Written by Cat Ahlberg for MonaCorona.com
Iceland—the land of glaciers, waterfalls, tiny horses, and hot springs. Among travel locations, I hear more and more about Iceland as a destination. With the increasing popularity, affordability, flight options of WOW Air and Icelandair’s option to add an up to seven day Icelandic layover from Europe to America (or vice versa) for no extra cost, Iceland is quickly becoming a possible vacation for the average American. So what then should you do once you arrive in the land of permanent day/night and how can you get the most out of an Iceland itinerary in 7 days? There are many things to do in and around Reykjavik that are perfect for a couple days of activity. However, if you have the time, an off the beaten path Iceland road trip can be an antidote for many existential ailments that are derived from our modern lives.
First, a little backstory.
Four years ago, I graduated college. I had not been accepted to medical school as I had planned. I had no job, and much worse, no plan as to what to do (my ego having assumed that I would be immediately accepted to the next step in my education). In a state of emotional turmoil, I set off for a solitary road trip around Iceland as a graduation gift. I had become mildly (read: insanely) obsessed with this little country for no apparent reason the year prior, and hoped that giving in to the pull of Iceland would give me a chance to start to detangle the labyrinth of thoughts in my mind.
This time, I found myself at a completely different point in my life—halfway through medical school and feeling as if I am on the correct path. Despite the stark differences between the frame of mind I found myself in now and then, Iceland still gave me insight into who I am now and where I am going. You are probably wondering at this point why any of this is important, which is a fair thought. I want to make it clear that there is no right or wrong time to visit Iceland. I emerged from this country both times having a completely new perspective on life, and hope that I can convince you to experience your own self-discovery regardless of your mental space upon arrival.
Despite the stark differences between the frame of mind I found myself in now and then, Iceland still gave me insight into who I am now and where I am going.
The Perfect Iceland Itinerary – 7 Days
Ok, so you have booked your flights, packed your bags, waded through the airport (always my least favorite part of traveling), hopefully slept a little in the cramped airplane seat (unless you flew first class you fancy person you), and finally landed in Iceland. You disappointedly look out at Keflavik (it’s all gray mist all the time) but hold out for prettier views later. Like me, most people head first to Reykjavik, with other popular options of the Blue Lagoon or the Golden Circle.
One of the most common mistakes that tourists do on this tiny misnamed island is staying within Reykjavik and the Golden Circle. I am a big believer in mixing the classically touristy with local and unique experiences, and therefore encourage you not miss out on these wonderfully touristy places. However, you will have a much better trip by jumping back in your car and continuing to the places where locals are the norm rather than other tourists.
Iceland Car Rental Tips & Other General Things to Note For Your First Time in Iceland
The island itself is tiny, and driving the entire country can be done in a week if you are committed (but the following itinerary can easily be extended depending on your plans). The circular path that travels all around the country is known as the “Ring Road” and is what you will be driving on this Iceland road trip itinerary.
Renting a car is rather pricey if you need an automatic transmission (like me, kudos if you can drive a stick), but they do drive on the same of the road as the U.S. (the right side) and renting a car allows you much more flexibility than the bus or hopper flights. NOTE: Sheep and gravel insurance are worth it. You may be in areas where there is no gas (or even people) for miles, so fill up often so you are not stuck somewhere remote.
Outside of Reykjavik there are not as many luxury accommodations as per some standards. independent cabins are often affordable and unique option with better views than many hotels. Food also is very expensive in Iceland, and preparing snacks/meals in advance is recommended given that there are times during the drive where you will not be near any food options and no one likes to be hangry.
Day 1: Reykjavik: Unique and Non-Touristy Things to do in Reykjavik, Iceland
Depending on your arrival time, you may have time to explore Reykjavik after collecting your bags and acquiring your rental car. The city of Reykjavik is about a 40 minute drive from the airport in Keflavik.
Start your time by wandering around this walking-friendly city, making sure to visit the following locations:
- Baejarins Beztu: this hotdog stands has been around since before Iceland was independent from Denmark, and makes the best hot dogs in the world—lamb, raw and fried onions, and several sauces combine to make magic, which are also one of the cheapest meals in Reykjavik. There are also a lot of shops and other restaurants around, which can be fun to wander around.
- Hallgrímskirkja: this is the famous church in Reykjavik, and one of the most interesting architectural structures I have ever seen.
- The Icelandic Phallological Museum: yes, the penis museum—absolutely worth the visit, especially before or after eating a few hot dogs.
- Hljómskálagarður Park: a stunning park to wander around right near the center of all of the best attractions of Reykjavik.
For a fancier dinner, try traditional Icelandic food reimagined at Dill Restaurant, which is located in the Nordic House (which on its own is worth a visit). If you’re a foodie, you may also want to check out a Reykjavik food tour.
For your classic Icelandic tourist picture, don’t miss the Sólfarið, a stainless steel boat statue right on the water.
Reykjavik Accommodation Recommendations:
Day 2: Iceland Golden Circle Self Drive
Now that you have slept well and are ready to explore outside of the city, the Golden circle is the next stop. Yes, it is where every tourist goes, and there is a reason why. Some quick tips:
- DO NOT buy souvenirs here, you will find much better local ones up north.
- Same goes for the food—its overpriced and not very good.
Stops that are absolutely necessary:
- Geysir: (rarely actually erupts) and Strokkur (erupts every 5-10 minutes).
- Gullfoss waterfall: park upstairs near the service center and walk around to view the two cascades into the 70 meter gorge
- Þingvellir National Park: Historically a crucial place for Iceland, as the Icelandic parliament was founded here in 930, and the vote to become Christians occurred here in the year 1000. Geologically, this is where the European and North American plates meet. It is a beautiful place to bring a picnic and take a long leisurely walk or hike.
- Laugarvatn is also a historically important place, as this is the lake where many of the Icelanders who had voted to be Christians were baptized
- Seljalandsfoss (the ending foss is waterfall, as you will quickly discover) is not only beautiful to see, but there is a path that goes behind the waterfall that is worth the stroll
- Skógar: A tiny area around the Skógafoss waterfall with an incredibly interesting folk museum to explore everyday life in the farming and fishing society of Iceland. Don’t miss the waterfall itself, or the walking path next to it
Golden Circle Accommodation Recommendations:
Day 3: West Fjords and the Underrated North – Off the Beaten Path Iceland & Northern Lights
The vast majority of visitors to Iceland drive the Southern route (which is absolutely worth it and we will get to later) and neglect the stunning Northern areas of the country. Even more, the West Fjords are often completely ignored.
On your way up to the West Fjords, there are some stunning places to visit:
- Hvalfjördur: translates to Whale Fjord, where there used to be a whaling station, with absolutely gorgeous views—stop at the Ferstikla service station for both the best hamburger I have ever had as well as an exhibition on a former submarine station.
- Reykholt: another important historical site, as it was a center of religion, culture, and politics in the Middle Ages and the entrance to the tunnel where Snorri Sturluson (famous writer and political leader) was assassinated.
- Hraunfossar: this is one of the most interesting and unique waterfalls I have ever seen, as the water is emerging between porous rock and basalt, which then falls into a 1 km long gorge.
- Barnafoss: just upstream from Hraunfossar (follow the walking path). The legend goes that two children drowned here when trying to cross the river on a natural rock arch. After their death, the mother broke down the arch to protect other families from facing the same fate. The remains of the arch are still there.
- Deildartunguhver: the most powerful natural hot spring in the world, emitting 200 liters of boiling water per second. Often there are locally grown Icelandic produce in a little stand here which are delicious, so make sure to bring some cash.
- Grábrók: a crater of Grábrókarhraun with an easy walking path to the top of the crater—worth the climb and the views!
Here you will leave the Ring Road for a moment and travel up Route 60 into the West Fjords.
If you are traveling between the months of September – April, this is a great place to the see the Northern Lights.
There is no way to see the whole area in one day, but absolutely stop at the Pollurinn outside of Tálknafjörður This is a free hot springs on the side of the fjord with gorgeous views. You can bring your own food, drinks, music, etc. Just don’t forget a towel!
Ísafjörður will give you the most options for accommodations, and activities.
Ísafjörður Accommodation Recommendations:
Day 4: Akureyri – Thermal Pool, Waterfalls, and Authentic Icelandic Culture
This part of the country between the West Fjords and Akureyri is my favorite part of Iceland. The drive is so breathtaking you will likely stop over and over for pictures, so pack snacks and enjoy the scenery as much as you can.
Stops along the way to Akureyri:
- Kolugljúfur: a beautiful gorge in the river Víðidalsá with many beautiful waterfalls.
- Arnarstapi: coming down over the mountain pass Vatnsskarð, there is a memorial for Stephan G. Stephansson with a stunning view of the fjord Skagafjörður.
- Víðimýrikirkja: one of the most beautiful and well preserved turf churches in Iceland dating from the 1834.
- Glaumbær: an open air folk museum where you can discover everyday life in Iceland and stop at the old-fashioned tearoom for a traditional Icelandic cakes. This is one of my favorite places, as the views are beyond what I have ever seen and you get a true glimpse into small town life in Iceland.
Now you arrive in Akureyri, the capital of the North and the second largest city in Iceland. There is a lot to do and explore, so spend some time wandering. Your accommodation will have the best recommendations for what to do and where to go, as the city changes frequently.
Some options would include the thermal pool, botanical garden, modern church, harbor, folk museum, and an all year Christmas shop.
Akureyi Accommodation Recommendations:
Day 5: East Fjords – What Not to Miss
Continue from Akureyri to the East fjords, again stopping along the way at the following places:
- Goðafoss: a beautiful waterfall where the law-speaker Þorgeir Ljósvetningagoði threw all of his pagan idols in the river after the parliamentary decision to adopt Christianity in the year 1000.
- Mývatn: a really beautiful and interesting lake to walk around with geological phenomena like pseudo craters, lava caves, hot mud and steam springs, canyons etc. Stop at the Mývatn Nature Baths, hot springs that are quite beautiful.
- Námafjall: a mountain south of the pass Námaskar, with impressive bubbling mud pools, steam vents, hot boiling springs and fumaroles. Stick to the paths! It is extremely dangerous to walk outside of them.
- Krafla and Víti: a volcano and system of fissures, with the crater Víti (meaning hell in Icelandic).
- Húsavík: a beautiful town with the best whale watching tours in Iceland (they take at least 3 hours but are absolutely worth it.)
- Ásbyrgi: one of the most intriguing places in Iceland, it feels like a fairy forest in the middle of nowhere. Legend has it that this is the footprint of the horse Sleipnir. It had eight legs and was the horse of the Norse god Odin.
- Dettifoss: the most powerful waterfall in Europe, about a 20 minute walk from the car and is worth the hike. There is another waterfall about 1.5 km hike from dettifoss, but wear good shoes as the path is quite rocky.
- Möðrudalur: the highest altitude Icelandic farm with a lovely café and impressive views of the mountains.
- Lögurinn or Lagarfljót: an interesting lake with a folktale monster that is a similar description to Loch Ness monster
You are now at the entrance to the East fjords, the town of Egilsstaðir (a great option for accommodation, or stay on one of the fjords.)
From here you can go to Seyðisfjörður or Reyðarfjörður for great accommodations, and explore the rest of the Iceland fjords (the views are absolutely insanely incredible.)
The drive to Seyðisfjörður goes through Fjarðarheiði, a highland moor, and Seyðisfjörður has a lot of traditional Norweigan-Icelandic timber houses.
Other fjords to visit: Eskifjorður, Neskaupstaður, Fáskrúðsfjörður, Stöðvarfjörður, Berufjörður.
Visit Stöðvarfjörður for a famous stone collection Steinasafn by Petra Steinsdóttir.
East Fjords Accommodation Recommendations:
Day 6: South Iceland Attractions
You are continuing more and more into the southern Iceland, where the glacier Vatnajökull covers most of the South-Eastern area. This is the largest glacier in Iceland.
- Just before you drive through the tunnel, you can turn right and drive up to the mountain pass Almannaskarð to hopefully enjoy views on the icy vastness of Vatnajökull.
- As you continue to drive, you absolutely need to stop at the deep glacial lagoon Jökulsárlón for gorgeous pictures and maybe even a boat tour.
- Further west, the Skaftafell National Park is a great place for hiking, including to Svartifoss which has an amazing view
- Stop at Kirkjugólf, a formation of basalt columns called the “church floor” of a medieval church.
- As you continue you will pass through Vik, and eventually to Selfoss, all of which lead back to Reykjavik—there will be many places to stop for walks and beautiful scenery, so take your time.
Any of these places will have lots of options for places to stay and gorgeous areas around them to explore.
South Iceland Accommodation Recommendations:
Day 7: Blue Lagoon – Tips for one of the Best Natural Hot Springs in Iceland
It’s the last days, and like me, you might be sad to leave such a magical place. Before you return your car and head off into the sky, stopping at the Blue Lagoon is a relaxing way to end your trip, and no 7 day Iceland itinerary is complete without a visit. Here are some things to keep in mind:
- The Blue Lagoon is located the town of Grindavik, about half way to the airport.
- Many will argue that the Blue Lagoon is overpriced and not worth it, but of all the hot springs I have visited in Iceland, this is the only one I have encountered with the lava rock formations situated around it, which are stunning to see.
- Buy your tickets online but not any of the extras—these are overpriced and not worth it.
- They have showers so you can clean up before your flight.
After the Blue Lagoon, sadly head to the airport, and know that Iceland is always there waiting for your return.
If you take anything away from this, it’s that Iceland can see all the best in as little as a one week Iceland itinerary. Whether you are choosing only a few days of this trip or extending it even longer, Iceland is a place where you can stop to take a breath from the world. So find a hot springs with a gorgeous view, grab a cold beverage of your choice, and allow your mind and body to embrace the peace—you’ve earned it.
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