5 Reasons I Can’t Wait to Return to Iceland

Iceland is dreamy.

Ethereal landscapes guarantee a wonder-filled vacation. Natural hot springs, breathtaking waterfalls and volcanoes- talk about an explorer’s paradise. With a rugged, out of this world terrain, Iceland is unlike anything you’ve ever seen.

Back in December 2015, a friend and I planned a visit to Iceland, hoping a winter visit would better our chances of seeing the Northern Lights. We were prepared for cold temperatures, but weren’t prepared for Reykjavik to be hit with the biggest snow storm the city had seen in 20+ years.

Despite the weather challenges, we still had a phenomenal trip. If anything, not being able to do some of our planned activities just gave us another reason to visit this stunning country again.

Living in Dublin now, I’m looking forward to when it’s safe to travel again- even though I’ve been, Iceland is near the top of my list of places to return to. I’d love to experience the midnight sun, and rent my own car to see even more of what makes Iceland a bucket list destination for so many travellers.

Five Reasons I Can’t Wait to Return to Iceland

Road Trip Perfection

On my first visit to Iceland, we booked group tours, and while I believe that was the right move given the weather we experienced, I’d love to drive around on my own. I’ve heard the roads are easy to navigate, and of course, the scenery is incredible.

From driving around New Zealand, another breathtaking country, I know how much being able to pull over and take in a view, or snap a photo on a whim can contribute to making a destination and trip feel even more incredible.

The Jaw-dropping Scenery

There’s a reason the country is on the bucket list of so many travellers. Whether you’re exploring downtown Reykjavik or driving around the countryside, the views will be spectacular. With rugged, barren landscapes; sparkling, black sand beaches; and thundering waterfalls, Iceland is nothing short of mystical.

Planning your trip, you may hear Iceland referred to as the ‘Land of Fire and Ice’, an appropriate nickname given the island’s abundance of glaciers and volcanoes. In fact, 11% of Iceland is covered by glaciers.

And while the natural scenery is a huge draw, Iceland’s location at the top of the world also means it’s one of the best places to see the northern lights. The aurora borealis are prevalent in Iceland from September-mid-April, which is why I planned my first trip to Iceland for December. Unfortunately though, a snow storm meant we were unable to hunt for the lights as we’d hoped to. Having since travelled to Tromso in Norway to witness the northern lights, I’ll say this- do whatever you can to see this natural light phenomena. Watching the lights dance across the night sky is something I’ll remember forever.

The Scandi Vibes

It’s no secret I love Scandinavia- in fact, as a region, it’s one of my favorite places in the world. Of course I enjoy the design aspects of simplicity, minimalism and functionality, but there’s also something to be said for what the Danes refer to as hygge. If you haven’t heard of hygge, it’s acknowledging a feeling or moment, whether alone or with friends, at home or out, ordinary or extraordinary as cosy, charming or special.

Much like Denmark, Iceland excels at creating moments that feel very hygge. Whether cozied up in a cafe, with a hand-knit blanket, next to a roaring fire, lost in conversation with good friends; or listening to locals tell tales of faeries and trolls, while sampling local beers at a wood-carved bar; or even snuggled up in your hotel bed, watching the night sky twinkle from your room window, you’ll be hard-pressed to not feel a sense of hygge.

Further, as Iceland’s capitol, Reykjavik is one of the safest and happiest cities in the world. The city itself is colorful, full of quaint homes, cozy cafes, eclectic bars, shops packed with locally designed and handmade goods, and stunning street art. It’s artsy, but also traditional.

The Coffee Scene

Any city with hipster cafes is a city for me. Several years ago when I visited, Reykjavik’s coffee scene was burgeoning, and I’ve heard it’s gotten even better since then.

If you visit Iceland in the winter months, the cafes below are perfect for warming up over over a cuppa, and relaxing with good conversation or an interesting book.

  • Stofan Café: Cozy cafe with mismatched antique furniture, we stayed here for a bit to use the wifi and enjoy a chai latte
  • The Laundromat Café: A cafe with a laundromat downstairs? Win! I’ve heard breakfast here is pretty good, but we just had a Baileys latte to warm up from the cold and relax for a bit
  • Reykjavík Roasters: Eclectic coffee shop near Hallgrímskirkja, great option for strong brews
  • Café Babalú: The cutest cafe we discovered, it feels like you’re snuggling up in someone’s living room while having coffee

The Abundance of Hot Pools

Iceland’s rich supply of water is one of its most valuable natural resources. The drinking water quality is exceptional, a result of unspoilt mountain and glacier streams.

Iceland also has long history of using geothermal power as an energy source. Enter: Hot pools, seemingly everywhere.

While there are plenty of off the beaten track pools to discover around Iceland, the country’s most famous hot pool is the Blue Lagoon.

Icelanders will tell you the Blue Lagoon is a tourist trap, and while it is pricey to visit, we loved our time there. When you’re in the lagoon, everything takes on an ethereal, dreamlike quality.

Exhausted from an overnight flight, we spent a morning floating in the lagoon’s milky-blue waters, relaxing with silica mud masks on and sipping wine. Wading into the hot, mineral-rich water was a blissful refuge from the icy cold air.

Water temperature in the lagoon varies- some areas are almost too hot to bear, but it’s largely comfortable throughout. The water itself is enriched with silica, blue green algae, and mineral salts, which helps exfoliate and soften skin. 

Would I visit the Blue Lagoon again? Absolutely. Our visit was the epitome of serenity. But, on my next visit, I’m also keen to visit some of the country’s other natural, geothermal hot springs that are less commercial.

Have you been to Iceland? Is it on your list of places you’d like to visit once it’s safe again to travel?

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Why You Should Visit Iceland in Winter

Iceland is dreamy. Ethereal landscapes guarantee a wonder-filled vacation. Natural hot springs, breathtaking waterfalls and volcanoes- talk about an explorer’s paradise.

A friend and I planned on visiting for five days in December 2015, hoping a winter visit would better our chances of seeing the Northern Lights. We were prepared for cold temperatures, but weren’t prepared for Reykjavik to be hit with the biggest snow storm the city had seen in 20+ years.

Despite the weather challenges, we still had a phenomenal trip. If anything, not being able to do some of our planned activities just gave us another reason to visit this stunning country.

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10 Reasons to Visit Iceland in Winter

  1.  Iceland only gets four to seven hours of daylight during the winter, which may conjure images of darkness, but in truth- the long sunrises and sunsets everyday are spectacular
  2. And, fleeting light combined with black lava fields makes you feel like you’re on another planet
  3. Winter temperatures are surprisingly mild, usually hovering in the mid-30s. As long as you wear layers and bring waterproof clothes, plus sturdy boots, you’ll be fine to wander Reykjavik or any of the country’s natural attractions
  4. The Blue Lagoon is Iceland’s most visited attraction, and in the winter, crowds are thinner. We took an overnight flight, landing in Iceland at ~6:30 am, and headed to the Blue Lagoon as soon as we were off the plane. We loved watching the sun rise while soaking in the hot springs
  5. Winter is prime Northern Lights viewing time, but that doesn’t mean you’re guaranteed to see them. Their visibility depends on the level of activity and cloud coverage. Unfortunately, the weather when we visited in December meant we weren’t able to hunt for the Northern Lights, but- that just means I’ll have to return someday!
  6. Reykjavik may not have the Christmas markets found in other European cities, but the holiday lights are darling- definitely worth seeing on an evening stroll around town
  7. Most of the popular tours (Golden Circle, South Coast) still operate in the winter, and can be especially stunning (frozen water, ice crystallization, and so on)
  8. Wandering Reykjavik is more enjoyable than at other times of the year when tourism is at its peak- on our December visit, we never had to wait in line for anything (restaurants, bars, etc.) and enjoyed being able to mingle with locals
  9. Glaciers cover roughly 10 percent of Iceland’s terrain, and while you can visit them at any time of the year, the water running through their vaces freezes only in the winter. Two of the most popular Crystal Caves for ice tours in the winter are Vatnajokull, in South East Iceland, and Langjokull in the South West. Google ‘Iceland Crystal Caves’ to understand why this is so special
  10. Since there are so many misconceptions about Iceland in the winter, November, December and January are the low season- which means you’ll likely find great flight and hotel deals

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All said, while I’d recommend going in the winter, I’m also already planning a trip back next summer to do the midnight sun run and see more of this phenomenal country.

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Reykjavik: City Guide

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When deciding to visit Iceland, it was the promise of scenery that convinced me to book the trip. Barren landscapes, black sand beaches, thundering waterfalls and majestic glaciers. It seemed like a perfect mix of dreamy and adventurous.

Planning to visit in December, we knew the weather may be unpredictable so we decided to stay in Reykjavik as our “home base” and take day trips to the Golden Circle and South Shore. With the weather being more severe than we could have ever imagined, we ended up spending more time in Reykjavik than we’d planned, which turned out to be quite lovely.

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As Iceland’s capitol, Reykjavik is one of the safest and happiest cities in the world. The city itself is colorful, full of quaint homes, cozy cafes, eclectic bars, shops packed with local design, and stunning street art. It’s artsy, but also traditional. 

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Interesting Attractions

  • Hallgrimskirkja church is a beautiful example of modern architecture and can be seen from just about anywhere in the city
      • Would recommend coming here early in your trip because the view from the top of the church (think it’s 5 EUR to take the elevator to the top) gives you a chance to get your bearings of downtown Reykjavik, plus it’s a perspective of the city that’s not to be missed 
    • If you time your visit right, you may be able to hear the organs being played, which is a truly spectacular experience

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  • Check out the harbor and Harpa, the city’s striking concert hall, home to the Icelandic Symphony Orchestra
    • You don’t have to be an architecture buff to find this honeycombed glass and metal building beautiful. It’s breathtaking when the late afternoon light illuminates the inside panels

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  • From Harpa, it’s an easy ~10 minute walk along the waterfront to Jon Gunnar Arnason’s stainless steel sculpture Sun Voyager’ (Sólfar)
    • Opposed to common belief, the Sun Voyager doesn’t represent a Viking ship. It’s a dreamboat, an ode to the sun that’s meant to symbolize discovery

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  • If you want another view of the city and its surrounding area, the glass dome at Perlan offers a 360 view of Reykjavik

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  • Shopping in Reykjavik is concentrated to two main streets: Laugarvegur and Skólavördustígur, where you’ll find numerous boutiques and charming shops. A few of my favorites:
      • Gallery Kogga: Ceramics here are beautiful, but pricer than other options in town
      • Kraum: A beautiful design shop, loved the Scandinavian art here as well
      • Fakó Verzlun: Like an Icelandic version of West Elm. May not be as authentic as some other shops, but there are so many cute and affordable house goods here
      • The Saturday flea market near the harbor is a good option for souvenir shopping
    • If you’re interested in taking home an Icelandic wool sweater or blanket, the Red Cross outpost on Laugarvegur is said to have affordable options

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Where to Eat & Drink

Restaurants

  • Icelandic Fish & Chips: Despite the fish being fried, it tasted so fresh. This place also makes their own sauces, which are really tasty
  • Sægreifinn: The best lobster soup I’ve ever had at a good value for Iceland. Equivalent of $10 USD for a big bowl of soup and half loaf of bread- the lobster is so tender, it melts in your mouth
  • Sakebarinn: Great, fresh sushi
  • Gamla smiðjan: We had pizza here twice, it was that good. Specifically recommend the blue cheese and parmesan garlic bread after a night out on the town
  • Tapas Barinn: This place came highly recommend, but we didn’t think quality quite compared to other places we dined. Though, the nice thing about coming here are the tapas sized portions. We sampled a number of Icelandic dishes, including minke whale, mini lobster tails, candied beets, ling and white chocolate skyr mousse
  • Eldur & Ís: Rumored to be the best ice cream in Reykjavik

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Cafes

  • Dunkin’ Donuts: I know, I know- but my obsession with their iced coffee knows no bounds. We were pleasantly surprised to find Dunkin’ Donuts in Iceland means immaculately decorated doughnuts and an adorable cafe-esque setting
  • Stofan Café: Cozy cafe with mismatched antique furniture, we stayed here for a bit to use the wifi and enjoy a chai latte
  • The Laundromat Café: A cafe with a laundromat downstairs? Win! I’ve heard breakfast here is pretty good, but we just had a Baileys latte to warm up from the cold and relax for a bit
  • Reykjavík Roasters: Eclectic coffee shop near Hallgrímskirkja, great option for strong brews
  • Café Babalú: The cutest cafe we discovered, it feels like you’re snuggling up in someone’s living room while having coffee

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Bars

  • Skúli Craft Bar: Stop here to sample seasonal micro-brews, great variety on tap and a low-key vibe during the week
  • Lebowski Bar: Loved this theme bar, 21 different types of White Russians on the menu and a fun Friday night vibe
  • Prikið: We weren’t at this bar long, but liked its rustic interior. Apparently, there are great drink specials for happy hour here
  • Íslenski barinn: Everyone says the food here is great, but we came to hang out at the bar and people watch. Over the course of a few hours, we sampled more Icelandic micro-brews, tried the “black death” (which I really enjoyed), and fell in love with schnapps produced by the Reykjavik Distillery (try the Rabarbara!)
  • Mikkeller & friends: A three-story bar, this place was my favorite of all the bars we visited in Reykjavik. The back bar on the bottom floor is so cozy, the bartenders were friendly and we really enjoyed the seasonal eggnog cocktails

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Know Before You Go Info

  • Money exchange: Exchange before you visit, the rate at your local bank will almost certainly be cheaper than anything you’ll find in the airport or if you withdraw from an ATM in Iceland
    • From a conversion standpoint, yes- Iceland is expensive. For me, it was comparable to New York so I wasn’t as jilted. Like any destination, there are ways to keep cost down if you’re traveling on a budget (eat breakfast in your hotel or hostel, limit yourself to 1-2 drinks a night, etc.)
    • ATMs are sparse in Reykjavik, bring what you think you’ll need cash-wise and use a credit card that doesn’t charge international fees for transactions
  • Wireless access: All of the cafes we visited and most of the restaurants and bars we ate/drank at had strong wifi
  • Getting to/from the airport by bus: There isn’t a public bus from the airport to Reykjavik, but there are two bus services you can take. When we flew to Iceland, we visited the Blue Lagoon first and then continued onward to Reykjavik via Reykjavik Excursions. The other two bus services you can use are Flybus and Airport Express. They offer similar service at a similar price – the difference is that the Flybus offers a service connected with every flight, while the Airport Express only guarantees transfer if you book in advance. However, Airport Express offers complimentary pick up and drop off service for all the major hotels, while the Flybus charges 500 ISK extra if you don’t want to be dropped off at one of the city center locations. You can also take a taxi from the airport to Reykjavik, but with a 45-50 minute trip, it’ll likely end up being a pretty expensive ride. For context, most of the taxis we took to our hotel were a 5-8 minute ride and usually ~$12.

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5 Things to Know Before Visiting the Blue Lagoon

Icelanders will tell you the Blue Lagoon is a tourist trap, and while it is a bit pricey to visit, we loved our time there. When you’re in the lagoon, everything takes on an ethereal, dreamlike quality.

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The lagoon is quite big- there are various pools to explore, caves to wade through, connecting bridges, cleansing sauna, floating bar and massaging waterfall.

Exhausted from an overnight flight, we spent a morning floating in the lagoon’s milky-blue waters, relaxing with silica mud masks on and sipping wine. Wading into the hot, mineral-rich water was a blissful refuge from the icy cold air.

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The lagoon is next to a power plant, but the actual plant is hidden in the surrounding lava rock fields.  Water temperature in the lagoon varies- some areas are almost too hot to bear, but it’s largely comfortable throughout. The water itself is enriched with  silica, blue green algae, and mineral salts, which helps exfoliate and soften skin. 

Would I visit the Blue Lagoon again? Absolutely. It’s the epitome of serenity.

But, if I were doing a road-trip around Iceland, I’d also check-out some of the country’s other natural, geothermal hot springs that are less commercial.

5 Things to Know Before Visiting the Blue Lagoon to Ensure an Unforgettable Trip

  • Go on your way to or from the airport: While trip planning, I read visiting the Blue Lagoon is best to do on your way to or from the airport since it’s 20 minutes from the airport vs. 45 minutes from Reykjavik.
      • Reykjavik Excursions makes it easy to visit the lagoon on your way to/from the airport with frequent bus transfers
      • Don’t worry about your luggage, you can pay 3 EUR to store your luggage at the lagoon. An attendant watches your bags, but I would still suggest bringing a lock. I knew the lagoon would be our first stop, so I made sure my swimsuit and a change of clothes were easily accessible
    • I’m glad we decided to go to the lagoon on our way to Reykjavik rather than to the airport for our departure because water residue from the lagoon dries on your skin. Yes, your skin feels softer, but there’s a flaky, almost film-like layer left on your skin until you take a thorough shower
  • Visit early in the day: As the website says, would recommend booking your visit to the lagoon ahead of time since admission can sell-out.
    • We arrived at the lagoon when it first opened at 9 am, which allowed us a few hours to enjoy the lagoon in peace (and meant we saw the sun rise over the lagoon!). Around noon, the crowds started to arrive
  • Pack a towel or be prepared to rent one: If you’re trying to cut down on what you pack, I’d suggest booking a package that includes a towel. 
      • We opted to book the Comfort package because we planned on spending half a day at the lagoon. We decided to rent robes separate to our package once we realized how cold it was walking to/from the lagoon, as well as to the locker room and cafe (reminder: we visited in December). A robe wasn’t a necessity per se, but it did make our morning a lot more enjoyable 
    • Regardless of which package you book, you’ll be given a bracelet (similar to Disney’s Magic Bands) that gives you access to your locker and allows you to buy drinks, food or other extras throughout the day without carrying around your wallet
  • Do not get your hair wet: There are a lot of guides for visiting the Blue Lagoon floating around the Internet, one thing they all have in common is advice to not get your hair wet.
      • The locker rooms at the lagoon offer leave-in conditioner you can use during your pre-lagoon rinse, but it’s still advised you keep your hair above the water if you don’t want it to become completely dehydrated/destroyed
    • In-lagoon water massages are a popular spa treatment for visitors, but I opted not to have one because my hair is color treated and I was worried about the silica and sulfur in the water
  • Forget about being self-conscious (no one else will be): Yes, you have to take a shower (naked) in the changing rooms before using the lagoon.
    • Before visiting, I’d read reviews (mostly from Americans) who were surprised by the locker room experience. But, it’s important to remember you’re in another country, and not everyone in the world is as obsessed with privacy as most Westerners. Plus, there are cubicles with doors so you can shower in privacy if the communal one isn’t up your ally. 

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Additional #1 Tip: The outside balcony in the restaurant (to the right of the stairs) provides great panorama views of the lagoon.

Additional Tip #2: The Blue Lagoon sells waterproof phone covers. I bought one so I could bring my phone around the lagoon and snap pics throughout the day without worrying about water damage or having to get in/out of the lagoon to grab it. It’s something I’ll use on future trips to the beach or excursions where my phone may get wet, so 100% worth the expense.

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Iceland: The Complete Guide

Iceland is dreamy. Ethereal landscapes guarantee a wonder-filled vacation. Natural hot springs, breathtaking waterfalls and volcanoes- talk about an explorer’s paradise.

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Before visiting Iceland, I daydreamed about swimming in a geothermal lagoon, hiking a glacier, watching the Northern Lights and reveling in fresh seafood.

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We planned on visiting for five days in December 2015, hoping a winter visit would better our chances of seeing the Northern Lights. We were prepared for cold temperatures, but weren’t prepared for Reykjavik to be hit with the biggest snow storm the city had seen in 20+ years. Unfortunately, the weather meant we weren’t able to hunt for the Northern Lights on any of the nights we were in Iceland.

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Despite the weather challenges, we still had a phenomenal trip. If anything, not being able to do some of our planned activities just gave us another reason to visit this stunning country.

Five Days in Reykjavik, Iceland

Day 1: The Blue Lagoon & Reykjavik

  • We arrived on a red-eye at 6:45 am. While trip planning, I read visiting the Blue Lagoon is best to do on your way to or from the airport since it’s 15 minutes from the airport vs. 45 minutes from Reykjavik. We had time to kill before our Blue Lagoon shuttle picked us up at 8:30, so we picked up some local goods for breakfast in the airport (Skyr yogurt, brie, charcoal crackers, coffee with Baileys)
  • Icelanders will tell you the Blue Lagoon is a tourist trap, and while it is a bit pricey to visit ($55 for admission with the Comfort package), we loved our time there. We were exhausted from missing a night of sleep and spent five hours floating in the hot springs, relaxing with silica mud masks on and sipping wine. Would I visit again? Absolutely. It’s the epitome of serenity. But, if I were doing a road-trip around Iceland, I’d definitely check-out some of the country’s other geothermal hot springs that feel more natural and less commercial
    • We opted to book the comfort package at the Blue Lagoon because we planned on spending half a day there. As the website says, would recommend booking your visit to the lagoon ahead of arriving since it becomes pretty busy early afternoon, especially during peak tourism season
    • The Blue Lagoon sells waterproof phone covers. I bought one so I could bring my phone with me around the lagoon and snap pics throughout the day without worrying about water damage or having to get in/out of the lagoon to grab it. I’m already planning on taking the case with me on a spring trip to Mexico to protect my phone on the beach, so it was a solid purchase
    • There are a lot of guides for visiting the Blue Lagoon floating around the Internet, one thing they all have in common is advice to not get your hair wet. The locker rooms at the lagoon offer leave-in conditioner you can use during your pre-lagoon rinse, but it’s still advised you keep your hair above the water if you don’t want it to become completely dehydrated/destroyed. My hair is color treated so I was extra careful about keeping it above the water line
    • After we had our fill of the lagoon, we took a bus operated by Reykjavik Excursions to our hotel
    • Once we were checked in, we took a short nap and then ventured out to explore Reykjavik
      • Dinner at Icelandic Fish & Chips was so good- fresh fish, not greasy despite it being fried
      • For a post dinner drink, we checked out Skúli Craft Bar and sampled a few seasonal micro-brews, as well as Icelandic schnapps. Loved the vibe in this bar, we were there on a Wednesday so it was pretty low-key- the perfect way to end a long day of traveling
  • Note: We booked our trip through a Gate 1 Travel Groupon and stayed in the Radisson Blu Saga. Normally, I stay in AirBnbs when I travel internationally, but it was nice to stay in a hotel with a full bar, gym and stellar breakfast buffet since the weather wasn’t ideal. We weren’t impressed with the other services Gate 1 Travel provided and wouldn’t recommend using them again in the future, even if you’re able to score a discount via Groupon

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Day 2: Reykjavik

  • As part of our Gate 1 Tour, we were booked for a tour of Reykjavik. Normally, I like to see cities on my own time, but it was nice to hop from place to place and get a good sense of orientation. We also had enough time at each stop to explore and figure out which places we wanted to come back to when we had more time:
    • Hallgrímskirkja: A church and beautiful example of modern architecture. When we visited the first time, we were lucky enough to hear the organs being played
    • Perlan – The Pearl: Offers a 360 view of Reykjavik, good scenic spot, but there’s nothing else nearby to visit. We probably wouldn’t have stopped here if not for the tour
    • Harpa: Reykjavik’s concert hall is an architectural dream come true. Would love to see a show here on a return visit to Iceland
    • Sólfar / Sun Voyager: The Sun Voyager sculpture in Reykjavík looks like a Viking ship, but it’s actually a dreamboat, an ode to the sun
    • After our tour ended, we walked to a place locals said had the “best lobster soup” and then wandered Reykjavik for a bit, shopping and stopping in cafes:
      • Sægreifinn: Locals weren’t wrong- the lobster soup here was the best I’ve ever had, and a great value. Equivalent of $10 USD for a big bowl of soup and half loaf of bread- the lobster is so tender, it melts in your mouth
      • Stofan Café: Cozy cafe with mismatched antique furniture, stayed here for a bit to use the wifi and enjoy a chai latte
      • The Laundromat Café: A cafe with a laundromat downstairs? Win! I’ve heard breakfast here is pretty good, but we just had a Baileys latte to warm up from the cold and relax for a bit
      • Top shopping picks:
        • Kirsuberjatréð – íslensk hönnun: This place rules, it’s a gallery with arts, crafts and ceramics created by and run by local female artists. Iceland is known for their ceramics, so I was excited to find a beautiful local option to take home
        • Gallery Kogga: Ceramics here are beautiful, but pricer than other options in town
        • Kraum: A beautiful design shop, loved the Scandinavian art here as well. Good place to stop if you’re looking for souvenirs to bring home
    • After wandering for a few hours, we headed back to our hotel to relax and take advantage of the 2-for-1 happy hour. At this point, it had started snowing pretty hard and was accumulating on top of the few feet of snow already on the ground. We decided to stay in and ordered a pizza from a local place that had good reviews (Gamla smiðjan)- amazing blue cheese and parmesan garlic bread

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Day 3: Golden Circle Tour & Reykjavik

  • Woke up early to head on our Golden Circle tour with Bus Travel Iceland. The Golden Circle tour is the most popular option across tour companies, and a great way to see some of Iceland’s most stunning sights in a single day:
    • Kerið: A volcanic crater lake
    • Faxi: Small (in comparison to Gulfoss) waterfall, beautiful with the freshly fallen snow
    • Gulfoss: Stunning waterfall, definitely climb the wooden stairs to the top of the overlook for an aerial view. Our guide told us summer visitors also have the option of hiking to the base of the falls
    • Geysir: One of the few natural geysers to erupt frequently and reliably (every ~4-7 minutes)
    • Þingvellir National Park: Walking through where the tectonic plates for North America and Eurasia meet was a cool experience, it’s hard to believe how many natural phenomenons are in this tiny country
  • When we got back to Reykjavik, we headed downtown for dinner and drinks-
    • Tapas Barinn: This place was highly recommend by others who have visited Iceland, and while it was good- it didn’t wow us. The nice thing about coming here are the tapas sized portions, you can sample a number of Icelandic dishes- we tried the minke whale, mini lobster tails, candied beets, ling and white chocolate skyr mousse
    • Lebowski Bar: Loved this theme bar, 21 different types of White Russians on the menu, Christmas Vacation playing on the big screens, and an overall good vibe for a Friday night

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Day 4: Reykjanes Peninsula Tour & Reykjavik

  • Originally, we’d planned on doing the South Shore tour this day, but severe weather advisories cancelled almost every tour/activity outside of Reykjavik. We were grateful to find a tour to the Reykjanes Peninsula. Although it wasn’t the same as hiking a glacier or standing behind a majestic waterfall, visiting coastal towns, hot springs and lava fields that look like the surface of the moon was a pretty cool way to spend the day.
    • Sandgerði Lighthouse
    • Bryggjan: An adorable cafe with homemade soups, cakes and other Icelandic delicacies. We tried the lobster soup and Icelandic meringue cake, both of which were delicious and just what we needed after being out in the cold/wind
    • This tour also stopped at a geothermal power station, lava fields and the bridge between two continents. It may not have been how we envisioned spending the day, but it was cool to see more of Iceland and our guide was incredible, regaling us with stories about Icelandic customs and history
  • Back in the city, we headed downtown for dinner and drinks-
    • Sakebarinn: Great, fresh sushi
    • Prikið: We weren’t at this bar long, but liked its rustic interior. Apparently, there are great drink specials for happy hour here as well
    • Íslenski barinn: Everyone says the food here is great, but we came to hang out at the bar and people watch. Over the course of a few hours, we sampled more Icelandic micro-brews, tried the “black death” (which I really enjoyed), and fell in love with schnapps produced by the Reykjavik Distillery (try the Rabarbara!)
    • Mikkeller & friends: A three-story bar, this place was my favorite of all the bars we visited in Reykjavik. The back bar on the bottom floor is so cozy, the bartenders were friendly, and we really enjoyed the seasonal eggnog cocktails
    • Gamla smiðjan: We enjoyed the cheesy garlic bread we’d ordered from this pizza place earlier in our stay, so we stopped by their location in city center on our way back to the hotel for a late night snack, because vacation 😉

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Day 5: Reykjavik

  • On our last day in Reykjavik, we woke up early to beautiful weather (no wind, clear skies) and decided to so some more sightseeing in the city before our evening flight home-
    • Hallgrímskirkja: In a city of quaint, colorful houses, the Hallgrimskirkja church stands tall. The iconic view of Reykjavik at the top is reason alone to visit. You don’t have to pay to enter the church, but it’s $6 EUR to take the elevator to the top to check out the view
    • Reykjavík Roasters: Near Hallgrímskirkja, great option for strong brews
    • Café Babalú: The cutest cafe we discovered, it feels like you’re snuggling up in someone’s living room while having coffee
    • Eldur & Ís: Rumored to be the best ice cream in Reykjavik
    • Dunkin’ Donuts: I know, I know- but my obsession with their iced coffee knows no bounds. We were pleasantly surprised to find Dunkin’ Donuts in Iceland means immaculately decorated doughnuts and an adorable cafe-esque setting
    • Shopping Recommendations on Laugavegi: Hrím HönnunarhúsFakó Verzlun (Icelandic version of West Elm!)

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Extra Know Before You Go Info

  • Money exchange: Exchange before you visit, the rate at your local bank will almost certainly be cheaper than anything you’ll find in the airport or if you withdraw from an ATM in Iceland
    • From a conversion standpoint, yes- Iceland is expensive. For me, it was comparable to New York so I wasn’t as jilted. Like any destination, there are ways to keep the cost down if you’re traveling on a budget (eat breakfast in your hotel or hostel, limit yourself to 1-2 drinks a night, etc.)
    • ATMs are sparse in Reykjavik, bring what you think you’ll need cash-wise and use a credit card that doesn’t charge international transaction fees
  • Wireless access: All of the cafes we visited and most of the restaurants and bars we ate/drank at had strong wifi
  • Getting around Reykjavik: The city is pretty compact and totally walkable. There are also several taxi stands downtown in case you need to get somewhere quickly. We ended up taking taxis for most of our trips downtown because the amount of snow made walking difficult
  • Driving around Iceland: The winter weather meant we weren’t interested in renting a car and driving around on our own, but I’m planning to return to Iceland to do a road trip one summer or fall. One caution: Roads aren’t well marked in Iceland, so you really need to plan in advance and bring maps if you’re going to be driving around on your own
  • Airfare: I can’t say enough positive things about Icelandair.  It was my second time flying round-trip to Europe with them, and I’m in awe of the service and amenities they provide. Every time I fly with them, we’re given blankets, pillows, bottles of water, plus drinks and snacks throughout the flight. Their free in-flight entertainment is also great- love the TV and movie selections. On our flight back to New York, they had a special holiday surprise for passengers- we were able to sample various Icelandic Christmas treats (cookies, drinks, etc.), including traditional Appelsin (orange malt drink)

 

Preferred Tour Vendors

There are a lot of tour vendor options in Reykjavik, but the quality of experience varies.

  • Reykjavik ExcursionsWe only used RE for a bus transfer from the Blue Lagoon to our hotel, but I wouldn’t recommend them. In our transfer, our driver didn’t help stow luggage underneath the bus and insisted passengers lift the heavy latch to remove luggage once they were at their location (he didn’t want to get off the bus). We also had an incident with a second unplanned transfer that wasn’t communicated very well and resulted in an extra half hour of travel for us. Bottom line: RE is Reykjavik’s largest tour operator and you’ll likely be just another number to them
  • Bus Travel Iceland: We had high hopes for Bus Travel after reading reviews about how their tour guides were so personable, and really went above and beyond to make a tour special. In truth, our situation (above average snow fall and severe wind) probably contributed to the experience we had. The tour wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t great either. Instead of a small van, we were packed into a completely full coach bus. Our tour guide wasn’t very friendly and didn’t share much information about the sights we visited. However, Bus Travel was extremely helpful in rebooking us with a partner tour company when our South Shore excursion was cancelled. I’d give them another shot if visiting Iceland again
  • Stella Travel: Loved, loved, loved Stella. We took a tour to the Reykanjes Peninsula with them and our guide was excellent. Even though the weather was pretty challenging, she still made sure we had a good time by regaling us with stories about the towns and sights we visited. Her sense of humor and “up for anything” attitude made what could have been a frustrating day a really great experience. Would highly recommend taking a small van tour with Stella if you’re visiting Iceland. Bonus: They’re more affordable than some of the larger companies

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