Iceland was such an interesting place for me, both literally and figuratively given all of the changes I was going through at the time. I was leaving a 10+ year career in financial services that I worked extremely hard for. I was celebrating a random birthday in my early 30s. And I was about to become a Stay-at-Home Mom. Although it turned out to be the best decision ever, that last part is something I never thought I would say, much less do. So why not spend 3 days in Iceland to top it off?
With Iceland’s wacky weather and landscape, it seemed like the perfect place for an impromptu girls’ weekend to celebrate such a weird, yet exciting time in my life. There aren’t many places that you can see huge waterfalls, geysers, volcanoes, and the merging of tectonic plates all at once. The insanely cheap flights at the time and all the buzz I was hearing about Iceland certainly were a factor too.
While Iceland is a place many people explore with a 7-10 day drive around Ring Road, it’s certainly worth exploring in a shorter amount of time as well. With Icelandair offering multi-day layovers in Reykjavik, 3 nights in Iceland is also the perfect amount of time to stop on your way to the next destination. Keep reading for a detailed guide on visiting Iceland for a long weekend.
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How to Get to Iceland
If you’re flying from the US, the answer to this is a little trickier now with WOW Air suddenly going out of business. When we went to Iceland in July of 2018, we were able to fly on WOW Air with a cheap flight from Pittsburgh. ($250 for a roundtrip, nonstop flight can barely get you to Florida from Pittsburgh, much less Europe.) The unfortunate part about WoW Air going out of business, aside from the price of flights to Iceland going up, is that many smaller cities like Pittsburgh now need a connecting flight to get there.
At the time this post was published, IcelandAir was offering nonstop flights from a few US locations to Reykjavik International Airport (KEF.) These airports include: Boston (BOS), Denver (DEN), New York (JFK), Newark (EWR), Orlando Sanford (SFB), Seattle-Tacoma (SEA) and Washington Dulles (IAD.) Fortunately, if you’re flying from other countries in Europe, there are still a number of options to get there as well.
Note: The Reykjavik Airport (KEF) is a little confusing when you arrive. For tax purposes, you can’t purchase anything from the departures area if you’re arriving and vice versa. Watch out for the signs, especially if you’re sleep deprived and needing coffee!
Getting Around Iceland for a Weekend
With only 3 days in Iceland and the high price of rental cars, we opted to stay in Reykjavik as a base and leverage tour companies for sightseeing. If you’re staying in Reykjavik, there are several options to take a bus from the KEF airport to your hotel or another central destination in Reykjavik. We opted to use Reykjavik Excursions to transport us via bus directly to the Blue Lagoon and then onto our hotel. We then booked a one way ticket from our hotel in Reykjavik back to the airport on our return, which was the most cost effective option at the time.
If you choose to rent a car in Iceland, be aware that options can be somewhat limited during busy times like the summer. While we didn’t rent a car on this trip, you can find some options for discounted car rentals at Guide to Iceland. If you’re looking for a well known rental car agency, Enterprise has locations in Iceland at the KEF Airport and Reykjavik.
Related Post: Driving and Renting a Car in Europe
The city of Reykjavik itself is very walkable. We didn’t have to use Uber or taxis while we were there, but both are available.
Visiting Iceland in July
This was my first time in Iceland and we were visiting in late July at the time. The weather was mild, and it was in the 50s F (or in the 10s C) on average. We also lucked out by arriving on one of the sunniest days of the year, and we were welcomed to Iceland with gorgeous, warm weather. During July and the rest of the summer in Iceland, the country experiences long periods of sunlight. Even at midnight the sun was out, which was interesting when trying to adjust to the time change. That doesn’t mean that we missed out on Iceland’s wacky weather, and we had our share of rain, clouds and cold spurts.
Keep in mind that if you’re visiting Iceland in July, you won’t find the Northern Lights. The best time to have a chance at experiencing the Northern Lights is between late September and late March when there are longer periods of darkness.
What to Pack for Iceland in July
With the fluctuation in weather any time of year in Iceland, I definitely recommend dressing in layers. My friend and I were sharing a carry on suitcase, along with our backpacks, to reduce costs, so we had to be selective about what to pack.
Below are a few items I recommend that you bring to Iceland if you’re visiting in July.
- Waterproof Jacket with removable layers
- Waterproof or water resistant travel backpack
- Hiking shoes or running shoes with a good tread (Note: With our itinerary, we were perfectly fine just wearing running shoes. Most tour companies will indicate if hiking boots are strongly preferred for the terrain you’ll be on.)
- Thin sweaters and/or sweatshirts
- Short sleeve shirts and thin long-sleeve shirts. (It can go from cold to hot with a moments notice, so definitely dress in layers at all times!)
- A refillable water bottle. (The water in Iceland is safe to drink basically anywhere. So there’s no reason to spend tons of money on bottles of water!)
- If you’re wondering what to wear for a night out in Reykjavik, it’s pretty simple. Just whatever you’re comfortable in. I saw people wearing anything from the most stylish outfits (and almost nothing) to hiking attire. We opted mostly for jeans and a cute top along with flats or comfortable booties.
Where to Stay in Reykjavik, Iceland
Hotels in Iceland can be very expensive given the high demand. We were lucky enough to get all 3 nights in Reykjavik for free using points. I always encourage people to sign up for hotel rewards and consider a travel related credit card for this very reason. Just to put it into perspective, had it not been for those free hotel stays, our hotel rooms would have cost around $1,500 USD for 3 nights.
In order to maximize our hotel points and also experience staying in different places, we actually stayed at two different Hilton brand hotels during our 3 nights in Iceland. For the first night in Iceland, we stayed at the Reykjavik Konsulat Hotel, which is part of the Curio Collection. The Reykjavik Konsulat is a new hotel with classic and sophisticated yet eclectic decor. The rooms were beautiful, and given my birthday and Hilton Honors status, we were able to get upgraded to a suite with a Balcony. The Reykjavik Konsulat Hotel is in a great location and is in walking distance to many bars and restaurants in Reykjavik.
Our next two nights we stayed at the Canopy by Hilton Reykjavik City Centre. The Canopy is a more modern and industrial hotel. Like other Canopy by Hilton hotels, this hotel in Reykjavik City Centre really feels like it’s part of the neighborhood. The check-in process is super casual, and they offer tastings of local food and beverages in the evenings. The rooms are decorated with calming colors and local art. (Plus they also offer free WiFi!) The Canopy by Hilton Reykjavik City Centre also offers breakfast at it’s restaurant, Geiri Smart, and it offers bikes if you choose to do a self guided tour of Reykjavik via bike. This hotel is also in a central location, just off the main street of Laugavegur.
I highly recommend both the Reykjavik Konsulat and Canopy by Hilton Reykjavik City Center hotels. The locations were perfect and both hotels were beautifully decorated. The staff at both boutique style hotels were also super nice and helpful. (Just like every other native Icelander we met on our trip!)
If you’re looking to stay somewhere with more room or for something more cost effective, AirBnB is also widely available in Iceland. If you aren’t currently registered for AirBnB, you can sign up using my referral link here to get a credit toward your first stay.
The Perfect Itinerary for 3 Days in Iceland
With 3 days in Iceland, we wanted to maximize our time for seeing the beautiful landscape Iceland is known for, while still having some time to relax and explore the city. Our long weekend in Iceland consisted primarily of the Blue Lagoon, the Golden Circle and exploring the city of Reykjavik. Below is a detailed guide of each of those attractions.
Day 1: Arrive in Iceland and Visit the Blue Lagoon
Our flight arrived at the Reykjavik International Airport (KEF) from Pittsburgh at 4:45am. Knowing that we’d be tired with jet lag, spending the day at the Blue Lagoon was the perfect way to start our trip in Iceland. We booked our Blue Lagoon experience through Reykjavik Excursions and took a bus from KEF directly to the Blue Lagoon. The drive from KEF to the Blue Lagoon was quick and only took about 20 minutes from the time our bus departed.
Keep in mind that if you do plan to visit the Blue Lagoon, pre-booking is now required. You can do this directly on the Blue Lagoon Website or through a tour company like we did. The two primary packages offered are the Comfort Package and the Premium Package. We went with the Comfort Packages, which includes your entrance fee, silica mud mask, a towel and a drink at the swim up bar. Information on packages offered and updated pricing can be found here.
Tip: If you’re going to the Blue Lagoon with a tour company, be sure to check whether or not the Blue Lagoon entrance fee is included. Many tours only include the transportation. You could be stuck there without being able to enter if you don’t purchase your ticket separately.
Getting to the Blue Lagoon from Keflavik International Airport
The Blue Lagoon only opened at 8:00am on the day we were visiting. Our airport transfer from KEF departed at 7:30am, giving us enough time to get to the Blue Lagoon right as it was opening.
There are several buses coming and going from the parking lot of KEF at the same time and it can be a little overwhelming. Be sure to double check your bus company and the destination of the bus to ensure you get on the right one. Have your confirmation on hand as well, either electronically or on paper. In our experience, the bus drivers did check closely before we boarded.
Blue Lagoon Arrival
When we arrived at the Blue Lagoon there was a line forming out the door, but it’s managed pretty efficiently. Be sure to have your confirmation details with you if you do not book directly through the Blue Lagoon. We did have an issue initially were they couldn’t find our reservation number, but we were able to get it quickly resolved through Reykjavik Excursions.
If you’re traveling to the Blue Lagoon with luggage, you can check it in the small building outside of the Blue Lagoon entry. There’s a small fee to check your luggage, but it’s a fairly easy process. Be sure to check your luggage before you head to the queuing line to get into the Blue Lagoon itself, as you cannot bring luggage in with you. At check-in, you’re provided with a wrist band that is also connected to your credit card in case you make any purchases during your visit.
Tips for Visiting the Blue Lagoon
We spent about 4 hours at the Blue Lagoon and it felt like the perfect amount of time to explore this geothermal spa. (Although honestly, if we were able to snag a lounge chair on the 2nd floor quiet room, we probably would have extended our time for a nap!)
Your entrance fee for the Blue Lagoon includes a silica face mask that can be obtained at a swim up facial bar. The face masks are essentially self-serve from a few large containers. You just cover your face and follow the recommended time to leave it on before washing off.
Each person is also able to get a free drink with their admission fee. There’s a swim up bar right in the water, and we chose a sparkling wine that was actually pretty good.
Below are some additional tips for visiting the Blue Lagoon.
- As is customary with European spas, everyone is required to wash their body and hair before entering the lagoon.
- Bring inexpensive flip flops for the shower and walking around the locker room.
- There is shampoo and conditioner provided for you to wash your hair. Leave some conditioner in your hair and bring a hair band to put it up. The sulfur from the lagoon will damage your hair if you don’t!
- A one piece swimsuit is ideal since you’ll be going back and forth from the hot lagoon to the cool air. (A towel is provided but it will quickly get cold and wet and may be difficult to find.)
- If you plan to take pictures in the Lagoon, keep in mind that it does get misty and your phone can easily get ruined. These waterproof phone pouches are great to protect your phone during use at the Blue Lagoon.
- Bring something to put your wet swimsuit and clothes in. This wet bag for your swimsuit is great for that.
- Food is available for purchase, however, it’s very expensive.
Leaving the Blue Lagoon
If you choose to use buses like we did, most companies have buses come every 30 minutes. For our transfer via Reykjavik Excursions, we did not need to book a specific return time. The Blue Lagoon is about 45 minutes via bus or car to the center of Reykjavik. Tip: If you’re checking luggage, be sure to leave yourself about 15-20 minutes to get it before catching your bus. There was a long line when we went to get ours in the afternoon.
Our visit to the Blue Lagoon was a perfect way to start our trip and relax a bit after the short red eye to Iceland. Many people question whether the Blue Lagoon is worth the money and if it’s too touristy. While it is crowded and touristy, I honestly didn’t feel like it was overcrowded while we were there and we had plenty of space to swim around and relax. (I think the booking system and getting there at opening definitely helped!) While it’s not necessarily something I’d spend the money on a second time, it was definitely worth it for me and a once in a lifetime thing.
If you’re looking to experience another geothermal spa with less crowds and without the high tourist price, I’m told the Secret Lagoon is another great option.
Day 2: Golden Circle Tour
A Golden Circle Tour was the one thing that our friends consistently told us we had to do. The Golden Circle is a route in the southern part of Iceland that includes many of the country’s most popular tourist destinations. While there are tons of Golden Circle tours that operate from the KEF Airport and Reykjavik, we wanted something with a smaller group. We opted for the Premium Small Group Golden Circle Tour from Viator. We hit some of the major sites on our tour including the Kerid Volcanic Crater, Gullfoss Waterfall, Geysers, a horse farm with Icelandic horse, and Thinglvellir National Park. The tour was 8 hours long, which I felt was the perfect amount of time to explore the area.
Most Golden Circle Tours vary slightly in the length of time and the sights included. I’ve included the highlights from our Golden Circle Tour, to help you decide what to see when you’re visiting the area.
Kerid Volcanic Crater
The Kerid Volcanic Crater is a milky blue lake that was formed 3,000 years ago from a volcano. While the pictures don’t do it justice, the water in this crater lake was the brightest blue. While visiting Kerid crater lake, you can take an easy walk around the crater at the top, which we opted to do. You can also take the ladder-like stairs down to the base of the crater along the lake, but we didn’t have enough time to do that during our stop.
Unlike some of the other Golden Circle attractions there is a small fee of 400 ISK to visit Kerid for upkeep of the property. (This amounts to about $3.25 USD or $3.00 EUR.) If you’re visiting Kerid with a tour group, the fee is usually covered in the cost of your tour. If you’re self-driving, there is ample parking available.
Icelandic Horses at Efstidalur farm
We were originally supposed to stop by a farm to try out some local foods. Although our itinerary changed slightly, we still were able to visit Efstidalur Farm to meet some super friendly Icelandic horses. Icelandic horses are considered unique because they are born with 5 gaits, which is more than most other horses in the world. The horse was so steady that the trainer was even able to hold a pint of beer without spilling it while the horse was running at full speed.
If you’re self-driving the Golden Circle, I highly recommend a stop at this farm. In addition to the beautiful horses and other animals, Efstidalur also offers a farm stay hotel, restaurant and ice cream barn. (Plus, if you love horses, you can rent them for guided tours in the summer!)
The Gullfoss Waterfall is another one of the main attractions of the Golden Circle. There’s a pathway that allows you to walk right up to the edge of the waterfall, and you’re so close that you almost feel like you’re in it. Gullfoss was one of my favorite stops on the Golden Circle for the sheer size and magnitude of the waterfall up close.
Gullfoss Waterfall is free to visit and open 24/7. There’s also a main building at Gullfoss that includes a gift shop, restrooms and a place to eat.
Tip: Whether it’s raining or not, the area around the waterfall gets really wet. I definitely recommend a good waterproof jacket with a hood if you’re going on a tour that includes Gullfoss.
Visiting the Geyser Geyser Geothermal Area
Geysir in Iceland is credited for being “the” geyser that first gave geysers their name. The entire area is full of these hot springs spouting out water and you can walk around each one while waiting for them to erupt. In addition to the infamous Geysir, the Strokkur geyser is also located in this geothermal area in southwest Iceland. Strokkur is one of the largest spouting geysers in the area. It erupts every 5-10 minutes and can get up to 130 feet high.
Visiting and walking around the geysers is free. There’s also an eating area with several options to purchase freshly made soups, sandwiches and salads from. (Note: There is a strict policy against bringing outside food and drink here, and employees monitor it closely.) If you’re looking for some unique sweaters and other clothing, the shops at Geysir were amazing. I seriously wanted everything!
Thingvellir National Park
Thingvellir National Park is the area where the Eurasian and North American tectonic plates collide. Aside from it being pretty awesome that you can be in two continents at once, this UNESCO World Heritage Site was great to explore, with easy hiking trails. There are several areas to park, and our tour bus dropped on one side of the National Park and picked us up by the visitor’s center. You can also horseback through the Park or even camp onsite. For more information, see the Thingvellir National Park website here.
P.S. For the Game of Thrones fans out there, Thingvellir is a notable filming site. Scenes filmed here include the Blood Gate and Brienne of Tarth vs the Hound.
Day 3: Free Day Walking Around and Exploring Reykjavik
With it being our first time in Iceland, we wanted to make sure we left enough time to explore the capital city of Reykjavik. Below are a few of the sites you can visit during a free day in Reykjavik.
- Shop on Laugavegur Street, the main street in Reykjavik.
- Visit the Hallgrimskirkja Church and go up to the tower for the best views of the city.
- Explore the Harpa Operate House for the beautiful reflective ceiling. Even if you’re not seeing a show, this building has interesting architecture and great views of the harbor.
- Find the Solfar (Sun Voyager) Sculpture along the water.
Where to Drink and Eat in Reyjkavik
Like everything else in Iceland, the food was also expensive. Being surrounded by water, seafood is plentiful in the island country of Iceland. The hearty soups and seafood stews are also perfect for the cool weather all year round. We aimed for places with good food and good reviews at a somewhat reasonable price. I’ve also included some tips on saving money on food and drinks in Reykjavik, in case you’re visiting Iceland on a budget like we were.
Breakfast & Coffee Shops in Reykjavik
- The Geri Smart Restaurant in the Canopy by Reykjavik City Centre offered an amazing, European style breakfast buffet. (And if you’re staying at the hotel, it’s included!
- Kaffi Brennslan for amazing specialty coffees and pastries in a cozy setting.
- Head to any convenience store or grocer to get some Skyre, which is native to Iceland. It’s like Greek yogurt but healthier and creamier.
Recommendations for Lunch and Dinner in Reykjavik
- Reykjavik Fish: Fresh fish including the most amazing fish and chips in a casual setting.
- Icelandic Street Food: Quick service restaurant that offers unlimited bowls of soup. Both the lamb stew and seafood bisque (as well as the bread) are super yummy. It’s a small restaurant, but you can go to the pub next store eat your meal and have a beer.
- Íslenski Barinn: Great for dishes local to Iceland in a cozy, vintage feeling restaurant. The fish stew and mussels in particular were so good.
- Kaffi Vinyl: This cafe and bar serves vegetarian and vegan friendly food, usually accompanied by a DJ any day of the week. Both the Pad Thai and veggie burger we’re really flavorful. They also offer sushi specials on Friday and have an amazing selection of Vegan baked goods as well.
- Iceland is also known for its hotdogs, and you can find a Bæjarins best pylsur hot dog stands throughout Reykjavik late into the night.
Bars and Pubs in Reykjavik
In addition to all of the amazing outdoors nearby, Reykjavik is a really great spot for its nightlife. The city has an awesome selection of bars and pubs with a unique mix of options for everyone. While I’m getting too old for the nightclub scene, here were some of our favorite bars in Reykjavik.
- Lebowski Bar: A kitschy Big Lebowski themed bar and the most amazing cocoa puff white russions. (They actually serve your drink with a spoon so it feels like you’re eating cereal vs drinking a cocktail.)
- The Drunk Rabbit: Irish Pub with live music almost every night. This fun, laid back place makes you feel like you’re actually Ireland. It looks small walking in but there’s ample seating both downstairs and upstairs.
- Pablo Discobar: This cheesy, yet swanky discobar actually prides itself on being tacky. The cocktails are amazing and it’s definitely worth the stop even if its just for one drink.
- The English Pub: This sports bar has a huge outdoor seating area if you’re lucky enough to experience Reykjavik during one of the rare times you can have a drink in outside. (And if you’re a sports fan, there’s a huge projector and TVs playing the popular games of the moment. TVs in bars can be difficult to find in Iceland, unlike the US!)
- The Dubliner: This casual Irish pub is great for a low-key night. There are several bar games available throughout, and they also have DJs or live music throughout the week.
Tips for Saving Money on Food and Drinks in Iceland
I had heard about the high prices on food and beverages in Iceland beforehand, and they definitely lived up to my expectations. (For example, fish and chips were about $40 USD!) Here are a few tips for saving money on food and drinks if you’re traveling to Iceland on a budget:
- Find a hotel with breakfast included and eat a late breakfast/ brunch to save money on meals.
- Pack protein bars or other filling snacks.
- Bring a reusable water bottle to take advantage of the fresh water in Iceland.
- Purchase liquor at the duty free shops in the Reykjavik airport. (This is one we didn’t do, but we definitely regretted it!)
- Purchase food at the gas station stops during tours versus the attractions themselves. There’s a significant price difference and the food at the gas stations is actually good!
With Iceland being so close to the US and easy to get to, it was very doable for a long weekend. That said, visiting the Blue Lagoon, the Golden Circle and Reykjavik over 3 days was just enough to make me want to go back again to explore more. Please share in the comments if you have any favorite sights in Iceland that we didn’t get to!
P.S. Thanks to my lifelong best friend, Meaghan, for spontaneously joining me on the trip and for some of the pictures included here. AND thanks to my amazingly supportive husband, Frank, who always encourages me to follow my dreams. No matter where they take me and how crazy they might seem.
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