Iceland - Adventure of a Lifetime
If you are considering a trip to Iceland… consider no more!
It will be a spectacular adventure. Read on to find out why and how.
Table of Contents:
Attractions by Region
Food in Reykjavik
Overview of Iceland
What to Bring
Simon and I ushered in the New Year in Iceland. In Reykjavik, the fireworks lit the streets for days in the most enthusiastic display I have ever seen.
We like to travel at a varied pace — spend a day in the cabin reading, a few days of adventuring, writing/coding the day away in an obscure cafe in the city, some more exploring…. We try to immerse ourselves in our environment as much as possible to capture the essence of each place we touch. We typically enjoy local gems over touristy places. That said, there are also a number of well-travelled attractions that can’t be missed.
Attractions by region
In our 11 days in Iceland, we experienced a true winter wonderland. 11 Days in Iceland gave us enough time to explore half the island. We decided to explore the lower half of the region because it offered the most winter attractions. The northern areas and Western Fjords are closed in winter due to dangerous driving conditions.
Here are some of the major attractions we visited, must see attractions are starred *
Reykjavik packs a lot of action into a small package. It’s a very walkable city and there’s something to enjoy at every turn. Laugavegur and Skolavordustigur, are the two main arteries running through the city. These roads are frequented by tourists and peppered with hotels, restaurants, tour offices, and shops. The restaurants range from casual cafes to fine dining and the shops include souvenir shops as well as high end boutiques. You can follow either of these two streets to the water and explore the entire downtown area. The main landmark in the city, the Hallgrimskirkja church, can be seen from virtually anywhere in the city.
There are a surprising number of museums in the city considering it’s small size. There’s something there for everyone — Art Museum, Science Museum, even the Icelandic Phallological Museum (a museum about penises).
Walking towards the harbor, you’ll get a taste of Old Reykjavik. Along the harbor, you’ll see the Harpa concert hall, its geometric hive like structure is striking against the turquoise water behind it. I was mesmerized by the murals all around the city. The architecture is mostly modern European with clean lines and there are so many colors! Have a look at the pictures below or just go see for yourself.
Iceland’s seafood options outshine the other dishes on the menu. While restaurants will often recommended lamb, our 3 attempts all ended in coarse rubbery disappointment. Other meat and poultry were not great either. Neither of us are vegetarian but we noticed there were few vegetarian options on the menu.
Opt for the seafood options, especially the deliciously tender, and juicy Langoustines (lobster tails). Whale, puffin, and horse meat are delicacies commonly found on local menus. We weren’t bold enough to try any.
Restaurants in Reykjavik:
- Sandholt — Our breakfast staple. Good pastries, coffee, ambiance, and Bomb sandwiches. It was also the most reasonably priced meal we found.
- Fish Market — Came highly recommended and didn’t disappoint. Hands down the best food we had in Iceland. Amazing soup, langoustines (lobster tails), tempura shrimp. Superb ambiance and presentation.
- Coocoo’s nest — Great brunch option. Excellent mimosas, green eggs and ham, and eggs with steak. Doesn’t open until 11.
- Matwerk — Tasting menu was delicious — Icelandic cuisine with a twist.
- Seafood Grill — Heavenly pasta, soup, and maki. A close second to Fish Market.
- Snaps — Killer french onion soup. The duck was meh. Lamb was gross.
- Dill — Came highly recommended but gets booked way ahead of time. We don’t plan ahead enough for that.
The Northern Lights
Here is what I wrote immediately after seeing the Northern Lights:
“The Northern Lights danced for us. Pictures can’t do it justice but I’ll tell you a story. We had just left the cabin, headed to Reykjavik to see the fireworks. Our little cabin is perched on the frozen lake behind a backdrop of snow covered mountains. We see a glimpse of green, look up, and stare in bewilderment. The lights move like colored smoke against a backdrop of a starlit sky. We were the only people around, and it felt like they danced just for us. No better way to welcome the new year. Bring it on 2017!”
Our main desire heading to Iceland was to see the Aurora Borealis. In our 11 days there, we saw the Northern Lights just once. That one glimpse was enough to take my breath away, but the lights are elusive - many things must to go right for a good glimpse:
- The skies need to be clear and dark
- The lights must be highly active
- It must be between August through April
Many people “plan” to see the lights, but I would recommend treating a sighting as a bonus rather than expecting one so that your hopes and dreams aren’t crushed. I hate to be the bearer of bad news but you may not see the lights, and even if you do see them, they might not match your expectations.
What you see when you Google “northern lights” is not what you will see in person. Many of those pictures are created through time lapse or long exposure camera trickery. In reality, there is a vast range of activity levels that you may see - if you are lucky, there may be multiple streaks and multiple colors. More likely, you will see a singular white or colored streak swishing across the sky. Going in expecting a sea of vivid purple, green, and pink may leave you underwhelmed and wanting.
The sky will still light up, your heart will still flutter, and your jaw will still drop when you see the northern lights appear. They just won’t necessarily look the way you see on desktop pictures and brochure covers.
That said, you can maximize your chances of seeing the lights by keeping a close eye on the daily forecast and heading outside of the city. Also, the longer your trip, the higher your chances of catching an ethereal show. You can use this website to track activity and cloud cover and if it’s too hard to read(it was confusing for me), there are several apps that notify you of high probability sightings. If all else fails, ask the hotel lobby or a tour office about forecasts. In winter, there are also tours that will take you out to chase the lights. These touring agencies will allow you to keep coming back free of charge if you don’t catch the lights on your tour.
Overview of Iceland
I highly recommend doing some pre-reading before your visit so you can truly appreciate Iceland.
Iceland is the most sparsely populated country in Europe, with a population of only 330,000 people.
Iceland is one of the safest countries in the world, and the feeling of security is palpable. While eating at a local restaurant, we saw an unattended stroller parked outside the window. . . with a baby in it! This is not an uncommon sighting. What is is a rare sighting, is spotting any sort of law enforcement. Despite the lack of police presence, people still drive safely and follow the rules. I was astonished by the efficiency and order — for instance, of lines at the airport.
Icelandic people were hospitable and helpful in all of our interactions. They seemed quiet and polite, yet reserved. English is widely spoken and there are many tourists and foreigners, including staff at hotels, restaurants, and tour offices. In addition to being safe, efficient, and beautiful, the access to education and medical care in Iceland is excellent.
As with most European countries, Iceland seems technologically advanced. All transactions are executed with mobile payment processors, there is internet everywhere you go, and Macs abound in coffee shops. We weren’t missing any tech vibes being away from San Francisco.
Iceland offers a vastly different landscape, temperature, and experience in different seasons — it seems like a different country in the winter and summer altogether.
Winter in Iceland is magical — you only get 5 hours of daylight, but those hours are absolutely worth it. Winter activities that you cannot partake in in the summer include ice caving, northern lights, and holiday celebrations. Summer, on the other hand, brings lush green scenery, waterfalls engorged with water, and most importantly 20 hours of daylight.
Since we visited in winter, most of the recommendations here are better geared towards a trip in the winter months.
The effects of global warming are painfully evident in Iceland — the entrance to the cave we visited has been receding by 15 meters each year and sections of many glaciers have become inaccessible. Please be mindful of your footprint on the environment.
While we witnessed some snow storms, we found that it was not quite as cold as we had expected, but still very cold. Do be mindful to bring thick clothing for the many hours you’ll spend outdoors.
What to bring:
- European Travel converter + plug
- Camera, as there will be many sites and sights worth photographing
- Books, games, movies as sightseeing hours are limited. Expect to get plenty of sleep and rest
- No need to bring cash; every place accepts credit card. Bring a credit card that does not charge international fees
- Outer layers - waterproof, heavy snow jacket will suffice
- Warm, water repellant pants
- Snow boots with traction and wool socks
- Gloves, scarf/neck warmer, and a hat/beanie
- Warm thermals, under — layers
- Swimwear for lagoons and geothermal pools
I read somewhere that WOW airlines single handedly changed the tourism industry in Iceland by offering extremely cheap flights. While the flights are inexpensive, WOW airlines will charge you for everything, including water, luggage, and assigned seating. Come prepared with plenty of snacks, a meal or two, and water for the flight.
It is true that flights to Iceland are cheap, but what we learned after visiting is that everything else is expensive. Shopping and food are very expensive (pricier than San Fransisco, New York, or Paris). For instance, $4 US dollars for a tiny Diet Coke at a casual restaurant. Budget appropriately and expect to pay a high price of admission for this adventure.
One of the most important decisions you will make regarding your trip is your choice of transport.
Here are your options:
- Rent a car — *Our preferred option
- Small group tours
- Large group tours
^There are very few taxis around.
Renting a car offers more flexibility, freedom, and cost savings compared to tours. Iceland is a road-trip kind of country — if you want to see incredible nature and not be stuck with flocks of sheeple, rent a car.
If you choose this option, rent through a reputable rental company and pay for a 4 wheel drive. The main roads are safe but the weather can be unpredictable and fierce so drive carefully.
*Note — certain activities like glacier walks and ice caving require a tour guide but you can meet them onsite. Also, most places have WiFi but there are long stretches of road with no stops, so download offline Google Maps of all the locations you plan to visit or buy an international phone plan with internet.
If you choose to take tours, the options are endless. While tours are usually more expensive, they are well suited for people who prefer a guide or feel uncomfortable driving. The tour operators usually pick up from the city and transport in small vans or large buses to the attractions for single or multiple day tours. If you choose this option, I strongly recommend doing a multiple day tour to see Jokulsarlon and Vik.
In Reykjavik, we stayed at the Alda Hotel which was centrally located, cozy, and trendy. It has a hot tub tucked away in the back which is perfect when it’s cold and snowy.
Airbnb is a great way to truly experience Icelandic living. It is more cost effective than most hotels. Consider urban and rural options depending on the experience you seek. We stayed at this Airbnb on the lake 40 minutes from the city.
Pro tip — If you are staying at an Airbnb, stop at a grocery store (the chain is called Bonus) and stock up — things are far away or closed outside the city)
Hali County Hotel on the East side is a good stop place to stay in Jokulsarlon. It is far from fancy but offers the basic amenities and comfort for a night’s stay.
Looking back, I would have done all the things I did, perhaps in a slightly different order. Here is my suggested itinerary for a 7 day trip:
Day 1- Fly in to KEF airport (40 mins drive to Reykjavik)
Day 2- Reykjavik (activities in or near city)
Day 3- Drive to the Golden circle — 1 Day (may return to Reykjavik)
Day 5- Jokusarlon, 1 day and 1 night
Day 6- Drive back to Reykjavik (5 hours) plus stops, night in Reykyavik
Day 7- Reykjavik and fly out
Optional — Drive north west of the city towards rural farmland — we stayed at this Airbnb on the lake. Ideal for 1–2 nights, it was peaceful, relaxing, and a great place to view the Northern Lights.
- Ice caves by Vatnajökull glacier & Jokusarlon Lagoon
- Reynisfjara Beach
- Myrdalsjokull Glacier
- Fish Market, Sandholt
- Northern Lights
My visit to Iceland was an experience of a lifetime. I don’t plan to return to most countries until I’ve seen them all but I would absolutely go back to Iceland to see it in the summer.
I wholeheartedly recommend visiting Iceland! Come prepared and you’ll make unforgettable memories.
Have you been to Iceland? Share your thoughts and suggestions below.
Are you planning a trip to Iceland? Post your questions and I’ll try my best to help.