If you think Iceland is a country to visit only in the summer, think again. Iceland has its unique beauty in the winter plus less crowds and lower costs as a bonus. While some summer activities won’t be available (such as hiking in the highlands), there are unique winter fun (including chasing the northern lights and exploring natural ice caves)!
We have visited Iceland in both summer and winter. We picked the best places and activities we experienced on both trips in Iceland’s western and southern regions to come up with this optimized 7-day Iceland itinerary for your winter adventure and aspiration for chasing the northern lights!
Day 1: Arrival – Blue Lagoon – Reykjavik
Most flights from New York arrive in Reykjavik’s Keflavik(KEF) airport early in the morning. Keep in mind that the flight schedule and time change may make you feel very tired on your first day in Iceland. So, we recommend staying in Reykjavik instead of driving a along distance on the arrival day.
Driving a rental car is the best way to get around in Iceland. For most of European destinations we traveled to, we often use RentalCars.com for its large selections and competitive prices. Up To 30% Off Car Rentals At RentalCars.com.
After picking up your rental car, drive 20 minutes to the famous (and highly controversial) Blue Lagoon. What a grand introduction to Iceland! The Blue Lagoon is only 13.5 miles outside of the airport and on a small detour from the route to Reykjavik.
PRO TIP: You can also visit the Blue Lagoon at the end of this itinerary depending on your flight schedule. If you skip the Blue Lagoon on your arrival day, you will have more time to explore Reykjavik.
FAQ: Is Blue Lagoon worth visiting? We avoided the Blue Lagoon on our first visit to Iceland after reading controversial reviews. We are glad we made up for it on our second trip to Iceland! It can be crowded and “commercial” as some comments described, but honestly, your trip to Iceland is not complete without visiting the Blue Lagoon. Make a reservation on Blue Lagoon’s official site well ahead to reserve desired day and time.
Make yourself an algae and silica mud mask. Order a cold beverage from the swim-up bar. Just relax as long as you wish in the hot milky blue water in a chilly winter morning. We recommend putting your phone in a waterproof phone pouch. Plan at least 2 hours at the Blue Lagoon.
After easing your jet lag at the Blue Lagoon, drive just under 1 hour (30 miles) to Reykjavik. After checking into your hotel, start exploring Reykjavik. Reykjavik, the capital city of Iceland, is a beautiful vibrant small city. It has many one-ways streets and limited parking space, so it’s the best to explore Reykjavik by walking.
Why not let a viking take you on a 2-hour guided Reykjavik city tour? The tour will be the most efficient, informative, and interactive way to explore the most important highlights of Reykjavik:
- Harpa Concert Hall and Conference Center
- Arnarholl Statue
- Laugavegur Street
- Hallgrimskirkja Church
- Tjornin Lake
- Reykjavik City Hall
- Althingishus Parliament House
- Austurvollur Square
If you decide to wonder around in Reykjavik by yourself, start walking to Hallgrimskirkja Church, an iconic landmark in Reykjavik. If open, you can climb to the top of it to get a bird-eye view of Reykjavik.
The water-front Harpa Concert Hall and Conference Center is a beautiful architecture from all angles. But make sure to go inside to appreciate its unique architectural design. Get a photo of the nearby Sun Voyager, one of the most popular photo spots in Iceland.
If you didn’t visit the Blue Lagoon earlier, you can spend your spare time to visit the National Museum of Iceland or one of a few museums in Reykjavik that interests you the most. Or, you can roam around and shop in Reykjavik’s Laugavegur Street.
Take a break to warm up with a hot bowl of Icelandic lamb soup for lunch at Icelandic Street Food in downtown Reykjavik. Icelandic lamb soup is a must-try and we just couldn’t have enough of it (especially in the winter)! The latest food trend is food halls in Iceland. You can also check out Hlemmur Matholl and the Grandi Matholl in Grandi district.
If you are a foodie, join a Reykjavik food walk to taste delicious local cuisines while learning the city and culture from a local guide. If you feel adventurous, taste Hakarl (fermented shark), Iceland’s national dish, for an interesting experience. Warning: it’s pungent!
If you still feel awake after dinner and want to take advantage of a dark clear sky, you can book a northern lights hunting tour from Reykjavik by a professional guide who are professional hunters and photographers for the northern lights. They will take you out of Reykjavik to get away from light pollution.
If you prefer to hunt the northern lights by yourself, it’s also a lot of fun. But the success will depend on your knowledge, determination, and a big dose of luck. We did a lot of research and used a few apps to guide us toward the amazing northern lights. Here is how we caught the northern lights with these 7 tricks.
Spend the night at the Eyja Guldsmeden Hotel, a beautiful hotel with free on-site parking (which is a rare luxury in Reykjavik).
Day 2: Snæfellsnes Peninsula
In the morning, start your journey toward Snæfellsnes Peninsula on Route 1. About 30 minutes away from Reykjavik, you will approach the Hvalfjörður Tunnel, a 3.6-mile-long undersea tunnel. It’s a lifetime experience by itself to drive through the incredibly long Hvalfjörður Tunnel! The Hvalfjörður Tunnel cuts down driving time around the Hvalfjörður fjord from one hour to just 7 minutes.
Drive 30 minutes further north and make a stop at the Geirabakarí Kaffihús (Coffee House & Bakery) in Þjóðvegur (a filming location as “Papa Johns” in the film The Secret Life of Walter Mitty). Enjoy the stunning bay view with a cup of hot coffee and delicious Icelandic pastries. We recommend watching The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (2013 film) before visiting Iceland.
After a short break, drive 1 hour to Olkelduvatn Natural Spring. It’s easy to miss Olkelduvatn Natural Spring, marked by a very subtle sign. Pay attention to the right side of the main road for a sign. It’s worth a quick stop to fill up your water bottle with the naturally sparkling mineral water which also tastes great!
After leaving the Olkelduvatn Mineral Spring, you will make a few short stops along the shoreline. Ytri Tunga is a beautiful beach where many seals come to hang out. You can also find some old whale vertebrae.
Make the next stop at the lonely black Búðir Church, one of the oldest wooden churches in Iceland. Walk around the cemetery and read about history on the church. There are well marked hiking trails in the area. Take a longer walk if weather permits.
If visibility is good, you can stop at the Snæfellsjökull View Point. Unfortunately, we never had a glimpse of the Snæfellsjökull mountain during our visit. It was covered in clouds. I have been fascinated by Snæfellsjökull since a kid because of the novel Journey to the Center of the Earth (1864) by Jules Verne. In the novel, a passage in Snæfellsjökull is supposed to be the entrance to the center of the earth.
By now, you should already be in the Snæfellsjökull National Park. Make your first stop at Arnarstapi, a small fishing village, to find the famous Arnarstapi Gatklettur Arch Rock which looks like two kissing lovebirds.
In a short drive, stop at Lóndrangar View Point, to take in an incredible view of the entire coastline in the area with such unique rock formations. Mist and clouds make those incredibly shaped giant rock pillars in the ocean look like ghostly giants in Icelandic sagas.
If you don’t want to circle around the Snæfellsjökull mountain, it’s time to turn back and head toward Kirkjufell (45 minutes drive). You will take route 54 to cut through the Snæfellsnes Peninsula to the north coast.
Otherwise, continue driving northwest and take a small detour toward Öndverðarnesviti at the most western tip of the Snæfellsnes Peninsula, where you will see how the vikings lived in the past in such harsh climate. Check out the boat landings, underground food storage, and a small lighthouse.
It’s time to head toward Kirkjufell, the most photographed mountain in Iceland (50 minutes drive). Find the best photo spot to capture Kirkjufell mountain and Kirkjufellsfoss waterfall in one shot. In the winter, bundled-up photographers line up from this spot to wish and wait for the northern lights dancing behind such an iconic view.
Make a reservation at Bjargarsteinn Mathus restaurant for dinner. They serve delicious Icelandic traditional food with a modern European twist. If you are lucky, you may get a table by the window with a view of Kirkjufell in the moonlight or maybe even the northern lights!
Drive around 30 minutes to where you will spend the night, Stykkishólmur, a beautiful history-rich fishing town on the Snaefellsnes Peninsula. The town was the filming location for the depictions of Nuuk, Greenland in the 2013 movie The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. If you have seen the movie, it’s not hard to recognize this unique skyline with the white church. Get a panoramic view of Stykkishólmur from Súgandisey Cliff and visit Súgandisey Island Lighthouse, which is an awesome lookout point.
Fill up on gas and stock up on snacks in Stykkishólmur for the next portion of your trip. Even thought Stykkishólmur is a small fishing town, it’s probably the largest town you will drive through in a few days.
DRIVING TIP: Gas stations can be a long distance apart from each other in Iceland outside of Reykjavik. Plan ahead to map out where they are. Or, fill up when you see a gas station.
Spend the night at Hótel Fransiskus Stykkishólmi. If you have not had dinner, walk over to Sjávarpakkhúsið restaurant. Make a reservation well ahead.
Day 3: Golden Circle (Thingvellir National Park – Silfra Snorkeling)
If you arrived Stykkishólmur late last night, explore Stykkishólmur in the morning and fill up on gas before heading to Thingvellir National Park (a 2.5-hour drive).
Thingvellir (or Pingvellir) National Park has otherworldly landscape and offers you a rare chance to walk between two tectonic plates. It’s a large area so plan at least one hour to explore.
Our favorite experience in Pingvellir National Park is snorkeling in Silfra, a fissure between North American and Eurasian plates. Surprisingly, snorkeling or scuba diving in Silfra is a year-round activity. It really is once-in-a-lifetime experience! It may sounds intimidating at first, but it is very safe with professional guides and easy to swim and float with dry suits. Read more about this experience in our how to plan and snorkel in Silfra Iceland here.
As you must be guided by one of the few professional companies, book a guided Silfra snorkeling tour well ahead for this increasingly popular activity. Plan 3 hours for this tour. The last tour starts around 2PM and these late spots sell out quickly.
Drive 1 hour from Silfra Fissure to your hotel for the night. We recommend staying at the Gullfoss Hotel near Gullfoss Waterfall, or Hotel Geysir in walking distance to Strokkur Geysir. Being close to the Geysir or Gullfoss will help you to beat the crowds in the morning. Enjoy a hearty meal at the hotel and relax after a long rewarding day.
Day 4: Golden Circle (Geysir – Strokkur – Gullfoss) – Vik
After breakfast, head to Geysir hot spring (a dormant geyser) and its active neighbor Strokkur before the crowds arrive. Watch Strokkur erupting up to 100 feet high every 5-10 minutes (1 hour).
Drive 10 minutes to Gullfoss, the Golden Waterfall, which will impress you with its amazing beauty and power (1 hour).
After leaving Gullfoss, drive 30 minutes for lunch at Friðheimar, a very unique restaurant specialized in innovative dishes made with tomatoes grown in their greenhouse. It opens daily from noon to 4PM (Please check their schedule before your visit).
Aftern lunch, we will give you three options to choose from based on what sounds the most interesting to you. Option 1 is what we recommend the most:
OPTION 1: Drive 2 hours to the Solheimassandur plane wreck site. From the parking lot to the plane crash site, it’s a flat but long walk (a 45-minute walk each way). Plan 2 hours at this stop.
OPTION 2: Move on to the nearby Secret Lagoon. Comparing to the famous Blue Lagoon, the Secret Lagoon is much smaller and less commercial in a natural setting.
OPTION 3: Drive 30 minutes to the Kerid volcanic crater for a different kind of geological wonder. The green water in a crater lake makes a beautiful contrast to the red rocks around it.
Either option you take from above, you will end up on the southern coast in late afternoon. You will spend the next three days along the southern coast. Unlike some other itineraries you might have read, we planned this itinerary to avoid very long driving distance (7-8 hours) in a single day.
If seeing the northern lights is high on your bucket list, we recommend staying the Umi Hotel tonight. We had the best northern lights sighting and stargazing from the Umi Hotel’s parking lot. The hotel is situated in a perfect setting with a panoramic view of Eyjafjallajokull Volcano (the famous volcano erupted in 2010 that caused enormous disruption to air travel across northern and western Europe for a week).
Day 5: Reynisfjara Beach – Dyrholaey Lighthouse – Skaftafell NP
In the morning, visit the Reynisfjara Beach and Halsanefshellir Cave for the phenomenal natural formation of Basalt columns and caves. Visit during low tide is preferable so you can safely enter the large cave just behind the columns.
Visit the Dyrholaey Lighthouse and the Dyrholaey Viewpoint for the amazing natural beauty. If you are lucky, you may see a puffin or two in this area.
Drive 2 hours east to Skaftafell National Park. Take a short hike to Svartifoss waterfall and get a good look at the tallest peak of the magnificent Vatnajokull mountain.
Drive 25 minutes further east to spend the night at the Fosshotel Glacier Lagoon. Book early as there are limited quality hotels in this area. This hotel is a great location for the northern lights due to low light pollution.
Day 6: Jokulsarlon Glacier Lagoon – Ice Cave Tour
Enjoy a hearty breakfast at the hotel and drive 25 minutes east to Jokulsarlon Glacier Lagoon, watch seals swim around the icebergs. Next, walk under the bridge to Diamond Beach on the other side of the highway. You will see why it’s called Diamond Beach when you get there.
Natural Ice Cave tours are only available in winter months so take advantage of this natural wonder! Tour companies will go to different ice caves from either Jokulsarlon (see this Natural Crystal Blue Ice Cave Tour of Vatnajokull Glacier) or near Skaftafell National Park (see this Skaftafell Ice Caving & Glacier Hike).
Ice caves may change conditions due to weather so tour companies will decide whether it’s absolutely safe to go into a certain ice cave so the cave and starting point may change with a notice. Plan 2.5 to 4 hours for it.
After Jokulsarlon or Skaftafell where your ice cave tour ends, your journey will start to turn around heading west. We recommend driving around 2 hours back to Vik. Spend the night at Hotel Vik i Myrdal in Vik.
Day 7: Skogafoss – Seljalandsfoss – (Blue Lagoon) – Departure
After checking out your hotel, head to the Skogar Museum (check opening hours) to visit turf houses and how Icelanders lived in the past. Very interesting experience.
Visit the Skogafoss waterfall next to the museum. Catch the rainbow hanging below the waterfall. Climb the steps on the right side of the waterfall to trace up where the amazing Skogafoss comes.
After Skogafoss, make a short stop at Drangurinn to see the fascinating turf house ruins built around the 9th century.
Next, drive to Seljalandsfoss waterfall, another unique waterfall because you can walk behind the waterfall. You WILL get wet so wear rain coat and even rain pants. BTW, rain coat and rain pants are essentials to pack for an Iceland trip year-round.
It may be time to head to the airport (2.5 hours) to catch your flight home. However, if you have not visited the Blue Lagoon on your arrival date, let’s drive 2 hours from Seljalandsfoss waterfall to the Blue Lagoon. What could be a better way to wrap up your Iceland vacation at the Blue Lagoon?
If you don’t fly home until next morning, stay at the Northern Light Inn near the Blue Lagoon, or Hotel Berg in Reykjanesbær (just 6 minutes from the airport where you can find many restaurant choices.)
If like our itinerary but you prefer to take an arranged tour instead of self-drive, this 7-day Classic Iceland tour is the closest to our itinerary.
Got questions? Want to share with us your experience? Leave a comment below. For more travel information on Iceland, we recommend this Fodor’s Iceland travel guide.