Iceland is super trendy. In the past decade, there’s been a >300% increase in the amount of visitors to Iceland — it’s almost to the point where you barely see any locals. Because I have the worst FOMO ever, I needed to go here before tourists overrun everything and American chains start moving in. Everyone in my family had already gone (which is not a reason to travel, but again, FOMO), so off I headed to Reykjavik for an Icelandic adventure.
all is full of love…
Bjork reference, check! Although I’m sure she draws in more than a few tourists wanting to visit her homeland (btw, there should be a huge Bjork statues somewhere), another big reason for the popularity of this destination is affordable flights. Carriers like Icelandair and WOW Air have dirt cheap fares from the Midwest and Eastern US. My flight there cost less than it would cost me to fly to San Francisco from LA. A lot of people, me included, use a trip to Iceland as an extended layover to get to Europe.
Wow Air is a no frills airline owned by an Icelandic billionaire (best story ever). You’ll know it by its vibrant purple planes; everything is extra $, but the flight from Chicago was only supposed to be 5 hours, so it’s a quick hop, skip and jump.
You may notice that I said “supposed” to be 5 hours. I had the misfortune of being on a plane that was delayed by an unplanned stop in Bangor, Maine for refueling (apparently poor weather closed other airports in Iceland). Of all my travels, I can say this was definitely a first. Apparently, Bangor is the last point before crossing the Atlantic where a plane can fuel up. This added on two hours, so I missed seeing the Northern Lights from the plane, as friends of mine did two days earlier.
That’s the adventure of traveling though, sometimes things are out of your control. Luckily, a spa day cures all. From the airport, the famous Blue Lagoon is only about 15 minutes away. Reserve your spot in advance, especially if you’re going during peak season because this is probably one of the most popular destinations in Iceland.
Even during low season, the queue to get in was long. They will give you a towel and a wristband, and off you go. Rinse off before and after you get into the geothermal waters. All I can say is that even in freezing temperatures, the water is super pleasant. There’s a drink included and a silica mud mask to boot. There’s steam rooms, saunas and you can even book a water massage. It was like 30 degrees when we were there, so maybe next time for the massage.
Highly recommend the Blue Lagoon’s onsite gourmet dining room, Lava. Featuring comforting Icelandic specialties prepared in a decidedly contemporary fashion, the setting is modern, austere and very chic in its minimalism. The lake view from the tables is stunning as well.
Transfer into Reykjavik is typically included in your Blue Lagoon excursion, and there are bus stops dotted throughout the city. There are many airbnbs available, but I chose boutique Hotel Skuggi for the stay. One reason, the food in Iceland is very expensive. I mean, think about it, A LOT has to be imported. There was free breakfast offered in this hotel and it was amazing. Literally some of the richest croissants filled with gruyere.
Reykjavik is not a big city. Highly walkable (despite frigid temperatures), one main street is Laugavegar. If you walk from one end to the other (east to west), you’ll pretty much cover the whole city. There’s boutiques, restaurants, and coffee shops on this stretch.
How I know Iceland is a destination I can get down with? The amount of coffee shops per capita. And they’re all very cozy and warm. Hygge city. Perfect for the weather.
Sandholt Bakery was the perfect first stop. Pastries are flaky, the hot chocolate rich and devine. It’s a real ladies who lunch kind of vibe, except it’s tourists dining. They also have an extensive selection of fine chocolates, macarons, and cakes. Everything one needs for an excellent vacation.
At the end of the street are several green areas. To the right is Arnarholl, a park with a statue commemorating Ingólfur Arnarson, Iceland’s first settler. There is quite a history of Vikings and early settlers to this area, covered by many of the museums in the old town.
Former Danish king Christian IX and poet Hans Hafstein chillin’ on Bank street.
Walking towards Laekjartorg (and the court district), you’ll see start to see another popular street filled with food options, Laekjargata. First you’ll see the Hard Rock Cafe, which as touristy as it may be, could be cool here as Iceland has a rich history of rock and roll. Not only can they claim Bjork, but also of Monsters and Men, Sigur Ros and GusGus.
Icelandic Street Food is a really great place to rest your laurels at the end of hard day of trekking (or in my case, hard spa-ing). They serve lamb stew, shellfish stew, or fisherman’s favorite (a mash of fish and potatoes on a thick slice of bread). The best things about the shellfish stew was that it was in a bread bowl, and that there are second helpings if you wish. It’s heavy and thick, so opted for just one serving, but also tried the icelandic pancake (basically a rolled crepe) and the Happy Marriage cake, a rhubarb crumbly cake that is not too sweet, but makes a nice ending to your first day on the trip.
As stated before, saved a ton of $$$ by choosing Hotel Skuggi because of the breakfast. Eggs, european bacon, sausages, mini croissants (I ate like 5 each day they were so good), lox and skyr. Skyr is icelandic yogurt that has become pretty popular stateside. It is everywhere. I’m pretty sure I only had one meal in which Skyr was not involved. Although, it may have been, they put it in everything.
Before setting off on touring for the day, you have to try another coffee shop, and Kaffitar is just the cute little shop to do that. It’s busy and loud and bustling, more of a great place to gather rather than the shops where you feel like you have to be quiet or else you’re disturbing the zen. Their swiss chocolate mocha was out of this world good.
I’m usually a go, go, go type traveler, but sometimes it’s nice to let tour groups do the planning for you, especially when it involves long drives. The Golden Circle is an area covering three of the top destinations in Iceland: Þingvellir National Park, Geysir, and Gullfoss waterfall. Now this is why people come to Iceland, for the natural beauty, largely untouched by modernization. There are tons of ice caves, geysers, waterfalls throughout, but if you’re on a quick trip, it’s easy to cover more ground this way.
Þingvellir is located on multiple tectonic plates, in the middle of a rift valley. As with any large island nation, its geography was and is continued to be shaped by volcanic activity. The North American and Eurasian continents meet here and you can see its continental drift across a large crevasse. Fissures upon fissures.
Which makes it seem like an interesting place to set up your seat of government, but indeed, this area was the site of Iceland’s first Parliament. When you walk down through the rift, you’ll see it designated by the flagpole.
The Haukadalur area of the country has tons of lakes and geysers in its valley. Geysir, namesake of all geysers and the original Old Faithful of Iceland, now erupts very rarely. It’s little brother Strokkur is more dependable, erupting every 5-10 minutes.
The final stop is Gullfoss, one of Iceland’s famed waterfalls. It’s like a staircase, with water plunging, 30+ then 60+ into a crevice > 100 feet deep.
It was freezing rain at this point, so a little treacherous to be out on slippery rocks, but its beauty was able to be realized even in a short visit.
After touring for most of the day, a late lunch is in order. None more famous than Iceland’s hot dogs. Baejarins Beztu Pylsur or “the town’s best sausages” is probably the most notable, with its unassuming stand near the Harpa concert hall. Pylsurs are made from organic lamb, with a little beef and pork thrown in for good measure. The frank is served on a bed of fried onions (great touch, people after my own heart), with ketchup, remoulade and mustard. It’s a great deal at $4. I wish I had eaten more.
Harpa is the gorgeous Danish-designed concert hall right on the harbor. As we know from my travels to Copenhagen, Danes know their design. This architectural gem has a glass facade that references the basalt features of Iceland’s geography.
Because the second night’s plans included hunting for Northern Lights, we had to fuel up with coffee. Kaffibrennslan is a cute little house turned cafe with light bites as well. The thing I love about Icelandic coffee is the depth of the roast, it’s strong and earthy.
Because a hot dog is not enough for dinner, you gotsta have more. At this point, branching out of Icelandic fare is worth a try. Noodle Station serves up piping hot bowls of Northern Thai style beef soup. It’s flavorful, spicy and will warm you up for your trek to see the lights. It’s fairly reasonable as well. Two of my friends loved it so much they had it twice during their trip.
Northern Lights are a crapshoot. Even if you plan: must go in the Winter months when the sky is darker longer, when there’s no moon (too bright otherwise), it’s all the luck of the draw. The weather in Iceland changes frequently, and so even if you pick the perfect conditions, clouds may roll in and obscure your view, which is mostly what happened to us. I apologize, this may be the worst picture of the northern lights ever taken:
Obviously better with the naked eye, you really have to look for more of a glow than the dancing lights which a lot of people are able to capture. But, still I feel pretty lucky to have seen any at all, and the lights had more of a pinkish hue than green on my night, which was cool. The way these tours work is that they pick you up at 9:30-10 PM and drive you to a bus depot where you and hundreds of other people are bused out to a more secluded location away from city lights (usually more near the airport). If you do the tour on your own, you may have more flexibility as to where you can drive yourself. A friend of mine stayed out in the country and was able to see them from his hotel room, so that may be a better option.
Since we didn’t get back to our hotel until about 2-3 AM, third day was planned as our wind down. If you’re an adventurer, I definitely recommend looking into ice caving or hiking around, there’s so many natural wonders to see. For us, we wanted to roam around the city.
First stop, Hallgrimskirkja church. Maybe the most instagrammed site in Reykjavik, this church looks like a rocket ship. You can see it from almost everywhere in the city, so it makes for a nice landmark if you were to get lost (you won’t).
There’s a large Leif Erikson statue by Alexander S. Calder (father of the colorful modern sculptor Alexander Calder) gifted by the US to Iceland in 1930 and it predates the spaceship behind it. I think the inside is even better, so gorgeous with a huge organ.
And just around the corner are two really great places to stop for a coffee and snack. Rekjavik Roasters and Braud & Co. You can’t miss Braud & Co. literally because it’s the only tie-dyed colored building on its street or any street.
You can’t miss it figuratively because of its famed cinnamon rolls. Very yeasty and dense, it’s not like an American cinnamon roll, but still very tasty. Yeasty is a weird word and not that appetizing, but if you want to try, come around 11 AM when they are ready.
Take your buns down to the harbor, where there is an excellent path for runners and walkers alike. Enjoy the scenery as you walk towards the Old Harbor. First you’ll see the Hofdi House, where Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev met during the Reykjavik Summit (a breakthrough meeting that is considered a starting point to the end of the Cold War).
You’ll run into one of the more curious looking public art installations, the Sun Voyager.
It looks like a bunch of fish bones to me, which could be representative of nature being stripped by industrialism, but it’s actually supposed to be a “dreamboat” ode to the sun symbolizing hope and freedom. Regardless, it is very remarkable and gleams like a bastion of light, so sculptor Jon Gunnar accomplished his goals.
The Old Harbor is a collection of colorful shops and cafes overlooking the many tugboats docked in the bay. It’s very old timey and cute. There’s the maritime museum, Viking museum and other historical places in this area to visit. There’s even a building with a uterus on it, where else would you find that?
Walking back towards the hotel, make sure you stop and see Parliament Square Austurvoller. Jon Sigordsson was a leader of Icelandic Independence in the 19th century, and people still make public statements using him as the vessel in this square.
To cap off a relaxing morning of meandering, we settled in at Messinn. This was a place I’d heard was incredible from some friends and it did not disappoint. They are known for their fish pans: a huge portion of fish, potatoes and arugula still sizzling in a cast iron skillet. It. Was. So. Good. My arctic char was so flaky and crispy, with a slightly sweet flavor from honey and tomatoes. I could eat that every day.
And so ended another quick trip, a few days is a perfect amount of time to see the bare bones of Reykjavik, however if you’re really wanting to see the rest of the country and partake in spelunking, volcano hiking or even scuba diving, I’d suggest a full week. So much to see and do, and a lot of culture and history as well. It’s serene, quiet and it’s not too far of a jaunt from the Eastern US, so have at it!
Listen to: Bjork, Of Monsters and Men, Sigur Ros, GusGus
Eat & Drink: FISH, Pylsur, any kind of stew, coffee
Suggested souvenirs: salt, sweaters/knits, icelandic chocolate