After an economic downturn, Iceland turned to tourism to help boost the economy. Since then, it has become a booming tourism destination, thanks to cheap flights, Instagram-worthy sites, and friendly people. We only had three days in Iceland and wanted to make the most of it while sticking to our budget. The flight may have been cheap, but nothing else was.
Here’s how we did our Iceland stopover on a budget (kind of):
To make the most of our short time in Iceland, we rented a car. This wasn’t great for the budget, but with only three days, it was a good investment. Gas included, it was about $300, or $100 a person. We booked last minute and took what Hertz had: a Toyota Yaris. To explore the lesser known parts of Iceland, a 4×4 vehicle is necessary, but we didn’t get too far off the beaten track in our short 72 hour trip.
We landed at 6 a.m. and couldn’t check into our Airbnb until 4 p.m. With no sleep and no food, this was rough, but we made the most of it by promptly straying from our budget with a big breakfast. We picked The Laundromat Cafe, which started in Denmark. A big breakfast was a whopping 2900 kr, about $30–or $34 including some much needed coffee. After an overnight flight (without food), the price tag was worth it. The portions were big, and the food was filling enough to stop our hanger and keep us going all day. This place is great for a splurge, but unfortunately this was about the cost of most meals we saw.
We left Reykjavik on the “Golden Circle,” a drive encompassing some of the most
beautiful sites within roughly two hours of the city. The path starts in Reykjavik and goes through the countryside to the Kerid volcanic crater, Strokkur geyser, Gullfoss waterfall, and Thingvellir park before heading back to Reykjavik. We skipped Thingvellir in lieu of the Secret Lagoon–a hotspring south of Strokkur.
This route is a great way to see Iceland without spending a ton of money. The Kerid crater costs 4 kr to enter, and both the geyser and waterfall are free. To save money on a car rental, hitch-hiking is another common option, though more difficult on a time crunch.
We ended the day at the Secret Lagoon. Though more popular, we opted to skip the better known Blue Lagoon for a less crowded, less expensive hot spring experience. This is partially because we failed to book a space at the Blue Lagoon far enough in advance for a convenient time slot, and partially because we hoped to stick to a budget. The Secret Lagoon is less than half the price of the Blue Lagoon and has significantly fewer tourists.
We ended the day with what is considered the “best hotdog in the world”: pyslur. We went to Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur early in the night, just before a long line started forming. The hotdogs were good but not the best in the world. I was underwhelmed, but with a 280 kr price tag, I couldn’t complain.
Jetlag hit us hard, so we spent the day in downtown Reykjavik. While Reykjavik interesting things to offer, most of it can be done within a day. We started with the Icelandic Phallological Museum. I thought this would be entertaining. Instead, it just made me uncomfortable. The museum has the worlds largest display of preserved penises with just about every kind of penis on display (except a human’s). I could have lived without the knowledge that a sperm whale’s penis is larger than my entire body. Next time, I’d avoid the 1500 kr per person price tag and be happy with a photo of the notable sign outside.
We stumbled upon the Lutheran parish, Hallgrímskirkja, a cathedral created in the Icelandic style—modern and clean—inside and out. The tower is open to the public and has a beautiful view of Reykjavik for 900 kr, roughly $9.
After walking through the cold, Icelandic air, we needed a coffee break. We discovered Kaffitár, a small coffee and sandwich shop. The coffee prices were closer to what I’m used to seeing in the U.S. at about 450 kr for a dirty chai. It was the best dirty chai I’ve had in a while—more spicy than sweet, but still balanced.
One beverage lead to another, and we ended up at Micro Bar, a small pub with great beer on tap. We tried six different Icelandic beers—a stout, a Nordic brown ale, an ale, a lager, a gose, and a mango berliner weisse. The lager was the only brew on the list that stood out for negative reasons. It wasn’t awful, just unbalanced. The ale, the gose, and the berliner weisse were good, but did not stand out like the stout and the brown ale did. The stout smelled and started off nutty, but then finished with a brightness rarely found in this style of beer. The brown ale was deep and chocolatey, and the malts worked wonderfully together. Unfortunately, the brews were Icelandic prices. A pint was around 1000 kr.
We wanted to try Iceland’s traditional shark dish. I don’t know why, since there isn’t any part of fermented shark that sounds good. Still trying to stick to our budget, we went to one of the cheaper options, Cafe Loki, right across from Hallgrímskirkja. I had the Icelandic Plate Two, featuring smashed fish, smoked fish, dried fish, smoked lamb, and of course, fermented shark for 2900 kr. It was not my kind of food. It was bland and mushy, except the shark, which was anything but bland (in the worst way). The best thing at the table was the Farmer’s Coffee, coffee with Brennivin, Iceland’s signature, unsweetened schnapps. I want to spend more time in Iceland in the future, but I will happily skip the traditional food.
We are big Game of Thrones fans. We spent the first three Sunday’s of our trip struggling to find the best way to watch the newest episodes before we saw any spoilers. When we found out the important arrowhead mountain is located in Iceland, we wanted to go save
Jon Snow. Kirkjufell Mountain is a little over two hours north of Reykjavik by car on the Snaefellsnes peninsula—which was even accessible in our Yaris. It is a beautiful area with a varying landscape of mountain lakes, lava fields, and sharp cliffs. Along the way, there are plenty of scenic overlooks to stop to take in the beautiful Icelandic country side.
Follow the road past the mountain to see more of the peninsula and the Snaefellsjokull glacier, the highest mountain in Iceland. Unfortunately for us, we went on a rainy day, which made this area even less accessible in our Yaris than it would have normally been. We made our way back to Reykjavik with the intention of visiting Thingvellir park along the way, but again, the Icelandic weather said otherwise. By the time we reached the park it was pouring rain, and none of us were physically or mentally prepared to hike through it.
Iceland is not for the spontaneous traveler and requires advanced planning to make the most of it. It will also ruin plans very quickly with harsh weather, as we discovered. Make plans, reserve a spot at the Blue Lagoon and rent a 4×4, but be flexible with Iceland’s unpredictable weather.
Have you been to Iceland? Where should we go next time? Let us know in the comments, or contact us directly.