A Few Days In

The Non-Touristy (And Absolutely Awesome) Guide to Iceland

by Tanveer Badal
Iceland Iceland as we all want to experience. All photos by Tanveer Badal.

ICELAND — Iceland has been a popular travel destination for more than a decade, drawing two million visitors last year. Given that the country only has 350,000 residents and limited hotels and infrastructure, this can make it a frustrating place for first-timers to navigate, full of overcrowded, unoriginal moments. But there's a better way to travel to Iceland. With strategy and good timing, you can feel like you have the country all to yourself.

When Fathom reached out to me with an Iceland assignment, I was immediately excited. I had visited the country once before with my wife on a personal trip in 2017 — and, despite the feeling that everyone I knew had been there and Instagrammed everything, Iceland blew away all my expectations. Of the 50-some countries I've visited, Iceland is in my top five.

The trip would take me to the Land of Ice and Fire on a small group tour organized by Classic Journeys. As I reviewed the itinerary, I could tell it wouldn't be a typical touristy group trip that only hit the highlights. No checklist of TripAdvisor-approved attractions. No overnights at stuffy chain hotels. Instead, the focus was on adventure and charm, with activities like glacier trekking and snorkeling between tectonic plates spread out between cozy farm stays and delicious meals. Yes, please.

Classic Journeys offers three types of tours: walking, family, and multisport. Groups can range from four to eighteen guests, with an average of twelve. In Iceland, if you can physically do it — and most people can — go with their multisport option. Yes, you'll spend a fair amount of time inside a vehicle, watching the mesmerizing landscape pass by, but what you'll see, even in passing, is anything but boring. You'll also get into nature — and perhaps outside your comfort zone — to experience things firsthand. And work up a sweat to earn that perfectly-cooked Icelandic lamb back at the hotel.

Here are my top Iceland travel tips, as well as insight on what you can skip to make the most of your time.

To Golden Circle Or Not to Golden Circle?

The famous Golden Circle includes the most popular attractions in Iceland — Gullfoss waterfall, Geysir Geothermal Area, and Þingvellir National Park — all conveniently arrayed in a loop. A short day trip from Reykjavik, this is the route that every tourist with a rental car or tour operator does. My tour skipped it. I'd self-driven the route on my first visit to Iceland, so I wasn't disappointed. And, yes, if you have an extra day or two to travel, you should definitely see these well-trodden sites. But if you're like me and traveling isn't just about crossing items off a list, you can do better. You'll see many other impressive waterfalls (especially in the south) and you'll find natural wonders pretty much everywhere you go in Iceland. So why not choose a less crowded area to explore?

We made a spontaneous stop on our southern Iceland road trip at a lava field covered in technicolor green moss, spotted while driving towards Jokulsarlon Glacier Lagoon. We were admiring the landscape when our guide, Atli Lýðsson, a descendent of the Vikings, asked if we wanted to explore the lava fields up close. Of course we did!

He pulled off Route 1, the Ring Road, and drove a few hundred yards down a dirt road. We got out and lay our heads on massive, plushy carpets of moss. (This wasn't a fragile part of the environment but a safe place to explore.) I closed my eyes to take in the moment, and, though it's cliché to say, I felt like we'd alighted on another planet with no one else around. In a landscape this magical, you can understand while many Icelanders still believe in trolls and mythical creatures.

Don't Go Chasing Waterfalls (During Peak Travel Times)

Yes, waterfalls are cool and many are visible from Route 1, which loops the whole country. Yes, you'll want to stop and get up close. But if you try to see every waterfall — there are around 10,000 — you won't have time to see anything else. We visited some of the most famous waterfalls, including Skógafoss and Seljalandsfoss, but made these stops on the way to other sites. And we timed our visits in the early morning before the tour buses had piled up. Another tip: If you're visiting Iceland during the summer when the sun never sets, visit a waterfall after dinner. You'll miss the crowds and still get a perfectly exposed photograph.

Trekking on Solheimajokull, one of the world's largest glaciers.

Get Out of the Car

During our five-day road trip through Southern Iceland, we spent half a day in crampons, walking on Solheimajokull, the fourth largest glacier in the world. We rode Icelandic horses from the farm at Skálakot Manor to the highlands for epic views. We snorkeled at Silfra in the glacier waters between the Eurasian and American tectonic plates, floating in incredibly clear water that had been filtered through lava. Classic Journeys even outfitted us with amazing Icewear clothing and gear. Which meant that even though it was winter, it never felt like it.

Skálakot Manor Hotel in Southern Iceland.

But Also, Relax!

The mark of every epic trip is good pacing. After a long day outdoors, it's even more rewarding to rest your head in a cozy hotel at night. Hotel Rangá and Skálakot Manor were the very definition of inviting comfort.

Guests at Hotel Rangá can rejuvenate by soaking in the hot tubs located just outside their rooms. The restaurant offers mouthwatering lamb and cod, best chased with the national drink, Brennivín, known to locals as "Black Death.” (Consider yourself warned.) After dinner, it's one of the best places in the country for stargazing and searching for ever-elusive Northern Lights sightings.

Speaking of the skies, have a look at the gorgeous Iceland from above photos Tanveer took of this trip with his drone.

Staying at Skálakot Manor feels like you've been invited to spend a few days with your long-lost Icelandic family at their gorgeous farmhouse. Traveling in Iceland, you'll see many tourists parked by the side of the road taking photos of the country's famous horses. At Skalakol, you can take it to the next level by riding those horses to the surrounding highlands and the nearby Seljalandsfoss waterfall. The farm is a fully self-sufficient ecosystem, with its own source of water, electricity, and food. When the end of the world comes, this is where you'll find me, riding Icelandic mares at the foot of a glacier only a few kilometers away.

It's Okay to Be a Tourist Sometimes

There are some sights that, no matter how crowded or over-exposed, that you simply have to see. (I feel this way about the Taj Mahal and The Colosseum.) There's a reason these sites are iconic, and even the most cynical or travelers would be wise to pay them a visit.

Blue Lagoon is one of those places that lives up to the hype. But exactly when you go may make or break your experience. In the winter, go at first light. There's something ethereal about slowly wading into the milky blue pool, much of it still shrouded in darkness, feeling the healing silica between your toes. As the sun rises over the steam of the hot springs, it creates an orange glow — and really drives the point home that you're in the land of fire and ice.

Houses in Vik.

Plan Your Trip

How to Get There
Iceland Air offers nonstops from New York to Reykjavik. If you're lucky, you might even catch some Northern Lights action from the air. Bonus: Business class serves a great collection of Icelandic gin for mile-high G+Ts — a great indulgence. The premium lounge in Reykjavik offers once last chance to get delicious Icelandic lamb stew before flying back home.

Getting Around
I traveled with Classic Journeys in a small group tour in a very comfortable, WiFi-enabled custom 4x4 Mercedes Sprinter van. Our guide, Atli, is a descendant of Vikings. A few years ago, he quit his comfortable office job to become a tour guide, mainly to share his passion for Iceland with guests. If you can, request Atli as your guide.

When to Go
”In Iceland, there's no such thing as bad weather, only bad gear,” Atli loved to say. I was dressed head-to-toe in Icewear and felt comfortable the entire trip, whether I was exploring ice caves at Vatnajokull Glacier or going out in the middle of the night with my camera and tripod to photograph the Northern Lights at Skalalot.

Money Matters
Tipping is not necessary in Iceland and ATMs are available in cities and towns throughout the country.

Local Customs
"Is it okay to drink the tap water at the hotel?" I asked.

"You can drink the water from a cow feed in Iceland," Atli deadpanned.

And it's true: I've had some of the best-tasting water straight from the tap in Iceland. I don't doubt that that the water found within a cow trough is delicious, but I'll take a pass.

What to Pack
Bring a tripod and a headlamp if you're planning to photograph the Northern Lights, as you'll be outside at night shooting long exposure images. Almost all other essential winter and activities gear is provided by IceWear if you're with Classic Journeys.

For Your Movie Queue — Before or After You Go
The Secret Life of Walter Mitty might be the most underrated travel movie of all time, and Iceland plays a major role in it. See it before — or immediately after — you visit Iceland to get excited or relive the magic.

Want more Iceland? Have a look at the Iceland drone photos that Tanveer's took on this trip, then check out Fathom's Iceland Guide, which includes an overview of the women defining Iceland's culinary scene.