I got given a surprise for Christmas….. a trip to Iceland! I totally wasn’t expecting it. Iceland has been on my wish list for a while, but I’ve never gotten around to actually planning a trip. So when I was surprised with the flights and a hotel in Reykjavik as a Christmas present it gave me the opportunity to plan the rest of our trip.
We were there 4 days and so, to make sure we could fit in as much as possible, I did lots of planning. I’m going to share the highlights of our trip in this post, so you can find all the research in one place 🙂
Where to stay?
There is lots to see and do all over Iceland, but the international airport and capital city Reykjavik are found in the south west of the island. This region is also home to some of Iceland’s main tourist attractions: the Blue Lagoon and the Golden Circle. If its your first time visiting Iceland and especially if its a short trip, it makes sense to focus on this region.
Although it’s Iceland’s capital city, Reykjavik is more like a large town by international standards. That said, theres a good mix of restaurants, cafes and points of cultural interest, making this a worthwhile place to stay.
Our hotel, the Hotel Klettur was just on the edge of old town Reykjavik. Our superior room had fantastic views of the city, with a backdrop of the ocean and snow topped mountains. A bonus was the complimentary underground car park. We chose to hire a car to maximise our travel (you can read more on that in my Golden Circle post) and having a dry space to store it was beneficial.
We were able to walk from our hotel to all points of interest in the city, including to some great restaurants and down to the harbour (see later in this post for a run down of places to visit in Reykjavik).
I’d recommend staying as close to the old town as possible – its the cultural centre of Reykjavik and being able to walk to the bars and restaurants in an evening is handy. Given that tourism has grown 24.4% per year in the period 2010 – 2016, there are plenty of modern hotels that have been established to cater to this growth. In fact, Reykjavik is still growing – there were numerous cranes on the horizon during our visit.
When to visit?
Iceland has tourists year round. Its northern location makes it one of the best places to see the aurora borealis (the Northern Lights) but these are only seen in winter, when the hours of daylight can be as low as 4 hours 7 minutes! Its cold climate also means lots of snow and ice – so if visiting in winter be prepared and pack lots of layers. This presents its own challenges if driving, but all hire vehicles come with winter tyres and of course the locals are used to it. We saw lots of snow ploughs clearing the roads. For me, the snow added to the magic and much of the country looked magnificent shimmering in the snow. (Note: I wasn’t the one doing the driving!)
In summer, Iceland’s sunset is after midnight and sunrise before 3am, meaning over 20 hours of daylight. This makes the island a very different place to visit. Roads that were impassible in winter are open and the flora and fauna are able to flourish rather than be covered in snow. The summer months are more popular with tourists, so expect attractions to be busier and prices to be higher, especially in July and August.
What to see in Reykjavík
Old Reykjavík, the area between the harbour and Lake Tjörnin, was developed in the 18th Century and is a mix of winter sports shops, jewellery shops, restaurants, bars and lots of tourist information points selling tours! The majority of buildings on the old streets are cute, brightly painted and clad in corrugated iron.
We experienced some great food in Reykjavik. Icelander’s have diverse tastes and we did our best to try as much authentic cuisine as we could. As part of this we had a tasting menu at restaurant grillmarkaðurinn on our first evening. I’ll do a separate blog post on the food in Iceland as I’m a foodie at heart and theres lots to say! 🙂
From almost any street in the old town you can glimpse the Hallgrímskirkja – A Lutheran parish church which is one of the tallest buildings in Iceland at 74.5 metres. It is free to go inside and marvel at the beautiful interior. It is quite simplistic as churches go, but its the scale of it which is humbling. The ceiling in particular is very pretty. For a small fee (around £8) you can take a lift up the tower for views across Reykjavik.
The seafront in Reykjavik is surprisingly underdeveloped. I guess they don’t really have the weather to be sitting enjoying a drink outside, but I did think there’d be some cozy coffee shops with large windows. Alas, the seafront is mainly apartments, with hire car depots and even a Domino’s pizza!
But, there are some fantastic views of the mountains over the sea. This makes it a good place for pictures and for a bracing walk. A little further along the seafront, towards the harbour, is the Harpa opera house and conference hall, which is also very pretty and well worth a visit if you’re into classical music.
Reykjavik’s old harbour is having a resurgence. Many of the old buildings have been converted and you can now find a mix of informal bars, restaurants and shops, interspersed with industrial factories.
We stopped off for a break from the cold (it was minus 3 celsius) in bryggjan brugghús, a bistro with beer pumps linked directly to the brewery next door. The harbour seemed to be home to lots of independent, quirky places similar to this, so its well worth a visit.
The harbour is still in use for its intended purpose and many boats can be seen moored and having maintenance performed.
We headed down to the harbour to visit the Omnom chocolate factory. This Icelandic chocolate company make an array of chocolate bars and malt balls in their harbour-based factory. You can even take a factory tour and see how they turn the cocoa beans into chocolate.
We purchased some very nice chocolate from here, but be warned, like most things in Iceland its pricey. It worked out at over £7 ($10) per bar!
Heading out of the city – Day trips
When you want to enjoy the restaurants and nightlife of Reykjavik but also want to explore, there are an abundance of options in Iceland.
One of the highlights in Iceland (and perhaps its major tourist attraction) is the Golden Circle. This 230km circular drive has various stopping points at some of Iceland’s most impressive natural wonders; Þingvellir National Park, Gulfoss waterfall and Geysir. There are other optional stop off points too.
We chose to do the Golden Circle ourselves by hire car and I’ve got a separate post with all my tips for a doing the Golden Circle yourself.
The Blue Lagoon
Another of Iceland’s big attractions is the blue lagoon. Whilst not a natural wonder (the lava rock and heated water is natural, but it only enters the Blue Lagoon after being used in a nearby geothermal power plant) it is a must-see in Iceland and is only a short ride from Reykjavik (40 mins) and the airport (20 mins).
We chose to enter late afternoon to experience the Blue Lagoon in daylight, dusk and darkness. Pre-booking is essential, but once in you can stay as long as you want 🙂
Nutrient rich algae masks, steam rooms, saunas and an in-lagoon bar make the whole experience very relaxing.
I purchased a cheap (£35) waterproof 4k camera from Amazon for our Blue Lagoon visit which is a must if you don’t want to worry about your phone! This handy camera came with me on all our excursions and worked brilliantly! This was really handy in the Blue Lagoon, but also in the driving rain on parts of our Golden Circle tour.
Many visitors to Iceland go in the hope of seeing the Northern Lights – just as we did. However, the more I researched them, the more I realised just how difficult they can be to see. Having a good Northern Lights show depends so much on the time of year and weather conditions, specifically cloud cover.
During our visit, we had 99% and 100% cloud cover EVERY NIGHT, meaning all Northern Light tours were cancelled. I was glad that we didn’t have to stand in the cold for hours waiting for them, but it would have been the icing on the cake for our trip. Oh well, looks like the Aurora Borealis is still on the bucket list…. maybe Canada… or Norway.
If you’re heading to Iceland be sure to research tour providers – some have more experience and are better at finding the lights that others. Large bus tours are cheaper, but mini-buses and private tours will be more agile, so able to respond to the conditions, maximising your chances of seeing the lights. Book Northern Light tours in advance and check that if the tour is cancelled you either get a refund or the option of going again on another night of your stay.
Tour or DIY?
For all of these tourist attractions you can choose from organised tours with a guide or do-it-yourself with a hire car. Given the high prices in Iceland, once I’d calculated airport transfers, blue lagoon transfers and a golden circle tour it worked out cheaper to hire a 4×4 and do the travelling ourselves. This also gave us more flexibility. I’d always recommend a guide for the Northern Light tours though, as their expertise is valuable.
As well as these top tourist attractions there is so much more to do in Iceland. Some include:
- Glacier walking in the south of the island
- Wildlife watching (whales, puffins)
- Walking through ice caves
- Diving in crystal clear (but cold) water between the Eurasian and American tectonic plates
- Skiing and snowmobiling
- And of course, visiting the other towns in Iceland.
A website that I found useful when researching what to do is guidetoiceland.is. Be sure to cross-reference with tripadvisor reviews and always compare booking tours directly, rather that through an agent.