A Week in Iceland
Have you ever been to a place that you start planning your return trip the moment you get home? That’s what my Iceland trip was like. Known as the Land of Ice and Fire, this country is filled with such beauty and awestriking scenery that it looks like a fairy tale. You feel immersed in the landscapes and feel like a character in Game of Thrones. Especially since you can visit some of the filming locations for the show. Travelling with my close friend Ashley, there was so much we explored and still yet so much to be seen. There’s only so much we were able to see in the four and a half days there and we’re definitely going back to immerse ourselves in what Iceland has to offer.
The weather in Iceland during our trip wasn’t extremely cooperative, but fun fact: it was colder in DC than in Reykjavik. You read that right. While the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic were engulfed by an arctic freeze, Iceland was a pleasant 38°; that’s basically a tropical island. Okay, maybe not tropical, but warmer than the “feels like 7° DC” is good enough for me. It rained for a majority of the time there, but that didn’t stop us from seeing all that we could.
We stayed at the Fosshotel Baron, which was only a 15 minute walk from the city center. The concierge staff was extremely helpful when booking tours and helping us navigate around the city and our room was adorable. It was a bit small, but to be honest, all we needed was a place with a bed, shower, and Wi-Fi. The room itself felt like an older Victorian cottage house with wooden posts and enamel decorations. Most importantly, our hotel had breakfast included. When looking for hotel accommodations in Iceland, find somewhere that includes breakfast. Your bank account will thank you. Food and just about everything is pretty expensive in Iceland, so having one meal covered will save you some dollars that can be used elsewhere.
Here are a few tips before I get into the nitty gritty details of my spectacular trip:
They speak English; very well, too. However, thank you in Icelandic is “takk” and thank you very much is “takk fyrr”—always nice to show that we’re trying to learn their language when visiting their country.
There is no Uber. Reykjavik is a very walkable city and there are buses, but public transportation closes at 11 p.m. Uber or Lyft is not a thing, but there are cabs, though expensive.
While there is plenty of Wi-Fi at restaurants and bars, I recommend downloading Maps.Me. It’s an app that allows you to download maps of cities for offline viewing. It’s a brilliant way to get around if you get lost without using international cellular data.
What to Do
There’s so much to do in Iceland, even in the event of gross-ish weather.
Take a dip at the Blue Lagoon – Go here either the day you land or the day you fly home. Visiting this wonder of the world is the best way to prepare your body for jet lag. The Blue Lagoon is just a 20 minute bus ride from Keflavik airport, and you can book a bus ticket that will take you right to the lagoon. It’s super easy to organize.
Once you get there, you can store your luggage and then go check-in and enjoy the full benefit of the lagoon. The water is a pleasant 100° (though it does fluctuate throughout the lagoon) and is a gorgeous turquoise blue, which comes from the silica and minerals found in the water. It may feel touristy to go to the lagoon, but it’s worth it. The lagoon itself is not all that crowded, and our reservation was early enough that we saw the sunrise at 11:30 a.m. Yeah, Iceland in January doesn’t have much sunlight—sunset is at 4:00 p.m.
As you scuttle through the lagoon, you can treat yourself to a drink at their water bar, help yourself to a complementary silica mask, or go relax in their steam and sauna rooms. It is such a relaxing experience and after sitting on a plane for nearly six hours, it is the best way to unwind and destress.
Tour the Golden Circle – The Golden Circle is a magical place. There are plenty of companies in Iceland that take you on a guided tour of the Golden Circle, which is about two hours east of Reykjavik. We booked some tours through our concierge and then others through Guide to Iceland. Our Golden Circle was through Your Day Tours, a newer smaller travel company in Reykjavik, but the guides were fantastic. Our first attempt was muffed by the weather and wind, but the company provided us the opportunity to reschedule free of charge for another day. Thankfully the weather cooperated the next day and we toured the stunning sites. The tour was fantastic and Ashley and I made a new friend, Ashley! That’s another great thing about traveling—you meet so many people. Our Golden Circle comprised five stops:
Faxi Waterfall – This smaller waterfall, named after a horse’s mane, is tucked away off the main roads and isn’t as crowded as the main waterfalls. With picturesque mountains in the background, watching the sunrise begin to peep over with the iced waterfall is a sight to behold.
Gulfoss Waterfall – This is a show stopping waterfall. Gulfoss is a more popular attraction and even though some of the falls were frozen over, which is impressive for rushing water, it was an incredible sight. You could even see one of Iceland’s larger glaciers off in the distance.
Icelandic Horses – So meeting the Icelandic horses was the highlight of the trip for me personally. I love horses; they’re my favorite animal and just meeting some of the fluffy creatures just made me smile and giggle like a giddy child. The Icelandic horse (do not call them ponies, it upsets Icelanders) has a fifth gait compared to the usual four of all other horses. The fifth gait, known as the Tölt is so smooth you can apparently drink a beer while riding and not spill a drop. I unfortunately did not go horseback riding this trip, but it’s on my itinerary for next time. This breed is so unbelievably smart and friendly I am blessed to have met some and even found my kindred ginger horse spirit—I named him Gingersnap.
Geysir – The term geyser actually originates in Iceland. Geysir itself has been dormant for years, but is the first recorded geyser on record by Europeans—hence the origin of the word. However, Geysir has a younger brother: Strokkur. Strokkur erupts every 5-8 minutes, and when you get a big eruption, it’s pretty neat to see the water Jetstream out from the ground. Though be careful which way the wind is blowing—you might get wet.
Þingvellir (pronounced Thingvellir) National Park – So remember when I said Iceland is basically a giant Game of Thrones episode? This national park is where they filmed a good chunk of scenes like the Eyrie or when the Hound and Arya met with Brienne of Tarth. A massive park spotted with rocky formations, a giant lake, and mountains, this place encapsulates some of the beauty Iceland has to offer in a variety of terrain. It is icy to walk around (because you know…winter) but what you can see is incredible.
Visit the Icelandic Phallological Museum – Hear me out—Penis Museum. You read that right. A museum all about penises. The only museum dedicated to male genitalia in the world, you can visit it right in the heart of Reykjavik. Only 1000 kronor (roughly $10), you can learn about the different penises throughout the animal kingdom with actual specimens. The small museum space is decorated with penises from mammals like the whale or the zebra, though there is no actual human penis on display, yet. It’s still quite fascinating to learn about them.
Hunt for the Northern Lights – Unfortunately on this trip, luck wasn’t on our side to see the Northern Lights, or the Aurora borealis. Will just have to try again when I go back. Despite no dancing solar flares, I did have the pleasure of seeing the most stars I have ever seen in my entire life. The sky was so unbelievably clear you could see the Milky Way. The nice thing about the tour companies that you book with, most of them will let you reschedule for free if you do not see the lights on your hunt. In my case, the company I booked with gave me a three-year voucher since we didn’t see lights on our trip at all. Perfect for when we go back.
Climb Up Hallgrímskirkja Church – Try saying that name three times fast. This church is the largest church in Iceland and is also one of the tallest points in Reykjavik. You don’t actually climb up; there is an elevator that will take you up the 74 meter tall tower. Once at the top, you have an incredible panoramic view of the entire city. Also, the church was extremely helpful when orienting ourselves in which direction to go in when walking around.
See a Show at Harpa – Harpa is Reykjavik’s concert hall. The façade of the building illuminates with reflective panels at night and mimics the movement of the Northern Lights. A light show in itself, there is plenty of shows you can see at Harpa. We saw the Icelandic Sagas, a comedy show that taught us about Iceland’s heroes and their stories. In English, this show was both informational and hysterical. We all were laughing the entire time.
Explore Ice Caves and Glaciers at Perlan – A little bit of backstory behind this place. Originally Ashley and I were supposed to go to Jokulsarlson, which is the glacier lagoon in the south of the country, but the weather foiled our plans. To see some glaciers and ice caves though, we hiked up the hills of Reykjavik to the Perlan museum to tour manmade versions. This futuristic museum shares the history of glaciers and the glacier formation process. Most importantly though, it teaches us the dangers of climate change and what impact the rising temperatures have on Iceland’s glaciers. Certainly an eye-opening experience.
Where to Eat
It would be remiss of me to not talk about places to eat and drink in Reykjavik. The thing about Icelandic cuisine is that it is…unique. It’s definitely worth trying, but some of the food might call for an adventurous eater. Regardless, we ate pretty darn well in Iceland and had some delicious grub.
Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur (Tryggvatagata 1, 101 Reykjavík, Iceland) and The Hotdog Stand (Austurstræti 8, 101 Reykjavík, Iceland) - While in Iceland you need to try the hot dogs. They were the cheapest things we ate and we pretty damn delicious. Larger than our hotdogs here and the wiener (heh) is made with a better quality meat—at least from what I could tell. These hotdogs also come with an array of toppings that make the complete taste bud package. Your hotdog comes with ketchup, mustard, a mayo remoulade sauce, and crispy fried onions. Certainly not the best combination if you want to kiss someone, but who cares? You can find these hotdogs all around the city besides these two places and even in gas stations (which are so clean).
Café Loki (28, Lokastígur, 101 Reykjavík, Iceland) – Want to try authentic traditional Icelandic cuisine? Head to Café Loki. This three-story restaurant features a spread of traditional Icelandic dishes like smoked herring and the infamous fermented shark. Yes, I tried the fermented shark. It did smell pretty foul, but it honestly wasn’t the most terrible thing I’ve eaten (pickled watermelon holds that spot firmly). But stop by after a visit at Hallgrímskirkja church and have a drink and try some rye bread ice cream. Free Wi-Fi.
Grillmarkaðinn (Lækjargata 2a, 101 Reykjavík, Iceland) – Also known as “Grillmarket” treat yourself to a night out at this splurgy venue. Here you can try other Icelandic specialties like puffin, whale, and horse. And you bet I tried all three (I did feel bad about it, but try something once, right?). All three dishes that featured the Icelandic protein were fantastic and tasted sublime. Puffin is a little tougher than chicken but has that poultry flavor. Whale reminded me of sashimi—it has a sea/fishy flavor and the meat melted in your mouth. Third, horse which tasted like a muscular beefsteak. All delicious and highly recommend treating yourself at this high-end restaurant in Reykjavik’s downtown. Free Wi-Fi.
Emilie and the Cool Kids (Hverfisgata 98, 101 Reykjavík, Iceland) – Stop by Emilie and the Cool Kids for some cookies, coffee, or delicious bagels that near rival New York City bagels. I recommend the Nutellaccino and the Salmon and Garfunkel bagel complete with avocado, lox, and onions. Free Wi-Fi.
Forréttabarinn (Nýlendugata 14, 101 Reykjavík, Iceland) – On the day Ashley and I went to Perlan and Harpa it was pouring and icy out so we needed a place that was close to the theater and had comforting food and drink. Forréttabarinn was perfect. Their happy hour runs from 4 p.m. – 7 p.m. and has select wine and beer for 700kr (roughly $6). Another evening of treating ourselves to a delicious meal, we opted for the four-course meal, which is a great bargain. Cozy up with some langoustine soup, which is reminiscent of lobster bisque or enjoy delicious fresh seafood straight from Iceland. Free Wi-Fi.
LAVA Restaurant (Nordurljosavegur 9, 240 Grindavik, Iceland) – At the Blue Lagoon you have the option of grabbing a snack at their café or you can reserve a table at their luxury LAVA Restaurant. While slightly more expensive, it is relaxing to stroll into the restaurant in your robe (should you choose to rent one) and indulge in a decadent meal like steamed Icelandic bay mussels with potatoes.
Voffluvagninn (Frakkastigur 27 | Hallgrimskirkja Square, Reykjavik 101, Iceland) - This little cart is your ideal sweet treat street food. Did you try the fermented shark at Café Loki? Cleanse your palette with these delicious waffles made fresh daily or wash it away with comforting hot chocolate.
Café Babalu (Skólavörðustígur 22, 101 Reykjavík, Iceland) – Nestled on the main street of Reykjavik, Café Babalu is a quaint little spot perfect for enjoying dessert and coffee after a busy day of exploring and hiking. Try their Nutella Cheesecake!
The Laundromat Café (Austurstræti 9, 101 Reykjavík, Iceland) – Decorated with photos of laundromats around the United States, this progressive café is perfect for intellectuals who want to talk politics or literature. Grab a glass of beer and pick out a book from their bookshelf bar.
Rústik (Hafnarstræti 1-3, 101, Reykjavík, Iceland) – Rústik has a very sophisticated feel to it. You walk in and the space feels very modern with classic undertones. The dimly lit restaurant and bar space creates a very intimate environment perfect for a glass of Icelandic beer and conversation. Happy hour goes from 4:00 p.m. – 6:00 p.m. Free Wi-Fi.
Kaffi Vinyl (Hverfisgata 76, 101 Reykjavík, Iceland) – With a more retro feel, Kaffi Vinyl is a great casual place to grab a glass of beer or wine for happy hour. Though a smaller space on the main street, it’s a great place to relax and people watch. Free Wi-Fi.
Iceland was overall fantastic. I can’t wait to go back and hopefully see the Northern Lights. I would also love to go during the summer and see the north of the country and maybe some more Game of Thrones locations. Hope I inspired you to travel to the Land of Ice and Fire!