My mother and her parents moved to the US from Iceland when she was 10. Most of my extended family (those that are left, at least,) still live there. When I was 10, I visited for the first time and have visited regularly in the many (many) years since. I even met my husband on a flight to Iceland when I was 19!
We first traveled to Iceland with our son when he was a toddler and had plans to return in 2020, but COVID hit and, just like that, travel was off the table for us for a couple of years. So when we finally got to visit in August last year, we made the most of our time in Reykjavík so we could put together the ultimate family guide to a place near the top of everyone’s list for Danrie’s Diary.
While there’s a lot to do all over Iceland, we’re saving the big Ring Road road trip for when Waylon’s a little older (maybe even old enough to help with the driving!). So this trip, and for the sake of this guide, we made the capital our home base and focused on Reykjavík and Southwest Iceland, doing just one overnight outside of our apartment swap in Reykjavík.
In and around Reykjavik
Geothermally heated pools are found all over Reykjavik and spending time soaking, steaming, and swimming is a great way to literally steep yourself in the bathing culture. Most pools have a modest entrance fee that includes a locker, showers, and towels. If you’re not accustomed to European locker rooms, know that everyone is expected to shower and fully wash without a swimsuit before entering the pool. Some of our favorite pools in Reykjavik are:
- Sundhöllin is right downtown with rooftop hot tubs, an outdoor pool, an outdoor soaking pool, and a huge indoor pool with a high diving board that bigger or more adventurous kids will love.
- Laugardalslaug is a large complex with a kids pool, small slides, a tall waterslide, lap pool, and hot tubs that increase in temperature as you move down the row.
- Álftaneslaug is home to Iceland’s tallest waterslide, pools, hot tubs, and a wave pool. My kiddo loved the wave pool and probably slid down the waterslide a dozen times.
When not shriveling our fingertips in a pool, we spent a lot of time in town enjoying the sights of downtown Reykjavik, which is extremely walkable. Some of our favorite spots are:
- Hallgrímskirkja is the big church you can see from everywhere in town. For a small fee, you can take an elevator, then some stairs, up to the top of the tower for the most breathtaking views on Reykjavík and its eponymous “smoky bay.”
- Tjornin Pond for a stroll to feed the ducks, geese, and swans in the pond as generations of Icelandic children (including me since that very first trip I took) have done. We now know bread’s no good for the fowl, so bring some frozen peas to share.
- The Icelandic Punk Museum, in true punk rock fashion, is housed in a subterranean former public bathroom. Kids will love watching the videos, listening to music through the headphones hanging from the ceiling, and rocking out on the drum kit.
- On the outskirts of town is a small, hilly park that just so happens to be enchanted by fairies (or so they say). Hellisgerdi Park is small enough that you can let the kids climb and explore freely and there are tables for a picnic and you’ll have fun hunting for the small fairy doors.
- Harpa Concert Hall has a lot of great programming, lots of which is family-friendly. We went to the long-running English comedy show for tourists entitled How to Become Icelandic in 60 Minutes and even though a lot of the information wasn’t completely new to us, it had us all legitimately laughing out loud.
Not exactly something you can plan for, but on our first night in Iceland we felt an earthquake and lo and behold, the next morning we learned that there was an active volcanic eruption not too far outside of the city. It’s not recommended to take kids on the (long, treacherous) hike to the eruption, so we took a shortcut—a private helicopter tour. Seeing an active volcano erupt sure felt like a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and I can’t recommend it enough if you happen to be lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time.
Excursions and day trips
The Blue Lagoon
Of course The Blue Lagoon makes any list—there’s a reason it’s synonymous with Iceland. Kids ages 2 through 13 can visit The Blue Lagoon for free; much to the dismay of my 8 year old, kids 8 and under are required to wear floaties (which are provided). Like Reykjavík’s pools, the changing rooms, lockers, showers, and towels are all included with your visit. The milky blue water is warm and there are lots of nooks and crannies to explore throughout the lagoon. We all had fun doing silica face masks and taking selfies (if you forget to bring a phone pouch, you can get one there). There are restaurants onsite so you can make a full day of your visit, but if you’re with kids, a half day is probably enough.
- Insider tip 1: when you shower before entering the lagoon, condition your hair and (you didn’t hear this from me, but) don’t rinse it out. If you have long hair, pin it up, and do what you can to keep your hair out of the lagoon’s water. The conditioner will help protect your hair.
- Insider tip 2: For the same reason the water is rough on your hair, for your tip to the Blue Lagoon, definitely wear swimsuits that aren't your favorites.
Icelandic Horseback Riding and a Viking Dinner
Icelandic Horses are small and have a smooth gait, which makes them wonderful for young riders. There are lots of options for horseback riding near Reykjavík, but we loved making a day of it by going out to Sólhestar Horse Rental in Ölfus for a family tour followed by dinner at Ingólfsskáli, a traditional grass-covered viking longhouse and restaurant. It’s definitely touristy, but in an elegant way (and the food, complete with vegan options, was great). Waylon loved that dinner was followed by some viking archery outside.
The Golden Circle
The Golden Circle is a classic and epic full day trip covering some of the most iconic sights of Iceland. At Thingvellir, home of the first modern democracy, you can walk the ridge between the Eurasian and North American tectonic plates. Next stop is Geysir, one of the best-known geysers in the world, which has given name to all other spouting hot springs around the world: geyser. Stay for a few minutes and you’ll get to see Strokkur erupt. Gullfoss is an immense waterfall with a path that allows you to stand at its top in the mist. Not technically part of the Golden Circle, we added a relaxing swim/soak at the Secret Lagoon to our trip. The last stop on the way back to Reykjavík is Kerið Crater lake which you can climb down to the bottom of and (carefully) hike the edge.
The Westman Islands
We were lucky enough to be in Iceland in the summer, while the puffins are roosting in the cliffs of The Westman Islands. This was a long day trip, but more than worth it. We drove from Reykjavík to catch a 10:45 ferry to Westman (remember to make a reservation!) and headed straight to a puffin and volcano tour, which took us around the island where we were able to take in all the sights and get insight from a local dedicated to preserving the unique history of the region. My favorite part was seeing the puffins flying, though the hike was on steep land that might make those afraid of heights a little woozy. We made a 5pm ferry back to the mainland and slept very well that night.
Vík was our one overnight trip and could easily be paired with a trip to The Westman Islands. On our way we stopped in Selfoss for lunch at their very cool food hall. There are several waterfalls to see around Vík, as well as the famous black sand beach. My adventure limits were tested by a zip lining adventure that was maybe one of the coolest things I’ve ever experienced (Waylon agrees it was a highlight of the trip). On a chilly and rainy day we made the hike to Seljavallalaug pool, nestled in the mountains. While this was definitely a gorgeous hike, it was also very wet and the pool wasn’t really all that warm. I’d probably recommend waiting till you travel without kids to make this trek if you’re so inclined.
I hope this guide helps you prepare for your family trip to the land of my people, the Land of Fire and Ice!
Oh! One last tip before I go: the best places to find Icelandic sweaters are The Handknitting Association of Iceland and the weekend Kolaportið flea market. They are beyond warm, last forever, and are even naturally water repellant.