Ethereal sunsets and expansive, volatile landscapes cradle Reykjavik, Iceland’s eccentrically artistic capital. Winding streets are marked by 30ft peek-a-boo murals, design shops, and innovative Nordic restaurants serving puffin and reindeer alongside their fresh catches of the day. The city is a fitting base for daytime and nighttime romps along Iceland’s jagged South Coast or famed Golden Circle. After spending a week exploring Reykjavik and its surrounding areas, here are my must-visit city spots and day-trip recommendations.
My Trip Details: December 2015 | 1 week | Solo
I’ve got good news: Iceland is surprisingly easy and inexpensive to travel to and from. Icelandair and WOW Air can take you round trip from major East-Coast (and a few West!) cities for just a couple hundred bucks. Plus, it’s only a five hour hop from NYC.
I planned this trip in under a week and thus, valued convenience and speed over penny pinching. I opted for a relatively modest $1,400 Northern Lights and Glacier Hike package through Icelandair. The deal included my roundtrip flights from Newark to Reykjavik, transportation to and from the airport, hotel accommodations for seven days, and a day-long glacier hike and northern lights tour. It was just enough structure to get my itinerary started while leaving plenty of room for exploration.
Watch for baggage fees. Icelandair is generous with their baggage allowance and permits a standard carry on, personal item, and typically two checked bags at no extra charge. WOW airlines—not so much. You are permitted a single carry-on and checked bags start at $48 ($67 at check-in) for one piece and $96 ($134) for two.
Plan a buffer for one-way flights. I needed to fly from Nashville to Chicago to Newark before heading out on my Icelandair flight, which meant, if I didn’t make that Icelandair flight due to weather or another complication, I’d be on my own paying for another. Also, Iceland flights aren’t frequent from Newark—I would’ve lost at least a day. Because of this, I gave myself a generous four hour layover in Newark and was ridiculously grateful for it.
Reason being, Southwest lost my carryon luggage in transit to Newark (which was checked at the gate in Nashville for space requirements) and it ended up coming in two hours later on another flight. Thankfully, I was still in Newark and a glorious Southwest representative named Duane brought my luggage to a security checkpoint and bore witness to my manic jumps of relief.
So what would have happened if I was already in route to Iceland? For those who are curious, I would’ve had to file a request for a luggage transfer with Icelandair once at KEF, request my luggage be sent on the next flight (assuming they found it), and clothe and clean myself with $50 a day (for up to six days), courtesy of Southwest. In Iceland’s dead of winter, $50 isn’t going to keep anyone warm.
Keflavík International Airport (KEF) is 45 minutes from downtown Reykjavik. Factor this into your budget and plan transportation in advance. Your options, increasing in price and convenience, are Strætó public transit, Flybus, GrayLine Iceland, taxi or rent a car. More on airport transportation.
Unquestionably the best way to see Iceland. You’re free to roam the most remote areas and can forget sticking to a tight tourist bus schedule. But cars don’t come cheap and driving in Iceland, especially in winter, isn’t for the faint of heart. If you want to see the country via car but not from behind the wheel, there are clever ways around this with ride-share sites.
Being a soft southerner, I didn’t have the heart to take on traversing the snowy tundra solo. But here are a few sites to check out if a little blizzard or torrential downpour doesn’t scare you. Also, I’ve read insurance is highly recommended—so don’t take on Icelandic winter without a 4-wheel drive and some studded tires.
- Viking Cars– Think airBNB for cars. Much cheaper than traditional services and was recommended to me by an Icelandic tour guide.
Feeling extra adventurous? Hop in a car with a stranger or two, share the cost of gas, and take on the country together. I know, it sounds scary and weird—especially if you’re female and alone—but, for me, it ended up being the best thing I did while there. The Icelandic man I got in touch with, via Sam Ferda, is a talented, hobbyist photographer (see his work!) and he happily showed me, along with a Hungarian traveler and French traveler, the highlights and hidden treasures of Iceland’s South Coast. He even taught me to take photos of the northern lights!
Iceland is a famously safe country crime-wise but, as with anything, take your standard precautions—do a reverse google search of the driver’s email and request a social media profile to make sure nothing alarming pops up. Also, go into a rideshare knowing you’re at the mercy of the driver’s schedule—communicate your goals clearly ahead of time, but remember this isn’t a taxi service.
Unlike most of Europe, Iceland isn’t a public-transit hot bed. Not the best news for your wallet, but keep in mind it’s good for the country’s natural wonders—they aren’t hashed to bits by major highways, tracks, or hoards of traffic. Reykjavik is an exception with its timely and extensive public bus network, however, the city is small and compact so most days I got by walking.
400ISK ($3.04) for a single ride in Reykjavik, but don’t expect change if paying with cash. In the capital area Strætó buses accept cash, bus passes (available at these locations), and tickets. If you’re taking a bus that will leave the capital area, you can pay with a card.
From easygoing bus tours to glacier hikes to diving between tectonic plates, Iceland has its tour-game down. Depending on your activity, these day-, and sometimes overnight, trips can range from $80 per person to hundreds. Book online or have your hotel or hostel arrange the specifics.
Reykjavik is rich with trendy hostels, airBNBs, and comfortable hotels. Since I booked through Icelandair, my options were limited and I opted for the cheapest hotel which also happened to be the furthest from the city center. If you book a travel package via Icelandair, you MUST stay in the same, Icelandair-approved accommodation for the duration of your stay unless the tour takes you outside of Reykjavik overnight.
While my accommodation was fitting, clean, and nice-enough for the cost, I won’t recommend it here. Instead, I suggest staying within a 10-minute walk from downtown. If you’re traveling alone and want to meet people, definitely go the hostel route.
You’re likely visiting Iceland for scenery and to get away from city life, but even if that’s the case, don’t discount exploring Reykjavik for a minute. Spend a day or two wandering shop-filled streets and seeing sites—this vibrant capital feels more homey than most.
Take a Walking Tour . Shake off jetlag with a crash course in all things Reykjavik! A walking tour with a local guide will give you plenty of ideas on what to do throughout your stay. I opted for the I Heart Reykjavik Walking Tour for 5500 ISK ($42) at the recommendation of a friend. It was invaluable for me to learn not only Reykjavik’s history, but also where to get the city’s best, and least-touristy pizza (more on that later).
Go Mural Hunting. One of my very favorite things about Reykjavik is the abundance of bright, multi-story murals. Icelanders live primarily in concrete homes, so they express their design aesthetic with all sorts of commissioned creative paintings. Peer down any street in the city’s center and you’ll find clashing colors fit to brighten even the bleakest of days.
Bió Paradis Cinema. Feeling indie? Visit the local arthouse cinema and see an Icelandic film on the big screen. All Icelandic films are shown with English subtitles and visa versa for English films. I saw the powerful and beautifully-shot Rams. Also, if you get there between 5-7:30 p.m. you can enjoy Happy Hour prices on beer (draft and bottled) and wine.
Harpa. Harpa glistens and teeters on the edge of Reykjavik’s central harbor. The building is free to roam and puts on a mesmerizing nightly light show across its paneled windows. If you have time, I highly recommend seeing a performance. I was lucky enough to catch a weekday, afternoon opera for only 1500 ISK ($12).
Sun Voyager. Starting at Harpa, walk away from the city along the bay’s sculpture and shore walk. With snow-capped mountains as your backdrop, stop for a picture at the stainless-steel viking boat by Jón Gunnar Árnason.
Hallgrímskirkja Church. At a relatively modest 244ft, the modern Hallgrímskirkja Church is Reykjavik’s tallest building by a long shot. At sunrise or sunset, ride the elevator to the top for an unmatched 360 degree view of the city.
Shop. If shopping (or lustful window shopping) is your thing, you’ll find plenty of treasures downtown. Especially on Skólavörđustíger and Laugavegur streets. Worthy stops are the Handknitting Association of Iceland, an authentic and competitively-priced Icelandic wool shop, Kram Iceland, an Icelandic-designer-only retailer, and Spark Design Space, a creative hybrid gallery and design shop. You may want to check out the Kolaportið flea market on the weekend, too. I wasn’t particularly impressed by what I saw there, but didn’t do much digging, either.
Tip: Look out for the Tax Free signs in shop windows. If you are a tourist (which you are), and spend over a certain amount on a single item, you may be entitled to a tax refund. Request a form from your cashier, hold on to the receipt, and follow the instructions once at the airport. Oh—and if you spent over 14000 ISK ($111) you MUST get a stamp at an airport kiosk before going through security. Even if no one is at the kiosk, ring the bell and wait.
Cuisine in Iceland has become increasingly creative in the last twenty years and suddenly ingredients that were once eaten out of necessity (preserved lamb and dehydrated shark, anyone?) are being marginalized or reimagined into dishes far more delicious. But if your budget won’t allow for multiple nights of platters with grandiose titles such as Icelandic fillet of lamb with crispy fat accompanied by a mushroom potato and bearnaise, neverfear. In a move entirely unlike myself, I only splurged at a couple of locally renowned spots and the rest of the time fueled myself with tasty cheap eats.
Tip: All of the sit-down restaurants I visited while in Iceland, even the more formal ones, deliver the check but request you pay at the front. Also, hold onto that spare change, tipping isn’t a thing in Iceland.
Kopar. (pictured above) Home to the best meal I had while in Reykjavik, Kopar serves local and traditional Icelandic fare with a creative, modern twist. I stopped in for lunch and ordered the catch of the day, a flakey white fish atop farro served with zucchini, onions, preserved radishes, and a crown of greens. The cozy restaurant offers a picturesque view of the harbor and in December is dressed to the nines in holiday garland and lights. If you have a city card, enjoy 10% off the menu.
- My Bill: 1 lunch main course + 1 cocktail = $26 (with 10% discount)
Baejarins Beztu Pylsur. Ahh…yes. The famous Icelandic hotdog. This tiny (and I mean, TINY) stand sits pretty on a street corner across from the city’s flea market. I’ve read the renowned spot gets pretty crowded, but I had no trouble walking up to the window on a winter weekday afternoon. The hotdogs are pretty stinkin’ good, too. Slathered in spicy mustard, both raw and crispy onions, and remoulade, it’s comfort food at its finest. For me, Baejarins Beztu’s tastiest calling card was the price—just $3.10 for one dog.
- My Bill: 1 hot dog = $3.10
Ostabudin. This popular, part stylish bistro and part beloved delicatessen is right in the bustling center of town. I had absolutely no self control on my two-person appetizer of deep fried Camembert with red currant jam—within minutes it was devoured, in a blaze of warm, cheesy glory. As other exquisite cheese and meat platters went fluttering by my table, it was clear that this is Ostabudin’s, for better words fail me, bread and butter. I paired the Camembert with a local Christmas beer and then indulged in my dish comprising of Arctic Char served with scallops, celery root, potato purrée, and chicken juice.
- My Bill: 1 appetizer + 1 main course + 1 beer = $52
Noodle Station . Craving a quick bite that’s heartier than a hotdog but won’t break the bank? Noodle Station was my spot for budget dining and the only eatery I went to twice. Their piping hot bowls of noodle soup come in three variations, beef, chicken, and veggie, and are adjustable spice-wise. The vegetable soup really hit the spot for me, and the chicken was okay but not my favorite—I wasn’t a fan of the multitude of dark meat.
- My Bill: 1 bowl of veggie noodle soup = $6.40 | 1 bowl of chicken noodle soup = $11
Pizza with no name. Really—there isn’t a name for the place with the city’s best pizza. Sandwiched in an old building, between a restaurant and a bar, this trendy, unlabeled spot is decked in vintage decor and bustling with hipster-esque young people.
I stumbled in on a cold Friday night, exhausted from my 45 minutes fumbling in the snow and failed attempts at finding a seat at Snaps, Kol, and Sjávargrillið (other restaurants I’ve read are exceptionally good). I climbed from the building’s main restaurant to the top bar, Mikkeller and Friends, still at a lost on where to get pizza.
Eventually, I somehow landed in the kitchen, in front of a bemused Icelandic pizza chef and his five freshly baked pizza pies. “Can I help you find something?” he asked. “Yes,” I said in delirious exasperation, “I want to be in the place where I can order that,” I thrusted my finger at the pies. I was kindly directed to the floor above where I promptly ordered and collapsed over a bubbling hot Napoli style pizza.
Though I didn’t get crazy with my toppings that night, I had ample opportunity—some of their most popular offerings boast reindeer meat, duck, smoked lamb, and creative veggie and nut combinations.
- My Bill: 1 pizza + 1 cocktail = $42
Te & Kaffi. Being Iceland’s second most popular specialty coffee chain, there are a few Te & Kaffis scattered throughout Reykjavik. Like most coffee shops in the city, they offer free, speedy wifi and roomy tables to sit with a book, journal, or laptop.
- My Bill: 1 mocha + 1 chocolate croissant = $10
Bakari Sandholt. If you’re keen on indulging in some Nordic pastries, this is your spot. Regarded by some as the best pastry shop in town, the bakery serves all sorts of billowy danishes and fresh breads, along with breakfast and lunch.
- My Bill: 1 cappuccino + 1 danish = $6.50
Dons Donuts . The unavoidable sugary aroma that surrounds Dons Donuts is like a sweet siren calling out to all weary, blizzard-beaten travelers. The menu is simple—you order a basket of deep-fried mini doughnuts then top them with whatever the hell you want. Caramel, chocolate sauce, powdered sugar, sprinkles, Smarties, coconut, peanuts…you name it.
- My Bill: 6 mini doughnuts with endless toppings = $3.90
Iceland is one of the only places in the world where you can bathe in natural volcanic hot springs, see dancing northern lights, traverse glaciers, and get lost in the deafening roar of waterfalls. Heck, if you’re super determined, you can do all of that in one day. There are plenty of hideaway accommodations and picturesque towns begging to be explored, but if you’re traveling in winter and without a car, Reykjavik is a perfectly acceptable place to lay your head for the duration of your stay.
Located about 45 minutes southwest of Reykjavik, Iceland’s single, most popular tourist destination brews and steams in the center of Grindavík’s volcanic moonland. The Blue Lagoon is filled with naturally-occurring geothermal seawater, hovering at a toasty 100F, from neighboring Svartsengi power plant.
Svartsengi is an ecologically sound plant and, according to The Blue Lagoon, provides central heating for around 17,000 people and electricity for 45,000. And that eerie blue-green glow? You can thank the water’s silica content for the blue and algae for the green. These active ingredients naturally nurture skin and the lagoon provides buckets of silica mud for visitors to spread across their skin. You’ll see a lot of crusty, white-faced people bobbing through the chest-deep water—but their skin is going to feel real good because of it.
The pool is open year round, but I found it extra-special in the 30F winter. Due to the stark contrast of temperatures, the pool billowed steam like a thick English fog. I could disappear in this warm cloud, wade away from all chatter, peer up at the sherbet sky, and be entirely relaxed, alone, and free.
Many of the Icelandic locals I talked with about the lagoon seemed a bit over the hype and pricing levels, sort of like Floridians who can’t stand Disney World, so I expected to feel a bit ripped off. But I didn’t in the slightest! The experience was worth every penny and I was able to get by on the base level entrance fee. I packed a towel from the hotel, brought my own deep conditioner, and packed a lunch which I sneakily enjoyed despite the “no outside food or drink” sign. I know…such a born rebel.
If you’d rather go luxe, you can dine at the Lagoon’s premier Lava Restaurant, sip on brightly colored cocktails while wandering the lagoon, or even sign up for a variety of in-water massages and spa services.
- Plan your trip in advance. Booking online, through a tourism package or via Blue Lagoon’s website, is highly recommended to secure your entrance ticket. I was able to do this just a day before, but I’ve heard during the busy summer season tickets are more coveted.
- Brace for construction. The Blue Lagoon is in the process of expanding and 2016 will be the year of cranes and dump trucks. The work wasn’t a nuisance for me, but it was noticeable. Check out what they have plans to launch in 2017—it’s going to be incredible.
- Shower naked. Iceland is in Europe, and in Europe, getting naked is no big deal. The locker rooms ask that you shower in the nude before donning your swimsuit and hitting the lagoon. Most of the showers are separated by open partitions, but there are two closed showers to appeal to modest American sensibilities. I did see quite a few people ignore this stipulation and shower in suits. I guess they figured no one was going to tap them on their shoulders and demand they get naked. And they were right!
- Lay on the conditioner. The lagoon is great for skin, but bad for hair—load your hair up with conditioner and pile it into a bun.
- Don’t play with the mud on the lagoon’s rocky sidelines. It’s not at all pleasant like the mud offered in the barrels.
- Take breaks. The lagoon is a lot like a hot tub and, like a hot tub, you can easily find yourself overheated. Don’t ignore this feeling and give your body a break whenever it requests one.
Wild beauty spreads in every direction across Iceland’s south coast. In just a day’s drive you’ll pass thunderous waterfalls on your left, a limitless sea on your right, and turquoise glaciers intermingled with gray, rocky volcanos. I explored this area on two separate days, first on a glacier hike (part of my Icelandair package), then again with my Sam Ferda friends. I would love to return and spend a night in Vik or camp somewhere among the fairytale hills—there was just so much to see.
Seljalandsfoss. This waterfall is unique because, when not iced over, visitors can walk into the cavern behind the fall and take in the country’s great expanse through rhythmically falling sheets of water.
Gljúfrabúi. A bit further down the same country road its popular sister-fall Seljalandsfoss is found on, the hidden Gljúfrabúi peers out from a narrow rocky crevasse. Waterproof boots are recommended for sloshing through the slippery creek that will lead you to a comfortable opening near the base of the fall. The trek is wet with waves of mist floating through the air, but the payoff of standing alone with the presence of a roaring fall touching your every sense is beyond worth it.
Unknown Hidden Waterfall. Even further down the same road as Seljalandsfoss and Gljúfrabúi, lays another hidden waterfall. Due to a treacherously slippy hike along the icicle-lined creek, our motley Sam Ferda crew turned around before reaching its base. However, I would love for someone to traverse the area in summer and send me a review!
Skógafoss. Perhaps the most famous waterfall in Iceland (next to the Golden Circle’s Gullfoss), Skógafoss proudly rushes and roars with full visibility for a good mile. The 200ft drop initially looks small from the road, but as you approach, its commanding size hits you like an avalanche. Brave the rickety stairs to the fall’s right for a breathtaking bird’s eye view.
Kvernufoss. Before leaving the area of Skógafoss, make the little-known trek into its neighboring gorge for another show-stopping fall. Park at the Museum of Skógar, peer across its neighboring farm in search of a creek, then follow that babbling flow back into the gorge. Perhaps it was the blanket of fresh snow or flawlessly clear sunset that made this specific hike my favorite, but I think it was how desolate the area felt. We were far from chatter, tour guides, and all signs of human life—Kvernufoss felt entirely ours.
Solheimasandur Plane Crash. Deserted, decrepit, and star (along with most of the South Coast) of Justin’s Beiber’s I’ll Show You Video, the Solheimasandur plane crash sits on a wide expanse of black sand beaches. It’s an eerie sight, especially during the cold winter, and certainly a worthy stop.
Sólheimajökul Glacier. If the weather is clear and pleasant, do yourself a favor and invest in a glacier hike along the Sólheimajökul Glacier. It’s the country’s fourth largest glacier and its turquoise expanse is home to perilous pits, caverns and glassy ice tunnels. During my visit the majority of the glacier was covered with a thick snow, but when barren, you’ll see a variety of blue-green hues with splatters of black ice. Definitely don’t attempt the glacier on your own—you’ll need crampons, a harness, and knowledgeable guide.
Dyrhólaey. The steadfast peninsula of Dyrhólaey juts out over choppy waters and bears a cavernous, iconic arch. Climb to the top and you’ll find a small lighthouse engulfed by a larger-than-life view. Dyrhólaey is equally impressive when admired from the surrounding black sand beaches.
Reynisfjara. The basalt columns lining Reynisfjara beach are fascinatingly precise in their rectangular form and rhythmic pattern. They seem entirely unnatural—which is, of course, a huge part of their allure. Turn away from the columns and towards the sea for a few more of nature’s most peculiar sculptures. Rising from the horizon, sea stacks linger in a mirrorland caught somewhere between sea and sky.
Northern Lights (Winter Only!)
My personal mission in going to Iceland was to see the northern lights. They’re temperamental and spontaneous and carry an elusive bucket list cache I couldn’t shake from my mind. Conditions have to be perfect: a cold, clear night (generally October-March), high aurora activity, and luck. You may wait for hours and see nothing or be strolling in Reykjavik and see them cut the sky in casual style. But, if you are lucky, and do see the gaseous, green floss snake through the black night, it’s something you’ll never forget. A French woman I met on one of my tours summed up the experience perfectly, “Watching the Northern Lights makes you believe in God—regardless of what you’ve believed up until that point.”
Set yourself up for sighting success
After you’ve done your research on weather, location, and aurora conditions on Iceland Met Office, plan to leave all signs of civilization and light pollution for the dark countryside. While driving out on your own is best (assuming you have a keen sense of direction), you can also sign up for a variety of northern lights focused tours. Some even guarantee a sighting or you can take the tour again—which is fantastic if you have the time, but a lame deal if you’re on a tight schedule. Also, I’m curious what the tour companies constitute as “seeing the lights” considering they can range from a dull glow to bright dancing ribbons.
I was able to see the lights on two separate nights. The first on a dual glacier and northern lights tour and the second while riding around with Svienn, the Icelandic man I met on Sam Ferda. The night of the tour, the lights were brighter and more showy, but the shuttering of surrounding cameras and distracting streams of bus headlights were necessary evils that simply came with the tour bus territory.
When I was with Svienn, we drove around for six hours hopelessly searching the crystal-clear solar system for a promise we pridefully thought was a sure thing. Then, at around 11:30 p.m. on our way back to Reykjavik, a cool green haze settled in over the horizon. We pulled off to the side of the road and he taught me how to capture a few pictures. I hovered over my propped-up camera and let out excited squeals as I saw my images materialize. I felt like a ghost hunter capturing an elusive spirit on film. To his native Icelandic eye, I’m sure the lights were pretty basic if not boring, but to me, they were everything.
How to take photos
Low-light photography is a learned skill and capturing the northern lights requires a bit of practice. You’ll need a digital SLR and tripod for serious images—that iphone camera won’t stand a chance. I’m still far from mastering the craft, so here are a few resources to read through:
Save the map below and take it on the road! I’ve listed abbreviations of the location information above so you’ll have it at a moment’s notice.