For our new Rick Steves Iceland guidebook, Rick and I worked with co-author Ian Watson to figure out the best day-trip options from Reykjavík. Our “top 4” includes the Golden Circle, the South Coast, the Blue Lagoon, and the Westman Islands. This post (part of my Iceland blog series) is a quick-reference guide for how to prioritize your limited time.
Reykjavík is a fun city, and the perfect place to spend the night on a visit to Iceland. But in-town sightseeing options are modest, and you’ll get a plenty good look in the morning and evening. Especially on a speedy “layover” visit, getting out into the epic Icelandic countryside should be your top priority. The key is being selective, and these four day trips from Reykjavík clearly rise to the top. The complete details for each one — including self-guided driving and walking tours, and lots of restaurant and sightseeing recommendations — are covered in our Rick Steves Iceland guidebook.
1. (tie) Golden Circle
The quintessential Icelandic day trip is a 150-mile loop east of the capital — figure about four hours of driving, plus at least another four or five for sightseeing stops. The Golden Circle route curls through a representative sample of Iceland’s lunar landscape as you link up three main destinations.
The gorge at Thingvellir (or “Þingvellir” in Icelandic) is worth a visit for reasons both geological (as a place where you can see the European and North American tectonic plates pulling apart) and historical (as the site of the annual Great Gathering of the Icelandic chieftains — or Alþingi — dating back to the 10th century).
Geysir is a steaming, simmering field with a variety of active geysers — including the one that introduced that Icelandic word (meaning “the gusher”) to the world’s lexicon. Join the patient circle of tourists standing in a field, staring at a bubbling hole in the ground, and have your camera cocked and ready as you wait…wait…wait… (It usually shoots off about every 10 minutes, but Old Faithful it ain’t — don’t set your watch by it. And don’t blink!)
Gullfoss is one of Iceland’s most dramatic waterfalls — and that’s really saying something. This thundering cascade throws itself over a cliff into a steep, rocky gorge, ejecting a gentle bridal veil of mist into the surrounding countryside. (Wear your raincoat.)
The Golden Circle loop also passes some minor sights (including the historic church at Skálholt and a climbable crater, Kerið), some good restaurants, and four different thermal bathing opportunities. All in all, it’s a handy “Iceland in miniature” look at this unique land.
1. (tie) South Coast
The most accessible slice of spectacular Icelandic coastline is about two hours’ drive south of Reykjavík — on a 40-mile stretch of seafront bookended by the stunning Seljalandsfoss waterfall and the evocative Reynisfjara black sand beach. While it’s a bit farther from the capital (figure about five hours of driving round-trip, plus at least another four or five for sightseeing), it offers an even more epic look at Iceland’s scenery.
The South Coast is an achingly beautiful terrain of bald, craggy mountains blanketed in green, giving it an almost Celtic feel. Looming above it all are mighty, currently dormant, glacier-covered volcanoes, including the famous Eyjafjallajökull, which grounded European air travel in 2010.
Along the South Coast, you can visit two different thundering waterfalls — including the spectacular Seljalandsfoss, where soggy tourists can hike around behind the falls.
At another handy pullout, a 20-minute hike gives you the opportunity to get up close to a gritty glacier (Sólheimajökull) — the closest glacier opportunity to Reykjavík.
The settlement of Skógar boasts another waterfall, and a fine little folk museum.
And Reynisfjara is a dramatic black-sand beach, whittled with basalt formations and jagged sea stacks.
The South Coast also has a variety of restaurants and other attractions — including the cutting-edge Lava Centre (in Hvolsvöllur), which explains volcanic activity in this part of Iceland.
Breaking the Tie
If you have just one day and are torn between these choices, consider this: The Golden Circle offers a tidy variety of experiences on a handy and very well-trod loop with almost no repetition. The South Coast is more outdoorsy, with stirring coastal scenery and a few more substantial opportunities for easy to moderate hikes. It’s a bit farther from Reykjavík, and requires backtracking the same way you came. The choice between these is so difficult that, if I had two days in Iceland, I’d skip Reykjavík entirely to make time for both.
3. Blue Lagoon
Why so low? Because a three-way tie for first seems unhelpful. And the fact is, not every traveler loves the Blue Lagoon. It’s quite expensive ($100 per person at prime times) and requires reservations. It feels touristy and glitzy, with nary an Icelander in sight. And yet, those who love it really love it. If you can afford it and would enjoy a memorable thermal bathing experience, it’s a worthwhile investment. As a bonus, it’s easy to combine the Blue Lagoon with your trip to or from the international airport, so you don’t need to devote an entire day to it. For details (and alternatives), check out my post about the Blue Lagoon and Iceland’s thermal bathing culture.
4. Westman Islands
This little volcanic archipelago, just off the South Coast (and an easy day trip by plane from Reykjavík), is an ideal alternative for intrepid travelers interested in going beyond the well-trod, whistle-stop sights listed above. Visitors are rewarded with stunning sea-cliff scenery, dramatic tales (and lava formations) from a 1973 volcanic eruption, the biggest summertime puffin population in the world, and a real-life (and adorable) mascot puffin named Tóti. Intrigued? Check out my Westman Islands post for more details.
Honorable Mention: Fly to Akureyri for a look at Mývatn
One of my favorite corners of Iceland is the Lake Mývatn area, in the North. But that’s a seven-hour, non-stop drive each way from Reykjavík, and best done as a part of a multi-day Ring Road loop. However, if you’ve got limited time, you could take a quick flight from Reykjavík up to Akureyri (on Air Iceland Connect) and rent a car to get a glimpse at this fascinating volcanic landscape. For the details, see my Mývatn post.
Other Options? Endless.
Various Icelandic companies offer excursions to suit every taste. Interested in glaciers? You can hike across a glacier, snowmobile across a glacier, ride a boat across a glacier lagoon, or spelunk into a cave carved into a glacier. Are volcanoes your thing? Iceland has three different volcanic caves that you can tour. Have you dreamed of seeing a puffin or a whale? Riding an Icelandic horse? Scuba diving or snorkeling in a flooded chasm between continents? Visiting filming locations for Game of Thrones and other blockbusters? Seeing the Northern Lights (winter only)? If so, there’s an excursion for you.
While the four day trips outlined above are of the most general interest, it’s possible to do pretty much anything in Iceland as a day-trip from the capital. Guide To Iceland, a consortium of several tour operators, is a good place to start surveying your options. Or check out the Icelandic Experiences chapter of our Rick Steves Iceland guidebook.