Planning Your Iceland Vacation--It can be complicated so let's get you started
Here's how I traveled Iceland and how I made my decisions for how. Plus all the links for everything I did and everywhere we stayed. It will be a nice jumping off point for you to customize your own trip. Feel free to email me, or DM me on Instagram to ask any questions you have. I'm happy to help!
Do you think you will go to Iceland more than once?
Neither did I!
So that means...what do you need to see on this trip to feel like you have 'done' it?
(If you want to start with a visual of my entire trip, you can go look at my Instagram stories highlight here.)
For me, this turned out to be no easy question. Iceland is actually a big country if you're thinking of doing 'it all' in a single trip. The result was this was my most challenging trip to ever plan. There are a million truly great things to see (think 10,000 waterfalls alone!) and I didn't know where to begin. Do you?
I started by calling a casual acquaintance who had recently taken her son for 9 days in Iceland. She thought that ended up being too short. Ok! Good, a guideline. So I broke our flight for 11 days. Once I dove deep into planning, I actually gave serious thought to changing those plane tickets to extend it, but the tickets were complicated to arrange with my husband and I flying from San Diego and my kids flying from Savannah, GA, so I committed to my 11 days and did my best work from there.
My friend also told me they drove a lot and stayed one night here, one night there. That is SO NOT my kind of travel to live out of a suitcase like that. I felt a bit disheartened, but she said even though she also doesn't like to do the "it's Tuesday I must be in Brussels" thing either, that is just how it is to be in Iceland. So, again, I resigned myself but built in some rhythm that I'll share with you.
To keep track of all the driving and the potential stops, I built what I named "Daily Itineraries". They were for me and in the end, they were a great thing I could send my 90-year-old dad so he could armchair travel with us.
On each itinerary would be my saved Google Map of the route, approximate timing and distances, all the possible places we might want to stop, plus often a list of potential restaurants to eat in at meal times. I did them in email and emailed them to myself, then copied each day into my Notes section so I would have them on my phone and not need to use my laptop for a guide.
They looked something like this.
Keep in mind, this is not hard and fast. Each day's itinerary is merely meant to serve as a guide. Flexibility is key. Scroll down to day 4 to see how this original itinerary morphed.
Airbnb: Two Bedroom Penthouse apartment in the middle of downtown
Click here to see my full review of our place
We flew in at 6am on Iceland Air, giving us the entire first day to explore. I paid our host a small extra amount to be able to access the apartment first thing that morning to drop our luggage. This was a lifesaver move!
Knowing we would potentially be wiped out from travel and functioning at half capacity, I booked us a walking food tour for 11:30am that day.
There were several reasons I did this:
We would need to walk and stretch our legs after flying so long
Walking with a guide would orient us to the layout of the city
The guide would give us a basic understanding of things Icelandic, and we could ask all the questions we had
We would be fed delicious food without having to research ad nauseam to hopefully find a good restaurant. We otherwise wouldn't even know what would be near us in that moment
It worked! It was a brilliant plan. I booked Reykjavik Food Walk because it is the most popular and in demand. I knew it would be great and it was. Our guide was Dagoosh (Day for short)....ask for him. Click here for my full review and itinerary of the Food Walk.
After the walk, we did some shopping then back to the apartment for some sleep!
I booked us with a private guide who had been highly recommended by someone I don't even know on TikTok 😆 We lucked in again! Our guide: @ArticMike was spectacular! Made us wish we'd booked him for every day of the trip. Click here for my review and more details about our day with him. This was a full day. He picked us up at our apartment at 7am and dropped us home at 8pm.
I did this for similar reasons to the food tour on Day 1. When you travel with a guide, you get a better understanding of where you are, you learn the ins and outs of a place, you learn history, detail and interesting facts about a place and again, there is an aspect of it being a rest day. We saw ALL the big South Coast Iceland attractions so we didn't have to figure it out ourselves: Sejalandfoss, Skogafoss, Selfoss, Kvernufoss, Reynisfjara Black Sand Beach, Dryholey Cliffs. Mike found the lunch place (btw...all guides in Iceland eat free regardless of where. It's a thing and a very nice thing, I'd say)
It was time for some rest.
Today, I left space for us to shop, get our Icelandic wool sweaters picked out, eat at cute places we'd been seeing and pick up the 4x4 with a snorkel that we rented to drive the rest of the country on our own. (see my post on driving in Iceland. You will be shocked to discover how much weird stuff you need to know to do it and be safe! I also give you some guidelines on how to pick the right car for what your plan to do.)
In the afternoon, I booked us in to spend many lazy, luxurious hours at the Sky Lagoon. See my full review here. We shopped until 3p, then enjoyed the lagoon, after which, we had an 8pm dinner reservation at the fabulous restaurant right downstairs from our apartment: Kol.
You can begin to see how I plan a rhythm to the trip:
Long enough in a single place to unpack, ground, root and get comfortable.
Letting the professionals carry the heavy loads in the beginning, so we are able to do it for the balance of the trip.
Map for the Day
Thingvellir National Park
Landeyjahofn for the ferry to the Westman Islands to see the black stave church and puffins
I scheduled ALOT of driving for this day, so we hit the road early. Most bakeries/coffee shops in Iceland open at the earliest at 8am. Luckily, one of the best bakeries in town, Braud, was located around the corner from our flat, and they are a genuine bakery, opening at 6:30 for bread, pastries and espresso drinks! We popped in there, grabbed our goods, loaded the car then hit the road by 7:30am.
The nights before, we looked at the itinerary as a family and modified it based on new priorities. The rental car agency had delivered the car the day before, so we wiped that off. The timing of this day had been based upon when the car agency opened. This allowed us to get an earlier start. Looking at the Kerid Crater, we wiped it off the list in order that we could spend more time on the Westman Islands. We also smartly skipped lunch in Selfoss by grabbing sandwiches at the cafe in Geysir that we ate in the car.
Then it got all messed up. We got to the Westman Island ferry for the 2:30 crossing, only to discover I flip flopped the timings. 2:30 is when the ferry departs FROM the island back to the mainland, so the next ferry we could get on was 3:45. I bought tickets, but that left us 1 hour 45 mins to fill. In the end, we returned the tickets, skipped the Westman Islands altogether, and went directly to Vik. Stopped by Reynisfjara Black Beach for a second look, then for gas in town, a light early dinner at Strondin Pub and then checked into our Airbnb in Reynishverfisvegur. Our rental is located near the Black Sand Beach.
This is the list with links for the food/restaurant options I scoped out for Vik:
Drangar at Hotel Kira (really nice menu)
Smidjan Brugghus (brew pub)
Restaurant Sudir Vik (menu on FB)
Nights 4 & 5
Airbnb: Privacy and views galore on the Black Sand Beach of Reynisfjara near Vik.
Today was an easier day, relatively. Something you should know is that coffee shops do not open before 8am. Our tour guide, Mike, from day 2 had told us that in Iceland, unlike in the United States, you can eat food from a gas station and it won't make you sick. Since the gas station was the only thing open when we wanted coffee/breakfast, we chanced it. Holy cow! The gas station food was great! We had this yummy cinnamon pastry and mini pizza with coffee. My husband had a donut he loved.
Then off to do our Katla Ice Cave Tour with Troll Expeditions. This was great and well worth it. The Katla Ice Cave is the only ice cave you can visit in the summer. Ice caves are more stable and safe in winter when the ice isn't melting. Click here to see my review of the Katla Volcano Ice Cave Tour. Cost approximately $170 USD per person.
Vik is a small town so many operators share spaces. Troll Expeditions shares theirs with both the Soup Company of Iceland and Lave Show Iceland. This made things really easy. After the cave tour, we had a soup lunch. Spectacular. The broccoli cheddar was amazing as was the red hot lava soup that came in a black bread bowl!
The cafe is just outside the door for our next stop: The Icelandic Lava Show. The Icelandic Lava Show is pretty cool and worth the under an hour that it takes. It's a small room, so an intimate close up setting. You get a presenter who tells some stories and interesting facts, a short film about the time an eruption wiped out the town of Vik, then a live demonstration with real lava! It's fascinating. When the lava begins flowing into the room, the room heats up quickly. I was so warm, I got super sleepy. At the end, we were each given a sample of cooled lava to take home with us. Cost approximately $35 USD per person.
The rest of this day was just chill. We visited the Iceland Handknitting Association located in what feels like is someone's house up on the hilll We loved it! The gal in the little shop was so excited to have us visit, she showed us her machines and work and then we shopped. I bought THE cutest 'elf' hat. They also had woolen socks coming off the machine which were all tied together. I had no idea socks were made that way! And then, the piece de resistance were beer cozies that were knit like gloves to hold your beer with a bottom to keep it from slipping out--all whilst keeping your hand warm. Necessity is the mother of invention for sure.
On our way back to our fabulous beach front house, we stopped by the church (so we could see where to go if we need to evacuate...because they think it is only a matter of days or weeks before the Katla Volcano (that we were just up on in the Ice Cave today) is going to erupt. All signs point that way. Then I couldn't resist stopping at the new crepe food truck on the edge of Vik.
Map Day 6
I did these daily itineraries before landing in-country. So every night before our next day's plans, the family reviews all the stops, the starting time, we'd look at the links and agree if we want to do it all or take things out. This is one of those days that got a major overhaul. We did the same for the next day because we just don't want to spend the entirety of our vacation driving all day.
Today we left Vik and headed to Seydisfjordur. It was scheduled to be a long-ass drive. I had originally scheduled a bunch of stops.
An hour's drive outside of Vik is Fjaðrárgljúfur Canyon. You may and do a 2 mile hike to the falls. This was probably going to take at least an hour to do round trip. Not to be blasé about waterfalls, but we know we don't need to see them all, and decided to bank that time back into our day.on at the bottom and hike it, it eventually became too dangerous because of this, that they shut that down (no more floating on your back in the water Justin Bieber style). Now you hike up a designated trail on one side of the cancyon. The views are spectacular, the trail is safe. The hike is relatively short, albeit steep in some places and well worth the effort. I personally liked it because it was nice to get my heart rate up during a long driving day plus I clocked about, 4000 steps. 🎉
Next stop (that we eliminated) was to stop at the Svartifoss Trail and do a 2 mile hike to the falls. This was probably going to take at least an hour to do round trip. Not to be blasé about waterfalls, but we know we don't need to see them all and decided to bank that time back into our day.
Instead, we headed straight for Jokulsarlon Lagoon and the Diamond Beach. Lots of tour operators run groups in Zodiacs, amphibious vehicles, even kayaks. A tour through the icebergs in the lagoon can take 1 to 2 hours. We weren't up for that much time there and when we got there, we knew it was the right choice. You don't need that much time there. We parked on the lagoon side first and marveled at the icebergs and blue ice. We hiked a bit around the lagoon, then stopped in the shop to pick up car food for the next long leg of our drive and a handful of souvenirs. Then, we crossed the highway to the beach side, hoping to see the 'diamonds'. When you google it, it looks amazing. There were some diamonds, but not that many, so we concluded it must be denser in the winter time. It was still fun to see.
From there, the next stop originally planned was Eggin i Gleoivik. Click the link and read about it. It was going to be a drive through of the egg art installation and in the end seemed like a lot of time and didn't seem that exciting so off it went!
Three and a half hour drive from the lagoon we stopped in Stodvarfjordur to see Petra's Stone Collection, in a town that didn't have a single coffee shop or restaurant. Stein Petra's was an organic collection of interesting rocks collected by Petra, now displayed in his yard. They charge approximately $7 pp to walk thorugh and my husband didn't think it was worth it (he's probably right) so we drove down a little way to the Visitor's Center where they have a massive store of items like everything you can knit from wool, make with lava or reindeer antlers all handmade by locals. It was a special little shop and they apologized they had no coffee, telling us we needed to go to another town for it. We laid in the grass outside their shop for a bit, enjoying the peace of the town.
For our overnight, I did not have much confidence in our accomodations. I had undersold it to the family as the only thing I could find. It looked spare, inexpensive, not luxurious, but there were few choices. We pulled into the town of Seydisfjordur and were instanly charmed. Same with our little cottage which turns out sit ON the water. My husband tried to get us to stay a few more nights here. Not really possible in Iceland in the summer last minute. When we landed in Reykjavik we learned that 94% of all possible accomodations in all of Iceland were booked for the summer. Anyway, I booked it because we needed the stopover and it turns out to be as cute as a bugs ear and probably the best location in town.
We arrived in Seydisfjordur and there were three small cruise ships in town, just leaving. One local told us there are 600 residents and each day 4000 cruisers get dropped on the town. I don't know how they support it because there are only like five restaurants! I had to make our dinner reservation for tonight way in advance at this VERY well-reviewed sushi place called Nord Austur in the Aldin Hotel on main street. Easy to find. OMG the food was SO good! We had this rice appetizer with a jalapeño on it, then I shared lamb bulgogi and a fried chicken dish with my daughter. It was way better than the names sound...the flavors were exquisite. I highly recommend.
We had a really good buffet breakfast the next morning at the Hotel Aldin.
Nearby the restuarant is the rainbow street leading to the town church and some good boutique shops. There's not a lot in town of anything, but the nature is everything.
Here are some additional resources for you for this small town.
Pick up food for breakfast next day if you leave before 9am because everything opens late.
Nordic Restaurant (need reservation!) +354 472 1277 https://visitseydisfjordur.com/dining/nordic-restaurant/
Skaftafell Bistro Ausurvegur 41 +354 471 1633 need reservation https://skaftfell.is/en/bistro/ KaffiLara El Grillo Bar (grilled food) Nordurgata 3 +354 472 1703 https://visitseydisfjordur.com/dining/kaffi-lara/ The Filling Station (breakfast only Hafnargata 2a (Austurlands Food Coop) https://visitseydisfjordur.com/dining/the-filling-station/ SHOPS: https://visitseydisfjordur.com/shopping-and-dining/ TO DO: https://visitseydisfjordur.com/what-to-do/
Nights 7, 8 & 9
Airbnb: Hrimland Luxury Cottages
Map Link Day 7
By now you are probably seeing that I am VERY flexible when it comes to travel. I believe you should only ever do what you want and not hold yourself to an irrelevant schedule. I make schedules in advance because I don't want to have the stress of figuring things out on the fly. I put all the options on paper, with all the resources I need such as links, phone numbers and addresses, then do what we feel like in the moment. It works for us!
Everyone in my team was tired from the driving and stopping the day before, so we fine tuned the itinerary for the day by eliminating the following:
It looks great and you can stop to view or park and hike.
Since we did Fjaðrárgljúfur Canyon the other day, we thought that could serve as our 'canyon' fill for this trip.
Since we had done Geyser and weren't that excited about it earlier, we decided not to stop. We did however end up driving right by it because it is visible from the road and felt it wasn't a miss.
I had read in advance this was a place with massive bugs and brought bug nets...didn't use them because we didn't stop. I'm not totally sure what we missed minus some nice hiking because you can see the lake from the road.
If you drive the Ring Road, you see many, many different lava fields. I'm sure up close there are some amazing things we did not see. We just didn't prioritize this.
Hike to Grjotagja Cave
I thought this might be a nice option if we had been driving and wanted to get some fresh air and stretch our legs with a beautiful hike and have a destination. As it turned out, it would have taken too much time.
Something I really wanted to do and just couldn't talk the family into.
Again too much time and too little interest from the group
We kept in...
And glad for it. When driving it turns out it's nice to stop and relax in the healing waters. We had a lovely lunch of Tom Yum soup, rye bread with salmon and other goodies in the Myvatan cafe.
You can click to see my full review here.
Our cottage sat in the hill just above Akureyri and we had THE most magnificent views. Our biggest window faced the outlet of the fjord so we were able to watch the midnight sun traverse beautifully through the night.
For a second, we thought we made a mistake being slightly above town instead of in the hubbub but 3 massive cruise ships docked and town was swarmed. We were delighted we were above the fray. Our location was deeply peaceful, profoundly quiet and grounding. Stylish, comfortable, lots of space. We loved it. I actually looked into buying one to use as a short term rental. That's still in the works! Keep you posted.
Dinner: Bautinn down on the main (touristic) shopping street. Extensive menu, including a pizza place next door. I had vegan tacos (eh), my son had ribs he loved. The other two had steak and mushrooms on toast (it was ok)
Akureryri is Iceland's second largest town just behind Reykjavik, so there are many big city amenities, including lots of places to choose for eating.
Kaffi Ilmur (in an old saddlery)
Greifinn pizza among other things like soup
Mulaberg Bistro and Bar (looks great)
Lemon (sandwiches and smoothies)
Centrum Kitchen and bar (open until 8p)
Bautinn (pub food and burgers)
Berlin Akureryi 8am breakfast and lunch cafe
Gotubarinn bar with live music, trendy hippest place in town
My daughter is a horse lover, so how could we come to Iceland and not ride Icelandic horses (don't call them ponies...they get offended. They are full-grown). There are many options around the island for riding. I did a lot of research and picked Polar Hestar. As my luck wouyld have it, they were an amazing choice. A lovely, easy 25 min drive from Akureyri.
You can see my full review of Polar Hestar here.
I knew that after 2 hours bouncing around on the back of a horse, our next stop would need to be a geothermal hot spring. Forest Lagoon is right on the edge of Akureryi but you feel miles away. It was just what we needed.
All the details about Forest Lagoon can be found here in my review.
The aftenroon plan was to zipline. But my husband has a hip and back injury that totally got racked up by the horse riding, so we canceled. I now have a credit to use on a future tirp, that I'll be happy to sell to you for a deep discount if you are going to Iceland anytime soon. Zipline Akureyri.
Map for the day
We had an easy morning, went for pastries and coffee at Kristjans Bakari. Picked up sandwiches for the road...all excellent. Then hit the road for an hour drive to the town of Husavik. You may have heard of it because it is the subject of the Eurovision movie with Will Farrel and Rachel McAdams. I am an unlikely super fan of this movie. I'll admit it's part of why I wanted to drive up there. Mostly people go to Husavik to whale watch--something no one in my family had any interest in. We've all whale watched multiple times in Hawaii and San Diego, so the thrill is gone. Beyond the whales, it's really hard to find something to do in Husavik. I had hoped we could find some puffins...but we weren't lucky in that department.
Townfolk do their best to capitzalize on their movie fame, and one person had opened the JaJa Ding Dong bar. They serve Italian food and it is not the actual bar from the movie, however, it now houses the official Eurovision Museum. In it you will find props and costumes and a really good documentary from the making of the film.
Cost of entry is 2,000 ISK per person.
We did an ad hoc tour from our own memory of other sites from the movie l. I tell you all about it here .is dad were talking, the dock etc. Walk through free.
I hear that someone runs an actual tour of the Eurovision movie locations. Wish I'd known in advance. I would have booked it. Find it here.
After that we went into the Whale Museum. Very interesting. Tickets 2,200 ISK per person.
Lunch was delicious at Gmail Baukur down by the harbor. I had some delicious beef tacos and the family each had a hamburger.
Finished our day with our last geothermal experience in Iceland....Geosea. I tell you all about it here in this blog post.
Map for the day
Got up early to drive to Reykjavik for our last night.
My son had shopping he still wanted to do so to accomodate him, we skipped eveyrthing on the 'siri tour' this day en route back.
That included the following:
Eiriksstadir Viking Long House (open at 11am in June)
Krauma Spa (optional stop)
We can see Deildartunguhver the bubbling river here even if we don’t do the hot springs
War and Peace Museum (thought my WWII-loving son might like)
Cafe for getting lunch
The Settlement Center (looks interesting)
Wellness Cafe for lunch is nice menu. Better than War and Peace Museum lunch
I picked this Airbnb specifically because a parking spot came with it and we still have our monster truck car and needed a place for it. Parking in Reykjavik isn't too hard but it isn't that easy either, so I wanted to save us the trouble.
I hated our Airbnb. This may be an overreaction, but i was utterly disapointed and frustrated with them.
The apartment looks beautiful on the listing, but on arrival it was not luxury at all. Under the stairs was piled with bins and junk. The furnishings and artwork in the living room had changed since the photos were posted. It is also tired and worn. Furniture and rugs are dirty and stained. The ONLY reason I rented this apartment was for the free included parking spot for our giant Land Cruiser. I even messaged months in advance into about the exact car, and they confirmed it would fit in their spot. When checking in and asking how to access the parking spot in the building, they told me a lot about the ways to pay for street parking nearby. (?) I inquired more directly and did not get a reply. We were told we would be met in person for the check in then last minute (when we no longer had wifi we were sent a link to a video to watch for checking in. We did not even have the building or unit number) It was the most frustrating check in experience I have ever had. We finally went and found wifi to watch the video, after paying for street parking and the video instructed that the fob for parking in the building would be found on the table in the unit. There was no fob. We messaged inquiring where to find it and all communication stopped. The wifi did not work upstairs in the bedrooms. Water poured out of the extremely slippery shower all over the bathroom floor so we had to put a towel down. Drinking water in a country where drinking tap water is delightful, this place the water smelled like fish and we did not wish to drink from the tap. I do not recommend this apartment at all. If we were staying more than one utilitarian night before getting on our plane, I would have found somewhere else to stay. A disappointing note on which to end our trip.
Even so, we fit in all our last minute shopping and had a nice dinner at Fjallkonen in the heart of downtown. Bert had beef skewers and loved them. Me and the kids had lamb toast. Also very good. In the middle of the table we had chicken tenders, which I didn't like, but everyone else seemed to. Forgot to take pictures.
Early in the morning we dropped our beautiful beast of a car back at ISAK and Einar, who I'm still trying to figure out if he is the owner, drove us to Keflavik for our Iceland Air flight. We sat in the Saga Lounge at the airport. It was lovely. Quieter than the Delta lounges we usually use in the States. It felt more luxurious as the chairs were all like upholstered lounge chairs. Alcohol was serve yourself, because EVERYONE trusts people in Iclenad. It's refreshing (even if sometimes confusing for us Americans!)
Overall, I would say this was a trip of a lifetime. Twelve days allowed us to have an immersive and varied experience, and in my ideal world I would have added 2-3 more days to slow us down. When I return to Iceland, at the top of my agenda will be to see both the West Fjords, which we missed completely as well as the Westman Islands (different side of Iceland from the West Fjords) and to catch a glimpse of some puffins