When I was planning my trip to Iceland, I knew that no matter what I had to
Do something involving Icelandic horses
See Gulfoss, Skógafoss and Seljalandsfoss waterfalls
Attempt to see the northern lights, and
Do something active (ideally glacier hiking, which I missed out on doing at Perito Moreno glacier in Argentina)
Through my nonstop tours, I managed to do all of that and so much more. Here are some suggestions on how to spend 4.5 days in Iceland based on my itinerary.
(But first… a note on Iceland: Due to a combination of a heavy reliance on imports, value-added taxes, the country’s currency and the high cost of living, Iceland can be quite expensive – especially the food! There are definitely ways to make it more affordable but, generally speaking, I would never describe Iceland as an inexpensive place to visit. I treated my trip as more of a splurge).
Day 1: Explore Reykjavik and Hunt the Northern Lights
Reykjavik is a cute town that I think can be easily explored in a short period of time. There are free walking tours like this one available every day that gives you a good basis for learning about Iceland’s capital.
For breakfast, you MUST, I repeat you MUST visit Braud & Co. Before going to Iceland, I kept reading about this bakery and their incredible cinnamon rolls. Well, friends. I’m here to confirm the cinnamon rolls are indeed out of this world, and I’m not even a cinnamon roll person. But, there you have it. I loved them.
For lunch, I recommend a stop at Icelandic Street Food, known for their lamb soup and shelllfish soup. I had the former in a bread bowl and loved it, and if you’re still hungry after one serving, you can get more servings for free. They also had complimentary carrot cake and chocolate macaroons available for anyone who wanted to end their meal on a sweet tooth. Clearly a win-win situation.
Another option: the famous Icelandic hot dog from Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur. I’m not a hot dog person, so I’m not really the one to ask, but I thought the hot dog was fine. Apparently Bill Clinton said it’s the best hot dog he’s ever had, so there’s that. If you do get it, you have to get it with everything because I think the best part of their hot dog is the fried onions tucked in the bun underneath the actual hot dog.
For dinner, my favorite meal was at Geiri Smart, where I tried Ocean Perch for the first time (tastes like cod) in a really unique and inventive dish with smoked eggplant, carrots, cabbage and dashi…it was divine. Another popular place is Messinn, which I also enjoyed, but I loved Geiri Smart more.
At night, get ready to go hunt aurora borealis, more commonly known as the northern lights. This natural phenomenon can only be seen in the winter months on cold and clear nights where there’s no light pollution. Before going to Iceland, friends had recommended to me that I book a small-group tour my first night, in case the tour was canceled due to bad weather.
Fortunately, I lucked out on the first night, as our “hunt” only lasted the duration of a 30-minute drive before we came upon the northern lights. In person, they started out very soft but got stronger as time went on and “danced,” according to our tour guide. Despite my hands being completely frozen (forgot my much-needed hand warmers that night!), I loved witnessing this beautiful display of Mother Nature.
Day 2: Golden Circle + Pick Your Activity (in my case: horseback riding!)
The Golden Circle, which consists of stops at Thingvellir National Park, Gulfoss waterfall and the Geysir geothermal area, is basically an Iceland must, and it’s certainly beautiful to see.
That said, I don’t think an entire day should be dedicated to this. There are eight-hour tours, and I think that’s just way too long (if you’re doing a tour). I recommend doing one of the Golden Circle tours combined with something else. I did a horseback riding and Golden Circle tour, and I loved the horseback riding (no surprises there considering my recent horseback riding tour in Mexico).
The horseback riding took place at Laxnes Horse Farm, a family-owned establishment located not far from Reykjavík that’s been around since 1968. The ride itself is two hours on a beautiful Icelandic horse (the couple who owns the farm has about 120 horses), where you get to walk and trot. After getting a taste of trotting and cantering during my horseback riding in Mexico, I was all about my Icelandic horse, Casper, breaking out into a fast trot, and I learned to feel much more comfortable riding at that pace.
After the ride and a simple but excellent lunch of carrot soup with fresh Icelandic bread and butter at the farm, I went on my express tour of the Golden Circle. For me, the most impressive parts were Gulfoss, which is truly a powerful display of Mother Nature, and seeing the Geysir bubble up and erupt high into the air.
One could also do the Golden Circle and snowmobiling or the Golden Circle and the Blue Lagoon, or many other combinations. I really enjoyed doing this combo tour and highly recommend it (and Laxnes Horse Farm!) to anyone visiting Iceland.
Day 3: Discover Southern Iceland
Before going to Iceland, I kept hearing how southern Iceland, in particular, was a truly beautiful place to see. And I agree. Truth be told, I enjoyed my tour of southern Iceland much more than my Golden Circle tour. I think both are nice but the southern coast of Iceland was more remarkable and at times gave me Jurassic Park vibes, which I loved.
We started off the tour heading south with a pit stop at a gas station along the way. The first stop: Skógafoss waterfall, which was my favorite waterfall of the trip. Even though Gulfoss was massive and thunderous and impressive to see, I love how Skógafoss is tucked into the side of the cliffs and, in the two times I visited, has a rainbow or two sparkling in front of it. You can also walk right up to the waterfall or climb the stairs up to the top, which I recommend if you have time.
Next came stops at Reynisfjara black sand beach and the southernmost town of Vik. Reynisfjara is beautiful with some seriously powerful (and dangerous) waves. The first thing you’re told upon arrival is to not get too close to the water, since unfortunately the waves have taken lives. That said, even just standing on the beach looking at the rock formations and massive waves is amazing.
As for the town of Vik, I didn’t get to spend too much time there so I can’t comment on it in depth, but I also walked to the beach while there and loved the sweeping views looking out at the Atlantic Ocean.
Our final two stops of the tour took place at Sólheimajökull glacier and Seljalandsfoss waterfall. My first glimpse of Sólheimajökull glacier was amazing but nothing compared to my experience on it the next day (more on that below).
As for Seljalandsfoss waterfall, similar to Skógafoss, it’s also tucked into the cliffs and you can also walk behind this waterfall, which sounds like a cool option. Sadly, I didn’t get to do this on my tour since the walkway was too icy, but the ground did make for a fun slip-and-slide for a group of teenagers, so that was fun to watch. Regardless, I loved exploring the southern coast and definitely feel it’s a necessary stop when visiting Iceland.
Day 4: Choose Your Own Adventure (I Chose Glacier Hiking and Ice Climbing)
For my last full day in Iceland, I knew I wanted to do something active and adventurous. This is Iceland, after all, so I knew I wouldn’t be content to just drive around, get off the bus or van, see a natural attraction, then get back on the bus or van. Totally fine if that’s your thing, but I knew it wouldn’t be mine for the entire trip.
After days of looking up different types of activities and tours, I landed on one that I kept coming back to: glacier hiking and ice climbing on Sólheimajökull glacier.
Words cannot describe how much I loved this experience. The tour took place with Arctic Adventures and was actually a combined tour for part of the day. We started the drive to the southern coast of Iceland with those who were doing the ice cave tour near Vik. Once again, we made stops at Skógafoss and Seljalandsfoss waterfalls and then, following these stops, the group split into two: those of us doing glacier hiking and ice climbing were dropped off by Sólheimajökull glacier and those doing the ice cave stayed on the bus to continue on to Vik.
The quick recap of the glacier hiking and ice climbing experience: after renting the proper shoes (trust me, you need these!) and putting on the cramp-ons, harness and helmet, we made our way to the beginning of the glacier where we climbed up and trekked across the glacier to a crevice where we then rappelled down an ice wall, only to ice climb back up that same wall soon after. After climbing back up, we trekked back across the glacier and made our way back to the parking lot where we met the bus.
Now, what the quick recap above doesn’t tell you is how INCREDIBLE the experience was. Ice climbing was one of the most physically challenging things I’ve done in a very long time (it didn’t help that I climbed the stairs all the way up to the top of Skógafoss waterfall right before).
At one point, I was halfway up the wall with my legs violently shaking, and I truly did not know if I could make it to the top. I thought to myself, “what am I even doing here?!” And then I found the willpower to keep climbing, with the help of my guide and another person on the tour who had done ice climbing before and was yelling encouragement at me the entire time.
I was also fortunate to have an amazing tour guide, Alexander from Ireland, who was so clearly passionate about nature and the beauty of our world. Sólheimajökull glacier is one of the world’s fastest receding glaciers, so sadly where we trekked and did ice climbing will be gone in a few years’ time. Alexander helped us understand how privileged we were to be able to have that experience. It was very humbling, and as we trekked back across the glacier with the sun beginning to set, I knew I had made the right decision for my last full day in Iceland.
Day 4.5: Blue Lagoon + Airport!
Anyone who’s done research on the Blue Lagoon in Iceland probably knows it’s recommended to do the Blue Lagoon either on your way from the airport or your way to the airport.
I can’t comment on stopping at the Blue Lagoon on my way from the airport, but I did like that I saved the Blue Lagoon as my last stop before going to the airport. Yes, it’s touristy and yes, it’s expensive, but I liked it. I felt like, because they cap the number of tickets available, it never felt packed even though I know every time slot had been sold out through the evening.
I also like that they’re fully equipped to handle people going to the airport with their luggage. There’s an area where you can store large suitcases and carry-ons, and then the men’s and women’s locker rooms have everything you need to shower and get dressed after your time in the Blue Lagoon.
Perhaps the most important thing to know about the Blue Lagoon is to book your ticket in advance!!! Don’t wait until the last minute if you really want to go – trust me, you’ll regret it. I booked my ticket about three weeks in advance, and even then, the hour before the one I picked was already sold out. After a few hours soaking in the Blue Lagoon, I jumped on a pre-booked bus heading to the airport, and that was it!
Tips for Iceland in Winter
Not to make this the longest post of life, but I thought I’d end with a few tips for anyone traveling to Iceland, particularly in the winter:
Layers are key! I often had on thermal leggings, a tank top, a fleece sweater, my snow boots, insulated ski socks and my super warm, mostly waterproof coat with a faux fur hood, and I carried a hat, a scarf and gloves with me in my day pack that I took on and off depending on how cold it was at the time. For ice climbing, it’s recommended you have on completely waterproof clothing, so I swapped my coat out for my ski jacket, added in my thermal long-sleeved top underneath my fleece and added waterproof pants over my thermal leggings.
Bring snacks but don’t go crazy. Yes, food is expensive in Iceland and you should cut down on costs by bringing snacks, but don’t pass up trying Icelandic food because of the cost. Try a few things while you’re there – it’s part of the experience!
Bring hand warmers! I forgot mine when I went to see the northern lights, and wow, did I need them. I was so happy to have them tucked into my gloves the rest of the trip.
A portable charger is a must! Some tour buses and vans have charging outlets, but many do not. I made sure to always have my portable charger with me, and it lasted my entire trip. The plus side is that the vehicles all have WiFi (at least the ones I was on did), some better than others.
Book the things you definitely want to do in advance. I know some people like going with the flow and booking things at the last minute, but I don’t think Iceland is that kind of place. If you know you want to go to the Blue Lagoon, book it early! If you know you want to do a specific tour, book it! No point in waiting and then being disappointed when it’s sold out.
Okay, my novel on Iceland is officially over. Hope this helps anyone interested in going, especially during the winter! To see more pictures of my time in Iceland, head here.
Anyone who’s been to Iceland have any other tips?