In April we ticked off a major item in our bucket list; a trip to Iceland. Because it's such a unique and beautiful country, it's a good idea to plan in advance what you want to do. It's lucky for me then that I'm married to the world's biggest planner because we literally saw everything there is to be seen.
I'm limiting this to my top ten with some tips at the end for brevity's sake; otherwise we'd be here all year!
The Blue Lagoon
We were concerned before we went to the Blue Lagoon that it would be a tourist trap but we really loved it. It's a geothermal spa and is considered one of the 25 wonders of the world. You should pre-book tickets to save disappointment and there's four options; standard, comfort, premium and luxury. We went for the comfort package which included entrance to the lagoon, a silica mud mask while you relax in the water, a free drink of your choice, an algae face mask and a towel when you get out. I can honestly say it was one of the most relaxing and enjoyable experiences ever. Sipping Prosecco while wearing a cleansing mask followed by a moisturising mask and all the time floating about in lovely warm, soothing water is the very best. It's worth every penny. We felt so refreshed after it (except that himself's shoes were stolen in the changing rooms but that's another story). The Comfort package is €65 each.
This is a must see. Obviously the building itself is beautiful but inside, it's so peaceful and sparsely decorated. No gilding the lily for Iceland, that's for sure! Entry is free but you can pay €6 to get the lift to the top where you can see stunning views of all of Reykjavik (that's the photo at the very start).
Walk around Reykjavik
I always say that the best way to get to know a city is to walk around and see it from ground level. Reykjavik isn't huge either so you'll get a feel for the place pretty quickly. There's lots of tourist shops to pick up gifts for home but they are all quite pricey! There's also lots of very cute and interesting little clothes/homeware spots and plenty of quirky coffee places etc. It's a very colourful, lively city.
The Harpa is near the docklands in Reykjavik and is a concert hall/conference centre. It's an architecturally stunning building and is more than a little surreal from the inside looking out. You can pay for a tour of the building which we didn't do but we did pay in to a David Bowie photography exhibition, which was very cool. I think Bowie would've been happy to have his portrait hanging in such a bizarrely beautiful building.
The Northern Lights
I don't have a photo of this for one very good reason- we didn't bring the correct lens for the camera so our trusty Canon couldn't actually pick up the Lights, which is really annoying. But yes, they are beautiful. We actually saw them on our first night there, which was super handy because it meant we didn't have to stay up any other night after that in the cold! I know there are tours that will bring you out in the hopes of seeing them but I can imagine that would be costly and has a strong risk of being unsuccessful. We had rented a car so were quite free from that perspective. It is kind of the quintessential thing to do/see while you're in Iceland but it's a good idea to go into it without getting all your hopes up! Tips below on how to catch them!
Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon
Yeah, that's right, giant blocks of ice cracking and breaking away from each other on the lagoon, then floating out to sea. The bottom photo is of more blocks of ice that were washed up onto the beach. It was surprisingly warm that day so we were just wandering around beside all this ice but sweltering in our fleeces! We could've spent all day there, it was such a striking place.
Black Sand Beach, Vik.
I think the photos speak for themselves, but to emphasise it; I haven't used a filter, it's actually that monochromatic in real life. Black and white everywhere as far as the eye can see. Again, surreally beautiful. Like so many places in Iceland, we were in awe.
Iceland is well known for its impressive waterfalls but I'm including this particular one because it's often mentioned alongside Niagara for it's scale. It's certainly worth a visit but the wind was bitingly cold that day so I didn't get too close! Beautiful though.
Thingvellir National Park
If you're into your history and like to know the roots of the places you visit, a trip to Thingvellir National Park is the place for you. This is where the first Icelandic parliament was originally founded in 930 and remained up til 1798. That big ridge of rock you can see there is the tectonic plate boundaries of the mid Atlantic ridge. So…not something you see very day. We walked the full park and there's plenty to see as you go around, lots of photo opportunities!
Geysir Hot Springs
This is more of the geothermal water that Iceland is famous for. Deep down in the geysir, the water temperature is 125 degrees Celsius so you can imagine the pressure form all of that seriously boiling water- it's not gonna stay down there for long. Obviously stay well back and enjoy it from a safe distance! It goes off every few minutes to much hand clapping from surrounding tourists, which is understandable because it is very impressive!
- Be prepared for how expensive everything is. Having been to Norway before, we expected similar pricing and so we weren't surprised to see the locals buying their alcohol in the duty free when we landed, as we had seen the same in Oslo. We didn't pick up anything in the airport but it's not a bad idea to do so. We ended up stopping off at a supermarket for some craft beers and a bottle of wine that was much the same price as the airport so it hardly makes that much difference. You'll really notice the price hike when ordering a beer or a glass of wine in a restaurant, however so we ended up mostly not drinking with our meals. If you can, it's a good idea to pack a lunch for a day out and have plenty of snacks like fresh fruit with you- all available in the supermarkets, of course. Otherwise you end up eating a lot of junk food.
- Outside of Reykjavik, I could not find a decent cup of coffee for love nor money. I chanced one of the coffee machines that are at regular stops but it was vile. Save your cash and keep the memory of what coffee is supposed to be like in your mind (I'm only half joking there to be honest). Below is the delicious cup I had in Reykjavik. That cookie was good too..
- Food wise, you'll find that fish and lamb dishes tend to be the specialities. I don't eat lamb but himself enjoyed all the lamb that he tried while I revelled in big hearty bowls of fish soup after being out in the biting winds. The fish soup is kind of like a chowder, and I also had an amazing fish gratin that I'm still thinking about…We were advised by an Icelandic person not to eat whale- it's often listed on menus as a speciality but the locals frown upon it and would never eat it themselves, it's just a gimmick for tourists (a gimmick that involves killing whales).
- We stayed in Skuggi Hotel in Reykjavik which was pretty reasonably priced, nicely decorated with friendly staff and it was centrally located but there's always Airbnb if you'd prefer your own space. When we checked in we got a booklet of discount vouchers which meant that I got 30% off my Icelandic woollen jumper! Score!
- So, the Northern Lights. You're more likely to see them at the start and at the end of the year. They're generally visible up until May but not after that so plan your dates accordingly. We went in April so I think we were just lucky really. You need a clear, dark sky and the locals should be able to tell you whereabouts they normally appear. Wrap up super warm (layers are your friend! I'm going to do a separate post on what to pack) and for the love of god, bring the right camera lens! There's also an online site that provides regular updates on the weather changes in Iceland (of which there are many) and that will give a better idea of your chances of seeing them.
- If you're renting a car, be aware of potential add ons to the insurance when you arrive to collect it. When we got there they freaked us out completely about driving conditions- the risk of sand storms/grit storms/super strong winds that can pull your car door off etc. Basically, just drive carefully and keep an eye on that weather site I've linked in the previous bullet point.
And a waterfall rainbow for good measure!
Have you been to Iceland?
Any plans to go?