One of the most frequent destinations I get asked about from my travels is Iceland. Cheap fares from Icelandair and WOW Air in recent years have made the country easily accessible to the masses, and many brave the cold to see the Northern Lights as well as Iceland’s other natural beauties.
After spending four days in Iceland in January 2016 with my good friend Lauren, I’ve finally put pen to paper (or fingers to keys) to create a guide of what we did and saw in Iceland.
Iceland is a volcanic island, and it’s capital, Reykjavik, is the northern-most capital in the world. The citizens of Iceland speak Icelandic, but also speak English fluently as well. While Iceland is not actually all ice, it is fairly chilly year round, so definitely pack layers. The country is most known for its astounding natural beauty such as glaciers, volcanoes, and waterfalls, as well as hot springs.
While flights to Iceland can be found quite affordably (I paid about $400 round trip from Washington, D.C. to Iceland), prices on the ground once you arrive can be fairly expensive; I would not recommend Iceland for extreme budget travelers. That being said, it is still a destination worth a bit of a splurge and is unlike anywhere else I’ve visited.
Flying to Iceland
As mentioned, we flew from Washington, D.C. to Keflavik Airport, which is a 5 hour flight. We flew WOW Air for $400 round trip, but did pay an additional $40 each way to take a carry on bag. Once arriving, we took the Flybus Airport Shuttle ($52 round trip) for the 45-minute ride from the airport to our hostel in Reykjavik.
Where We Stayed
During our trip, we based ourselves in Reykjavik – this is common to do as many day trips can be taken from the capital. The hostel that we selected was the Loft Hostel, as it was central within Reykjavik and breakfast was included. We stayed in a spacious six bed coed dorm with en-suite bathroom for $50 a night. The Loft Hostel is one of the better hostels I’ve stayed in during my travels, and I would highly recommend it.
*Tip* Staying in a hotel or hostel that provides breakfast will save you money. Eating out in Reykjavik is expensive and breakfast can easily be $10-25+ per person.
What We Did
There is plenty to do in Reykjavik and the surrounding area, but we tried to narrow down what would fit into our four days.
This is what we did (more detail on each below):
- Visited the Laugardalslaug geothermal pool
- Saw the Northern Lights
- Did a walking tour of Reykjavik
- Did a pub crawl of Reykjavik
- Took a Golden Circle tour
- Went to the top of Hallgrímskirkja
- Enjoyed a tasting menu of Icelandic cuisine
Laugardalslaug thermal pool
While the Blue Lagoon is the most well known geothermal spa in Iceland, it was closed for renovations when we visited, and is outside the city of Reykjavik. Instead we went to Laugardalslaug, the most popular thermal pool within Reykjavik. The “pool” is actually a complex of indoor and outdoor Olympic sized pools and as well as hot pots. Laugardalslaug easily beats out the Blue Lagoon on price, as its under $10 to enter while the Blue Lagoon’s most basic entry costs $58.
Iceland is well known for their naturally heated pools, and you’ll find them all over the country, even in small villages. Dipping into one of these heated outdoor spas was amazing in winter as snow dusted the air.
Saw the Northern Lights
I’m probably one of the few people to say this, but seeing the Northern Lights was not a must-do for me in Iceland. However, for Lauren, this was one of the top reasons she wanted to go in winter, so we took did a night time tour ($65) to Þingvellir National Park with Reykjavik Excursions. Seeing the lights was interesting and I’m glad in hindsight that I went, but be warned that it’s much easier to see them with the naked eye then to photograph them.
Walking tour of Reykjavik
To get our bearings on Reykjavik and learn more about Icelandic history and culture, Lauren and I did a walking tour with City Walk Reykjavik. The tour leaves from central Reykjavik, is two hours, and finishes at Town Hall. It is free, although do tip your guide. If the weather is chilly – as it was when we did our tour – the tour is altered slightly to include more indoor stops, making it manageable.
My tour guide, Eric, was extremely informative about the history and current events of Iceland, and also had a witty sense of humor which made the tour even more enjoyable.
Pub crawl of Reykjavik
Reykjavik is known for is its crazy nightlife. So, Lauren and I took to the streets and enjoyed a few good nights out while we were in town.
Our first night we joined in a pub crawl which brought us to a few bars around the city. I wasn’t blown away by the pub crawl since you can probably find these bars on your own, but if you want to meet other people, the pub crawl can be fun. You can find more info on the pub crawls available here and here.
Most of the bars are centered around Laugavegur, the main drag in Reykjavik, so just walking along you’ll easily be able to bar hop – a few of my favorites were the American Bar, the Lebowski Bar, and the British Pub.
Golden Circle tour
The Golden Circle Tour was one of the highlights of the trip for me. We did our full-day tour ($94) with Reykjavik Excursions and got to see the Geysir geothermal area, Gullfoss waterfall, and Þingvellir National Park. The landscape in Iceland is so rugged and filled with natural wonders that it was hard to not feel awed after this tour.
At 244 feet tall (74.5 meters), Hallgrímskirkja is the largest church in Iceland and among the tallest structures. Within the church, you can ride an elevator to the top ($8.50/adult) and get a panoramic view of Reykjavik.
What We Ate
Food in Iceland is not cheap. For a sit down meal at a restaurant, expect to pay at a minimum $20-$25 per entree. On our trip, we ate at everything from cheap Icelandic hot dog stands, to mid-priced restaurants, and splurged on a multi-course Icelandic gourmet feast. Here are some of the places we tried:
- Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur – Considered the “the best hot dog in town” and once even visited by Bill Clinton (“the Clinton” is a hot dog offered on the menu!), this is the best bang for your buck. They are also open late so after a night of partying in Reykjavik, head here.
- Laundromat Cafe – The Laundromat Cafe is a funky and fun cafe-restaurant. While we didn’t do our laundry here, it is possible to do so.
- Loft Hostel – Our hostel had free breakfast, which we took advantage of in order to save money.
- Kaffitár – This is a hip cafe that is perfect for warming up with a hot drink and pastry on a chilly day.
- Tapas Barinn – We splurged on a Icelandic Gourmet Feast for 7,590 kr. ($72). This included an aperitif called Brennivin, smoked puffin, monkfish with lobster tails, baked lobster tails, smoked trout, minke whale, lamb mint kabob, and Skyr mousse with a fruit coulis. I loved the meal!
Have you been to Iceland? Would you want to go?
All photos courtesy of my friend, Lauren. Visit her Interior Design portfolio here.