Bundle up, Buttercup! As I always told my Girl Scouts, "there is no bad weather, there is are only bad clothes". Well, that's not entirely true, the whiteout conditions and high winds we encountered on our ride to the Keflavik airport can fairly be called "bad weather", but our driver followed a plow and got us to the airport, where we had a short delay and they had us off the ground without drama as soon as the squall passed. A squall that had crippled the East Coast flyway of the US just a few days earlier.
Despite weather and maybe because of it, a January visit to Iceland is well worth the trip. Sure, June will bring 22 hours of sunshine (and I'm told Iceland has no mosquitoes!) but it also brings swarms of tourists. In January Iceland holds it's own beauty, and a lot fewer people to share it with!
Our Trip Report
Natural geothermal pools are a big part of Iceland, and one of the reasons, it's not as cold or as snowy as you'd expect. The Blue Lagoon is located in the south of the island, close to the airport. You can plan an excursion there or they offer a seamless transfer tour to and from Keflavik Airport and central Reykjavik, that makes it easy to transfer from the city or the airport with your luggage before or after hotel checkout and have a good soak. It's not an inexpensive experience, but it is beautiful. Blue lagoon is so popular with tourists, it must be booked ahead of time for a timed entrance. If you'd like a less expensive, more "local" experience, all of the Reykjavik public pools are also open to tourists when they aren't being used for swim lessons. A couple are within walking distance of the city center.
Tips For Blue Lagoon (or pools)
- Be sure to book ahead, and early for busy times...summer, holidays, and the hours just before and after flights from US and Europe.
- You don't have to "upgrade" to have a good experience...one facial mask is included with your entrance, and even in the winter, you can enter the pool from inside the building, so you won't need a robe or flip flops, and you can bring a towel from your hotel.
- You'll check in and get a wrist band that operates your locker, and is "loaded" with any extras you purchased. You choose a locker and while holding it closed, hold the bracelet to the sensor near the locker and it will lock and only open when you hold your bracelet to the sensor again.
- It's customary to shower nude, and then put on your bathing suit, bring one that is easy to get on your wet body. There are private and public showers, but lines at private showers can grow quickly.
- The silica in the geothermal pools is great fro your skin, but leaves hair feeling sticky. Bring a cap, headband (which is also useful for keeping your ears warm in winter!) or use conditioner in your hair while bathing. There are hairdryers to use after bathing.
- In the winter, use the dark hours for a soak, it's beautiful and atmospheric to soak in the dark! In summer, use sunscreen on your face!
Room With A View, and an elf?
We had heard that in Iceland, many people believe that elves live out in the lava. Most people live contentedly with the elves, admitting that it's best not to cross them by upsetting their homes or with accusations or anger over their antics. Occasionally, it's believed that elves do something mischievous or "borrow" items around the house. We stayed at Room With A View, an apartment hotel located in the heart of Reykjavik. During the quiet winter season, we scored a big upgrade to a 3 bedroom apartment. My pleas on social media for friends to join us for the weekend weren't answered, so we had plenty of space to spread out. Maybe we even had enough room for an elf?
On our first jet lagged night, my daughter woke up at 4 AM, and heard the television on. She thought it was very odd, because she knows that I never turn a television on in a hotel room. She went out and hunted for the remote, which she found. She turned the TV off, but first muted it, just in case our elf came back! When she told me the story the next morning, I had a real sense of delight that this little part of Icelandic culture had touched us on our very first night in the country!
Our stay at RWAV, worked out perfectly for us. We were able to walk everywhere and found the front desk always staffed with a friendly person willing to answer any question and book excursions. We enjoyed having a full kitchen which saved us money by preparing breakfast for ourselves each morning. All of the major tour companies pick up at bus stop 7, just around the corner from the hotel. There are very few chain hotels in Iceland, although with the explosion in tourism, you can see many being built with cranes in the skyline. Finding a good option usually involves reading reviews and taking personal recommendations. Some other places people we know have stayed and had very good things to say about them are Hotel Odinsive and Canopy by Hilton
Photos from our 3 bedroom apartment at Room With A View
Known in English as the Lutheran Church and the major landmark in Reykjavik. Not only does this 20th century steeple serve as a landmark in Reykjavik, it's tower is also one of the biggest tourist attractions in Iceland, and the place where the "iconic" view of Reykjavik that graces all the Instagram posts! (I found Icelandic very hard to speak and read. Words are HUGE, with lots of constantants. Fortunately for me, most Icelanders speak English very well, and most signs and businesses in Reykjavik used both languages. I did use my Lonely Planet guide book to learn a couple of essential phrases, including "hello" and "thank you"!)
Admission to the tower and the outdoor viewing area cost us 1000 kr each and an elevator that holds about 6 people took us to the top of the tower. I would imagine in the summer time, the lines for this attraction would grow pretty long. I would also guess that you wouldn't need to skate across the plaza on to get to the church! If you visit in winter, watch your step, there are salted paths leading directly to the church.
In addition to the Tower, you can enter the Church itself, which is designed in the very simple way that many Protestant Churches have been designed, but is still spectacular in it's design. It's also well known for it's famous pipe organ. We were very lucky that there was an organist playing when we visited. Click the photo below to hear some very modern music being played in this very modern church!
Left Photo E. Klofft Click on any image to expand.
Golden Circle Tour with Icelandic Mountain Guides
Iceland is an island country...so there are ring roads and then there is Golden Circle. Knowing the difference will help with your travel planning! The famed Ring Road encircles almost all of Iceland, and requires several days and months of pre planning to properly tour. The best time of the year to enjoy a complete circumnavigation of Iceland would probably be in the summer when it is light for nearly 24 hours a day! But it's also very popular, so tours, rental cars, and lodging fill quickly in the summer season. Some lodging and roads might be closed during off season touring, so it's a good idea to begin planning a Ring Road trip with lots of lead time!
We certainly weren't prepared to tackle the Ring Road in January during a long weekend! However, we did take the popular tour of the Golden Circle with Icelandic Mountain Guides. Think of this tour as "sampler" of a few of the incredible natural phenomena that exist in Iceland. Pingvellir National Park, where the North American and Eurasian plates meet and cause all the geothermal activity in Iceland. The geothermal geyser at Geysir. Gullfoss the Golden Falls, a natural waterfall. It was the perfect way for someone with just a few days or even just a long layover to get a real feel for the country and it's beauty.
Pingvellir National Park
You could also rent a car and drive the Golden Circle on your own, but I spent a good deal of time researching the best way to see this area, not just the cheapest. I've often found that hiring a good professional guide, either privately, or in a small group, yields a far better experience! After our Golden Circle and Magical Nights tour was a splurge, but the ability to experience not just the sights, but the sounds, and tastes and stories of the people in Iceland made it worth every penny. Our fabulous guide Margaret, who normally takes guests glacier hiking, drove our small van, answered all the questions of our group of 8 American ladies aged from 20 to 60's, but she also shared stories of her own life and culture of Icelanders. She was the perfect host and ambassador for her country! She kept us entertained, well fed, and even safe...handing our spikes for us to pop on our boots if pathways looked icy!
Fridheimar Icelandic Horse and Hydroponic Tomato Farm
On our Golden Circle tour, we didn't just get to experience the beauty and nature, we also got a taste of local foods at both Fridheimer, an organic hydroponic tomato farm and at Efstidalur, a family run dairy farm where we not only had a tasting of all their offerings, but also learned about the personal story of the family from one of the ancestors who is running the farm today!
Efstidalur Family Dairy Farm
The last part of our tour, which lasted for nearly 12 hours from the time we were picked up until we were dropped off, was dinner at the Lindin restaurant in the village of Laugarvatn and then for a soak at thermal pools the Laugarvatn Fontana.
Our Golden Circle Tour ended with us soaking in an outside thermal pool hoping to see the Northern Lights. Unfortunately, during our stay, the forecast for the weather phenomenon were not good, and generally cloudy weather weather also prevented us from seeing the sky, even if the lights had been active during our stay. A friend traveled to Iceland shortly after we did and captures this fleeting image between the clouds.
Getting around Reykjavik is pretty easy and outside of the city center is pretty easy and well organized
- Within the City: Most of the major sights and accommodations are within a 2 square miles, with a little planning to avoid backtracking during your day, you can easily see all of Reykjavik on foot. If you by a Reykajavik City Card, you get a length of stay pass for the public bus as well as entrance to several municipal sites and museums. Check what's included though, because in our case, with walking and the museums we wanted to see, it made more sense to purchases individually. Using a rental car inside the city would be challenging, because of traffic and parking. If you are planning to get a rental car for further travels, think about getting it after your Reykjavik touring whe you are ready to leave town.
- Getting to your tours and areas outside of Reykajavik: Most tour companies (the big ones are Grayline, Rekjavik Excursions, but there are many depending on the type of tour you want) use a network of tourist bus stops located at or near your accommodation. When you sign up on line, you choose the stop based on your accommodation and you get picked up there and transferred to the public bus station where you make an easy transfer to your tour or other area of Reykjavik. One important tip is that you can't pick up these buses on the street unless you have a voucher, which you can get online and show on your phone or print ahead. Or you can visit other areas in Reykjavik by public bus, by going to the central bus station and buying a ticket for the area you'd like to visit. Rent a car and driver yourself around, because of popularity of Iceland, be sure to reserve a car ahead of time! Ride a bike. if you are a biker, there are many popular but challenging bike routes including the Ring Road, if you have the time!
- Getting to and from the Airport: Fly Bus is run by Reykjavik Excursions and it runs regular service to the center of Reykjavik. You can transfer directly (again, purchase your vouchers online ahead of time or at the kiosk at the airport) from Keflavik airport to the city center (or the reverse) or you can add a stop at the Blue Lagoon. You have to purchase the Blue Lagoon entrance in advance directly from Blue Lagoon, (because it's become so popular, they limit the number of people entering each hour) and then add on your transfer with RE. You can stash your luggage at the bus kiosk at Blue Lagoon for a small fee. Just be careful to plan enough time to transfer and check in to the airport. Blue Lagoon is a place where you could while away the hours...and it would be easy to forget time!
A few of our favorites in Reykjavik
Things to do:
The National Museum
The National Museum houses many interesting exhibits of Icelandic history and culture along a timeline. After we paid our admission, we took an included tour, which was very well done, interpreting many of the artifacts, including a restored turf houses the original settlers lived in.
The Culture House
Included in our admission to the National Museum, we received a ticket to visit the Culture House. The Culture House presented similar artifacts and art of Iceland, but by perspective, rather than chronologically. This allows visitors to observe a complete panorama of the harbor as seen in a series of individual paintings by different artists from different eras.
This is an excellent exhibition of a beautifully preserved Viking long house excavated on the site by the lake. In the middle the excavation features spot lit explanations of the architectural features. Around the room is a video display showing daily life for the Vikings who settled the area. There is also a good explanation of how the geology of Iceland and Greenland helped unlock the mystery of how old this ruin is, and they were able to date it to the first century, 871 within a year or two!
Restaurants, Bars and Clubs
This was our "big night out". Local specialties done in very inventive way, my daughter could cut her lamb with a fork! The cocktails were fun, especially our rosemary infused Woodland margarita, with it's lemony, piney flavor.
Looking for smaller plates, so we could try some of the traditional Icelandic specialties, we found this lively tappas restaurant near the Central Square. Each dish was well prepared, and small and inexpensive enough to try without making a big commitment if you didn't like it. They offer a fixed price menu with samplings of all the specialties, but it included several dishes we chose not to try, so we ordered a few plates a la carte including this langoustine pictured below.
We enjoyed a pizza here and a yummy milkshake. By night, they have DJ's on the weekdays and live music on the weekends.
We may have stopped here more than once, but I'll never tell! Several inventive gelato flavors, coffee and some baked treats are offered along with photos of gurus and Buddhistreading materials.
Bars and Clubs
By day most establishments serve food or coffee and at night the tables are literally muscled out of the way by bouncers and the partying begins! Expect a more mellow scene before 10 PM and things get really cranking after midnight. As two women alone, we spent a night on the town till the wee hours, and never once felt uncomfortable or unsafe walking on the streets.
Bjarni Fel Sportsbar:
We found this bar is the regular haunt for Icelanders who are fans of American football. For more about our experiences here, see our post.
We enjoyed watching tourists spin the big wheel of discounts and drinking suggestions and the bowling theme based on the movie The Big Lebowski at this popular spot right near our hotel during the mellower part of the evening. Friends who went to Iceland for New Years Eve described a lively dance scene here late night. They are known for their milk shakes, but they don't serve them late night, so go during the day for a sweet treat with or without a shot!
This popular gay bar seemed welcoming to all, young, older, hetero and gay couples, as well as lots of single ladies in groups and always had people waiting to get in. With a DJ spinning 90's classics mixed with more current offerings, it was a fun place to dance and offered discounted shots, which we skipped, but seemed very popular!!
A narrow room with a London Tube style sign outside, we enjoyed the mellow scene here early in the evening. By day, you can get coffee!
We noticed the shops varied between beautifully designed galleries of local arts and crafts, and kitschy tourist shops offering post cards, and Icelandic sweaters "designed" in Iceland, but made elsewhere. For real local woolens, we visited Icelandic Knitters Association store on Skolavoroustigur Street, and while not inexpensive, the merchandise also wasn't cheap!
We spent enough on woolens to spend some time at the VAT office at the airport before our flight home. Fortunately, the Vat office is very efficient and as visitors we were able to bring home native products without paying the local taxes.