Enchanting Iceland: 8-Day Itinerary for First-Time Travelers
First-time visitor to Iceland? A road trip along the South Coast is the perfect introduction to this magical country. While many people stop after the Golden Circle or take on the entirety of the Ring Road, this itinerary allows you to delve deep into the island nation’s beauty without overwhelming yourself. If you're anything like me, visiting Iceland once won't be enough. Its natural wonders are so captivating that they beckon us back time and time again. So, on your first trip, embrace the allure of the South Coast, where stunning landscapes, geothermal spas and charming towns await. To make the most of your journey, I recommend exploring Iceland during the shoulder seasons (April to May and September to October). Not only will you find fewer crowds and slightly cheaper prices, but you'll also have the chance to savor longer daylight hours in the spring or to see the Northern Lights in the fall. And while the weather is never a guarantee in Iceland, driving conditions should be pretty good as well. So pack your hiking boots, short sleeves, fleece layers, rain gear (top and bottom!), sunglasses, bathing suit and camera, and let’s go!
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Day 1: Geothermal lagoons & city sights
At the airport, pick up your gravel-road-approved, fully insured 4x4 rental car. Then, head straight to the Blue Lagoon or Sky Lagoon, both perfect spots to recover from an overnight flight. These geothermal spas are popular, so make sure to pre-book your visit. The Sky Lagoon is newer and more intimate, while the Blue Lagoon offers the opportunity to luxe it up with a day pass to the exclusive Retreat spa.
After your blissful soak, drive to Reykjavik, where you’ll spend the night. You can choose from some great accommodations like Reykjavik Edition, ION City or an attic room (trust me) at the cozy Alda. After checking into your hotel, grab a coffee to stave off the jetlag and take a walk around this charming capital, admiring its iconic sights such as the Hallgrimskirkja, Harpa Concert Hall and the Sun Voyager sculpture. Then treat yourself to a fancy dinner at Dill, tuck into some fish and chips at 101 Bistro or keep it simple with one of the famous lamb hotdogs from the Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur stand.
Day 2: Golden Circle highlights
Say good-bye to Reykjavik for now (don’t worry, you’ll be back) as you head off to the iconic Golden Circle. Fuel up with a tasty breakfast at your hotel and grab some pastries and sandwiches for lunch from Sandholt before setting out early to avoid the crowds. The Golden Circle is considered a must-visit for first-timers and it's just the beginning of the wonders you'll see in Iceland. Explore Þingvellir National Park, the Geysir Geothermal Area and the magnificent Gullfoss waterfall. If you're into cold water swimming, make time for Silfra, where you can snorkel or scuba dive between tectonic plates. Treat yourself to some delicious homemade ice cream and pet the horses at Efstidalur farm (this is also a nice spot for lunch, if you didn’t grab sandwiches.)
For dinner, try the innovative Icelandic cuisine at Fridheimar greenhouse restaurant or the upscale restaurant at Hotel Geysir. If you want to spend the night in the Golden Circle area, consider Torfhús Retreat, where you can stay in cozy modern interpretations of traditional turf houses or Hotel Geysir. Otherwise, to get a jump on tomorrow’s journey, drive about an hour more, and stay at 360 Hotel and Spa, Hotel Ranga or another nearby guesthouse for the next two nights.
Day 3: Super Jeep tour in the Icelandic Highlands
Leave the driving to someone else and take a Super Jeep tour in the Icelandic Highlands where you just can’t go without a local guide and high-clearance vehicle. Depending on the time of year, choose from Landmannalaugar, Þórsmörk, Fjallabak Nature Preserve or get up close and personal with Eyjafjallajökull, the volcano that caused air travel chaos with its 2010 eruption. After a full breakfast, meet your guides at their base camp or arrange for pickup at your hotel. Be sure to add on the lunch option for a full-day tour; you’ll likely end up with a nice brown-bag or a hot lunch at a mountain hut, depending on your itinerary. After an exhilarating day, head back to your hotel for dinner and a good night’s sleep.
Day 4: Waterfalls & Vik black sand beaches
Head to Vik by way of some awe-inspiring waterfalls. It’s best to get up early to get ahead of the tour buses, even in the shoulder season; I usually aim to arrive at Seljalandsfoss between 9 and 10 am. Have a hearty breakfast at your hotel, then hit the road, making stops at the enchanting Seljalandsfoss, its half-hidden neighbor Gljufrabui and powerful Skógafoss. Keep your rain gear handy because waterfalls are best experienced up close. For a less-wet activity, after visiting Skógafoss, stop by the Skógar Museum to learn about Iceland’s cultural heritage. The drive on to Vik, where you can explore the beautiful black sand beach and basalt columns at Reynisfjara and watch the waves crash at Dyrholaey Arch. You’ll be staying nearby (consider the Black Beach Suites or Hótel Kría), so if it’s crowded, just wait until morning and stop by early before you head on to your next day’s adventure. For dinner, grab a burger and beer at Smiðjan Brugghús or some comforting soup at Soup Company.
Day 5: Jökulsárlón glacial lagoon & Diamond Beach
Get an early start on your way to Jökulsárlón glacial lagoon and its nearby ice-studded black sand “Diamond Beach.” The drive from Vik to Jökulsárlón takes about 2.5 hours. On the way, stop for a short hike at the magical Fjaðrárgljúfur canyon, or head straight to the lagoon for a morning visit and book a Vatnajökull glacier hike for the afternoon.
After your day of ice-filled adventure, stay nearby at Ekra Glacial Lagoon, Fosshotel Glacier Lagoon or Hotel Skaftafell, or drive the roughly 2.5 hours back to Vik for a second night there. Hotel restaurants are great places for a nice dinner, but if you want something simpler and surprisingly delicious, stop at Veitingasala Restaurant, shop and gas (across the road from Hotel Skaftafell) and have the lamb burger. You will not believe how tasty a gas station burger can be.
Day 6: Return to Reykjavik
Today you’ll return to Reykjavik, but the adventure isn't over yet. Depending on where you start, the drive back will take you up to five hours, but take your time and stop at any sights you may have missed or want to revisit. Eldstó Art Cafe near Hvolsvöllur has a special place in my heart for a coffee break or snack. When you get back to Reykjavik, check into your hotel and enjoy dinner at one of the many great places to eat, such as Fiskfélagið (literally, The Fish Company) for fine dining or the more casual Pósthús Food Hall & Bar, offering wide array of Icelandic and internal food and beverages. If you’re visiting mid-October or later, and you’re not totally exhausted, consider a Northern Lights tour.
Day 7: The best of Reykjavik
Today is your chance to explore Reykjavik a bit more deeply (just in time to say goodbye!) and do some shopping. Stroll through the charming streets in the city center and check out the vibrant local shops along and around Laugavegur, offering unique Icelandic crafts and souvenirs. The Icelandic Handknitting Society shop is a great place for traditional sweaters and toasty mittens. If it’s Saturday or Sunday, be sure to check out the Kolaportið flea market. For a taste of Iceland's rich history and art, head to the National Museum of Iceland or the Reykjavik Art Museum. For a lunch break, indulge in traditional Icelandic cuisine at one of the city's cozy restaurants, offering dishes like hearty fish stew or delicious Icelandic lamb. Or, to kill two birds with one stone, The Reykjavik Food Walk is a great way to learn about the city and fill up on Icelandic cuisine. In the evening, if it’s Friday or Saturday, get ready to party after dinner. Micro Bar and Skuli are lower-key places for craft beer. Lebowski Bar is a fun place to dance and indulge in a variety of white russian interpretations. Follow the rainbow to Kiki Queer Bar for more dancing. Whatever you do, be sure to make the most of your last night. Remember, you can sleep on the plane!
Day 8: One final walk in Reykjavik
After hotel breakfast, have a second breakfast of cinnamon rolls and coffee at Brauð & Co., take a final stroll past Sun Voyager or Hallgrimskirkja, do some last-minute souvenir shopping, check out, pack up the car and head back to the airport. You’ll be sad to leave, but remember, this is just the beginning—there's so much more to explore and fall in love with on future trips to the Land of Fire and Ice.
Need to Know
Looking for more travel inspiration? Check out my guide, Insider Iceland: Not the Typical Stopover Itinerary.
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This guide is part of our ongoing series on travel to Iceland.