Worthy of more than a 1-day stopover, we guarantee that Iceland won’t disappoint.
Let’s start by addressing a common question that I hear from would-be travelers: is Iceland overtouristed? The answer is emphatically “no,” especially if you know where and when to go. Iceland’s rise to a tourist hot spot has less to do with its 130-plus volcanoes, shooting geysers, and bubbling hot springs, and more to do with a business gamble that Icelandair made back in the 1960s when it offered passengers a free, 3-day stopover when traveling through Reykjavík between North America and Europe. Now, that freebie has been extended to seven days, encouraging travelers to plan full-blown vacations to Iceland in addition to their other travels. Icelandair has further capitalized on the increased tourism by building an entire Icelandair-branded chain of hotels.
So should you book your next European (or North American, if you’re on the other side of the pond) vacation on Icelandair with a multi-day stop in Iceland? Yes, absolutely. You’ll be getting two destinations for the price of one airline ticket. Truth be told, you may end up enjoying the Iceland portion of your itinerary even more than your original destination, which was the case for my family on our recent Ireland-Iceland vacation.
Note: We booked the tickets on Icelandair through a KidTripster partner called AirTreks. Each ticket was $450 cheaper than booking directly through the airline! If you book through this link, KidTripster gets some coffee money from AirTreks at no additional cost to you. Thanks in advance for your support!
When to go? The most common time to explore Iceland is summer. The weather is more reliable, and you’ll have nearly 24 hours of daylight to see this spectacularly beautiful country. But for more intrepid travelers, winter has some appeal, as well. Shorter days mean more opportunities to see the Northern Lights. And some activities like ice caving are only doable in the winter. But overall, you’ll likely cover far less ground during the winter.
How long should you stay? My advice - don’t shortchange yourself. I always feel badly when a friend says that her family is only spending 24 hours in Reykjavík on a quick stopover. While Reykjavík is a charming city, it’s not the reason to visit Iceland. The real Iceland is beyond the city limits (and beyond the famed Golden Circle) and too vast to explore in one or two days. At a minimum, I’d recommend planning for five days/four nights. However, after spending that amount of time in Iceland with my family, I wish that we’d have done the full week, allowing us to get to some of Iceland’s far-flung regions.
How much will it cost me? I’m not going to lie, Iceland is pricey. In fact, according to Statistics Iceland, prices are on average 66% higher than in other European countries. A hostel (not hotel) room that can accommodate a family of four will run you $250/night during high season! Based on my firsthand experience and extensive research of accommodations, I strongly recommend renting an Airbnb-type apartment when visiting with a family. You also can check out our list of affordable (by Reykjavík standards) hotels that can fit a family in a single room. As for food, avoid white table cloth restaurants in Reykjavík and instead opt for cheap eats. Look here for a list of the best options.
That being said, there’s one place where I would spend some money - that is, on a multi-day tour. To understand the reasons why, click here. I highly recommend a company called Hidden Iceland. The two-day tour of southern Iceland that my son and I took with co-founder Ryan Connolly was probably the best-lead tour that we’ve ever been on.
In the following pages, I detail a road-tested, family-friendly itinerary of Iceland for five days/four nights during the summer. I also make suggestions for add-ons to extend your trip to a full week. If you just can’t swing that many days, you can cherry-pick activities to build a one or two-day itinerary.
If you’re taking advantage of the free stopover, you’ll be flying on Icelandair. (Note: You may see other articles mention free Iceland stopovers on WOW Air. That airline went out of business in May 2019.) Icelandair can be accurately described as a budget airline where you’ll pay extra for baggage and in-flight meals. That’s to be expected. What was a surprise was the airline’s dismal performance in terms of on-time departures. Every single leg of our journey on Icelandair - two legs to Europe and two legs back to the USA - was delayed by 45 minutes to an hour. So be careful not to book your connecting flights too close together.
When you arrive in Iceland, you’ll land at Keflavík Airport. This international airport is different than Reykjavík Airport which is a local airport for flights within the country. Keflavik is a 45-minute drive from downtown Reykjavík. If you’re not renting a car, you’ll need to use a shuttle bus. We booked online with Airport Direct, though it’s possible to buy tickets at the airport counter. Cost: Youth (0-13) Free; Adult about $20, depending on the exchange rate. While incredibly inconvenient in terms of distance from the airport, the shuttle is comfortable and equipped with free WiFi.
Where to stay?
As mentioned earlier, I think an Airbnb-type rental is the way to go in Reykjavík, especially for larger families. You’ll want to be located in the lively downtown within easy walking distance to restaurants and shops. Fortunately, you’ll find that Reykjavík is a very walkable city.
KidTripster Tip: Whether you’re staying in a rental or hotel, you’ll likely notice that the water has a sulfur odor. In Iceland, hot and cold water are delivered in separate pipes. The hot water is sourced directly from the ground, hence the smell. Know that the cold water is completely safe to drink from the tap and doesn’t have the same odor. It’s sourced from glaciers and filtered through lava rock.
What to do?
Housed under a futuristic glass dome, Perlan - Wonders of Iceland is a good first stop in Iceland. This museum and planetarium will provide you with background information on the natural forces that have shaped Iceland’s history. Iceland is so volcanically active that folks here often talk about volcanic systems rather than individual volcanoes. The island has 30 systems; each has many types of volcanoes which are explained in the museum. The exhibits on glaciers are particularly well done with huge interactive screens where your kids can manipulate the information being shown. You can walk through a man-made ice cave (yes, it’s cold!). And on the first floor, don’t miss the exhibit of stunning photos from Ragnar Th. Sigurðsson, one of Iceland’s most accomplished Arctic photographers. Full-access cost (including the planetarium show on the Northern Lights called Aróra): Youth (5 & under) Free; Youth (6-17) about $19; Adult about $36; Family (2 adults, 2 kids) about $71, depending on the exchange rate. You also can purchase less expensive tickets for just the museum, ice cave, and observation deck or just the planetarium and observation deck.
KidTripster Tip: The best views in Reykjavík are from the observation deck at Perlan. Be ready to get your Instagram-worthy shots of the colorful buildings and red roofs here.
KidTripster Tip: You may be tempted to have dinner at the revolving restaurant at Perlan, Út í Bláinn- that is, until you see the prices on the menu. It’s really expensive. Instead, you can grab lunch or a snack at the Coffee House on the same floor. Know that beyond a ham and cheese croissant, there’s really no dinner choices here as the grill closes early.
From the Perlan, it’s a 20-minute walk to Reykjavík’s iconic landmark, Hallgrímskirkja. The Lutheran church is open to the public. Inside, make sure to look up at the church organ and its 5,275 pipes. However, it’s the exterior of the church that’s most captivating. Move around the structure so that you can photograph it from different angles. In front of the church, you’ll find a statue of one of Iceland’s most famous sons and the first known European to set foot on the North American continent, Leif Erikson. The statue was a gift from the USA.
KidTripster Tip: There’s a fee to go up in the church’s tower. Cost: Youth (under 7) Free; Youth (7-16) about $1; Adult about $9. However, I’d recommend skipping it. The views from the Perlan are much better, mainly because they include the church itself.
Just a short walk from the church, you’ll find yourself on the main shopping street in Reykjavík, Laugavegur, and home to many Icelandic brands here like 66° North, Cintamani, and Icewear - all with Icelandic prices! At the end of this street, you’ll come to Austurstræti and its popular cafes where folks gather for a cup of coffee. At night, the cafes transform into disco bars, and the area comes alive with music.
End your day with a stroll to Harpa Concert Hall to see the multi-colored light show displayed on its glass exterior.
What to do?
The Golden Circle is a famed, one-day drive just outside Reykjavik that takes you pass several geothermal features plus one impressive waterfall. If you’re in Iceland for more than three days, yes, do the drive. However, if you have limited time, skip it and move to Day 3 and 4 of this itinerary.
Driving in Iceland is easy during the summer. (Winter weather can make it more challenging.) Roads are well-maintained, and Icelanders drive on the same side as Americans. You could do this drive on your own, but many tour companies do offer the Golden Circle as a day trip. Whatever you do, don’t go with one of the operators that carts 50+ people around in a huge tour bus. With that number of people, the tours are far too slow-moving for families with kids.
We opted to do the 163-mile drive with Hidden Iceland, a boutique tour company that specializes in small groups (no more than 12 people) and is a member of the Family Travel Association. Having just come off a 10-day, self-driving tour of Ireland, I was happy to leave the driving to someone else. Plus my son and I always learn more on a tour than we do reading information placards on our own. Our guide on this day was Auður, a mother and native of Reykjavík (who happens to speak five languages!). There’s no question about Iceland that Auður couldn’t answer with the insight of a local.
The tour starts around 9 a.m. with passenger pick-ups at various hotels. Then you head straight to the Secret Lagoon, Iceland’s oldest natural swimming pool. That’s right, you skip the more well-known Blue Lagoon in favor of this hot springs. We were so glad that we did! The Secret Lagoon is far less crowded and commercialized than the Blue Lagoon. Surrounded by trees and walking paths, the swimming hole is just feet from the springs themselves. You soak in mineral-laden waters that are thought to have beneficial health properties. It was the perfect temperature for me - about 100°F. My son thought it was a bit hot but floated around on his swim noodle anyway. The stay here is about an hour.
KidTripster Tip: Icelanders are not modest. Regardless of what hot springs pool that you visit, you’ll be required to strip down and rinse in a communal shower prior to entering the water. I’ll admit to cheating and showering with my swimsuit on, but the locals certainly don’t.
KidTripster Tip: Remember to bring your own towel. If you don’t have one, you can rent one for about $6.
Where to eat?
Our next stop is an early lunch at Friðheimar, a family-owned, tomato greenhouse farm. This experience was my favorite of the entire day! Friðheimar produces over a ton of tomatoes daily. They’re picked and then eaten locally, not exported. As part of your lunch, you’re given a introduction to the complex operation that includes a computerized system to control the windows, lamps, and irrigation (glacial water) - all from the owners’ phones. Of course, the real workers here are the bees, imported from the Netherlands.
The setting for your lunch is truly unique. You’re seated amongst all the tomato plants in various stages of ripeness, so the colors - green, yellow, and red - pop all around you. And of course, the menu is tomato-driven - tomato soup, fresh ravioli with a tomato and pesto sauce or grilled tortilla pizza. There’s also some more unusual menu items like a tomato latte, tomato beer, and even tomato-flavored ice cream served in a miniature flower pot. The cost of lunch - minus specialty drinks and dessert - is included in the tour.
KidTripster Tip: After lunch, make sure to stop by the corral to visit the resident Icelandic horses.
What to do?
Iceland boasts more than 10,000 waterfalls. Gullfoss, or Golden Falls, is one of the most powerful and a must-see on the Golden Circle. Follow the path around the waterfalls to the top and then make sure to climb the path up to get a bird’s-eye view. That’s when you’ll realize that the falls is actually shaped like a slice! of pizza! If the sun is shining, be on the lookout for rainbows in the mist - so many rainbows!
From the waterfalls, it’s just a short drive to Geysir, a geothermal area with a shooting geyser, steam vents, boiling mud pits, and several thermal pools. I’ll be honest, it’s not as impressive as the Old Faithful area at Yellowstone National Park, but then again, few things are. The Strokkur Geyser spouts water into the air about 100 feet every few minutes. We must have had our backs turned, because my son and I somehow missed it!
KidTripster Tip: There’s a path that you can hike to an overlook of the entire area. Frankly, it’s not worth the effort. Instead, go stand by Strokkur so that you catch the show.
The last stop of the day is Þingvellir National Park. Historically-speaking, this park is the site of the first known parliament in the world. However, it also has a geological significance as the rift valley that separates the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates. Know that there’s no single place where you can stand on both plates for a photo op. While it’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site, we found the park to be underwhelming, so if you’re short on time (and not on a tour), you can skip it without tons of guilt.
KidTripster Tip: If you’re a Game of Thrones fan, know that Þingvellir featured in the television show as the entrance to the Eyrie.
The tour returns to Reykjavik around 6 p.m., just in time for dinner. Cost of day tour: Youth (8-14) about $143; Adult about $159, depending on exchange rate. Minimum age for this tour is 8 years old. If you have younger children, you can inquire about a private tour with Hidden Iceland.
What to do?
If you did the Golden Circle tour, you’d likely say that Iceland is a beautiful country. However, if you travel outside of the tourist circle to southern Iceland, you’ll soon realize that Iceland is a stunningly beautiful country. If you only have a few days in Iceland, prioritize this tour.
Again, we choose to travel with Hidden Iceland on the 2-day Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon tour complete with glacier hike. This tour is especially well-suited to families with active teens. Our guide was Ryan, co-owner of Hidden Iceland. While he’s a native Scotsman, you’d be hard-pressed to find an Icelander more well-versed on this country’s natural features. To say he knows a thing or two about volcanoes and glaciers is a complete understatement. His enthusiasm for the subject and for Iceland in general is contagious. My son and I have been on a lot of tours around the world, and this one ranked among the very best, largely due to Ryan’s energy and knowledge and the breathtaking scenery. It’s a sentiment that was echoed by everyone on this small, 12-person tour. Plus, when Ryan’s not imparting his immense knowledge about all-things-Iceland while on the road, he shares a pretty awesome playlist of music.
The tour starts with hotel pick-ups in the morning and then a 1-hour and 45-minute drive to the first waterfall of the day, Seljalandsfoss. What makes this waterfall extra special is that you can go behind it. If you walk fairly quickly, you also can follow the path to Glljúfrabúi, a hidden waterfall farthest from the parking area.
KidTripster Tip: Ryan had recommended that we don waterproof gear (pants, jacket, and boots) for the walk behind the falls. We didn’t listen. We should have. Know that if you’re unable to pack all that gear, Hidden Iceland has gear for you to borrow. Just let the company know in advance
As spectacular as Seljalandsfoss is, I actually liked the next waterfall, Skógarfoss, even better. While you can walk to the top of this waterfall, the real “money shot” in terms of photography is at the bottom where you’re likely to catch a rainbow in the spray. If you’re a Game of Thrones fan, Dany and Jon flew their dragons to this waterfall in the final season, though you may not recognize the location because in the television version, the special effects department added several more fake waterfalls to the scene.
The next stop also made a brief appearance in Game of Thrones as the beach near Eastwatch where the men of the Night’s Watch guarded the Wall. It’s better known as Reynisfjara, Iceland’s most impressive black sand beach, but it’s the basalt columns here that people come to see. These hexagonal columns are formed when magma cools slowly and then cracks. At Reynisfjara, the columns are part of a cross-section of an ancient volcano. Your kids may not be interested in the geology lesson, but I can guarantee that they’ll want to give climbing the columns a go.
KidTripster Tip: Read the seal skin folktale on the information placard at the entrance to the beach.
Where to eat?
There’s a small cafe at the beach where you can grab lunch or coffee. However, I’d actually recommend the hot dog stand just outside the restaurant. Hot dogs are “a thing” in Iceland and are often made with lamb. I don’t know what the condiment is that they put on top with those crunchy fried onions, but it’s pretty delicious!
What to do?
After lunch, you’ll make a stop at Fjaorárglijúfur Gorge. (Yeah, we don’t know how to pronounce that either!) The colors here are fantastic as an iron-laden stream running down one wall of the canyon meets an icy blue stream at the bottom.
KidTripster Tip: As you’re driving out, look for the large community sheep pen. Ryan explains that in the summer, farmers release their sheep into the wild to graze so that they can plant their land for the short growing season. Then in September, Icelanders and some tourists head into the countryside to take part in Réttir, the annual sheep round-up. You find a sheep and then put it in one of the community pens scattered throughout the country. At the end of Réttir, the farmers retrieve their marked sheep from the pens and bring them home for the winter. The round-up is followed by a singing, dancing, and general partying. If you visit in the fall, consider taking part.
KidTripster Tip: Especially at this point in the trip, you’ll be passing one awe-inspiring glacier after another. If you can, remember to sit on the driver’s side of the van when you begin the tour to get the best views.
The last stop of the day is definitely worth the drive: Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon. Unlike Alaska, most glaciers in Iceland don’t end at the ocean; they stop farther inland. But at this lagoon, the glacier does calve into an icy blue lagoon, creating giant icebergs. As those icebergs melt, they morph into all different shapes as they float through the large lagoon and then out to sea. Ryan perfectly timed our stop here; the sunlight just danced on the water as curious seals swam near the edge. The photo ops are pretty astounding. My son and I were mesmerized by the different shapes. One iceberg looked like a perfectly-formed fish, complete with scales.
In one day, we’d covered 267 miles and saw a dozen glaciers and more than a half dozen volcanoes. Best of all, someone else did all the driving!
KidTripster Tip: All Hidden Iceland’s vans are outfitted with WiFi. We never had difficulty connecting. In fact, you’ll find that Iceland has fantastic coverage.
Where to eat and stay?
Hidden Iceland arranges your stay at Lilja Guesthouse, a family-owned sheep farm on the southeastern coast of Iceland. The rooms here are housed in a new building; they’re clean and simple. A group dinner at the on-site restaurant is included in the stay as is breakfast.
KidTripster Tip: If you visit during the summer, you’ll have nearly 24 hours of sunlight. The sun never really sets. Fortunately, rooms come with black-out shades, but you may want to take a sleep aid like melatonin to help. You’ll need your rest for the next day’s adventure.
What to do?
After a buffet-style breakfast at Lilja Guesthouse, Ryan brings you to perhaps my favorite spot on this tour: Diamond Beach. This beach is where those icebergs from the day before go to “die” - hence the nickname, “iceberg graveyard.” It’s another photographer’s dream! Some of the icebergs wash up on shore polished like large diamonds; others arrive dimpled or frosted or painted in various shades of blue. It’s a stunning spectacle.
But the main adventure of the day is a glacier hike in Vatnajökull National Park. Here’s where you’ll see Ryan in his element. As an experienced glacier guide, Ryan walks you through each step of the process from harnessing up to strapping on your crampons. With a pick axe in hand, you’ll begin the climb through the moraine and up onto the glacier. How far you go will depend on your group’s ability. Safety is the first priority. With Ryan at the helm, we never felt unsafe. He comes prepared for any situation. Just ask to lift his backpack filled with gear and safety ropes plus his giant pick axe as proof! I’d describe the hike as strenuous but completely doable for people with a reasonable level of fitness.
KidTripster Tip: Unlike Ryan, you’ll want to lighten your load as much as possible. Dress in layers. Even though you’re on a glacier, you tend to heat up quickly as you climb.
KidTripster Tip: Know that Hidden Iceland requires all climbers to be at least 10 years old. If your children are younger, you could consider doing a private tour tailored to your kids’ abilities.
KidTripster Tip: You do need to bring a water bottle and snacks, but you don’t need to bring liters of water. You can refill your bottle on the glacier! Yes, the water is perfectly safe to drink.
Where to eat?
After a few hours on the glacier, you’ll most definitely be ready for a nap on the drive back to Reykjavík. Ryan will stop for dinner at Systrakaffi where you can celebrate your accomplishment with your newfound friends.
Cost of the 2-day tour from June to September in a double room: about $452/person. Discounts available October to May. If you go during the winter, the tour includes exploration in an ice cave.
KidTripster Tip: If you plan on doing more than one tour with Hidden Iceland, it’s possible to stay outside of Reykjavík so that you don’t have to backtrack the next day. Your guide will pick you up at your new hotel. Make sure to discuss the possibilities with Hidden Iceland when you book.
If you’d like to stay a full week in Iceland, here’s where I’d add the days. Explore on your own or consider Hidden Iceland’s Westman Islands or Westfjords (think fjords like in Norway) tours. Other passengers on our trip raved about these experiences. In general, we found the farther you go from Reykavík, the wilder and more wonderful Iceland becomes.
What to do?
Before your afternoon flight, you’ll have just enough time for one more must-do activity in Iceland: ride an Icelandic horse. This breed is unique in the horse world. Icelandic horses have five natural gaits as opposed to other breeds and their four gaits. The gaits are walk, trot, canter, tölt, and flying pace, which can only be done by very accomplished horsemen. The breed also is unique because of its short stature, but don’t make the mistake of calling them “ponies.” They’re not. In fact, there’s not even a word for “pony” in the Icelandic language. Icelandic horses are a pure breed; any horse that leaves the island can’t return.
Fortunately, you don’t have to go far from Reykjavík to ride. We choose Viking Horses just 15 minutes from downtown. We appreciated the stables’ commitment to personalized attention. Unlike other companies that we saw on the trail, Viking Horses limits most groups to eight people with a rider-to-guide ratio of 4:1. Our wrangler was Friedereka, a friendly 20-something from Germany who’s working in Iceland for the summer. On the 90 minute-long ride, you’re able to try all the gaits (with the exception of the flying pace), if you’re comfortable. While my son was happy to practice tölting on the back of his horse, I was a little less comfortable with the speed, so my horse, Olin, and I went at our own pace.
After the ride, Friedereka invited us to the wranglers’ home for a light Icelandic snack that I think is better described as a meal. Cost of the tour including transportation to stable and snack: Youth (8-18) about $158; Adult about $158, depending on the exchange rate. If your kids are younger than 8 years old, Viking Horses offers a meet-and-greet option with the horses and a ride around the corral where the wrangler holds the lead.
If you don’t have a rental car, make sure to book the airport shuttle back to Keflavik Airport with plenty of time for check-in and security. Again, the ride takes about 45 minutes.
KidTripster Tip: Look for the small play area at the airport inside the terminal.
Editor Shellie Bailey-Shah hopes to return to Iceland during the winter to see the ice caves and the Northern Lights.
This writer received some complimentary activities for the purpose of this review. However, all opinions expressed are solely her own.