We fit Iceland into the end of our itinerary on the trip we took in May of 2016. Although we were already visiting several places in Germany and France, we couldn’t help taking advantage of a stopover in Reykjavik for the last day and a half before heading home.
Iceland is a tempting destination for a stopover for two reasons: 1) Iceland Air frequently runs some of the best deals on flights to Europe, and if you are flying with them, they offer up to 7 nights for a stopover, free of charge, and 2) Iceland is VERY expensive, so if you want to experience the highlights for a few days without breaking the bank, a stopover is the way to go.
Your choice of what you decide to prioritize while in Iceland will be at least somewhat dictated by the time of year that you go. Since we went in May, the temperatures were much more tolerable and the sun basically never sets, so we had lots of daylight hours to pack in our activities. If you went in December or January, you would have the opposite and would have to get in your activities for the day in about 4 hours. But you would also have the chance to see the Northern Lights an experience Iceland in the dead of winter.
In the short time that we had, we did a blitz tour of downtown Reykjavik, drove the Golden Circle, and visited the famous Blue Lagoon. There are so many more sights that I want to explore in Iceland someday, (the Northern Lights, especially!) but we efficiently used the time that we had. As Rick Steves likes to say — “Always assume you will go back!”
We flew into Iceland from Paris and took some shots of our
first second glimpse of Iceland — since we had technically landed here very quickly on the way into our trip before heading to Germany.
After finding our way out of the airport we picked up our rental car, which sported this great warning across the dashboard. Since we were not planning on traversing any paths outside Reykjavik and the touristy sections of the Golden Circle, we did not bother getting a car that could handle the rough terrain. If we had planned to stay longer and hit more remote locations, we would of had to upgrade. As it was we did just fine in our tiny Ford Opal.
This was our first experience renting a car while in Europe. It was an ideal destination for our first time renting a car while abroad because Iceland is basically the 51st state, which made driving there super easy for us. The roads, highways, and the public transport system looked and operated very similarly to the US. Not to mention that everyone, I mean everyone, speaks English. No one expects you to understand one word of Icelandic. There’s even a store in downtown Reykjavik called “I don’t speak Icelandic.”
If all we had was the drive from Keflavik airport into the city of Reykjavik, I think we would have been quite impressed. Everywhere we looked seemed surreal, and the colors popped against the background of the blue sky and snow-capped mountains. But Iceland was bizarre. The scenery was so dramatic that you felt for sure that you had walked straight into a Lord of the Rings movie. At the same time within all this dramatic scenery, there is construction going on in every corner as the development tries desperately to keep up with the soaring demand from tourists.
We made it to our AirBnB, which was located in a quiet, residential neighborhood with plenty of street parking. Our hosts are one of the many people who are taking advantage of the rise of tourism in Iceland. They were currently in the middle of expanding and renovating their entire home so that they could devote a specific section exclusively to Airbnb clientele.
Our room was well-appointed on the second floor of the house, with tall ceilings, a large, comfortable bed, and blackout curtains (thankfully!) In May, the sun doesn’t set until after 11 PM in Iceland (and rises before 4 AM!) Even then, you only reach nautical twilight. So if you want any chance of getting a good night sleep, heavy curtains are a necessity.
We also had a fairly well stocked kitchen, which was nice for storing water and a few other things, but unfortunately we were there for too short of a time to make use of it. However if you were in Iceland for more than a couple of days, a kitchen would be a huge benefit to help cut down on the cost of food.
After settling into our room we bundled back up and headed towards downtown Reykjavik, which was about a 20 – 25 minute walk. Even in the summer, Reykjavik doesn’t get much above the mid-50s during the day. It was a chilly, but we decided to walk instead of taking the car since it is difficult to find a parking spot in the downtown.
You can find large, industrial buildings, most of them only halfway finished, right next to residential neighborhoods like this all over Reykjavik. I think it’s the sacrifice they have made while they figure out how to catch up to the heavy demands on their economy.
WOW Airlines is the wanna-be of Iceland Air, by the way.
We got to walk through the whole downtown since the spot we picked for dinner was on the opposite end. There were still plenty of people and street stands out during the early evening hours.
The first landmark we passed was the offices of the Prime Minster. The building was used as a prison from 1765-1816 until the Danish inhabitancy of the country began and it was converted to the home and offices of the Danish governor. The first statue commemorates the Danish king, Christian IX, handing over the first constitution to Iceland’s ancient parliament, and the second is of Hannes Hafstein, who became the first prime minister of Iceland in 1904.
We also passed Iceland’s current Parliament. It ain’t pretty, but with the backdrops that Iceland has, why focus on making pretty buildings?
Despite being in a freezing place, Reykjavik had a decent cafe scene. Even though it was only low to mid-50s on this day, you would think it was 75 degrees with the way they were soaking up the sun!
We finally made it though town and to the harbor. On the way we passed several tempting restaurants, mainly because we were starving, but kept our eye on the goal. Normally I probably would have allowed myself a snack along the way, but Iceland is too expensive for such things.
Dinner was the first shock we had experiencing Iceland’s extremely high food prices. Iceland is an island which basically has to import everything, so it should not be surprising to find such high mark ups on their goods. While there are many upscale restaurants and foodie choices in Reykjavik, we decided to give our wallets as much of a break as possible, especially since we had just left Paris and – lets be honest – the national food in Iceland is hot dogs. The elevated prices on food, and alcohol in particular, leads to specials and discounted prices at happy hours to be a popular option. Most locals pregame at home and then finish their partying at bars and clubs.
It was a little tricky to find, but we were able to locate Reykjavik Fish Restaurant at the very end of the harbor. We had been told this was the best place to get fresh fish and chips!
We went for the classic and ordered two baskets of their famous cod fish and chips and two glasses of Viking on tap, a local Icelandic beer. To give you an idea of the prices, our meal cost almost $50 after the exchange rate. Woowee! Just one beer for each of us, thank you.
While pricey, the fish and chips were delicious, and you could taste the freshness of the cod.
Being full and in better spirits, we took the time to soak in the gorgeous views of the mountains from the harbor front.
It seemed way too early to go to bed yet, so we got back to our room and got ready to the pool.
Yes, the pool. The public swimming pool. But this isn’t just any pool — the “pools” in Iceland are geothermally heated, so they stay warm year-round. The closest pool to us was Laugardalslaug, which is a huge pool with multiple sections and hot tubs. It was built in 1968 and receives about 1.5 million visitors every year.
I wish we had taken some pictures before and after we were in the pool, because it was a rather bizarre experience. I am grateful that we tested the waters (ha) at the public swimming pool before hitting up the Blue Lagoon (see end of post). If you have never done it before, the public swimming pools in Iceland can be hard to figure out, so trying the pool first kept me from looking less of an idiot the second time around. Basically you buy a daypass that comes with a bracelet that opens your personal locker to deposit your belongings. Everyone takes off their shoes before entering the locker room, so there is just a giant pile of shoes outside the door.
Once inside the locker room, be prepared to be more self conscious than you have ever been in your life. Icelandic people are gorgeous — there’s just no other way to put it. They are skinny, blond, beautiful people. I don’t know if they all work out excessively and have perfect skin from all the geothermal minerals, or if they are all just born that way, but they are not afraid to show off their bodies. So, just go in knowing that you will probably looked down upon as an ugly American (or wherever you’re from) and you will be fine!
Ok, so the pool closes at 10:00 at night, and the sun is still up and there is no way you are going to sleep. So what do you do? Go find some ice cream! (Because you are not already cold enough from your hair being wet.) While driving around we found Ísbúðin Laugalæk. I ordered an Icelandic version of a Blizzard. There were several topping choices that I did not recognize, and ended up filling my ice cream with some kind of small black licorice. Not my first choice, but it worked to hep distract me from the sun still being up at an unholy hour.
Did I already mention that this was 11:00 PM??
We drove around and came to Grotta, a nature preserve on an island that can only be reached by foot during low tide. With the lighthouse in the background it became a scenic spot to watch the sun set by the water. It was a gorgeous sunset, but I was ready to see the sun go. At this point we felt brave enough to head back to our room and attempt to sleep.
The next morning, we headed out on our excursion to the Golden Circle, which will be described in another post. Before taking off we fueled up with a large hot breakfast and coffee at a little hole in the wall called the Grái Kötturinn (The Grey Cat). The cafe is tiny with low ceilings but holds a lot of charm. We chose a large booth by the window and enjoyed eavesdropping on the only other people who were there, a group of young travelers from Australia. I had eggs, bacon, and toast which were all delicious and Caleb had the pancakes. I love finding places with filling breakfasts while traveling so the meal hit the spot and we had the energy we need to tackle the all-day drive.
Also, I don’t know what it is, but there is something about Icelandic butter that is so much better than at home. At some point during your trip to Iceland, find an excuse — not that you probably need much of one — to eat a piece of bread with a big slab of their butter on top.
But what they really get right in Reykjavik is their coffee. Combine cold temperatures year round plus tons of new hipsters coming to vacation and live her and viola, an incredible coffee scene is born. Not pictured, but totally worth visiting, are Reykjavik Roasters and Cafe Haiti. We grabbed a second cup of coffee from Reykjavik Roasters right after breakfast, and Cafe Haiti was our hangout spot for a couple of hours before we left for the Blue Lagoon.
The only thing that the people of Iceland love more than their coffee is ice cream. Even when it’s cold! We couldn’t help joining in and getting our second helping of ice cream in two days after our return from the Golden Circle. So we found Valdis, a popular spot and one of the newest additions to the restaurants and shops that are being developed along the harbor front.
Working backwards, we had our fill of ice cream and then headed to find dinner. We had no energy to put in researching a restaurant, and our first two choices were closed, so we settled on a local pizza joint.
While enjoying our Icelandic pizza, which tastes just like regular pizza, we found a local newspaper and discovered two very interesting things about Iceland: they like to run columns about people’s opinions on poop, and they have a local rapper named Sir Peanut Butter. This gem of a rapper is known for his “white T-shirts, gold chains, and selfies.” Hope he hasn’t quit his dayjob.
On the morning of our flight we had one more chance to stroll through the harbor and admire the ships docked in the yard.
One of my favorite spots that we found in Reykjavik was a bridge that looked over a small lake and looked across at some brightly colored buildings and a church with a beautiful green steeple.
Iceland, you will never cease to be photogenic!
Leaving Reykjavik was slightly easier knowing we had one more stop before the airport at the Blue Lagoon! Everyone swims in a blue sulfur pool before getting on a plane, right?
The Blue Lagoon is a huge tourist destination and boasts as one of the 25 Wonders of the World. Even people who try their best to avoid tourist traps find themselves at the Blue Lagoon when visiting Iceland. Since it’s approximately located between Reykjavik and Kelfavik, it is often chosen as an excursion during a flight layover or as a daytrip from Reykjavik. We were able to plan it so we could go right before our flight back home.
No matter when you go, this place is packed. You cannot just show up. Reservations must be made in advance, along with your spa package choice. You have to shower (naked) before getting in and when you get out, your hair feels like it was dragged through sulfur, which it was.
That being said, the Blue Lagoon is an incredible experience and I’m glad we were able to fit it in to our trip. Getting to swim in a giant geothermal hot spring (it’s technically heated by the geothermal plant next to it, but still) surrounded by the lava that is the natural land that shapes the pool is pretty cool.
After you have washed your hair 18 times and put in a gigantic amount of conditioner, it will still look utterly ridiculous, but it will be time to head home and hope that no one you know is on your plane.
“Neither mine nor other people’s prospects seem particularly pleasing just at the moment, and I have fantasies of going to Iceland, never to return. As it is, I tell myself not to remember the past, not to hope or fear for the future, and not to think in the present, a comprehensive program that will undoubtedly have very little success.” – Edward Gorey
Looking for more Iceland? Check out our roadtrip in my post: Driving the Golden Circle!