For our 5-year anniversary, Sean and I decided to take a trip to Iceland. It’s a country I’ve wanted to visit for a long time and we were both excited to see the gorgeous landscapes in person.
This is part 1 of 2 posts detailing the trip. Part 1 is about the more “touristy” things we did; although Iceland is so popular right now, it’s hard to do anything that isn’t touristy. Part 2 is about everything we did after renting a car and travelling on our own agenda.
Quick Tips for Iceland
- Pack at least one layer more than you think you’ll need. We were in near full ski gear by the end of the trip.
- Rent a car and travel at your own leisure.
- Learn road signs before you go.
- Make sure you have data on your mobile.
- Winter is white; spring is yellow; summer is green; autumn is orange. We went in mid-May, so our photos are very Wiz Khalifa – black and yellow, black and yellow.
- Bars stay open late, real late. If you’re in a busy part of town, expect it to be noisy late at night. Join in when you can!
- Everything in Iceland is expensive. Plan accordingly.
- Liquor, wine and any beer over 2% ABV are only sold in Liquor stores which close fairly early. Being from Utah, this felt like home!
- Everything smells like sulfur. You will be showering in sulfur smell.
- Everyone speaks English.
- Iceland is crazy popular right now. You will almost never be more than 10 feet away from another tourist.
- Strike up random conversations and make friends with fellow travellers!
Golden Circle Tour
This was the only tour we booked. We’d recommend doing this trip via tour, as the guide was informative. Also, we were super
hungover tired from travel, so the relaxing bus ride was a welcome treat. The only downside is that you don’t get a lot of time at each stop.
First stop on the tour was Friðheimar Tomato Greenhouse. Which didn’t sound exciting at first, but wound up being pretty interesting. We enjoyed learning about greenhouse growing in Iceland. Like how they pipe in geothermal heat from surrounding hot spots and import bees from Europe for pollination. We didn’t eat at the restaurant here, deciding it was too expensive ($15 for a Bloody Mary!) We hadn’t yet realized that everything in Iceland is expensive, and now regret not spending money on some fresh food. Don’t skip it when you go, but be prepared for some sticker shock.
Gysir is the next stop on this tour. There are only two active geysers in Iceland; both in the same area. This one at Gysir is the most popular because it erupts frequently, although not on a regular schedule. The pretty blue hot pools are filled with coins despite clear advisories about not throwing coins.
We expected the air here to smell unbearably like sulfur, but it wasn’t any worse than the rest of Iceland. Everywhere we went, it smelled like sulfur. Even our apartment. We mostly got used to it, although I couldn’t ever manage drinking tap water. I carried bottled water with me everywhere.
There’s a small hike at Gysir; it’s short, steep-ish and incredibly windy. The wind was so sharp it gave me an instant sinus headache. Iceland is much colder than we anticipated. Be prepared for a serious wind chill when you go.
The Golden Falls are as iconic as the Blue Lagoon. Learning about the history of these falls was a major reason we are thankful for the tour. One woman is largely credited with saving the falls from energy exploitation. Big up to Sigríður!
Expect to get wet here. The lower step of the falls showers tourists on the path. I tucked my camera under my raincoat for a good portion of this stop.
Þingvellir (or the easier-to-type Thingvellir) National Park is a World Heritage site where the North American continent meets the European continent. Thingvellir means “Parliament Plains” and assembly meetings were held here until 1798.
As we walked from the European plate to the North American plate, I felt like we were in Westeros and would stumble upon a wounded Hound at any moment. Or find Brienne and Pod frantically searching for Arya. Turns out, the scene where Brienne and The Hound fight was actually filmed in Thingvellir! My greensight is strong.
Before going, we were told by people who had never been to Iceland to not miss the Blue Lagoon and advised by people who had been to skip the Blue Lagoon. We decided to go anyway, and just lowered our expectations a bit. I’d advise the same of anyone else. The Blue Lagoon is not natural, it’s straight up a tourist trap … but it is pretty and enjoyable. This was the day of our actual anniversary, so we celebrated with sparkling wine from the swim-up bar. Your wristband acts as a kind of credit card; you rack up charges on your wristband and pay when you leave the facility. Brilliant and dangerous.
Again, this place is beautiful, but here a few downsides to consider:
- If you absolutely won’t get nekkid in front of people – you’re going to be in for a long wait on the bathroom stalls. I was fine stripping down in front of strangers.
- The water is going to wreck your long hair – take full advantage of the complimentary leave-in conditioner.
- I felt moss on the rocks below the water and at one point grabbed a handful to see what it looked like. It looked like human hair. It was human hair. The Blue Lagoon is dirty, dirty.
- We brought our own towels and mine went missing. Just buy towels there and if yours gets taken (on purpose or accidental) the facility will replace it free of charge.
We stayed in Reykjavik for the entire trip. Found a decent-priced airbnb located directly over a bar, which was usually fine because we stayed out with the riff-raff most nights. There was one morning I woke up to very loud intoxicated people at 4AM and since it was light out my brain was like “Oh hey! It’s time to get up!” Anyway, that kind of sucked.
We used only our phones for pics in the city, so I apologize in advance for the lower quality.
The major sight to see in Reykjavik is Hallgrímskirkja – a 73 meter (244ft) Lutheran church. Buy tickets to the top of the spire for a bird’s-eye view of the entire city. The organ pipes inside the church are impressive, as is the statue of Lief Erikson in front of the church. My favorite building is Harpa Music Hall. The steel structure is covered in geometric glass panels which reflect the light of sea and sky. I could have fawned over it for hours. Near Harpa is the Sun Voyager, a sculpture of a boat poised perfectly on the bay. Tourists took turns posing in front of it for photos, and everyone was incredibly polite about it.
We like to travel cheap and found that aim difficult to achieve in Iceland. The majority of our food came in the form of portable oatmeal bars and sandwiches purchased from convenience stores. We did eat doner kebab from Kebab Husid often. Apparently, this place has terrible reviews, but we could not get enough. Presumably, because there is no decent doner kebab where we live, so even crappy kebab tastes great to our plebian palettes.
We went to a “fancy” place one night and Sean tried whale. We didn’t realize whale is red meat and basically tastes like steak seared in guilt. The menu said it would be accompanied with a black pepper sauce – which is apparently just brown gravy.
One place we absolutely recommend to everyone is a place we didn’t take photos of – The Laundromat Cafe. It was just so comfortable, we never took out our phones. We tried the Clean Breakfast, Dirty Breakfast and Avocado Bread. I still crave their homemade muesli and yogurt, and the rye bread was divine. I normally hate rye bread, so that was mind-blowing for me. Don’t skip it!
Bars and Beer
That picture of Sean is hilarious. This club was full of very young people all dancing to US hip-hop, so we felt like experts in cool. We are not.
The beer in Iceland isn’t as diverse as it is here in the states. Craft beer is rare. The local swill, Gull, is decent; better than Bud Light. Cheaper beer and drinks can be found at more “local” bars, but options are severely limited. The Ölsmiðjan has cheap drinks and we struck up conversations with more locals than tourists. Definitely worth checking out.
Pictured above are two Vikings we liked – a stout and a copperhead
Our favorite beers wound up being the Einstok Toasted Porter and Kronenburg Blanc.
Favorite bar is The Drunk Rabbit, a small Irish pub with excellent live music. Enjoy a low-light video of a guy nailing a Cat Stevens vibe:
Clearly some good and some bad, lol. We evidently missed out because Reykjavik is teeming with lovely street art. If that’s your thing, check out this post. Wish I had thought of it before we went!
Sean’s two favorite things about Reykjavik! This Baldur’s Gate sign made our inner geeks very happy (okay, it actually means Baldur St., but shhhhh…), and the slushie machine called Krap had us near tears every time. Krap means “slush” in Icelandic.
And that’s a wrap for Part 1 of our Icelandic trip! Stay tuned for part 2 where we rent a car and navigate through the southwest portion of this incredible country.