Iceland is one of those places I had often dreamed of, yet knew very little about prior to my visit in May of 2018. I have a habit of routinely checking flight prices all around the world – I used to do this to pass the time at work, when I should have been, you know, working. One day, one of my best friends and fellow coworker came up to my desk and said “Is that $250 direct to Iceland”? (R.I.P. WOW air.) So, lured by too-good-to-be-true airfare, and the willing spontaneity of a like minded travel companion, we booked ourselves a long weekend to the Land of Fire and Ice.
Admittedly, I did very little research prior to planning this trip. I didn’t so much as think about the best time of year to visit, what I wanted to see and do, or any costs beyond my airfare. I may be stating the obvious here, but your experience in Iceland will be VERY different depending on the time of year you visit – I highly recommend thinking about this before booking flights. For summer travel, July and August are the busiest months, with long daylight hours and the calmest weather. May and June are also a good time to visit, with fewer tourists and better rates, albeit less predictable weather. Bear in mind, the weather in Iceland is notoriously fickle and can truly never be anticipated – so hope for the best, be prepared for the worst, and just know that the weather never stays the same for long.
With only 5 days, we decided to split our time between Reykjavik and the Snaefellsnes Peninsula. If you have more time, I highly recommend completing the Ring Road, which circles the island and requires at least 7 days. For most first time visitors, renting a car in Iceland is not necessary, especially if you plan to base yourself in Reykjavik. As we planned to travel to the Snaefellsnes Peninsula, we opted to rent a car, which cost approximately $150 for the 5 day rental. I am not sure how this compares to the average rental car cost in Iceland – as it was lower than I would have expected compared to the cost of everything else. Depending on where you’re traveling from, you will likely need to obtain an International Driver’s License in advance. This can be taken care of at your local AAA.
If you are traveling in winter, or if renting a car is cost prohibitive, there are other options for getting around (public transportation, taxis, organized tours, etc). I will say, Iceland is one of the easiest countries to navigate in a rental car – there is one main road which circles the island, aptly named Route 1 – more commonly known as the aforementioned Ring Road. The road is well paved, easy to traverse, and will likely take you to wherever you plan on heading.
Days 1-3 – Reykjavik
First things first, after arriving at Keflavik Airport stop at the duty free shops to pick up any alcohol you may want for your trip. If you are like me, and enjoy drinking wine most evenings when traveling then I cannot stress this enough – STOP AT THE DUTY FREE SHOPS! Alcohol in Iceland is not only really expensive, but difficult to purchase as it can only be sold at government authorized liquor stores. These stores are few and far between, and only open for a few hours a day, at varying times. We heard a few jokes about how nobody in Iceland was paying their taxes, to which the government accounted for by adding the missing tax payments to alcohol sales. I’m not sure how much truth there is to this, but just buy wine, beer, etc at the airport and thank me later. 🙂
Located on the Reykjane Peninsula, Keflavik Airport is approximately 30-45 minutes south of Reykjavik. Like much of Iceland, the area is known for its unique geological qualities, including boiling mud pools, lava fields, volcanic craters, and no doubt most famously – the Blue Lagoon. Ahh, the infamous Blue Lagoon — whatever my imagination conjured up about the Blue Lagoon, it was not true. I tend to be skeptical of overhyped tourist attractions, and am always always on the lookout for the ‘away-from-the-crowds-alternative’, but this was not that – honestly, the Blue Lagoon lives up to the hype!
As the Blue Lagoon is located near the airport (and out of the way from pretty much everything else), it makes sense logistically to make a visit to the Blue Lagoon either the first or last stop of your trip. This is especially true if you decide to forgo renting a car as you can book a tour that will include transportation to/from the airport to your accommodation in Reykjavik with a stop at the Blue Lagoon for approximately $30 per person (Blue Lagoon entrance not included).
Impatient as I tend to be, we opted to make the Blue Lagoon our first stop of the trip. Regardless of your preference, you must reserve your entrance well in advance as the tickets always sell out – you can do this directly on the Blue Lagoon website. There are different entrance packages available ranging from the most basic to a luxurious overnight stay – needless to say, this was far out of reach for us! We opted for the “Premium” entrance, one step up from the most basic, which included a timed entrance to the lagoon, 2 face masks, a ‘welcome’ glass of champagne, a reservation at the fine dining restaurant overlooking the lagoon (with another glass of champagne included), and use of a towel/bathrobe. The basic package does not include the lunch reservation, nor use of a towel, but you can bring your own. Regardless of your choice, plan to shower after soaking in the lagoon as the minerals can leave you feeling sticky if not washed off. While costly, I would recommend the Premium ticket as the best value choice for most travelers.
Now – the actual lagoon experience was so much more than I could imagine. Since the entrance is timed and limited to only so many people, we never felt like it was too crowded and we were easily able to find a quiet area to immerse ourselves in the misty blue surroundings. *Cue* welcome glass of champagne and we could not have been having a better time – honestly, can you think of anything more enjoyable than sipping on a glass of bubbly while soaking in one of the most unique natural attractions in the world? Before long, it was time to enjoy lunch at the stunning Lava restaurant, overlooking the lagoon. Aside from a second glass of champagne, the food is not included with your ticket. The menu was typical of Iceland – lamb, cod, etc and the prices were on par with other nice restaurants in Reykjavik. If you are on a tighter budget, there is also a snack bar available with lighter options.
Thrilled by our visit to the Blue Lagoon, we set off for Reykjavik brimming with anticipation for what was yet to come. While Reykjavik is the largest city in Iceland, it is not a very large city, home to only about 150,000 people. As such, it is most easily experienced by foot and you’ll find the highest concentration of museums, restaurants, bars, etc located in the city center. I recommend staying as central as possible, though it would be hard to end up too far out of the way. If the price is right, and the amenities meet your needs, make the booking before someone else does! We paid approximately $100 USD/night for a private room/bathroom inside what was essentially a five room boutique hotel available via Airbnb. The room was very basic, but when traveling on a budget, basic is all I need. As always, the earlier you book, the more options you will have!
I have never heard of anyone traveling to Iceland for the food – think fermented shark and hot dogs (more on this later). Eating out is expensive (as are groceries), and there is a striking resemblance among restaurant menus – i.e. ‘Will you be having lamb or cod?’. That being said, most everything is locally sourced and prepared with care. With only two nights in Reykjavik, we decided to eat out both nights. I was delighted to find Mat Bar – an unassuming restaurant loved by locals in the heart of downtown. Inspired by his Venetian grandmother, the chef describes his ever-changing menu of small plates as Nordic-Italian fusion. This was one of the more memorable meals of the trip, and a nice diversion from more traditional Nordic preparations (i.e. lamb and cod). On another night, we dined at Matur og Drykkur, which literally translates “Food and Drink”. (Icelandic people are not known for their use of descriptive language.) Here we opted for the tasting menu and were delighted by an approachable, yet elevated presentation of traditional Icelandic cuisine, all at a relatively palatable cost. If your budget allows, you may choose to book a table at Dill, widely regarded as the best restaurant in Reykjavik, as well as Iceland’s only Michelin star restaurant. Conversely, the most cost effective choice in all of Iceland will always be the infamous Icelandic hot dog, made with a blend of lamb, pork, and beef, and served with sauces that resemble ketchup and mustard, but do not taste like ketchup and mustard. There are countless hot dog stands all over the country, including at the more popular attractions, gas stations and grocery stores. As is often the case with any local specialty, there are differing opinions on which is the best. I can vouch for Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur, which literally translates “The City’s Best Hotdog”. While we initially did not pay much attention to Iceland’s hot dog craze, I’ll admit that I purchased a bottle of not-quite-mustard “special sauce” at the airport before heading home.
Best Restaurants in Reykjavik:
- Mat Bar
- Matur of Drykkur
Despite the high cost of drinking, and my recommendation to buy alcohol at the airport, I highly recommend leaving room in your budget for at least one night out in Reykjavik. Icelandic people are notoriously friendly, hilarious, and in our experience eager to engage with tourists. Really, someone will likely strike up a conversation before you even have the chance to order a drink. I recommend starting the night at Lebowski Bar, inspired by the Dude, and famous for having 24 varieties of White Russians. If you’re feeling lucky, you can pay 200 Kroner (approximately $20 USD), to spin the “Wheel of Fortune”, which will award you anything from absolutely nothing, to 6 pints of beer, to a White Russian. I’m usually not one to gamble, but I was eager to join in the fun, and decided to give it a go. I was awarded 6 pints, which were promptly poured and lined up in front of me. It seemed we were well positioned to make 4 new friends, and the favor was later returned by another winner. All in all, the Lebowski Bar was one of the more entertaining and lively places I’ve had the pleasure to imbibe. Later on, we ventured to Gamla Bio, a lively rooftop cocktail lounge with one of the best views of Reykjavik. We were soon approached by yet another rowdy group of friendly locals. They were quick to inform us of the momentous occasion – unbeknownst to us, we were in town during the Eurovision song contest, and Iceland had made the semi-finals for the first time in several years, evidently shocking much of the nation and providing cause for celebration. This was before the Will Ferrell movie, which was strangely accurate based on what I experienced. Anyways, it was here we learned about the ÍslendigaApp, an app created by the government to help two people decide if they are too closely related to spend the night together… the official slogan is “Bump the app before you bump in bed.” (Years of isolation from the rest of the world has resulted in a small genetic pool and a bit of a problem with inbreeding.) A couple demonstrated for us, and said “see, we’re approved since we’re only second cousins”. So, yeah, that’s Iceland for you.
Top Things to See and Do
From Reykjavik, there are two main driving routes that will lead you to some of the country’s most iconic natural wonders, known as the “The Golden Circle” and the “South Shore”. I highly recommend planning a day for each route, either with a tour group or on your own. If you decide to book a tour, keep in mind that cheaper does not necessarily mean better. There are A LOT of tour companies running these tours and most try to book as many people as possible, dropping people off at each stop as basically a glorified shuttle service. I strongly recommend Your Day Tours, a family owned company that prides themselves on offering small group immersive excursions at a competitive price. These day tours will likely be the highlight of your trip!
If you opt to self drive, just keep in mind that beyond Reykjavik, Iceland becomes very sparsely populated, very quickly. Make sure to eat a big breakfast and have a full tank of gas before heading out of town.
The Golden Circle
The Golden Circle is the most popular day trip from Reykjavik, and for good reason. Starting from Reykjavik, in a span of approximately 8 hours, The Golden Circle will take you on a circular route to see a handful of Iceland’s most impressive geological wonders: Faxi (waterfall), Gullfoss (waterfall), Geysir (hot spring), and Þingvellir National Park.
Perhaps most impressive, Þingvellir National Park is the only place on Earth where you will find tectonic plates visible above the Earth’s surface. Iceland is divided by the Mid-Atlantic Rift, meaning it is technically split between two continents with half of the country belonging to the North American tectonic plate, and the other half belonging to the Eurasian plate. This is likely your one and only opportunity to walk beside tectonic plates, or if you’re looking for a truly ‘only in Iceland’ experience you can book a tour to snorkel between them! This highly sought after excursion books up well in advance, so be sure to plan ahead if this is important to you! If you opt to self drive the Golden Circle, I recommend stopping for lunch at Friðheimar, a restaurant/farm well known for the multiple varieties of tomatoes they have cultivated. You’ll be seated in their greenhouse, for a truly immersive experience. If you were ever going to order a Bloody Mary with lunch, this is the time to do so.
The South Shore
Believe it or not, the South Shore Tour visits the Southern Shore. If you book an organized tour, you’ll visit Seljalandsfoss (waterfall), Skógafoss (waterfall), Sólheimajökull (glacier), and Reynisfjara (black sand beach). It’s very doable to self-drive and visit these places on your own. You’ll want to leave early to beat the tour busses, and should plan to be gone for about 8-10 hours. Seljalandsfoss is the closest stop from Reykjavik, though I recommend driving to the furthest point first (Reynisfjara), and working your way back. Doing it this way, you’ll likely arrive to find the Black Sand Beach all to yourself, and will have a better chance of seeing rainbows at the waterfalls in the afternoon when the sun is higher in the sky. If you do get hungry, not to worry, there is a snack stand at both waterfalls (hot dogs) and a cafe at the black sand beach. We opted for lunch at the cafe where we spent $18 each on a bowl of soup, $10 on a can of coke(!), and surprisingly, $5 on a can of beer.
Additional Reykjavik attractions:
- Whale Watching
- Reykjavik Food Walking Tour
- Perlan Museum + bonus – great view of Reykjavik
- Hallgrimskirkja – the largest church in Iceland with the best view of Reykjavik
- Icelandic Phallological Museum – Yes, this is real.
- Eimverk Distillery
Days 4-5 – Snaefellsnes Peninsula
While we didn’t have enough time to complete the Ring Road, we knew we wanted to get out of Reykjavik for a night or two. We soon realized that beyond Reykjavik, accommodation options are sparse – we found a lot of luxury options, a few very basic options, and not a lot of in between. While I am all for basic, we wanted to be sure we were choosing a good location for you know, adventuring. We decided on spending 2 nights at the Hotel Budir located on the Snaefellsnes Peninsula, which is about 90 minutes Northwest of the city. The hotel boasts “Remote Luxury” and to this day, I can’t say I’ve had a better hotel experience. While the rooms are very basic, the communal lobby boasts floor to ceiling windows showcasing the stunning surroundings. There is also an onsite restaurant, offering an elevated dining experience with your choice of, you guessed it – lamb or cod. We paid approximately $200/night for our 2 night stay.
While we expected Snaefellsnes to be less touristy than the other places we had visited, we were truly surprised by just how few people we encountered. Over the course of the two days we were able to cover the entire Peninsula. The highlight for us was hiking between the villages of Hellner and Arnastapi, which took us about 2 hours round trip. The coastal hike leads you through a seemingly endless lava field. We were delighted by the scenery and found the contrast of colors in our surroundings striking. If you are daring, you may wish to walk out onto Gatklettur, known as the “Arch Rock”, carved by the sea. Other highlights of the Peninsula included the Kirkjufellsfoss Waterfall, the infamous Orange lighthouse, and Rauðfeldsgjá (hidden waterfall). We had planned to hike Kurkjufell Mountain, but the route was still covered in snow at the time of our visit. All in all, Snaefellsnes was the highlight of our trip and I highly recommend making a visit here!
On our first night, we planned to have dinner in Grundarjordur, the largest of the Peninsula’s fishing villages. A combination of no cell signal, long daylight hours, and the most striking landscape we had ever laid eyes to, had us searching for dinner, well… evidently past dinner time. The few options available were all closed and we had trouble finding so much as a hot dog. To avoid being similarly inconvenienced, I would recommend packing a few snacks prior to leaving Reykjavik – you likely won’t regret it. On our last night, partially due to our struggle the night prior, we decided to ‘splurge’ on dinner at our hotel and sought a bottle of wine to accompany our last meal. Despite having been in Iceland for some time, we were still struck by the prices – $100+ for a mass market bottle that would cost $10 back home. (Stop at the duty free store!) But, being our last night and all, we purchased the cheapest bottle on the list (still over $100), and told ourselves we would come more prepared next time.
We were delighted to find the sun still shining when we had finished eating and decided to take what remained of our wine to go for a (not quite) midnight stroll through a lava field, because where else in the world can you do that?
Leaving our hearts (and all our money) behind us, it was time to bid farewell to Iceland. All in all this was one of the most fun and unique places I have visited to date. I hope this post inspires your own Icelandic adventure!