The Land of Fire & Ice earned it’s name from it’s dramatic diversity of landscapes – ranging from frozen glaciers to boiling geysers, towering mountains to hydro-powering waterfalls, and moss-covered volcanic fields to breathtaking fjords. Iceland is Mother Nature at her finest and an adventure paradise for any outdoor enthusiast. If you are willing to brave the elements during Winter, you might be lucky enough to check the 7th Natural Wonder of the World off your Bucket List – the elusive Northern Lights.
WHEN TO VISIT
Your Icelandic experience will vary dramatically depending on the time of year you choose to visit.
If catching a glimpse of the Northern Lights is important to you, then I recommend visiting in March or September . You will have to endure unpredictable weather patterns, consistent 30°F or colder days, and the possibility of not actually seeing the lights. But these two months are the best options without having to sacrifice outdoor adventures that can become otherwise too dangerous during the Winter months.
During the Summer months, May – August, the weather is the most reliable and the days long. This is the best time to take advantage of “Midnight Sun“, a natural phenomenon occurring in the Arctic Circle where daylight can span up to 21 hours. All hiking is accessible and all attractions are fully opened and operating. Because the Northern Lights thrive in darkness, you wont be able to see them during the Summer.
Rental Cars: you’ll definitely need one to get around and fully experience everything Iceland has to offer. A standard rental car, unless specified with the booking company, will likely be a manual (stick-shift). Make arrangements for an automatic ahead of time if needed. We rented through Blue Rental Car which we liked because it included insurance and online check-in for easy pick up. With Iceland’s uncertain weather and rocky road conditions, the insurance was necessary for peace of mind. We lost a windshield wiper on our last day because of extreme winds!
All Things Cost / Payments: Iceland is one of Europe’s most expensive countries!
– Stock up on duty-free alcohol and snacks on your way out of the airport.
– Book a hotel that includes breakfast. We stayed at two hotels that offered a plentiful spread and take-away options. Breakfast and lunch included in the price of our hotel!
– Bring an ATM debit card for gas. Most stations are unattended and will require a PIN, even when using a credit card. Yes, even credit cards have PIN numbers, and you will need one for gas.
– Don’t take out cash. You won’t need it. Everywhere in Iceland accepts credit card or Apple Pay.
– Bring a reusable water bottle. Water flows fresh from glaciers and melting snow, and it’s FREE. Take it from a water snob, I couldn’t get over how delicious this water was.
– Don’t trust the concierge service’s “Northern Lights Wake Up Call“. We learned this the hard way. If you are in Iceland to see the Northern Lights, make your own luck! If the forecast is promising, set your own alarm for every hour between 10 PM and 2 AM.
DAY 1: the blue lagooN & THE SOUTH COAST
Upon arriving in Iceland, your first stop should undoubtedly be The Blue Lagoon. It’s proximity to the airport and tranquil setting makes this the perfect way to unwind after a long flight and experience iconic Iceland.
Geothermal bathes are thee quintessential Icelandic experience! Ranging from upscale spas to natural thermal springs to functional community pools, each offers a relaxing way to wind down from a day of sightseeing or warm up in the cold weather.
The Blue Lagoon dazzles with its romantic landscape of moss-covered lava fields and milky blue silica waters. This steamy oasis was the largest & most unique of the thermal spas we visited. While it lacked a cold plunge option, it offered a complimentary drink, warm towel, and fun silica mud mask. I recommend going right when it opens for the least-crowded option or late at night for a chance to bathe under the Northern Lights. This experience requires that you book a reservation in advance. Plan to stay for at least 2-3 hours.
Grab a bite before embarking on your first long-haul drive along the South Coast. Just 10 minutes from the Blue Lagoon, Hja Hollu and Bryggian Café in the town of Grindavik, are healthy options for a quick, casual lunch. Your destination, roughly 2.5 hours away is the town of Vik, the halfway point to major attractions on Day 2 and your home base for 2 nights.
the south coast
seljalandfoss, skogafoss, vik
The South Coast is home to miles of black sand beaches, towering cliffs, gushing waterfalls, and glaciers. This stretch of Iceland is perfect for adventure seekers, offering an abundance of outdoor experiences and a top hiking destination, Porsmork.
- First stop, Seljalandfoss will be a short but worthy one. This powerful 210 foot waterfall flows from the glacier Eyjafjallajokull and offers visitors a chance to see the backside of it in good weather. Opt for an additional 30 minute round trip walk to view the smaller nearby waterfall, Glufjfrabui. Plan to spend about an hour.
- Skogafoss (+30 mins drive) waterfall is just as impressive as Seljalandsfoss, yet far less crowded – making it even more desirable IMO. It could be the 500-step staircase to the top that deters so many, but those willing to make the climb are rewarded with a spectacular 360 view and the entrance to a popular trailhead leading to Porsmork (more on this later). This hike was a welcomed change of pace and scenery after the long drive and crowds of people. It offered us the space and serenity to breathe deeply and become grounded in our surroundings. Plan to spend ~2 hours with the hike, 30 minutes without.
- Solheimajokull Glacier is one of the many retreating glaciers Iceland is sadly witnessing, which is evident by the extending distance to reach it’s tongue from the parking lot. 15 minutes’ walk down the gravel road will take you up close and personal to this “Game of Thrones” look-a-like movie set. I recommend booking a guided walk through Icelandic Mountain Guides if you want to get inside of the glacier, as you must be fitted with proper equipment. Because glaciers are constantly melting and moving, exercise caution and common sense when venturing onto the ice. This is worth a quick visit, but if you are short on time or tired from the day’s travel like we were, you can instead catch it on the return trip into Reykjavik. Plan to spend 30 min – 1 hour without a galcier tour.
Settle in for two nights in the quaint town of Vik. We loved our accommodations at the modern, minimalist Hotel Kria. The staff was super friendly, breakfast was included, and they offered a boiler room to dry wet clothes from a day’s adventure (key if it rains and you only have 1 pair of hiking boots). Make dinner reservations in advance for their restaurant, Drangar, which offered an exceptional cocktail and finer-dining meal.
DAY 2: the southeast coast
Jorkulsarlon, Diamond Beach, Skaftafell National Park
Wake up early early and eat a big breakfast before heading out for the adventure-full day ahead.
- Jorkulsarlon is one of Iceland’s best glacier lagoon viewing opportunities to see by foot or boat. Large chunks of ice float atop the near-freezing lagoon, set at the backdrop of this young glacier. We opted to walk the pebbly shoreline and caught a glimpse of a few seals bobbing up for air. Plan to spend 30 min – 1 hour without a boat tour.
- Just across the street is Diamond Beach, which depending on the conditions can either be the most impressive or underwhelming sight. Icebergs of varying size, shapes and colors wash up on the black sand shoreline, sparkling for an impressive photo op. Plan to spend 30 minutes.
- Skaftafell National Park offers hikers a handful of trails that whine through birch trees, across rivers and atop glaciers with varying viewing angles of several waterfalls. We opted to hike to Svartifoss “Black Waterfall” (moderate, 2.5 mile). You would think that seeing yet another waterfall would be unimpressive at this point, but this one dazzled us in a different way. Not the tallest, not the most powerful, but certainly the most unique with its dramatic cliffs of basalt columns that appeared like volcanic lava melting in perfect geometric Tetris pieces.
Vibe Check: time to pour up a glass of that duty free wine you picked up at the airport! Walk Reynisfjara Black Sand Beach at sunset or enjoy some epic stargazing from your balcony. Vik is the perfect town to witness the Aurora Borealis due to it low light pollution, but do not trust the “Northern Lights Wake Up Call” service. Create your own fate and set an alarm between 10pm – 2am; we learned this the hard way.
DAY 3: the south coast to ReykjaviK
horseback riding, porksmork, drive to reykjavik
After a few secluded days in the South Coast, it’s time to pack up and make your way back towards the bustling city of Reykjavik. The drive from Vik is about 2.5 hours, and we sprinkled in a few activities along the way.
- Conveniently across the Hotel Kria is Vik Horse Adventure, offering small group riding tours on the beautiful black sand beach of Vík. Spend an hour with the friendliest staff and fury Icelandic horses taking in a gentle ride among stunning surroundings.
- If you missed Solheimajokull Glacier on Day 1, catch this site on the drive back – its worth it!
- Porsmork (or Thórsmörk) is one of Iceland’s premier hiking destinations. Offering hikers a chance to trek through a network of trails, boasting stunning sites of volcanoes, glaciers and valleys, all leading up to panoramic view from Valahnukur. This destination will require the better half of a day and a full-size 4×4 vehicle or transportation in due the rushing riving crossings. Book reservations in advance.
Tourism in the city of Reykjavik is bursting at the seams, so you have a surprisingly wide variety of premier options to pick from in your search for a home over the next few days. Staying somewhere that offered a complimentary breakfast, upscale amenities, and was located within close walking distance to restaurants and the main shopping drag were key for us. We landed on an intimate boutique with a contemporary flair called Sand Hotel, and absolutely loved our stay. I still dream about their incredible breakfast spread of Icelandic yogurts, ginger shots, and chia seed pudding!
daY 4: The TOWN OF REYKJAVIK & Reykjadalur thermal river
Spend a relaxing morning exploring the town by foot – it only takes about a half day to get the overall vibe of this surprisingly cosmopolitan city. There is something for everyone – shopping, galleries for art lovers, the award-winning Harpa Concert Hall for modern architect fans, and an unlimited supply of museums and eateries.
- Laugavegur, the city’s main drag, is a great place to start. Here you’ll find kitschy souvenir shops and colorful street art leading the way toward my favorite of the two streets, Skolavoroustigur a rainbow-painted road dotted with authentic-feeling small boutiques. Get lost weaving and whinding through the quaint streets of Reykavik. At the top of Skolavoroustigur, sits the iconic Hallgrimskirkja Church, Iceland’s largest church offering a panoramic view of the city.
- Shopping: wonder into each shop in search of a few essential Icelandic souvenirs.
- Get your hands on an authentic handmade wool sweater, for an affordable price, at the Handknitting Association of Iceland. Knitting is a major pastime in this country where sheep outnumber the people.
- Pop into the colorful candy shop Vínberið and make sure to try their popular chocolate covered black licorice. I am a new fan of black licorice thanks for this place!
- Purchase some famous Icelandic sea salts – offered in unique flavors like black lava, artic thyme and birch smoked. These can be found in most souvenir shops along the main drag.
Grab a quick bite to eat at the refined bakery Sandholt, located conveniently next door to the Sand Hotel. This spot offers a delectable spread of artisanal pastries, healthy sandwich/salad options, and organic coffee and wines.
Head out on your adventure for the day to the Reykjadalur Thermal River. This is a treat for outdoorsy types/hiking lovers! The hike to the river is just over two miles long one way. Along the steamy valley, is a well maintained path leading up to a natural thermal river where you can bathe and relax for an hour before making the trek down. Allow for at least 3 hours total for this experience.
For a Michelin Star dining experience, grab a reservation well in advance at Dill. If you’re looking for a more modest bite to eat, check out Hlemmur Food Hall, a re-designed bus stop turned into 10 trendy eateries. Whatever you choose, do not miss the chance to grab a night cap at Apotek, a sophisticated art-deco bar and restaurant known for their well-crafted cocktails. Finish the night at Skuggabaldur Bar, located next door to Apotek, serving up some seriously smooth live jazz music. This was one of our favorite live music experiences.
daY 5: THE GOLDEN CIRCLE
The Golden Circle features a trifecta of Icelandic sights packed into one day – a gorge, a geysir and a waterfall. Many tourist passing through Iceland for a quick trip work this classic “can’t miss” day trip into their schedule. Total drive time is about 4 hours without stops. Leave early for the 1 hour scenic drive to Pingvellir via the Nesjavallaleid scenic road if weather permits. If not, Mosfellsheid is open year round.
- Pingvellir is a dramatic gorge marking the separating Euroasian and North American tectonic plates. This national park allows visitors to wind through miles of rifts created by the separating plates. For adventure seekers, check out the Silfa Fissure for a scuba or snorkeling experience in the purist glacial waters. The waters temperature remains around 35-39°F so you’ll be fitted in a neoprene dry suit to keep you warm, but your body will go numb! I recommend booking ahead at Dive.is. Plan to stay for ~1 hour, without the dive excursion.
- Next up on the circle is a bubbling and bursting spectacle at the Strokkur Geysir Geothermal Field. Wander through this otherworldly thermal landscape, as you take in intense sulfur smells, and watch Stokkur erupt high into the air. This is one of Iceland’s truly unique treats. Plan to spend 30 minutes here, and maybe grab a cup of cocoa on the way out of the gift shop.
- Last in the trifecta is the Gullfoss Waterfall. Translated to “Golden Falls”, this landmark gives the Golden Circle it’s name. This powerful waterfall is certainly the most impressive of them all, plummeting 70 ft straight down into a narrow gorge and creating a reflective rainbow mist for a beautiful photo op.
After taking in the major sites, you’ll likely be ready to settle in for a late lunch. The Fridheimar Tomato Farm Restaurant was one of my favorite stops along the Golden Circle, and a can’t miss for anyone looking for a lunch spot that is equally delicious, picturesque, and eco-friendly. This family-owned green house is fully self-sustaining, utilizing water from nearby hot springs and geothermal energy to produce electricity. Indulge in bloody marys, endless tomato soup & freshly baked breads while you sit among rows of tomato plants and under the “synthetic sunshine”.
Cap off the end to a long sight seeing day, at Laugarvatn Fontana Thermal Bath. This steamy oasis felt the most authentic and local of the thermal baths and gave us the opportunity to fully experience the benefits of hot/cold therapy. Alternate, in this order, between the sauna > steam room > an invigorating cold plunge in the lake > heated thermal waters. This will give you the jolt of energy you’ll need for the long drive back.
And that’s a wrap – 5 glorious days in Iceland for the most unforgettable trip! We will definitely find ourselves back here someday to cover the Northern and Western edges of the island.