If you’re short on time, what’s a good way to see and do everything important?
My favourite flight to Iceland is Icelandair’s FI455, LHR 21:10 – KEF 23:10 direct. You can do pretty much a full day at work and then fly off in the evening. The downside, of course, is arriving very late. Almost all hotels are staffed twenty-four hours a day but do let them know how late you’re arriving. Guesthouses and hostels may be different matters and you may need to make special arrangements to let yourself in.
Keflavik Airport is nearly an hour’s drive west of Reykjavik. You can take a taxi but your best option is one of the buses, either Grayline (Iceland Excursions) or Flybus (Reykjavik Excursions). Both of them will take you to their base – RE is at the big BSI bus station just outside the city centre, Greyline’s HQ is out at the far end of the bus line and not very convenient if you’re a foot passenger. Luckily both companies will also drop you off at the door of your accommodation for an extra fee, although you’ll first be taken to their base and then decanted into minibuses – Reykjavik is too small a city to cope with coaches navigating its narrow streets. I favour Grayline myself, I’ve used them ever since I’ve been going to Iceland and they do go above and beyond for their passengers, although it doesn’t feel as personal since they got really big. On the other hand, RE is the bigger and arguably more popular company. In this case, it’s exactly the same service so it comes down to price. (RE’s on-bus wifi is better is all I’ll say)
So by the time you’ve got off the plane, got through passport control, got on your choice of bus and got on the road, it’ll be midnight. It’ll be somewhere around 1am by the time you get to your accommodation. Sleep well, you’ve got a busy two days ahead of you.
Start big. You’re in Iceland, get out of Reykjavik and do something in Iceland. Go on a day trip that isn’t the Golden Circle (we’re keeping that for Day Two). What do you want to do? This is your “free day” – pick something you enjoy and do that.
Glacier hiking? Ice climbing? Jökulsárlón, the glacial lagoon? Snowmobiling? Sightseeing along the south coast? Waterfalls? Riding an Icelandic horse across a lava landscape? Whale-watching? Climbing Reykjavik’s Mountain? 4×4 buggy ride? White water rafting? Caving? Foodie tour? Sage tour? Nature tour? Snæfellsnes?
If you’re up for quite a big day out, I would recommend either Þórsmörk (in summer), a long day trip up a glacial flood valley to a beautiful green oasis, with a little light mountain climbing and canyon walking, or Landmannalaugar, which is accessible with the right tour company all year round. It’s about a five hour drive from Reykjavik, so it’s a really long day. In summer, it’s a beautiful colourful streaked oasis in the mountains with a wonderful but busy natural hot spring, so take your swimming stuff. Every tour company does a daily bus trip out there. In winter, it’s a hairy journey which requires specific snow conditions and minimum participants, so it’s liable to be cancelled and because it’s by superjeep rather than in bulk on a coach, it’s a lot more expensive. But it’s quite the experience to sit in the hot spring surrounded by white mountains and deep snow and have the place to yourself.
Unless you’re doing one of the really big tours, you should be back by late afternoon/early evening. Go into town, enjoy the view from the seafront, do some shopping, buy a copy of one of the Sagas (I recommend either The Saga of the Volsungs, Egil’s Saga or one of the Eddas) and find somewhere to eat. I’m not going to recommend anything, it’s too subjective. Reykjavik does really good pylsur – hot dogs, also pizza, burgers etc. If you’re after something more local, head towards the harbour for fish, puffin, hákarl (fermented shark – very much an acquired taste) or even whale. If you want to splurge, the restaurant at the Pearl is supposed to be quite showy – it’s on the top floor of that odd building on the hill that looks a bit like a UFO and it revolves, for dinner with ever-changing views.
In the summer, make the most of the late night by staying out late in Reykjavik. Go to the bars (be aware they’re more expensive than at home), enjoy the atmosphere and experience the Midnight Sun. Well, actually, Iceland doesn’t have true Midnight Sun but in my experience, if the weather’s ok, you can read in your tent without a torch all night, it doesn’t really get dark.
In the winter, go out on a Northern Lights tour. My personal success rate for seeing the Northern Lights currently stands at 20% so although you can book a plain Northern Lights hunt, I would suggest going for a “Northern Lights and” tour. Many companies offer variations on this theme. I particularly enjoy RE’s Warm Baths and Cool Lights tour which features a more-or-less private visit to the spa at Fontana (I’ve done this tour twice. No lights yet but the spa in the dark is wonderful and then you get a moonlit tour of southern Iceland). They also offer Northern Lights combined with the horse theatre, a boat trip or a foodie evening. Mountain Guides do a Northern Lights and Glacier Walk but that’s a full day, with a trip all the way out to Sólheimajökull.
Be up bright and early for a day on the Golden Circle – that is, Iceland’s premier sightseeing tour, taking in a spectacular waterfall, real spouting geysers, the Þingvellir rift valley and any of a variety of secondary stops. Grayline and RE both do tours, as do a dozen other companies, some in coaches, some in minibuses, some in expedition trucks. A full day trip lasts about eight hours with a lunch stop at Gullfoss. There’s also an afternoon tour but if you’re there in winter, it’s going to get dark quite early and also, even the full day is a but of a whirlwind tour where you don’t get long enough to enjoy the geysers. The afternoon tours do have the advantage of not spending two and a half hours trying not to freeze to death looking at Gullfoss, though.
You should get back to Reykjavik between 4pm and 6pm. Get yourself to the Blue Lagoon. Again, Grayline and RE do this and you can either pay just for the bus ride and then pay when you get there or you can pre-pay your entrance at the same time as booking the bus. I recommend this. It doesn’t speed up the process, you’ll still have to queue to show your voucher, but in recent years, the Blue Lagoon has been making noises about limited places and compulsory booking. I haven’t seen this actually implemented but it might be as well not to take the chance. If you’re flying tonight, you can book Blue Lagoon to Airport, whereby you put your luggage on the coach beforehand and when you’re picked up after the bath, the coach will take you straight to the airport, twenty minutes away, and your luggage will be waiting for you on that coach.
If you’re flying tomorrow, stay as late as you can in the Blue Lagoon. As of 2016, it closes at 10pm between June and August and 8pm the rest of the year and all the tour companies run buses to coincide with these times. I find the Blue Lagoon is just too hot on a hot summer’s day but it’s magical later on in the evening, when it’s dark or especially if it’s snowing gently. Get a drink at the in-water bar or the cafe or go for a meal in the Lava restaurant.
48 hours is nowhere near enough to see Iceland (you need at the very least two weeks to self-drive the majority of the Ring Road) but this will show you the Three Essentials – Reykjavik, Golden Circle, Blue Lagoon and give you a taste of what’s beyond it.