One of the most popular day trips from Reykjavik is the Golden Circle trip, which follows a route to the north east of the city and visits three of Iceland’s most popular attractions, Thingvellir, Gullfoss waterfall, and the Geysers.
Thingvellir National Park (Icelandic: Þingvellir), is in fact the first National Park in Iceland and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It’s interesting for a number of reasons. First, it was the site of Iceland’s first parliament, and meetings were held here as far back ago as 938. There’s a museum you can explore, and a number of sites you can visit on a self-guided walking tour.
Thingvellir is also interesting for its tectonic and volcanic activity, and you can clearly see the action of the continental drift between the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates here, which has resulted in huge rifts and cracks in the ground.
You can actually go snorkelling here in stunningly clear waters and see the continental divide from a unique perspective. This is one of the more popular activities in Thingvellir, so definitely worth booking in advance. Don’t worry – a dry suit is provided to keep you warm in the freezing waters!
There’s also a beautiful waterfall in Thingvellir, Öxarárfoss, which is worth the short ten minute walk to visit.
After Thingvellir, the next stop on the Golden Circle tour is Geysir. This geothermal area is home to geysers, bubbling mud posts and steaming landscapes, and is in fact the home of the original “Geysir”, where the English word for geyser comes from.
Finally, your Golden Circle adventure will take you to Gullfoss, one of Iceland’s most spectacular waterfalls. With an average of almost 5,000 cubic feet of water tumbling over the two stage falls every second, it’s an incredible sight that you are not likely to forget.
Situated about a two hour drive to the north-west of the capital, this is a very achievable destination to visit as a day trip from Reykjavik.
Here you will find the incredible and fantastically photogenic Kirkjufell mountain, which sits as the backdrop to the Kirkjufellsfoss waterfall. This is a unmissable photographic opportunity in Iceland, and made the top of my list of photography locations in Iceland.
There’s more to the Snaefellsnes Peninsula than Kirkjufell though. Other highlights include the incredible Snæfellsjökull Glacier, which can actually be hiked on in the right conditions. There’s the 19th century wooden Búðir Church. There are the Gerðuberg basalt columns – 14 metre high columns that just jut up out of the landscape. There’s also the opportunity to spot seals at Ytri-Tunga beach.
And there’s lots more – including a landscape that inspired Jules Verne’s Journey to the Centre of the Earth, more incredible waterfalls, fantastic golden beaches, the Bjarnarhöfn Shark Museum where you can try fermented shark meat – the list goes on!
You can easily drive here yourself with a hire car and tour around, and there’s certainly enough to do here to allocate two days if you have the time.
Continuing beyond Vik you’ll find the unusual Svartifoss Waterfall which tumbles over black columnar rock formations, the Svínafellsjökull Glacier that you can get so close as to almost touch, and the otherworldly Jökulsárlón glacier lagoon.
It is certainly possible to do the majority of the highlights of south Iceland as listed above as a day trip from Gardur, just be prepared for a very long day (it’s about five hours driving each way from one end to the other in a car, not counting any stops!). If you are keen on seeing the highlights of the south coast, then we would suggest trying to stretch it over two days if possible.
The South Coast
Iceland’s South Coast is home to some of Iceland’s most iconic sights. It’s here you’ll find the sixty metre high waterfall you can walk behind (Seljalandsfoss), the absolutely spectacular Skogafoss waterfall, and the beautiful black sand beaches and basalt columns at Reynisfjara, near the picturesque town of Vik.
Do not miss Dyrhólaey Cliff with an amazing view on the black beach and a place where you can spot thousands of Puffins in their natural environment. A bit further on the way stop by Reynisfjara Black Sand Beach and finally get to Vik.
The day trip to Landmannalaugar is one of the most popular day trips. Landmannalaugar is an otherworldly landscape of colourful mountains, smoking hillsides and bubbling mud pots, accessed across vast ash covered plains.
Here, you can see the splendour of the Icelandic Highlands, and take a trek through a truly fantastical landscape. The trek takes around an hour to ninety minutes, and does require a bit of a climb through lava fields. It’s also really important to dress appropriately! So layers and waterproof and windproof clothing is essential.
Landmannalaugar is also relatively tricky to access, as the roads can be hard to drive, require a four wheel drive vehicle, and, depending on the time of year and weather conditions, a number of river crossings.
So whilst you can do this if you rent a four wheel drive vehicle, generally we’d suggest taking either a tour, or a bus. There are regular buses through the summer months out to Landmannalaugar from Reykjavik, although these take around four hours each way, so do be prepared for a bit of a trek.
Various operators run super jeep tours to Landmannalaugar, which stop at different attractions, and so the tour you pick should depend on what you want to see.
Don’t forget to bring your swimming clothes – there are free hot tubs at Landmannalaugar if you want to soak a bit after the hike.
Þórsmörk, or the Valley of Thor, is one of the most popular hiking destinations in Iceland. In fact, you can hike from here all the way to Landmannalaugar on an epic four day hike, which is one of the most popular things to do in the area.
But, we’re talking about day trips here, and Thorsmork is very much worth visiting just for a day of hiking. It’s a beautiful green valley found under the glaciers of Eyjafjallajokull and Myrdalsjokull, with the 14km hike up Fimmvorduhals volcano being a popular option.
Þórsmörk is one location that you should really consider taking a specific tour to visit. The reason for this is that getting to the Valley of Thor requires some serious river crossings – usually more than 10 – and no hire car in Iceland is ever covered for damage resulting from river crossings.
Alternatively, there are buses that run here, although, as with Landmannalaugar, these do take a while and will eat into your day.
Vestmannaeyjar archipelago is very likely the best-kept secret about Iceland. It is the puffin capital and home to some of Iceland’s most remembered volcanic eruptions. The main island Heimaey is home to more than four thousand habitats and sheep roam the islands. It is where time stands still.
Book your ferry here www.seatours.is
Ice Cave Tour
If you are visiting Iceland in winter, one of the most popular things to do is to take a tour of an ice cave. These form inside and underneath glaciers, and the incredible hues of the ice make for a fantastic experience.
Note that this is different to the previously mentioned “into the glacier” tour, as that is a man-made tunnel inside a glacier, whilst these ice tours are of naturally formed ice, which is much clearer.
This is definitely a trip that you need to do as a guided tour. Glaciers are notoriously dangerous places, and you want to be in the hands of an expert when visiting an ice cave to minimise any risks.
There are a number of ice cave tours from Reyjkavik, plus some with departures from other areas that you might find yourself. For example, there’s this one to the Vatnajökull Glacier from the Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon, another one from Skaftafell and from Vik.
Game of Thrones
Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the last few years, the chances are that you will have heard of the Game of Thrones TV show. What you might not know is that the fantasy land of Westeros, and in particular the snowy scenes shot “north of The Wall”, are actually filmed for the most part in Iceland.
This is excellent news for fans of the show, as it means you can visit many of the key locations from the show as a Reykjavik excursion, including one of the wildling camps and the pass to the Eyrie, both of which were filmed at Thingvellir national park.
As locations were found all over Iceland, there are only so many you can visit from Reykjavik itself. You’ll want to take a Game of Thrones tour to visit the key sites within a day of the city. There’s another version of that tour available here.
Other tours are also available, including an epic four day Game of Thrones guided tour, which is for serious fans with a bit more time on their hands! For more ideas, see our guide to all the GoT filming locations in Iceland.