The Land of Fire and Ice
Iceland, for a very long time in the bucket list of destinations wishing to go and finally a reality. And what can I say about this amazing country, other than wishing to have stayed longer and see more. Yet we knew four days was not going to be enough, the fact is that a week is still short for that many places you can visit, and all in this medium-sized island. A miniature continent full of fascinating natural wonders, the power of mother earth at every corner you go, no matter the season, the beauty is guaranteed any month. From being able to admire the spectacular Northern Lights and that winter wonderland snowy landscapes, almost isolated glaciers or icebergs on the beach to eerie empty grasslands, lava soil and powerful rivers and waterfalls with every shade of green from the fields; each of the seasons is more unique than the other.
Reykjavik, the northernmost capital in the world is the arriving gateway to this world of wonders. Small yet thriving, its metropolitan area is home to around 230000 people, that’s over 60% of the country’s population. Very organised, clean and the safest capital in Europe, is full of beautiful colorful wooden houses and mansions, churches, museums and a quite impressive nightlife especially during the weekends. Shops, bars and restaurants everywhere serving great food, notoriously good for fish and seafood, and whale steaks. Yes whale; Iceland and Japan are the rare nations still fishing it.
While visiting the capital will not take you even a day, the rest of the country we know would last several, but for the average visitor, some 5 days is good enough to capture the best spots allowing yourself a good reason why to come back, perhaps during a different season of the year to have a complete different view. After all, you are never too far away from Reykjavik from the top natural sights as the Golden Circle, the Blue Lagoon, the stunning rock formations in the sea by Reynisfjara Beach and the Vatnajökull National Park.
Elsewhere in the island you have lots more to see and do, but not as incredible as all in the south. Furthermore, in order to reach the north and east, it would be better to plan ahead and get a domestic flight since driving is a very long and tiring way especially during the winter months.
As briefly mentioned before, a must do while in Iceland, especially if this is your first time, is bathing at The Blue Lagoon. Quite near the capital city, it will surely impress you. The very warm geothermic water coming from beneath the pools, the steamy waters and the setting itself is simply spectacular. The blue-ish color is due to the high sulphur in the water, and there are plenty for everyone to do. Several interconnected pools, saunas, steam rooms and volcanic silica mud. Plenty to take and put on your face and your body. Now, something that has changed over the years since we went, is the need to pre-book online your visit; then also consider the time you wish to attend. The fact is that the later you go, the cheaper it gets to enter, however the more limited time you can stay. So no matter if you like to come from the morning and spend the entire day until its closing time, or coming before 18.00pm, it will still cost you the same. However, after 18.00pm the price drops, then at 19.00 drops again, with the latest and cheapest entrance being at 20.00pm, although leaving you only with 2 hours to enjoy. Here in their official website you can find all the information and how to proceed with the pre-booking.
Food-wise talking, it is like anything else in the country, summarising in one word, expensive. Still, good everywhere you go, mostly all truly home made and very fresh especially the fish and sea food, the catch of the day until sold out. Majority of places are along the main thoroughfare Laugavegur and the harbor area where you will also find restaurant serving whale steak which although cheaper than perhaps anywhere else in the world, it will be a serious business to the average tourist. Then, alcoholic drinks could also lead you to bankruptcy. Their import taxes are so high that you are advised to bring your own bottle of something if you want to perhaps enjoy some drinks at the hotel or apartment with friends.
For further information about Iceland visit Wikipedia and Wikitravel sites. Iceland’s currency is the Krona (ISK). Please note that any price reference is true as from when this guide was created, therefore check prices in advance as with the time they change.
What to see and do in Iceland
- Reykjavik The small capital city where most of the country’s population lives. Quite thriving and charming with the many wooden houses and mansions, yet do not rise your expectations too high. After all, coming to Iceland will most likely be to enjoy the unparalleled nature.
-Harpa, The Harp Concert Hall By the harbor at the northwest side of the city. On a similar way to what happened with the Opera of Oslo, it became the new symbol of the city.
-Saebraut The main promenade by the sea along the entire north side of the city, one of the city’s prime location offering beautiful views of the bay.
-Sun Voyager The famous sculpture of a boat in stainless-steel created in 1990 by Jón Gunnar Árnason, along the Saebraut.
-Laugavegur Street Parallel to the Saebrut Promenade, is the principal street of the city linking the major Lækjartorg Road at the west near the Cathedral with Snorrabraut Street at the east, with plenty of shops, bars, restaurants and thriving nightlife.
-Austurvöllur The largest square in the city, three blocks south of the harbor. One of the most charming places, with beautiful architecture around the streets.
-Icelandic Parliament (Alþingi) On the southern side of Austurvöllur, nice old building with nice surrounding landscapes and buildings.
-Cathedral (Dómkirkjan í Reykjavík) Next to the Parliament, was built in 1796 in Nordic architecture.
-Lake Tjörnin The most up-scale destination in Reykjavik, with many mansions and houses of diverse architectural styles, embassies and governmental buildings.
-City Hall (Ráðhúsið) Along the northern edge of the Lake Tjörnin. Although nothing special with the building itself, the best here are the views of the lake.
-Fríkirkjan Along the eastern shore of the lake, built in 1903 as the main Lutheran church in the city.
-National Gallery of Iceland Next to the Fríkirkjan Church. Although of recent construction, it was designed to fit the area with its neoclassical appearance.
-Hallgrímskirkja Church In Skólavörðuholti. This is the tallest church in Iceland, with an observation deck at its tower open daily from 09.00am to 20.00pm, offering great views over the city, mountains and sea. 900 ISK to access the top.
- The Blue Lagoon Between Keflavik and Reykjavik, near to the town of Grindavik, some 45 minutes’ drive from the capital. One of the incredible must do while in Iceland. The thermal water coming directly from under you in such an astonishing setting is really out of this world, even if you have to pay the rather high fare to access. I do strongly suggest you to go with enough time to enjoy some hours there, it is truly worth it.
- The Golden Circle This is possibly why most of the visitors come to visit Iceland. Not only it is right next to the capital city, it does offer some of the greatest landscapes and natural sights of the island. Geysers, waterfalls, the Europe-America fissure, mountains… Listed below and by order, here are the main sites:
-Thingvellir National Park Listed an UNESCO World Heritage Site in full. The park is home to the world’s longest running Parliament, first established in 930 AD, and also has a dramatic landscape formed as a result of sitting along the edges of the North American and European tectonic plates. It’s around one hour by car if driving from Reykjavik, along the Route 1 via Mosfellsbaer. From there it is possible to access route 36 which runs through Thingvellir.
-Lake Thingvallavatn It will appear while driving towards Ulfljotsvatn. You will have great views around it from the road.
-Fissure (Almannagjá fault) You can park by Almannagjá just after lake. Walk the way around it. What first looks like a big wall, it then turns into small and deep lakes, which follows the tectonic fissure clearly visible. At this point, you are between both the North America and European tectonic plaques.
-Old Parliament Site Next to the fissure. Walk around the many bridges over the small rivers and admire the great landscapes surrounding you.
-Geysir After the National Park, if you keep following the road, from Route 36 onto the Route 37. There are signs on the road everywhere hence impossible to miss even for the ones not following a navigation system. The word Geyser in English derives from here. The Great Geysir is one of the tallest in the world, erupting every few minutes. Other smaller ones are scattered in the area.
-Gullfoss A spectacular waterfall (which translates as Golden Falls), one of the most known natural wonders of Iceland.
-Kerid Crater Driving along Route 35 direction Selfoss, easy to spot next to the road.
- The South of the island Home to the volcano which halted all flights between Europe and America for several weeks in 2010, the Eyjafjallajökull, and two great waterfalls. Also black sand beaches and vast extensions of empty fields where big lava rocks feel from that last eruption of the volcano.
-Geothermal Exhibition 30 kilometres east from Reykjavik along Route 1. Absolutely all the hot water in Iceland comes from the geothermal plants. Free and “forever”, in this plant you can learn all about, how the pipes are installed and how the entire city of Reykjavik gets it directly from this plant.
-Seljalandsfoss Continuing along Route 1, and merely meters off the road. This 60 meters high falls main attraction is the pathway leading behind the falls itself.
-Gljufrabui Located at walking distance to the north of Seljalandsfoss. Another great waterfall set in a narrow gorge.
-Eyjafjallajökull Volcano Continuing on Route 1, see for the signs to the visitor’s centre, it’s right on the road but easy to be missed. If the visibility is reduced with low clouds, then you will not be able to see the volcano itself.
-Skógafoss Continuing along the Route 1 after the volcano. A landmark fall some 60 meters high with a trail leading to the top via the metal stairs you see on the right hand side of the falls itself, and up the Skógá river valley.
-Sólheimasandur Beach Worldwide famous for the wreckage of the Douglas Super DC-3 plane from the US Navy that crashed in November 1973.
-Reynisfjara Beach One of the most beautiful, with black volcanic sand and the views towards the Reynisfjara and Dyrhólaey rock formations inside the sea.
-Vik Bech Right after Reynisfjara, famous for the very black volcanic sand and the petrified lava flow farther along.
-Vatnajökull National Park Home to Iceland’s largest glaciers and highest peak, the Hvannadalshnúkur. Lots of tours are on offer to the glacier, or you can drive through the coast to reach the next unique sight, the Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon, where you can see lots of floating icebergs floating towards the sea, and the iceberg beach around it.
Iceland’s only international airport is Keflavik, some 50 kilometres from the city centre of Reykjavik, while a smaller airport next to Reykjavik handles almost all of the domestic destinations. In terms of routes served, Iceland is an important middle point between Europe and North America hence greatly connected to plenty of destinations. Until not long ago it was quite expensive to fly here and the airline choice was quite of minimal but nowadays every important flag-carrier and low-cost airline fight for their competitive rates.
The easiest way to reach the city is via the bus. From experience, FlyBus to the main bus terminal BSÍ costs 2950 for a single or 5500 ISK for a return ticket. Please note that for 1000 extra on a single or 1500 ISK for the return, the bus can drop you at the desired hotel however this needs to be communicated to the driver in advanced. As for the cheapest option you have the public bus, but it requires a change in order to reach the city centre, anyway it’s pretty simple and certainly cost-saving. From the parking lot next to the rental car bus stop you have the bus 55, then change for the bus number 1. All in all it comes to 1760 ISK one way. Judge for yourself between comfort and time, or money, less comfort and double the time.
Within Reykjavik itself distances are walkable, very easy to navigate while of course, on foot is the best way to visit and enjoy the sights. However if you come from the outskirts you can then take the public buses straightforwardly.
Now what really matters, visiting the rest of the island, or the major sights such as the Golden Circle and the Blue Lagoon. Yes, you can do all of this without the need for renting a car. Not everyone has a driving licence or do want to drive during their holidays right?. The good news is that you do not need either to take an organised tour in order to do the Golden Circle; there are normal buses doing this route, and so to the Blue Lagoon, however that is pretty much it on the easy and fast way. Unfortunately Iceland is way much more than that, and the large amount of incredible natural sights well worth to get a car or pre-planned transportation during your stay.
There is no doubt the cost of hotels in Iceland is way higher than anywhere else, to the likes of Paris, London or Dublin. And there is not really a way around, nor a wide choice since the properties are medium to small size. It is good nevertheless, and becoming even greater with the construction of plenty more, but let’s face it, this is a very wealthy nation that knew well how to beat the economic crisis, structure its failure points, make the necessary changes and grow steadily year after year. A good and reasonable point to start your search is by checking some of our preferred affiliate hotel search engine such as Hotels.com, Booking.com, Expedia, Otel.com, Agoda, Opodo or Ebookers.
Now, while a lot has changed since our trip back in 2012, possibly our experience is not so relevant anymore, but I am hoping to return soon and have the guide updated accordingly to reflect the current situation. We found an amazing deal on a non-profitable hotel used by fishermen; do not tell me how we managed it, but it was simply perfect. This is the Sjomannaheimilid Orkin, on Brautarholt 29 next to Laugavegur street. Everyone was super friendly, welcoming and helpful; simple in design and decor, yet comfortable and quiet, spacious rooms arranged in two levels and nice breakfast.
Reykjavik, the capital city
The Golden Circle
The South of Iceland