Before You Go...
First off, hello, I'm glad Iceland has made it to the top of your travel list. So let's get planning shall we?
Alrighty, you’ll be hearing a lot about the ‘Golden Circle’ and the ‘Ring Road’ once you begin your trip planning. Essentially, the Ring Road is Iceland’s main road that encircles the entire island, making a road trip extremely easy! The ‘Golden Circle’ is a smaller route in Southern Iceland that starts and ends in Reykjavik, encompassing many sought after sights and destinations. The Golden Circle is a popular route if you have a short trip, as the route itself can take less than a day. The Ring Road on the other hand, is great if you have 7+ days (I wish we would have had that luxury!). If you are hesitant to rent a car in a foreign country, don’t be with Iceland. It is extremely easy to navigate and all major roads are very well kept. It’s the best way to see the country!
At the end of this article, I provide additional tips on car rentals, costs, weather etc but below is our 6-day JAM PACKED itinerary for the South coast of Iceland.
Check out a map overview here: The Golden Circle
Day One: Exploring Reykjavik
Use this morning to get acquainted with your new digs of the week! If you have a flight that gets you in very early in the morning, chances are you won’t be able to check into your accommodation quite yet & most of the coffeeshops / restaurants will still be closed. Not to fear! Head to Sandholt in downtown Reykvaik – opens at 6:30AM and is the cutest, coziest bakery and breakfast spot to warm up and wake up.
After a little meal, we were quite jetlagged having slept a total of 1 hour on the flight, so our morning of explorations quickly turned into an afternoon affair as we rebooted with a few hours of sleep back at our Airbnb.
Exploring downtown Reykjavik is centered around its main shopping + eating street Laugavegur. It’s an easily walkable area that can be enjoyed at your leisure. Downtown is an amalgamation of funk, color, grit and charm, where bright buildings pop out of sidewalks and artisan shops command the attention of each passerbyer.
For city views, climb the steps of Reykjavik’s church Hallgrímskirkja and bop about the city in Austurvollur Square.
For the best coffee / coffeeshop in Reykjavik, check out: Reykjavik Roasters
For the best bread & pastries in Reykjavik, stop by: Braud & Co (also a bunch of babes work there, which seems to be the story for all of Iceland...)
Day Two: Vik & Waterfalls
Wake up early and head to Vik! The drive from Reykjavik is roughly two-three hours, depending on road conditions and how leisurely you make this drive. The drive itself is stunning. You’ll be passing through small towns and large expanses of green fields. Sharp mountain peaks follow your route, while Icelandic horses and goats wander throughout these over flow of lands.
En route to Vik, you’ll come come across some of Iceland’s most beautiful waterfalls, in the following order.
Seljalandsfoss – stunning. You can see this fall from the road so it is an easy find!
Glúfrabúi – a hidden gem right near Seljalandsfoss (click for map)
Skógafoss – completely breathtaking. Hike the steps to the right and go beyond the top of the falls for amazing views. Enjoy happy hour or a warm meal at the lovely restaurant near the base of the falls.
Make your way to Vik. It’s an idyllic little village right on the water. An ever-famous & photographed church lies at the top of the town’s hillside. The view from its parking lot is beautiful. Head down to the black sands beaches for a stroll along the sands or go for a picnic. If you want a hearty meal, go to Sudur restaurant. Head over to Dyrhólaey Peninsula for an amazing arch rock formation, and if you are lucky, some cute Puffins running amuck on the beach!
While en route back home, check out the plane wreck at Sólheimasandur Beach (everyone aboard the flight survived). If you are short on time, I would say it is okay to miss! It is about a 4-5 mile round trip walk from the car park to the wreck, so definitely account for that time.
And finally, stop on the Black Sand Beach for late evening views and strolls.
Day Three: Activitiessss
Perhaps one of tourism’s greatest feats is the Blue Lagoon. I fully expected to not actually enjoy the Blue Lagoon that much – I thought it would be dirty, crowded, a bit silly. But we had a freaking blast! It was not only extremely clean, it was just an overall great experience. We had glasses of prosecco while chit chatting about everything and nothing. It was great. We upgraded to the comfort package, so robes, drinks, and face masks were included. We arrived at 9AM but we all agreed we could have stayed well beyond just a few hours. We hopped out of the water & had more drinks and some delicious mussels at LAVA, the Blue Lagoon’s restaurant.
We left the Blue Lagoon and headed to another adventure. An ATV Tour through mountains, into craters and on black sandy beaches. We booked with Extreme Iceland here.
We highly recommend this tour company!
Day Four: Golden Circle & Þjorsardalur Valley
Begin your day early from Reykjavik to start the Golden Circle. The Golden Circle has three well known stops (Þingvellir National Park, Haukadalur Geothermal Valley and Gulfoss Waterfall). We added on a few more beautiful stops as well (Secret Lagoon, Frieheimar Tomato Farm, and Kerid Crater)!
Each stop can be seen in less than an hour. From Reykjavik to Þingvellir National Park, is about an hour. Every stop is roughly 20-40 minutes from each other.
- Depart Reykjavik
- Þingvellir National Park and Silfra Tectonic plates (if I am honest, not too impressed with this park so we did not allot too much time here!)
- Haukadalur Geothermal Valley: Geysir & Eruption of Strokkur (every 5-10 minutes)
- Gullfoss Waterfalls – a HUGE waterfall into a river gorge. Breathtaking!
- Secret Lagoon in Flúðir – Stop here only if you have some extra time
- Fridheimar Tomato and Horse Farm – AMAZING place. Incredibly beautiful tomato farm with a restaurant alongside the tomato vines. The tomato soup and bread there is TO DIE FOR. Definitely make reservations if you want a sit down meal! If you are unsure of your timing, no worries! They have soup-to-go & pizza/pasta to-go options as well. We got takeaway soup and sat in a random area on the farm. Worked out perfectly.
- Kerid Crater – This crater often gets overlooked and I have no idea why. If I were to prioritize Golden Circle sights, it would be at the top right next to Gulfoss. The crater itself is a multitude of color – a mix of reds, greens, and blues in the mineral water. Hike around the rim of the crater and then down into it for some close up views of the water.
- Head to Þjorsardalur Valley
Þjorsardalur Valley is a beautiful lesser travelled and lesser known valley that is the home to some of Iceland’s most beautiful waterfalls. The drive through the valley itself is worth the trip. You’ll be surrounded by lava fields and volcanoes, as well as lush greens and jagged mountains.
Visit these waterfalls: Hjalparfoss, Haifoss, Gjain, and Þjofafoss before looping back on your drive to Reykjavik.
Day Five: Landmannalaugar Valley
An unbelievably beautiful valley with mountains that look washed in earthy paints & geo thermal baths in abundance. Some of Iceland’s most beautiful hiking, including the most famous route of Laugavegurinn (about 35 miles in total!). If you are driving, a 4x4 is HIGHLY recommended. If not, the summer months offer a bus route from Reykjavik. You can also book a jeep tour!
If you plan to visit more than the hot springs and want to hike, definitely plan ahead by bringing plenty of water, but I would highly recommend a tour instead of a self-tour / self-drive.
Day Six: Morning in Reykjavik
Spend your last morning in downtown Reykjavik, souvineer shopping (if that’s your jam) or by stuffing your face with one last trip to Braud & Co (that’s my jam). Pack up and head out to the airport, leaving excited for your next visit back!
Restaurants + Drinks
Tip: Make reservations for dinner! We thought we could roll up to any restaurant and get a table. Not the case! Especially during high season, reservations are a must!
- Sandholt – a very cute, cozy restaurant that opens at 6:30AM. Perfect if you have a very early morning flight arrival.
- Apotek (dinner + drinks)
- The Fish Market (Dinner)
- The fish Company (Dinner)
- Braud & Co (Literally, the best bakery ever created on earth probably actually this is a fact)
- The Food Cellar (Dinner)
- Drykkir (drinks, local pub)
- KEX (hostel, for fun drinks)
- Old Iceland (Dinner)
- Sæta Svínið Gastropub (Dinner, drinks)
- Micro Bar (Drinks, awesome beer)
- Yogafood (Healthy foods)
- Kaffibarinn (Drinks)
- Kaldi Bar (Drinks)
- Café Glo (Lunch)
- Café Floran (Lunch)
- The Laundromat Café (Lunch)
- Dill (Dinner, Iceland’s first and only Michelin star)
- Húrra (Drinks, live music!)
Where to Stay
Reykjavik – anywhere near Laugavegur street.
We had friends stay here: https://www.airbnb.com/rooms/12282977
Hafnarfjörður – we stayed here! It is a town about 10-15 minute drive from downtown Reykjavik. Super beautiful and surrounded by lava fields. There is not much to do in this town, but we loved the peace and quiet.
Here is our Airbnb: https://www.airbnb.com/rooms/10846660
Hestfjall, Selfoss – this town is almost in the middle of Rekjavik and Vik, so for some, it may make sense to break up the trip and stay in two different places.
We had friends stay here: https://www.airbnb.com/rooms/13841163
Tips Before You Go
WOW Air and Iceland Air offer some great incentives to get yourself over to Iceland. Basically, if you book a roundtrip ticket to Europe (they have specific destinations) through their airline, they will allow you ‘stopover’ in Iceland for upwards of 7 nights. This allows you to cost effectively see both Iceland and another major country.
Check it out here:
GPS Guide to hotsprings – yes, please.
Costs + Payments
No need to bring cash. Yes, I said it. No need for Icelandic cash (ISK). Everywhere will take all major credit cards. I did not use cash once.
Iceland is expensive. I mean, REALLY expensive. We thought there would be ways to really cut costs like cooking meals instead of going out etc, well…even that was 4-5x the prices of New York, so that is saying something!
Bright side: Most attractions do not cost money to see. Just jump out of your car and go exploring! (Unless of course, you are taking a tour…)
Flights to Iceland, at least from many of the states, are quite inexpensive. So, you’ll be saving on that!
Tips to save money:
- Avoid 10/11 convenient marts. Way overpriced. Instead, for groceries go to Krona or Bonus (a little less overpriced!)
- Do not over tip! Tipping is already included in your prices.
- Split the costs! Book this trip with friends. Makes paying for gas, car and accommodation expenses a lot better!
- Never take a taxi. Wildly expensive, though most are extremely nice and some are even equipped with wifi…
- Buy your own alcohol before going to the bars. A beer can cost you 10-15 US dollars. A cocktail can easily be 25 US dollars. Best bet is to buy your alcohol at the duty free shops in the airport.
Is available at most cafes, bars, coffeeshops, stores and the airport. So, it’s widely available.
Almost everyone speaks fluent English.
- Renting a car is probably the best way to go. Parking is also easy.
- Downtown Reykjavik is walkable, but here is more information on their bus routes: http://www.visitreykjavik.is/city/public-transportation
- To & from the airport: https://www.re.is/flybus?gclid=CjwKEAjw387JBRDPtJePvOej8kASJADkV9TL0NyZ8G6jtW5VuOZ0VJM39B0AF-8URa7F1XpYUL12IhoCtTvw_wcB
- Seriously, avoid taxis, please.
Before my trip, I heard horror stories about WOW Air. Um…I loved my experience with them. Sure, they are a budget airline so you will have to pay for any food, drinks and your entertainment but the overall experience was great. They were incredibly friendly and the planes seemed new & clean. Also, they are known to nickel and dime you for your luggage as well but my friend and I didn’t have to pay for anything additional even though we thought we would!
Car Rental + GPS + Gas
We rented from Enterprise before we got to Iceland. Super easy to reserve a car and pick it up at the airport. An extra cost will be your GPS system, but it is necessary. With that said, sometimes the GPS would not pick up on locations. Generally you must be 21 to rent a regular car and 23 to rent a 4WD vehicle, but company policies vary. All national driver's licenses are recognized, so you do not need an international one. Also, driving is on the right side of the road.
Gas is not only SUPER expensive but it is a little tricky here. Never, ever push the ‘fill full tank’ option as the gas station will place a 250+ US dollar hold on your credit card, before returning the funds and charging you only for the appropriate amount. Gas stations are in abundance, but I would recommend filling up the tank every time you reach the last 4th of the tank.
Alcohol is sold at separate stores (Vinbudins) and not in convenient marts or grocery stores. These stores close early, sometimes as early as 6 PM, and are not open on Sundays. For cheaper alcohol options, your best bet might be to buy it duty free at the airport.
Time of Year / Weather
As soon as we got to Iceland, a local said told us a common saying about Iceland’s weather, ‘If you don’t like Iceland’s weather, wait a minute.’ They say this because it is pretty unpredictable, and ever changing.
Do note that during the summer months, the sun is out for a full 20 hours, and during the winter, the sun rarely makes an appearance. Dress warm for pretty much all months!
These are VERY hard to see during the summer months, if at all. If you are optimizing for these, go in winter!