The land of fire and ice has become a hot flashpacker destination in recent years, even making it to #2 on our Best Places to Travel Alone in 2020 list. A large contributor to this trend is Icelandair providing passengers with a multi-day stopover before continuing their journey to other parts of Europe. If you’re considering a trip across the pond, you should look into a multi-day layover in Iceland (tips on how to do that in How to Find Cheap Flights).
Best Time to Visit Iceland
Before you book your trip, it is best to know when you want to visit Iceland as that will make a huge difference in what you will be able to see. If you travel between November and early March, the days will be shorter with an average of 6 hours of daylight each day. One great opportunity for this period is getting to see the Northern Lights/Aurora Borealis dancing in the night sky. However, if you decide to go during the summer, between June through August, it will be the complete opposite. During those months it is nothing but light outside. If you arrive during that time, it's very important to bring along a sleep mask to help you catch some Z’s. Let's dive on in and explain what you might expect.
Arriving in Iceland
You will most likely be arriving at Keflavik International Airport. As soon as you clear the EU customs and collect your luggage it is recommended to hop on one of the coach buses parked outside. The ride will cost about $25 USD however this is way cheaper than trying to go by taxi which may cost over $100 USD. I will admit, normally I take a taxi or an Uber directly from the airport to my hotel every time I travel, but to me this made the most sense and it was the best decision I could have made while there. Iceland is a very expensive country and any time you can save some money; it will go a long way.
Day 1 - Exploring Reykjavik
Most flights will arrive in the late morning or early afternoon which means you will probably miss some of the excursions and day trips outside of the city. However, this is a great opportunity to spend a day in the city. Reykjavik is an easy city to navigate and most of it you will find easily walkable.
One place worth visiting is the Hallgrimskirkja church. I have visited Europe multiple times in different countries, and this has to be my favorite church I have ever seen. The architecture makes it unique in a way that doesn’t follow any traditional style. To enter is free however if you want to go to the top of the tower it costs about $8. Normally I would think that would be a lot of money to go up, but I highly recommend it. The views are amazing looking out over the city.
If you are feeling a little adventurous or a foodie like myself, you should try one of Iceland’s delicacies; fermented shark. There was a place that I visited that sold it right across the street from the church. The restaurants know you may want something to wash it down with so they will normally provide a shot of Brennivín; Iceland’s signature distilled beverage made from mashed potatoes.
If you love museums, Reykjavik has got that for you. My favorite that I visited was called the Saga Museum. It talks about some of the origins of the first nomadic settlers of Iceland who came from Ireland and Scandinavia. A ticket costs $8 and if you want an audio tour that's an additional $3. At the end they have different outfits that you can try on and take photos with. It might make for a great Instagram photo.
Now you're probably thinking about food at this point. Based on what I mentioned, your money will be flying out of your wallet faster than you can imagine. Depending on how long you are staying for you may choose to have a sit-down meal and there are a few options all around.
However, the best way to save money is to go to a grocery store and buy your meals there. There are multiple grocery stores all around and if you walk 10 minutes outside of the city you will find some local prices. Before you buy too much of anything make sure that your accommodations has everything you may need to make it. I was lucky that there was a microwave in the communal area of my hostel. Being a college student, that made me feel right at home. The tap water in Iceland is perfectly safe to drink, and it's rumored to be one of the safest in the world.
Nightlife in Reykjavik
No matter what time of year you come there is always something going on at night. If you want a small place to relax there are some bars where you can enjoy live music. In addition, there are a few small comedy club venues around which I visited and made for a fun night. If you like something on a bigger scale, there is the Harpa concert hall that has different events performing each night.
Now that you have settled in its time to say bye to Reykjavik, grab your trusted daypack and get ready for the excitement that awaits outside of the city. There are lots of places to visit but here I have listed a general itinerary of recommended spots.
Day 2 - Golden Circle
The Golden Circle is likely the most popular day tour. You will set out and visit Thingvellir National Park. This trip has something for everyone. In this park the oldest parliament in the world was founded in 930 AD. At the time there were merchants, politicians, and nomads coming from all around the island, gathering to discuss different ideas of the time. Today, much of it has been taken back by nature and there is a vast array of scenic trails to explore. For those geologist fans, it is the only place in the world where you can walk between the North American tectonic plate and the bordering Eurasian plate above ground.
After visiting the park, many tours visit the secret lagoon. It's not really much of a secret anymore but it is the country’s oldest geothermal pool. If you visit any of the lagoons (including the famous Blue Lagoon) Iceland has a very strict policy to follow. As soon as you enter you will remove your shoes before entering the locker room. You will then need to remove all of your clothing and take a shower making sure to fully wash. After that you can put on your bathing suit and enter. Those who do not do so will be told to go back inside and do it. As soon as you enter you will feel how amazing it is. It relaxes you and puts you at ease in so many ways and can be great to spend a few hours in.
Day 3 - Southern Iceland
If you head south, you will encounter more amazing scenery from volcanoes, beaches, and waterfalls. The waterfalls specifically in the south have an added surprise to them. The first one you will likely see is Skogafoss. It is not uncommon to see a rainbow over the waterfall. Hiking about 500 steps to the top of the waterfall allows a great photo looking down.
The other waterfall you will most likely see is Seljalandsfoss. This is where you see something unique- the backside of the falls. You can walk right behind the waterfall but make sure to take extra caution. There are no steps, the trail is uneven and slippery. If you do decide to walk behind it make sure to have an extra set of clothes packed away in a waterproof backpack or dry bag because you will get soaked.
The last portion of the southern part of the island you will probably visit is Reynisfjara known for the famous black sand beach. The black sand actually originates from the volcanic ash that has spewed onto the beach. However, it is important to be extremely careful when visiting this beach. Right at the water's edge there are sneaker waves that come in swiftly and are very strong. They can come all of a sudden without any warning and happen quite often. It is so dangerous that there have been fatalities from it. To be on the safe side, stay away from the water's edge as much as possible, the farther back the better. This beach is also known for its basalt columns. Many people try climbing them, but I would highly discourage it. The columns can be very slippery and cause injuries as a result. Overall it is a beautiful beach, but be mindful of the risks.
Day 4 - Northern Iceland
This part of Iceland I felt is very underrated compared to the other trips. On this trip you will go to Snæfellsnes Peninsula which is its own National Park. The jewel of the park is Kirkjufell mountain in the backdrop. You may recognize it from various movies and TV shows including Game of Thrones and the most recent Star Wars trilogy.
The rest of the trip you will also visit Djúpalónssandur beach which is another black sand beach. Right near this beach is where a small fishing village once existed. The other part of this area that makes it unique is seeing the carved-out lava rock in different formations- one of which has a hole right in the center.
Northern Lights (winter only)
The northern lights are one of the amazing natural phenomenons that amazes anyone who may see them. When particles released from the sun enter earth and hit the oxygen and nitrogen gases, they emit a light which we are able to see. However, if you want to see them there are important steps you must take.
Firstly, you cannot be in Reykjavik since there is too much light affecting the sighting. Secondly do not use your cellphone often to get photos since that will change your night vision perception. Thirdly and most importantly when booking your tour try for the first or second day in Iceland. It is not 100% certain you will see them. If that happens, the tour company will most likely offer you a return voucher to go the following day or whenever works for you. Many people wait until the last day of their trip and they don’t get to see the Northern Lights and are disappointed. To learn more, try out this website where you can track the Aurora activity and see what time is best.
Overall Iceland is a fantastic and amazing country. The untouched scenery and natural beauty make some of the places unbelievable. It is one of the places that I felt 5 days wasn’t enough and I would have to return again to visit it more.
About the Author
|As of 2021 Sean has visited 37 countries on 6 of the 7 continents while working full time. He recently graduated with a degree in recreation, parks, and tourism, and now with more free time, he's hoping to carry on traveling to far and distant locations uncovering the underrated and unseen destinations of the world. Follow his adventures on Instagram @carryonsean.|