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  • Allyson Rychlak

Iceland: The Land of Fire & Ice in 5 Days

My trip to Iceland with two of my closest friends this past July marked a big check off my travel bucket list (and the list is certainly long). Iceland had been of interest to me for as long as I can remember, but Play Airline's fairly new, low-cost service from several East Coast hubs to Reykjavík put the Nordic island in our sights for summer 2023. Our itinerary, restaurant and excursion recommendations, and travel tips are highlighted below. This was one of my favorite trips I've ever taken, and I'm so excited to share this latest guide.

Seljalandsfoss, one of the most breathtaking stops in Iceland's South Coast where visitors can walk behind the falls

Saturday, July 1st

After flying out of D.C.'s Dulles International Airport on Friday evening, we landed bright and early Saturday morning at Keflavík Airport (KEF), the largest airport and main hub for international flights in Iceland. Emphasis on bright and early; the sun never fully sets in Iceland from May to August. More on that later!

We grabbed our rental car from Ace, booked through Priceline, and signed up for the insurance through Ace, which I recommend for the included Wi-Fi in the car (navigating and aux purposes). While you could avoid renting a car and spend most of your time in Reykjavík, Iceland's capital, coupled with day bus tours to different sights, we opted to have some additional flexibility in our itinerary.

Iceland's famous Rainbow Street with Hallgrímskirkja looming in the background

From the rental agency, we drove 45 minutes into downtown Reykjavík, where we found street parking (outside Valdis ice cream, which we had twice during our trip) and set out to explore for the day. Our check-in wasn't until 4pm, and we had a list of sights to check off in the city:

  • Skólavörðustígur, otherwise known as Rainbow Street, is arguably the most popular tourist road in the city, but take some time to explore the nearby streets and down to the harbor.

  • Laugavegur runs parallel to Rainbow Street and had some of our favorite shops, bars, and more, and is rightfully known for its shopping.

  • Head up Rainbow Street to Hallgrímskirkja, the largest church in Iceland, to listen to an organist, see the structure's beauty both from inside and outside, and even climb to the top for views of the city.

We waited to be sat for breakfast at Sandholt, since the line out the door gave away how treasured the bakery was by both locals and tourists. Not only were the pastries on display mouth-watering, we enjoyed our breakfast so much that we came back on our final day in the city before leaving for the airport. Tip: the avocado toast on sourdough set my expectations high for all avocado toasts here on out!

Any trip to Reykjavík would not be complete without a visit to Brauð & Co. for cinnamon buns. We came here before heading out of the city midday for Sky Lagoon.

Brauð & Co.'s cinnamon buns are about as picturesque and delicious as they come

The Blue Lagoon is Iceland's most famous hot springs spot, but after some research, we ultimately opted for Sky Lagoon for a less touristy experience. While still popular with tourists, Sky Lagoon offers views of the sea and is only 4 miles from downtown Reykjavík compared to the Blue Lagoon's location on the Reykjanes Peninsula (around 30 miles outside of the city). Sky Lagoon is also slightly less expensive than the Blue Lagoon at about $57 a person compared to $65 a person, yet Sky Lagoon offers a seven-step ritual (involving ice-cold glacial pool plunge and a sauna) that is priced higher. Towels, access to showers and changing rooms, and one complimentary drink of choice are also included in general Sky Lagoon admission. This was a great activity to break up our day before we were able to check into our guesthouse (a mixture of a hotel and a hostel is the best way to explain it) and relax after an overnight flight.

All smiles in the bath-like water of Sky Lagoon

After our afternoon in the hot springs, we checked into Kastali Guesthouse in downtown Reykjavík for the evening. The location was prime, check-in was easy, and the room was clean; the bathrooms were singles, but shared (not the most luxurious), but since we had showered at the Sky Lagoon before we left, we didn't use the showers. Our evening in Reykjavík included:

  • Famous Icelandic hot dogs at Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur instead of our late reservation at Monkeys Food and Wine, since we wanted to eat earlier. The hot dogs were, well, interesting in flavor. Let's just say it was no Fenway Frank.

  • Ice cream at Valdis sounded quite more appealing after Icelandic frankfurters.

  • Explored Old Harbour and saw the Sun Voyager statue and Harpa Concert Hall before heading back into downtown.

  • Grabbed drinks at Hús Máls og Menningar, a coffee house, bar, and library that turns into a live music venue in the evenings. We stayed here for hours listening to the band, enjoying wine, and singing and dancing, and we all agreed that our evening there was one of the most unexpected gems of our trip. We left after 11p.m., but our sense of time was truly thrown off since the sun was just beginning to set.

Valdís ice cream in downtown Reykjavík is sure to be a hit for any sweets lover

Sunday, July 2nd

Before our trek outside of the city on Sunday morning, we returned to Brauð & Co. for a second time (it was just that good) and got coffee at Baka Baka. Under an hour from downtown Reykjavík on Iceland's "Ring Road" is Þingvellir (Thingvellir) National Park, one of the key attractions within the popular Golden Circle. Þingvellir is a protected national shrine, former place of parliament for the country, UNESCO World Heritage Site, and filming location for several Game of Thrones scenes. Check out:

  • The Mid-Atlantic Rift between the Eurasian and North American plates, which can be seen in the canyons and gorges of the region (the only spot in the world with above sea-level rifts).

  • The Almannagjá gorge walk to easily accessible waterfall Öxaráfoss.

  • The Silfra ravine if you're a scuba-enthusiast, often considered one of the best dive sites in the world.

Fans of Game of Thrones will recognize spot in Þingvellir (Thingvellir) National Park as the filming location for several scenes in the series

After exploring the national park, we stopped for lunch at cafe Þrastalundur before heading south to fishing village Vík. If you're wondering about the rest of the Golden Circle sites, don't worry - we returned on our final day in this part of the country. South Coast highlights:

  • Reynisfjara, the Black Sand Beach, is one of Iceland's most iconic sites about two and a half hours from Reykjavík.

  • Head another two and a half hours past Vík for Jökulsarlón Glacial Lagoon, which we unfortunately did not have time to fit in.

  • And more below...

Another GOT filming location, Reynisfjara Beach is one of the world's most famous black sand beaches

Walk to the viewpoint of Sólheimajökull glacier before heading down the road to Skógafoss, a popular South Coast spot, is a nearly 200-foot waterfall visible from Route One, the main driving loop from Reykjavík to Vík. It is possible to walk right up to the waterfall, but beware of the spray! There's also a steep staircase that boasts some pretty daunting views from the top.

A few steps closer, and visitors can feel the mist from Skógafoss's mighty spray

Seljalandsfoss, often visited with Skógafoss due to their proximity to each other on the South Coast and along the Ring Road, also drops 200 feet. This waterfall is famous for its path that stretches around the back of the falls, allowing visitors to walk behind the spray. You will definitely get wet, but our trek behind the waterfall was incredible.

If you're wondering how we fit all these excursions in one day, the answer lies in the daylight. When we visited Seljalandsfoss, it was around 9:30pm, but we were jet lagged and simply accustomed to winding down for the night at home as the sun set. See the image below and cover photo for this blog for how the sky looked that late at night. For adventure-seeking purposes, the lack of nightfall was perfect for fitting in jam-packed days, but a sound eight hours of sleep was not on the list.

Slippery when wet, that is for sure!

We had a dinner reservation for this evening at the hotel, but cancelled since we wanted to keep exploring the South Coast and ended up eating at a to-go place in Selfoss. Don't let the daylight fool you - restaurants still close at normal times on a Sunday evening. To finish off our second full day in Iceland, we took a dip in our hot tub at Hotel Grimsborgir, our lodging for the two nights we were spending outside of the city, before bed. The photo below was at 1am, and that's about as dark as it got! Room-darkening shades took a new meaning on this trip.

Hotel Grimsborgir's hot tubs were open all night, even at the darkest hour before the sun began to "rise" at 2am

Monday, July 3rd

On Monday morning, we had complimentary breakfast at Hotel Grimsborgir before driving an hour back into Reykjavík for a whale watching tour by Sea Trips Reykjavík. We were lucky enough to see puffins, bottlenose dolphins, minke whales, and two humpback whales. One humpback even gave us a grand finale of the tour with a "tail throw," its beautiful "fluke" flipping into the air before gliding down into the icy sea. No photo evidence of this, of course; my hands were too frozen for pictures.

To warm up and chow down after the tour, we had famous lobster soup at Saegreifinn, just steps away from where we got off the boat. Hvammsvík Hot Springs and Nature Resort was recommended to my friend as a highlight of a previous Iceland trip, so we headed 45 minutes north of Reykjavík after lunch to check it out.

The entrance to Hvammsvík, one of the best additions to our trip for its natural beauty, serenity, and elegance

While Sky Lagoon was a fun excursion close to the city, and perfect for the first day, Hvammsvík was unlike any spa I've ever experienced. The hot springs are situated right on water from the Atlantic Ocean, but in the middle of Hvalfjörður “Whale Fjord” in Southwest Iceland. Our tickets were around $60, but prices fluctuate depending on the day of the week, and included access to eight hot springs, a steam room, beaches, changing rooms with private showers, and one complimentary drink from the swim-up bar. The hot springs were far less crowded than Sky Lagoon and do not allow children under ten. Our afternoon at Hvammsvík embodied serenity, and the spa and facilities felt as though they were built seamlessly into the side of the mountain. We loved this place, and I highly recommend adding a trip to these hot springs to any Iceland itinerary.

Hvammsvík consists of eight hot springs settled on the ocean, where visitors can "cold plunge"

After embracing the zen of the hot springs and having hot chocolates from the Hvammsvík café, Stormur, we drove an hour back to Hotel Grimsborgir to shower. While there were showers in the hot springs' facilities much like Sky Lagoon, the changing room was much smaller. For dinner, we ate at Ingólfsskáli Viking Restaurant, only fifteen minutes by car from the hotel just off the Ring Road. There is axe throwing and archery available before or after dinner in this Viking-themed longhouse, and the menu offers traditional Icelandic dishes (and drinks from a horn). The character and décor of the restaurant is sure to entice any traveler looking for a Viking experience, but it was quite touristy and a bit overpriced in my opinion. After dinner, we had ice cream at Ísbúðin Okkar on the ride back to the hotel and called it a night.

Ingólfsskáli Viking Restaurant's decor, music, and food and beverage offerings felt right out of a Viking film

Tip: Both excursions (whale watching and Hvammsvík Hot Springs and Nature Resort) would have been more accessible from a Reykjavík hotel, but we changed a few things around in our itinerary once we were there.

Tuesday, July 4th

Eager to check off the rest of the Golden Circle highlights before we headed back into Reykjavík in the evening, we started with Kerið Crater after breakfast at the hotel. Visitors can walk right to the crater's edge, walk the circumference, and head down the path to the turquoise water of the lake. The iron deposits of the crater's volcanic rock make it vivid red in color, and the minerals from the crater walls give the lake its bright blue hue. Tip: No restrooms at this stop!

The Kerið Crater is about 6,500 years old, only half the age of other spots in Iceland's Western Volcanic Zone

We headed counterclockwise on the Golden Circle route to the historically significant Skálholt Cathedral. Part of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Iceland, the cathedral was built in 1963, but serves as the 10th iteration on the site, with the first built in 1056. We wandered around the museum beneath the church and into Hotel Skálholt, which would be a great Golden Circle lodging option as it is directly on the route. Hvönn Restaurant is a airy, locally sourced spot for lunch on the road, and if you stop here, make sure to try their kombucha homemade on the property.

The beautiful Hvönn Restaurant inside Hotel Skálholt

Our next stops on the Golden Circle:

  • Waterfall Gullfoss, meaning "Golden Falls" is another iconic waterfall easily accessible with a short path from the road and gift shop; wear rain gear here too! The spray from the falls travels much further than you may guess.

  • Geysir Hot Spring Area is a geothermal field with geysers, boiling mud pits, and soil vibrantly dyed by sulfur, copper, and iron elements. The most famous geyser here is Strokkur, which erupts up to 60 feet in the air every 6-10 minutes.

  • Lunch at Laugarvatn Fontana, which is a popular spa with a geothermal pool (yet I still recommend Hvammsvík Hot Springs or the Sky Lagoon for hot springs locations). Laugarvatn Fontana is most well-known for the geothermal bread baking tour, where rye bread is baked in the earth, the ground heated from the natural hot springs in the area. Since the tours run twice a day and needed to be booked in advance, we didn't get the full experience, but the bread was tasty. The café here was perfect for a late lunch on-the-go before we started back for Reykjavík.

Once checked into an Airbnb in downtown, we headed for Pósthús Food Hall and Bar, an indoor food hall with 9 different eateries and cocktail bars with a variety of options. We sat in Drykk's indoor garden for cocktails (Draft Rosemary Moscow Mules, to be exact) and ordered from Djúsí Sushi and Mossley Tacos & Wings. Tip: I know it sounds like an oxymoron, but try the tempura chicken sushi! I'm typically a spicy tuna or spicy salmon gal, but this seemed so unique on the menu, and I enjoyed every bite.

Jungle's signature cocktail list is endless, featuring creations like the Pinkman and the Elvis Presley

After dinner, we ended the night at Jungle Cocktail Bar and toasted to our wonderful trip in Iceland as the sun began to just barely set (at 11p.m.).

Wednesday, July 5th

On our final morning in Iceland, we returned to Sandholt for avocado toast and lattes before walking through the shops in downtown Reykjavík one last time. Some of our favorite stores included Kirsuberjatréð, an Icelandic design store featuring the work of 10 local female artists and Mjöll, a jewelry store with pieces designed and handcrafted in Iceland.

There is a Flybus transfer from right outside downtown Reykjavík to Keflavík Airport, which my friend took as she had a much earlier flight. This takes about 45 minutes, which was the same as our drive to drop the rental car off at Ace before hopping in their van transfer back to the terminal.

While we filled out short amount of time in Iceland with as much as we possibly could, travelers could spend weeks in this country and still have places to see. My friends and I all agreed that we would love to return someday, especially to hike (Katla Volcano, Snæfellsnes Peninsula, and more) and explore the incredible sights of the country beyond Reykjavík, the South Coast, and the Golden Circle. As always, feel free to reach out with any questions or planning help if you are thinking of booking or preparing for a trip to Iceland. Keep reading for additional travel tips for the country, as well as more spots in Reykjavík to check out.

Harpa Concert Hall's distinct glass facade facing the harbor in northern downtown Reykjavík

Other Reykjavík Recommendations (that we did not get time to try!):

  • Perlan - A nature museum with an ice cave and glacier exhibition, northern lights show, lava show, rooftop bar, and more.

  • Kolaportid Flea Market - Open year round in the city's Old Harbour

  • Lava Show - Available both in Reykjavík and Vík!

Even More Bars & Restaurants in Reykjavík:

  • Snaps Bistro - French bistro with extensive wine list.

  • Duck and Rose - Italian spot located by the Icelandic Parliament building.

  • Sumac Grill & Drinks - Located on Laugavegur, our favorite street downtown, with Lebanese influences.

  • Solon Islandus - Beautifully decorate bistro right before Rainbow Road that was always packed when we passed by.

  • Fiskmarkaðurinn - Translates to Fish Market, if you couldn't guess, but imagine the most exquisite fish market you've ever visited!

  • Sjavargrillid - Another seafood grill featuring Icelandic cuisine in the heart of the city.

Additional tips:

  • Packing: Bring rain gear. I was a bit unprepared and packed jackets, but not any that were truly waterproof. I ended up buying a rain jacket on our first day in the city (as it poured during breakfast), and did not regret it one bit during the rest of the trip. The weather will fluctuate, so pack and dress in layers.

  • Food: Iceland, with its chilly North Atlantic location, isn't exactly known for culinary arts. If the restaurant isn't traditionally Icelandic, lots of options will be based around other cultures (Italian, Vietnamese, etc.), especially in Reykjavík. Try to keep an open mind, especially if your diet doesn't typically revolve around lamb, fish, or skyr, which is Icelandic yogurt.

  • Parking: On our first day of parking in Reykjavik, we got a well-deserved parking ticket (we failed to realize there was a kiosk to pay a few blocks down). While the ticket said to bring to an Icelandic bank, which we found on our last day in the city before departing for the airport, the teller told us that the payment had recently changed for tourists and all tickets could be handled when returning the rental car. Speaking of the rental car - to fill up a tank of gas in Iceland requires a credit or debit card with a 4-digit pin.

  • Currency: None of us exchanged dollars for króna and used credit or debit cards with no exchange fees instead. While we're talking about money, I'll note that travel, food, and lodging for a trip to Iceland can skew a bit more expensive, especially compared to European countries like Italy. However, it can be done affordably if you do research on guesthouses, restaurants, and excursions to get the best bang for your buck.


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