Iceland has been on travel list since I started seeing the photos of its magnificent landscapes, horses, Reykjavik and the Blue Lagoon. One of my best friends, and huge fan of traveling, brought up their plan to potentially book a trip. I was intrigued and started to do my own research. I found that it could be done on a fairly inexpensive budget, especially if you travel during their late Fall/early Winter. Now, most people may not associate traveling to Iceland in November as idealistic, but we couldn’t have asked for better weather, and experience in this European country in the middle of the Atlantic.
My company was comprised of my sister, grandmother and cousin. It was very special to be able to travel with my grandma, who I credit for my affinity for travel. We all had so many laughs, new inside jokes (raccoco!) and stayed up talking for hours and closing down restaurants telling stories. We stayed in Reykjavik for 5 days and 4 nights, which was just enough time. I learned a couple tips and tricks that I wanted to share with you, along with various photos and links, in the event you plan to travel there. I hope you enjoy!
How We Got There
We found very inexpensive flights through WOW Air, which is an Icelandic budget airline. WOW is a no-frills airline, but was efficient, on time and the staff were polite and friendly. We were able to fly direct from San Francisco to Keflavik, and then rent a car from there to drive to Reykjavik. Be aware, you will be required to pay extra for luggage. I would do this prior to arriving at the airport, because they WILL make you pay, especially for a carry-on that does not fit within their allowable measurements. Upwards of $80 USD. Trust me, I know.
You do not need to pay for seats, unless you prefer to sit next to your travel companions, otherwise they will automatically assign your seats at check-in. Also, they do not offer any free food or beverages (including water) on the flight, so I would recommend bringing your own water and snacks, or be prepared to pay for them on board. Unfortunately, a majority of what we brought were peanut and peanut butter based snacks, and there was a woman with a peanut allergy on board. Womp, womp.
I had started to read their reviews prior to our trip, and it was very off-putting and I will admit I was nervous. We did not have any major issues or concerns while traveling with WOW. The flights were on time, and not a single baggage item was lost or misplaced. We downloaded movies on our personal devices prior to leaving and tried to sleep as much as we could. We were able to get our flights for under $600 round trip, so in retrospect, it was 100% worth it. If comforts are worth a few extra dollars, I’ve heard great things about Icelandic Air.
What We Drove
We rented a car through Cars Iceland. They are located a short walk from the airport, and offer a wide range of newer cars, both automatic and manual, at reasonable rates. Due to arriving close to winter, we opted for a 4×4 car, which I highly recommend due to the variations in weather conditions.
We were given a Suzuki Vitara with free GPS (which was a lifesaver because we didn’t pay for international plans on our phones due to the short length of time of the trip). Cars Iceland also gave us discount gas cards, which came in handy because the petrol there is fairly expensive. Be aware, it is in liters, not gallons—meaning you think it’s about equivalent price wise, but it’s definitely not.
Where We Stayed
I used Bookings.com to book an apartment for us in Reykjavik (I also shared about Bookings.com here). We stayed in this apartment, which was the perfect size for the four of us and was very close to downtown. The owners left us a nice bottle of wine, and were very friendly and helpful. The wi-fi was dependable and we had a great parking spot as well. We went to a grocery store and loaded up on breakfast/lunch items and snacks, and enjoyed having so many amenities at our fingertips in the apartment.
A word to the wise, they don’t joke that you take “rotten egg showers” for nothing. The country is very environmentally friendly and advanced in terms of their hydroelectric systems. The drawback is that the water in some places will smell sulfuric. This was something very difficult for me to get past because my hair constantly smelled like rotten eggs. Not sexy. I recommend bringing your best smelling lotion to help offset the smells.
Where We Ate
For dinner, our most memorable evenings were at Messinn and Ostabudin. We scoped out dinner options prior to arriving, to find places that were well reviewed and price friendly. Iceland can be expensive to dine, especially if you are ordering alcoholic drinks. Please be aware, there is no need to exchange money and obtain cash in Iceland. They accept credit cards everywhere, even at the hot cocoa stands in the middle of nowhere!
Messinn is a cozy restaurant with a menu full of delicious fish dishes. They serve their entree in skillets. They had variety of fish on the menu, some I was not familiar with, but our waiter was helpful and knowledgable. It was more than enough food, so you could always share a dish. We enjoyed the atmosphere so much, we stayed and talked until they closed.
Ostabudin was another cozy restaurant, with a comfy, Scandinavian design. They had a variety of dishes, including whale on the menu. Their plates were smaller, but delicious. It felt absolutely perfect to be sitting in their restaurant with Christmas around the corner. The streets were already strung with lights, and wreaths. We had a table situated right by their large bay window, which was perfect for people watching.
For an inexpensive meal, I recommend stopping by Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur, a small, but famous hotdog stand. Make sure to get a dog with everything on it, and you will be delighted that it’s one of the cheapest things you can buy in Iceland.
For lunches, we picked up food from Bonus supermarket, one of three budget supermarkets in Iceland (Kronan and Netto are the other two). We made sandwiches for our long car rides and bought fruit and about a million packages of Homeblest digestive cookies (we were slightly obsessed!)
What We Did
We started off our trip at the Blue Lagoon. We bought our tickets ahead of time and arrived at 8am, coming straight from the airport. The Blue Lagoon is a geo-thermally heated oasis. We were able to soak up the warm water and watch the sunrise. The Blue Lagoon staff were helpful and everything was organized. You receive an armband that can electronically keep an account of whatever you purchase while in the lagoon, and then you pay your balance when you leave. They offer free mud masks and have swim-up bars. We brought a GoPro, and tried to capture photos of the sunrise. It was not as busy at 8am, but once we were getting ready to leave around noon, it felt very crowded.
When we left, we drove to Reykjavik and explored the downtown area. We were immediately in awe of the colored exterior of the homes, quant downtown area, artistic graffiti and overall, how safe it felt. We were starving, and grabbed some pizza at a place close to our apartment and then walked towards Reykjavik’s famous church, Hallgrimskirkja. They charge you to take the elevator to the top, but the 360 views are worth it. This is where you can get the iconic arial shot of Reykjavik.
That evening, we went to the Harpa Opera House and saw the comedy show How to be Icelandic in 60 Minutes. The Harpa was absolutely beautiful, and I couldn’t get over the glass details. How to be Icelandic in 60 Minutes was hilarious and proved to be a great introduction to Icelandic culture and it’s inhabitants. Icelandic is the country’s official language, which with just north of 320,000 inhabitants, it is spoken by a small minority of the world. We found that most people spoke English very well here, and we decided to not try and pronounce the street names. Harpa offers many different shows, and it will give you a chance to check out the interior of the gorgeous opera house.
Golden Circle + Snorkeling
The following day, we woke up early and set out for the Golden Circle. It was so beautiful to get out to the countryside and see the expansive lands. We started to get a feel for the different terrain Iceland has and how little is developed outside of the capital.
We had scheduled a morning snorkeling session with DIVE.IS, which was located on the Golden Circle in Þingvellir National Park, and made for the perfect start of our day trip. A tip for those of you diving or snorkeling the Silfra fissure, the turn is near the visitor’s center. Our GPS took us a very different way, which had us scrambling to get accurate directions, without the ability to use our cell phones.
Our snorkeling excursion was to swim in the Silfra fissure. It is the only place in the world where you can swim between two tectonic plates, which are slowly moving apart at 2cm per year. DIVE.IS made the entire experience so pleasant and easy. I will admit: it was the coldest I have ever been, in my entire life. The water was 35 degrees, but it felt invigorating.
While snorkeling, you are able to wear your base layers and two pairs of socks. I highly recommend that second pair. They will fully suit you up in a warm, onesie-type layer and then a complete dry suit. I have never been in a dry suit before, but be aware, your hands and your feet will still be very cold. Your feet will never get wet, but your hands will. Your face will be exposed, but after a couple of minutes in the water, it will be numb and you won’t be able to feel a thing (if that’s comforting at all…).
It was definitely a cool experience, floating along and being able to see so clearly for meters upon meters. There is absolutely no way you could sink, or dive below the surface for that matter. Be aware that the more you move, the colder you will become. I tried to keep myself in one position the entire time and let the small currant do the rest.
After snorkeling, they helped us out of our dry suits and fed us the most delicious hot cocoa and cookies (this is where our obsession with Homeblest digestive biscuits began). From there, we set off for the rest of the Golden Circle and stopped at Gullfoss waterfall and the Strokkur geyser. The geyser goes off about every 10 minutes, so you will not have to wait long to see it erupt. Gullfoss is absolutely breathtaking. There are many places to get different views and take photos. They also have shops at both Gullfoss and Strokkur to stop, get something to eat or use the restrooms.
The next morning, we woke up bright and early and waited outside our apartment for our glacier and waterfall tour through Arctic Adventures. The van that picked us up was very comfortable on our 2+ hour drive to the Southern part of Iceland. We brought along our packed lunches, but our tour guide stopped at a gas station so we could buy coffee, snacks and use the restroom. Our guide was extremely knowledgable, and literally never stopped talking, so we learned a great deal about Iceland and his voice lulled us to sleep along the way.
Once we arrived at our destination, which was the Sólheimajökull glacier, about half of our group went to the black sand beaches in Vik, and the rest of us got prepped for the glacier hike. Our tour guides here were hilarious and made us feel completely comfortable putting on our crampons. They gave us the run down on how to carry an ice pick, and cracked jokes the entire time. They even spent some extra time with my grandma picking up the rear of the line, which we believed was all part of her plan.
The glacier itself was massive, and it ended up being a beautiful day. We took a short, easy tour, which even my 75 year old grandmother could do. We learned a lot about the glacier and the rate at which it is melting.
After we were done, we were able to picnic outside (it was that sunny and seemingly warm!) Our van picked us up shortly after, and took us to two more waterfalls: Skógafoss and Seljalandsfoss. The tour took most of the day, but we were able to pack in so much, including a few naps 🙂
That night, we decided to try our luck at seeing the Northern Lights. We took a tour through a local company, there are what seems like hundreds of them. After doing the tour, it was pretty apparent that we could have probably driven on our own. The tour was nice to take because they knew where they were going, and they gave you tidbits of information throughout the trip. We barely saw the lights, but our tour guide insisted we did, which I think he said to discourage us from getting our next night free.
We spent the last full day exploring downtown Reykjavik. We slowed down our travel pace and started by enjoying a cup of coffee at one of their many coffee shops. We went shopping, and stopped in many of the stores. We walked down to the shoreline and viewed the Sun Voyager sculpture. It was a beautiful against the snow covered mountain skyline.
It began to snow, just a light dusting, where we could actually make out the structure of the snowflakes. We definitely got our 10,000 steps in this day, walking well into the early evening. Also, in case you were not aware, daylight hours significantly decrease during the winter months. We are talking 10am sunrises and 4pm sunsets. Very surreal for this California native.
My sister, cousin and their significant others are traveling to Ireland today, by way of Iceland 🙂 I am so jealous they will be soaking in the Blue Lagoon again soon. I would love to visit Iceland again, with Andy to keep me warm, and would definitely add the Ring Road and plenty more Homeblest cookies to our itinerary.