Exploring the "Land of Fire & Ice:" A Comprehensive Week Long Guide to Iceland
Updated: Jun 23, 2020
Iceland had been on my bucket list for several years, especially after the dramatic increase of tourism that it has experienced. Thanks Instagram for constantly reminding me to make this trip happen! Can you believe that in 2005, Iceland welcomed 200,000 tourists while in 2018, it increased about 12-fold to about 2.5 million tourists? I became a part of this growing statistic recently. For me, Iceland appeared to be very different from where I had traveled before, and it surely was! My fiancé loves the cold and with a hope to experience the beauty of winter #nature and see the #NorthernLights, we decided to make this dream a reality this past February.
Why Should You Travel to Iceland?
Nature is unbeatable there! Whether it is checking out one of the many, many waterfalls or exploring the glacier lagoon, you will be absolutely amazed.
The food scene is top notch. This is not something I realized when planning my trip to Iceland. As such, it was a great surprise. The food is super fresh and tasty!
Reykjavik is a cute, walkable city to explore. Within a small radius, you can explore its many museums or the famous #Hallgrímskirkja that overlooks the city. Most things are between a 10-20 minute walk if you are staying in the city center. However, if you do not wish to walk, there is a fabulous bus system that you can use as well.
Random Facts about Iceland:
Iceland charges a 30% income tax, which is why they have great health care and free education all the way to the doctorate level for citizens.
Icelandic language is very similar to the Vikings. Unlike Norway and Denmark who veered away from the Viking language, Icelanders can still read Viking language on old artifacts.
When you are born, you must use an Icelandic first name. There is a committee that checks the name registry featuring 400 male and 400 female Icelandic names. Your last name typically is a combination of your father's first name and the word for "son" or "daughter" in Icelandic.
Icelanders are fluent in several languages. They study English beginning at the age of 6 since books are in English. However, they are given verbal instruction in Icelandic. They also study Danish, the language of their former colonizer, for 8 years. In addition, they learn German for 4 years.
Geographically, about 85% of #Iceland is inhabitable. There are almost three times as many sheep than people in Iceland, with 360,000 people and 1 million sheep.
Week Long Itinerary for "Land of Fire and Ice"
Day 1: Arrived in Iceland
Our journey began with taking a 5 hour flight from New York's JFK airport overnight, landing in Keflavik Airport. It is important to note that the airport is 30 miles from the major city Reykjavik, a 40-45 minute drive. I arranged transportation ahead of time through Grayline Bus Transportation (cost: $29 USD one way) for direct hotel drop off.
TIP: I would recommend purchasing a ticket for the bus when you arrive at the airport. There are several bus companies stationed at the airport, the most popular being FlyBus. FlyBus had several buses waiting to pick up passengers in the most obvious spot outside the airport, although it was packed. However, if you want a less packed experience, go for Grayline! There is a person to check-in with on the inside of the entrance to the airport.
Since we arrived in #Reykjavik around 8 AM, we had to find a way to keep busy until our hotel check-in at 3 PM. Many people go straight to the Blue Lagoon since it is closer from the airport than Reykjavik. However, we chose against that as we did not want to have to deal with our luggage. We wanted to have a relaxing day dedicated to that experience.
1. City Walking Tour
Instead, we dropped our luggage at the hotel and passed time before our scheduled FREE City Walking Tour. It was super convenient since it was two block walk from our hotel. This two hour walking tour provided both the history and present-day context of Iceland including information on its education system, crime rates, among other things. Some of the places we stopped by were:
Rainbow Street leading to Hallgrímskirkja
TIP: Sign up for the #walkingtour 5 days ahead of time, the earliest you can register. It may run out of spots if you wait too late. I HIGHLY recommend this walking tour in order for you to get acquainted with the layout of Reykjavik as we got very lost trying to find a cafe because of many small streets.
2. Northern Lights Tour
We booked a Northern Lights Tour, scheduled for 8 PM. I chose this tour because I liked that it was for small groups, no more than 15-20 people versus the bigger Grayline tours which can be as large as 50. Of course, there is a higher price for such service, but we did not mind. We chose for the tour to pick us up by our hotel. The first stop was the Reykjavik Aurora Museum, where we received a good introduction to the Northern Lights: the science, various photos from different locations, as well as interpretations from multiple cultures. From there, we departed riding between 1-2 hours (making stops along the way) to find good spots to see the Northern Lights. We were far from Reykjavik, truly in the middle of nowhere in darkness. Unfortunately, we were not able to see the Northern Lights clearly and we did not end up taking advantage of the free rebooking because we did not want to be freezing cold in the middle of nowhere again. The silver lining is we were given hot chocolate and a traditional Icelandic dessert. Better luck for us next time!
TIP: Book this for as early on your trip as possible just in case you need to try again on a different night.
Hope to see this someday!
Day 2: The Well-Traveled Side of Iceland
This is when we got to see and experience perhaps the most popular thing to visit in Iceland: the Golden Circle. The #GoldenCircle is particularly attractive because you can experience nature fairly close to Reykjavik.
TIP: I would highly recommend paying extra to book this specific tour: Golden Circle Tour with Secret Lagoon & Lunch at Fridheimar Greenhouse ($161). Compared to many other tours on Viator, this is more comprehensive because it includes the Secret Lagoon (highly recommended as a different experience to the Blue Lagoon) and lunch at a tomato greenhouse.
1. Secret Lagoon
On this particular tour, our first stop was the #SecretLagoon, Iceland's oldest natural swimming pool. Although all the signs say that you must shower with your bathing suit off in a communal shower, I did not see anyone doing that nor was anyone holding people accountable. Considering that we arrived around 9:30 AM, this was a great way to relax and wake up.
TIP: I would recommend wearing your bathing suit underneath your clothes so that it is easier to change. Also, bring a towel from your hotel room so you do not have to rent a towel.
2. Friðheimar Tomato Farm Greenhouse
From there, we got the unique experience of visiting and eating lunch inside of the Friðheimar Tomato Farm Greenhouse. This greenhouse is unlike anything I'd ever seen, considering they produce over one ton of tomatoes each day using Iceland's geothermal heat. You had the option to try their famous tomato soup, ravioli pasta or a grilled tortilla pizza, along with homemade bread (which is soooo good!). Lunch was included in the price of the tour.
TIP: If you are looking for an unlimited option, go for the tomato soup!
TIP: For an even more unique experience, but for an extra cost, try their tomato based desserts (including tomato ice cream, apple-tomato pie crumble, and a cheesecake with a tomato jam).
3. Golden Circle
For our last third of the tour, we visited three major sites of the Golden Circle in reverse order to avoid the crowds. The first stop was the Gullfoss Waterfall, which translates to "Golden Falls."
TIP: Make sure to check out the waterfalls from both above and below (there is a staircase leading to the bottom view).
Next, we drove to an exploding geyser area, Geysir. Here you can watch the geyser Strokkur (Icelandic for "churn"), erupt every 6–10 minutes.
TIP: Although you can explore other areas in #Geysir, I would be super cautious as certain areas further away from Strokkur are extremely slippery with people literally sliding on ice.
The final stop before heading home was the famous Þingvellir National Park. This National Park holds both historical and geological significance. Historically, Þingvellir was the original site of the longest-running parliament in the world. Geologically, this national park sits in the rift valley of the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates that are separating.
Day 3: Exploring Downtown
1. Rainbow Street
As a way to keep it low-key, we decided to spend more of the day exploring on our own. After grabbing lunch, we wandered downtown looking at street art and found our way to Rainbow Street, a main street in downtown Reykjavík, leading to Hallgrímskirkja Church. This street, dressed up in the colors of the rainbow, was organized by the city of Reykjavík in conjunction with Reykjavík Pride.
TIP: Be careful as you take pictures as there is heavy car traffic of cars turning onto this street. It will definitely take you a while before you get the perfect shot.
From there, we had quick access to Hallgrímskirkja Church, the largest church in Iceland. The church is named after the 17th century clergyman Hallgrímur Pétursson, author of the Hymns of the Passion. I could stare at this church all day! The shape of the church is meant to represent exploding glaciers. The top of the church represents a volcano while the bottom of the church represents the basalt rocks that are prevalent in Iceland. The inside of the church is worth checking out, being a very modern Lutheran church.
TIP: It is worth paying the $8 USD to have access to ride the elevator to the top of the church and climb a couple of flights of steps. Here you will find some of the most epic views of Reykjavik. Although it's super windy up there, it is worth getting the full 360-degree view.
3. Icelandic Food Tour
I love food tours so I was really happy to find the Reykjavik Food Walk. This was literally one of the best food tours I've done because: 1. The variety of food we ate from full dinner plates to desserts 2. The amount served (I left SUPER full) and 3. The food was so tasty and fresh. Our tour guide, Eyglo, was super sweet and knowledgeable. This was a very unique experience as we ended up doing this tour amidst a mini snow storm, with some high winds. I also enjoyed the people I met, including several teachers from Long Island to California on break. After taking this tour, I am now obsessed with their Arctic Char and desserts. We got to try a range of foods such as lamb meat soup, rye bread ice cream, the Icelandic hot dog, and fermented shark. I would definitely do this tour again the next time I visit Iceland (*speaks into existence*)
TIP: The meeting spot of the tour was the Harpa Opera House. It is a place that many people recommend visiting since it's free. I would arrive earlier before the tour to explore #Harpa, which is free. There is a cool view from the 5th floor, where you can see the intricate interior and get some views of the outside from above.
Day 4: The Road Less Traveled
Aside from the food tour, the South Coast and Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon Day Tour from Reykjavik ($148.45) was definitely my favorite tour. Although this was the longest tour (14 hours!), it was also the most comprehensive and unique. Absolutely breathtaking!
TIP: If you are limited in time in Iceland and really want to experience the beauty of Iceland's nature, I would recommend prioritizing the South Coast + #GlacierLagoon tour over the Golden Circle Tour. Make sure to book the South Coast tour with the Glacier Lagoon as not all tours include it.
The first stop on this tour was Seljalandfoss Waterfall, which is a breathtaking 60m waterfall in the South Coast. Afterwards, we traveled a short distance to Skogafoss Waterfall. Both waterfalls allow you to see a different perspective of the waterfall (whether it's behind the waterfall or from above after taking a long flight of steps).
TIP: Both waterfalls have a very icy path in the winter time. Be extra cautious. You can get good photos without getting super up close and personal.
From there, we took a long, windy, yet breathtaking drive through snowy mountains deep into the South Coast, first stopping at Vik. About 4-5 hours from Reykjavik, we finally made it to Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon and Diamond Beach. These two spots -- both very close to each other -- were some of the most beautiful surprises in nature I ever saw. This made me appreciate traveling to a cold place, which is saying a lot as I have always been a proponent of Caribbean trips in the winter. Jökulsárlón #GlacierLagoon, also known as "Glacier's River Lagoon" is filled with tons of icebergs of different sizes. Some icebergs are over 1,000 years old. WOW!
Diamond Beach (a name made up for tourists) is equally unique and beautiful. It gets its name because of the icebergs (or diamonds) that sparkle on the volcanic black sand beach. The icebergs are actually coming from the glacier lagoon where they float down the river and into the Atlantic Ocean, washing up the shore.
Day 5: Day of Self Care
After a packed week filled with adventure, what better way to spend the last full day than by relaxing! The #BlueLagoon was the perfect way. Rather than rushing that experience by going right after landing in Iceland or right before departing Iceland, we decided to make a day out of it. This was definitely one of our pricier experiences if you add up the cost of Premium entry, transportation, and late lunch at the Lava Restaurant. However, it is worth every penny. You got to treat yourself sometimes #blackandboujee.
For a more comprehensive breakdown of the Blue Lagoon experience and important tips, check out my article coming soon, "Top 10 Tips to Prepare for the Blue Lagoon."
Day 6: Depart Iceland
On the last day, we decided to just eat brunch and head straight to the airport for our 5 PM flight. This was the saddest part -- to leave.
TIP: I highly recommend having transportation arranged (such as Grayline) for pickup to the airport. Unlike at the airport, there are not buses parked for you to hop on to head to the airport.
FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS:
TRANSPORTATION: How do I get to and around Iceland?
From NYC JFK, direct flights can range between $300-500+ on IcelandAir, depending when you are visiting. We were on the closer end to $500 only because we were traveling during February break.
The best way to get around the main city of Reykjavik is by walking or by bus. It is important to book a hotel centrally located in order to default to walking.
To view the Golden Circle or South Coast outside of Reykjavik, you either need to book a tour bus excursion like we did, or rent a car. Public transportation will not take you that far.
The main form of transportation in Reykjavík is the bus, called Strætó (very bright yellow in color). There is no metro, train or ferry service in Reykjavik. The bus service is both accessible and comprehensive, with many bus lines. The best way to access the bus system is to download the Strætó app and buy a ticket before you hop on. The bus costs 470 ISK (3.40 EUR) per ride
There is no Uber in Iceland. I saw many local taxis near hotels, but read they are very expensive.
LODGING: Where should I stay in Iceland?
While we were in Reykjavik, we stayed at a hotel called Hotel Centrum. It was SUPER centrally located, by Bus Stop 1- City Hall. We were a 2-3 block walk from the bus stop, which was the meeting spot for most of our excursions. Conveniently, we were about a 4-minute walk from the famous Icelandic hot dog stand and walking distance to several museums.
FOOD: Where should I eat in Iceland? What are the national dishes to try?
Iceland, specifically Reykjavik, is a whole food scene! There are so many dishes unique to Iceland that each deserves its own article. Check out my article, "Eating Your Way through Reykjavik: Top 7 Traditional Foods."
Here are the top 5 places I recommend you to eat at that are not featured in my article with non-traditional Icelandic dishes:
1. Sandholt Bakery:
This bakery came highly recommended through a follower on Instagram. It did not disappoint! They are amazing for pastries-- especially chocolates -- as well as sandwiches. I am still thinking about my lunch from this bakery: croque madame, hot chocolate and chocolate mousse cake.
2. Laundromat Cafe:
Looking for an American type breakfast with an Icelandic twist? This is a good place to come. They have breakfast combos where you can get pancakes, eggs, sausage, bacon, bread, fruit and more!
This was a great hidden gem for Indian food. I knew it had to be good because it was filled with many Indian and British tourists. Service is slow, but the food is worth it.
4. Sjávargrillið (Seafood Grill)
This was a stop during the Reykjavik Food Walk. It is worthy to note because they sell an amazing lava cake topped with Bailey's ice cream, frozen caramel popcorn and a salted nut crumble.
5. Te & Kaffi
This place came in clutch because it was located right across the street from our hotel and opened early when we needed breakfast before our excursion. They have tasty croissants and chai lattes, although not cheap!
OTHER: What should I keep in mind when planning a trip to Iceland?
Since there is so much to keep in mind to be prepared for Iceland, I am writing several articles on my trip to Iceland. Stay tuned for the following articles! :