Iceland is a red-hot destination right now, and to meet the growing demand for one of most sparsely populated countries in Europe, we’ve written a number of fantastic articles about how and why to visit Iceland with kids. This remote island isn’t quite ready for their current influx of tourists, and to that end, planning a great Iceland itinerary takes insider tips and knowledge.
I had to see what all the fuss was about. I used Icelandair’s popular stopover program for my visit last summer, which enabled us to vacation there en route from the European continent without an additional charge. For our itinerary, we used TrueNorth, a very special luxury operator with deep roots in film production within Iceland. As a result, they have vast resources and knowledge around navigating the country’s numerous highlights time-effectively. Given Iceland’s limited transportation infrastructure and extreme landscape, using a travel agent who works with a quality tour operator is a must.
Here are highlights from our epic 7-day tour of Iceland with kids:
Day 1: Husafell/West Coast
The most popular tourist route is to head immediately southeast from Reykjavik, but we diverged from this plan when the Iceland tourist board encouraged us to explore the less-traveled West Coast and to stay at the new Hotel Husafell. We’re glad we did, as we were able to get a taste of the idyllic Nordic villages and local traditions on this side of the island. Although Iceland is small, we learned that there is a surprising amount of variety within a small geographic area. Kid-friendly stops included a visit to a goat farm made famous by Game of Thrones and our first look at one of Iceland’s treasured waterfalls.
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The longest lava tube cave in Iceland is also in this area. The entry required a serious rock scramble, which the teen boys appreciated more than their mothers, and this visit was an exciting example of the tremendous, unique terrain to explore in the land of fire and ice.
Hotel Husafell is a great family base for one to two nights, with a thermal pool, a playground and a good onsite restaurant. Rooms are airy and comfortable and the front desk can assist with local activities. We were too tired to make it to the weekly bonfire that happens in Husafell, but this would have been a great way to join locals in a community tradition.
Day 2: Into the Glacier/Highlands Tour
When the boys first saw their super Jeep transportation for our trip across Iceland’s rugged and remote interior, there were big smiles. While the “regular” road driving in Iceland is easy, these interior roads are out of an adventure movie, and you only want to cross them with a qualified guide. Our favorite day of the trip was this full-day tour, organized by TrueNorth, that included a journey into the ice tunnels of the Langjökull glacier paired with a drive across the surreal lava landscape of the Highlands of Iceland.
Hotel Husafell is perfectly positioned for a quick drive to the start of the glacier tour, which gives families an unbelievable understanding of how glaciers work. It’s one thing to snap photos of them on a mountain; it’s quite another to be inside one. Snow suits are provided to ensure that everyone stays warm and dry, and transportation across the glacier is in yet another special vehicle designed for this purpose.
Glaciers are moving and constantly shifting. This drive is mildly unnerving, as the vehicle slips around a bit, but fun! The guided tour inside the glacier showcases the different stages of the ice. It’s beautiful inside, lit with LED lights that produce a wild blue glow. They’ve even constructed a chapel inside this natural wonder.
The remainder of the day was spent driving through the no man’s land of the Highlands. We barely saw any people over a few-hour period. The experience gave us a sense of the truly isolated and unspoiled landscape that comprises most of Iceland.
Day 3: Golden Circle Tour
The Golden Circle is the best-known tourist route in Iceland and includes the geysers at Haukadlur. The most active geyser is Stokkur, which shoots hot water into the air every several minutes or so. The whole event takes just seconds … so photographers need to be prepared. Although this attraction was interesting, we were more captivated with the Gulfoss waterfall, where the Hvítá (White) river spills water into a rugged canyon. The sound and mist created by the rushing water is unbelievable (bring a waterproof coat!) and some lucky visitors may spot a rainbow or two.
The full Golden Circle tour also includes a stop at Thingvellir National Park. We didn’t have time to stop there, but it is known for fishing and scuba diving, as well as being the home of the largest natural lake in Iceland.
We condensed our tour into a frenzied few-hour experience. To do it well and right, plan on spending an entire day on this loop.
Day 4: South Coast
Our favorite self-drive day of the trip was the one that we spent driving down the south coast of Iceland. We had every flavor of weather this day, but irrespective of rain, the raw beauty of the landscape is truly extraordinary. Highlights include jet-black sand beaches, outrageous waterfalls, and, if the clouds part, views of a few of Iceland’s famous volcanoes — including Eyjafjallajökull volcano, known for shutting down air travel across Western Europe after spewing massive ash into the atmosphere in 2010.
The Seljalandsfoss and Skógafoss waterfalls are particularly impressive for their scale. What makes these visits immersive (and nerve-racking, given steep drops) with kids is the opportunity to hike around them; in the case of Seljalandsfoss, visitors hike behind the waterfall for a real sense of the volume of water cascading down. The trail above Skógafoss takes visitors to the feeder river. Leave at least 1.5 hours to explore each place. If you have time, visit the Dryholaey puffin colony and Reynisfjara black sand beach.
Day 5: Ferry to Westman Islands
We didn’t book our ferry early enough for the trip to the Westman Islands, so one recommendation is to ask your travel planner to book these tickets well in advance if a visit is of interest. This volcanic archipelago is comprised of 14 dramatic, rocky islands. Touring around the islands via a Rib Safari (a narrow inflatable boat) is one of the things we were most excited about. The fast-moving trip looks like a pint-size crowd pleaser and provides an opportunity to explore sea caves and view wildlife, including puffins and whales.
Day 6: Glacier Lagoon
Our trip was only six days, so we lost the opportunity to make it all the way to the Glacier Lagoon, but knowing what I know now, I wouldn’t book a trip to Iceland without a visit there. It has very limited hotel inventory, so booking early is essential! The Glacier Lagoon is 370 km east of Reykjavik and is one of Iceland’s visual icons. Icebergs break off and float into the lagoon, giving visitors the opportunity to sail among them. It is on my bucket list for my next trip to Iceland for sure!
Day 7: Reykjavik and Blue Lagoon
Given limited time in Iceland, I think a day in Reykjavik is enough. It’s a unique city with a bustling social scene. We enjoyed walking around and exploring the highlights that TrueNorth outlined for us (including a fantastic buggy adventure that I’ll write about soon), but I don’t think the highlights here should supersede the other stops on this list if you run out time. We spent our last hours in Iceland at the Blue Lagoon and loved this as a final relaxing last hurrah in the land of fire and ice.
CB’s Family Travel Agency Specializes in Crafting Custom Kid-Friendly Itineraries to Iceland
Although I’ve outlined our Iceland trip highlights in this article, there are so many components to effective travel in this small country that using a qualified travel advisor is a must! Iceland is still navigating how to deal with its popularity, and to that end, booking an itinerary is not straightforward. Our team will work with you to outline what you want to experience and then work with one of our partners to craft the perfect itinerary for your budget and the ages of your children. Request more information on the CB! Family Vacation Advisors homepage.
Editor’s Note: Amie received media pricing on some components of the tour. As always, our thoughts and opinions are our own. Photos by Amie O’Shaughnessy except where noted.