To start off, look at your ideal itinerary. Will you have time to go off-the-beaten-path in Iceland, or do you only have a few days to dash to the popular sights on the South Coast? Are you visiting in summer or winter? Your itinerary will largely depend on your answers to these kinds of questions.
What Type of Traveler Are You?
If you’re interested in Iceland’s gastronomic scene, its art galleries and museums, give yourself a few days to explore Reykjavík. The city is compact, walkable, and you should take it at your own pace. This article contains more details on what to see and do in the capital.
If you’re fascinated by Viking history and Norse mythology, you’ll want to visit spots like the ancient seat of the Viking parliament at Þingvellir. Sights like this can be reached by car, but you can also join a guided tour if you’d rather not worry about driving while on vacation. English is the de facto language of most tours, and guides often make any experience infinitely more valuable.
If glacier climbing, exploring underground caves, and hiking remote areas sounds like your thing — in other words, you're looking for adventure — it’s a good idea to go with an experienced guide. In some cases, hiring a guide is a must to stay safe.
Where and When to Go
If you’ve always dreamed of seeing the Northern Lights, you’ll want to come in winter. Here’s an article with tips on how best to see the auroras in Iceland.
If your plan is to take an epic road trip along the Ring Road, visit in the warmer months when the days are long. And if you plan to visit remote areas like the Highlands during winter, you’ll likely need to join a Jeep tour (which is actually a pretty exciting way of seeing this part of the country!).
Traveling on Your Own
By far the most popular way to navigate the country is by car, renting directly from Keflavik airport. You can take on the famous Ring Road, go at your own pace, and venture off course when you choose. The main thing here is that you need to do your research beforehand, and plan your stops in advance.
The list of self-drives and itineraries for this island is surprisingly long. Do you want to check out just the South Coast? Head to the remote Westfjords and spend time hiking? Explore the volcanic Snaefellsnes Peninsula? It's all up to you. For some ideas, check out these four road trips, this guide to the Ring Road, or this longer, two-week itinerary.
Taking a Self-Guided or Partially Guided Hiking Trip
Iceland is a paradise for hikers of all ages and abilities, and it’s possible to venture out along the clearly-marked hiking trails without a guide. National parks like Vatnajökull and Snæfellsjökull provide maps listing recommended hikes and trails. To get you inspired, here’s an article about the best waterfall hikes in Iceland, and one about about the exceptional one-day hike that is the Fimmvörðuháls trail.
If you're looking to experience some real Icelandic solitude, pack or rent some camping gear and hire a guide to show you some of the less-visited areas of the country.
Some regions of the Westfjords, like Hornstrandir Nature Reserve, are only accessible by boat or on foot — your guide can help you navigate the paths in this wilderness area. Some of the local tour companies also own cottages along the trekking routes where hikers can stay overnight.
Whether you decide to rely on a guide during your entire stay or for just a few days, you’ll get a personalized itinerary that fits your preferences. Your guide will also show you "secret spots" that likely aren’t listed in the guidebooks.
Joining a Partially Guided Tour
Partially-guided tours are ideal if you’re visiting a place that you’re really not familiar with and would like some help navigating. If you decide to take a ferry to Vestmannaeyjar (the Westman Islands), for example, it’s a good idea to arrange for a local guide to meet you there and show you around. If you’d like to do some bird watching in the south, a local specialist could accompany you to spots where birds — like those adorable Atlantic puffins — nest.
If you decide to spend an afternoon biking in the mountains, you should look into hiring an experienced guide for a few hours. From there, you can decide what interested you most and go at it on your own.
Joining a Small-Group Tour
If you prefer not to rent a car but want to explore Iceland beyond the capital city, you’ll want to join a small-group tour. These tours can be a great way to meet people, and if you’re traveling on a budget they’ll save you money.
Many day tours leave from Reykjavík and visit the most popular sights along the Golden Circle in Southern Iceland. Typically you’ll visit Þingvellir National Park, Gullfoss (Golden Waterfall), Skálholt archeological site, and Geysir—the namesake of all geysers. To learn more about the Golden Circle, take a look at this self-guided itinerary of the main island.
Other small-group tours can can be pretty out-of-the-box. You can join group knitting tours, cross-country skiing tours, and photography tours that will take you all across the country. At Silfra in Þingvellir National Park, you can even join snorkeling and diving tours that will take you into the waters that swirl between the Eurasian and North American tectonic plates. Only in Iceland.