The Best Time to Visit Iceland Is Right Now
Get erupting volcanoes and the Blue Lagoon all to yourself.
We’ve said it plenty of times before, but it bears repeating: Iceland is amazing. And now that the world is reopening, it may finally be time to cross a visit off your bucket list. (Or time to visit again, because this is the kind of place that demands multiple trips.)
Vaccinated travelers are allowed to visit the country without quarantining, there are waaaay fewer tourists around than usual, and a week in the midnight sun is one hell of a way to kick off your #hotvaxsummer. Oh yeah, and you can hike up to a lava-spewing volcano. Here’s what to do right now in the Land of Fire and Ice.
How to visit Iceland
So long as you have proof of full vaccination, you don’t need a negative Covid test to enter Iceland. (You’ll still need to pre-register to visit, though.) Remember that you will need a negative test to re-enter the US. You can get tested at one of many sites open daily in downtown Reykjavík and Keflavik Airport. It’ll cost about $75 per person and is easy to book online at travel.covid.is. Tests are only offered at specific times, so it is super important to plan ahead! More info here.
The low-cost carriers that once made Iceland so accessible are no more (RIP, WOW Air—gone but never forgotten), but East Coasters can still score stupidly cheap nonstop deals to Reykjavík for under $400. For folks on the West Coast, flights with at least one layover will generally run you $800-1,000.
What’s open in Iceland right now
Tourism is still very much in the early stages of rebound. In some ways, that’s a good thing—for example, hotels are ridiculously cheap. For around $130 per night, I stayed downtown at Reykjavík Residence in a room that typically commands $350+ per night.
Other things are still less than ideal. Bars and restaurants in Reykjavík are open, but they’ve drastically reduced their hours of operation. Don’t expect to find much open on Mondays and Tuesdays, or for seats to be readily available after 8 pm; plan ahead by making reservations whenever possible. If all else fails, I highly recommend Kol Restaurant’s creative cocktails and five-course “best of” tasting menu (you MUST get the Duck and Waffle plate and the Bounty Bomb for dessert). There’s also Lebowski Bar, one of few spots consistently open and serving food, including late at night. The chow is just alright, but we love reliability!
Otherwise, we know you’re here to see that sweet, sweet nature. And considering the country is home to twice as many sheep as people, we can almost guarantee you won’t need reservations to do that.
Hike right up to a lava-spewing volcano
I’m sure you’ve seen the Fagradalsfjall Volcano erupting all over Instagram, but photos really don't do it justice. During my visit, the volcano was spewing streams of lava 1,500 feet into the air. (That’s higher than the Empire State Building. By a lot.) Each eruption sounded like booming, rolling thunder, and the river of lava filled the surrounding valleys, burying several hiking trails that existed just weeks prior.
Fagradalsfjall is still at it, and you can still check it out. New infrastructure to support tourism is being put in place, as are common sense safety measures (in other words, there will be warnings, but if your eyebrows get singed off because you got too close, that’s on you!). The volcano trailhead is just 45 minutes from Reykjavík, 10 minutes from the Blue Lagoon, and 20 minutes from Keflavik Airport—meaning you can literally hop off the plane and head straight for the eruption.
The hike is about five miles roundtrip, with roughly 1,000 feet of elevation gain—it all depends on how close you want to get. Sturdy footwear is a must, since the trail, though mostly graded, can still be quite steep with a lot of loose rock, and warm layers are essential. It gets extremely windy and cold up there; at one point I stood about three feet from pooling lava just to keep warm. Iceland also tends to be unpredictably rainy, so prepare for generally shitty weather while knowing that it’ll all be worth it.
Visit the lesser-known Westman Islands
We’ve reached the point where conversations about Iceland go far beyond the Golden Circle’s greatest hits. (Although don’t get us wrong—we love Geysir, too.) Now, Iceland’s tourism board is ready to spread the love beyond the Golden Circle and Ring Road—especially since you don’t have to travel far to escape the crowds.
Just a two-hour drive east of Reykjavík along the southern coast, you’ll find Vestmannaeyjar, aka the Westman Islands. The archipelago’s only inhabited island, Heimaey, is accessible by a 45-minute ferry ride. You can take a day trip from Reykjavík (and catch an amazing sunset on the ferry ride back!) or stay overnight for more leisurely exploration.
Make friends with puffins
The Westman Islands are home to the largest Atlantic puffin colony in the world, so puffin-peeping is one of the big draws here. If you take your car over on the ferry, drive out to the Great Cape (Stórhöfði), where you can hang out in a popular puffin hut lookout on the cliffside or hit the beach at night to watch the birds come home to roost.
There’s also the family-owned Kayak & Puffins tour. Owner and guide Egill Arngrimsson will take you out to explore the cliffs and caves of Klettsvík Bay, where you’ll see scores of puffins and other seabirds, and make a stop at the Beluga Whale Sanctuary’s natural sea inlet, home to beluga whale rescues Little White and Little Grey.
Take a short hike that’s damn-near vertical
For a little more oomph, the extremely short hike up to the top of Home Rock (Heimaklettur) is just 1.2 miles roundtrip—but you gain 846 feet of elevation. You’ll climb sheer cliffs on near-vertical ladders, with some additional ropes and chains to get you through the “you fall, you die” spots. (Iceland’s outdoor recreation safety infrastructure is truly juuuust effective enough that you don’t die!) The views from the top are gorgeous, and you might even get lucky and have a standoff with a sheep on the narrow trail.
Eat far northern food that’ll blow your mind
While Heimaey may be a small, remote island, its dining scene is world-class. For lunch, check out Tanginn, whose beautiful dining room looks out over the harbor. Here, you’ll find both traditional Scandinavian and Indian dishes, as well as several soups made from scratch.
For dinner, you must go to Slippurinn. Chef Gísli Matthías Auðunsson creates wonders in this beautifully renovated space built from a former shipyard machine shop. The menu is hyper-seasonal and hyper-local—nearly everything is sourced directly from fishermen, farmers, and producers in the Westman Islands, and the restaurant forages the islands for wild herbs and seaweed used in both meals and cocktails—and the flavor and texture combinations are at once both rustic and nostalgic, yet incredibly delicate and refined. This was, without exaggeration, one of the best meals of my life.