It was dark as we arrived in Reykjavik, it would be dark for most of our stay, but I didn’t care. I was excited and charged to finally be in the capital of cool, Iceland. In recent years Iceland’s popularity has exploded, thanks to great airfare deals and its proximity to both Europe and the United States. It’s also a fun, easy place to visit and I think makes a perfect long weekend escape for anyone who wants to get away from it all, if only for a few days. So if you’re planning your own quick trip, here are some tips to get you started.
How to Get There
Flying time from the East Coast of the US is less than six hours, making it one of the shortest flights to Europe available. Intellectually I knew the length but it’s quite another thing to experience it firsthand. The one negative to this speedy flight is that you really don’t have time to sleep, which makes the first day in Iceland a challenge unless you want to spend it sleeping. Note, do not spend your first day sleeping. From Europe it’s obviously even more convenient and there are frequent deals on both sides of The Pond usually in conjunction with hotels and activities. When I visited we took advantage of an Icelandair package that combined flight, hotel and a few tours for one price. It was easy and made the trip seamless from start to finish.
Where to Stay
If you’re coming from the United States you will arrive very early in the morning. Keflavik International Airport is about 45 minutes from Reykjavik city center and most tourists take advantage of the tourist bus that runs throughout the day with optional transfers to your hotel. Even though Iceland is small, the options for lodging are pretty good and range from the ultra-budget hostels to high-end luxury accommodations. When choosing your hotel or hostel, be sure to look at a map of Reykjavik. Not all hotels are located near the city center so if this is important to you then you need to choose accordingly.
We stayed at the Centre Hotel Thingholt, which was a higher end option offered through our Icelandair package. The hotel has several advantages including its location adjacent to the city core, a hearty complimentary breakfast and of course the comfort level. I was overall very happy with the hotel but was a little put off by a check in policy that clearly takes advantage of tourists coming off of redeye flights. A placard at the front desk announced that check in time is 3:00 PM but early check in was available for an extra fee of 50 Euro. We arrived to the hotel at 9am after many hours of travel and the thought of waiting another six hours to bathe and change clothes was almost too much to take. So we grudgingly paid the extra money and were in our room before noon. Nowhere else have I seen this before and it really irked me that the hotel has a policy in place to take advantage of travelers. If they can arrange the room to be ready before 3pm then they should just let guests in without extra fees. Hotels around the world do that and I don’t see why they can’t. I’m also not sure if it’s a widespread policy in Reykjavik or not, but it is something of which to be aware just in case.
What to Do
Iceland is much more than just a quick weekend getaway, weeks could be spent exploring this shockingly beautiful island nation. That being said, many tourists do not spend a lot of time in the country so it’s important to prioritize activities. Getting around is easy thanks to a well-developed day tour industry. I’m usually against large group tours, but the ones in Iceland were different, at least for us. We booked three tours and all were mid-sized groups and not once did I feel like a sheep being herded around. Still, if this isn’t your thing then renting a car is certainly an option.
Northern Lights – There are several spots around the world where one can witness the natural spectacle known as the Northern Lights and Iceland is one of them. While you should book this excursion in advance be aware that the lights are highly dependent on the weather and time of year. For the four nights we were in Iceland it wasn’t possible to see them at all. I’m told the Northern Lights are amazing and they should absolutely be on your bucket list, but don’t get too disappointed if the weather cancels this once in a lifetime experience.
Golden Circle – Most first time visitors to Iceland spend at least one day touring the so-called Golden Circle. The Circle is made up of three important sights that in large part define the Icelandic experience. Geysir and the valley of Haukadalur is usually the first stop on the tour and a great introduction to the land of fire and ice. The geysers are just some of many found around the island, testimony to its highly active geothermal qualities. Some of the geysers only erupt once in a very long while, but at least one erupts every few minutes guaranteeing amazing photos. The second stop is the Gullfoss waterfalls, a beautiful natural wonder that is breathtaking to see in person. The final stop is more about the history of Iceland, Thingvellir. This is the site of the 1,000 year old parliament, the oldest in the world and is truly the heart and soul of the nation. The Golden Circle is a daylong activity and in addition to the three sites is a great way to see the dramatic interior of Iceland.
Whale Watching – Iceland has a long history with whales and even today is one of the few nations where it is sadly legal to hunt them. But in an effort to introduce more humane access to whales a thriving whale watching industry has popped up. We left early in the morning, bundled up and ready to combat the freezing cold temperatures. Within a few minutes on board the ship though we had spotted our first whale, a beautiful humpback. There’s nothing quite like being out on the water and watching these beautiful animals in their home waters.
Reykjavik City Tour – Many tourists to Iceland tend to forget that Reykjavik itself is a great city to explore and about which there is plenty to learn. There are several great tour options led by locals that offer a lot of insight not only into the city, but the people as well. Walking around town you start to get a feel for what makes it so great and the people so very warm and friendly. We spent a full day exploring Reykjavik but if that’s too long for you be sure to at least plan half a day walking around the capital city.
Blue Lagoon – The most popular tourist activity on Iceland, the Blue Lagoon spa attracts a stunning 80% of all travelers to Iceland. Although not strictly speaking a naturally occurring phenomenon, the waters are said to have remarkable medicinal qualities and thousands journey to Iceland just for the water therapy. But for the rest of us there’s just something magical about floating in the murky waters, steam rising up in billows as it meets the chilly air. Surrounded by mountains and steam you feel like you are truly in an otherworldly place. Be forewarned though, the Blue Lagoon is a money making machine. There are myriad options to part you with your money so do some research in advance to see what best suits you and your interests.
In addition to these standard tips, there are a few other things to keep in mind. The first is cost. At the time of writing, traveling in Iceland is a little more expensive than many other European destinations. Iceland is the only European country (so far) that went through bankruptcy during the height of the financial crisis and the economy is still struggling to recover. For travelers this means that you should expect to pay a little more than normal for the essentials. (Yes, Diet Coke is an essential)
The weather tends to confuse most first time visitors, but it really isn’t extreme. In the southern part of the island temperatures range from the 30s Fahrenheit in the winter to the 50s and 60s in the summer. The highest temperature ever recorded is 86 degrees Fahrenheit. It does rain a lot though throughout the year and the sun may be elusive at times. Actually, the weather reminded me a lot of Scotland. But it’s definitely not extreme, bring a jacket but leave those Arctic parkas and sunglasses at home and do make sure to bring an umbrella.
Don’t overplan your stay. I’ve mentioned that Iceland has fully embraced tourism and has made it very easy for visitors to preschedule all of their activities. While it’s fine to do this for part of your stay, don’t book every second. Allow yourself some time to wander and explore on your own, to allow for some travel spontaneity.
Don’t wait. Iceland is a great travel destination now, particularly if you explore the Ring Road and the harder to reach interior. But it’s also a very popular tourist destination, which always changes a place. Go now while it still retains its inherent charm and before tourism has changed it forever, if it hasn’t already.
Iceland is one of my favorite destinations not just because it’s easy to visit, but because there’s nothing quite like it. As I’ve learned it has a certain infectious quality to it that is impossible to describe until you visit. Be forewarned though, once you do you’ll want to keep going back again and again.
36 thoughts on “First Timer’s Guide to Iceland”
It’s been almost seven years since I visited Iceland, and I’m itching to go back. My wife and I agreed years ago to attend the Iceland Airwaves music festival in 2013 to coincide with our fifth anniversary. As the date draws nearer, it remains to be seen whether we’ll pull the trigger and go.
Iceland is a lovely place to visit..one of most memorable experience to stay and enjoy at northern lights, blue lagoons and spend happier moments on nightlife of Iceland.
Thanks for this post! Iceland is definitely a country on my list but I know almost nothing about it other than the Blue Lagoon. This is helpful. 50 Euro for an early checkin? That’s not cheap at all. Seems like if anything I’d have to research my accommodations. If they offer free luggage storage and if they’re central.
There are a number of alternatives in and around city center, just be sure to ask the right questions first :)
There are cheaper options. Try booking.com, hostels.com and airbnb. I went to a fantastic hostel in Reykjavik and an apartment in Hvolsvollur and they were cheap and great. Highly recommend them. Also, we booked a car and did the tours ourselves. It´s easy to team up with other travellers to split the costs. That also gave us the option to drive 20-30 min out of Reykjavik in the middle of the night when we saw it was finally clear and we could see the Northern Lights. Absolutely magical. Can’t wait to go back! It’s a stunning country.
I’m wondering: do you think Iceland is expensive? I’m asking because that’s something I’ve read a couple of times already.
Also: in Vegas a lot of hotels ask you to pay extra if you want to check it before 4pm. When I went there with a friend we also arrived in the morning, but we just left our luggage with the bell boy and checked in later.
I went last week and I was fearing the prices as well. I´d say prices are like London, which is relative. You can make it cheap by going to the supermarket instead of always eating out (that said, I went out for a reeaaally good meal the last night, fresh fish with all the sides was about £15, so pretty much like London and the quality was excellent). What we did was: rent a car (there are some cheap companies, research a bit instead of going for the first thing you find!), buy stuff in the supermarket and travel around. Spent some nights in Reykjavik and in an apartment in another city. If you consider that we saw what comprises 3 organized tours (and tours costing an average £30-£40), we definitely did it cheaper than if we had paid the tours! I say: rent a car and go to the supermarket for food :) and treat yourself to some good fish and ice-cream, yummie!
what company did you rent your car through?
First time we didn’t rent a car, second time it was part of a package we bought through Icelandic Farm Holidays and for our trip in August I went with Hertz I think? They’re all essentially the same, just select the car and price that is the best match for you.
Bring an umbrella may be the single worst advice I’ve heard for anyone visiting Iceland :) It’s useless most of the time due to the strong winds, you must have been very lucky with weather when you were here :)
All I can do is share what I experienced which was rain and not too much wind.
Thank you Matt – all information you provided was very helpful. Just wondering about the city of Keflavik..is it a must see?
No there’s really nothing there.
Helpful post here as I haven’t been to Iceland yet, but it’s high on my list (as with everyone else it seems!)
it’s a remarkable place, no doubt about that
I went to Iceland last month to see the northern lights and had a blast staying in Rekjavik.
I’ve fallen in love with the place and it’s people and I plan to go back this year, but this time for a tour around the island.
This is a great article and I agree with everything you said, except the umbrella part.
There were days when there was almost no wind (probably what you experienced) and days when you merely had to stand on ice and let wind move you (wether you wanted to or not).
You’re the 2nd person to mention the wind, but we didn’t have that. I guess we were lucky :)
Just went to Iceland on Jan. 10 of this year and it was a dream come true! Coming from Boston we also arrived early but our hotel (Hotel Odinsve) checked us in with no extra fee.
If you wear contacts and go to the Blue Lagoon I highly recommend bringing contact solution w/you in case you get the mud in your eyes like a dummy. Not that I know anyone that had that issue…
Can’t wait to go back in the summer!
Matt, thanks for all of the information. My husband and I and 4 of our friends plan to visit Iceland June of 2015. We booked houses through http://www.airbnb.com and found some delightful houses, the prices were reasonable and the 6 of us will enjoy staying together in homey conditions. Have you ever used this program for housing as you’ve traveled? We also plan to rent a van and plan our own trips. We can’t wait. I love your photos!!
That’s a fantastic idea! I just came back from Iceland and we also rented a car. It’ll definitely make it way cheaper, and then the fact that you’ll be there in summer will give you many more hours of light so you can drive more and see more stunning places : ) (we were a bit pressed on time because of the hours of darkness). We saw several options for car rental but I’d say Viking Car Rental and Auto Car Rental had some of the best prices compared to others. Some of the advantages you’ll find is that Iceland has a very very informative and useful website about their roads (live webcams everywhere, the state of the roads, closures, how many cars have driven each section in the last minutes… very well done!). It’ll come handy for you. Be aware that you might want to consider renting a jeep, so you can drive in F roads (with gravel and quite bumpy). This will give you the option of getting to many interesting places that with a low clearance car you wouldn’t be able to get to, and as you’re splitting the costs amongst several people it’ll be worth it : ) I’d give you some advice for the Northern Lights but I guess the hours of darkness in June won’t be really helping :(
We are planning to go for a week in March ’15, in hopes of seeing the Aurora. Should we stay in Reyk the whole time or book a couple nights in another town, as well?
Great information on your site. Thanks.
I’ve written a long and very informative (I hope!) answer to this but it’s waiting for approval :/ it might be because of some links I’ve put on it. I hope it’s approved so you get the info!
Off to Iceland later this month. Did you visit Jokulsarlon? And were you there in summers or in winters?
No and winter :)
Hi ! Great (inspiring and motivating) post !
A friend and I are planning on visiting Iceland this summer, but neither one of us has a driver’s license (due to the way to dirty but efficient metro system…). Do you think it’s still worth the while to go (all the while being students aka. on a budget) or should we wait a little until we can tour the country by car ?
Matt – this is such a great piece for someone like me, traveling for the first time to Iceland. My partner and I plan on choosing Iceland as our honeymoon destination, but I am feeling quite overwhelmed by all of the things to do! Your list sure helped to narrow it down – thanks!
The 3pm check-in is a pretty standard policy at most hotels I’ve been in Europe / Australia – maybe it’s different in the US.
I’d hardly call paying extra for “early check-in” a rip-off – You’re staying extra time, and disrupting the regular cleaning schedule, not to mention most people want a late check-out (I know we always go for midday if we can), so I hardly think it’s fair to diss them on this.
Only place I’ve ever seen with a standard policy of charging for them. Everywhere else they just let you in as rooms are available.
Thanks for all the info, just wondering what other cities are good to check out in Iceland? Going for a few days on my way back to Canada from Scotland towards the end of August. Any other recommendations?
Hi, Do you know if it’s better to book tours beforehand or are they plentiful / same cost when you’re there?
If you can do it in advance I would
loved reading your tour of Iceland I have a disabled husband who would love to go he has a wheelchair and can walk but not very far would it be a good trip for him do they have places we can go and see
Your post has made me even more excited about the trip I booked for my 13 year old and I in mid June. We are spending three days in Iceland and then off to London for 4 days.
Hi, my daughters an I have booked a short trip to Iceland, Jan 18 staing in Keflavik, about 10 mins from the airport. I could really do with tips and ideas as I’ve noticed everything seem to point towards Reykjavik for trips and tours, I’m having trouble finding anything going from Keflavik. We’d like to visit the blue lagoon, and possibly weather permitting see the arora. Other options would be whale watching, any tips, trips or ideas would be greatly appreciated.
Hi Matt, I’m booked for a 4 day stay in January at Grand Hotel Reykjavik. To my understanding this hotel is just outside (20-25min) away from City Center. Being 2 ladies mid-late thirties that also want a piece of Iceland’s nightlife, would you suggest that we stay a little closer to City Center? Also, our flight gets in at 6am. Because we obviously want to visit the blue lagoon I heard it saves time to go either as soon as your flight gets in or if time permits on the way back to the airport. Would you agree with that or it doesn’t matter?
There are plenty of hotels in the city center, I’d definitely stay in one of them. Being outside of the city will be annoying. And check the opening times for the Lagoon and if it works then yeah I’d do it when you arrive. Otherwise you’ll have wet clothes in your luggage on the way home…
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