Volcanoes, black sand beaches, hot springs, lava fields, glaciers, miniature horses, geysers, invisible elves, bread cooked inside the earth, midnight sun, fjords, northern lights, the worlds oldest parliament and the last country in Europe to be settled. Who wouldn’t want to explore the wonders of this incredible place! All of these elements can be found in a country that is smaller than the state of NY, and has a population equivalent to that of downtown Manhattan. We are talking about Iceland… everyone is talking about Iceland. I am constantly fielding questions about Iceland. So I decided to put together a perfect itinerary in Iceland. Pack your bags and let’s go!
How long?: From the Northeastern US, many people go to Iceland for a long weekend (3-4 days). This can be a terrific trip and is definitely enough time to get a taste. For just a little bit extra time (5-6 days), you can get in a few other really cool elements. In 10-12 days, you can easily cover the entire country.
Before you go: Decide if you want to rent a car and explore the country on your own or if you want to use tour companies. There are so many awe inspiring things to do and lots of great tour companies from small to large, that cover them. If you enjoy driving and referring to guide books for info about the spots you choose, then rent a car and explore on your own schedule. If you would rather be a passenger and have a well-informed guide tell you all you need to know about the sites you visit, we loved all the tours we took with Gateway to Iceland tours. All tours are small groups only (fewer than 20 people) and all tour guides are not only really well informed but a pleasure to spend the day with.
Getting there: Iceland Air and Wow Air are both Icelandic airlines with reasonable rates. The draw is that they offer flights to Europe with a free layover in Reykjavik for up to 7 days at no extra charge. Last summer we stopped in Reykjavik on our way to Europe and loved it so much we extended our trip on the way back to spend some more time there!
Arrival: You will likely fly to Iceland overnight and arrive in Reykjavik first thing in the morning. We recommend you schedule a visit to the Blue Lagoon as soon as possible after you book your flight, and plan to go directly there from the airport. In most cases, you won’t get into your hotel room until 4pm, so what better way to pass the time than relaxing in the geothermal seawater of one of the 25 wonders of the world!
Pro tip: despite the crowds the blue lagoon is a must and is certainly worth a trip on the way in and maybe even on the way out. Consider pre-booking a visit for both ways during your trip. You can always cancel one of them at the last minute but it fills up fast.
If you are renting a car, gather your car at the airport and start on the 45 minute ride to the Blue Lagoon or the 90 minute ride into the city of Reykjavik. Either way, relax and enjoy the short drive from the airport of your first sight across the lava fields of what will be an incredible visit.
Where to stay in Reykjavik:
Reykjavik is actually a pretty small and manageable city. If you stay in the city center (recommended), it won’t be more than a 10-15 min walk to anywhere you want to go. As everything tends to be a bit pricier in Iceland, you won’t find too many inexpensive accommodations. During peak season (June-Sept) expect to pay more than $300 per night in a hotel. You can also find a pretty good selection of apartments on Airbnb – albeit not that much cheaper. I usually look for an apartment with my family so we can at least eat breakfast at home before we set out for the day. A few hotel accommodations we liked:
101 Hotel: Great location; a little pricey, hip interior, art gallery on premises
Kvosin Hotel: Great for families as all rooms are suites with a little kitchenette
Kex Hostel: A little away from the city center but a hip budget option
Where to eat Reykjavik: see my separate post on Where to eat in Reykjavik for our recommendations in the city.
Required activities for a long weekend in Iceland: Iceland is one of the few places in the world where I don’t feel the need to avoid the tourist traps. There is so much beauty and awe that even a bus full of tourists don’t ruin it. So, no matter how you get there, on your own or with a tour group (if tour group, we recommend Gateway to Iceland), the following are must see adventures from Reykjavik.
The Golden Circle Tour: The Golden Circle tour covers a ring of almost 200 miles in Southern Iceland full of natural wonders. If you are only in Iceland for a few days, this is the best place to start because it’s easily accessible from Reykjavik, and covers the basic natural wonders of the country. The tour can be done in a half day (5-6 hours) or a full day with a few little add ons (9 hours). Research tour groups, or pull out a map and see what works best for your schedule. Every Golden Circle Tour includes, at a minimum, stops at the following 3 spots:
- Strokkur Geyser – part of the Geyser Geothermal area, the Strokkur Geyser shoots water almost 100 feet into the air every 4-8 minutes.
- Gulfoss Waterfall – in the canyon of the Hvítá River with 2 dramatic drops (36ft and 69ft).
- Thingvellir National Park – the site of the worlds longest running parliament and the opportunity to walk between two tectonic plates.
Blue Lagoon tour: Whether you do this trip on the way to or from the airport, or you go to the Blue Lagoon for an afternoon from Reykjavik, it is a must see! If you aren’t renting a car, you can schedule very easy transport to drop you at Blue Lagoon directly from the airport and bring you into the city later in the day either directly through the Blue Lagoon website or through Reykjavik Excursions. If you are going from Reykjavik, the same services can pick you up at your hotel.
Blue Lagoon Tips:
- Luggage storage is available – Pack a separate bag with your swimsuit, a change of clothes, a hairbrush, (and a ziploc or waterproof case for your phone!) so you can easily pull it out of your suitcase before you store your luggage.
- No need to carry money or credit cards – You will get a wristband so that you can charge whatever you need during your stay and you pay for it as you leave.
- Like most spas, there are showers, lockers, a restaurant, a snack bar, saunas, etc. You can easily spend 4 hours there, or longer. It is a very well organized facility.
- While we ate in the restaurant for dinner, we could have just as easily gotten sustenance from the snack bar. The restaurant was lovely and the food was very good, but a bit pricey.
- Wear your hair in a bun or cover it in conditioner before you get in the Lagoon. The algae, silica, and minerals will make it crunchy!
- You can bring your phone/ camera into the lagoon area but you will want to put it in a waterproof bag while you are in the water. There are so many great photo ops while you are here it would be a shame to ruin your phone on the first day.
- Silica mud masks are free and plentiful – use them with abandon!
- The combination of the geothermal spa and drinking lots of fluids are a terrific cure for jetlag!
Add ons if you have longer than 3 days :
- Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon – One of our favorite travel days ever in the world happened here. We set off with our tour company, Gateway to Iceland, toward the glacial lagoon Jökulsárlón on a beautiful July day. Along the way, we managed a stop at a black sand beach, 3 breathtaking waterfalls, a hobbit like tiny village, and a stunning canyon with rolling hills. If you are doing it on your own, you can google each of the stops laid out in my detailed post describing the day– none are too far out of the way.
- Thrihnukagigur volcano – the only volcano on earth that can be explored from the inside. Reserve well in advance – volcano can only be explored during summer months. Requires some hiking. About 45 min from Reykjavik.
- Vatnajökull National Park – not too far from Jökulsárlón, are the ice caves at Vatnajökull. A winter only tour, this incredible experience allows you to walk right into the natural beauty of ice caves.
- Snaefellsnes Peninsula – about 3 hours drive from Reykjavik, it is referred to as miniature Iceland. A full tour of the peninsula will give you a taste of many of the countries wonders. It could be a long day of driving 8-9 hours, or you could spend a night there. We love the guide from Wake Up Reykjavik, to help get through the trip.
Exploring the entire country: Iceland’s ring road circles the entire country covering over 800 miles. It can be done in 8-10 days with lots of stopping in between. Best to go in summer as weather can be tricky. While there are tour bus packages that circle the whole country we think renting a car is the way to go!
Gótha Ferth! (Happy Travels)!