The Best of Iceland in 3 Days
While I was living in Iceland in 2021, I was on a new adventure almost every single week. Whether it was exploring the Highlands, hidden waterfalls or remote hot springs, there was always something new to see. Although I didn’t manage to visit every inch of the country, I definitely tried. This itinerary will be jam-packed, so buckle up and grab your favorite snacks while you can because while three days is tight, it is definitely possible to see some of the best natural wonders that Iceland has to offer.
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Canopy by Hilton Reykjavik City Centre
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Day 1: Chasing Waterfalls & Vík
You will spend the first day exploring Iceland’s South Coast, filled to the brim with grand roadside waterfalls with the sea just to your side. Your first stop is going to be Seljalandsfoss as you drive along Iceland’s South Coast on day one. This waterfall can get quite busy as it’s only about two hours from downtown Reykjavík and can easily be seen from the road. Make sure you take the opportunity to walk behind this waterfall.
Another waterfall named Gljúfrabúi is not as well-known and for a long time was a best-kept secret. This waterfall is just north of Seljandsfoss and within walking distance. It’s nestled in a canyon and could easily be missed, but this is possibly the more stunning of the two simply because it feels like a hidden secret.
The best part of Iceland definitely has to be the seemingly endless supply of waterfalls. Even tiny ones can be spotted along the cliffs as you drive but Skógafoss is absolutely iconic and has been featured in several movie scenes, such as The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. It’s hard to miss from the road and is only 20 minutes from Seljalandsfoss. Once again, no drastic hikes occur here, but there is the option to climb a steep set of staircases to gain perspective of the waterfall from above. This is also where a famous hiking trail begins to the highlands— most popular in the summer.
The next stop is the remote coastal town of Vík, possibly one of the most photographed areas in Iceland. You could definitely spend a whole day here, exploring the nearby sights and surf. However, on this itinerary, you should be arriving here around mid-day. It is also home to the cutest cafe I’ve ever had the luck of visiting: Skool Beans Cafe. They have an adorable cat named Jeff that wanders in and around the coffee shop. This is one place I couldn't stop coming back to, whether it was for the delicious pastries or coffee on a cold day.
If you’re in search of something more filling, I definitely recommend The Soup Company. It’s also the perfect place to observe Gluggaveður, or window weather in Icelandic. Occasionally, the weather can look beautiful and sunny in Iceland, but the second you step outside, you’re met with brutal winds and frigid temperatures. With its panoramic windows, it’s an ideal place to shelter and eat a cozy meal.
To gain a different perspective on the coastal town of Vík, be sure that you drive up to the cemetery behind Reyniskirkja. While relatively eerie, as to be expected from a cemetery, it also gives a contrastingly beautiful view over the homes and sea below. If you’re lucky enough to be visiting during early summer, it’s also a stunning area to photograph the lupine flowers blooming.
The Dyrhóaley Peninsula resides slightly west of Vík. It features a trail that cascades down along the cliffs to the coastline decorated with an iconic rock arch, a historic lighthouse and stunning views of Iceland’s South Coast. Be aware as the drive to the top of the peninsula is somewhat steep and rocky (4x4 recommended.) If you’re here between May and September, you may see the Atlantic Puffin amongst a variety of other birds.
One of the most photographed black sand beaches in Iceland is that of Reynisfjara. Stacked basalt columns outline the beaches with enormous waves from the Atlantic Ocean crashing onto the shore. Driving to this beach and parking is extremely easy and there’s even a small cafe by the parking lot.
Despite its beauty, Reynisfjara can be very dangerous. Waves can often be much larger and come further onto the shore than one would expect. There have been several accidents with these so-called sneaker waves, with tourists coming too close, so it’s recommended to maintain a distance of at least 100 feet (30 meters) from the shore and to never turn your back on the waves. Be safe and enjoy the views from a distance!
The drive from Reynisfjara to Reykjavík is almost three hours and there are not many chances for food in-between. If you’re unable to make it back to Reykjavík for dinner, you can stop in Selfoss which is about 50 minutes outside of Reykjavík. Gas stations are also a great, affordable option while on the road as they usually serve hot food such as the famous Icelandic pylsur (hot dog,) hamburgers, pizza and other snacks. Some of my favorite restaurants in Reykjavík include: Bastard Brew and Food, Flatey Pizza, Dragon Dim Sum, Sæta Svínið and Sushi Social.
Day 2: The Golden Circle
Today you’ll be following Iceland’s most popular tourist route: The Golden Circle. There’s a huge variety of exciting things to see and do on this route! For a bit of history to go with Iceland’s natural beauty, you’ll be stopping at Þingvellir (Thingvellir) National Park, which is also a UNESCO World Heritage site. It is located 45-minutes from downtown Reykjavík.
Here, you can walk between two continental plates. The Mid-Atlantic Ridge runs through the middle of Iceland, with half of it lying on the North American tectonic plate and the other half residing on the Eurasian plate. However, it’s special because Iceland is the only country in the world where the rift rises above sea level. Aside from its insane geology, Þingvellir is historically significant because Iceland’s first annual parliament, the Alþing, was founded here in the year 930. However, the parliament was then moved to Reykjavík in 1881.
Parking here is simple. You can then walk along the trails throughout the park, exploring some of its history, walking between the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates and even viewing a waterfall. Scenes from the TV show Game of Thrones have also been filmed here. Plan to spend at least one hour here!
The next stop is Haukadalur, a geothermal valley that’s home to the world-famous Great Geysir and less famous but equally deserving, Strokkur. This area is one hour away from Þingvellir and fuming (both literally and figuratively) with geothermal activity. The surrounding hills are a variety of hues ranging from green, yellow and orange.
Two incredible geysers are the most popular attractions, known as Geysir and Strokkur. Geysir is not nearly as active these days, with eruptions only occurring every few years but can shoot boiling water up as high as 230 feet (70 meters). Strokkur, while not as large, still boasts a much more active and powerful eruption. Strokkur erupts every 5 to 10 minutes so be sure to stick around for this one and have your camera ready!
This is also a really great site for kids as you get the chance to see the result of rare geological processes happening right in front of you!
Only 10 minutes away from the Geysir geothermal valley is Gullfoss, or “Golden Falls,” one of my favorite waterfalls in Iceland. If you’re visiting in the summer months, its flow will be the most powerful with spray blowing beyond the waterfall. It’s one of Iceland’s most popular waterfalls. There is a parking lot up above the falls and you will find a short trail that leads you to a viewpoint over Gullfoss and the Hvítá river.
Friðheimar definitely has to one of my favorite restaurants ever. It’s such an incredibly unique culinary experience. The theme of Friðheimar is tomatoes, with four different varieties being grown in their greenhouse.
As soon as you walk in, you're greeted with the bright aroma of tomatoes and greenery. You’re then able to select from eating only their iconic tomato soup with home-baked bread, or if you’re in the mood for something a bit more filling. They have several main courses with tomatoes as the star in some form. Save room for dessert, I recommend the tomato ice cream (trust me on this one!)
I listed two different hot spring in Fluðir because both are fantastic. However, the Hrunalaug Hot Spring can be quite busy and only fits a few people at once. I recommend checking this one out before The Secret Lagoon, as it’s a more special experience.
Hrunalaug has changing facilities, but it’s a short walk from parking to the hot spring, so bring a small bag for your things. Also be sure to pick up after yourself as it’s only managed by the landowners and is a luxury to have access to. Please be respectful of it!
Another option is The Secret Lagoon, the oldest geothermal pool in Iceland. This is a great alternative as they offer amenities like showers, a bar and snacks before the drive back to Reykjavík.
From Fluðir, it is a little over 1.5 hour drive back to Reykjavík. If you opted out of grabbing food in Fluðir then there are several incredibly delicious places for a late night bite in Reykjavík that locals love such as Mandi and Hlemmur Mathöll.
Day 3: Hiking & Icelandic Bathing Culture
This is the least driving-heavy day, so you’re really welcome to your own pace with this one. If you’re anything like me, food is one of the absolute best parts of exploring a new city or country. I suggest starting your morning off with a pastry from one of the local bakeries if you want to have more time for the rest of the day.
Try a cinnamon bun! They’re not like American cinnamon rolls with icing, but instead are usually more bread-forward with a dusting of sugar on top and a variety of flavors. Perfect for a volcano hike!
After much debate on a hike for this day, I ultimately decided on Glymur being the best option if the weather is decent. Hiking to the Fagradalsfjall Volcano could be an alternative as it’s the same distance, however, it hasn’t erupted since 2021.
Since it’s not currently active as of writing this post, I decided to recommend Iceland’s second-highest waterfall instad! Glymur is one of my absolute favorite hikes in Iceland! It’s a one hour drive from Reykjavík.
The hike takes approximately 3-3.5 hours, depending on your pace. The best approach is hiking up the east side of the river, where there will be a visible trailhead from the parking lot. You will not be able to see the waterfall until you begin hiking above the river.
This hike is also the most ideal as an out-and-back trail. Otherwise, you have to wade across the river above Glymur, which can be very cold and uncomfortable. Once you reach the area above Glymur, I suggest hiking back down the same way to avoid numbing your feet in the river water.
There is a short river crossing at the beginning of the hike, but there is a cable to assist in walking across. In the summer, a log is laid down to keep you from getting your boots wet. Since this is a longer hike, it’s best to bring some small snacks and water. If you happen to run out, the water in Iceland’s nature is completely safe to drink as it’s water coming from the glaciers themselves.
While you’ve most likely heard of The Blue Lagoon, a geothermal spa near Keflavík and also now one of the wonders of the world… You probably haven’t heard of one of Iceland’s newest geothermal spas just outside of Reykjavík.
The Sky Lagoon
The Sky Lagoon opened in 2021, offering a completely unique experience to The Blue Lagoon. Once you enter the geothermal lagoon, you embark on a seven-step ritual that lends itself to a view in Icelandic culture.
While The Sky Lagoon is slightly pricier than The Blue Lagoon, it has to be my favorite of the two. I love the ritual concept, something that The Blue Lagoon can’t offer. You begin by showering in partially closed-off shower stalls. You can upgrade your pass for private changing facilities, but it’s commonplace for shared showers and changing areas at Iceland’s geothermal pools. Be sure to shower without your swimsuit as well! It feels strange at first as an American but you’ll eventually get used to it ;)
After showering, you’re able to enter the lagoon through what feels like coming out of a cave. You can then either choose to swim to the edge of the lagoon, overlooking the ocean or to the bar to grab a drink while you soak and absorb the views.
The second step is the cold-pool, an absolute necessity when visiting Iceland. This is a traditional step in Icelandic bathing culture! You can plunge for 10 or 30 seconds before heading to the next step, the sauna. The sauna has to be one of the most beautiful in the world, without a doubt. You’re greeted with a panoramic view of the ocean as you warm up following the cold plunge.
Following the sauna, you then enter a room where a cold fog-mist is dispersed from above. The room is uncovered, providing a view of the sky above. While it might sound unpleasant, it’s actually incredibly refreshing. The third to last step is applying a unique body scrub to reveal healthier and softer skin (it also smells amazing.) Next, you enter the steam room where you can find warmth again. Opening your pores, the ingredients of the scrub have a chance of being absorbed to their maximum potential. The final step of the journey includes rinsing off the Sky Body Scrub and re-entering the lagoon to relax for the evening.
Because of the ritual, I feel like you’re able to have a true view of the Icelandic bathing culture and the relaxation it can bring you. Don’t get me wrong, The Blue Lagoon is beautiful in its milky and other-worldly looks, but The Sky Lagoon offers so much more.
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