“Iceland is green, and Greenland is ice”.
This popular reference to Iceland, famously quoted in The Mighty Ducks, happened to inspire my latest trip. The quote emerged at dinner with friends, to which my response was “Iceland just opened up to vaccinated travelers. We should go!” Eager for international travel after 18 months surviving the COVID-19 pandemic, the group quickly accepted the idea and the planning began. We decided to to plan a solo dads trip given the itinerary would be filled with outdoor adventures, including hiking glaciers and volcanos—too strenuous for our collective young children. Thankful for our supportive wives, we planned an epic trip, packed to the max with 4 full days.
Planning the Itinerary:
Visiting Iceland during different seasons offers distinct advantages. The benefits of a summertime visit are (relatively) warmer weather, and nearly 24 hours of daylight. While this meant not seeing the aurora borealis (the northern lights are only visible at night), it did mean maximizing activities during the day with the extra hours of daylight. On our latest night, we found ourselves hiking to a waterfall at 11pm in broad daylight. The trip was relatively short, with a total of 5 nights away (one night spent traveling, 4 nights in Iceland). Departing on Wednesday evening at 7pm and returning Monday afternoon, the trip was planned over a long weekend with only 3 working days off. After much research, here is how we organized the itinerary:
At the time of our travel, we had to 1) present a vaccination card and 2) undergo a Covid test upon landing. However, the testing requirement for vaccinated travelers expired June 30 2021, so any travels from July 1 2021 or later that time will not require a test upon landing.
For U.S. travelers, a test is required 3 calendar days before your return trip home (and will be required for the foreseeable future). You can schedule your test 1 week before the date you need to take the test (we took the test on a Friday for a Monday return flight). There is only one location in Reykjavik, so book your appointment early for a preferred time. You’ll also need to build this test into your travel itinerary, as we could not find a place outside of Reykjavik to get tested.
I actually found Iceland Air’s website to be the most helpful single source (even though we flew Delta, which was not nearly as informative). As of the time this article is published, you’ll need to go to visit.covid.is (the official Icelandic website) to register to enter the country (3 days before arrival) and schedule your departure covid test (1 week prior to departure date).
After leaving the airport, we never saw another person wearing a mask again. There also appeared to be no visible restrictions for indoor spaces or dining, which was convenient. From our perspective, our trip had no limitations from COVID other than the extra paperwork and hassle of testing twice.
Day 1: Arrival, Geldingadalir Volcano, & Blue Lagoon
Our flight from New York (JFK) to Reykjavik (KEF) was just under 5 hours. Even though our flight departed JFK at 10:30pm, we saw daylight just over 1.5 hours into the flight. It made for a very short night, but luckily I had ‘banked’ extra sleep earlier in the week to account. We landed at approximately 8am and hit the ground running.
Stop 1: Geldingadalir Volcano Eruption
We hit pay dirt with the timing of our trip, in that a live volcano eruption began happening in March 2021. Even better, this erupting volcano is only about 30 minutes from the airport, on the way to Reykjavik, and near the Blue Lagoon—one of Iceland’s top attractions. All of this made a hike to the Geldingadalir eruption a must-see on our first day.
The landscape changes daily due to the flowing lava. We viewed a (fresh) lava field that was an easy 20 min hike from the parking lot. But to view the volcano itself we hiked several miles and ascended a steep mesa for a prime view. For the latest information, I suggest checking out the Visit Iceland website as well as Iceland’s Safe Travel website. We simply drove on highway 427 until we came across the parking lots for hiking to the volcanos.
Stop 2: Lunch in Grindavik
Grindavik is a small coastal fishing town, about a 20 minute drive from the airport and just 10 minutes from the volcano parking area on highway 427. There is plenty of great seafood available here, and we opted for Bruin Restaurant given its location on the water. The restaurant was a bit empty when visiting at 1:30pm, but the food was fantastic. I had fish and chips made with fresh Atlantic cod, and it was easily the best fried fish I’ve ever had in my life. Highly recommended.
Stop 3: Blue Lagoon
The Blue Lagoon is one of the most well-known tourist sites in all of Iceland, and for good reason. Visiting this site is akin to visiting the Eiffel Tower in Paris. Touristy, but well worth the visit as there is nothing else like it.
The Blue Lagoon is a geothermal hot spring filled with volcanic saltwater that has a unique blue hue due to the presence of silica and algae. The lagoon itself is heavily commercialized and has been contained by a proper pool floor, but the water itself is pumped from underground and regulated to maintain a comfortable temperature of about 100°F. Entries to the lagoon must be reserved in advance, so be sure to plan this into your itinerary. One of Iceland’s most luxurious resorts is also on the property, so if your budget allows, I’m sure it would make for a memorable stay.
You could easily spend a day swimming the lagoon, getting spa treatments, eating at their restaurants, etc. We spent a few hours just swimming the lagoon and enjoying all of the amenities (steam room, etc). All you need to bring is your swimsuit, as they provide towels, robes, flip-flops, lockers, showers with shampoo, etc. Your admission even includes 2 free drinks to the swim-up bar located within the lagoon. Heads up that after soaking in the lagoon, you will likely feel tired, so I would not suggest planning an ambitious hike after this stop.
Stop 4: Reykjavik
After soaking in the Blue Lagoon for a few hours, we were ready to head to Reykjavik and check into our hotel, the Canopy by Hilton Reykjavik City Center. The Canopy hotel is newer boutique luxury hotel with modern design, stylish touches, and incredibly comfortable beds and bathrooms. The hotel is comprised of 6 interconnected buildings and reflects the buildings’ past as a furniture factory, music venue, and arts hub. The hotel’s central location is perfect to walk almost anywhere in Reykjavik.
Reykjavík is the capital and largest city of Iceland, but only home to about 130,000 residents (the entire country has about 350,000 residents). As such, the city is relatively compact and easy to navigate. Like most capital cities, there are great restaurants and pubs/bars available to suit any taste. Overall, the culture is neither fussy nor formal, so casual attire is acceptable at most places. See my list of Reykjavik recommendations later in this post.
Pro Tip: The Canopy hotel requires you to park a rental car in the garage across the street. The first night of our stay, the rear window of our rental car was smashed in. Friendly reminder to ensure you have no valuables in your car. Also, friendly reminder to ensure you have some form of car rental insurance.
Day 2: Drive to South Iceland Coast
The southern coast of Iceland is easily accessed via the ring highway of the island, Route 1. This highway runs the circumference of the island and connects the most inhabited spots. Like most of Iceland, the southern coastal terrain varies greatly from location to location. You’ll see everything from steaming hills loaded with geothermal springs to snow-capped mountains and glacial tongues to black sand beaches and expansive flatlands. This geological diversity is what makes driving through southern Iceland so fascinating; the view is always spectacular and ever-changing. Our itinerary took us through southern Iceland over two days, where our activities ranged from soaking in a hot springs river to hiking a glacier. Here is the map of our route from Reykjavik to the coastal town of Vik, with all the stops along the way.
Stop 1: Hveragerði Hot Springs River
The small town of Hveragerði is about a 40 minute drive outside of Reykjavik, and host to a very active geothermal hot springs area. The Hveragerði Hot Springs River is a unique spot where you can soak in a river filled with steaming hot springs water. The hike to the river takes about 45 min to 1 hour, but is filled with stunning views along the way and is well worth the journey. Be sure to pack your bathing suit, towel, and water shoes to enjoy a soak in the springs along the trail. At the base of the trail, there is a beautiful welcome center that has a full bar and serves sandwiches and desserts, and a small shop that sells local clothing items.
Stop 2: Geothermal Park
We made an impromptu stop at the Geothermal Park in the town of Hveragerði, which was admittedly a little bizarre. It was a park that featured several distinct hot springs for viewing, but an earthquake several years earlier drained most of them so now most of the park’s marked hot springs sit empty. However, they do feature a hot spring pit where you can cook a hard-boiled egg (takes about 10 minutes), and they also bake Icelandic rye bread in the hot springs. The bread takes 16 hours to naturally bake, but they have some there you can try. Overall it was a bit of a defunct tourist trap, but we found the site interesting and learned a lot from the host who worked there.
Stop 3: Seljalandfoss Waterfall
Just about an hour from Hveragerði is the iconic Seljalandsfoss Waterfall. Iceland has innumerable beautiful waterfalls, but Seljalandfoss is unique in that you can actually walk completely behind the waterfall for a 360° view of the falls. While the main waterfall is quite stunning, be sure to keep following the path to view two additional waterfalls. The final waterfall at the end of the path is about a 15-minute walk up, and is hidden in a slot canyon. Follow the rocky path through the narrow opening, and you’re greeted with a larger-than-life waterfall that feels like your own little secret (many other tourists don’t realize this waterfall is here so it’s less crowded).
Stop 4: Skogafoss Waterfall
As you continue down Highway 1, about 25 minutes later you’ll encounter Skogafoss waterfall, another towering waterfall easily accessible from the road. This waterfall has a steel stairway next to it that you can easily hike up. At the top there is a path that continues for several miles. I only walked about .5 miles and saw 3 more beautiful falls, but half of our group continued 1-2 miles further up to High Peaks Waterfall and viewed several more falls along the way. However, one of my traveling companions and I opted instead to indulge in some lamb stew and Icelandic beer at the Hotel Skogafoss Bistro & Bar near the base of the falls. The expansive glass dining room looks out onto the falls, as well as fields stocked with sheep, and makes for a memorable meal. If your schedule allows, you could also check out nearby Kvernufoss. By this point, you’ll likely start losing count of waterfalls you’re seeing!
Stop 5: Reynisfiara Beach (Black Sand Beach)
Southern Iceland has several black sand beaches, and Reynisfiara is one of the most well-known. In addition to spectacular views of jagged cliffs and rock formations jutting out of the North Atlantic Ocean, this beach also features a unique lava cave formed of basalt columns, and my personal favorite feature, puffins! In the summertime the cliffs along this beach are dotted with puffins that return to land to lay their eggs and nest.
Caution: This beach is notorious for having sneaker waves, which are essentially rogue waves that suddenly come further inland without warning. Tourists have died at this very beach from sneaker waves, so ensure you proceed with caution.
Stop 6: Vik and Hotel Kria
The small village of Vik is the southernmost town in Iceland, and is home to about 750 residents. However, it’s the only town around for many miles so is a relatively ‘major’ stopping point. It makes a good base for exploring Southern Iceland, as there are a few good hotel options here. We stayed at the Hotel Kria, named for the local birds that inhabit this area. The hotel rooms were just OK (not as nice or comfortable as the Canopy hotel in Reykjavik), but the hotel has a restaurant and bar, and a very nice breakfast buffet. The dining space is also beautiful, with floor-to-ceiling glass windows that overlook a mountain and field dotted with Icelandic horses. Despite the great photography and marketing on the hotel’s website, I wouldn’t say the rooms are luxurious; they are rather small and the bathroom leaves a lot to desire. However, the room was fine enough for our stay and the location made for a good base for our itinerary. We also considered the nearby Black Beach Suites, which would have equally made a good base (however, no restaurant on site).
(Optional Stop): Dyrhólaey
We ran out of time, but Dyrhólaey rock arch was on our list to visit. If your schedule allows, it would be worth stopping here for the beautiful scenery. This is also a great spot to view puffins nesting in the cliffs. This photo was taken from nearby Reynisfiara beach.
Day 3: Exploring Vatnajökull Glacier
Vatnajökull Glacier is Europe’s largest glacier, and consumes a large part of Southeast Iceland. The glacier can be accessed through various points, and we opted to view it from the Jökulsárlón Iceberg Lagoon as well. While each day of this itinerary is packed, Day 3 required the most driving in a single day. The drive from the hotel to the first stop is about 2 hours and 20 minutes.
Stop 1: Jökulsárlón Iceberg Lagoon
Jökulsárlón iceberg lagoon is a stunning body of azure water at the edge of the Vatnajökull Glacier where large chunks of glacier break off and float into the salty lagoon, turning into icebergs and slowly floating out to sea. We took a zodiac boat tour through Glacier Adventures and zipped through the lagoon on a small boat that allowed us close-up views of the icebergs, glacier, and wildlife including grey seals. We even had a chance to try a chunk of floating iceberg (it was salty on the outside!). Views from the lagoon are stunning and well worth the trip. If time allows, you could also book a kayak tour for another perspective.
Stop 2: Lunch at Hali Country Hotel
After the lagoon tour, we traveled another 20 minutes East on Route 1 to the small ‘town’ of Hali, where we had lunch at the Hali Country Hotel (located next to the check-in point for our hike with Glacier Adventures). The menu was filled with Icelandic food as well as sandwiches, and I had an excellent serving of arctic char. The food is excellent, but equally as satisfying is a nearly hidden museum that sits in the rear of the building (one of us stumbled upon it when using the restroom). It’s definitely worth a quick walk through to learn about the famed Icelandic author, Þórbergur Þórðarson, and the history of the Hali farm area.
Stop 3: Vatnajökull Glacier Hike
The glacier hike was one of the biggest highlights of our trip, and well worth the time and effort. We booked the combo zodiac + hike tour from Glacier Adventures. Our guide, Zanet, was incredibly passionate and knowledgable about the glacier (and ice climbing in general), and made for a fantastic tour guide. She drove us from Hali to the base of the glacier, where we donned our crampons and began hiking up the never-ending mound of ice. This trek required about a 1-mile hike over rocky terrain from where we parked the car to the base of the glacier. Once we began exploring the glacier, our guide took us to a few moulins, or wells within the glacier formed by water. She even attached us to climbing ropes so we could get a good look over the edge and take photos. We learned a great deal about the glacier from our guide, and thoroughly enjoyed exploring the ice with her. While I highly recommend this tour, it is moderately strenuous and requires decent physical fitness due to the amount of hiking.
Stop 4: Diamond Beach
Heading back on Route 1 in reverse order, we stopped by Diamond Beach next to Jökulsárlón lagoon, where icebergs from the lagoon wash up onto the black sand shore. It’s a quick stop and provides a very unique view of the glacial ice as it melts out to sea.
Stop 5: Svartifoss Waterfall
Our final stop of the day was Svartifoss Waterfall, located within Vatnajökull National Park near the Skaftafell Visitor Center. From the parking lot at the Skaftafell Visitor Center, the waterfall is about a 30-minute hike each way. The hiking trail affords views of expansive plains, and river views. This trail was different than most other trails we hiked in that it was filled with small trees, which were absent on every other hike we did (it actually reminded us of hiking in the Blue Ridge Mountains back home in Georgia). We benefitted greatly from the endless hours of daylight with this hike, as we didn’t arrive to the visitors center until about 10:30pm. However, as you can see from the photos, there was still plenty of light for the round-trip hike!
Day 4: The Golden Circle + Reykjavik
The Golden Circle is a ring of natural attractions about an hour outside of Reykjavik that can easily be done in a day (note: this circle is not the same thing as the Ring Road that surrounds the entire island). The Golden Circle is a highly traveled area and has significantly more tourism infrastructure than we experienced in Southern Iceland (e.g. you’ll see more tour buses here). While admittedly we didn’t love the Golden Circle sites as much as we loved the awe-inspiring beauty of Southern Iceland, two standouts were Gulfoss and surprisingly a tomato farm. We drove to the Golden Circle from Vik, and returned to Reykjavik upon completion.
Stop 1: Gulfoss (Golden Falls)
Gulfoss is a massive waterfall and the key attraction of the Golden Circle. The falls are named for the hue the waterfal takes on during the golden sunset hour. This is one of the top attractions in all of Iceland, and very easy to access multiple viewing points along the top of the falls. You’ll need no more than an hour for this stop.
Stop 2: Geysir
Geysir Hot Springs park is a quick stop on the golden Circle, and features boiling hot springs and geysers. While the original Geysir stopped erupting many years ago, the timely Strokkur erupts every few minutes, hurtling boiling water about 30 feet in the air.
Stop 3: Friðheimar Tomato Farm
One of our favorite stops of the day was the Friðheimar Tomato Farm, a massive greenhouse where a variety of tomatoes are grown year-round using geothermal energy. Meals are served within the green house, and guests eat amongst the very tomato plants that provide the key ingredients to a variety of dishes including tomato soup, pasta sauce, tomato sorbet, and even tomato beer. Highly encourage you time your Golden Circle adventure to include lunch here, and be sure to make a reservation as the restaurant gets very busy. There are also Icelandic horse stables and even a horse show, so plenty of opportunities here to do more than just eat.
Stop 4: Þingvellir National park
Þingvellir (Thingvellir) National Park is an important historical and geological destination to the Icelandic people. The continental divide between the Eurasian and North American tectonic plates lies here, and you can walk (or even scuba dive) across the two continental plates as they further separate by about 2.5cm per year. The site holds political significance as well, home to the first general assembly of Iceland that ran from 930 A.D. to 1798. This park is quite large and you could easily spend a day (or more) exploring the various areas, so be sure to research ahead of time what you want to do specifically and build that into your itinerary. We kept our visit simple, walking around the visitors center and exploring the Almannagja (continental drift) and making the short hike to view the Oxararfoss waterfall. Given that we had limited time, we felt the area around the visitors center featured enough of the big ticket items that we felt satisfied with our visit.
Stop 5: Return to Reykjavik
After Thingvellir, we returned to Reykjavík in time for dinner and some last-minute exploration. We made a pilgrimage to Omnom Ice Cream and Chocolate Shop, which offers gourmet Icelandic chocolate and some of the most decadent and amazing ice cream desserts I’ve ever had. I’ll forewarn you that this chocolate shop is quite a hike and sits at the far end of the Grandi harbor, but we found it well worth the journey and even had dinner at Grandi Mathöll, a food hall we stumbled upon on the way to Omnom.
The late daylight hours afforded us time to continue strolling the streets, checking out some iconic Reykavik architectural sites including the Sun Voyager sculpture, Harpa, and the famed Hallgrímskirkja Church, modeled after the basalt lava columns found on the south coast.
Here is a list of food and beverage spots recommended to us by a local. Given limited time we were only able visit a few, but had great experiences.
Although four days of non-stop exploration left us a bit exhausted, we were grateful for the extra hours of daylight and felt like we sufficiently squeezed every possible moment out of this trip. Given that the flight from JFK was only 5 hours, and the time change from the eastern U.S. was only 4 hours, we found Iceland to be a great spot for a 4 day getaway: far away enough to get some international flavor, and jaw-dropping beauty you’ll never forget. Although Iceland has a checkered history with tourism, it felt like the perfect destination to satiate our wanderlust and get a taste of culture along with stunning natural beauty. Now is the perfect time to go before the crowds return.
I realize we only scratched the surface in 4 days, so would love to hear comments/ suggestions from others that have explored other areas. Please add your suggestions in the comments below!