Iceland captivates the imaginations of many and while I can understand that feeling, it’s hard exactly to explain why. It could be because of the stunning landscapes, fun activities or a mixture of both, but more and more people are traveling to this northern island for a long weekend getaway. IcelandAir (and no, they didn’t pay for any of this) has made it easy for Europeans and North Americans alike to spend a few days tromping about the Land of Ice and Fire and so to help these legions of intrepid travelers, here are my recommendations on what to do in Iceland.
From North America, the standard hotel/air combo is two nights (leave Friday, return Monday) but it’s easy and pretty cheap to extend that to three or even four nights. When we visited Iceland we booked a three-night air/hotel package, leaving Thursday evening and returning Monday. Even though this may seem like a shockingly short amount of time to spend in Iceland, it was the perfect escape.
To begin with, Iceland isn’t very far away. From the East Coast of the United States it’s about a five-hour flight and from London it’s a mere three hours. Not bad really if you consider the fact that you’re going somewhere as interesting as Iceland. At the risk of sounding like a commercial, which this decidedly is not, IcelandAir has made the entire trip planning process extremely easy. When guests purchase a hotel/air combo, they can also add tours and trips. Since most people don’t spend weeks in Iceland, they depend on these extremely well organized day trips to get out and see the best of Iceland. Don’t worry though; they’re not necessarily your standard cattle-cars; the tours range in interest and activity levels, from small to large. As an independent traveler I was thrilled with the tours, both in how easy they were to book and how much fun I had participating in them.
If you’re traveling from North America, you will arrive in Iceland early, probably between 6:00 AM-8:00 AM. The international airport in Keflavik is forty minutes away from Reykjavik though, so almost every visitor purchases hotel transfers on the Fly Bus. For $20 US you can get curb-door service to your hotel. Be careful when booking though, there is a cheaper option that only takes you to the central bus station from which you’ll have to get a cab. For my money though, the Fly Bus+ direct to hotel was the best option.
Hotels also know that you, and hundreds like you will arrive early and want to check in to your room for a shower and maybe a nap. Some facilitate this, others don’t. Our hotel had the option of an early check in, but at a cost of 25 Euros. I wasn’t thrilled as I didn’t know about it beforehand and felt like they were taking advantage of me, but we also didn’t have a choice. That shower sounded like heaven and so we paid the extra money for the early check in. I imagine many other hotels operate a similar service, especially since it’s easy money.
Your first day is an acclimation day so I would take it easy, but also keep in mind that you don’t want to waste your day. Our package deal with IcelandAir included a free 48-hour Reykjavik Welcome Card. The pass is like a lot of other city passes and includes free admission to a variety of sites and activities in and around town. The historic core of Reykjavik isn’t that big, making on foot exploration easy and enjoyable.
After exploring for a while I recommend taking one of two tours in the evening, your choice determined by time of year and the weather. Iceland, like many other northern locales, is famous for the Northern Lights and if you’re able to, I would strongly recommend this night tour. We weren’t able to participate because the weather made the lights impossible to see, but this should be at the top of your list. If the weather doesn’t cooperate, then a late afternoon/evening tour of Reykjavik is well worth the time. On the tour you get a better visual understand of the town and the guides are well informed and make the tour both educational as well as a lot of fun.
There are several tour companies that offer many options allowing visitors to enjoy as much of Iceland as possible, but the one activity I looked forward to the most was whale watching. The process isn’t dissimilar from many other places around the world, so if you’ve done it before you may want to look at another activity. It was my first time though and I was excited.
We boarded the whale-watching vessel with about a hundred other people; apparently we weren’t the only ones interested in seeing whales that day. It was cold and even colder on the water, forcing us to huddle together as the guide helped us spot sea life from the crow’s nest. After just a few minutes we had our first sighting, a humpback whale feasting on thousands of fish that formed a dense biomass just below the surface of the water. We spent most of the afternoon with our friend the whale, following him from a safe distance and oohing and aahing when he surfaced to spout some water or show off his fluke. You can’t be guaranteed a whale sighting on the cruise, but seeing one of these beautiful creatures up close and personal is something everyone should have firmly entrenched on their bucket list.
The time before and after your cruise, which from door to door lasts about five hours, can be spent exploring more of Reykjavik on foot or finding one of the many municipal thermal pools to enjoy on your own.
Iceland is famous for its rugged natural beauty, forged from the violent geological events still underway on this powerful island. Lava fields, beautiful hills and valleys, waterfalls and active geysers all make Iceland a nature lover’s paradise. The best way to see the highlights of Icelandic beauty is to visit the Golden Circle.
In its simplest terms, the Golden circle is a 300 km loop into central Iceland that includes three primary stops: Þingvellir, the waterfall Gullfoss and the active geyser region. But of course it’s so much more than that.
Just as interesting as the main sites themselves, the drive across the Icelandic terrain is stunning and dynamic, changing from green valleys dotted with horses to barren lava fields. The first stop is usually at Geysir, home of the geysers. The active geyser field is smoky and smelly, the hallmarks of geothermal activity. The real star of the show is watching one of the geysers erupt every five minutes. It may not be the largest in the world, but its consistency guarantees a show for every visitor.
Gullfoss, or the Golden Falls, are the next stop and rival any waterfall you’ve seen around the world. The massive falls are beautiful any time of year, but in winter there is a special stark elegance to it that’s hard to resist. The final stop is Þingvellir or Thingvellir, designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site because it marks the spot of the world’s first parliament in 930. The site is so much more than that though, it holds a special cultural spot in the hearts of all Icelanders and has been elevated to more than just a physical site, but one of intense emotional importance.
For most people, this is the final day in Iceland and what better way to spend it than at the world famous Blue Lagoon Spa. The Blue Lagoon is only about twenty minutes from the international airport, so many people purchase tours that take them to the Lagoon and then onward to the airport so they can make their flight home.
The Blue Lagoon is formed from naturally occurring hot springs deep below the surface that have been utilized for geothermal energy production. The water is indeed blue, and also murky and apparently full of unique properties that make it a healthy activity. The warm waters are rich in minerals like silica and sulfur and bathing in the Blue Lagoon is reputed to help some people suffering from skin diseases such as psoriasis. The water temperature in the bathing and swimming area of the lagoon averages 98–102 °F, the perfect temperature for soaking. Having been there myself, I can attest that it is indeed a fun experience. The waters are warm and pleasantly murky and the landscape surrounding the spa is beautiful and otherworldly. Almost everyone who visits Iceland stops at least once at the Blue Lagoon, and I can understand why.
It’s always a sad occasion when a great trip comes to an end, but thanks to Iceland’s proximity it doesn’t have to be forever. There’s also a lot more to do in Iceland than listed here, all of the choices fun and exciting in their own unique ways. No matter what you choose to do though, you are almost guaranteed to enjoy your time in Iceland.
Have you been to Iceland? What are some of your favorite activities?