Iceland is a popular destination from North American and Europe, and with airlines like WOW offering rock bottom prices on flights to Europe with a layover in Iceland, it's popularity will only increase. Iceland is a magical place: waterfalls, volcanoes, glaciers, the northern lights. Its beauty is unavoidable. Here is how to spend five days in this small, adventure-packed North Atlantic island.
Day One “Reykjavik”: Most likely, if you’re coming from the States, you’ll be arriving in the early morning at Keflavik airport. I would highly recommend renting a car from Avis or Budget Rent-a-Car at the Keflavik airport. Make sure when you do rent a car you’re renting it from this location unless you want to be stranded at the airport without any way into Reykjavik like the poor women in front of us at the rental agency. Renting a car in Iceland is surprisingly inexpensive compared to California (less than $300 USD with insurance and extra damage protection for five days) and driving around the following recommended areas is surprisingly easy. Yes, there’s weather to consider and plenty of areas you should not take your rental car or any other non-ATV. Keflavik airport is approximately forty-five minutes from Reykjavik but it’s an easy drive.
Once you’re settled in and it’s at least nine in the morning (nothing really opens in Reykjavik before nine), head to Laugavegur shopping area in downtown Reykjavik for a cinnamon roll at Brauð and Co. Fluffy and tender on the outside and gooey on the inside without being overly sweet, these are the best cinnamon rolls I’ve had in my life and, sadly, it’s the best inexpensive food you’ll have in Iceland. If you’re looking for a more substantive breakfast, go to Sandholt Bakery for the simple yet tasty fare. After you slake your hunger, walk over to the Hallgrimskirkja, the towering organ shaped church you cannot avoid seeing. From the top of the tower, for a fee, you get some of the best views in Reykjavik, even on a day with near-hurricane strength winds and rain. I would just take this day to acquaint yourself with Reykjavik, discover the street art, and check out the main tourist spots: the Harpa, the Sun Voyager Statue, the Þúfa, and the Settlement 871 +/- museum. When you get hungry, head to a hot dog stand, it doesn’t have to be BAEJARINS BEZTU PYLSUR, which is the famous hot dog stand former President Bill Clinton ate at.
Day Two “The Golden Circle”: The Golden Circle contains the most bang for your buck in Iceland. There’s a number of ways you can visit the Golden Circle, a circular route through some of Iceland’s top natural tourist attractions: a small tour van, a large tour bus, or renting a car. Don’t be afraid of taking your rental car here and avoid having your schedule dictated by a tour group. As I wrote back in 2016, “The first stop on the Golden Circle is Thingvellir National Park. This national park is home to the first parliament in Iceland, truly the first parliament in the western world. When I think of this, what comes to mind is a line from the show Vikings ‘Are you going to the Thing?’ Because of this, Thingvellir was named the first national park in Iceland in 1930.” Thingvellir is not only an important historic site but an important geologic site. Next stop on your self-guided tour of the Golden Circle is the Haukadalur geothermal valley, home to geysers Geysir and Strokkur. If you’re hungry by the time you get here, then you can get lunch at Saup for a warm bowl of vegetarian soup. Your last stop of the day is Gullfoss, or golden falls, one of the largest and best-known waterfalls in Iceland. Typically, the water takes on a blue-green color but don’t be disappointed when it’s a murky brown. While there are prettier waterfalls in Iceland, this one impresses with sheer volume.
Day Three “The South Coast”: While the Golden Circle is more well known to people outside of Iceland, the more remote South Coast is home to truly stunning scenery. With barren volcanic landscapes, countless waterfalls, and one of Europe's largest glaciers, this area is a must-see for any visitor to Iceland. The highlight of the day will take some planning ahead: reserve a spot on a glacier tour at Vatnajokull Glacier. I would recommend the Glacier Wonders hike with Glacier Guides. This is a three-hour hike with a guide in a small group. The tour costs 10,990 ISK per person. If you want to rent boots, a fleece, or a waterproof jacket they cost an additional 1,000 ISK. They provide you with crampons and an ice ax. Hiking on western Europe’s largest glacier by volume is an incredible experience and a privilege; the quickly receding glacier will not be here much longer. The drive to the glacier is approximately four hours and along the way you should stop at both Seljalandsfoss and Skogafoss, two of Iceland’s most famous waterfalls. One word describes this drive: majestic. At one point my vista was a rainbow, romping Icelandic horses, a waterfall, and a glacier, the definition of majestic.
Day Four “The Snæfellsnes Peninsula”: Now when we were in Iceland, we were hit by the tail end of a hurricane on the day we wanted to go to the Snæfellsnes peninsula. This area is not the type of place you want to drive in windy conditions and we stayed inside watching fifty mile per hour winds cuddling with the neighbor’s cats. From what I’ve heard it’s beautiful and a great place to view puffins and other seabirds. I Heart Reykjavik has a great post on how to drive through the area yourself and is a great resource for travelers to Iceland.
Day Five “The Blue Lagoon” or “Reykjanes Peninsula”: Everyone who has thought about going to Iceland knows the Blue Lagoon. With over 600,000 visitors a year, it is Iceland’s most visited tourist attraction. It does take some planning ahead, reserve a time slot before going, and it can be difficult to get a good time slot during more popular times of the year. We made the mistake of not planning ahead on this and ended up not going. Plus, it’s pretty expensive and crowded. Instead, we opted to drive around the Reykjanes Peninsula. On the Reykjanes Peninsula, where Keflavik Airport is located, you can visit Iceland’s oldest lighthouse Reykjanesviti, view the Bridge Between the Continents or hike around one of Iceland’s largest nature reserves, Reykjanes Nature Reserve.
On any of the above nights, try driving outside of Reykjavik to view the northern lights or book yourself on a northern lights tour. Remember the days are long in summer and your likelihood of seeing the northern lights in the summer is minimal. The best times of year to see them are from September to mid-April.