The time has finally come: You’re going to Iceland. Maybe it’s as a stopover on the way to Europe, or perhaps Iceland itself is the destination. (As it should be.) Either way, make sure your jaw is screwed in tight, because you’re in for one astounding experience after the next.
That’s because the island sits on a geothermal field. The entire country runs on said energy; you’ve got moss-covered lava fields as far as you can see; and the Northern Lights dance overhead in winter. It’s got black-sand beaches with towering basalt columns, heart-stopping (and heart-warming) waterfalls, butt-warming natural springs, ice caves and lava tunnels, whale watching and puffin spotting, a manmade lagoon that glows blue, and horses so pure and unique that no outside hooves are allowed on the island. Whew. (And there’s more that awaits you yet.)
Here’s an itinerary that should perfectly suit your first visit, assuming it’s 4-ish days in length around Reykjavík. And don’t hesitate to check out Inspired by Iceland’s official guide for a few other ideas—like snowmobiling, camping, and ice cave exploration—especially if you’re visiting for the second time or staying for more than a long weekend. So many things will require more time than your first visit will allow, which is all the more incentive to return. And you will want to return.
How to Get to Iceland
If you haven’t already heard of Icelandair’s Stopover program, well, now you have. It currently connects 23 European gateways with 21 in North America, all through Reykjavík Keflavík International Airport. On your way overseas, you can drop into Iceland at no additional cost to your trans-Atlantic flight, and stay up to seven days while exploring the country. (Or you can just make Iceland the actual destination, as it deserves to be—and for however many days you like.) Might I add that it’s one of the more enjoyable in-flight experiences I’ve had in that it immerses you in Icelandic culture. While eating your Skyr crème brûlée, you can take Icelandic language lessons on your entertainment console, watch locally made films, or listen to music from Icelandic artists (which include far more talents than Björk and Sigur Rós). Best of all, since you could fill two weeks with activities in Iceland, it’s an easy excuse to come back soon.
Where to Stay in Iceland
In Reykjavík, stay at The Canopy by Hilton: There’s no reason to stay anywhere else in Reykjavík: Canopy’s location is unmatchable. Not only is it in the center of town and walkable to everything you might possibly want to see (including being right off the Skólavörðustígur commercial thoroughfare), but it’s also built right on top of Bus Stop 7, which is probably where you’ll get picked up for any organized excursions and tours. This means you won’t be shivering outside as you trek to a bus stop 10 minutes away; instead, just pop out after stuffing your face at breakfast, eager to start the day. There’s a 24-hour fitness center, an onsite restaurant—Geiri Smart, which is even popular with the locals—and a daily happy hour with complimentary drinks in the hotel’s bistro + bar. Plus, since it’s a Hilton property, you know the rooms and suites surpass other options.
For your first or last night, stay at The Retreat at Blue Lagoon: This might be the single best hotel experience I’ve ever had, no embellishment. The Retreat opened in 2018, with a private expansion on the Blue Lagoon, available only to its overnight and day guests. In addition to uninterrupted views of blue-green lava fields and Northern Lights wakeup calls, you’re going to have a honeymoon-level experience at The Retreat. First and foremost, you get to cut out the crowds of the other half of the Lagoon. You get private lava-rock walls that enclose you up until midnight, meaning you might be the last soul in the Lagoon that night. You get unlimited access to the Blue Lagoon’s skincare assortment while in their private spa, so you can take advantage of all-over scrubs, masks, and creams, and even take home the amenities they’ve stocked in your room or purchase more as gifts. Take a bath looking out over the fields, a daytime hike up into the hills, or schedule a private spa appointment, like a massage or in-water therapeutic treatment. You’ll dine at Moss restaurant, their on-site the gourmet, which has a seasonal menu that complements the Retreat’s comforting perfections. (By day, you can replenish at the Spa Restaurant.) The Retreat highly suggests you book your stay for the first or last night of your visit (or only one, if it’s a single-day stopover), since there’s so much bustle in the days between. It’s best to end your trip here, I say, so you can relax and reflect on your entire trip.
What to Do in Iceland
What isn’t there to do? This list could run very long, and could take weeks to conquer if you wanted to give everything its due. Instead, let’s focus on what’s feasible for your first visit. The other thing to note is that seasonality plays a huge role in your experience, and winter offers just as much uniqueness as summer. While you might get less than six hours of daylight in December, you do have good odds of seeing the Northern Lights. Or, change it in for long, sunny days and you’ll get to see puffins diving off the shoreline, plus better odds while whale watching.
You also need to decide between booking your own car and participating in small-group excursions. It could be a good idea to budget your days accordingly, and only book a car when you need one. It’s easy to catch a shuttle from the airport into Reykjavík, and then just rent your car in town for the one or two days you need it.
Most core activities in Iceland will need an entire day. That’s not to say they’ll take up the whole day, but you can’t likely fit another core activity into the spillover time. Use it to explore Reykjavík, instead of dedicating an entire day to the city itself.
The Blue Lagoon: Above any other experience, you’ve got to soak in the geothermal waters of the Blue Lagoon (which are known to calm psoriasis in addition to your aching muscles). It’s a manmade wonder, combining the perfect balance of minerals and algae to create that ethereal blue hue. But know that capacity is limited each day, so you need to book ahead—or reserve a day pass to the onsite Retreat Spa for four hours of spa treatments and private Lagoon access.
The Golden Circle: It’s easy to book a tour for this one, or to navigate yourself. The Golden Circle connects three natural wonders in one relatively easy loop: First is Þingvellir National Park, Iceland’s only UNESCO Heritage Site, where the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates meet. You’ll walk the divide that’s been carved by their union, as well as the glacial springs beneath. It’s all at the foot of the mountains and over a field of lava and moss—and it’s stunning. Next up is Strokkur Geysir, a famed geyser that sits on a bed of geothermal hot springs. Stick around long enough (as in, 10-20 minutes or so) to see it shoot off. You can grab a bite in the food court across the highway before ticking the third box off your checklist: the humbling rapids of Gullfoss waterfall. Whether you’re watching it from overhead or right next to the rushing waters, it’s unlike the equally awesome waterfalls you’ll see on tomorrow’s trek. On the drive home, since there’s a little time to kill, stop at Fontana wellness spa to check out their hot springs and saunas paired with an ice-cold ocean dip, if you’re brave enough. Ask in advance about their bread-making ritual, which involves baking the dough underground on geothermal soil for a full 24 hours. (It tastes great with some Icelandic butter, too.)
Waterfalls, craters, Vik, and black sand beach (puffins TBD): If you can rent a car, at least for a day, I’d recommend it for this lineup. Drive south along the shore from Reykjavík to Kerid Crater lake, then back to the shore to check off the waterfalls: Seljalandsfoss and Skógafoss. The former is more calming (you can even walk behind it), and the latter is jaw-droppingly tall (you can climb right to its peak). Then, try to beat the tour buses to a black-sand beach called Reynisfjara Beach. On a grey winter day, everything will look black and white. On a summer day, you’ll encounter puffins as they dive from the basalt-column cliffs. Stop just before it at Kirkjufjara beach for a wider expanse and higher POV, then finish your afternoon in the polite town of Vik before driving home to Reykjavík for the night. (And while you’re there, grab a bite at Halldorskaffi.)
Raufarholshellir Lava Tunnel: This nearly mile-long, subterranean freak of nature is as wide as 30 meters and as tall as 10 meters. Technically, you could fit a tour into a half day, since it’s just a 30-minute drive from Reykjavík. But, depending on the tour you choose, it’s either a 1- or 4-hour hike once you get going. Really, you should book the longer one, since you came all this way; it takes you into the tunnel’s deepest caves, instead of a more expedited run-through. Or, book an evening hour-long tour to pair with a Northern Lights outing, if the forecast is favorable.
Whale watching: Hit the waters between April and October to see the mammals up close and personal; your best odds are in June. Most tours departing from Reykjavík last just three hours or so; pair it with a lava-tunnel tour, or a walk around the city.
How (and When) to See the Northern Lights in Iceland
The longer the nights, the better your chances of seeing the Northern Lights. They’re most visible between September and March, and of course you need a cloudless night for maximum visibility, too. I suggest downloading either the Northern Lights Aurora Alerts (Apple App Store, Google Play) or My Aurora Forecast & Alerts (Apple App Store, Google Play) to check your odds in a given week or night. You can book your Northern Lights excursions out of town accordingly (since you need to be away from city lights, and since most excursions can plot where and when you’ll have maximum visibility). Be sure your excursion offers free repeat ventures in the event that you miss the lights on your first outing; many will let you try each night until you see something.
What to See and Do in Reykjavík
If you plan to spend a full day or more in the city, consider picking up a Reykjavík City Pass to take advantage of the city’s many attractions. It also includes free transportation on city buses, free access to the city’s thermal pools and saunas, a complimentary ferry ride, plus discounts at many restaurants, attractions, tours, and more.
In addition to much of the above, here’s what to prioritize when you’re in town:
National Museum of Iceland: Icelandic history and culture, curated under one roof. Since you have a million questions, obviously.
Hallgrimskirkja: Viewable from almost everywhere in Reykjavík, this Lutheran church graduates to nearly 75 meters at its center and is the city’s most iconic structure.
Harpa Concert Hall: Catch a concert while you’re in town, or simply stand outside and gawk at the glowing, glassy, architectural marvel.
Sun Voyager sculpture: Resembling a Viking ship, this waterfront sculpture is a symbol of freedom, prosperity, and lands yet discovered.
The Icelandic Phallological Museum: A penis museum. No joke. 280 peens taken from 93 species, 55 of them whales. Check your ego at the door.
Nauthólsvík Beach: Golden sands and geothermal waters, off a south-facing city inlet. Average water temps are as cold as 38 degrees F in winter, and as warm as 66 in the summer.
Skólavörðustígur shopping street: Shop local, snack local, drink local, dine local, get your souvenirs, and replace those gloves you forgot in the taxi.
Where to Eat and Drink in Reykjavík
SKÁL: Pull up a seat at the bar just inside Hlemmur Food Hall for the best meal you’ll have in town. Their cheerful staff will tell you exactly which foods to pair with their natural wines. (But don’t leave without trying the spicy cauliflower, or without ordering a dozen different plates to share.)
The Coocoo’s Nest: Fresh California-style cuisine in a soul-warming space. Order a sandwich on their famous sourdough bread, or come for sourdough pizza Mondays…or taco Tuesdays. Or both.
Dill: Reykjavík’s first Michelin-starred restaurant, on par with other Nordic-manifesto joints across Europe’s upper rim. Serving natural wines in true Icelandic fashion. Book in advance.
Svarta Kaffið: Bread-bowl soup to comfort you on a cold night, or after a long day.
Skúli Craft Bar: All the craft beers, all the time.
Nostra: The hipsters don’t lie: Local-fare Nostra is one of the most popular spots for Reykjavík’s cool kids.
Hagavagninn: Easy eats, hard to imitate. Perfect burgers, wings, and fries to end any day around the island.
Café Loki: Break your fast like a local (though it’s teeming with tourists). Serving traditional Icelandic dishes like smoked trout and lamb, dried fish, rye bread…all high quality and fresh.
Mat Bar: Instagrammable interiors, and an Italian-influenced menu that utilizes local ingredients. (Are you sensing a trend?)
Pablo Discobar: Great cocktails on weeknights. Same on weekends, if you can tolerate the boisterous, horny crowds. (Or maybe that’s perfect for you!)
Bergsson: Traditional Icelandic breakfasts. Get the homemade hummus and sourdough bread.
Bismút: Locally roasted, owner-operated brewery, and hands down the best cup of coffee you’ll get in town. (And that’s really saying something!)
Shellfish Market: This bistro is the first to farm oysters in Iceland. And of those oysters, they’re small, but oh-so sweet.
Kaffibarrin: Cozy for coffee and beers by day, and bustling with locals and tourists by night. A city staple for two decades—and one of the longest running bars in town.