The land of fire and ice. The land of Vikings. One of the most northern countries in the entire world.
I’ll be honest in that I didn’t really have Iceland on my radar as a travel destination, but when one of my best friends decided to have her destination wedding there, well, obviously I was going to go. I am thrilled that I did, because the country is beautiful, the landscape unlike any other, the food is amazing, and I want to go back. I actually NEED to go back, because despite being completely horse obsessed, I didn’t even touch a horse, let alone ride one. Absolutely crazy, right? I agree. But my husband is not a horse person, and we had limited time there, so… I gallantly gave up the horses for this trip. But that just means I’ll be back, and I might bring my daughter next time, as this seems to be a very family friendly place.
So why am I blogging about this if it has nothing to do with horses? Well, deep down, even past the love of horses, I just love journaling, and this is basically my journal, so here we are. Hopefully it will still be enjoyable, even without the horses. Maybe it will help you plan out your visit, and you can include horses in yours. And plus if I write this now, I’ll just have it ready for when horses are involved and lump this all together.
Iceland first became a hot travel destination after the volcanic eruption of Eyjafjallajökull back in 2010. It spurred a surge of people struggling to pronounce its name, plus also some interest in the country itself. Eyjafjallajökull has since been quiet, but there’s many other volcanos on the island, including one that erupted very recently. If the lava is understandably too hot, you can still enjoy the fire by visiting one of the many hot springs. There’s commercialized ones, and just ones on the side of the road. You do need to shower first though, it’s the law.
So that’s the fire part Iceland is known for, but what about the ice part? Likely you probably already know – there’s glaciers and snow. During the winter, the weather can be brutal and extreme, with storms creating complete whiteout conditions. But even if you go during the summer, you can find snow in the high altitude areas. Glaciers are there year round, of course, being the nature of the glacier, until a volcano erupts and melts the whole thing, causing devastating flooding (a real possibility for the southern most town of Vik and surrounding area!)
Iceland is also unique in their days. During the summer, it’s light nearly all day. We were there pretty close to the summer solstice, when the sun doesn’t set at all, so we had a great deal of sunlight. It was disorienting, I woke up a few times in the middle of the night to full light outside, thinking I needed to get up. We were walking around at midnight one night and it felt like day. It was tough to gauge when to head back to the hotel because it just felt like the middle of the day, all day.
On the reverse of that, during the winter, it’s very dark. At the lowest point, there’s only four hours of sunlight. I was told it can be a bit depressing, but the advantage of going during the winter is seeing the northern lights.
The capitol city of Iceland is Reykjavík and was our home base for the duration of our stay. If we had more time, we likely would have left the city to explore the whole country. A very popular itinerary is to follow the Ring Road around the entire country, staying at hotels, hostels or campsites while exploring. During the summer months, the F Roads are open, which are the rugged gravel roads that go up in the highlands. This would be the more extreme way to see Iceland – the roads are gravel or dirt, sometimes going through rivers, and there may not be cell service or any way to get help. Proceed with caution.
But for us, we took the safest way to be a tourist – we stayed at the hotel, and booked our excursions to take us out into the countryside. It’s very common to book tours and activities that pick you up either right at your hotel or at a nearby bus station. If you don’t want to rent a car, you don’t have to. The buses are easy to use and very tourist friendly. More on the excursions later.
Reykjavík is completely walkable. We clocked about ten miles of walking there, which is a pretty good cardio workout. In fact, this is probably the only vacation I’ve ever gone on where I lost weight. The incredibly delicious and healthy food, combined with all that walking led to good results. Oh my goodness, the FOOD. I wasn’t expecting it to be so good. Nearly everything we had was just amazing. It’s now spurred my interest in Nordic cooking because I can’t live my life without eating all that food so more.
Visa Requirements: US Citizens do not need a visa for up to 90 days. Make sure your passport is up to date!
Covid Restrictions: None.
Transportation: Rent a Car or take the Flybus (it will take you all the way to your hotel/closest bus stop and pick you up.)
Currency: Icelandic Krona (ISK) but nearly everywhere takes credit cards. No need to exchange money unless you really feel like it.
Language: Icelandic but nearly everyone speaks English.
Horse Activities: Trail Riding, everywhere, all on the incredible Icelandic Horse. My recommendation is Viking Horses – my friend regularly rides with them and loves it!
Horse Fact: The Icelandic horse is the only breed of horse on the island. No other horses (or livestock) is allowed to be imported, and if a horse lives the island, it can never come back. This is to protect the breed and health of the animals there.
But, concentrating just on Reykjavík, you could easily spend a few days being a tourist there. There’s lots of museums, restaurants and stores. If you want to see a bunch of museums, get the City Card. It granted you access to a bunch of places, museums and pools, plus unlimited use of the city bus. We didn’t get it this time since we had so many activities already planned, but I would get it next time as I missed out on so many of the museums.
One museum in particular, is the Perlan. I somehow missed this one when I was doing all my research and only found out about it on the airplane. I would have definitely made time for it had I know. It seems like a great way to get a snapshot of all the nature Iceland has to offer. Yet another reason to go back, there just wasn’t enough time there!
I was thinking about suggesting different restaurant options, but really they are all so good. Every place we went was incredible. They post their menus in their windows, so just walk around downtown until you see something that catches your fancy. I would just encourage you to go outside your comfort zone and don’t try to play it safe.
For instance, I tried fish and I usually hate fish. It was SO GOOD. I never thought I would crave fish, ever. I got a beet salad, incredible. I got some kind of vegan meal, amazing. I got turnip soup (granted, it was at the black sands beach), and it was OUT OF THIS WORLD. I had lamb, and coconut ice cream with pomegranate, and just wow.
I’m also willing to admit I have a very shallow palate and some might look at these still as safe choices, but for me, they were going outside my comfort zone.
One place that you absolutely cannot miss is the hot dog stand. I’m not even kidding. There’s actually a couple of them around the city, so you should be able to find one pretty easily, but the main one we went to was by the downtown mall. There was a line there no matter what time of day we went. The hot dogs are incredible. You have to order it fully loaded, and they put three different sauces on it, plus fried onions and it’s the best hot dog I’ve ever had. I heard they sell like 100,000 of these hot dogs every month. People are crazy about them, and for good reason! Get a hot dog!
I regret not getting better and/or more photos of the city because it really was photogenic. I made a mistake in which camera bag I brought and it ended up hurting my back immediately so I didn’t like carrying it around. Another reason to go back – more photos!
The Best Souvenirs
Being a photographer, for me the best souvenirs are my photos, because man, do I love my photos (not that you would guess by the photos in this post! But wait for the next one…). But, there’s a few other things that I love, and if I ever go back I would definitely purchase.
#1 is the chocolate!! Everyone loves chocolate, unless they are some kind of crazy person. You know who you are… The chocolate is delicious, easy to bring home, relatively cheap (buy it in the grocery store, not the souvenir store) and popular with friends back home.
#2 is a lopapeysa, or a traditional Icelandic sweater. They are made from the wool of the Icelandic sheep, making them warm and weather resistant. They can be pricey, but they last a lifetime! The Handknitting Association of Iceland in Reykjavik is known to be the place to buy one, but they sell them in almost every clothing shop in there.
#3 is for any foodies: Salt! They have tons of flavored salts. I don’t know if they actually taste good, but they make for pretty fun gifts. They are in most of the tourist shops.
That is the basics of visiting Iceland, a good start to a great vacation. But while Reykjavik is great, the real beauty of Iceland is the scenery, and I’ll be going into that in another post. Stay tuned!