A Magical Weekend in Stockholm, Sweden

how to spend a weekend in stockholm sweden

Narrow cobblestone alleys and ochre-colored buildings are the blueprint Stockholm is built upon. The capital city of Sweden has a rich history dating back from the Middle Ages when the Vikings first took control of this land. Although much has changed, visiting the old town of Stockholm, Gamla Stan, is like stepping back in time. As an archipelago, the many islands making up the urban region are joined together by ornate bridges and intricate pathways. While there are so many valuable sights worth visiting, the best advice one could give when traveling to Stockholm is to plan to get lost. The city is best understood when exploring the charming passageways with no real destination. It is when you close your map and let the cobblestone lead the way that you begin to notice the tiny details of its vibrant heritage still so very alive. The church steeples, royal palaces and market centers have vivid stories to share if you’re willing to dig a little deeper.

stockholm 2
On our way to Östermalm

Arriving by train is one of the easiest ways to enter the city center. We booked a hotel close by and were able to walk to most of the sights. Luckily, we scored beautiful sunny days that meant we could spend the majority of our time outside.

We knew we wanted to head straight to Gamla Stan, the old town of Stockholm. We made our way across numerous bridges to finally enter into Stortorget, the public market square in the center of Gamla Stan. It reminisces of an urban medieval time, but since the old town was built over a period of many years, it’s easy to see how the styles slowly shifted as you extend outwards. The towering buildings with unique architecture oversaw the bustling streets. Crowded restaurants with outdoor tables extending onto the cobblestone made for excellent people watching.

Stortorget
People-watching in Stortorget

It was here that we stumbled across the Nobel Museum, full of inspiring stories of past Nobel prize winners as well as artifacts donated by Nobel Laureates. Nelson Mandela and Winston Churchill were just some of the featured exhibits. Old notebooks and journals were some of my favorite things to see. An inspiring look into the world of the infamous people we hear about, but know so little about they’re lives and interests outside of the spotlight.

After absorbing all the knowledge we could, we stepped back into the market square to refresh with ice cream cones before we moved on down a narrow alley towards the notable cathedrals, no real end point in sight.

Cathedral, Gamla Stan
Cathedral steeple, Gamla Stan

As soon as you step off the main drag, the narrow tunneling walks become secluded and picture-esque. Despite being a tourist hot spot, the intricate detail of the streets make you still feel as though you were a part of the city, rather than an outsider looking in.

gamla stan 2
Warrior 3 in Gamla Stan

When we’d had our fill of the old, we crossed back over the bridges to explore the more current regions of Stockholm. Despite being filled with high end shops and edgy restaurant, the skyline of the city maintains a look of heavenly castles from the medieval ages. It’s possible I spent most of my time looking up into the sky than actually down at what was eye-level, it was that captivating.

Östermalm
Steeple-topped buildings in Östermalm

Our adventures led us to the Royal Palace, where the current residence of the Swedish Monarch. It also functions as a workplace and culture-historical monument open year round. The palace fits in with the city surrounding it, and except for the large courtyard out front, you might mistake it for an oversized city building. While there are numerous museums you can visit around the palace, we opted to watch the guards and horses marching up and down the square as onlookers stopped to make way. We waited long enough to view the changing of the guard, which include a lengthy ceremonial event once a day in the afternoon. This wasn’t the greatest event for someone of my height as I spent most of the display squished between to larger visitors, but the excitement in the air and music from the palace was interesting enough.

stockholm royal palace
Stockholm Royale Palace

As we walked along the water’s edge, we stumbled upon a boat tour that was heading out for the afternoon. Not to be one for missed opportunities, we figured we’d be able to get an overview of the city before we ventured any further. Fittingly titled since Stockholm is made up a bunch of tiny islands connected by bridges, the low-lying boat allowed us to weave in and out of the different areas. Even still, the bridges were a little too close for comfort for me so I spent most of my time on the back of the boat in order to avoid spying the incoming bridge passes. Along with Gamla Stan from water, we also got to see the islands Södermalm, Lilla and Stora Essingen, the new area Hammarby Sjöstad and the green areas of Djurgården.

bridges
One of the many bridges of Stockholm

Having had a quick tour of the areas from the water, we could pick and choose the sights we most wanted to revisit later on.

We spent the rest of our night on the rooftop of our hotel watching the sun go down as we prepped for tomorrow’s day. We created a loose outline our of plan and, knowing we had lots of walking ahead of us, snuck off to bed at a reasonable hour.

We had been hearing about the Vasa Museum since we first mentioned to friends and family that we were going to Stockholm. In 1628, the Vasa ship capsized and sank after only setting sail an hour or two before. As the only museum to display an only almost fully intact 17th century ship, we were eager to learn more of how a masterpiece of construction had such a doomed fate.

vasa meseum
The Vasa

Located on the island of Djurgården, it’s best to get an early start to beat the lines. The walking tour of the ship is well worth it and clues you into the details you might have overlooked otherwise, such as how no ship would be able to sail with the obscenely heavy materials the builders insisted on using! In fears of giving away too much, this is the sinking ship that should no longer all in Titanic’s shadow.

With enough ship knowledge to last us the next few years, we made our way to Södermalm, stopping at Östermalms Saluhall, a farmer’s market, for a taste of Swedish produce.

Södermalm, the Brooklyn of Stockholm, is a hip and artsy neighborhood that is not only filled with vintage shops and trendy restaurants, but also is home to one the greatest viewpoints overlooking the city.

Katarinahissen Tower
Awkward poses from Katarinahissen Tower

Before entering the neighborhood, we trekked up a series of stair cases, enough to brak a sweat, to reach Katarinahissen Tower just in time for the sunset. While it odes offer a glorious view of Gamla Stan, you do have to look past the abandoned bus lot directly below. But eh, you win some you lose some.

Södermalm
Södermalm

After a less than stellar viewing, we went in search of the coziest restaurant on this side of town for our last night in Sweden. When we were filled to the brim with freshly baked bread and buttery fish, we took our last stroll home, taking the long way to witness the evening crowd in Gamla Stan and take in our last views of the Royal Palace and historical cathedrals. Getting lost abroad has never felt so good!

Sweden local
Sweden local

Have you ever been to Stockholm? What’s your favorite way to see a city, by land or by water?

xx,
Juliette

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Top 12 Things to Do In Santorini, Greece

top things to do in santorini greece

Up until I graduated from college, I had always been a traveler-dreamer, rather than a traveler-doer. I imagined magnificent trips across the globe when in reality I had yet to even cross an ocean. Overwhelmed with school work and relationships and figuring out the rest of my life (easy stuff, ya know), I eagerly waited for a time when I could escape to the paradises on the postcards I had pinned up around my dorm room. When I got my first actual job in the glorious city of Washington D.C., I made a promise to myself to save up any extra money I had in order to see all the places I’d written down on my bucket list. Which, at this point, would take me a couple lifetimes.

Santorini greece
View from Santorini hotel

At my new job, I quickly became friends with a coworker across the hall who shared in my vision of picturesque adventures. After scrolling through Pinterest oogling over pictures of tropical getaways and serene coastlines during our break, we landed on an image of a Greek isle lined with bright blue buildings and surrounded by turquoise water. Winner, winner, chicken dinner. We knew we had to see this magical place in person. A simply google search led us to Groupon deal through a travel agent and in a matter of 30 minutes, we had an entire trip booked to the other side of the world. Go big or go home, right? And at this point, I’d had enough of the latter.

Oia santorini greece
Oia

So at 22, I got my first passport and packed my bags for a 12 hour flight to country I’d only ever seen in my Latin textbooks. (Fun fact: I took five years of a language that’s no longer spoken. Great SAT score, though). After spending a few days in Athens, we hopped aboard a high speed ferry off into the Greek Islands. Next stop: Santorini.

Santorini, Greece
Home in Santorini, Greece

It was apparent as soon as we stepped off the ferry that we had entered the land of honeymooners. for good reason, too. The tropical beach, romantic cobbled streets and exotic views were perfect for lovebirds. Or, well, two best friends looking for a change of scenery. Whether you’re coupled up or in the need of an escape from real life, Santorini has it all. I knew we’d made the right choice when we were generously welcomed into the hotel by a lovely young woman dressed in all white. She appeared to float through the airy lobby and whimsical patio rather than walk . As she gave us a tour of the premise, she had an accent I couldn’t quite place. I cautiously asked her where she was from using the little Greek I knew. She laughed and said that she was originally from Pittsburgh and, after a series of unfortunate events in her life, she decided to move far away to a place that brought her the serenity she so needed. After a week in this glorious utopia, she might not be the only one moving here.

Cliffs of Santorini Greece
Cliffs of Santorini

Sunrise in Fira
I always make it a point to see the sunrise in every location I visit. There is something so peaceful about starting your day with the first light before you’re filling up every moment with another must-see. Our hotel sat on the top of Fira so we were able to see the sun reach over the eastern coast of the island. I should also note that we could still hear the music from the clubs in the town center at 6am. These people aren’t playing around. So while the bar goers were stumbling home, we were enjoying a breakfast spread filled with fresh fruits and pastries. To each their own.

santorini greece
Breakfast overlooking the caldera
Perissa Black Sand Beach Santorini Greece
Perissa Black Sand Beach

Perissa Black Beach
A sprawling black sand beach overlooking white cliffs dipping into the clear water is the perfect way to spend an early afternoon. As you might expect, the sand gets HOT, so thick towels (or a cabana) are a must.

Santorini Greece Wine Tour
Santorini Wine Tour

Wine Tour
While most people opt to explore the island on mopeds, we signed up for a tour through the southern region of the island since we weren’t entirely trusting of our driving skills on the narrow, curvy roads. This was the best way for us to not only witness some the best photo ops (..in the world), but learn a more about how the island came to be.

Santo Winery in santorini Greece
Santo Winery Patio

Santo Winery
Even if you’re not on a tour, Santo Winery is the perfect place to truly get a taste for the Greek culture. While the informative tour is helpful in learning the wine process, such as that as the grape grow they’re weaved into little baskets called koulara with the grapes on the inside for protection, the real appeal of Santo Winery is the view. Its tasting area overlooks the caldera and is the perfect place to sample local wines with paired cheeses and crackers.

 Akrotiri Archaeological Site in Santorini, Greece
Akrotiri Archaeological Site

Akrotiri Archaeological Site
Santorini’s unique shape is due to its volcanic history. The Akrotiri Archaeological Site is a Minoan Bronze Age settlement on the volcanic Greek island of Santorini. The area was destroyed by the Theran eruption around 1627 BC and buried in volcanic ash. The ash allowed for the remains of structures, objects and artwork to be well-preserved until its discovery in 1967. This incredible walk through history is the purest way to revisit the island as it was centuries ago. This site is believed to be the premise of Plato’s Atlantis…as well as the location of one of the first working toilets! Seriously. The things I remember on these tours.

The Red Beach in Santorini Greece
The Red Beach

The Red Beach
Encassed with towering cliffs, the red beach is, in fact, bright red. The site is best seen from above where you can take marvelous pictures of the unusual colored contrast of red and blue, spotted with yellow umbrellas.

dinner overlooking Caldera in Fira santorini greece
Dinner in Fira

Dinner Overlooking the Caldera in Fira
Since Fira was built on the mountainside, almost every restaurant on the western edge is guaranteed to have a view. Make reservations earlier in the day for an hour before sunset. You’ll have prime seating to watch the sun sink below the ocean. Look for any place the promises fresh salmon and Greek salads with extra olives. Trust me on this one.

Fira santorini greece
Streets of Fira at night

Gelato in Fira
As soon as the “most famous sunset in the world” has ended, the streets of Fire are illuminated in a soft glow. The night is far from over. Stroll in and out of the local shops and take some time to sample the gelato.

Mules of Fira santorini Greece
Mules of Fira

Watch the Mules up the Stairs
If you’ve seen Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants (and if you haven’t, stop right here and come back when you’ve finished watching it), you’re familiar with Lena riding up on the mules back. Find a spot along the balcony to watch the sailboats dock in the lower harbor and the mules trek their supplies up the staircases on the edge of the mountainside.

Aressana Hotel and Spa in santorini greece
Aressana Hotel and Spa pool

Spa Day
Many of the hotels are also part-spa (honeymooners galore, remember?). So we couldn’t stay in one and pass up the opportunity for a massage in paradise. Besides, after all the exploring you’re doing, a little R&R at Aressana Hotel and Spa was just wanted we needed.

Oia Art Galleries santorini greece
Oia Art Galleries

Oia Art Galleries
A quick bus ride from Fira will lead you to the northern most city on the island, Oia (pronounced ee-uh, don’t make yourself look foolish). Filled with small shops and galleries, wander into the art museums and take the time to speak with the owners. You’ll learn far more about the life here than by merely observing.

Oia sunset in santorini greece
Oia sunset

Sunset in Oia
While we knew the sunrise was a big deal in Fira, the sunrise is the Superbowl of events in Oia. A superbowl that happens every sunny day, that is! Luckily, we decided to grab an early dinner at a small family-owned restaurant overlooking the caldera with little more than two other guests around. As soon as we ordered baklava to conclude our meal, we noticed the streets below us seemed a bit more crowded. And then a couple more people came. And then, before we knew it, the entire road was packed shoulder to shoulder with tourists armed with various cameras. As we sat comfortably at our prime-view table, we soaked in the people watching and sipped wine as we watched another breathtaking sunset…not entirely sure how we would go back to the city we came from.

Oia, Santorini, Greece
Oia, Santorini, Greece

Have you been to the Greek isle before? Which island do you want to visit?

xx,
Juliette

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Best Way To Spend 24 Hours in Oslo, Norway

24 hours in oslo norway

When we initially booked our Scandinavian excursion, Oslo was merely a city to pass through on our way from point A to point B. We were spending a quick half day there before moving on to Bergen, our intended destination. However, as soon as we walked out of the train station that opened up into the center of this metropolitan, I knew we were very, very wrong.

what to do in oslo norway
Quiet street in Oslo

While the city center is reminiscent of New York City’s little sister with towering buildings, floods of taxis and city buses, along with bright, vibrant billboards, walking just a block or two takes you back to the northern European styling we’re so used to seeing. Unique architecture, quaint parks and a beautiful main road that opens up to the Royal Palace make Oslo a cosmopolitan all its own.

Although known for costing a pretty penny, it is definitely possible to explore Norway without draining your savings account. To get the most bang for your buck, consider purchasing the Oslo Pass that gives you free entry to over 30 museums, as well as free public transportation.

Conveniently, Oslo’s buses travel all over the city. If you’re lucky like us, you’ll get on the bus the wrong way and get to see the entire city before actually arriving at your destination. Yay. But really, the maps are easy to follow as long as you read the direction of the bus ahead of time. Our first stop, after our unanticipated hour tour, was to Bygdøy Peninsula.

What to do in Bygdøy peninsula
Bygdøy Peninsula

This peninsular is home to five of the national museums, a royal estate, along with beaches, forests and parks. Basically, it’s your one-stop-shop if you’ve only got a day in the city.

We thoroughly researched the museums before our arrival to make sure our time was well spent. We started at the Viking Ship Museum which was filled with, you guessed it, viking ships (along with tools and supplies from that era). The ships are extremely well preserved and you can get up close to their construction and read stories about their assumed travels.

oslo viking ship museum
Viking Ship Museum

Next, we rode the bus further down the peninsula to The Fram Museum, which displays the ins and out of Norwegian polar exploration. The Fram is the strongest wooden ship ever built and still holds the records for sailing farthest north and farthest south, as noted on the museum website. The short introductory film is well worth your time before exploring the museum. The exhibits hold nothing back and go so far as to offer a polar simulator to give you a taste of the arctic, brrr.

Lastly, we went to our favorite museum of the day. Although the Kon-Tiki Museum is often passed over for larger museums, we found this to be the most fascinating. The Kon-Tiki was a lightweight raft constructed of balsa logs built by writer and explorer Thor Heyerdahl and crew in 1947 to sail across the Pacific Ocean from South America to the Polynesian islands. The museum is set up like a movie come to life, providing you with a trail to follow to read about the events that occurred in a timeline style. Along with the raft itself, the museum also exhibits many artifacts and crew interviews to go along with the information.

what to do in vigiland park
Vigiland Park

Now museum’d out, we took the bus back to the main land and stopped at Vigeland Sculpture Park within Frogner Park. The beautiful landscaped area is perfect for an afternoon stroll or an evening picnic. Sculptures by Gustav Vigeland are located throughout the park and create an interesting, almost eerie, presence.

what to do in frogner park
Frogner Park

For our final stop, we made our way down the open markets on the street leading up to the Royal Palace as the sun set. A bustling city that offers so much variety in such a rich urban environment is one not to be miss.

Royal Palace of Oslo
View of Oslo Royal Palace

Have you ever been to Oslo? Do you like to go to museums when you travel? Or do you skip them?

xx,
Juliette

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24 Hours in Bergen, Norway

how to spend one day in bergen norway

Surrounded by scaling mountains and awe-inspiring fjords, Bergen is tucked into the southwestern coast of Norway. While you can fly into the local airport, it is far more dramatic to enter from one of the most scenic railways in Europe, a ride from Oslo through Flåm that offers a true taste of what Norway has to offer. But, I digress, more on that another day.

Known for its overwhelmingly wet weather, Bergen experiences far more rain than sun each year, often leaving the city in a blanket of fog with only the steeples peaking above the low clouds. While the weather might not be on Bergen’s side, what it lacks in sunshine it makes up for with character. Colorful wooden houses line the cobblestone streets as visitors meander through the renowned fish market for a meal so fresh you can see exactly where your fiskesuppe (fish soup) came from. Due to its northern location, the summers mean long hours of sunlight if you’re lucky enough to score a rain free day.

bryggen

Despite being the second largest city in Norway after Oslo, Bergen can easily be experienced in a day or two, offering a variety of activities from tours of fortresses to strenuous hikes between mountains overlooking the city.

Luckily, our first evening in Bergen was filled with clear blue skies and a sunset for the books. After dropping of our bags at the cheeky and elegant boutique hotel, we were a block or two from all the hustle bustle. The smell of fresh seafood led us to the center of town. The Fish Market is easy to identify immediately, salty tanks filled with lobsters, crabs and fierce looking swimmers were located in front of each shop. I played it safe with shrimp and rice, but admired my neighbors who opted for dishes that looked straight out of Stranger Things. Prefer my food with out eyes, thankyouverymuch.

Fish Market in Bergen, Norway
Fish Market in Bergen, Norway

Large sailboats and extravagant yachts sailed in and out of the harbor all through the evening, illuminated by the day’s last light. We were constantly fooled by the time of day as the sun didn’t start to go down until after 10pm. Luckily, we were able to soak up as much wandering as we could. Directly across from the Fish Market is one of the most notable postcard-esque sites. Bryggeen Hanseatic Wharf is made up of earthy colored houses uniformly lined up along the water’s edge. What used to be the center of a major trading empire is now filled with trinket gift shops and casual dining. Because of their wooden structure, many of the buildings in Bergen have been ravaged from various fires throughout the past few centuries. However, the rebuilding of this town stuck to the traditional construction and reflects the historical look of Northern Europe. Once the sun finally settled itself below the horizon, we headed back to our beds to prepare for an early morning.

Bryggen Hanseatic Wharf
Bryggen Hanseatic Wharf

After a quick breakfast of sugary skillingsbolle cinnamon rolls, a local delicacy, the Fløibanen funicular up to Mount Fløyen was next in line. This popular mode of traveling going up one of the mountains surrounding the city gets crowded quickly so it’s best to arrive within the first hour it opens. The cable car-like ride takes you to one of the most scenic points in the city in less than ten minutes. From here you can truly absorb Bergen’s jagged coast, colorful skyline and cobbled street ways. Even better, you get to meet the locals in their natural habitats, mountain goats and sheep are constantly ambling around the mountains to keep the grass trim. They were not as interested in me as I was of them.

New friends
New friends

Mount Fløyen is also the starting point for the hiking trail through Vidden to Ulriken. Due to the threat of a storm, we skipped this adventure in exchange for some solitude this morning.

View from Mount Fløyen
View from Mount Fløyen

The top of the mountain holds another Norwegian tradition. The folklore of trolls and fairy tale creatures is thriving in the country as evident throughout the town, especially on Mount Fløyen. The top of the mountain is decorated with troll statues, hidden figurines, and even an obstacle course that lets you view the world through the trolls’ eyes…seriously. As hokey as it might appear to an outsider, the fable is fun to fall into, at least for our stay here.

Witch and troll hunting on Mount Fløyen
Witch and troll hunting on Mount Fløyen

When we’d had our fill of troll hunting, we opted to forgo the funicular back down to instead walk the switchbacks that led to a secluded part of the city. While Bergen is filled with many attractions and museums, mostly due to the exuberant amount of rain, the culture is best understood by getting lost in the crooked alleys and deep staircases into gardens and small parks.

bergen city center

As the clouds opened up once we reached the city, we went to seek shelter at the Bergenhus Fortress, one of the oldest and best preserved castles in Norway. Overlooking the harbor, a quick tour leads you through the royal chambers, medieval hall and defensive tower. More importantly, this allowed us to learn more about the power behind Bergen and how devastating the fires were to the city and its culture.

Bergenhus Fortress
Bergenhus Fortress

Bergen felt like one of Europe’s best kept secrets. Although the center of town was flooded with tourists, one turn off the main road led to romantic passageways filled with quaint bakeries, local shops and intricately decorated homes. Whether you’re looking for a stop along the way to Oslo, or simply an escape to kayak through the Fjords, Bergen’s overwhelming charm is hard to resist. Although you should be weary of trolls or witches casting spells, you will be sure to visit again and again.

Bergen at sunset
Bergen at sunset

xx,
Juliette

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So You Wanna Drive Ring Road? What To See, Do & Eat in Iceland (Part 2)

what to see do and eat in iceland while driving around ring road

The southern coast of Iceland is known for its unpredictable weather, icy mountain caps and steep cliffs. Which, while offering panoramic views in every direction, was taxing on the travelers passing through, to say the least.

iceland route
In case you missed Part One, here’s another snap of our route.

It had been less than a week and our hiking boots had already been thoroughly broken in, covered in ash and dust. Although it was a bittersweet goodbye, we were looking forward to a calmer few days in the north coast, a reprieve from the the challenges we had endured. If you’re just diving in, click here to check out the first half of our trip around Ring Road in Iceland!

Dettifoss
Dettifoss

After climbing back over the mountain from Seyoisfjorour, we made our way to Dettifoss, and its baby sister, Selfoss, two of the most powerful waterfalls in Europe. The falls themselves were a magnificent sight to see, but the desolate rock fields leading up to them were even more intriguing. Looking something like District 13 in the Hunger Games, the deserted land offered the solitude one could only find on the moon. At one point, I wasn’t even sure if we were on planet earth anymore.

Trail to Dettifoss
Trail to Dettifoss

While continuing to drive through the volcanic lands, we headed up to the Krafla Volcanic Region where we would find Hverir, a geothermal area at the foothill of Namafjall.

Hverir
Hverir

If you can survive the strong smell of sulfur hanging in the air, you’ll be able to to witness a contrast of colors only few have seen in nature.

Krafla Volcanic Area
Krafla Volcanic Area

Spending the past week in temperatures hovering near freezing, we were looking forward to a group of natural hot springs that an AirBnB host had told us about on our way to Akureyri. While Iceland is often symbolized by its Blue Lagoon, the hot springs exist all through the country, although some are far too hot for people to go in or even near. Beyond the toursity appeal of the Blue Lagoon, the Myvatn area offers hot springs for the locals, or the few visitors who make it outside of Reykjavik.

Myvatn Nature Baths, Jarðböðin við Mývatn
Myvatn Nature Baths, Jarðböðin við Mývatn

A good soak rejuvenated us to venture onto the second largest city on the island, Akureyri, a colorful urban area at the base of Eyjafjörður Fjord. At the center of the city sits the 1940s Akureyri Church that overlooks the main streets. Graffiti decorated the pathways in a tasteful and clever way, adding to the city rather than detracting from its beauty.

Graffiti decorating Akureyri

Instead of staying within Akureyri, we found a once in a lifetime farmstay in a van a couple miles outside of town.

Akureyri, North Iceland

The Icelandic farm sat on the edge of a lake pillowed between mountains, the perfect vantage point for the midnight setting sun.

sun set at midnight in Akureyri, North Iceland
Midnight sun setting in Akureyri

We spent the evening enjoying a home-cooked meal by the owner and gossiping with her 14 year old daughter, who dreamed of one day moving to L.A. After trading our stories, we cozied up in our camper van with the sunlight still hanging in the sky.

Homemade bread
Homemade bread

The never-ending daylight meant another early wake up as we prepared for our longest drive yet. Our kind host left us some freshly baked bread to take on the road. A much calmer drive than before, we headed to Snafellsness, a peninsula often overlooked on others’ trips around Ring Road. We stayed at another farmstay and took recommendation on where to explore.

Dritvík

We started at Dritvik and Djupalonssandur, another black sand beach where you can see the bright orange remnants of shipwrecks from hundreds of years ago. Not to waste the day, we quickly made our way to Vatnshellir Cave for a caving tour below the earth’s surface.

Caving in Vatnshellir Cave

Vatnshellir Cave

With a full day behind us, we savored another night on a new farm and set up a time to ride the farmer’s horses in the morning. Despite the chill in the air, we were eager and ready at 8am to ride off through the volcanic fields, observing lava tubes and glacier cuts through the mountains around us while on horseback.

Horseback riding through volcanic fields at Kast Guesthouse
Horseback riding through volcanic fields at Kast Guesthouse

After learning more about life on the peninsula from our horse riding guide, we were fascinated to learn that most people on the peninsula move back to the city during the winter. Only a farmer or two stay around to feed the horses, whose thick fur keeps them warm no matter what the weather.
As we packed up our things from our last stay around the island, we made our final list of sights to see on our way back to the capital. After a quick detour to Kirkjufell Mountain, the most photographed mountain in Iceland, we headed to Mount Esja for our closing hike.

Kirkjufell
Kirkjufell Mountain

Mount Esja overlooks Reykjavik and felt like the most fitting final stop on our adventure. The mountain appears to glow a lime green from the mix of wild flowers growing around the base.

Mount Esja
Mount Esja

A steep climb leads up to fresh spring water where you can fill your bottle straight from the creek, along with an extraordinary view of the city we had only left 11 days ago.

Mount Esja Summit

Heavy-hearted, we leisurely made our way back to Reykjavik, already planning our return to this unparalleled island.

For even more Iceland fun, follow us along as we tried out best to film through the wind, ice, fog and magic.

Stay tuned for a recap of what to do in Reykjavik! While I highly recommend traveling Ring Road to truly immerse yourself in the Icelandic way of life, a weekend in the capital will give you a taste of why Iceland has become loved by so many. I mean, Beyonce was here, wasn’t she?

xx,
Juliette

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So You Wanna Drive Ring Road? What To See, Do & Eat in Iceland (Part 1)

what to see do and eat in iceland when driving around ring road

The people in airports fascinate me. I often wish that travelers were required to wear a label when flying sharing where they came from and where they were going. Not in a creepy, stalker-ish way (although I get that’s where I’m headed), but more so because I believe you can learn the most about a person by seeing the places they value. Are the going home? Or faraway from it? There’s so many details that can be learned by merely scanning one’s boarding pass. It was during a conversation like this with the woman sitting next to me on a plane back from California when we got to talking about the greatest places we’d ever been. Without a moment of hesitation, she said that Iceland not only changed how she traveled, it changed how she lived. That sounds like a bit much, I thought to myself, but it didn’t stop me from doing a little research when I got home.

Views from the Golden Circle
Views from the Golden Circle

It quickly became apparent that the land where lava meets glaciers was drawing the appeal of millions. I, too, was not immune to its magical pull. Two months later, my best friend and I planned and booked 12 days driving around Ring Road for the middle of July (which allowed for optimal daylight hours and least chance of blizzards). Now that it’s been some time since our trip came to a close, I finally feel ready enough to pull out my journals and photographs to revisit the most enchanting country I’ve seen. Given the extent of this trip, I’ve split it up into three parts. Part one will follow us along Ring Road on the southern coast, part two is Ring Road leading up the northern side, and lastly, a separate post for all the gems to be found in Iceland’s capital, Reykjavik.

iceland route
Our route around Iceland. We spent one night in each of the labeled towns.

So go grab your hiking boots and sheep’s wool, it’s time to explore this land of beautiful contradictions. Welcome to the the place where fire meets ice.

Geyser in the Golden Circle
Geyser in the Golden Circle

After landing at Keflavik, the Reykjavik airport, we headed over to Sixt to pick up our rental car. A small hatchback we would use to travel around the highway circling Iceland. Given that we were traveling in the middle of the summer and planned to stick to main roads, four wheel drive wasn’t necessary. However, we did opt for the WiFi router and GPS (life saver!). Although it’s difficult to get lost when going in one direction, the street signs are less than stellar, especially if you’re not keeping up with your Icelandic. It was reassuring to have a safety net in case we got lost. Lastly, we stocked up on groceries since towns were sparse along the way. This is what they created trail mix for.

gullfoss
Gullfoss in the Golden Circle

Our first day was spent exploring the Golden Circle. This charming park is filled with rushing waterfalls, volcanic craters, steaming geysers and awe-inspring outlooks along the way. The route is easy to follow and we were able to see mostly everything in one day.

Þingvellir National Park
Þingvellir National Park

We spent the night at the Bus Hostel in Reykjavik and were up early to join a day tour to explore the glaciers. This hostel was more than just a bed to sleep in. We enjoyed the free breakfast in the morning and the ability to chat with others in the common area (and use the speedy Wifi!). It was the perfect spot to get suggestions from others who had been in the country for several days ahead of us.

Solheimajokull Glacier Hike
Solheimajokull Glacier Hike

This was our only pre-booked adventure, as we were determined to have the freedom to travel wherever the road took us. Yet, I couldn’t suggest this group enough. Although the high winds prevented us from walking across much of the glacier, a common weather disruption here, we were able to make up for it with other sites.

Solheimajokull Glacier
Solheimajokull Glacier

History buffs will be enamored with the Sólheimasandur plane crash that occurred on Saturday Nov 24, 1973 when a United States Navy airplane was forced to land on Sólheimasandur’s black sand beach in the south of Iceland due to severe icing. All of the crew members survived, and many of the Icelanders would visit the plane to use its leftover fuel.

Sólheimasandur Plane Crash
Sólheimasandur Plane Crash

Since we were in the land of waterfalls after all, the guide took us behind the sheets of water to view the world from another perspective.

Seljalandsfoss
Walking behind Seljalandsfoss
Walking behind Seljalandsfoss
Walking behind Seljalandsfoss

Sometimes the smallest waterfalls were the most moving to stumbling upon, a hidden secret you weren’t exactly looking for.

Hidden waterfall
Hidden waterfall

In between waterfalls, we encountered grass huts built into the sides of mountains. The folklore of trolls and elves is alive and well in Iceland. So much so, Icelanders reroute their highways to respect the land of the trolls.

Grass huts along Ring Road
Grass huts along Ring Road

Lastly, we visited Reynisdrangar Ocean Cliffs and the Black Sand Beach. Known for its high wind, you could full let your body fall against the strong gusts and feel your weight being supported. While difficult to breath, the thin air only added to the dark contrasts of the black sand against the icy water. Straight out of Game of Thrones, the area looked more like a movie set than an actual landmark.

Reynisdrangar Ocean Cliffs, Black Sand Beach
Reynisdrangar Ocean Cliffs, Black Sand Beach

We stayed overnight in a small AirBnB in Hvolsvöllur and prepared our snacks for the next day. It was important for us to always check the weather for impending storms and make sure we dressed accordingly. Our next night would be in Hofn, a small fishing town in the southeast. We woke up early to beat the rain and headed off to Vatnajökulspjódgardur National Park (say that three times fast..or actually just try and say it once) and Skaftafell to hike to Kristínartindar Mountain and the Svartifoss waterfall, which tumbles over black basalt columns. A popular walk, we felt as though we were on the edge of the earth. Each turn led to a view across mountain tops and the glaciers sliding in between until we reached the diamond shaped rock of the basalt falls, signaling it was time to turn back.

Svartifoss in Vatnajökulspjódgardur National Park
Svartifoss in Vatnajökulspjódgardur National Park
Vatnajökull Glacier
Vatnajökull Glacier

Since we still had time left in the day, we drove past Hofn in search of another hike before doubling back for dinner. We began to notice a series of cars pulling off the road towards large sand dunes. Curiosity got the best as off as we followed their lead. After climbing over the mountains of sand, we were rewarded with one of the the most unique scenes of the north.

Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon

A large lagoon reaching towards the edge of a glacier lay on the other side of the sandy mounds. Ice chunks had fallen off the glacier and turned an electric blue when they hit the water, creating a pool of neon ice cubes.

Jökulsárlón - Glacier Lagoon 2
Capturing Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon

When we’d had our fill of nature’s miracle, we trekked to our hostel in Hofn after a meal of skyr and langoustine, Icelandic lobster. We mingled with the locals and conversed with a geographer from Europe who was staying up near the glaciers to create topographic maps.

View from our hostel in Hofn
View from our hostel in Hofn

Our bed for the night overlooked a inlet of water with the mountains in the distance we would be driving to the next morning.

Hofn
Hofn

We enjoyed a communal breakfast in our hostel the next morning as we planned our trip up the eastern fjords. Little did we know that some of the most dangerous moments lay ahead of us as we penciled our route. One small turn off the main highway led us to a dirt road a mere inch away from the edge of a disastrously high cliff. I never realized how much I took guard rails for granted, or double yellow lines tbh. As we held our breath for the entirety of the drive, we were finally able to relax having reached our hike of the day, Hengifoss.

fjord driving
The only picture taken after our death-defying drive through the fjords

We lucked out that the Icelanders we spoke to were more than eager to offer suggestions for their favorite trails left off of google searches. This is how we came across Hengifoss, a strenuous trail tilted at a 45 degree angle with a rushing river below. Yet compared to what we just came from, this would be a breeze. Hiking through the bright green moss to reach a towering single stream of falls was worth the fire and ice to get there.

hengifoss
Hengifoss

Although we believed we had had enough heart attacks for one day, our journey had one more in store. We found a quaint hostel in Seyoisfjorour, a small town that is typically only reached by boat from the east. Thus, the only way to get there from inland was to drive up a steep mountain with so many switchbacks that made you began to question your car’s breaks after each turn. To add to the fun, a thick cloud laid on top the mountain for a darling zero visibility.

Driving through the clouds is only romantic theoretically
Driving through the clouds is only romantic theoretically

Finally, we arrived on the other side, our hands still shaking from the day’s unintentional adventures. We made a modest dinner in the abandoned hospital-turned-hostel and recapped our snafus with the older gentleman who had just come off a boat from Norway for a fishing trip. After briefly considering leaving our car behind to sail away, we shook off our fear and got back in the saddle…er driver’s seat. After a restless sleep, knowing we would have to go back across the mountain a second time to make our way to Akureyri, we prepared for the second part of a trip filled with a little more than we bargained for.

Seydisfjordur, Iceland
Seydisfjordur, Iceland

Stay tuned to learn how you can go spelunking underneath the glaciers and horseback riding through volcanic ash as we continue around Ring Road. Check out part two here! SPOILER ALERT: we survived.

Iceland

xx,
Juliette

P.S. I lucked out to have a best friend who is an incredible photographer. I suggest you make sure you have one as well so you can catch these sights from unique perspectives. Check out more of her talents here.

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