When my brother, Justin, and I decided to go to Iceland, it was mostly because the round-trip airfare was a phenomenal price. I didn’t know much about Iceland, except it had volcanoes, some weird terrain, and horses with a lot of hair. So when people would ask why I was going to Iceland or what I was going to do there, I gave a vague answer because I wasn’t sure myself. After doing some research, I had an idea of a few must-dos. There was the obvious Golden Circle tour, the Blue Lagoon, and the elusive Aurora Borealis or Northern Lights (that we would attempt to see four times). Besides those things, the rest we’d sort out along the way.
Room & Board
For less than the price of a hotel room and for a more personal experience, Justin and I decided to go with an apartment on AirBnB. Going to Iceland in November is definitely off-peak season since it’s heading toward winter, so finding an affordable place was easy. We found a quaint and cozy apartment just a few minutes drive to Reykjavik city center and with easy access to the major roads. So for under $1000 for two people, we had transportation to and from Iceland and a great apartment when we got there. Score! Sadly, that’s where the savings ended as Iceland was rather expensive.
Victuals & Beverages
My beloved brother is a foodie, an über foodie, or
one I could also go so far as to say a food snob (with good reason because his talent in the kitchen is amazing). Therefore, finding delicious food that we’d both enjoy and not break the bank doing so, proved to be a small challenge. Because he refuses to eat hot dogs, persuading him to try one of Iceland’s famous hot dogs was definitely out of the question. And so was that as a cheap(er) meal option. However, I managed to get one despite the opposition. Surprisingly, there is also no shortage of places to eat that have American foods, such as hamburgers, fries and pizza. And a freakishly large amount of Subways for such a small island.
Hot dogs are child’s play compared to the other foods Icelanders have been known to eat. Iceland is known for some pretty unusual fare, such as puffin (yes, the cute little birds), whale, fermented shark, horse meat and sheep’s head. We actually tried two of the five I mentioned, but I’ll get to that later. Due to Iceland’s cold and bitter wind, you need food that will “stick to your ribs” as the old folks say. No problems there because I found that Iceland does lamb and fish really well, and a lot of the food we ate was heavy and rich. A little lamb (no pun intended) goes a long way for me, but when in Rome… We had fish soup, fish stew, fried fish, meat soup (which has lamb), lamb chops and lamb soup (which Justin cooked). I don’t think I’ve ever eaten so much lamb in my life or fish in such a short period of time, but it was delicious! Notice that every dish I named was for meat eaters. When I saw the terrain, I understood why a lot of Icelandic dishes don’t include vegetables . Between the terrain and the weather, it’s nearly impossible to grow them outside . Therefore, Iceland relies on greenhouses for such fruits and veggies as bell peppers, tomatoes, and bananas. That means that getting a salad comparable to one in the States is going to be difficult and/or expensive.
Iceland’s standouts and more native foods are more apparent at Icelandic restaurants. Apotek Restaurant in Reykjavík was that standout place. When debating where to eat for our “expensive” meal of the trip, we tried Grillmarkaðurinn (The Grill Market) first. Apparently, it’s considered one of the best restaurants there, although we didn’t know it at the time. Unfortunately, we needed reservations that night, so no Grillmarkaðurinn for us. We continued to meander the streets of Reykjavík and ran across Apotek Restaurant, which was offering a six course prix fixe gourmet meal for a mere 7990 ISK. Yes! It had everything on that menu that we wanted to try: puffin and whale. They even included a shot of Brennivín, the Icelandic schnapps infused with caraway seeds, also known as “Black Death”. Each course was better than the last and we left with our bellies full.
During our Golden Circle tour, just after arriving to Geysir (to see the geysers), we were hungry, and thankfully there was a restaurant that served delicious and hearty food, Geysir Glima Restaurant. The food was cafeteria-style but you could also order from a menu. I highly recommend the meat soup, which has lamb, and Justin recommends the fish soup, which tastes strangely like pizza. I’m not sure how or why, but it does and it was good!
Discovery & Exploration
What is there to do in Iceland in November? Well, so many things and particularly outdoors. My biggest advice is to get the best hiking boots you can afford and always 1) wear them or 2) have them nearby because you WILL be using them. It’s also a good idea to get the warmest socks you can find. After walking around Reykjavík, which is not as walk-able as I thought, we rented a car. Had I been more thorough in my research, I would’ve known to rent a car from the airport because it’s the best and easiest way to get around Iceland. Once out of Reykjavík, there is so much to explore and discover in the towns and hamlets along Ring Road, that not having a car would have caused us to miss a lot.
Heading southeast from Reykjavík on the famous, Ring Road, we chose the coldest and most wind-blustery day to horseback ride with Sólhestar. The Icelandic horses have a full mane and a heavy coat of hair to withstand the wind and cold of Iceland. They also have short legs. Justin could almost bend down and touch the ground from atop his horse. They are known for the tölt, a quick-paced gait for which they seem to excel. They are very sure-footed over the Icelandic terrain, which is definitely an advantage for this area. Those lava fields are no joke and you most assuredly want to be astride an Icelandic horse for that trek. In our little group, there was only three of us, so we got any attention we needed. My horse was named “Lethal Man” in Icelandic, but he should’ve been named Lazy Man because he only wanted to walk, slowly, so the guide had to give me the riding crop to make him pick up the pace. I’m not about that sauntering life when everyone else is tölting.
Further southeast, we ran into a delightful woman from the western part of the U.S. who worked at the post office. We engaged in a nice conversation about how she came to be in Iceland (her husband is Icelandic) and she recommended some waterfalls and glaciers that would be of interest to us. Sólheimajökull glacier was one of our stops. This glacier is easily accessible from Ring Road and just a short hike to the actual glacier. This was my first time seeing a glacier (not Justin’s, as he’s been to Alaska) and it was magnificent! The majesty of it all was breathtaking. There was a tour available to do glacier hiking, including the pick axes and crampons, but we decided against it this time. Just beholding it was enough for me, honestly. Plus, we had a full day ahead of us and I needed to conserve my energy. We were also able to see the famous glacier volcano, Eyjafjallajökull, that erupted in 2010 and caused the atmosphere to fill up with volcanic ash all over Europe and cause multiple flight delays and cancellations. Don’t mess with Mother Nature because she will win every time.
Fun Fact: Jökull means glacier in Icelandic, so Eyjafjallajökull, Sólheimajökull, and Vatnajökull are all glaciers.
How many waterfalls are in Iceland? Lots, but we only visited a couple of the main ones. Iceland does water very well and waterfalls definitely fall (no pun intended) into that category. Of course, being our first time, we had to visit the most famous, Gulfoss (Golden Falls). This waterfall is actually two waterfalls that flow into each other. The power of these waterfalls is truly awe-inspiring!
Another waterfall we visited was Seljalandsfoss, which was cool because it is easily visible and accessible from Ring Road AND you can go behind it. How cool is that? To be honest, there are so many small waterfalls, in addition to the famous ones, that they are innumerable.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Geysir, which was another stop on the Golden Circle tour. Geysir is a natural hot spring area where there are many geysers and small, geothermal pools to see and experience. The most active geyser is actually Strokkur, which erupts every four minutes. Justin got the timing just right on this one!
The small, geothermal pools in the area are quite numerous, beautiful and hot. Some of these pools have temperature ranges from 80-100 degrees Celsius ( 176-212 degrees Fahrenheit), so don’t go sticking your fingers or toes into these pools unless you want them cooked.
Unusual & Interesting
The Blue Lagoon is more than the title of a cheesy 1980’s movie. It’s an actual place in Iceland and was one of the more “touristy” activities that we did. Justin was slightly hesitant to go because he wanted to go the cheaper route, which was the local thermal pools, but I convinced him to go anyway. So we got our swimwear together, put on our coats and boots, and headed out.
Once there, we showered (modesty is non-existent if you don’t want to wait for privacy), put our clothes in a state-of-the-art locker, and was ready to dive in. But first, we had to take a short walk through 40 degrees F weather to get to the 98-104 degrees F water. No big deal. Really. Once we stepped foot into the Blue Lagoon, all the coldness went away. We just sank into the warmth and let the blue water wash over us. The lagoon is made up of geothermal water that contains silica, algae, and minerals. The recommendation is to take breaks and get out of the water periodically. Yes, that’s a good idea. It wouldn’t seem so because it’s cold, but it actually feels good after being in the warm water so long. Despite the cold above, it can get hot; after all, it’s a giant, natural hot tub.
Is the Blue Lagoon really blue? Yep! The sun reflects off the silica in the lagoon and makes the water appear blue. In actuality, the water is a milky white, though. After about two hours, Justin and I were done, so we braved the few seconds of cold again to reverse the process of getting back to Icelandic weather reality. We had an enjoyable but expensive time. It was 30€ ($37 USD) to enter and once we saw the facility, we understood why; they had amazing technology and everything we needed to make it a smooth experience, down to using a waterproof bracelet to easily buy beverages in a swim-up bar. There are cheaper alternatives throughout Iceland, though, if you don’t want to spend the money; they’re called swimming pools.
I do something on every trip that I’ve never done before. Because Iceland is one big island of things I’ve never done before, I had no problems fulfilling that requirement. Lava tube caving? Sure, except what is lava tube caving? It’s a cave that is formed in volcanic rock or by volcanic processes and because of how it’s formed, we could walk through it to see the formations and rocks. Until planning for Iceland, I had never even heard of it, and now here I was experiencing it! Because we had a guide who actually does this as a hobby, he was able to introduce this new adventure to us and it was awesome. After researching this a bit more, I know there are a few in the U.S. and anywhere there are volcanoes. I’ll be sure to make to add this as something to explore on future trips.
One of the unexpected highlights of my trip was the foot bath our guide introduced us to at about 9:00 pm in 35 degree F weather. Because we didn’t get a chance to see the Northern Lights on the tour (or at all), our consolation prize was a small, thermal foot bath by the sea. It’s really small, seats about five adults and is utterly delightful. So, our small group trekked a few feet over the rocks to this little foot bath. Although we were hesitant at first (it was about 35 degrees F and I wasn’t relishing the idea of taking off my warm socks and boots), our guide convinced us and we are so glad we did. Here, in the middle of nowhere (it seemed), in the dark, was this wonderful thermal foot bath for us to enjoy. I think it’d be great to bring a group of friends there just to hang out and have a few drinks. My brother and I know where it is now, so we’ll be back. Apparently, it’s a little hidden secret, which is now out. You’re welcome.
Tips & Tricks
- If you take Wow Air to Iceland, prepare ahead of time. There is no food or water served on the plane. I repeat, there is NO food or water served on the plane, so plan accordingly. This airline is merely for transport to and from Iceland. That’s it. Thankfully, Justin cooked this bomb meal for us, so we didn’t die.
- Drink the water! That’s a phrase that is completely opposite of most warnings when traveling abroad. I’d even suggest carrying a water bottle around if you’re going on excursions. The water is so clean and pure, that you can actually drink it right out of the streams and rivers (except for Reykjavík). The water from glaciers is delicious and the water that has been flowing through the lava beds for several hundred years is amazing!
- Bring waterproof/water-resistant hiking boots and a rain coat. There will be plenty of opportunities to get wet, either from above or below.
- Bring a swimsuit AND a coat. The geothermal swimming pools or the Blue Lagoon are a MUST.
- Rent a car. That is the absolute best and fastest way to get around Iceland.
- Wear layers. The wind is something fierce here because there aren’t enough tall trees to block it. You’ve been warned.
There aren’t any tall trees in Iceland. Eons ago, the trees were chopped down and they never grew back. Now, the government has put in tremendous effort to replant the trees, so you will see plenty of new trees but no forests.
How do you find your way out of a forest in Iceland? Stand up. Hahaha! Don’t mind that little bit of Icelandic humor.
All in all, I had an amazing time and I can’t wait to go back to this fantastic land and head north next time.
Have you ever been to Iceland? What did you do? If you haven’t been, what things would you do?