Rick Steves Iceland


By Rick Steves

With Cameron Hewitt

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Hike vast glaciers, marvel at steaming volcanic lakes, and explore the land of the midnight sun: with Rick Steves, Iceland is yours to explore! Inside Rick Steves Iceland you'll find:
  • Comprehensive itineraries that can be adapted for 24-hour layovers, 5-day visits, 2-week trips, and more, including the best road trips in Iceland from the Ring Road to the Golden Circle
  • Rick's strategic advice on how to get the most out of your time and money, with rankings of his must-see favorites
  • Top sights and hidden gems, from the stunning northern lights to hidden hikes and cozy bookstores
  • How to connect with local culture: Soak in hidden hot springs, sample smoked fish, and chat with locals in moody and welcoming rural towns
  • Beat the crowds, skip the lines, and avoid tourist traps with Rick's candid, humorous insight
  • The best places to eat, sleep, and relax
  • Self-guided walking tours of lively Reykjavík and art and history museums and mile-by-mile scenic driving tours
  • Detailed maps for exploring on the go
  • Useful resources including a packing list, an Icelandic phrase book, a historical overview, and recommended reading
  • Over 500 bible-thin pages include everything worth seeing without weighing you down
  • Complete, up-to-date information on Reykjavík, the Reykjanes Peninsula, the Golden Circle, the South Coast, the Westman Islands, West Iceland, The Ring Road, the East Fjords, and more
Make the most of every day and every dollar with Rick Steves Iceland.

Expanding your trip? Try Rick Steves Scandinavia or Rick Steves Scandinavian & Northern European Cruise Ports.


Welcome to Rick Steves’ Europe

Travel is intensified living—maximum thrills per minute and one of the last great sources of legal adventure. Travel is freedom. It’s recess, and we need it.

I discovered a passion for European travel as a teen and have been sharing it ever since—through my tours, public television and radio shows, and travel guidebooks. Over the years, I’ve taught millions of travelers how to best enjoy Europe’s blockbuster sights—and experience “Back Door” discoveries that most tourists miss.

This book offers a balanced mix of Iceland’s glaciers, volcanoes, spectacular scenery, and fjordside villages. It’s selective: Rather than listing every hot spring, I recommend only the best ones. And it’s in-depth: My self-guided drives, town walks, and museum tours give insight into the country’s unique geology, vibrant history, and today’s living, breathing culture.

I advocate traveling simply and smartly. Take advantage of my money- and time-saving tips on sightseeing, transportation, and more. Try local, characteristic alternatives to expensive hotels and restaurants. In many ways, spending more money only builds a thicker wall between you and what you traveled so far to see.

We visit Iceland to experience it—to become temporary locals. Thoughtful travel engages us with the world, as we learn to appreciate other cultures and new ways to measure quality of life.

Judging by the positive feedback I receive from readers, this book will help you enjoy a fun, affordable, and rewarding vacation—whether it’s your first trip or your tenth.

Góða ferð! Happy travels!


Welcome to Rick Steves’ Europe

The Land of Fire and Ice

Map: Iceland

Iceland’s Top Destinations




Planning Your Trip


Iceland’s Best Short Trips by Car

Iceland’s Best 10-Day Road Trip

Trip Costs Per Person


Rick’s Free Video Clips and Audio Tours

Travel Smart

Iceland, the land of the midnight sun and the northern lights, is equally famous for its magnificent glaciers and its active volcanoes. Magma bubbling up between tectonic plates formed this rugged island, leaving it stranded halfway between North America and Europe. Until recently a poor, backward Nordic outpost, today it’s one of Europe’s most expensive countries. Over the last few years, Iceland has vaulted from obscurity to become a can’t-miss destination for curious travelers.

With its stunning natural wonders, kind people, and unique attractions, this little island stubbornly exceeds the lofty expectations of its many visitors. Most people’s single biggest regret after visiting Iceland? They tried to squeeze it into just a day or two, instead of investing the time to see more of its striking landscape.

Iceland floats alone where the North Atlantic and Arctic oceans meet, just a smidge below the Arctic Circle. Its closest neighbors are Greenland, to the west, and the Faroe Islands, to the southeast. The remote island was uninhabited until the ninth century, when, at the height of the Viking Age, it was settled by farmers looking for a good place to graze their sheep. It remained a land of isolated farms for about a millennium. Up until the late 1800s, Iceland had no towns aside from Reykjavík. If you stay in the countryside today, you can get close to the agrarian Iceland that existed for centuries. Some farms have a storied history, going back hundreds of years.

Social movements that sparked upheaval elsewhere—Christianization, Reformation, independence—arrived in Iceland with strangely little fuss. The country’s Viking Age roots and its historic connections to Norway and Denmark give it an unmistakably Nordic aura, while the long-time presence of an American naval air base developed Iceland’s affinity for all things Yankee. Today, Iceland feels like it has one foot in Europe, and the other in America.

Fields of lupine in Iceland’s southeast corner; a monster truck gets you into the interior Highlands.

About 830 miles across, Iceland is roughly the size of Maine and smaller than the island of Great Britain. More than half of the country is uninhabited tundra (in the interior Highlands). Almost all of its 340,000 residents live near the coastline, and more than half of Icelanders reside in the capital region of Reykjavík, on the southwest coast.

For the traveler, Reykjavík is the natural jumping-off point for exploring Iceland’s dramatic countryside. It’s an easy hop from Reykjavík to the inland Golden Circle route, studded with natural and historic attractions (from geysers to thundering waterfalls), or south to the famous Blue Lagoon thermal baths (on the Reykjanes Peninsula, near Keflavík Airport). Two hours away, the South Coast offers glaciers, black sand beaches, and a jagged volcanic landscape.

An hour’s drive north of Reykjavík is the fjord-wrapped town of Borgarnes and the pastoral Reykholt Valley (with a premium thermal bath and tourable volcanic lava tube). Just beyond that, Snæfellsnes offers a representative sample of Icelandic landscapes—fjords, scree slopes, lava rock, waterfalls, and a glacier—in an easy-to-navigate peninsula. And out at Iceland’s northwest fringe are the Westfjords: a chain of jagged, sparsely populated inlets with far fewer tourists.

But the ultimate Icelandic thrill is an 800-mile road trip, circling the entire island on the Ring Road (highway 1). Give the Ring Road enough time, and it’ll give you charming waterfront towns (Siglufjörður, Húsavík, and Seyðisfjörður), a pint-sized second city (Akureyri), simmering volcanic landscapes (near Mývatn), jagged fjords (the Eastfjords), and glaciers and glacier lagoons (on the southeast coast).

Iceland has a rich folklore and a strong connection between its heritage and its landscape. It seems every rock has a thousand-year-old name and a legend to go with it. With cinematic scenery and abundant opportunities to experience nature in its rawest form, Iceland exhilarates outdoorsy travelers. Snowmobile across a glacier. Zip over the waves on a rigid inflatable boat while scanning the horizon for breaching whales or puffins. Go for a ride on an Icelandic horse, hoping to feel the rhythm of its elusive “fifth gait.” Scuba or snorkel in a tectonic rift flooded with crystal-clear glacial water. Hike from hut to hut, tracing the path of lava from a slumbering volcano.

For a quintessentially Icelandic experience, be sure to soak in one of the country’s spring-fed thermal baths. The spa-like Blue Lagoon—with milky blue water filling a volcanic reservoir—is the most famous (and most expensive). But every village has its own municipal swimming pool filled with piping-hot water. Those who love the out-of-doors can find free and hidden opportunities for an al fresco soak throughout the countryside.

Boat ride in Fjallsárlón’s glacier lagoons on the southeast coast; small and strong Icelandic horses

Raufarhólshellir lava tube; beer-tasting flight near Dalvik

Iceland’s natural splendors are what attract most visitors, but Icelanders are also worth getting to know. They have a gentle spirit and a can-do frontier attitude. They’re also whip-smart (Icelandic scholars were the first to write down the legends and histories of the early Scandinavian people—collectively called “the sagas”). Enjoy meeting the easygoing Icelanders; in this little country, everyone’s on a first-name basis.

Two often-repeated Icelandic phrases offer insight into the local psyche: kærulaus (loosely, “careless”) describes the flexible, improvisational, sometimes inconsiderate way Icelanders move through life. And an Icelander facing an unexpected challenge might mutter, “Þetta reddast” (“It’ll work out”)...and in this mellow land, it usually does (with some major exceptions, like Iceland’s economic crash in 2008).

Iceland has a rich cuisine scene. Trendy restaurants are enthusiastically organic—literally wallpapered with fish skin and serving gourmet delights on slabs of rock or rustic little planks. There are few places with fresher seafood: haddock, cod, arctic char, halibut, the controversial minke whale, and the delectable humar (langoustine). The rolling, green countryside teems with free-range sheep grazing on grass that seasons a tender and delicious meat. Vegetables are grown in hothouses, and a warming climate has allowed more farming of grains (barley, wheat, and rye). Soup is an Icelandic staple, and every grandma has her own secret recipe for kjötsúpa (lamb soup). And Icelandic skyr—a yogurt-like dairy food that’s been around since Viking times—is newly trendy in American groceries.

Iceland is also famous for its notorious “hardship foods”: an entire boiled sheep’s head (svið), jerky-like dried cod snacks (harðfiskur), and the notorious hákarl—chewy, unbelievably pungent fermented shark. Locals scarcely eat these anymore, of course, but tourists do...usually on a dare.

Summer or winter, be prepared to bundle up (pack gloves, a fleece hat, sturdy boots, and a waterproof jacket). While conditions overall are surprisingly moderate for the latitude, frosty temperatures and bone-chilling wind can happen at any time of year. Icelanders use the term gluggaveður (“window weather”) to describe weather that’s pleasant to look at—from indoors. Blustery days arrive frequently, especially in winter, when strong low-pressure systems roll in regularly, whipping high winds across the whole island. It’s not just a little unpleasant to be outside in high winds—you may literally not be able to walk, or open your car door.

Typically, two or three days of cloudy, drizzly skies alternate with two or three days of relatively sunny weather. The cloudy periods lengthen in winter, the sunny periods in summer. It rains often in Reykjavík, but pouring rain is infrequent. Lightning is rare enough to make the evening news.

Few places, especially one so remote and cold, have become so popular, so quickly. But Iceland’s striking glaciers, craggy peaks, and steamy geysers—and the visible impacts of climate change—make this destination attractive to the inquisitive and the adventurous. Whether or not you can pronounce the names on its map, Iceland is a rewarding place to travel.

Iceland’s Top Destinations

It’s a small country, but there’s a lot to see in Iceland. This overview breaks its top destinations into must-see sights (to help first-time travelers plan their trip) and worth-it sights (for those with additional time). I’ve also suggested a minimum number of days to allow per destination.


Iceland’s capital, Reykjavík, is the natural hub for any visit, with an excellent assortment of accommodations, restaurants, shops, and nightlife. But, while Reykjavík easily has enough sights of its own to fill a day or two, with limited time, I’d spend my evenings in Reykjavík and my days in the countryside at these top choices:

▲▲▲Blue Lagoon (half-day)

This top-end thermal bathing complex, tucked in a volcanic landscape a 45-minute drive south of Reykjavík (and near Keflavík Airport), is relaxing and memorable, and a delightful toe-in-the-water dip into Iceland’s thermal bathing culture.

▲▲▲Golden Circle (1 day)

Iceland’s quintessential day trip is deservedly popular. You’ll loop through eye-popping terrain, with stops at Þingvellir (site of Iceland’s Viking Age gatherings, situated along a jagged tectonic fissure); Geysir (a steamy field that’s home to the world’s original “geyser”); and Gullfoss (a thundering waterfall). Along the way, you can tiptoe around the rim of a volcanic crater, visit Iceland’s medieval religious center, and take your pick of thermal bath experiences.

▲▲▲South Coast (1 day)

This dramatic shoreline, shaped by volcanoes and glaciers, rivals the Golden Circle as Reykjavík’s top day trip. You’ll see spectacular waterfalls tumble over high cliffs, touch the tongue of a glacier, stroll along a black sand beach, and learn about the majestic power of volcanoes. Nearby, avid hikers can make the Þórsmörk nature reserve (nestled between three glaciers) a ▲▲ full day on its own.

Basalt columns at Reynisfjara (opposite); Þingvellir and Geysir, on the Golden Circle; Blue Lagoon; Þórsmörk


On a longer visit, these stops—rated or ▲▲—deserve consideration. All are within easy day-tripping distance of Reykjavík—except the Westfjords and the Ring Road, each of which demands several days.

▲▲Reykjavík (1-2 days)

An ideal home base for a visit of any length, Reykjavík is a worthwhile sightseeing destination in its own right. Its colorful, pedestrian-friendly downtown has fine museums, a stroll-worthy harbor, and a dozen thermal swimming pools, perfect for a rejuvenating soak among Icelanders. The capital’s restaurants are surprisingly good, and its nightlife scene is legendary.

▲▲Westman Islands (1 day)

Reachable by a short ferry ride or flight, this little chain of 15 islands merits the effort. On Heimaey (the only inhabited island), you’ll find towering seabird cliffs and the world’s largest puffin colony (in summer), a busy harbor, two volcanoes (plus an excellent volcano museum), and an aquarium with a resident puffin and beluga whales.

▲▲Ring Road (5-10 days)

To really delve into Iceland, circle the island’s perimeter on highway 1. It’s a demanding drive (the entire circuit is 800 miles), but the scenic payoff is huge: breathtaking waterfalls and remote fjords, majestic mountains, volcanic cones and craters, otherworldly lava formations, rich birdlife, geothermal springs and geysers, glaciers, black-sand beaches, and windswept coastlines.

Colorful, quirky Reykjavík; harbor in the Westman Islands; lunar landscape near Mývatn, on the Ring Road; high-end “New Icelandic” cuisine

Borgarnes and Reykholt Valley (1 day)

This West Iceland area’s subtle charms include the dramatically set town of Borgarnes (with a fine exhibit on Iceland’s settlement and sagas) and the gentle Reykholt Valley, with lovely waterfalls, prolific hot springs, and a tourable lava tube, plus a traditional goat farm, premium thermal bath, and important religious site. Nearby is the hikeable Grábrók volcanic crater.

Snæfellsnes (1-2 days)

This peninsula, two hours north of Reykjavík, offers an “Iceland in a nutshell” loop past coastal scenery, bridal-veil waterfalls, chunky lava-rock landscapes, quirky museums, black-sand beaches, fjordside fishing towns, a lava tube, its very own glacier, and more. While doable as a (long) day trip, it’s worth an overnight to settle in and escape from the capital-area crowds.

Westfjords (2-3 days)

For those wanting a remote, rugged corner of Iceland all their own—but who don’t have a full week for a Ring Road drive—the Westfjords are a splendid compromise. Here a sawtooth coastline is peppered with few towns but ample stunning scenery and a poignant sense of the lonesome Icelandic frontier. You’ll also find Iceland’s finest bird cliffs (Látrabjarg) and one of its best waterfalls (Dynjandi).

Norwegian House in Snæfellsnes; Dynjandi waterfall in the Westfjords

Planning Your Trip

To plan your trip, you’ll need to design your itinerary—choosing where and when to go, how you’ll travel, and how many days to spend at each destination. For my best general advice on sightseeing, accommodations, restaurants, and more, see the Practicalities chapter.


As you read this book and learn your options...

Choose your top destinations.

My recommended itineraries in this chapter give you an idea of how to spend your time in Iceland—whether you’ve got one day or ten. Most visitors focus on the great outdoors: volcanic landscapes, waterfalls, thermal springs, and so on. Reykjavík is the natural home base, and on a very short visit, you can simply overnight there, spending your days side-tripping to nearby attractions (see the Beyond Reykjavík chapter for advice).

Decide when to go.

Your Icelandic experience will vary drastically depending on the time of year. Summer really is the best time to go—even if everyone else is there with you. From June through August, days are long and the weather is at its best. The country bustles and glistens under the bright sun; sightseeing attractions are open and in full swing. At these northern latitudes, from about June 1 to July 15, the sun dips below the horizon for only a few hours, and it never really gets dark. Icelanders take full advantage of these days of “midnight sun,” and so should you. In July and early August, temperatures can climb into the 60s and even break 70. Icelanders take time off and Europeans arrive for camping vacations. After mid-August, it rapidly gets colder and darker, kids go back to school, and things quiet down.


On Sale
Apr 28, 2020
Page Count
608 pages
Rick Steves

Rick Steves

About the Author

Since 1973, Rick Steves has spent about four months a year exploring Europe. His mission: to empower Americans to have European trips that are fun, affordable, and culturally broadening. Rick produces a best-selling guidebook series, a public television series, and a public radio show, and organizes small-group tours that take over 30,000 travelers to Europe annually.  He does all of this with the help of more than 100 well-traveled staff members at Rick Steves’ Europe in Edmonds, WA (near Seattle). When not on the road, Rick is active in his church and with advocacy groups focused on economic and social justice, drug policy reform, and ending hunger. To recharge, Rick plays piano, relaxes at his family cabin in the Cascade Mountains, and spends time with his son Andy and daughter Jackie. Find out more about Rick at http://www.ricksteves.com and on Facebook.

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