Incredible Iceland: Europe’s Geothermal Wonderland
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Inside: All the best things to see and do with 3 days in Iceland.
Note: This post was originally written during my 30-day trip around Europe several years ago. But fear not! It’s been fully updated where necessary with all the latest destination info.
I’m nearing the end of this 30-day trip around Europe, but I still have two pretty awesome destinations left – Iceland and Copenhagen.
First up, Iceland.
The approach to Keflavik Airport over royal blue waters dotted with brightly- colored fishing boats wins me over immediately. But it gets better. My Iceland Air flight touches down Saturday afternoon from Norway next to a gigantic rainbow arched across the terminal building.
Welcome to Iceland. This could be love.
Located between two continents where the Eurasian and American tectonic plates meet, the island nation of Iceland is quite literally a volcanic and geothermal wonderland. From grinding glaciers to gushing geysers, Iceland’s got it all.
I’ve got an ambitious itinerary planned for my brief 3-day stay and I can’t wait to hit the ground and start exploring!
But first, let’s cover some basics…
Flights to Iceland
All international flights arrive into the capital city of Reykjavik which has two airports.
Reykjavik Airport (RKV) is located two kilometres from the city center and serves only domestic routes. Keflavik International Airport (KEF) is the arrival point for all international flights and it is located 50 kilometres from the city center.
How to get from Keflavik Airport to Reykjavik
Iceland doesn’t have a train system so the only options for getting into the city are taxi, public bus, or shared shuttle bus.
Beware that a regular taxi can cost a whopping 200-250 euro! And that’s the going rate, not a scam (to be fair, it’s a long way!). Uber does not operate in Iceland.
The public bus is the cheapest option. The downside is that it takes the longest and can involve long wait times between buses. But if you have plenty of time and you’re on a budget, the bus is the way to go. Look for bus no. 55, tickets cost about 7 euro, you can check the bus schedule here.
My preference is to book with one of the many shuttle bus companies operating between the airport and city center. They all cost about the same (19-24 euro) and have free WiFi. They also run much more frequently with fewer stops than the public bus.
Here are a few great options:
Where to stay in Reykjavik
The ride into Reykjavik from the airport is a long one, almost an hour. But the airport shuttle drops me off directly at my hotel for the first night, the 22 Hill Hotel, which is a nice touch.
My original plan was to spend both nights in Iceland at the Hilton Reykjavik Nordica. But the rate they wanted for Saturday night (compared to my reasonable Sunday night rate) was outrageous.
Enter “Plan B.”
The 22 Hill Hotel turns out to be a lovely little hotel that’s even closer to the city center than the Hilton. Though my room is about as small as the one I had in Oslo earlier this week, it has one unexpected bonus feature…a great view!
Before I move on to all the best things to do in Iceland, let’s cover a few other important elements for a trip to Iceland.
What’s the best month to visit Iceland?
The summer months of June to August are considered the best months to visit Iceland. During these months, you’ll find mild temperatures and 20+ hours of daylight thanks to the midnight sun.
But if it’s the Northern Lights you seek, February and March are the prime months for viewing the aurora borealis.
My visit falls in mid-August.
What to pack for an Iceland summer
Even in the summer months, the weather in Iceland can be very unpredictable. Warm and sunny one day, windy and chilly the next – sometimes all in the same day!
Summertime high temperatures tend to range from 55-70 degrees Fahrenheit with lows dipping into the 40’s.
The key is to pack layers so you’re prepared for any weather condition. Here are a few musts for the Iceland summer months:
- A waterproof jacket with a hood, preferably with a removable liner for additional warmth.
- Good hiking boots for exploring outside the city center of Reykjavik.
- A swimsuit, towel, and flip flops for the Blue Lagoon (no, the thermal waters won’t harm your swimsuit).
- And don’t forget a sleep mask if Iceland’s near 24-hours of daylight in the summer will keep you up at night!
Note: As you’ll soon see, I didn’t quite take my own advice. I wish I’d had a heavier jacket. But in my defense, I was traveling for a month out of a carry-on and this was my only cold stop!
Figuring out a plan
I drop my bags in the room and head straight to the front desk for some local advice on things to do. I also need to arrange transportation to the Blue Lagoon for tomorrow morning.
The guy at the front desk is extremely helpful and points me toward the company with the best rates to get to the lagoon (about 45 minutes outside of the city). I have him book the ticket for me and then head out to see what downtown Reykjavik has to offer on a Saturday afternoon.
The timing of my visit turns out to be perfect because it coincides with Reykjavik’s Annual Cultural Night festival going on downtown. The festival takes place every August and is scheduled for August 20th in 2022.
The main street, Laugavegur, is packed with people and as I stroll along it music drifts from every bar and side street. I’ve heard Reykjavik is a bit of a party town but this is quite a scene for a Saturday afternoon.
I wander the streets for a bit and then pop down a few of the side streets to hear the various bands play and have a beer with the locals.
It’s a great way to spend the afternoon and the festivities only increase as day turns into night. I stay out for a while enjoying the cool evening weather and the fun crowd before finally heading back to my hotel.
Big trip to the Blue Lagoon planned for tomorrow and I’m so excited!
Day 2 – A Bucket List Visit to the Blue Lagoon
The first priority this morning is to switch hotels over to the Hilton before leaving for the Blue Lagoon. I know my room probably won’t be ready but I also know (thanks to my Hilton status) I’ll get an upgrade to the club floor which means breakfast in the lounge.
And why pay for breakfast when you can get it for free? (Hey, I’m traveling for a month, I’m on a budget!)
I have just enough time to grab breakfast in the lounge before my 9am bus departs for the Blue Lagoon. The bus ride is uneventful and we arrive at the entrance to the Blue Lagoon just before 10am.
What’s so special about the Blue Lagoon in Iceland?
Iceland’s most famous attraction, the Blue Lagoon is actually a combination of mineral-rich freshwater and seawater from deep within the earth that is naturally heated to between 98-102 degrees.
The milky-blue waters flow over vast black lava fields giving the whole place an other-worldly feel.
The futuristic-looking Svartsengi geothermal plant in the distance serves as the R&D center for the spa skin care line and adds to the cosmic effect. You really do feel like you could be on another planet, I’ve never seen anything quite like it.
The Blue Lagoon experience
You have the option to just soak in the water or to select one of the many spa services they have to offer. It’s actually quite a high-end spa facility and it has the prices to match.
I decide to go for just the soak (after all, budget). They are very serious about contamination of the water so everyone is required to shower before entering the lagoon.
When you buy your entrance ticket, you are given a coded bracelet that serves as your locker key and allows you to charge things in the shops or restaurants. Then you can then pay for those things when you check out. Very hi-tech.
I spring for a towel rental ($4)- because, well, I need one – and head for the showers. I should mention at this point that the temperature has dropped several degrees since the night before and the wind has picked up significantly.
This doesn’t seem like that big a deal until I’m wet and in my bathing suit walking around outside. I slip into the steaming lagoon water pretty quickly after the wind hits me.
What’s the Blue Lagoon like?
It’s a lot like being in a huge outdoor hot tub. There are metal boxes around the lagoon filled with the mineral rich mud which you are apparently supposed to rub all over yourself. I skip that part.
But it does feel great just to relax and soak up the minerals.
It’s a much different experience than my Dead Sea “float” in Israel. There, you have to get out of the water and shower immediately on the beach so the salt doesn’t irritate your skin.
Read More: Doing the Dead Sea Float in Israel
But the Blue Lagoon waters are actually good for your skin. It’s quite an enjoyable way to spend the day. If I ever go back again, I might actually splurge on a spa treatment!
Without a doubt, my visit to Iceland’s Blue Lagoon was one of my Top 30 most extraordinary travel experiences around the world.
Here are 29 more if you’re curious: Around the World in 30 Extraordinary Travel Experiences
Back to the Hilton Reykjavik
With my #1 must-see in Iceland complete, I catch the bus back to the Hilton.
My room is now ready and, wow, what an incredible view it has! I thought my view of the water last night was great, but the Hilton room is about 10 floors higher and has floor to ceiling windows across one entire side of the room.
It is so gorgeous, I might never want to leave.
Iceland’s Midnight Sun
Another perk of my beautiful view? I’m able to get some great pictures late at night of the endless sunset known as the Midnight Sun. During the summer months, the sun’s orange glow remains in the sky hours after sunset.
Technically, the sun does set around 9:30pm in Iceland, but the after-sunset “dusk” glow lasts for hours. And the sun rises very early as well, a little before 5am. So, it’s truly only dark for about 4 hours.
It’s an interesting phenomenon that I’ve only experienced before in three other places – Antarctica, Alaska, and St. Petersburg, Russia.
Expedition Antarctica: The Bucket List Journey that’s Worth Every Penny
From Russia with Luxe…the Splendor of St. Petersburg
Wild Alaska: Land of Moose, the Mayor’s Marathon and the Midnight Sun
Day 3 – Driving in Iceland
For my last full day in Iceland, I decide to splurge on a rental car. I’m excited to get out of Reykjavik and see some of the sights that are a little farther out.
You don’t need a car in Reykjavik. But if you want to explore the Golden Circle on your own (my plan for today!) or venture to the Blue Lagoon on your own schedule, it’s handy to have one.
Cars can usually be rented through your hotel by the day but they are cheaper to rent at the airport.
Rental cars are ridiculously expensive in Iceland and the one I book through the Hilton runs me $145 for the day…yikes! If you’re visiting during the summer months, it’s better to book in advance.
Tip: My favorite site for finding the best deals on car rentals is RentalCars.com.
Another bonus, if you rent a car at the airport for your entire stay, you’ll save yourself the hassle of the airport transfer. Of course, parking at your hotel in Reykjavik may make up for the cost!
Generally speaking, driving in Iceland is pretty straightforward. Just be ready for a few possible hazards once outside the city of Reykjavik.
Don’t worry, it’s nowhere near as challenging as driving in Ireland, for example!
Read More: How to Survive Driving in Ireland (& actually enjoy it!)
Iceland’s Golden Circle Tour
The plan for today is to travel the popular island route around what’s called the “Golden Circle.”
This includes three of Iceland’s most famous sights:
- Pingvellir National Park,
- Gullfoss Waterfall
Of course, if a self-driving tour isn’t for you, there are plenty of organized day trips to visit the Golden Circle. Here are a few good options:
I’m excited to have my own wheels for the first time on this month-long trip!
I always love driving in new countries and having the freedom to stop where I want to and see only what I want to see. So, after an early breakfast (and a full hour before the Golden Circle tour buses depart) I grab my car keys and a road map and hit the open road of the Icelandic countryside.
The first stop on my self-guided Golden Circle tour is Pingvellir, one of Iceland’s most important historical sites.
The Alpingi (parliament) was founded here in 930 AD and many crucial events in Iceland’s history took place here. Including the adoption of Christianity around 1000 AD and the founding of the modern Icelandic Republic in 1944.
Pingvellir has been a National Park since 1930 and in 2004 it was added to the UNESCO World Heritage List.
When I get out of my car at Pingvellir, I immediately notice a drastic difference in temperature between here and Reykjavik. It’s much, much colder. And my thin windbreaker isn’t quite up to the task. Additionally, gale-force winds make it difficult to even stand up straight, much less walk.
I can see today’s adventure is going to be a challenge. I don’t last long at Pingvellir but I see as much as I can before retreating to the car.
It takes some doing to get to my next stop, Geysir.
The roads are mostly unpaved and large, muddy potholes are in great supply. Since I’m driving a little tiny car, I’m paranoid about getting a flat tire in the middle of nowhere. (For the record, I do not know how to change a tire – sorry, Dad.)
Navigation isn’t the easiest either, I go miles and miles down tiny roads without seeing a sign for anything. I think I’m still going the right way but who can tell?
Eventually, I pull up to the parking area for Iceland’s infamous Geysir, after which all spouting hot springs are named. There are actually several geysers in the area.
The Great Geysir
The big guy only erupts 2 or 3 times daily. So, I’m not likely to see that happen unless I’m prepared to wait for a few hours (unlikely in this weather considering my current wardrobe deficiencies).
However, a smaller geysir nearby, called Strokkur, is known as the world’s most reliable and spouts every six minutes like clockwork. This one sounds like a winner!
As I’m getting out of the car, I see that Strokkur has just erupted so I know I have about 5 minutes to get over there to catch the next one.
The challenge of geysir photography
And there we all stand, cameras in hand, staring at a tiny bubbling pool in the ground. When it finally does go off, I miss it.
I’m not fast enough with the camera and it all happens in a split second. I quickly realize I actually have to stand there with the camera up to my face and be ready to push the button instantly.
I take a lap around to the other geysirs, “little” and “great” hoping maybe I’ll get lucky and the big one will erupt. No such luck, so I wind back around to Strokkur to catch its next show.
Success this time as I get a good shot of it just starting to erupt. But by the time I get off the second shot it’s gone. Darn it. This geyser shooting stuff is tricky.
By now, I am so cold that I can’t feel my fingers or my lips and the harsh wind keeps blowing sulfurous mist on me. Can I wait another 6 minutes? Seems like an eternity.
New plan. Head back to the car and try to shoot the next eruption from afar. A wide shot…perfect! And the car has heat. It turns out to be a master plan as I got two more great shots from there. Geysirs – check!
3. Gullfoss Waterfall
The final stop on the Golden Circle is the Gullfoss (Golden Falls) Waterfull, king of all of Iceland’s magnificent waterfalls.
The wind makes the viewing areas especially treacherous as I’m constantly worried about being thrown off balance by a big gust.
It also makes for more challenging photography. Half my pictures are out of focus because the camera is moving or blurry because the lens is wet. There’s a constant spray coming from the falls that’s hard to avoid.
And as if it isn’t cold enough, I look over to my left only to discover a glacier lurking nearby. That’s right, a glacier. Out of nowhere with the glacier. That’s Iceland for you.
The Glaciers of Iceland
The glacier looks beautiful from afar and I know that Iceland tour companies offer tons of tours to the glaciers including snowmobiling, hiking, etc.
Some day I’d love to come back with warmer clothes and try a glacier tour. But, since I don’t even have warm enough clothes for my current endeavor, I think I’ll have to save glacier activities for another day.
On the way back to Reykjavik, I still have plenty of time before I need to return the car so I take the scenic route along the coast.
It’s a beautiful drive and I make it back to town around 3pm.
My redeye flight to Copenhagen tonight isn’t until 1am so I’m happy to still have the use of the Hilton’s lounge and spa facilities for the rest of the evening.
I can’t believe I’m heading to my last stop in Copenhagen already, it seems like just yesterday that I left for Munich. This incredible European adventure has gone by way too fast!
But Iceland has been one of the most incredible stops of the whole trip and I can’t wait to come back someday and see more.
Thanks for your overview and itinerary! I didn’t see that you mentioned which month you went. Do you think you could share? I plan to go in just a few weeks and it seems like it could be moderate temperatures but I’ll pack a sweater and light jacket to be sure.
Hi Jerry! I was there in mid-August and the weather was lovely so I think you’ll be hitting it at just the right time. Definitely a light jacket is in order and actually when I did the Golden Circle drive it was much colder out there and I wished I’d had something a little heavier. Lots of wind! Downtown Reykjavik was pretty mild, though. Enjoy your trip, it’s such an awesome country!
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