You guys, we visited the northernmost capital in the world in the middle of winter. What were we thinking?
We had a three-day weekend and decided at the last minute—literally 10pm on Thursday—that we would leave for Iceland on Friday. We’re spontaneous like that.
Our trip was our first experience with IcelandAir, which, even though we had premium economy seats, charges for everything, including food and drink. We hadn’t accounted for that (no dinner on a seven-hour intercontinental flight?!) and also weren’t in the mood to pay for fake pizza, so we landed hungry. Added to that, as excited as we were, we slept zero minutes on the plane.
We got out of the lovely, well-equipped airport and out into some sort of angry Martian landscape. It was awful. It pitch black and not quite cold enough to snow, so the wind drilled freezing rain right down your neck. (IcelandAir claims on the back of its seats that Iceland is the third-windiest place in the world—and people don’t live in the first two places—but I can’t find anything to verify it. My bones, though, believe it.)
We landed at 6am, which was a whopping five hours before sunrise. This isn’t such a big deal in itself, except there were no restaurants open. None. And we weren’t being fussy. No cafes or bakeries or diners. No drive-throughs. No grocery stores, even. Nothing. We waited outside one cafe in the dark until 9am for it to open—and then after dashing to the door in pelting rain and 45-mph winds found out that on weekends it opened at 10. Breakfast almost broke us.
But we managed to find brekkie at Brikk. We ordered tomato soup and bread at 9 in the morning, and that soup was LIFE. The cafe didn’t serve much else (a trend we would soon discover is commonplace in Iceland) but the soup was warm and the bread was soft and the coffee was strong. While we ate, the sky began to lighten and the rain turned to snow. The sun rose at 10:45, and so did our spirits.
Our first snow. Much easier to appreciate after having eaten.
We drove into Reykjavík to Hotel Island, arriving at 11:30 in desperate need of a nap. The clerk informed us that we could pay $50 for early check in . . . or just wait until noon for regular check in. Of course we waited. Waited and then napped and then showered and then left to go use up the last bit of sunlight before night struck again at 5:30.
We had a beautiful walk along the river, possibly interrupting a religious ceremony, and watched a sun that never fully rose, set among the clouds. Then, ravenous, we went off to dinner.
Sigh . . . guys, here’s the thing. Everything is expensive. So, so expensive. The pair of us couldn’t eat anything for less than $50. The food was good everywhere we went, but how much do you really want to pay for fish and chips? I bought two pints at a pub for $20 —which is cheap by Reykjavik standards. And painful by American standards. And to feel walloped like that every single meal, it adds up fast.
But the towns were cute. So, so cute. I mean, everything is cute in the snow, especially to those of us who don’t have to shovel it, and between the immaculate neighborhoods, the bright colors of the buildings, and the clean lines of the architecture, wandering the towns was a delight.
But I just spent an hour meticulously tracing our way through the city to share with you what we ate and where, and the end result is the same: the drinks were fine. The food was fine. The towns were fine.
What you really want to do is go outside.
Outdoors is where it’s at. Across the entire island, you absolutely understand that you are visiting at the pleasure of Mother Nature. There is no time when you are driving or walking down a street or sitting in a geothermal hot tub, that you do not feel her direct impact on your life. It’s the most remarkable feeling—and in my opinion, the only reason to visit Iceland.
We spent our second morning at the Blue Lagoon. We hadn’t booked reservations prior to coming since we didn’t know actually know in advance that we were coming, but we expected no issue. No one in their right mind goes to Iceland in January, right? There are five hours of daylight! But the Blue Lagoon is the Disneyland of Iceland—you can’t go all that way and not visit. The place was almost completely booked up. I will talk more about the Blue Lagoon in another post, but let me just add one tip: go early. It’s 1,000 percent worth it.
The rest of our outdoor experience was equally amazing. We drove the long way back from the Blue Lagoon and ended up outside Grindavikrubaer. It was so beautiful we had to pull over. We got out and walked along the cliffside to take pictures and drone footage. This also may have been when I fell flat on my ass on a patch of ice, bruising my backside almost as much as my pride, but I can neither confirm or deny that I’m healing now.
A storm chased us back to Reykjavik. We spent a lovely night in the Grjótagata area (Irish pubs! Comedy shows! The Black Death fermented shark challenge!) but got right back to it the next day.
We set out to explore a park near the Keflavik airport. As usually happens, we got distracted by nature, and had to stop in the very small town of Hafnir in Reykjanesbaer. Here the waves came high and fast, and in at least three different directions. It was insane. We managed to sit at a corner and watch all of these different tides crash against the rocky lava coastline. It was also the only time during our whole trip that the wind didn’t try earnestly to knock us over, and for that alone, I think this was my favorite moment of the trip.
The pictures will never do it justice, so you will have to just imagine the thousands of years of shipwrecks that are no doubt lying below the surface.
AWK Tips for Iceland
Do your duty (free). We were smart enough to buy wine in duty free, and took it around with us as we toured the region (side note: we never got to drink it in a restaurant. There’s no such thing as corkage fees in Iceland. Sad face.). But there’s a reason that flight attendants, families, and cheap backpackers all start their trip in duty-free. Iceland is expensive.
Bring snacks. All the Trip Advisor reviews on the restaurants in Reykjavik are effusive, so it’s hard to decide which one to choose. But each of the restaurants specialize in only one thing. They do it well but have few options and high prices. I don’t know that you necessarily visit Iceland for the food, but my mind was not blown. Go with low expectations and high budgets.
Stink so good. Iceland is a geothermal island. That means that sometimes your hotel shower or spa will smell like eggs. Embrace it. It is the smell of a fully sustainable lifestyle, and it also makes your hair fluffy. (Side note: when I visited Iceland in 2015, the hotel I stayed in smelled much more of sulfur than this one, so shop around if it’s an issue for you.)
Spa daze. If your hotel has a spa, pay the extra to use it. We came back after that first night, and I swear, the geothermal spa was the only reason we didn’t leave for home the next morning. We ended up with it all to ourselves, and spent at least an hour reviving in the hot—and warm and cold—pools. I will be leaving Hotel Island employees something in my will because of that night.
Find a getaway car. The best thing I can recommend is to rent a car and get out into nature. It’s the only thing on the island that won’t cost you anything.