our iceland itinerary (and everything you need to know when planning yours)
Iceland is a big travel trend as of late and after making my first visit in June, I have no question as to why—it’s easily one of the most beautiful places I have ever been, one I already can’t wait to return to. Honestly, it wasn’t even on my radar until maybe four years ago when a Facebook friend made the trip. I always pictured Iceland as I do Antarctica—all penguins and polar bears. But when those photos found their way into my feed, that’s when I first realized Iceland and Greenland are misnomers—their names are more accurately suited for each other. Those photos are also what pushed Iceland onto my bucket list.
In an age of social media, it seems that’s how things happen nowadays—it’s the glimpses into travel experiences of others that encourage our own. At least, I know that’s been the case for me. Whether it was going on a mission trip, studying abroad, or visiting a new place, there have been countless times when seeing others step outside their comfort zone or seize adventure with both hands made me want to do the same—which I'm forever grateful for.
If I had to pick one word to describe my experience in Iceland, it would be wonder-filled. I spent most of my time there feeling like a little kid, ooh-ing and ahh-ing at every turn, feeling so very full and alive. It’s like that little corner of the universe was gifted an extra dose of God’s glory and goodness—you can feel it. Throughout the post below, I’ll be sharing some of my trip with you. My hope is, like those who went before me, it might help you plan your own visit or at the very least, that the photos would fill your day with a little bit of wonder, too.
Because we were also visiting London on this trip, we decided to book a roundtrip to Reykjavík out of Heathrow—this was cheaper than three one way flights from California-Iceland, Iceland-London, and London-California. Our Iceland flight was via Icelandair, which I would totally recommend. WOW air tends to be slightly cheaper, but they have stringent luggage restrictions and we figured that by the time we paid to check our suitcases, it would have been more expensive. Also, pro-tip for ya—once we were in Iceland, we found out that Icelandair offers free stopovers. Meaning, if you use them to fly somewhere, you can stop in Iceland on your way for up to seven nights…for FREE. Obviously you have to cover your own accommodations, but there’s no extra charge for airfare. Had we known this before, we would have used Icelandair for our California-London round-trip flight, and taken them up on their offer.
A popular route when visiting Iceland is the “Ring Road”—a loop around the island that takes about 10 days to complete. When you do this route, you either camp or book different accommodations each night as you make your way around. But because we were only in Iceland for three days, we decided to make our base in Reykjavík. Two of our three days, our activities were within 1-2 hours but the first day, our furthest destination was four hours away, which meant eight hours of drive time total. We felt the long drive back was worth it because it saved us from having to “move,” and with the 24-hour sunlight, we were able to take our time on the drive and enjoy it (it ended up being an 18-hour day!). All that to say, the only accommodation recommendations I can offer are for Reykjavík, and I would 100% recommend the Airbnb we went with—our hosts were warm and friendly, flexible (they waited up to let us in at 5am the first night after our car rental hiccup), and they even put out tea and breakfast for us each morning. Best of all, they were only about ten minutes from the big city—the perfect launch pad for our destinations each day.
When it comes to getting around Iceland, I recommend booking a rental car over tour buses all the way. It’s cheaper (and bonus—unlike America, in Iceland they don’t charge extra to rent a car if you’re under 25—yay for me). But also, many of my favorite trip moments were the unplanned ones—when we got lost or pulled off the road because we saw something cool, and having our own car gave us the freedom to do so. One thing to note, we didn’t interact with the locals a ton, because we were mainly driving from one outdoor location to the next—it wasn’t a “city trip.” You may get to experience that element of culture a bit more doing a tour bus, but then again, you'd likely be with other tourists.
Tip for renting a car: definitely get windshield insurance. The wind in Iceland is no joke—and supposedly it wasn’t even that bad while we were there. We had several large pebbles hit our window and while thankfully it didn’t break, the side lot of the rental shop housed a whole bunch of other cars that told another story. As always, be sure to specify automatic if you don’t drive manual, check for dents and scratches, and test the car for a quick spin before signing off on it. The engine of our first car sounded like a dying animal and because of the wear and tear due to drastically changing weather and terrain, my guess is that’s not too uncommon. We booked through City Car Rental and while you may have read about our hiccup, I would still recommend them because of their helpfulness and willingness to remedy the situation—just triple check you select the correct airport as the pick-up destination. It should be Keflavík Reykjavík, NOT Reykjavík—the latter is a small, domestic airport (that you probably don’t want to find yourself stranded at one in the morning, not that I speak from experience 😜).
We mainly used physical maps for directions, though I did call Verizon to activate international capabilities—meaning, I could use my phone for $10/day unlimited everything, and it was comforting to know that was there if I needed it. But most of the places we visited were along one main stretch of road, so we did okay on the maps alone and were able to save money. Also, most places have Wi-Fi—it even popped up in the middle of nowhere at times—so it works well to pre-load your directions before you take off for the day.
One caveat to my recommendation of renting a car—several times while driving, we talked about how we would NOT be comfortable driving those roads and bridges in the winter when it was snowy and the roads were icy. Though, Kirsten and I are both from California and don’t have much experience driving in the snow. I definitely want to visit Iceland again in the winter (so I can enjoy these snow activities), and if I do, I would either go with someone experienced driving in that type of weather, or do a tour.
FOOD IN ICELAND
My personal philosophy when it comes to food and travel is simple: if you eat cheap, you can see more places—but know this is coming from a girl who ate powdered soup when she studied abroad in London so she could visit new countries every weekend. That being said, I know food can be an important part of experiencing a country’s culture, so I generally like to keep it cheap with groceries for the most part, then enjoy one or two meals out. Iceland is especially expensive, so we brought breakfast bars then stocked up for our road trips with water, fruit, and stuff for sandwiches at Bonus, their local grocery chain. Our splurge meal was LAVA Restaurant at the Blue Lagoon, which you’ll find in "Day 3" of this post. Even then, we only got an appetizer each—a large bowl of “Langoustine” (lobster) soup, which came in at about 3,000 Icelandic Krona. Tip: download the Convert app for currency/distance/speed conversion calculations but generally speaking, 3,000 ISK equates to about 30 USD. Side note, this is personal preference as well, but I don’t use local currency—I use my Bank of America Travel Rewards Credit Card because it lets me earn points, there’s no foreign transaction fee, and that way I don’t have to worry about withdrawing too much or not enough. Other than seafood, Iceland is known for its hot dogs (of all things), so we did also get one of those as well, and it was surprisingly good. If you do eat out, make sure you specify that you want still, tap water with your meal (rather than bubbly or bottled), or you will be charged. Besides, it’s Iceland—tap water literally doesn’t get any better.
WHAT TO WEAR IN ICELAND
The going joke in Iceland is, “You don’t like the weather? Wait five minutes.” Typically, the weather is unpredictable but for our mid-June trip, it was beautiful and consistent—mid 60's with the real chill coming from the wind. That being said, I do recommend bringing a heavy, insulated jacket—like my outer later in the photo above, because it does get cold. If you’re visiting in winter, bring the warmest wear you can find. Also, definitely bring a raincoat—for the sporadic showers, but also for the waterfalls that spray heavy mist. I grabbed this yellow one on a whim about a week before we left using my REI dividend, and wore it every single day as an outer layer (plus, I wasn’t mad about the pop of color it brought to my photos!). Bring athletic clothes and running or hiking shoes with good grip (my Nike’s did just fine), as most activities are outdoor and near water. I was in yoga pants every day except the last day, when we explored the big city (where, fun fact, over ¾ of the population lives!). Make sure to bring extra socks, a hat or two, and layers, layers, layers—that way you can be prepared for whatever the day throws at you. Lastly, while we're talking packing, Iceland does not have the same power plugs as us, so be sure to bring a European adapter, and whatever you do, do not forget to bring a camera! If you’re anything like me, you won’t be able to stop taking taking photos. 😉
OUR ICELAND ITINERARY
Though you forfeit seeing the Northern Lights, we thought June was the perfect time of year to visit Iceland because of the 24-hour sunlight (that very thing is what prevents you from seeing the lights). The positive is, you can fit so much into each day—a major plus if you don’t have endless vacation time. Besides, the lingering 3-hour pink sunsets that slowly give way to sunrise are hardly a consolation prize. I do want to go back in the winter at some point, because it’s an entirely different experience, but I would save that trip for when I have 7-10 days to spend rather than three—with only 3-5 hours of sunlight in the winter, you’d need at least that many days to see everything.
One of the requests I received when preparing this post was to identify the good photo spots. The answer? Everywhere. Iceland simply doesn’t have a bad side, as you’ll see below. This is one of those places you have to go to all the tourist spots because well, there’s a reason they’re tourist spots. My advice is, explore a little. Hike up the hill to the side of the waterfall, wander into the field of flowers—that’s where you’ll find unique views.
Below is a photo journal of our trip broken out by day, starting with a map of our route each day, so you can get an idea of where on the island different spots are. Enjoy, and I’d love to hear your comments and questions. Only one rule: don’t ask me how to pronounce any of these places. 😉
Day 1 was our longest day, and my personal favorite. The stretch of Highway 1 from Reykjavík to Jökulsárlón is probably the prettiest drive you will ever make, and it's where you find the most popular waterfalls.
After landing to a midnight cotton-candy sky in Reykjavík, we slipped on our eye-masks to get some sleep. Around noon, we set out for a full day ahead. All along the pastures on the sides of the road there were sheep and ponies, so of course we had to stop.
This waterfall is famous for its ever-present rainbow, and the fact that you can walk behind it. My favorite view of the fall was found from the hike we took up the hill to its right.
A little stand near Seljalandsfoss is where we picked up our hot dog, which was drizzled with ketchup, mustard, mayonnaise, and relish. I wasn't expecting to like it that much but boy, was I wrong.
The famous ice cap covering a volcano, which most recently erupted in 2010.
Icelandic Lupin Fields
Another reason to visit Iceland in June? LUPIN FLOWERS (they're actually weeds!). It's funny, when we were planning our itinerary, Kirsten and I kept trying to figure out where exactly to find the lupin flowers because we were worried we'd miss them, but no blog pinned down an exact location. Once we got to Iceland, we laughed—they are literally everywhere. This field we frolicked in was right across the road from Skógafoss. If you know how much I love wildflowers, you can appreciate how happy this made my heart.
As I stood there staring up at this waterfall, getting soaked by its mist, the only thing I could think was, what an incredible God I have. P.S. "Foss" means waterfall in Icelandic, which is why you see it at the end of all these names.
Black Sand Beach, Vík
It seems like every moment of our trip was perfectly timed in a way we couldn't have planned. While at Black Sand Beach, it was around 8 or 9pm and the sky was doing its purple thing, as paragliders sailed in over the tops of the cliffs. Many moments in Iceland felt otherworldly, and this was one of them. Be sure not to get too close to the water here, though—we were warned that the wind makes the current unbelievably strong, and waves are known to sweep people away.
Another God-moment, this field of volcanic rocks sits just off an obscure part of the road—easy to miss, except it was backlit by a perfectly timed golden sunset, which caught our eye. Tradition says if you add to one of the rock piles, you'll find good luck for your journey—but I think we already had it.
I love road trips, probably because they remind me of so many fond memories of family vacations growing up. There's just something about them—good conversation and views out the window as you drive on by. To me, road trips aren't simply the means to an end, but part of the fun. I think this is part of why I loved Iceland so much—even when you're between destinations you're enjoying the most scenic of drives.
Kleifar Campsite & Stjórnarfoss (Kirkjubæjarklaustur)
Kleifar: proof that sometimes a detour is a hidden gift. We stumbled upon this place after taking a wrong turn at a roundabout and it's a little-known treasure you'll be hard pressed to find on any Pinterest board. Between rock climbing up a hill, moss-ridden green fields, a golden-pink sunset, everything about this experience was pure magic.
After a long, dream-like day, it's hard to put words to what I felt when a big bridge we drove over peeled back suddenly to reveal our first glimpse at Glacier Lagoon. It was icing on top of a ridiculously, overwhelmingly beautiful day, and I couldn't contain my excitement.
A HUGE thank you to Chase Warren for taking all of our photos on Day 1!
Day 2 we did Golden Circle—a loop that starts in Reykjavík and takes you to some of the famous sites. It's about three hours drive time round trip.
Kerið Volcanic Crater, Golden Circle
Surprisingly, this crater was formed when a nearby volcano erupted, stealing its lava source and causing the earth to sink in. The result? A beautiful blue lake.
Geysir, Golden Circle
Do you see these colors? Purple and yellow wildflowers, green trees, red rock, blue sky? Iceland is unreal! Though it erupts every 5-8 minutes, Geysir, meaning "to gush," still startled me every time. Apart from the main geyser, steam bubbles from any opening in earth it can find, welcoming you with it's sulfur smell.
The one souvenir shop we rummaged through at Geysir.
Gullfoss, Golden Circle
The sheer volume of this waterfall is astounding—its power is said to rival Niagara Falls!
Þingvellir National Park
This national park is home to Silfra—a diving hole that also happens to hold the most drinkable water in the world. By the time it makes its way to the surface, the water has been filtered through about 50 kilometers of lava underground. Kirsten and I each filled up one water bottle and after our first sip, we were left wishing we'd brought ten. It was SO good. Þingvellir also houses Iceland's continental divide, which was pretty neat to sit on the ledge of!
Day 3, we relaxed with a little spa action, then took in the sights of the big city, Reykjavík.
Blue Lagoon, Grindavík
Many people start their Iceland trips with the Blue Lagoon, but personally I can't think of a better way to end it. After two long and beautiful days, soaking in the geothermal spa before getting ready to head to London was perfection. I'm not sure why some say it's overrated—I knew it was going to be heavenly but even then, it really "blue" my expectations out of the water. 😉 The temperature is that of a warm bathtub so unlike a hot tub, you can stay in it for hours and feel fine—which is great, because there's plenty to do. There's a waterfall that massages your back and shoulders, a sauna, a steam room, and an in-pool bar where you can get smoothies or cocktails. There's also a station to get your silica mud mask. Silica is the mineral found in the water that turns it a white-blue color, and it makes your skin incredibly soft. I thought this experience was worth every penny!
As I mentioned above, our one splurge meal was LAVA Restaurant, at the Blue Lagoon. We selected the Blue Lagoon ticket level that included a reservation plus free champagne, and booked our tickets for the opening time of 8am, then our reservation for 11:30am, when the restaurant opened. This paid off, because we got the best view in the house to enjoy our deliciously creamy lobster soup, with warm bread and butter to dip. My mouth is watering just thinking about it!
Finally, we concluded our trip with some city-exploring in Reykjavík. A must is a trip to Hallgrímskirkja Church for a 360 degree view of the capital and its colorful houses. Fun fact I learned here? Over 90% of Icelanders subscribe to the Christian faith! The main street, Laugavegur, is also a must—lots of restaurants and shops, and an all around lively and full-of-personality area.
There you have it, our Iceland itinerary for this trip of a lifetime! Let me know in the comments if you have any thoughts or questions I didn't address, and I'll be happy to answer them. 😊
Thanks for reading!