Iceland is full of destinations you likely will not be able to pronounce or spell, but don’t worry, follow this guide on what you can and cannot miss in this amazingly diverse landscape.
Given it is only a 6-hour flight from most major cities along the east coast, and 7.5-hours for those in the pacific northwest, getting to Iceland is as easy as international travel can get. Icelandair offers a popular stopover program that lets you blend a 1-to-7-day stopover if you are on your way to Europe. We think the best time to visit is in the summer, which misses out on the northern lights, but allows for jam packed itineraries that are made possible by the midnight sun.
Two popular itineraries you will read about in Iceland are the Golden Circle and the much longer Ring Road, which traverses around the country’s entire perimeter. Choosing between the two depends on your time frame. The Golden Circle can be accomplished in a day, while the Ring Road is at least a seven-day commitment. Here is our guide on what to do if you are somewhere in between.
THE ULTIMATE WEEKEND ICELAND ITINERARY
Day 1: Silfra Divide and Landmannalaugar
Since this post is tailored towards travelers who may be short on time, we will briefly look at the Golden Circle first. The major sites that are found on this route typically include:
- Pingvellir National Park
- The Great Geysir (Haukadalur Geothermal Area)
- Gullfoss Waterfall
While there are endless articles discussing why you should visit these sites, we will take the other side of that argument and say you can skip them altogether. If you are reading this you are more of an adventurous traveler, and for that reason we would suggest passing on these sites as they are typically slammed with tour buses and endless lines of people. Some of the sites felt downright cheesy driving up to. Sure, you can get a great boomerang video of the Great Geysir erupting, but it will take 12 minutes standing in a crowd jockeying for airspace.
However, if you are dead set on spending time in this area, we strongly suggest scuba diving the Silfra Fissure in Pingvellir National Park. Here you can explore some of the clearest water on earth located between the continental divide. A 30–40-minute dive will take you to a depth of 18 meters through 4 regions of the fissure which was created by a split down the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates. Dive Iceland offers tours that cost around $230 USD, and for anyone that is not scuba certified, they also offer a more affordable small group snorkeling tour for $80 USD.
So why we would direct you to this country after advising you to skip some of the most popular tourist sites? Because we think Iceland has so much more to offer. There is a reason a significant portion of Game of Thrones was filmed in this majestic landscape. We will touch on a few highlights along the southern coast where we think your time would be better spent.
About three hours east of Reykjavik, immerse yourself in a landscape that feels like you are on Mars in Landmannalaugar. We came in from the north entrance where the last hour of the drive is along an unpaved road, so make sure you get a rental car equipped to deal with the rocky terrain. Most of the trailheads for the hikes here originate at a popular campground site where you will encounter plenty of tents and RV’s. If you have as much energy as we did, you can blend a few of the day hikes together. You will wind through lava fields where the obsidian is dark as night to colorful green and dusty blue mountain peaks. Since we are not keen on camping, we suggest heading back towards Selfoss to grab a hot shower and plush bed at the newly built Seljalandsfoss Horizon. You will be impressed by these luxury mini cottages right off the ring road. If they are fully booked, we suggest driving a bit further to Inni Boutique Apartments which comes with use of the properties hot tub and steam room that is well deserved after a jam packed first day.
Day 2: Waterfalls, Fimmvörðuháls Pass, Canyons and Black Sand Beaches
Start early so you can make a quick stop at the Seljalandsfoss waterfall before summiting Fimmvörðuháls Pass. The waterfall is easily accessible from the main road and you can walk behind the waterfall for some great photos. Don’t miss out on Gljufrabui, a secret waterfall behind the canyon walls where you’ll have to bounce around some rocks to avoid getting wet.
After this quick pitstop, drive 20 minutes east to the Skógar carpark and lace up your boots for Fimmvörðuháls Pass. This 16-mile trail snakes between the glaciers of Eyjafjallajökull and Mýrdalsjökull, leading you past a series of canyon waterfalls to a volcanic moonscape that continues downhill to Pórsmörk valley. This is a one-way hike that will require some coordination involving a bus route or private tour guide that can link you back to the carpark. We made the terrible mistake of attempting to drive to Pórsmörk first and hiking the reverse route. The drive involved deep river crossings not suitable for any rental vehicle. If you go that direction, then the best option, but also the priciest, would be to book a private tour via Into the Wild that would get you to the base of the mountain in a Super Jeep and allow you to hike towards the coast to Skogar carpark.
If the 16-mile hike sounds too aggressive, you can easily shorten the distance and will be greeted with plenty of amazing views before turning back. At the start (or end!) of the trailhead in Skógar is Skógafoss waterfall, which already makes this hike worth the trip.
After all that hiking, drag your tired feet back to the car to continue east on the Ring Road to your night’s final destination in Svinafell. Head towards Vik and stop for a picnic dinner on the black sand beaches of Reynisfjara. If time and energy allow, another stop halfway at Fjaðrárgljúfur Canyon will award you with some incredible photo opportunities. Once you make it to Svinafell you will be in perfect proximity to beat the crowds on your next day’s adventures. We ended the day at the Potato Storage which had clean self-catering accommodation. If you are lucky enough to snag a reservation at the popular Fosshotel Glacier Lagoon, you will need to push on about 20 more minutes.
(If adventures today have you tired and ready to relax, audible to Hotel Kria in Vik for a good night’s sleep but make sure to budget for some additional driving time the following morning.)
Day 3: Diamond Beaches, Glacier Lakes, and Mountain Peaks
Wake up early and drive to “Diamond Beach” and Jökulsárlón Glacier, the furthest stop on this route, which is about 230 miles from Reykjavik. The beach acquired its name from the glacier ice washed onto the black sand beach making it sparkle like diamonds. This spot inevitably gets crowded fast, so getting here first thing in the morning will allow you to stroll the beach and obtain some Instagram worthy photos before the tour buses arrive. Afterwards, head across the street to Jökulsárlón glacier. This majestic lagoon is filled with hundreds of glacier chunks that have washed up over the past few decades. Keep in mind if you are visiting in the summer months, the warmer water temperature may make the presence of the glaciers underwhelming compared to what you would come across in the winter so plan accordingly if you are tight on time. To make the most of it, we suggest booking a kayak with one of the tour operators that are outfitted to get you up close and personal with the icebergs and away from the crowds. A 1.5-hour tour with Arctic Adventures Glacier Tours will cost about $88 USD which includes a double kayak, guide, and all necessary equipment, including a dry suit.
Immediately after Jökulsárlón Glacier and Diamond Beach, head back to Skaftafell national park to hike the mountain of Kristínartindar. The hike will cover 11 miles and take anywhere between 6-9 hours. The last mile to the top is the most strenuous as you follow a steep ascent across jagged rocks to the summit at 3694 ft (about the height of the Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world!). Enjoy the views above the clouds and make your journey back down to the Ring Road. Here you’ll turn back west and drive halfway back to Reykjanes Peninsula. Treat yourself to an overnight stay at the ultra-lux Umi Hotel.
Day 4: Detox in the Blue Lagoon
Your last day you will need to continue back to the Reykjanes peninsula to catch your evening flight out of Keflavik International Airport. The drive from Umi will take about 2.5 hours, but a fantastic way to break up the drive is to stop at Kerid Crater, a volcanic crater lake that’s only a 15-minute detour north of Selfoss to stretch your legs. This caldera was thought to be created from the crater floor sinking, leaving a bright sapphire blue lake surrounded by red volcanic rock and rich green moss. Parking here will cost about $3 USD.
After all that hiking and driving, what better way to finish off your trip than a rejuvenating dip in nature’s spa at the geothermal waters of the Blue Lagoon. We are not here to go into depth on the scientific benefits that researchers claim the silica, algae, and mineral filled water are supposed to provide, but it will feel great to dip your body in the warm water when the outdoor temperatures in the Icelandic summer rarely breach 60ᵒF. If you’re flight isn’t until the following morning and your budget can allow for it, treat yourself to a night at the Retreat where you will be given exclusive access to the Retreat lagoon and spend the day wandering through its lava canyons followed by a proper Icelandic culinary experience at the Lava Restaurant indulging in their 5-course tasting menu.
Hitting all these can’t miss stops is sure to make your stay in Iceland a memorable one!
Places to Stay:
- Seljalandsfoss Horizons $ – $
- Inni Boutique Apartments $ – $
- Hotel Southcoast $
- Fosshótel Núpar $
- Potato Storage $
- Hotel Kria $ – $
- Umi Hotel $
- Fosshótel Glacier Lagoon $
- Ion Adventure hotel $
- The Retreat Blue Lagoon $$