Iceland is approximately 40,000 square miles from start to finish. You could spend a good eight to ten days on the island and only cover a fraction of all the geological marvels and cultural highlights characteristic of the Reykjavík region and beyond. There is a lot compacted into the rocky alcoves and crannies of the country, though it’s relatively small at approximately the same size of the U.S. state of Ohio. Unfortunately, not everyone has two weeks’ worth of time and funds to spend on a trip to the frosty North. For many, a three-to-four day vacation is much more doable. It’s true that there is much worth seeing that is tucked away under the earth, around the river bend, and atop the glacier in Iceland – but it is also true that the island is conveniently sized, surprisingly traversable in the appropriate four-wheel vehicle, and entirely enjoyable even if you only have four days to spare. Without cramming so much in that you won’t have a little time to revel in the sights, we have outlined a four-day itinerary for you short-timers that should make for a quick trip well-spent!
Day 1: Reykjavík
The odds are good that you will land at Keflavík International Airport (KEF), the largest in Iceland. After you unload, Keflavík makes things easy for you with their sleek, vaguely futuristic flybuses, which will usher you from KEF to downtown Reykjavík or even your own hotel by request. The trip is unlikely to exceed forty-five minutes or so, and there is always free Wi-Fi onboard (speaking of futuristic).
We definitely recommend that you take advantage of that amenity and spend your first day in Reykavík. The city, located just two degrees south of the Arctic Circle, is Iceland’s largest and is widely considered to be its cultural nucleus. Characterized by colourful, unmistakably Icelandic architecture and vibrant arts and culture venues in its urban center and misty coves, lagoons, and minor outlying islands on its harbour shores, Reykjavík is a great place to base and/or start your Icelandic adventure. Since it’s unbelievably clean for an urban center, largely believed to be one of the happiest cities in the world, and entirely manageable in size, you’ll be able to hit up some fantastic points of interest to in the first twelve-to-twenty-four hours of your four-day excursion. In fact, you’ll even be able to get a few satisfactory primers in Icelandic history, music, art, and cuisine.
Solfar Sun Voyager
Imagine spending the first few hours of the quiet morning alongside Reykjavík’s serene seaside, the rising sun glinting off of the sleek lines of an imposing Nordic sculpture. If that image sounds alluring, we highly suggest that you take a quick mid-morning stroll near Reykjavík’s Old Harbour, along an idyllic nautical pathway frequented by joggers, cyclists, and photographers. Eventually you will stumble upon Jon Gunnar Arnason’s Sun Voyager – you can’t miss it – which cuts a majestic figure against the rolling Icelandic sea. The mammoth steel sculpture was constructed in the visage of a Viking ship, and vaguely resembles an ancient drawing brought to three-dimensional fruition. Interestingly, Arnason imagined Sun Voyager as a “dream boat,” of sorts, and a silvery homage to the power of the sun. What a way to greet the morning!
If you are a church-goer or appreciate a traditional Sunday mass, you may want to save your day-long Reykjavík excursion for a weekend so you can appreciate Hallgrímskirkja’s services. We do recommend that you visit this national monument early in the day in order to appreciate its ambience against the tranquility of morning. Hallgrímskirkja Church was designed by state architect Guðjón Samuel in 1937, and it attracts both the secular and non-secular for its incomparable, nature-inspired architectural design and pristine, elegant interior. The tiered, undulating ridges of this building’s sides were in fact inspired by Iceland’s own natural topography. Like many, Samuel found the shapes and formations created from lava – after it forms basalt rock – striking and fascinating and created a place of worship inspired by the natural world.
Hallgrímskirkja’s tower is seventy-three meters high, and this imposing structure looms over Reykjavík in a way that provides a stunning panoramic view from the top. Inside, the church boasts a massive pipe organ constructed and designed by Johannes Klais Orgelbau of Bonn, Germany. If you are interested in music or instrumental artistry, this organ is a must-see. It is a gargantuan fifteen meters in height and weighs approximately twenty-five tonnes. It is operated with four manuals, a pedal, seventy-two stops, and five thousand two hundred seventy-five pipes. Obviously, its range of sounds and tones is pretty unprecedented!
What stands before the church actually predates it by about fifteen years. Make sure you get a good photo – or at least a good look – at the statue of Leifur Eiriksson (c. 970-c. 1020), who is posited to be the true first European to land in the Americas. Records indicate that Eiriksson actually sailed up to the shores of North America in 1,000 A.D., which is approximately 500 years before Christopher Columbus landed. The statue, designed by Stirling Calder, was donated by the United States at the 1930 Alþingi Millennial Festival, which commemorates the anniversary of Europe’s first parliament at Þingvellir in 930 A.D.
Hallgrímskirkja is dedicated to the religious poet and minister Hallgrímur Pétursson (1614-1674), one of the most renowned wordsmiths in Icelandic history. The church is part of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Iceland. There are many artistic events held at the church, and a festival of sacred art is held bi-annually in the summertime.
Lunch at Café Loki
After you have enjoyed your mid-morning at Hallgrímskirkja Church, you can stop at the Café Loki for a series of traditional Icelandic homemade dishes. It is just across the street!
Café Loki is a friendly, warm, and welcoming little restaurant that specializes in authentic Icelandic food. It is a cozy, modest affair, but you might hear rumours circulating that the best traditional culinary fare in the city is actually at this modest little café. And the pricing is very reasonable indeed.
Here you can enjoy traditional Icelandic fish stew with onions and potatoes, plokkfiskur, dark rye bread, fluffy rye pancakes with smoked lamb, and much more. They even make rye bread ice cream! If you have a more adventurous palate, you can try fermented shark and Brennivín schnapps. Don’t fear if you are vegetarian, however – non-meat and non-fish options are available as well. Furthermore, the servers are famously good-natured about explaining all the foreign dishes.
Take a peek at the restaurant and some of their dishes at Café Loki’s official website here: Loki
The National Museum of Iceland
After lunch, make your first museum stop at Reykjavík’s premier institution of Icelandic art, history, and culture: The National Museum of Iceland. Established on February 24, 1863 under Chief Curator and National Librarian Jón Árnason, The National Museum of Iceland was the first organization of its kind (borne in Iceland, designed by Icelanders) to put Icelandic heritage and culture on public display. Thanks to pastor Helgi Sigurdsson at Jörfi, who offered fifteen relics as a gift to the Museum’s first collection, Árnason was able to bring the institution to life with the permission of regional authorities. Prior to the Museum’s opening, Icelandic objects were primarily preserved in Danish museums and institutions.
The National Museum of Iceland recently underwent a series of technological and institutional changes in order to operate within the parameters of the modern era. When its doors were re-opened in 2004 after a period of renovation, the Museum revealed a tremendous and varied series of exhibitions and permanent installations celebrating Icelandic heritage. Among its most famous displays is the permanent installation illustrating and tracing Iceland’s history from its medieval Viking heritage to its contemporary life. You will find here the largest public collection of Icelandic photographic prints on the island, as well as the elaborate medieval door of Valthjófsstadur, which features engravings from the 12th century knight’s tale Le Chevalier au Lion.
The Museum has played an important role in archaeological conservation in Iceland. Not long ago Museum staff conducted emergency evacuations of important art and objects at the Bessastadir farm mound at the presidential residence. The museum was also instrumental preparing for Þingvellir to be listed on as a UNESCO World Heritage site.
The Volcano House
The National Museum of Iceland provides an enlightening and validating experience – you will find yourself submerged in centuries of Icelandic history. Your next museum jaunt will be a bit more focused and perhaps more classically entertaining – and a bit volatile. After you have gained a solid appreciation of Icelandic history and heritage, delve into its energetic geology at The Volcano House in Reykjavík.
Iceland enjoys approximately two hundred volcanoes emerging across its landscape, which are sub-divided into around thirty broader volcanic systems. These systems will erupt every four to five years, making the island one of the most volcanically active places on the planet! You can witness these extraordinary geologic structures in person and even enter one of them with professional guidance, but we’re still on your first day in Iceland here. Before you descend into the fiery earth, let’s get you a thorough education of the island’s seismic subterranean life at The Volcano House.
The Volcano House is a relatively recent institution; it was created in response to the tremendous eruption of Eyjafjallajökull in 2010. You’ll surely remember the headlines; this volcanic activity was so widespread that it essentially grounded all European air travel. This means that The Volcano House is thoroughly modern and high-tech, with heavily interactive and exciting virtual exhibitions. Unlike many classical museums, The Volcano House allows visitors to engage in a hands-on way with some of its materials. You can touch and hold handfuls of pumice, ash, and solidified basalt lava, including some of the materials collected from the 2010 eruption. You will also become acquainted with some of the folklore associated with incredibly rare volcanic materials. For example, the Icelandic Spar was used by the medieval Vikings to locate the sun in inclement weather, and you will get to see this item in person.
Harpa Music Hall and Conference Center
The Harpa Music Hall and Conference Center is one of Reykjavík’s most elegant and distinguished social landmarks and social centers. True to Icelandic form, it is a modern, exquisitely sculpted institution made of multi-coloured glass and sleek steel set against a panorama of rugged mountains and the North Atlantic Ocean. It has attracted a total of 7 million guests since its opening in May 2011.
Harpa is committed to diversity in performances and musical genres – you’ll be able to enjoy everything here from jazz and Icelandic Opera to classic rock and techno, from classical ballet performances to stand-up comedy. We highly recommend that you peruse its many available shows at Harpa and complete your first evening in Iceland with a high-quality performance.
Finally, enjoy your first dinner on the island at one of Harpa’s two exquisite restaurants: Smurstöðin on the 1st floor and Kolabraut on the 4th floor. Smurstöðin is well-known for using the best Icelandic grown and harvested ingredients in the style of the New Nordic Cuisine Movement. Kolabraut is more of a fusion-style restaurant, where the best Icelandic produce is mixed in with Italian culinary traditions.
Day 2: South Iceland
On your second day in Iceland, take advantage of Reykjavík’s southerly location and journey further down to explore the world-famous Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon and the island’s South Coast.
The South – the Southeast in particular – is where Iceland’s wild shoreline is arguably at its most pristine and beautiful. You will be met with dramatic mountain ranges, crystalline ice caves, glacier lagoons, black sand beaches, and rollicking, fluffy herds of Icelandic horses. If you’re really lucky, you might be able to hang out with some sweet-natured seals or a flock of pudgy puffins.
Whether you have booked a hotel in the South, rented a Super Jeep, or simply break from Reykjavík in the early hours via bus, you’ll want to make sure you get to Jökulsárlón first thing. This is because, like Iceland’s world-renowned Blue Lagoon, Jökulsárlón pulls thousands of tourists to its glittering black shores and iceberg-dotted waters every single day. Since you’re only in Iceland for four days, you’ll want to make sure each experience is ideal. If you make your way to Jökulsárlón in the wee hours of the morning (or mid-morning at the latest), you’ll be able to enjoy the idyllic tranquility of the lagoon with fewer bustling groups of tourists.
Jökulsárlón is situated in Vatnajökull National Park, named for Europe’s largest glacier. Vatnajökull is so massive that it has numerous ice tongues (glacial lagoons and formations, essentially) that comprise their own individual glacial systems. As one of these “tongues,” the Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon and lake is the result of Vatnajökull’s gradually retreating mass. As Vatnajökull’s glacial body moves, breaks off, and re-forms over time, Jökulsárlón expands its waters and becomes inundated with boulder-like, crystalline icebergs. Saltwater flows in through the lagoon’s connected sea channel, preventing the lagoon from ever becoming fully frozen, while the icebergs’ densely compacted matter slows the melting process and keeps these structures bobbing in the water. The combination of seawater and freshwater gives Jökulsárlón an unearthly blue colour you’ll rarely see outside of highly saturated photographs.
Jökulsárlón is divided into approximately four “quadrants.” The bottom left side of the lagoon is the parking lot and gift shop, while the top two quadrants border an expanse of black sand shores. Even the sleek ebony shores are populated with massive diamond-like icebergs you can get up close to. On the actual lagoon, you can take one of the boating tours that operates year-round, sometimes up to forty time per day! You can either take an Amphibian boat tour or enjoy the Zodiac tour, which involves a smaller, lightweight boat that can get a little closer to the icebergs. If you’re lucky, you’ll be able to spot some sweet, doe-eyed seals, who seem to enjoy this particular lagoon.
Jökulsárlón is easily reachable off of Iceland’s Ring Road, or Route 1, which circles the entire island. Make sure you bring a map, water, and a snack or two for the long drive – particularly if you are traversing the roads during the winter months!
After your on-board adventure, you can stop by the Café by Jökulsárlón and treat yourself to a variety of freshly-made sandwiches, seafood soup, coffee, soft drinks, and/or hot chocolate.
You will likely want to warm yourself up a bit after weaving through thick ice masses in an open vessel all morning, so why not let some hot spring steam soothe your frozen fingers in Iceland’s greenhouse village? Hveragerði is about forty-five kilometers outside of Reykjavík and is also located near the southern periphery of the gargantuan Vatnajökull (which covers more than eight percent of Iceland’s surface area, by the way). This town has earned many nicknames: “the flower village,” “the greenhouse village,” and “the blossoming town” are all among them. This is because Hveragerði boasts the highest concentration of greenhouses of any village in Iceland, thanks to its placement smack in the middle of an active geothermal plain. Since its land is so fertile and hydrated, Hveragerði is able to produce an incredible variety of homegrown fruits, vegetables, and flowers. Even exotic varieties of fruits proliferate here, such as papayas and bananas. It should come as no surprise that the Icelandic Horticulture College bases itself in this town!
Throughout and surrounding Hveragerði you will be able to witness a series of active geysers shooting pillars of steam and balmy water several feet in the air. While many of the hot springs in this region are far too hot to bathe in, you can venture out to the Reykjadalur valley and warm yourself in its “hot river.” Though getting there can be a bit of a hike (you would do well to come equipped with sturdy boots and comfortable attire), you shouldn’t have too much difficulty locating the river or navigating the plain. Icelanders have set up signs warning “Hætta,” meaning “danger,” to deter tourists and hikers from slipping into a sludgy mud pool or burning themselves in a boiling natural hot pot. Furthermore, you’ll see a little wooden walkway guiding visitors safely to the toasty geothermal river once you get close.
If you’re inkling for a snack after your hike and your soak, you can meander back into Hveragerði and enjoy some fresh produce or rye bread, which is baked using the land’s all-natural geothermal heat!
Hotel Rangá Luxury Resort & Dining
After boating, hiking, snacking, and soaking, it will probably be around five or six in the evening and time for dinner. You can certainly dine in Hveragerði if you can’t quite bring yourself to leave (which is quite understandable), but for the sake of variety, we recommend that you visit one more charming southern Icelandic town for the evening and sate yourself there. Also located south of Vatnajökull is the town of Hella, which barely has one thousand inhabitants. It is a delightful little place and also the location of the elegant Hotel Rangá, the only four-star luxury resort in Southern Iceland. The hotel boasts the title of the first Icelandic institution to earn a membership with the prestigious Great Hotels of the World travel chain. It is also known for its gourmet food, so whether you want to stay here for the evening or not, you must at least try the wonderful, modern Nordic cuisine at the hotel restaurant: HotelRanga
Day 3: The Golden Circle
The Golden Circle route can arouse some skepticism from travelers, simply because it is known to be a bit of a tourist trail. But it is no tourist trap. This three hundred kilometer loop around Reykjavík and Iceland’s southern uplands is actually worth it, and it offers visitors the opportunity to see some of the island’s most striking natural marvels in one extended sitting. Furthermore, unlike the Ring Road, which circles the entirety of Iceland, the Golden Circle can be completed in a day. So don’t let the travel industry tag deter you.
You’ll have no problem at all finding a satisfactory Golden Circle tour should you prefer to navigate the island with professional guidance. However, you can also rent a Super Jeep or other four-wheel drive and make the journey yourself.
The following constitute the “Big Three,” so to speak, of The Golden Circle:
Þingvellir is, to put it shortly, Iceland’s national “shrine.” Its title, which translates literally into “Parliament Plains,” denotes the fact that in approximately 930 AD, Europe’s first true parliament convened here. The Alþing parliamentary assembly came together at this site until around 1789, making Þingvellir one of the most historically significant locations in the world. Further to that, Þingvellir is simply beautiful, rich in vegetation and energetic in tectonic plate activity.
Placed just north of Iceland’s southern lowlands, the Geysir field is home to bubbling, boiling mud pits, steaming hot springs, and explosive geysers. The most impressive of its geysers is Strokkur, which spouts a powerful pillar of boiling water thirty meters into the air every couple minutes or so. Geysir is also one of those delightful spots in Iceland where you can enjoy rye bread and eggs that has been geothermally baking underground for hours.
Gulfoss is Iceland’s most famous waterfall, renowned for the seemingly golden sheen that illuminates its cascading gorge during the autumn months. Aside from being beautiful, Gulfoss is exceptionally mighty. Its flow is most powerful during the summer, when roughly one hundred forty cubic meters of water plunge downwards over a unique, three-tier staircase of solidified volcanic rock.
When exploring along the Golden Circle, you will definitely need to take a break or two to rest up and re-nourish. Here are some of the best restaurants along the Golden Circle route you might consider availing yourself of:
Skjól Camping and Restaurant
Skjól is an interesting little and relatively young little place (built in 2014). Initially designed as a modern, accessible hotel for backpackers, Skjól’s restaurant has expanded quite a bit since its genesis a few years ago. You can enjoy everything from Icelandic lamb to homemade pizza against a backdrop of live acoustic music.
This quaint restaurant is located on a dairy farm, meaning all its ingredients are guaranteed to be fresher than fresh. Here you will be able to enjoy farm-raised beef, just-caught lake trout, and even organically-churned ice cream!
This cozy restaurant and café looks out onto the magnificent Gulfoss waterfall, and boasts a satisfying diversity of stews and sandwiches, in addition to hot chocolate and fresh-brewed coffee.
Be sure to check out our Golden Circle article for a more in-depth look into the route and its many fun detours.
Day 4: The Blue Lagoon and Into the Volcano
The fourth and final day will be your “dive-in” day, so to speak. Remember how we mentioned that you could actually enter a dormant volcano in Iceland? That’s where we suggest you end your trip – take the plunge and end on an impossibly high note!
And if you were surprised that we didn’t guide you to The Blue Lagoon during your first day in Reykjavík, don’t worry. We’re simply saving the best for last. Your fourth day will have you heading back near the capital city, where we suggest you spend the morning submerged in the lagoon’s milky, opalescent waters.
The Blue Lagoon
We’ve discussed the Blue Lagoon quite a lot (you can’t really talk about travel in Iceland without mentioning it!), but here we’ll provide a quick recap. The Blue Lagoon was essentially a happy accident that formed several decades ago, the surprising result of a freshwater spill from the Svartsengi geothermal plant merging with geothermally-heated seawater emerging from bore holes in the earth. The lagoon’s unique beauty, unusual cloudy blue hue, and clinically proven therapeutic and medicinal properties have made it an international hot spot, and a testament to the wonderfully curative nature of clean geothermal energy. Because it is such a wildly popular attraction, we recommend that you take the same approach as you did at Jökulsárlón and get there in the early hours of the morning to avoid the masses.
As would be expected, the Blue Lagoon comes with all the amenities you could imagine, including showering facilities (which are mandatory pre-dip), pre-provided fluffy robes and slippers, relaxation chambers complete with ethereal music, skin care products derived directly from the healthful minerals and silica found produced by the lagoon, and much more. For lunch, you can enjoy a fresh fruit smoothie and a light meal made from locally sourced produce at their café. If you’re interested in something heartier, head to the Blue Lagoon’s LAVA Restaurant, which boasts a world-renowned team of chefs and an exceptional and varied option of international wines.
After lunch, it’s time to journey into the center of the earth. Your muscles should be nice and warmed up for the excursion after your mid-morning soak!
Thrihnukagigur translates into “Three Peaks Crater” in English, and it has been dormant for approximately 4,000 years. This unique formation is the only volcano you can enter on the island, and this is only because Icelandic caving enthusiast, doctor, and explorer Árni B. Stefánsson advocated extensively for its accessibility. The man has been caving since 1954, so Icelandic officials were quite confident in his assessment of Thrihnukagigur’s safety.
Though the volcano is decidedly dormant, you cannot enter it unsupervised. The staff at Thrihnukagigur takes your safety very seriously, but they are also highly conscientious of the structure’s protection and preservation as well. Thus, all cavers must be guided and monitored. After a prep talk and a hike up to the base of the volcano, you will descend into Thrihnukagigur’s crater via elevator with an expert volcanologist. You will be equipped with all the appropriate gear, including harnesses, helmets, and flashlights. Once inside, you will be met with scintillating, weaving formations of solidified magma in startling hues of red, ocher, jade, ebony, and more. Like everyone who enters, you will undoubtedly be struck with its shockingly colourful subterranean beauty – and you’ll probably feel quite tiny. The interior of the crater is wide enough to contain three full-sized basketball courts and tall enough to hold the Statue of Liberty! Visit InsideTheVolcano to learn more about the adventure.
Matarkjallarinn Food Cellar
After your subterranean excursion, we recommend that you head back into Reykjavík to eat dinner and rest up for your flight home the next day. You might consider dining at Matarkjallarinn Food Cellar, which comes highly rated as Reykjavík’s number one restaurant by TripAdvisor. Matarkjallarinn is a grill and cocktail bar, situated in a one hundred sixty year old building in the city center, and it receives virtually one hundred percent positive feedback from diners. Laid-back yet elegant, this restaurant is known for its impressive variety of exquisite Icelandic brasserie-style cuisine. You can learn more about its dining options and make reservations online here: Matarkjallarinn
And thus concludes your long weekend in The Land of Fire and Ice. Odds are you’ll be back!
- 1 Day 1: Reykjavík
- 2 Day 2: South Iceland
- 3 Day 3: The Golden Circle
- 4 Day 4: The Blue Lagoon and Into the Volcano