It had been a dream of mine to see the Northern Lights (Aurora Borealis) for so long and amazing images of Iceland kept popping up in my Facebook feed. So the day I saw an email for discounted flights to Reykjavik I immediately had to book. I was in awe of everything I saw in this beautiful country and had never seen snow like it. Will definitely have to come back in a summer to experience the rest of the country and the beautiful hiking and scenery.
For my Photo Diary click here
My top sights:
Blue Lagoon (Grindavik)- we travelled here with Reykjavik Excursions for ISK8900 (approximately £50) each which included travel from Reykjavik and the entry price. If you book independently it is £35 for the basic package which is entry to the lagoon and silica mud mask which is available to all (other enhanced packages area available), although I’m still not entirely sure how to get there by public transport. We went with this company as it offered the best times of buses from and back to Reykjavik – although we thought buses were at quarter past each hour but not the hour we wanted – got there for 8.15pm bus to discover there wasn’t one – last one at 9.15pm! Free wifi though! The journey takes around 40 minutes.
From the changing rooms you can enter the lagoon via two routes – either outside by running from the doors in very minus temperatures and jumping straight in, or by locating the indoor pool, immersing your body in the warm water (38 degrees) and gradually edging yourself outside. Head to the silica mud and scrub it all over your body until it sets hard then wash it off (use the tubs on the side rather than anything you find on the bottom of the pool). You can also book in-water massages (30 minutes from E75). The in-pool bar is great and they prevent anyone from getting really drunk, partly due to prices but also your chargeable wristband only allows you to have a maximum of 3 drinks.
The water from the underground hot springs reaches 37-39 degrees and is beneficial for health & skin. There are areas of the pool that are completely scalding hot which makes you jump up and then your body freezes with the outside temperature in quite high minus numbers. Everybody complains about how to use the lockers but your wristband controls everything so take a deep breath, read the instructions and it is simple – the only problem I had was trying to remember the locker number after a few hours in the lagoon! We had planned the timing so that we arrived in daylight and stayed while it turned to night and kept laying back in the water looking out for the northern lights which would have been the most amazing experience but little did we realise the slightly odd weather conditions we had seen while in the Blue Lagoon were actually a major storm!
The bus ride back to Reykjavik was apparently a little shaky so I was lucky that my friend let me sleep the whole way. I loved this experience (although in a way it was quite lucky the photos did not seem to save on the underwater camera!) and my skin felt amazing for days afterwards. There were areas of the pools that were closed off and I’m not sure if that was because it was winter, or because it was dark or because they are currently expanding. When you leave, if you have long hair like mine, ensure you slap on the hair conditioner in the showers to counteract the minerals in the water or you will end up with it feeling like straw. I would recommend leaving your towel in your locker and don’t really bother renting a dressing gown as if you leave them out they all look the same and go missing. At no time did I feel it was overcrowded, perhaps because we arrived after lunch, perhaps the time of year, perhaps the weather. Left luggage is E4 if you are heading straight from here to the airport.
Golden Circle half-day tour – a 6 hour trip leaving at either 10.30am or 12.30pm (did not want the full day (8 hours) as just seemed to visit extra things we did not fancy) so booked this one with Reykjavik Excursions as they also had a smaller 40 person coach rather than 70 person with a company like Sterna – 8,900ISK (approximately £50). A definite must-see it takes you out of the city and to see the absolutely stunning scenery of Iceland. For photos click here.
These tours visit the Geysir geothermal area where the Strokkur geyser shoots a column of water up to 30 metres (98 ft.) into the air every 4-8 minutes. Unfortunately it cannot be predicted and always seemed to happen at the moment that I got fed up of waiting and put my camera down! There is also a restaurant here where we warmed up with Kjötsúpa (Winter Soup) – a beautiful lamb soup. You also go to the spectacular Gullfoss (Golden Falls) waterfall, created by the river Hvítá, which plunges into a crevice some 32 m (105 ft.) deep – it is great-taking. The third place on the visit is Thingvellir National Park, where the American and Eurasian tectonic plates are pulling apart at a rate of a few centimetres per year (you can also dive here to see
the plates up close. Fun idea knowing I was in effect walking from America to Europe! It is also historical as it was were the first Icelandic parliament was held in 930, remaining until 1738 (I think I would become a politician if I could go to work and have views like this!). We also got to see the famous Icelandic ponies.
Hallgrímskirkja – Architect Guðjón Samúelsson’s design of the church was commissioned in 1937 and he is said to have designed it to resemble the basalt lava flows of Iceland’s landscape. It took 41 years to build the church. Construction work began in 1945 and ended in 1986. The inside of the church is modern, plain and kind of boring but the outside is more interesting and going up the tower is a must do. It costs 900ISK (approximately £5) to go in the small lift and I would imagine
that queues can be long, as even on a quiet day it took us a while to get back down. Great views of the city and you can see how small it really is but at the top of the (mainly enclosed) tower it was so windy it was actually difficult to see at times. Open 9am – 5pm in winter and 9am-9pm in the summer.
Harpur Concert Hall, Austurbakki 2 – we ended up here as one of our trips picked up from this location. Home to the national opera & symphony orchestra as well as architecturally interesting. To get there in winter is a bitterly cold walk along the waterfront but with views of beautiful pink skies over mountains, who cared! And it was nice to go inside and warm-up. Also nice to walk along the waterfront to see the Sun Voyager sculpture.
Icelandic Phallological Museum (Penis Museum), Laugavegur 116; ISK1250 (£7)
cash only – a room full of penis’ – who am I to say no!!!! The only museum in the world to contain a collection of phallic specimens belonging to various types of mammals containing more than 200 penises and penile parts including three specimens of humans! A museum mainly full of females visitors and uncomfortable looking males!
Kolaportið Flea Market, Tryggvagötu 19 , Old Harbour – an eclectic mix of all things vintage, crafts and foody – this is where I got to finally taste the infamous fermented shark, apparently banned from some restaurants for its pungent smell. I was dreading it, but if you love blue cheese and trick your brain into thinking that’s what it is eating then it is actually okay (in small doses!!). Cash only but there is an ATM inside.
Leidarendi Lava Caving – Were picked up by minibus at 9am on the Friday morning (it was still dark!) to go on the lava caving trip with Extreme Iceland – ISK9000 each (£45) – guide was great, good info with a great sense of humour. Be careful when booking a pick-up at some accommodation as some have identical names but are in different locations – twice in Iceland we were waiting to pick someone up but waiting in the wrong place. The description of the lava cave Leidarendi said that you could mainly stand up but there would be certain places you would have to crawl for a short time – absolutely fine with me (although if I had really thought about it, it may not have been such a good idea for my friend with a fractured wrist!!) Anyway, what it totally did not mention was that you would have to slide down icy snow on your bum through quite a small hole into the cave! If I had known this in advance there is no way I would have booked this trip, but so happy I did. The minibus took us through beautiful snow-covered landscapes, it was simply stunning. Once out of the minibus I still could not see where we would be going but had to don hard hats and were supplied with gloves if needed and a torch. After entering the caves you could easily see why hand held torches were better than torches on the hard hats as it was pitch black in the caves and therefore easier to navigate, especially when the surfaces were so slippery.
All natural sites in Iceland are free and accessible to anybody – this is a great thing – however it also has its downsides as it means this cave is open to anybody and many of the stalactites and stalagmites that have taken hundreds of years to grow have been broken – who would do this! We were also asked not to break the icicles but this was
so difficult when you are sliding all over the floor and just kind of crash into them! At one point we reached the bones of a sheep that had got lost down there hundreds of years ago and the guide told us all to turn our torches off – I had never before known absolutely darkness and even putting my hand up to touch my nose I was unable to see it – to get lost without light at this moment would be completely terrifying!
Leaving the lava cave the way we entered seemed to take no time at all compared to how far we seemed to have walked. What I had not thought about was when sliding into the cave on our ice slide was how on earth we would get out again! The guide went in front and dangled a rope down but it was still quite a stressful thing considering the exit hole seemed
quite small and my helmet seemed so big and covered my eyes most of the time! With my friend taking photos of my exit I could not help but laugh but was very grateful when I finally got through and stood up on land! When everyone was finally out and several more snow angel and stunning landscape photos were taken we boarded the minibus back to Reykjavik but stopped at a fish drying “factory” on the way back – I say factory in the very loose sense as the fish were all just hung outside – made for a very stinky environment but quite weirdly some excellent photos.
National Museum we reached this by crossing the Tjörnin frozen lake and had a fun
afternoon dressing up in costumes (although I think this section was actually meant for children not overexcited adults!) There are some amazing Viking relics, a subject that has always fascinated me. Wandered back through the back streets, slipping on the icy pavements all the way – such a cute little city – cannot believe there are houses with gardens in the middle of a city centre.
Northern Lights boat trip and the tourist office suggested one that was definitely going that evening with Special Tours for 8500ISK (£42 each) which gives you another trip free if you do not see the lights. Despite thinking we had wrapped up warm with several layers, hiking boots, my marshmallow duvet coat and heat pads in our shoes and gloves, after a while we were still absolutely frozen but luckily they provide warm overalls and a free hot drink – whale punch (hot chocolate with rum – yummy)! A 2-3 hour trip leaving from Old Harbour. Pick up is an extra ISK1500 (£7.50). The boat leaves at 9pm and arrived back at harbour at just before midnight. Unfortunately did not see the northern lights but the stars were beautiful and a really romantic setting. We now have a free ticket for another time though (if I can remember where we put them!). Once we had walked back to the hotel we ended up seeing the faint green glow Northern lights from the hotel balcony! The next night I learnt that sometimes the lights are around but not visible with the naked eye so perhaps I should have set up the camera and clicked away.
Northern Lights super jeep – I wanted to go on this trip rather than on a large coach and the tourist info office recommended this one by a small family run company Volcano Tours (who are a father and sons company who run several other tours as well so check them out) and whose emphasis was on photography it sounded absolutely perfect – ISK15,000 each (approximately £75). We were picked up from the hotel and two jeeps with 8 people arrived at the location. The location can change if they need to change the lights but we had a pretty good show from the moment we arrived, and really not far from the city itself. An amazing evening with rather unflattering snowsuits provided but they were amazingly warm and definitely necessary. There was a bit of a breeze and my tripod did not hack it but you could borrow any equipment you needed from them. It was great to be coached through all the photographic procedures (you just need to remember that you are on manual settings so you need to focus the camera – I didn’t hence all my shots are a little blurry). Remember to take extra camera batteries with you as batteries run out quickly in such low temperatures (approximately -25 degrees). I also bought a remote switch so that we do not have to keep touching the camera and risk making it move).
I was astonished when we got out of the jeeps and were told to set up the cameras as
there was nothing I could see. However once I pressed the camera button and saw what it caught I was amazed as cameras can pick up the Northern Lights before the naked eye. They soon came into vision though and all I could do was stand there in awe. Be aware though that the auroras are not how I imagined they would be – all the videos you see are very fast-moving as they are sped up but the lights move very slowly. Also the colours, we saw green which is the most common and also the most easily visible to the naked eye. The colours of auroras are determined by the gases in the Earth’s atmosphere, and incoming solar particles collide with different gases at different heights. Reds appear in the Aurora when solar particles react with Oxygen at higher altitudes, generally above 150 miles and are associated with intense solar activity. Very occasionally, you can see yellow and pink in an Aurora display which are associated with very high solar activity as they are simply a mixture of red with green or blue. Blue and purple colours are least frequently seen and tend to appear when solar activity is high. The colours are caused by particles colliding with our atmosphere at a height of 60 miles or less as at these heights, it is a reaction with nitrogen that causes the Aurora to be tinged with purple or blue and most commonly, you will see these colours towards the lower parts of the display.
Skolavordustigur & Laugavegur – the two main streets, both full of cafes, restaurants and boutiques
Tjörnin – stumbled across this lake in the centre of the city affectionately known as “The Pond” – when we were there it was almost completely frozen over – I say almost as we walked across it with a lot of trepidation that any minute the ice would crack.
For next time:
Askja Volcanic Crater
Austurstraeti – area in Reykjavik old town
Hornstrandir – remote hiking
Isafjordour – mountain backdrops & real wilderness
Jokulsardljufur – hike following glacier river canyon to Dettifoss, Europes largest waterfall – 3-4 day hike
Kaldibar, Laugavegur 2b
Kex Hotel, Skúlagata 28 – bar in an abandoned biscuit factory complete with lots of books
Kol Restaurant, Skolavorousigur 40
Landmannalaugar – bubbling hot springs, coloured hills, rugged hiking trails
Laugavegur trail – 4 day hike through hot springs
Lavabarinn, Laekjargata 6a – cocktail bar
Le Chateau des Dix Gouttes/ Tiudroper, Laugavegur 27 – wine & cheese!
Lebowski Bar, Laugavegur 20a
Reykjanes Peninsula – including bridge over tectonic plates
Reykjavik Walking Tour – free, takes approx 2 hours, varying start times but usually around 1pm
Saga Museum, Grandagarour 2 open 10am – 6pm
Sakebarinn, Laugavegur 2 – restaurant with views over harbour
Secret Lagoon – floating in lagoon; floating tours, float, northern lights, secret lagoon
Seydisfjordur – cute small village
Skaftafell – plateau between two glaciers with well-marked hiking trails, summer meadows & ice-blue glaciers
Snaefellsnes Peninsula glacier
Sushisamba, Thingholtsstraeti 5 – 6 course tapas menu for 6990ISK includes puffin, whale, reindeer and Brennivin shot of national spirit
The Train Sushi, 230-440 Perdin, Posthusstraeti 13, Borgatruni 29, Reykjavikurvegur 60
Vik – black volcanic beach
Viti geothermal lake
West Fjords – tiny fishing villages at bottom of mountains
3 Frakker, Baldursgata, 14 – great rustic restaurant with a lot of traditional dishes to try
Höfnin, Geirsgata 7C – great setting on the old harbour with a good atmosphere – 4 course set menu for ISK7950 (£45 includes cured fillet of reindeer, with grilled asparagus, shellfish soup with langoustine, mussels, scallops, fennel and whipped cream, slow cooked lamb shoulder on polenta with roasted carrots and crispy turnip and hot chocolate cake with raspberry and liquorice ice-cream
Kaldi Bar, retro cafe by day, French lounge by night, Laugavegur 20b
Meze, Laugavegur 42 – Well-priced Turkish food with friendly service
Solon Bistro, Bankastræti 7a – considering we thought Reykjavik was a 24 hour party city (perhaps it is in the summer) we discovered getting back to the city at 10.15pm on a Sunday evening was a little detrimental to trying to get dinner – luckily we found Solon Bistro was serving until 11pm and judging by the amount of people trying to enter, this was the only place open that night.
Tapasbarinn for dinner. They offer a 7 course tapas dinner for ISK6990 (£35). We got to sample the local spirit Brennivin, smoked puffin, icelandic sea trout, lobster tails, blue ling, icelandic lamb
samfaina, minke whale – the food was gorgeous but service was really slow so had to skip the dessert of white chocolate Skyr mousse to run to the northern lights trips we had booked for that evening. I would definitely eat all of this again.
Go to tripadvisor for more as there are a lot of great looking places in this town
Hotel Leifur Eiriksson, Skolavordustigur 45 – good basic budget hotel but fine as you are hardly going to spend any time there – our room looked as if it was one of the larger ones on our floor except as we were in the roof quite a large section was not possible to stand up in – had a little balcony though where you were able to see the sea. Bathroom was a wet-room. Breakfast – very small room and not enough for the 47 rooms that there are – were constantly tripping over others but food was fine – squash, coffee, hot chocolate, herrings, cheese and meats and can cook your own waffles!
Northern Lights Inn, Nordurljosavegi 1, 240 Grindavík – I advise staying here on the last night of your trip as it is next to the Blue Lagoon and also offers free transfers to the airport as well as free shuttle to and from the Blue Lagoon. They promise to wake you if the Northern Lights appear and as it is in the middle of nowhere you have an even better chance of seeing them clearly without the light pollution from the city.
Arrived from Gatwick with Wow Air – not travelled with them before but all staff were really lovely – flight very full but slept most of it due to working all day – flights were cheap but checked luggage is an extra £22 – 5kg of hand luggage is free or up to 12kg hand luggage is £11 – all weighed at check-in – you can also pre-book your seat, location dependent starting at £2 per person per flight – the only downside of this airline is that it is not possible to check in online – hopefully this aspect will be improved soon.
Getting through Keflavik airport is very easy and even though getting off plane to the terminal was very fast, our luggage was there within seconds of us arriving at the luggage carousels – if you need any alcohol you there is a large duty free shop before you exit – even the air crew were stocking up with trolleys of alcohol due as it is apparently very expensive in Iceland.
We had pre-booked bus to transfer us straight to hotel with Reykjavik Excursions/ Flybus – the company meets the bus at the airport and departs 30 minutes after the plane arrives, even if it is delayed. It transfers to a centre point in Reykjavik in about 45 minutes (for ISK1950 £10) where a minibus then transfers you to the hotel (ISK2500 £12.50) per person each way. It took about 20 minutes to get to the hotel from the central bus station but later realised it would probably only take 5 minutes to walk as Reykjavik is so small but at least we started getting our bearings a bit, small city is so cute! Transfer by taxi is approx £75.
Hello – Halló
Goodbye – Bless bless
Please – Gjörðu svo ve (Gyur-thuh svo vel)
Thank you – Þakka þér fyrir (Thah-ka thyer fi-rir)
Yes – Já (Yaw)
No – Nei (Nay)
Do you speak English? – Talarðu ensku? (Ta-lar-thu en-sku?)
A glass of red wine please – Get ég fengið glas af rauðvíni.
Tourist Info , Bankastraeti 2 – I have to admit I usually prefer booking everything in advance, but here we found an assistant Alda who was fantastic and listened so carefully to everything we wanted and came up with the perfect trips and companies I had not found online during my research. She was really patient with us and offered us a variety of companies for each activity we wanted to do. Thank you!
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