Looking for LGBTQ+ travel tips? Check out my post about queer travel in Iceland.
Is there a perfect amount of time to spend in Iceland? I doubt it! If you’re taking a trip just to Iceland, you’ll probably want to spend over a week driving around the whole Ring Road, or plan for a few days of hiking in Landmannalaugar. If you just want a tiny taste of the country on your way to or from Europe, a couple of days should suffice. In the winter, the limited hours of daylight may dictate how much time you need.
Five days in Iceland was perfect for us – it was a stop on the way to some other destinations, but also a dream trip on it’s own. It’s just enough time to leave you wanting more! I’ve made up a 5 day itinerary, including information about popular sites, getting around, food, and – most importantly – how and where to spot PUFFINS!*
Keep an eye out for a separate post with a packing list and detailed cost breakdown. Check out our 5 day itinerary below:
- Day 1: Arrive and get oriented in Reykjavik (transit, groceries, SIM card)
- Day 2: Explore Reyjavik (walking tour, geothermal beach, queer night out)
- Day 3: Golden Circle (Thingvellir/Þingvellir , Geysir, Gulfoss, horses, Fludir/Flúðir Secret Lagoon, Minilik Ethiopian restaurant)
- Day 4: Vik and the South Coast (Vík Camping, Jokulsarlon/Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon, Diamond Beach, puffin watching – Reynisfjara and Dyrhólaey)
- Day 5: Waterfalls and the Blue Lagoon (Skogafoss, Seljalandfoss, Blue Lagoon)
Day 1: Arrive in Reykjavik
There are a few options for getting from Keflavik Airport to downtown Reykjavik. This site https://fullsuitcase.com/reykjavik-airport-transfer/ breaks them down in detail, with current information: I’ve found that prices will be very outdated on posts about Iceland from even a couple years ago.
An airport shuttle will probably be your best option: it’s easy, they leave frequently, and are much cheaper than a taxi. There are two options, and prices are pretty similar. Flybus will take you the central bus terminal, or if you pay a bit more, you can transfer to a minivan and go directly to your hotel (we found one close to our Airbnb). Grayline is a few krona cheaper, but the bus station is not as central – again, you can pay a bit more for a hotel transfer. Icelandair sells slightly cheaper bus tickets on their flights, but there are obvious ticket machines at Arrivals.
It looks like, as of 2019, taxis can cost upwards of 200 euros, and will likely not be that much faster. There’s a public bus – this is, of course the cheapest option, but buses don’t run frequently, and the trip will take longer. Of course, if you’re picking up a rental car, this is a great way to head into the city!
Use this day to get oriented in Reykjavik, and to nap off the jet lag or overnight flight! Some things to think about while you’re getting your bearings:
SIM Card: We picked up a Vodafone card at the airport, but there are plenty of places to get one in Reykjavik and around the country https://vodafone.is/english/information/. Definitely consider it if you’ll be roadtripping, to help with navigation.
Public transit: If your hotel/Airbnb is central, you probably don’t need to use public transit. Most things in the city are walkable. If you want to go out to soak in some geothermal baths or elsewhere outside of the downtown core, you can pay a single fare of 470 ISK on the bus, or a day pass is 1800 ISK (or 3 days for 4200 ISK). To buy it: download the Straeto app (you’ll need data to show your pass to the driver), or at one of these vendors.
City Card: If you’ll be in Reykjavik (or in and out) for a few days, and you plan to visit a lot of museums, you may want to consider the City Card. This card includes FREE and discounted admission into many of the city’s museums, galleries, pools, the zoo, and FREE public transit, as well as a ferry trip. For 24/48/72 hours, it’s 3900/5500/6700 ISK, respectively.
Groceries: We were pretty worried about our food budget in Iceland. We didn’t plan to eat out much, but we’d still heard horror stories about the cost of food there! Two things saved us: packing some meals and snacks from home, and Bonus grocery stores. Bonus is a discount grocery chain with a bit of a cult following among tourists! That said, groceries in general in Iceland just aren’t as crazy expensive as they’re made out to be, as long as you’re flexible about what you eat! I’ll go into more detail in my cost breakdown post, but a frozen pizza will cost you about 500 ISK, Skyr (heavenly Icelandic yogurt- 200 ISK) could be a great breakfast with a couple of bananas (90 ISK) or some tortillas (170 ISK) to go with peanut butter from home, or yummy cheese spread (140 ISK).
Alcohol can be hard to find in stores (it’s only sold in state liquor stores, not over 2.5% in supermarkets) and is pricey, so if you’ll be in the country for a while, it’s best to stop at duty free.
If the timing’s right, hit up a Happy Hour! In fact if you go to Bravo, it’s almost always Happy Hour, from 11 a.m. – 10 p.m.! Or if it’s cold and you’re feeling the need a caffeine kick, hit up a hygge coffee shop or cute bakery.
Get some sleep so that you can fully enjoy the city on Day 2!
Day 2: Explore Reykjavik
This is the day to really check out the city! Over the course of our month in Europe, we downloaded lots of free walking tours and informational podcasts (thanks mainly to Kyla for finding these!), and Reykjavik was no exception.
The izi.TRAVEL app has a great walking tour: once you have the app, search for Iceland, and then download the free walking tour of Reykjavik. It’s a great introduction to the city and runs for about 2 hours and 6.5 kilometres, but stops can always be skipped and the route modified, as you follow along on a map and can listen to the audio even if you skip one. It’s neat because the audio automatically kicks in when you arrive at a new stop.
Whether you do a walking tour or not, some sites you won’t want to miss downtown include: Hallgrimskirkja Church, Harpa Concert Hall (particularly beautiful around sunset – if there is one!), the Sun Voyager sculpture, and some of the parliament buildings. There are some great museums in the city, including a saga museum, a whale exhibition, and… I can’t believe I didn’t go because I love quirk … a phallological museum – you better believe they have a good gift shop! Laugavegur is the main shopping street, and definitely worth a gander to check out the boutiques, souvenir shops, restaurants, and bars. Reykjavik is a beautiful place to stroll around; there are some amazing public spaces, beautiful street art, and lots of cute, colourful homes made of corrugated metal.
A couple options for cheap and uniquely Icelandic lunches are:
- 101 Reykjavik Street Food, where the food is homey and the customer service is fabulous for a place where you order at the counter – the owner gave us (and all the other customers) chocolate bars as we finished our fish and chips!
- Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur, the famous hot dog stand! This Reykjavik icon has been around since 1937, and serves simple but delicious sausages with “the works”, which includes mayo, onion, crunchy fried onion, and a sweet, thick mustard.
For a change of scenery, spend your afternoon soaking FOR FREE in geothermally-heated water at a BEACH! Nautholsvik Beach is on a bus route easily accessed from downtown (the 5 Nautholl from BSI goes directly there). You can soak in hot tubs by the water, lay out in the sand if you have the miracle of a sunny day (we did, for a short time before a burst of rain), and even take a dip in the ocean if you dare! There are showers and changeroom facilities, as well as a small snack and drink bar, and some picnic tables. It’s totally free in the summer (BYO towel), and 500 ISK in the winter.
Head back to your accommodation for a rest and to get cleaned up before a night out – perhaps pop a frozen pizza from Bonus in the oven, if you have cooking facilities! (I promise I don’t work for Bonus or anything, I’m just really into the crazy pig logo and low prices.)
Queer Iceland: Have a gay night out! The nice thing, for my fellow queers, is that as far as we could tell, Iceland is a great place to be gay! We felt totally comfortable being couple-y there. I wrote a detailed post about queer Iceland, with tips for LGBTQ+ travellers; check it out for info about gay bars events, tours, and pride.
Day 3: the Golden Circle
Time to get on the ROAD and see the landscapes you’ve been dreaming about! We rented from Blue car rental – book in advance, and expect a bit of a wait picking it up. Driving was fairly straightforward; there are a few things to note, like one lane bridges: here’s a good overview about driving in Iceland.
The Golden Circle is very busy in high season, it’s Iceland’s most popular route, after all. For the most part, it didn’t really matter to us – the sites and the views along the highway were still incredible, but at times we did get a bit of a sense of being cows, herded along! If you think that crowds will really affect your experience, aim to go early or late in the day, to avoid the bus tours. The main stops on the Golden Circle are:
- Thingvellir/Þingvellir is historically and geologically significant. It’s the site of Iceland’s first parliament, established in 930 AD. It’s also the site of a rift between the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates, which drift apart by about 2cm every year. This place felt particularly crowded, due to lots of people being filtered through a narrow space, but the further you walk, the quieter it becomes, and it’s definitely worth walking between the continental plates! Parking here is paid (the only spot on the Golden Circle – 700 ISK).
- Gullfoss is a really mezmerizing, massive waterfall that cascades into a deep canyon. Take some time to really absorb the magnitude of the waterfall! There are lots of pathways around it.
- Hakadalslaug Geysir (just called Geysir on the English road signs): this was pretty incredible! I’ve never seen a geyser erupt before, so if you’ve been to Yellowstone or elsewhere this experience may not have the same effect, but it was SOO much fun to wait eagerly with the crowd and cheer every time it erupted! It happens about every 4 minutes. It’s part of a large geothermal field, and there are some other neat hot pools nearby, and if you want a little hike you can climb up a hill for a nice view of the area.
Bonus: Icelandic horses! I really wanted to see these guys, and luckily, they were everywhere! You’ll definitely see them in fields along the main highway, just make sure you only pull over if there is a safe parking space for you to do so. You’re not meant to stop on the side of the road, and if you miss a photo op with some horses, I can almost guarantee there will be another one!
Finish your Golden Circle tour at this much quieter destination: Fludir/Flúðir town! It’s full of secrets: including … drumroll… an Ethiopian restaurant, Minilik! Yes you read that right! More on that below, because even though we travelled to Flúðir specifically to eat there, the restaurant didn’t open for another hour. So we glanced at google maps for something to kill time, and discovered that this Secret Lagoon we’d heard whispers about (ok, on tourism websites) was just a couple minutes away!
We were sold on a pre-dinner activity, grabbed our suits and headed in to the Secret Lagoon! Now here’s the funny thing: as I was writing this, I was going on about the amazing facilities, how they’re nicer than the changerooms at Nautholsvik beach and totally free, when I checked the website to fill in some details. I was SHOCKED to see that there’s a 3000 ISK entrance fee, and that reservations are recommended! Sooo… Kyla and I accidently snuck in! OOPS, can’t believe we did that, but let me tell you – this place is wonderful and I’d pay full price to go back!
The warm floating pool is large, with a completely serene vibe. There were lots of people there, but it wasn’t crammed, and many were floating on noodles or enjoying a beer. The pool was surrounded by grassy areas, with walking paths, a couple of elf houses, and some mini geysers letting out steam! We played around for a bit, and as we passed a little fish and chips stall on our way out, I kind of wished we had more time in Flúðir.
Minilik Ethiopian Restaurant is a great place for dinner. It’s owned by an Icelandic/Ethiopian couple, and the abundant decor includes everything from Ethiopian art and sculptures to grocery store bags from Addis Ababa! The food was excellent and the price was comparable to a meal out back home.
Either spend the night in Flúðir (maybe enjoy the full PAID experience of the Secret Lagoon) – there’s a campsite and other accommodation in town – or continue on to Vík for night one of puffin spotting! More details below about where and when to see puffins.
Day 4: Jökulsárlón/Diamond Beach and Puffins in Vík
Vik, a small fishing town, is a great place to stay along the South Coast. It’s a great jumping off point for day trips, not too far from Reykjavik, it’s nestled among majestic green cliffs with hiking trails, and is close to black sand beaches where you can see puffins.
If you camp, the Vik campground is massive. You can pretty much set up your tent or campervan anywhere, so although the cliffs make a beautiful backdrop, you definitely won’t be enjoying a quiet experience in nature! That said, the price per night is only 1750 ISK per person. There are indoor bathrooms with flush toilets, free wifi at reception, paid showers and laundry facilities, and a cabin for indoor cooking with some tables and a sink. There’s a grocery store, cafe, and gas station right across the street. The store closes at 9, so make sure to stock up on groceries if you’ll be touring around late – time can get confusing under the midnight sun!
After some breakfast Skyr, head out on the road towards Diamond Beach and Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon. This drive is just over 2 hours, plus a bit of time for stops to hang out with horses or snap photos of the landscape.
Plan to spend some time at Diamond Beach and Jökulsárlón, just across the highway. I found these places sooo beautiful and unique. Honestly Iceland was just day after day of me saying “I can’t believe this is real life”! Beware: as usual, there will be lots of people. It’s not far enough from Reykjavik to be off the beaten track, but the South Coast beyond Vík is definitely quieter than the Golden Circle.
Diamond Beach is a black sand beach where icebergs from the glacier lagoon wash up on shore! Some are tiny enough to juggle (as Kyla discovered) and others are human-sized or bigger. Looking back towards land, you can see part of the massive Vatnajokull Glacier. I recommend a jacket, gloves, and even a toque here, it’s chilly!
Jökulsárlón, across the highway, is Iceland’s deepest lake, and is full of massive pieces of glacier, some of them pale blue. You can admire – in total awe – from land (like we did), or take a boat or even kayak tour to see the icebergs up close. Apparently you can often see seals here, and there’s lots of bird activity.
We drove a bit further, to Hofn, just to see what we could along the road. We didn’t find much in the way of new landscapes (although the clouds were low so who knows what mountains we were missing), but we DID find an awesome bouncy pillow at a playground in Höfn (I saw one of these in Reykjavik too which leads me to believe that Iceland may in fact win at playgrounding), and of course a gas station hot dog (yum and only 400ish ISK)! I think the fishing port town of Höfn is used as a jumping off point for the glacier activities in the area (e.g. walks, jeep tours) , or as a spot to sleep along the Ring Road. There’s a campground in town and a nice looking pool.
In the late afternoon/early evening, head back to Vík: it’s PUFFIN TIME! We saw puffins at both Reynisfjara and Dyrhólaey, and I’d recommend going to both if you have more than one evening or morning for puffin-watching.
In general, May to late August is when puffins arrive back on land from their ocean adventures. Dyrhólaey is CLOSED during nesting season, which includes parts of May and June (I imagine that this sensitive time isn’t the best to be seeking them out elsewhere, either, but you probably can still see them on cliffs near Reynisfjara). July or early August would be the best time to spot them, and they can most reliably be seen between 7-10 a.m. and 6-10 p.m. If it’s rainy, there’s a possibility of seeing them during the day – we saw lots on rainy evenings! If it’s sunny, they may not be back until after 9 p.m. Here’s some info from my Vík tourist map:
Reynisfjara: You should visit this beach whether or not you’re looking for puffins! It has black sand, lava stack formations, and mystical basalt columns. Right as you come in, face the cliffs, and you should see puffins! I freaked out as soon as I saw a flying football-shaped thing from the parking lot!
Dyrholaey: This promontory offers great views of Reynisfjara and Vík to the east, and black sand beach for days to the west. We drove all the way up to the top – it says 4 wheel drive only; it was fine for our little rental, but it is quite a steep gravel road. You can also park below and walk up. Up top, there’s a lighthouse, and the cliffs nearby were where we spotted the puffins! If you look down (again, look for the awkward flying footballs and head towards them), you should see some, not too far from the path!
Don’t forget your binoculars and camera with zoom! Be respectful of the birds’ habitats and of your own safety, and obviously don’t go beyond any ropes or signage.
Day 5: Waterfalls and Blue Lagoon
After a quick stop at the cute church that sits above Vík, visit Dyrhólaey or Reynisfjara on your way out, if you haven’t yet. Then start your drive back towards Reykjavik. If you’re in the mood for a walk on the black sand (about 45 minutes each way), you can also check out the 1973 Sólheimasandur plane crash wreckage site, along the route back towards Reykjavik.
There are a couple of popular waterfalls along the way that shouldn’t be missed (and that you probably can’t miss): Skogafoss and Seljalandfoss.
Skogafoss is gigantic and you can walk up pretty close to it and get all misty. You can also climb up above and wave to the sheep on the hills beside it! There’s camping there too.
Seljalandfoss has paid parking (700 ISK), washroom facilities and some little souvenir and cafe stalls. It’s a beautiful waterfall that you can walk behind, and you’ll be joined by lots of other humans. I imagine that going at night would be more peaceful!
Kerid Crater is another possible stop nearby. We had beautiful-site-burnout: we couldn’t process more beautiful things so we just kept driving to Reykjavik.
If you have an early morning flight, I recommend staying out near the airport for the night. No matter where you stay, spend your afternoon/evening relaxing The Blue Lagoon (also closer to the airport)! You could also do this after arriving on your first day, but we found that it was a nice way to end our trip, especially after a couple nights of camping.
The Blue Lagoon: This experience isn’t cheap. As of summer 2019, prices start at 65 euros (a bit less near closing time), and a reservation is essential. Your ticket includes parking (but not transfer; we kept our rental until afterwards), 1 drink from the in-pool bar, and a silica facial from the in-pool facial bar! You also get a towel (don’t worry, you can get another if you lose it), and access to lockers, showers, sauna and steam rooms, and changing facilities. You’ll be given an electronic wristband that you can scan to purchase anything additional, and pay when you leave – just like at the spas in Korea!
We found it to be a really wonderful experience; there’s lots of space in the geothermally-heated pool to spread out, and you’re truly surrounded by a volcanic landscape, in a lava field! The water contains silica (which contributes to the milky blue colour), salt and algae. It feels both luxurious and uniquely Icelandic. I recommend visiting both the Blue Lagoon AND some of the free or cheaper pools, but it will of course depend on your budget and the experience you’re looking for.
Tip: listen to the staff at the lagoon and LEAVE conditioner in while soaking, and try not to get your hair in the water! Kyla went for full relaxation and fully put her head in, and then was comparing her hair to those (majestic) Icelandic horses for weeks! She had to buy a special conditioner to get it back to relative normal. Even mine was a little weird and crispy for a while, and I tried not to get it wet.
After 5 days in this magical, otherworldly place, it’s time to say goodbye – or bless, in Icelandic! But probably not for long, because if you’re anything like me, you’ll be planning your next trip!