There are trips that you take to break the monotony of the daily grind and for some R&R. And then there are voyages you take whose memories you will harken back to when sipping a latte years later. Iceland is undoubtedly the latter. Travelling in the countryside of Iceland is like going back in time to an untouched, pristine, and raw earth with limitless natural beauty. There is so much to see and explore in Iceland, I hope to go back a few more times. This itinerary is designed for the first-timer to Iceland and you will get to hit much of what Justin Bieber shows in this music video shot in Iceland.
WHEN TO GO:
High Season: June-August (we went in August).
If you want the full Iceland experience go in the High Season so you have full access to all the secondary roads and you will enjoy being outdoors to the max. As a bonus, the days are long which helps you max out the day. If you are specifically going for the Northern Lights, it is best to go in winter. Just remember many of the secondary roads will be closed.
Clothes: the old advice "layers, layers, layers" may seem redundant but sometimes the best advice is basic. The weather in Iceland is quite mercurial so within the same day you may go from wearing a T-shirt to a multishell Northface.
Maps: if you are leaving the primary Ring Road in Iceland, the GPS may be spotty. So feel free to save offline versions of maps on your devices.
Consider Renting a Car: Don't go to Iceland to jump from tour bus to tour bus. While we did one organized tour, Iceland is about experiencing and soaking in nature at your own pace. It is a very safe country so be independent, be intrepid. And if you are going to rent a car, get a SUV with a 4WD with big tires. If you are type of person that rents a car, you are the type of person that will get off the beaten path. Get an SUV with a 4WD. Don't get stuck in a muddy road or let a flat tire deflate your trip.
WHERE TO STAY:
We did 7 nights in Iceland overall with 6 nights in Reykjavik and 1 in Vik. The thought process behind this was that we went in a group of 4 people and we wanted to minimize the check-in/check-out process. So we made Reykjavik our home base at night before doing a lot of the excursions leaving the Capital Region during the day.
Depending on how much you want to do around Iceland, you could go for as little as 3 nights or 2 weeks.
The country has about 300,000 people of whom two-thirds live in Reykjavik/Capital Region.
In Reykjavik, we used AirBnB within the heart of the city which made it walkable to all of the great cafes, restaurants, and attractions. Generally we found AirBnB to be more economical than hotels, which seemed expensive for what you are getting. But of course, if you prefer a hotel there are a few solid ones and I would consider TripAdvisor. If you are to get a AirBnB, consider opting one for a hot-tub to relax at the end of day.
Outside Reykjavik, we used hotels and that is what I would recommend as many of the towns are very small and your AirBnB options may become limited.
Main City Attraction - Hallgrimska Church is a beautiful church and you can go to top of the bell tower and get sweeping views of the city
Generally, within Reykjavik, it is less about "must-see" activities and more about meandering through this easily walkable city and exploring the different restaurants, bars, and coffee shops
Hallgrimska Church, views from the top of Hallgrimska church, views from a stroll around the city (pictured from left to right)
Surprisingly the Indian restaurants are actually really good.
Most highly-rated restaurant is
*Michelin star restaurant sourcing seasonal local ingredients to create a multi-course meal
cheap, fast food recommendations
The famous Icelandic Hotdog stand: http://www.tripadvisor.com/ShowUserReviews-g189970-d1852122-r115171585-Baejarins_Beztu_Pylsur-Reykjavik_Capital_Region.html.
so many great bars in Reykjavik and you should def spend each night in one or more. They also do a lot of happy hours in the places so check beforehand
The ones I recommend the most are
Kex Hostel Restaurant/Bar - https://www.tripadvisor.com/ShowUserReviews-g189970-d2231476-r122778552-Kex_Hostel_Restaurant-Reykjavik_Capital_Region.html
great views with a really good Einstok Arctic Beer. You can also play chess, board games, etc.
MicroBar - https://www.tripadvisor.com/Attraction_Review-g189970-d3953292-Reviews-Micro_Bar-Reykjavik_Capital_Region.html
awesome beer flights
Kaffibarin - https://www.tripadvisor.com/Attraction_Review-g189970-d679712-Reviews-Kaffibarinn-Reykjavik_Capital_Region.html
play some live music here and is a famous spot
Big Lebowski Bar - https://www.tripadvisor.com/Restaurant_Review-g189970-d3229759-Reviews-Lebowski_bar-Reykjavik_Capital_Region.html
Kaffitar - https://www.tripadvisor.com/Restaurant_Review-g189970-d1847828-Reviews-Kaffitar-Reykjavik_Capital_Region.html
How to Use:
I will outline a 7 day itinerary that mixes plenty of national parks, geysers, waterfalls, beaches, and glaciers as well as plenty of time to relax and soak it all in. One of the advantages of making Reykjavik your home base for the majority of your nights is that first you avoid the time suck of checking-in/checking-out and packing/re-packing constantly as well as second you will enjoying great food for dinner in the city on a nightly basis. Outside of the capital region, great dining maybe slightly limited. It is less important that you do things in the order that we did them, but more use this as a structure how to organize an individual day. When you should group days together from a practical standpoint, we will certainly let you know.
Renting a car and gas are more expensive in Iceland (when compared to the USA), but we think it is definitely worth it to not be limited by tour groups so you can explore at your own schedule. We used the rental car to explore the southwest part of the Ring Road and Vik as there is a cluster of great natural things to see in the region.
DAY 1 - We had taken a red eye and landed at 10AM. We opted out of doing any excursions today and wanted to unwind and explore the city from an epicurean perspective (please see above for references to some our favorite restaurants and bars). The city is extremely walkable so no need to rent a car. We happened to land on Reykjavik Culture night (which generally happens in August) which is a day when much of the country descends on Reykjavik and the city is festive with live bands, theater performances, fireworks, and other pomp and circumstance.
Tip: Definitely use FLYBUS - REYKJAVIK EXCURSIONS to get to your hotel/lodging. It is much cheaper than a cab and they have good customer service.
DAY 2 - BLUE LAGOON. Yes its touristy, but is AMAZING. If you are going to Blue Lagoon on a weekend, be aware that the line to get in could be an hour plus so allocate time for that. Honestly our initial plan was to spend 4 hours here, but we knew we wouldn't be coming back here on this trip so we extended it to 8 hours just to savor it. Sure we hope to come back to Iceland for a future trip and plunge back into the Blue Lagoon, but as Robert Frost said in "The Road Not Taken": "Oh, I kept the first for another day! / Yet knowing how way leads on to way / I doubted if I should ever come back." You never know where life leads you, soak it all up at Blue Lagoon when you get the chance. It is a great relaxing day either at the beginning or end of your trip.
Tip: We got our Blue Lagoon tickets through FLYBUS - REYKJAVIK EXCURSIONS. When you buy your Blue Lagoon round trip, you don't have to commit to exact times. Instead you can use them stay as long or as little as you want as they have buses that leave every 60-90 mins from Blue Lagoon. As I said we ended up staying 8 hours and took full advantage of the lagoon, swim up bar, sauna, steam room, cafe, restaurant, etc.
Days 3-4 - should be paired together
DAY 3 - SOUTH RING ROAD / VIK. We rented a car within the city and went on the South Ring Road. We were gonna spend the night in Vik which is about a 2.5 hour drive from the city. On the way to Vik, we stopped at SKOGAFOSS. http://www.tripadvisor.com/Attraction_Review-g608884-d555031-Reviews-Skogafoss-Skogar_South_Region.html. It is an amazing waterfall and you can actually hike alongside it and go upstream from Skogafoss for another hour plus as there are so many beautiful smaller waterfalls higher up. We then headed south to Vik. Vik is a very small town but in close proximity to many natural attractions. We explored the black sand beaches and Dyrholaey Beach in the evening. If you need to do some quick shopping, we definitely recommend the factory store of Icewear clothing in VIk. We stayed at Icelandair Vik Hotel which was great. http://www.tripadvisor.com/Hotel_Review-g189978-d6463400-Reviews-Icelandair_Hotel_Vik-Vik_South_Region.html
DAY 4 - SOUTH RING ROAD / VIK. As we were headed back towards Reykjavik, we stopped and spent a few hours at Myrdalsjokull Glacier http://www.tripadvisor.com/Attraction_Review-g189978-d1236234-Reviews-Myrdalsjokull_Glacier-Vik_South_Region.html. You don't have to pay for a formal tour, you can just park your car and walk up on the edges of this huge glacier. A tongue of this glacier is within a 10 min drive of the South Ring Road. This glacier area was amazing as it was mix of green moss, large ice, water, and mist as you are on the edge of the glacier. As we went further back towards Reykjavik we stopped by two other amazing waterfalls SELJALANDSFOSS (where you can go behind the waterfall) and then a smaller waterfall a 10 min walk from Seljalandsfoss that less people know about GLJUFRAFOSS (which you can go into a cave as the water streams around you! http://www.tripadvisor.com/Attraction_Review-g189952-d555030-Reviews-Seljalandsfoss-Iceland.html and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Glj%C3%BAfrafoss. Lastly on the way back to our place in Reykjavik for the night we stopped at TACOBELL on the outskirts of the city because the wifey is obsessed with Taco Bell. We did give up the rental car at this point when we got back to Reykjavik.
DAY 5 - Today was a lazy day as we continued to explore the city and spent time checking out Hallgrimska Church, drinking and playing board games at Kex Hostel, eating at the many restaurants, and enjoying the hot tub at our AirBnB.
DAY 6 - GOLDEN CIRCLE. It is definitely a must do. We did not want to rent another car at this point and booked our only tour of the trip. We used GTI (Gateway to Iceland) and they were great. http://www.gtice.is/ On our initial research we would have done this tour with either GTI or Horizon tour http://icelandhorizon.is/ companies. I mean this is a must do and we had given the rental car up at the end of Day 4 so we opted for a tour group. It is actually a lot of driving between all of the sites so it was nice to do it with a tour group. We saw the following: THINGVELLIER NATIONAL PARK, GULFOSS, GEYSIR/STROKKUR, and FAXI WATERFALLS. All of it was amazing.
Thingvellier National Park is a beautiful national park with sweeping views and is the site of the meeting of the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates. You can scuba here if you chose as a separate excursion.
Gulfoss - another huge amazing waterfall. You get spoiled in Iceland where each waterfall bests the former waterfall. At the Gulfoss Information center, there is a cafe that you can stop in. Believe it or not, they have an all-you-can eat lamb stew which is great.
Strokkur/Geysir - Strokkur erupts every 5-10 mins and we spent 45 mins there just admiring it. You are guaranteed to see a few eruptions.
Faxi Waterfalls - a quick stop by at the end of the tour
DAY 7 - Another lazy day exploring the city before we flew out
We hope you enjoy it all!