WOW. True it’s the name of the Icelandic airline, offering wonderfully inexpensive passage from North America to Europe. It’s also the first word that came to mind when driving toward Reykjavik. Iceland’s volcanic landscape appears lunar, other-worldly. It’s oddly beautiful. Because all flights are routed through Reykjavik, WOW allows you to book a free stop-over in Iceland on your way to or from other destinations. I took advantage and added 4 days onto our holiday vacation that began in Scotland.
Before I present a sample itinerary based on my family’s experience, please allow me to present…
GLOBAL STACI’S TOP TEN TIPS FOR VISITING ICELAND!
- Buy alcoholic beverages at the duty-free in the airport. There are virtually no places to buy alcohol in Reykjavik and drinks in bars or restaurants are super expensive, as is just about everything in Iceland.
- Take advantage of happy hour specials if you want to imbibe and didn’t follow rule number one.
- We learned Iceland is one of the top 5 most expensive places in the world to live. You’re getting the picture.
- We could have spent our entire time in the country without any cash money. Credit cards are excepted everywhere, even to pay for parking or the bathrooms (as in some national parks).
- Renting serviced apartments is popular and allows you the use of a kitchen and more space.
- Drink the tap water; it’s some of the best in the world. In fact, bring water bottles.
- Tourist offices are a dime a dozen in the city. Stop in for free maps and info.
- Vegetables aren’t as plentiful on restaurant menus as you may like.
- Rent a car. You’ll save on tours.
- Check into what’s available to do in the season you are going to be there. Some attractions aren’t open in certain seasons. If it’s summer, you’ll likely never see darkness, so bring a mask to sleep if you think it will help.
[As you’re walking about Reykjavik, see if you can spot some of the green roofs!]
DAY ONE – Getting Acquainted
A short two-hour hop from Edinburgh, we flew into Iceland’s capital city in the early afternoon, had no trouble picking up our rental car (booked in advance online at Reykjavik Auto) and headed straight for the healing waters of the world-famous Blue Lagoon. Scrub yourself down in the shower, brave the cold air in your togs and then dip into the warm, mineral rich waters of these geothermal pools. Heaven. Didn’t hurt that there’s a swim up bar right in the Lagoon! The place is spotless and very well run. A must-do.
Visiting the Lagoon straight from the airport before checking into our accommodations turned out to be a fantastic decision. I can think of no better introduction to this other-worldly place than to shed your winter clothing (yes, technically it was spring, but still only about 40 degrees F). Entry is timed, so I highly recommend you check the website in advance for tickets or you may find yourself out in the cold. Once you have a ticket, you can stay as long as you like until closing.
Big hotel chains were noticeably absent in Reykjavik. Renting serviced apartments seems to be a popular alternative so I hopped on board, finding the space ample and the prices better. Plus, we had a full kitchen. I booked a two-bedroom apartment right in the heart of the city. Our apartment was on Laugavegur, so a lot of what we chose to do in the next few days was based on our location. Reykjavik isn’t that big, so we were within an easy walk of what we wanted to see. Street parking is available in the city and is free through the night, but metered during the day.
One of Reykjavik’s best pizzerias, Elf Smidjan, was next door so that’s where we had dinner. Our high price indoctrination had officially begun. As far as we could tell, high taxes are the top reason everything is so costly. Just a few paces further down Laugavegur, you’ll find Bonus, a local grocery store. We stocked up on some basic breakfast and snack food for our apartment.
[The street art makes for interesting photo ops.]
I had also pre-booked our Northern Lights Tour which didn’t depart until 10pm. Provided you are in Iceland at the right of year, it’s best to try early during your stay to see this natural phenomenon. If you don’t see the lights the first time, or if conditions aren’t right as they were not on our first attempt, most tour companies allow you to come back on consecutive nights free of charge until you hopefully spot them. You can check the forecast daily here.
Awaiting the darkness, our tour bus departed the city at 10pm in search of darker pasture, and parked. A cold wind snapped through us as we exited the bus, staring up at the night sky. About to throw in the towel, the entire group sounded a collective gasp as the lights began to emerge and dance across the sky! Maybe we were lucky, but I’m so glad we stuck it out. It was 2am by the time we arrived back at our hotel, but I’d take awestruck over tired any day.
[Something to consider. You cannot photograph the Northern Lights with an iPhone camera and flash. If you try, you are going to annoy everyone and look stupid.]
DAY TWO – Exploring Reykjavik on Foot
After a good night’s rest and a hearty breakfast in the apartment, save room for the treats that await at Braud Bakery. When you stumble upon a line out the door you need to stop and take note. Upon seeing, and smelling, the croissants in the window, we joined those in line with mouth-watering anticipation. Take your treats on the road and stash a loaf in your backpack for later.
Our first stop was the National Museum of Iceland, walking to the point furthest from our hotel and working our way back. On the way we decided to have a look at the majestic Hallgrimskirkja Church, the largest in Iceland, named for pastor and poet Hallgrimur Petursson, author of the The Passion Hymns. Its architecture is inspired by the beautiful columnar basalt of the Svartifoss waterfall in South Iceland. In front of the church is a statue of Leif Ericsson, who discovered North America in 1000AD, more than 500 years before Columbus. Your world history lesson has officially begun!
Continuing our journey back to the Middle Ages, we learned lots from the exhibits in The National Museum of Iceland. Even my kids were entertained for a couple of hours, working their way through each floor of the museum. From bottom to top you’ll cover a couple thousand years of history including information about the first settlers, Christianity in Iceland, the island under Norwegian and Danish rule, and the independence movement. While not terribly large, it’s a great way to get to know more about the history and culture of the people, one of the reasons we chose to visit Iceland.
By now everyone was getting a bit hungry. Enter the hot dog. By all accounts you can’t say you’ve been to Reykjavik until you’ve eaten Bæjarins beztu hotdogs, sold from a small stand since 1937. Yep you did the math right. They are definitely tasty and one of the cheapest meals in the country. I happened to notice a sign for a flea market across the street, which I happily perused while the rest of my family stood in the long line to get the wieners. As far as I can tell this flea may be the only place you can buy bargain vintage (read previously worn) clothes and every other manner of things in Iceland.
Our next stop was the Saga Museum, but I wish we would have skipped it. The admission is pricey and the national museum does a great job of telling you the history of the country. Saga focuses on the Viking ear of Icelandic history. It’s self-guided, with a headset, and takes about 30 minutes. You can dress up afterward in period costumes and take photos, which is fun. Honestly, I expected more. Food for thought.
By now my kids were expecting a ‘proper’ meal, as though the hot dogs weren’t enough! Turns out we had a nice meal at the Icelandic Fish and Chips, which is inside the same building as Volcano House, our next stop. Iceland has excellent fish, as you might imagine, and we especially enjoyed the quality and preparation here. Get your tickets to see the two films, screen together in English hourly to learn about Iceland’s volcanoes. There is a geological exhibit, which is free, in the small room outside the movie theatre. We thought the films were well done, informative and entertaining. There will be no guessing after seeing the films how Iceland gets its nickname.
Our kids were running out of gas, so we sent them back to the apartment and the adults took advantage of warming up in the Public House Gastropub. I can’t comment on the food, but we popped in to enjoy happy hour drink specials, one of the best ways to have an alcoholic beverage in Iceland without selling the farm. Atmosphere and service were top-notch.
DAY THREE – Driving the Golden Circle
Today we took to the road, opting to drive the Golden Circle route ourselves rather than take a tour. I had read a lot about this and now having done it, I’d say we spent a total of 6-7 hours to and from Reykjavik. My only advice is to think through your stops, otherwise you may miss out on seeing something if it happens to be closed.
Our first stop was Þingvellir National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage site since 2004 and where the Icelandic parliament, Alþingi, was formed in 930AD. Maybe it’s because it was cold when we were there but no one in our family was super excited to be walking or hiking around outside. There is, of course, a visitor center and gift stop but you have to pay to use the bathrooms.
Although we stopped at Laugarvatn Fontana Geothermal Baths because I’d seen their website and thought it looked amazing, we decided this was not nearly as impressive in person either to swim or to eat, so we jumped back into the car and kept going. I can, however, heartily recommend a stop at Efstidalur Farm and restaurant both for lunch and ice cream.
Efstidalur, a modern working Icelandic farm, has a long history with first class hospitality. You can fill up on homemade soup, burgers, salad in the dining room then head downstairs for ice cream, Icelandic wonder food, skyr, and even feta cheese, all in the presence of the very bovine who provided the milk.
Next up, the Geysir Geothermal Area. Geysers are an interesting natural wonder and you can learn about them and see the in action by simply parking the car and walking across the street. The most famous one of the group is Strokkur which erupts every 6-10 minutes. Be patient and you’ll see for as long as you want to watch.
Our last stop before turning around and driving back to the city was Gullfoss Waterfall, one of Iceland’s most popular tourist attractions. If you approach from the parking lot near the visitor center the falls are somewhat obscured from view, so be sure that you follow the staircase toward to enjoy the spray, the roaring sound and the beauty of these waterfalls. Rainbow included.
DAY FOUR – Souvenirs and Sun Voyager
Because our apartment was on the main shopping street of Laugavegur, we decided to buy any souvenirs on our last morning before driving back to the airport. By the fourth day we knew the street well enough to know which store we wanted to hit before our departure. Frankly there are a lot beautiful things for sale for they are far more expensive than you’d pay for comparable items in the US. My souvenirs were limited to salt and chocolate (with killer packaging) which I purchased at Te and Kaffee, a coffee shop bookstore with lots of interesting Icelandic designed bric a brac.
Our final visit was to Sun Voyager is a sculpture by Jón Gunnar Árnason, located next to the Sæbraut road which skirts the water. A massive steel sculpture resembling a Viking ship, it is in fact a dream boat and ode to the sun. We payed homage to Iceland’s natural beauty one last time with a photo, indeed the best of souvenirs.