***Disclaimer: This is something I quickly put together when a friend asked for advice regarding her upcoming, 3-day trip to Iceland. In an effort to be helpful, I figured I would put it on the internet to increase ease of sharing in case it can help others in their planning endeavors. It is by no means an end-all be-all expert guide, simply a reflection of my own time spent on the beautiful island.
You will be flying in and out of KEF International airport and have to bus to and from Reykjavik. You will see the ticket counters by the exit. Despite being the most thorough planner on the planet, I somehow overlooked this tiny detail and was quite surprised when I arrived NOT in Reykjavik two minutes from my hostel. If only I’d had someone like me to tell me…
I recommend busing over renting a car right away simply because it is easier and not overly expensive. To be fair, I am not sure how car rental rates in Keflavik compare to Reykjavik so that may be worth checking out.
If I remember correctly, the ride is less than an hour. If you fly in early enough to beat the crowds, you may want to consider doing the blue lagoon at this time since it’s in the general area (south of Reykjavik), although I can’t be very helpful with that since I skipped it. I have heard mixed reviews – that it is too expensive and touristy to be worth it (especially since it’s not a true geothermal pool) and also that it is a must-do. Up to you. Also, there are buses that go to and from there in Reykjavik if you prefer to go not at this exact moment.
From the bus at KEF, you arrive in Reykjavik at the BSI Flybus station (and that is also where you will buy your return bus ticket to the airport when you leave, so take a pic or pay attention to the timetable while you are there to be sure you plan appropriately when the return time comes). You will likely need to then take a van ride to your accommodation from the BSI station (which is a small additional fee that you will have the choice to pay for initially when you purchase your bus ticket at KEF I believe, and then it is taken care of for you). I had planned to walk from BSI, so I didn’t pay the extra fee, but my hostel ended up being much too far so luckily they were nice enough to drive me there anyway – a common theme of Icelanders.
I stayed at the Bus Hostel my first night. I think it was the equivalent of ~$45/night, not including sheets/towels. Believe it or not, it was the cheapest I could find. If you need to meet people, sleeping in a hostel the first night is the best way to do it. That is how I found my three adventure partners that I ended up renting a car and road tripping the whole island with. It is maybe a 20 minute walk from the city center, so it’s outside the main area, but totally doable if your priority is your budget. There is public transportation, but Reykjavik is so small there is really no need to use it.
I met other people who stayed at Loft, which was directly in the city center and super convenient, but much more expensive. I knew I needed to meet people, so I didn’t even look into it, but I believe there is a decent couch surfing community and probably airbnb as well.
Another option is the Reykjavik campground. It’s within walking distance and I think around $10/night. It is essentially a large open space to pitch your tent among others and has group showers. The only concern would be charging appliances – I don’t think there is much or any outlets and in order to charge in a restaurant you have to buy something (super expensive) and also stay in that one location for long enough for it to charge.
The minimum wage equivalent is ~$20/hr, so everything is super expensive. Like, a salad in a cafe is >$20 and beer during happy hour is $9. There is an awesome liquor store a few doors down from the big open square in the city center (you will find it) and you can purchase Icelandic brewed tall boys for like $3 each (among other kinds). It’s awesome. Do you like how beer suggestions come first? Priorities.
There are also grocery stores throughout the city, the yellow one with the pink pig is the cheapest/most popular. I think it’s called BONUS. I just bought bags of frozen veggies, dry seasoning packets, and fresh baguettes and made soup err day – super cheap, healthy, and easy to make and clean up in a crowded hostel or without feeling bad in someone else’s home.
Whatever you do, don’t eat the endangered species often served to attract tourists. Even though they advertise it as being authentic Icelandic cuisine, the locals don’t actually eat them. If you do want cheap local (non-vegan) food, there are little hotdog stops in the aforementioned field/open space in the city center that are super popular.
There is also an awesome fresh bakery that’s a super colorful hole-in-the-wall spot on one of the side streets. I’ll try to remember where it is if you want, but with enough exploring you will likely come across it. There is also an excellent (and expensive, as expected) vegan ice cream spot! Go Iceland!
Outside of Reykjavik, there are pretty literally zero places to eat or buy food. So unless you want to survive off of gas station peanuts and pretzels, bring food (and booze) with you when you leave the city.
Anyone who’s spent any time in Europe knows this is a legit topic. Similar to most everywhere else, you cannot just walk into a place and use their restroom. Often, they don’t even have bathrooms. In Reykjavik, there are public restrooms that look like time machine space tubes. They are tall green cylindrical metal free-standing things sticking out of the street with rotating doors. Even if just for the experience, you have to pee in it at least once. They’re a little gross. That being said, always pee before you leave your accommodation and every time you buy something in a place with a bathroom – even if you don’t have to go.
THINGS TO DO:
In the City
Exploring Reykjavik can be done in a few hours or a few days. I spent several days wandering the streets after my road trip (because leaving was too expensive) and I actually really enjoyed it each time. Pretty much everything west of the church is fun to meander – shops, street art, squares, etc., and there are free walking tours. I did one because I had the time, but it’s definitely not necessary. And you can skip climbing the church. Unless you want to. The bird’s eye view of the city is nice but there are a million other better ones in Europe – when in Iceland, I say save your $ for the nature!
Near the City
There is a hike (Askja I think the mountain is called, but ask any local and they can tell you) that is a short and cheap bus ride north of the city if you get antsy and don’t want to venture super far. I didn’t actually do it, and with the short amount of time you have I would say skip it – instead just suck it up, leave the city, and go see the real stuff.
Also, tours and rides around the Golden Circle are very popular. Hence, usually crowded with tourists and a bit more expensive. But for good reason. This may be the best option if you only have one full day to leave the city and/or don’t want to rent a car (or only want to rent for one day). You can see a lot in a single trip around the Golden Circle, a lot of view ‘bang’ for your time ‘buck’ – definitely look into it at least.
Outside the city
That being said, the cheapest and best way, by far, to explore outside the city is to rent a car. Just practice your manual driving! If you can find friends who need rides and want to split the cost, even better. If not, it is still going to be cheaper than taking the bus, and a million times more flexible. Rent a car. I forget who we went through, but there are places all over – blue something I think? You might have to book a meeting or car in advance to be sure to get one, but we walked out with a different car than we reserved so it is at least somewhat flexible. Bonus if your car has a USB charger. Depending on your data plan you may also want to think about getting a GPS or wifi gadget – but with the amount of time you will be on the road you probably don’t need any of that. The ring road is very easy to follow and you won’t really need to venture to far off it for any reason.
I would suggest driving the south coast, heading east out of Reykjavik. Don’t worry about spending a lot of time driving, there are incredible views from the Ring Road. You can get a map at any hostel or rental, which I highly recommend. I think the first major must-see along that way is Selfoss (waterfall), and the next is Skogafoss (waterfall – pictured). Somewhere between there, or maybe it is even before Selfoss, there is a hot spring river called Hveragerdi Hot Spring river. It isn’t on many tourist maps so we had a bit of a hard time finding it but it was very cool. You can camp at the base of either waterfall for a small fee, and at Skogafoss there is a path that actually leads to a 21 day trek through the heart of the country to the north coast. When I was there I backpacked only as far in as the first base camp and stayed overnight there, but then had to bus back the next day because the snow was still too deep to allow hikers any further inland. If you do this, have an idea of your plan before you start hiking – especially the bus ride back because there are only two per day. It was, however, the most incredible hike I have ever done. There are photos on my FB page (the second half of the album, I went back and did the hike after leaving the boys I road-tripped with). If nothing else, when you stop at the waterfall, you can at least climb the stairs to the top and walk for a bit on the other side of the gate along the path.
If you can, make it as far as Vik. Here is where we had the best experience petting the Icelandic horses, and the black sand beaches may have been one of my favorite places we saw. There is a hostel in Vik where you can stay if need be, but it might book up by mid-day if you go during a popular time.
While I would normally hands down suggest bringing or renting camping supplies (there is a great place in Reykjavik, although they don’t have the most high tech lightweight stuff for backpacking purposes), there isn’t really anywhere to camp besides the designated grounds under the two waterfalls between the city and Vik. Anywhere further east or heading north from Reykjavik you could just pitch a tent on the side of the road for free, which is what we did. But between the two cities the fenced farmland runs pretty close to the road so it is not really possible. I would say either plan to make it to Vik and stay in the hostel there and forgo the camping supplies, or camp at the base of Skogafoss (since I am guessing you only have time for one overnight outside Reykjavik).
***Things to do summary***
Even if you don’t want to sleep outside Reykjavik, you could probably divide your driving exploration up into day one: Golden Circle drive and walking city sightseeing, and then day two: head east to Selfoss, the hot spring river, and turn around at Skogafoss and still drive straight back before the sky gets pink, skipping Vik, to get some sleep before heading out on day three. Opt. Adding the blue lagoon to either day at the end if possible if you want.
P.S. You can see the picture of places I am talking about on my FB album.. It will be backwards from what I said since we traveled the opposite direction, so once you see horses, start there and that will be Vik, Skogafoss, the river, and then we didn’t get out at Selfoss cause we were trying to make it back in time.
FINAL THOUGHTS TIPS:
If you go during summer, bring rain gear and layers – though the weather is very temperate, usually between 35-55 since the sun doesn’t go far enough down to cool off much at night, it can be unpredictable.
Along with that.. Bring those sleep eye patch things if you want to sleep in the summer. It is hard to stop exploring and go to bed when it never gets dark and there is so much to see.
You can drink the stream water in Iceland, so don’t worry about bringing water filters or anything to purify or pack excessive water if outside civilization. It’s the best, just stick your water bottle in the nearest waterfall!