5 days in Iceland - a complete road trip itinerary and guide for first timers
Updated: Dec 29, 2019
Iceland had been long on my before 30 bucket list so when I finally got to travel there, I was so excited and built up so much expectation in my head yet the country exceeded all of my expectations. Iceland was breathtakingly beautiful. Everywhere I went, I was amazed by the natural beauty of the pristine landscapes.
When to go?
There is no definite answer to this question as it depends on what you want to do.
I've summarised a few things that you may want to consider below:
Northern Lights: the lights are from September until April. September to October and February to March are the best months to catch them. There is no guarantee that you will see the auroras. You can download some forecast apps which provide forecast a few days in advance but in my experience they are not very accurate.
Temperature: Spring and summer time is generally quite warm with temperature varying between 10 and 15 celsius degree on average. The weather, however, can be quite unpredictable, sometimes it may drop to 5 or soar to 25 celsius degree. Springcan be wet and summer is fairly dry although it may rain occasionally. December, January and February are the coldest and iciest months with temperature as low as - 30 celsius degree. Don't let that put you off going to Iceland during the winter because the country is spectacular in any time of the year. Just need to make sure that you dress appropriately. Check out my blog post on how to dress for Iceland here
Daylight: During winter you don't get much daylight. December and January are the worst with sun rise at 11am and sunset at 3pm where as in June and July the day light lasts until midnight (Pack an eye mask or be prepared for some nights with troubled sleep as your body adjusts to the light). You get more time in long summer days to explore plenty of locations and photos are generally better in summer when the sun is out. The downside is that you won't likely get to see the Northern lights. The lights can only be seen when it's dark and the sky is clear.
How expensive is Iceland?
Everything there is pretty pricey in my opinion. I thought England was expensive but it was not compared with Iceland. Just to give you an idea: We went to a restaurant for lunch in Vik. A sandwich there cost more than 10 euros and a proper main course more than 30 euros. The restaurants that we went in Reykjavik had similar prices. They were proper sit down restaurants, however not the fancy ones. If you want to cut down your costs, perhaps consider packing lunch or getting an apartment so that you could cook instead of eating out every meal.
Where to go?
1st day - Reykjavik - Northern lights
Our group arrived in Reykjavik airport in the afternoon. After collecting our luggages, we picked up our rental car at the airport and then drove to Reykjavik which was about 1 hour drive. By this time, it was already really dark. We checked in, went out for dinner and then drove to a field outside Reykjavik to escape the city lights, hoping to see Northern lights. As you probably know, it's not possible for forecast northern lights days in advance, so it all comes down to luck whether you can see it when in Iceland. We didn't have any luck with our first time chasing Northern lights despite waiting for a couple of hours in the freezing weather and the forecast showing that there might be some moderate activity :(
2nd day - Skogafoss waterfall - Vik black beach
On the second day we set off at 9am to go Jokulsarlon, the famous glacial lagoon in Iceland. Located in the southeast of Iceland, the lagoon is probably the country's most well-known crown jewel. The drive to Jokulsarlon from Reykjavik takes about 5 hours. Some people drive there and back in one day. However, we decided that it would be too exhausting so we made it a two-day trip. This way we could stop at some attractions along the way.
Our first stop was Skogafoss waterfall, which was about 2 hour drive from Reykjavik. The first time I saw it, I was impressed at its size as I had never seen such a big waterfall before. Skogafoss is one of the biggest waterfalls in Iceland with a height of over 60 metres and width of 25 meters. The fall is stunning and the view of the top of it is simply unique. If you are there on a sunny day like I was, you're in luck because those rainbows at Skogafoss are real and they are magical !
After spending about an hour there, we got back in our car and drove to Vik, a remote village facing the sea that is known for its black pebbles on the beach. It took only about half an hour to get there. We went around the village to look for a place to eat. After lunch, we had a long walk on the beach and watched the sun go down. The roaring waves of the Atlantic Ocean ashore, the black sand and the fresh cold air made it an unforgettable experience.
In the evening, we arrived at our hotel. The hotel was about 1 hour drive from Jokulsarlon and located in a field far from the city so that we could have a better chance of seeing the Northern lights. The forecast said moderate activity but we only saw some very faint glows appeared on the horizon. It was visible to us for about an hour and then danced away.
I'm going to debunk a myth for you here. The colours of auroras in photos are always exaggerated by cameras due to long exposure. Below is a photo of the glows that my friend captured. It looks pretty good in the photo, doesn't it? However, in real life, the lights were much fainter.
3rd day - Jokulsarlon - Reykjavik
The next day we drove to Jokulsarlon the glacial lagoon. Icebergs floating on the blue water was just not something we got to see everyday. It was magical. It was beyond my all of my expectations.
While walking around to take in the spectacular view, I noticed a lady in her sleeveless wedding dress with her feet soaking in the water. I was shocked because I was shivering under 5 layers of clothes. I guess ... the things you would do for your wedding photo shoot...
On the way back to Reykjavik we stopped at the glacier ice caves to walk around. There we truly experienced the cold in Iceland that people talked about. It was almost unbearable because of the strong winds
4th day - Golden Circle
The next day we set off at around 9am to embark on our Golden Circle adventure. The Golden Circle comprises of three attractions: Gullfoss waterfall, the geysir and Thingvellir. The significance of these attractions is in that order so if you're short on time, make your way to Gullfoss and then geysir.
It took us about 1 hour 40 mins to get to Gullfoss. Located in the canyon of the Hvítá river in the southwest, Gullfoss is one of the most iconic and biggest waterfalls in Iceland (and probably in the world). The waterfall flows down into a 'staircase' before falling into a crevice 32 metres deep. The size of the waterfall is unbelievably massive. The Skogafoss waterfall seemed so insignificant to Gullfoss. (my tip here is to skip all other waterfalls and go straight to Gullfoss if you don't have much time). I stood in awe of the magnificence of the waterfall.
We then drove to the geysir, which was only 10 mins drive from Gullfoss. We once again got stunned at the blue water shot out of the geysir every few minutes. It was the first time I saw the activity so I was really excited.
We later went to Thingvellir a historic site and national park in Iceland, east of Reykjavík but it was too dark to see anything. It was after 4pm at the time but the sun already set. We decided to miss it and head back to Reykjavik. If you travel in winter, make sure to factor in the lack of daylight when planning your trip otherwise you would miss it like us :-(.
5th day - Blue Lagoon
The next day we spent exploring Reykjavik. There wasn't much to see in Reykjavik. We had a walk around for a couple of hours and went to see Hallgrimskirkja, the largest church in Iceland that towers over Reykjavik centre. The church has a very unique and distinct architecture as you can see in the photo below.
After the city walk, we drove to enjoy a bath at Blue Lagoon. We purposely set this as our last destination because it was very close to the airport. It was such an unique experience to bath in the soothing geothermal water when it was 0 degree outside. The water was so warm that I didn't bother the cold wind blowing on my head at all. There was a bar there so you could have drinks while chilling in the water. Remember to book in advance so you wouldn't have to queue and it's cheaper to buy in advance. Here is the link to booking tickets.
The Blue Lagoon concluded our trip to Iceland. We headed to the airport afterward and flew back to England.
I enjoyed every minute in Iceland. The landscape was so scenic that I wasn't bored at all while on the car. There are still parts that I didn't get to explore but they're saved for the second trip ! This is definitely a country I would go back for more. Have you been to Iceland? What are your thoughts on the country?