A Guide to Your First Day in Iceland

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Sunsets in Iceland are awe-inspiring

Arrival at Keflavik International Airport (KEF)

So you’ve arrived at the Keflavik International Airport (KEF), Iceland. What’s next? See and do it all, right? That sounds great, but here are some tips and ideas that will help ensure your experience goes as smoothly as possible. I’ll go over how to get around Iceland, what to do, where to eat, and help plan your first day in the country so you end up with a lot less work to do than starting from scratch!

Shop in the Duty Free Iceland Store

Screenshot of the Duty Free Iceland website

Before you rush over to get your luggage that may not even be unloaded yet, there’s something we must talk about, and that’s Duty Free Iceland store. As you get off of your plane and head to baggage claim, you’ll pass by Duty Free Iceland. This is where you’ll save on snacks, cosmetics, small electronics, beer, and liquor. You can see the luggage conveyors from the store, so if your luggage does happen be on its way out, you can collect it and return to Duty Free Iceland.

If for nothing else, spend some time in here to give the rest of Iceland time to wake up – because if you flew with PLAY Airlines, you probably landed at something like 5:00am local time (which is Greenwich Mean Time, or GMT). (Also, alcohol is heavily taxed in Iceland, but it’s a bit cheaper at Duty Free Iceland. I really didn’t want this to be something so early on in this article, but you must take advantage of it before you leave the airport.)

Pick Up Your Rental Car

Once you’re done shopping at Duty Free Iceland and you’ve collected all luggage, head to the area for car rentals and taxis. If you rented a car from an agency that has an office at the airport, then you obviously pick it up at the airport. There are limited rental car agencies inside of the airport, so there is a larger chance that you rented from an agency that must be reached by shuttle bus.

The Keflavik International Airport (KEF) area is not all that large, so you could probably walk to the rental car mall if you only have a backpack and/or a carry-on bag. But if you have checked luggage, you’ll probably want to take advantage of the shuttle bus. Oh, and probably no matter what season it is, it’ll probably be really cold at 5:00am local time.

Woah Bro, You’re Driving in Iceland

Now that you’ve gotten to Iceland, you’ve successfully picked up your bags, and you have a rental car, the entire country is at your disposal. This is where the fun really begins!

Driving in Iceland is extremely simple. You’ll notice speed limit signs look a little different than what we’re used to in the USA, but use your head and the main difference will be that you’re driving in kilometers per hours instead of miles per hour. And as long as you have cell phone service, Google Maps will work just fine for navigation.

Tip: Cellular Data in Iceland

A travel tip I like to use in Iceland for great cellular coverage is to rent a hotspot from the rental car company. This hotspot will be on a cellular carrier that’s 100% native to Iceland (like Nova), so you know you’ll have the best data coverage everywhere you go. Join your devices to the hotspot’s wireless network and you’ll then be using Nova instead of your US carrier. Keep it charged, and you’re set for your entire trip.

Fuel in Iceland

There are some things to keep in mind while driving in Iceland that you may not be accustomed to. In no particular order, here they are.

  • Don’t run out of fuel. Keep an eye on your fuel gauge. It costs less to stay fueled up than it does if you run out and have to call for help and waste precious vacation time.
  • Plan your next fuel stop, relative to where you’re traveling to and in how many more kilometers you’ll likely need more fuel.
  • Fuel is expensive in Iceland.
  • Fuel is sold by the liter.
  • Convert from liters to gallons: (x) liters ÷ 3.785 = (y) gallons
  • Convert from gallons to liters: (x) gallons × 3.785 = (y) liters
  • Gasoline is $2.33/gal in the USA at the time of writing this article
  • It takes 3.78 liters to equal a gallon, or $8.81 USD at the time of writing this article (Source: https://www.globalpetrolprices.com/Iceland/gasoline_prices/)
  • The Subaru Forester I rented from Iceland Car Rental holds 15.9 gallons, or $140 in gasoline!

Another somewhat interesting tip is that you must have a card that accepts PIN entry in order to use it at a fuel pump in Iceland. For some credit card companies, they do not offer PIN entry at all, while others will mail it to you. And of course your bank’s debit card will likely already have a PIN – just make sure you know what it is and that you’ve let your bank know that you’re traveling.

If you do not have a card with a PIN, and the station is open inside, you can see an attendant and they can authorize a fuel pump so you can get fuel. But it’s to much easier to just take a card that supports PIN entry. Some fuel spots don’t even have a building to walk into — leaving you no option to get fuel if you don’t prepare.

Also, don’t put the wrong fuel type in your rental vehicle! Talk about a nightmare… Generally, gasoline will have green handles and diesel fuel will have black handles. And again, no matter which you need, it’s crazy expensive!

Head to the Blue Lagoon

The Blue Lagoon (Source: bluelagoon.com)

Just 20 minutes South of Keflavik International Airport is the Blue Lagoon. Contrary to popular belief that the Blue Lagoon is a naturally occurring hot spring in the lava fields of Iceland, it’s actually a man-made geothermal spa. The water is rich in salts, silica, and algae and sits around 100°F.

If you want to enjoy the Blue Lagoon, make sure to reserve an appointment for a time slot you desire, because tickets sell out fast. Since it’s so close to the airport, it makes the most sense to take advantage of the Blue Lagoon as a welcome to Iceland. There are many other natural hot springs available, but the Blue Lagoon is the most commercialized, offering an experience you’ll remember for years to come. Alternative: Sky Lagoon

(video) The Awkward Tourists are my kind of people!

Drive Towards Reykjavik

Reykjavik is the capital of Iceland, and since it’s only about 40 minutes from either Keflavik International Airport or the Blue Lagoon, it makes all the sense in the world for this to be your next stop. There are a ton of roundabouts, and remember: Google Maps works perfectly. Just keep following your GPS.


While you’re heading toward Reykjavik, you’re going to have some opportunities to stop at a grocery store to stock up on rations that will keep you from having to spend so much at restaurants. Of course I recommend enjoying Icelandic cuisine (more on that later), but when you’re busy enjoying the Kerið Crater, Reynisfjara Beach, or the Seljalandsfoss waterfall, you’re going to have a much better time if you keep an empty stomach from interrupting your excursions.

On the way to Reykjavik, you’ll pass many grocery options. And since it’s still likely really early in the morning, it’ll help pass some time while still being productive. Use this part of your day to stock up on things that keep you focused on sightseeing and excursions. After all, this is a vacation, not a lifelong dietary change. So if you have to live on granola bars and water between major meals for a week, I promise you’ll be okay!

There are handful of grocery stores:

  • Bonus
  • Iceland (snazzy name, eh?)
  • Krónan
  • Fjarðarkaup
  • Hagkaup
  • and so on…

Get to Your Hotel and Settle In

So you’ve felt the climate, which will obviously differ based on the time of year, and hopefully you’ve done your homework when it comes to weather for the current season. If you like to travel to Iceland in the winter like I do, then it could be wise to suit up in base and insulating layers. I don’t usually stay in Reykjavik more than one night due to Iceland’s endless beauty being scattered across the entire country, but you should definitely roam around on foot and check it out while you’re there.

Day one is more about coming to terms with the fact that you’re in one of the most beautiful countries in the world than needing to have something scheduled for every hour througout the day. You’re in frickin’ Iceland — take it all in!

So offload your bags, get suited up for the weather and temperature for the day, and follow along with the next few laid back pointers for your first day in Iceland.

Icelandic Food Walk

I can’t recommend this specific food walk enough. Wake Up Reykjavik is amazing when it comes to tours, and their food walk is one of the best things you can do for yourself when in Reykjavik, Iceland. My guide Lily took me and my group on a 3-hour walking tour across Reykjavik, and we stopped at around 6 places.

At the time of writing this post, the Wake up Reykjavik food tour is $113USD, up from $109USD when I booked it in 2022. I promise you it’s well worth your time. Not only do you get to try Icelandic cuisine, but you also get to mingle with other tourists. Oh, and it also lets you have food off of your mind after the tour, since you leave with a full stomach. The only costs left are: any alcohol you’ve bought during the food walk, and a tip for your guide.

Walk Around Town

After you finish your food tour, you’ve probably seen some places you’d like to visit. So walk around and check them out! Reykjavik is a very laid back town. Some streets have traffic while others seemingly do not. Harpa Concert Hall is a very unique structure right next to the water (you probably met Lily here for your food tour!). And check out Rainbow Road – it’s cool to see as well. Enjoy seeing the Land Cruisers, Peugeots, Renaults, and all of the other vehicles we don’t really have in the USA. Check out the architecture. It’s neat to just look around!


You can’t miss the iconic Hallgrímskirkja Church at the end of Skólavörðustígur and Rainbow Road with its 244ft front facade. It’s almost like the leading lines of the street point directly to it. Construction started in 1945 and was completed in 1986.

You do have to buy a ticket to go to the top, but the view from above is incredible! Tickets are very cheap and are available inside on the day of your visit. Regarding tickets being available the day of your visit: again, I like to visit on the off-season when there aren’t droves of people around, so your mileage may vary if you’re visiting during the summer months.

Outside, you’ll find a large statue of Leif Erikson. Which if you’re really rusty on your history like I am, the name sounds familiar but you can’t remember why. When I looked him up, he ended up being the first European to reach the shores of North America. Likely a story I’d heard back in elementary school, it was neat to match a location of a statue to a story.

Ice Skating at Ingólfstorg Square (Seasonal)

Opening in late November, the Ingólfstorg skating rink (normally sponsored by Nova, a dominant cell phone carrier in Iceland) is open from noon until 10pm. For around $8 USD, you can ice skate for an hour. There’s hot coffee, hot chocolate, and holiday music playing, right in downtown Reykjavik. The vibe here is great!

Dinner Time

There are SO many places in Reykjavik to eat, but just remember one thing: Most of the meals will include seafood. Notice I said most, not all. There are options for picky eaters, but not as many as there are for us food fanatics. Below is a dish from Duck & Rose (downtown Reykjavik) and one from Nord (in the airport).

Northern Lights Tour (Seasonal)

Aurora Borealis, or the nothern lights, are a spectacular thing to see in person. The weather doesn’t have to be perfect, but some things can’t be off: the intensity of the northern lights and cloud cover. Going with a group on your first northern lights experience is a great way to know if you’re going to see them for sure. Again, Wake Up Reykjavik comes to the rescue!

(video) Northern Lights video from Wake Up Reykjavik

Wake Up Reykjavik’s northern lights tour is around $135 per person. They will shuttle you to a position away from any light pollution so you have the best chance of seeing the northern lights. If the conditions aren’t right, they will postpone the tour and you can try again the next day at no cost.

Get Ready for Day Two!

Now that you’ve planned and survived your first day in Iceland, it’s time to get some rest and prepare for the remainder of your journey across the country. You’re going to be driving a lot, so getting enough sleep is very important!

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    March 23, 2024

    About the Author

    It’s a huge world out there, and my goal is to experience as much of it as possible.