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How to Spend Your First Week in Iceland

Iceland is an adventurers paradise, and one of the most sought after travel destinations in the world. With so much to see and do, figuring out where to start can be challenging. My wife and I just spent our first week in Iceland and are sharing our recommendations so that you can make the most of your initial visit to the land of fire and ice.

Iceland is near the top of any adventurer’s “must visit” list. The rugged locale is featured all over social media, and it seems like every other month a friend or colleague returns with envy-inducing stories of their visit to the Nordic country. After a few years of looking forward to it my wife and I made our first trip - and boy, was it worth it. We spent a week exploring all of Iceland's must-see attractions and are eager to share with others considering their first visit to the island. 

Day 1: Keflavík, Blue Lagoon and Reykjavík

99% of travelers enter Iceland through Keflavík Airport. It's worthwhile to purchase a rental car. Though you don't technically need it, as you could get to many of the destinations on this list by tour bus, it's really worth it to have the flexibility to set your own itinerary. If you rent a car, we highly recommend investing in insurance (especially gravel and dust) if your own insurance doesn’t already cover it, as the roads in Iceland can be rough. We used Lotus Car Rental and had an excellent experience with them. 

After hours of flying you'll be eager to shake off the cobwebs and get some blood flowing, and you'll find no better option for this purpose than a dip in the iconic Blue Lagoon. The geothermal baths are one of the most recognizable features in Iceland, and they're located only 20 minutes from the airport. No matter when you go you're likely to encounter crowds, but fortunately the experience still manages to feel intimate and special. The basic option includes a free drink and silica mud mask, and after an hour-long soak you'll feel revitalized and ready to explore Reykjavík. More information about the Blue Lagoon here

The island's capital and only major city is a 45-minute drive from the Blue Lagoon. We recommend parking your car, dropping your luggage, and taking in the sights on foot. Take note of the parking rules as they can vary depending on the street you are on.  The downtown area is incredibly walkable and offers something for all personalities. You'll have your choice of shops along Laugavegur Street, historic museums around the Old West Side, and art galleries along the waterfront. You can't miss a short walk to Hallgrímskirkja, a beautiful church that can be seen from almost everywhere in the city. $8 (ISK 1000) will buy you a trip to the top of the church's tower, which offers panoramic views of the city. Once you've worn yourself out exploring, stop for dinner or a drink - Reykjavík has more restaurants and pubs than you can count. Do research your dining options ahead of time though, as there are plenty of touristy options that prioritize convenience over quality. We stopped by Forettabarinn, Sæta Svínið, and Krua Thai and enjoyed all three. The rumors about how expensive food in Iceland is are unfortunately true and you should expect a main course to be roughly $30 USD. There are plenty of cheap options as well, but be ready for some sticker shock. 

Day 2: Langjökull and the Snæfellsnes Peninsula

Once you leave the city you'll see why Iceland is an adventurer's dream. The drive northwest provides scenic views of mountains, meadows, and picturesque farmhouses. While the urban setting of Reykjavík is entertaining, the rural peninsula is truly awe-inspiring. Our first stop outside of the city was an ice cave and snowmobile tour of Langjökull, the country’s second-largest glacier. We initially chose this excursion to embrace the wintry aspect of the country, but our crampon-enabled tour inside of the glacier gave us so much more appreciation for the beauty and ecological importance of these formations; they have sculpted the wildly beautify landscape of Iceland and sadly are predicted to disappear in less than 150 years. As a result the tour is both haunting and inspiring as visitors discuss opportunities to help offset the effects of global warming.

Once our glacial adventure concluded we embarked on a self-guided tour of the Snæfellsnes Peninsula, located 2.5 hours north of Reykjavík. You could spend your entire week in Iceland hiking around the peninsula, but since we only had a day we stopped at a few choice attractions. We explored volcanic cliffs and grass-covered highlands on the 1.5 mile trail between the coastal villages of Hellnar and Arnastapi. We then took in what is likely the most-photographed (and for good reason) vista in the country, Kirkjufell mountain. Following Kirkjufell we enjoyed a lovely evening and morning in the small harbor of Stykkishólmur. It’s a quiet, peaceful area, and though you may have to wait a bit longer than in the US for a morning cup of coffee, the views from Súgandisey Island make the slower pace feel right. 

Days 3 and 4: Northern Iceland

If you have any extra time I’ve heard the Westfjords are an excellent destination, but they’re not the easiest to get to, especially off-season, and we unfortunately had to miss them this trip. We'll be back to see them! Instead, we buckled up for a 5.5 hour drive to the north part of the country. For those of you who can’t stand the idea of spending a half day of your trip in a car, don’t worry – any place you stop along the way is worth writing home about. Make sure to save time for a pitstop at Goðafoss, a large waterfall not far from the town of Akureyri. We were lucky enough to time our stop near sunset and the colors were out of this world. After the drive and stopping for photos along the way, we made it to our destination for the evening, a farm resorton the shore of Lake Mývatn. This region is the Northern Lights capital of Iceland, and if the weather is right you may be able to catch a glimpse of this beautiful phenomenon (we did!). After a long day of driving we enjoyed a farm-to-table dinner before aurora gazing; there are also nature baths that rival the Blue Lagoon for advanced relaxation. 

Before you leave Mývatn enjoy its unique lava formations such as Grjótagjá, Hofdi and Skútustaðagígar. The area is also home to a number of traditional Icelandic turf houses that are over 100 years old and give a sense of the country’s architectural heritage. From Mývatn  we made the 45 minute drive to Húsavík, a fishing town on the northern coast famous for the incredible whale watching available in Skjálfandi Bay. After lunch in the harbor (fish, of course) we embarked on a guided tour of the bay, complete with a history of the local settlements and a couple of whale sightings.

Days 5 and 6: Jökulsárlón and Vík

Now halfway through the trip, we ventured back down to the southeastern coast of the country to our next destination, Höfn, where we enjoyed a delicious langoustine meal. We broke up the 6-hour drive and stretched our legs by exploring the basalt formations at Stuðlagil Caynon. Whether you take in the entire island or just the southern portion, be sure to visit Jökulsárlón, a lake near Vatnajökull, the largest glacier in Iceland and, in fact, in Europe. The lagoon is studded with large cerulean ice bergs that calved off from the tongue of the glacier; intrepid explorers can get closer via kayak, zodiac boat or amphibian boat – provided the winds and water are sufficiently calm. As the lagoon empties to the sea, now-glassy ice bergs decorate the black sand beach like jewels at the aptly-named Diamond Beach. Once you’ve had your fill, continue on towards Vík, just under 2 hours southwest of Jökulsárlón, You may consider stopping by Fjaðrárgljúfur Canyon, made famous by Justin Bieber’s 2015 music video that resulted in a spike in visitors. The beautiful canyon is fragile, and when we visited it had only recently re-opened to the public after several months of closure to protect the vegetation. We respectfully strolled the cliff of the river-carved canyon before finishing the trip to Vík.

After stopping to refuel at a craft brewery, we met up with our guide for a tour of ice caves on Kötlujökull, a smaller glacier on top of Katla volcano. Once again, crampons became our friends as we carefully navigated ice walkways, made out way through blue-tinted domed channels, and climbed to the top of the glacier to take in the panoramic scenery. We arranged the tour through Arctic Adventures. Before we packed it in for the evening, we stopped at Reynisfjara Beach, where the black sand is guarded by walls of hexagonal basalt columns that formed as lava cooled. Don’t be fooled by social media – this is another location where you should expect large crowds of visitors. At this point you could conclude your travels by returning to Reykjavík via a 2.5 hour drive, but we elected to spend the evening at a guesthouse in Vík in order to get one last adventure in before heading home.

Days 7 and 8: Fimmvörðuháls and Reykjavík

Most of our travels to this point were fairly leisurely; though we spent the majority of our time outdoors, the excursions weren’t far off The Ring Road and were manageable for people of all activity levels. On our last day before leaving Iceland we looked to get off the beaten path, and got an early start toward Skógafoss. The nearly 200-foot-high waterfall looks like what you might see if you look up “waterfall” in the dictionary. Arriving around 7:00am, we had the spectacle almost all to ourselves. 

Climbing a steep staircase to the top of Skógafoss will take you to the Fimmvörðuháls Pass, a 14-mile trail that tavels between two glaciers before reaching the scenic Þórsmörk valley. We didn’t have 28 miles in us for the round trip but we did take in 10 miles of unadulterated beauty, during perhaps 75% of which we didn’t see another person. Every turn of the trail unveiled another waterfall or canyon more incredible than the last, and the green hills seemed too vibrant to be real. While all of Iceland is astounding, I highly recommend taking at least one day to appreciate the unspoiled natural wonders – no crowds, cars, or tour guides. It was a meditative experience for us, one I can’t put into words that truly reinforced why we love spending our time outdoors.

Following the hike treat yourself to a warm meal, craft beers, and a relaxing bath back in Reykjavík. After the week of travel, the city feels warm and welcoming. You’ll likely have a half-day to get in any final sightseeing or shopping before you head to the airport and depart. If you’re anything like us, you’ll likely spend the entire trip ruminating on the unforgettable and out-of-this-world experience – and figuring out how soon you can return. 

Iceland was everything we dreamed of and more. It's truly one of the most naturally beautiful and amazing places on the planet. Remember to practice Leave No Trace as you explore and respect the safeguards that have been put in place to preserve Iceland for the future. 

We want to acknowledge and thank the past, present, and future generations of all Native Nations and Indigenous Peoples whose ancestral lands we travel, explore, and play on. Always practice Leave No Trace ethics on your adventures and follow local regulations. Please explore responsibly!

Kyle Reader

A life spent in awe of the outdoors. I am a runner, climate activist and healthcare consultant based outside the San Francisco Bay Area. Photography is my adventure.