If you're on the east coast and would like a change of pace for your next adventure, in about as much time as it takes to fly to California, you can head north to the exotic land of Iceland for a really unique experience. I had the pleasure of visiting this lovely country on my last trip to Europe and while I was only there for about 48 hours, I completely fell in love with it and definitely plan to visit again someday!
Located just south of the Arctic Circle it is all alone in the Northern Atlantic seas. Between it's location and name, you might think it's a frozen island that never warms up, but they do enjoy the gulf stream which keeps it a little warmer than you might expect. While I didn't visit Iceland in the midst of winter, even in mid-May there was a bite in the air!
We arrived very early on a Sunday morning and the weather was raw...very rainy, very windy, and very cold. It was mid May, but felt more like a blustery November day.
We opted to give ourselves a little time upon arrival before diving into our itinerary which gave us time to eat a good breakfast, check into our hotel, walk around a bit (while we waited on our room), and take a short nap (once we were in our room).
While I did come to love Reykjavik, I did not fall in love with it at first glance. Sunday mornings are not a bustling time for Icelanders apparently. As we walked around, it was like a ghost town. Combine that with no sleep, cold rain, and brisk (i.e freezing!) winds...at first we were like "what are we doing here?!". But, once you make your way around and the city wakes up, you'll discover all of it's charm and everything it has to offer.
I particularly loved the Scandinavian architecture and design. I suppose to combat the long dreary winters, they have lots of colorful buildings and homes. When viewed from the church tower, it's quite a beautiful sight!
Things to See
If, like me, you only have a short time in Reykjavik, have no fear, that's plenty of time to see the sites!
Reykjavik isn't a large city and while it won't give you time to wander too far outside of town, but 48 hours is enough time to get in a great experience.
Here are some of the things we did that I HIGHLY recommend!
A Day Tour
We didn't have time to do the full Golden Circle tour, so we opted for a slightly shorter version that still took in the main sites - Gullfoss Falls, the Geysirs, and Thingvellir National Park.
Gullfoss Falls is a beautiful waterfall that spans a wide area. It's one of the most popular tourist destinations in Iceland.
The Geysir Hot Springs is another cool stop on the tour, however, if you've visited Yellowstone National Park, it's not quite as impressive (in my opinion). Still, coming from the east coast where we never see steam shooting out of the ground, it's an impressive site to see. And just a warning...It’s steamy! Plan on wearing your hair in a ponytail that day!
The Thingvellir National Park was one of my favorite stops on the tour. Iceland is located on top of tectonic plate boundaries. The underwater ridge between the two plates rises above the surface of the land, which is one of the few places in the world where this happens. As you walk along the paths, in parts of the park you are actually walking in between the boundaries of these plates! How freaking cool is that?!
I have always adored puffins. I don’t know why, but I LOVE them, so when I saw that you can take a boat out to where puffins tend to hang out, I couldn’t sign up fast enough. We got lucky because we were the only ones signed up for our early time slot, so we ended up with a private tour!
The tour only lasts about an hour, but after about 10 minutes on the boat, you get to a tiny little island. They hang back a bit, so you’re not actually going right up to the island since this is their home. It was early in the puffin season which means there are more in the middle of summer, but there were still a ton of these sweet little birds.
As you’re standing on deck in the boat, these little guys are flying all around you! They’re not the most elegant of flyers which makes them even more charming. You spend about 30 - 40 minutes floating around in their habitat and it is the coolest thing! If you are even remotely into nature or animals, I highly recommend this tour!
Hallgrímskirkja Church Tower
You can’t miss the Hallgrimskirkja Church. It’s one of the tallest structure in town! It situated on top of a hill, which adds to the impressiveness. While we didn’t tour the church (and I’m not 100% sure if you can or not), we did buy tickets to go to the top of the tower. It wasn’t expensive and definitely worth the time!
From the top of the tower, you have 360 degree views of Reykjavic. Its so pretty and peaceful! From this bird’s eye view you can see the harbor and all of the colorful houses spread below.
Walk around town
Definitely plan some time to leisurely stroll around town. As I mentioned, Reykjavic isn’t a large city, so you can pretty much cover all of it in about half a day. There are some lovely shops to browse in on Laugavegur and Skólavörðustígur streets (the latter which leads directly to the Hallgrímskirkja Church).
Even if you’re not into shopping, it’s a charming area of town, so a quick pass through here should definitely be on your list
After checking out the city streets, make your way to the waterfront and walk along the walkway that runs along the harbor. You will be rewarded with some amazing views, both of the waterfront and the city behind you.
Near the historic Old Harbor area, you’ll find the Harpa Concert Hall and Performing Arts Center. If you have a few minutes, I definitely recommend popping in just to check out the architecture (and warm yourself from the blustery winds!). It’s a beautiful modern structure with intricate glasswork that allows for stunning views and photo opportunities.
What to Eat
If you like seafood, you'll love the food in Iceland! Everything is very fresh and they have some very unique offerings. A few of my favorites that I discovered while dining in Reykjavik included arctic char (a cold water fish similar to salmon), langoustine (a small orange-pink lobster), and Icelandic yogurt. If you like Greek yogurt you will LOVE Icelandic Yogurt. Similar to Greek yogurt, Icelandic yogurt is thicker than regular yogurt and packed with protein. It’s not quite as tart as Greek yogurt and has a very smooth flavor. I ate this every chance I had (and you can find it at some Whole Foods if you don’t want to have to fly to Iceland!).
Since puffins are a plenty in this part of the world, you will also spot puffin as an option on most restaurant menus. I, however, did not opt to give these little birds a taste since I adore puffins! But, if you’re up for the challenge, there’s no lack of options on local menus. Other daring options that we spotted included whale, shark, and horse. I kid you not…on one menu, a dish featuring horse meat was offered (we opted not to eat at that establishment!).
A quick note about their water…since Iceland has the luxury of natural springs - both hot and cold - their water source is one of the freshest and most natural that you can find. You can drink water directly from the tap, and I have to say, it is the BEST tasting water I think I’ve ever had the pleasure of drinking! So, don’t waste your money on bottled water here!
The hot water is piped in from the hot springs that lie beneath the island. It's STEAMING hot and smells of sulphur. It makes for an interesting bathing experience when your water smells like rotten eggs (fortunately, you don't end up smelling that way!).
If you are looking to get in an international experience without flying all the way to mainland Europe or you have a few extra days to tack onto your European adventure, I highly recommend a few days in the capital city of Iceland! If you've never traveled internationally before, it's a great way to get your feet wet. Everyone is really friendly, they speak excellent English, and it's really easy to get around.
Since we only had a short time here, we obviously didn’t get a chance to visit all of the sites. Most people, when thinking of visiting Iceland, they think of the famous Blue Lagoon geothermal spa. We didn’t get the chance to make our way to check this out, but I’ve heard nothing but amazing things. It’s a bit outside of Reykjavik, so if you have an extra day, it’s probably worth the trek there for some relaxing soaks in the thermal waters! Also, if we had more time, I would’ve loved to have taken the full Golden Circle tour, so if your time permits, I’d recommend checking that out as well!
If you want to see more photos from my trip to Reykjavik, then check out my small gallery of images from around town!