Let me prefix this by saying that Iceland is quite endearingly, the least pretentious place I've ever visited.
I booked a 5 day/4 night trip towards the end of January, flying with Iceland Air and staying at the family-run Hotel Leifur Eiriksson in central Reykjavik. In terms of what to see in Iceland, I hoped to see the Northern Lights, discover some of the geothermal highlights, experience some culture and cuisine and take a dip in the Blue Lagoon. Our Monday-Friday 5 days in Iceland was just long enough to see these highlights.
The 2.5 hour flight from London to Reykjavik on Iceland Air goes by very quickly, but you’ll have enough time to listen through a range of Icelandic artists and the obligatory Bjork back-catalogue on the entertainment system on the way. If you haven’t made plans for your Iceland itinerary, there are some short documentaries to help you plan.
The view over the interior of Iceland as you fly in during winter is majestic - it's like a snowy kind of moonscape. The interior is completely uninhabited but you can pick out mountains and craters and volcanoes.
Reykjavik airport is smart, wooden-clad and Scandinavian-styled and you’ll immediately notice a refreshing absence of big brand advertising. There aren't even any billboards on the drive from the airport into the capital, and the whole drive threw up just one KFC and a branch of Subway.
The next thing you quickly realise is the reality of visiting in the winter, in January… Although Iceland is known as 'Land of the midnight sun' for its 24 hour daylight from June to August - during the winter months, the sun rises at about 11am and sets about 3pm, giving you less than an hour of real brightness.
Strolling around central Reykjavik is a low-key experience. With none of the usual high-rise development of a typical city, the shopping and eating district of Reykjavik feels like a small town. Houses and shops are nestled in side by side; the older places are constructed largely out of driftwood (Iceland ran out of trees when the Vikings settled), with modern establishments now clad in corrugated metal.
The main shopping street doesn't feature a single recognisable European or American brand - no Starbucks, no McDonalds. In contrast, you’ll find charming, diverse and independent cafes selling yummy cakes and pastries and really REALLY good coffee. Icelanders take their coffee very seriously, so coffee snobs will be completely satisfied.
Before heading out for dinner, you need to be aware of the presence of whale on the tourist menus. Despite what they may tell you, whale meat isn’t a traditional local dish – the majority of Icelanders don’t eat it and it’s mostly only consumed by tourists. There is a great deal of controversy surrounding Iceland’s whaling industry so I would say best to avoid whale steak.
When it comes to local snacks, look out for fishy bites (dried fish served in a bag, like crisps - salty but yum), boiled head of sheep (!) and chocolate with liquorice pieces (surprisingly good).
You'd think it was a cliché if Icelanders wandered around in the traditional Icelandic woollen clothing (think knitted jumpers with a pattern yoke round the neck), but lots of them do. Iceland does well out of their sheep; delicious lamb and lots of wool. All the shops sell gorgeous, wool wear including knitted jumpers, cardigans and dresses - all fashioned from the local wool and costing from about £100 up. For my own souvenir, I opted for something a little cheaper and bought a few balls of wool instead to make my own Icelandic wool scarf.
Many visitors book in on a Northern Lights itinerary as this is one of the best places to see this spectacular phenomenon. I had a low expectation of a sighting since it was so cloudy during my visit, but its worth knowing that if you don’t see the lights on your first night out, you can keep going out every night of your stay until you do – sadly we didn’t get to see them this time. If you visit in winter, wrap up very warmly indeed – the night’s chill soon sets in.
Since Reykjavik is not a particularly large place, many people go out for the day on the Golden Circle tour – and absolute ‘must-do’, especially if you’re short on time. It's breath-taking seeing nature and the elements at work in such a powerful way and having a local guide to quiz along the way ensures your questions get answered.
The tour visits 3 top sights around the city; the famous ‘Geysir’ (after which all geysers in the world take their name), Gullfoss ( spectacular multi-level waterfall) and Thingvellir National Park. I booked with one of the tour operators who operate mini bus tours so there were 10 of us in total and the driver did the guiding in English as we drove.
You're guaranteed a spectacular site when you arrive at the geyser. It spouts hot water and steam about every 5-7 minutes, signified by an ominous bubbling of the puddle that covers the geyser. If you’ve visited a geothermal hot spot before, you’ll know it smells like rotting eggs (as do most hot water taps), because of the sulphur in the water. When it blows you see several vertical metres of hot water and steam - to the admiration of the crowd.
Second stop on the tour is Gullfoss, the great waterfall. It’s difficult to appreciate the scale of these falls, until you stand and watch people walking down the track beside then. When we were here in January, the rocks of the falls were covered with gigantic, fat icicles and the whole scene took place under a magical flurry of snow. I recommend diving into the café for a hot chocolate after your viewing – it can be very chilly!
The river cuts down deep after the falls and carves out a steep-sided valley with rock walls on either side. Its' incredibly impressive, and I imagine even more so in summer, when glacial melt water keeps the rivers high and the volume of run-off is significant.
Historically speaking, Iceland was settled in about 871 AD by Vikings who headed out from Norway. It was broadly under Norwegian control until it fell to the Danish. Eventually, many years later it regained independence and re-instated its historic parliament, which had been founded in the 900s - the first parliament in the world – based in Thingvellir.
Icelanders have enshrined the rock where the parliament used to meet within a national park and that's also been protected as a UNESCO world heritage site. To reach the famous parliamentary meeting point, we set out on foot across the rift valley. The valley formed as the two tectonic plates drift apart (about 2cm a year). As a geographer I was in my element getting to see geological features you normally only read about in textbooks!
The view from the parliament site is incredible. Behind, is the towering rock face of the North American plate, and in front, looking towards the Eurasian pate is a vast valley with views over mountains, volcanoes and an enormous glacial lake. Its must have been chosen as a place that would inspire people to make wise decisions.
After a day of breath-taking, spectacular natural highlights, you’ll head back to town, ready for a heart meal and a warm drink!
This was one of the sights I was most looking forward to - I love geothermal pools! Across the city are several geothermal pools, the most well-known natural pool being the Blue Lagoon. Its water is maintained at a constant 37-39 degrees Celsius, so it feels like a giant bath.
The strange white silica mud reputedly has health benefits for psoriasis sufferers, but it’s also used as a face mask, so we wiled away the day swimming around to search out the hot streams, squelching in the white mud under water and slapping it onto our faces.
The milky blue, steaming lagoon is surrounded by blackened volcanic pumice stones which at water level are covered in bright white deposit left by the water. The pool itself is in the middle of a lava field and through the steam you're overlooked by looming dark mountains. We visited for several hours during the middle of the day, but even at its zenith, the sun didn't really light up the lagoon. However, as it set, sunlight streamed over the mountains and we had about half an hour of sun whilst everyone rushed for their camera.
Although the financial crash of 2008 did a lot of damage (it basically bankrupted Iceland), it did bring down the price of airfares and hotels for visitors which are steep but more affordable then before. Food and souvenirs are still pricey - you're going to be paying £30+ per head for 2 courses and soft drinks, and alcohol is highly taxed. We evened out our food bill with some hot dogs and a noodle bar visit.
Credit cards are accepted absolutely everywhere from hot dog stands to tourism mini buses. They operate everything with an enviable and seemingly effortless efficiency which makes you wish the UK could follow suit - until you remember that their tiny, almost tribal population is 0.5% of the UK's!
Iceland is a country you can wholeheartedly describe as unique. Geologically, there's nowhere with quite so much activity. Socially and linguistically, there are no divides - no class system, no dialects and it's not a big enough place to become factional. Everyone is embraced. Icelanders know who they are and know here they came from, which seems to given them a quiet and friendly confidence.
If you’d like to visit Iceland, we can include Reykjavik as a stop on your round the world trip. With some flights between London and New York now including Iceland as a free stopover, you could also think about a fantastic two-centre trip with Reykjavik and New York combined!
We can easily arrange self-drives if you have a few days – and these will allow you to explore more of the landscape at your own pace. To talk about your next trip, call us on +44 1273320580 or request a quote by email.