Iceland is made to order for a two- or three-day layover on the way between North America and Europe — allowing a peek at Reykjavík, side-trips to the Golden Circle and South Coast, and a soak in the Blue Lagoon. There are many ways to plan your time, but after working on the first edition of our Rick Steves Iceland guidebook (with co-author Ian Watson), I came up with what was — in my mind, at least — the perfect way to see the highlights of that little country on a short timeframe. However, I had not yet had the chance to try it out.
Last October, my parents wanted to stop off for a quick “layover” look at Iceland on their way home from Europe. Could I offer them some advice? Challenge accepted! Not only did I craft the ideal itinerary, I quickly re-routed my own flight schedule home from Europe to join them in Reykjavík. Our goal was to get the best possible taste of Iceland in 72 hours, off-season, on a budget.
Spoiler warning: It worked like a charm. Here’s how.
Day 0: Welcome to Iceland
Touching down at Keflavík Airport, I have about an hour to get my ducks in a row before Mom and Dad arrive. I pick up our rental car with the cheerful assistance of the rental agent, who helps me figure out whether we need to take out extra insurance against blowing sand. (Hearing our itinerary and scanning the weather report, he says, “Nope — you should be fine!”) I load my bags into the car and wait at the baggage-claim exit, just under the sign advertising bus transfers into town.
My parents pop out right on time, and we drive through the twilight to our Reykjavík Airbnb. In early October, Iceland still enjoys nearly 12 hours of daylight (setting around 6:45 p.m.). But the sun doesn’t provide much warmth; driving through frigid, sideways drizzle on the 45-minute journey into the capital offers a foretaste of the days ahead.
Finding our Airbnb — tucked on the residential slope just below the landmark Hallgrímskirkja church, in the heart of Reykjavík — proves a bit trickier than expected, because the nearby streets are torn up. But eventually we ignore our GPS, plunge headfirst up a normally one-way street, and find convenient street parking right out front. (At just a buck an hour, and free overnight, street parking may be the best bargain in Iceland.)
A note about money: I’m saying that we’re “on a budget.” I mean a midrange budget —we’re not starving backpackers. The thing is, Iceland is very expensive. It’s easy to blow through a lot of money here. We spent just enough money to be comfortable and to use our time efficiently. If you’re truly on a tight budget, check out my Top 10 Budget Tips for Iceland.
On past trips, I’ve learned that Airbnb offers the best value for accommodations in Reykjavík — a bursting-at-the-seams city where hotels are in short supply, and priced accordingly. For the cost of a basic double room with a shared bathroom in a cheap-but-cheery guest house, you can rent a one-bedroom Airbnb apartment with a full kitchen, bathroom, washer/dryer, and living area. This trip’s apartment — a freestanding little cottage tucked behind a big apartment block — is exceptionally comfortable, well-equipped, clean, and cozy, for the cost of about $500 for three nights.
Heading out to explore, we discover the reason for all those closed streets: They’re installing radiator pipes beneath a busy roundabout, which will harness Iceland’s bounty of naturally superheated water to melt snow and ice in the winter.
We tiptoe past the construction zone, under cheery street art murals, to the only discount grocery store in the center: Bónus, hiding a block above the main shopping street at Hallveigarstigur 1. The store is packed with fellow budget-conscious travelers, stocking up just before closing time. While it may seem silly for our first stop to be the budget supermarket, the only alternatives downtown are the ever-present convenience stores, which charge double or triple — making this stock-up trip essential for sticking to our budget. We fill our shopping basket with enough skyr (yogurt-like dairy treat), rúgbrauð (dense rye bread), and saltlakkrís (salted licorice) to get us through the trip. For about $60, we’ll have breakfast, snacks, drinks, and a few basic meals to help defray the high cost of restaurants.
Before everything closes down for the night, I make two more shopping stops: I drop into the outdoor outfitter 66° North to buy a knit cap for the next few days (I can already tell that I’ll need it). At about $35, it’s double what I’d pay for a similar hat back home, but I can justify the expense by calling it a souvenir. Then I swing by my favorite pastry shop — the trendy, graffiti-slathered Brauð & Co. — just before closing time, to stock up on impossibly delicious Scandinavian-style sweet rolls to supplement tomorrow’s breakfast.
After unpacking our groceries back home, we go looking for a simple, filling, satisfying meal. We find it a few blocks away at Súpa, offering an appealing variety of affordable soups. For about $15 per person, we get a generous bowl of soup, home-cooked bread, and hummus or butter. Bellies full, we walk back home through the drizzle to get a good night’s sleep before our first big day trip.
Day 1: The Golden Circle
We awake to frigid, blustery weather. No, not blustery…hurricane-y. Ian Watson, the co-author of our Rick Steves Iceland guidebook (and longtime Iceland resident), once explained to me that for Icelanders, wind trumps all. They define “bad weather” as “lots of wind,” and “good weather” as “somewhat less wind.” Today? Today is a “bad weather” day. But at least the howling winds will clear out the clouds, providing us with occasional, brilliant sunbreaks.
Our plan is to drive that quintessential Icelandic day trip, the Golden Circle: a 150-mile loop east of the capital, connecting three big sightseeing stops (historic gorge, spurting geyser, spectacular waterfall) through a sampler platter of rugged scenery.
On a previous visit, I opted to begin my Golden Circle trip with a scenic detour, over the low mountain pass called Nesjavallaleið — and was glad I did. Ian had warned me that this pass can close due to bad weather as early as October. But today looks clear, and the sun is peeking out. What the heck? Let’s chance it. So off we head to Nesjavallaleið.
The Nesjavallaleið road was built to connect Reykjavík to a steaming geothermal plant, deep in the interior. And driving along that road, we follow a burly pipeline carrying scalding water to city radiators, taps….and those pipes buried under city roundabouts.
Pulling over to photograph some lonely sheep, grazing miles from civilization, we notice that the surrounding landscape has grown frosty. As we drive onward, gradually gaining altitude, the frost becomes flurries, and the flurries become snow. And by the time I begin driving up the road over the pass, my four-wheel-drive tires are sputtering over a few inches of uncleared snowfall.
We’re most of the way to the summit — we can practically see where the road drops down to snow-free lowlands. And we know that going back will cost us at least an extra hour of retracing our steps. Can we make it over just…a…couple….more…hills?
No. No, we cannot. Cresting the penultimate hill, we get out of the car and survey our options: If we proceed, we’ll most likely slide our way down this next incline — getting hopelessly stuck in a snowbank in the middle of nowhere, wasting a precious day awaiting rescue. Or we can turn around and face the music. The choice is easy. I execute a sloppy 12-point turn, then put the car in first and let it ever-so-slowly trundle us down the snow-covered road, inch by inch, tire tread by tire tread. Feeling our tires grip bare asphalt after that white-knuckle descent, we don’t even mind the lost time…we’re just happy to not be stranded. A mile back down the road, with that treacherous pass in the rearview mirror, we see a tour bus zooming past us, in the opposite direction, towards certain doom. We’ll spend the rest of the trip speculating whether he made it (no way) and how many of his passengers froze to death that day (I’m guessing 10, maybe a dozen?).
Circling back around to the main road, we make our way to the Golden Circle’s first stop, Þingvellir (or Thingvellir) — a national park filling a gorge where the European and North American tectonic plates are slowly pulling apart. Þingvellir was also the site of the AlÞingi — the great gathering of the original Icelandic settlers (peace-loving cousins of the Vikings), dating back to the ninth century.
Stepping out of the car, we grip fast to our car doors; on a day like today, the whipping winds can pull them right out of your hand and crashing into adjacent cars (at best) — or even pull them backwards on their hinges. Pausing in the shiny new visitors center to pay the parking fee with our credit card, we stumble upon a giant screen showing road conditions all over Iceland…yup, Nesjavallaleið is closed, all right. Next time, I’ll check the map before heading out. (Side-note: In Iceland, you can pay for just about everything — parking, bathrooms, a cup of coffee — with your credit card. Cash is rarely necessary and never preferred. On this trip, we experiment by not taking a single Icelandic króna out of an ATM — and it’s never once a problem.)
Bundling up, we venture out for a look at the Þingvellir gorge, with a death-grip on the viewpoint’s railing to avoid being blown into Iceland’s “tourist casualty” statistics. Then we walk down the gorge itself — with North America on our left side, and Europe on our right — to the site of “Law Rock,” the focal point of those early clan gatherings. Battered by wind, we decide a few minutes is plenty; skipping the optional detour up to a pretty waterfall, we hike back up to the full blast of our car heater.
We follow rainbows through the Icelandic countryside, stopping periodically to snap photos of the pint-sized yet majestic Icelandic horses — who hitched a ride with those original Viking Age settlers. We pause at the lakeside settlement of Laugarvatn just long enough to stroll along the steaming shoreline, where natural reserves of superheated water bubble up in little hot spots in the sand.
It’s lunchtime, so we stop at a hilltop dairy farm, called Efstidalur II. I dropped by here on a previous trip for ice cream, but Rick Steves — who passed through a few months before — tipped me off that they also had a great full-service restaurant upstairs. There we settle into a rustic wooden table, peering through windows into the barn below, where cows munch on hay. We dig into tasty and filling $25 hamburgers (reasonably priced by Icelandic standards)…followed by $5 ice cream cones, of course.
Next up: the geothermal field called Geysir, which gave its name to hot-water spouts worldwide. Hiking in from the parking lot, we’re drawn close to the giant, steaming pools that bubble and spurt periodically, foreshadowing a big eruption. We wait in the frigid winds, lined up with dozens of other icicle tourists, gazing expectantly at that giant hole, well aware that the big geyser shoots up “about every 10 minutes.”
We wait. And shiver. And wait. And shiver. And wait. The geyser gurgles a few times, spurting up a few feet into the air, as if revving up for the big show. But eventually the cold overwhelms our curiosity, and we retreat back toward the car…only to hear, moments later, a big eruption splash behind us. Oh, well. You’ve seen one geyser…
The final big stop on the Golden Circle — unlike hit-or-miss Geysir — never disappoints. Gullfoss’ name (“Golden Falls”) is particularly apt today, lit up like a spotlight by the warm late-day sun.
Pretty as it is, it’s still darn cold. We batten down the hatches, pull our hoods tight around our hot red cheeks, and gingerly follow the damp, slightly icy trail down for a closer look at the falls. Icelanders call weather that looks pretty, but feels not so pretty, “window weather” (gluggaveður)…and today was a classic gluggaveður day. But it’s worth braving the cold, wind, and mist to stand in awe of Gullfoss’ thundering power.
Completing our loop back to our Reykjavík home base, we enjoy late-afternoon gluggaveður views of Iceland’s cinematic landscape. If we hadn’t lost time with our snowy dead-end, we’d consider a couple of more stops: the historic church at Skálholt; a quick hike around the rim of the colorful crater called Kerið; or maybe even a splash in one of the various thermal baths in the area. But the sun is sinking low in the sky, so we make a beeline back home.
Still satisfied from our hearty hamburger lunch, we make an Airbnb picnic dinner out of our discount groceries. Then it’s early to bed, in preparation of yet another day of Icelandic day-tripping.
Day 2: The South Coast
We awake to a rare Icelandic phenomenon: Sun and minimal wind. In October! We can tell immediately that it’s going to be a delightful day for touring Iceland — without requiring nearly as many layers as yesterday, when we encased ourselves in just about everything in our luggage.
On our way out of town, we pay a quick visit to the landmark church crowning Reykjavík, the Hallgrímskirkja. After strolling the tranquil, austere, light-filled Lutheran interior, we pay about $10 apiece to ride the elevator to the top of the tower. The cute Monopoly houses of Reykjavík splay out from our feet, with cheery colors that pop in the bright autumn sun — offering an ideal visual overview of the sprawling capital. From the top of this tower, we can see the homes of two out of every three Icelanders.
Back down on earth, we hit the road for the South Coast. Ever since working on the Rick Steves Iceland guidebook — and offering lots of travel tips to friends and relatives making their own Icelandic stopovers — I’m constantly debating which of the two big day trips from Reykjavík is better. Yesterday’s Golden Circle drive was a delight. But today’s 230-mile round-trip South Coast foray will come with perhaps even more epic scenery. (That’s why we saved it for the better-weather of our two days.) I warn my parents that I’ll be polling them later about which they prefer.
From Reykjavík, we drive through sunny mountains down to the southern coastline, where the jagged Westman Islands loom like a mirage just offshore. (If we had another 24 hours, that’s where we’d spend it.) We pull over for a WC and coffee break at the Lava Centre in Hvolsvöllur, where the free exhibits in the lobby illustrate the tectonic fissures that run diagonally through the island — the cause of all that geothermal water and volcanic activity. (With more time, or with kids in tow, we might pay to tour the Lava Centre’s exhibits. But we have a lot of miles to cover…)
Pro hack: Mid-morning, we pass the turnoff for the spectacular Seljalandsfoss waterfall. But I recall from past trips that at this time of day, the grand cascade will be mostly in shade. We’ll stop, instead, when we pass back through here on our way home — when the afternoon light will be perfect.
Instead, we carry on to the next stop on our South Coast day, a little pullout in the shadow of Eyjafjallajökull — the volcano that famously erupted in 2010, halting European air travel. We snap a photo of the farmstead that you’ll see in all the famous images of that erupting giant — today slumbering again, under its snowy blanket.
Carrying on, near Drangshlíð, we come upon a pair of rocky, steep cliffs with cow shed burrowed into the sides. We pull over for closer inspection (obeying the local farmer’s polite posted request not to actually enter the rickety buildings) and find our imaginations tickled by such fanciful structures. They call to mind the Huldufólk — they mythical Icelandic “hidden people” who must be appeased by humans.
Next up is Skógafoss — yet another grand waterfall, this one perfectly lit mid-day. After ogling the rainbows that dance in the mist, we find a picnic table and dig into another round of our discount groceries for lunch. It’s sunny, warm, and still — stripping out of our windbreakers and feeling perfectly comfortable in just long sleeves, we’re struck by the changeability of Icelandic Octobers.
Onward to the glacier called Sólheimajökull. We park our car and scramble over a gravelly path about 10 minutes toward a glacial tongue that reaches down and laps at a brown lagoon bobbing with little icebergs.
The sign suggests that we proceed only at our own risk; while my folks head back (looping down along the lagoon shoreline, then cutting across the pebbly plain to the parking lot), I venture farther, carefully hiking up troughs that have been carved into the nearest appendage of the glacier. Shovels are standing by to add more grit underfoot for traction. Reaching the point where properly outfitted adventurers begin their cautious hike on top of the glacier’s icy slope, I double back and follow the muddy lagoon back to our car.
We’re getting low on gas — alarmingly low — but I know that there’s a gas station in Vík, just over the next ridge. A half-hour’s drive later, we pull into that N1 station…and discover that the power’s out and the pumps don’t work. We have maybe 20 miles’ worth of gas, but the next nearest station is 50 miles in either direction. We cut it too close. The guy at the next pump matter-of-factly tells us he’s been waiting there for two hours, and was told it could be hours longer.
Just as our idyllic day is about to crash down around us, the gas station attendant walks up, tears down the “out of order” sign, and flips the switch to reboot the pump. Phew! A few minutes later, we’re gassed up and heading back toward Reykjavík. The lesson: Never wait too long for gas.
It’s getting late in the afternoon, but a few more stops temp us to delay our two-hour return drive to Reykjavík. First up, we turn off for the black-sand beach at Reynisfjara, where otherworldly sea stacks loom just offshore, and mind-bending basalt formations are etched into the cliffs.
Next up, we take another turnoff for the looming promontory called Dyrhólaey. Our four-wheel-drive car makes easy work of the steep, chopped-up-gravel road to the top. Once up there, we bask in spectacular views in all directions — black-sand beaches as far as the eye can see, with the open Atlantic on one side, and glacier-capped volcanoes on the other.
Circling around the lighthouse at the promontory’s peak, we peer down into sea caves excavated by the pounding surf.
On our way back down from Dyrhólaey, crossing the causeway connecting the promontory to the mainland, we notice several cars pulled over. We join them and venture out onto the black-sand flats at low tide. The bright sun, low in the sky, casts miraculous reflections against the wet black sand — making us feel as if we’re walking on water. It’s one of those giddy encounters with nature that seem to happen far more here in Iceland than just about anywhere else. Our stroll across the glassy water is the ideal grand finale to our spectacular South Coast day.
But there’s still a long drive back home — mostly back the way we came. On our way through, we pull off for a better look at Seljalandsfoss waterfall, now perfectly illuminated by the late-afternoon sun. It’s getting cooler now, so we skip the exhilarating but very wet hike on the heavily misted path behind the waterfall.
Heading back toward home, we enjoy the last few moments of sunlight. We could head all the way back to Reykjavík for a late dinner. Or we could stop for dinner along the way — getting home later, but full. I think through my favorite options in this area. For microbrews and excellent pizza, we could stop off in the town of Hveragerði at Ölverk. But it’s likely crowded this time of night…and it is our last night in Iceland. Maybe something a little more Icelandic?
I suddenly remember a tip from my colleague (and Rick Steves’ Europe cartographer), Dave Hoerlein, who had told me about a memorable place to try the Icelandic delicacy humar. Somewhere between a little lobster and a giant shrimp, the humar is the top-tier foodie treat for Icelanders. We call ahead to book a table, then take a slight detour to the coastal village of Stokkseyri, where we have a humar dinner at Fjöruborðið (“The Water’s Edge”).
We’ve been watching our budget so far, but we decide to invest in a blowout, when’s-the-next-time-I’m-gonna-be-in-Iceland feast, ordering a copper kettle with humar tails luxuriously sautéed in garlic butter and spritzed with lemon, plus generous side salads. At around $160 for all three of us (including drinks and a shared dessert), we realize it’s not that much more than we’d pay for a quality seafood feast back home. Who says Iceland is demoralizingly expensive?
On our way home to Reykjavík, I conduct my informal poll with my sample size of two: Golden Circle or South Coast? When all was said and done, my folks say they preferred the South Coast — despite the longer hours in the car, the scenery was that much more spectacular and varied. But it’s hard to know whether the significant difference in weather is what put the South Coast over the top. They agree that either would be a satisfying, concise look at Iceland…but doing both was well worth the time. Why not?
Back at the Airbnb, we’re ready to turn in early. But then, as I’m out for a late stroll, I glance up in the sky and notice a shimmering sea of lime-green light. My previous visits to Iceland have always been in the summer; not only had I not seen the Northern Lights, but I’ve never even seen Iceland in the dark. So this is my first time experiencing the aurora borealis dancing over Iceland — faintly, but it’s there. I instantly grasp why those swirling lights capture travelers’ imaginations…they are mesmerizing, almost mystical.
Grand scenery, check. Waterfalls, check. Thermal springs, check. Humar feast, check. And now, Northern Lights…check!
Day 3: A Quick Look at Reykjavík & Soaking in the Blue Lagoon
Our flight home to Seattle is scheduled for 5 p.m. Working our way backwards, that means dropping our car off at 3, and reserving a slot at the Blue Lagoon (near the airport) at 1. That gives us until noon to see Reykjavík.
You might have noticed that our “perfect” 72 hours in Iceland includes very little time in Reykjavík. The Icelandic capital is a fine city and a wonderful home base, and there are some worthwhile sights to be seen here. But if all you have is two (or even three) full days in Iceland, they’re best spent in the spectacular countryside. You can still explore Reykjavík in the morning and evening — or, like us, do an “express tour” on your morning of departure.
With our morning in Reykjavík, we pack up our bags, throw them in the back of our car, lock up our Airbnb (and stick the key in the lockbox), and head out to explore the city. We stroll through the compact core of town, pausing at “The Pond,” the city hall (with its giant topographical model of Iceland — allowing us to trace the routes of our two day trips), the sleepy parliament square, and the historic core of town, with its colorfully painted, steel-clad houses.
Since it’s a Saturday, we swing by the indoor flea market, Kolaportið, just as it opens at 11. it’s a fun opportunity to browse secondhand Icelandic sweaters, ruffle through used books in Icelandic, and get in from the cold.
Another pro hack: Iceland’s famous “hardship foods” are rarely sold in restaurants, and when they are, they’re way too expensive (priced to gouge curious tourists). If you’re in town on a weekend (Saturdays and Sundays, 11:00 until 5:00), the flea market’s food section has free samples of unique munchies ranging from dried-out “fish jerky” snacks (harðfiskur) to the notorious “rotted shark” (hákarl). This infamous dish — which tastes like strong fish mingled with ammonia — is sold for about $10-12 in a few restaurants, or you can buy a little plastic tub for $5. Or, at the flea market, you can just sample a tiny little gelatinous jiggling cube on a toothpick — the most you will ever want to eat, I guarantee — for free. To cleanse the palate (and you’ll need it), a nearby stand dispenses generous free samples of licorice treats dipped in milk chocolate.
Leaving the flea market, we head back to our car, wave goodbye to Reykjavík, and drive 45 minutes toward the airport. We have one more Icelandic experience on deck: the famous Blue Lagoon lava-rock spa, nestled in a jagged landscape a short drive from the airport. Knowing we’d want only a quick dip, we’ve reserved for 1:00. In retrospect, 12:00 would have been a less rushed timeframe before our 5:00 flight. But as it turns out, our timing is ideal…today is not the day to linger at the Blue Lagoon. As we drive through the lava landscape, a howling sideways wind kicks up, pelting our windows with frigid liquid BBs and threatening to muscle our car right off the road.
We grab our swimsuits, bundle up, and walk from the parking lot to the Blue Lagoon entrance. The quarter-mile walk, through horizontal sleet, feels like climbing Everest. We’re soaked to the core by the time we get inside. But as soon as we change and lower ourselves into the opaque, hundred-degree water, we forget all about the cold and rain.
Except…we can’t really forget about it. Because the wind is skimming across the surface of the lagoon like a jet ski, swirling up substantial white caps that keep slapping us in the face. Our skin turns pink from being pelted by freezing rain. We try to ease the pain by smearing the free exfoliating silica goo on our faces. But it just gets blasted off by the rain.
Seeking a more relaxing experience, we find our way to a little cove, more protected by chunky rocks, and where thundering waterfalls offer an incredibly relaxing shoulder massage. (If only I could do this just before every transatlantic flight…) Periodically I venture out across the sloshing lagoon waters, swimming hard against the current, with frigid hurricane-force winds whipping refrigerated needles at my face. But I soon return to the relative tranquility of my protected cove. Usually the Blue Lagoon is an entirely relaxing soak — but today it feels like an adventure water park.
A word about the Blue Lagoon: It’s expensive (around $100 per person) and requires advance reservations. For these reasons, it’s not worth a visit for every traveler — particularly those on a budget, or those for whom a hot-water soak is not appealing. (For penny pinchers, Iceland has a whole world of municipal swimming pools, fed by natural thermal water that’s every bit as hot as the Blue Lagoon, for a tenth the price…but without the dramatic setting and spa elegance.) As for me, I’m a fan: Even under the worst possible circumstances, the Blue Lagoon is undeniably memorable.
After soaking, we head back inside, dry off, get dressed, and head to the airport. (Total cost for the three-day car rental: $250, plus one-and-a-half tanks of gas for about $120 total.) And before we know it, we’re heading home from our Icelandic layover — pleased as punch about how we’ve made the most of our limited time.
Despite sticking to a budget and traveling outside of peak season, we were able to bring home memories of a unique land that we’ll treasure for a lifetime. We’ll be back…and next time, we may be tempted to stick around even longer.
This is just one family’s 72-hour Iceland layover. But you could use it as a blueprint for a trip of your own, modifying it as you like. Step-by-step details for every last thing described here are laid out in the Rick Steves Iceland guidebook.
In the summer, things are more crowded (and more expensive), but the daylight is endless — allowing you an even better look at Reykjavík early or late.
And in midwinter, days are much shorter and roads can be dicey, making it more tempting to stay close to Reykjavík, or to book guided excursions to leave the driving to an expert.
If you’ve got 48 hours, pick just one of the day trips — I’d give a slight edge to the South Coast over the Golden Circle, but it’s a toss-up. With an extra day, add the Westman Islands. With yet another day, settle into Reykjavík. For more advice, see my posts on Icelandic itinerary tips and the best day trips from Reykjavík.