Planning our Iceland vacation was the hardest travel prep I’ve ever done – there were so many amazing places we wanted to fit into our schedule with only a limited amount of time. A lot of people said before we went that you needed two weeks to truly see everything you should see in Iceland. While that may be true – there are a few things we couldn’t fit in but wanted to – you can check almost everything off of your Iceland bucket list while only taking one week off of work. Below is our 8-day itinerary including what we accomplished, what we cut out in-the-moment, and how long we spent at each location.
DAY 1: Arrival, Blue Lagoon, Reykjavik
We took a red eye direct to Reykjavik which was supposed to land at 6:30 a.m. Due to delays on the previous flight arriving from Iceland to DC, we ended up not getting into Keflavik Airport until 9:30 a.m. This was the first of what would become many delays that we experienced in the airport. Upon arriving, we waited on the runway for a gate to open for about 30-45 minutes. Then, once making our way through the airport we spent an hour waiting in line for our rental car. We used Budget/Avis (these counters are combined) and this was the longest rental company line in the airport. Probably because they offer rental cars for a steal – we paid only $400 for 9 days and were given a brand new car for the week! On our return flight to DC, our plane was delayed for an hour waiting for passengers with connecting flights to make it into the country and to the gate. IcelandAir is no American Airlines (but I think that’s a good thing, right?). Keflavik also seems to be at its max capacity, as most of our issues were bottlenecks on the runway rather than inefficiencies with check-in/security. Case in point: a bus had to drive us to what was the equivalent of a cul-de-sac off of the runway to meet our departing plane.
Blue Lagoon (2 hours)
After finally getting our rental car, we hit the road and headed straight for the Blue Lagoon. Blue Lagoon is in between Reykjavik and Keflavik Airport, so it’s one of the those stops that’s best either just after arriving or right before departing the country. We opted to do it on the first day since the shower and spa would feel especially good after a rough red eye flight in coach. The long airport delays made this stop even better.
We spent about 2 hours at the lagoon – including showering and a coffee break. We arrived on a cold, windy, rainy day. Even though the lagoon waters were warm, they didn’t protect us from the freezing rain that pelted our face. So we only ended up spending about an hour in the water and quickly took a walk on the trails around the lagoon before heading into Reykjavik.
There’s a lot of debate on the web about whether Blue Lagoon is worth it. There are high entrance fees (compared to other hot springs in the country) and it attracts large crowds. Those are the two biggest downsides. But I don’t think it’s over-rated at all. What could be better than soaking in warm water while applying age-reducing face masks and sipping on a variety of delicious beverages? The lagoon is large and, at least in our experience, the only reason you have to be near other people is because you’re grabbing some mud to rub on your face or you’re headed over to get a beverage at the lagoon’s swim-up bar. Otherwise, there’s plenty of room for you to find a little bit of seclusion. I don’t love sitting in water, and really needed other things to keep my interest which is exactly what the Blue Lagoon provided. I absolutely loved the face masks. If it had been a nicer day, I would have spent a few more hours covering my face in silica mud before leaving the lagoon. Plus to had to kind of work to get around the lagoon. The water isn’t very deep in most places so we had fun scambling to get around without letting too much of our bodies go above the water. I know this isn’t what most people want when trying to relax at a hot springs, but it worked for us.
Reykjavik (4 hours)
Our afternoon in Reykjavik mostly involved getting ready for the week ahead. We stopped to get a SIM card (travel tip: buying a pay-as-you-go SIM card is cheaper than renting a GPS or personal WiFi hotspot from the car rental company) and went grocery shopping to get water and a few snacks for the road. We were able to pack in some time to head up to Hallgrimskirkja to catch a view of the city. The one benefit to being there on a cold, rainy day is that the streets were pretty quiet so we were able to get some great shots of the church and city below without having to navigate around a bunch of tourists. When we were in this area again on our last day in Iceland, I was amazed at the number of people surrounding the church early on Saturday morning. Plan for about 30 minutes in this area. There is cool art work and architecture in the church, and great photo opportunities of Reykjavik at the top.
We also made a quick detour down to the water to get a glimpse of this beautiful sculpture on the harbor.
The first night was also my favorite meal in Iceland. While not traditional Icelandic food, Austur India Fjelagid offered the best Indian food I’ve had yet. It was fresh, delicious, and provided a spicy warmth that was comforting on a cold day. In addition to great food, we had excellent service and this was the best decorated restaurant we went to during our trip.
DAY 2: The Golden Circle
The Golden Circle was the perfect way to start our Iceland adventure because it had so many different landscapes and destinations to pack into our itinerary in one day. This is one of those days that’s great whether you’re just visiting on a short stop-over or whether you plan on driving around the country like we did. We saw some of the most unique landscapes along this path, including one of my favorite spots in all of Iceland, Kerið Crater Lake. The Golden Circle is something special, and you can really make the route your own by picking and choosing which sites to visit. I put together a more in-depth post about our journey on the circle, but below is a quick summary of what to expect and how long we spent in each place.
- Leave Reykjavik by 9:00 a.m.
- Þingvellir National Park (~3 hours)
- Lunch at Fridheimar Farm (1-2 hours)
- Strokkur Geyser (1 hour)
- Gullfoss Waterfall (30 minutes)
- Kerið Crater Lake (1 hour)
- Time spent driving: 3 hours
- Stay the night in Selfoss
Þingvellir National Park (3+ hours)
I love national parks and usually they’re places where you could spend days, not just hours, exploring beautiful landscapes. Þingvellir National Park was no exception. Þingvellir is the location of Iceland’s first Parliament, the largest natural lake in the country, and marks the crest of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge which separates North America and Europe. We spent approximately 4 hours exploring, but you could really dedicate a full day here.
One of the big attractions in the park is Silfra, where the tectonic plates that separate Europe and North America meet. While you can dive into the water and actually get close and personal with the plates, we opted to take in the view from above the water.
If you couldn’t tell already, Þingvellir is where we were first introduced to the beautifully blue and clear Icelandic water. I mean, take a look at this waterfall!
Fridheimar Farm (1-2 hours)
Fridheimar is a greenhouse that grows tomatoes and cucumbers using geothermal energy. It also has a restaurant where you can experience the tomato in a variety of forms including soup, Bloody Mary’s, and pasta. We spent about 2 hours here for lunch (there was a 45 minute wait), which took out a big chunk of our day. While it took away from our ability to see an additional site on the Golden Circle, it was well worth it in my opinion. While waiting for our table, we were able to explore the greenhouse as well as meet some of the horses on the property. Lunch was fantastic and just what the doctor ordered to help us get through the remainder of our day.
Strokkur Geyser (1 hour)
Strokkur is located just off of the road. It’s location is home to several geysers, but Strokkur is the most active. They say it erupts once every 8-10 minutes but when we were there it erupted 3 times in a row several times. A stop at the geyser only requires about 30 minutes but we made our visit longer by exploring some of the surrounding landscape. My favorite part of this site was actually the mountain behind the geyser. There was a path to climb to the top where we found blooming lupine, stacked rocks, and some beautiful aerial views. There’s an information center, gift shop, bathrooms, and food near Strokkur, so if you opt to skip Fridheimer this would be a good place to grab lunch before continuing on the Golden Circle.
Gullfoss Waterfall (30 minutes)
Gullfoss is one of Iceland’s most-visited waterfalls and we could see why – you can get close to and have 360 degree views of this powerful waterfall. While not my favorite waterfall of the trip, it’s power is something to witness. We only spent about 30 minutes here and I think it was enough time. You can walk along a path at ground-level or go higher and get a view from the top. The waterfall is right off of the road, so you don’t need extra time to hike there, as is sometimes the case with other waterfalls in Iceland. This is a powerful waterfall, so be sure to go equipped with at least a waterproof jacket.
Kerið Crater Lake (1 hour)
Kerið Crater was one of the most beautiful sites on our entire trip – I will dream about these colors for days. While this could easily be a quick stop on your Golden Circle trip, it really deserves much more time. We saw a tour bus stop here for 5 minutes and couldn’t help but feel everyone failed to really experience Kerið Crater. You can walk all along the top of the crater and then down into it.
DAY 3: Waterfalls, Solheimajokull Glacier, and Vik
Day 3 was hands down our most exhausting day, largely because of the glacier hike, but also because there were so many things to see and do between Selfoss and Vik. This day could have easily gone longer and we only cut things out because we were too tired to continue. However, we were told during our glacier hike that this will be the last summer that they take groups on the glacier because of the rate at which it is melting. So if you visit Iceland in 2017 and beyond, you may not experience the same struggle that we did.
- Leave Selfoss by 8:30 a.m.
- Seljalandsfoss and Gljúfrabúi waterfalls (1.5 hours)
- Solheimajokull glacier hike (4 hours)
- Skogafoss waterfall (30 minutes – 1 hour)
- Dyrhólaey (30 minutes – 1 hour)
- Vik (1 hour)
- Time spent driving: 2 hours
- Stay the night in Vik
Seljalandsfoss and Gljufrabui Waterfalls (1.5 hours)
At first glance, Seljalandsfoss seems like a quick stop. Right off the road, you can see the waterfall from kilometers away. It was almost disappointingly obvious. There’s a path that takes you behind the waterfall which was a unique vantage point that we didn’t experience with any other waterfall.
Just beyond Seljalandsfoss is Gljúfrabúi, one of my favorite waterfalls of the entire trip. It didn’t attract a lot of people, so we were able to explore on our own. You don’t even have to get in your car to visit this waterfall, it’s just a short 5 minute walk from Seljalandsfoss. It was the perfect little mini-adventure and a great way to jumpstart our morning.
Sólheimajökull Glacier Hike (4 hours)
We opted to hike a glacier in Iceland and chose Sólheimajökull because it fit best in our schedule. Other days on our trip were pretty packed and we didn’t feel like we could schedule our day around a pre-booked activity at any other point in the trip. We booked through Icelandic Mountain Guides and really enjoyed the tour – though it definitely tested our strength and endurance. We were in a group of 12 people and spent about 45 minutes preparing to get on the ice, about 2 hours on the ice itself, and then about 45 minutes walking to the glacier and back to the parking lot.
Hiking Sólheimajökull is one thing you could cut out of this day to give yourself more time at some of the other sites. But an Iceland adventure really isn’t complete without getting out onto the country’s namesake environment! We absolutely loved the experience and dedicated an entire post about what to expect during a glacier hike in Iceland.
Skogafoss Waterfall (30 minutes – 1 hour)
This day was filled with waterfalls and they were all right off of Route 1. Did I mention how exhausted we were after the glacier hike? It killed our energy for the day so we got out of the car and just took in a view of Skogafoss from afar. However, you can spend more time walking up a few hundred stairs to get what I imagine is a pretty stellar view of South Iceland.
Dyrhólaey (30 minutes – 1 hour)
Dyrhólaey and nearby Vik were hands down the two locations I was most excited about seeing in Iceland and they didn’t disappoint. Dyrhólaey provides sweeping overlooks of the sea and southern coast. Black sand beaches, dramatic cliff and rock formations, and a fun lighthouse. What more could you ask for? Rumor has it that you can walk along the black sand beach in the below picture, but we didn’t see anyone down there and didn’t have time to explore this for ourselves.
Vik (1+ hours)
Has there ever been a more charming costal town? Okay so coastal towns are notoriously charming, but Vik really takes the cake. The sun was shining, purple lupine were blooming, and there was blue water and black sand as far as the eye could see. We loved every minute and didn’t want the night to end. Fortunately for us, it was summer and the sun never really went down. Case in point: the below picture was taken at 10:00 p.m.
DAY 4: Fjaðrárgljúfur, Svartifoss, Glacier Lagoons
We had a lot planned for the fourth day but only ended up making it to three of the five things we had wanted to. This was partially because we were still recovering from the day before and partially because we spent more time in the first few places we went than we had originally planned. Overall, day 4 was a great day and one that I wish we could relive over and over again.
- Leave Vik by 9:00 a.m.
- Fjaðrárgljúfur (3 hours)
- Svartifoss (2 hours)
- Fjallsárlón Glacier Lagoon (30 minutes)
- Add if time: Jokulsarlon Lagoon, nearby glaciers
- Time spent driving: 4 hours
- Stay the night in Höfn
Fjaðrárgljúfur (3 hours)
Fjadrargljufur is a 100 meter deep canyon with a crystal clear river running through the base and some pretty fantastic hillsides for hiking. You could see Fjaðrárgljúfur in about an hour, but we took time time to just sit and take in all the beauty. We also spent quite a while trying to get the best vantage point for photos. This was another one of those places where we had a hard time capturing the true beauty with a single photo.
Svartifoss (2 hours)
I am kicking myself for not stopping with the hoards of other tourists to get a picture of this waterfall from afar. But I was too impatient to get to the base of the waterfall before they swarmed the area and so I missed my opportunity for the photo. This waterfall was perhaps my favorite adventure. It takes you on a quick 20-30 minute hike through Vatnajökulsþjóðgarður National Park (say that five times fast!), which is filled with lush green trees and shrubs – making the hard, dark lava columns stand out even more. Since I failed to capture a photo of the beautiful surroundings, you’ll just have to go visit for yourself!
On the way to this popular waterfall is a bonus waterfall that stems from the same stream of water. Less people stopped to take a look at this spot, so we had it all to ourselves (and were loving it).
Fjallsárlón Glacier Lagoon (30 minutes)
There are a few glacier lagoons between Vik and Höfn. Jokulsarlon is by far the most popular and is directly off of Route 1. We felt pretty lucky that we just happened to stop at Fjallsárlón right before approaching Jokulsarlon because once we got to the pull off for Jokulsarlon, we were driving in the middle of a dense cloud that prevented us from seeing more than 10 feet in front of the car. We opted to skip this second lagoon rather than wait out the cloud.
It was hard to believe that at this point in the day we were already rounding 9 hours on the road. We opted to take in the view of the glaciers from afar since we had hiked on one just the day before. If you want to make time in your schedule, you could do another glacier hike on this day. The parking lot in Vatnajökulsþjóðgarður National Park was packed with people getting ready to walk out on the ice.
DAY 5: Drive the Eastern Fjords
This was the one and only day that we gave our body a break when in Iceland and I think it was the best thing we could have done in the middle of our trip. For those of us who are used to sitting behind a desk five days a week, it was a little difficult adjusting to the go-go-go nature of our Iceland vacation. However, driving along the Eastern Fjords was the perfect way to still see and appreciate nature while giving our feet a rest.
- This is the one day to sleep in. Embrace it.
- Set your GPS to the following towns, which will take you off of the Ring Road and through the fjords
- Set your GPS to the following towns, which will take you off of the Ring Road and through the fjords
- Time spent driving: Approximately 7 hours
- Stay the night in Egilsstadir
This was also one of the only days we felt like we had the time to take detours or stop at interesting things along the way. We came across some awesome waterfalls that were too good to pass up and had a lot of fun exploring the extremely cute towns we had set our GPS to. Pick a town and have lunch or coffee while looking out at snow capped mountains.
DAY 6 – Hverarönd, Leirhnjukur, Godafoss, Akureyri
Day 6 was where we saw the most unusual scenery in all of Iceland. There were moments where we just stopped and thought we had to have been transported to Mars. If the landscape wasn’t a complete giveaway, you can tell you’re really close to active geothermal activity when your showers have a stronger than usual rotten egg odor.
- Leave Egilsstadir by 8:00 a.m.
- Hverarönd – also referred to as Hverir (30 minutes – 1 hour)
- Leirhnjúkur (2 hours)
- Goðafoss (30 minutes)
- Akureyri (2 hours)
- Optional additional stops if there’s time: Detifoss Waterfall, Myvatn Lake
- Time spent driving: 4 hours
- Stay the night in Akureyri
Hverarönd (30 minutes – 1 hour)
Hverarönd is right off of the ring road and even if it’s not on your list of sites to see, it is hard to resist stopping when you get close to the orange-red mountain and geothermal activity. Despite the wind, this was one of our most photogenic stops in all of Iceland. Is this real? I still can’t believe it.
I think the contrast of the blue sky makes these pictures even more beautiful. But trust me – rain or shine Hverarönd is something to behold. Bubbling mud pits, sizzling waters, cracked red dirt, and sweeping cliffs. It was beautiful.
Leirhnjúkur (2 hours)
Leirhnjúkur is the adventurous version of Hverarönd. It was one of the places where I actually didn’t feel prepared for hike to the main attraction. After about 45 minutes of unsure trecking through snow (yep, snow in June. This is Iceland.) we came across this gorgeous geothermal area where the ground is rumored to be so hot that you have to stay on a raised walking path. The only reason I say rumored is because we didn’t risk testing to see if our shoes melted. Also, as you can see in the picture below, there was an awfully large amount of snow just on the other side of the path.
Leirhnjúkur is only about 10 minutes away from Hverarönd, so this stop doesn’t take you too far off of your route and is worth the visit if you have time. The trail to Leirhnjúkur includes a path around a mountain that provides some pretty amazing views and takes you through lava fields where steam was coming out of some of the piles of stone.
Goðafoss Waterfall (30 minutes)
Goðafoss is another stop that’s right off of the Ring Road and it can be done quite quickly. There are two different turnoffs you can take – one before the gas station and one after. It doesn’t really matter which one you take because there’s a walking path along the cliffs that allows you to easily take in the falls from both sides. I was surprised how close you could get to the top of this waterfall. That’s me just inches away from one of the paths that the water flows through.
Akureyri (2 hours)
The capital of the north, Akureyri is a cool town that deserves at least a few hours of your day. We saw many similarities with Reykjavik, but with a few special surprises. Shopping, dinning, dramatic churches, and some special hidden gems, you could spend a whole weekend in Akureyri, so at least a few hours is a must.
In Akureyri, we spent some time at the botanical gardens. While not the most beautiful gardens we’ve ever visited, the fact that they had so much variety in plant species surviving in Iceland was pretty impressive. It was a peaceful, secluded space that transported us outside of the city and even though we’d been in secluded environments throughout our trip, that is where I feel most zen. Our favorite part was the coffee shop, which was just as beautiful inside as it was outside.
DAY 7 – Snæfellsnes Peninsula: Kirkjufellsfoss Waterfall, Snæfellsjökull National Park, Arnastapi Beach
We knew heading into day 7 that it was going to be the longest day of our trip. Five hours away from Akureyri and another 2.5 hours from Reykjavik, most of our day would be spent just getting to the tip of the Snæfellsnes Peninsula. Depending on where you choose to spend the night depends on how much time you have on the peninsula. We opted to stay in Reykjavik so we could have some more time to explore the city the next day. I can say one thing with absolute certainty: Snæfellsnes was worth spending our second-to-last day of vacation on a 14+ hour adventure.
- Leave Akureyri as early as possible
- Kirkjufellsfoss Waterfall (30 minutes)
- Snæfellsjökull National Park (2-3 hours)
- Arnastapi Beach (1 hour)
- If there’s time: Stykkishólmur and Berserkjahraun
- Time spent driving: 8 hours
- Spend the night in Reykjavik
Kirkjufellsfoss Waterfall (30 minutes)
If you’ve ever seen any picture of Iceland, there’s a pretty high chance you were looking at Kirkjufellsfoss, a waterfall on the Snæfellsnes Peninsula. Worried that we wouldn’t have time to get through the rest of our day, we stayed for only about 30 minutes before continuing on to our next stop. Before heading on, though, we stopped for lunch at the nearby town of Grundarfjörður, which was charming and worth a visit if you have time.
Snæfellsjökull National Park (2-3 hours)
What a wonderful surprise this national park was! Without having any expectations except for a scenic drive, this park blew us away with fields of lava and dramatic coastline. There are tons of pull offs along Útnesvegur (the road that takes you through the park) that led to endless hiking trails and scenic lookouts. I could have spent all day walking along these trails and we begrudgingly pulled myself away knowing that there was a 2.5 hour drive back to Reykjavik ahead of us.
Arnastapi (1 hour)
In Arnastapi, you can head left toward the beach and/or straight for cliffs, dramatic shoreline, and a trail through towering lava stacks. Both are gorgeous and you’ll never want to turn back. If you opt to go straight, the sites will be very similar to those in Snæfellsjökull National Park. Even though it was a stormy evening and we had already spent a few hours in neighboring Snæfellsjökull National Park, Arnastapi still took our breath away. Of all the different coasts I’ve been on, the tip of Snæfellsnes Peninsula is my new favorite shoreline.
DAY 8 – Reykjavik and Horseback Riding
We had originally planned to dedicate our last full day in Iceland to Reykjavik since we only got a taste of the city at the beginning of our trip. However, we decided to embark on a horseback riding tour that took a big chunk out of our day. The Icelandic horses, they are amazing. Never having ridden a horse before, I figured what better place to start than in Iceland with the friendliest horses around! If you have the time in your schedule, I’d recommend considering a horseback riding tour. We did ours with Eldhestar, which was perfect for beginner/novice riders. We were in a pretty large group of about 20 other people, so for those who are more experienced and would like the freedom to roam more, the short riding tour with Eldhestar might not be for you (there are other tours that are longer and include other attractions, such as a hot springs, which may be more adventurous). Eldhestar picked us up at our hotel at 8:15 a.m. and returned us back to our room at around 1:15 p.m.
After getting back from the ride, we set off to see everything we could in Reykjavik. The weather was absolutely gorgeous and warm enough that we could walk around in short sleeves comfortably. It was a nice way to end the vacation, especially since our first day in the city was rather miserable. Our first stop was the Harpa Concert Hall, a building covered in hundreds of panes of glass. Inside, the ceiling is lined with mirrors that reflect the light beautifully. I don’t think I’ve been in a more beautiful arts center.
After a little bit of shopping, we had time for one more activity and headed to Perlan for 360 degree views of the city. On our first day in Reykjavik, we saw the city from Hallgrimskirkja, so this was our chance to see it from a different angle. The best thing about Perlan wasn’t its views though, it was the several kilometers of walking trails around it. I would never imagine that we would find something like this in the middle of the city and it was a real treat! There were lupine blooming, rock scrambles, and a fair amount of trees lining the trails. It would be a great spot for a morning run (that is, if you aren’t too tired from all of the other activities planned for Iceland).
We got one last view of Hallgrimskirkja in the sunlight before ending our last day in Iceland. As you can see, we had a packed week and honestly felt like we could have used a vacation from our vacation. But it was worth every strained muscle and (almost) sleepless nights. Iceland gave us so many good memories to look back on. Whether you visit on a stopover or make Iceland your vacation, it will undoubtedly be one for the books.