Iceland has grown into a tourist hotspot in recent years and after a visit last year I can see why. The people are friendly and the landscape stunning. The beer might be a little expensive but there are lots of places to get the good craft stuff so you don’t feel the sting as much.
If you are planning a short break to Iceland here is a suggested 3 day itinerary. I was based in Reykjavik during my stay and all of the below easily get you back for dinner in the city.
Day 1- See the city by day and the Northern Lights by night
The city centre of Reykjavik is small, so is easily navigated by foot.
So Walk Old Reykjavik and get your bearings. Head first to Hallgrimskirkja Church, an unusually shaped concrete building (it made me think of lego) which dominates the skyline. It is was named after the Icelandic poet Reverend Hallgrimur Petursson who wrote the country’s most popular hymn book. It has Lutheran simplicity in design inside, the real treat can be found in taking the lift 75 metres up to the top of the tower. The short queue and 700kr entrance fee are well worth it for the view of the city and surrounding area.
Next Wander the shops and soak in the coffee culture
Reykjavik has an unique selection of craft and clothes stores offering Icelandic knits and knick knacks. There are hats, gloves, and jumpers galore, with Laugavegur the most packed shopping street. You can also find a selection of arts, jewellery and touristy bits throughout the city. I bought mittens on this trip and they are the warmest gloves I own. Use this time to grab any extra winter weather gear you need before you head on Northern Lights tour- as trust me you will need it!
After soaking in the city’s architecture and shops stop for a coffee in one of the cafes. They love coffee here and the selection won’t disappoint.
Don’t forget you can get a 15% tax refund on your shopping as a tourist. Although a word of warning the queue to process your application was pretty long at the Airport, so leave some extra time if you want to do this.
I spotted the below while walking the city, it made me smile!
After you have had your fill of the shops head to the National Museum of Iceland to gain an insight into your hosts.
I didn’t really know anything about the history of Iceland before this trip and the National Museum offers an accessible introduction. They have a well curated array of artifacts from the early settlers to the modern day which will walk you through what has shaped the country today. If you like to know more about the culture of the place you are visiting, this is a must on your trip to Reykjavik.
Stroll by the harbour and stop by the Harpa, Reykjavik’s cultural centre and concert hall. Its large modern glass exterior standing in contrast to the buildings around it. The glass panels reflect the light at night and are rather beautiful, so worth a walk past after dinner too. I didn’t make it to a performance but you can find out what’s on at Harpa’s website.
Make sure to leave enough time to nip home for extra layers before the next on the list!
Northern Lights tour
Glimpsing the Northern Lights is definitely something everyone should do in their life-time. Known as aurora borealis, the lights are caused by solar flares that are drawn to the North Pole’s magnetic field and shimmer green, white or red as they cross the sky.
You usually need to clear the any light pollution to really the Northern lights and you can do this by car, bus or boat. I opted for an organised boat trip – as well boats are bit more fun than buses are they not and we didn’t have our own car. Of course there is an element of luck in this game and you are at the mercy of the weather among other factors. So I suggest booking a trip on your first day. It gives you a chance to rebook if clouds block your view.
The boat trip lasted a few hours and the guides were good in providing ‘entertainment’ for us while we waited for the lights to dance for us. This included Icelandic folk songs and a talk bout Iceland and the Northern lights.
Make sure you dress warmly as you will be standing outside on a boat, at night, in winter in the North Atlantic. I managed to under estimate the number of layers needs and was a bit chill- hence my warning!
When the lights did show themselves they were beautiful and well worth the wait. You won’t see anything else like it. Sadly, my camera at the time was not able to capture them as well as my eye, so I don’t have any decent photographic evidence.
If you do head for a boat tour, I found a great place for dinner near the harbour, you can read about it here.
Day 2 – Visit Golden Circle
The Golden Circle encompasses 3 natural wonders within reach of Reykjavik. There are a number of tours that will collect you from you city hotel, show you the sights and return you at the end of the day. I did the Gray Line tour.
The first of stop was the Pingvellir National Park. This is a place of both historic significance and natural beauty. It was here that the Vikings established the world’s first democratic parliament and their meeting place is marked with a flag.
Pingvellir is also the boundary of the tectonic plates of North America and Europe which are slowing pulling away from each other. You can stand on the edge of this ‘no man’s land’ and admire the rugged landscape that has been created. For me this was super cool and I loved that they built a church in the middle of ‘no man’s land’. The world’s only church without a continent beneath it?
Stop two was Gullfoss, the country’s most famous waterfall. Created by the Hvita River’s spectacular 32m fall into a ravine. The strength of the water creates a thick mist adding to the magic and if you are lucky some rainbows. .
There are steps down to get closer to the falls and an adjacent path for fantastic fall photos.Some fun was added to our trip when another tourist at the falls climbed the barriers to write TRUMP in giant letters in the snow. On our return someone else had updated it to TRUMPET
The cafe here was our tours lunch stop, it was busy and touristy but the Icelandic Lamb soup was rather good.
The third wonder of the Golden Circle is the Geysir Geothermal Area, within the Haukadalur Valley. Here you can watch the Geyser Strokkur fire hot water 15m-30m into the air every 5 to 10 minutes. It really is amazing to watch and although their are other people crowded round it was easy to get a good photo spot. Just make sure you aren’t downwind from Stokkur or you might get a little wet.
Also wear gloves that you can use to operate your camera, not your new Icelandic mittens. As your hand will turn to ice while you wait finger on the button to capture the moment of eruption!
Next to Stokkur you will also find the Great Geysir, who has been known to fire water up to 80m, however he is an old boy now and rarely erupts- however who knows maybe you will get lucky.
After a long day on the Golden Circle you might need a beer, Reykjavik has some cool craft beer places.
Day 3- The Blue Lagoon
This geothermal spa is another iconic Icelandic attraction. Built in the black-lava fields the teal blue water is a cosy 38C, so it is the perfect follow on from a cold day touring the Golden Circle and a chance to relax before heading home.
Like any other major tourist attraction in the world, it is busy and pretty expensive. That said I still thought it was well worth the trip. It is easily reached from the city and we caught a shuttle which picked us up from our hotel.
There are a bunch of different options, depending on your budget. We picked the Premium Package as we were feeling a bit flash. We pre-booked and it allowed some queue jump, a fluffy dressing gown and slippers along with 2 different face mask and a free drink.
Although busy it is well organised and the facilities were spotless, you will receive an electronic wristband which acts as a contactless charge card at the bar and also lets you access your locker.
The water itself is divine, so relaxing and a satisfying contrast to the cool winter air. A mist floats off the water which helps make the Blue Lagoon feel less crowded than it probably is, as it masks your fellow visitors in steam.
The water is shallow, you can wade comfortably but it is deep enough for you glide through on your breaststroke if you prefer. Make sure you make it over to the face mask station to give your skin some TLC.
There is a bar too, so you can grab a beer (or other beverage) while you float and the mineral salts condition your skin.
The Blue Lagoon is a must visit in my view.
During my visit I stayed at Hotel Centrum, which had nice rooms and good location. I would recommend it.
If you are looking for ideas of where to eat or drink, check out my other post.Top Places to Eat and Drink in Reykjavik, Iceland
Have you been to Iceland? Anything tips you would add?