It’s no secret: Iceland is currently a hot spot. In 2017, Iceland was so popular that there were SEVEN tourists for every Icelandic resident. And although that may seem like a stat worth bragging about, the mass amount of tourism has become a major issue for the nation. While Iceland welcomes the tourists (in fact, tourism is now Iceland’s biggest export), they’re also trying to avoid falling into the trap of over-tourism.
In January, I surprised my boyfriend with a weekend trip to Iceland which meant I a) had to be super sneaky and b) was in charge of all the planning. It was really important to me that everything we did contributed positively to the country, so we only stayed at locally owned hotels and tried to eat at as many local restaurants as possible.
Our first day was spent exploring the South Coast, the second exploring the Golden Circle and the third exploring Reykjavik. If I were to do it again, I might have done the Golden Circle on the first day and then split the South Coast into two days. However, given the variability of Icelandic weather, we didn’t want to cut it too close to our flight. While I’m glad we made that decision, if you’re traveling in a milder month, you might want to consider making that switch.
Below I’ve shared my itinerary and tips with you. If you’ve been before, I’d love to know what your favorite spots were - we’ll definitely be making a return trip soon!
Know before you go:
Iceland winters aren’t nearly as cold as you think but they might be wetter. The weather was above freezing most of the time we were there, but I’d highly recommend packing layers! The weather is known to change quickly.
The currency in Iceland is the Icelandic Krona, but almost everywhere will accept USD or credit cards (we didn’t run into a single place that wouldn’t).
Icelandic is one of the most complicated languages, but don’t worry, almost everyone speaks English. We always try to learn a few phrases before traveling to another country and TripSavvy wrote a great post on Icelandic phrases.
Don’t base your trip around the Northern Lights. Most people imagine them lighting up the sky every night, but unfortunately that isn’t the case. There are a lot of factors that play into whether or not they’ll be visible: weather, cloud cover, light pollution. If you are going to try to see them, use an aurora tracker while you’re there.
Take the weather and road conditions seriously. We saw two cars slide off the road during our trip. Drive carefully and make sure you get winter tires.
If you are renting a car - get the wifi! We found it extremely helpful for navigating, finding places to eat and, of course, keeping up with social media. We opted for that instead of SIM cards.
Be prepared for short days in the winter with most shops and stores closing early and opening late.
The winter light in Iceland is beautiful! It seems like there is a constant golden hue from the longer sunrises and sunsets, so it’s basically a photographer’s dream.
While flights to Iceland are fairly cheap, everything else is extremely expensive. Prepare to spend a lot of money on food, hotels and activities. Most people stay at places with kitchens so they can cook, however, given how short our trip was, we decided to splurge.
You don’t have to eat like the locals. Some of the Icelandic delicacies include things like whale and shark, and while that might be okay for a small nation of less than 300K, when tourists start indulging it begins to have a huge impact on the environment.
There are a lot of vegetarian and vegan options for those who don’t meat! I was happily surprised to find options (that weren’t just lettuce with olive oil) everywhere we went. AND there were lots of milk alternatives - including my favorite, oat milk.
Day one: southern iceland
Arriving in Iceland
We flew Icelandair from Chicago O’Hare to Keflavik, departing at 6:30pm and landing at 6:35am on Friday morning. The overnight flight was actually perfect as it allowed us to get some rest on the plane (the flight was about six hours) and still take full advantage of Friday. After landing, we took the rental car shuttle to Blue Car Rentals where we picked up a Kia Sorento. Blue Car Rentals were extremely helpful, kind and had fair prices, I’d highly recommend them! And, if you plan on renting a car in the winter, I’d recommend getting a car with four wheel drive and studded, winter tires. Shortly after picking up our car, we were on our way!
Upon landing I was ABSOLUTELY STARVING and could think of nothing else until I ate. Even though it was almost 8am by the time we started hunting for breakfast, I was shocked by how many restaurants were still closed. We eventually discovered Sigurjónsbakarí (try saying that three times fast) which opens at 7am. They had a huge selection of pastries and, most importantly, serve coffee. After our light breakfast, we started driving south towards our first stop.
First stop: Seljalandsfoss
Your drive will be dark at first, but soon you’ll start seeing the first bits of light peak out. The sunrises are drawn out and beautiful, and you’ll love seeing Iceland begin to light up. A little more than two hours after leaving Keflavik, you’ll get to Seljalandsfoss (if you time it right, you’ll get there right as true “day time” begins). If you’ve ever seen a photo of someone standing behind a waterfall, then you’ve seen a photo of Seljalandsfoss. It’s a gorgeous waterfall cascading off of a cliff, with a few smaller waterfalls nearby. It’s a great first stop, and there are bathrooms.
Second stop: Skogafoss
About 30 minutes after leaving Seljalandsfoss you’ll reach Skogafoss - another breathtaking waterfall. I highly recommend taking the stairs to the top, it’s amazing to see the river rushing towards the falls and the rapids prior to it! While we were there, we stopped at the restaurant at Skogafoss Hotel for a quick bite. The food was good, not great, but it was convenient and quick which was our main priority.
Third stop: diamond beach
Almost three hours after Skogafoss we arrived at Diamond Beach. Here, glacier ice is strewn across the beach, the blue ice contrasting beautifully with the black sand. It’s the perfect spot for photos, but if you’re planning on making it here in winter months, be sure to account for time. We arrived right as the sun was about to set so our time was limited, but we could have easily spent an hour walking the beach and admiring the ice.
Where to sleep
Since we decided to spend our second day exploring the Golden Circle, we decided to drive back down Route 1 to eliminate some of the driving in the morning. We decided to drive back to Vik. We had a great stay at Hotel Kria - it was a new, well decorated hotel across the street from the beach. While we missed dinner (their kitchen closed at 9pm) they did have a free breakfast with a wide range of options.
Day two: the golden circle
We woke up around 7am so we’d get an early start and make it to our first stop right as the sun was rising. We had breakfast at the hotel and then started driving back towards Reykjavik so we could spend the day exploring the Golden Circle.
First stop: Gulfoss
About two hours after leaving the hotel, we made it to Gulfoss just as the sun had finished rising. It is mesmerizing and very different from the waterfalls we had seen the day before. Rather than cascading off a cliff, Gulfoss lives within a canyon. It’s amazing to see it in the winter with the landscape covered in snow and ice.
Second stop: Geysir
Our next stop was a quick ten minute drive from Gulfoss: Geysir. Now, when I saw photos of Geysir, I was skeptical. I did not think it would actually erupt while I was there. I was wrong. The main geysir erupted at least four times in the hour we were there. It was an act of nature I had never seen before and completely amazing. I was also surprised to learn that there are A LOT of active geyirs in this area and it was reallt cool to see them steaming above all the snow and ice. I had no idea that the hot springs would have such magnificent colors within them.
Third stop: Thingvellir
About an hour after leaving Geysir, we made it to Thingvellir National Park, mainland Iceland’s only UNESCO World Heritage Site. The park is amazing for a few reasons: it’s natural beauty is stunning, it’s the site of many historic moments in Iceland’s history and it’s the only place in the world where you can walk between two continents. We got there right before sunset and were treated to the most beautiful sky as we explored.
stop four: reykjavik
After spending about two hours at Thingvellir National Park, we drove the final hour to Reykjavik. We spent our evening exploring Miðbær, also known as downtown. The streets had a very European-feel to them and were lined with small shops, cafes and restaurants. We finally ended up at a small restaurant called Fish and More. As a vegetarian, I was worried that a fish shop might not have something for me, but I was happily surprised. Their vegetarian soup was delicious and filling (my mouth is watering thinking about it) and my boyfriend said that his fish stew was one of his favorite meals of the trip. For dessert we indulged in vegan crepes and gelato at Joylato, which I’d also highly recommend.
Where to sleep:
After dinner, most of the shops were closed (things close early in the winter) so we headed back to our hotel, Eyja Guldsmeden Hotel. This might be one of my favorite boutique hotels. The rooms are small but the hotel has a strong focus on sustainability and ecology; their menu features local and organic foods, with lots of vegan/vegetarian options, their bathroom products are eco-friendly and they even have bamboo toothbrushes if you forget yours! They did a great job incorporating their sustainability mission throughout the property, and we’ll definitely stay there again. Oh, and they had a great breakfast buffet that I would also recommend.
Day three: reykjavik and north
We woke up early on our final morning in Iceland so we could explore more of the Icelandic coast line. We didn’t have a true destination in mind, just hopped on Route 49 going north.
First stop: horses
While driving north, we passed many ranches with Icelandic horses. We had seem them earlier in the trip, but this was the first time we had stopped to appreciate them. Their smaller than other breeds, almost part pony part horse, but absolutely gorgeous.
Second Stop: laxa i kjos
Knowing how unpredictable Icelandic weather can be, we decided to drive about an hour north of Reykjavik before turning back which brought us to Laxa I Kjos. I wouldn’t call this a destination, per se, but it is a nice little river in the middle of a valley. The surroundings are beautiful as is the drive to it. From there we headed back down to Reykjavik.
We decided to eat lunch in the Marina district and unexpectedly found an amazing pizza place, Flatey Pizza. The pizzas were a good size (Danny and I probably should have shared one but I was hangry and wanted my own), with fresh toppings and a delicious crust.
Final stop: airport
From Flately, we drove the final 45 minutes back to Keflavik Airport for our 4:30pm (local time) flight back to Chicago. We returned our rental car then took the shuttle to the airport and made it to our flight right on time (although I think we both considered “missing” it) and landed back in Chicago at 5:45pm CST.
There were a lot of things that we wanted to see, so we spent a good amount of time in the car driving through parts of the South Coast and the Golden Circle. Both areas have enough to see that you could do one of those alone in three days, so if you’d like a trip with less road-time, I highly recommend this guide to the South Coast or this guide to the Golden Circle.
Overall, we had an amazing trip and I’m already dying to visit again. Has anyone else been to Iceland? I would love to hear about your experiences in the comments!