I originally wrote this itinerary for co-worker Olivia, who was visiting Iceland in winter for six days, but it can certainly be applied to any trip of 4-6 days that will center on Reykjavik. If you’re traveling in summer, there are a few more options for places to visit, but these are still some of the highlights. Of course, these are just suggestions and you can change out the order of days depending on your trip needs and preferences.
Flights from the US arrive in the early morning at Keflavik, Iceland’s only international airport. Once you deplane, I recommend you make your first stop the airport Duty-Free shop. If you have any plans to enjoy a few drinks while in town, this pitstop will save quite a bit of cash, as tax on alcohol in Iceland can make drinking prohibitively expensive. Tax is based on alcohol percentages, so wine and beer are less affected, but a bottle of alcohol (like my favorite, Reyka vodka), that costs $20 in the duty free will cost three times as much in the government run liquor store, the Vinbudin.
After stocking up on libations, hit the airport ATM, and then head down to the Flybus information desk (near baggage claim) to buy a roundtrip ticket that into Reykjavik (with a return to the airport at the end of the trip). Regular round trip tickets cost 3500 kronur (about $31 US) and do not need to be purchased in advance. Buses depart 30-40 minutes after every flight arrival.
As an alternative, you can take a cab to the Blue Lagoon and then hop on the Flybus back to Reykjavik when you’re done. (In summer, the Flybus will take you from the airport to the Blue Lagoon, but the service doesn’t operate at all times in winter). There is luggage storage at the Blue Lagoon.
If you are traveling on your own and are doing more budget travel, I recommend a guesthouse that has a more social atmosphere and offers kitchen facilities. I loved Our House, a cozy house that’s been turned into an upscale hostel. The house is kept in pristine condition, beds are comfortable, and the kitchen offers a full stove, oven, fridge and microwave. Wireless internet is free (with a computer available for guest use), self-service breakfast is included, and there’s a common room well-stocked with games and DVDs. There are 2 and a half bathrooms (with jacuzzi tubs and showers) shared between up to 8 people, a patio with grill, free laundry facilities, and two bikes available for free use by guests. Plus Bedda and her staff are always on hand to answer questions and offer suggestions for things to see and do.
Dorm rooms are available at Our House for 4000 ISK (about $36 US) plus a one-time 1000 ISK bedding rental. A double room for two people is 12,000 ISK (about $100). If you need a single private room, I’d recommend Guesthouse Sunna, just up the street, where I’ve stayed on a past visit. Like Our House, free breakfast and internet are included, bathrooms are shared and there are kitchen facilities, though the atmosphere is more private. Single rooms there start at 6700 kronur (about $61 US).
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Once you’ve settled in, I recommend you start by getting your bearings, and there’s no better way to do that than to head up to the observation deck of Hallgrimskirkja, or “the big white church” as many people refer to it. You’ll see it from nearly anywhere in town and as long as you can find your way from there to your hotel, you’ll never be lost in Reykjavik. You can go inside the church and take the elevator to the top for the best view in the city.
Afterwards, you can stroll down to the Solfar (Sun Voyager) sculpture on the waterfront and then continue down to the harbor, where you can have lunch at Icelandic Fish and Chips, or warm up with a hot bowl of lobster soup at Sægreifinn (Seabaron). From there you can walk through the heart of downtown, past the Parliament building and around to the Radhus, the City Hall, to see a giant topographical map of Iceland. Swing around the Tjornin pond, past the Prime Minister’s office, and up Bankastraeti, which turns into Laugavegur, the main shopping street. If you wants to pick up something to make for dinner, stop at the Bonus grocery store.
Today is a great day to get in some outdoor activity. Arrange to go snorkeling in some of the clearest water in the world at Silfra in Thingvellir (wrapped up in a surprisingly warm dry suit to survive the frigid water temps) or go riding on an Icelandic horse. Tour companies will take care of all the details, including pick up and drop off, and many tours can be combined to maximize time. For example, you could arrange to go horseback riding and combine that with a trip to the Blue Lagoon or to Geysir and Gullfoss, two of the country’s most popular attractions.
If you’ve made some friends at your guesthouse or are traveling with a few other people, split the cost of a car rental and drive to the Golden Circle attractions. With even one other person, the $100 US cost of renting an automatic transmission car (including insurance) would work out better than spending 9800 ISK (about $89 US) for a tour of the Golden Circle. The roads along the route are fairly well-maintained and unless a storm comes up, the drive would be no worse than driving anywhere in the US in winter. Plus, a car allows the freedom to stop as often as you’d like and detour when you want.
After a day of exploring, you might be thirsty for a beer and excited to try a tour of Ölgerðin, Iceland’s oldest brewery. Gray Line’s Taste the Saga tour was one of the best tours I have experienced in Iceland; it covers not only some of Iceland’s drinking history, but the drinking culture as well. Plus, those on the tour get to taste several different kinds of beer, as well as traditional drinks like Applesin, Malt, and Brennivin.
Post-tour, treat yourself to a splurge dinner, before hitting some of the clubs for the Friday night runtur. I highly recommend Fishmarket, an upscale restaurant that serves Icelandic specialties with an Asian twist – I loved the grilled king crab claws with chili may (3900 ISK, about $35 US) or the 6900 ISK langoustine from Vestmannaeyjar. If that’s too rich for you, there are plenty of cheap eats, like Tapas Barinn, where you can sample smaller portions at smaller prices.
Assuming you stayed out a little late last night and want to take it easy on Saturday, you should stick around Reykjavik. Relax in one of the public swimming pools, ride a bike around the city if the weather is nice, or do some shopping at the weekend Kolaportið flea market near the harbor. If you are in the market for an Icelandic sweater, get one here for much cheaper than in the souvenir shops. If you have some cash to burn, stock up on stylish outdoor gear at 66° North or head to the Kringlan shopping center. You can also contact My Reykjavik, a company that runs the best walking tour in the city. The tour is held daily in summer and by request in winter, and is free.
In the afternoon,check out some of the city’s museums to learn more about the Icelandic history and culture. The 871 +/- Settlement Museum is my favorite. If it’s Wednesday, today is the best day to visit the Culture House as there is no admission charge on Wednesdays.
Today, head out of town again and take one of the many day tours from Reykjavik to choose from. SWalk on a glacier, go ice-climbing, journey to see the Eyjafjallyokull volcano, go dogsledding, explore caves formed by lava rivers, go snowmobiling or learn to drive a tricked out Super Jeep over Iceland’s snowy roads and glacial rivers.
Most flights back to the US leave between 3pm and 5pm; Keflavik Airport is small and the security line moves pretty fast so you don’t need to get there much more than 90 minutes before your flight, which leaves plenty of time left in the morning to explore more of Reykjavik or schedule once last excursion. If you haven’t yet visited the Blue Lagoon, go today on your way to the airport.
The Flybus picks up at the BSI bus terminal, an easy 10-15 minute walk from the city center, and goes right to the Blue Lagoon. If you takes the 11am bus to the Blue Lagoon, you’ll arrive by 11:45, and will have over two hours to soak before boarding the 2:15pm bus to Keflavik, which arrives with 2.5 hours to spare before a 5pm flight. This leaves plenty of time to have a snack, turn in any receipts for duty-free shopping to get a tax refund, exchange any remaining kronur for dollars, and relax before the flight home.