Iceland: The Complete Guide

Iceland is dreamy. Ethereal landscapes guarantee a wonder-filled vacation. Natural hot springs, breathtaking waterfalls and volcanoes- talk about an explorer’s paradise.

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Before visiting Iceland, I daydreamed about swimming in a geothermal lagoon, hiking a glacier, watching the Northern Lights and reveling in fresh seafood.

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We planned on visiting for five days in December 2015, hoping a winter visit would better our chances of seeing the Northern Lights. We were prepared for cold temperatures, but weren’t prepared for Reykjavik to be hit with the biggest snow storm the city had seen in 20+ years. Unfortunately, the weather meant we weren’t able to hunt for the Northern Lights on any of the nights we were in Iceland.


Despite the weather challenges, we still had a phenomenal trip. If anything, not being able to do some of our planned activities just gave us another reason to visit this stunning country.

Five Days in Reykjavik, Iceland

Day 1: The Blue Lagoon & Reykjavik

  • We arrived on a red-eye at 6:45 am. While trip planning, I read visiting the Blue Lagoon is best to do on your way to or from the airport since it’s 15 minutes from the airport vs. 45 minutes from Reykjavik. We had time to kill before our Blue Lagoon shuttle picked us up at 8:30, so we picked up some local goods for breakfast in the airport (Skyr yogurt, brie, charcoal crackers, coffee with Baileys)
  • Icelanders will tell you the Blue Lagoon is a tourist trap, and while it is a bit pricey to visit ($55 for admission with the Comfort package), we loved our time there. We were exhausted from missing a night of sleep and spent five hours floating in the hot springs, relaxing with silica mud masks on and sipping wine. Would I visit again? Absolutely. It’s the epitome of serenity. But, if I were doing a road-trip around Iceland, I’d definitely check-out some of the country’s other geothermal hot springs that feel more natural and less commercial
    • We opted to book the comfort package at the Blue Lagoon because we planned on spending half a day there. As the website says, would recommend booking your visit to the lagoon ahead of arriving since it becomes pretty busy early afternoon, especially during peak tourism season
    • The Blue Lagoon sells waterproof phone covers. I bought one so I could bring my phone with me around the lagoon and snap pics throughout the day without worrying about water damage or having to get in/out of the lagoon to grab it. I’m already planning on taking the case with me on a spring trip to Mexico to protect my phone on the beach, so it was a solid purchase
    • There are a lot of guides for visiting the Blue Lagoon floating around the Internet, one thing they all have in common is advice to not get your hair wet. The locker rooms at the lagoon offer leave-in conditioner you can use during your pre-lagoon rinse, but it’s still advised you keep your hair above the water if you don’t want it to become completely dehydrated/destroyed. My hair is color treated so I was extra careful about keeping it above the water line
    • After we had our fill of the lagoon, we took a bus operated by Reykjavik Excursions to our hotel
    • Once we were checked in, we took a short nap and then ventured out to explore Reykjavik
      • Dinner at Icelandic Fish & Chips was so good- fresh fish, not greasy despite it being fried
      • For a post dinner drink, we checked out Skúli Craft Bar and sampled a few seasonal micro-brews, as well as Icelandic schnapps. Loved the vibe in this bar, we were there on a Wednesday so it was pretty low-key- the perfect way to end a long day of traveling
  • Note: We booked our trip through a Gate 1 Travel Groupon and stayed in the Radisson Blu Saga. Normally, I stay in AirBnbs when I travel internationally, but it was nice to stay in a hotel with a full bar, gym and stellar breakfast buffet since the weather wasn’t ideal. We weren’t impressed with the other services Gate 1 Travel provided and wouldn’t recommend using them again in the future, even if you’re able to score a discount via Groupon

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Day 2: Reykjavik

  • As part of our Gate 1 Tour, we were booked for a tour of Reykjavik. Normally, I like to see cities on my own time, but it was nice to hop from place to place and get a good sense of orientation. We also had enough time at each stop to explore and figure out which places we wanted to come back to when we had more time:
    • Hallgrímskirkja: A church and beautiful example of modern architecture. When we visited the first time, we were lucky enough to hear the organs being played
    • Perlan – The Pearl: Offers a 360 view of Reykjavik, good scenic spot, but there’s nothing else nearby to visit. We probably wouldn’t have stopped here if not for the tour
    • Harpa: Reykjavik’s concert hall is an architectural dream come true. Would love to see a show here on a return visit to Iceland
    • Sólfar / Sun Voyager: The Sun Voyager sculpture in Reykjavík looks like a Viking ship, but it’s actually a dreamboat, an ode to the sun
    • After our tour ended, we walked to a place locals said had the “best lobster soup” and then wandered Reykjavik for a bit, shopping and stopping in cafes:
      • Sægreifinn: Locals weren’t wrong- the lobster soup here was the best I’ve ever had, and a great value. Equivalent of $10 USD for a big bowl of soup and half loaf of bread- the lobster is so tender, it melts in your mouth
      • Stofan Café: Cozy cafe with mismatched antique furniture, stayed here for a bit to use the wifi and enjoy a chai latte
      • The Laundromat Café: A cafe with a laundromat downstairs? Win! I’ve heard breakfast here is pretty good, but we just had a Baileys latte to warm up from the cold and relax for a bit
      • Top shopping picks:
        • Kirsuberjatréð – íslensk hönnun: This place rules, it’s a gallery with arts, crafts and ceramics created by and run by local female artists. Iceland is known for their ceramics, so I was excited to find a beautiful local option to take home
        • Gallery Kogga: Ceramics here are beautiful, but pricer than other options in town
        • Kraum: A beautiful design shop, loved the Scandinavian art here as well. Good place to stop if you’re looking for souvenirs to bring home
    • After wandering for a few hours, we headed back to our hotel to relax and take advantage of the 2-for-1 happy hour. At this point, it had started snowing pretty hard and was accumulating on top of the few feet of snow already on the ground. We decided to stay in and ordered a pizza from a local place that had good reviews (Gamla smiðjan)- amazing blue cheese and parmesan garlic bread

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Day 3: Golden Circle Tour & Reykjavik

  • Woke up early to head on our Golden Circle tour with Bus Travel Iceland. The Golden Circle tour is the most popular option across tour companies, and a great way to see some of Iceland’s most stunning sights in a single day:
    • Kerið: A volcanic crater lake
    • Faxi: Small (in comparison to Gulfoss) waterfall, beautiful with the freshly fallen snow
    • Gulfoss: Stunning waterfall, definitely climb the wooden stairs to the top of the overlook for an aerial view. Our guide told us summer visitors also have the option of hiking to the base of the falls
    • Geysir: One of the few natural geysers to erupt frequently and reliably (every ~4-7 minutes)
    • Þingvellir National Park: Walking through where the tectonic plates for North America and Eurasia meet was a cool experience, it’s hard to believe how many natural phenomenons are in this tiny country
  • When we got back to Reykjavik, we headed downtown for dinner and drinks-
    • Tapas Barinn: This place was highly recommend by others who have visited Iceland, and while it was good- it didn’t wow us. The nice thing about coming here are the tapas sized portions, you can sample a number of Icelandic dishes- we tried the minke whale, mini lobster tails, candied beets, ling and white chocolate skyr mousse
    • Lebowski Bar: Loved this theme bar, 21 different types of White Russians on the menu, Christmas Vacation playing on the big screens, and an overall good vibe for a Friday night

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Day 4: Reykjanes Peninsula Tour & Reykjavik

  • Originally, we’d planned on doing the South Shore tour this day, but severe weather advisories cancelled almost every tour/activity outside of Reykjavik. We were grateful to find a tour to the Reykjanes Peninsula. Although it wasn’t the same as hiking a glacier or standing behind a majestic waterfall, visiting coastal towns, hot springs and lava fields that look like the surface of the moon was a pretty cool way to spend the day.
    • Sandgerði Lighthouse
    • Bryggjan: An adorable cafe with homemade soups, cakes and other Icelandic delicacies. We tried the lobster soup and Icelandic meringue cake, both of which were delicious and just what we needed after being out in the cold/wind
    • This tour also stopped at a geothermal power station, lava fields and the bridge between two continents. It may not have been how we envisioned spending the day, but it was cool to see more of Iceland and our guide was incredible, regaling us with stories about Icelandic customs and history
  • Back in the city, we headed downtown for dinner and drinks-
    • Sakebarinn: Great, fresh sushi
    • Prikið: We weren’t at this bar long, but liked its rustic interior. Apparently, there are great drink specials for happy hour here as well
    • Íslenski barinn: Everyone says the food here is great, but we came to hang out at the bar and people watch. Over the course of a few hours, we sampled more Icelandic micro-brews, tried the “black death” (which I really enjoyed), and fell in love with schnapps produced by the Reykjavik Distillery (try the Rabarbara!)
    • Mikkeller & friends: A three-story bar, this place was my favorite of all the bars we visited in Reykjavik. The back bar on the bottom floor is so cozy, the bartenders were friendly, and we really enjoyed the seasonal eggnog cocktails
    • Gamla smiðjan: We enjoyed the cheesy garlic bread we’d ordered from this pizza place earlier in our stay, so we stopped by their location in city center on our way back to the hotel for a late night snack, because vacation 😉


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Day 5: Reykjavik

  • On our last day in Reykjavik, we woke up early to beautiful weather (no wind, clear skies) and decided to so some more sightseeing in the city before our evening flight home-
    • Hallgrímskirkja: In a city of quaint, colorful houses, the Hallgrimskirkja church stands tall. The iconic view of Reykjavik at the top is reason alone to visit. You don’t have to pay to enter the church, but it’s $6 EUR to take the elevator to the top to check out the view
    • Reykjavík Roasters: Near Hallgrímskirkja, great option for strong brews
    • Café Babalú: The cutest cafe we discovered, it feels like you’re snuggling up in someone’s living room while having coffee
    • Eldur & Ís: Rumored to be the best ice cream in Reykjavik
    • Dunkin’ Donuts: I know, I know- but my obsession with their iced coffee knows no bounds. We were pleasantly surprised to find Dunkin’ Donuts in Iceland means immaculately decorated doughnuts and an adorable cafe-esque setting
    • Shopping Recommendations on Laugavegi: Hrím HönnunarhúsFakó Verzlun (Icelandic version of West Elm!)

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Extra Know Before You Go Info

  • Money exchange: Exchange before you visit, the rate at your local bank will almost certainly be cheaper than anything you’ll find in the airport or if you withdraw from an ATM in Iceland
    • From a conversion standpoint, yes- Iceland is expensive. For me, it was comparable to New York so I wasn’t as jilted. Like any destination, there are ways to keep the cost down if you’re traveling on a budget (eat breakfast in your hotel or hostel, limit yourself to 1-2 drinks a night, etc.)
    • ATMs are sparse in Reykjavik, bring what you think you’ll need cash-wise and use a credit card that doesn’t charge international transaction fees
  • Wireless access: All of the cafes we visited and most of the restaurants and bars we ate/drank at had strong wifi
  • Getting around Reykjavik: The city is pretty compact and totally walkable. There are also several taxi stands downtown in case you need to get somewhere quickly. We ended up taking taxis for most of our trips downtown because the amount of snow made walking difficult
  • Driving around Iceland: The winter weather meant we weren’t interested in renting a car and driving around on our own, but I’m planning to return to Iceland to do a road trip one summer or fall. One caution: Roads aren’t well marked in Iceland, so you really need to plan in advance and bring maps if you’re going to be driving around on your own
  • Airfare: I can’t say enough positive things about Icelandair.  It was my second time flying round-trip to Europe with them, and I’m in awe of the service and amenities they provide. Every time I fly with them, we’re given blankets, pillows, bottles of water, plus drinks and snacks throughout the flight. Their free in-flight entertainment is also great- love the TV and movie selections. On our flight back to New York, they had a special holiday surprise for passengers- we were able to sample various Icelandic Christmas treats (cookies, drinks, etc.), including traditional Appelsin (orange malt drink)


Preferred Tour Vendors

There are a lot of tour vendor options in Reykjavik, but the quality of experience varies.

  • Reykjavik ExcursionsWe only used RE for a bus transfer from the Blue Lagoon to our hotel, but I wouldn’t recommend them. In our transfer, our driver didn’t help stow luggage underneath the bus and insisted passengers lift the heavy latch to remove luggage once they were at their location (he didn’t want to get off the bus). We also had an incident with a second unplanned transfer that wasn’t communicated very well and resulted in an extra half hour of travel for us. Bottom line: RE is Reykjavik’s largest tour operator and you’ll likely be just another number to them
  • Bus Travel Iceland: We had high hopes for Bus Travel after reading reviews about how their tour guides were so personable, and really went above and beyond to make a tour special. In truth, our situation (above average snow fall and severe wind) probably contributed to the experience we had. The tour wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t great either. Instead of a small van, we were packed into a completely full coach bus. Our tour guide wasn’t very friendly and didn’t share much information about the sights we visited. However, Bus Travel was extremely helpful in rebooking us with a partner tour company when our South Shore excursion was cancelled. I’d give them another shot if visiting Iceland again
  • Stella Travel: Loved, loved, loved Stella. We took a tour to the Reykanjes Peninsula with them and our guide was excellent. Even though the weather was pretty challenging, she still made sure we had a good time by regaling us with stories about the towns and sights we visited. Her sense of humor and “up for anything” attitude made what could have been a frustrating day a really great experience. Would highly recommend taking a small van tour with Stella if you’re visiting Iceland. Bonus: They’re more affordable than some of the larger companies

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