First off, I would like to thank my Aunt Marianne for taking my brother Raymond and me on this trip to Iceland!
We booked our trip about 9 months in advance through a Groupon deal for Gate 1 Travel, and before I knew it, it was already December. After taking a red-eye from NYC, we started off our trip with a tour of Reykjavik, Iceland’s capital. It was still completely dark at 9:30AM when we were picked up from the hotel, which was a strange experience, but that just means we were awake to see the sunrise!
First stop: Hallgrímskirkja, the tallest church in Iceland. From the outside it’s quite austere looking, but the interior was bright, airy, and absolutely beautiful. For a couple of bucks you can also take an elevator to the top for the views, which I ended up doing on our last day in Iceland (see later in the post).
Next we went to Perlan (“the Pearl”), a shiny dome-shaped building with a 360 degree observation deck. Although we weren’t very high up, we caught some breathtaking views of the sunrise reflecting on the mountains in the distance.
Then Harpa, Reykjavik’s concert hall with a funky geometric design.
After our tour, we decided to get lunch at Cafe Loki, a restaurant recommended by our guide (and Tripadvisor) for affordable Icelandic food. (Pro tip: It’s also right across the street from Hallgrimskirkja.) We ordered all four “Icelandic plates” on the menu, one of which had fermented shark served in little cubes with toothpicks. I wasn’t brave enough to try it, but I took a whiff and it smelled disgusting. All the other fish on rye bread were good though.
That night, we all bundled up for the most anticipated part of our trip… hunting the Northern Lights! The auroral activity wasn’t great (only a 3 out of 9) but the skies were clear and we remained hopeful. We chilled at our first stop, a horse farm about 45 minutes outside of Reykjavik, for about an hour before moving elsewhere because we weren’t seeing anything. I fell asleep for part of the drive and when I woke up, we were somewhere along the highway with a couple of other tour buses. Sadly, the only aurora we ended up seeing was a faint streak of green just above the horizon. At least Raymond and I had fun capturing star shots and playing with long exposures in the Mars-like landscape. I’ll have to try again to cross this off my bucket list…
The next morning we visited Blue Lagoon, Iceland’s most famous geothermal spa. It was freezing out (like 30 degrees) and drizzling, but our guide assured us Blue Lagoon is something you can enjoy even when it’s raining. Aside from the five seconds where you have to drop your towel and make a mad dash for the water, she was right – it was a lovely outdoor bath that you never want to leave. There was even a lady giving out free samples of their mud mask (which you can buy in the gift shop for lots of $$$$).
Blue Lagoon was quite an experience with some lessons to be learned, so here are some pro tips for all you potential visitors: 1) Be prepared to shower (naked) before getting into the water – there’s a person policing the locker room who’ll make sure you do that. 2) If you have long hair, tie it up!! I stupidly didn’t, and spent the next three days with the worst tangled mess I’ve ever had to deal with. I even bought conditioner from the supermarket just to dump in my hair and fix it. 3) Bring a waterproof phone case so you can take selfies in the water (they sell them in the gift shop but they’re pricy).
By the time we got back to Reykjavik, it was already almost dark (yay 4 hour daylight) so there wasn’t much else to do aside from exploring downtown. Laugarvegur and Skólavördustígur are the main shopping streets in Reykjavik, and they were all decked out for the holidays!
Reykjavik is a very small, walkable city – these two streets were within walking distance of some of the places we’d toured by bus earlier, like Hallgrimskirkja and Harpa.
Dinner was at Restó – hands down the best meal of our trip, though it was a bit of a splurge. We feasted on beautifully plated seafood like langoustine, salmon, ling (a fish I’d never heard of), plaice (another fish I’d never heard of), and lamb. 10/10 would recommend if you’re looking for a classy dinner place in Reykjavik.
Our third (and last full) day in Iceland was my favorite. We had a packed agenda covering the Golden Circle, a route containing some of Iceland’s most popular tourist sites… and we only had about four hours of daylight to see it all! We left our hotel before sunrise, starting at the Hellisheiði Power Station. Iceland is located in an area with lots of volcanic activity, which they use to their advantage by creating geothermal power out of it. We got a quick tour of the exhibition and learned about how they provide Reykjavik with hot water and electricity.
As we left the power station, we drove through miles of icy, barren land. The sun was just about to rise so the sky was awash with a soft, hazy blue. We were pretty much the only bus on the road so it felt like we were driving through some strange, uncharted planet.
Right around sunrise we reached Kerið, a volcanic crater lake. There was a short path where you could walk up around the rim of the crater, but it was so unbearably cold (definitely below freezing with wind chills to boot) that I gave up after about ten minutes… it was a bad day to forget gloves.
The next stop was Gullfoss, Iceland’s most famous waterfall. Again, it was so cold out that we could only bear to snap a few pictures before ducking into the gift shop to warm up. But the falls were really beautiful all frozen over!
Iceland is also known for its geysers, and apparently the word “geyser” originates from Geysir, a famous geyser there. We visited the Geysir geothermal area, which was a chance to get up close and personal with all these geysers. There was one big one that everyone stood around waiting to see, and lots of smaller ones that looked like steam vents in the ground. If you go, be prepared for the constant smell of sulfur.
Our last stop on our Golden Circle tour was Þingvellir, a national park where the Icelandic parliament was founded. Our bus dropped us off at a random trail for a short hike, and by this point, I didn’t even want to go outside anymore because it was so cold. The views at the end were totally worth it though. We walked up a hill for about twenty minutes, and at the top was a platform overlooking a rift valley where the North American tectonic plate meets the Eurasian plate. I had no idea what I was looking at until the tour guide pointed it out – a pretty cool geological tidbit!
Back in Reykjavik for dinner, we decided to check out Sægreifinn (aka the Sea Baron) for its famous lobster soup and seafood. The fish was so fresh that the entire restaurant stank of it. You order by doing downstairs and choosing your fish from a fridge, and then they cook it and serve it on skewers. Thanks to Sægreifinn, I can now add whale to the list of exotic foods I’ve tried!
For dessert, we stopped by Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur, a famous hot dog chain in Reykjavik. Unlike your typical hot dogs, the ones here are made of lamb.
On our last day in Iceland we only had a morning before heading to the airport, so I circled back to Hallgrímskirkja, the famous church we had visited on our first day. This time I bought a ticket to go up the tower, which had the best 360 degree views of the city! (Much better than the Perlan’s observation deck.)
Of course, I couldn’t leave Reykjavik without cramming in as much food as possible before my flight. First, Tiu Dropar, a cozy subterranean restaurant for brunch; then Cafe Babalu, where I sipped on hot chocolate next to some festive penguins and sparkly Christmas trees; and lastly, Bakarí Sandholt, home to some delicious vanilla custard pastries.
Iceland is by far one of the most beautiful countries I’ve visited so far. Despite the freezing weather and lack of daylight, by the end of our trip I found myself wishing I had another few days to see more of the country. Guess that’ll have to wait until a future trip… maybe during the summer for the famous midnight sun!