Planning your Iceland Trip
Twenty years ago, no one really traveled to Iceland for vacation. That all changed in 2012. Iceland became a major travel destination when the national airline built an international airport near Reykjavik. The world was now free to discover one of the most fascinating countries in the world.
Why is Iceland so popular?
Anyone with a sense of adventure should visit Iceland at some point! Getting there is pretty easy - it’s only a 5-hour plane ride from the east coast of the United States.
Reykjavik is a small city, but don’t let that fool you. Reykjavik is a happening place with tons of culture and lots to explore.
Thanks to the isolated nature of the island, winter skies in Iceland are very dark - ideal viewing conditions for the Aurora Borealis, or Northern Lights.
The Icelandic landscape is stunning and otherworldly. You can chase waterfalls, wildlife, hot springs and elves (the locals call them “hidden people”).
There are hundreds of geothermal spas, including the infamous Blue Lagoon, which has become a bucket list destination for people all over the world.
When is the best time to go to Iceland?
Each of the seasons has their own charm.
Summer is the most popular time to visit. In June and July, the sun barely sets and the sky never gets truly dark. The weather is warmer and everything is bright green. Art and music festivals occur throughout the entire summer. You can even get a midnight tee time for a round of golf! There are some areas you can reach by car in the summer that you may not be able to access in the winter. Whale watching is also best in the summer, since the humpbacks come to Iceland to feast on krill in the rich waters off the coast.
Personally, I love Winter in Iceland! The Northern Lights are prevalent from late October to mid-March. The best time to view them is in January because the days are very short and the nights are very long. New Years celebrations in Reykjavik are outstanding.
The locals gather around giant bonfires on New Year's Eve to celebrate and welcome tourists to join. Just before midnight in Reykjavik, everyone walks to the stunning Hallgrimskirkja church in the center of town for an incredible fireworks display. If you’re lucky, you’ll witness fireworks exploding against the backdrop of the magnificent northern lights! That is truly a moment you’ll never forget.
For balanced days/nights, fewer crowds and a better overall value, you can choose to visit Iceland during the Spring or Fall. Known as the “shoulder seasons”, spring and fall offer you access to a less crowded version of Iceland. More than likely, you will have some of the hot springs and waterfalls all to yourself! You still may see the Northern Lights if the skies cooperate. Some species of whales and most wildlife are active year round.
What are the accommodations like in Iceland?
As of today, there are no 5-star hotels in Iceland. There are some 4-star hotels, but most of the hotels and guesthouses fall into the 3-star category. If you enjoy walking through IKEA, you’ll love the ambience and decor of Icelandic accommodations. This is all part of the Iceland experience. For a more authentic experience, you could choose to stay at a local farm or in a family-run bed and breakfast.
Where should I begin my trip in Iceland?
Reykjavik is the ideal starting point for your trip to Iceland.
With a little over 100,000 people, Reykjavik is Iceland's largest city. You can enjoy incredible art galleries, gorgeous sculptures, historic monuments, and fantastic museums. The city is easy to navigate because no matter where you are you can usually spot Hallgrimskirkja - a striking lutheran church in the center of town.
Don’t miss out on the Saga VIking museum, and if you want a weird story to tell your friends, check out the Icelandic Phallological Museum - the most comprehensive museum in the world dedicated solely to *ahem* “man’s best friend”. The shopping is fantastic, particularly in the boutiques on Laugavegir Street. The restaurants are world-class (but pricey) and the bars are a ton of fun. Don’t forget to swing by the Lebowski Bar and try one of their huge variety of White Russians.
What are some good day trips from Reykjavik?
Many people opt to stay in Reykjavik and take day trips to explore the island. Here are some great ideas for day trips from Reykjavik:
The Golden Circle - the most popular day trip from Reykjavik, the Golden Circle, includes the Gulfoss Waterfall, Geysir Geothermal area (like a mini Yellowstone), and Pingvellir National Park (where the North American and European continents converge)
The Blue Lagoon - most flights to Iceland arrive very early in the morning. Since you typically can’t check into your room until the afternoon, it makes sense to stop at the Blue Lagoon on your way to Reykjavik. Luggage storage is available. Here, you can soak in the geothermal waters, update your Instagram, enjoy a spa treatment and a nice lunch at the cafe before checking into your hotel that afternoon.
The Snaelfellsnes Peninsula - Just 2 hours from Reykjavik, you can view a dormant volcano covered by glaciers, walk on golden sand beaches, view striking basalt formations, and hike through other-worldly landscapes. The Peninsula is known as “little Iceland” because it seems to contain all of the diverse landscapes and geological formations within a relatively condensed area.
Whale-watching expeditions - Some species of whales, dolphins and porpoise are viewable year-round in Iceland. In the summer months, you can see humpbacks as well.
I’ve heard you can drive all the way around Iceland. Is that true?
Yes! In the summer, you can drive The Ring Road - dubbed “Europe’s Best Road”.
The Ring Road is 800 miles of beauty and spectacle. Plan for a minimum of 5 days to complete this amazing road trip, but ideally you will want to take your time and do it in 9-10 days. In Iceland, you drive on the right side of the road so it is easy for Americans to get around. Make sure to specify if you prefer an automatic transmission vehicle, since a manual transmission is the default choice.
What are the highlights of different areas of Iceland?
Westfjords - On the Northwest corner of Iceland, you will find the remote Hornstrandir Nature Reserve, a wilderness area inhabited by Puffins and Arctic Fox. There is a Red Sand Beach called Raudasandur Beach and a cliffside nature preserve for unique species of birds.
North Iceland - On the edge of the Arctic Circle, you can view a waterfall that runs grey due to lava dust from a still active volcano. Take a hike along Kolugljufur Canyon - a deep gorge not for the faint of heart. Take a detour to the isolated Kalfshamarsvik Bay and photograph the striking basalt cliffs. You can even take a short flight from the town of Akureyri to an island just north of the mainland that lies in the Arctic Circle. There, you can get your passport stamped for proof that you’ve stepped foot in the Arctic Circle.
East Iceland - The east side of the island is the home of the reindeer, which were brought to Iceland from Norway in the late 1700’s. Jokulsarlon is a very famous and incredibly beautiful glacial lake with floating icebergs and tons of wildlife. In East Iceland, you can see the largest active volcano and explore electric blue glacial ice caves.
West Iceland - Also known as Sagaland, West Iceland is rich in Viking folklore. Snaefellsjokull National Park offers great hiking and lava tubes to explore. There is an enormous hot spring that single-handedly heats a town of 8,000 people. Kirkjufell is the most photographed mountain in Iceland. You can also explore Surtshellier cave - a mile long cave made of magma and basalt.
South Iceland - A popular destination, South Iceland is the home of the Golden Circle. Here you can visit Pingvellir National Park, the stone ruins of Iceland’s first parliament. You can also view Gulfoss waterfall and its giant canyon, the Great Geysir, Skogafos waterfall, Seljalandsfoss waterfall, and a greenhouse village powered by geothermal energy.
Southern Peninsula - Here lies the space between the European and North American continents. You can literally walk across the bridge between the continents. On the Southern Peninsula, you will also find The Blue Lagoon and Krysuvik - a colorful geothermal area that looks like another planet.
The Highlands - Iceland’s largest and most fragile landscape showcases electric blue lakes, volcanic calderas, hiking routes and huts dug out from frozen lava that you can camp in. Landmannalaugar is a very famous and brightly colored mountain range. The Kverkfjoll mountains boost a high ground temperature (up to 95 degrees) due to the geothermal activity underneath.
How far in advance should I start planning my trip to Iceland?
Last minute deals don't really exist when it comes to visiting Iceland.
The destination is so popular that many hotels, car rentals and tours sell out in advance. Planning early is key to getting your choice of accommodations and the best pricing.
Automatic transmission rental vehicles are limited and need to be reserved early. Flights schedules are typically released 11 months in advance, so we encourage people to start planning up to a year in advance and book early.
What are the different travel styles for Iceland?
There are a few different ways to experience the Land of Fire and Ice.
You could join a small ship expedition that circumnavigates the island, allowing you explore all of the amazing coastal towns without having to pack and unpack your bags each night.
You could join a guided tour and benefit from a local guide’s expertise while making new friends along the way.
You could rent a vehicle and explore the island on your own terms.
If you’re short on time but still want to see the essential sights of Iceland, you could even visit for a long weekend!
If you are ready to see Iceland for yourself, Wander Beyond Travel will build a custom itinerary based on your individual preferences and budget.