How to Spend 3 Days in Reykjavik, Iceland
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After spending 7 days driving around the entire country, we were ready to settle into Iceland's capital for 3 days. The city of Reykjavik is small and can be easily explored in a day. However, it makes a great base for day trips to the Golden Circle, Blue Lagoon, or other exciting adventures. This guide is meant for people who have included the ring road in their itinerary. If you are only visiting Iceland for 3 days, I would recommend exploring either Snæfellsnes Peninsula or the South Coast instead of staying in Reykjavik. I love scandanvian cities and Reykjavik is one of my favorites. It is a beautiful coastal city with brightly colored buildings and roofs to brighten up the likely cloudy and rainy days. As you will probably surmise from the photos below, it did rain the entire time.
Where to stay:
While in Iceland, we stayed solely in Airbnbs throughout the country. We loved having a place all to ourselves in the residential area of downtown. Having a kitchen helped us save a lot of money on food in this super expensive city. We recommend staying in the Marina – within walking distance of all Reykjavík sights, great harbor views, and amazing restaurants.
Day 1: Golden Circle
The Golden Circle is Iceland's most popular driving route. It is easily done as a day trip from Reykjavik, either by self-driving or on an organized tour. This drive includes a great variety of the nature Iceland is known for. It is great for people who only have a short time in Iceland but want to get out and explore beyond Reykjavik. We did the golden circle after driving around the whole country and the golden circle ended up being a bit of a disappointment, especially with the number of people at each place. Regardless, we would still recommend visiting the golden circle attractions, no matter how much time you are spending in Iceland.
The Golden Circle is typically made up of three main attractions: the huge and impressive Gullfoss waterfall, the Geysir hot springs, and the tectonic rift of Thingvellir National Park.
Very close to the Golden Circle sights is Kerið, a multi-colored volcanic crater filled with vibrant blue water. Unfortunately, this is one of the very few places in Iceland that costs money to see. It is not any better than the hundreds of natural wonders that are free to see. However, preservation and maintenance at any of these places cost money. We were glad to pay a minor admission fee if it is going to protect Iceland's nature. While we were there, there was a man rebuilding steps down to the center of the crater (in the pouring rain, might I add). Kerið is located on private land so the landowners are the ones working to protect it.
There are a few crater lakes in Iceland, but this is one of the most colorful. The crimson rocks contrast with the green burst of vegetation growing on them and with the aquamarine water below. The circumference of the crater is 270 meters and there is a well-marked path to follow around the edge, including a path to walk down to the water.
We visited first thing in the morning. It was not too crowded when we arrived but as we were leaving a large bus pulled up and the place filled with people. The golden circle is not where you go to enjoy nature alone.
Time Spent: 40 minutes
Cost: 400 isk per person, $4
Lunch at FRIðHEIMAR
When planning our trip around Iceland, there was only one restaurant that enticed me. Friðheimar was the only restaurant we ate at while in Iceland. Most days we spent less than $5 on food, but we splurged to have a lovely tomato-centric meal in a greenhouse. They only have a few items on their menu, but there really only needs to be one: all-you-can-eat tomato soup and bread. The restaurant is located in one of the tomato greenhouses they have on the property. You can explore the greenhouse, learn about their bees while you wait for your table or after you have eaten.
The soup and bread are self-serve – meaning no one will know how many slices of bread you've eaten. It was the best tomato soup I have had in my life. At the table, they have basil plants where you can pick your own basil and cut pieces into your soup. You are also given a plate of sour cream and cucumber salsa. Every so often, I still get a strong craving for that cucumber salsa. They sell it, along with the tomato soup, on their website. If it wasn't for the high shipping cost, I would be eating some right now. They had 5+ different flavors of bread to try out, all were amazingly fluffy.
If you want to go, you do have to make a reservation in advance.
Time Spent: 1 hour
Cost: $41 for two people
The word geyser comes from this very place. Geysir is a hot spring, geothermal area along the Golden Circle. The area has several hot springs and geysers. The namesake Geysir is actually no longer regularly active. Just a short walk away though is Strokkur, which shoots a large jet of boiling water every 5 to 10 minutes. Be sure to stay for a couple of its spurts, as some are taller than others (ranging from 20 to 40 meters).
Time Spent: 30 minutes
While not my favorite waterfall in Iceland (might not even be in the top 5), Gullfoss is extremely impressive for its size and the force of the water. Photos do not do Gullfoss justice for just how large it is. It is a beautiful two-staged waterfall that attracts a lot of people. Might be repetitive at this point, but all of the Golden Circle attractions are way too crowded. You can walk up close to the waterfall, close enough to get soaked by the mist.
Time Spent: 40 minutes
Typically, the Golden Circle also includes Thingvellir National Park. Since we had planned to snorkel Silfra the next day, which is located in Thingvellir, we saved it for before snorkeling. Additionally, we had lousy weather this day and we're hoping to explore Thingvellir, not in the pouring rain.
Day 2: Adventure Activities
There are several great activities or tours that can be done close to Reykjavik. We were able to fit two into this day: horseback riding and snorkeling Silfra, along with a quick stop at Thingvellir National Park
You will see Icelandic horses everywhere you go in Iceland. They are a special breed of horses – a bit short and with a unique way of walking. There are several horseback riding companies within 20 minutes of Reykjavik that allow you to experience the Tölt while exploring a bit of Iceland's landscape. You can read about our full experience horseback riding here.
No matter if you have never ridden a horse or are a professional, riding on the Icelandic horses is an incredible experience.
Time Spent: 2.5 hours
Cost: $100 per person
Thingvellir National Park
Þingvellir (or Thingvellir) National Park is an impressive stop on the Golden Circle not only for the interesting geology and scenic overlooks but also for its importance in the history of Iceland. It is actually the only UNESCO World Heritage Site in Iceland (however that will likely change soon).
Iceland is right along the rift of the North American tectonic plate and the Eurasian plate. Thingvellir is the best place to go to clearly see this divide. These plates move apart approximately 2.5 centimeters a year. As they move, they cause the volcanic eruptions and earthquakes that are relatively common in Iceland's history. The park has several paths that you can walk along the plate walls or see the waterfalls in the area.
This was also the site of the old Icelandic parliament. The ruling chiefs started meeting here in 930 AD to discuss the laws of Iceland. This was one of the first examples of representative parliaments, well before it became the governmental style of the United States or France. It is also where they declared their independence from Denmark in 1944 AD. Now all of the governmental business is done in Reykjavik.
Time Spent: 1 hour
Cost: $7 for parking
Snorkeling Between tectonic plates at Silfra
The highlight of our trip. Silfra is an underwater fissure within Thingvellir National Park. Despite the lack of living things, Silfra is an amazing place to snorkel or dive to see the splitting of the tectonic plates in incredibly clear glacial water. There are a couple of companies that allow you to access the water with a guide to ensure your safety.
To read about our incredible experience snorkeling Silfra, click here. It was our favorite activity in Iceland – or anywhere in the world. You only spend about 30-40 minutes in the water, but it is the most magical and serene experience. The current takes you along – so you do not really have to swim that much.
Time Spent: 2.5 hours
Cost: $140 per person
Day 3: Downtown REykjavik & The Blue Lagoon
After spending a couple nights in Reykjavik, we were finally able to actually explore the city. Since our Airbnb was right near the harbor, that is where we started. All of Reykjavik's sights can be done in one day.
Harpa is a gorgeous concert hall situated right on the old harbor. Most Scandinavian capital cities have their own uniquely designed typically-glass opera halls on the water. Iceland's is my favorite. Harpa's exterior is incredibly impressive both from looking at it from the outside and once you come inside. It is free to enter to just walk around and admire the glass structure. There are many shows running at all times if you have some extra time to kill, but we just went in for a quick look.
Time Spent: 15 minutes
Sculpture & Shore Walk
If you continue walking along the shore east of Harpa, you will run into several sculptures. The most notable being the Sun Voyager (Sólfar). It is a steel sculpture of a Viking long-ship created by Jón Gunnar Árnason. A lot of tour buses let large groups out right at the sculpture, so it might be hard to get a photo free of random tourists. The rest of the sculpture walk along the shore is less busy. Walking the entire path may take a while. Feel free to walk as far as you wish to enjoy the views. It is also popular among bikers and runners.
Time Spent: 40 minutes
The beautiful Hallgrímskirkja church's design was based around the striking basalt columns you can find throughout Iceland. The 74-meter tower can almost be seen everywhere in Reykjavik. The inside is similar to many other churches in Iceland, complete with a grand Organ. It is often crowded inside the church, especially if it is raining outside. It is free to enter the church but there is an extra fee to go up the observation tower.
While a bit pricey, we thought it was worth the 1000isk for the view of the city. You likely will have to wait for the elevator as it only fits a few people at a time, but once you are up you are able to stay as long as you want. We waited less than 15 minutes, but during busier times it can take over an hour. It is not a completely unobstructed view, but it is easy enough to maneuver your camera through the bars to take pictures.
Time Spent: 30 minutes
Cost: $9 per person
The Icelandic Phallological Museum
Before even considering Iceland as one of our top must-see destinations, we had heard about the Icelandic Phallological Museum from an overly cheerful sex educator. Founded in 1997, the museum arose from a single man collecting penises from as many species as he could in the name of Science. The Museum itself is rather small but it houses over 200 penises from nearly all of the land and sea mammals in Iceland.
The crowning jewel is a 6ft long specimen from a sperm whale. Our favorite room was the one dedicated to myths and folklore. They had specimens that fisherman or other Icelandic residents collected from mythic creatures like trolls, mermen, ghosts, etc. They even have four human parts and several contracts stating people will donate their own penis to the museum upon their death. The Icelandic Olympic Silver-medalist handball team even have silver casts (very fitting) of their members on display.
The museum is not just for laughs (but it is definitely amusing), it is also very fascinating. You are given a sheet of paper with all of the information on each specimen in your desired language. It tells when, where and by whom it was collected. As a scientist, it is honestly quite interesting seeing the diversity yet homogeneity between earth's creatures.
Time Spent: 35 minutes
Cost: $14 per person
After the Icelandic Phallological Museum, we walked to Tjörnin Pond through many of the main shopping streets in Reykjavik. During the winter, the pond freezes over allowing you to walk directly on it. However, in the summer it is just filled with many birds and is near most of Iceland's government buildings.
The Blue Lagoon
After walking several miles around the city and the previous 10 days of traversing across Iceland, we finally visited the Blue Lagoon spa. The Blue Lagoon is 45 minutes outside of Reykjavik. Most people do it either immediately coming from or going to the Keflavik airport, but we decided to enjoy it while we were still staying in Reykjavik. We were not tired and able to extend our stay at the spa and go back to the Airbnb to properly shower afterward.
You can read more about our Blue Lagoon experience in this post. To sum up, we felt the blue lagoon 100% lives up to the hype and is worth the admission fee. We spent over four hours at the lagoon and or in complex either wading through the water or in the saunas. Reapplied the included silica mask four times and made use of our free drink on some great Sykr yogurt fruit smoothies.
It was the perfect way to end our trip in Iceland.
Time Spent: 4.5 hour
Cost: $80 per person
SO NOW THAT YOU KNOW WHAT WE SAW, WHY DON'T YOU WATCH IT:
What we skipped:
While we did go to one museum in Iceland – The Phallological Museum – we did not go to any that actually were concerned with Iceland and its history. There are plenty of amazing museums in Reykjavik, it is just not our cup of tea. Some museums with great reviews and are worth checking out if you want to learn more about Iceland include:
The National Museum of Iceland – tells the full history of Iceland from settlement, foreign rule, independence and finally to the modern era
Whales of Iceland – obviously on the massive creatures you can find swimming around Iceland, with several life-size whale species models
The Settlement Exhibition – underground museum that showcases an unearthed longhouse and various early Icelandic settler artifacts
The Saga Museum - about the Viking settlers of Iceland with life-like historical figure replicas