Last summer, August to be exact, my family and I had a truly wonderful vacation in Iceland. Telling you about that trip here on Red Shutters has been on my to do list ever since. Today is finally the day that I share our Iceland travel top ten tips, perfect for vacation dreamers and those heading to Iceland in the near future.
1) Why Iceland?
People were surprised when I said we were going to Iceland on vacation. I got a lot of confused looks, especially from those who don’t know very much about the country. Yes, we needed to wear jackets in August, but the cold weather pales in comparison to the country’s fascinating history (Vikings! Equal pay for women! The Cod Wars!) and striking natural wonders (Volcanoes! Waterfalls! Glaciers! Geysers!). Plus, it’s quicker to fly to Iceland from Boston than it is to fly to the west coast of the US, reminding travelers how close Europe really is. For those seeking to understand a bit more about Iceland, I recommend the Insight Guide to Iceland. We brought this book on our trip, and it provided a helpful introduction to the country’s culture and helped us map out our visit.
2) Plan ahead
Okay, experienced travelers are rolling their eyes right now, and I appreciate that. But hear me out.
When I travel, I alternate between being someone who plans every second of a vacation and someone who is pretty laissez-faire, letting things happen. The laid back approach often can result in unexpected discoveries that make the whole vacation. That’s why I’m a fan. But we were traveling with two kids, ages seven and eight, and knew that having some things—like our housing—booked before we left the US would be critical to avoiding chaos. We used Airbnb to stay in homes instead of hotels, and we specifically selected a variety of places—a modern apartment in Reykjavik, a log cabin near the Golden Circle, and a townhouse in Vik—to give our family an introduction to how Icelandic people live. This worked very well for us, and my kids loved the places we stayed, the most memorable spot being the log cabin that came with its own hot spring and a trampoline.
The other must-visit spot we booked from home was the Blue Lagoon. One of Iceland’s more famous tourist spots, the Blue Lagoon is a spa created by Iceland’s geothermal energy use. The water is warm and an calming white-blue color. You float around the large pools, trying out face creams, sipping cocktails, and relaxing. It’s only 10 miles from the airport, making it an easy stop on your way in or out of the country. Booking in advance allows you to coordinate your visit with your flight, and is important as the Blue Lagoon does sell out.
The Blue Lagoon was my seven-year-old daughter’s favorite vacation moment, and I agree with her. I would have stayed at the Blue Lagoon all day, had my family not been impatient for our next adventure. My husband and I purchased a package that included flip-flops, towel, bathrobe, and one drink, and the kids were free, though you could make do with the towel-only option. If you go, make sure to bring your bathing suit.
3) Getting around Iceland
We rented a car at the airport. Super easy. We selected a sedan, but if I were to do it again, I’d get a 4×4 so we could explore some of the more remote roads. In Iceland, car rental companies won’t coverage car problems on F roads—the more remote roads—unless you have a 4×4, and the last thing you want to do is blow a tire or damage the axle driving over a bumpy, unpaved road. That being said, we were fine with a sedan and saw everything we set out to cross off our list.
Additionally, it is possible to see Iceland without a car. You could take a bus tour of the Golden Circle, or get a hired car to and from Reykjavik and the Blue Lagoon. You can find out more information about that option here.
4) Where we ate in Iceland
What do you think of when someone says Icelandic food? Do you think delicious? You should.
In Reykjavik, we found that yummy food options abounded. Here were some of our favorites:
- For good pizza, inventive cocktails, and a cool vibe, try The Pizza Place with No Name.
- For classic Icelandic fish dishes done so well I wish we had eaten here more than once, Fish & Chips on Tryggvagata 8 is your destination.
- For people watching and drinks, Cafe Paris’ patio was the perfect mid-afternoon spot.
- For very good Middle Eastern food, go Meza on Laugavegur. We stumbled upon this restaurant for lunch one day, and I have recommended it to friends with upcoming trips to Iceland.
- For a cup of Iceland’s why-can’t-I-get-coffee-this-good-at-home, try Te and Kaffi, Iceland’s take out coffee chain.
We also popped into a grocery store in Reykjavik for snacks and breakfast foods, creating an obsession with Icelandic yogurt (thankfully, you can find it in the US). I also stuffed my suitcase with Icelandic chocolate bars, giving them away as gifts and hiding them away for midnight cravings.
Other dining spots we enjoyed included:
- In the west, we ate lunch at the Hotel Budir’s restaurant, enjoying the beautiful view from the hotel.
- In Selfoss, we grabbed lunch at Kaffi Krus on Austurvegar 7, which had the best cappuccino I’d had in years, and it was very family friendly.
- In Vik, the owner of our Airbnb recommended Hallodorskaffi for dinner, and it was a suggestion I am glad we followed. The restaurant was filled with a mix of locals and tourists, and featured traditional food as well as pizza and vegetarian options.
- In Borgarnes, we ate the restaurant at the Settlement Museum. It was pricey but delicious.
My family’s favorite Icelandic dish is plokkfiskur, a fish stew, which I had at three different restaurants during our visit. It’s a mix of cod and potatoes that you eat with dark rye bread. Yum. Thankfully, my husband has learned how to re-create it at home for whenever we’re feeling nostalgic for Iceland. While we were in Vik, my husband and son also tried kæstur hákarl, or dried and fermented shark, as it is the “national dish” of Iceland. They decided it wasn’t for them, but I was impressed that they gave it a go.
5) Our Iceland itinerary
It is possible to drive completely around Iceland on the Ring Road; if you have the time and inclination, such a drive gives you an opportunity to see all the country has to offer. Since a long car trip with two kids didn’t sound fun, we elected to stick to the southern part of Iceland, traveling from Snaefellsnes in the west to Vatnajokull National Park in the southeast.
Upon arriving, we explored Reykjanes Peninsula, showing the kids their first hot spring, located in Gunnuhver. We made Reykjavik our home for the first part of our visit. While there, we explored the city and took one day to drive up the west coast to Snaefellskojul National Park, where we hiked and went spelunking in Vatnshellir, a 10,000 year-old cave. Then, we moved to a house off the Golden Circle for a few days. We were based about 20 minutes outside Laugarvatn, which was a good spot to explore. Then, we were off to Vik and the southeast part of the country.
6) What to do in Reykjavik
My family spent a few days, walking around Reykjavik, exploring. We went into bookstores, looking for Harry Potter translated into Icelandic, and we attended Menningarnótt, Iceland’s annual culture festival that shuts down parts of the city for musical and dance performances, art exhibits, a giant water slide, and more interactive fun.
Two spots in Reykjavik I highly recommend are the 871+2 Settlement Exhibition and the National Museum. Both offer wonderful ways to learn about the country’s history. We also went to Harpa Concert Hall and Hallingrimskirkja, the famous church designed to mimic cooled lava waves that dominates the city skyline. Both are must-sees, and it’s worth the money to go to the top of the church for panoramic views of the city.
7) Our favorite things to do in Iceland
My husband’s favorite thing about Iceland was the Skogafoss waterfall. It’s a beautiful spot—so much of Iceland is!—and it’s absolutely worth hiking to the top. My son’s favorite was part of Iceland was the cool landscape, which is a unique, almost otherworldly topography, due the cooled lava that forms much of the country. Make sure to bring your camera, and be open, as you’re traveling about the country, to stopping alongside the road when you see a striking spot.
I can’t choose one favorite thing about Iceland. How about four favorites instead? They include:
- The black sand beaches of the coast around Vik
- Jökulsárlón Glacier Lake and the glaciers in the southeast
- Budir in the west
Pingvellir National Park, Geysir, and Gullfoss on the Golden Circle were also highlights for us.
8) The Northern Lights
Alas, we didn’t see the Northern Lights while we were in Iceland, but if you go in the winter, you should be able to spy them dancing across the night sky. In a vain effort to see them, I used this website to track their visibility. Hopefully, you will spy them when you visit.
9) Last tips
Be aware that Iceland is an expensive travel destination. You can use credit cards virtually everywhere, and good Wi-Fi is plentiful. We used Google Maps and Waze apps to navigate, purchasing extra data from our cell phone providers to do so. English is spoken quite a bit, and we found Icelandic people to be friendly and welcoming. Also to note is that Icelandair offers stopovers in the country for travelers flying to Europe. For no extra charge, you can spend some time in Iceland before continuing on to your next destination, giving you no reason to delay a visit.
10) Next time I go to Iceland
I’d absolutely go back. On my next trip, I’d drive around the country on the Ring Road, visiting the north, and I’d explore the Vestmannaeyjar islands in the south. I’d also visit Reykjavik’s art museums, something we didn’t get a chance to do with the kids, and I’d look for hidden hot springs. I’d also—maybe—try shark!
Do you want to go to Iceland now? Let me know if you do; I’d love to hear what you think about this very special place.
I absolutely do want to go back. Thanks for the great tips. Next time we’re getting a 4×4. And while I know it’s not PC I recommend trying whale. On the menu as an appetize at The Pearl, that great round restaurant that sits atop a hill overlooking the city.