How to spend 4 days in Iceland in winter (without renting a car)

Þingvellir (6)

I’m getting a lot of e-mails these days where people are asking me to help them plan their short winter stay in Reykjavík. To avoid having to write the same e-mail a million times I thought it might be a good idea to share a fairly typical 4 day itinerary that  I often send to those who contact me. I know, you think I write the posts on this blog to help you but It’s really just to make my life a little easier (and my e-mail inbox cleaner). Djók!

Because so many people are scared of driving in Iceland in winter this 4 day schedule is based on using Reykjavík as your base camp and taking day tours and excursions out of the city. If you are more interested in driving yourself you can also check out my Drive-it-yourself guides and the affordable car rental you can get through the blog .

4 days in Iceland in winter

This 4 day itinerary is great for:

– people on a budget (and those with a little more to spend)

– first time visitors 

– covering the highlights and leaving the rest for another visit

Because the vast majority of those who are sending me e-mails with questions about how they should plan their visit to Iceland at the moment are from North-America, I’m basing this itinerary on an early morning arrival and afternoon departure. All the Icelandair and WOW air flights flying to and from North-America follow this pattern and theses visitors are also the biggest group visiting Iceland at the moment.

If you are flying in from other areas you should still be able to use this itinerary to get some idea about how to plan your long weekend or winter break. You might have to tweak a thing or two but you can use the same general principles.

I’ve been quite relentless on this blog in saying that there’s more to Iceland than just the Golden Circle and the South shore but if you don’t plan on renting a car these areas are still probably the easiest and most affordable to get to and on a short visit you want to keep things somewhat simple – especially with the bad weather we sometimes get. I love the North and the Westfjords for example and think everyone should visit those areas but a long weekend in winter, on your first ever visit to Iceland, is not the time and the place for it in my opinion. But of course, like with everything, I’m sure someone will disagree.

Day 1: Arrival

i-heart-reykjavik-tour

I recently wrote a post about how to survive a 5 am arrival in Reykjavík like a boss which is a step by step guide how  to make the most of your first day in Reykjavík. In short I recommend in it that you take my Reykjavík walking tour at 10:00 and then spend the rest of your day exploring Reykjavík.

Whale watching is also a popular activity in Reykjavík and if you have your heart set on seeing one I would also recommend you check out the Walking and Whales combo tour.

If you think you can handle it and you’re one of those people that can take a nap without totally screwing up your whole system it might also be a good idea to book a Northern Lights tour on your first night here. Because you’ll probably be tired I would opt for the 19:00 departure which brings you back to town and under your duvet sooner than the later departures.

The reason I suggest you do a Northern Lights tour on your first night is because that way you maximize your chances of seeing them. If you don’t seem them on your first night you get to go again until you see them. If you don’t deal well with being outside in the cold when you are very tired you might want to leave this for the second night though.

Day 2: The Golden Circle

The Golden Circle is the Eiffiel Tower and Empire state of the tourist trail in Iceland -it’s just one of these things that most people feel like they have to see and do. It’s the easiest, most convenient and probably the safest option for winter travel in Iceland because of the well maintained roads and the variety of options when it comes to tours. It’s also beautiful and on this route you will see Þingvellir National Park (one of the most beautiful places in Iceland in my opinion – especially during fall and snowy winter), the Geysir area and and Gullfoss waterfall. Whether you see anything else on the tour depends on which tour you do.

Choosing the right Golden Circle Tour

Like I mentioned before there are about a million tours available that cover the Golden Circle and you simply have to choose the one that suits your interest and budget best.

The Hot Golden Circle

Secret-lagoon

The Hot Golden Circle Tour is fast becoming the best selling Golden Circle tour I offer through the blog. I always recommend this tour to people because it’s at a similar price as the cheapest big bus tours but the maximum amount of passengers on them are 19 people. The company that does these tours is also small and family run and obviously I like that. This tour finally includes a visit to the Secret Lagoon which is an old pool close to the town of Flúðir that gets its hot water from a nearby geyser. It’s kind of great – in a charmingly rustic way.

Golden Circle and Traditional Tastes

If you have some money to spend and you like a smaller tour with a many different aspects to it I cannot recommend the Golden Circle and Traditional Tastes tour enough. Everyone I’ve talked to that booked this tour through me loved it and it’s only available in winter. This tour will take you to all the main sites on the Golden Circle but also some lesser known spots where you’ll learn about (and more importantly taste) the local cuisine combined with a visit to Fontana Spa and  northern lights hunting. This tour costs a little bit but I think it’s probably the best value for money.

Golden Circle Super Jeep Tour

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The Golden Circle Super Jeep Tour is a great option to combine two favorite activities in Iceland: A super jeep tour and the Golden Circle. This tour also includes a visit to Langjökull glacier so it’s a bit more of an adventure than the classic Golden Circle tours. The groups are also very small on these tours that makes the whole thing more personal.

The no frills or fluff Golden Circle Big Bus Tour

If you just want the most affordable option and you don’t care that you’ll share the tour with 70 people then the Golden Circle Bus Tour is your best bet. There’s less included than on the other tours and it’s more impersonal but you’ll also have more money to spend on beer when you return.

If you want more time in Reykjavík this tour is also available as an even less fluffy and shorter Express Golden Circle tour. This might also be a good option on the weekend if you want to sleep in after a big night out.

Day 3: The South Coast

The south coast is considered by many one the most beautiful areas in Iceland. If you’ve ever seen amazing photos from Iceland of massive waterfalls and expansive black sand beaches – this is where you’ll find these things. The great thing about combining a visit to the South Shore with a Golden Circle tour is that the two don’t overlap so there’s no repeat material (except the short drive between Reykjavík and Hveragerði).

Choosing the right South Shore tour

In winter your best bet is to do the South Shore Adventure tour. It’s a big bus tour, so it’s not ideal if you prefer smaller tours, but it makes up for that with reasonable price and daily guaranteed departures. I could recommend other smaller tours you could also do for a similar price but they don’t always reach their minimum amount of passengers and they often only have a couple of departures a week. You want the tour to work with your schedule and not the other way around. The other thing about this particular tour is that if they need to cancel due to bad weather and such you have more options to rebook

If you want to combine a visit to the South shore with an activity like Glacier Walk the Take a walk on the ice side tour is a great option for that. The main focus is the glacier walk (which is great – I was surprise how much I liked it) but the tour also makes a stop at the two biggest waterfalls on the south coast: Seljalandsfoss (the one you can walk behind – which isn’t always possible in winter though) and Skógafoss. You do have to trade in the black sand beaches for the glacier walk but it’s a great way to add some activity to our visit in Iceland. In case you’re one of those overly active ADHD types and sitting on a bus for hours is not really your thing.

Day 4: Departure and the Blue Lagoon

If you have been reading this blog for a while you will know that I’m not a big fan of the Blue Lagoon. I don’t want to get into why I feel that way (again), it’s just not for me, but you will then also know that I totally understand why you want to go there. There’s a reason why around 80% of all visitors that come to Iceland end up there at some point during their trip and if the Blue Lagoon is on your ultimate Iceland bucket list of course you should go for it!

To me it makes the most sense to do the Blue Lagoon on the last day before you go to the airport and here is why:

  • The Blue Lagoon is on the way to the airport so you don’t have to make a special trip out there, wasting precious time that could be used for some interesting full day tours out of the city.
  • In my experience from my own travels I always feel the last day goes to waste a bit because you usually don’t have enough time to do anything major but you still have too much time to just sit in the hotel lobby and twiddle your thumbs. This way you use your time to the maximum and you’ll be super relaxed for your flight.
  • If you are taking a bus from Reykjavík to the Blue Lagoon you can chose whether you go back to Reykjavík after your visit or whether you carry on to Keflavík Airport. The Blue Lagoon has a luggage storage where you can leave your luggage for a small fee.

Image via The Blue Lagoon

If you are flying out at 17:00 (5 pm) you need to be at the airport no later than 15:00. With that in mind it’s probably good to opt to leave the Blue Lagoon at 14:00 or 14:30 – depending on whether you’re taking a bus or a private transfer. To make a day out of it I would recommend you leave Reykjavík by 10:00,  book your visit to the Lagoon at 11:00 and then do lunch at Lava when you get out. If you are leaving with WOW Air around 15:30 you need to adjust these timings accordingly and probably skip the lunch.

Booking your visit to the Blue Lagoon

The Blue Lagoon is such a popular destination that you now have to book your visit in advance or risk showing up there and being turned away because it’s booked out. If you are going to take the bus, which is probably the most affordable option, I would just suggest you book your ticket through the Blue Lagoon website and book the transfer in the booking process there. It’s the same price as if you would book it individually.

Alternatively you could also book a  private transfer to Keflavík Airport with an additional stop at the Blue Lagoon. I would especially recommend this for small group of friends and families.

Mix and match

Of course this is just a suggestion on how you can spend your 4 days in Iceland in winter. This itinerary is more focused on allowing you to experience as much of our nature as possible in the shortest amount of time but it isn’t maybe the most active of schedules. If you have an extra day, or if you want to mix things up, I have to mention the Snorkeling in Silfra tour too which is super interesting and fun and totally worth it.

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32 thoughts on “How to spend 4 days in Iceland in winter (without renting a car)”

  1. Wilson says:

    This is *remarkably* close to what I did in February… except that I actually hired a car 🙂 Day one was your tour, then Reykjavík and surroundings on foot; day two started with “pick up car before the sun is up” then Þingvellir and surroundings, day three was a glacier walk and south coast until it started snowing, day four was return car then hope it stops snowing by the time my flight leaves (it didn’t – the flight was delayed for a while, probably because the crew couldn’t find the plane in that white-out).

  2. Soraya Assar says:

    Since there is limited sunlight in the winter, how does this affect the ability to see everything? For example, the Golden Circle Tour sounds so nice, but I am afraid it will be too dark to see everything properly

    1. mm Auður says:

      It’s not too dark for the Golden Circle – there’s a lot of dusk but it is not completely dark. So it should be fine.

  3. Valentina says:

    Thanks for the article, my boyfriend and I are flying out tomorrow to Iceland, it’s good to see reassurance that my research of Icelandic supermarkets wasn’t futile 🙂

    I was wondering, is there any map/website for non-tourist hot pots, like the one they include into Hot Golden circle tour? I heard there are many around the country, but Google wasn’t very helpful

  4. Marc says:

    Hello ! Nice program… I’m a French retired man, and I was in Iceland with my daughter for 15 days in 2013. It was a very very good trip around the island. I would like to come back, alone, for a short trip. Because I love this country. Do you have an idea of the cost (inside Island) for this four days trip for one people ?

    1. mm Auður says:

      The cost depends on which tours you choose – you can find information about the cost of each one by following the links.

  5. Rifhan Aliah says:

    Hi! I’ll be visiting Iceland in early February this year(2016) with my friend, and stumbled across your article which is very helpful! The reason is because my friend and I are both girls who are a little scared to drive around the icy roads, and up till now I am still actually doubtful about driving in Iceland though most reviews would recommend doing just that. Would you happen to know any tour that brings you up to the turqoise icebergs in Jokulsarlon? Because most South Shore tours just go up to Vik, and we badly wanna visit the beautiful Jokulsarlon.

    Thank you!

    1. mm Auður says:

      I do know a few tours that take you to Jökulsárlón and I’ll be adding some of them to my tours this week actually.

      1. Rifhan Aliah says:

        Wow thank you. Looking forward for that ?

  6. Patricia says:

    Hi, great blog!

    I am looking at some multi day tours, how are they compared to separate day tours?
    Any recommended multi day tours including Golden Circle, south coast, Jokulsarlon, ice cave and glacier hike?
    Is it more worth the price to take multi day or day tours?
    Is there higher chances of catching the northern lights with multi day tours since staying out of Reykjavik?

    Thanks!

    1. mm Auður says:

      Whether you do a multi-day tour or a day tour just depends on which fits your schedule better. If you don’t drive, you’re traveling on your own and would like to meet some like-minded travelers then the multiday tour with a small group might be something for you. If you are traveling with friends and you want more freedom to stop where you want and such then it might make more sense to rent a car and do tour on your way. Or do daytours from Reykjavík. For example if beer and nice restaurants every night is part of what you want to experience, then multi-day tours are maybe not the answer for you.

      Whether or not you see the northern lights has little to do with what tours you to and all to do with luck.

  7. Amy says:

    Love the article and the website – I just got back from a 5 day holiday in Reykjavik and absolutely loved it! Loved the Laundromat Cafe for a yummy brunch, the Gullfoss was incredible and also I’m now obsessed with Skyr yoghurts!! Check out my blog post on my top 10 reasons to book a city break to Reykjavik 🙂

    http://pin.it/OdxDwW-

  8. Guillermo says:

    Hi! Great post! I’m planning to visit Iceland on October/November to see the northern lights among others things (also to take your walking tour :D) and i was wondering if seven days without renting a car are a lot of days or i stil be able to have things/tours to do.

    Thank you!

    1. mm Auður says:

      You can definitely stay in Reykjavík the whole time and still find things to do 🙂

  9. jeanne says:

    as usual, you’ve done the research so we don’t have to. this is a tremendous service, and i hope you have the stamina to keep it up for a long time. thank you

  10. Victoria says:

    We are planning a 4 day weekend over thanksgiving this year (2016). Is it very busy then, so you know?

    Thank you so much for your site, it is extremely helpful.

    1. mm Auður says:

      Last year it was fairly busy but nothing like the summer though.

  11. elva duong says:

    I am going to Iceland with my husband in December. We are a little bit concern about driving in snowing condition with icy roads, since the place we live never snow so we don’t have experience in doing so. With that said, do you think December road conditions are very challenging for us? Also, with only 5 hours of day light per day, do you think it’s a better option to pick another time to go to Iceland? Thanks.

    1. mm Auður says:

      They definitely can be, especially if you are not used to winter conditions. Some days are bright and beautiful but there might still be snow or the ice on the roads while other days you can’t drive from A to B because of a storm or something of that sort. I think Iceland in the winter is absolutely stunning but if you are very insecure about driving then maybe it would be better for you to stick with day tours. It’s not the same as having your own car of course but there are some good tours out there that are worth checking out.

  12. Alice mccann says:

    Hi there very useful website. My son and I are going to rejkjavik on 20/12/2016 for four night. We are staying in apartments as it will be easier and cheaper. I want to take him to the blue lagoon spa I think it will be OK to bring him he is 5 what do you think? I think I’d be better booking it myself and getting there ourselves via bus is this easy enough or should I book via my travel agent? I don’t want to be ripped off I just want a nice relaxed christmassy time with my son following my separation from my husband this year. I would like to try and see northern lights of course but think I may be best booking when we get there in case weather is bad. Also is there other spas (that I can go with my son if you are saying you aren’t keen on blue lagoon?). Any advice for us would be much appreciated. Just booked last week think Iceland sounds so cool?

  13. Lyn says:

    Hi! Thank you for the information! It is really useful. My friend and I are going over in early December, and we are undecided between self-drive vs tour as we are afraid of driving in snowy conditions. and we are thinking of deciding when we reach there depending on the weather. But I am also afraid that the tours would be fully booked if we do not book in advance. Would you advice that we book tours in advice? Thanks!

    1. mm Auður says:

      If you plan to book tours with limited availability then yes, I would recommend you book your tours in advance. I have dates in February where my walking tour is already fully booked.

  14. Jamie says:

    Hi!
    I have a question regarding the Golden Circle in winter. Given that daylight lasts only for 4-5 hours, do you visit all three attractions of the circle during the day or will you see one of them by night? If so, do you still appreciate it at night?
    Thanks!

    1. mm Auður says:

      The companies that are operating Golden Circle tours in winter try to schedule them around the limited daylight so you reach the main attractions when it’s still bright out. And even though we don’t have a lot of full daylight in the darkest winter months it doesn’t mean it’s dark all the time. It’s just dusky a lot.

  15. William says:

    Are any horseback riding tours operating in February?

  16. Sergio A Herrera says:

    I will dig into your blog further but I will be there a bit longer, closer to 9 full days. So I like the itinerary you’ve laid out but I do have time to do better, further and more exciting things. I don’t know your view of Blue Lagoon and I’m sure i’ll run into your post about it but I will only go there, to say I did, but I want to go where most people won’t. Snowshoeing? Trail running? I have an extreme interest in the The Laugavegur trail but I don’t have enough winter travel info…

    1. mm Auður says:

      The Laugavegur trail is closed in winter but you can still find tours that will take you into Þórsmörk or Landmannalaugar.

      If you have 9 days, you might also enjoy this post: http://www.iheartreykjavik.net/2016/11/seven-days-in-winter-in-iceland-for-adventure-lovers-that-dont-want-to-rent-a-car/

  17. Zoë says:

    Hi! I really enjoy your blog, such great information! I am planing a trip to Iceland with my daughter (who will be a senior in high school) this December (2017), arriving December 27th and leaving January 1st. This will give us five days and nights. I love your recommendations for a four day trip and will do all of them! Do you have any suggestions on what we should do on the fifth day or on how we should spend New Year’s Eve? Thank you so much!

  18. Megan says:

    Great itinerary . We’re planning on 4 days in November. Bexiles the Blue Lagoon on the last day, do you have any other recommendations? We’re thinking if we do one of the hot pools/ Golden circle tours we won’t want to go to the blue lagoon, too.

    1. mm Auður - I Heart Reykjavík says:

      You could do some sort of half day activity like a horse riding tour or an ATV tour, for example. If you want our help with this just send us an e-mail.

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