Iceland is such an amazing destination and due to fantastic non-stop flights from certain US airports, many people are able to experience it in a relatively short amount of time. I helped a client plan five nights there, using Reykjavik as a base to explore many of Iceland’s must-sees for first-timers. She loved her trip and graciously wrote up this trip report as a way to help others who may be planning the same vacation. These travelers chose not to rent a car, so this is the perfect itinerary if you’re looking for mini-tour suggestions. Read on for tips on what to do in Reykjavik, Iceland!
- Sunday morning – arrive early and eat breakfast in airport before heading to the Blue Lagoon. In the afternoon, checked in at Hotel Klopp, and picked up some food items for the week at a local store.
- Monday – Golden Circle Tour during the day (about 8 hours), Northern Lights tour at night
- Tuesday – sleep in after late night seeing the Northern Lights! Explored Rekyavik and its main plaza, as well as visiting museums and landmarks.
- Wednesday – South Shore Tour and Glacier Hike
- Thursday – half day Icelandic Horseback riding at Íslenski Hesturinn!
- Friday – sightseeing around Reykjavik and souvenir shopping before 2 pm departure for airport
What it’s like flying with Iceland Air
Although a lot of websites describe Iceland Air as “basic” I enjoyed flying with them – we received fresh “Iceland Glacier” bottled water the second we stepped on the plane, the blankets were super comfy, etc. Each plane is named after a volcano and each seat has an Icelandic saying on it which is fun too!
The Blue Lagoon – Reykjavik, Iceland
I definitely recommend going right from the airport as it was perfect to wake yourself up, also since we were there a few minutes before it opened, we got a good spot in line and managed to grab some of the bigger lockers for our luggage. By the time we left (around 2 pm) it was getting crowded so I definitely enjoyed the fewer crowds in the morning.
Using Bus Travel (they offer an airport pickup service with a stop at the Blue Lagoon) meant a smaller group arriving – right after us came big busloads so it was nice to get there ahead of them. (The Blue Lagoon now requires buying timed tickets in advance to alleviate some of the crowding issue.)
The lagoon itself is super duper relaxing, amazing and iconic of course. There are steam baths and saunas to the side you can go to as well (no extra charge) when you want a break from the water. There is silica mud you can put on your face and also waterfalls which massage your shoulders. There is a café with prepackaged sandwiches as well as a more expensive, upscale restaurant.
The Blue Lagoon has smaller lockers in the shower room that you can store your personal items in. We were glad we brought our own towels since it would have been annoying paying another 5 euro to rent them. You get an electronic bracelet that then is your key to your lockers, keeps track of your drink orders, restaurant spending, etc then you pay at the end. Super convenient!
There are “open” showers and locker rooms (separate for boys/girls though) but it wasn’t a big deal to grab one of the private stalls to shower/change since we were there early. I could see how it would be a longer wait if we were there later.
Hotel Klopp in Reykjavik
The hotel was a great location – in the middle of everything so SUPER walkable and we didn’t have to worry about buses etc. Definitely worth staying in the city center. Everything is much closer than looks on the map though so most places would be considered in the “center.”
I would definitely say the hotel is “basic” compared to budget American hotels. For example, not a lot of storage in the room (no dresser etc), small bathroom with just washroom-style shower so the whole floor gets wet when you shower. If you are a more discerning traveler you may want to look at some of the higher-end hotels, but given that we were never even in our hotel except to sleep, it was fine for our first trip.
The free breakfast was great though and we would fill up before we left each morning. Toast, coffee, lunch meat/cheese, granola and Skyr, etc. Basic but filling. Icelandic butter and jam was soo good on the toast each morning. Iceland can be expensive, so the included breakfast was key here!
The view of the bay from our hotel
Golden Circle Tour from Reykjavik (Bus Travel) – Monday
It was nice to see this right when we arrived, it was also an incredibly nice day with clear weather so we were lucky. Bus Travel picked us up on time and took us around, about 7 people total including us which was nice. I could definitely see how it would be easy to drive on your own, but Bus Travel did a good job giving you enough time at the different stops without giving you too much time.
Our bus driver was friendly and gave us good info. He did a good job getting us places ahead of the giant tour buses, and changed the scheduled slightly when needed.
Northern Lights Tour from Reykjavik
Seeing the Northern Lights is definitely a must do if you’re there during the right time, but keep in mind that it’s nature (so not guaranteed) and it will probably be cold. Plan accordingly! There are so many providers offering this experience, it’s probably not necessary to book ahead of time in my opinion.
Our hotel booked this for us Monday night, we ended up with Reykjavik Excursions. It wasn’t the biggest deal b/c it was a cheaper price, but they are a big bus company so you end up doing a lot of waiting to transfer into a big coach, travelling with a lot of people, etc. I could see how a smaller tour would be nicer if you want to get the personal touch or talk to the guide, but we basically just waited out in a field with them for hours. The Northern Lights came out right when we were about to leave and we watched them for about an hour.
I was glad I wore my waterproof pants as I just sat on the straw and didn’t feel too cold except my hands when I was taking pictures. We didn’t go to bed until 3 in the morning so we slept in that next morning!
Reykjavik Sites and Restaurants
The Pearl – we walked from our hotel, but it took a little bit of time, so keep in mind location if the weather’s bad. We went to the observation deck for the view, but didn’t eat at the revolving restaurant as it was pricier. Instead we went to the Saga Museum which is in the Pearl – it is a history of Iceland basically with wax figures – it only took us 30 minutes to go through so it was nice to do having walked all that way.
Walked to the harbor when we got back to try Icelandic Hot Dogs – very yummy and at $11 for 4 of us, definitely the cheapest thing in Iceland! We got these a couple of times during our stay – you can’t miss out on trying them!!!
Exercise – there are running paths by the bay and through the town which was nice if you wanted to go for a run.
We discovered the “Plaza” which is also in the center of town, with hotels and lots of restaurant options. Looked like a fun place to stay in general – we ended up eating at a pizza/hamburger place as it was cheaper here.
We also went to “Settlement 871 +/-2” which is near the plaza, we also had a small coupon for this which was at our hotel. It is an exhibition about the longhouse they excavated in Iceland, and was a pretty good exhibit and good way to spend an hour or so.
We planned to go to the National Museum of Iceland but never made it – however the brochures looked awesome so I would have definitely gone there if we had had more time. Looked like it was much bigger so could have been at least a half-day or more there.
Went to dinner at “Tapas Barrin” because saw they had a 7-course tapas menu with Icelandic specialties (puffin, whale etc). Our hotel called ahead and made reservations for us. We also had a 15% coupon from one of the visitor’s guides (we used coupons a lot when we could find it). This was pricier – about $50/person but we wanted to try the specialties. It caters to tourists in this regards, so there wasn’t a ton of local atmosphere. Everything was good but in retrospect I probably would have just ordered the separate Tapas individually and we could have shared as a table as the portions would shareable (a couple bits per person) so then we could have gotten specific things we wanted in addition to the more exotic things on the pre-fix menu). The service was also “eh” – they were bringing out 2-3 courses at a time so it felt kind of hurried. And yes, puffin/whale/horse are all on the menu – be prepared!
Another dinner was at “Vegamot” which was a cool restaurant (also had a coupon) and not too expensive. I ended up having lobster soup which was amazing, and we ordered nachos for the table based on Tripadvisor reviews and they were sooo good. (DUCK NACHOS!!)
Spent an evening at Volcano House – they play a movie on the hour every night til 9 PM so we went there our last night, it is 53 minutes long about different volcano explosions (including the famous one) and you can drink beer while watching it. They also have a small (really small) geological exhibit and a little café so it was a nice way to finish off the night.
South Shore and Glacier Hike from Reykjavik
Glacier hike – a must-do!
Iceland Guided Tours was awesome – nice mini-coaches, super friendly guide, on time and very positive overall. I would definitely recommend using them again. In fact we booked our horseback riding through them – just popped into the office and asked them to book it for us when we confirmed our glacier hike for the next day. They even tell you which rest stop to buy your lunch based on the prices and convenience!
During the trip, they pass you off to the glacier hike guides and then come back for you – the other people on the bus go to Vik and see some other sights for a few hours. When we first booked I was worried about missing stuff but I am glad we didn’t book the other tours that also then continued on after the hike – we were really tired afterwards!
The glacier hike was awesome and a must-do in Iceland!!! One of our most memorable days. Our guide, Tomas, was hilarious and also very educational, making sure you understood the nature part and not just the “cool” part. He also made us feel pretty safe – marking spots we shouldn’t walk etc.
When we were up there we saw tourists going up with a guide with no crampons, helmets, etc, and he was very indignant about it. We were also a group of about 10-12 which was perfect – I saw bigger tours with 30 people in a line and that would have been so annoying. When we got to the top it started to snow and he let us stay up for a bit and took our pictures before leading us back down. I would definitely recommend this for anyone going to Iceland as it felt like it encapsulated the whole experience.
On the way back, IG Tours stopped at the two waterfalls, one of which you could walk behind which was fun. By that time it was raining so I was just cold and tired from the hike, so they were good photo opps but then we would get back on the bus to each our lunch and wait for other people.
We were gone from about 9am-1pm and it was AWESOME. I would do this again in a heartbeat.
We booked through IG Tours, which uses “Íslenski Hesturinn – The Icelandic Horse” so we probably could have booked directly as well.
The couple who owns the horse fun were SO MUCH fun to be around. They took an hour to talk to us first about Icelandic horses, how to ride, the tolt, and so on. Totally different from American horseback riding tourism stuff where they just throw you on a sleepy animal and you slowly plod along. They match you up with your horse based on your riding experience and have you hang out with it for a few minutes to make friends before getting on. The horses are small but with lots of personality so they are so fun to ride.
Actual riding time is 1 hour – 1.5 hours and you get to tolt which is so much fun. The tolt is a special gait like a smooth fast jog by the Icelandic horses. They had riders of all experiences with them and it seemed like everyone was super comfortable. You ride in a park next to the farm and they even take pictures for you – they email them to you a week or so later so you have great pics from your trip! (They don’t “ban” cameras on the trip, but they do point out that you should probably pay attention to riding and not photos for safety reason.)
Tips about visiting Reykjavik
The cheapest place to get wool sweaters was the Handknitting Association of Iceland direct stores – still expensive of course but better prices than some of the other wool stores. Supposedly there is an outlet outside Reykjavik if you have a car. Also, the flea market on the weekends is supposed to have the cheapest stuff but since we go there Sunday afternoon we ended up not going. Other than that, there are souvenir places all over Reykjavik, with varying prices for the same stuff over and over again. But they are known for their wool so I suggest investing in some warm sweaters!
There were also several museums and exhibits that we never went to, so there was plenty left for us to do – maybe one more day would have been fine (I guess if we hadn’t slept half the day on Tuesday then that would have sufficed).
We definitely packed the perfect types/amounts of stuff – we were pretty casual and just did jeans the whole time and didn’t feel out of place in restaurants (probably the Pearl would have been dressier if we’d gone).
Waterproof pants were a bonus during the glacier hike and walking behind the waterfall since they also block the wind, and my winter jacket held up nicely – definitely I do not recommend going with just a wool jacket as the weather really does change every ten minutes. We always had hats/gloves just in case and would always use them at some point during the day.
I am glad I had bought a little “waterproof” camera I bought in addition to a nicer camera – it was nice to have a small camera in my pocket at all times and also not worry about it getting wet, etc., if the weather was rainy.
My snowboots were nice and warm for glacier hiking and I had bought another separate set of ankle boots for horseback riding and walking around – also waterproof. Basically I can see why this is the number one thing – definitely paid off to be waterproof!!!
You will never know what an Icelandic Kroner looks like because everyone – right down to the hot dog stand – uses credit cards. Seriously, we never withdrew cash once.
Every single person speaks perfect English too, so it was fine getting around. There are maps, visitors books, and some coupons available mostly everywhere too so we would find random stuff to do just by looking through the information.
Overall, we loved our trip to Iceland and would love to go back – there was so much we didn’t do, as well as other opportunities that are only available during the warmer summer months. Thanks for your help in booking!
[Photos and text copyright 2016 Sophia Curcio]