The Perfect Three-day Weekend in Iceland
"You just watched the newest land on earth be made" is not something you typically hear during a long weekend getaway in the summer. But that's what my tour guide was telling me just hours after finishing up work for the week. I was in Iceland for my first international trip since February 2020 and was there for just two nights. Incredibly, it was the perfect amount of time to experience bucket-list-worthy adventure, city exploration, and desperately-needed relaxation.
While most people (understandably) might spend their long weekends driving to the beach or country, I decided to jet off to Iceland. It might seem crazy, but I promise it's more than doable. And you might even get to see an active volcano like me.
Flights and COVID Restrictions
From New York, it's a quick five-hour flight to Reykjavik, and Icelandair has a daily non-stop flight at 8:25 pm (JFK) and 8:30 pm (EWR). That means you could finish up work on a Thursday, head straight to the airport, and start your international getaway by 6 am Friday. The return flight is just as easy with a 5 pm daily departure out of Reykjavik back to the New York area, making it, so you have almost three full days on the ground. And since some of the top attractions are within a couple of hours of the airport, it's a prime destination to pack in a week's worth of FOMO-inducing activities in a few days.
I booked those quick flights out of Newark, opting for a Friday departure and Monday return home. During my travel dates, if you were vaccinated, a negative COVID test was no longer required. I just had to register my arrival at covid.is and needed to get a COVID test no more than 72 hours before returning to the U.S (you can book that return COVID test here). All arrival COVID testing and quarantine restrictions from a few months ago have been removed.
It's important to note that as of July 27, 2021, these rules shifted slightly. Now, "all travelers (regardless of vaccination status) must present a negative COVID-19 test result when boarding a flight to Iceland, no older than 72 hours." But, you still don't have to get tested on arrival in Iceland or quarantine. Icelandair makes the updated rules clear on their website if you have any questions.
Though quarantine and testing aren't required, you should be prepared to spend at least an hour getting through customs and the document verification process. But thanks to an early landing, my husband and I were already on a bus to my hotel in Reykjavik by 7:30 am. I'd recommend pre-booking a transfer as the wait times for group transportation can be longer. We opted for Airport Direct's Premium transfer option, which costs around $100 for two people one way with a direct drop-off at the hotel.
Now that the logistics were done, it was time for the vacation to really begin.
Initially, our first day was supposed to consist of a quick power nap in the morning, an early afternoon dip and lunch at the new Sky Lagoon, followed by a few hours wandering the streets of Reykjavik. That all changed when our tour guide, Ryan Connolly of Hidden Iceland, said due to the weather predictions, the best chance of seeing molten lava was Saturday, the day we landed. Initially, we were scheduled for a Sunday morning hike. However, since witnessing lava was my number one priority for the trip (I'm a huge volcano fan), we rearranged the itinerary a bit.
So, we checked in to ION City Hotel (many hotels can accommodate the early check-in), grabbed the most heavenly cinnamon roll I've ever had at Brauð & Co and latte at Sandholt, changed into hiking gear, and were in the car with Ryan by 9:45 am. We quickly swung by the COVID testing center to get our rapid tests needed to return home (it took about 30 minutes), and off we went to the Geldingadalir volcano.
"This is arguably the most tourist-friendly volcano in the world," Ryan told us on the drive over. That's because it's just 30 minutes from the airport and you can get very close. And we did.
We followed the C route--the access paths change with the lava flow--to reach the main crater viewing point. Along the way, we saw smoke still rising and recently cooled lava from the eruption that began on March 19, 2021, after 800 years of dormancy. Unfortunately, there was also heavy fog at times, making visibility drop to nearly zero. Though hopeful, I was mentally preparing NOT to see lava liked I hoped. And after about an hour of hiking to the viewpoint, that seemed like it might be the case. Although you could hear the gushing sound of lava spewing from the crater, we couldn't see a thing.
"Are you willing to venture off the route a bit," Ryan asked us. "One of my guides saw a small lava flow around the corner from here." Obviously, the answer was yes.
We trekked a bit longer, still with that heavy fog, until all of a sudden, I looked up and saw a glow. At that moment, the clouds lifted, and a significant lava flow appeared. I'm talking about a waterfall of lava pouring down one direction and a molten river flowing down the other. You could feel the heat, hear the crackling, and smell the burning of the landscape. It's a sensory experience that is impossible to describe. To top it off, lava was bursting out of the crater every few seconds like a geyser.
If that wasn't enough, Ryan thought we could safely get closer (he had a gas level monitor). So, we hiked a bit more and ended up within an arm's length of slowly moving lava. The heat was more intense than sitting right next to a bonfire. But, it was incredible to watch the earth change before our eyes.
We stayed in the area for about an hour, taking it all in before making our way back to the car. In total, we hiked about nine miles (easy to moderate difficulty) over about four hours. With the most adventurous part of the weekend already completed, it was prime time for the relaxation bit.
Covered in some mud and a bit damp from the rain, we arrived at the Sky Lagoon just before 5 pm to unwind from our lava-fueled afternoon. The geothermal pool opened just a couple of months ago and is about 15 minutes from downtown Reykjavik. So, it's no surprise it's become an instant attraction. Although much smaller (and a different color) than the Blue Lagoon, it has its own appeal. The restorative destination is perched right on the ocean with rock formations perfectly framing where the thermal pool, sea, and sky all seem to meet.
Even though it was bustling, there was plenty of room in the locker rooms to get changed (we opted for the Sky Pass with private changing facilities) and find an intimate nook in the water. We even grabbed a couple of drinks at the swim-up bar before trying their seven-step ritual that included sitting in an oceanfront sauna with a floor-to-ceiling window.
Last on the itinerary for the day before totally crashing was grabbing dinner near our hotel in Reykjavik. Our choice? Ban Thai. Yes, Thai food might not be the first thing that comes to mind in Iceland. But there are several restaurants, and this one has a menu of over 200 homemade items. So it was a solid choice before our 12-hour-long (desperately needed) night of sleep.
We woke up feeling recovered despite a brief noise disturbance around 11 pm. Our hotel--ION City--is centrally located on a pedestrian-only street, making it ideal for exploring the city. But the nearby bars are a bit rowdy on the weekend (something the hotel warned us about). A sound machine on our phones did the trick to ensure we got the rest we needed.
To start our day, we grabbed another cinnamon roll from Brauð & Co (it's that good) and coffee from the popular Reykjavik Roasters before wandering around the charming seaside city. You could easily spend days here. Even in our limited time, we checked out the ruins of one of the first houses in Iceland at The Settlement Exhibition, snapped a picture on the Rainbow street located between Bergstaðastræti and Laugavegur, walked past the 244-foot-tall Hallgrímskirkja church, ate the world's best hot dog (according to Bill Clinton) with everything (ein með öllu) at the Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur hot dog stand, and stopped in several stores like those found in T+L's Iceland guide.
By 2 pm we were ready to head to our final stop of the weekend: The Retreat at the Blue Lagoon.
The architecturally modern five-star hotel is situated right on the famous Blue Lagoon and has private pools boasting the same colorful waters. After our welcome champagne and room tour, we got right into the water via the property's spa. In fact, the spa and its rejuvenating focus are so prominent, guests are encouraged to wear their bathrobes everywhere except for the fine dining restaurant Moss. Yes, you even wear them to the complimentary afternoon tea.
Phones are forbidden in the spa area that includes several facilities from a room of hanging "nests" and a steam cave to the blue waters themselves. It's here where we partook in the four-step, dimly-lit, 45-minute ritual that included three masks, showers, and oil treatment. All of that relaxing made us hungry, so we grabbed a quick bite at the casual (again bathrobes) Lava Restaurant before showering for 8:30 pm dinner reservations at Moss.
It felt nice to put on nicer clothes for what would be a nearly three-hour, seven-course meal and wine pairing. Tastings menus are the only option at the highly-acclaimed restaurant and feature seasonal ingredients and local favorites like skyr. The lamb--another Icelandic fave--was even served on freshly-picked lava stone from the volcano we hiked just the day before.
With full bellies, we retired to our room that had one of the most stunning views ever. A lava rock field and blue waters were the last things we saw before closing our eyes for the night.
Sadly, our final day in Iceland had come. But with our flight not until 5 pm, we could squeeze in some final relaxing moments. So, we decided to try a floating massage after breakfast, which took place in a roped-off section of the Blue Lagoon. Although not the most intense massage you'll ever have, it was profoundly relaxing thanks to the floating sensation. The therapist even pushed the lower half of my body into the water several times, which was strangely zen-inducing.
With a couple of hours left, we took a final dip in the public part of the Blue Lagoon. Despite being busy, you could have plenty of space to roam and enjoy the natural wonder in peace. (Pro tip: bring a waterproof carrier for your phone if you want pics).
After a quick shower and packing our belongings, we were on the way to the airport for our departure. Unfortunately, due to COVID restrictions, it took us over an hour to check in and clear immigration. So, arrive at least 2.5 hours early.
As we boarded the plane, I couldn't believe we were already on the way home and how much we had accomplished in that short time. We saw two natural wonders, explored a new city, went on a four-hour hike, visited two spas, ate a seven-course meal, and had a massage. And we even made it home in time on Monday to put our three-year-old son to bed.
Our tour guide, Ryan, noted that you could pack more adventure into the itinerary if you wanted. For example, his company's semi-private Volcanic Eruption Hike & Reykjanes Peninsula Tour can take you to see the volcano, Gunnuhver hot spring and geyser, and Krýsuvík geothermal area in nine hours. Even with that schedule, you could still visit Reykjavik and the Blue Lagoon.
I've always known Iceland would make for an incredible vacation. But knowing that it's possible over a long weekend makes it all the more appealing. So, if you're considering how to use the rest of those summer Fridays, keep Iceland in mind. After all, volcanos, geothermal waters, and geysers just aren't things you'll find in the Hamptons.