For the past few years I’ve seen non-stop incredible photos of Iceland 0n my Instagram feed — images of the Northern Lights, Blue Lagoon, the Icelandic horses, and so many natural wonders that I knew I had to go. I felt overwhelmed though trying to figuring out what to book. With just a plane ticket (booking was the first step!), I started reading articles, reviews and asking advice of friends so here is the quick and easy guide to what I did, and what’s on my radar for next time.
WHERE TO STAY: Downtown Reykjavik, Room with a View
There are loads of hotels all over Iceland but if you’re limited on time, downtown Reykjavik is ideal. All of the tours pick up from there and it’s a really cute scene, filled boutiques, restaurants, popular attractions and life. We stayed at Room with View Luxury Apartments, which was the most ideal location. In fact if you’re looking at other hotels see how close it is to this one since it doesn’t get anymore prime and right. Although dubbed an apartment, it’s more of an upscale hotel suite complete with a kitchen, doorman and helpful staff to accommodate any bookings. There’s also a steam room and Jacuzzi on the property! We were a party of 4 people and one thing I learned is two double beds in a hotel basically doesn’t exist. This was the only hotel I found that could accommodate us in one room. I highly recommend emailing them in advance your needs. We ended up with 3 single beds and one double bed in our huge, beautiful, dream apartment with 2 bathrooms suite that was cheaper then booking two rooms somewhere else.
How to Get Around:
Your options are basically, taxi, car rental, bus, ferry or tour buses (more info HERE). I highly recommend renting a car, we used Lagoon Car Rental which was wonderful. They picked us up from the airport and drove us 5 minutes away to the car location and made it all super quick and easy! And also through a wi-fi router we had internet in the car the whole time. Renting a car made the most sense for us since we were a party of 4 and getting to/from the airport to Reykjavik is about a 45 minute drive and pricey, so is the Blue Lagoon (we were quoted $40 each way from Reykjavik, although they have ticket options that include a shuttle). Reykjavik is a very walkable city so we basically used the car for day trips and otherwise found easy street parking and did tours. The tours pickup from hotels in Reykjavik so that part was easy.
We rented a Renault Talisman which had plenty of space in the trunk for all of our stuff. Some people prefer a 4×4 SUV but I found the roads really well paved and since we were doing tours (all listed below) for more of our nature excursions, and the weather was mild, we were more than fine in a regular car. If you are doing more off roading and driving yourself around the country (especially in harsh weather) you may want to consider a 4×4.
WHAT TO DO IN ICELAND:
Blue Lagoon and Thermal Baths
I could not leave Iceland without visiting the Blue Lagoon Geothermal Bath. It’s one of the 25 Wonders of the World and with good reason, it’s incredible! Most people visit on their way to the airport or leaving it since it’s on the route from Keflavik Airport to Reykjavik. Pre-booking is required and they also offer massages in the water which is apparently incredible! They have different ticket rates, all of which get you the same access to the Blue Lagoon and access to the mask bar for the Silica Mud Mask — everything but the Standard Ticket also gets you the Algae Mud Mask (you can learn more about the ticket options HERE). Both of these skincare products are two of Blue Lagoons top selling skincare products, and they have a store on site (as well as at the airport and downtown Reykjavik) where you can purchase the whole line. I highly recommend the masks as well as their lip balm — pretty much all of it is incredible and makes for a great gift! There are two restaurants, a cafe and more formal dining option on the property. There is also a bar in the water to purchase drinks.
I recommend getting a Lifeproof Waterproof Phone Case so you can take pictures. They do sell phone bags for around $30 at the pool, but the case is great for all weather, this article is awesome article I read about someone who traveled to Iceland and tested it out: expertvagabond.com/ring-road-trip-iceland
Blue Lagoon is very touristy since I do feel like you can’t leave Iceland without going but there are several local thermal baths in Reykjavik that are more low key that the locals frequent which includes, Vesturbaer (a local favorite), Laugardalur and Reykjavik Indoor Thermal Pool.
TIP: Your hair will turn into a brillo pad if you get it wet so if you plan to make sure to wet your hair before going in (which is required) and then dousing it in conditioner, which they provide. And put a lot! Even when you think you’re done, add more, In my case I had my leave in conditioner and Moroccanoil as well. And used them after the bath to moisturize my hair. I didn’t fully go under but it did get wet from swimming and it saved my hair.
Downtown Reykjavik is totally happening with cute restaurants, bars and shops lining the streets. Aside from the local baths, there are many more attractions starting with the Hallgrimskirkja Church which is free to enter and for around $9 you can go to the roof for the best view of all of Reykjavik. Another must is a walk through the park to see City Hall and the Parliament Building. Other attractions include Harpa Concert Hall which you can go inside, Kolaportid flea market (which is only open on weekends that I heard mixed things about). There are also loads of museums including the National Museum and Perlan Science Museum, which came highly recommended. Most tourist centers and hotel have a map of Reykavik with all the major attractions on it.
This was probably the most exciting tour I’ve been on and an absolute must for nature lovers! They pick up from Reykjavik and it includes:
- Walk behind the mighty Seljalandsfoss waterfall
- Stroll along the black sand beach of Reynisfjara to see basalt formations
- Go to Cape Dyrhólaey or Reynisfjara beach to see puffins in season (May to August)
- Visit Skógafoss Waterfall, considered one of Iceland’s most beautiful
- Touch the ancient ice of Sólheimajökull glacier
- Drive through the volcanic area of Eyjafjallajökull
- See the feared active volcanoes of Hekla and Katla
- Get spectacular views of glaciers framed by mountains on clear days
See Icelands most popular sites on this tour, which includes 3 stops (plus a break for lunch): The UNESCO World Heritage Site of Þingvellir (Thingvellir), the spectacular Gullfoss waterfall, and a stop at two geothermal geysers, Geysir and Strokkur. There’s a Classic version, $110 (8 hours) and Express, $80 (6 hours) which make virtually the same stops, you just get more time at each with the Classic. There’s also this version that includes Snowmobiling ($224).
Northern Lights tour
This is of course very seasonal and depends on how active the aurora is and how clear the weather forecast is. On the bright side the tours usually don’t go out unless there’s a good chance you’ll see the Northern Lights, which they don’t know until the afternoon (usually tours start around 8pm or later and last for 2-4 hours). There are several options, hire a guide, do a driving tour or do a boat cruise. The boat cruise is more limited in terms of wear to see them so a good option if it’s going to be an excellent viewing night. You can book the tours in advance or have your hotel do it. It’s all priced around the same so whatever your hotel suggests or you booth through one of the main sites should be fine.
Visit the Icelandic Horses
They look like ponies, but don’t tell them that, since they are a unique and beautiful breed of horses — and so friendly! You’ll see them all over as you drive out to the country. Personally, all I wanted to do was pull over and hug them all — which I basically did every chance I got. A more official location to do that, as well as ride them is Ishestar, where you can visit them, ride them and even do a lava tour. It’s about a 15 minutes drive from Reykavik, making it really convenient to go visit by car.
Glacier hikes. While we got to the base of some glacier’s and saw them, we didn’t actually climb in them which I hear is incredible! My next trip I’d love to do that as well as this 2 hour Icelandic Horse Lava Riding Tour, Snowmobiling, and Cave Tours. Whale watching is also a big attraction.
Airline Tips: PAY ATTENTION IF YOU’RE TAKING A NIGHT FLIGHT
We flew WOW Air, which for a budget airline was really clean and nothing like the budget airlines in the US. The BEST tip I was given was if you’re flying at night from the US to Iceland to sit on the left side and get a window seat for a chance to see the Northern Lights. AND I DID! I saw them in the clouds and it was incredible. If you’re doing a night flight leaving Iceland for the US sit on the right side, window seat.
The other tip I got was to download the Netflix app and download movies to stream on the flight (no internet required to watch, just to download). WOW Air doesn’t have TV’s on the plane (and food and drink are only available for purchase, no complimentary in flight service otherwise), so this was a total game changer. Plus the flight is under 6 hours so it’s like 2-3 movies and you’re there!
What to Pack:
Obviously check the weather but what came in handy for me was: Waterproof phone case (I got the Lifeproof Waterproof Phone Case), portable charger (I like the MyCharge Hub series since they plug right into the wall to recharge), converter, Uniqlo HeatTech Collection (I loaded up on leggings and long sleeves for my under layers), layers in general worked well, snow or duck boots, headphones (some of the tours have audio tablets to tell you about the destinations), sunglasses (it’s so bright there!), bathing suit (for the thermal baths, also some hotels have steam rooms/hot tubs), hand/foot warmers. It’s really dry so pack a good moisturizer (like Olay Total Effects), Don’t forget an SPF! If you’re going to the thermal baths make sure to pack a deep conditioner (and I also packed a hair oil). Face wipes — I love these individually wrapped ones from Ursa Major, also always come in handy. I also stocked up on Kind Bars since food is really expensive in Iceland and it made for an easy snack.