Iceland, the land of Fire and Ice
Plus waterfalls, volcanoes and more Game of Thrones settings than you can shake an ice dragon at.
Whilst this beautiful country has exploded in popularity as a tourist destination in the past few years, it still remains off the radar for many travellers and holiday makers, which makes now the perfect time to discover this unspoilt gem.
Highly deserving of it’s bucket list status, we chose Iceland as the perfect place for a short stay in between our time in Mexico and Asia, to experience something totally different and because, well, we’d always wanted to go. Usually we like to spend as long as possible in a country to fully immerse ourselves but Iceland actually lends itself nicely to short visits. While we can’t wait to go back and see more, four days allowed us to see everything we wanted without being too full on. Plus, Iceland is definitely NOT a budget destination, with food, drink and accommodation particularly pricey.
Iceland is a horse lovers paradise!
However, it can all seem a bit overwhelming when you first start to investigate a trip to Iceland.
When to go, how much should you expect to pay and what’s the best way to get around are all questions we had when we started planning too. Plus many more!
The itinerary we ended up doing worked a treat so we wanted to share it as a suggestion for how to spend a really good four days in Iceland. As first timers, we managed to enjoy all the main attractions in the south without killing ourselves trying to stuff in too much. Next time we go (and there will definitely be a next time) we’ll look for more off the beaten track places to see, but for our first time, sticking to the main tourist sights was perfect.
This guide is designed to help you plan your first trip to Iceland by sharing how we did it and some of the costs. Of course you can adapt and switch things up to suit your own needs but hopefully you will find it helpful, at least as a starting point. We researched hard and read many articles and blog posts before going to ensure that our time in Iceland would be as awesome as possible. It’s thanks to all the people who took the time to write about their experiences that we were able to plan the perfect itinerary and had the most amazing time. We hope that this guide might do the same for you, inspire you to go to Iceland too and help with planning your perfect trip.
Travel Tip: Book in Advance.
Because of it’s popularity, demand outstrips supply for accommodation in Iceland. Which means high prices and not a huge amount of choice (especially if you’re on a budget). Even when we booked 6 months in advance many places were already sold out on Booking.com. Don’t leave this one till the last minute – plan ahead
BONUS – Use this link for Booking.com you’ll receive 10% back. You’re welcome.
Stay on a goat farm at the Skálatjörn Guesthouse. We’re not ‘kidding.’
When is the best time of the year to visit Iceland?
We went in mid September which is considered shoulder season. It’s a great time to go as there are less tourists after the peak summer months, the weather is still fine and it’s the start of Northern Lights season, yay!
We were really lucky with the weather as we had sunshine every day, temperatures around 10°C that dropped to just above freezing at night. We didn’t have to contend with any rain or icy roads, nor did we experience any of the high winds that can assail the island. Be aware that the weather can be highly changeable and plan accordingly.
Beach days are still possible in September, although swimming is optional.
Another consideration when choosing time of year to visit are the daylight hours. In September it’s dark by 9.30pm and light at 7.30am so you get lots of daylight hours for exploring but it’s also dark when you want to sleep. If you go in high summer there are only a couple of hours of darkness, which can make sleep difficult for some people. Similarly in mid winter, darkness prevails which limits your activities.
Getting to Iceland
Several budget airlines now offer routes from the UK to Iceland. It’s an easy, direct, three hour flight and the time difference is only 1 hour, so there’s no jet lag to factor in. We flew with Wizz air from Luton airport to Keflavik and paid around £100 each, return.
We love budget airlines because you can choose what extras you want to pay for and what to leave off. Just be careful to read the baggage policy! We opted to just take hand luggage as we prefer to travel light and save pennies. Wizz Air only allows you to take one piece of hand luggage each onto the plane, unless you pay for a Priority ticket ie no handbag/laptop bag. We got around this by taking one small day bag, which we just stuffed into one of the main carry on bags whist boarding, then got it out on the plane.
Always check how much extras will cost you when comparing flight prices. We only took hand luggage, our own snacks and refillable water bottles but did pay for seats together.
Do you prefer the window or aisle seat?
What’s the best way to get around in Iceland?
There are no buses or trains to help you get around Iceland and taxi’s are very expensive. There are plenty of tours that you can book on to see the main sights but we found the best way to experience Iceland was to hire a car and drive. Without doubt, hiring a car is the best option for getting around because you can set your own pace, stop where you want and save money on tours or taxi’s.
Trust me, the landscape changes around every corner which means you’ll want to stop and get out A LOT.
Another cool way to get around is to hire a camper van but we prefer to have a proper bed to sleep in and also need wifi to work.
Hiring a car allowed us to discover some unexpected gems
We hired a small, 1.2l automatic which was fantastic for our trip as we weren’t wanting to go off road and we stayed around the warmer south coast. If you go during the winter or want to go up into the mountains you would be better off with a 4x4 and snow tyres. Make sure you have adequate insurance as potential damage from sand, ash or gravel are real possibilities. It’s also not uncommon for strong winds to gust and cause damage to doors when getting in and out.
Highway 1. Traffic really isn’t an issue in Iceland
Don’t let that put you off however. Just make sure you have the right vehicle for the type of trip you’re doing and you read all the fine print for what you’re covered for and take out extra cover if necessary. We didn’t experience any issues at all on our trip and once I got used to driving on the wrong side of the road (Icelanders drive on the right hand side, the UK on the left!) it was really easy. The roads are well maintained and largely empty.
Indeed, outside of Reykjavik there is barely any traffic, just miles and miles of mostly empty roads.
Travel Tip: Use SkyScanner to compare car hire rates.
Not only useful for comparing flights, SkyScanner also does a handy car hire comparison. We ended up booking with Avis as they gave us the best deal and we didn’t have any problems. Always take pics or video of the car when you pick it up and make sure you check the damage on the report matches the car and report it if it doesn’t.
We paid £205 for a 1.2 litre automatic VW Polo for four days on a ‘full to full’ petrol policy. We only needed to fill up once and petrol prices were comparable to the UK, around £50 for 3/4 of a tank.
What are the main attractions to see in Iceland?
Here is a map of our Iceland itinerary. Click on it to view in Google and see each of the tourist spots, where we stayed and the routes we took each day. As I said at the start, as Iceland ‘first-timers’ we wanted to see the main tourist attractions so we planned our itinerary around the Golden Circle and the south coast. We weren’t disappointed with anything we saw, even with our expectations high, Iceland still blew us away.
Our 4 day Iceland Itinerary
Below is a break-down of our 4 day Iceland itinerary to help you plan your own trip:
Day 1: Arrival and Blue Lagoon
Arrived at 9am at Keflavik International Airport
Collected hire car, drove to supermarket and stopped for lunch at a cafe near the airport.
25 min drive to The Blue Lagoon for the rest of the afternoon
Short drive to Grindavík and overnight stay at Anita’s Guest House
Day 2: The Golden Circle
Set off early along the coast road and join the Golden Circle route, stopping along the way to look at horses and views
Thringvellir National Park
Geysir hot springs area
Drive back south towards the coast to our accomodation for the next two nights, Skálatjörn Guesthouse goat farm
Keep a look out for the northern lights!
Day 3: The South coast and Vik
Head east along the south coast towards the town of Vik
Arrive at Vik for lunch – we ate at Sudur Vik and can highly recommend!
Wander around the town then drive back stopping at Reynisfjara black sand beach
Drive back towards our guest house, stopping at Seljandsfoss waterfall as the last stop of the day. We decided to do this one last because you will get soaking wet going behind the waterfall!
Day 4: Horse Riding
Reluctantly leave our guest house and the gorgeous goats
Head north back towards Reykiavik
Private horse riding tour at Viking Horses just outside Reykiavik.
Head to our final night’s accomodation Maxhouse Reykjavik
(We had planned to check out Reykjavik on our last night but were too tired after the amazing horse riding)
Day 5: Depart
Early check out and drive the 40 mins back to the airport. Return the hire car and fly back to the UK
Travel Tip: Take snacks
– and tea bags, a thermos flask and reusable water bottles are all a great idea for the road. All the main tourist spots have cafe’s but they are not cheap, think £5 for a small cup of tea or coffee. We went to a supermarket on our first day and made packed lunches most days.
So what exactly are all these hard to pronounce places we keep refering to?
The Golden Circle
The ‘Golden Circle’ as the name suggests, is a 300km popular circular route that is easily accessed from Reykjavik and can be done comfortably in a day. Along this route you find three of the top tourist attractions within close proximity to each other; Thingvellar National park, Geysir and Gulfoss waterfall.
Thingvellir (Þingvellir) National Park
Designated a World Heritage Site since 2004, Thingvellir is celebrated for being the historic seat of Iceland’s parliament from Viking times until 1794. The park is also situated in the inter-continental rift between the Europe and North America tectonic plates. Here you can literally stand between two continents, one of the only places in the world it’s possible to do so.
When you arrive at the visitor centre it’s necessary to pay for the car park (one of the very few places where you have to pay.) It costs about £5 and you can pay easily by card using the touch screens in the toilet building. If you want to go in the exhibition in the Centre you’ll have to pay for a ticket, otherwise entry around the site is free.
It’s worth pointing out that, as everywhere in Iceland, snacks and drinks in the cafe are expensive; £5 for a small cup of tea/coffe for example. We made our own packed lunches and took flasks of hot drinks and reusable water bottles, which you can fill from the tap. It pays to be organised and plan ahead in Iceland, otherwise you can end up spending a lot of money.
We didn’t take any cash with us and had no problems as everywhere accepted card payments.
Culturally and geographically significant Thingvellir
Geysir Geothermal Area
About 40 mins further on from Thingvellir is the geothermic hot springs area where you can see boiling mud pits and water erupting out of the earth. The generic word ‘geysur,’ meaning an erupting hot spring, actually derives from Geysir as the one in Iceland was the first to be recorded. Geysir itself has been mostly dormant for many years, leaving the Strokkur geysur as the main attraction, erupting reliably every 10 minutes or so.
There is a large visitor centre at the site with lots of free parking, a big gift shop, restaurants and toilets.
Strokkur geyser putting on a show
Gullfoss (meaning golden waterfall) is one of the iconic waterfalls of Iceland and a vision of unspoiled nature at it’s finest. Fed by the Hvítá (White) river which gushes down from Iceland´s second biggest glacier, water plummets down in two stages into a rugged canyon some 70 metres high.
There are walkways that allow you to get very close to the waterfall and there are many great spots to photograph it from. In the winter these paths are closed when the weather is bad but in September we had no issues.
Gulfoss waterfall. Worth the drive
Seljelandsfoss and Skogafoss waterfalls
Two more awe-inspiring waterfalls to see along the south coast, which fit in perfectly on the way to the town of Vik, are Seljelandsfoss and Skogafoss. While there were plenty of other tourists around when we visited (which was at peak time through the middle of the day) it never felt overcrowded and we still managed to get good pics.
Mighty Skogafoss often has the added bonus of a rainbow to add to it’s appeal and at Seljelandsfoss you can climb up behind the waterfall to gain an entirely new perspective. Both are well worth visiting and to give you an idea, we probably spent an hour or so at each.
Skogafoss waterfall, complete with rainbow and tourists
The most southerly point in Iceland is the pretty town of Vik and the famous black sand beach and rock formations at Reynisfjara. Easily accessed from Highway 1, if we had more time to explore further around the coast, we would have potentially stayed in Vik. The town itself is quiet and quaint and we enjoyed a lovely lunch at a cute restaurant Sudur Vik.
There were quite a lot of tourists at the beach when we arrived but considering it was mid afternoon, it wasn’t too bad and the beach is pretty vast. Watch out for the ‘sneaker’ waves that come up higher than expected and can knock you off your feet!
The curious rock formations and black sand at Reynisfjara beach
Horse Riding tour
On our last day we headed back towards Reyjavik but rather than explore the city, we went on a horse riding tour in the countryside just outside. The city does have some interesting things to see and most likely we’ll do this next time but we were more interested in seeing Iceland’s natural splendours than it’s urban sprawl.
Horses are everywhere in Iceland. Indeed, they are the only breed of horse permitted on the island and Icelanders are fiercely proud of them. Seeing the countryside from horseback was a truly special experience and probably the highlight of our whole trip. If you’re unsure whether to do this or not, don’t hesitate!
There are many places where you can book a horse riding tour in Iceland. I researched carefully and ended up booking with Viking Horses because of their high rating, and because they offered the option of a private tour. Since Steve had never ridden before safety was especially important and we wanted to ride at a pace he felt comfortable with.
All the equipment was provided and we were given time at the start to allow us to get to know our horses and have a practice ride in the paddock before setting off. The three hour ride saw us go through forests, lupins meadows and accross red lava rock fields. We even tried the tölt, which is a special kind of comfy trot. Afterwards we feasted on a hearty meal of lamb soup and Skyr (Icelandic yoghurt).
We had an exceptional time with Viking Horses and whilst they weren’t the cheapest, the experience was priceless.
The best way to experience Iceland (even if you’ve never ridden)
The Blue Lagoon
No trip to Iceland would be complete without visiting the Blue Lagoon spa; Iceland’s premier tourist attraction. Roughly 80% of all tourists to Iceland go to the Blue Lagoon, a staggering statistic. Much is made in the media and by bloggers over whether it’s worth forking out the continually rising entrance fee for, and yet people still flock in their thousands to relax in the hot, milky blue waters.
You can read our take on whether the Blue Lagoon is worth a visit or not here
(spoiler alert – YES!)
The Blue Lagoon. Why wouldn’t you?
So there you have it. Our full four day Iceland itinerary broken down for you to help plan your own perfect trip. I hope we’ve provided a little inspiration and guidence for you to go and enjoy this incredible country. As always, if you have any questions, just shoot us a comment below or get in touch on our Facebook or Instagram pages.