When a friend asked if I’d be interested in a girls’ trip somewhere in Europe, I was stoked. As much as I love showing L the world, traveling with a toddler can be exhausting. And there are things you can’t experience. Like anything that takes place after 7 p.m. Or that involves walking long distances.
But although he wasn’t physically with me, I am a mom. Which means I thought a lot about where I would like to take L and Fernando. And to my surprise, I realized there wouldn’t be much difference between my girls’ trip and a family one.
As a result, this suggested itinerary isn’t that far off from the one I actually did. We did a few excursions that would not be suitable for a toddler. But other than deleting those, the main difference in my actual itinerary and this one is accommodations. Whereas we changed cities every other night, with a young child, I would stay in Reykjavik and take day trips to most sights. (The exception being Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon. While it’s technically possible to drive there and back in one day, it would be much too long for my taste.) Sure, it would mean more driving, but if you go in summer, the days are long enough that it shouldn’t matter too much. And I think any inconvenience is outweighed by the comfort and familiarity that comes with returning to the same place to sleep every night.
My Ideal Toddler-Friendly Week in Southern Iceland
Day 1: Arrival; settle in and explore Reykjavik
Depending on where you are coming from, you’ve probably had a long flight. And there’s a good chance that your little one was too excited/overstimulated to sleep. So relax and take the afternoon to settle into your temporary home and perhaps wander around the city. Because with only a week, it’s unlikely you are going to spend much time in this cute place.
Day 2: The Golden Circle
If I could change one thing about my own trip to Iceland, it would be to go to the Golden Circle at the beginning of the trip instead of the end. While the sights are worthwhile, they are crowded and frankly not as impressive as others on this itinerary. Plus, if you’re like us, you’ll probably be tired at the end of the trip and more inclined to skip some of the spots. So for maximum enjoyment, go here at the beginning of your trip, not the end.
The Golden Circle consists primarily of three stops: Þingvellir National Park, Gullfoss waterfall, and Geysir. (Actually, Geysir is dormant, so the geyser that people mostly go to see is Strokkur.) Of course, there is plenty more to see and the internet is awash with “alternative Golden Circle” itineraries. The one place I would definitely add unless you HATE tomatoes is Friðheimar. Personally, I’m weird about tomatoes and usually will only eat them in August when they are at their peak. But even though these grow in a greenhouse, I thought the tomato soup was some of the best I’ve ever had. And even if you don’t love the soup, how cool is it to dine in the middle of a greenhouse where 18% of the country’s tomatoes are grown?
Day 3: Waterfalls!
Day 3 requires a lot of driving, but with some long stops.
The first stop comes 1.5-2 hours after you leave Reykjavik, when you happen upon Seljalandfoss waterfall. Although it isn’t on the main road, you’ll know you are almost there when you see all the vehicles lined up. Park your car, jump out, and go for a walk behind one of Iceland’s most famous waterfalls. (Waterproof pants not required, but strongly recommended.) But don’t stop there. An even better experience awaits you about 700 meters away.
Despite how close it is, most people skip our second waterfall of the day, Gljúfraúi. Don’t be one of those people! At least not if you are wearing your waterproof pants since you need to walk into a cave (and through a stream) to get to this waterfall.
After an hour or so of wandering around and getting the wiggles out, pile back into the car and drive another half hour to Skógafoss. You won’t get quite as up close and personal with this one, but its size alone makes it well worth the stop.
Day 4: Westman Islands (Vestmannaeyjar)*
It’s a shame that these islands off the south coast of Iceland aren’t more popular. This easily was one of our favorite days and one that I think little kids would especially love.
Why are kids likely to love it so much? Puffins!
These little penguin-like birds usually can be seen during their breeding season mid-April to mid-August. That said, we only saw a couple the first week of August, so if seeing them is a priority for you, try to go a little earlier in the summer. And if you can’t, take your little one to the aquarium, where there is a puffin that follows visitors around.
For lunch you are in luck because some of the best restaurants in Iceland are here. Our choice was Slippurinn, which a friend had described as her “best meal in Iceland, possibly anywhere.” I agree. This eatery specializing in local and seasonal foods feels simultaneously familiar and inventive (with surprisingly delicious options like birch sorbet). And although the food is somewhat “fancy,” the environment is down-to-earth and family-friendly. I even saw some high chairs.
Finally, consider doing a Rib Safari. Even if, like us, you don’t see (many) puffins, this high-speed boat ride into various caves is well worth it. (Not recommended for children under the age of 4.)
Day 5: Drive to Vik
Today should be a long but easy day. Long because you’ll be spending most of it in the car (although without stops the drive is less than 3 hours). But easy because you’ll have already seen most of the main sights along the route.
You’ve got some extra time, though, so consider stopping at some or all of these:
- Abandoned DC plane on Solheimasandur—This was a very cool thing to see but it is a long walk from the road. So if you want to see it, set aside at least 1.5 hours and don’t go unless everyone in your group will happily walk long distances or you have a carrier.
- Dyrholaey (arch and lighthouse)—We ran out of time and didn’t see this but it sounds beautiful! And it is only a few minutes outside of Vik, so if you plan better than we did, you can definitely fit it in.
- Reynisfjara (basalt columns)—Another thing that we didn’t have time to go to. But we were able to get a nice view of them from the gas station/restaurant across the street from the Icelandair Hotel Vik.
One note about Vik: This is a very small town and the few restaurants close very early. Which probably isn’t a problem if you are traveling with little kids. But don’t forget or you’ll be stranded without dinner.
Day 6: Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon*
I’ll never forget catching my first glimpse of Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon after driving for what felt like a lifetime. It looked like something from another planet, a thought I kept repeating for the next hour as we walked giddily along the shore.
Located about 2.5 hours east of Vik, you might find yourself asking whether it is going to be worth it. At least, I did. And it was.
While you’re there, consider taking an amphibian boat tour. This 30-40 minute ride on the lagoon will get you closer to the glaciers while also teaching you a little about the geology of the lagoon and is suitable for all ages. If you don’t have little kids with you, consider a zodiac tour on Jökulsárlón or nearby Fjallsarlon. (We did the latter. I’d heard that it was the better option because it isn’t as crowded, but the lagoon is not nearly as impressive as Jökulsárlón.)
Day 7: Goodbye Iceland!
After getting a good night’s sleep, it is time to drive back to the airport. The drive is only about 3 hours, so you should have plenty of time. Indeed, you might even have time to stop at any sights that you missed along the way.
*Starred items are my top two recommendations for any visitor to Iceland.
What to do with more time
If you have 1-2 more days, I’d probably focus on Reykjavik—there’s plenty to visit while you are there.
Or, if you’d like to get out of the city, here are three recommendations:
- Geothermal park in Hveragerði: Located about 35 minutes from Reykjavik, you can cook an egg in a geothermal oven here. It is also home of the best langoustine soup we had in Iceland, at Restaurant Varma at Frost og Funi Hotel. (Restaurant not open for lunch.)
- Laugarvatn Fontana: Located about an hour from Reykjavik, on the Golden Circle route, these geothermal springs are a great place to relax in the water. If you go, be sure to check out the Rye Bread Experience, which is offered at 11:30 and 2:30. This bread, which is baked in the sand, is slightly sweet and cake-like. Not at all what you probably think of when you hear the words “rye bread.”
- Landmannalaugar: Originally, this wasn’t on my list because I can’t really imagine my two-year-old doing such a long hike (even though it wasn’t a hard one). But when I was going through my Iceland pictures and realized how many of my favorites were from here, I knew I didn’t have a choice. Because getting here requires a 4WD vehicle and fording a river, I recommend a Super Jeep tour. We went with (and loved) Migard Adventures. They will pick you up in Reykjavik, but that option is expensive. Alternatively, you can drive yourself the 1.5 hours from Reykjavik to their base camp in Hvolsvöllur.
If you have two full weeks, consider driving all around the Ring Road. (You can do it in about 10 days, especially if you are doing it in the summer when the days are long and the weather reasonably predictable, but 14 would be more comfortable.)
For more ideas, check out the recommendations from Handpicked Iceland, which includes a list of activities hand-picked for kids.
Where to Stay
With this itinerary, I recommend staying 4 nights in Reykjavik and 2 nights in Vik.
For those first four nights, when you’ll likely be dealing with jet lag and odd schedules, I recommend renting an apartment. And while I haven’t seen it in person, I would probably go with this one from Kid & Coe. At only US$180/night for up to six people plus a baby, this is a really good deal for this notoriously expensive country. And there is a playground and a swimming pool within less than a block, making it a particularly attractive option for families with little ones.
For the last two nights in Vik, I was pleased with the Icelandair Hotel Vik.
Additional Resources for Planning Your Iceland Trip
Whereas many of my trips are booked based on a vague idea that I’d like to go somewhere with all the real research done the day before the flight (or even on the plane), I did a lot of research before going to Iceland. Some of the blogs that I found particularly helpful in planning were:
Have you been to Iceland? What was your favorite thing?