First of all, I’m so excited to be writing this blog post. I made a good pot of coffee that I’m drinking with foamed coconut milk, I’m cuddled up under my favorite Ikea blanket and I’m about to spit some Iceland knowledge at ya so get ready!
In 2.5 short years of being married, Adam and I have done a significant amount of traveling and sometimes it’s hard to really pinpoint which trip has been our favorite because we’re travel addicts and always find such good hidden treasures everywhere we go…but I really would say Iceland is somewhere near the top. I’ve been to 28 countries and each one is so unique and wonderful, but there is an otherworldly atmosphere to Iceland that is wholly indescribable unless you see it with your own eyes.
I’m going to divide this post into several sections:
General information about Iceland
Where to stay in Reykjavik + a few outside of the city
Our itinerary (with recommendations!)
A few final thoughts
Iceland is a Nordic country and is the most sparsely populated country in Europe – in fact there are more puffins there than people! It is extremely bio-diverse; there are active volcanoes, lava fields, mountains, glaciers, waterfalls, basalt rock formations, geothermal springs, fjords, geysers and black sand beaches – among other things. It was settled in 874 AD and is rich in Nordic and viking history. For centuries, the island relied on agriculture and fishing industries but after industrialization and, more importantly, financial aid from the Marshall Plan after WWII, it actually became one of the wealthiest and most developed countries in the world.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – the Kayak app “Explore the World” feature is your BEST FRIEND if you want to travel a lot. You can easily put in your airport, and choose any month to explore the best deals available in that time frame. This is especially good if you’re flexible with when you can go. Last year around Spring time I was in bed toggling around on the Kayak app (as I do nearly every night because I’m obsessed) and wound up finding roundtrip, straight shot tickets to Reykjavik in October for $279. So we jumped on it and booked a trip! Was it impulsive – yes, but also it was too much of a steal to say no to!
Full disclosure: We bought tickets on WOW airlines, an ultra low-cost carrier that actually ceased operations in March of 2019.
We flew out of Dallas (always cheaper than flying out of our OKC airport, and it’s so close that it makes sense to scoot down to Dallas to catch flights) and it was only an 8 hour flight!
It’s super central to just about everything in Reykjavik, but if you’re tired of walking or freezing your hiney off, there are taxis everywhere. But caution: they’re more expensive than you would expect.
1 Literally just about any Airbnb. There were too many favorites that I couldn’t just choose one, but a simple search of Icelandic Airbnbs (especially in the Golden Circle) will result in this kind of aesthetic…
Just imagine any of these under the aurora borealis at night….Y’ALL. The obsession is real.
The only reason we didn’t do this while we were there is because we wanted our first trip to really focus on exploring Reykjavik, although we did a few day trips outside of the city. Our second trip back will be spent in these Airbnbs, bubbles and basecamps!
Our Reyjkavik Itinerary aka “and now for the good stuff…”
Since we got in at 4 a.m. our first order of business was a NAP at our hotel, followed by a hearty breakfast and then we promptly got on a bus and went on the Golden Circle Tour. Literally you cannot go to Iceland and not see the Golden Circle, whether you take a tour or go self-guided. Our tour had three stops: Þingvellir National Park, the Strokkur geyser and Gullfoss waterfall.
Þingvellir National Park
This was the original site of Iceland’s national parliament, which was established at the site in 930 AD. Sessions were held at the location until 1798. Now it’s a national park and a beautiful geological site. There is also a continental drift on site where you can literally walk between two tectonic plates, North America and Eurasia. In some places, there’s crystal clear water in the divide and the more adventurous can scuba dive between the two tectonic plates. Oh you KNOW I was stoked! We just walked around and snapped a ton of pics while there since neither of us scuba dive. It also snowed while we were there and we were just happy as clams. We grabbed some Icelandic chocolate from the gift shop and got back in the bus to head to the second location.
One of the most active geysers in Iceland, Strokkur erupts about every six minutes or so and shoots up about 15-20 meters. Fair warning, it’s sulfuric water so it kiiiinda smells like rotten eggs but the sight is worth the smell!
Also fun fact: There’s a shop on site that first of all is massive, but second of all is AMAZING. It’s not really a gift shop in the sense of the word, it’s just this huge haberdashery of sorts. I wanted to buy everything. And there’s also a restaurant attached and if you go there and do not get the tomato soup I will throw a tantrum because it’s the best tomato soup I’ve ever had in my life.
Legend has it that an old man threw his golden treasure into the waterfall to hide it and it remains there today, which is why the falls give off a golden hue in the spray and mist.
After the tour, we went back to Eyja to warm up with a cup of hot tea (always available in the lobby), clean up and get ready for dinner!
We went to Kopar – https://www.koparrestaurant.is/en/home-2/ – which wound up being my favorite restaurant of the whole trip. It’s down on the harbor and it’s the exact atmosphere you’d want for a cozy Reykjavik dinner after a long day. We had a delicious dinner in the main dining room downstairs and then went upstairs and sampled some beers, swung on their cute swing chairs and dreamed about the future together.
Because we hit the ground running on our first day, we took our second day to just leisurely explore the city. And after our obligatory “find the cutest coffee shop around” tradition, we headed straight to one of Reykjavik’s most iconic structures, Hallgrímskirkja, a church that towers over the whole city and is actually the largest structure in the entire country! You can take an elevator to the top for the most jaw-dropping views of the city!
After so much walking (and shopping, duh) we were ready for some lunch so we tracked down the iconic Baejarins Beztu Pylsur hot dog stand! These are allegedly the best hot dogs in Europe – which, no offense because they were tasty, but it wasn’t a ballpark stadium dog. Nice try, Europe.
And, of course, we had to make our way over to the shoreline to see the Sun Voyager up close and in person. It’s a gorgeous sculpture by Jon Gunnar Arnason. It’s meant to be an ode to the Sun, and conveys the promise of undiscovered territory, a dream of hope, progress and freedom. And looks beautiful with the backdrop of those stunning glacier water views!
Dinner for our second night was at Grillmarkadurinn (meat market) http://www.grillmarkadurinn.is/. The design and atmosphere is absolutely incredible and the menu is adventurous, to say the least. We ordered puffin! Also available: Horse Burgers (you read that right)
Also, I feel like it’s a good time to mention that although I had a few good food experiences (shoutout to Kopar), I really struggled overall. I don’t love fish and all of their other meat dishes are cooked on hot coals and so they wind up being vaguely seared and mostly raw, even beef and lamb. You’ll see in the picture of the puffin that while the outside is seared, the inside was, well…not cooked. I guess technically this is cooked to most people, but I don’t like raw things and I hated the texture.
We woke up early, bundled up and caught our shuttle to head out of Reykjavik a ways for an Icelandic “pony” ride through lava fields. It was blistery and freezing out and we had multiple pairs of pants and layers of coats – if you decide to do this tour in the colder months, trust me, bundle UP! But the views…the views were worth it. And after the ride, they provide you a nice lunch and hot tea/coffee/cocoa and you can chat with your fellow riders and get to know new people!
Fun fact: Icelandic ponies have a traditional gait called a tölt which is a seriously odd run and makes for a wild ride!
Once we got back to the city, we thought we’d continue our adventurous streak so we found a spot that sold a traditional Icelandic snack…fermented shark! Yeah. I guess when the vikings had few options for food-sourcing, they would catch sharks and hang them til they dried and rotted, then store them for food later on. And if you’re thinking, “hmm..that might actually taste pretty nice.” Think again. It is horrid. They serve it with shots of vodka for a reason: to kill the decision of eating it in the first place. These days, you won’t find Icelanders eating it, but there’s plenty to be found by tourists seeking a thrill!
Our third dinner was at Fiskmarkadurinn (fish market) – https://www.fiskmarkadurinn.is/ and I gotta be honest, by this point I was desperate for good, filling food that wasn’t artistically seared. We went ahead and ordered minke whale (to say that we did, but I hated it) and I had some sushi before dragging Adam around the town in a hangry rage, searching for a pub that would serve me something that didn’t taste like it was dragged out of the fjords a half hour ago and played hot potato on a piece of coal before winding up on my plate.
We saved the best for last. Since our fourth day was the day we flew back home and our flight wasn’t until that evening, we left our hotel in the morning and went to spend the day at the Blue Lagoon! Every picture you’ve ever seen of it (including these) does NOT do it justice. This was one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been in my life! From our conversations with folks on the island, every single person advised to go in the morning because the changing rooms get such high traffic I think they can get pretty nasty. We were quite literally the first in line that morning and had a pristine, clean experience and loved every second of it. We also had the advantage of having a calm lagoon with only a handful of other people – going any later would have meant an absolute crowd. As we were leaving, the place was cram packed and looked miserable. Seriously, get there early. I cannot stress that enough. Plus, you’ll get to watch the sun rise from the geothermal water! A few other tips:
Go early. Ok, just had to say that again for those in the back.
Book in advance. On their website, there’s a few different package options. We sprang for a pricier one but it came with flip-flops, a towel, a robe, two face masks in the lagoon, drink passes and lunch at Lava. If you really feel like splurging, there’s a package that grants you access to a private lagoon and a full-service spa where you can even get a massage as you float in the water! We went for the package just under that because of time constraints.
I really would suggest going either first thing when you land or last thing as you’re leaving. The Blue Lagoon is between the Keflavik airport and Reykjavik so it makes it much easier to do it this way. Plus, there’s a building outside where you can store all of your luggage, which makes it that much easier! And there’s always an abundance of shuttles that will take you to and from the airport, the lagoon and the city. So much ease!
If you don’t get a package that comes with multiple face masks, you do still get a complimentary silica mask with your visit. But there’s so many other ones to try, and we LOVED them, so I would really suggest springing for the extras! Otherwise, you can pay as you go if you decide you want them once you’re in the lagoon. There’s a pic below of the face mask station! (psst: there’s also a boutique on site where you can buy the face masks to take home! you can also find them at the airport)
There’s a swim-up bar and if you don’t buy a package that comes with drinks, you can still buy them but obviously at a higher rate. There’s also water and non-alcoholic smoothies available. I had a few glasses of La Marca Prosecco!
Our package also came with a reservation and complimentary bubbly at the Lava restaurant, which overlooks the lagoon and I literally could not suggest this more. It was incredible!
IMPORTANT: Before you go in the lagoon, take a shower and wash your hair. Use GOBS of the available conditioner and I mean gobs. Don’t rinse it out. Leave it in there and put your hair up. I know there’s a lot of bloggers that want to take cute photos with hair and make up done in the lagoon, but the reality is that the water will make your hair more brittle than a broom if you don’t use that conditioner. And it will stay that way for a long time, it doesn’t wash out for days, even weeks.
After an insanely relaxing and unforgettable day at the Blue Lagoon, it was time to head to the airport and return to good ole Oklahoma. And now having written this post, I’m low key planning a trip back ASAP!
A Few Final Thoughts
We booked our excursions through https://guidetoiceland.is/book-trips-holiday and it couldn’t have been any easier. They send shuttles directly to your hotel and back to drop you off. This means it’s in your best interest to book your lodging before you book excursions so that you can fill in the field when it asks where to pick up/drop off.
Since the country is an island and things are generally more difficult to import, expect prices to be higher. In fact a cocktail can be up to $18! This is also partly because Nordic countries are notorious for alcoholism since the population is sparse and the cold and dark is prevalent so liquid courage helps with socialization, but it leads to alcohol abuse. The government upcharges alcohol a lot to curb that!
Pack layers. We went in a colder month obviously, but even then it could snow in the morning and then get mildly sunny by the afternoon so you want to wear warm clothing, but be able to shed them as needed. We basically bought our entire wardrobe from Eddie Bauer and it was such a good decision. Also a must: fleece-lined pants!! EB has some great ones!
If you walk into your hotel room bathroom and suspect your spouse might have been, shall we say, rude…don’t go accusing quite yet. The bathroom water is sulfuric and smells pret-ty bad. But you get used to it!
There’s some really great shopping and we brought back tons of goodies, but our favorite piece was from http://www.listvinahusid.is/, the oldest workshop in Iceland that dates back to 1927. It’s a family owned ceramic shop with absolutely stunning pieces. Adam and I collect art and investment pieces from everywhere we travel to and our pick from Iceland was a viking head that you put a candle in. It’s a splurge, but it is GORGEOUS and you’re supporting an incredibly talented small business.
Well, folks, that about sums it up. If I’ve forgotten something that you’re curious about or you just need further recommendations, please drop a comment in the section below! I’d love to help you plan your trip!