I wrote a version of this article for STEPPING OUT, my monthly food and travel column with Adelante Magazine that appeared in their September 2017 issue. Below is a slightly expanded version with links to additional things to do in Iceland.
When I hear “island vacation” my mind first goes to the Caribbean tropics, the beaches of Bocas del Toro, and snorkeling in the reefs of Tahiti. Iceland—which is indeed an island—is nowhere on the list, but it should be!
Thanks to Icelandair’s “free stopover for up to seven nights” on flights between the US and Europe, it’s easy to spend a few days visiting Iceland at the beginning or end of your next trip across the Atlantic.
Why stop in Iceland?
Iceland is one of the few places on earth offering a specific range of unadulterated breathtaking landscapes from glaciers and moss-covered basalt cliffs to volcanic wastelands, black sand beaches and countless waterfalls. Did I mention you’ll be eating amazing food too? Don’t let that Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations episode on Iceland fool you, contemporary Icelandic cuisine is delicious. But aside from the food and scenery, what other things are there to do in Iceland? You can also relax in the infamous blue lagoon, hike around untouched flora, snowmobile on top of an active volcano, and meet some of the nicest people on earth.
Sound like a plan? Great! Well here are some more things to do in Iceland.
What to do in Iceland
There’s a million options when it comes to Iceland, and we can’t even begin to cover them all. But if time is limited and you only have a few days to poke around (remember the free layovers with Icelandair max out at seven nights), you should devote one or two days to the capital of Iceland (Reykjavik), and spend the rest of your time driving along the southern coast and Golden Circle.
My suggestion is to rent a car in Reykjavik and drive east along the southern part of the island (there’s only one main road so it’s easy), which has some of the most beautiful scenic landscapes you’ve ever seen. Make the glacial lagoon, Jökulsárlón (don’t even try to pronounce it), your furthest destination and watch glacial shards melt and crash into one another as you take some amazing wilderness photos that will definitely end up as one of your computer screensavers.
Heading back toward Reykjavik, exit the main road at Fjaðrárgljúfur. This is a great place to hike along the serpentine ridge of a canyon formed by the glacial waters that have been flowing out to sea for nearly three million years. The views are spectacular.
The Golden Circle Iceland
As you make your way back towards Reykjavik you’ll hit the Golden Circle. This is a popular tourist loop (190-miles around, but you don’t need to do the entire thing) full of natural wonders and destinations. Personally you’ll want to visit the Gulifoss Waterfall, and the geysers in Haukadalur (Geysir and Strokkur). You probably won’t need to plan for more than an hour at each stop, which is just enough time to see the attraction, grab some coffee, and check out the goods in the visitor center and shop.
About 20 minutes from the geyser park is Friðheimar, an amazing restaurant inside a geothermal greenhouse where they hydroponically grow tomatoes all year round, which isn’t easy in Iceland. Warm up with a bowl of their delicious tomato soup and homemade cheese bread, or their fresh pasta of the day and stick around for one of their Icelandic horse shows. Yup! Iceland has a its own breed of pony-sized horses the Scandinavian Vikings took from Europe nearly two millennia ago, and they love to show them off. Friðheimar is popular, so call ahead and make a reservation if you can. Otherwise you can just pop in, but you might need to get your food to-go and enjoy it on the benches out front.
Iceland’s Blue Lagoon
Before returning to Reykjavik, plan to stop at the Iceland Blue Lagoon for a soak in their silica- algae- and mineral-rich natural hot springs filled with geothermal water that comes from 1.2 miles below the Earth’s surface. They offer underwater massages (a very unique experience for sure), facials and guided tours as well as several casual and fine dining experiences that give you a sense for some of Iceland’s best culinary offerings. It’s easy to want to just hang out at the Blue Lagoon for hours so leave plenty of time for it. You don’t want to feel rushed, but at the same time, when you’re fingers prune, you know you’ve been there too long.
Two days in Iceland’s capital – Reykjavik
You really don’t need more than two days in Iceland’s capital city. The museums are great, but they’re intensely crammed with centuries of Icelandic lore, and tales of vikings sailing the icy oceans. Every other word is impossible to pronounce unless you speak Klingon so it’s easy to just zone out.
I recommend going to one museum and just checking the history box. Pick a museum that speaks to your interests. There’s the sex museum, the National Icelandic museum, a Viking Maritime museum, etc. Pick one and move one.
Your time is best spent walking around the city center (Laugavegur Street is the main drag) and along the harbor to see the awesome modern architecture of the Harpa Concert Hall while you visit all the great shops, galleries, bars, cafes and restaurants along the way.
Visit Brauð & Co on Frakkastígur Street for some amazing breakfast breads, pastries and coffee on your way up the hill to the Hallgrimskirkja Cathedral, a giant gothic concrete structure reminiscent of the basalt rock formations peppering the Icelandic coastline. You can make a donation to the church and take an elevator to the top for amazing 360° views of the entire city below. This really gives you a good sense for how big (or small) Reykjavik is. The cathedral also has a giant organ inside so if you’re musically inclined, you may want to check out when they have their next concert or performance.
Coen Brothers fans can grab a drink at the Lebowksi Bar just around the corner and get your film fetish on. It’s also fun to hangout at Kiki Queer Bar (at the corner of Klapparstígur and the main strip) one of the most popular gay bars in Reykjavik. You can’t miss it since the exterior is one giant rainbow. Keep walking through town and consider grabbing dinner at one of the nicer Icelandic restaurants putting a modern twist on Icelandic cuisine like the Fish Market, which has a tasting menu that covers the best of Icelandic cuisine.
Definitely skip all the Irish Pubs, Italian restaurants and anyone hawking “American fare.”
Food in Iceland
Nearly all Icelanders speak English and the only thing they love more than licorice candy, Appelsín (orange soda), hotdogs, and Trolls (yes, Iceland residents believe in magical trolls that come out and play in their gardens at night) are tourists, because without us their economy would suffer.
The seafood, lamb and dairy (ice cream and yogurt aka Skyr) is some of the best in the world. If you’re adventurous, some restaurants will offer Puffin, whale, and reindeer dishes on their menu, and all of it is delicious.
Puffin reminds me of beef heart (if you’ve ever had that). It’s a lean red meat that has a subtle liver taste so if you’re not into chopped liver you can skip it.
Whale is a very lean red meat and it’s often served as an appetizer so you can taste it without committing to an entire entree of Moby Dick. A lot of people think it’s going to be fatty, because they think of blubber when they hear the word “whale,” but it’s quite nice and typically served with an Asian-inspired acidic marinade of ginger, soy sauce, vinegar, etc.
Where to stay in Iceland
Along the southern coastline it’s best to find b&bs. We found it helpful to contact one of many Iceland travel companies that can help coordinate reservations and bookings for however long an itinerary you have. Plan on using Airbnb near Laugavegur Street in Reykjavik, because the larger hotel chains are few and far between, not to mention very expensive.
How expensive is Iceland?
Just prepare yourself for sticker-shock. That’s really all you need to know. Iceland is an island after all, and everything is more expensive because, aside from the lamb, dairy and wool, everything else is imported.
A coffee there will be delicious, but it will end up being somewhere between $5-$8 USD and the price tag alone will leave a bitter taste in your mouth.
There’s really no loophole or way around it. My recommendation is to bring water bottles with you so you can stay hydrated while you’re driving from one destination to the next.
You can also buy snacks and things at the grocery stores along the main road and hopefully that will eliminate some of the added expense of eating every meal out.
What to buy in Iceland?
Icelandic wool is world renowned. It can feel a little itchy for some, but it’s durable and an excellent insulator for keeping you warm. In Iceland’s capital, you’ll find some amazing local artists. Paintings, ceramics, photography, jewelry and more. Some of the best shopping is on Grandagarður Street (just behind the Viking Maritime Museum) where they’ve converted some of the old seaport stalls into specialty food stores and shops. Check out the cheese shop if you can. Here you’ll see some amazing crafts, and locally made products. In many cases, you can meet the artists too.
There are so many things to do in Iceland. We flew a domestic flight once we landed to ICe and spent a week driving from the North East side of the island along the southern rim to Reykjavik and I feel like I could easily go back and explore more.
Trying to find things to do in Iceland?
Contact us with questions or concerns about your upcoming Iceland trip. We don’t charge anything for the advice, and we don’t get any kickbacks either. We just loved the country so much that we want others to experience it too.