Everything You Need To Know When Planning Your First Trip To Iceland

A journey like this is a once in a lifetime adventure, so it helps to know the little details that will go a long way.

When planning and booking your trip to Iceland, the first step is getting there. One of the best tips we can offer is to leave JFK's crowds behind and fly directly to Iceland out of Stewart International Airport with PLAY. The company started in 2019 and offers travelers a variety of flights between North America and Europe, and that includes the always magical and popular Land of Ice and Fire.

What makes PLAY such a good choice is how the company recognizes the needs of its customers. Passengers can choose an à la cart deal where they can pay for an upgraded experience with plenty of amenities and snacks, or they can fly to Iceland on a budget, which leaves extra cash for more adventures. Beyond the tickets, travelers can enjoy an elevated experience, adding checked bags, an inflight food and beverage credit, and a seat with extra leg room—all definitely worth it.

In addition to PLAY providing a pleasant travel experience, the company values sustainability by reducing fuel consumption, making efforts to cut back on waste, and offset carbon emissions. That allows for an even more peaceful flight.

Where to Stay

Once you arrive in Reykjavík, Iceland, check into the Grandi by Center Hotels. The property is in a great location and boasts an industrial, stylish feel. The rooms are comfortable and spacious, with plenty of modern touches. The hotel has strong WiFi and breakfast for travelers on the go. Best of all, the friendly staff at the front desk is always willing to offer suggestions and advice on how to use public transportation, where to eat, and what to do.

Where to Eat

For starters, the restaurant at the Grandi by Center Hotels, Héðinn Kitchen & Bar, is a great option, especially for the night that you arrive, so you don't have to worry about getting around town. You can just settle in and enjoy delicious dishes like the ribeye with fresh herb butter and grilled padron pepper, a side dish of potatoes with cheese foam and Jerusalem artichokes, and a cocktail like the Lúpina with lavender gin, blanc vermouth, and Creme de Violette.

The ambiance at Monkeys Reykjavik is stunning with beautiful floral patterns, striking furniture, art decorating the walls, and unique light fixtures. The food is as impressive as the décor. The wagyu nigiri with foie gras and garlic melts in your mouth with the even marbling of fat. The rack of lamb with pepper polenta, roasted corn salsa, and miso hollandaise sauce was perfectly cooked and the fresh scallops and foie gras with crispy chicken skin was the perfect blend of textures. Save room for the Monkeys mandarin, their famous dessert.

Fish Company (Fiskfélagið) is a wonderful option for trying some local dishes, like the sherry marinated reindeer carpaccio with cepes purée, crispy oyster mushrooms, foie gras, hazelnut, and parmigiano. The fresh salad with deep fried langoustine and seared tiger prawns in a creamy garlic dressing (with salty mixed olives, cherry tomatoes, and parmigiano reggiano) and creamy lobster soup (with langoustine and chestnut paste, apples, and marinated celery) are two delicious dishes that let the Icelandic lobster, langoustines, shine.

With all the delicious food to try in Iceland, a hot dog might not be first on your list, but a visit to Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur should be. The dogs in Iceland aren't what you may think, as they are primarily made up of lamb with a little high-quality beef and pork. The famous stand dates to the 1930s, and these well-known dogs are doctored with raw onions, crispy fried onions, and ketchup on the roll, and after tucking the dog into the bun, it's then topped with a remoulade and mustard sauce.

Íslenski barinn is a great place to stop if you want to try some truly unique Icelandic cuisine, including Viking-inspired foods like fermented shark and dried fish with butter. There are dishes like puffin on Icelandic crumpet with berries, remoulade, fried onions, pickled red onions, and chili peppers and fin whale on Icelandic crumpet with langreud, pickles, remoulade, onion rings, and parsley.

For dessert or a sweet snack, Baka Baka has a wide selection of donuts and treats that can't be missed. The raspberry donuts filled with a raspberry cream were phenomenal, the perfect pairing for a latte on the go.

What to Do

The Puffin Express Tour is barely a 10-minute walk from the hotel in Reykjavik, and it will take visitors on a boat trip to puffin island (aka Akurey). It doesn't take long to get to the site, where you will see so many puffins floating in the water, flying at speeds of nearly 55 mph, and settling in, nesting on the rocks along the water. It's such a special experience, and worth every penny. If you want to fill your itinerary with wildlife encounters, they also offer a Whale Watching Excursion, on which guests voyage in search of humpbacks in the wild.

When you're visiting Iceland for the first time, you have to make time for a Golden Circle Express Tour. This special bus trip takes guests to famous sites along the circle, like the geothermal Geysir to see activity at Strokkur, Thingvellir National Park, and Gullfoss with an opportunity to hike into the mist of the powerful falls. The café inside the visiting center at the Geysir has some delicious fish stew, loaded with huge, tender pieces of cod, perfect for a quick bite before jumping on the bus.

A waterfall in Iceland
The waterfalls are breathtaking and make phenomenal selfie spots. | Jessica Kelly

There's a lot to see in Iceland and it's difficult to fit it all in, but I can't recommend the South Shore Excursion enough. You hit sites and destinations while enjoying the ride, taking in the stunning landscapes and visiting multiple Foss waterfalls. You'll also ride through Vík, a small village boasting boulders and cliffs. Stop along the way at sites like Seljalandsfoss and Skógafoss to hike around the waterfalls, legendary Eyjafjallajökull, and the black sand of Reynisfjara (just be cautious of the sneaker waves that give the beach it's dangerous reputation) where many photos will be taken of the Reynisdrangar rock formations.

A black sand beach in Iceland
There aren't many black sand beaches in the world, so this is a must-visit location. | Jessica Kelly

A relaxing spa has been added to the industrial area near Kópavogur, and Sky Lagoon begs to be explored and enjoyed. The geothermal spa has an infinity pool with a waterfall and a seven-step ritual involving steam rooms, a cold plunge, body exfoliator, sauna, mist, and hot showers. The experience leaves your skin silky smooth as you head back to relax in the warm water with a drink in your hand.

Blue Lagoon in Iceland
Blue Lagoon's water isn't just beautiful—it might be magical. | Jessica Kelly

When you're in Iceland, the Blue Lagoon is also an absolute must. This natural body of water is located in a lava field and has a soft, baby blue hue to it from the minerals, leaving your skin feeling radiant. Apply the face mask and grab a drink from the bar, as you can be healthy and order a green juice or treat yourself to a beer, before walking around and exploring the lagoon.

And don't forget to explore Reykjavík. Set aside time to walk around the city and you'll encounter coffee shops, local boutiques, restaurants, and exciting landmarks like public murals, the Sun Voyager, the Hallgrímskirkja Church, and Rainbow Street. Stop into a local cafe to try a ponnukokur, an Icelandic pancake similar to a crepe.