How to Make the Most of Your Iceland Stopover: A 3 (.5) Day Itinerary

Photo of Iceland northern lights by Nicolas J Leclercq

Thanks to an awesome Cyber Monday deal courtesy of IcelandAir (Route: Boston to Helsinki with an Iceland stopover), I had the opportunity to head to Iceland in March!

Since the trip had such a short turnaround, I was inspired to create this itinerary to help those of you who may also have on a stopover of your own – with a modest budget. 🙂

On that note: keep in mind that this was not a luxury trip, nor was it one where I was trying to find the best food or nightlife – especially since I was there during the week and had a 7:30am flight to Finland that Saturday.

I came to Iceland largely to see the natural beauty, so I spent 2 of my 3.5 days in Iceland out in the countryside! While I wouldn’t change that for the world, I do plan to explore more of Reykjavík when I go back – especially since it apparently has a wicked nightlife scene.

Without further ado, check out this itinerary for how to make the most of your 3 (and a half) day Iceland stopover!

Day 0.5: Arrive, Get Settled, and Explore Reykjavík

Arriving at Keflavik Airport and Getting to Reykjavík

If you’re coming from the States, it’s pretty likely that you’ll take an overnight flight and arrive in Iceland early in the morning.

In my case, our flight arrived at Keflavik Airport at a spritely 6am. Just a heads up for when you get to Keflavik: the airport can be a little confusing (especially if you’re sleep-deprived like I was ) because the shops that are restricted for departing flights are actually still accessible to arriving passengers.

For example: after deplaning, I made a beeline to what I thought was the airport’s duty-free shop, only to be told that I needed to be a departing passenger to make a purchase. Oops.

After going through passport control, perusing the duty free shop, and perhaps grabbing a sandwich and smoothie at Joe & the Juice, you’ll want to head to the main waiting area to find your shuttle pickup. If you choose Gray Line (like I did), they should be in the group of people holding up signs behind a “fence”, so to speak.

FYI: shuttles are the generally considered as the best way to get into Reykjavík as they’re comfortable, reasonably priced (for Iceland), and reliable. You could take a taxi, but be prepared to pay $100+ USD. There is no train system in Iceland either, so your options to get from Keflavik to Reykjavik (about a 45 minutes – 1 hour commute) are limited.

Settling into your Accommodations

Iceland has a mix of hostels, hotels, and Airbnb hosts, but I actually chose to try something different (and for the first time): couch-surfing!

For those of you who may be scratching your head right now, Couchsurfing.com is a website that basically connects hosts with a free couch (or a bed, or a room) to travelers who are looking for a cheap way to stay with a local.

The great thing about this community is that it fosters greater cultural exchange without the hefty price tag of traditional accommodations. Obviously, I had many reservations about using this type of service for a variety of other reasons. But, I figured that Iceland would be the best place to try it for the first time since it’s one of the top 5 of safest countries in the world!

Plus, I’m here writing this blog post two weeks later… so I’d say that it worked out just fine. 🙂

My host was a native Icelander named Nina, and she was so welcoming! Not only did she have a very comfy couch, but she actually cooked for me (after I woke up from a much-needed power nap) as she was making her own lunch. Nina unfortunately had to work a new job that had night shifts, so we didn’t get to spend much time together. Regardless, it was a really positive experience.

Nina was also really knowledgeable about the city. Since she lived in a more residential part of town (about 20-minutes walking from the city center), she suggested that I download an app called Strætó. With Strætó, it was easy to plan my routes, find bus stops, and pay in advance for a bus ticket (valid for 1 hour and 15 minutes from activation). I highly recommend it if you plan to get around town like a local.

Exploring the City

After I felt refreshed and full of food, I decided to get up and go wander around the city on-foot to get my bearings. If it’s your first day in Iceland, I recommend getting your bearings via walking – especially if it’s a nice day!

That said: maybe it was because I got in on a Tuesday, or maybe it was because I walked through a lot of residential areas…but it was extremely quiet as I explored.

I honestly didn’t really encounter many people until I came to the first point of interest: Hallgrimskirkja, a.k.a. the big church that Reykjavík is known for. I wanted to see it in-person and – let’s be honest – I wanted to take some pretty pictures since the weather was sunny and nice. Sadly, I did not go to the top of the church during my visit because there was a line. But, I recommend making time to do this if you want to get a great view of the city!

After visiting Hallgrimskirkja, try heading down to the harbor front. Even though it’s not necessarily a true “point of interest”, I think the harbor is worth visiting. It was my first opportunity to see the expanse of sea beyond Iceland, and I loved it! Even when a random hail-storm came out of nowhere, causing me to seek shelter. 🙂

While down by the harbor, be sure to pop into the “Harpa“. Harpa is Reykjavík’s glass-front concert hall & conference center, home to Iceland’s national opera & symphony. It also has a few little connected shops, a restaurant, and more. It’s beautiful in-person, and I found a couple of unique souvenirs inside (like a tiny glass jar of dried Iceland wildflowers).

For dinner, there are plenty of options in the city center and around Laugavegur. I chose to stop in at a fish and chips shop that was a bit sub-par (so I won’t name it). Try venturing away from Laugavegur for more authentic options, as Laugavegur is the main tourist area.

If you’ve planned a tour on your second day, you’ll want to get to bed at a decent time – you’ll need plenty of energy!

Day 1: First day tour – Golden Circle and Silfra Snorkeling

If you’re looking to book with a local, friendly, and family-run tour company, I highly recommend Tröll Expeditions. I booked both of my day tours with Tröll (disclaimer: I received the tours comped in exchange for content) and couldn’t have asked for better guides, logistics, or experiences.

That said: you’ll likely be waking up bright and early to get picked up at 8am if you book their Golden Circle and Silfra Snorkeling tour. I’ll be covering the entire experience in a separate blog post, but here’s a quick run down of what stops you can expect on the tour:

Main Stops

1. Gulfoss

A beautiful, powerful waterfall located below your feet! Be extra careful when walking here.

2. Geysir

The first-known geyser to Europeans, surrounded by other mini hot springs. The geyser goes off every 5-10 minutes, so patience is key!

3. Snorkeling the Silfra fissure at Þingvellir (“Thingvellir”) Park

Truly a bucket-list experience. Snorkel between continental plates in nearly-freezing water with snow flurries above your head!

Bonus stops

Note that going to these places depends on the size of your group and who your tour guide is. We had a tiny group of 4 people and a guide who was super generous!

  1. Faxi Waterfall: small but still impressive waterfall on technically private land – very cool.
  2. Icelandic Horses Visit: a visit to Iceland isn’t complete without seeing their horses! The horses here are incredibly friendly and curious, so it’s worth it to try interacting with them.
  3. Stop at Farm/Hotel/Ice Cream Shop Efsti-Dalurii: Our stop here allowed us to pet some adorable calfs as well as grab some deliciously creamy ice cream.
  4. Laugarvatn: hot springs on the beach! Under the sand, there were pockets of boiling water. The locals even use these “hot pockets” to cook food.

After a long day of touring, you’re going to be hungry.

I decided to grab dinner at place recommended to me by the couple in my tour group: Icelandic Street Food! This place is perfect if you want some comforting hot food (that’s relatively authentic) at a great price. Plus, you can get refills – or try another meal on the menu – for the same price.

In total, I’m pretty sure my meals there each night were below $15, with refills. Such a good deal!

If you’re like me, and schedule tours back to back, you’ll want to rest up as much as possible for another full day – this time along the south coast of Iceland.

Day 2: Second day tour – South Coast and Glacier Hiking

You’ll get to sleep in an extra 30 minutes for this tour (pickup starts at 8:30 instead of 8), but don’t underestimate the physical activity that you’re in for! This Tröll tour will have a separate blog post as well, but in the meantime check out the highlights:

Seljalandsfoss

This is the first waterfall of the day, and it’s quite picturesque. Great for photos. 🙂

Skógafoss

This one was my personal favorite, and we even got a rainbow during our visit. There’s also a lookout point that you can climb to, although I didn’t get a chance to because I spent too much time in front of the actual waterfall.

Glacier Hike on Sólheimajökull

The glacier hike was such a unique experience! You’ll get your own helmet, shoe spikes, and pick while you traverse along the ice and snow.

Black Sand Beach of Reynisfjara

This beach is really beautiful in person, and there’s plenty of basalt rock structures to complement the black sand and white-capped waves that roll in. Beware of the sneaky tide coming in as you take photos!

A Bit of Nightlife

Despite arriving back to my accommodations after 8pm, I still wanted to try and explore some of Reykjavík’s Thursday nightlife. Be aware that there will not be much going on during the week in Iceland, as (according to a local), everyone lives for the weekend.

I ended up trying out Kiki’s Queer Bar and Prikið Ehf, and then ended up at English Pub with some fellow travelers that I met. Ironically, they were all from the UK and U.S. Oh well, beggars can’t be choosers!

FYI: Kiki’s has a lot of promise for a great night of dancing, and Prikið Ehf was good for a dive bar atmosphere. I definitely plan to revisit both of them the next time I visit!

Day 3: Visit a Local Swimming Pool and Do Some Last-Minute Shopping

You’ve made it through two full days of touring, so now it’s time to sleep in and take it easy – finally!

For me, this relaxation came in the form of waking up late, organizing my content from the two tours, and then strolling to a local bakery on my side of town (Flyðrugrandi). By the way, if you get a chance to try a circular pastry with chocolate and marzipan – DO IT!

Souvenirs and Noodles

After that delicious pastry, you may want to get some souvenir shopping out of the way – especially if you have a 7:30am flight the next morning, like I did! I chose to stop in a shop on Laugavegur called “Polar Bear Gift Store”, but there are plenty to choose from in the area.

I’d previously heard about the noodle and ramen shops being pretty good in Reykjavík, so I decided to stop in one called Hi Noodle. If you’re pescatarian (me), vegetarian, or vegan, you’ll really only have one option without trying to make some substitutions: the Miso Vegan.

That said, the Miso Vegan was HIGHLY satisfying and it was the perfect cozy meal to have after walking around in Iceland’s unpredictable weather that day.

Vesturbaejarlaug Swimming Pool

Once you’ve filled up on warm noodles and soup, don’t miss out on the experience of visiting a local swimming pool like the locals. I chose to head to Vesturbaejarlaug since it was a short walk from my accommodations. As luck would have it, a prolonged snowstorm hit the city right as I arrived! More on that in a moment…

Here’s a big thing that you should know when visiting a traditional swimming pool:

You’re gonna have to get naked. But just in the locker room!

Yep, that’s just the way it is. If you’re not comfortable with nudity in general, or simply your own body being naked, you may want to reconsider this experience.

Basically, the local custom is to strip down completely and take a full shower before heading to the hot pools, in order to keep them as clean as possible. This includes hair as well, which I didn’t realize at first. Also, try not to be too self-conscious – no one is paying attention to your nakedness because everyone else is naked too.

I was planning to keep my hair up – especially since thin curly hair + wetness + cold weather do not mix – but once I saw everyone else washing their hair, I felt compelled to follow suit. If you’re a fellow curly girl, I implore you to bring your own gentler shampoo for this reason!! I could feel my poor strands crying for moisture as I lathered with the shampoo/soap hybrid that works for *ahem* more common hair types.

Once you’re squeaky clean, you’ll head outside to the pools. That’s right – it’s all outside except for the steam room and sauna! Be prepared to curse the cold and dart between baths trying to decipher the Celsius-given temperatures. I found that my ideal temperature was usually between 36 – 38 degrees.

During all of this, the snow increased in intensity, and I was covered in snow flurries every time I switched pools! As cold as this was, it’s a such a unique experience that I’d recommend everyone give it a try. It’s quite refreshing to transition between hot pools -> freezing cold weather -> steam room -> freezing cold weather -> sauna -> hot pool (gotcha) -> freezing cold weather -> hot pool. In that order, exactly. 🙂

I wrapped up my day with one last dinner at – you guessed it – Icelandic Street Food before heading to bed very early. After all, I had to wake up at 3:30am to catch my Gray Line shuttle to the airport at 4:30!

Other Considerations

Although I did not partake in the following activities, I wanted to provide a few other ideas/alternatives for your own Iceland stopover. Check out the links below!

Perlan Exhibition
Northern Lights Tour
Horseback Riding Tour
Blue Lagoon

So, which of these activities will you plan during your Iceland stopover?

P.S. If you need help packing for your trip, be sure check out my cold-weather packing list. Happy travels!

If you liked this post, be sure to pin it!

Only have a few days in the land of Fire and Ice? Check out this itinerary for how to spend 3 (and a half) days in Iceland on a modest budget. With two day tours and some exploring the city of Reykjavik, you’ll be sure to get the most out of your Iceland stopover!
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