“Few people take an interest in Iceland, but in those few the interest is passionate”
W H Auden
We’ve recently got back from an amazing trip to Iceland and I wanted to share some of the highlights – top tourist spots, bars, restaurants and other cool things to do.
The main purpose of our holiday was to see the Northern Lights so anything else was just a bonus really and planned a bit last minute if I’m honest. In the end we booked our trips with local tour companies and didn’t hire a car as I had read that in the winter the driving conditions can be a bit treacherous. As it turned out, this winter in Iceland is the mildest winter in about 170 years so the roads were completely snow and ice free and we would have been fine!
I’m not usually one for trips and coach tours (I don’t even like getting on a bus for my airport transfer) so this holiday was a step outside my comfort zone but it turned out to be a very pleasant one.
We arrived on the Saturday afternoon and a pre-booked coach took us from the airport through the barren and bleak landscape to the coach station just outside the city centre. From here we were all transferred by mini bus to our respective accommodation – buses and coaches generally avoid the centre of Reykjavik so this became a fairly regular process throughout our stay.
Our apartment was situated downtown which was really close to the harbour and the main shopping streets, making the most of the restaurants and bars within easy walking distance.
Where we stayed
Swan House – very cool but cosy apartments in a great location downtown. Beautiful decor and friendly staff.
Where we ate
It’s kind of a given that you’ll try at least one hot dog whilst you’re in Reykjavik. Don’t be put off, they’re not the pink plastic type but made from lamb and if you ask for one with everything at the Baejarins Betzu Pylsur stand near the harbour, you’ll get one topped with ketchup, mustard, fried and raw onion and remoulade.
Fish and chips is a popular Icelandic dish and we had ours on our first night at Islenski Barinn – the batter had a weird but nice hint of curry powder and the fish was served with waffle fries instead of traditional chips. Try the crowberry vodka – it’s really good!
Cafe Babalu ia a good spot to stop for lunch – the lamb soup was delicious and the decor will keep you entertained while you’re waiting (it’s eclectic to say the least!)
Rossopomodoro is a good Italian which we all enjoyed. The pizzas are really good and big enough to share which is always a bonus with Iceland prices!
Sandholt – is an amazing bakery with some of the best pastries in the city. It has a cool restaurant at the side where we had brunch one morning. Their cinnamon buns are incredible.
My husband had his favourite meal at Le Bistro – a traditional french restaurant. Once he’d got over the fact that his beef casserole cost £35, he really enjoyed it…
Where we drank
Moka Kaffi is probably the coolest coffee shop in Reykjavik. It hasn’t really changed since it opened in the fifties and I loved its dark, retro vibe and if you’re a John Grant fan like me, you’ll probably get very excited that it was here that the cover photo of his album Pale Green Ghosts was taken! The coffee is really good and it was here that we tried our first waffles – served with cream and jam.
Kex Hostel is an über cool hostel with a large, ramshackle dining and sitting area. We went there twice but were too late for breakfast both times so I can’t vouch for the food but you should definitely put it on your list of places to go.
Reykjavik Roasters is where I had my best cup of coffee – I loved the decor with its record player and little reading nook and it is the perfect place to stop on your way to or from the church.
Lebowski Bar is a loud and rowdy venue in the centre of the city with a mainly younger crowd but the music and cocktails are really good so well worth a visit.
Where we visited
I was worried that the Blue Lagoon wouldn’t live up to all the hype but it was amazing! We’d booked the trip a couple of weeks prior but I would recommend booking as soon as you can as it does get busy really quickly. You can choose different package levels when you book to include face packs, robes, towels, etc. Our time slot was 5pm so I was a bit worried that it would get dark soon after we arrived but it didn’t and we had the most beautiful sunset which just made the whole experience even more magical. Although you have a set time to arrive at the lagoon, you can leave whenever you like – the buses depart on the hour, every hour until 10pm.
A trip to the Reykjavik Museum of Photography is a great way to spend an hour or so with its display of Iceland’s best photographers as well as foreign exhibitions.
Hallgrimskirja Church is the best place to get a view of the whole of Reykjavik. Just buy a ticket and get the lift up to the top of the steeple.
We did a tour of the Golden Circle on our last day (again, we had booked this before we left home) which was a day spent hopping on and off a mini bus and taking in some of Iceland’s natural wonders. The highlight for us was the geysers but we also walked down to the Gullfoss waterfall, took a small hike at Thingvellir National Park and stopped to stroke some Icelandic ponies. Our driver, Thor (yes, really) narrated the whole trip and we learned about the history, geography, cuisine and culture of the island.
Our trip to Iceland was pretty much based on the hope that we would get to see the Northern Lights and we did – kind of! Sadly the weather was very cloudy and rainy when we were there so our Northern Lights trip was postponed all week until our very last night – and even then the forecast wasn’t good. A coach picked us up at 8pm and we were driven way out of the city to the coast. We huddled against the cold next to the blackest sea, looking up to the darkest night’s sky and waited. The stars were so bright and so amazing and then there was a hushed silence and you could just start to see the ‘halo’ of the aurora borealis in a dark green, shimmering and shifting. Although the colours weren’t bright and it was sometimes hard to see, I can’t describe the feeling of wonder you get looking at them – it was a truly magical experience and the perfect end to a very special few days.
One of our bus drivers told us that the public swimming pools in Reykjavik are a great place to go. They are very popular with the locals who use them before and after work.
The tap water in Iceland is amazing so there is no need to buy any bottled water. There are water fountains in a lot of places (including the airport) so just keep an empty bottle handy.
To really get a flavour of Iceland, why not read the 1955 Nobel Prize winning book by Halldor Laxness – Independent People.