When you hear a someone mention a European island vacation, what do you imagine? Sangria, sunshine, and the Mediterranean? Or perhaps it conjures up images of a beach on the Adriatic Sea and ancient ruins. While there are definitely some good things going on in both of those travel fantasies, there's another destination that's making its way to the top of our travel bucket lists, as it offers a unique (and chillier) experience you may not find on a more traditional European beach vacation: Iceland.
To highlight this buzzy travel spot, we decided to create a guide that will take you through the best accommodations, activities, and dining experiences in the charming city center, Reykjavík, as well as the picturesque countryside and remote regions on the south and east coasts. Whether you only want to take a road trip to see the whole country or you want to deep dive into one stop along the way, our guide below will help you customize your getaway. So if you love soaking in warm baths set against a backdrop of majestic views, start packing your bags for Iceland.
But before you do, scroll through our definitive guide to Iceland for solo travelers, honeymooners, families, and travel besties alike. The majestic waters, forward-thinking designs, and pristine landscapes await you.
An Urban Excursion in Reykjavik
If you love hip, comfortable, and cozy boutique hotels, we suggest booking a room at Sandhotel. It also happens to be home to one of the most highly regarded bakeries in Iceland (you have to try its cinnamon rolls). For a thoroughly cosmopolitan and luxurious stay in the city, check out the Tower Suites. With only eight suites nestled on the 20th floor of Reykjavík's highest building, you'll be able to soak in the breathtaking harbor views while also getting some design inspiration from the immaculate décor scheme.
For something more private, low-key, or affordable, there are plenty of amazing Airbnbs that are all within walking distance to the city center.
Gló is a great option for lunch, especially if you're vegan or veggie-centric. It's healthy, casual, and walk-in friendly, making it a great place to stop in when you have a packed day of exploring. For a gourmet dinner that incorporates only the freshest of locally sourced ingredients, make sure to book a reservation at Dill ahead of time, as it can get booked up quickly and is only open Wednesday through Saturday. Another formal restaurant to try is Grill Market.
When it comes to shopping, you can't miss Geysir—the actual store is just as well-dressed as the items it carries. Farmers Market is another awesome Icelandic brand worth checking out in person. To rest after you've been exploring the city center for a while, go get comfortable in Kaffihús Vesturbæjar. With a Scandinavian minimal feel to it, you'll want to hang out in this coffee shop for hours.
A Scenic Retreat in the Countryside
Once you've gotten a taste of the city, head out to the Silfra fissure for a snorkeling and horseback-riding adventure in Sólhestar, or go check out the Thrihnukagigur Volcano. And last, but most certainly not least, you absolutely have to check out the Blue Lagoon, an experience unique to Iceland. It's only about 30 miles from Reykjavík, but it does require bookings, so make sure to reserve a spot ahead of time. You can even get a massage as you bask in the geothermal waters.
If you'd like to stay in the mystically beautifully country but don't want to venture too far from the city, check out the Ion Adventure Hotel in Selfoss. You'd probably never guess that this stunning hotel used to be an abandoned inn. The modern design of this boutique hotel contrasts beautifully against the scenic views. When you're not looking on in awe of the architecture and impressive décor elements, you'll gawk at the natural landscape or take a dip in the volcanic hot springs.
The Snæfellsnes peninsula is another beautiful spot to visit on the west coast in the Icelandic countryside. For a cozy, family-like feel that would make anyone feel at home, stay in the Hotel Egilsen. It's particularly well suited for any solo travelers. Historically a house, the structure is picturesque on the outside and wonderfully colorful and stylized inside. Make sure you set aside time to explore the ice caves, and take a sailing trip on the ice-blue waters.
An Adventure on the South and East Coasts
Next, head down to the south coast for a remote and adventurous experience in the outdoors. This region of Iceland is brimming with otherworldly waterfalls, glacier caves, natural hot springs, and hiking trails. For a lunch break after all your physical activity, we recommend checking out Fjorubordid in Stokkseyri for the traditional Icelandic meal made with langoustine (aka Norweigan lobster). If you're traveling alone, you may want to consult a company like Black Tomato to help you plan out your trip, especially if you want to adventure to these more remote parts of the country.
They'll help you find the best tours to book since it's safer to have informed guides while trekking through the elements.
You'll find that most accommodations in this region are lodge-like. Depending on your travel needs, you can either rent a log cabin or stay at a Hotel Rangá. If you stay at this resort in the winter during the darker months, you'll get to see the famous northern lights more vividly than you would in the city. It has a cozy feel, but it offers the classic amenities and dining you'd expect from a hotel, so it's a great home base for anyone traveling solo or with a large family.
Hotel Grimsborgir is another great option in the south coast, with a few traditional-style bungalows and hotel suites to choose from. It has a calming, peaceful ambiance that will definitely get you into vacation mode. Make sure you see Reynisfjara, the famous basalt black-sand beach. Or go even deeper into the hidden treasures of Iceland by heading out to Eastfjords (aka Iceland's eastern coast) and the Skaftafell National Park, where you'll see magical waterfalls and black-sand beaches—it's truly breathtaking.
This post was originally published on July 25, 2017, and has since been updated.