Welcome to my article on the hidden gems of Iceland! I’m Marie, a 27-year-old photographer from France. I live in the Pyréneés Orientales – a beautiful place enclosed between the mountains, sea and Spain. I have always had the travel bug. My parents took a road trip across the USA when I was young, and then they visited Martinique and Guadeloupe. Growing up, they showed me the photos and told me how these trips were incredible.
They encouraged me to push myself, enjoy raw and unique activities rather than just sticking around touristic places. My life has always been full of unique experiences. My dad is a professional spelunker and photographer, so adventure played a huge role in my education. He used to take me on long hikes, climbing via ferratas, spelunking, rafting and camping.
This lifestyle led me to chase meaningful experiences while traveling, and I find peace in the outdoors and in remote areas. Now, I enjoy quiet and vast locations where I can feel the peacefulness of nature. I seek adventurous experiences rather than easy ones. Don’t mind me, I’ll be the first one to a well-known spot if it attracts me! But I would choose hiking for six hours to reach a place not a lot of people go to, rather than queuing for a swing.
I had the opportunity to wander a lot in my previous job. I was a sommelier working on cruise ships. I would explore remote places like the Seychelles. This is when I fell in love with photography. I bought a drone four days before jumping on the ship, with the aim to bring back beautiful photos to post on my Instagram. I had no idea this decision (which made my banker really mad at that time) would take me to where I am today.
I didn’t know anything about composition, aperture, editing, shutter speed, etc. I had no idea what I was doing but I was definitely enjoying it. But then the pandemic struck in March 2020. I was sent home from this contract, stuck in my (luckily) beautiful region of France. Like many people at that time, I could breathe again and rediscover my passions. I made a promise to myself to buy a camera before going on a new contract on a ship.
Summer 2020 came and one week before embarking, I bought my first camera. I spent the summer sailing on the Atlantic Coast, discovering more hidden paradises in my own country. I promised myself to look for more unknown destinations, more meaningful experiences and to make a difference in people’s lives by showing them the untouch beauty that our world has to offer. That is how my journey with photography began.
A Spellbinding 3-Week Adventure in Iceland
I traveled to Iceland with my partner for three weeks in September. To be honest, I didn’t really want to go at first: the landscapes of Iceland are over-represented on social media and I was afraid I wouldn’t get the “wow” effect of these places as my eyes had been constantly overfilled with Iceland shots for the past few years. I wasn’t very excited. My partner was hopeful but I was so afraid to be disappointed when arriving on the island!
I couldn’t have been more wrong! Iceland just threw its beauty right into my face even before landing. We were greeted on our arrival with the Northern Lights from the plane, a pure moment of excitement and joy for me as it was my first time seeing the Auroras. To be more flexible and autonomous, we decided to rent a SUV to be able to drive through the Highlands – a remote area of the island only accessed with this kind of car.
We explored the whole island in 21 days, drove 4,600 km in total starting on the southwest coast, driving to the Highlands, and then headed north to end up in the Westfjords and the Snaefellsnes Peninsula. We took many turns in the passenger seat, as the Icelandic roads can be painful to drive on. They are long, sometimes well-paved, but often gravely bumpy roads. It’s tiring to drive in Iceland and I almost fell asleep driving a few times.
We didn’t book activities in Iceland, as ice caves were not open yet and we weren’t keen on going to the Blue Lagoon. We visited touristy/known spots (of course) which are iconic like the Seljalandsfoss and Skogafoss waterfalls, but also the hidden gems of Iceland. I like to photograph locations people haven’t seen yet, which can be a challenge in Iceland as a huge number of photographers go. But I’m glad I managed to snap some unique angles!
Visiting Iceland in the Stunning Autumn Season
We visited Iceland in September, so it was the end of summer and the start of autumn. We chose this period to be able to go to the Highlands because they can be closed by mid-September. We wanted to avoid the summer itself, July and August, although the Midnight Sun season did look attractive despite the prices being higher and the places more crowded. The Highlands closed a few days after we wandered there so we got lucky!
Iceland is known for its unpredictable weather, but honestly I can’t complain. Out of 21 days, we only got two days of heavy rain and storms. This was perfect as it was in Vik and Reynisfjara, giving the landscapes a dramatic vibe. We got rewarded with amazing sunsets, even more amazing sunrises and not much wind. We were warned we wouldn’t be able to fly the drone as much as we wanted, but there wasn’t a single day we couldn’t.
We even got the chance to see the Northern Lights at the beginning of our trip (unusual for that time of year), which made the journey even more magical. Next time we will go in spring when the puffins return and lupins blossom. I heard that the landscapes change dramatically over the seasons, so I want to experience it differently! I would like to see Iceland covered in snow but l will wait a bit to come back. Perhaps in 2024 or 2025!
Why Traveling Through Iceland is So Magical
The travel experience in Iceland can only be defined by one word: magical. No matter where you look, the landscapes take your breath away. I’m happy my partner insisted on going to Iceland! It would have been a pity not to go there. The people are extremely kind and welcoming – everybody is constantly helping each other out with whatever they need.
Whether that be on the road, cheering you on when you successfully cross your first river, or giving you tips or advice regarding nice restaurants or activities. And the food was delicious! I’m a huge food-lover, and I know Iceland doesn’t have a great gastronomic reputation, but I could enjoy some very nice specialties. I still have a soft spot for the charcoal pizza I had in Vik, in the south of Iceland. A very unique and tasty experience!
My Favorite Region in Iceland: The Highlands
It’s quite difficult to choose a favorite place in Iceland. The landscapes are so diverse and some are just a few kilometers apart – making for a crazy contrast! You can go from very green landscapes with waterfalls to huge fjords passing through yellow-leaved forests. But if I had to choose one, I would go again to the Highlands and spend more time exploring there.
Just imagine driving through a black desert landscape on an uneven road between moss-covered extinct volcanoes, blue lakes, red and green slopes, with nobody around. There is zero noise, not even a bird singing, only the sound of the wind and your heart beating. Silence can be disturbing for some but that’s what I appreciate in life. It was truly enchanting to have that place to ourselves for 24 hours, without a single soul there.
It’s a special and hard to define feeling. Even after experiencing it, I’m not sure I can translate it into words exactly. Maybe a sense of complete quietness and peacefulness is the best description, as you are literally facing nature in its purest and rawest form. A feeling I’m not sure I will be able to experience somewhere else in the world, but I hope to one day!
10 Hidden Gems in Iceland for Your Bucket List
1. Landmannalaugar (Highlands)
This place is otherworldly and looks like Mars. The red slopes of volcanoes contrast with the black lava fields and the blue rhyolite mountains. There are only a few ways to reach the campsite, one is driving two-and-a-half hours on the gravel roads of the Highlands and then crossing two rivers. There are many hikes departing from the campsite but the landscape itself is just breathtaking. The feeling of remoteness is so strong, with deserted fields and volcanic jagged peaks piercing through the clouds.
2. Hengifoss (East Iceland)
This epic waterfall can be reached after a 45-minute hike, and it’s located in the east. Although it’s on the Ring Road, many people skip it because they feel like it’s not interesting enough. When you see the vibrant, red-layered black lava walls of this waterfall, you will think otherwise! Nothing can beat one of the tallest and most impressive waterfalls of Iceland.
3. Skyggnisvatn (Highlands)
Probably my favorite spot in all of Iceland, that was a goal in itself to see. It’s a blue lake which lies in an old crater of a black volcano at the center of the Highlands. You can reach it after a long hike or get closer by car. The way the blue water contrasts with the dark slopes of the volcano, and the white braided rivers in the foreground, is incredible. It’s a spot which has been photographed by some, but everyone I asked refused to give directions.
I had to figure it out myself and I understand why: this is a photo you need to earn. At first, I flew my drone to get a glimpse of its beauty. Looking at the map, I found another way to get closer to capture this unique place. I call it the “Jewel of the Icelandic Crown” because it’s the cherry on top of the cake if you can see this one during your trip. Make the effort and you will be rewarded with one of the most remarkable hidden gems of Iceland!
4. Pjodveldisbaerinn (Golden Circle)
This church is on the Golden Circle but yet many ignore it and go to Geysir or waterfall-hunting instead. It’s a discreet but well-indicated spot, and it would be a shame to skip it. This turf church looks like it was softly dropped in the middle of a green field with the mountains in the background. It’s one of the six remaining turf churches in Iceland and was reconstructed from a historical barn. The weather was moody when we went. The church is beautifully carved and we had it to ourselves for a morning.
5. Hvitserkur (North Iceland)
There is a legend about this rock that I love: it’s said that there was a troll who hated the sound of church bells, and he was caught by the sun while throwing rocks at the Pingeyrar Monastery and he became petrified! Some people see a dinosaur, some a rhinoceros, but I see an elephant out of these strange rock formations. You can go at high tide to get a beautiful reflection on the sea or at low tide to walk to the rock itself.
6. Raudisandur (Westfjords)
Another of those hidden gems in Iceland you have to earn: Raudisandur. You can reach it after driving on the Westfjords Road, and they are not paved (to say the least)! Only gravel, and rough curves, with nothing around. But this leads to the beautiful red beach of Raudisandur. The color of the sand changes according to the weather. The clouds covered this area with shadows when we got there, offering us a spectacular show.
7. Svortuloft Lighthouse (Snaefellsnes Peninsula)
This small vivid orange lighthouse is located on the west coast of Iceland, overlooking 4-kilometer-long black basalt cliffs. It’s surrounded by moss-covered lava fields, and its intense orange colors contrast with the dark landscape. These cliffs seem to have been cut by the violent waves and winds, and many sailors lost their lives during shipwrecks in this area. I love it because it’s a small remote spot not everybody takes the time to go to, as you must drive on an unpaved road through lava fields for a few kilometers.
8. Sigoldugljufur (Highlands)
This canyon is located after the entrance to the Highlands but still is easy to reach (after driving on a F-road, which is not easy). It only takes 10 minutes to walk to this “Canyon of 1,000 Tears” – a blue river surrounded by waterfalls. We got the most incredible sunset conditions, as the sky turned pink and orange, overcasting its colors onto the canyon. This place looks like another planet and is truly one of the best hidden gems of Iceland!
9. Braided Rivers (South Iceland)
A natural phenomenon only possible in a few spots in the world. I can’t describe how my mind is blown everytime I look at these pictures because it’s a unique natural location not a lot of people photographed and witnessed. I still struggle to understand what I’m looking at, and I feel these shapes and textures are impossible for our brains to comprehend.
10. Abandoned Barn (Westfjords)
I fell in love with this spot the minute I saw it on Instagram. After researching the map, I found out it was situated in the Westfjords – a place we weren’t supposed to go to according to our initial itinerary. It so happened that we got a bit ahead of time while driving in the north, so we decided to try to reach the Westfjords and spend a few days there.
I can’t express how happy I am that we made this decision and drove four hours straight to this spot, which I find highly photogenic. I have a soft spot for old buildings and abandoned places. This little triangular barn, totally hidden in a fjord with a stunning mountain background, next to a lake, was the perfect sunrise spot I could have hoped for. It was actually even better in real life than in the photos. Hidden gems of Iceland don’t get any better!
Our Camping Accommodation in Iceland
I didn’t stay at any secret or particular accommodation on this trip. Iceland is full of these incredible glass-lodges where you can see the stars and wildlife, but it was not the purpose of this trip. I didn’t get a lot of comfort at our places, that’s for sure! We mostly slept in camping spots for the nights we were trying to sleep, instead of hoping to witness the Northern Lights.
One camping spot I recommend, which is a bit off-the-beaten-path, was in the Westfjords (Reykjafjardarlaug Hot Pool). It’s a small camping area, free (just a reminder: wild camping is forbidden in Iceland so you can’t camp everywhere – it’s important to protect and respect nature) and located next to a hot pool. Waking up and bathing in 40° water after a very cold and tiring night was extraordinary. And there was no one around us!
Tips for Experiencing the Hidden Gems of Iceland
If you travel to Iceland, no matter the time of the year, bring many layers of clothes because the weather is unpredictable. Use the onion technique so you won’t die of cold. A rain jacket is super important and if you own gear that has rain-proof protection, don’t hesitate to bring it all with you! As they say in Iceland, “if you don’t like the weather, just wait 15 minutes”.
Another important thing is to plan ahead but be flexible: it’s useless to plan hour by hour what you will be doing, especially if you go for a more adventurous trip to the hidden gems of Iceland rather than a chill touristy one. Going from A to B often takes one or two hours more than expected, as you stop to enjoy the scenery and slow down to avoid hitting sheep. I didn’t want to believe people who told me this before my trip, but it’s true!
The last and most important tip: respect nature. Iceland is a fragile environment, and it’s not worth destroying what earth created to get “the shot”. Don’t litter, stay in the camping areas (don’t do wild camping), don’t go off-road and respect speed limitations. Fines can be very expensive too, and there is no need to put yourself or nature in danger for a photo!