Iceland is an up-and-coming family travel destination, especially for those families who enjoy adventure and the outdoors. Known as the land of ice and fire, Iceland is a country of contrasts. As you drive through the countryside, you pass geothermal springs spraying steam into the air, lush green mountains, plunging waterfalls, desolate flows of lava and ash, fields covered in purple lupin flowers, moss creeping over volcanic rocks, immense glaciers and blue icebergs.
There is so much to see that families can easily spend two weeks or more exploring the country, but to get a good flavor of Iceland, plan on spending at least five days touring.
If you have five days in Iceland, focus on exploring Southern Iceland, the area near the Keflavik International Airport and capital city of Reykjavik. I’d recommend using Reykjavik as your home base for the first three days of exploration.
If you arrive in the morning, make your first stop the Viking Museum, just minutes away from the Keflavik airport. Here you can climb aboard a full-replica Viking ship that actually sailed across the ocean to Canada and the United States. Kids will enjoy trying out Viking swords and shields and learning about Norse mythology. Outdoors, they can play on the Viking playground and meet the rabbits, lambs, and other animals at the petting zoo.
On your way into Reykjavik, stop off at the famous Blue Lagoon to have lunch at the fabulous Lava restaurant and a dip in the milky blue warm waters of the geothermally heated pool. If you prefer something a little less touristy, check out one of the many public pools in the city.
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Spend your second day exploring Reykjavik. Start off with a walk along the water to the Old Harbour. Along the way, stop for a photo op at the Sun Voyager sculpture and pop into the stunning Harpa concert hall for a look around. Arrive at the Harbour in time for a whale watching or puffin cruise.
After a lunch at the tasty Icelandic Fish and Chips, walk up to the Hallgrímskirkja church and take the elevator to the top for gorgeous views of the city below. In the evening, head out of the city to the Fákasel Icelandic Horse Park for a horse theater show that tells the story of the unique Icelandic horses. Afterward you can meet the stars of the show and take a barn tour, or enjoy a bowl of traditional Icelandic meat soup.
There are many bus tours that offer day tours of the Golden Circle, a trio of sites including Thingvellir National Park, Geysir, and the Gulfoss waterfall, but renting a car and doing a self-driving tour will give your family much more flexibility. In Thingvellir, you can see where the tectonic plates connect the two continents and learn about the site’s history as the home of national parliament, or Althing.
In Geysir, you can see the many steaming hot springs, but the real attraction is Strokkur, the geyser that erupts regularly every four to eight minutes. Just a few more minutes up the road you will find Gulfoss, a large, two-step waterfall that is comparable to Niagara Falls. You can view the falls from two different platforms, or get a better view by hiking up close on the slippery rocks.
On the fourth day, it is time to depart the capital region for Southeast Iceland. Be sure to bring rain gear for viewing waterfalls. At Seljalandfoss, visitors can walk behind the falls and then hike along the path a few hundred meters and into a hidden canyon to find the “secret” waterfall of Gljufurarbai. Just 30 minutes farther along the Ring Road you will find Skogafoss waterfall; you can walk right up or climb the stairs to view it from above.
After a picnic lunch and a quick stop at the Eyjafjallajökull Visitor Center to learn about the volcano’s recent eruption, take a guided glacier hike at the Myrdalsjökull glacier. End your day with a stay near Vík and stops at the Dyrholaey natural arch (hopefully you’ll spy some puffins up close), Reynisfjara’s pipe organ-like basalt columns, and the black sand beach and sea stacks at Vík.
On your last full day in Iceland, head out to the Jökursálón glacier lagoon. Since forming in the 1930s, the lagoon has grown fourfold in the last four decades as the glacier makes a rapid retreat. Right from the beach, you can spy blue, clear, and zebra-striped icebergs sitting in the lagoon. You can get a little closer with a duck boat tour, or super-close on a small zodiac boat.
If you have the time and the energy, finish off your visit to Iceland with a hike in Skaftafell National Park, where you can trek out to the Svartifoss falls or Skaftafellsjökull glacier face.
TIP: If you visit Iceland in the late autumn through early spring, you might catch a glimpse of the dancing Northern Lights, but you will also have to contend with shorter days and colder temperatures. To get the most out of your stay, try visiting in the summer — the temperatures range from 55-75 degrees Fahrenheit in July. You can also take advantage of nearly constant daylight in the summer to maximize your time exploring.
Children of all ages can enjoy the beautiful scenery around Iceland, but kids 10 and up will be able to participate in adventurous activities like glacier hikes, zodiac boat tours, ATV tours and more. Even so, the nice thing about bringing younger children is that kids under 12 are often free or half price.
Editor’s Note: Tamara was provided with a media package for some of the activities mentioned above to facilitate our review. As always, all opinions are our own. Photos by Tamara Gruber.
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