My daughter, Ashley and I visited Iceland at the end of February this year. We absolutely loved the beauty of this diverse country and the friendliness of the people. It was a wonderful couple of weeks spending quality time together, experiencing new adventures and meeting some amazing new friends.
I’ve been wanting to share some of our experiences here as well as some practical advice. There are two places that we have been recently that everyone seem to us ask about. Cuba and Iceland.
I’ve been so busy with work and other travels that I’ve kept putting it off writing these posts. Being asked three times in a 24 hour period. Then hearing that Rick Steves was planning on publishing a guide book on Iceland this fall and his star researcher, Cameron Hewitt need travelers advice, pushed me to finally get these posts done! After all, the Rick Steves guide books have been extremely helpful all these years in planning trips to Europe. It is my chance to finally give back.
First things first
The flights to Iceland are cheap, but the costs while you are there are not. Don’t let that discourage you from going though. Iceland is an amazing country.
I wanted to experience the Northern Lights, so I chose to go during the winter months. I booked our trip for the end of February and beginning of March thinking that it wouldn’t be as cold as say December or January. The joke was on me though. We arrived in a frigid snow storm that ended up being the largest snowfall in the last 60 years in Reykjavik! Lesson learned. You can’t predict the weather! Oh… And take plenty of layers of warm clothing and snow boots. Layering is the key no matter what time of year you decide to go.
We took the bus into Reykjavik to our hotel. I booked online. The bus is the cheapest option for traveling to/from the airport, the Blue Lagoon and the airport. The only difficult part is the bus always goes to the terminal in Reykjavik before you grab a van to/from your hotel. I booked a private transfer back to the airport through our hotel because I was afraid that we may end up being late and I didn’t want to risk missing the hourly bus to the airport. The extra cost was worth peace of mind to me.
Our visit to The Blue Lagoon and our GoEcco 3 Day Ice Caving & Northern Lights tour both deserve posts of their own. Both well worth doing.
The Hotel that I highly recommend:
We actually stayed in two hotels in Reykjavik. On our first three nights we stayed at the Raddison Blu Saga. It was a large hotel outside the city center.
On our return from our three day GoEcco ice caving tour, we stayed at the nicest boutique hotel in a great central downtown location near restaurants, tourist sites and shopping. They have lovely, modern decorated rooms with a small kitchen and a nice espresso machine. Reasonably priced. Free wifi. I highly recommend them.
Kvosin Downtown Hotel
Ways to save money on eating in Iceland:
Icelandic water from the tap is some of the best in the world. Bring along a stainless steel bottle and fill it up from the tap at your hotel. Icelanders think it’s silly when tourists buy bottled water. Ask for tap water in restaurants too.
Be aware that an inexpensive meal in Iceland means spending $22-35 US. Iceland is definitely expensive, but there are a few ways that you can save a little money and not go hungry.
Take snack foods with you. We packed peanut butter and crackers, protein and breakfast bars, nuts and other filling goodies to eat rather than paying for a full three meals a day. This enabled us to spend more time taking in the sights and more cash for souvenir shopping.
Look for a hotel or apartment with a kitchen or a microwave and coffee maker. We picked up packaged frozen dinners and ‘cup of soup’ from a grocery store for a couple of meals. Bonus is a good option. Their grocery stores are still more expensive than what we are accustomed to in the USA, but still way cheaper than restaurants. I brought along instant coffee, tea bags and creamer too.
The Icelandic hot dogs are tasty and a good value. They are available at about every gas station around Iceland. You will find them in beef or lamb. Try the lamb. Very good.
We tried several restaurants that were recommended by locals which were moderately priced. These were our favorites.
Saeta Svinid Gastropub
Hafnarstræti 1-3 / 101 Reykjavík
Sími: 555 2900
Their menu is filled with Icelandic specialities like puffin, minke whale, and horse. Though we did not venture to try any of the fore mentioned dishes, we did try the lamb, the salmon and their really good burger.
Reykjavik 101, Iceland
We enjoyed this cozy restaurant on one of our first evenings in Reykjavik. Nicely appointed interior with many choices of reasonably priced food. They also have an outside seating area to enjoy your meal on a sunny day.
Salka Valka – Fish & More
Reykjavik 101, Iceland
Cozy little fish shop on busy Skolavordustigur street just down from
Hallgrimskirkja. Nice place to take a rest and warm up with a little lunch or dessert and coffee. Very friendly staff.
Karastigur 1 (corner of Frakkastigur)
Reykjavik 101, Iceland
Cute little coffee shop with coffee to enjoy there or to take away. They also sell pastries. Grab a fresh roasted cup of coffee and grab a window seat or take a cup with you and walk across the way to Braud & Company for pastry and head to Harpa Concert Hall like we did to enjoy a unique setting for breakfast. (Many thanks to Jonathan and Tomas for that great idea!)
Braud & Company
Reykjavik 101, Iceland
Wide selection of made from scratch pastries and breads that you are only able to take away. A great bakery that you can smell from blocks away early every morning. You are able to watch the bakers while standing in line waiting your turn. Highly recommend the croissants and cinnamon rolls.
Souvenir shopping in Reykjavik:
Head to Laugavegur and Skolavordustigur streets for a wide selection of shops to pop into. You can find all types of souvenirs to take home. Be sure to compare prices as we found that there can be a very wide difference from one shop to the next on vertically the same items.
I fell in love with all the handmade woolen accessories. I purchased socks for everyone on my gift list. They are so warm and cozy!!
My daughter loved all the hides. She ended up purchasing two as souvenirs to decorate her home. She purchased a sheep hide at a darling shop at 22 Skolavordustigur street (one building down from Fish & More Restaurant) just down from Hallgrimskirkja Church on the right side. They had a nice selection at a good price. This shop had a wide assortment of reasonably priced souvenirs of all kinds. Worth a visit.
She also purchased a reindeer hide at The Blue Lagoon gift shop. They had a really nice selection of hides at a good price as well.
Handknitting Association of Iceland
Reykjavik 101, Iceland
A cooperative of women who knit many types of clothing and accessories from Icelandic wool. Huge selection of items! Sweaters,hats, socks, mittens, scarves, You can even purchase wool to take home to make your own items. I highly recommend purchasing the socks if you are visiting Iceland in the winter. They will keep your feet warmer than any sock you can purchase in the USA. Believe me, you will need that warmth! The cooperative’s handmade items were my choice for souvenirs for myself and my family.
Places to visit in Reykjavik:
101 Reykjavik, Iceland
Be sure to head into the gift shop in the hall to the left as you enter the church to purchase the elevator tickets to go up to the top of the church. You will be rewarded with outstanding 360 degree views of Reykjavik, the harbor and the mountains across the way.
Enjoy the modern church interior as well.
Statue of Leif Eiriksson
Sits at the front entrance to Hallgrimskirkja Church
Harpa Concert Hall
Austurbakka 2, 101 Reykjavík
Sími: 528 5000
Beautiful glass and steel building on the waterfront in Reykjavik. You can go inside and explore for free. Nice place for a picking in the seating areas on the upper floors. Great view of the mountains and harbor.
Check their website for events. I wish we would have had time to take in a show called “How to Become Icelandic in 60 Minutes.” Our friends that went said it was really funny and, better yet, our GoEcco guide said it was funny and very true. We will do this for sure on our next trip.
How to Become Icelandic in 60 Minutes
Picturesque little lake in the Reykjavik city center that is nice to stroll around and watch the swans, ducks and other water fouls. It iced over during our visit which made it more fun as we skated around in our snow boots.
The Blue Lagoon
Outside of Reykjavik but it’s only a 45 minute bus ride away.
Having been to Iceland, next trip I would do it a little differently. I would take the bus to the Blue Lagoon from the airport instead of heading directly to Reykjavik. I’d stay at the Blue Lagoon’s hotel/resort my first night and enjoy more time there. If you decide to go to the Blue Lagoon, be sure to book everything online long in advance! I’ll write a separate post on just the Blue Lagoon and some of its amenities.
Experiencing the Northern Lights:
Pick a time of year when the nights are very dark. Usually that means from October through March for the best chance to see the lights. Try not to go during a full moon. This took me a lot of time researching for the best time for my daughter and I to go to Iceland. Seeing the Aurora was my top reason to go, so it was extremely important to me.
The longer that you stay in Iceland, the better chance you have seeing the lights. Keep in mind that the weather is extremely unpredictable. We arrived at the end of the winter season to the largest snowfall in Reykjavik from the last 80 years. Totally unexpected. Even though the aurora was active the first three nights we visited, we couldn’t see them because of cloud cover.
I had booked a super Jeep excursion with Arctic Adventures for our second evening. Literally, every other company cancelled their northern lights tours due to cloud cover, but Arctic Adventures did not. It was an extremely frigid, disappointing evening. They did take us outside of town, but there was too much cloud cover and no lights. Unfortunately, it was a waist of a lot of money too. Almost $400 for the two of us. I understand other companies are willing to reschedule or refund if things don’t go as planned. I thought I had done my research as to the best company to use. This is a warning to others.
The aurora forecast website to watch:
Follow this account on Twitter:
Aurora Forecast @AuroraIceland for both the Aurora forecast and cloud cover.
Photographing the Northern Lights:
There are a few things you will need if you are planning on trying to photograph the lights. First, you’ll need a good DSLR camera. I had read a couple of articles about apps for your iPhone that were capable of photographing the Aurora. I downloaded two of the apps that looked promising. The first evening that we saw the lights, I pulled out my iPhone and gave them both a try. Some people may be happy with the results, but it just wasn’t good in my opinion.
There are plenty of photography websites and books out there that explain how to set your specific DSLR camera. I’ll leave that to the people who do that type of photography all the time. They are the experts and it is quite a detailed process. I would suggest that if you have a couple of free hours in Reykjavik, to head to the small museum by the harbor, Aurora Reykjavik and ask the sweet people there if they wouldn’t mind setting your camera for you. Be sure to take the time to look at all their beautiful displays while you are there. Some wonderful examples of photography of the Aurora and you may begin to understand the Aurora better. Well worth the entrance price. You are also able to book Northern Lights tours on their website. They have several to choose from.
Aurora Reykjavik: The Northern Lights Center
Grandagarður 2, 101 Reykjavík, Iceland
Open 7 days a week 9 AM – 9 PM
Be sure to bring along extra batteries for your camera and other devices. A battery pack is also good to have. Batteries drain their power quickly in the cold.
Things I’d love to do on our next visit to Iceland:
I really want to do this photography tour:
I’ve been following Icelandic photographer Iurie Belegurschi for several years now on social media. His photographs are what inspired me to go to Iceland. Being a photographer, I wanted to experience the crystal ice cave and Northern Lights myself.
Iceland Winter Photo Tour
I still really want to do this tour. Though the tour we took was really wonderful and I highly recommend it to everyone, this tour is geared for photography. I would have had to go alone as my daughter isn’t interested in photography. Maybe one day. Still on my travel wish list.
Staying in a clear bubble dome in the middle of nowhere:
I think staying in a bubble would be a dreamy experience! That is if I could ever go to sleep with all those stars and the Northern Lights!
I did look at staying in a bubble before our trip. I just couldn’t figure out how to get there without renting a vehicle. We Texans have no idea how to drive on snow or ice, so that was totally out of the question.
One thought on “Practical advice for visiting Iceland”
Avoiding to go and see the northern lights during a full moon light is quite a fact. Thanks for letting us know this. Everybody should schedule the trip accordingly, to experience the best of northern lights. Buying Souvenir from Reykjavik is a must, it keeps the memory of the most awe-inspiring trip alive.