‘I want to book to go to Reykjavik, in the first week of February’ I repeated to the on-phone travel agent.
He sounded unsure; ‘Oh, erm, okay where’s that?’
‘Iceland‘ I said.
‘And… erm, what country is that in?’
‘Erm, That is the country, it’s Iceland!’
‘Oh, really, um, let me check… hold the line please’
Iceland isn’t the most obvious travel destination (Iceland? land of ice you say? It’s pretty cold and grim, no?), although saying that, it’s popularity has exploded in recent years, more than doubling it’s tourist figures in the last 10 years and ‘tourism is now the largest revenue-generating sector in Iceland’ (Reykjavik Grapevine). This is probably something to do with people discovering that Iceland isn’t actually as cold as you’d first think (in fact both times I have visited it’s only been a few degrees cooler than our UK weather) and grim it certainly isn’t.
Coming into Reykjavik for the first time you can’t help but be charmed by the architecture of the city. There’s concrete, corrugated tin and nothing matches, but it’s this amazing mass of colour and individuality. Even the buildings feel friendly.
As incredible as the world’s most northerly capital city is, venturing out of town is where you’ll discover what Iceland is all about.
We were super keen to see the Glacier Lagoon in South Iceland, but – slight issue – we’d based ourselves in Reykjavik for the week, so can you do it? Can you go to Jokulsarlon and back to Reykjavik in one day?
We left at around 8am. This was a bit later than we’d originally planned; we had a few rental car issues which meant we had to wait for the garage to open to swop our car. But nothing was going to stop us today, we were on a misson!
After two hours, we stopped at Seljalandsfoss (a beautiful waterfall that is very easy to spot from the road). In the summer you can walk behind these falls, in the winter – no chance! We then stopped to see the great Skogafoss a bit later on (again very easy to find on the left hand side of Route 1 as you drive to the East, although a little bit further back from the road).
The next major stop was the small town of Vik for the black beaches. White sand is overrated – this black sand was amazing. It was this really heavy jet black colour contrasting with the white snow. You’ll also see some fantastic basalt rock formations out to sea and the pretty red-roofed Vik-kirkja (Vik Church) perched on the top of the hill.
This was the last main stop that we took before driving the next few hours to Jokulsarlon, so it was a quick hot dog, bathroom break, top up of the the gas and back in the car.
The stretch of road after Vik is admittedly relatively plain and flat without much to see as you drive along, but after an hour or so it starts getting much more mountainous again… and then you start coming across these flecks of blue bursting between each peak. The Glacier!
The road then takes you between a large hill and the ocean, which is where you look to your left and see the Glacier Lagoon peeping out between the gaps. We then parked up in the roped off areas and hiked up the bank for a spectacular view of the lagoon. We were the only ones there at the time; it was so silent, all you could hear was the ice moaning and cracking. Incredible.
Jokulsarlon is also a pretty special place for me, as I was proposed to on the bank of lagoon (Of course I said yes!)
The entire journey took around 12 hours, including stopping at the two waterfalls, the black beach and the Glacier lagoon, plus any other random photo stops along the way. It probably took us a little longer than most; in the last two hours of the journey, upon encountering some particularly bad weather, our window wipers didn’t feel up the job any longer and failed to engage. Urgh. Just our luck.
Whenever the heavens opened, or a car passed us on the other side of the road, the spray would splatter up our window, completely obliterating our vision. We had no choice but to pull up, manually wipe the windscreen and solider on. Every. Two. Minutes.
It was knackering. It was like an endurance test; when you realise that you’re on the return journey, having already driven for 7 hours, and you’re still got another 4 or 5 left to go (!!).
But, I got to see the Glacier Lagoon, and it was amazing.
The Blue Lagoon & Iceland’s Pools
The Blue Lagoon is one for the bucket list and it’s easy to see why, there’s nowhere quite like this; weird milky blue water in the middle of a rocky, mossy lava field and the stench of sulphur. You’d be forgiven for thinking you’d mistakenly boarded a rocket to the moon rather than that Easyjet flight to Keflavik.
Located near to the airport, it’s the perfect introduction into Iceland. Slip into the water, lather on a free silica mud mask, grab a Skyr smoothie from the pool bar and then there’s nothing to do but relax. It’s not a bad life is it?
Now, although I love the Blue Lagoon, it is a big tourist attraction and naturally the entrance fee isn’t cheap. Thankfully for my bank balance, Icelanders adore a good hot pot and swimming is an essential part of everyday life here, much like us Brits go to the pub after work, Icelanders head to the pool, so there are many other local and super affordable swimming baths to enjoy.
Within Reykjavik there are a good handful to choose from, but these two are my current favourites; Nautholsvik and Laugardalslaug.
Having visited Nautholsvik, the Geothermal Beach three times now, I can confidently say that this is one of my favourite places to go whilst in Iceland. The place is quite simple; just a long shallow hot tub looking out to the ocean, basic changing rooms (a few benches and a wall of baskets to stash your belongings in) and a steam room with outdoor shower, but that just adds to the charm of the place. Trust me. It’s the definition of relaxing.
I spend a good while soaking in the hot tub, listening to the sound of the sea and the Icelandic conversations between locals either side of me, and then periodically sprint down to the ocean to cool off every quarter of an hour or so. I’ve only ever visited in February, and it feels completely bizarre to be in your bikini whilst on a snow covered beach but the whole experience is absolutely heavenly and simultaneously gorgeously invigorating and your body and skin will love you for it!
Laugardalslaug is the main pool complex in Reykjavik and is pretty much like a leisure center, but don’t let that lame description put you off. Pools in Iceland are geothermal (volcanically heated) and have little or no chlorine in the water which means the water feels totally clean and silky. You don’t get that dry, chemical feel after bathing , instead you just feel utterly rejuvenated. We chose to spend a good couple of hours here, hopping in and out of the hot pots and in and out of the steam rooms, doing a few laps in the outdoor pool or just messing around with foam woggles. I think I spent the rest of the evening in a fuzzy bubble; ‘I have never felt so relaxed… In. My. Life. Urghh!’
1. A view over The Blue Lagoon from the viewing platform.
2. My view from the hot pot at Nautholsvik.
3. Laugarvatn Fontana Geothermal Baths on the Golden Circle route.
Reykjavik & the Golden Circle Tour
The Golden Circle is a ‘best of Iceland’ tour, encompassing waterfalls, geysers, volcanoes and seriously spectacular landscapes, and even better, this one’s an easy day trip from Reykjavik.
Most tourists will take the tour at some point during their holiday, either as part of a group excursion or as a self drive tour, but if you have ability to hire a car I’d recommend the latter; if you’re anything like me you’ll want to pull over every half mile to take another two dozen photos. Iceland is just too photogenic!
We had hired a tiny car from ProCar.is, set our alarms early, headed to breakfast for our bowl of Skyr, and then out to engage the Satnav.
First stop was for Thingvellir National Park (a UNESCO heritage site), which is of both historical and geological interest. Here you’ll be able to look over the location of where one the oldest parliaments in the world was founded, back in the year 930, as well as being able to walk between the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates.
The next two stops are close together, the Geysir hot spring area and Gullfoss, a spectacular double drop waterfall.
Later on, on the way back to Reykjavik you can pass Kerid, a lake that was been formed inside a volcanic crater. This is on the left hand side of the road as you drive West, and is not that obvious, so you need to keep looking out for the small sign!
Icelandic food; I’m sure you’ve heard the rumours! And whilst most of them are true (you might find that you’ve accidentally ordered yourself a entire sheep head or a fermented shark), there are also some slightly more agreeable culinary delights to be found around Reykjavik. Some of which are perhaps a tad easier on the stomach.
Despite being one of only a handful of countries on the planet without a McDonalds (their last branch folded back in 2009), Iceland seems to be influenced by their American cousins when it comes to food; you’ll find that it’s easy to grab a good hot dog or burger.
Easily the best and most famous hot dog in the city (if not, the world!) is the hot dog stand by the harbour, just outside the Radisson Blue 1919 hotel. Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur, translated in English as ‘the best hot dogs in town‘, is just that. It’s a bold statement but these hot dogs live up to their name.
Never heard of cronions? They’ll be your new obsession by the end of your trip. Ask for one (or three!) with everything and then perch on the wooden benches watching the boats in the dock.
Whilst Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur is a cheap eat anyway; perfect for a snack or low-cost lunch, if you want your hot dog fix and you’re on a strict budget look to visit the supermarket on the main street (10-11). They sell their own version for a fraction of the cost. It’s not as good, but still pretty tasty. Some gas stations and other shops will also stock their own dogs too.
Another one that’s always in the guide books, and for good reason; Sea Baron (Saegreifinn), again on the harbour front, offers up excellent and exceedingly fresh sea food. You can pick from a fridge full of their haul for the day, (which generally will include Minke Whale if you’re keen to try this), but don’t forget to order yourself a bowl of their lobster soup. Absolutely the best soup I’ve ever had without a doubt, and served with a generous side plate of bread and butter so surprisingly filling. When Nomadic Matt posted his list on the top 18 restaurants in Europe, the Sea Baron made the cut!
Roadhouse was a Hard Rock-esque style restaurant a bit further away from the downtown area on Snorrabraut, but worth the walk over. I ordered the doughnut burger (literally like a Krispy Kreme glazed orginal around bacon, egg and a peice of meat) a side of gorgeously greasy fries and washed down with peanut butter milkshake! Heart attack on a plate? Maybe. But, you’ll have to agree it would be a good way to go… It wasn’t too badly priced either, considering Reykjavik prices; around £15 a meal.
A second great burger place that’s ideal for those traveling on a budget is Hamborgarabúllan, or the ‘burger joint’. Order the ‘offer of the century‘ which comes with a their standard burger, fries and a drink. It’s cooked to order in front of you and it’s super tasty. It was around the equivalent of £7-8, which by Iceland’s standards is pretty darn good.
So with all of this around, i’m sure you won’t be missing the Golden Arches any time soon.
So, Iceland, what can I say, apart from I miss you! Iceland has really captivated me – I think it was an accumulation of everything. It was the friendly Icelanders, the gorgeous streets of Reykjavik, the amazing cafes and the food, the crazy weather, the geothermal pools, the landscapes (just wow!) and witnessing illusive Northern Lights which was undoubtedly the single best experience I’ll ever have, ever, I’m sure of it.
Reykjavik, you’re now my adopted second home. I love you!
What was FP?
The chance of seeing the Northern Lights. If you visit Iceland in Winter, there’s a chance that you might be able to spot the Northern Lights. All you need is some clear skies, a good forecast and little or no light pollution, oh and probably just a little bit of luck!
Before we visited we made sure to download the Aurora Forecast app onto our phone which would tell us where abouts they would be, this gave us the best chance of finding them if they were to make an appearance.
On our first night of our first holiday to Reykjavik we went out about 9pm, all full of hope and looked to the skies. An English photographer guessed what we were looking for and gave us some pointers; if you can’t see them with the naked eye, take a long exposure shot pointing the camera North and hope for the best. Unsure, we followed his direction, waited for the camera to load and there it was – a greenish haze! It wasn’t much, but it was something.
Now we knew there were around we drove out towards Seltjarnarnes, if you drive far enough along that peninsula there won’t be any street lights – perfect Aurora viewing conditions.
After hopping up and down in the cold for about an hour, we were just about to give up and get a hot drink, until this bow of green appeared in the sky…
This grew and got more and more animated until the sky was full of green and white bands shimmering and dancing above us. It was the. most. amazing. thing. ever.
The lights seemed to expand the sky and show us the enormity of the space above us. It was stunning, absolutely bloody brilliant.
And the whole time we were screaming at each other and jumping up and down in excitement. A total pair of dorks!
Hallgrimskirkja and Perlan. Both pretty ace looking buildings in their own right, but both of which offer up incredible views over the city. For a small price you can take the lift up Hallgrimskirkja and gaze over the cute colourful houses in downtown Reykjavik. Perlan has a free viewing platform which gives you great views of the Church and the mountains.