travel notes from iceland

a brief, very un-comprehensive recs for visiting iceland 

Iceland. From travel bloggers to your best friend, it seems like Iceland is on everyone’s list these days. With discount airlines and great layover deals, it’s becoming an accessible destination for Americans to visit. And boy do we visit! Judging by my newsfeed, Iceland is up there in most popular destination of in recent years. 

I’ll be honest. I didn’t know much about Iceland before I went. But after visiting, I can say for sure that even with all the hype, this place is still not overrated. Iceland probably makes one of the world’s greatest road trips. You could spend weeks driving the ring road, stopping at every waterfall, beach, and volcano on the way. But it also makes a damn good layover, a fulfilling trip even just for a few days.

There’s some of the most unique and beautiful natural landscapes in the world. Despite the constant flow of tourists, there is so much that is untouched. Even in popular spots (if you crop smartly), you can make it look like you’re the only one there, looking out into a vast landscape. 

It’s aesthetic. Or at least, it’s very much my aesthetic. Like everything is clean, pristine. Muted earthy tones. The architecture complements nature. Everything is profoundly photogenic. 

And it is SO tourist friendly. As in, the most clueless stereotypical American tourist can roll in and be just fine. Tours are plenty and easy to book and schedule. They pick you up and drop you off exactly where you need to be. You never even need to think, if you don’t want to. You can put together a perfect itinerary whether you’re here for a day or a week from an a la carte selection of tours and activities. It’s a remarkably easy vacation if you want it to be. But it can also be a DIY adventure.

/ when to go /

When I went: I visited Iceland in early April. I was there for about four days: we flew in early Sunday morning and left Wednesday evening. It was a shorter trip, but we got to explore Reykjavik and do the Golden Circle tour and Blue Lagoon, two of the most popular/accessible activities. If I were to go again, I would want to go for a week or two and rent a car to at least drive the southern coast or western fjords, if not the whole ring road. I would also gladly do a short layover and just veg out at Blue Lagoon on my way to Europe. 

When I would go: In early April it was cold, but the days were long enough and we were still at the brink of the season for potential northern lights sighting (we didn’t really see them, but oh well). I think March/April or September would be good times to get the best of both worlds in terms of daylight and dark nights. If I were to do that road trip, I’d probably go in the summer for more daylight hours. Also, weather is extremely unpredictable (as in on an hourly basis), and I hear it’s the worst during winter. Most people I think do one of two options: either spend a week or two with a rental van and a camera to explore as much of it as you want. Or spend a few days on an extended layover to get a good hard look at what Iceland has to offer, focusing on Reykjavik/Keflavik areas.

/ when to go /

Where I stayed: My friend and I bought Groupons that included both the flight and hotel. We stayed at Reykjavik Lights Hotel, a concept design hotel inspired by the ever changing sky light in Iceland. The hotel was clean and simple with its minimalist design. They had free breakfast every morning, and the concierge was super helpful in assisting visitors with finding and booking tours, rentals and more.

Where I’d stay: I would recommend staying at this hotel, they have competitive rates. However, if you are not renting a car and are having a shorter stay, it might be worth checking out somewhere closer to the city center, as this one was about a 20 minute walk. For a splurge layover, the Blue Lagoon’s Silica Hotel is a luxurious option. Otherwise, even the apartments and smaller bed and breakfasts are very accessible for tourists. And for the more adventurous types, it might be worth renting a camper so you can spend your nights under the northern lights and not worry about planning ahead for accommodations while road tripping.

/ getting around /

The main airport is located in Keflavik, which is a short ride to Reykjavik. There are always buses available to take you into the city, as well as taxis and car rental services in the airport. For buses, you can book ahead or once you’re there, and tickets are around 2900kr. The buses drop off (and pick up) at hotels, which is ridiculously convenient.

Getting around Reykjavik, we just walked. The city center is pretty small and super walkable. For any tours, they send a car to pick up from your hotel and take you to the main bus station. After the tour, they drop off back at each hotel. Pretty much whether you rent a car or string together a series of day trips, transportation should never be a headache.

HALLGRIMSKIRKJA

One of the prettiest views in Iceland isnt a natural landscape at all, but a view from the top of a church. This was the first place we went to in Reykjavik. Its

NORTHERN LIGHTS

You can’t go anywhere in Iceland without seeing advertisement for tours and Northern Lights viewings. Our hotel package included a trip out, which basically meant corralling everyone onto a bus that drove out to a little restaurant thing in the middle of nowhere to wait and see if we could spot anything (we couldn’t). But anyways, if weather and season permits, it’s certainly /the/ thing to do at this latitude, so find a tour that fits your itinerary and try your luck.

GOLDEN CIRCLE

The Golden Circle is a national reserve right outside Reykjavik that includes several points of interest, including the famous Gullfoss waterfall (probably the easiest waterfall to get to from Reykjavik without a car), Thingvellir National Park and Geysir Geothermal Area. Again, there are dozens of tour options that will take you out. Most are half day or full day trips, which make for an easy (aka someone else plans for you) itinerary with transportation included. 

BLUE LAGOON

If you don’t know about Blue Lagoon, you must be living under a rock (or not using social media, which… is kinda the same thing these days), because this place is ALL. OVER. INSTAGRAM. I mean, who doesn’t love beautiful water and a natural spa? Blue Lagoon is the perfect Icelandic retreat, and very accessible from both the airport and Reykjavik. More here

SHOPPING

Downtown Reykjavik is full of cute shops. Sure, there are many many souvenir shops, but you can also find a little less touristy shops that sell Icelandic specialties like ceramics, salts, wool products and more. 

REYKJAVIK ROASTERS

Brautarholt 2, Brautarholt, Reykjavík, Iceland

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This coffee shop is a local favorite right in the middle of town. We stopped by after going to Hallgrímskirkja on our first day. It’s an intimate space to warm up with a cup of locally roasted coffee. I’d definitely go again maybe for a breakfast of coffee & croissants.

NOODLE STATION

Laugavegur 86, 101 Reykjavík, Iceland

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This was our first meal in town. We had explored a bit of Reykjavik and wanted to grab dinner before heading back to the hotel. It was a little early for dinner and the cold weather made soup sound like exactly what we needed to warm up for the walk back. It seemed to be a pretty popular spot (and the reviews agree), but we were not a huge fan of the flavors. It was sweet and herbal-y and warm, and I guess I was craving something more savoury and spicy and hot. But I will give it points for being on the cheaper end!

 

KAFFITAR

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Kaffitár is like the Icelandic Starbucks. There’s an extensive menu of coffees, teas, pastries and sandwiches as well as free wifi. It’s a good place to refuel and warm up while exploring the city. All the coffee is locally sourced and there are several coffee shops around Iceland.

 

LAVA

Blue Lagoon, Iceland

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If you’re looking for a splurge meal, you’ve found it. LAVA is the restaurant in Blue Lagoon (the spa, hotel resort complex…). It’s $$$$, but worth the splurge since you’re pampering yourself already at the spa. We went for lunch after spending the morning in the lagoon, but some people dine as a break from the lagoon (there’s no dress codes, so robes are a common sight!). The ambience, view and food are all v aesthetic.

 

ICELANDIC FISH & CHIPS

Tryggvagata 11, 101 Reykjavík, Iceland
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This (smallish) restaurant is in downtown Reykjavik, just a block from the water. The fish is fresh and the selection changes every day. It’s a popular place for a quick meal. Apparently, they’re opening a second branch in NYC this spring!

 

REYKJAVIK CHIPS

Vitastígur, 101 Reykjavík, Iceland

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I’ll admit that we were probably won over by the mural sign (who doesn’t love a logo with architectural fries?). We stopped by while shopping around town on our last day. It’s like a hole-in-wall ish shop where you order (fries come in 3 sizes and there’s a bunch of different options for dips) at the counter and hang out in the loungey booth area.

MY ITINERARY

We didn’t do much planning ahead. We knew we wanted to do the Golden Circle and Blue Lagoon, but we booked all of our transportation and tickets there. Also, due to the shorter trip, we didn’t venture out of Reykjavik/Keflavik areas. 

DAY ONE / Arrival, Hallgrimskirkja, and exploring Reykjavik

  • Arrive in morning and take a bus to Reykjavik
  • Check in at Reykjavik Lights Hotel and rest, book Golden Circle tour at the front desk for tomorrow
  • Walk to the city center and see the amazing view at Hallgrimskirkja
  • Coffee at Reykjavik Roasters
  • Dinner at a noodle shop in town
  • Grab snacks from a grocery store


DAY TWO / The Golden Circle and Northern Lights

  • Wake up early and eat breakfast at the hotel, pack snacks for the road
  • Get picked up at the hotel and shuttle to main bus terminal
  • Off to the Golden Circle
  • First stop: Þingvellir and Snorrabud
  • Second stop: Gullfoss
  • Third stop: Haukadalur
  • Fourth stop: Skálholt Church
  • Last stop: Icelandic Horse Park Fákasel
  • Drop off at hotel, book Blue Lagoon, grab dinner at nearby restaurant
  • Night: Northern Lights tour


DAY THREE / The Blue Lagoon

  • Wake up early and grab breakfast at the hotel
  • First bus to Blue Lagoon
  • Opted for “comfort” package, spent a couple hours in the lagoon
  • Lunch at LAVA
  • Bus back to hotel, shower again and rest
  • Walk to city center (run into Panama Paper protests)
  • Dinner at Icelandic Fish and Chips


DAY FOUR / Exploring Reykjavik and shopping

  • Breakfast at the hotel and check out
  • Head to city center, grab coffee at Kaffetar
  • Souvenir shopping around the city
  • Snack at Reykjavik Chips
  • Back to hotel for bus pick up
  • Head to Keflavik airport
Official Tourism Website This is a pretty comprehensive tourism site and a great resource for getting to know Iceland. In addition to the typical good-to-know travel information, they have a section that breaks it down by region, as well as information about the history and culture. It’s a good place to start when looking for hotels or established tours and activities as well.
Guide to Iceland Website This site includes information and planning tools to help put together a custom trip. They also have a network of locals to connect with for more tips. They have a pretty good guide to different ways to see the Northern Lights as well.
NYT’s 36 Hour Guide to Reykjavik and other Iceland travel coverage I always love reading the 36 Hour city guides compiled by New York Times. I’ve found that they can be a hit or miss (especially in terms of timing) but I usually find at least a couple interesting places that are worth checking out and fit in my itinerary.
Life with a View Blog Iceland Guides This site is run by an American expat who lives in Iceland. She has a bunch of different tips and guides on traveling in Iceland. A little digging and you’ll probably get the answers to all of your questions here.
Northern Lights Forecast A great resource for spotting Northern Lights.
Travel + Leisure Iceland Guide A comprehensive guide that includes information on latest deals and a curated collection of hotels, restaurants and things to do.
Alex Cornell’s Travel Guide This is a really in depth guide for people who want to road trip and forge their own adventure around Iceland. There’s tips on what to bring, driving in Iceland, as well as a comprehensive itinerary. Definitely bookmark this if you’re planning a road trip!

[ Last Edited: April 2018 | Last Visited: April 2016 ]

see also

day trip: blue lagoon
snapshots from reykjavik

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