If you aren't planning a trip to Iceland, this may not be a helpful blog post for you, and feel free to skip right over it...or just look at some pretty photos and move on. But when I plan trips, I google the heck out of things like "sample itinerary for five days in Iceland," so I figured for someone, this may be helpful.
The #1 rated travel book for Iceland is from Lonely Planet, and while we really loved it for a lot of reasons, the itinerary suggestions are pretty vague and weak (especially compared to Rick Steves Itineraries which aren't available for Iceland). So, here is a sample itinerary for a first timer's trip to Iceland in 5 days. I did a lot of research and came up with an itinerary that we were really happy with! We were so sad to leave this beautiful country after five days, but we felt like we made the most of our time!
The key for us was 2 days of taking it easy and soaking in Iceland, and 3 days of nonstop roadtrips. The best roadtrips of our lives! We didn't let jet lag get us down, and we didn't feel stressed throughout the trip!
At the end, I also included a budget breakdown. It may seem like TMI, but we are major budget people (which is how we find a way to travel to new places), and I find that kind of information on other people's trips really helpful! And I had a hard time finding a lot of pricing information for Iceland.
We flew Icelandair out of Boston. We left at 8:45pm ET and landed at 5:45am in Iceland. Day 1 started at the airport...
Day 1 - Reykjanes Peninsula, Blue Lagoon, Reykjavik
We landed at Keflavik and picked up our rental car which we booked with Budget (via Expedia), and we drove off into the Reykjanes peninsula. We had Blue Lagoon tickets first thing at 9:00am (you must book in advance for the Blue Lagoon), but we had about two hours to kill, so we explored the Reykjanes Peninsula, saw the tectonic plate divide, drove out to some amazing cliffs by the power plant (sounds like an oxymoron, right?. When we left the airport, we both said it felt like being on Mars. At 7am, there were hardly any cars on the roads and we didn't see a single person anywhere. We just saw miles and miles of lava fields with geothermal steam rising from the ground. The cloudy skies and harsh winds against the harsh landscape had us feeling like we had landed on another planet.
We stopped for breakfast at Bryggian in the fishing village of Grindavik. This was the best meal to start off our trip! There was no menu, but the kind man behind the counter brought out the "fisherman's breakfast"--aka the works. Pickled herring, smoked salmon, veggies, rye bread, skyr, fresh jam and butter, cheese, coffee. After breakfast, we went to the Blue Lagoon, a checkbox on many traveler's bucket lists. It was a lovely couple of hours, but I have to admit that while I'm glad we did it, it was not the biggest highlight of the trip compared to some of the other amazing sights we saw. After the Blue Lagoon, we drove into Reykjavik and headed down to the harbor. We explored the quaint streets lined with colorful, petite houses that reminded me of a storybook or coloring book and stopped for the best lobster soup I've ever tasted in a cozy, rustic atmosphere at Saegriffin on the harbor. We walked around and explored a bit more and then checked into our hotel (www.numer29.com. Definitely recommend!) for a quick afternoon nap before heading out to dinner at Nora Magasin where we had some incredible beef and lamb burgers. Then we finished the evening in the rooftop, geothermally heated hot tub and sauna at Numer 29. We loved just strolling the streets of Reykjavik, but I have to say that one day there felt like plenty. We were ready to head into the wild and glad that the rest of our nights were not booked in town.
**A note about jet lag. I feel like we really beat jet lag well this trip and made the most of our first full day after a red eye flight--a must do for a short trip in Iceland. Three primary keys for us were (1) sleeping on the flight as best we could. We didn't let the movies tempt us and we went straight to trying to sleep. (2) going to the Blue Lagoon in the morning. It's in the perfect location to hit after the airport, and we were able to enjoy a relaxing soak in the spa, feel like we were doing something, but not overexert ourselves. (3) Spending our first day in Reykjavik. If our first day had been a full day of nature sightseeing, I think we would have worn ourselves ragged. Reykjavik is a great town to leisurely enjoy and relax. (4) Taking a nap. We let ourselves sleep for an hour or two in the afternoon before getting back out and enjoying the city some more. It gave us that extra burst of energy!
Day 2 - The Golden Circle Total time spent in the car: around 3 hours Total day length with stops: around 10 hours (we really took our time and also had to stop for groceries at the end)
Perhaps the most famous day trip in Iceland is the Golden Circle which consists of three very popular natural attractions on an easy to drive route. The drive started out very foggy, and we were a little bit disappointed that we couldn't see into the distance past the fog hovering over the mountains, but by the afternoon, the blue skies made a grand appearance, and it was the start of three days of the most glorious April weather we could have asked for in Iceland.
We started out at Þingvellir National Park, where the first ever known parliament meetings were held by early Icelanders over 1000 years ago. It also sits on the continental divide between the tectonic plates. We broke up the day with lunch at Fridheimar. This is a must! It is this amazing greenhouse where they grow tomatoes that are used all over Iceland. They've figured out a way to use the geothermal energy and water to grow the tastiest tomatoes year round in a very volatile climate. They have the cutest cafe where you can eat the best tomato soup of your life with fresh bread and basil you cut fresh off a basil plant on your table. It's a wonderful stopping point on the Golden Circle drive. The last two stops of the day are Geysir and Gullfoss. Both of these places are incredible, and there is a plethora of information everywhere on the internet, so I will spare you tons of detail.
After the waterfall, we headed to find our Airbnb cabin which was just northeast of Reykjavik near Lake Medalfellsvatn, but we stopped at a grocery store first to stock up for the week at our cabin. There are NO GROCERY STORES along the road headed from Gulfoss to the Reykjavik area until you get back almost to the capital city. Also, grocery stores keep really short hours (especially on Sundays), but we found a Kronan open in the town of Mosfellsbaer.
Grocery shopping when everything is in another language is a challenge, but it was kind of fun, and we came away with food for a couple of dinners at the cabin, breakfast for the rest of the days, and plenty of coffee and snacks for the week. We still don't know exactly what the ground meat was that we had for breakfast every day, but that's the fun I guess.
We ended the day at the cabin that I had booked online and prayed was as blissful as it looked. I was pleasantly surprised to find that it was even better. We felt like we had stepped into a dream. It was the perfect place to relax every night, and we were glad to have a home base to come back to. With only a few days in Iceland, I recommend picking a place and doing day trips from there rather than moving locations every night. For us, it made for a much more relaxing vacation. With a longer trip around the ring road, the scenario would change, but we loved having a home base.
Day 3 - Snaefellsness Peninsula Total time spent in the car: around 6 hours Total day length with stops: around 12 hours
I was looking forward to our day on the Snaefellsnes Peninsula most of all because it is a little bit off the beaten path, and because it is the site of a lot of filming for The Secret Life of Walter Mitty which is fun to see. This part of the country is an easy day trip from the Reykjavik area, and it is a part of the country filled with interesting landscapes and a sort of magical feeling. Over half of Icelanders believe in the existence of huldufolk or "hidden people," like trolls and elves and fairies. No other place will be more likely to convince you that they just might just be hidden from visitors in the lava rock.
We started off with a drive through the town of Borgarnes where we stopped to fuel up our car and get a cinnamon roll at Geirabakari, which was the site of the Papa John's in Walter Mitty. The entire town of Borgarnes has a beautiful view of the ocean. I can't imagine living somewhere with five star views to pump your gas. We then headed off for our lunch spot at Stykkisholmur, the biggest town on the peninsula and we stopped for a photo op at the Gerduberg basalt columns along the way. The columns are really amazing, but looking back, I may not have taken the time to stop and see them. You will see lots of other basalt formations on your trip and these were our least favorite.
Stykkisholmur is a great stopping point to grab a bite before circling the peninsula. We had an amazing lunch of seafood soup and asparagus soup and fresh bread at Narfeyrarstofa. We also climbed to the top of the basalt island, Sugandisey, at the top of town and just enjoyed the quiet streets (where there is free wi-fi everywhere) for a few minutes. We then headed west around the peninsula. We stopped at Kirkjufellsfoss for a photo op of the waterfall and the mountain Kirkjufell in the background. Then we continued around and drove through Snaefellsjokull National Park. We made a stop at Dritvik beach which was eerie on a foggy afternoon with the remains of a shipwreck from hundreds of years ago still scattered on the black sand. We saw the rock formation known as the Elf Church. We drove through lava fields and climbed to the top of the Saxholl Crater to look down at the jagged rock landscape. We finished the trek around at the cliffs of Hellnar and Arnarstapi--my favorite part of the day. We were running out of time and getting hungry, so we rushed our time there a bit, but I wished I could spend hours sitting along the dramatic cliffs and watching the sea birds as they socialized at the end of the day. We didn't get back to our cabin until around 10pm, but the long day was well worth it.
Day 4 - The South Coast Total time spent in the car: around 6 hours Total day length with stops: around 12 hours
Another very accessible day trip is along The South Coast. From our point Northeast of Reykjavik, we weren't directly accessible to the South Coast sights, but it was pretty easy to head down south as far as the town of Vik and see some beautiful places along the way.
After a couple hours of driving and just enjoying the countryside, we stopped at the first natural wonder: Seljalandsfoss Waterfall. We put on our waterproof pants and went behind the waterfall and around it. Beautiful! We knew Vik was going to be our stop and turn around point so we hit a couple stops on the way and a couple on the way back. We walked to the base of the Solheimajokull Glacier which was a highlight of the day. Even though we couldn't hike it without a guide, it was great to see it up close.
The one thing we would take off the list in future was our trip to see the downed plane Solheimasandur. In March of 2016 (one month before we were there), they closed off the driving path to get to it, and what we thought was a 10 or 15 minute walk to the plane was actually a 2.2 mile walk. Our trip to see the plane took us over 2 hours! It was cool, but not cool enough for that. We stopped in Vik for an Icelandic hotdog and then spent some time on the black sand beach at Reynisfjara. This was one of my favorite spots in all of Iceland! I wanted to spend a lot more time there and so wished we hadn't spent two hours seeing the plane so that I could go to the cafe, grab some coffee, and just sit on the black sand and listen to the waves and stare at the basalt formations. On the drive back, we stopped at Skogafoss waterfall--my favorite waterfall of the trip. Then we went for a swim at the Seljavaullaug hidden pool. This was a wonderful place to stop for a dip in a warm pool and a view of the surrounding mountains. We finished off the day with dinner in Selfoss. There were a number of good restaurants, and it was a good stop on the way back!
Day 5 - Slow down and take it in.
Our flight left the airport around 6pm on Day 5, and I didn't make any big plans for the day before that. I'm so glad I didn't because after three days of non-stop roadtrips, all I wanted to do was just relax and soak in the atmosphere before having to leave this amazing country. We took our time with breakfast and I went for a hike around the cabin (another reason I'm so glad we chose a scenic place to stay). I hung out with the sweet horses that surrounded us and cried as I said goodbye to them. We truly just had a leisurely morning and it felt like the perfect way to end a trip. Then we went back to Reykjavik for lunch at Icelandic Fish & Chips, coffee at Cafe Haiti, and another stroll through the colorblock streets before heading to the airport late afternoon. We could have tried to jam pack another day, but I don't regret taking it easy one bit. It was the best ending to the best trip in an absolutely unforgettable country.
Until next time, Iceland.
**We are strict budget people; we log every purchase and put every dollar in its place (thank you, Dave Ramsey). One of the things that affords us is the opportunity to intentionally make travel a priority and save our pennies toward trips like this. That being said, it's sometimes hard to plan a budget to an unknown place without any knowledge of how much that will cost. Hopefully this helps!
(This budget is not including airfare which will vary by time of year and airline. But I will say that we used Icelandair out of Boston after using airline points to get from Nashville to Boston, and roundtrip flights Boston to Reykjavik were just over $500 each in April!)
Lodging: $474 (4 nights Airbnb) Food at Restaurants: $258.24 (7 full meals and plenty of coffee stops, snacks, etc) Groceries: $74.55 (3 breakfasts, 2 dinners, coffee and snacks) Gas: $152.30 (5 days of driving in a little economy car) Sightseeing: $123.69 (Blue Lagoon and a few little costs here and there) Rental Car: $153.00 Total Cost: $1,235.78
I hope this was helpful in some way! Happy to answer any questions!