So you want to visit Iceland, one of the most photogenic places on the planet? You’ll love it! I have visited Iceland three times so far and on one of those trips I spent a full month traveling all over the country. In this series I share my tips for a fun trip. We cover flights, must-see sites, the Northern Lights, transportation, food, booze, money, language, lodging, and, of course, photography. This is not a complete itinerary nor do I intend for it to be. For me, travel is about exploring at your own pace – not checking items off a list.
Part Two - Arrival & Reykjavík
This is the second installment of my guide sharing my tips for a fun trip to Iceland. We cover flights, must-see sites, the Northern Lights, transportation, food, booze, money, language, lodging, and, of course, photography! Part Two of my guide is about your first day in Iceland, visiting Reykjavík.
Arrival: Keflavík to Reykjavík
You’ll probably arrive in Iceland early in the morning at the Keflavík airport. Collect your belongings and, if you rented a car, hop in that bad boy and head on into Reykjavík. There are some interesting things to see between the airport and Reykjavík but you'll probably be tired from your trip. Drop off your stuff at your hotel, hostel, or Airbnb but don't go to sleep if you can possibly avoid it.
Jon's jet lag advice: leave in the evening close to your normal bed time and immediately attempt to sleep after you're situated on the plane. Have a cocktail or two in the lounge before boarding, a couple sleeping pills about 30 minutes before takeoff, earplugs or noise-canceling headphones, and a sleep mask.
But first let's talk about the Blue Lagoon spa. If you've done even the least bit of research about a trip to Iceland you will have heard about this world-class spa. The Blue Lagoon is a lovely, if pricey, way to spend a few hours relaxing. Due to its proximity to the airport many people and guides suggest going there upon arrival but I disagree for a few reasons and I'll go ahead and discuss them here given that it's between the airport and all other points of interest. First, however, let's decide if the Blue Lagoon is even up your alley because it's fairly expensive and can be crowded.
Without a doubt it is a wholly unique experience to wade around in the warm, mineral-rich, milky, opaque water of the Blue Lagoon. It's relaxing, fun, and therapeutic. You may, however, be turned off by the price - about 7000 ISK or $70 USD as of writing for the basic entry. If that's cool then know that you're required to shower and wash before entry in a public locker room naked. This seems to cause quite a few folks to recoil in terror. They're wise to the Americans that try to keep their suits on while they shower and an attendant will give you a hard time about it!
If you decide to go then make the Lagoon the perfect conclusion to your trip - literally the last thing to do on the way to a long flight home. If frizzy hair bugs you then this is all the more incentive to wait until you're on the way home because the water will wreak havoc with your hair. Look, I won't try to talk anyone out of it - it's fun! Smear silica mud all over your buddy and swim up to the bar for an ice cream or rum drink! If the price or any of the other things turn you off, however, I suggest one of the many public swimming pools around the country colloquially referred to as "hot pots". These have hot tubs, water slides, and local folks to hang out with - and they're only about 600 ISK or $6!
Don't Miss Sites in Reykjavík
Reykjavík is a terrific compact walking city so get out and fight the urge to sleep, grab a cup of coffee, and explore it on foot. Walk out to the Harpa concert hall, walk up the road to the big Hallgrímskirkja church (ya can't miss it) and do a selfie with the Leifur Eiríksson statue. All along the way there are interesting shops and diversions. A favorite of mine on the first trip was trying to sound out the weird street and shop names since, at the time, I had not learned any of the seemingly indecipherable Icelandic language.
- Harpa- I've never gone inside, regrettably, but the outside of the Harpa concert hall is beautiful. At night it’s even more spectacular courtesy of the colorful lighting on it. Walk along the water’s edge nearby and take in the sculpture of the viking long ship, Sólfar (Sun Voyager) and the panoramic views across the water.
- Hallgrímskirkja Church - a beautiful modern building with architecture reminiscent of the basalt columns at the Reynisfjara beach. Drop a couple of fish-bucks and take the elevator to the top viewing platform in the steeple and enjoy arguable the best view of the city.
- National Museum of Iceland- I could have spent a day here easily. It’s small by European standards but it’s a delightful museum that focuses on the history of the country. Perfect for a rainy day but if you're in the country more than a few days then this is a must-visit.
Maybe Miss Sites in Reykjavík
Kolaportið Flea Market (cola-port-ith)- Open only on weekend mornings; near the hotdog place (see above). Great deals on flea-market kinda stuff. It’s not just for tourists but it's also not mostly Icelandic stuff anyway. You may not find anything to buy but it’s a ton of fun to walk around and interact with real folks.
Icelandic Phallological Museum - Formerly relegated to the seldom-visited northern town of Húsavík, this museum now in Reykjavík exclusively about phalluses. Much ado has been made of it no-doubt because of the subject but it's really not much to see. Even if this is the kind of thing that gets your motor running the admission is an ambitious 1500 ISK, approximately $15 USD.
Feed Your Face in Reykjavík
Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur (Bee-yarr-inns Best-oo Pill-sur) - extremely good hotdogs. I recommend getting them með öllu ("with everything" - pronounced meth oat-loo). It’s the cheapest thing you’ll eat in the country. The word for "One" is eina (eye-na); two is tvær (tuh-vyre)
- Grillmarkaðurinn (Grill-markuth-urr-inn) - After the hot dog spot this is my favorite restaurant in Reykjavik. Make a reservation. It’s pricey. It’s unapologetically trendy. Don’t get booze unless you’re rolling in money. Bring friends. Try the tasting menu which gets you some of everything including whale, horse, reindeer, etc. A real celebration spot. http://www.grillmarkadurinn.is/en/menu/dinner-menu/
- Icelandic Street Food - Certainly not the most imaginative name but this affordable restaurant has tasty hearty soups and breads.
Tours & Cultural Activities
I'm not really one for tours unless the guide is able to grant me access to otherwise inaccessible places but tours really save you some time if you want to make sure that you see some of the must-see sites. If you do these then make sure you give yourself some free unstructured time on your own to explore at your own pace. That said:
Creative Iceland - Whether you're looking for a photography tour guide, want to learn to knit from an Icelander, or pick up some cooking tips there are some unique experiences on offer here.
Kjartan Guðmundur - A personal friend living in Iceland that offers one-on-one photography tours specifically to capture the Northern Lights. Tell him I sent you!