“Oh you’re going in winter? That’s brave.”
Sure, it averaged around -7°C the entire time we were out there, but when you book a holiday to a place called Iceland I would have hoped you’d have given up your idea of a relaxing beach holiday a long time ago. Might as well go the full hog and go in the dead of winter, right?
Honestly, I couldn’t recommend visiting this beautiful place in winter enough. I’m sure it’s as beautiful in summer and we probably would have seen a lot more as we only have roughly five hours of daylight a day, but there was just something about winter that seemed to seize the whole country in this magical atmosphere that went beyond the typical yuletide festivities. It was like something straight out of my books.
We ended up spending seven days in this wonderful country and in this piece I’ll outline some of the best sights, restaurants and things I would recommend doing that just felt so Iceland, you’d be doing the country an injustice by not doing or seeing them.
Day One: Reykjavik
The boyfriend and I got a very early flight out to Reykjavik with the mentality that we could actually make the most of our first day rather than arrive in the evening and have it written off. If you’re travelling to Iceland in the winter I would definitely recommend this more than anywhere else I’ve been – and I hate early mornings. This is because Iceland is on GMT time, same as the UK, and so the sun doesn’t actually rise in Iceland till around 10.30am. If you get an early flight you’ll be arriving when you can start to do things – like explore the capital, which is exactly what we did.
A lot of the hotels are a little out of town but we managed to walk to the start of Downtown in about 20 minutes from our hotel Reykjavik Lights. I don’t tend to give hotel reviews because I’m hardly ever in them but honestly for location this is one of the best hotels – if you book tours all of them will pick you up from the hotel front door, it’s an easy walk, and it’s surrounded by some of our favourite restaurants. It also has free parking for hotel guests which made our self-drive days a whole lot easier. If you are staying round here I’d recommend checking out Askur Brassiere and Bombay Bazaar, two very reasonable and delicious restaurants.
Anyway, back to Reykjavik.
You’ll know when you hit downtown because the houses on the walk into the town center make you feel as though you’ve stepped into What’s the story in Balamory. They’re an assortment of colours and there is street art everywhere on the houses which haven’t conformed to the life of colour. It made the walk feel like a stroll in an art gallery, so I really recommend not taking public transport and missing this experience if you don’t have mobility issues.
Reykjavik is not like any of the capitals I’ve been to – it’s tiny. There also aren’t a lot of ‘grand’ buildings a lot of Europeans are accustomed to in their cities and it resulted in many tourists walking past these great historical places with barely a glance. It would be beneficial if you like history, but don’t want to read all about it before you go, to get a guide. As a history buff I’d already figured out what places I wanted to see just for the warm inner glow nerds like me get from standing in the footsteps of those before me. If you just keep walking down the main street (you’ll know what I mean by main street when you go… there is just one main street I promise. It’s always blue on the tourist maps) you’ll see everything you need to see including Aðalstræti 10, the oldest house in Reykjavik. If you’re use to going to capital cities to visit grand pieces of architecture like Westminster Abbey and Notre Dame, then you’re out of luck.
Apart from Hallgrimskirkja. Hallgrimskirkja is probably the most well known structure in Iceland and is one of the tallest – you can see a lot of the city from simply standing on top of the hill it’s built on and if that isn’t enough for you then you can get tickets to go to the top of the church and see even more. It was designed by Guðjón Samúelsson and is said to resemble the ice fields and mountains of Iceland. It’s a rather stunning piece of architecture and is a must see whilst you’re in the city. If you’re hungry, just down the hill from the church is also the best bakery in the city: Braud & Co. Recommended to us by a friend, I shall recommend it to you – get one of their rolls which come in cinnamon, vanilla and liquorice flavour. Take your hot rolls and then wander past Menntaskólinn í Reykjavík – the oldest junior school in the city which traces its origins all the way back to the 11th century – and past Parliament House down to Tjörnin, a small lake in the middle of the city.
Now this is one of the reasons I was instantly glad to have come in winter. The whole lake freezes over enough that you can easily skate, run and slide around it to your hearts content – which is exactly what we did. The locals tend to occupy one half of the lake with serious games of ice hockey and figure skating, but they’re happy to let tourists hang out with the local kids to play on the slip’n’slides. This was my first experience of walking on a properly frozen lake so it was kind of magical for me.
The city is bursting with museums and quirky shops – you’re constantly just popping in to one or the other to explore the strange shop windows. I would definitely recommend checking out their main museum Saga, which tells you the history of the city and their Viking inhabitants. It’s right by the harbour which is also a beautiful place to go and take a stroll around.
In terms of eating and drinking there are lots of places to pick from. I must warn you the rumours you’ve heard about the country being expensive are true – there’s no getting away from it unless you want to starve or are self catering. Here are some of my recommendations for bars and food in the city:
- Durum Restaurant; this is a lovely fast food place on the main high street – very reasonable for Iceland and their kebabs will make you never want to touch an English sweaty kebab ever again.
- KebabHusid; another take away place which is quite reasonable and do absolutely mouth watering oven baked pizzas that they cook right in front of you.
- The English Pub; if you’re missing home this is a great place to go. You’ll find all the lost British, American and Canadian tourists in here who are feeling a bit over-whelemed from the city. They also have a great Happy Hour from 4 – 7 with 2-4-1 drinks so a great place to stop and warm up.
- Pablo Discobar; honestly my favourite find in the city. Firstly, it was open on New Years Eve so that was a big plus, and secondly they have some amazing music. There’s a Tapas restaurant on the first floor and on the top floor there’s a bar with lots of cozy booths to chill out in.
New Years Eve
So. I would definitely recommend coming to Iceland for New Years Eve – it is such an amazing atmosphere in the city from about 10.30pm. However, Icelanders celebrate the NY with their families and eat together. The big party doesn’t tend to start until after midnight, that’s when most of the bars open. There were a lot of tourists looking rather lost until the late evening when it started to heat up. I’d recommend booking somewhere to eat – the prices are going to be even worse than normal on this night so be prepared for a £70 meal for two, easily, even in a greasy burger joint.
When the party starts to kick off head back to the hill with the church on I mentioned earlier. This gives you a full 360° view of the cities skyline and the fireworks. Note that Icelanders don’t have access to fireworks apart from this one week every year so they go all out. Your neck is going to hurt from looking at it all but it is such an amazing feeling. Everyone has sparklers in the street and the different neighbourhoods try and outdo one another.
Day Two: The Golden Circle & Northern Lights
I’ve been asked if you need to book these tours or if you can do them solo. Honestly I think it’s entirely up to you – we got this one free with our booking along with the Northern Lights tour so we just enjoyed being driven around everywhere.
The Golden Circle is a beautiful part of the country and a 100% must see. It compromises Thingvellir National Park, the Gullfoss waterfall and the Geysir hot springs – all of which are breathtaking parts of Iceland. I could have stayed for hours at each one to enjoy them but the downside with a guided tour – or perhaps the upside – is you’re kept on a tight schedule to cram in as much as possible in the limited daylight hours.
We started with the Geysir hot springs – which was beautiful at sunrise. The Geysir became active around 1000 years ago and the local restaurant attached to the information center bakes all of its bread over these hot pits. We were lucky enough to get a glimpse of the cooks collecting the morning loaves when we were there. Geysir is the island’s most famous exploding hot spring but its eruptions are rare. However, its neighbour Strokkur boils over every few minutes. If you see a bubble begin to form you have about 3 seconds before it will erupt.
My favourite stop of the day was Gullfoss waterfall, which is actually two waterfalls separated by a few meters of cliff face, but with all the steam it looks like one whole waterfall. The waterfalls are another reason I was glad to visit in winter as they are completely frozen over. This doesn’t mean they
don’t run, it just means the water runs under this shield of ice which is the case at all the waterfalls we visited. It’s absolutely mesmerising. At the information centre you’ll learn all about Gullfoss’ local hero, Sigridur Tómasdóttir. Until her death, Sigridur and her family were the owners of the waterfalls, and had been offered large sums of money to sell the waterfalls to use them for a power source. Sigridur fought most of her life in order to keep the waterfalls and surrounding areas preserved including walking all the way to Reykjavik and threatening to throw herself in the waterfalls. With the help of her lawyer Sveinn Bjornsson, who later became the first president of Iceland, however, they managed to keep Gullfoss a protected area.
Thingvellir National Park is another beautiful area of Iceland and a place you could probably spend a whole day exploring. A lot of scenes from Game of Thrones were shot around here too, so fans amongst you might want to keep your eyes peeled for White Walkers. This was a perfect site to come to for my boyfriend and I – he being a geographer and I a historian. In fact, our degrees have never met so peacefully before as they have here. For the geography nuts, this is the place where you can see the continental drift between the North American and Eurasian Plates – all of the cracks in the earth are where they are constantly moving. The unique geography is actually the reason why Iceland exists at all. For the historians, the site was deemed as the best meeting ground for the Chieftans of Iceland and was the seat of Parliament from 930AD to 1798, as it was the only neutral ground after its owner was found guilty of murder. The area is also home to the first Church, one of the first schools outside of Reykjavik and the site of public executions.
In the evening we headed out in search of the Northern Lights. This is the only thing I would 100% recommend getting a tour for. Firstly, these guys are trained to find the perfect spot and time to see the lights. Secondly, if you don’t see them on your designated night it will keep running until you see them.
Now, for those of you who are expecting to see the most dazzling light show in the world, reign in your expectations right now. The science behind this phenomenon means you will very rarely see what you see in photos with the naked eye. We were extremely lucky to be able to see them with our own eyes and watch them dance – it was a truly beautiful moment – but you might need to watch them through your camera.
When you’re taking photos, unless you know how to use a good camera don’t bother taking one. You’ll spend more time fiddling with it than enjoying the show. I took all my photos with my Samsung S7 on auto and it picked out the lights better than half the DSLRs in the hands of the inexperienced. If you’re not a photographer, trust your phone, sit back, and enjoy the lights. In Iceland the lights are always green unless there’s a solar storm, so make sure to keep an eye out for a green glow!
Day Three – Four: The Southern Coast
This is another popular destination for tourists and after our couple of days down here I can understand why: every turn of the road made us want to pull over and take a thousand photos.
For three days of our trip we hired a car and went solo, two of those days we ended up dedicating to the south coast of Iceland. I think we could have done the whole thing in one day if we had limited our time more at each site and hadn’t encountered a snow storm on the first day of our exploration, but it was worth every second and I’m glad now we spent the time taking two days to finish the route. If you plan to do it in one day make sure to be strict with your time at each stop.
The South Coast refers to the drive between Reykjavik and Vik. Along the way you’ll see frozen waterfalls, trek up hidden ravines and walk along beaches of ash. All of this is along Route 1, the ring road that runs around the whole country, so it is also a very easy drive (unless you encounter a snow storm like we did).
Your first stop will be Seljalandsfoss. You’ll be able to see this from the road as you approach it over the bridge of a frozen river, and you’ll be able to hear it as soon as you park up. In summer you can walk behind it into the caves but in winter it’s an icy hell – you wouldn’t even want to attempt it. The waterfall is a part of the Seljalands river which originates in the volcano glacier Eyjafjallajökull. You can, however, climb up beside the waterfall. On recollection the steps were probably roped off at one point, but a torn off bit of rope didn’t stop many of us from attempting the icy stairs which take you half way up into the waterfall. Do NOT attempt this unless you are confident and have good shoes – we watched one tourist nearly fall into the waterfall trying to climb this and in
hindsight we probably should have worn spikes on the soles of our boots. But it is exhilarating to be so close to it all you can hear is the roar of the water. If you choose to take your time, hike along the route to a second waterfall – Gljúfrabúi. Not many people know about it, there was only a small group of us who dared to do the mile and a bit walk there. It’s tucked into a little ravine you can wade in if you’re feeling brave, or you can just enjoy seeing the glimpses of this frozen waterfall through the cave opening. There’s quite a few little caves early settlers would have lived in along here too which was very interesting.
The next stop is Eyjafjallajökull, the volcano that errupted back in 2010 that sent ash clouds all over Europe. You can stop on the side of the road and take some pictures here (you’ll see all the other buses and cars stopping there). It’s also the starting point of several treks up to the volcano. You can’t get to the top, but there is a hot spring a lot of people go and have a dip in.
After the volcano you’ll be heading onto another waterfall: Skógafoss. Thor fans will recognise this from The Dark World, especially if you manage to visit on a sunny day when the double rainbow is often
visible. We ended up arriving just before a snow storm so no rainbow for us, but that didn’t take away its beauty. This waterfall is nestled among the cliffs that used to be Icelands coastline and it is said that behind it are vast amounts of treasure left by the first viking settlers. You can climb up the steps cut into the rock face beside it that go all the way to the top and provide a heart stopping view of the waterfall from its lip. If you have an active imagination, it gives you a real good taste of fear for what it would be like to plummet down into the abyss below.
Budding photographers, or lovers of anything apocalyptic will just love our next stop: Sólheimasandur’s Plane Crash. On Saturday Nov 24, 1973, a United States Navy Douglas Super DC-3 airplane was forced to land on Sólheimasandur’s black sand beach in the south of Iceland after experiencing some severe icing. Luckily the whole crew survived but nobody came to clear up the wreckage and since then it’s turned into every creative persons dream. I’d done a lot of research on this before I left as it isn’t on any of the official tours of the South Coast – and it was one of the reasons I wanted to hire a car. A few years ago you could actually drive down to the beach and then you had to park up on a dirt track and walk down the dirt track, hoping you were heading in the right direction. When we visited there was a special car park and a clear pathway down to the wreckage. After you visit Skógafoss you’ll go over a bridge with yellow flashing lights on it – the car park is 1km after this on your right.
Dyrhólaey is the next logical stop after the wreckage (though we came back to it when it was darker). There are some fantastic views of the beaches and natural archways, but the main attraction is the lighthouse on the top of the hill – which you can drive right up to – and hence why we came back when it was darker. The light on the sea was a very spooky but exhilarating view; just be careful as the wind is bad here.
One of the more popular stops however is Reynisfjara black sand beach, which is the turning after Dyrhólaey. Game of Thrones fans may recognise it as Eastwatch-by-the-sea (you know, where they’re trying to save all the Wildlings but the Night King says ‘hell no’?), and some of you music fans may recognise it from Beyonce music videos, but
honestly this beach should be visited simply for its beauty. I will warn you it is windy here. Not Yorkshire windy, not even Scotland highland windy, even on a good day. There was no wind anywhere along our journey until we got here and it had the force enough to knock young children off their feet. They even have a sign here telling you how many tourists die from getting too close to the ocean. The waves easily came above mine and my partners heads before breaking on the beach, so could easily drown and drag someone out to sea within seconds. For geography lovers there are some lovely rock formations and caves for exploring (a nice distance away from the water) and if you crane your neck up you can see the puffins huddling together out of reach of the noisy tourists. The cafe here does a really lovely soup that will warm you up for any onward journeys you make.
The next stop is Vik, which is the perfect little postcard town. We didn’t stop as the drive through it was enough to appreciate its beauty, but there are some good restaurants we were recommended here so it might be worth a stop.
We, however, wanted to go a little beyond Vik where the landscape changes into this beautiful snowy wasteland. In the summer you can probably tell it’s a lava field, but in winter and after the fresh snowfall it looked like pictures I’ve seen of Siberia and Canada. We drove through it at sunset which made it even more breathtaking as everything was tinged pink and looked like candyfloss. Along this route you’ll pass Hjörleifshöfði – a mountain with a viking tomb on the top which you can easily make out from the road – and a lot of beautiful rock formations created from past volcanic eruptions. There’s plenty of stops on the side of the road you can pause to just take in the view.
There’s plenty of places to stop and eat along the way, and all the sites I’ve listed had cafes or fast food stands selling paninis and cakes. However, the real gem of a restaurant we found along the way which I cannot recommend enough is Kaffi Krús. You kind of feel like you’re walking into someones house or just a coffee shop, but there’s an upstairs as well, and the food here is to die for. If you’re looking to try Icelandic fish I would highly recommend the fish and chips here it was the best we had all trip. You also have to try their freshly made cakes – you won’t need a slice each as they are so big.
Day Five – The Snæfellsnes Peninsula
This isn’t a touristy part of Iceland, though I think it is becoming more so. We saw very few tour buses and at our stops locals seemed a lot more surprised to find Brits turning up in their cafes. It’s to the north of Reykjavik and it couldn’t be more different to the south even if it tried.
We left early to try and make the most of the sunlight and so arrived at our first stop Eldborg volcanic caldera as the sun rose. It was eerily different from our previous two days as nobody was around as we sat on the bonnet of the car and enjoyed watching the sun rise behind the caldera. You can hike up and into the caldera in summer but in winter it’s not advised due to the conditions so we were content with a quick stop here. You drive down a really rocky road but you feel like you’re driving on mars with the weird craters and rock formations, it’s definitely worth a stop along the way of any tour up here.
Rauðfeldsgjá Gorge was the highlight of our trip up north. It’s a beautiful ravine cut into the side of the Botnsfjall Mountain that you can climb into. The going is steep but you can easily do it in about an hour. There’s a pretty sheer drop into the river below once you get higher so just be careful in the snow if you do hike up there. We had the place entirely to ourselves so we were able to sit and watch the water running under the frozen cases and slide down the mountain side instead of walk down. It also provide breathtaking views of the ocean once you get to the top.
About a five minute drive down the road is Arnarstapi, a viking trading point. It’s a quaint little village and the ocean views are fantastic. The water has worn away the rocks to create little pools and coves which you can see into from the mountain top. There’s one in particular that reminded me of the Dark Pit in the latest Star Wars film. I would recommend stopping here for something to eat – there’s only one cafe and the sign was so worn I can’t remember if it was called anything other than Cafe, but you can get unlimited stew and bread in here which goes down a treat after playing in the snow.
Head across the mountains, passing the Snæfellsjökull Glacier, to get to other side of the peninsula. The drive through the mountains where you can see people have come to ski, is a wonderful experience. The sun disappears behind the mountain face and you’re enclosed in this shaded little valley. The snow provided all of the light so even though you’re in the shade you’re not in the dark.
On the other side of the glacier you’ll want to head for Kirkjufell mountain. This mountain has become famous for its appearance in Game of Thrones – like with a lot of places in Iceland – and you can hike up it. However, because everyone is focused on the mountain, a lot of people miss the beautiful waterfall opposite. To get to it in the winter months you have to walk across the frozen lake that is usually the pool all the water goes into, and then you can walk up the side and over the top of it. In summer you have to walk up it from another angle but if you’re coming in winter I’d recommend taking a trek across the frozen pool. Once you get to the top of the waterfall you can also make some furry friends as a herd of Icelandic Horses live just to the right of the waterfall if you approach it across the frozen
lake. These guys are the friendliest things ever and just love a good scratch. Please do NOT feed any of the horses you see alongside the road – the farmers get really upset if you do as they are all on very strict diets to keep them healthy. The horses here do not get vaccinated either so if you are wearing something that has come in contact with horses anywhere else, do not get them near these horses as it could make them sick.
To round off your trip north, I recommend checking out Gamla Kaupfélagið in Akranes. Akranes is a very quiet little town and is on a protruding bit of the country into the sea, so there are some lovely views to have by taking this detour. The food is 5* but even better are the toilets – especially for the women. Both toilets are candle lit which was a very odd experience for my partner and I, but he didn’t get any of the benefits the girls will get from their bathroom. They’ve got a small basket of everything you could want – perfume, hair spray, nail clippers, nail polish remover, lip gloss, tweezers, antiseptic cream… the list goes on. Honestly it was the highlight of my visit here and the food was a pretty high bar to hit.
Day Six – Horse Riding & Lava Caving
Whenever you go away with your partner there’s always some compromise on the activities you do. Before we had even booked the hotel and flights I had made it very clear I wouldn’t be leaving Iceland until I had ridden an Icelandic horse – their five gaits have intrigued me for a long time. My partner isn’t a great lover of having his feet off the ground, so I think he was hoping he could sit it out while I had my fun. Instead, I found a fun combination excavation which involved horse riding and lava caving. I love caving perhaps as much as I would living in the fiery pits of hell so I thought this would be a fair compromise.
We started with riding which was an absolutely amazing experience, though I wish I had been able to do a more advanced riding course. The stables we were with split the group off into beginners and the more advanced, and the beginners (including the boyf) went for a nice little walk around this beautiful moonscape national park outside of Reykjavik. My group got to go at a faster pace and Princess (my pony) and I managed to get a little bit of cantering in, though not nearly as fast as I think we’d have both loved to have gone. Still, it is something I would recommend to any horse lover as even the Icelandic Horses’ walk feels entirely different to the horses I’m used to in the UK. It looks uncomfortable when you see another rider going past and all the video footage I took with the video tucked into the horses mane makes it look like a jarring journey, but it is actually the smoothest thing I’ve experienced.
Caving… I was not as big of a fan of but my partner enjoyed it immensely. The guide we had was very knowledgeable, the cave was clearly one he loved and knew and was excited to share with as many people as possible. This was no leisurely walk in the caves other tours were, we ended up on our stomachs at one point wriggling through the crevasses. I can appreciate this was an amazing experience for someone who loves this sort of thing, and it was a different experience for sure, but I don’t think it’ll be something I jump to do again!
Day Seven – The Blue Lagoon
Of course we wouldn’t skip out on the Blue Lagoon whilst we were there. We had decided to leave it till the last day after all the hiking and the riding and caving, so we were nice and relaxed for our flight home the next day and returning to work. I’ve been to quite a few of these outdoor hot springs and the Blue Lagoon is one of my favourites. With a swim up bar, free mud masks, a steam room and sauna, and lots of little nooks and crannies you can snatch up to get some privacy, it’s a really lovely spa. There are different packages to choose from. We paid for a Premium Package, which we both immensely enjoyed. If you book through the Blue Lagoon website, the difference between Premium and the Standard is about £10/£15. In that difference you get a free robe, free towel, free flip flops (which you get to keep), two free mud masks, a reservation as the LAVA restaurant, some free drinks in the swim up bar and champagne in the restaurant. The restaurant itself was a lovely end to the day and our whole week, you can see everyone relaxing in the spa and its built into the side of a cliff face so the interior is stunning.
My top tip for you if you are visiting, especially the ladies, is to take some good conditioner with you or to make sure you don’t get your hair wet. It sucks all the moisture out of your hair and it will hate you for it.
As always I hope my quick low down on what to see helps you pick and choose what to cram into your time here in the land of ice and fire. Just remember, this is not a holiday of relaxation. It’s an adventure type holiday and you will be hiking, climbing mountains, scaling frozen rivers – all in freezing temperatures. Make sure you take thermals, good walking boots and a proper coat and you’ll be sure you love every single second.
From Iceland, with love xoxo