Ah Iceland. It’s hard to believe that it wasn’t that long ago that nobody knew about this island country. Thanks to Game of Thrones, that’s all now changed but even when I first visited in 2012 people were more confused than interested. Looking back on the Iceland that I experienced in 2012 compared to Iceland as it is today, I can’t believe how different it is. How busy, how much more built up, how much more touristic. But I know why: Iceland is stunning. That being said, the high prices usually act as an intimidation factor to visit, but for those who are eager to explore, you can actually see and do quite a bit with 3 days in Iceland; perfect for those who are thinking of a stopover. Ready to explore? Here’s how to make the most out of an Iceland stopover.
How to Get to Iceland
Icelandair offers free Iceland stopover options for a few days. This is perfect if you are already planning a trip somewhere to Europe, the USA, or Canada and want to add in 3 days in Iceland. This is what I did during my first visit and it was a great way to see Iceland with the added benefit of breaking up a trans-Atlantic flight. Of course, you can also just grab a flight to Iceland. Since it’s only about 5 hours from Montreal (the closest major international airport to me), it makes for an easy long weekend trip which is what I did with my mom for a girls trip to Iceland.
How to Get Around Iceland
If you are spending a lot of time in Iceland, then the best way to get around is by car. Renting a car really does offer the most freedom since there is no public transit system. However, since this guide is for 3 days in Iceland, I’m going to suggest day tours and shuttle buses over renting a car to take away some of the stress and maximize your Iceland stopover.
There are regular shuttle buses between Reykjavik (the capital) and the main airport in Keflavik. It’s about 45 minutes to an hour and the buses will drop you off either at or very close to your accommodation. There are also shuttle buses to the Blue Lagoon as well as a number of tour companies offering day trips by bus or minivan to Iceland’s nearby attractions.
The Best Time of Year to Visit Iceland for 3 Days
Iceland is a year-round destination which is perfect for travellers looking for an Iceland stopover. However, if you are specifically going for the northern lights then your best bet is between the months of September and April. While the northern lights are a definite highlight of Iceland (if you get lucky and see them), it’s also amazing to visit during the summer months as well with the long daylight hours.
Since this guide is for 3 days in Iceland, I’m suggesting that you rely on day trips rather than renting a car. However, if you think you do want to drive around yourself, then you may be best visiting during the summer months. Iceland in the winter months has a lot of route and road closures. You should also have experience driving in winter conditions (snow and ice) if you plan on renting a car in Iceland in the winter.
Where to Stay for 3 Days in Iceland
Reykjavik is the capital of Iceland and the perfect place to use as your base for your Iceland stopover. Plus, since you only have three days in Iceland, it makes it easy to stay somewhere central for exploring the town and nearby countryside.
Reykjavik has plenty of accommodation options however you need to remember that Iceland is significantly more expensive than other destinations so be prepared to pay a bit more. Travellers should also know that due to Iceland’s popularity accommodation in Reykjavik books up really quickly so to avoid disappointment you definitely want to book right away.
Here are my top recommendations on where to stay in Reykjavik.
You can also try Airbnb.
My Suggested Itinerary for 3 Days in Iceland
This Iceland itinerary is based on my own experiences. I’m sharing what I think is the ideal schedule based on my top recommendations, but feel free to adjust as you will. Chances are your flight will arrive very early in the morning if you are coming from North America (around 5 am) and depart mid-late afternoon on the third day so keep that in mind if you make any changes. With that being said, here’s what I suggest for 3 days in Iceland.
Day 1: Arrive and Explore Reykjavik
As mentioned above, you will likely arrive in Reykjavik very early in the morning. If this is the case then, unless you pay extra at your hotel, you will have quite a bit of time before check-in. But don’t worry, there actually are things to do this early in the morning.
Your first stop, once you arrive in Reykjavik and drop off your luggage, will likely be breakfast. There are plenty of great cafés in the city perfect for grabbing a bite to eat. I suggest Kaffitar which opens at 7am or the Grey Cat which opens at 7:30am during the week or 8am on weekends.
After breakfast head down to the Harbor area to take in the views. Since the highlight here is the natural beauty and some interesting buildings and sculptures, it doesn’t really matter what time you visit. Of course, during the winter months, you may want to linger a little longer at the café until it’s brighter out, but this area is still a nice place to come early morning before the crowds. Be sure to check out Harpa Concert and Conference Hall which is Iceland’s version of the Sydney Opera House, and look for the Sun Voyager boat sculpture by the sea.
At 10am there is a walking tour offered by City Walk. Personally, I love walking tours as a way to get to know a bit more about a destination. If that sounds of interest you can learn more here (you do need to book your time slot in advance). Not a fan of walking tours? Not to worry- you can explore Reykjavik on your own.
Reykjavik has a number of museums, shops, and sites. Obviously, you need to choose what is of the most interest to you, especially since you only have three days in Iceland, but here are a few places that I think are worth a look.
- Hallsgrimskirkja Church: head to the top for beautiful city views
- Laugavegur: the main shopping street- perfect if you are looking for Icelandic souvenirs. There are plenty of great Icelandic designers in this area offering unique products.
- Icelandic Phallological Museum: Yes, Iceland has a penis museum and it is strangely fascinating.
- Tjornin: Ideal for summer visitors, Tjornin is a pond near City Hall that is a popular place to sit and relax for a bit. It’s also home to 50 different species of birds. It’s a great bit of green space in the heart of the city.
- National Museum of Iceland: If you are a history fan then this is a great place to spend a couple of hours. Plenty of Viking artefacts makes it interesting for people of all ages.
- Aurora Reykjavik: If you are interested in learning about the northern lights, then this is the place to go, especially if you are visiting during the summer and won’t be able to see them for yourself.
- Volcano House: Iceland is known for its volcanoes and this exhibition offers the perfect opportunity to learn more about them. There are hands-on exhibits as well as hourly documentaries.
- Swimming Pools: Icelandic people love their thermal pools and there are 17 swimming pools in Reykjavik. Spending some time here (summer or winter) is a great way to get a feel for the local life.
- Look for Street Art: Reykjavik has some awesome street art so keep your eye out for murals as you explore.
Your nighttime plans will depend on the time of year you visit and the weather. If you are visiting in the winter, I recommend going out in search of the northern lights. This does need to be booked in advance but if the night is a bust in terms of weather, you will be rescheduled for the next night. The tour runs quite late though, so you’ll probably want to take some time during the afternoon and grab a nap.
If you aren’t visiting during the winter, you can call it an early night or check out Reykjavik’s nightlife scene. Keep in mind, alcohol in Iceland is insanely expensive, but they know how to have a good time. Try the Reykjavik beer tour or hit one of the city’s bars or clubs.
Day 2: Take a Day Trip
Reykjavik is a cool town but, let’s be honest, you came to Iceland for the scenery; waterfalls, geysers, volcanoes, and glaciers. That’s where the magic is. Since you only have 3 days in Iceland, you’ll likely only have the time for a one-day trip. Here’s a run-down of some of the most popular options to choose from.
The Golden Circle Tour
Iceland’s Golden Circle Tour is the most popular day trip. On this day trip you will see Gullfoss Waterfall, the Geysir area, and Þingvellir National Park where you can walk (or snorkel/scuba dive!) between two continents. The Golden Circle Tour can be done on its own or in combination with another activity such as horseback riding, snorkelling or diving in Þingvellir National Park or caving.
Iceland South Coast Tour
If I had to recommend a day trip for first-time visitors, it would be this one. I think the scenery is much better than the Golden Circle and it has more to offer. You will see two stunning waterfalls: Seljalandsfoss and Skogafoss as well as the town of Vik and the nearby Black Sand Beach.
If you are up for a long day trip (14 hours) you can extend your Iceland South Coast Tour by adding on Jokulsarlon glacier lagoon which has the beautiful Diamond Beach.
Snæfellsnes Peninsula is another great day trip option with dramatic scenery. Mountains, volcanos, craters, glacier, gold sand beaches and more are some of what you will discover on this day trip. You’ll also get to stop in a small fishing village.
Game of Thrones Tour
Where are my GOT fans? I know you are out there! So if a big part of why you want to visit Iceland is because of your favourite TV show then this tour is for you. Check out the filming locations, meet some characters, and if you find a pack of dire wolfs pups then please save one for me!
Whales and Puffins
If you’d rather be on the water than on land, then take a half day whale and puffin watching tour. The fluffy little puffins are adorable and the whales you may see include minke whales, humpback whales, white-beaked dolphins, and harbour porpoises. Whale watching tours are operated year round, however whale season is between April and October. These tours usually run about 3-4 hours so can be done in combination with another smaller tour.
Day 3: Blue Lagoon and Depart
I know that people say- that the Blue Lagoon is overrated. But I LOVE it, and I’m not even a big spa person. First off, it’s beautiful and pretty amazing to experience, especially if you go in the winter and are surrounded by snow. Secondly, my skin has never felt better than after spending a couple of hours in that water. And thirdly, Iceland is known for its thermal pools and while there are others around the country, if you only have 3 days in Iceland than the Blue Lagoon is your best bet.
I like recommending travellers to visit the Blue Lagoon before their flight home. You can get a bus from Reykjavik to the Blue Lagoon, then from Blue Lagoon to the airport (only about 15 minutes away). It’s the perfect relaxing way to end your trip and it always relaxes me before my flight as well.
Please note that you MUST book your tickets to the Blue Lagoon in advance. As Iceland is getting more and more popular, the Blue Lagoon has created a booking schedule so that it doesn’t get too busy. Book well in advance to get your preferred time slot. For more tips, check out my Blue Lagoon post.
If you really aren’t feeling the idea of spending half a day at the Blue Lagoon, then I suggest switching up this 3 day Iceland itinerary and making today your day to explore Reykjavik and adding another day trip into day one which will be long and busy, but allow you to see more of the country’s natural beauty.
Food and Drink in Iceland
Like everything else in Iceland, food and drink can be very expensive. There are grocery stores which offer a cheaper option, but chances are you do want to eat out a couple of times. Some recommendations include:
- Fiskfelagid: Known for their fish dishes and Icelandic seafood
- Baejarins Beztu Pylsur: A popular vendor for Iceland’s famous hot dogs.
- Caruso: Delicious Italian food- perfect for warming up after a cold day exploring. The lasagna here is amazing.
You may see puffin, whale, and shark on Icelandic menus. Please, as ‘exotic’ as these dishes sound, don’t order them. All of these animals are now threatened thanks to the spike in tourism and interest in these old Icelandic foods. Not to mention, I haven’t heard of a single person who actually says fermented shark tastes good.
Tips for Exploring Iceland on a Budget
It’s no secret that Iceland is expensive, but it’s not really until you pay $20CAD for a bowl of soup and a bun that you realize just how expensive it really is. While I’m all about spending your money on awesome experiences, there are a couple of ways you can cut costs in Iceland. Here are a few helpful tips for exploring Iceland on a budget.
- Book accommodation in advance: Booking really early is a great way to get a deal. I love booking.com for this because they always have daily deals and many of the hotels offer free cancellation if something comes up.
- Shop at the Grocery Stores: Food in Iceland is horribly expensive, especially for what a lot of it is. While I think it is worth eating out at least once during your 3 days in Iceland, I also recommend you take advantage of the grocery stores for snacks and even breakfast items to take back to your hotel if it’s not included in your stay.
- Don’t buy bottled water. Icelandic water is delicious (even if the hot water does smell funny). Bring a reusable bottle and fill it from the tap.
- If you plan on drinking- do it during happy hour. Or, do as we did, and get duty free alcohol at the airport before you come and drink it in the evening when you are back in your room.
Must-Pack Items for Iceland
Packing for Iceland really depends on the season but you may be surprised that it’s not as cold as you think. The average winter temperature in Southern Iceland is 0 degrees Celsius (32F). As a Canadian who suffers through -40C winters, that kind of feels like summer. However, it can feel damp and chilly so your best bet is pack in layers- for summer as well. A few essential items for Iceland are:
- Reusable water bottle: Remember, the tap water is not just drinkable but delicious.
- Water resistant layers: I love the Underarmour Storm series for men and women which offer cozy sweatshirts that are also water resistant. Perfect if you get caught in the rain.
- Mitts, hat, gloves: For the winter months. If you don’t have any then it’s probably best to buy some there. They have really nice wool mitts that make a great souvenir.
- Lightweight power bank: Because you will be taking a million photos on your phone and the battery will drain very quickly.
- Travel Tripod: If you are interested in photographing Iceland’s waterfalls then a tripod is a good idea. You don’t need a fancy expensive one, just something to help stabilize that will support your camera.
Fun Facts About Iceland
Looking to learn a little more about Iceland before your trip? Here are some fun facts about Iceland.
- Iceland is home to the first ever Parliament. It dates back to 930 AD.
- Iceland is home to more than 120 volcanoes.
- Iceland has no forests- the Vikings cut them all down. While you will see some trees, the lack of proper forests is definitely noticeable.
- Geothermal energy is used to power about 80% of the country. How’s that for eco-friendly!
- Iceland has plenty of folklore regarding elves and trolls. About 50% of locals today still believe in these creatures. If you are interested in learning about this, consider taking a Icelandic Mythology and Monster walking tour in Reykjavik.
- You won’t find McDonald’s in Iceland- it doesn’t exist here.
- The Icelandic language is incredibly well preserved. Texts from 1000 years ago can still easily be read.
- Mosquitos do not exist in Iceland (start your happy dance now)
- Iceland is very safe and peaceful. The police don’t carry guns and the county doesn’t have an army, navy, or air force.
Three days in Iceland doesn’t seem like a lot of time, and while you could definitely stay longer this short Iceland stopover will allow you to see and do quite a bit. At least enough to fall in love with the country and make plans to return again.
A Note on Travel Insurance in Iceland
Please, do NOT travel without travel insurance! I’ve had to rely on mine multiple times. While the cost may seem annoying and better spent elsewhere, trust me when I say you’ll be sorry if you don’t have it. For just a couple bucks a day, you can save yourself a whole lot of stress and money. I like to recommend SafetyWing for travel medical insurance as they are one of the most affordable options I’ve found, plus, they are who I use and I have had great experiences with them. Learn more about the importance of travel insurance here.