What to Do with an Early Arrival in Iceland

What to Do with an Early Arrival in Iceland

Verified expert

What is there to do in Iceland for early arrivals? What amenities and leisure activities are available at Keflavik International Airport, where can you eat breakfast and what time do transfers to the city start?

What is there to do in Iceland for early arrivals? What amenities and leisure activities are available at Keflavík International Airport, where can you eat breakfast and what time do transfers to Reykjavík start? Which tours offer an early departure from the city? Read on to find out all you need to know about what to do with an early arrival in Iceland. 


Welcome to Iceland... We Weren't Expecting You So Soon!     

The morning is known as "Golden Hour" to aspiring photographers thanks to its advantageous lighting conditions.

Flight times and stopovers can be awkward, especially for holiday-makers looking to secure the most cost-effective means of traveling from one destination to another. Even if one chooses to factor in disembarking the plane, waiting for luggage, and checking out duty-free, it still often leaves an awkward amount of time to chew one's nails. 

Arriving before the crack of dawn often requires passengers to wait around, sucking up valued vacation time and creating a sense of tension before an overseas break has even begun. This is particularly relevant for passengers arriving from the US and Canada who often arrive with a morning flight to Iceland.

You may even find that the check-in at your chosen accommodation in Iceland does not become available until the afternoon. And so one surefire way of avoiding said anxiety is to have a game plan should you arrive at a time inconvenient to your itinerary. 

Keflavik International Airport

Those expecting an airport to match the likes of London’s Heathrow or New York’s JFK may be sorely disappointed by the diminutive Keflavik International Airport.

A former US Army station, Keflavík Airport no longer has that rugged military feel, though it still doesn’t quite cater to passengers in the manner that larger airports do. That’s not to say those forced to stay awhile will have absolutely nothing to do, only that their choices will be limited, especially those arriving in the early hours of the morning.  

Shopping in Keflavik International Airport

Duty-free is open 24/7, providing an agreeable opportunity to partake in some retail therapy through the early hours. 

Free time in the airport also offers the best opportunity to stock up on duty-free alcohol. Beer, wines, and spirits are notoriously expensive in Iceland, even if bought from the state-run liquor store, Vínbúðin. Naturally, these prices massively inflate if bought from any of Iceland’s bars or restaurants.

Sleeping at Keflavik International Airport

Unfortunately, a number of signs posted about the airport make it adamantly clear that sleeping in the airport is strongly discouraged. With that being said, you will not be kicked out—the outside temperature simply makes that too cruel an option—though you will likely be woken up by security or airport staff around 4:00 AM when the airport begins to get busy. Security works from 3:30 AM – 1:00 AM each day.

When it comes to places where you can lay your head, your options are, again, fairly limited. Those lucky few may find a couple of benches in which to grab a short power nap, but the majority will be forced to sleep on the floor with little more than their coat for a pillow.

If this option doesn't suit you, you could plan a stay at accommodation near Keflavik Airport. Many mostly cater to travelers arriving or leaving Iceland, so you'll find options with 24-hour check-in, and some even offer a shuttle service to and from the airport. Some are even just a 10-minute drive away.

The Blue Lagoon Spa

The Blue Lagoon Spa opens at 8 AM sharp, making it the perfect option to begin your holiday in Iceland, with the earliest transport from the airport available at 8.30 AM. As one of the country’s most famous attractions, the Blue Lagoon Spa is just a short drive from the airport and around a 30-minute drive from the capital, Reykjavík, thus perfectly situated for those looking to kill some time before check-in. 

Visiting the Blue Lagoon is an excellent option for those looking to maximise their time after arrival to Iceland.

Without a moment’s hesitation, the Blue Lagoon Spa is hands down the best means of beating jet lag. Its soothing azure waters are a comfortable 37–39 °C (99–102 °F), ideal for relaxing the muscles and the mind of weary travellers in equal measure.

The lagoon itself is surrounded by the dark, cragged landscape of the Reykjanes Peninsula, offering you an incredible first view of Iceland’s diverse countryside. 

Note that the Blue Lagoon Spa requires pre-booking due to its sheer popularity, something that Guide to Iceland will be more than happy to sort out once you are aware of your departure dates. This is a strict policy, one that visitors cannot get around regardless of how early they show up. 

Arriving in Reykjavik

Reykjavik is a wonderful place to enjoy a stopover.

One of the more highly recommended pieces of advice for an early arrival in Iceland is to head straight to the capital, Reykjavík, a city of untold possibilities that boasts stunning architecture, distinguished landmarks and lush inner-city parks.

Naturally, exploring the city by foot is completely free of charge and offers a perspective of the culture before even stepping into your accommodation. First things first, however, you will want to grab a bite to eat, especially considering the lack of suitable dining options back at the airport. 

Where to get Coffee and Breakfast

Harpa has a small cafe and a bar.

Opening times in the capital vary from establishment to establishment, though it is possible to purchase breakfast early if one has some pre-knowledge on where to head to. So let us look together, stomachs rumbling, to some of the most notable examples of excellent breakfast spots. 

For instance, one café known for its early-bird menu items is Grái Kötturinn (“The Grey Cat”), a minuscule six-table establishment on Hverfisgata that offers such staples as bacon and eggs, soft-buttered loaves of bread and pancakes. 

With eclectic decor—somewhere between a cutesy arts museum and a library—this lovely little café is a known favorite of Iceland’s biggest superstar, Björk, only emphasizing its eccentricity. Grái Kötturinn opens at 7:30 AM on weekdays, closes at 2.00 PM, and opens at 8.00 AM on the weekend. 

There are many pleasant corners in Reykjavik.

One of Iceland’s most popular cafés, Kaffitár, also opens early at 7:00 AM (all week), with its most notable location at Bankastræti, the hilly road found right beside the Prime Minister’s office. There are, however, 7 outlets found throughout the capital, making it one of the more recognizable Icelandic chains. As an added bonus, it also offers free refills on black coffees. 

Kaffitár is known for its wide range of products—including ground coffee in countless flavors such as coconut, chocolate, and almond—and excellent coffee quality, relying on their longstanding relationships with bean farmers in Nicaragua, Guatemala, and Brazil. Kaffitár began as a family business and has been providing Icelanders with their daily dose of caffeine since 1990.

Night closes in on Reykjavik.

Sandholt Bakery, a family establishment built on four generations of artisan bakers, opens at 6.30 AM on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday and 7.00 AM during the rest of the week. Those looking for generous brekkie offerings need to look no further; bread options include sourdough, spelt, smoked pumpkin seed, Khorasan flour, and barley, to name only a handful, with a selection of pastries, confectionery, and cakes also available. 

How To Spend a Morning in Reykjavik

The red skies of morning reflected in the downtown pond, Lake Tjörnin.As aforementioned, some accommodation options in the city won’t allow for check-in until the early afternoon. This leaves the morning free to unearth some of the city’s most popular attractions.

However, when it comes to dragging your luggage around, you may wish to call your accommodation and ask whether you can check in early or, at least, store your bags until you can do so. Another means of getting around this is by booking your room for the whole night before you arrive, though, of course, this does add to the cost of your holiday considerably. 

Finally, you could choose to drop off your luggage at the BSI bus terminal, only 2 kilometers south of the city center. This bus terminal has a dedicated space for storing luggage for passengers who, temporarily, wish to avoid dragging it around. BSI is where many airport transfers from the airport arrive, with passengers often swapping from the coach onto smaller mini-buses which will then take them to their accommodation accordingly. 

Museums, Landmarks & Culture

Museums in the city tend to open at 10:00 AM, though there are some notable exceptions. For instance, the Settlement Exhibition Reykjavík 871±2 opens at 9:00 AM and offers guests a fantastic insight into the capital’s ancient history. The museum was built around the archaeological excavation of one of the first halls in Iceland (inhabited from c. 930–1000.) and presents a number of other artifacts that have been found around the city.  

Perlan is a great place to visit in Reykjavik.Photo by GLACIERS photo

Perlan Museum and its exhibition “Wonders of Iceland” also opens at 9.00 AM, presenting the chance to get to know Iceland’s incredible nature without yet fully immersing yourself in it. Here, you will learn about Iceland’s volcanic systems, geothermal activity, the country’s propensity for earthquakes and the famed tectonic plates, best seen for real at the UNESCO World Heritage site, Þingvellir National Park

In collaboration with scientists and artists from across the country, the “Wonders of Iceland” exhibition also incorporates augmented reality entertainment to showcase one of the biggest seabird cliffs in Europe, Látrabjarg, found in the Westfjords.

Speaking of heights, Perlan also boasts an observation deck, allowing new visitors to gain a panoramic perspective of the capital, the nearby mountain Esjan, and the glittering Atlantic Ocean. 

What to Do with an Early Arrival in Iceland

There are, of course, a number of city landmarks that can be visited for free. One of the most notable examples is Hallgrimskirkja, the distinguished Lutheran church that adorns countless postcards, t-shirts, and souvenir mugs. There is also the glassy wonder of architecture, Harpa Concert Hall and Conference Centre, and the sculpture The Sun Voyager, found within ten minutes' walking distance. 

Partake in a Short Morning Tour 

Of course, another option is to partake in a short tour, jumping straight into the action. Departure times depend on the season, so always make sure to either inquire with the operator or Guide to Iceland prior to the tour itself. Also, be aware that certain activities require certain types of clothing and footwear—especially during the winter months—so make sure to keep them accessible in your luggage.

Spend a morning in Iceland meeting the horses.

One of the most popular and authentic tour activities available in Iceland is horseback riding, putting visitors in the saddle and bringing them ever closer to feeling like one of the island's earliest settlers. The Icelandic Horse is a rare breed, one known as much for their small and muscular stature as they are for their loyalty and intelligence. It is no wonder, then, that so many people fall in love with these noble steeds the second they lay their eyes on them. 

Fortuitously, horseback riding tours often offer early departure. Why not check out Horseback Riding in the Lava Fields, with its 9.00 AM departure time and four- hour duration, finishing just before you'll check-in to your hotel? Another option with a 9.00 AM departure time is this Reykjavik Horse Riding Tour.

Horseback riding is a family friendly activity in Iceland.

While we're on the subject of animals, many guests to Iceland are just dying to take to the open ocean in search of whales, dolphins and seabirds.

It's no secret that Iceland is one of the most desirous locations in the world to participate in a whale watching tour, but not as many people know that the island's coastal waters boast over twenty different species of cetacean! These include common species like Humpbacks, Minke Whales and Harbour Porpoises, as well as rarer finds like Orcas or the magnificent Blue Whale. 

Humpback whales can be seen breaching from Reykjavik!

Whale watching tours from Old Harbour offer varied departure times in the morning and are, of course, dependent on the coastal conditions. If the waves look as though they'll show no mercy, there is a very good chance the whale watching vessel will not depart at all. Still, Best Value Whale Watching Trip from Reykjavik offers pick-up times from your accommodation (or the nearest pick-up point) around 8.00 AM / 9.00 AM.

This Whales & Puffins | Combo Tour offers an even earlier departure, at 7.15 AM, making this a great choice for those who find themselves awake in the city at an ungodly hour. 

Puffins nest on the islands around Reykjavik.

If instead, you feel like getting off your feet, you could partake in this Fat-Bike Adventure on the Reykjanes Peninsula, which offers a 10.00 AM departure time. Reykjanes is one of the country's most striking regions, with its rugged volcanic fields, haunting coastlines and distant mountainscapes. Riding through on a specially designed 'Fat-Bike'—one with thick, off-terrain tyres—is a fantastic means of experience this most stunning of peninsulas. 

If you'd prefer to stay in the city rather than return straight back to the peninsula, why not try out this Classic Reykjavik Bike Tour, complete with a 10 AM departure time (appointment and private tours only in December/January).

For those who haven't gotten sick of being in the air, Helicopter Tours have flexible morning departure times, starting from 8.00 AM and ending at 01.00 PM. Examples of fun aerial activities include the Reykjavik Summit Tour, the Geothermal Helicopter Tour or the Countless Craters Helicopter Tour.

Check Into your Accommodation and Relax

Reykjavik's sky on New Year's Eve. 

When the time comes, head to your accommodation in the city, check-in and take a few minutes to lie on that bed, breathing in deeply for a few moments.

Relax; you made it! 

Now that the morning has been filled and your bags are safe and sound in the hotel room, it's time to enjoy the rest of your holiday in the land of ice and fire! Why not head out for a spot of lunch, then run out to discover the rest of the city?

Check out our  Explore Iceland page for some more ideas on how to spend your time in this beautiful country. 

Did you enjoy our article about what to do with an early arrival in Iceland? How did you find your morning, and were there any particular breakfast places or activities that you would personally recommend? Please make sure to leave your queries and comments in the Facebook comments box below. 

Link to appstore phone
Install Iceland’s biggest travel app

Download Iceland’s biggest travel marketplace to your phone to manage your entire trip in one place

Scan this QR code with your phone camera and press the link that appears to add Iceland’s biggest travel marketplace into your pocket. Enter your phone number or email address to receive an SMS or email with the download link.