What To Do In Iceland In Summer: Tips For A Midnight Sun Itinerary
“We come from the land of the ice and snow, from the midnight sun where the hot springs flow…” I can never hear this song without immediately thinking of Iceland, the Land of Ice and Fire. Thundering waterfalls and barren alien landscapes. Soaring glaciers and moody black sand beaches.
Iceland is an almost mythical place, full of dramatic natural beauty that’s surprisingly easy for visitors to explore, particularly in the summer when the days are long and the roads clear.
So I’ve put together a SUPER in-depth post outlining what to do in Iceland…everything from itinerary structure tips to driving and rental cars to the route you should take, I’ve got what you need to plan an epic adventure of your own!
How this post is laid out:
- General tips for planning a trip to Iceland
- Driving and renting a car
- Overview 3- or 4-day itinerary for Iceland in summer
- Details on different places/areas you should visit
- Golden Circle + Seljalandsfoss and Skogafoss
- South Coast (Glaciers & Black Sand Beaches)
Here’s everything else from our 3- (or 4-)day Iceland itinerary!
Overarching tips for planning your Iceland itinerary
One of the first things to consider is what time of year you want to visit, and so what the weather will be like and what that would mean for your trip itinerary. More on why Iceland in summer is great in a few minutes…
Iceland has a cold but fairly temperate climate for how far north it is. The weather is very unpredictable (you might get rain, sunshine, and fog in a 30-minute period), and often extremely windy. For Iceland in summer I’d expect average highs in the mid-50s Fahrenheit, and lows in the mid-40s, but it can fluctuate a lot and the wind and rain can make it feel colder.
Because of that, LAYERS ARE YOUR FRIEND! I have an in-depth post on what to pack for summer in Iceland, but in general you need to think about the right fabrics (quick-drying, insulating), multiple layers to regulate temperature, and some good water- and wind-resistant outerwear to keep you dry and warm.
IMO, a cute jacket and hat are key, since you’ll be wearing them in most pictures.
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One of the other things you should know about planning an Iceland itinerary is that it is EXPENSIVE. It’s a remote island country, and pretty much everything costs a lot—gas, food, housing, etc. You shouldn’t need to worry about tipping in Iceland, though, as it is not customary. If you receive excellent service, I’m sure a little tip would be much appreciated.
Credit cards are widely accepted. I would recommend, if you’re able, to get a “chip and PIN” credit card, because if you need to get gas at more remote stations that aren’t manned (or at night), that’s all they’ll accept. I have a detailed post on how to deal with money overseas, including ATM tips, looking out for scams, and more.
Even if you’re relying on credit cards, though, I’d recommend getting at least *some* cash out though (Icelandic krona, ISK). Using an ATM is the easiest way, and it never hurts to have a little cash on hand. For instance, you’ll need to pay to use public restrooms in many places.
A few other random tips…English is typically taught as a second language in Iceland, so you shouldn’t run into any major language barriers. The tap water is safe to drink (though sometimes has a bit of an egg smell due to the geothermic origins). In fact, Iceland’s water is considered some of the best in the world.
Iceland has been voted the safest country in the world, and is a great destination for solo travelers.
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Should you visit Iceland in summer?
UM YES. Iceland in summer is amazing! First, you have a ton of daylight to play with.
We were there during Midnight Sun, so “night” was like midnight to 3:00am (even though it wasn’t full dark during that time). You can fit so much into your itinerary with such long days. You just have to remember that places aren’t open 24/7…it’s important to make sure you think about closing times for restaurants, grocery stores, and even gas stations.
The roads and weather are better as well, so you don’t generally have to worry about driving ice and snow, and you can get to more remote areas that would otherwise be inaccessible due to ice and snow. You have a better chance of nice weather for good photos as well (though no guarantee, obvs).
What are the downsides to a summer trip?? Well, it’s the most popular time to visit, so it’ll be more crowded and things may be a bit more expensive. Also, if you’re hoping to see the Northern Lights then summer is definitely not the time to visit—instead it will be Midnight Sun, where it doesn’t even get fully dark at night. Things like ice caves aren’t accessible either.
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Do you need a rental car in Iceland?
Generally speaking, my answer is absolutely yes. Public transportation is nearly non-existent. Now, if you only have a couple days and you want to try solely relying on bus group tours, then I suppose that’s an option. But I guarantee you won’t be getting the best experience that way.
There are a lot of car rental companies to choose from. I used Sixt, which I’ve had good success with in many European countries (but not in the U.S.), but I always search in a few different places and compare both the prices and specific offerings/benefits.
My go-to’s are DiscoverCars, RentalCars.com, and AutoEurope as well, with DiscoverCars often winning out. I probably wouldn’t have used Sixt next time, as I ended up having to wait for over an hour from arrival to getting my car, between waiting for the shuttle (not Sixt’s fault at all) and then a crazy long line (all the people waiting for the shuttle).
Not sure if that was an anomaly, and mostly I don’t think it was Sixt’s fault at all. Overall I think it was a decent deal and I was happy enough with them. If the time and hassle is a concern, though, you could try and rent from one of the on-airport companies (there are 5-6) and pay more.
Iceland is one of those places where some extra car insurance (tire and glass, specifically) isn’t a bad idea, due to its rugged nature and unpredictable weather. However, my credit card has amazing rental car insurance baked in, so I just used that. You should also make sure you don’t get a rental with a mileage limit.
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Driving in Iceland
Driving through Iceland is a part of the experience, not only a means of getting to a destination. The scenery changes constantly, from cliffs to waterfalls to green pastures to barren moonscapes. The great thing is that the main highways and roads are very well-maintained and easy to drive.
In the winter you’ll have more ice and snow, but they do a good job keeping the main roads clear. You might need snow tires or a 4×4 (4WD) in winter (or even 4WD if you’re planning to visit more “off the beaten path” areas). For the itinerary I’ve laid out below, any regular car will do.
- My #1 tip…don’t speed!!! Iceland has tons of speed detector cameras, and very heavy fines even for just a kilometer or two over the speed limit. You won’t know until later (through your rental company) if you’ve gotten a ticket, and the expense and hassle is NOT worth it.
- Google Maps works well as long as you have signal (download the offline maps to be safe). You can also plan your trip with Safetravel Iceland, which provides real-time road closures, storm updates etc.
- The “Ring Road” goes all the way around the country, and it’s called Hringvgur as well as Route 1. So when making your way around and in doubt, just follow the signs for “1”.
- At gas stations you have two options, to choose a designated amount or “fill”. DO NOT PRESS FILL. If you do, your credit card will be charged the equivalent of about 250 euros as a “maximum” fill amount PLUS the amount of petrol you purchased. Instead, decide on an actual amount in local currency and fill to that amount.
- Many gas stations close around 9pm, so be prepared.
- Watch out for free-roaming sheep and other animals on the road.
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Where to stay in Iceland
Depending on what you’re looking for, there are different types of hostels, hotels, guesthouses, and rentals available in Iceland. We booked small hotels and guesthouses with private bathrooms (which are not as easily available, but I strongly prefer).
My trip was a little more last-minute, and so there were not tons of options left when I was planning my trip. I do recommend you book housing as far ahead as possible (4-6 months ahead if you can).
In the Golden Circle area, we stayed at the adorable Hotel Hvolsvollur. As the jumping off point for our glacier hike and driving to the glacier lagoon and Diamond Beach, we stayed at the Klausterhof Guesthouse in Kirkjubæjarklaustur.
In Reykjavik I had a lot of great options, but we ended up at the simple and delightful Guesthouse Sunna, and would highly recommend it. It was right across the street from Hallgrímskirkja church.
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What to do in Iceland with 3 or 4 days
Even though it’ll be tempting, it’s important to not try and see/do everything. You need to make sure you build in time to just enjoy what you’re seeing, and also realize that some things may take more time than you thought.
With only 3-4 days in Iceland, I recommend doing parts of the Golden Circle, adding a couple epic waterfalls, and then doing parts of the South Coast. This is what most people would do. An alternative would be the Snæfellsnes Peninsula in western Iceland (vs. the South Coast).
The biggest considerations for your itinerary are 1) driving times, 2) what accommodation you can get, and 3) specific activities you’ve booked. For me this ended up being a combination of where I could find good hotel options, and then when I could schedule my Silfra snorkeling trip and glacier hiking tour.
My actual itinerary had to get crunched a bit, since I lost a full 24 hours due to flight delays. Once we arrived and got the rental car, I had to rearrange the itinerary. It was already about noon by this point, so we had to be focused and make some tough choices…mostly in combining two days’ worth of Golden Circle into one (still split up).
Here’s what our itinerary looked like (here’s a live link):
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Okay, let’s dive in to individual itinerary pieces!
Golden Circle + Seljalandsfoss & Skógafoss
I’ll start by saying that Seljalandsfoss and Skógafoss aren’t technically on the Golden Circle, but they can be included on a Golden Circle itinerary easily and you’d be insane to miss at least one of them.
I have a deeper post on driving the Golden Circle that you can dig into, but here’s some overarching thoughts on a Golden Circle route IF you’ll be moving on toward Vik and the South Coast (see live map):
- Thingvellir National Park (including Silfra snorkeling)
- Gullfoss (we had to skip)
- Kerid Crater
- You have a lot of options to stay overnight from here, including backtracking to Hella or Hvolsvollur, or further on in Vik or Kirkjubæjarklaustur (where we stayed)
Because of my flight delays, we ended up having to split the Golden Circle into two pieces and see the waterfalls on our first day, while catching Thingvellir and Kerid on our way back to Reykjavik at the end (due to when I’d scheduled my snorkeling trip). We also had to skip Gullfoss, which I was super bummed about.
Since I hadn’t eaten anything but airplane food and was starving, our first roadtrip stop was in Hveragerði (down by Kerid Crater) at a highly-recommended pizza joint and brewery called Ölverk.
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I’d done some research on other cool places to eat along the Golden Circle, but we just didn’t have time. For instance, I really wanted to go eat the rye bread freshly baked in the ground at Fontana Spa. Check out my Golden Circle driving itinerary post for a couple other ideas too.
The stops below are in an order that would be logical to drive if you did them all, rather than the order we ended up seeing them in.
Thingvellir National Park & Silfra Snorkeling
We didn’t actually get to explore Thingvellir at all, because we were super tight on time plus the weather was so crummy we couldn’t see anything or really explore the hiking and history here.
Which is a bummer, because Þingvellir (Thingvellir) is one of the foundations to the history of Iceland as a nation. Thingvellir literally means “Parliament Plains”, and this is where the Alþing general assembly was established around 930 AD by the Vikings, it and continued there until 1798.
It also offers an incredibly unique experience…to snorkel or scuba dive between two continents (where the Eurasian and North American tectonic plates come together). This had been on my bucket list, so I made sure to get reservations, booking with Dive.IS.
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The water in the Silfra Fissure is some of the clearest in the world, with visibility up to 400 feet (beyond what the naked eye can usually see). It’s also FREEZING…like 36-37 degrees! We were bundled up in thick dive suits (basically footie pajamas made of rubber) and waddled like penguins down to the water, with only our mouths exposed (plus wherever the water could sneak in).
We spent about 45 minutes floating on the current through a vivid blue landscape of water, craggy rocks, and occasionally neon tube-y algae. It felt like I was on an alien planet. I wish I could have dived instead of snorkeled, but regardless, this was such an amazing experience and I’d highly recommend it!
Kerid gets overlooked on a lot of itineraries and many people will tell you it’s skippable. For me, I’d seen pics on Pinterest and was fascinated by the deep pit and vibrant colors of the water. I will say that your pictures will be way better if you can catch a sunny, blue-skied day (to get the best colors).
You definitely don’t need to spend much time here either way, so it can be a quick stop. Kerid is a deep, almost circular volcanic crater with a deep blue lake in the middle. With our gray skies it was harder to see the intense blue, but it did have a nice moody air. You can walk down to the water as well—you realize how massive the crater is!
We arrived as soon as it opened, which allowed us to get parking and beat the tour buses. I cannot recommend this enough!!! It let us get some great pics without gobs of people thronging in front of us.
Seljalandsfoss is about 2 hours from Reykjavik, and you should plan for at least half an hour at the falls, and probably an hour or a little more if you plan to go to the small hidden Gljúfrabúi waterfall as well.
This waterfall is one of the most iconic and recognizable ones in Iceland, with a drop of around 200 feet (for context, taller than the Leaning Tower of Pisa. What’s awesome about Seljalandsfoss is that it’s not only stunning and huge, but also super accessible…just an easy turn-off from the highway.
It’s also the only major waterfall you can walk behind, which is really cool—just make sure to bring some rain pants and a waterproof jacket (and protect your camera) since you’ll get soaked by the spray!
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But wait, don’t leave yet! Make sure to go see Gljúfrabúi, a hidden waterfall just a short walk from the main falls.
You’ll see signs clearly, and even if you decide not to tackle the actual waterfall (it’s a bit of an adventure with delicate balance required and a high likelihood of getting wet), the walk there and back is beautiful and still totally worth it.
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If you hop back in the car at Seljalandsfoss, just a few minutes down the road you’ll hit Skógafoss as well. It’s similarly accessible right off the highway, about as high as Seljalandsfoss, but super wide. There’s a large parking lot but it fills up quickly during peak season.
You can walk up fairly close to the waterfall, but be prepared to get SOAKED (your waterproof pants and jacket will come in handy again!). The spray coming off Skógafoss is nuts, but this gives you a lovely surprise…a high likelihood of little rainbows popping up!
You can spread out across the rocks and into the stream if you want, to get the right photo. It helps if you can try and come at more of an off-time, when it’s not as crowded, giving you a better chance of getting good pics.
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The other main thing to do is climb up the staircase that’s beside the falls, which gives you a great view down on Skógafoss (it’s kind of hard to get a good pic though).
If you have plenty of time, consider continuing on up the path, because (supposedly) there are some beautiful waterfalls a few kilometers further, and a gorgeous, wild canyon.
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Glaciers & beaches of the South Coast…Vik & beyond
So many tourists to Iceland never venture beyond the Golden Circle and maybe those two big waterfalls, and that’s such a miss! There is so much more to discover if you continue on along the South Coast, and it’s very different from what you’ve already experienced.
One thing to keep in mind is that once you venture beyond Skógafoss and towards Vik, you have to start being especially focused on making sure you can secure accommodations…there just aren’t as many options, and they fill up fast in peak season.
After seeing Skógafoss on our first day, we made use of the looooong days of Midnight Sun and ventured forth to the Vik area. On a map it looks like a long way, but the Vik area is really only two hours from Reykjavik.
The first thing you’ll hit (if it’s clear enough…fog won’t make it worth it) is Dyrhólaey Cliffs, and you’ll need to drive up a dicey, super narrow winding (but decent) road on the side of the mountain to get there. But if you DO, you’ll get to experience awesome views over the surrounding countryside, the ocean, and out toward the famous Reynisfjara (Vik) black sand beach.
Just be prepared for the wind, because it is CRAZY up here. Hold on tight and don’t get too close to the edge. And again, if everything is clouded over and foggy, I’d skip this since you won’t see anything.
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And once you’ve seen Dyrhólaey, move on to the most famous black sand beach in Iceland…Vik Beach (or Reynisfjara, either is right). But on your way down, stop for a second to snap a pic of Vik i Myrdal, the adorable church.
Vik Beach (a.k.a. Reynisfjara Beach)
Eons ago when I first joined Pinterest, I saw this stunning moody black and white photo of a stormy, icy black sand beach. I was kind of obsessed, and once I realized it was Vik Beach, and was planning my itinerary, I knew I had to make a stop here.
And not only does it have cool black sand and giant (deadly, watch you back) waves, but it also boasts some of the same amazing hexagonal rock formations that Northern Ireland’s Giant’s Causeway and Scotland’s Isle of Staffa do.
Fun fact: When you stand on the beach and look out at the ocean, there’s no landmass between you and Antarctica. Yeah, you read that right.
A thought on where to eat near Vik…it was really late at that point (like 8:30pm, we were cold and windblown and cold, and still had to drive an hour to our hotel in Kirkjubæjarklaustur (try saying that five times fast!). So we managed to find Strondin, which was still open at that time. The view is amazing and they have a lovely patio if it’s a nice day.
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Glacier hiking in Vatnajökull National Park
While Vik can be a pretty good place to find housing, the reason we had to head the extra hour on to Kirkjubæjarklaustur was to bring us closer to our morning destination—a glacier hike in Vatnajökull National Park (also called Skaftafell). It is much further along the coast, so we still had another hour’s drive in the morning to get there (so two hours from Vik).
Glacier hiking had been on my bucket list for years, so rather like my Silfra snorkeling adventure I made sure to fit this in as well! I used Icelandic Mountain Guides, who were super professional, and I liked that the tour groups were fairly small.
It is such a weird feeling kind of crunching up the packed-snow-like side of a glacier!
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The guides are incredibly knowledgeable and very safety-conscious, and they did a wonderful job leading us through a safe path, pointing out all sorts of fascinating glacier nuances, showing us the best photo ops, and providing a lot of education.
It is impossible to TRULY capture how massive every little spike on this glacier is—the perspective just doesn’t allow. For instance, all of those tiny spikes in the first pic below are way bigger than a standing person…with crevices so big you could fall in them!
Fun fact: Iceland has 130 volcanos, about 30 of which are active, and glaciers cover about 11% of the country.
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On our way to the next stop, we kept our eyes peeled for somewhere to eat…we were famished after all our hiking, and a warm traditional Icelandic lamb stew hit the spot!
Jökusárlón Glacier Lagoon
Even though it was quite far out, I was obsessed with fitting Jökusárlón and Diamond Beach into my 3-day itinerary somehow. I’d fallen in love with them over Pinterest pics, and was determined to make it happen. They’re about a 5-hour drive from Reykjavik, so definitely not a day trip.
Jökusárlón is a massive glacier-fed lake with dozens of icebergs floating around in it. They’ve calved (broken) off the main giant glacier (Breiðamerkurjökull), and so they’re all different shades of white, blue, gray, and black. These photos can’t do justice to how HUGE each of those little icebergs are.
We managed to snag a parking spot in the large lot and bundled up against the wind, then walked along the hill cliff and then along the beach to try and get different angles of the ginormous chunks of ice floating in the water.
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This is great, because you get a two-fer…right across the road from Jökusárlón is the famous Diamond Beach (official name: Breiðamerkursandur). But there really aren’t any signs that I remember and there were way fewer people here, so I think it flies under the radar a bit. Make sure you don’t miss it!
From the parking lot its a little walk to the beach, and there you’ll be greeted by chunks—tiny and giant—of clear ice that have washed up on the black sand.
As bits of the giant icebergs from the glacier lagoon float down to the ocean, small pieces wash up on the shore and the constant lapping of water eventually wears them down into perfectly clear pieces…making them look like sparkling diamonds on black (sand) velvet.
I wish we could have been here at sunset (or sunrise), but we had to keep moving. Still, this is an amazing short stop!
We had quite a ways to drive back to our hotel for the night, in Hvolsvollur, so hit the road. Unfortunately we got our first bad weather of the trip, with rain and pea-soup fog pretty much the entire way back. I could see the car in front of me but barely the one in front of him. Thankfully the roads themselves are good. Crazy how the weather changed in an instant though!
We found a charming place to eat in Hvolsvollur called Eldestó Art Cafe, which has some local art and ceramics, great food and drinks, and delish pastries.
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The next morning because of our weird itinerary issues, we did Thingvellir (Silfra Snorkeling) and stopped by Kerid Crater, but then midday headed to Reykjavik to finish out our trip.
Though the weather had been crap all day, it cleared up as soon as we got to Reykjavik and checked into our hotel. We didn’t have tons of time to explore and hadn’t planned to do much here, but ended up absolutely falling in love with this quirky, charming city!
What’s great is that the main area you’d explore is quite small and very walkable, so you can really see a lot in a short time. We started with the two obvious, iconic choices—the Sun Voyager statue and Hallgrímskirkja church.
If you walk down to the waterfront, it’s impossible to miss the famous statue (called Sólfar in Icelandic). It looks like a Viking boat but instead was more abstractly intended as a dream boat or ode to the sun, containing “the promise of undiscovered territory, a dream of hope, progress and freedom”. It’s usually thronged by crowds, but if you are patient you can get a good empty shot.
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Similarly, Hallgrímskirkja is one of the most famous pictures in Reykajvik, and you can see the tower from almost anywhere in the city.
Guarded by a statue of explorer Leif Erikson out front, it has such a unique architectural style (meant to evoke the famous hexagonal rock shapes all over the country, like on Vik Beach). I was absolutely obsessed with getting shots from different angles.
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But besides these two Insta-famous sites, Reykjavik has so much more to offer. From vivid and varied street art, to beautiful colorful buildings that photograph like a dream, and from a hoppin’ nightlife bar and live music scene to super quirky museums (punk rock and phallological, among others)…this city is incredibly charming.
I fell in love with the tulip lamp posts, baskets of flowers, and colorful painted streets and buildings. Make sure not to neglect your pastry and coffee game as well. We made a few stops at Braud & Co (YUM) for pastries, and you can caffeinate just up the street at Reykjavik Roasters. We also found some AMAZING live music along the main drag!
And there you have it—an action-packed itinerary for Iceland in summer! It’s amazing how much we were able to accomplish in just a few days, with the help of some Midnight Sun.
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