The land of Fire and Ice
Iceland is a Nordic island nation located a short 6 hour flight from the US East Coast. It’s a beautiful country, and in my humble opinion one of the most beautiful in the world. The Island is a part of the European continent and true to it’s name, is quite cold. The Island is volcanic in nature and has many stunning geographic features including waterfalls, volcanoes, geysers and geothermal pools.
Iceland is a stopover for many airlines flying to Europe, and is small enough to see on a layover. It’s a fairly expensive destination to travel, but with proper planning can fit in to anyone’s budget.
Flights to Iceland
Several airlines fly to Iceland, with the two most popular being Iceland Air and WOW Air. Both Airlines allow you to book a layover in Iceland on your way to Europe, at no extra cost. In fact, I found on several occasions, a ticket to Europe is even cheaper if you book a stopover in Iceland! That’s two vacations for less than the price of one.
WOW Air is my personal favorite for traveling to Iceland. It’s a discount airline and has significantly cheaper fares than Iceland Air. Typically a flight from Washington DC to Reykjavík (Iceland’s Capital) is only about $300. I once even booked a flight to London with an Iceland stopover for $270!
I’ve flown several discount airlines including Spirit Airlines, Ryanair and Frontier and have found WOW Air to be the most comfortable and pleasurable of them all. The planes are new and clean, and the staff is very friendly. To save money, checked bags, over sized carry-ons and on board food all cost extra, but if you travel light like me it wont be a problem. If you can tolerate a little less luxury, WOW Air will save you hundreds of dollars over more expensive airlines.
How to Get Around
Iceland’s main airport is located in Keflavik, about 40 mins outside of Reykjavík. You have several options to get to Reykjavík including by taxi, bus or rental car. The taxi is the most expensive option, with the transfer bus coming in a close second at about 4,500 Icelandic Krona or ISK ($45 US).
I HIGHLY recommend renting a car. It’s not only cheaper in the long run but allows you to explore Iceland at your own pace. The “Ring Road” is a road that runs the entire circumference of the country, and includes several popular sights. You don’t need a four wheel drive vehicle unless your venturing in to the highlands. If you choose not to rent a car, there are several buses that run out of Reykjavík to popular tourist sites.
If your up for a little extra adventure, many Icelandic Rental car companies also rent tents and sleeping bags. Accommodations can be quite expensive in Iceland making camping an appealing option. There’s plenty of available campgrounds and space to camp.
If you want a taste of adventure with a little more comfort, there are several companies that rent Camper Vans. These vans include a sleeping area and small kitchen but can be pricey if only rented for short periods.
The Golden Circle
The Golden Circle is a 300 Kilometre (190 Mile) loop that starts in Reykjavík, and goes along the southern coast. It includes several popular sites including Þingvellir National Park, the Gullfoss Waterfall, Geysers at Haukadalur, and the Kerið Crater Lake.
You can drive the entire circle in less than a day (6 to 8 hours), making it perfect for an Iceland layover. A rental car is the easiest way to explore at your own pace but there are plenty of buses leaving Reykjavik that offer the tour. It’s a good idea to get a map of the route from your rental car company, but most of the sights are well advertised with signs.
Seljalandsfoss falls is not in the Golden circle, but is a short detour to the south. It’s well worth it because it’s an incredible sight at almost 200 feet tall. There’s even a large cave behind the waterfall that you can walk to along the designated trails. There’s plenty of parking on site, and a small gift shop. It’s also very easy to find, as it’s directly off the ring road and impossible to miss.
The Blue Lagoon
The Blue Lagoon is a Geothermal spa located in Grindavík, Iceland. It’s about a 20 minute drive from Keflavík Airport and 50 Minutes from Reykjavík. The Blue Lagoon water is dense in Silica and Sulfur and is fed by a nearby Geothermal Plant. The water is supposed to be good for skin conditions and other ailments.
The Blu Lagoon is one of the most popular tourist sites in Iceland, but many consider it to be overrated. I love the Blue Lagoon, but it was not what I had expected. Its crowded and surrounded by ugly buildings. The water, although hot when it first comes from the plant, has to be constantly heated by heaters in the water. It wasn’t the serene retreat that I had imagined.
Despite my expectations, I really enjoyed it. It was unique experience and worth the money. If you have more time to explore, there are several other smaller geothermal bathing pools spread throughout Iceland. But if you only have a few days in the country, I recommend the Blue Lagoon because of its proximity to the Airport.
Reykjavík is Iceland’s largest city and is home to about 100,000 people. Like any great city, Reykjavík has food, art and architecture worth checking out. One of the most notable sights is Hallgrímskirkja, a great stone church inspired by the design of nature. It’s particularly magnificent to see at night.
Another interesting site is the Icelandic Phallological Museum, which is home to the world’s largest collection of Penises and Penile parts. The museum’s collection boats more then 280 specimens, including several whale penises.
If you only have a few days in Iceland, I would recommend spending a night in Reykjavík. Grab some dinner, walk around and just take it all in.
Food is one of my favorite aspects of any destination, and Icelandic food is as unique as the Island Itself. Because of the climate, not much grows so the base of the Icelandic diet revolves around lamb, seafood, dairy and root vegetables.
Hot dogs are the unofficial national food of Iceland. Icelanders have a slight obsession with them. Icelandic hot dogs are delicious and are often made with lamb. The best place to get a hot dog in Iceland is Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur, in central Reykjavík.
Hákarl is a traditional dish in Iceland composed of fermented Greenland shark. The Greenland shark when eaten fresh is poisonous, as it contains high amounts of Uric Acid. To make it edible, Icelanders bury it underground, and than hang it to dry. It is considered by many to be one of the worst foods in the world, and smells strongly of ammonia.
Check out my full article on Hákarl; The Worst Food in the World?
Licorice and Candy
Icelanders love candy, especially licorice. Almost every convenience or grocery store has a buy-by-the-pound candy section. One of my favorite is chocolate covered licorice which is the perfect combination of bitter, sweet, chewy and soft.
I’ve heard that whale in Iceland is typically only eaten by tourists, and is not a traditional food. I don’t know for sure, but all environmental thoughts aside, you can give it a try if you like. It’s available at several restaurants throughout the city and tastes like beef with the texture of tuna.
Skyr is a strained dairy product that has been eaten in Iceland for more than 1000 years. It’s similar to yogurt but is much smoother and milder.
Brennivín is Iceland’s signature drink and is known as the “black death”. Brewed from traditional herbs, it has a strong licorice taste that Icelanders tend to like. It’s traditionally served as an accompaniment to Hákarl to wash down the taste.
Polls show that more then half of all Icelanders believe in Elves or “Hidden People”. Some Icelanders believe these small creatures hide among the rocks and resemble tiny humans.
Driving through the lava fields, its no surprise why Icelanders believe in them. The endless fields of jagged rocks play tricks on your eyes, imitating the movement of little creatures among the lava formations. If your lucky you just might spot one!
The Aurora Borealis or Northern Lights remains one of the most incredible things I’ve ever seen. The phenomena is notoriously elusive and can be difficult to spot, especially considering Iceland’s sporadic weather. If you only have three days in the country, your chances of seeing it are even lower.
The lights can be seen all over the country, and even the city lights of Reykjavík cant hide them. The best time of year is from August to April, as the sun never goes down in the summer. The lights can appear a dim white, but are commonly green. Getting a chance to see the rare color of pink is quite a treat.
Iceland is a country that deserves more than 3 days to fully appreciate, but it’s a start. I promise, once you get a taste of Iceland’s beauty, you will be back.