On September 16th, I left the USA to head to Cambridge. However, instead of flying directly to London, I took advantage of an Iceland Air promotion to “stopover” in Iceland for up to seven days without additional airfare. I booked a room in the capital of Iceland, Reykjavik, for four nights. The following is a description of my time in Iceland. I will focus on the highlights, but do know that I still enjoyed myself in the times that remain unwritten. All pictures included are mine!
Day One: Arrival
My flight arrived early on a Thursday morning and I spent the first day in Reykjavik. After dropping off my luggage, my first stop was a walk to Hallgrímskirkja, a Lutheran church that towers over the city. If you ever have the chance to visit Reykjavik on a layover or stopover for only even an hour, I suggest you go to this church. It towers over the city and you can take an elevator to the top to get the best view of Reykjavik.
On the way to Hallgrímskirkja, I stopped for a cappuccino at Reykjavik Roasters, the undisputed king of Reykjavik coffee. The place is near the church and the cappuccino was delicious as advertised.
The rest of my day consisted of walking around the streets of Reykjavik, taking pictures of the scenery, eating food, and drinking coffee. I had a bowl of lobster soup at The Sea Baron and tried one of Iceland’s famous hot dogs at Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur. Both are recommended!
Day One: Music
The streets of Reykjavik were lined with shops for food, tourism, Nordic gifts, and bookstores, among other things, but one shop in particular stood out to me. Down the street from Hallgrímskirkja is a record store named 12 Tonar. Iceland has a strong music scene and I have enjoyed music by at least two different Icelandic artists, Sigur Rós and Björk, in the past. I was informed of 12 Tonar by an advertisement on the plane ride over and thought it would be a great place to sample more Icelandic music. It didn’t disappoint.
Upon walking in to the shop, I was offered a cup of espresso and water, and the man behind the counter selected five or six CDs for me to sample by Icelandic artists. The shop has its own little lounge that is outfitted with multiple CD players, books, and WiFi, and here I listened to the music for some time while sipping on the coffee and catching up on the internet. One album / song (the song and album have the same name) I listened to and recommend is Dýrð í dauðaþögn by Ásgeir Trausti.
At night, I saw the Iceland Symphony Orchestra perform Mozart and Beethoven. The concert was located at the renowned Harpa, a modern building located along the water in Reykjavik. I spent at least an hour walking in and around the building, marveling at the sights. It is amazing in the day, and an even greater spectacle at night, when patterns of light shine from the windows.
I woke up early the next day to catch a ride to the famous Blue Lagoon. An often-claimed statistic is that over 70% of tourists visit the Blue Lagoon during their trip. It was a hectic morning, as I got locked out of my room, but that is a story for another day. If you want some more info about the Blue Lagoon, I suggest checking out these two pages. The heated water was nice and the blue color was great to see, but in my opinion the lagoon did not live up to the hype. The facility is small (though they are expanding) and entrance is expensive. Also, at least during my visit, the water was really not the hot; I would have enjoyed sitting in the pool much more if it felt more like a hot tub.
I decided to cut my losses and take the first bus back to Reykjavik. The rest of the day was rather uneventful (though still enjoyable). I got a baguette and some croissants from the Sandholt Bakery and some fish and chips plus a beer at Icelandic Fish & Chips. Eating in Iceland, along with almost all things, is expensive, and those two places have quality food at not too high of a price. The fish and chips shop had a great happy hour deal (sample platter of fish and chips, three Skyr based dips, and a Gull beer); it was too good to pass up! Also, the shop shares a building with the Volcano House, a one-room free exhibit showcasing stones, lava, and ash from volcano eruptions in Iceland. It was actually very cool, and I was even able to feel the ash and lava from different eruptions.
At night, I walked around the city and took pictures of Hallgrímskirkja, Reykjavik, and the Harpa in their nighttime glory.
On the third day, I undertook an Arctic Adventures day excursion: Glaciers & Waterfalls. The weather was rainy and overcast for large parts of the day, but the tour was a great experience. The highlight of the tour was hiking on the Sólheimajökull Glacier. Luckily, the rain stopped for the entire duration of the hike. We walked about thirty minutes to the glacier, and then we hiked on the glacier for about an hour. During that time, they provided lots of information about the glacier and glaciers in general.
Before the hike, we stopped at a waterfall called Skógafoss…
and afterwards, we stopped to see another waterfall, Seljandsfoss, which was especially cool because you could walk behind it.
Finally, the last main attraction of the tour was a stop at a black sand beach by Vík í Mýrdal. If it wasn’t for pouring rain, I would have spent more time wandering on the beach, but I still marveled at it for a few minutes! For more information about this beach, visit this link.
I got my first taste of the Icelandic countryside outside of the Reykjanes peninsula during this tour. During our ride, we saw countless white, grey, and black sheep. In addition, we saw cows and many Icelandic horses.
Day Four: Golden Circle
I enjoyed all of my days in Iceland, but my last day was my favorite. On this day I went on two classic Iceland tours to see the Golden Circle and the Northern Lights. Even though I was brought around on large tourist buses for both of these trips, the sights were amazing and lived up to the hype.
The day got off to a great start even before the tours. I woke up a little early to head to Sandholt Bakery again for breakfast. At Sandholt, I enjoyed a sourdough breakfast sandwich and cappuccino and purchased a croissant and baguette for the road. The counter at Sandholt contained so many delicious looking pastries, cakes, breads, and pretzels, and the bakery is known for its sourdough bread. I strongly recommend it!
On the walk back from Sandholt, I was treated to a pleasant surprise: a strong, beautiful rainbow stretching across the skyline over downtown Reykjavik from left of the city hall to the harbor. It was the strongest rainbow I can ever recall seeing, and I could make out every color. It got even better, as a second rainbow joined in the fun overhead.
After the breakfast and rainbow it was time for the The Golden Circle, a popular tourist route starting and ending in Reykjavik. On the circle, you can see Thingvellir National Park, two geysers named Geysir and Strokkur, and Gullfoss, translating to “Golden Waterfall.”
Thingvellir (or Þingvellir in Icelandic), is a national park located not too far from Reykjavik. It has lakes and mountains, and it is characterized by a very rugged landscape. In this area, you can cross from the tectonic plates of North America and Eurasia, and you can even spend time in between the two plates on the Mid-Atlantic Ridge. Scenery from the parks has been featured in Game of Thrones. The water in the Mid-Atlantic Ridge area is extremely clear, and in the future I would love to go snorkeling in it.
Geysir is the namesake for all geysers, and it is supposedly the first geyser recorded in print. Unfortunately, it is not very active and most likely it will not erupt on a quick visit.
Strokkur, its nextdoor neighbor by about fifty meters, is very active. Strokkur erupts every five to seven minutes, and during my visit I saw it erupt up at close at least three times. I wanted to capture a picture of Strokkur erupting, but the pre-eruption bubble and initial burst are so quick that you have to be prepared. Our guide told us to look for blue-green water, which supposedly would appear milliseconds before the eruption. I wasn’t able to spot that but did capture some images that made me proud.
The third and last but not least of the trio of sites is Gullfoss. Gullfoss is a massive two-step waterfall. For me, it was the highlight of the circle. We were at Gullfoss for over an hour, which provided plenty of time to traverse the trails near and above the waterfall. The trails let you get very close to the water, which was my favorite part. The views of the water crashing down from above, eye level, and below were all great, and the constant crushing sound added to the experience. I took way too many pictures at Gullfoss, but I did my best to select just two for your viewing pleasure.
I have one tip for future reference: on my tour, the designated lunch stop was at the Gullfoss Café. I suggest either eating at the cafes at the other stops or bringing a lunch/snack with you so that you can spend the entire time admiring Gullfoss. I used up all of the hour!
The Golden Circle, although a tourist classic, was truly a wonderful tour. I would have been satisfied if my trip ended after the Circle, but I had one last phenomenon to see: the Northern Lights.
Day Four: Northern Lights
In the weeks leading up to my trip, the one thing I thought about most was viewing the Northern Lights (a close rival would be a snorkeling experience I booked in Thingvellir but decided to change to the glacier walk). I purchased a Nikon D3300 to bring abroad and read guides about how to configure a DSLR camera to take pictures of the lights.
On the eve of my trip, I looked at the Northern lights forecast for Iceland. The forecast was cloudy for all four of my nights in Iceland. Also, the activity was not supposed to be that high. After my first night, I came to peace with the fact that I might not and even probably would not see the lights during my trip.
Nonetheless, I kept on checking the forecast, and the forecast claimed the weather was to turn around for my final night. I didn’t know if I wanted to spend the money and time, because I was worried the weather would not be good enough and I had an early flight the next morning (the tour operated from 10:00 PM to past 1:00 AM, and I had to wake up at 3:15 AM to catch my ride to the airport). However, how could I pass up the opportunity? I booked a tour.
We left Reykjavik in a big bus and drove to the Reykjanes Peninsula. The forecast in the area that night was lightly cloudy with high aurora activity. We arrived at our location after about an hour drive. After walking off the bus, I looked at the sky and a few faint white streaks with some clouds. Our guide told us the activity usually came from these white streaks so that was a promising sign. For about fifteen minutes, I waited patiently and took pictures of the faint streaks of white clouds, which with the camera settings (15 second exposure, ISO 800) still looked green. At that point, I wasn’t sure if I was seeing the lights or if more was to come.
Sure enough, more was to come. The faint white streak started in the sky on our left side and crossed the entire sky. The lights started to become active, and soon enough the lights started to dance and curl their way across the night sky. At one amazing moment, as the lights were moving across the center of the sky, a shooting star shot right past the curl. It was amazing.
The lights danced on and off for the remaining forty-five minutes. I tried to capture many pictures, but the pictures do not do the lights justice. First, they provide a distorted view of the lights; because the exposure time is so long, the greens and other colors show up much more intense in pictures than they do in the sky. Second, the pictures cannot capture all of the motion. Nonetheless, I still tried to get some good photos. Although they surely are not top quality and need some post-processing, I was still satisfied.
Iceland is a beautiful place. I enjoyed everything I did and saw, and I also enjoyed the people. If or when I go back, here are some other things I would like to do: see the Jökulsárlón Glacial Lake, go snorkeling in Thingvellir, ride an Icelandic Horse, and go into or visit a volcano. The tourism interest in Iceland seems to be growing exponentially, so if you want to visit, I suggest going sooner rather than later!