I’m recently back from a trip to Iceland (not the reason my posts have been so infrequent of late), so thought I would share some of my thoughts and experiences in case anyone else finds them useful.
Arrival and General Information
To start with, you’ll probably fly into Keflavik as it’s the international airport. It’s about an hour away from Reykjavik by coach, so it’s well worth pre-booking a transfer (we were on the Flybus) or car hire from there.
In terms of language, obviously the population speak Icelandic, but everyone (or most everyone) speaks English, at least to some degree. This filters out to most of the mediums you’ll interact with too. For example, a lot of the TV programmes are in English with Icelandic subtitles, for example. You can buy English-language books, magazines and even DVDs. Most of the tourist information is in English, most of the tours are conducted in English (other languages are available, but sometimes only on certain days) and most of the information boards are in Icelandic and English.
Local currency is the Icelandic Krona (Isk). If you want to take some with you it’s probably wise not to leave it to the last minute as few places seem to stock it and it’ll take a few days to order in.
We were there in late March and while most of the thermometers and my weather app were saying it was around 8 or 9 degrees most days the wind chill made it feel much lower (I had three layers, hat, scarf and gloves on when outside). So I would recommend wrapping up warm. Even in the summer months (June/July/August) they only reach low- or mid-teens, so it’s never really warm (not that the native Icelanders seem to notice).
It was also very windy while we were there, everywhere we visited in fact and very changeable (apparently there’s an Icelandic saying that if you don’t like the weather, just wait five minutes and some more will be along) so be prepared, especially if you venture out into the wilderness.
We stayed at the Leifur Eiriksson hotel, directly opposite the Hallgrmskirkja (church, see below) on the main hill in Reykjavik. It was nice, clean and had friendly staff, but the fittings were a little worn and there was a definite breeze coming through the windows in our room.
Breakfast was in a general seating area off reception and was basically self-help from toast, cereals, make-your-own waffles and continental-style meat, cheese, boiled eggs, etc. There was free tea, coffee and hot chocolate from a machine all day (none in your room).
We were on the top floor of the main building (there are two, one across the street), which was a bit of a climb as there’s no lift. You may also have to get used to the sulphur smell of the water (general to the city, not specifically the hotel).
There was free wifi, but I couldn’t get it down in reception, only on the third floor landing and (occasionally) standing in the right spot in our room.
It was a convenient location in terms of not being too far, nor too close to town centre, it was a bit climb up the hill to get back each night though. Being opposite the Hallgrmskirkja made it very easy to find.
The city seems to be almost separated into two parts, the main downtown area around the harbour and the rest as it spreads out into the suburbs. Downtown is referred to as 101 due to the postcode and encompasses the bulk of the central shops, bars and restaurants.
It’s well worth a visit to the Hallgrimskirkja (the big church on the hill) and a ride up the tower, it gives you great views over the city and beyond. The inside is also architecturally interesting, with a stark, almost geologic beauty.
There are various museums scattered across the city, but much centres around the harbour. Down there you’ll find the dominating presence of the Harpa, the impressive concert and conference centre. It’s a nice place to stop for a coffee and people watch, especially if there are events on. There’s also a restaurant.
On one of the days we managed to hike out to the Perlan. Largely it’s a hot water storage facility, but it has a glass dome with a viewing deck and also houses the Saga Museum. Head up to the fourth floor cafe for snacks and the viewing platform, which gives commanding views over the surrounding area. The fifth floor is a restaurant.
There are plenty of bars and cafes to hole up in if the weather turns or you just need a rest.
I can recommend the Kaffivagninn cafe on Grandagarður near the harbour (down the road from the Maritime Museum), especially on a quiet Sunday morning. Coffee seemed to offer free refills and they had some slices of cake that looked very tempting.
The Northern Lights
One of the big attractions of visiting Iceland is the ability to see the Northern Lights (Aurora Borealis). They run nightly tours through the peak season (end of August through to April) and there are better months than others to visit if you want to increase your chances of seeing it.
To say it is elusive is an understatement, even on perfectly clear nights there are no guarantees (but the tour company does give you a free trip on subsequent nights until you do see it, or you go home). We were lucky enough to see them, though only on the way back after travelling for an hour and standing in the cold for an hour.
Get ready for some late nights if you plan to do the tour (it didn’t start until 10 pm, we finally go back to our room at 2 am).
The Golden Circle
Probably the most popular tour is the Golden Circle Classic, which visits Þingvellir National Park (that weird P thing is a Th by the way), which is where the Althing met, the oldest existing parliament in the world, met starting back in 930 AD; then you’ll head to Gullfoss, a set of waterfalls, then the thermal park at Geysir (where the rest of us take the word geyser from). If you do the full day tour you’ll also visit a couple of other smaller locations, but you get the main ones on the half-day tour too (and that doesn’t start at 8am).
Þingvellir is interesting, aside from the history, as it sits on a small tectonic plate between the giant US and Eurasian plates, so you can see the joins between continents. It’s also a stunning location.
Gullfoss means Golden Falls and is a 105-foot double cascade. You can see it on two levels and walk right to the side of the falls. It was bitterly cold when we were there, and we were very thankful for the visitor centre.
I’ve seen thermal parks before, so steaming pools of water are perhaps a bit less impressive to me, but the spouting Strokkur geyser, which throws water 60-100 feet in the air every 5-7 minutes, is the obvious draw.
In between and at each location you’ll also be surrounded by some stunning scenery, so it’s not just a mad dash to visit the individual locations. The tour guide was interesting and informative and there were good facilities at each location.
There are a couple of tour companies, though they’re basically the same in price from what I remember. We went with Iceland Excursions (Gray Line).
The Blue Lagoon
Another feature Iceland is famous for is its hot springs. You’ll find them all over the island, and most towns and cities seem to have local pools, but the biggest are probably those at the Blue Lagoon, a kind of hot springs spa centre.
The pools are kept at 40 degrees (Celsius) and you can hire towels and robes. You can stay as long as you wish and swim around the vast main pool, applying silica mud, which is supposed to be good for the skin, should you wish.
They also have a gift shop, where you can buy beauty products, they offer things like massages and there’s both a cafe and restaurant on site too (we ate in the restaurant, see below).
The Blue Lagoon is actually closer to the airport, and many people, like us, took a trip there on the way home, coming from Reykjavik and spending a few hours there before continuing on to the airport. It’s a nice relaxing way to spend you last day (and they can store your luggage, so no need to worry about that).
I can only comment on the places we did eat at, and we stayed fairly mainstream as we were only there a short time and aren’t particularly fond of seafood (which seems to be the main specialty, fishing being the largest industry on the island). I think the Icelandic specialties are seared sheep’s head, putrefied shark, a flat bread called rúgbrauð which was very dense and skyr, which is a yogurt-like soft cheese. A number of places also offered dishes based on puffin and whale.
We arrived early evening and after much strolling around, we ended up at Hereford on Laugarvegur. As the name suggests, it’s a steak joint primarily. You fill your order in on little cards (picking the numbers from the menu) rather than dictating it to the waiter.
Good quality steak and chips, nothing too fancy. It wasn’t cheap, but certainly not extortionate.
A quick note on alcoholic drinks. The sales tax is based on the percentage of alcohol and goes up to 90% on spirits like vodka. If you’re fond of spirits, an article I saw recommended buying it duty-free at the airport after you land.
I can recommend a pint of Viking, we weren’t too bothered by Gull though.
We also managed a burger a American Style on Tryggvagata, which is a burger chain, you order from a board over the counter (or menu) and pay, then get given a ticket with a number and they cook your food and bring it to your table. Good burgers at good prices.
We had an Italian one night but I can’t remember the name of it, I think it was on Laugarvegur (but it could have been Hverfisgata). It was fairly good grub, typically Italian.
One day we grabbed a hot dog from Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur, which is a hot dog stand on corner of Tryggvagata and Posthusstreti. Even Bill Clinton managed to stop by here when he visited. I think a dog with the works was about 320 Isk. They were pretty good, but small enough you may want two.
Another restaurant we tried was Icelandic Fish and Chips on Geirsgata, which is an ‘organic bistro’ according to the sign. They basically serve the catch of the day, which lightly fried quarters of baked potatoes (healthier) which a range of sauces based on skyr, rather than fattening mayonnaise.
You pick up a menu, find a table, select what you want, head up to the counter to order, pick up your own glasses and cutlery, then it gets delivered. It’s a little hippy, but it’s pleasant and the food was good.
We also ate at LAVA, the restaurant at the Blue Lagoon, which was very nice. Not the cheapest, but a nice surrounding and unique design (they have an exposed lava wall, I doubt many restaurants can say that). The menu was fairly standard, but the food very good.
I really liked Iceland, despite the weather. I’d have liked to have got out into the wilderness a bit more, maybe done a few walks, perhaps tried a dive/snorkel over the fissure at Silfra, but we managed to get a fair bit in and the people we met were all very nice, organisation on all the tours was very good and it was an attractive country with a stark beauty reminiscent of a number of places, such as the English moors, the Scottish Highlands and parts of New Zealand.
If you’re fond of the outdoors, of wild landscapes, Nordic history or, as one of our guides suggested, just want to get away from the stifling temperatures of more southern climates, Iceland is a great place to visit.