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Iceland: A Cool Place for a Family Trip!

A 5.5 hour flight from Newark gets you to this island of fascinating natural wonders and friendly folks that speak English

Girl looking across beach at glacier in Iceland

When I first told my mother we were taking a family trip to the island of Iceland, she looked at me like I had two heads. “Iceland??” she asked. “Why would you go there?” 

Clearly she wasn’t up on the latest travel trends, so I explained what makes it unique and worth visiting: glaciers, waterfalls, and unique volcanic landscapes! I agreed that it’s still a somewhat unusual destination, but I was confident it would be a memorable experience for all of us. Especially for my son and daughter, ages 14 and 12 respectively, who had never traveled abroad.

Despite my enthusiasm, she seemed unconvinced. However, when we returned from our trip and I showed her all of our photos, she was impressed. Looking at the amazing sights, she had to agree: Iceland is a cool place to visit! 

Reynisfjara Black Sand Beach on the south coast of Iceland

Deciding to Go — and When

Back in 2022, after COVID travel restrictions relaxed, my husband and I decided it was time to take a trip somewhere fun! What really sold me on Iceland was a friend’s rave reviews after her recent trip there. She and her husband, and two sons (a tween and a teen, like my kids) are a well-traveled family. Yet of all the places they’ve been, she said Iceland topped their list of favorite places to visit. 

For them it was a winning combination of Reykjavik, the capital, which is a cute, walkable little city, and an array of adventurous day trips to choose from. They went snowmobiling, hiked to glaciers and waterfalls, explored a lava tube, and visited other natural wonders like black sand beaches and hot springs. 

It wasn’t the first rave review I’d heard about Iceland. In fact, this small Scandinavian island of ice and volcanoes has become a veritable hotspot for travel. Since the 2010’s, Iceland’s popularity has exploded from about 500,00 visitors per year to more than 2.2 million visitors in 2023

View of the gorge at Thingvellir National Park in Iceland.
Part of the great gorge seen from a viewing platform at Thingvellir National Park

The peak number of visitors to Iceland occurs in the summer months, between June and August. That’s when the weather is warmest, between 50–59°F, and the days are longest. Because it’s so far north, Iceland gets 20–22 hours of daylight in June! You’ll also find the highest prices for accommodations in the summer, whether you choose hotels or Airbnb rentals. In an effort to avoid crowds and travel a little cheaper, we targeted the months just outside Iceland’s peak travel time. We eventually settled on a week-long trip in the last week of April.

With about a week to spend in Iceland, my family stuck to the most popular tourist attractions in Iceland. It wasn’t my intention to do only touristy things, but it was our first visit and heck, these places are famous for a reason! The fact that we traveled off-season in late April however, helped us avoid the crowds of summer. 

The view from the top of Eldfell volcano on Heimaey Island, just off the coast of Iceland

Don’t get me wrong though; summer would be an amazing time to visit Iceland. The landscape is green, plus you will get that unique experience of incredibly long hours of daylight. (In fact, we experienced longer hours of daylight, even in April, when it was still twilight at 10 pm.) But if you travel to Iceland in summer, there will be crowds. Expect to wait in line for your selfie or family photo!

Here’s what we did while we were in Iceland…


With a population of about 140,000, the capital city in Iceland is rather small, but interesting and walkable. Our Airbnb was conveniently situated in the downtown area. Just a block and a half away was Hallgrímskirkja, a soaring, modern church that served as a landmark to help us orient ourselves in Reykjavik. Our central location allowed us to easily explore the heart of the city, with its Scandinavian-style residences of colorful corrugated siding, side gardens, narrow streets, and friendly, resident cats. 

Scenes from the capital city, Reykjavik: cats, a family selfie on the “rainbow” street, colorful architecture, narrow streets, a mural, and Hallgrimskirkja church

We strolled Skólavörðustígur (SKO-la-vur-thu-STEE-grr) Street, aka the Rainbow Street which is painted with a bright rainbow down the length of it. My kids enjoyed browsing the tourist shops on Laugavegur Street (ok, I did too) that sell Icelandic specialties like natural sea salts, viking hats, and lava rock jewelry, as well as the usual touristy wares like t-shirts, magnets, etc. We especially enjoyed the National Museum or Iceland, where you can learn about the history of the island — and play dress up in the costume area. There you’ll find Viking attire and other traditional garb in children’s sizes and adults, plus wooden shields and swords that make for a great photo opp.

The Golden Circle

The Golden Circle is the quintessential Iceland-in-a-day trip. Because Icelandair offers a stopover deal, many folks first visit the island for a brief, 24-hour stay and hit just the Golden Circle. The 150-mile loop is an all-day driving tour with three major attractions. 

The thundering Gullfoss waterfall on the Golden Circle tour.

You can drive the loop in either direction, but we drove clockwise and hit Þingvellir National Park first. Pronounced “thing-vet-leer”, this area features impressive sights around the great gorge that divides the North American and European tectonic plates. From there we drove to Geysir, the bubbling geothermal field with Strokkur, the active geyser that shoots scalding water high into the air every 5–10 minutes. And finally, we visited Gullfoss, the vast waterfall with a 100-foot drop. A fairly easy walking path takes you down to a lower viewing platform that immerses you in the thunderous sounds and impressive sights of the falls.

The South Coast

The South Coast tour comprises mountains, glaciers, waterfalls, rugged coastal scenery, and black sand beaches. If you’ve ever wanted to touch or stand on a glacier, this is your chance! As a driving tour, it’s longer than the Golden Circle, but can still be done in a day. At the far end of the tour is Vík, a cute little village at the southern tip of Iceland nestled below soaring cliffs. On this trip, must-see attractions include the Seljalandsfoss waterfall, the Skógar Folk Museum and the adjacent waterfall, Skógafoss, the Sólheimajökull glacier, and Reynisfjara Black Sand Beach

Scenes from the South Coast of Iceland: the Seljalandsfoss waterfall; climbing the hexagonal basalt formations on Reynisfjara beach; family selfie in front of the Sólheimajökull glacier; drenched after walking behind Seljalandsfoss; traditional dwellings at the Skógar Folk Museum; and the Skógafoss waterfall.

Blue Lagoon

We visited the Blue Lagoon on the third day of our trip. Set in a volcanic landscape, this geothermal hot springs resort is famous for its milky blue, silica water. I found it relaxing and meditative, and could have spent all day there! However, my kids and husband were done after about two hours, so keep that in mind if you plan to visit with kids. Admission here is expensive for adults and kids 13+, but free for kids 12 and under. 

In retrospect, it would have made more sense to hit the Blue Lagoon on the morning of our arrival since it’s located between Keflavik Airport and Reykjavik. So, if you’re planning to go there, it’s a great way to spend a few of those first few hours before check-in to your accommodations. 

The entrance to the milky, blue water of the Blue Lagoon

Icelandic Horse Riding

My daughter requested that we go horseback riding while in Iceland, so we booked an outing one day at Solhestar farm. Located just outside of Reykjavík, this horse-riding outfit welcomes riders ranging from absolute beginners to experienced riders. We joined a group of about 10 riders, mixed in age and experience, for a one-hour ride. Our friendly local guides took us through pine woodlands to lava fields for a photo opp and back. It was a great way to view the landscape up close, while getting to meet some Icelandic horses.

Icelandic horses are a small, strong, and docile breed that are unique to the island.

Westman Islands of Heimaey

We spent our final day visiting one of the Westman Islands, located just off the southern coast of Iceland. Heimaey Island, the only one that’s inhabited, is reachable by ferry from the mainland and is definitely worth a visit! Many tourists come to the island because it’s home to the world’s largest puffin colony in the summer. Unfortunately, we didn’t see puffins because we visited in April, a little before their arrival. 

We did, however, hike to the top of Eldfell, the now dormant volcano that erupted there in 1973. Beside the volcano is the fascinating Volcano Museum, which tells the dramatic story of the eruption and the aftermath. Amazingly, all of the island’s residents were safely evacuated on the night of the eruption and not a single life was lost. The highlight of the museum is an actual house, which was buried in lava and excavated years later. 

Hiking to the top of Eldfell volcano on Heimaey island

Getting to Iceland

From the Philadelphia area, the easiest flight path to Iceland are the non-stop, overnight flights from Newark to Reykjavik. We flew what seems to be a typical itinerary on Icelandair: an 8:30 p.m. departure with a 6 a.m. arrival in Iceland. 

With only 5.5 hours flight time, nobody got a great night of sleep on the plane. In fact, I don’t think any of us actually slept more than a scattered hour or two. We knew this ahead of time, so we planned to take it easy on the first day. Upon arrival at the tiny Keflavik airport, we picked up our rental car and drove into Reykjavik, and found a place to have breakfast. We couldn’t check into our Airbnb until 3 pm, so we had quite a few sleepy hours to walk around the city. 

The welcoming gnome of Cafe Babalú, where we ate breakfast after our early morning arrival in Iceland

Where to Stay in Iceland

Like the majority of tourists who visit Iceland, we chose to base ourselves in Reykjavik and take day trips from the city to visit the attractions. In general, I found hotels to be in short supply and rather expensive, so I booked our family a small, two-bedroom apartment through Airbnb. It was nothing fancy, but perfectly comfortable and warm. 

Interesting fact: there is so much hot water underground in Reykjavik from volcanic activity, that all the homes are heated inexpensively with hot water. You’ll notice many homes with window vents open, even when it’s quite cold outside. That’s because geothermal heat gets so warm.

With a little more planning and logistics though, you might enjoy spending a few nights in the city and a few nights in some of the other popular locations around Iceland. If you have about 10 days or more to travel around Iceland, consider the Ring Road trip, which offers a more thorough exploration of the island. About 830 miles across, Iceland is roughly the size of Maine. However, much of the interior of the island is sparsely populated or uninhabited. The Ring Road circles the perimeter of the island passing Iceland’s most iconic sights.

Getting Around Iceland

When visiting Iceland, you have the option of renting a car or booking organized tours, like bus or van trips. We chose to rent a car, and personally, I think it’s the best way to tour Iceland. It’s easy to drive because the road rules are essentially the same as in the US. Moreover, they drive on the right side of the road. With a rental car, you can come and go on your own schedule. By my calculations, for a family of four, it was less expensive than buying four seats on a tour. 

Nevertheless, organized trips have their pluses. For example, my friend did not rent a car in Iceland because she and her husband wanted to relax and let a knowledgeable local do the driving. She booked all their tours right from her hotel concierge desk, which made their trip logistics super easy. 

The Brákin monument, inspired by a story in the sagas, sits on hill in the town of Borgarnes

Eating in Iceland

Food in Iceland is expensive. Noticeably more so than at home. While there, I was reminded that the landscape doesn’t lend itself to large swaths of farmland. Therefore, the bulk of Iceland’s food and produce is flown or shipped to the island, upping the cost. We kept food costs down by shopping at a grocery store when we first arrived. In fact, it was fun browsing foreign brands and different food products in the grocery store.

For the most part, we ate breakfast at our Airbnb and packed lunches for our day trips. However, for a morning treat, I highly recommend Brauð & co, with a few locations around Reykjavík, for delicious pastry. We ate dinner out each night, but kept it casual with pizza and burger-type restaurants. If you want to try more traditional Icelandic cuisine, you’ll find menu items centered around fish and lamb. And for the gastronomically adventurous, you can find restaurants that feature items like whale, shark, puffin, or horse on the menu! 

Not the only one checking out the pastries at Brauð & Co.

A Few Packing Tips for Iceland

The general consensus for packing is to bring a winter jacket, hat, and gloves, even for a summer trip. The weather in Iceland can be unpredictable, suddenly turning windy and cold. The best and ubiquitous choice is a light, packable down jacket. For clothing, choose to pack casual clothes that you can layer as necessary.

And one other tip: Be sure your family packs jackets, hats, and gloves in your carry-on luggage — even if you’re traveling in the summer. Most of the car rental offices are located on a barren, windswept plain, a shuttle’s ride away from the airport terminal. We had to wait outdoors for the shuttle and it was freezing, gray, and windy on the day we arrived in April. Needless to say, we were glad to have our jackets handy. Luckily for us, the weather was sunny and pleasant for the rest of our trip. 

Up close with the Sólheimajökull glacier

Ready to Explore Iceland?

Iceland isn’t for everyone, but if you have a taste for adventure travel and enjoy a little (or a lot) of hiking and exploration, it’s a super fun family vacation.

Main Line Parent Writer & Calendar Editor. Email beth@familyfocus.org.