the lake to Centre Island – there are several islands you can visit but Centre Island is the most popular. The Island is essentially a big park with gardens and a beach. We rented a quad-cycle and had an hour cycling around which was really fun to do! From Centre Island, there are also plenty of spots to have a nice view of the Toronto skyline with the CN Tower in the back.
One thing I really wanted to do in Toronto but didn’t get a chance to was to see the Maple Leafs play an Ice Hockey game which I think would be really fun!
Where To Stay
Whilst in Toronto, we stayed in 2 places in our one week there. The first was a hostel and the 2nd was an airbnb for a few nights of luxury. First, we stayed at Planet Traveller Hostel and it was incredible, probably the best hostel I’ve ever stayed in and it has actually won awards! It’s right by Kensington Market, has a rooftop with fab views across Toronto and they put on nightly events – we had a free BBQ one night and made loads of friends at one of the drinks. The second place we stayed was an airbnb called The Brock, a little bit further out of town in a really nice neighbourhood. The hosts were lovely and provided us with a list of things to do and the room itself was gorgeous – I would highly recommend both places.
The national parks of Banff and Jasper are all about lakes, mountains, waterfalls and wildlife. The Rocky Mountains had been on my bucket list for a while and they did not disappoint as Banff and Jasper quickly became one of my top 3 destinations I’ve ever been. We road-tripped around the national parks, driving along the Icefield Parkway, and stopped off at pretty much any place where we say a sign for a view point or to a lake to take in the beautiful sights.
The Lakes and Canyons
When we first arrived into Jasper National Park, the first lake we saw was Moose Lake as we drove in and we couldn’t believe the vibrant blue colours of the water so had to immediately pull over the car to take a close look! After spending a few days driving around, Moose Lake is by no means the best lake here but it was the first one I saw and I couldn’t believe it.
We also checked out Lake Annette whilst in Jasper; the water was so clear and my photos just did not do it justice. This lake also has it’s own little beach and just around the corner is Lake Edith. We actually visited this totally on a whim when we saw a sign and thought why not!
There are many other lakes in Jasper that we didn’t visit such as Maligne Lake, Patricia Lake, Pyramid Lake and Mildred Lake that look just as beautiful and worth checking out if you have time.
When in Jasper, you can take a hike through Maligne Canyon, walking alongside the stream of the deep canyon and it will eventually lead you out to a lovely waterfall with plenty of nature along the way. There is also Athabasca Falls and Sunwapta Falls as you start to head south out of Jasper so make sure to stop off there for a quick view of the cascading water.
As you start to drive towards Banff, you will most likely be driving along the Icefields Parkway which is the main road connecting the two and from here we also saw a few little waterfalls along the way and stopped off at one called Tangle Creek Falls with the water coming down over many levels of the rocks.
Whilst on the drive to Banff, you have constant views of the mountains and the many glaciers peaking out between them. Along the way, we had views of Stutfield Glacier and actually drove up to Athabasca Glacier to climb up to the tow of it. I must say, we were unprepared of this as we only had gym trainers on but it was still possible but would be better with hiking boots for sure!
You can also stop off at Colombia Icefields Skywalk and walk along the glass floor off the edge of a cliff. We didn’t actually do this at the time but I would love to go back and do this whole trip again and include this.
Lakes, Lakes and More Lakes
There are so many lakes to go and see whilst in Banff, far more than in Jasper, and each of them are more breathtaking than the last. The most famous of all these lakes is of course, Lake Louise which is a huge turquoise glacier lake that you can actually canoe on, or iceskate on in winter, and makes for a spectacular view with the mountain as the backdrop. Lake Moraine is also nearby but we didn’t end up going here; as these 2 are the most popular lakes in Banff, the parking was a bit of a nightmare and Lake Louise was crowded compared to any other lake so we bypassed Moraine Lake.
Despite the popularity of Lake Louise, my 2 standout lakes in Banff were easily Emerald Lake and Grassi Lakes. Emerald Lake was near empty when we were there so you really feel at one with nature and not like you are at a tourist spot. The water was bright blue in colour with the mountains surrounding it.
Further south you will find Grassi Lakes; there is a bit of a hike to get to them with 2 routes (an easy and a hard) – we did the hard route and if you’re afraid of heights, I would definitely suggest the easier route as you are climbing up the side of a mountain to get there (my friend turned around halfway through and didn’t get to see the lakes because of the difficult terrain and height and I did the rest alone!). At Grassi Lakes, the water blends from green to blue, with the mountains reflecting on it perfectly. To make things better, there are 2 lakes here for you to marvel at and if you keep climbing, you can even find some pre-historic caveman paintings on some rocks.
When in Banff, we also stopped off at Waterfowl Lake and Bow Lake but there are so many here to see such as Peyto Lake, Lake Minnewanka, Two Jack Lake and Valley of the Ten Peaks which I will definitely go to next time. Not a lake as such but we did also stop hike Johnston Canyon whilst in Banff and there are bright blue pools and waterfalls to meet you towards the end and you can actually go through to see the waterfall from behind.
Banff Upper Hot Spring
After many long days of driving around the national parks and hiking to the lakes, we took a well deserved rest at the hot spring. After spending so much time looking at the water, you are finally able to get in some yourself and relax in the hot outside pool whilst looking across the valley as Banff Upper Hot Spring is actually at a higher elevation.
I went to Banff and Jasper in September, which by luck, is a great time to see wildlife and this was an unexpected benefit for me. We saw many elk whilst driving around as it’s their mating season and we actually saw a male elk perform a mating call and saw 2 male elk fighting with their antlers and we also saw a really cute little chipmunk whilst at Emerald Lake. Other animals to look out for are of course the bears and moose, we didn’t see any and I think they are quite rare but bears are out more in September gathering food before hibernation. Top tip: pack a bell to have on your backpack, this way if a bear is around, they will hear you coming and you won’t take them by surprise to prevent any nasty attacks.
Where To Stay
We stayed in multiple places whilst driving around the national parks, driving up from Vancouver. We didn’t make it straight to Japser from Vancouver and stopped off for one night at Samesun Kelowna before heading to HI Jasper and then Samesun Banff.
Vancouver is a city of diversity; there are beautiful parks, fab restaurants, some nice day trips out and fun hikes all whilst being surrounded by valleys and mountains. The city itself has a really nice, clean and safe feel to it and it definitely has the feel of being somewhere that you could even move to and settle there! The only downside to Vancouver for me was the homelessness problem, one wrong turn towards Chinatown and we were confronted with a huge street and parks full of tents and the homelessness we encountered was a stark reminder that no city is all bells and whistles.
Wander The Streets of Gastown
Gastown really is the heart of Vancouver and has such a cute feel to it as you wander around. There are so many yummy restaurants, gift shops, art galleries, decor shops to poke your head into, with all the buildings having a Victorian style architecture and lovely vintage style lamps in the streets. In the middle of Gastown there is the Steam Clock that whistles every 15 minutes and the Gassy Jack statue that pays homage to the original settler to Gastown.
Take a Hike Up Lynn Canyon
There are 2 suspension bridges in Vancouver but we only visited the one at Lynn Canyon which is supposed to be less crowded and is free! Follow the trails through Lynn Canyon to take you to the suspension bridge and along the way, you will see flowing lakes and waterfalls surrounded by the tallest trees I’ve ever seen! If you’re afraid of heights, the bridge may be a bit scary for you as it does feel rickety when you cross but it’s worth it to see all the nature.
Stroll Stanley Park
We only spent about an hour walking through Stanley Park but really you could spend a whole day here as there’s alot to do and it’s a huge park! There’s green space (obviously!), a brach, lakes, lagoons, and the other suspension bridge and a really popular thing to do here is hire a bike and cycle around the whole park.
Eat Your Way Through Granville Island Public Market
This food market is a little bit out of the centre of Vancouver; I believe some people get an aquabus there but, after Vancouver, we were road-tripping up to the Rocky Mountains, so we actually drove to Granville Island which is a foodies heaven. It has industrial vibes and there are 3 gas tanks that have some cool artwork on them but the main attraction is the public market where there are so many food stalls as well as artisan shops, all on the waterfront. Grab a bit to eat and take yourself to the picnic benches by the water for a relaxing afternoon.
Day Trip Out to Vancouver Island
Whilst in Vancouver, you can take a ferry over to Vancouver Island – this is possible as a day trip as this is what I did when I was there but I think it would be better to stay a night on the island to have time to see it all as the ferry does take a few hours. We arrived into Downtown Victoria and had a walk around the centre and then started our tour of the island – we headed to Thunderbird Park which is home to some aboriginal totem poles, then Beacon Hill Park where there is a giant sleeping buddha, then walked along the harbour front and explored Chinatown (Fan Tan Alley was particularly cool) before getting the ferry back.
Take Shots at Alley Oop
If you’re into basketball, or just getting a cool instagram shot, Alley Oop is a great place to stop for 10 minutes. This is a basketball court mural in an alleyway between 2 building in the centre of Vancouver but to add a bit of flare to it, it’s painted in pink, orange, purple and yellow tones making it really eye catching as you walk past.
Where To Stay
I always prefer to stay in hostels when travelling about – not only to save money but to meet people too! I stayed in Cambie Hostel which is in a great central location and is nice and comfortable and had a nice restaurant where we got food a few times.
Mexico City is certainly a place that is rich in history and there is always something to do whilst you’re there. I completely underestimated the size of the city and was blown away by how big it is and how modern – whilst walking around certain areas, I was often reminded of European cities like Paris, Barcelona or Copenhagen and never felt unsafe although I was lucky enough to get some tips in advance from some friends of where to not go and to always get ubers around! Read on for all of my top picks to do whilst in Mexico City.
Experience Day of the Dead
For Day of the Dead in Mexico, Oaxaca is generally considered the place to be but Mexico City is a great option too with plenty of ofrendas, La Catrina decor and the big parade in the centre of the city!
Day of the Dead takes place over 3 days with lots to do on all of these days and as you walk about the city, you will see the decorated skulls and marigold flowers out absolutely everywhere for the celebration. Throughout these 3 days, we watched the big parade from the Zocalo (but get there early as it gets super busy and it can be hard to see), marvelled at all the ofrendas in the Zocalo (open on the last day of the festival), ate some Pan de Muerto, toured a cemetery in San Andrés Mixquic (this get very busy and it was difficult to get an uber back!) and got our faces painted Day of the Dead style!
Get Arty in Coyoacán
Coyoacan is the bohemian hub of Mexico City and is actually where the famous Frida Khalo lived. This was actually one of my favourite places in all of Mexico City as you wander round the central park and cobblestone streets, grab a small bite to eat, look at the local art and wander around Mercado Coyoacán.
Just around the corner is Frida Khalo’s bright blue house, Casa Azul, which is open to visit although you need to make sure you book in advance! See where Frida lived, explore some of her history and enjoy the beautiful garden which is the central point of the house. And then, just a 10 minute walk away is the Leon Trotsky museum, again showing the well-preserved home of where Trotsky spent the final years of his life.
Somewhere a bit more central to Mexico City is La Ciudadela Market which is also great for any arty bits and bobs you want to pick up! There’s the classic sugar skulls but also really nice pottery pieces, coasters, shot glasses and much more.
Relax down the Xochimilco Canals
Xochimilco is famous for the colourful boats that float down the water system that was built by the Aztecs and you can take a relaxing cruise, a bit like in Venice, down the canals whilst food vendors float past. We got a taxi to this neighbourhood and had to do about a 10 minute walk to get there and I must say, it’s about the only place in Mexico City where I felt a little uneasy. I believe there are multiple spots where they do the Xochimilco boat rides and I think we just got dropped in a bit of a random one but the boat ride was great nonetheless!
Cheer On the Wrestlers at Lucha Libre
When in Mexico City, you have to experience the bizarre Mexican sport of professional wresting. I did this via an airbnb experience and although it seems like a strange thing to go and watch, it was actually extremely entertaining! A mix of acting and wresting (I would say it leans more to the acting side), the wrestlers dress up in extravagant costumes and perform a staged fight but it is also really funny. An experience that is hard to describe but totally worth your time!
Learn about the Aztecs at Teotihuacan
Another airbnb experience we did in Mexico City was going to Teotihuacan with our amazing guide Noa and this it’s something that everyone does whilst in the city. You walk through the ancient city of Teotihuacan, learning about the history of the Aztecs, the natural resources they used, such as looking at the sun through natural obsidian and what they believe life was like all those years ago. You walk down the Avenue of the Dead between the 2 main payraminds – the Pyramid of the Moon and the Pyramid of the Sun. A hugely popular thing to do here is take a hot air balloon ride over the pyramids for a full view, it’s not something we actually ended up doing but I know other people who have and said it was incredible.
As part of our tour, we got to stop off for a bite to eat in the local town and also try and make some chocolate ourselves from the roasted cacao bean and try some traditional aztec hot chocolate from a little cafe called Chocolateria Macando!
Wander the Parks of Mexico City
To the west of Mexico City, there is a huge park called Chapultepec which is lovely to walk around in the day time (I was warned not to walk here at night!). As you walk in, there are markets within the park and plenty of spots to sit and relax for a while out of the hot Mexican sun! The park has a zoo in it, botanical gardens and much more – you could almost spend an entire day here. Chapultepec also leads out to Paseo de la Reforma, the main street of Mexico City so you can walk through the park and then down out along here to the Angel of Independence.
However, this is also a much smaller park called Parque Mexico which I found to be much nicer! There are plenty of cute benches for a little rest and it’s a lovely place for a stroll. Although not as grand, there were more interesting plants and it just had a nicer vibe to it.
Eat, Eat, Eat!
And finally, when in Mexico, what is there to do but eat? We ate in so many great food places, ranging from your traditional Mexican to Thai food (there’s only so many tacos one person can eat in 2 weeks!) but all the food was delicious. My top spots are: Mercardo Roma for a selection of stalls in a cool market, El Moro for yummy churros with hot chocolate (chocolate caliente), Contramar if you love fish, and literally anything from any street food vendor! Be warned, I did get an upset stomach whist in Mexico so pack some medicine to help with this!
Where to Stay
Whilst in Mexico City, I stayed in Casa MX Alameda which had a great lively rooftop area but I can’t say that I would recommend; my bed wasn’t that comfy and I’m pretty sure it had bed bugs as I was bitten alive! Instead, I wish I stayed somewhere like Casa Pepe or Suites DF Hostel!
My time in Oaxaca was the first time I had ever travelled alone but I was desperate to go and check out this colourful town, especially around the time of Day of the Dead. Despite many people making me feel nervous to go to Mexico alone, I had a great time in Oaxaca without any problems, the people were all friendly and I actually ended up preferring it to Mexico City! The only thing to note is that on my first day, I went out in Western summer clothes (short skirt and crop top) and got alot of looks and attention as they do not dress like this in the south of Mexico so pack some trousers or jeans and you’ll be fine – when I moved to jeans and jumpsuits, I was always left alone. Read on for all of my top picks to do whilst in Oaxaca.
Wander The Colourful Streets
The first thing everyone will do when you first arrive in Oaxaca, is check in to your accommodation, drop your stuff off and head out to explore the colourful streets of Oaxaca. The buildings are painted a rainbow of colours and when I was there for Day of the Dead, there were floral buntings all over the streets and skeleton themed props everywhere around the Centro! The main street is called Calle Macedonio Alcalá going from the Zócalo to Santa Domingo Church so take with plenty of street art to see along the way.
You can also spend some time at the Zócalo; in the day it’s busy with people, market stalls and outside dining but stay for the evening when it comes alive with music and couples salsa-ing in the streets.
Become a Food Connoisseur
As well as the bright streets, Oaxaca is mostly know for the food throughout Mexico and it does not disappoint. I don’t speak much Spanish so some of the tacos I ate from street food vendors, I wasn’t even sure what was in them but they were delicious none the less. Mole is another popular dish throughout Oaxaca, a sauce they have with many ingredients, one of them being chocolate – although this is a bit of an acquired taste, it’s definitely worth trying and there are 7 variations here.
Hotel Sin Nombre (Hotel with No Name) did a great selection Mexican vegan dishes where you sit on the floor and feel very zen whilst you eat and I also ate at La Cocina de Frida within Mercado of Ocotlán, where the chef looks like Frida Khalo where I had enchilladas and tried chapulines (fried grasshoppers, surprisingly delicious) and tejate (made with corn, fermented cacao beans, pixtle , and cacao flowers – kind of tasted like a mix between coffee and hot chocolate but was cold amd sweeter).
Other things I tried whilst in Oaxaca were carnitas, baked plantain with condensed milk, tuna sorbet (the flower from a cactus, not a tuna fish!), memelitas, barquillo de leche, horchata, the fruit water drinks and of course, Oaxacan chocolate. Mercado 20 de Noviembre and Mercado Benito Juárez were the 2 main markets I explored and they are great to try a wide variety of food and get your hands on some sugar skulls for souvenirs too!
Try Authentic Mezcal
Mezcal originates from Oaxaca and you will see bars selling it everywhere but I went to La Casa del Mezcal with a Mexican man I met whilst wandering round a market! I must admit, Mezcal is really really strong and 1 sip was enough for me but when in Mexico, do as the Mexicans do! In the Mezcal bottle, there will also be a little worm at the bottom, and if you’re lucky (or unlucky?) you might get this in with your shot and apparently it tastes like chicken.
One of the best days of my whole stay in Oaxaca was doing a day trip out to Monte Alban; I booked this via airbnb experience and it was a full day tour with many stops and opportunities to get souvenirs.
Stop 1: Oaxacan Pottery in Santa María Atzompa
We started the day with a pottery demonstration at the family run business watching them create a woman holding pots pottery statue. There so many pieces on display such as crosses, skulls, people, moons and flowers and at a reasonable price.
Stop 2: Monte Alban
Onto to Monte Alban to learn about the history of the Aztecs here at the UNESCO World Heritage Site. Marvel at the flattened pyramids, experience the echo chambers, look at the dancing figures, and learn about the pre-historical football game whilst wandering around. Whilst there, you can also buy some handmade pieces from local Mexican men. It takes a few hours to do it all!
Stop 3: Alebrijes in San Martín Tilcajete
After a spot to eat, we travelled to see the wood carving workshop and walk through the stages of the process. From the initial carving, fixing any errors and refining the wood, to hand painting them with intricate patterns with increasing levels of difficulty. We also go to discover what our spirit animal is at the end! I got myself a little sugar skull keyring from here.
Stop 4: Black Clay Ceramics in San Bartolo Coyotepec
And our final stop was at a black ceramics studio, where we ended the day with a demonstration of making a pot in the traditional way (no electric wheels here) and you are free to look at the pieces and buy any that you want – I got a carved out skull and a naked body mini jug.
Have A Garden Day
On my final day in Oaxaca, I visited the Ethnobotanical Gardens. You have to go on one of their guided tours, and there is only 1 per day in English with a max of 15 people at 11am – I unfortunately missed out on this but decided to do it in Spanish anyway despite not speaking Spanish (there are 2 Spanish tours per day)! The gardens sit behind the Temple of Santo Domingo and you are taken around to see all of the gardens and flora native to Oaxaca. The final stop is an instagrammers dream with a wall of tall cactus to take pictures in front of.
Where To Stay
In Oaxaca, I stayed in Selina Oaxaca. It was my first time stayed in a Selina and the rooms and hostel is decorated really nicely, there is a lovely rooftop where I did my workouts and the wifi is excellent! I must stay, it’s definitely more of a working hostel and I didn’t discover much so a social scene to meet anyone but it was still a lovely stay in a central location.
Vík is a very small coastal town in Iceland and although there isn’t necessarily much to do directly in Vík, it sure does pack a punch as the gateway to explore what Southern Iceland has to offer. In fact, the things I saw and did whilst based in Vík were actually probably the highlights of my entire trip. Read on for all of my top picks to do whilst in Vík.
The drive from Reykjavik to Vík is 2.5 – 3 hours in total but along the way, there are 3 waterfalls to take a break and stop at for 20 minutes. The first 2 waterfalls are actually situated next to each other but it’s worth visiting them both as they offer different experiences.
Waterfall number one that you will see very quickly as you pull into the parking area is Seljalandsfoss, one of Iceland’s most famous falls, cascading down off a cliff edge. If you’re a Justin Bieber fan, this waterfall may be a bit familiar to you as it featured in his I’ll Show You music video which was all filmed in Iceland! The path was quite slippery in winter so we didn’t get too close but plenty of other people did and came away looking a bit damp from the mist of the fall.
Just round the corner leads to waterfall number two called Gljufrabui. Most people seem to congregated just around Seljalandsfoss and Gljufrabui is overlooked but it’s definitely worth the 10 minute walk round to it. It’s a hidden gem both figuratively and literally as it sits back hidden behind 2 cliffs faces that you can only just see it peaking out from. You can wade through the stream to approach the falls if you wish but I didn’t do so as didn’t feel too steady on my feet going over the icy ground.
Further on from these two falls is Skógafoss, which is the grandest of the three and another one for the Bieber fans. The ground here is very flat so as long as it’s not too cold and icy, you can get up quite close to the wall of the water although this again would probably leave you quite wet from the constant cloud of mist. There are also some stairs leading up to an observation platform at the top of the waterfall that we climbed where you can see the origin river and all the nesting seabirds.
Visit the Black Beaches
One of the highlights of all of my Iceland trip was seeing the black sand beaches of Reynisfjara and Vík. I remember seeing about Reynisfjara years ago on a modelling TV show where it was a location for a shoot and it always stuck in my mind as somewhere I wanted to see with my own eyes. It feels like being on a different planet with the pure black sand from the volcanic rock and cooled lava and the unique basalt rock formations with their column structures surrounding Hálsanefshellir Cave. Reynisfjara can however be dangerous with violent sea and sneaker waves appearing out of nowhere; it was the roughest sea I has ever seen and the waves really did come far up the shore. We kept an eye on the weather alerts every day and saw on one day it was recommended not to go inside Hálsanefshellir Cave as the waves were particularly bad one day and it is highly recommended to keep a safe distance from the sea and don’t turn your back on it.
Although many people stay at Reynisfjara for sunset, just round the corner, Vík has it’s own black sand beach itself which is far quieter. Although it doesn’t have the cave and basalt columns, it’s a lovely beach in itself to watch the sunset from and look at the huge rocks in the sea (Reynisdrangar). They have sea breakers here too which some people walked along to have a nicer view although I’m not sure how advisable that would be with the rough sea – we certainly didn’t walk out that far!
Marvel at Europe’s Largest Glacier
The jewel in the crown to the entire trip was easily witnessing Jökulsárlón Glacier which is a day trip from Vík on its own as it’s about a 2.5 hour drive each way and in winter, there’s only about 4 or 5 hours of daylight per day anyway.
You are looking at 5 hours of driving today up to Jökulsárlón Glacier (2.5 hours each way) but it’s totally worth it and was the highlight of my Iceland trip. Jökulsárlón Glacier is the largest in Europe and covers 8% of Iceland, as we made our way to the lagoon, we were gobsmacked at the sheer size of the glacier peaking out of between the mountains several times and it’s hard to comprehend how huge it truly is.
There’s free parking available at the lagoon, and toilets for after your long drive, and you can take a look at the huge icebergs from different angles – step down to the edge of the lagoon to see the ice up close, walk to the top of the hill for a view from a higher point and see the whole picture and walk down the river out to sea where you’ll come to Diamond Beach.
Diamond Beach, aptly named as the ice on the beach sand beach really do looks like diamonds glittering in the sun, was particularly lovely as the sun was setting. There’s ice from the glacier here coming in all shapes and sizes and we lost track of time and spent about an hour on this beach alone just wandering around. We probably could have spent even more time here really but our time at the glacier was definitely the coldest I felt throughout the whole week in Iceland with a hat, scarf, big coat and two pairs of gloves on not feeling like enough so we headed back to the car when my fingers went numb.
Where To Stay
In Vík, we stayed in a really homely place called Guesthouse Carina. We chose to stay in a guesthouse purely to save money as Iceland is known to be pricey but this turned out to be an absolute winner! This place was super homely and every room has a view, whether it be of the mountains or out to sea, but even if they didn’t, there is a glorious breakfast room which is all glass for amazing views. Vík is a small town so it’s easy to get everywhere from anywhere and this accommodation had parking right outside for us.
Iceland fast became one of my favourite places I’ve ever travelled to. The land of fire and ice (although mostly ice for us in December) was truly spectacular and it felt like being on a different planet! Read on for all of my top picks to do whilst in Reykjavik.
Easily my top thing to do whilst in Reykjavik and an absolute classic for tourists, for good reason! There are 3 main stops along to famous Golden Circle route and at each are spectacular and totally unique to Iceland.
Stop 1: Þingvellir National Park
This national park sits right where the two tectonic plates cut through Iceland, moving apart at a speed of about 2cm per year. We parked up at Hakið Visitor Center and from there, there is a footpath to follow along the North American tectonic plate up to Almannagjá Gorge and walk the deep fissures in the ground. As you walk along, you can learn about the history of this place which was where Iceland’s parliament sat centuries ago. Continue down to Öxarárfoss waterfall and then up to Langistígur to stand between the 2 tectonic plates of North America and Eurasia.
If you’re feeling adventurous, you can also swim between the tectonic plates too at Silfra; I really wanted to do this but in December, it was just far too cold for me to even consider jumping into the lake so will return one summertime to do this instead. It’s actually in TripAdvisors list of top travel experiences to do in the world!
Stop 2: Haukadalur
This is the geothermal area of the Golden Circle route and is home to the famous hot springs and geysers. There are two geysers here called Geysir and Strokkur with the latter being the most famous these days. Geysir stopeed erupting in the year 2000 after an earhtquake and is now dormant however Strokkur still erupts about every 10-15 minutes. We spent about an 30 minutes at Strokkur and saw 2 huge eruptions and 2 smaller ones (of course, only the smaller ones got caught on camera!).
Stop 3: Gullfoss
Further North from the geyers is Gullfoss waterfall and a spectacular sight that I would argue rivals Niagara Falls. It’s a short walk from the parking and visitor centre area to see the waterfall and there are two routes to take to see the falls at different angles and I would recommend doing both for the full view. The steps downward give you a lovely view of the falls to take pictures in front of it but when you go back up, you can walk along to see the river that this waterfall comes from.
Extra Stops: KeriðCrater and Secret Lagoon
Not part of the classic Golden Circle route but we stopped here for a little while and included it as part of our tour as it is the most popular extra stop that people tend to go on their Golden Circle tours. This is a huge volcanic crater lake that is thousands of years old. This crater is fascinating to see in winter but I must admit that I think this would make a better stop in the summer time. When we were there, the crater was iced over so the main spectacle was the size of it but in the summer months, the crater has a blue lake in the middle and is surrounded by red volcanic rock rather than the usual black which you don’t see in the winter months.
Lastly, a stop we didn’t do on our Iceland trip but may be worth a visit is the Secret Lagoon, the oldest pool in the country. Iceland is known for it’s geothermal activity and you can relax in this pool where the water is sourced from a naturally occurring hot spring nearby.
Relax in the Lagoons
The most famous lagoon in Reykjavik is of course, Blue Lagoon, located actually pretty close to the airport so a perfect first or last stop on any trip after you land in Iceland or before you arrive for your flight home. The steamy water is milky blue, full of minerals and is a natural by-product of a nearby geothermal power plant. We did the Comfort package which got us entry to the lagoon, a towel, a drink and the silica mud mask to enjoy which was enough for us as Blue Lagoon is so big anyway with a waterfall, steam cave, in water bar, mask bar and the water to relax in.
As nice as Blue Lagoon is, I found Sky Lagoon to be much better! Sky Lagoon opened very recently in 2021 and is a totally different experience to Blue Lagoon. We found Sky Lagoon to be much more relaxing with far less people around and it has more of a luxury spa feel to it. We couldn’t check into our accommodation until 3pm so decided to spend the afternoon here on the first day and it was the perfect way to unwind after the flight. As you step into the hot steamy water, you make your way around the open aired cave to a hot spring come infinity pool where you can grab a drink from the bar and watch the sun set over the water.
Walk Across the Bridge Between Continents
A bit of a drive out from Rekjavik, and probably best to do the same day as doing Blue Lagoon is the Bridge Between Continents. It will be more of a passing visit and we only spent about 15 minutes here but you can walk across the bridge to cross between the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates in a matter of seconds. Whilst on the bridge, there is a lovely view out to the sea which was particularly nice at sunset or you can walk down in between the plates for a picture with the bridge above you.
A key part of being in Reykjavik is of course, exploring the actual city itself! In general, people come to Reykjavik for all the things you can do around the city but there are a few famous monuments you should go and make the effort to see.
When coming into Reykjavik, you will probably be able to see Hallgrímskirkja Church from a little distance away as it’s one of the tallest buildings in an otherwise pretty flat city. Famous for it’s unique design, it’s a must to go and have a look at it yourself, I truly had never seen a church like it and it’s a great representation of the Icelandic landscapes of mountains, glaciers and volcanos. Make sure you check the church out from the inside too as it is surprisingly minimalist when you step in and even features a palm tree in there!
Located on the waterfront of Reykjavik, the Sun Voyager is pointing out to sea and there is something about the sculpture that has a stoic and hopeful feel to it, perhaps because it seems to resemble a Viking ship. This abstract steel structure is a great photo op, especially if you are lucky enough to see the Northern Lights above it!
Harpa Concert Hall
Again showcasing the architecture of Iceland, Harpa Concert Hall is a short walk along the waterfront from Sun Voyager towards the harbour. It’s a beautiful glass building that has an almost beehive look to it with the distinctive angular windows. When I was in Reykjavik, there were hurricane force winds one day and in order to get some relief from the wind, we stepped into Harpa Concert Hall and discovered it’s actually worth stepping inside briefly to see the windows from the inside too and have a view out over the sea.
See The Northern Lights
On my trip to Iceland, I unfortunately wasn’t lucky enough to see the Northern Lights at all as you need a really dark, clear sky to have a chance and when checking the Northern Lights forecast every day, our chance was always a 2 or 3 out of 9 to see them. However, don’t let that put you off, check the forecast and get out there if there’s a possibility of seeing them! It’s recommended to try at about midnight for the darkest sky possible and I believe if you book a tour, when they take you out, if you don’t manage to see them, they will keep taking you out to try again on good days as the locals are well versed in when it would be possible. Don’t be put off, my boyfriends mum saw them twice when she went out to Iceland!
Get Up Close to Nature
Lastly on my list is another activity I didn’t get to do because of the time of year! We visited Iceland in December so the height of winter and alot of the animals aren’t around anymore however, I already know that I want to go back to Iceland again in the summertime and jump on a whale watching and puffin island tour. These are in season from May to August I believe to be able to see both; whales are around for longer but puffins arrive in May and leave in August. When walking around the harbour in Reykjavik, there were a few stands offering boat tours for both of these and it’s something I will definitely do next time.
Where To Stay
Whilst in Reykjavik, we stayed in 2 accommodations which were both lovely and I would highly recommend either of them, depending on what you are looking for from your accommodation.
The first place we stayed was Refurinn Guesthouse; this was actually my first time staying in a guesthouse and I loved it! Reykjavik is known for being a bit more on the expensive side so we wanted a place with a kitchen to be able to cook some meals rather than eat out all the time and this place felt like a home away from home and was in a great location, only a 5-10 minute walk into the centre of Reykjavik.
The second place we stayed was Eyja Guldsmeden Hotel; this hotel was really lovely, their rooms are beautiful with a bohemian vibe and there is a bar area where you can sit and have a drink, have dinner or sit with your laptop with free water, tea and coffee at all times. Another great location only 5-10 minutes from the centre but from the other side of town.
Coming from the UK, I often see holidaying in Europe as an opportunity for a long weekend away rather than a full week long holiday so I can save on money and time off from work but one week in Iceland is a must! There’s more to see in Iceland than Reykjavik, Blue Lagoon and doing the Golden Circle, although these along make for a mighty 3 day trip if that’s all the time you have! You’ll soon catch yourself chasing waterfalls, watching the sunset on the black sand beaches and marvelling at the icebergs of Europe’s largest glacier so pack your hiking boots and get to Iceland!
Before we jump into the itinerary, just a few points on getting around Iceland.
I would highly recommend renting a car in Iceland, the island is bigger than you think with the drive between places we visited being between 2.5 – 4.5 hours each way. It is expensive over there so the car rental may be alot but it’s worth it to have the freedom to explore and see everything from Reykjavik down the South coast. It’s also worth paying a bit extra to have an SUV, especially in the winter months; the snow is no joke and the roads can be icy and we definitely felt much safer being in an SUV.
We rented our car from Enterprise, picking it up from Keflavik airport, and luckily got a good deal through a friend but I also had Sad Cars recommended to me by someone else to try and get a bit more of a bargain!
One last top tip on driving in Iceland is to check safetravel.is, specifically looking at the Alerts for any worrying weather to avoid and the Travel Conditions to see which roads are open or closed and they state they are in. We checked it every day before heading out to drive to be safe and didn’t run into any issues on the days we wanted to drive but there were hurricane force winds one day and we definitely wouldn’t have driven in those conditions!
Touchdown in Reykjavik! From here, pick up your car rental, jump in a taxi or get on your coach into the town and make your way to Sky Lagoon.
This lagoon recently opened in April 2021 and is now a competitor to Blue Lagoon (and is far better in my opinion!). Change into your swim suits and head into the relaxing heat of the lagoon. As you step in, make your way around the open aired cave to a hot spring come infinity pool, grab a drink from the bar and watch the sun set over the water.
The sun sets pretty early in winter (it’s pretty much night time by 5pm) so when you’re ready, leave the hot springs behind, check into your accommodation and then head out for some dinner and a mooch around Reykjavik town. Don’t stay out too late though as it’s a relatively early start tomorrow for the Golden Circle.
Rise, shine and ready to leave by 9am today to make sure you reach the first stop in the Golden Circle for sunrise and can do the whole circle within the 4.5 hours of sunlight you get per day in winter.
I would recommend doing the golden circle spread between 2 days so skip the first stop (and do it on day 6 instead) and head straight to Geyser to skip out on the crowds who would have gone to Þingvellir National Park first. The Great Geyser actually no longer erupts but Strokkur is still active and will give you an eruption every 10-15 minutes. It’s truly an amazing and unique sight and luckily, there’s no long hike to get there, just a 5 minute walk from the Geyer Vistior Centre parking.
After Geyser, head on up to Gulfoss to see this magnificent waterfall. You can’t get too close in winter as the steps are closed off as it’s far too icy and slippery to get up and down them but even from a distance, the waterfall is a sight to behold and one of the best falls I’ve ever seen.
For food, stop by Friðheimar, an Icelandic greenhouse that specialises in growing tomatoes and you can sit and have a tomato based meal, surrounded by the growing plants. It’s super sustainable, sitting in a lovely atmosphere sitting with tomatoes growing all around you and the staff will tell you all about how they grow the fruit.
Not a usual stop of the Golden Circle tour but Kerid Crater Lake is also pretty cool, although this is the one stop where you do have to pay to enter but it’s the equivalent of about £2 or $3. In winter it’s all iced over and I will admit, I think this would look much better in summer as the lake is bright blue and surrounded by red volcanic rock but even in winter, you can walk around the whole thing and it’s still pretty cool.
After staying in Reykjavik for 2 nights already, it’s time to actually explore the town! Stop for a breakfast pastry and coffee at Röst by the harbour with a nice view over the sea before heading out.
From here, you can walk up to Harpa Concert Hall to see the modern architecture of Iceland and make sure to head inside to see the beehive-esque windows from both angles.
Then take a walk along the sea front up to the Sun Voyager pointing out to sea before heading up to see the famous and visually impressive Hallgrímskirkja Church. It’s one of the most famous landmarks in Reykjavik and stands out in the otherwise flat town. Marvel at the unique architecture of this Church from the outside and make sure to head in for another unique perspective; the Church is surprisingly minimal from the inside and you can take a lift to the top for views across Reykjavik.
If you have time, end the day my heading up to Perlan. I wouldn’t say Perlan is an absolute must and it is a bit expensive for what you get but may be worth doing if you enjoy museums and exhibitions. In Perlan, you can learn all about the history of Iceland, geothermal activity and the wildlife as well as watch a Northern Lights experience and walk through an ice cave. Make your way to the top for open views across all of Reykjavik and feel free to stop for a bite to eat.
Lastly for day 3, if it’s a clear sky head on out and search for the Northern Lights. You can check Northern Lights forecasts ahead of time to see if it’s worth your while; you’re in need of very dark, clear skies and a bit of luck!
Now it’s time to start road-tripping through the South of Iceland and make your way to Vík, with plenty of stops along the way. It’s about a 2 hour drive to stop number one so again, I would head out at around 9am to maximise the winter daylight hours. Head down to the 2 waterfalls named Seljalandsfoss and Gljufrabui, conveniently located just a short walk away from each other, for a view of the falls. You do have to pay to park here but it’s a small fee. You’ll soon learn there are many waterfalls throughout Iceland and Seljalandsfoss is one of the most famous ones outside of the Golden Circle however, I think Gljufrabui is underrated. Not many people were walking round to Gljufrabui but it’s hidden in the mountains and you can walk through to see it up close and personal.
Only 30 minutes along from here is the third and final waterfall of the day, Skógafoss. The ground is pretty flat here so you can walk up to the bottom of this beautiful waterfall and then there are also some stairs you can scale to see the falls from above.
Another 30 minutes on from Skógafoss is the famous Reynisfjara Beach. You will feel like you’re on a different planet standing on the black sand, looking out to see. At the end of the beach is Hálsanefshellir Cave where you can look at the unique basalt columns that frame the cave. Just a note, when at this beach, so stay wary of the water and don’t turn your back to the ocean as this beach is known for it’s sneaker waves.
Finally, it’s time to head to Vík. Many blogs recommend to stay at Reynisfjara Beach for sunset however, there is also a black sand beach in Vík that is much quieter and prettier for sunset than Reynisfjara. You can see the famous rocks in the sea at Reynisfjara from here and it is truly beautiful at sunset. Vík is a very small town so there isn’t much to explore at night, just head out for a nice dinner and rest ahead of the rest of the road-trip tomorrow.
You are looking at 5 hours of driving today up to Jökulsárlón Glacier (2.5 hours each way) but it’s totally worth it and was the highlight of my Iceland trip. Jökulsárlón Glacier is the largest in Europe and covers 8% of Iceland, as you drive to the lagoon, you will see the glacier peaking out of the mountains several times and it’s hard to comprehend how huge it truly is.
Park up at the lagoon of Jökulsárlón where the glacier breaks off into icebergs that lead out to see, it’s a once in a lifetime sight! It is mighty cold here so make sure to have your hat, gloves, scarves and big coats on to keep you wrapped up!
You can then walk towards the sea to Diamond Beach, aptly named as the ice on the beach sand beach really do looks like diamonds glittering in the sun. There’s ice from the glacier here coming in all shapes and sizes and you can easily spend an hour just walking along the beach, inspecting the shapes of the ice. Once you’ve got your fill, head back to Vík and watch the sunset over the mountains on your drive home.
It’s time to head back to Reykjavik and finish off the stop of the Golden Circle that you missed on day two – Þingvellir National Park, where the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates are splitting away from each other at a rate of 2cm per year.
Drive from Vík to Þingvellir (named Thingvellir in Google Maps) for views across the lake and it’s here that you can also snorkel between the tectonic plates at Silfra although it was too cold for me to want to do this in December! The best thing to do here, aside from snorkelling, is to hike alongside the tectonic plate. The most popular stopping point here is Almannagjá Gorge however, if you keep going, there is a lovely waterfall called Öxarárfoss to check out and even further up is Langistígur where you can stand between the 2 tectonic plates. I found that not many people actually hiked up this far but it was much better than Almannagjá Gorge!
It doesn’t seem like much to do in a day but with the drive back from Vík and spending a few hours hiking around Þingvellir, the sun will soon be setting and you can head back to Reykjavik for a chilled out evening or take any covid tests that are needed for returning home (depending on the rules at your time of travel).
The final day and end it with a classic Iceland tourist spot – Blue Lagoon, which is situated very close to the airport so convenient for flying home later that day. I must admit, I found Sky Lagoon to be much better than Blue Lagoon, so if you only have time for one, I would definitely suggest Sky Lagoon, but if you have time for both, Blue Lagoon is still a very cool experience! The steamy water is milky blue, full of minerals and is a natural by-product of a nearby geothermal power plant so take a few hours to relax here, put on the free silica mud mask and have a drink at the in-water bar.
The final stop on our Iceland tour is to drive to the West, again very close to the airport, to the Bridge Between Continents, and walk across the two tectonic plates – one minute you’re on North American plates, next you’re on Eurasian! You don’t need long here, it’s just a passing visit before heading back to Keflavik airport for your flight home.
Where To Stay
Whilst in Iceland, we stayed in 3 accommodations in total and 2 of them being guesthouses which were a first for me!
The first place we stayed was Refurinn Guesthouse in Reykjavik; this was actually my first time staying in a guesthouse and I loved it! Reykjavik is known for being a bit more on the expensive side so we wanted a place with a kitchen to be able to cook some meals rather than eat out all the time and this place felt like a home away from home and was in a great location, only a 5-10 minute walk into the centre of Reykjavik.
The second place was Guesthouse Carina in Vík, again following suit with another guesthouse to save money and this was a winner too! This place was super homely and every room has a view, whether it be of the mountains or out to sea, but even if they didn’t, there is a glorious breakfast room which is all glass for amazing views. Vík is a small town so it’s easy to get everywhere from anywhere and this accommodation had parking right outside for us.
The final place we stayed was Eyja Guldsmeden Hotel in Reykjavik for out last night; this hotel was really lovely, their rooms are beautiful with a bohemian vibe and there is a bar area where you can sit and have a drink, have dinner or sit with your laptop with free water, tea and coffee at all times. Another great location only 5-10 minutes from the centre but from the other side of town.