I’ve been fortunate enough to visit beautiful Iceland twice now — once in the late spring and once in the dead of winter. Though these certainly won’t be my last visits (and when I do return, I will add more recommendations), I wanted to consolidate everything into one easy-to-share post!
This blog didn’t exist during my first visit, but to see more in-depth information on certain parts, read here for Reykjavik, here for the Golden Circle, here for the South Coast, and here for specifics on seeing the Northern Lights
Points of Interest
Blue Lagoon — Yes, it’s touristy, but it’s worth the visit. Now, you have to book your tour slot ahead of time (before, when I went in 2010, it wasn’t as crowded and you could just walk in). I recommend the “Comfort” package, which includes a rental towel, one beverage from the swim-up bar, a silica mud mask and an algae mud mask. One thing of note in the Lagoon is that the silica mud, which is so good for the skin, is also in the water and can make hair extremely stiff. The trick is to wet your hair in the shower and put in conditioner before getting in the Lagoon- and LEAVING it in there while you’re there, then rinsing it out after and washing your hair again. Major help!
Hallgrímskirkja — The largest church in Iceland which sits atop a hill in Reykjavik. The church has an elevator which you can ride up into the steeple for a 360° view of the city. It’s a few Krona to go up but 100% worth it for the view, including of Esjan, the city’s “favorite mountain.”
Golden Circle — This isn’t as much a point of interest as many points, but it’s a single looped road that starts in Reykjavik and has stops along the way at some of the best-known natural features of Iceland. While there are tons of bus tours that will do the golden circle, my recommendation is to rent a car and start at the southeastern-most spot, the Kerið crater, and work your way counter-clockwise. You’ll also see Gullfoss, Geysir, and Þingvellir National Park, as well as many other stops along the route.
Skógafoss — This waterfall is to the Southeast of Reykjavik and a great stop to make to/from a trip along the South Coast. To reach Skógafoss, you have to walk up the riverbed to the falls. If it has rained recently or the snow is melting, you will get wet — it is huge and throws a lot of water! Nearby Seljalandsfoss, another waterfall, is also worth the visit. Make sure you also walk around to the left of Seljalandsfoss along the path to the Gljúfrabúi waterfall, hidden inside a cave. Not many tourists will venture so far!
Reynisfjara (black sand beach) — Famous, thanks to Instagram and TV shows like Vikings and Game of Thrones, these beaches along the South Coast of Iceland are made up of smooth, black, volcanic pebbles. Reynisfjara is also lined with stunning, organ-pipe cliffs, giving this dark beach an otherworldly feel. Off the beach sits “the trolls” rock formations. Legend says that greedy trolls were wading into the surf to capture a passing ship, but while they were in the water the sun came out, turning them to stone. There is also a canteen there for tourists, which is OK but probably overpriced. However, there isn’t a whole much around — we recommend the lamb stew. This is a place where you have to pay attention — the waves are large and crashing, and they’re unpredictable. Every handful of waves, a larger one rolls in and comes much further up the beach. It’s an all-too-frequent occurrence that unsuspecting visitors taking selfies will be swept out to sea.
Dyrhólaey Arch & Light House — About 5KM up the coast from Reynisfjara there is a poorly marked road. If you put Dyrolaey Light House into your GPS, you will be able to find it! From the top, you can see down over two black sand beaches, one on either side, as well as walk around a lighthouse. Between Dyrhólaey and Reynisfjara is another peninsula with a hole in the bottom, creating an archway, which is also really cool! When we visited it was raining and cold, but on a sunny day these views would be just amazing!
Tjörnin lake — In the heart of Reykjavik is a pretty little lake. In the summer, it’s lovely to walk around — and in the winter, it’s fun to walk on! You’ll likely see this lake on your way to one or another of the sights, but it’s a fun place to stop and see.
Saga Museum — This history museum tells the story of Iceland’s fascinating history through wax figures and displays. They follow the settlement of Reykjavik and Iceland by the Norwegians and the subsequent power struggle over the island, from the formation of the first parliamentary government, Alþingi, to the full conversion to Christianity and it’s subjugation under Danish rule.
Settlement Museum — This museum specifically focuses on the history or Reykjavik. They’ve unearthed and preserved the footprint and some of the walls of one of the oldest buildings in Iceland, built around 821. It’s a really cool museum that made use of technology in creative ways, from holograms to interactive touch screens, etc.
National Museum of Iceland — Located on the University of Iceland campus, this museum also follows the settlement of Iceland by the Norwegians in the mid-800’s, but continues up through the operation of British and American troops during the Cold War. They have a ton of interesting artifacts, and they even have a Viking ship!
Kópavogskirkja — This is more of a vantage point than a point of interest, but driving up here is another great view over the whole of Reykjavik.
Þingvellir — This is one of Iceland’s national parks, and is on the Golden Circle, but deserves its own note. Þingvellir has a number of interesting parts to it. First, there is a path through a small separation in the rocks, which is the point at which the North American and European tectonic plates are separating by an incredible 2.5 centimeters a year. Þingvellir is also home to the Logberg, or law rock, which was the assembly place for the Alþingi, the nordic parliamentary government which was set up by the first settlers in the late 9th century and was the governing body for Iceland from 930 until 1271.
Kaffivagninn — best fish and chips ever! Also, apparently the oldest operating restaurant in Iceland
The Pearl — I’ve only been here for cocktails, but the view over the landscape is amazing even if the food is a little overpriced!
Matwerk — cozy and delicious, and not very expensive compared to other restaurants in Reykjavik.
Sjávargrillið — a bit pricey, but so delicious, especially for seafood!
Friðheimar Farm — At this stop along the Golden Circle, they keep horses and grow tomatoes in greenhouses year round. They’re able to do this because they warm the greenhouses using a geothermal spring, and water the plants with glacier water. They serve everything from tomato soup to a green tomato and apple pie, and of course bloody marys!
Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur — Icelanders LOVE their hotdogs. This stand is particularly popular with locals and tourists. They make their meat with a combination of lamb, pork and beef with a variety of toppings. Make sure you order one with “everything”: minced onion, remoulade made of mayo and herbs, “pylsusinnep” which is a sweet mustard, ketchup, and topped with fried onions.
Places to Stay
Fosshotel Lind — we felt this place was really reasonably priced for the great location, free parking and included breakfast! Walkable to almost everything in downtown Reykjavik.
Orange Car Rental — I can’t say enough praise for this company! The prices were excellent and the customer service even better.
Reykjavik Excursions — We booked a Northern Lights tour through Reykjavik Excursions and we can’t say enough good things. They do lots of other excursions elsewhere in Iceland, which we haven’t experienced, but can imagine they’re just as great. For the Northern Lights tour, in particular, they have a deal where, if you don’t see the lights, you can re-book for the next night at no charge (and on until you see them or you go home!)