Iceland had been high on our list of new places to check out – especially with the sweet flight deals from Icelandair. We spent 5 full days in Iceland, and it was the perfect amount of time for us. We were able to see everything we planned and more!
Rent a car
We totally recommend renting a car for the entire time you are in Iceland because you will be able to cover so much more ground while also experiencing things at your own pace. Plus, you'll be able to get to some of the best spots, which are always a little trickier to access without a car.
We used Route 1 cars, and it was a super simple process. They have someone meet you at the airport, and then they take you just down the road to their offices where you sign the paperwork and get the keys. Notice as you leave, the gas station right in front of the airport where you can fill up when you return. Also, we recommend renting a 4x4 car as roads in Iceland can get pretty steep and bumpy.
There are tours and other transportation options available if you decide against renting a car, but it definitely takes up more time.
Let’s be real, Iceland is complicated! We literally can’t pronounce a single word besides Reykjavik. Planning was not a breeze, so we owe a huge amount of gratitude to awesome friends who gave us killer recommendations. We would’ve been pretty lost without their help beforehand.
Our top suggestion: Before you start planning, have a clear idea of what you would like to do in Iceland.
For example, we knew we wanted to see as many awesome sights and epic waterfalls as possible, we wanted to see Diamond Beach and the black sand beaches, and we wanted to avoid the tourist traps. This helped us form an itinerary that worked for us.
Do as much research before arriving in Iceland as far as what you want to see/do. Be prepared so that once you arrive, you can really be in the moment.
We were in Iceland mid-August, which ended up being a really nice time to visit. It wasn't too cold, we got plenty of nice weather and sunlight, and it didn’t rain once.
Since we knew we’d have a car, we packed a carry-on as well as a backpack, knowing it wouldn’t be an issue of how much stuff we had to lug around since we could just throw our things in the car. Another benefit to renting a car.
We brought: jeans, yoga pants, sweaters, t shirts, flannels (good for layering), hiking shoes, boots, and a good, warm jacket. The key is: layers! And, bring a rain jacket – we used ours for a few waterfalls. Just ask Manda… she doesn't go anywhere without a rain jacket, because you never know.
Because so much has to be imported to Iceland, most living expenses are pretty expensive – such as room and board, food, alcohol... So, we have a few tips on how to be budget-friendly through our own personal experience.
Hit the happy hours! Most places in Reykjavik have happy hours that run daily from 3-7pm. The happy hours mostly include beer and wine.
Hit up duty free in the airport for alcohol. For food, see #3.
Hit up the grocery store once you arrive. We stocked up on groceries when we got there and only ate out usually just once a day. Plus, we mostly packed snacks for the car anyways since we were on the road in the car seeing all the sights, and there aren't exactly restaurants or places to stop to eat when you're out in the middle of nowhere exploring cool waterfalls and hot springs (actually, there are usually some places to eat near the popular hot springs, but they're always very expensive).
Our Favorite Restaurants & Bars in Reykjavik
Krua Thai: Not too expensive and really good thai food.
Meze: Delicious Mediterranean food.
Fish Company: Great seafood, but very expensive.
Kiki's: Poppin' queer bar.
Bravo: Chill hangout spot.
Kaffibarinn: Fun bar, good happy hour specials.
Lebowski Bar: The best burgers, and fun bar scene.
Loft Hostel: Rooftop bar and happy hour.
The Grey Cat: Delicious breakfast.
What our 5 days in Iceland looked like:
Day 1: “Cultural Night”
Our travel day to Iceland was surprisingly easy. It's a quick 8 hour direct flight from Denver, CO. We took a red eye flight, and when we woke up, we had arrived at the Keflavík International Airport in Iceland around 8am. We received our rental car at the airport and headed to Reykadalur, which is about 45 minutes outside of Reykjavik.
Reykjadalur Hot Springs/Valley: A 2 km (each way) hike that ends with a hot spring where you can swim, hang out, eat lunch and soak up some sun.
After our hike we spotted at a cafe at the trail head for a quick bit to eat, then we drove to Háifoss.
Tip: ‘Foss’ means falls, so any word with ‘foss’ on the end means it is a waterfall. It only took me about halfway through the trip, 5 waterfalls in to figure that one out.
Háifoss is a breathtaking canyon with two waterfalls pouring into it. It ended up being one of our favorite experiences in Iceland, so it definitely started the trip out with a bang. You can only get there in an SUV 4x4 because it's about a 40-minute drive on a rough gravel road. About 10 minutes into the drive, we looked at each other like, "Uhh... is this right?" But as usual, we just rolled with it and it was all good.
The best part about Haifoss is that it isn’t touristy at all – there aren't any roped-off areas or paved paths. It felt very peaceful and secluded.
Later, we drove to Reykjavik to check into our Airbnb. We dropped off our things, showered and headed out into the city to get some dinner. Our Airbnb was just a 5-10 walk to the main street of downtown, so we didn't have to worry about driving and parking downtown which turned out to be a huge plus.
As we got closer to downtown, we found ourselves in a huge crowd of people which we thought was odd because Reykjavik doesn't exactly strike us as a super busy, crowded city. We started to hear live music from all directions as we got closer, and the streets became more and more packed. We were totally confused.
Finally, once we found somewhere to grab dinner, we asked our server what was going on. Apparently we arrived just in time for the annual Cultural Night, which is a huge event that the whole population of Iceland comes out to Reykjavik to celebrate together. We laughed at how we just coincidentally arrived in Reykjavík the night of this event, and went with it.
After dinner we continued exploring Cultural Night. There were stages with live music on almost every block, blasting everything from hip hop to electronic dance music. There were food vendors, people dancing, the streets were totally flooded with people and music.
Day 2: “Up North”
We got an early start and headed out for our day exploring the north west coast of Iceland. The furthest sight we had on our itinerary for the day was about 3 hours away, but we broke the drive up by stopping at destinations we wanted to check out along the way.
Kirkjufell: We referred to this the one as the 'swirly twirly mountain thing.' It was one of the smaller waterfalls we saw, but the crazy 'swirly twirly' hills around it made it look like something out of a fairytale. We hiked around the area for a bit, and then jumped back on the road.
Next stop was Arnarstapi, which we called the 'arch cliff thing.' This was our main destination for the day, so we spent the most amount of time here. It's a huge cliff on the ocean, and the green surrounding landscape is quite picturesque. We walked the trail along the edge of the cliff, then got a coffee at a cafe nearby.
Our last stop was the Budir Church, also known as the Black Church. It gets its name for obvious reasons.
We drove back to Reykjavik and had dinner at Krua Thai. We highly recommend this restaurant if you love Thai food like we do! It's in the downtown area of Reykjavik. We shared two entrees and a had a glass of wine each and the total came to about $80, which is definitely on the affordable side for Iceland prices.
When cultural night isn't happening, downtown Reykjavik is still pretty lively. After dinner, we would usually take a walk near the water and then grab a drink somewhere.
Day 3: “The Road to Kirk”
We were on our way by 7am to Kirkjubaejarklaustur where we would stay the night. No, that wasn't a huge typo, that is actually the name of a city in Iceland. Kirkjubaejarklaustur, just try to pronounce that. We called it "Kirk" for short.
The total drive took about about 5 hours, but we made lots of stops along the way since the entire drive is on Route 1, the main road in Iceland.
The first waterfall of the day was Seljalandsfoss. The unique thing about this waterfall is that you can walk behind the waterfall for a pretty cool view. *Be sure to come prepared! Wear a raincoat with layers underneath to keep warm, rain boots and whatever other water protectant clothes you may have.
*Warning: You will get soaked if you walk behind the waterfall.
Second waterfall of the day: Skogafoss.
Reynisfjara Beach: A black sand beach where you can see puffins!
On your way out, there is a huge field off the side of the road where we stopped to explore, called Myrdalshreppur. We literally felt like we were on the set of Game of Thrones.
This little hobbit hole we found was just off the side of Route 1.
Reynisfjara Black Sand Beach (Vik): Crazy black sand beach with gigantic basalt columns, lava formations, towering cliffs, and caves.
We stopped for a snack in Vik at one of the four restaurants in the small town. It was lovely, we had a couple of hot chocolates and shared a piece of carrot cake.
Myrdalssandur (aka, the Star Wars Beach): It's actually just an outwash plain, so there was no real good place to park. We ended up just pulling over on the side of the road into a driveway, and then wandered into the magic black sand beach to explore and pretend like we were walking on another planet.
We arrived in Kirkjubaejarklaustur around sunset, just in time to hike up the waterfall near our room to watch the sunset over the incredible Icelandic landscape. For dinner, we walked down to the only restaurant in town for pizza!
Day 4: “Icey”
Up early for another full day of waterfalls, hikes and sights.
Svartifoss: We wanted to beat the crowds to this popular spot, so we arrived right at daylight and hit the trail. It’s about a 2.4 km hike in to reach the epic waterfall.
We drove further down about 45 minutes to reach Diamond Beach, Jökulsárlón and Skaftafellsjökull – basically a glacier lagoon. Tha lagoon is kind of sad because it's basically just a glaring reminder of global warming at work (and that, you know, it's real). On Diamond Beach, it was a bit 'brighter.' There were chunks of glaciers all down a black sand beach, and with the glare of the ocean against them, they truly looked like giant diamonds.
We drove back towards the direction of Reykjavik until we reached Fjaðrárgljúfur: one of the most epic sights we’ve ever experienced. We highly encourage you to hike into the canyon and walk along the river below.
Before sunset, we drove back to Reykjavik. We have been staying in Loft Hostel, in the heart of downtown Reykjavik, with a rooftop patio and happy hour. Then, we had another night out exploring downtown.
Day 5: “Another Day, Another Waterfall”
We got a little bit of a slower start this day but we still accomplished a lot before our flight at 5pm. We started the day with a delicious brunch we stumbled upon at The Grey Cat, just a short walk away from our hostel.
Gullfoss: One of the most popular waterfalls in Iceland. Not much hiking involved here – there is a parking lot and the waterfall is basically straight in front of you. This is one of the more touristy spots we hit, but it was still pretty cool.
Tectonic Plates: This is near Geysir, which is a huge tourist trap that we avoided. Instead we hiked around and chilled on a huge canyon
Afterwards, we set off for the airport. That’s a wrap!
PS. Why we didn’t do Blue Lagoon
It's expensive, and we just felt like it wasn’t worth the money. It's also touristy, and we generally try to avoid any sort of tourist trap while traveling.
We felt our time was better spent experiencing all of the incredible sights we were able to see, rather than sitting in Blue Lagoon for half a day. But, that's just. Check it out for yourself, if you'd like!