Before you start this article, please read my post about DRIVING IN ICELAND. You can find it HERE.
Because there are so many different areas to explore all over this gorgeous country, planning a trip can be overwhelming. Fresh off the heels of our 4th trip to Iceland, we find ourselves wanting to go back and hit all of the places we STILL haven’t seen!
So what happens if you only get ONE SHOT to explore this amazing nation? We sat down as a family and hashed over exactly what qualifies as an Iceland MUST SEE and condensed our favorites into an 8-day itinerary that takes into account 1-hitting the hot spots on the Golden Circle; 2-getting off the beaten path; 3-discovering little towns and villages filled with Icelandic culture and scenery.
Granted in 8 days you are NOT going to see it all (note that we left out the north of Iceland on this itinerary, which is a BUMMER because Akureyri, Myvatn and sweet small towns like Siglufjörður are some of our favorite spots in Iceland). If you can tack on 4 more days of vacay, please check out this article about heading north HERE.
And without further ado, here is our 8-day itinerary complete with driving directions from place-to-place from Google Maps.
Stop One—Reykjavik (2 nights)
Once you land in Keflavik, you are going to be WIPED. If you come from the US, there is a 99.999% chance that you caught the red-eye and will be coming in around 7am (after a quick internet search, it looks like there might be some day flights leaving from Toronto? Worth checking out if that’s a problem for you). That being said, hotels generally won’t have rooms ready until around 2 or 3, which leaves you with a few hours to kill. So what to do?
Keflavik To Do:
Blue Lagoon, baby! Located close to the airport and open at 8am, this other-worldly swim spot is the perfect way to kill a few hours before heading into Reykjavik. And trust me, nothing is more refreshing than taking a dip in the rejuvenating waters of this famous spot, especially when you’re exhausted and dirty from your flight! Take your time in the showers and be sure to slather your hair with Blue Lagoons special conditioner before venturing out into the main pool area.
While the Blue Lagoon gets a bad rap for being super-touristy (and it SHOULD…it’s PACKED), this most-stop is a huge hit with the kiddos, and in spite of the masses, it stil is pretty awesome. To avoid the worst of the crowds, go EARLY (as mentioned before..as early as 8am) and book your tickets IN ADVANCE (like weeks before you leave for your trip, even earlier if you go during more popular months).
Another tip, if you feel like splurging, is to book Premium tickets. There you get a shorter line, included drinks and towels, robes and flip-flops you can take home. We also enjoyed the Lava restaurant which is pricey but super-cool. Once you’re relaxed, fed and somewhat rested, you’ll be ready to head into the city!
Driving directions KEF to Blue Lagoon 20 Min: HERE
Reykjavik To Do:
Driving directions Blue Lagoon to Reykjavik 45 Min: HERE
Reykjavik is fun city with a great nightlife, live music and cool shops. If you have a shorter trip, it is the perfect launching point to hit the Golden Circle. If you have longer to stay, we have generally stayed in hotels closer to the sites on the Golden Circle. So instead of spending 2 nights in Reykjavik, we often stay our first night in the city and a second night closer to the sites to minimize driving…PLUS there are some super-cool places to stop along the way. Some of our favorite Golden Circle stays include Hotel Ranga & Ion Adventure Hotel (for a killer pool with a view)—best for families of 3 or Stracta Hotel or Hotel Grimsborgir for larger groups.
Reykjavik To Stay:
IcelandAir Reykjavik Marina (our favorite for location, quirky style and price.) The rooms, especially the “Family Rooms” are situated for groups up to 6 and are comfy, well designed and fun. Note that these rooms are located along the street and can be noisy but they provide you with complementary earplugs…as scary sign initially but I honestly don’t think we’ve ever been inclined to use them.)
We’ve also stayed at Alda Hotel and Hotel 101. These are 2 good options, especially if you’re traveling with older kids and/or are willing to pop for an extra room. Alda is well-located more in the center of the city but the rooms are pretty small. 101 is swanky and has a badass bar (worth stopping in just to have a drink). The 101 rooms are very stylish, large and very comfortable BUT they have a bathroom that is totally open to the bedroom, which for teens/tweens can be awkward.
Reykjavik To Eat:
Grillmarkadurinn (swanky and authentic place to try things like lamb, whale, shark, etc). Feels like a forbidden forest. Also cool just for a drink if you want to hit the bar.
Shalimar (tiny but SUPER charming and delish Pakistani restaurant right in the City Center on popular Austurstræti)
There are also fun pubs and cafes all over the city worth stopping in for a cocoa or beer. Gull is the local beer and it’s delish. Wine is a FORTUNE in Iceland so instead try vodka. Local Reyka is AMAZING on ice and is at its best when consumed in a hot tub.
Hang in the City
This deserves one day or even a half day depending on how chill you want to be. Shops are great and you can spend time wandering the main shopping street Laugavegur & connecting streets (be sure to check out My Concept Store and Hrim).
For what NOT to check out, read Guide to Iceland’s “9 Worst Tourist Traps in Iceland”. Sad to say we may have fallen victim to some of these (ahem…#4 Late-night-candy-run…sorry, but who can resist giant displays of Harbio???).
Hallgrímskirkja Church is a major landmark. They also offer Whale Watching tours out of Reykjavik Marina but be advised that small boat trips past the harbors of the North Atlantic are NOT for the faint of heart. For more about that, click HERE.
This deserves 1 full day. During the most popular months, the Golden Circle sites will be SLAMMED with people. Worth seeing all of these things (esp Geysir which also has an amazing cafe and shop) but this may put you off Iceland if you are going for authentic culture and wild nature. So visit EARLY and try to limit yourself to these stops…Gulfoss Waterfall is impressive but there are many other waterfalls in Iceland just as cool with far fewer tourists. And important to note: Kerid Crater is a WASTE OF TIME (in my humble opinion).
Thingvellir National Park is amazing but may be too crowded to be enjoyable. If you are feeling randy, you can snorkel the continental divide (something on my list…we have not been able to do but there is an age requirement of 14 years, so we are few off with McLean.)
Stop Two— Snæfellsnes Peninsula (4 nights)
To Stay: 2 nights at Hotel Búðir (2 hours from Reykjavik)
One of our favorite places in Iceland, Hotel Budir has that magic combination of stark and startling beauty, quirky style and perfect proximity to epic hiking and touring. In fact, Budir has landed on our Favorite Tiny Hotels list. For more on that, click HERE.
Driving directions Reykjavik to Hotel Budir 2 hrs 20 Min: HERE
Hotel Búðir: Clearly in the middle of nowhere, this is a situation where you will definitely need to eat on your hotel premises (especially if you have a situation like we did, where winds kicked up so intensely that roads were closed until 10am the next morning). LUCKILY Hotel Búðir’s in-house eatery is not only funky, quaint and fun, the food is exceptional.
We recommend heading to the cozy lounge early for a cocktail and a view of the landscape before wandering into the dining room for AMAZING bread, delicious soups and seasonal offerings that range from lamb to lentils. As a borderline vegetarian, I have NEVER had a problem finding something to eat, really anywhere in Iceland. In spite of its remote location, Restaurant Búðir is no different. Their veggie fare is spot ON!
Djúpalónssandur (or Black Lava Pearl) Beach
Totally uninhabited (unless you consider the few tourists milling about), this beach is the site of the 1948 wreckage of the British fishing trawler, the Epine. Providing a stark contrast against the black pebble beach-scape, the bright rusty-orange pieces of metal litter the beach, making an eerie monument to 14 lives lost. The roaring ocean and occasional rogue waves (for more info on what are also known as SNEAKER WAVES click HERE) create a foreboding backdrop for exploring what is called “The Church of the Elves.” The entire region, in fact, is considered to be magical and you will see monuments to many elves throughout the park.
Hellnar – Arnarstapi Costal Path
Another stunning place to spend an afternoon hiking and exploring, the Arnastapi Coastal Path provides amazing views, moderately challenging hiking and is a short drive from Budir. We visited Arnastapi in November, which was astoundingly beautiful (the sun is in the process of either rising or setting for the 5 hours of daylight so there is a constant glow). But it was also SO WINDY and really really cold, so it made hiking a challenge. We had to end our hike early to avoid an impending storm (where winds ultimately got up to over 100mph), so sadly, we never made it to Hellnar. The portion we were able to access made the trip worth it, but another visit is a MUST-DO for us because we want to finish the trail!
2 nights at Hotel Egilsen (1 hour from Budir)
Driving directions Hotel Budir to Egilsen 55 Min: HERE
Another member of our Favorite Tiny Hotel list, Egilsen may be #1. Resembling a gingerbread house (albeit a funky Scandinavian Hygge-infused gingerbread house), this tiny red abode is perched along one of the most picturesque shorelines we’ve ever seen. While it’s only about an hour from Budir (so one may consider this day-trip worthy from Budir), we fully recommend changing hotels. Part of the absorbing charm and hospitality of Iceland is trying out these ADORABLE little spots!
Sjávarpakkhúsið: Located right across the street from Egilsen, this sea-inspired eatery is quaint and delicous. Menu items include lots of seafood but also offer burgers, salads and veggie options. We spent the first part of our evening sitting in the quaint little lounge in Egilsen, sipping on Reyka (while McLean had a hot chocolate) and then wandered across the street to Sjávarpakkhúsið and could not have had a better night!
We were only in Stykkishólmur for one night, so we didn’t get to experience any other eateries, but click HERE for more suggestions from Lonely Planet.
Let this be an opportunity to also sing the praises of gas station restaurants in Iceland. Most gas stations have adorable little eateries attached, many with full service food. We stopped at many of these along our journeys around the country for sandwiches, hot dogs, pizza, pastries and coffee. These are often popular meeting spots for locals and totally worth the experience. For an awesome post about Icelandic Gas Station Culture, click HERE.
To Do from Egilsen:
Hang out in Stykkishólmur: This town definitely deserves a day to wander around and explore all of the adorable shops, including Leir 7, a workshop and gallery for ceramics and wood pieces, Gallery Lundi and Smávinir Woodcraft Studio. You also need to hike to the top of the Sugandisey Lighthouse to get stunning views of Breidafjordur Bay and the surrounding islands. While it’s actually perched atop a basalt island, there is a man-made “causeway” that is part of the harbor. You can easily walk to the harbor from Egilsen. The experience will take at least an hour, especially if it’s as windy as it was when we visited. Like it was MIND-BLOWINGLY windy…like comically windy and our trip was one of the best memories I have of our time in Stykkishólmur. Be careful on the edges, especially with littles because there really is nothing stopping you from plunging into the FREEZING seas and be sure to BUNDLE UP bc it’s CHILLY.
Visit Grundarfjörður & Ólafsvík to look for whales.
We never saw any. But the drive is gorgeous and there are lots of photo ops along the way. Click HERE and HERE for more info on the region.
Stop 3-Head South to Vik (2 days)
Driving Directions from Egilsen to Hotel Vik (4 hours 25 min): HERE
Big Driving Day but amazing scenery makes it SO worth it! You will pass through the Golden Circle area and traverse highlands and coastal roads where your scenery will range from lava fields to stunning fjords.
2 nights Iceland Air Hotel Vik
Modern and clean, Hotel Vik has great family-sized rooms with upstairs lofts. While Hotel Vik lacks some of the charm of the 2 spots on the Snæfellsnes Peninsula, this stylish spot is in a great location, has comfy beds and lots of fun, quirky details including giant wooden ravens in the lobby and the Family Rooms have a separate TV in the kid space.
To Eat: The hotel restaurant Berg is certainly convenient and the lounge is great for nestling into wooly chairs and sipping on cocktails. But in our opinion, Berg is over-priced and mediocre at best. Berg does have a decent breakfast but I might recommend heading across the street to the IceWear/Iceland Wool complex across the street. They have a fun cafe and full service grocery, both replete with pastries and coffee.
One of the most fun restaurants in the area is Suður-Vík, an easy walk from Iceland Air Hotel Vik the super-quaint interiors and yummy staples like deep fried camembert with red currant jelly and chicken breast served with sweet potato fries take the edge off a frosty day on the beaches. This is a hot spot in town, so best to make reservations.
Reynisfjara Black Sand Beach
Super cool. Beware of rogue waves. They warn you about them everywhere and they are no joke. It will be totally placid and all of the sudden a giant tsunami-caliber wave will whip up the beach and round over the rocks. Just don’t go wading in the water. There is a cute cafe to warm up in after you explore.
Be sure to also keep going past the first waterfall on the path to find Gljúfrabúi waterfall, which is by far WAY cooler than Selijalandsfoss bc there is a secret cave behind it. Very cool but be sure to wear waterproof shoes.
This is also a great place to splurge on a private SuperJeep tour. We have used Midgard Adventure Tours twice and have been blown away every time. Tell the guide that you are willing to go wherever they think is cool and they will be sure to take you wherever other tour groups are NOT. Totally worth it. You will find yourself alone in the most amazing canyons.
A great one to tack on the end of your day. An easy visit but if you feel like taking it farther, you can climb the 1 zillion stairs to the top and hike a walking path on top. It’s gorgeous and you have views of the entire region from the top.
Double Check that it’s open…this periodically closes to protect the area. (Click HERE to read more about that); last time we tried to go we drove all the way to the canyon only to find out that the path was closed!!! But if it’s open, this is one of the most magical places we have EVER encountered…EVER. There are two trails, one that leads above the canyon, essential for views and scale. The second trail leads along the river bed. If you didn’t believe in elves before visiting this steep valley of blinding green, you totally will after!
Driving Directions back to Reykjavik from Vik is 2.5 hours: HERE
Stop Four-1 More Night in Reykjavik
I would recommend using this day to get in any of the extra Reykjavik sites you missed on the way in. I might recommend strolling along the waterfront and check out the Harpa Concert Hall and then wander over to the Old Harbor where fun bars and restaurants dot the cityscape. Note that this area is quite unpolished as of now, but full of charm and a quick walk back over to Austurstræti if the harbor proves too blustery. Click HERE for more info on the Old Harbor area.