Iceland first caught our attention upon our return from Spain and Amsterdam. Our quick visit to a small fishing village near Keflavik, captured our hearts with the calm, peaceful and quiet atmosphere. Standing at the water’s edge, staring into the black water and white mountains, we knew we’d be back….
Fast-forward 4 months, we landed (once again) in Iceland. This time we would spend our time in the capital city of Reykjavik (rey-key-uh-vick).
When we first told people about our travel plans, they looked at us like we were crazy! “Iceland… in the Winter?!” But believe it or not, Iceland has EXPLODED with tourism (all-year round). Dramatic landscapes, exciting outdoor excursions, natural hot springs and awe-inspiring natural wonders, attract and captivate thousands of travelers (such as ourselves) every year. So if you’re considering Iceland, I’d say “go for it!” but in-case you’re not convinced, here’s a breakdown of our experience…
We stayed at the Island Apartments in what I considered, the best location of all Reykjavik. Located parallel to the main street (Laugavegur), every point of interest was within a 5-10 minute walk. 10 minutes East, the Phallological Museum (yes! more on that later), 5 minutes South, the Hallgrímskirkja Cathedral and 10 minutes West, the Ingólfur Square (a.k.a. city center). Aside from location, the inside of our apartment was beautiful. There were only two cons: 1) lack of windows (we had one window that looked directly at a brick wall) and 2) our room was right next to the lobby, thus we could hear people coming and going all day and night. However, the new furnishings, clean interior, refrigerator/microwave combo and rainfall shower more than made up for it.
Before visiting Iceland, we had been warned about two things: 1) the lack of edible diversity and 2) the prices! Agh! Well people weren’t kidding. If you know me, I’m not a fan of fish or seafood of any kind (yes, that includes sushi). Unfortunately for me, there was no shortage of fish in Iceland. Each menu consists of the following proteins: fish (plenty of it), lamb, duck and (if you’re lucky) beef or chicken. Portions are small and sides are rarely included. A typical meal will cost you between $35-$50 per person. If you fancy a drink, be prepared to pay $25 for a cocktail and $10 for a beer. Although the prices are high, flavor and quality are superb. You might get tired of duck, lamb or chicken but you can always try the whale, puffin or horse 🙁 Anyways, here are a couple of yummy places we tried…
Rossopomodoro – One of the few places open on New Year’s Day. Italian cuisine; typical dishes like pasta, salad and pizza. We ordered the “Hottie” pizza which came with pepperoni, sausage, olives, garlic and jalapeño. So good! Dessert was my favorite though, warm apple pie, topped with cinnamon crumble, flaky crust and home-made vanilla ice cream and whipped cream. Seriously, to die for! This place was actually reasonably priced in comparison to the rest of Reykjavik. I would definitely recommend if you’re craving Italian.
Burro Tapas & Steaks – Central American cuisine – super pricey! Now don’t get me wrong, the food was INCREDIBLE. I had the two most delicious baby-sized gourmet tacos I’ve ever had! Slow-roasted pork belly, BBQ mole, corn salsa served on cilantro tortillas. *Drool* But HOLY COW were they expensive ($25!) Rey had the roasted duck ($50) and because two baby tacos weren’t meant to be my entire meal, I was forced to order a second tapas dish. Our total meal was around $130. This may seem crazy, however most of our nightly meals were (on average) $100.
Sæta Svínið – This gastropub is where we had our final meal of 2017. It’s a 4 story restaurant with dim lighting, cushioned seating and rustic decor. Very trendy and super popular among the locals. Rey had the duck salad and I had the chicken breast with couscous. This place is also known for their waffle fries (my fave!) so we obviously ordered those too. The food was fantastic! We celebrated our delicious last meal with a pitcher of cosmopolitan too 🙂
Sushi Social – Now like I’ve said before, I’m not a fan of fish (especially raw fish) BUT it was Rey’s 28th Birthday(!!) so I was obviously going to indulge him. This sushi joint is top-rated in Reykjavik. I was lucky enough to order some Japanese baby-back curry-BBQ ribs! Gawd, they taste even better than they sound. Rey went with sushi, ordering the Icelandic roll (avocado, mango, cucumber, dill mayo, rye bread crumble, in Brennivín-soaked wrapper) and the Samba roll (tuna, cream cheese, avocado, mango, jalapeño mayo, kimchee) *Two thumbs up* If you’re craving some sushi, this is your spot!
While finding decent priced places to eat may have been difficult, cafes were not in short supply. Finding a different cafe every morning, is my favorite thing to do when in a new city! Like most of Europe, Reykjavik had its fair-share of beautiful cafes.
Sandholt – My favorite of all the cafes in Reykjavik. Typical Scandinavian feel, warm lights, white walls, counters and floors. Their menu can be enjoyed all day long and consists of coffees, pastries, Icelandic yogurts and toasted sandwiches. My go-to: latte, croissant and strawberry yogurt. Mmm!!
Kaffibrennslan – Cafe by day, lounge by night. The inside of this cozy 2-story coffee house has a cabin-like feel with wood furnishings and candle-lit tables. Christmas lights are littered both inside and out, welcoming just about anyone looking for a warm drink. While in Iceland, I discovered the most AMAZING breakfast, toasted sourdough bread topped with butter, jam and cheese. A must-try when in Iceland!
Café Babalú – This adorable whole-in-the-wall cafe is quant, colorful and full of character. Best known for their grilled cheese sandwiches and lamb stew, their booths are the perfect place to relax and escape the cold. Order at the counter (everyone speaks English) and enjoy the homey atmosphere. *Tip: If you don’t find seating downstairs, check the second floor.
Days began with caffeine but always ended with alcohol…
Micro Bar – Our first night in Reykjavik we were pretty exhausted, so visiting a pub seemed like a safe bet. This underground bar served a variety of Icelandic beers and even offered flights, to try them all. They also have bar games to keep you entertained, always a plus!
Pablo (Escobar) Disco Bar – This bar is SUPER popular among locals and plays nothing but DISCO! Located on the top floor above Burro, it looks over the city center square, has tons of disco balls to light up the place and funky flamingo wallpaper and decor to give it that 70s lounge vibe. This place gets real packed around 11 pm and even has an all-disco DJ on the weekends. They have fun drinks with all sorts of cool names and weird (but tasty) ingredients. Rey had the Coco Puffs White Russian! It was actually delicious! Think, drunken cereal. It was however, totally embarrassing when the server brought over the entire box of Coco Puffs to pour into his glass in front of an audience. Nonetheless, I would definitely recommend checking this place out. Beware: There is a dress code so be prepared to wear something a little nicer than your snow clothes, they may turn you away.
Dillon Whiskey Bar – Located above the Chuck Norris Bar & Grill, we stopped by on a Saturday night. We tried to order “Icelandic whiskey” but the bartender just looked at us like we were crazy. As we walked away from the bar, we noticed that about 99% of people had beers (and not whiskey). That’s what we get for trying to fit in. *Face palm* To distract from our embarrassment, we were pleasantly surprised to find that on the second floor, two local alternative bands were playing for an audience of about 50 people. They were actually really good too! Most songs were in English but some were in Icelandic. We stuck around until about 2 AM but bars stay open until about 5 AM on the weekends (1 AM weekdays).
Fun Things We Did
New Year’s Countdown – Reykjavik was listed as one of the world’s top 20 places to experience New Years. Let me tell you, it was the BEST New Year’s I’ve ever had. After having a yummy dinner at Sæta Svínið, we made our way to the Hallgrímskirkja Cathedral, located at the top of hill which overlooks Reykjavik. Literally all of Reykjavik gathers together in front of the church to light/watch fireworks and ring in the New Year. Grocery stores all over the city sell fireworks to anyone over 18. Now these aren’t just your average sparklers and cherry bombs, these are LEGIT Fourth of July fireworks. They’re big, loud and REALLY dangerous. Earlier in the day, the police department had set up a 20 foot perimeter. Onlookers were meant to stand on the outside, while pyromaniacs set off their fireworks in the middle. Now these pyros were NOT professionals. The closer it gets to midnight, the crazier and more frequent the fireworks become. This experience was like no-other! It was both EXCITING and TERRIFYING. This amateur fireworks extravaganza was really dangerous! Some would go off on the ground, while others would misfire and head straight into the crowd. One even flew right past Rey’s hood and into the bushes right next to us (we moved after this). Although totally unsafe, adrenaline was pumping and energy was ecstatic! People screamed (from both fear and joy), clapped, cheered and of course kissed at midnight. This was definitely one for the books! Going into 2018 with a BANG! (literally)
Horseback Riding through Volcanic Landscape – I LOVE horses! I rode, jumped and competed for several years when I was younger. After high school, I stopped. Since dating Rey, I’ve consistently tried to get him to ride with me and had always failed. I finally convinced him that Icelandic horses were the perfect horses to win his heart. They were everything I knew they would be! These horses are short, stubby, fluffy and VERY friendly. We booked our ride with Íslenski Hesturinn (Icelandic Horse) and have nothing but great things to say about them. We were picked up by their company bus and driven ~20 minutes outside of Reykjavik. Upon arriving, they gave us a 30 minute introduction to the horses and a rundown of the basics of riding. They ask what your riding experience is then disappear for 5 minutes to select the perfect horse for you. Before heading out, they have you gear up for the cold. With the windchill that day, it was 13°F! Riding gear included: full-body snowsuits; helmets, gloves, and boots (optional if you already have appropriate footwear). We then headed out to the paddock where the horses were saddled up and waiting for us. They were even cuter than you can imagine! After loading up, we rode out into the volcanic landscape in single-file line. The landscape was INCREDIBLE! Although it was cold, it was a great experience that allowed us to explore one of Iceland’s many beautiful sceneries in a unique and fun way. 5 stars!
Snowmobiling on Langjökull Glacier – For Rey’s 28th birthday(!!) we went snowmobiling into the Icelandic white wilderness. We were picked up by a giant snow monster jeep and were driven about 2 hours into Iceland’s snowy desert. We geared up (helmets, snowsuits, goggles and gloves) and rode individual snowmobiles across the Langjökull glacier, the second largest glacier in Iceland. Riding snowmobiles is AMAZING! They’re super easy to operate (brake handle and lever throttle) and can go up to 60 mph. We rode from the base to a natural forming ice cave. The ice cave was wicked cool but too much time spent in there can make you feel claustrophobic. After about an hour of exploring and learning about the glacier, we rode back to base. The landscapes and views are indescribable. You feel like you’re on another planet. White snow and overwhelming volcano mountains for as far as the eye can see. If you’re looking for a thrill and another great way to explore Iceland, I’d HIGHLY recommend snowmobiling.
The Blue Lagoon – A natural geothermal spa located in the remote Icelandic landscape, not to be confused with the tropical island from the 80s movie! Considered one of the 25 wonders of the world, and thought to have healing powers, these natural hot springs are truly magical. The water is a perfect 100°F and the perfect escape from the freezing cold. Tickets are purchased in advance. When you arrive, you are given a robe, towel, sandals and a locker. Everyone must shower before entering the lagoon. A lagoon-side bar allows you to drink both alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages all while swimming in the hot water. On the other side of the lagoon, a mud mask station allows you to try on several masks: silica, algae and volcanic ash. They exfoliate, soften, brighten and make your face feel like a million bucks. This was the perfect way to end an exciting vacation in the most enchanted place we’ve ever been.
Here are a couple extra sites to see while in Reykjavik…
Hallgrímskirkja Cathedral – Reykjavik’s iconic landmark is open to the public and free to visit. However, if you want to go up the tower and experience the views, you’ll have to wait in line and pay ~$10. The statue in front is of Leif Eriksson, the great Nordic Explorer and was a gift from the United States on the 1000th Anniversary of Iceland’s Independence.
Sun Voyager Sculpture – Sits along the bank of the Atlantic Ocean shore and is said to be an “ode to the sun”. A perfect spot for a photo with the captivating mountains in the background.
Phallological Museum – The world largest collection of penises. The entrance fee is around $15 and the entire museum can be seen within 30 minutes. If you’re bored and looking for something interesting to do, well there’s always this.
Harpa Concert Hall – Reykjavik’s theater actively houses plays, concerts and business conferences. Although we didn’t attend a show, it’s worth walking by and checking out the cool architecture and gift shop.
Things You Should Know Before Going…
- Traveling in the winter IS rough. Although Rey and I really enjoy cold weather vacations, you should be warned that if you plan to travel during winter months (they have the same seasons as us) you need to be prepared to wear layers and snow gear! Temperatures stay pretty consist all day and night but range from 20-28ºF. Thick snow boots are a MUST. Thick socks, base layers, scarves and hats also make walking around more comfortable. The windchill can often make it seem colder than it really is.
- On a similar note, if traveling during the winter, you should know there is only about 4-5 hours of sunlight. Sunrise happens around 11:30 AM and sunset happens around 3:30 PM. This made it really hard to try and get used to the time change.
- Everyone speaks English! Woo!
- Hardly anyone uses cash. Credit cards are the main form of payment and they make your life so much easier. The coins can get really confusing.
- Be financially prepared! Although we were warned, it doesn’t mean we were any less surprised about the prices. Like I mentioned before, an individual meal will cost between $30-$50 and sides and alcoholic beverages are between $10-$20. You should also budget for souvenirs because even magnets are $10 a piece!
Nonetheless, Iceland was truly magical and deserves to be on your travel wishlist. We’ll definitely be back to experience the beauty of summer!