My friend Jaroslavs was looking at the option of going to Reykjavik and he asked me what I thought of it. After half an hour of taking AT him, I promised to write a blog post so he could see why I thought it was worth a visit – so J, here goes…
Reykjavik is an easy choice. Close to the UK, cheap to get to and beautiful Scandinavian scenery in a volcanic island in the Atlantic – Iceland has been ‘on the list’ for a while.
Flying to Reykjavik is easy from any UK Airport. BA, Icelandair, EasyJet and WOW Air are the leading carriers and have some exceptional deals on their website https://wowair.co.uk/flights/best-fares/ some of which include hotels and attractions, like the Blue Lagoon, for great prices. WOWAir were the cheapest carrier for our dates.
All UK flights fly to Keflavik Airport (KEF) which is only 40 minutes drive from Reykjavik. You can either hire a car, my suggestion (more later on this) or get one of many transfers. You should pay 15-20€ pre-booked or 25€ on the spot for a bus/mini-bus transfer.
We planned an itinerary based on trying to see as much of the city as possible, the Northern Lights and as much scenery as possible, in three days… (you know I am pretty ambitious with my itineraries!).
Day 1 – Orientation
We took a walk from our apartment to Harpa Concert Hall on the marina. If you are into your architecture, don’t miss this building. Although new, Ólafur Elíasson’s Honeycomb-Basalt inspired glass exterior is impressive and earned the 2013 Mies van der Rohe Award for contemporary architecture.
From here, you can walk across to Park Arnarhóll, next to which, is the Prime Minister’s Office. Park Arnarhóll leads towards the city’s shopping district and a road called Bankastræti. There are lots of local shops here and as you get to Laugavegur, the Tourist Information Office is on your left.
On the corner of Laugavegur and Skólavörðustígur, there is a small bar/café on the corner in a basement called Kofinn. There, we stopped for lunch and had some great paninis and coffee.
We then walked up Skólavörðustígur and spent time in the little independent shops on our way up the street to the Hallgrimskirkja Cathedral which towers over the city, fronted by a statue of Leif Erikson, the formidable Icelandic explorer who is credited with discovering North America. You can go inside the cathedral and even up the tower on certain days.
From here, the daylight was fading and it was off to find some food!
Near to our apartment, we had been recommended a local seafood restaurant on the old harbour; this was called 101 Harbour restaurant.
Situated harbourside in an old-style fish processing hall, it retains many of the original features. Although eating in Iceland is expensive, Harbour is reasonably priced for the city.
They serve local Icelandic dishes, including responsibly sourced local delicacies (Puffin, Minke Whale) for those who wish for a food adventure too!
I was very impressed by the quality of food here, as well as the hospitality and customer service!
The evening was topped off by a sighting of the Northern Lights in the sky above Reykjavik on the walk home. As an excitable photographer, I wrapped up and with Kerrie, my photography-buddy Kris James and a few others, we headed down to the Lighthouse Beach to see if we could catch the Northern Lights. I was more than happy with what I got:
See Timelapse Here: Northern Lights Reykjavik Timelapse
According to locals, you are just as likely to see the Northern Lights in a dark part of Reykjavik than on a Northern Light Tour.
Day 2 – Golden Circle Tour
The Golden Circle Tour is one of the biggest topics of debate for planning an Iceland trip. Which trip do you take? Which company? What attractions? Half-day or full-day? My advice is this:
We arranged ours with a local guide who we found whilst in Iceland. As there was 12 of us, they provided 3 4×4 people carriers and we had a completely private and flexible trip. It took all day (6am until 8pm) and was one of the best excursions I have ever done.
Iceland is beautiful, dramatic and impressive – the best way to see it is on one of these tours. Although we included some optional extras, it was still nearly £100 each! For the trip we wanted, everyone else was more expensive!
Our agenda for the day was this:
Stop 1 – Seljalandsfoss (A waterfall that you can walk behind!)
Seljalandsfoss Waterfall is about 1.5 hours from Reykjavik on Route 1. This route takes you through the geothermal lavafields where you can see steam rising up all around from geothermal wells. This has loads of parking and a walkway around into the cavern behind the waterfall. We spent about half an hour here.
Stop 2 – Skógafoss Waterfall
Further along Route 1, you head towards Skógafoss. The scenery is awesome and well worth seeing.
About 10 minutes before you get there, a stop can be put in at Eyjafjallajökull Erupts, a small farmhouse museum to the 2010 Eyjafjallajökull Volcano Eruptions that shut down European Airspace; it is at the closest road point to Eyjafjallajökull Volcano.
Skógafoss is just past the museum and is an impressive and picturesque waterfall.
If you like a walk, there are some steps on the left where you can walk to the top, or you can walk up to the plunge pool at the base of the falls – or both!
We spent about 1 hour here.
Stop 3 – Sólheimajökull
Going further up Route 1 will take you to Sólheimajökull Glacier. Here you can park up and walk onto the glacier. This is a mobile and live glacier, you can hear it moving and trek to your heart’s content.
Pay attention to the signs though, some parts of the glacier are unstable and caving/hiking are unwise!
We spent about 1.5 hours here…
Stop 4 – Reynisfjara Beach
The Black Beach stretches from opposite Skógafoss, all the way up to Reynisfjara Beach. It is a beach with black sand and is well worth a visit. We stopped at the beach opposite Skógafoss due to time, but next time, I would go up to Reynisfjara Beach, near Vik, for two reasons.
Reason 1 – Basalt Sea Stacks or Reynisdrangar (Similar to those at Staffa, Scotland or Giant’s Causeway, Northern Ireland).
Reason 2 – DC-3 Plane Wreck, Reynisfjara Beach
A little further down from the Basalt Sea Stacks, there is an old DC-3 which crashed in the 1970’s after having severe icing. The crew survived but the aircraft has been left to the mercy of mother nature…
** A word of warning – I have been told that the road access has now been closed and it is a 90 minute walk. This is an old empty aircraft and I am sure it is graffiti’d so go at your own risk. Don’t expect too much 🙂 **
If you really do want to do this, it is on Google Maps but it would be worth reading what ExpertVagabond writes on finding this by car!
Although I didn’t go right up to Reynisfjara Beach, but I have included it on the driving itinerary for interest.
When we went onto black beach, road access was easy opposite Skógafoss and you can drive right up to the water’s edge.
The beach is impressive and strange…
Especially when there is a whale there!
This poor guy had died and washed up ashore. Apparently, they wash up routinely which is quite sad!
One point to make is that when you stand on Black Beach and face south, you are facing directly South where you could travel in one line and end up at the South Pole directly across the Atlantic – Pretty cool for us Geography Nerds!
Stop 5 – Gullfoss
You will go back along Route 1 and then go north on Route 30. About half way up on the left, if it is a clear day, you should be able to see a volcano with a steaming top – this is Hekla.
Hekla is a historically active volcano and was know throughout history as the Gateway to Hell and there is lots of Icelandic Folklore about it including the story that is still told today that at Easter, witches gather on the slopes of Hekla!
Anyway, about 2 hours after leaving Black Beach you will arrive at Gullfoss. This is a multi-drop waterfall on the Olfusa River and a very popular visitor’s attraction.
There are walkways all around the falls and you can spend an hour or two climbing up the hills to the side to get different views.
Stop 6 – Haukadalur
Haukadalur, only 10 minutes drive from Gullfoss, is a valley that contains most of the famous geothermal Geysers that Iceland has to offer. The most famous, Geysir, rarely goes off nowadays but Strokkur, a sister Geyser goes of reliably every 5-10 minutes in an impressive jet of steam.
As well as Strokkur, which I could personally watch explode all day, there are up to 40 other geothermal pools…
We spent about 1.5 hours here.
Stop 7 – Þingvellir (pronounced Thingvellir) National Park (Rift Valley)
This is a great stop at which my camera run out of battery! AHH!
Þingvellir is famous for a number of things including the formation and meeting place of Iceland’s original parliament, Þingvallavatn a huge lake, the largest in Iceland. For me, the most impressive thing there, a giant rift valley where you can actually see the split between the North American and Eurasian tectonic plate! This is the wrong place to be left without a camera!
And that was it, back to Reykjavik for a well earned night’s sleep!
Golden Circle Conclusion
It is expensive, or is it? I am not sure. You have a local guide, a whole day, loads of attractions. I guess it is expensive but good value?
Well worth doing and I loved every minute of it. I will 100% do the golden circle tour again, but probably drive it myself…
Having done it, a 4×4 would be highly recommended however most of the roads are good. Navigation is easy, you can drive on your UK license.
Next time, I will hire a car from the airport, drive to Reykjavik and do the tour myself. I can then do this at my leisure, a lot cheaper than with a tour agency but the one great point is. I can do this at midnight! In summer, it doesn’t get dark. All the attractions are just there, no tickets, no offices, just wander in. I could do this when nobody’s there, spend as long as I like…
My advice, if you are a confident driver – hire a car and do it yourself. However in winter, I would suggest to avoid this idea …it is ICEland after all. And even in the summer – do this at your own risk.
To help, I have added a map below of the route:
If you’re thinking about doing this, as well as loads of useful info on visiting Iceland generally, guidetoiceland.is have written about this here: https://guidetoiceland.is/you-guide/how-to-drive-the-golden-circle
Day 3 – Blue Lagoon
Another unmissable thing in Iceland that is on the bucket-list of all my friends is The Blue Lagoon.
Situated between Reykjavik and Keflavik in the dramatic and desolate lava fields, the Blue Lagoon is pretty easy to get to, find out how here: http://www.bluelagoon.com/plan-your-visit/how-to-get-here/
We took the shuttle which leaves Reykjavik bus station each hour … See timetable here.
Real bucket-list stuff – A geothermally heated pool paradise, electric blue water, that you can bathe in for as long as you wish…. sort of.
Don’t get me wrong, I liked Blue Lagoon and I don’t mean to sound too sarcastic but I was sold on the pictures and naively didn’t look into it all that much.
The Blue Lagoon is on the back of a fairly luxury spa resort – great. Nice facilities, clean areas, good café.
It does have a swim up bar which proved pretty popular.
It also has swim-around beauty product staff who will offer you face masks and stuff. There must have been something in the water as Kerrie convinced even me to get involved!
But I do have a couple observations which, I don’t feel detract from the experience, but I feel were kept a bit quiet.
The first is that it isn’t naturally heated. Or it is, in so much that the water is heated by hot volcanic rocks under the earth, as opposed to being electrically heated. But it is still the result of human machinery pushing it down pipework to be heated and returned to a geothermal power plant behind and the waste water being used for the Blue Lagoon. Don’t get me wrong, this is no doubt 100% safe, as it is just water heated into steam to turn a turbine, there is no funny-business there, but it is kind of sold as a natural hot spring lagoon, like others around the world and for me – it isn’t really. Had I done my research, I would have known this but I didn’t. There are many similar natural pools around that are ice-cold!
Also, the back drop, as you can see from the first image above, the backdrop is a geothermal power plant. As beautiful a power plant as it is, it isn’t quite the natural lava fields that surround the rest of the area.
One more thing to note is that the communal towel rack system they operate, doesn’t really work – I got to see a lot of disgruntled people at the end of the day, realising someone had taken their Egyptian Cotton Towel and left a Primark special version in its place. Although funny to watch, pretty annoying for the people who had their towels taken! My tip – take a garish towel that is unique if you don’t want to be involved in ‘The Great Towel Exchange’.
In all, this is a good day out. I would do it again and it was fun. I just wanted to honestly note a couple things that took the shine off slightly…
After all that, our time in Reykjavik had run out. We vowed to return as soon as we could as we loved it. I haven’t spoken much about the people and I am a big believer that the people make a place. We found the Icelandic People to be super-hospitable, very funny and believe me – they can drink!