Iceland has been on my bucket list for as long as I can remember – namely for seeing the Northern Lights but when the truth dawned on me that the chances of seeing them is pretty low in Iceland (I’d say not a chance in Reykjavik), I figured I’d be better off chasing Aurora Borealis to Tromos, Norway instead (and it’s a great excuse to visit Norway). Side note: Lima saw the Northern Lights in Tromøs and her post is worth a read.
Nonetheless I was excited to see Reykjavik and it exceeded my expectations from the moment the plane started its descent over the volcanic and mountainous land below. I went for two nights and three days – one more day would have been perfect but hey, no more annual leave left for this year. It’s probably just as well as Iceland is expensive although as I discovered, it is possible to experience Iceland on a budget.
As with all my trips, I like to share my tips. Iceland truly is an incredible country to so much to offer – can’t wait to go back.
- Go, go, go!
If you’ve been thinking about going to Reykjavik, do it! It is only a 3-hour flight from London (2.5 hours on the way back if you’re lucky). I flew with Iceland Air who were excellent. My return flight was from Heathrow and cost less than £140. Also, Iceland is in the same time zone as the UK so no jet lag! By the way, Iceland Air offers a free stopover in Reykjavik for passengers wishing to travel to America and Canada (New York is only 5 hours from Reykjavik). I believe the total fare is cheaper than its competitors too.
- Get a Revolut card
Revolut is a pre-paid credit card which offers the best conversion rates. For the first time I didn’t bother with cash as everywhere in Iceland accepts contactless. The card is linked to an app on the phone from where you can top up cash as and when you need to. It has eliminated the need to seek local currency and dealing with left over loose change. Make sure you pay in local currency to get the best out of the card.
Iceland is expensive (probably about 25% more than the UK) – even the Norwegians think so and that’s saying something. To keep costs low, I stayed in an Airbnb room in the heart of the city centre with a shared bathroom and kitchen. The room was small but so cosy, comfortable and clean. When you just want a place to crash, anything more seems excessive. I paid less than £70 for two nights so between two people, that came to £140. Use my link to get £25 off your first Airbnb booking.
It was a no brainer to hire a car – it gave us the freedom to go wherever we wanted and driving in Iceland is largely straight roads although you must be careful of the strong winds and icy roads (cars are fitted with winter tyres, mind). Apparently, a private taxi from the airport to the city centre is £120 one way! The alternative is to book a return bus transfer which Iceland caters for well. I think this is 40 euros return. We rented an economy car (Toyota Yaris) which cost £48 for a full tank. We managed to do a 300+ km trip covering the Golden Circle, Blue Lagoon and to and from the airport.
Iceland is cold in the winter, sometimes falling below minus temperatures although luck was on our side as the temperature was about 2 degrees. A few days before it had dropped to -11. When you’re travelling with carry-on luggage, the key is to wear layers. I found some superb leggings and full sleeve tops in Uniqlo and Mountain Warehouse to wear beneath walking trousers and jumpers. I also recommend windproof gloves (also available in Uniqlo), hats, coats and walking boots if you’re planning to visit in the winter.
- What to see and do
The Golden Circle is the most popular route, pinpointing some absolute gems southern Iceland has to offer and perfect if you’re only in Iceland for a short time as we were. There are organised excursions and the entire route can be covered in a day. We visited the hot springs of Geysir and 10 minutes further ahead was the spectacular Gullfoss Waterfall before driving back through Thingvellier National Park. These attractions are free but be prepared for the lovely but expensive restaurant and gift shop at the foot of the geysirs (a small cup of coffee is nearly £4).
The other must-see and must-do attraction is the Blue Lagoon Spa, a geothermal spa in southwestern Iceland. The spa is located in a lava field and is supplied by water used in the nearby Svartsengi geothermal power station. The Blue Lagoon is approximately 20 km (12 miles) from Keflavík International Airport. The warm waters are rich in minerals like silica and sulfur and bathing in the Blue Lagoon is reputed to help some people suffering from skin diseases such as psoriasis. There are two packages available – Comfort and Premium – the only thing that differentiates the two is the Premium option provides a bathrobe and slippers (the latter which you can keep). To be honest, it’s not worth it and the Comfort package is more than adequate with a towel, face mask and drink included. Just don’t forget to bring your own flip-flops.
The Comfort package was £64 but it is unique experience to swim in the lagoon in the open air. Try to get there during daylight hours so you can see it in all its glory and pre-book to avoid disappointment. The only thing that irked me about the Blue Lagoon was the obsession grown adults had with their phones, facetiming and constantly taking selfies! Take a quick photo and put your phone in the locker after. I kept shaking my head in disbelief at all the people who missed out on experiencing the wonders of the Blue Lagoon because they were too busy showing off. Seriously!
- Northern Lights
As I mentioned, I didn’t see them. A couple of girls staying in the next room at our Airbnb booked a tour but were sorely disappointed. I don’t know who they booked with but most tour operators will offer a refund or rebook for another date if time allows. Some will even cancel ahead if they know there is no chance of seeing the lights. Don’t go to Iceland with the hope of seeing them or you will be disheartened. If you are lucky to see the Northern Lights, consider it a bonus. Be prepared for the harsh coldness and the long journey out of the city to chase the lights. Light pollution in the city as well as cloudy skies completely blasts your chances of seeing them.
Trip Advisor was our friend and thanks to it, we made a beeline for Fisherman Fish Kitchen and Shop, an establishment that serves pan-fried fish with fries or potato cubes and salad. The fish is caught in the morning on the day and trust me, it will leave you wanting more. We went for Char and Haddock although the cod and salmon also looked tempting. The meal itself was really filling and included a drink and coffee, coming to less than £14.We also tried Mandi, a Turkish kebab place and suffice to say, it was the most expensive kebab wrap I had ever had at £9 including a drink but it was delicious.
I also recommend Egi Jacobsen Kitchen & Bar in the town centre for breakfast, brunch and dinner. It caters well for vegans and vegetarians too.
Finally, don’t leave Reyjavik without sampling the cinnamon buns from Braud & Co, which is 3 minute walk from the iconic Hallgrimskikrja church.
- How long to go for
In three days we managed to cover a lot of ground without rushing. Four days would be ideal and five would be more than enough. A week would allow you to go further and if I had that much time, I would have ventured to the Jokulsarlon Glacier Lagoon.