In Reykjavik, you'll never be too far from a sight that will take your breath away. Iceland may be one of the smallest nations in Europe—the entire country is barely bigger than Maine— but its diminutive size gives visitors the advantage of short drive times from its capital city to countless sights. That makes lively Reykjavik an excellent base for visitors who prioritize staying in a metropolitan area but still would like to explore some of the natural wonders that Iceland is known for.
For travelers visiting in the winter months, Reykjavik is especially convenient - with Iceland's famously unpredictable weather, having a base in the city makes it easier to change plans at the last minute (or to simply cozy up in town if driving conditions aren't good). Keep in mind, however, that the sun is only out for about five hours each day in December, which isn't much when you consider drive time. If you aren't sure what day trips are best for you, local travel specialists can help you make the most of your time.
1. Reykjanes Peninsula
This is probably one of the most overlooked parts of Iceland but it deserves every second of your attention. It offers nearly every type of natural sight you’d expect to see in the country, from eerie lava fields to boiling mud pools and geysers. Start your day at the Kleifarvatn Lake in Reykjanesfólkvangur National Park. This stunning body of water is the largest lake on the peninsula, and together with its wondrous volcanic surroundings, it makes for an instagram-perfect landscape.
Gunnuhver geothermal area is another absolute must-see, with its bubbling mud pools, steaming water, craters, and lava fields. There are two ramps that visitors can use to explore the area. Before heading for a relaxing dip in the Blue Lagoon, marvel at the sheer power of the ocean beating upon the majestic Hafnarberg cliffs, a long wall of sea lava cliffs, popular with hikers and bird watchers.
Next up, take a walk on the Midlina Bridge in Sandvík: a short footbridge that literally connects two continents, spanning the fissure between the Eurasian and North American tectonic plates. When you complete the 50-foot walk, don't forget to pick up your personalized certificate from the Reykjanes Information Center stating that you indeed hopped continents using what's also known as "Leif the Lucky Bridge" (named after the famous Icelandic explorer Leif Erikson).
Finish your journey at the very tip of the peninsula with the Garðskagi Lighthouse near the small fishing village of Garður. It is the highest lighthouse in the country and is open to the public when the weather is good. It offers magnificent sea views - and if you're lucky, you may even spot seals or dolphins swimming near the shore.
Seasonal Information: Weather changes extremely fast in the winter, which can lead to unexpected road closures. Make sure to check road.is for updated road conditions and download the 112 Iceland app on your phone - it stores your GPS location and, in case of emergency, makes it easier for authorities to find you.
Duration: 6-7 hours
2. South Coast
In terms of classic Icelandic sights, look no further than Iceland’s scenic South Coast. You can’t miss the breathtaking Seljalandsfoss - a 65-meter-high waterfall that you can walk behind - and its slightly smaller counterpart Skógafoss, both located on Route 1. If the sky is clear you should also be able to see the snow-capped peaks of Eyjafjallajökull, an active volcano that erupted in 2010. Other highlights along Route 1 are the otherworldly Myrdalsjokull and Solheimajokull glaciers, that unfortunately have been retreating more and more each year due to climate change (and the former makes multiple appearances in the TV show Game of Thrones!).
No visit to the South Coast is complete without stopping at the small fishing village of Vik and spending some time at Reynisfjara black sand beach. Enjoy the views but don’t get too close - there have been instances of people being swept into the ocean by waves. If you have time, stop by Sólheimasandur black sand beach as well and make the 40-60 minute stroll (each way) to the now-iconic site of a felled 1973 US Navy DC plane.
Seasonal Information: While you can enjoy this itinerary year-round, we highly recommend making the trip in late fall or winter if you want to avoid the hordes of tourists that, in spring and summer, make even finding parking impossible. Plus, Reynisfjara black sand beach covered in snow in December is a sight to behold.
Duration: 7 hours
3. Snaefellsnes Peninsula
Jules Verne’s classic novel “Journey to the Center of the Earth” starts on Snaefellsnes Peninsula, where the protagonist finds the entrance to the earth's core - and a day trip to this magical part of Iceland will make it clear how it earned a spot in literary history. Some call Snaefellsnes "mini Iceland” because of the variety of natural sights you can see in such a small area.
Start your trip with a visit to the Gerduberg basalt columns, hexagonal pillars stacked next to one another to form a wall. Even if churches are not your thing, you won't want to miss the eerie Budakirkja, or the Black Church of Budir. It's painted completely black (hence the name) and sits alone in a lava field - the only other building in the area is a hotel where you can relax with a cup of delicious hot chocolate.
Continue your journey west towards Arnarstapi, a small fishing village that was an important trading post, and stop at Gatklettur, a curious rock formation resembling an arch. There is an interesting sculpture made out of rocks of Bardur Snaefellsas, the protector of the peninsula who was believed to be half troll, half human. Take a walk along the coastline to see more natural lava structures, and if you have time, hike along the coast between Arnastapi and Hellnar—it's a 2.5-mile trail that offers stunning sea views.
Your next stop should be Snaefellsjokull National Park, one of three national parks in Iceland, that's home to a glacier, volcano, multiple caves, moss covered lava fields, dramatic sea cliffs, and (of course) black sand beaches. Some of the highlights here include the Djúpalónssandur black sand beach with its peculiar lava formations and rocks. While tempting, remember that it's forbidden to remove any of the pebbles from the beach. Another must-visit attraction in the area is Vatnshellir cave, an 8,000-year-old lava tube formed during an eruption - and the aforementioned spot where Jules Verne's characters start their adventure.
Finally, no visit to Snaefellsnes Peninsula is complete without stopping at the gorgeous Kirkjufell mountain and waterfalls, near the town of Grundarfjörður. Likely the most photographed mountain in Iceland, it's a picture-perfect sight framed by the nearby waterfalls.
Seasonal Information: Visiting Snaefellsnes peninsula for a day in the winter will always depend on road conditions. While under normal circumstances the drive from Reykjavik shouldn’t take more than a couple of hours, it’s a different story in the winter. You may either need to shorten your trip and skip some of the sights - or stay for the night.
Duration: 10 hours
4. West Iceland
Start off your trip in Borgarnes, a coastal town with a population of about 2,000, located an hour northwest of Reykjavik. Pay a visit to the Settlement Center, a small museum with a fascinating exhibition on Iceland's discovery by Norwegian Vikings and why they settled here.
If you want to do some shopping, stop at Ljómalind Market, a store that offers traditional Icelandic knitwear and handcrafts created by local residents. Each piece comes with a card with the name of the person who knitted it written on it. Next, head to the beautiful Hraunfossar, which means “lava waterfalls.” The creeks and cascades streaming out of the lava field are a beautiful sight, and the turquoise color of the water is absolutely magical.
Even if you are not traveling with children, animal lovers will want to make a pitstop at the Icelandic Goat Center Háafell that works to protect this endangered (and very friendly) species. This is a farm that has not only goats, but also horses, sheep, chickens and other animals.
Next up, drive to Langjökull, the second largest glacier in Iceland. This is where you'll find the well-known Into the Glacier tour, which takes you deep into the majestic ice cap along man-made tunnels. The classic tour lasts about three to four hours.
Finish off your day with a true highlight of the region: Glymur Falls. Since the falls are not visible fro the road, you will need to hike for at least 15 minutes from the parking lot to see them, but the sight is absolutely worth it. Glymur waterfall is the second highest in Iceland and is located in a beautiful moss-covered canyon which makes for a very photogenic scene.
Seasonal Information: This is a trip you can take year-round as long as road conditions are good, but since Hraunfossar is a popular tourist spot, you might want to avoid peak season.
Duration: 8 hours (longer if you opt to do the "Into the Glacier" tour)
5. The Golden Circle
One of the most popular day trips from Reykjavik is the Golden Circle, and it’s popular for good reason—you get to experience stunning natural sights and pay homage to the place where the Icelandic state was born. Start with Gullfoss waterfall, a three-step cascading section of the Hvita river that falls into a 105-foot deep canyon. Gullfoss has been known to freeze in the winter, which makes for an unbelievably beautiful sight.
Ever wondered where the word “geyser” originated? It comes from Geysir, the biggest geyser in the world that is located in a geothermal area in South Iceland. While Geysir is mostly dormant, the crown jewel of the area these days is the active Strokkur geyser which shoots up water every few minutes. Finish your day at Thingvellir National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is here that the Eurasian and North American tectonic plates meet, and where in 930 AD, the national parliament of Iceland was established, giving birth to the Icelandic nation.
Seasonal Information: The Golden Circle sights are just as beautiful in the summer as they are in the winter, making them the most visited places in the country. If you want to avoid the crowds, plan a visit in October, November, or March through May - you'll enjoy relative solitude and enough daylight to see all the sights on your list.
Duration: 7 hours