7 Tips for a Long Weekend in Iceland

Iceland is a hotspot for travellers these days. I see people who barely travel venturing off to Iceland. The country offers a lot of options that make planning a visit quite easy, including free layovers and various types of tour packages, to help you build your trip as you want it. We decided to go for an extended weekend and this post covers 7  tips on how to make the most of your long weekend in Iceland.

Off to Iceland!
Off to Iceland!

Tip #1: Don’t Take Out Too Much Cash

If you have a credit or debit card that doesn’t charge foreign transactions fees (and that earns rewards (e.g. miles, points, cash back, etc.)), then you will love Iceland. Pretty much everywhere we went took credit card. Even the small hot dog stand in a sleepy seaside town didn’t flinch when I asked to pay with card. I’m usually quite sensitive about paying with credit card in certain places; however, in Iceland, I didn’t feel I was committing a cultural faux pas. Instead, I felt like the unspoken response to my inquiries of credit card use was, ‘Of course. That’s perfectly normal. What are you asking permission to do such a normal thing?” If you’re coming from the US, make sure your card has a chip. While you should always take out some cash for emergencies, you won’t need much.

You can see a small card reader in this coffee shop in Reykjavik.
You can see a small card reader in this coffee shop in Reykjavik

Tip #2: Prioritize Tours

There are a TON of tours you can book in Iceland. You could solely see Iceland through tours if you wanted. You could also avoid tours altogether. For those who are in Iceland for a limited amount of time, tours can be an efficient way to experience aspects of Iceland that are a top priority on your list. When you’re considering booking a tour for something that has any degree of variability (e.g. Northern lights, whale watching, puffin watching), figure out which tour(s) is the most important to you and do this tour early in your trip. Why? You might not see what you’re looking for in your first outing. Most tour companies allow you to retake their tour if the thing you’re hoping to see doesn’t turn up. For example, we went on a whale watching tour, but after 3 hours, we didn’t see a whale. Fortunately, whale watching wasn’t our top priority (the Northern Lights were) so we found the fact that we didn’t see a whale kind of funny. Nonetheless, the tour company offered us vouchers to come back within two years and take the tour. If there is something you really want to see, do it early so you have a chance to try again if it doesn’t work out the first time.

On a whale watching tour.
On a whale watching tour (minus the whales).

Tip #3: Maybe Go To The Blue Lagoon

Debates about whether or not to go to the Blue Lagoon are plentiful throughout the internet. First off, the Blue Lagoon is human-made pool (established in 1976) of sorts. The water comes from an adjacent geothermal power plant, which heats the water by harnessing a nearby lava flow. The water is definitely a luminescent, jewel-like blue. Over the years, the Blue Lagoon has become a major tourist attraction with the price tag and packages to match. Deciding whether or not to visit the Blue Lagoon is totally a personal call. It’s one of those experiences that the Icelandic tourism industry has successfully ingrained as part of the ‘Iceland experience’. The idea of not doing it makes you feel like you’re missing out, even though you know it won’t live up to the hype. Anyway, here is my take:

  • If you decide not to go, but still want to visit a geothermal pool, there are plenty throughout Iceland and you will find something that suits your interest.
  • If you decide to go to the Blue Lagoon and want to do it as cheaply as possible, simply pack light (e.g. water bottle, snack, bathing suit, towel (they charge for them), wallet)) and book the cheapest package.

Personally, I’m glad I went because I like to experience a broad range kitschy tourist attractions from time to time. While I wouldn’t recommend it for a serene, spa experience, it is excellent for people watching. It’s really fun to see how people take in the lagoon and get really confused about what to do the silica facial masks. Would I pay to do it again? Probably not. Was it worth it as a one-time visit? Definitely.

A view of the geothermal power plant that feeds the Blue Lagoon.
A view of the geothermal power plant that feeds the Blue Lagoon.

Tip #4: Eat Hot Dogs

Almost any guide that mentions Icelandic food will tell you to go eat hot dogs (pylsur in Icelandic). This is for good reason. The hot dogs in Iceland are delicious. This is coming from someone who lives in Germany and is a huge fan of all things bratwurst (Ja, Blutwurst auch). Icelandic hot dogs are a mix of lamb and beef and they have deep and slightly smoky flavor. They are usually topped with ketchup, a sweet brown mustard, a distinct yellow greenish remoulade sauce, and raw and/or fried onions. Hot dogs also quite a cost effective meal (usually around $3.50 USD) in a typically pricey food environment. Hot dogs can be found throughout the country and are enjoyed by both locals and tourists.

Icelandic Hot Dogs...but where are the onions?
Icelandic Hot Dogs…but where are the onions?
icleandic-hot-dog
Here they are!

Tip #5: Stay Downtown

If you are going to Iceland on a short trip, you will likely be based in the capital Reykjavik. I highly recommend staying downtown or as close to downtown as possible. We stayed just a hair outside of the downtown area and we ended up having to walk at least 40 minutes (one-way) to get to most places we wanted to check out (and eat at!). I do love to walk; however, it can get windy quickly, which makes walking a bit unpleasant. Taxis are pricey (like everything else) in Iceland so it might be worth paying for a more conveniently located hotel.

Waterfront views in downtown Reykjavik.
Waterfront views in downtown Reykjavik.
Brunching in downtown Reykjavik.
Brunching in downtown Reykjavik.

Tip #6: Budget Time To Roam Reykjavik

Iceland attracts visitors for a number of reasons and high on the list is usually its stunning landscape. Many people can’t wait to get out of the city and drive off to into the geologically active horizon. I fully understand because I am one of those people. Still, I wished I had budgeted more time to roam around Reykjavik and take in the city.

Hallgrímskirkja-church

Tip #7: Get Out Of The Capital

Huh? After I told you to stay in the capital, I’m telling you to get out? Yes! If you’re planning a long weekend in Iceland, you might consider simply staying put and having a city holiday in Reykjavik. Don’t do this! While taking in Reykjavik definitely warrants some of your time, never leaving Reykjavik is not recommended.  We decided to rent a car for a day and drive the Golden Circle. The Golden Circle is a tourist route that includes a number of cultural and environmental attractions. The concept of ‘the Golden Circle’ is fairly new and definitely geared for tourists, but it’s a useful starting point when planning a day drive. The main three attractions are Thingvellir National Park, the Gullfoss waterfall, and geysers Strokkur and Geysir in the Haukadalur Valley. If you’re driving around, make sure to explore some of the other attractions along the route and check out small towns along the way. I know it’s cliché and a bit romanticized, but get lost a little. It’s one of the best parts of driving around (most) places. And don’t worry, there aren’t that many roads so you can’t get too lost.

A geyser getting ready to blow in Haukadalur Valley.
A geyser getting ready to erupt in Haukadalur Valley. Check out the eruption video here!
I saw this sign and we had to pull over! I got an Icelandic wool hat!
I saw this sign and we had to pull over! I got an Icelandic wool hat!
We randomly stumbled across Eyrarbakki harbour. The coastal views and sunsets make this one of my favorite places we saw in Iceland.
We randomly stumbled across Eyrarbakki harbour. The coastal views and sunsets make this one of my favorite places we saw in Iceland.

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Smiti Nathan

I’m an archaeologist that travels around the world for both work and pleasure. I have a penchant for exploring ancient and modern places and the people, plants, and foods entangled in them. I write about archaeology, travel, and productivity.

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