Iceland is becoming more and more popular as a holiday destination. And rightfully so. With its volcanoes, waterfalls, lava fields and geysers it’s a geographical wonderland! Whether Iceland is your destination or you’re paying it a short visit on your flight to or from the US, there’s a lot you can explore in a short amount of time. Yes, it’s a bit expensive but all of the beautiful nature and parks are for free. So just don’t convert the Icelandic Krona to your own currency and enjoy your holiday!
Below are my recommendations for if you have 1, 2 or 3 days to spend in Iceland.
1 day: Reykjavik
If you only have 1 day (or less) you’ll probably want to visit Reykjavik. Reykjavik is a small city. Despite it being the capital it only has 200 000 inhabitants. But there’s enough to do, it has nice restaurants and bars and always a beautiful background of the snow covered mountains.
One of the best activities is to go whale watching. Please just watch them and don’t eat them. I know it sounds silly (why would you want to eat a whale?), but it’s on the menu of several restaurants.
Elding, at the old harbour, is a nice company if you want to go whale (and dolphin) watching. They were the first company to offer whale watching tours from Reykjavik and are eco friendly. Best time to go is at 9am (from April to September you’ll have the most chance of success but they depart all year round). Elding provides free warm overalls and trust me, you’ll need them. They sell snacks and drinks on board and the guide will tell you where to look if they spotted something. We saw white beaked dolphins and a minke whale.
Reykjavik has a couple of nice bars and restaurants and several vegetarian/vegan options.
Our first stop was Eldur & ís, an ice cream parlour that also serves crepes. They have whole grain spelt crepes and vegan, gluten free crepes. You can choose your own topping(s) and they have both sweet as savory options. I went for the banana and (vegan) dark chocolate. Yum!
For dinner Glo is a heaven for health lovers (like myself). You choose 1 item from the menu on the board and your choice of 3 side salads at the buffet style counter. Many options are vegetarian, vegan, gluten free or all of the above. I had a delicious vegan wrap packed with veggies and red beets, quinoa and sweet potato as side dishes. The menu changes every day, but they’ll always have similar options.
Around the corner you’ll find Lebowski Bar, named after the 1998 Coen brothers film. This bar has everything in the style of The Big Lebowski. Just like ‘the dude’ would have wanted they sell white russians and there’s a bowling lane (on the wall). For dinner they serve a variety of burgers (no veggie options) and milkshakes with or without alcohol. Lebowsky Cafe is a great place for Friday night drinks as it get packed with locals.
Another great bar is Laundromat Cafe. With a great interior: some walls are covered with big maps of the world, others with pictures of American laundromats. The bar double functions as a big bookcase, with books assorted by colour, making it a rainbow of books. They have meat, fish and veggie options on the menu and actual washers and dryers downstairs. Free wifi is available, as in most bars in Reykjavik.
2 days: the golden circle
As soon as you have more than a day to spend in Iceland I recommend that you rent a car to explore Iceland’s beautiful nature.
From Reykjavik, our first stop was Pingvellir National Park, where the two continental plates are parting with roughly 2 centimeters a year. You can park the car at one of the ‘designated’ parking lots and walk around from there. There’s an easy accessible walking path that won’t take you long. At the Park Service Center on Rte 36 (the main road) you’ll find refreshments and toilets.
We continued to ‘Geysir’. All the geysers in the world are named after this one which once gushed up water 80 meters into the air. Alas, it’s not very active anymore. Luckily there’s a geysir right next to it which shoots water up to 30 meters every 5 minutes or so. Right across the street are shops, toilets and several small restaurants. I recommend the one in the back for their delicious cakes.
From Geysir it’s a short drive to Gullfoss, one of Iceland’s most beautiful waterfalls. Although it’s not even that high (32 meters), it’s very impressive. Mostly due to its double cascade. Trust me, it’s worth following the downstairs path to the end for a closer look.
A nice option to spend the night if you don’t need to go back to Reykjavik is Selfoss. It’s quite ugly and there isn’t much to do but it’s the biggest town in the South of Iceland. It has several supermarkets and fast food branches and you can fill your tank here. A nice restaurant to go to for lunch or dinner is Kaffi Krús. They have several cakes on display for you to choose from. For dinner they serve pizza’s, burgers and salads. You’ll be able to find some vegetarian pizza’s or order a salad without the meat. For vegans it’ll be difficult in this town, but you can self-cater from the supermarkets.
3 days: exploring the south
From Selfoss it’s less than an hour drive to Landeyjahöfn from where you can take the Herjólfur ferry to Vestmannaeyjar. Of this small group of islands, only one (Heimaey) is inhabited. On this island you can find the adorable puffins who come there to breed in the summer. The puffins are beautiful, cute and made me jump from excitement. You can mostly find them at the west and south coast of the island. You can rent bikes on the island or take your car on the ferry if you’re short on time.
Near the harbour you’ll find Kaffi Varmó, a coffee place run by an elderly couple serving delicious cakes. And Gott, where they bake their own bread every morning and have vegetarian options on the menu.
Back on the mainland you can drive a bit more eastbound to find two beautiful waterfalls. The first one that you’ll encounter is Seljalandsfoss, the great thing about this waterfall is that you can walk behind it.
About 20 minutes from there you’ll find Skógafoss, right by Eyjafjallajökull whose 2010 eruption caused many plane delays.
Both waterfalls can be seen from the ring road and have toilets and food options.
From here we went back west all the way to the blue lagoon. Iceland has many thermal pools but the Blue Lagoon is definitely its most famous one. Yes it’s big, touristic and expensive (entrance is €50). But it’s a great experience. The lava field landscape is surreal, the ‘smoke on the water’ mystique and the clay leaves your face as soft as a baby’s butt (the clay mask is included in the entry price). The Blue Lagoon is open until 8pm at least (even later in the summer) and since it stays light until late it’s definitely worth going in the evening to avoid the crowds.
We had an early flight back from the airport so we spend our last night in Keflavik. If you have more time it’s definitely worth driving back to Reykjavik. But if you do find yourself spending the night there (like us) you can have a nice Thai meal (or takeout) at Thai Keflavik. Every item on the menu is available in a vegetarian version. Service can be a bit slow though.
Healthy options on Reykjavik International Airport are Joe the Juice (both before as after security) and Pure Food Hall (vegan yogurt!).
Iceland is a great country to visit as a stop-over on your way to or from the US, but it’s also worth visiting the country on its own.
As you have read, you can explore a lot of what Iceland has to offer in just a few days (Waterfalls: check! Geysers: check! Vulcanos: check! Puffins: check! Thermal bath: check! Wales: check!).
In this video you’ll see everything that we’ve done in Iceland in just 2 minutes: