Iceland in One Week – A Budget Friendly Itinerary

Iceland in One Week – A Budget Friendly Itinerary

Iceland on a Budget: An Oxymoron?

Talk to anyone who has been to Iceland and one of the first things they tell you is that it is absolutely stunning, and should be on everyone’s bucket list. Another thing they will tell you is that it is an incredibly expensive place to visit. Like, probably the most expensive country in the world.

I’m not a fan of carrying debt, and I try to do most things as cheaply as possible without compromising the experience. So here’s the itinerary my family used when we went to Iceland in February. If it cost money for us to do it, I will note the price. If no price is listed, the site did not charge an admission fee.

Day 1: Arrival & Jet Lag in Reykjavik

We flew non-stop from Baltimore and arrived local time around 5:30 AM. Our bodies, however, thought it was midnight, and we were ready for bed. No such luck… check in at our Airbnb was not until 2:00 PM.  That left us with a lot of time to kill and not a lot of energy.  Fortunately, I stumbled upon a great little museum that opens at 7 AM and is very close to the airport. By the time we claimed our bags and got our rental car, it was 7:00, so we went straight to the museum – Viking World (or Vikingaheimar in Icelandic).

The museum also has a breakfast buffet which costs roughly $5 more than museum admission alone. So, for $20 each, we got a hearty breakfast, coffee (thank you, Lord!) and an introduction to Viking lore and history. We spent 2-3 hours there, taking in the exhibits and feeling like we had the place to ourselves.

After that, we explored Reykjavik a little bit. There was a great bookstore I wanted to visit (Bókabúð Máls og Menningar), so hubs found a parking garage where he could nap while I explored. Also nearby was a Christmas shop where I bought an ornament as my only souvenir, and this really cool building covered in artwork:

Iceland on a Budget - Look out for amazing street art in Reykjavik.

By this time, though, I was starting to drag. I went back to the car, woke hubs up, and off we went to buy groceries. (The only smart thing to do if you’re trying to do Iceland on a budget. Eating out can cost a small fortune.) By the time we finished that, it was time to check in and unpack. I then crashed for a much-needed but all too brief nap.

After we had rested a little, we got back in the car and drove back to downtown Reykjavik. We went to the iconic Hallgrimskirkja church. The inside is a lot less ornate than older European churches, but it was still quite grand. We purchased tickets to go up inside the clock tower ($10 per adult, $1.50 per child up to age 14). From there we enjoyed amazing views of the city:

Iceland on a Budget - There is a fee to go to the top of the clock tower of Hallgrimskirkja church.

After that, we still had some daylight, so we headed to Perlan. I hadn’t run across many people talking about this site on travel blogs, but it seemed intriguing, and they had a simulated ice cave.

Why should that matter, you ask? Well, I really wanted to tour an ice cave while in Iceland, but it was cost prohibitive. At roughly $200 per person, it would have cost $600 for Hubs, Daughter and me to do it. That’s not even within the realm of possibility when you’re trying to experience Iceland on a budget!

Perlan admission, on the other hand, was roughly $29 per adult and $15 for children age 6-15. Still a bit pricey, but much more manageable.  Was it as cool as being inside a real ice cave formed by nature? No, of course not! But it was still a neat experience that provided us with some really great photos.

Iceland on a Budget - See a man made ice cave at Perlan for $30, or the real thing for $200.

Additionally, our guide was very entertaining, and we learned a lot about Iceland and glaciers at Perlan’s other exhibits. But the best part of Perlan was going out on the 360 degree observation deck, where we were treated to beautiful twilight views of the city.

Iceland on a Budget - The view from Perlan's 360-degree observation deck,

When we finished up exploring Perlan and looking at the view, we headed back to our lodging and off to bed.

I should note that while this day’s adventure’s may sound expensive and not at all budget friendly, it is the only day that we spent any money on anything other than food, shelter, and transportation. Our activities on all of the days that followed were free of charge.

Day 2: The Golden Circle

The husband of a friend of a friend is a native of Iceland, and is still living there while he tries to get immigration to the US sorted out. We contacted him and he graciously offered to be our tour guide around the Golden Circle for our second day in Iceland.

The Golden Circle consists of three sites of interest that are more or less arranged in a circular loop not too far from Reykjavik. It’s a popular tourist route, and while it makes for a full day, you really don’t need more than a day to do it. Here’s our Golden Circle map:

Iceland on a Budget - Most sites on the Golden Circle route are free to visit.

We started by driving to Thingvellir National Park, about 30 minutes outside of Reykjavik. The cool thing about this park is that it is the site where the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates meet, and you can walk in between them. The park has both natural beauty and historic significance, and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Iceland on a Budget - Thingvellir National Park is part of the Golden Circle and, aside from a small parking fee, is free to visit.

From Thingvellir, we drove about 40 minutes to Geysir and Strokkur, a geothermal site featuring one dormant and one active geyser. The active one, Strokkur, erupts every 5-10 minutes. And I’ll just warn you… even if you are standing there with your finger lightly resting on your camera button, waiting for it to erupt and fully aware that it will do so at any moment… it will still scare the crap out of you when it does, causing your photo to come out crooked.

Iceland on a Budget - Strikkur is a very active geyser that you can watch for free.

Our third stop on the Golden Circle Tour was Gullfoss, a massive waterfall just 10 minutes away from the geysers. Unfortunately, when we were there, most of the waterfall was frozen.

Iceland on a Budget - Gullfoss, on the Golden Circle, is a huge waterfall that is free to visit.

However, the highlight was the visitor center. Our friend/guide insisted that we try the lamb stew. I was skeptical, as I’ve had lamb before and did not care for it at all. But I must say, the stew was amazing! Even my daughter, who picks bits out of her Campbell’s chicken noodle soup if she doesn’t like the way they look, finished every drop. Now, nearly two months later, she will occasionally say with a wistful sigh, “I wish I had some lamb stew.” It is that good. I don’t remember how much we paid for it but it was worth every krona.

From there, at the recommendation of our friend’s friend’s husband, we went to a place that is usually not included on Golden Circle tour routes: Faxi. It is the site of a fairly wide waterfall with a curious-looking set of steps on one side.

Iceland on a Budget - Faxi Waterfall can be added to your Golden Circle route; it is free to visit.

We asked our guide for the day what the steps were for. It turns out that they are built for salmon, not people. By having the steps there, salmon are able to swim up to the top of the waterfall, where people are eager to catch them. Coming from very flat land, I had never heard of such a thing before, but they aren’t that rare and known as fish ladders.

Our last stop on the Golden Circle was Kerid Crater. If you’re going to Iceland in the winter, like we did, you may want to skip this.  It’s not much to look at.

Iceland on a Budget - Kerid Crater on the Golden Circle

Day 3: Reykjavik to Hof

We said goodbye to Reykjavik and headed off to explore the southern part of the island.

Our first stop was Seljalandsfoss waterfall, which was beautiful. Unfortunately, the tourists there were not. We didn’t stay long.

From there, it was on to another beautiful waterfall, Skogafoss. This one is situated in such a way that if the sun is out, you have a really good chance of seeing a rainbow in front of the falls.

After our experience with the tourists at Seljalandsfoss, we decided to just appreciate this waterfall from a distance.  Besides, at this point I was ready to see something other than waterfalls.

We traveled next to Reynisfjara, the black sand beach that was featured as a setting at the beginning of Star Wars: Rogue One. What a wonderful, beautiful, epic place it was! Huge basalt columns, caves, squawking birds flying overhead, huge rocks jutting out of the sea, and crashing waves with a reputation of being sneaky. We spent a good amount of time here, laughing, exploring, taking photos… it was easily one of my favorite places in Iceland.

Iceland on a Budget - Reynisfjara Black Beach is free to visit and breathtaking to behold!

When we finally tore ourselves away from the black sand beach, it was time to head to our lodgings in Hof. I wanted to make one more stop, at Fjaðrárgljúfur, an ancient river canyon. This is another one of those sites that you can completely skip past if you’re going in the winter. When it’s all covered with snow, it’s hard to capture the depth and the scope of it.

Iceland on a Budget - Fjaðrárgljúfur is an ancient river canyon that is best appreciated in spring & summer.

If you are not going in the winter, then consider exploring this area and/or driving farther. Lodging and dining options in Hof (as opposed to Hofn, which is 90 minutes farther east) are limited.

Day 4: Heading East to Egilsstadir

First thing in the morning, we got up and headed to Skaftafell National Park. I had fallen in love pictures of the Svartifoss waterfall there and classified it as absolutely-must-see.  I think you can see why:

Iceland on a Budget - Svartifoss waterfall in Skaftafell National Park.
Photo via Flickr by Victor Montol.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t look quite as good in the winter. And there is a 90 minute hike to reach it.

Uphill.

In the snow.

We didn’t get as close as the photographer above did, because frankly, I was exhausted, hungry, and cranky. Not to mention disappointed.  This is as close as we got:

Yeah. Significantly less impressive in the winter.  But at least I tried.

From there we headed to the Jökulsárlón glacier lagoon. It was absolutely breathtaking… still water clear enough to see down several inches, big chunks of pale turquoise ice, and the cold, crisp air. I’d like to think that it’s nowhere near as pretty in the spring and summer months.

Iceland on a Budget - Jokulsarlon Glacier Lagoon is free to visit and stunning to behold!

From there, we went over to the opposite side of the road to the stretch of black sand known as Diamond Beach. Chunks of ice break off of the glaciers and wash ashore. The contrast between the slowly melting ice and the dark black sand is striking, and when the sun hits the ice fragments they can resemble diamonds. However, most of the ice chunks I saw were opaque and white rather than clear and diamond-like.

After that, we were supposed to stop near Hofn to check out a Viking village created for a movie/television series. Unfortunately, we forgot about it until we were well past it on our way to Egilsstadir.

Day 5: Egilsstadir to Akureyri

Driving from Egilsstadir to Akureyri in the winter can be a white knuckle experience. If you are attempting to do this, make sure you have a car equipped with 4 wheel drive and tires like these:

Iceland on a budget - tires for winter driving

Our first stop on Day 5 was Námafjall, a volcanic site that features fumaroles and boiling mud pots. A fumarole is an opening through which sulfurous gasses pour out with a loud hiss. In layman’s terms, it’s like a giant anthill blowing out steam that smells like rotten eggs. It is every bit as disgusting as it sounds. In fact, my daughter started gagging as soon as we pulled up and refused to get out of the car.  But also visually striking.  It felt like we were on another planet.

Iceland on a Budget - Fumaroles at Namafjall

Boiling mud pots are pretty much what they sound like – essentially deep mud puddles that are so hot they are boiling. Every once in a while you would hear one go BLLUUUURRRPP as a large bubble broke the surface, but for the most part they are much quieter than the fumaroles.

From there we rode to Grjótagjá cave, which was a popular hot spring bathing site until volcanic eruptions from 1975 to 1984 made the water too hot – 140 degrees. Today it is cooler, more like 110-115 degrees, but bathing here is prohibited. Save for a few cars parked nearby, you wouldn’t know that anything was there at all. But inside, it’s easy to see how people would have enjoyed slipping between the rocks for a warm soak.

Our third and final sightseeing venture for the day was Godafoss, which means the Waterfall of the Gods. It was easy to see how this waterfall earned its nickname. It was very big, very powerful, and very impressive.

Day 6: Akureyri to Borgarnes

Our drive across the northern part of Iceland was quite nice and relaxing. It was one of the warmer days we spent there, and it almost seemed like spring was right around the corner. Looking out  we actually saw grass where previously we had only seen snow. This, coupled with the fact that the road follows the coastline, made it a remarkably enjoyable drive.

We headed to Grafarkirkja, which is the oldest church in Iceland, and nearly missed it altogether. It was only by sheer determination that we found it, as it is quite small and in a rural location, even by Icelandic standards.

Grafarkirkja is a turf building, common in Icelandic architecture centuries ago. Icelanders would fit turf to the frame of their buildings, providing excellent insulation against the harsh weather.

Iceland on a Budget - Grafarkirkja is the oldest church in Iceland, and is free to visit

From there we journeyed in search of dragons. Stone dragons, that is. Hvítserkur is the name of Iceland’s famous sea stack off the northern coast that looks a bit like a dragon taking a drink of water from the sea, don’t you think?

Iceland on a Budget - Hvitserkur is said to resemble a dragon taking a drink from the sea.

We ended the day in Borgarnes, which has a Viking Settlement Museum and restaurant. We had dinner at the restaurant and it was crazy expensive, also not that great. (I ordered lasagna. It had carrots in it. Who puts carrots in lasagna?) We did not visit the museum, but I have a feeling our money would have been better spent there.

Day 7: Borgarnes to Keflavik, then home.

The day of our departure we didn’t do any sightseeing… just drove back to the airport and turned in the rental car, mailed off the portable wifi, went through airport security, and flew home.

We loved Iceland, and hope to return in the future – but would like to do so in spring or summer. It would be wonderful to see sites like Svartifoss and the river canyon when they are green and vibrant instead of half-frozen and covered in snow. 😉

I hope you find this itinerary useful. I cannot stress enough how glad I am that we journeyed around the whole island. The crowds in Reykjavik and along the southern coast were stifling, even in the off season. Once we got past Hofn, however, we found most places to be less crowded and also enjoyed some of the most beautiful scenery I have ever seen.

Iceland on a Budget - One Week Itinerary
Your guide to spending one week in Iceland without breaking the bank.

2 Replies to “Iceland in One Week – A Budget Friendly Itinerary”

  1. This is a great read, and very straight forward as far as Itinerary and things to see. Sorry waterfalls were iced over, but still beautiful pictures.

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