From colorful and quirky Reykjavik to the vast moon-like landscape of the southern coast, Iceland offers a lot of unique activities that will keep you busy in your short time on the island before heading home exhausted. So, the question remains – what to do in Iceland?
Hilary and I headed to Iceland over Columbus Day weekend in October. While the weather wasn’t necessarily the best and the Northern Lights didn’t cooperate for us, traveling over the long weekend allowed us to save a vacation day for later on in the year. If you’re looking to maximize your paid vacation days from work, try to schedule your vacation over a holiday. That trick has helped me extend my vacation time and travel to seven new countries in 2015.
Our WOW Air flight from Boston arrived in the wee hours of the morning and left again five days later in the early afternoon, so we only had four solid days of action packed Icelandic fun. Although, I do believe the first day was a bit of a fog from lack of sleep and jetlag.
After a lot of research and debating, we came up with our itinerary for our Iceland adventures. If you’re heading to Iceland with a limited amount of time, here is a four-day itinerary that hits the best of both worlds – action and culture.
How to Spend 4 Days in Iceland
Day 1: Arrival and Experiencing the Best of Reykjavik
Reykjavik is Iceland’s coastal capital city of 120,000 people. It is quaint, colorful, and full of friendly people. It is also your home base for the next few days. Reykjavik is a very walkable city so bring your walking shoes. There is also a public transportation system if you’re not interested in freezing your butt off during the cold, dark winter months.
Begin your morning at one of the local cafes with a cup of steaming hot coffee and a pastry. There are plenty of cafes in the city center to choose from, but we loved Te & Kaffi and the Laundromat Cafe.
After a quick breakfast, wander your way over to Austurvöllur in front of the House of Parliament (Alþingi) to meet Martienn or one of the other tour guides for the Free Walking Tour of Reykjavik. For the next two hours, you’ll criss-cross your way around the city center while learning a bit about Iceland’s history, culture, and food. Make sure you sign up online as this tour is quite popular!
If you’re feeling brave, walk up the hill towards the Hallgrímskirkja church to entertain your taste buds with traditional Icelandic food at Cafe Loki. You’ll find everything from meat soups to homemade cakes to the infamous fermented shark. Not brave enough to try the fermented shark? Head to Baejarins Beztu Pylsur, which translates to “best hot dogs in town,” for the world’s best hot dog according to former President Bill Clinton.
After lunch, it’s time to check out some of Reykjavik’s museums. Reykjavik is home to numerous art galleries and museums that are open year-round. It’s a great way to escape the cold if you’re traveling in the winter. Here are a few that you might not want to miss:
- The Icelandic Phallological Museum – A total tourist trap, but who doesn’t want to miss the penis museum? Open daily from 11 am to 6 pm, this tiny little museum is home to over 200 specimens donated over the years. You can see everything from fox to whale to even human phalluses. You might want to leave the kids home for this one.
- The National Museum of Iceland – Curious about Iceland’s Viking past? Head to the National Museum of Iceland to learn more about the country’s history from the beginning through modern times. The museum is closed on Mondays, but open daily, depending on the time of year, from 11 am to 5 pm.
- National Gallery of Iceland – All art lovers will love this art museum in the heart of Reykjavik. The museum contains some international paintings, but it mainly includes a large display of 19th- and 20th-century Icelandic paintings. Opened almost every day from 11 am to 5 pm, the museum is a perfect place to learn a bit more about Iceland’s artsy side.
After a long day of exploring Reykjavik, it’s time to head back to your room for some rest and relaxation. If you still have a bit of energy left, head to one of the many thermal pools in Reykjavik. The pools are cheap and a great way to relax in a traditional Icelandic way.
Travel Tip#1: If you want access to the bus system, the city pools, and many of the museums, the Reykjavik City Card might be worth the purchase price.
Day Two: The Golden Circle
If you didn’t pick up your rental car from the airport, it’s time to pick it up this morning as you will need it over the next couple of days. If you’re on a tight budget, I recommend SADcars. The car might not be glamorous, but it’s reliable and cheaper than the other car rental companies.
Head straight for Þingvellir National Park to snorkel the Silfra. Nothing says Iceland like snorkeling between two continents. Book in advance with Arctic Adventures and bring warm clothes and socks. You’ll put on a dry suit and don a snorkel and fins and jump into the clearest 2°C water you’ll ever see. Dive certified? You can also dive the Silfra with Arctic Adventures or Dive.is. Don’t forget the GoPro!
It’s time to hit the road again. The Golden Circle is a 237-kilometer route that will take you anywhere from 4-6+ hours depending how long and how much you stop along the way. There are many day tours that leave from Reykjavik, but if you can, it’s best to explore it on your own by car.
After snorkeling the Silfra, you can spend more time exploring Þingvellir National Park before heading west towards the geysers at Haukadalur. There’s a cafe to grab overpriced food if you are so inclined to do so. The real star here is Strokkur, who erupts about every 10 minutes. Now it’s onwards to one of Iceland’s largest waterfalls, Gullfoss, and finally, Kerid Crater Lake.
Either head back to Reykjavik or take a detour and head to the Secret Lagoon in Flúôir for several hours of relaxation in a natural hot spring popular with the locals. It’s worth it, trust me!
Travel Tip #2: Bring snacks along for the ride. You’ll get hungry, and the cafes along the way are expensive.
Day Three: The South Coast
Set your alarms early today as you have a big day of driving ahead of you if you want to make it to my favorite spot – Jökulsárlón or the glacier lagoon. Grab some snacks from the local petrol station and head west on Route 1. The South Coast is home to some pretty epic landscapes if you ask me. From waterfalls to black sand beaches to glacier volcanoes, Route 1 has it all.
- Seljalandfoss Waterfall
- Skógafoss Waterfall
After a long day in the car, it’s time to head back to Reykjavik. If you’re up for it, head to either the Blue Lagoon or one of the city pools for some R&R. Or, head out for a night on the town!
Travel Tip #3: If it’s the winter, make sure you’re looking for the Northern Lights on your way back to the city!
Day Four: Discovering Iceland by Horseback
You can’t go to Iceland without riding an Icelandic Horse. That would be like going to Disneyworld without seeing Mickey Mouse! There are many stables in and around Reykjavik to take a short trail ride or an all day ride. Hilary and I chose an hour long trail ride with Ishestar. Of course, there are plenty of other stables around so pick your favorite.
After a morning exploring the Icelandic landscape by horseback, it’s time to head back into town. Grab lunch at the Laundromat Cafe in their cozy nooks surrounded by books and maps. Depending on what time you leave tomorrow and your interests, either spend the afternoon museum hopping or shopping for lambswool sweaters in the boutiques along the “Rainbow Road” or head to the Blue Lagoon for the afternoon.
Whatever you choose don’t miss the Hallgrímskirkja church. It’s free to enter, but you’ll have to pay about $6.50 to see the panoramic views from the tower.
Travel Tip #4: If you really want a lambswool sweater, try the flea market or second-hand shops first as those sweaters aren’t cheap!
Day Five: Blue Lagoon to the Airport (Optional)
Depending on your flight time, you might want to head to the Blue Lagoon on the way to the airport. You can book the Blue Lagoon with your airport transfer from Reykjavik. Warning – it’s not cheap!
Travel Tip #5: Use the Flybus to get to and from the airport. Seats are always available, and there is free wifi!
Bonus: Where to Stay in Iceland
Try Couchsurfing or camping. Iceland is one of the safest countries in the world, but remember always to use caution. Iceland has many hosts, but with the constant demand from travelers, it can be tough to find a host so be prepared to pay for a hostel if you can’t find a Couchsurfing host. Camping is another cheap alternative if you’re in Iceland during the warmer months.
Hostels are abundant in Iceland with many options in Reykjavik. Hostelling International has a monopoly on hostels in Iceland, but there are several independent options too, like the Bus Hostel. Prices range anywhere from $22 to $65+.
Airbnb is the way to go! Tourism has exploded in Iceland in the recent years, and Reykjavik can’t keep up with the demand. Thankfully, Icelanders have embraced Airbnb, and you’ll find tons of options. Hilary and I shared a one-bedroom in a family apartment that cost us $49 a night. Split two ways and it was about $25 a night.