An Epic 4-Day Reykjavik, Iceland Itinerary

Iceland is closer to the United States than you might realize. The flight from Detroit to Reykjavik took less than 6 hours, which means planning a stopover trip on your way somewhere else in Europe or a long weekend in Iceland from the Eastern part of the U.S. isn’t unreasonable! And, while that might not give you enough time to take the Ring Road around the entire country, that is plenty of time to explore the capital city and take a few spectacular day trips.

Other factors that make Iceland a great place to visit are the safety and lack of language barrier for English speakers. Iceland has been ranked as the world’s safest country year after year (since 2008), making it ideal for solo travelers, couples, or groups alike. Also, tourism is Iceland’s biggest industry, and almost everyone speaks fluent English. One of the guides I was chatting with mentioned that Icelanders are tending to use English in casual conversations among themselves more and more nowadays, so it’s well-practiced and easy to understand.

Getting to Reykjavik

To get to Reykjavik, you’ll fly into the main international airport located in Keflavik (KEF). Then Reykjavik will be about 50 minutes away by car or bus. The airport has rental cars available, but if you plan on staying in downtown Reykjavik, it’s probably easier to avoid the rental car and just use the buses to get where you need to go. Near the door to exit the airport, there will be a bus ticket counter where you can purchase one-way or round-trip tickets. The bus schedule is set up to service each flight that arrives, so you can be sure that you won’t be stranded if you flight is delayed and shows up at a weird time. The bus airport transfer will take you to a bus depot, where the staff will help you transfer to the correct local transportation (included your ticket).

There are also taxis and private cars available, but the price for that is pretty steep. We’re talking around $120 or more as opposed to the $35 bus ticket.

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Where to Stay

If you are going to stay in Reykjavik the whole time, then you might as well stay downtown in the middle of everything. Here are a few great options:

  • Best budget option at Central Guesthouse Reykjavik – The guesthouse offers rooms with either a shared bathroom and kitchen facilities or studio apartments with a private kitchen and bathroom. While none of the accommodations in Iceland are exceptionally budget-friendly in my mind, you will save some money by staying at the Central Guesthouse rooms with shared facilities and then can save a bit more by buying groceries at the Bónus grocery store (most affordable grocery selection) and taking advantage of the kitchen you have access to.
  • Best value at Center Hotels Skjaldbreid – The location is excellent; close to several bus stops, tons of cafes and shopping, and in approximately the center of the official downtown area and the restaurant area that the locals frequent more often. Another huge bonus for this hotel is that the breakfast spread is included, which is not super easy to find in Reykjavik.
  • Most luxurious at Hotel Borg – located right next to the parliament building in downtown Reykjavik, the Hotel Borg is considered Iceland’s first deluxe hotel. It’s so integral to the city’s history that it even got a quick plug from our food tour guide. The hotel has its own spa, in case you want to enjoy a pampered night in.

What to do in Downtown Reykjavik

A great way to get to know any city is with a food tour! I like to set up a walking food tour at the beginning of my trip, because the guide will tell you some local history, help you to get your bearings, and give plenty of recommendations for the rest of your trip while ordering various local dishes for your group to try. An Icelandic food our is likely to include a few fish/seafood dishes, lamb stew, a hot dog, and perhaps a small piece of fermented shark!

Reykjavik is also known for its many (and sometimes eclectic) museums, two of which being the Punk Museum of Iceland and the Iceland Phallological Museum.

The Punk Museum is a former public restroom that has been covered in the history of punk music in Iceland. For about $12, you can stroll through the museum, read through the explanations printed on the walls, listen to some punk music, and take pictures behind the drums that are part of the museum exhibition. How long you spend there depends on how much time you spend reading the information on the walls, but you could go through the museum and be on your way in 15 minutes or less if you are pressed for time.

The “Phallological Museum” is a really fancy way of saying “penis museum”. The owner of the museum started collecting phalluses after receiving several as a joke, and he opened the museum after collecting 62 different phallic specimens. It has grown immensely since then, but remains the only museum of its kind in the world. Its current location in Reykjavik also houses a phallic-themed café and gift shop.

In poor weather, you may want to visit the Harpa Conference Hall for a performance. Or in good weather you may want to take the path starting near the Harpa Conference Hall and following along the coast, called the Sculpture and Shore Walk. On a clear day, you will have a view of the islands and Mount Esja out over the fjord you’re walking along. The full path is 15km (9.3 miles) long, but most people just walk the portion between Harpa and the Höfði House. Within this stretch is the Sun Voyager sculpture which looks like a Viking ship, but was actually meant to be a dream boat built as an ode to the sun. The walk makes for an excellent way to spend an hour, and the Sun Voyager makes for an excellent photo op.

Another big landmark in downtown Reykjavik is Hallgrimskirkja (the church of Hallgrimur), a towering Lutheran church designed by Guðjón Samúelsson. The basalt columns formed by volcanos that you can see on the black beach Reynisfjara, provided Samúelsson the inspiration for the church’s stunning design. It’s free to enter the church and take a look around, but for only 1,000 ISK (around $7) per adult or 100 ISK (around $1) per child 7 to 16 years old, you can take an elevator up to the church’s tower for a different view of the city.

Reykjavik is very walkable, so you can easily get to all of these locations on foot. However, you’ll see scooters scattered all over the city. If you want to grab one, you’ll just need to download either the Hopp or Zolo app and use it to pay about $0.20/minute for as long as you need it.

Visiting the Blue Lagoon

A trip to Reykjavik isn’t complete without visiting the iconic Blue Lagoon. The Blue Lagoon is between Reykjavik and the airport, so a lot of visitors stop by the Lagoon on their way to or from the airport to avoid paying the bus fare twice. However, I would rather spend a good chunk of a day there without needing to worry about being anywhere else, so I chose to spend the extra $56 for the dedicated Blue Lagoon Day transport from Reykjavik.

If you choose to do the same, transportation can be booked when you book your Blue Lagoon tickets on their website. But first, you’ll need to choose between the Lagoon’s comfort, premium, or luxury package. The comfort package is the standard option that just gets you into the blue lagoon with a mud mask and one complementary drink, starting at $63. I personally thought the premium package, starting at $80, was worth the upgrade; in addition to what’s included in the comfort package, it gets you 2 additional masks so that you can try 3 of the 4 mask options available, a bathrobe to use for your visit, and a glass of sparkling wine at the Lava restaurant. If you are ready to really splurge, you can always go for the luxury package, which starts at $553, and gets you 5 hours at the Retreat Spa. The Retreat Spa is a subterranean spa off of the “Retreat Lagoon”, which is a quieter corner of the Blue Lagoon that you need a luxury ticket or a booked massage to enter. You’ll pick a starting date and time for your preferred package, but all of them give you unlimited time in the Blue Lagoon on that day, just needing to exit at least 30 minutes before the Lagoon closes.  

You’ll be offered extras before you check out such as float therapy, an in-water massage, and reservations at the Lava restaurant. There’s a café on site that you can eat at without any advanced reservations. However, the Lava restaurant has great service, excellent food, and prime views of the lagoon. Also, I can’t recommend the massage enough! It’s 30, 60, or 90 minutes of blissful massage as you lay on a float with a blanket draped over you to keep you warm and combines the benefits of massage and float therapy.

When you arrive at the Blue Lagoon on the day of your booking, you’ll get in a line to check in and get a wristband that is color coded for the experience that you booked.  If you booked the luxury experience, the staff will tell you if you need to go somewhere special. Otherwise, you’ll head to the locker room and use your wristband to select a locker for the day. Once you stash your stuff in the locker and change into your swim suit, you’ll need to take a quick shower, and then you can head out into the lagoon. FYI, pretty much all the other hot springs in Iceland require you to shower completely naked in open shower areas of the locker room, but the Blue Lagoon has stalls and allow you to shower in your swimsuit to cater to tourists’ preferences.

Make sure to bring a waterproof phone case with you so that you can take your phone out into the Blue Lagoon without worrying about it getting damaged. Also, the lagoon water can be great for your skin, but not so much for your hair, so I would tie your hair up (if necessary) and leave a good amount of the conditioner in it to protect it from the minerals it might come in contact with.

The wristband will come in handy once again when you are out in the lagoon. There are walk up bars for the masks and drinks (both alcoholic and non-alcoholic) on different sides of the Lagoon. You’ll use your wristband to get the complementary drink and mask(s) that come with your package and then you can scan your wristband to purchase additional items if you’d like. At the end of the day when you’re ready to leave, you’ll scan your wristband and it will show your balance that you’ll have to pay to exit.

The Southern Coast

One of the two most popular day tours from Reykjavik is to the south coast tour that takes you all the way to Vik and back. The order of the tour will change based on the weather and time of year, but regardless, you’ll see the impressive waterfalls Skógafoss and Seljalandsfoss, the Sólheimajökull glacier, the Reynisfjara black sand beach, and the lava show in Vik.

Seljalandsfoss is fun to visit because you can walk underneath the cliff the waterfall flows over to go completely around the tumbling falls. Theres also a second waterfall a little way to the left of the main falls that you can walk over to and explore. Skógafoss is one of the largest waterfalls in Iceland and definitely worth making the trip to see. You can walk right up to the base of Skógafoss, take the path up the hill that overlooks the falls from above, or both. Make sure to wear a poncho or a waterproof outfit for both of these because if you plan on getting anywhere close to the falls, you will most certainly get drenched by the spray. Some tour companies will bring along waterproof gear in case you don’t have anything of your own.

The Sólheimajökull glacier is another impressive site between Reykjavik and Vik. If you travel to the glacier outside of a south coast tour group, it is possible to go hiking on the glacier itself. But on the group tour there was only enough time to learn a little bit about Sólheimajökull and then walk up to it or take the path to an overlook.

When you arrive at Reynisfjara beach, the black sands and the gigantic basalt-columned cliffs that rise abruptly into the sky will strike you as looking like a scene straight out of a fairy tale. That’s probably why it was chosen as one of the filming locations in Game of Thrones.  As you admire the beauty of the beach, maintain a decent distance from the water – Reynisfjara has “sneaker waves” that can be extremely dangerous. The surf will look pretty calm, and then, all of a sudden, a huge sneaker wave will appear seemingly out of nowhere (hence the name) that can easily sweep anyone that has ventured too close to the surf out to sea.

Finally, Vik is quaint village that draws visitors with the original live lava show that you can enjoy as part of your tour! You learn a ton about the Iceland’s volcanic history and how it helped shape the country into what it is today. Then you’ll learn more about lava and see a demonstration with actual molten lava that has been collected from a previous Icelandic volcanic eruption and re-melted. The show used to be the only one of its kind, until a second location opened in Reykjavik. So, if you aren’t able to go on a full south coast expedition you can still attend one of the lava shows hosted every couple of hours at the Reykjavik location.

The Golden Circle

The second very popular area near Reykjavik to explore is the Golden Circle, an area more immediately East of the capital than the stops on the South Coast tour. Golden Circle tours will typically visit Thingvellir National Park, Geysir, Gullfoss Waterfall, the Secret Lagoon, and either a tomato farm greenhouse or the Kerid Crater.

Thingvellir National Park is unique because it’s the only place in the world where you can walk between two continental plates. So, if that’s on your bucket list, you’ll need to visit Thingvellir where the North America and Eurasian plates are pulling away from one another. They only move apart by about 2cm per year, but that has created a canyon approximately half a mile long visitors can take from one parking lot to another in the park.

“Geysir” in Iceland is actually an area that includes several geysers of varying sizes. The largest and most famous is the Great Geysir, but it only erupts infrequently now. It’s still an active geyser, but you probably shouldn’t expect to see it go off during your visit. Strokkur, on the other hand, erupts every 4-10 minutes, and those eruptions can reach up to 40 meters high! When not shooting into the sky, the waters at Geysir look like calm pools of water. The water is piping hot though, so make sure to follow the advice of the signs posted around the park and not touch any of it to avoid burning yourself.

Gullfoss (translates to “Golden Falls”) is far from the tallest waterfall in Iceland, but, instead, impresses visitors with its width and volume. There are a couple different spots along the 1.1-mile route, out to the falls and back, to take in the 575-foot average girth of Gullfoss. Either for wind (year-round) or ice (in the winter), the overlook closest to the falls is often closed for visitor safety. But even when all the viewpoints are open, be ready to battle some strong winds and get a little wet from the spray.

Another staple in a Golden Circle tour is the Secret Lagoon. It’s a secret in the sense that, after opening in 1891 and being uses by the public for a while, it fell into disuse for almost 60 years until being re-furbished and re-opening in 2014. As the oldest natural hot pool in Iceland, it offers a simple, relaxing way to spend an hour or two. The front desk has a selection of alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages, and snacks that you can enjoy in the lagoon, plus towels and swimsuits for rent in case you forgot to bring one. The pool is filled by 3 small hot springs that circulate the warm water through continuously. Even though the water is rich in sulfur, you only catch a whiff of it when the Litli Geysir that feeds the pool erupts. Even then, you probably won’t notice it at all of you are on the far side of the pool.

The abundance of geothermal energy in Iceland is good for more than hot springs and geysers – it is also used to warm houses and grow food! Greenhouses all over the country use artificial lighting, geothermal heating, imported bees, and high-tech buildings to sidestep reliance on imports or natural farming methods and grow literally tons of tomatoes, peppers, cabbage, mushrooms, cucumbers, and more each year. Friðheimar is a well-known Icelandic greenhouse that offers tours of their facilities, food made from their crops, and a unique experience for visitors.

The Kerid Crater also lies within the Golden Circle. Scientists believe that the crater was formed ~6,500 years ago when a cone volcano erupted, depleted all its magma reserves, and then collapsed on itself. Water seeped up through the ground to fill the new crater and create the lake that’s there now. There is an entrance fee of a few USD, and then you are able to walk up a small incline to the lip of the crater where you can see stripes of volcanic red soil and rich green moss offsetting the striking blue color of the water. There’s a trail around the rim, or stairs that will take you down to the lake instead. 

Chasing the Northern Lights

Iceland is far enough north that the Aurora Borealis is visible in the Reykjavik area whenever the atmospheric conditions are right. Since you are at the mercy of those conditions, it’s a good idea to go chasing the Northern Lights with a company that spends their time tracking weather systems, solar activity, and all sorts of other factors. Even so, seeing the lights is by no means a guarantee, so it’s also best to schedule it early in your trip and make sure that the tour company will allow you to reschedule your tour to subsequent days until you are successful.

During my trip, I expected to see the bright greens, pinks, and purples that you see whenever you search for images of the Aurora. I was surprised to find that wasn’t really the case at all! The night of my tour there were clouds rolling in, so the guide took us pretty far in the opposite direction to avoid them while getting away from the light pollution of the city. However, it was a weaker showing of the Aurora that night and none of the colors were visible to the naked eye; there was light in the sky but it was just a softer gray tone compared to the surrounding darker portions. The guide showed us how to adjust our phone camera settings to expose the underlying colors on film, but it’s impossible to get a good picture of you and the Aurora at once with those settings. Again, the tour and guide are imperative because they come equipped with a professional camera and a ton of experience capturing photos of people and the Northern Lights at the same time. They’ll take as many photos of you as you want during the tour and then make all the photos available through a link that they share a day or so later. Those were way cooler than the subpar photos I captured on my phone!

4-Day Itinerary

October was a great time to visit Iceland because there wasn’t snow or ice yet that shut down any of the trails at the sites that we visited, but the hot springs were perfect with the cold fall temperatures, and it did get dark enough that we were able to see the Northern Lights. At other times during the year, that may not all hold true, and you may have to adjust this 4-dayIceland itinerary to account for the differences.

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