Iceland is magnificent. This low-key island in the middle of the North Atlantic Ocean will not fail to impress. From craggy volcanoes, to cliffs festooned with thundering waterfalls and glaciers creeping down to black-sand beaches, the landscape feels like the ends of the earth, even though it’s only a short flight from Europe or North America. Pair that with cordial, interesting, creative and efficient Icelanders, and you’ve got an amazing trip beckoning.
In my years writing Lonely Planet’s bestselling Iceland travel guidebook, and the city guide to Reykjavik, I fell deeper in love with this country and its people every time I went. Most visitors will arrive at Keflavik International Airport, about an hour south-west of Reykjavik (though there are now also connections to Akureyri in the north), so this journey is designed to take in 10 days of exquisite wonders looping out from the capital.
My trip described here is just a starter – once you have experience, you can plan another visit to the farthest highland interior, the venerable north and east, or the rainbow-scored Westfjords.
Summer months give the gentlest weather (averaging 12–14C/54-57F) and the most sunlit hours (close to 24 hours in the far north), while winter offers the chance to see the Northern Lights. In any season, conditions change rapidly, sometimes within the hour, so come prepared with a variety of clothing – and bring your favourite swimsuit for all the thermal pools.
Because of Iceland’s booming popularity, it is essential to book ahead for summer and holidays. The country is extraordinarily organised and offers many excellent online resources: planning (inspiredbyiceland.com); weather (en.vedur.is); road conditions (road.is) and safety concerns (safetravel.is).
Bright lights in Reykjavik
Fly into Keflavik International Airport, collect your hire car and drive into Reykjavik to imbibe the city buzz for a night. Grab a bite at famous hot dog stand Baejarins Beztu (bbp.is) or book ahead to savour the much-lauded cuisine at Dill (dillrestaurant.is) or Maturog drykkur (maturogdrykkur.is).
Check the Reykjavik Grapevine (grapevine.is) for what’s on around town: the capital has a lively music scene and you’re guaranteed a fantastic night out, especially at weekends.
To get a grounding in Icelandic history and lore, start off with the National Museum of Iceland (nationalmuseum.is). Walk around nearby Lake Tjornin to the modern parliament, Althingi (althingi.is), and The Settlement Exhibition (reykjavikmuseum.is), an unearthed Viking longhouse and multimedia exhibit smack in the centre of Old Reykjavik. Other top spots include the Culture House (culturehouse.is) for Icelandic art and artefacts, church Hallgrimskirkja (hallgrimskirkja.is), and the sparkly seaside concert hall Harpa (harpa.is).
In the afternoon, start the Golden Circle, Iceland’s most famous ring of sights. By arriving late in the day, most of the crowds will have dispersed at Thingvellir National Park (thingvellir.is). The site of the ancient Icelandic parliament, Thingvellir is situated in a spectacular tectonic rift valley festooned with waterfalls and lakes.
Stay at Ion Adventure hotel or opt for Hotel Litli Geysir (hotelgeysir.is) opposite the hot spring area. If you have daylight left, drive south-east to Efstidalur II (efstidalur.is) for a dairy-farm stay, complete with homemade ice cream.
Geysers and the Golden Circle
Start early and walk across to Geysir to watch the famous geyser system that gave all others their name. Just up the road, snap selfies at Gullfoss waterfall, an impressive, pounding torrent. With that, you’ll have completed the Golden Circle, so tuck into a well-earned lunch onthe patio at Kaffi Krus (kaffikrus.is) in Selfoss, 45 minutes from Reykjavik.
Continuing east on the Ring Road, you’ll reach the Lava Centre (lavacentre.is), with everything you’ll need to know about volcanoes. Then watch for brooding Hekla and Eyjafjallajokull (try ay-ya-fiat-la-yo-gootl), which so famously halted flights across Europe when it erupted in 2010.
As you approach Skogar from the west, you can’t miss towering Seljalandsfoss waterfall. Stop to explore, then return to Hella and sleep at the modern Stracta Hotel (stractahotels.is).
Today is a day for adventure. You are now in the epicentre of Iceland’s vast volcanic terrain. Southcoast Adventure (southadventure.is) offers plenty of activities, including hiking, guided glacier walking on Solheimajokull and super Jeep touring.
For an aerial adventure, Atlantsflug (flightseeing.is) has spectacular trips flying over volcanoes, glaciers, and islands.
Beside the seaside
Riding high from your escapade day, continue east to Reynisfjara, the black-sand beach of Vik and its offshore rock formations at Dyrholaey. Stay the night at Hotel Kria (hotelkria.is) in Vik town or try swanky Icelandair Hotel Vik.
Drives in this area are breathtaking. In summer take a road trip up the coast to the adsurdly gorgeous Jokulsarlon glacier lagoon, the rewards are certainly worth the 5 hour round trip.
Take a boat tour (icelagoon.com), or simply stroll around the perimeter watching the twilight play across its ice and water.
Take a jaunt out to the wild islands of Vestmannaeyjar, also called the Westman Islands (visitwestmanislands.com), off the southern coast. You’ll experience the lively community of Heimaey, where, in 1973, the island was evacuated of its 5,000 inhabitants after a volcanic eruption. Learn about this fascinating fight of humans versus nature at Eldheimar (eldheimar.is), an excellent multimedia exhibit built around a house once covered by the lava.
Superb boat trips with Viking Tours (vikingtours.is) take in the Westman Islands’ enormous puffin population and, if you’re lucky, pods of orcas. Don’t miss some of the most creative Icelandic food in the country at Slippurinn (slippurinn.com). Overnighting on the islands is easy, or catch Eimskip’s ferry, Herjolfur (seatours.is), back to the mainland and stay at the luxurious Hotel Ranga.
Explore the west coast up to Borgarnes, where early Icelandic settlers made their homes. In the heart of saga country, this zippy town offers top food, lodging and the fascinating Settlement Centre (settlementcentre.is), which brings Icelandic history to life.
Tour local landmarks of the poet warrior Egil’s Saga using the app. Dine at the Settlement Centre’s excellent restaurant, or visit Englendingavik (englendingavik.is) for seafront café fare. Borgarnes’s farmer’s market, Ljomalind (ljomalind.is), sells locally made knitwear, jewellery and crafts, as well as fresh farm-made treats.
Ice caps and hot springs
Journey inland to Iceland’s second-largest ice cap, Langjokull. On your way, have a soak at Krauma (krauma.is), fed by Europe’s largest hot spring, Deildartunguhver. Continue east, and take the pull-out for Hraunfossar (translated as Lava Waterfalls) where water pours from beneath the area’s vast lava shelf.
Sleep at Hotel Husafell – an oasis in rough terrain. Their restaurant is spectacular, but there’s also a café on-site for simpler meals, geothermal pools and a small slide for children. Book ahead with Into the Glacier (intotheglacier.is) for a rare chance to explore man-made caves carved within the ice cap. Do not attempt to drive up on to the glacier yourself – it is incredibly dangerous. Alternatively, you can book to explore a mile-long (1.5km) lava tube at Vidgelmir Cave (thecave.is) – it’s the largest in Iceland.
Wrap up your countryside touring on the Snaefellsnes Peninsula, a microcosm of all Iceland has to offer: glaciers, lava fields, beaches and wildlife. It’s a splendid day tour just looping out and back along the peninsula, taking in Snaefellsjokull, the glacier in Jules Verne’s Journey to the Centre of the Earth. Or book top whale and puffin-watching boat trips with Laki Tours (lakitours.com) or Seatours (seatours.is). Check west.is for more adventure options.
Country guest houses dot the peninsula, and the quaint village of Stykkisholmur punches way above its weight in the restaurant-and-hotel category. Recommendations include boutique Hotel Egilsen or modern Hotel Fransiskus (fransiskus.is).
Get local mussels and beer at Sjavarpakkhusid (sjavarpakkhusid.is). In the town of Grundarfjordur, the top-notch chef at Bjargarsteinn Mathus (facebook.com/Bjargarsteinnrestaurant) creates a rotating menu of seasonal Icelandic cuisine within view of the Kirkjufell mountain, featured in both Game of Thrones and 2013’s The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.
Return to Reykjavik for one last dose of arts and culture at Reykjavik Art Museum (artmuseum.is) or Volcano House (volcanohouse.is) and the cool Old Harbour – which also has whale-watching tours run by either Elding (whalewatching.is) or Special Tours (specialtours.is). Or indulge in a shopping spree, picking up local designs at Kirsuberjatred (kirs.is) and Skumaskot (facebook.com/skumaskot.art.design); Icelandic fashion at Kiosk (kioskreykjavik.com), Geysir (geysir.com) and Kron (kron.is); or music at 12 Tonar (12tonar.is) and Lucky Records (luckyrecords.is).
On your way back to the airport, stop off at the famous Blue Lagoon (it’s essential to book ahead at bluelagoon.com) for one last thermal soak before heading home.
When to go
Iceland is a year-round destination punctuated by the midnight sun in summer and the Northern Lights in the winter. As days length and temperatures rise, spring is a great time for exploring before the busier summer period. July is usually the warmest month with the lowest rainfall of the year. Days remain relatively mild in autumn. Winter is a magical season with long nights maximising chances of seeing the Northern Lights. In the south and west, the warming influence of the Gulf Stream keep temperatures around 0°C.
How to do it
The above can be arranged independently. A number of airlines fly from the UK to Reykjavik, including British Airways (ba.com), EasyJet (easyjet.com), Icelandair (icelandair.com) and Wizz Air (wizzair.com), and car hire is available from Keflavik airport as well as in the capital. Peruse the best hotels in Iceland in our guide. Alternatively, employ the services of a tour operator. We recommend Discover the World (discover-the-world.co.uk), Regent Holidays (regent-holidays.co.uk) and the Ultimate Travel Company (theultimatetravelcompany.co.uk).