Now that I’ve gone to Iceland, I’d consider myself an expert planner. Our trip was amazing with only a few things having gone not perfectly.
- It was cloudy at night so we never got to see the Northern Lights.
- We got a speeding ticket for driving 6 km/h over the speeding limit. Don’t speed; they’re serious about it.
- We should have booked a hotel outside of Reykjavik for a night or two and I’m about to explain why.
If you can find 3 full days to stopover in Iceland, here’s how to spend it.
If you arrive between 10am and 5pm, pick up a rental car (we used Alamo and were very happy), and head straight for the Sky Lagoon. I highly recommend the Pure Package which includes a seven-step ritual.
- Step 1: Lagoon with a swim up bar, waterfall and views of the sea
- Step 2: Glacier fresh pool which looks like a hot tub but is cold, though I’d guess the temperature is closer to cold tap water than ice water
- Step 3: Magical sauna where you’ll enjoy breathtaking views through the largest single window in Iceland
- Step 4: Cold fog mist is refreshing after your body is warmed from the sauna
- Step 5: Body scrub which does not involve being touched by strangers; you apply it yourself
- Step 6: Steam opens your sinuses and pores and melts the body scrub, moisturizing your skin
- Step 7: Gentle shower to remove the remnants of the body scrub before going back to the lagoon
Don’t forget to book a few days in advance. I’d recommend being at the lagoon for sunset if you can time it that way. I enjoyed the experience so fully that I didn’t take a single picture, but one of the employees who is presumably there pretty regularly, came and took a snapshot of the view while we were in the sauna. It’s that magical.
Overnight in Reykjavik
We stayed at Þingholt by Center Hotels which was absolutely fantastic, right down to the included breakfast. They even provided all the old school hotel freebies such as shower caps, sewing kits, shoe polish kits… The only downside is that they do not have their own parking lot and street parking was impossible to find so we ended up parking at a nearby parking deck, which honestly made getting in and out of town much easier.
We had dinner at the famous hot dog stand, Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur.
Other dinner suggestions include:
- Matur og Drykkur, a traditional Icelandic restaurant that offers a seasonal 6-course dinner experience.
- Fish Company, where each item on the dinner menu pays its respects to a different place and a corresponding ingredient around the world, from Spain’s chorizo and France’s truffles to Mexico’s chipotle and the United States’ apples. You’ll also find Icelandic ingredients (reindeer, cod, salmon, lamb, and more) at each dish’s core.
- Grillmarkaðurinn has a seasonal menu that focuses on infusing dishes with unique flavors brought on by smoke, wood, and coal, using meat and produce from local farmers.
- Skál! is located in Hlemmur Mathöll, an old bus station turned food hall and is known for it’s take on combining seasonality, high quality food and drinks in a casual setting at fair price point. And it’s yummy.
Oh, and don’t forget dessert at Omnom Chocolate Ice Cream Shop.
In the morning, pick up coffee and pastries from Brauð & Co and then hit the road by 9am.
Þingvellir National Park
To be honest, Þingvellir National Park was my least favourite stop on the entire trip, but it breaks up the drive nicely. The “Þ” is pronounced “th” and you’ll get to see where Icelandic laws were made and legal disputes resolved from 930-1262. You’ll also get to see Almannagjá, the gorge that defines the eastern edge of the North American tectonic plate. If you wanted to stay longer, there are plenty of opportunities for hiking, fishing, and horseback riding.
If you only have a couple days in Iceland, I recommend not spending more than an hour here, and most importantly, make sure you leave by 11am sharp as that’s when it gets slammed with tour buses.
Laugarvatn Fontana Geothermal Baths has some relaxing pools of various sizes and temperatures, steam baths, a sauna, a cold lake surrounded by a black sand beach, and hot and cold snorkeling opportunities. They also have a hotel where you can fall asleep to the sound of trickling spring water so this could be a nice spot to stay and extra night if you want.
But the real reason to stop here is for the geothermal bakery. If you left Þingvellir by 11am like I told you to, you’ll arrive here right on time for the 11:45 experience which you should book a few days in advance.
What does it involve? A walk down to the beach to dig up a pot of fresh bread from the black sand. The bread bakes over 24 hours using geothermal heat. And you get to eat it hot, from the ground, with Icelandic butter and a slice of smoked trout.
Strokkur and Geysir
Your next stop is the Geysir Hot Spring Area. Strokkur and Geysir are both geysers. Geysir is where the word geyser comes from and is generally inactive except after earthquakes. Strokkur erupts every 5-10 minutes, shooting boiling water 80-130 feet into the air. Compare that to Old Faithful, which erupts every 30-100 minutes and shoots water 80-180 feet in the air.
There are also a number of boiling mud pits in the area so you’ll have a hard time being bored.
Gullfoss translates to Golden Waterfall. It is a large two-tier cascading waterfall that cumulatively plunges 105 feet into a ridiculously deep crevice. It is the largest volume waterfall in Europe so expect a generous amount of chilly spray if you try to get close.
There is a fairly large visitors center here so it’s a good place to grab a snack or some souvenirs.
Faxi Waterfall is the most “off the beaten path” sight on this itinerary. There was only one other vehicle there when we visited but somehow a parking attendant was working to collect parking fees. You have the option of either walking or driving down a short gravel road from the main parking lot to see the falls.
One unique thing about this waterfall is that a salmon ladder has been added beside it to help fish swim up the falls. About 400 salmons breed in this river every year.
At this point, you should be more than ready for some food so make sure to make reservations weeks ahead of time for 3:30pm at Friðheimar Tomato Restaurant. This is a restaurant with a menu featuring tomatoes and located in the greenhouse where they’re grown. It is a delicious experience and you can also learn a little about agriculture in Iceland, which is not a crazy as you might think.
If you arrive early or fail to get a reservation, you can still order drinks from the bar. Think green or red tomato beer, schnapps served in a hollowed out tomato, various interpretations of a Bloody Mary, or an espresso drink with tomato syrup.
If you get a table, you’ll be surrounded by tomato plants, and will have a basil plant and herb scissors at your table. Start with the tomato soup, which is self serve, and comes with a buffet of delicious home baked bread. Other options to round out your meal include pasta, flatbread, mussels, and burrata, all featuring tomatoes. For dessert, consider cheesecake with green tomato jam, tomato ice cream, green tomato and apple pie, or 3 types of sorbet.
The Secret Lagoon
I made the mistake of heading back to Reykjavik at this point, but what I should have done was make reservations at the Secret Lagoon for 6pm. The Litli Geysir spouts every few minutes and along with a couple other hot springs, provides the water supply for this lagoon which claims to be the oldest swimming pool in Iceland.
It was renovated a few years ago but was kept natural and simple for an authentic Icelandic experience.
Overnight at Klettar Tower
Klettar Tower is a hotel in an old lighthouse. We did not stay here so I don’t have first hand experience, but I’ve heard great things. From what I understand, there are 4 rooms, each taking up one floor of the tower and containing one bed along with bathroom and kitchenette. The whole top floor is a 360 degree windows with great views and the potential to watch the Northern Lights.
If you’re not able to get a reservation here, find another hotel near the Secret Lagoon to spend the night.
Since you were clever and spent the night at Klettar Tower or another nearby hotel, you’ve only got an hour drive to Seljalandsfoss instead of a two hour drive from Reykjavik. I’d suggest getting an early start either way.
Seljalandsfoss is a special waterfall because you can walk behind it to see it from a different angle. You will get wet.
If you follow the fairly flat trail along the bottom of the waterfall for about 10 minutes possibly exploring a few little caves along the way, you’ll find Gljufrabui. Gljufrabui is a hidden waterfall in a narrow canyon that cascades into a pool. In order to see this one, you have to wade through the shallow pool or attempt to balance on stepping stones to get into the canyon. You will get wet.
If you’ve eaten all of the pastries you brought with you from Reykjavik, you can grab pastries or a sandwich, and a hot or cold beverage from the snack bar here.
Skógafoss is your next stop and if you’ve noticed the suffix “foss” in several of the names, congratulations, you’re learning Icelandic. It means waterfall.
Skógafoss is magical because it has a rainbow which you can walk through to enter another dimension.
There’s a staircase you can climb to get a view from the top of the falls. If you continue along that trail, you’ll come across 7 more waterfalls in less than 45 minutes.
Sólheimajökull is a glacier that you can experience up close and personal. There are 3-hour tours that you can book to actually hike up on the glacier with ice picks, helmets, and crampons if you have time to add an extra night to your trip.
However, if you don’t book a tour, there are signs that suggest that going beyond the black ice area that is covered in volcanic ash is not an intelligent idea without and experienced guide. That said, you can still get a great view of the glacier, see the ice floating in the lagoon, and hike on some of the volcanic ash covered ice.
I hate sand, so to be honest, a beach with any colour sand is still a beach, and therefore does not excite me. However….
This black sand beach is incredibly cool. First of all, the volcanic sand is fairly course and doesn’t get in your shoes. But also, the rock formations at the beach are the star of the show.
Overnight in Vik
We did not make it to Vik, due to wanting to get back to Reykjavik before it got dark. Depending on your schedule and energy level, you may also want to skip it, but I’d suggest you spend the night here.
Sólheimasandur Plane Wreck
Because of our schedule, we also missed the Sólheimasandur Plane Wreck. After parking, it’s a 40-60 minute walk to the sight and then 40-60 minute walk back, so it’s a longer stop than most, and you cannot see it from the road or parking lot.
What you’d see is a US Navy plane that according to US records, ran out of fuel during a crazy Icelandic storm and crash landed on the beach on November 24th, 1973. But eyewitness accounts and local media say it had already crashed on November 21st. Either way, all five crew members survived, supposedly uninjured.
Also, it was apparently in a Justin Bieber music video. The pictures I’ve seen make it look like a worthwhile stop.
Ok, so picture a volcano, but instead of bubbling lava, there’s a blue lake in the crater. And also the slopes of the volcano are vibrant red, apparently because of excessive iron deposits. And there is weird yellow moss and some green plants. It’s an amazing explosion of colours.
You can walk all of the way around the top of the crater and also descend down to the lake for different views.
Take an interesting route back to the city and drive past Nesjavallavirkjun. It’s a geothermal steam power plant that produces about 50% of all the hot water in the capital area, which is otherwise used to heat homes and swimming pools. The rest of your drive back to Reykjavik follows the path of the pipes that carry the hot water to the city.
The steam is also conducted into steam turbines to generate electricity in a sustainable way with the lowest carbon footprint in the world.
If this happens to be an area of particular interest to you, you could also visit the the Geothermal Energy Exhibition at the nearby Hellisheiði Power Plant.
Find yourself some dinner and fall asleep to the sounds of the city. If you didn’t already go to the Sky Lagoon, you should definitely go in the morning if you have time.
A few notes:
- Drive time from Reykjavik to Klettar Tower is 2h 41 min. Drive time from Klettar Tower back to Vik is 2h 18 min. And drive time from Vik back to Reykjavik is 3h 21 min.
- Expect to spend more or less an hour at each stop unless you want to spend a little extra time somewhere.
- You can see most of the sights from the parking lot or even the road. You’ll get a better view if you get out and walk 5 minutes. They almost all offer options to add some hiking to see different views of the same sight or additional sights. So basically it should be an enjoyable trip for all abilities and energy levels.
- The majority of the stops I’ve suggested have bathroom facilities where you can wash your hands with warm or sometimes hot water.
- Many also have restaurants or snack bars where you can grab a bite to eat.
- A few have parking or entrance fees.
Here are the driving directions with each stop from Reykjavik to Klettar Tower
And here are the driving directions with each stop from Klettar Tower to Vik
And finally, the driving directions from Vik back to Reykjavik.