A long weekend in…. Iceland? Yes!
While Iceland sounds like a super exotic destination for a weekend break from the US, it’s surprisingly close and very satisfying for a 4 day trip (+ an overnight flight outbound and a half day getting home). So, 5 days total with 4 on the ground in Iceland.
My Delta flight, direct from JFK, left just before midnight and got me in to Iceland’s Keflavik International Airport (KEF) just before 9 am on a Thursday. The time difference from the east coast is 4 hours, meaning a flight time of just about 5 hours – just enough for some sleep.
Thursday, 9:00 am
After landing, I was able to stop at the famous Blue Lagoon on the way into Reykjavik thanks to an airport transfer I booked at BusTravel Iceland (bustravel.is).
While the tour company took almost an hour to show up at the airport, it worked like a charm beyond that as I was able to catch an onward van from the Lagoon to my hotel all within the ticket price (Admission to the Lagoon is extra). I chose this company because the schedule aligned well with my flight. If Reykjavik Excursions offers one suited to your flight times, they may be a more reliable option.
The Blue Lagoon is definitely something special. Sure it’s a tourist trap if there ever was one, but how magical to sit in the amazing hot geothermal mineral water while the temperature outside is, undoubtedly, quite cool. The water is also great for the skin, with buckets of silica around the lagoon that everyone rubs on their faces. The Blue Lagoon also offers massages that include skin treatments, but book well in advance. I tried the day before and was shut out. I’d suggest making the appointment at least a week in advance to get something that will align with your flight time. Many people also visit on the way back to the airport at the end of their trip. Do whatever makes sense with your flight times. Don’t forget your bathing suit and a towel (beware that towel rental if you require it is 5 euro and a robe is 9 euro. Safe luggage storage is available at the entrance, although it barely fit my very large carry-on. I’m not sure if a massive suitcase would fit.
To the hotel I go. For my solo trip, I chose the Hotel Leifur Eiriksson for its excellent price and location in town – directly next to
the Hallgrímskirkja church, which is also the most iconic and tallest structure in Reykjavik. The hotel is right on the perimeter of the downtown core – at the top of a more artsy area and about a 10 minute walk down Skolavoroutsigur to Laugavegur – the epicenter of Reykjavik nightlife. Just a bit further to the harbor and the old harbor where you’ll find the local water excursions such as whale watching, Puffin tours, and the like. A ferry to the island Videy also runs once daily from the Old Harbor (at noon in summer) but for later ferries, you’ll need a taxi to Skarfagaroar.
My first day was largely for acclimation following the Blue Lagoon. I walked all over the city (it’s small!!) and got the lay of the land. I enjoyed a coffee at the local chain Kaffitar on Laugavegur (kind of a hipper version of Starbucks), chatted with a couple of locals, and read a bunch of brochures on excursions from the hotel. Sure, I looked in advance and had even booked an activity for the next day before leaving New York, but past that I wanted to get a feel for what Iceland had to offer. Unlike if I had planned a full Iceland trip (it would take 7-10 days to drive the ring road and stop at each point of interest), I had the luxury of staying relatively local and letting tour companies do the heavy lifting.
By the time I was done exploring, it was dinner time and I tucked in for a delicious dinner at Icelandic Fish and Chips (fishandchips.is) by the old harbor. The fried red fish and spelt covered onion rings were delicious and an interesting take on the traditional fish and chips. They had a variety of options for fish (fried or not), oven roasted potatoes, greens, and desserts. Definitely worth a trip.
Friday, 8:00 am
Time for my big Icelandic Excursion. I’d booked a Golden Circle tour that also included snow glacier-mobiling. (They called it snow-mobiling but in summer, there’s no snow near Reykjavik and, really, a glacier tour is so much more cool anyway!!). Mountaineers of Iceland, at mountaineers.is, did a great job. They call it the Pearl Tour.
After my hotel pickup around 8am, we were off in their “Super Jeep.”
The Golden Circle is the three must-do landmarks in southwest Iceland. First was Þingvellir National Park, where you can see where the North American and the European tectonic plates meet. Then on to Gulfoss waterfall (a massive Niagara falls-esque area) , and finally Geysir – the original geyser and the birthplace of the name itself! They are all natural wonders, of course. The pictures speak for themselves.
The cafeteria at Gulfoss was also where I got to try the famed Icelandic lamb soup. Even at a cafeteria, it was quite delicious (and with free refills!)
But the highlight of the day – and the entire trip for me – was snowmobiling on the glacier (or, as I call it, glaciermobiling – they really should change the name in summer!). Having the super jeep (a van with enormous tires) go off the road and LITERALLY drive on to the glacier is just awe inspiring. The glacier, the second largest in Iceland, is over 50km by over 20km. We spent about 45 minutes actually riding the snowmobiles on a trail that the tour company made themselves using a giant ice “paving” truck. When we stopped for a break and looked at all the nuances of the glacier – not just ice but cooled lava formations, super pure water, and even small fissures in the ice that went down as far as the eye could see (don’t drop your phone in there!) – I just had that moment. The moment goes like this “I AM IN THE MIDDLE OF A GLACIER IN FREAKING ICELAND!!!!!!!!!!” In the 27 countries I’ve been to, I’ve never had as much of a feeling of having left reality behind as I did right then.
Thanks to Sven, our tour leader, and the entire company for such an amazing experience.
Yes, I know. I was up at the crack of dawn and drove around on a glacier all day, but that wasn’t stopping me from checking out the Icelandic “runtur” or bar crawl. A quick power nap and I was out at Bar 11 looking for the pub crawl I’d seen all over the Internet. Just show up at 10pm they all say. Well, they are wrong. There was no pub crawl. The bartender had “heard of it” but she hadn’t seen anyone there and the bar was so empty I might have heard crickets. Off for my own “runtur” then!
I walked back over to Laugavegur and walked into the Lebowski Bar – a bar so themed on the movie that it was quite amusing. It took all of about 10 minutes to start talking to a couple of locals (and Reykjavik is so small I ran into them again the next night at the same bar!). By 1am they were gone but I met up with a friendly couple from the glaciermobiling trip and we moved on to Austur on Austurstræti before ending up at the famed B5 (Bankastræti 5) for some dancing. Apparently B5 is a local celebrity hotspot, not that I’d know an Icelandic celebrity if they knocked me over.
Hungry? Locals stop by Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur (located at Tryggvagata 101) on the harbor for a hotdog with the works – mustard, raw onions, crunchy onions, and some sort of homemade sauce. It’s been called the best hot dog in Europe! Delicious!
Saturday 2:00 pm
I knew Friday would be a late night – so I wisely booked an afternoon adventure for today. Icelandic horses are extremely special. They are pure as can be. (No horses can be imported to Iceland. If one leaves for any reason, like a competition, it cannot return home.) While smaller in stature than horses elsewhere in the world, they are sturdy as can be. They also have a 4th gait found nowhere else in the world, called the “tölt.” With this gait, they are able to move as fast as a gallop but that much more even to the ground – making for a much smoother ride! In fact, it was so smooth that I asked the tour leader when we would experience the tölt and she let me know we had been for some time! Smooth!
I booked this tour with Islenski Hesturinn (http://islenskihesturinn.is/?lang=en), a small family owned and operated operation. You can tell how much the owner loves her horses in her enthusiasm. Another tour I can recommend highly.
Saturday 7:00 pm
Time for some authentic Icelandic cuisine! Since I haven’t got a reservation, I try heading to 3 Frakkar (3frakkar.com/) early. The restaurant came highly recommended by both Sven from the snowmobiling excursion and my hotel, so I’m excited. Happily, they are able to fit me in as long as I can finish in an hour. No problem, I’m starved! I first try smoked Puffin. Yes, those amazingly cute birds native to Iceland. While I expected something like chicken, I couldn’t have been more wrong. It came out as thin carpaccio style pieces with bits of mustard. Seems like this is a delicacy my palate just isn’t tuned for.
For a main course, I chose wisely with the lamb. Icelandic lamb is known to be special. Lamb derives a ton of flavor from what it eats and whatever it grazes on in Iceland makes for some deliciously tender meat. If you eat any meat at all, you will need to carve out some space for a nice piece of lamb while in Iceland. I never got to try any Minke whale, but that is also a specialty of the area if you are into trying “anything local.”
Oh yes, time for another “runtur!” After once again running into my friends from Friday night at Lebowski Bar, I made the rounds with another new friend from the horse riding tour. After Lebowski, we went to the bar owned by Blur’s lead singer (Kaffibarrinn – www.kaffibarinn.is), down the hill to Austur, and then into a few bars whose names I can’t remember. I somehow wound up again at B5 on the way home – with a line down the block. Somehow I got whisked inside without waiting, but the circumstances of that are a bit blurry. So goes the “runtur!”
Once again, I needed to sleep in following the previous night’s festivities. I made it down to the Old Harbor around 1 wanting to see if I could get on a Puffin tour. A couple that I’d tried online had stopped going as of around August 15th. I asked around and found out that the Puffins had already migrated off the island they are at during summer and to which tourists can be taken by boat.
Yet I found a company still running tours. I asked if we’d still be able to see Puffins and I was assured we would. Great! Off we go then.
Well, it turns out the Puffins really had migrated. And we didn’t stop at an island at all. We cruised nearby an island that some Puffins were still hanging around at and watched them fly around. Lucky for this tour company, I’ve forgotten their name. Because this was disappointing. Be sure to ask about the tour and verify the circumstances in which you will see the Puffins. Don’t make my mistake!
I decide to rent a bike from my hotel and pedal up to Skarfagaroar to catch the last ferry of the day to Viðey Island (videy.com) to see the historic Icelandic island – no longer populated, though it was from around 900 AD!
Unfortunately my timing was off and I missed the last ferry of the day. So instead I biked to Laugardalslaug (swimminginiceland.com/reykjavik-and-capital-area/17-laugardalslaug) – the largest geothermal pool near Reykjavik – for some swimming and relaxation in the hotpots (what Icelanders call hot tubs). Laugardalslaug had an Olympic sized pool in addition to approximately 7 hotpots of varying temperatures including a saltwater hotpot. Great for the muscles after active days in Iceland!
A note on geothermal pools in Iceland: Before entering any pools or hotpots, you are expected to thoroughly shower with soap (and without your bathing suit on) in a somewhat communal setting. This is because the pools have no chlorine or other chemicals in them. The Icelanders will call you out if you try and skirt this rule – though many Americans are not used to this level of public nudity. Also – entry is generally cheap – around 500 ISK (under $5) but a towel rental will cost MORE than the entry fee (around 575 ISK). So bring a towel from your hotel!
Time for my last meal in Iceland. I wanted something special and maybe not just another fancy meal a la 3 Frakkar. Scouring the Internet I found an Indian restaurant that looked really special called Indian Mango – however, I discovered it had since closed down. I then found a great alternative a block off the beaten path over on Hverfisgata (#56). Austur Indía Félagið is the name (www.austurindia.is) and it was fantastic!! I ordered this mixed grill that had Icelandic lamb prepared three ways and chicken prepared three ways on a sizzling platter. Each piece of meat was literally more succulent and juicy than the last. The bread pictured is a cheese naan that went superbly with all the meat. Wish I’d had room for a started or dessert! If you like Indian food and have tried all the “must have” foods, give this place a try.
On my flight back to JFK, we had the novelty of being able to clearly see northern Greenland. We were told normal cloud cover makes this extremely rare, so here are a few shots from above.
If you have any questions or comments, please drop me a note below. And I hope you’ll now have Iceland on your radar – it’s definitely worth the trip!