One Day Iceland Itinerary: How to Spend 24 Hours in Iceland (in the Winter!)
Offering dramatic landscapes, northern lights, and the Blue Lagoon, Iceland is a top destination for bucket list travelers. Without a doubt, Iceland should be at the top of your list as your next place to visit. The best time to visit Iceland, especially if it is your first time, is in the winter when the northern lights are most active. While I would recommend at least a few days, if not a week or more, it is entirely possible to experience the magic of Iceland in only 24 hours. If you have a layover in Iceland, that is the perfect opportunity to follow my one day itinerary and guide for how to spend 24 hours in Iceland.
After spontaneously booking a flight from Boston to Iceland for a short weekend getaway in December (it’s hard for me to turn down a great flight deal), I landed in Iceland at 4:30am with only one full day to explore before flying back to Boston. Because I had limited time in the Nordic country, I carefully pre-planned how to spend 24 hours in Iceland in the winter. (of course, I still left some room for spontaneity and missed turns…)
Best Way to Travel to Iceland
Unless there is a boat that I am unaware of, the only way to get to Iceland is by flying. The capital of Iceland is Reykjavik, but the majority of international flights arrive 40 minutes away at Keflavik International Airport (KEF).
My super cheap flight ($140 direct, roundtrip) was through WOW Air, but unfortunately, the low-budget air carrier ceased operations in March 2019. The collapse of WOW Air significantly reduced the options to travel from the United States to Iceland.
Fly to Iceland with Icelandair
Today, your only choice is to fly with Icelandair. If you come across a JetBlue flight, it is because JetBlue has a partnership with Icelandair. So while it may seem like you are booking a JetBlue flight, the flight is still operated by Icelandair. The best part about this partnership is that you can earn JetBlue TrueBlue loyalty points while flying to Iceland.
Icelandair offers direct service to Iceland from Boston, New York-JFK, Seattle, Chicago-ORD, and other North American cities. Icelandair also offers passengers the opportunity to take an “Icelandair Stopover” for up to seven nights at no additional airfare cost. This means if you book a flight from Boston to Copenhagen, for example, you can simply stop for free in Iceland, for up to 7 nights, before traveling onward to your final destination. This makes it incredibly easy to stop in Iceland for a layover and follow my guide for how to spend 24 hours in Iceland!
You can find amazing flight deals through my two favorite sites to book flights: Skyscanner and Google Flights. The benefit of Skyscanner over Google Flights is Skyscanner has a beautiful, highly recommended app, which allows you much more easily find great flights.
ONLY 24 Hours in Iceland: CAR RENTAL?
Do you need to rent a car in Iceland if you are only there for 24 hours? The short answer is yes. If you are visiting Iceland and have a valid driver’s license (I can only speak for Americans, but U.S. driver’s licenses are valid in Iceland), you must book a car for your trip. Iceland is an expensive country and the fuel costs are infuriating, but it is worth it to rent a car. Not only is Iceland the easiest and the most fun country I have ever driven in (imagine perfect roads, signs that actually make sense, and zero traffic), but it will be nearly impossible to properly experience Iceland in 24 hours if you do not rent a car.
Other than massive tour busses, which I would avoid unless you genuinely like tours, there is no public transportation that will enable you to get to each stop on my itinerary (or any other Iceland itinerary). You need a car to experience 24 hours in Iceland if you would like to visit places outside of Reykjavik and the Blue Lagoon. Another BIG reason to rent a car is that it will allow you to stop at any time and pet the adorably friendly Icelandic horses!
Should You Rent a Car in Iceland in the Winter?
Yes, you should rent a car in Iceland in the Winter. An important thing to note about renting a car in Iceland in the winter is that there really is not that much snow in the Southern region. There is certainly snow, but not outrageous amounts like you might expect in a place that is literally named the land of ice. I have visited Iceland in December, March, and April and all three times ran into no issues with driving a small, two-wheel-drive car (automatic because I don’t know how to drive manual).
I also rejected extra car insurance that the car rental companies suggested I buy in case of sandstorms or gravel kicking up from the road, but not once did I run into those elements either. If I was going further north, I likely would have added on the extra insurance, but if staying in the southern part of Iceland, I do not think it is necessary to spend the money for such a small risk.
One Day Iceland Itinerary: How to Spend 24 Hours in Iceland (In the Winter!)
I debated the best way to break down how to spend 24 hours in Iceland. I initially considered outlining everything by stating the hour (hour 1…hour 2…all the way to 24) but considering everyone likes to travel at their own pace and I don’t want to emphasize specific visit lengths, I am simply going to note the time it takes to get from one stop to the next. If you have questions about how much time to spend at any one place, feel free to comment below or send me a message and I’ll happily make a personal recommendation.
How to Spend 24 Hours in Iceland: Friday Night
Depart Boston 6:00pm for an overnight flight direct to Keflavik. Contrary to what most people believe, Iceland is really not that far away from the east coast of the United States. Only a five-hour flight from Boston, Iceland is quicker to get to from Boston than it is to get to California (6.5+ hours). Understandably, Iceland seems much further away. The Northern European island country is located just southeast of Greenland and a few degrees south of the Arctic circle.
Due to the time zone change, the flight lands in Keflavik International Airport on Saturday at 4:30am Iceland time. I almost wish the flight was a little longer because then I would have more time to sleep on the plane. There is still a great benefit to arriving early, though, especially if only in Iceland for the weekend!
How to Spend 24 Hours in Iceland: Saturday
After landing in Keflavik at 4:30am, take the free airport shuttle bus to the car rental lot, which is only a few minutes away. Once you have secured your rental car, it is time for the road trip to start!
Keflavik to Vik
(DRIVE 2 HOURS 56 MINUTES)
The first major stop is a traditionally quaint Icelandic fishing village called Vik. Depending on the time of year you go to Iceland, stop for a coffee and breakfast at Halldórskaffi.
Vik to Reynisfjara Black Sand Beach
(DRIVE 11 MINUTES)
Adjacent to Vik is a black sand beach called Reynisfjara. With around 130 volcanic mountains, Iceland has a number of black sand beaches that are the result of lava meeting the cold ocean. Reynisfjara is Iceland’s most famous black sand beach. One of the other unique aspects of Reynisfjara is the basalt rock formations that surround the black sand beach.
If going to Iceland in December, the sun will rise around 10:30am (!). Since it will be dark, you can either choose to wait and watch the sunrise at Reynisfjara Black Sand Beach or head to the next stop. Either way, both options are equally beautiful!
Reynisfjara Black Sand Beach to Dyrhólaey Peninsula
(DRIVE 19 MINUTES)
Dyrhólaey Peninsula is a slight detour off the main road, but it is worth spending a little bit of time here. The peninsula is elevated which creates incredible views of the Icelandic coastline. Somewhat of an extension of the peninsula, there is a magnificent black arch (lava, of course). I found it mesmerizing to watch the icy Atlantic crash waves against the volcanic arch. Also located at the end of the peninsula is the Dyrhólaey Lighthouse.
Dyrhólaey Peninsula to Solheimasandur Plane Wreck
(DRIVE 19 MINUTES)
Due to the explosive popularity of Iceland on social media, It’s pretty improbable that you have not already seen a photo of the Solheimasandur Plane Wreck. The abandoned United States navy plane, which crashed in 1973 due to running out of fuel (everyone was ok!), has now become a destination in itself for photographers and influencers alike. While I personally couldn’t venture to the plane wreck due to it being too cold and windy to walk 5 miles roundtrip, I included it in my itinerary because it’s possible to make this bucket list stop and still have time for everything else in this itinerary. Just use your discretion when the time comes – if it’s too cold and you didn’t pack enough arctic layers, like I failed to do, save the Solheimasandur Plane Wreck walk for another trip.
If you are wondering how to get to the Solheimasandur Plane Wreck, the easiest way is to plug in the coordinates below:
- Turnoff Coordinates: 63.4912391,-19.3632810
- Airplane Coordinates: 63.459523,-19.364618
Solheimasandur Plane Wreck to Skógafoss Waterfall
(DRIVE 11 MINUTES)
I love all waterfalls, but the waterfalls in southern Iceland are truly spectacular. As you drive along the southern route, make sure to stop at Skógafoss Waterfall.
Skógafoss Waterfall to Seljalandsfoss Waterfall
(DRIVE 26 MINUTES)
The cool part about Iceland’s waterfalls is all the waterfalls are so different from each other. Do not miss a visit to Seljalandsfoss Waterfall during your 24 hours in Iceland!
Seljalandsfoss Waterfall to Kaffi Krús
Realizing that you will be really tired, it’s crucial that more time is devoted to another cup of coffee. And food. But definitely more coffee. Drive to Kaffi Krús in Selfoss to enjoy a hot cup of coffee as well as a fulfilling late afternoon lunch.
Drive to the Blue Lagoon
(1 HOUR 10 MINUTES)
After a long day of exploring, it is then time to check off one of Iceland’s most famous bucket list items. Visit the Blue Lagoon Iceland to experience dreamlike blue waters and ultimate relaxation. The Blue Lagoon is one of my favorite things to do in Iceland and each time I go to Iceland, I always make sure to visit the Blue Lagoon.
According to the Blue Lagoon’s website, “home to one of 25 wonders in the world, Blue Lagoon Iceland is a place where the powers of geothermal seawater create transformational spa journeys.” I can vouch that the journey is “transformational.” There really is nothing like floating in geothermal blue waters with supposed healing powers in the middle of a lava field in the arctic tundra.
Tips for Booking Your Blue Lagoon Iceland Ticket
Unless you plan to go to the Retreat Spa, the Blue Lagoon Iceland ticket prices fall into two main categories: Comfort and Premium. Comfort is valued at $94 and Premium is valued at $118. The tickets used to be much cheaper, but with Iceland’s rapidly growing popularity among travelers, it makes sense that the Blue Lagoon raised prices.
Each time I have gone to the Blue Lagoon, I have booked the Premium package as it includes the use of a bathrobe, slippers and a second face mask. I really valued each of these added benefits that come with the Premium ticket, which is $24 more than the Comfort ticket.
Best Time to Book Your Blue Lagoon Ticket WITH ONLY 24 HOUrS IN ICELanD
Tickets require timed entry, so it’s important to have a good sense of your plan prior to booking your tickets. If following my one-day Iceland itinerary, I would recommend booking your tickets for a 17:00 (5:00pm) entry.
My last major tip for visiting the Blue Lagoon Iceland – do not visit the Blue Lagoon during holiday periods or in the peak summer months. Unfortunately, there is a massive increase of tourists during these times and it will completely ruin your Blue Lagoon Iceland experience. Part of the beauty of the Blue Lagoon is being able to completely relax, and that will become nearly impossible if there’s a giant crowd of tourists swimming with you and taking thousands of photos.
Drive from Blue Lagoon Iceland to Reykjavik
After treating yourself to a bucket-list experience at the Blue Lagoon, then drive into Iceland’s capital city of Reykjavik. There is free parking on most of the side streets around Reykjavik; once you find a parking spot, head over to your hotel to check-in.
For such a small city, there are a surprising number of hotels in Reykjavik. With so many options, the best area to stay in Reykjavik is right downtown so you can avoid driving or walking far distances. Laugavegur is a quaint street full of shops, bars and restaurants and my recommended area to stay.
For recommendations on where to stay in Reykjavik, these are all excellent Reykjavik hotels in an unbeatable location:
- Reykjavik Konsulat Hotel, Curio Collection By Hilton
- Hotel Fron
- Apotek Hotel by Keahotels
- Canopy by Hilton Reykjavik City Centre
- Reykjavik Residence Hotel
Did You Know: When you click through my links and book your stay from any of my blog posts, it helps support Wanderlight Moments & Usher syndrome awareness at no additional cost to you. Thank you for your support!– Hannah
HOW TO SPEND 24 HOURS IN ICELAND: SATURDAY NiGHT
Depending on your arrival time and level of exhaustion, devote your Saturday night to exploring Reykjavik.
Where to Eat Dinner in Reykjavik
- Primo Ristorante: Italian ($$)
- Le Bistro: French bistro and wine bar ($$$)
- Icelandic Street Food: fast food concept with traditional Icelandic food ($)
- Grillmarkadurinn: top-notch culinary experience featuring local cuisine ($$$$)
Where to Drink in Reykjavik
BEST PLACE TO SEE the Northern Lights in Reykjavik
If you want to see the northern lights, drive to the westernmost tip of Reykjavik to Grótta Lighthouse and the Grótta Peninsula. This is where I saw the Northern Lights for the very first time and it was amazing!
How to Spend 24 Hours in Iceland: Sunday Morning
The sun rises very late in the winter, but coffee shops, breakfast places, and other stores should start opening around 9:00 or 10:00am.
For coffee, I love going to Te & Kaffi on Laugavegur Street. I highly recommend the Swiss Mocha, but their other drinks are also very good.
Since you won’t have much time before your departure flight, you will be limited in what you can do. If you have time, I check out the Hallgrímskirkja church. Even if only looking at the church from the outside, it’s pretty spectacular!
How to Spend 24 Hours in Iceland: Final Thoughts
Iceland is an incredible destination. Even if you are only there for 24 hours, you can still see some amazing sights and check off unique bucket list items. After you go to Iceland once, you will likely get hooked like I did and want to go back again as soon as possible! I have traveled to Iceland several times now, mixing up my itineraries each time.
I look forward to writing future posts about other awesome ways to experience Iceland in 24 hours and sharing my recommendations for an Iceland trip longer than one day. Thanks for reading and I hope you enjoy your travels in Iceland!
Looking for other bucket list travel destinations and itineraries? Check out my post on the best way to spend two weeks in Thailand!
Disclosure: I may receive a small commission should you decide to book directly through my accommodation links. Every dollar goes directly back to support Wanderlight Moments & Usher syndrome awareness.
What do you think about Iceland with school age kids?
Great question – I definitely would recommend it! It’s really easy to rent a car and drive in Iceland, which makes for a stress-free way to travel with the whole family. Iceland’s scenery is spectacular and you don’t have to hike much to see it either. Many of the waterfalls on the southern coast have parking lots that allow you to walk straight up to the base of the falls. While I enjoy hiking, the chance to quickly get to sights was really important as I was only in Iceland for a short amount of time and had to maximize every moment. I imagine this ease of access to Iceland’s beauty would be a major plus when traveling with younger kids 🙂
Thank you! Would you recommend visiting in winter or summer?
It depends on what your goals are for your first trip. For me, seeing the northern lights was really important, which meant going in the winter. The lights can be extremely unpredictable so it’s best to not base the trip around that single activity. I planned my first Iceland visit in April, which meant a small chance of seeing the lights (I ended up seeing them!) but still being able to go on short hikes. I also went in December, which was unique in that I had never experienced such short daylight hours before and the ice was really pretty around the waterfalls. I would probably refrain from going in December for a first trip, though. It can be a bit tough walking around because it’s so icy. If you go in the summer the benefits include almost complete daylight even during the night hours. The biggest downside to the summer is the number of tourists. The number of tour buses is crazy! If possible, April is your best bet for getting the full Icelandic experience with less tourists 🙂