This page may contains affiliate links. Please read my disclosure for more info.
Our final destination (back in September) and a great one at that. Cuba and Iceland have been topping my dream list of places to visit for years so when I realised I could get a flight back to the UK going via Iceland for no extra cost by heart literally skipped a beat.
We spent just a week in Reykjavik but despite having a it’s own very unique vibe and style, it was our first time back in Europe for almost 2 years and it was an almost tangible feeling of being back, which felt kind of comforting. And the weather was a reminder of being back too. It was actually worse weather than they are used to in September and for us, having only had some chilly days in Hong Kong and Japan – it was quite a shock! It was also a great time for Mark to discover he’d lost his coat somewhere in Canada or the USA. Lord only knows where he left that, but he has a history of losing coats and sunglasses so not a real shock.
Landing on another planet
It was a very early morning flight in and our airbnb room wasn’t going to be ready for us for a while so it was actually a bit gutting how quick and efficient it was to get through customs and onto the bus transfer to Reykjavik. As soon as we left the airport we realised that we really weren’t in Kansas anymore. OK, it was New York, but you get what I mean. The landscape in Iceland is so different to anything I’ve ever seen before. The sun coming up over lava fields is un-earthly and quite stunning. It should be bleak but somehow it just isn’t.
We got dropped off by the bus at a large hotel which seemed in the middle of nowhere in terms of anywhere to sit and wait. There were houses and big wide roads and a few office buildings but at not much after 6am there was nothing going on and we were a bit stumped as to what to do to kill the few hours we had to wait, laden down with all our worldly goods. They were very nice at the hotel and said we could hang out in their foyer for a bit and in the end, after Mark had been on a little exploratory trip of the hotel, we decided to splash out and eat the breakfast there. This doesn’t seem like a big deal, but the idea of having a breakfast at a fairly pricey big hotel was out of our travel comfort zone. It just wasn’t what we did. It seemed wasteful and too luxurious, but looking back now it was actually not that expensive anyhow. It was the best decision we could have made. Not only was the food amazing but they let us ditch our luggage while we ate (already the safety and friendliness of Iceland was appealling!), so we had a long, luxurious, stress free breakfast to build us back up after a tiring few weeks in NYC and an overnight flight.
Our Airbnb host rushed for us and so by about 9 am we were able to trek off to our latest lodgings. I later realised that the hotel wasn’t in the middle of nowhere anyhow, but when you’re tired and it’s early and you’re carrying your life with you, things can seem such hard work.
The redemption of airbnb
After our one and only bad airbnb experience, it was a delight to get to our Reykjavik lodging and sink onto the divinely comfortable bed of our large, cosy, well equipped room. Our host, Magret, and her husband lived in the house above and there were 3 rooms in the basement with it’s own kitchen, bathroom and the laundry room. Magret was lovely and we learned she’d actually lived in Hove for a while when she was studying. The whole place was cosy and welcoming and just what we needed. I could have stayed an extra week just to read all the books from the bookcase in the hall and snuggle in the cloud like scandi bedding.
A city that throws it’s arms around you for a welcome hug
Not literally, of course, they don’t grab you on the street, but just the ease and relaxed nature meant there was no transition time needed. It was all just exploring and enjoying.
Everything just works here, but without any sterility. It’s quirky, cosy, stylish, friendly and efficient. Very Scandinavian in those ways but also definitely it’s own place. That is the beauty of islands far from all – they’ve always walked to their own beat Add to that that the young Icelanders nearly all leave to work in foreign countries, but most come back – there’s an interesting and creative mix of culture and new ideas.
On our first day, we walked into town from our accommodation – a fair old walk in the cold but one we rather enjoyed. Great back drop over the sea and interesting little sculptures along the way as well as the gorgeous Harpa building.
When we made it to the centre we came across various groups of girls dressed up, playing games involving things like a carrot on a stick. One group with each of them wearing only one pink glove. Despite googling I’m none the wiser as to what this was all about. When we saw the first group we thought maybe a hen-do, but then when we came across some others we were just puzzled. A kind of fresher week thing maybe? But they were all girls. If anyone can enlighten me, that would be great.
The cold weather was getting to us and Mark in particular without a coat so getting warmer clothes was first thing we had to do. Iceland isn’t the cheapest place so I wasn’t quite sure what to do. The jumpers that I swooned over cost a bomb, but I stumbled across the very cute, tin fronted Red Cross shop. The 2nd hand jumpers in there were actually still very expensive but I did manage to pick up something nice and warm.
Mark found a coat on sale at a skater shop that did the trick for him. It seemed expensive but when we discovered you can get the tax back it didn’t seem so bad.
The cathedral is one of the main sites to see for good reason. It’s stunning and sits up high above the city.
Mark in hot water
There was a swimming pool with thermal spa just 2 minutes down the road from were we were staying. It was definitely a place for the locals and everyone goes – young and old. There’s pools of various temperatures and a slide on one of the big pools that Mark was very partial too. He convinced me to go down it telling me there was a surprise once inside. It was literally just that it went dark for a bit. The real surprise was when Mark left too soon behind me and so landed on my head just as I had entered the water, nearly drowning me. I’m not that keen on water and particularly not keen with my head being held under water. Mark, however, found this the most hilarious thing and was still laughing to himself about it days later.
We went back a couple of times and Mark went a fair few times on his own. Confessing one time, upon his return, that he’d gone on the slide on his own 10 times. Pushing the kids out of the way no doubt!
Food & Drink
Another place where everything tastes good – from restaurant food to stuff picked up in the garage, it was always good and there was definitely some interesting new things to try. I was desperate to try a Jam burger when I saw it on a menu and I wasn’t disappointed. It sounds odd but definitely works. Of course, there’s lots of fish.
There’s a great little cafe up at the square overlooking the cathedral that does some lovely local dishes. Can definitely recommend as an Icelandic taster.
The day we walked down from Cafe Loki, there was, of all things, a Bacon festival going on. Lots of little stall of local restaurants and caterers selling bacon-related things to try. We didn’t partake as we were stuffed but it was tempting and funny to see even the local Dominos pizza got involved.
We went for a drink in Kaffibarinn, a famous bar and music venue, to find that there was a talk going on in the back room about Icelandic pigs.
The talk ended with them getting everyone in the room chanting ‘Bacon’. Typically, brilliantly Icelandic.
This was a great sign they had up in the bar which probably sums the place up nicely.
Due to the cold weather (and being the way we are), we often ended up cosying up in one of Reykjavik’s many bars. Here are some of our faves:
Great place, great happy our. Just don’t sit near the back door – it gets cold with people coming in every 5 mins and leaving the door open. The decor had a kind of old 60s lodge/boarding school kind of feel to it.
This bar is up some stairs on a main street which housed an older, cool crowd and this little fella overseeing things.
I have never seen the Big Lebowski but I know how utterly obsessed people are with it so I know that to a fan this themed bar would be heaven.
And even without knowing the references it’s a great place to hang out.
Stylish, welcoming decor plus the best happy hour and local beers and super friendly.
Tapas Barinn restaurant
On Vesturgötu this place is a bit odd. It’s a Spanish style tapas restaurant but does a whole bunch of Icelandic food taster menu. There are lots of places, particularly on the main street, that does similar but this place is just fantastic. We decided on the last night of our trip to splash out on this and it was so worth it. We had the Iceland taster menu but asked to not have the whale and replaced it with something else. There was 7 courses and a shot of the local cockle-warming liquor.
This place has style, a great atmosphere and seriously good food. The puffin was amazing. Sure, I really want to see a puffin in the living flesh, which has as yet alluded me, but there is a puffin catching season – not farmed or anything like that so I had no qualms chowing down on that. It was such dark meat, almost purple.
When we’d gone away I assumed as many people dreaming of travelling does that I was going to spend lots of time watching dolphins frolic off the side of sunny boats and seeing whales while hiking over stunning clifftop scenery. As I don’t much like boats or hiking, that was always unlikely, but I thought it 2 years I’d have seen more than the 1 loan dolphin from the ferry between islands in New Zealand. So Iceland was my last chance really.
We ummed and aahed about the budget a bit but it had to be done. And actually even if I hadn’t seen whales and dolphins (which I did -yey!) I would have actually enjoyed that day out. It was hilarious.
It started a bit badly when we never got picked up on the bus but the hotel we were waiting outside were friendly and helpful and chased the company up. They had forgotten us somehow but came hairing over from the port in a Prius to pick us up.
It was a cold and blustery day and we wisely opted for the sea sickness tablets. Once on the boat we got kitted out in the natty whale watching outfits. They seemed a bit extreme but my crikey you needed them to keep alive.
With such rough seas I thought our chances of seeing anything were slim, but we ended up seeing not only lots of dolphins but also quite a few Minke whales. So I always thought they were pronounced ‘mink’ but in fact, it’s ‘Minkee’ which just sounded funny and cute every time the guide said it. It really was an amazing trip. They have pretty strict rules in place in Iceland and I also made particularly sure that we went to a place with a good reputation. They were very concerned with getting the ecological points across and asking people to make sure they didn’t go into town after and eat any!!
The wind and the rain were really giving us a battering and although the suits kept us warm and dry – you start to suffer in the extremities. My hands quickly went from painful to no feeling. The icing on the cake was the spot I was standing (holding on for dear life) was at such an angle that the water splashed on board covering me head to toe. Man, that was cold. Mark (despite not getting the soakings I kept getting) whimped out in the end and went inside on the trip back. I stuck it out to the bitter (and it was very bitter) end. Not bad for someone who doesn’t like water or boats. I guess I was kind of high on the excitement of seeing the whales and also the violence of the sea and the boat. It was quite the adrenalin rush!
So, I got to see my dolphins and my whales even if it wasn’t on a calm, turquoise sea – it was still the perfect ending for our trip.
If you’ve ever seen pictures of this place, you’ll know the allure. Again, it was not great on a traveller’s budget but it just had to be done or we’d be kicking ourselves. It really is as beautiful as it looks. The water really is that beautiful aqua, pastel blue. So many famous places are amazing but not quite the colours of photos you may have seen – this really is. Blue milkshake against black lava rocks. Seriously – it’s so dazzling and enchanting, it gave me the chills. Unfortunately an icy cold rain storm descended on the day we went so it wasn’t quite the relaxing soak I’d been imagining but in some ways the extremeness of the weather and the fact that very few people dared to venture out into it, made it a bit more of an adventure. I found it quite hilarious. Mark, who hates being cold, found it a little more arduous. There’s a small indoor pool area where you first get into the thermally heated water and once in you go through the water outside. There’s an amazing cave when you first go out where we sheltered at first. Then we went out into the larger area. The place is massive and there’s various areas you can head to – I think there’s a swim up bar, but people who were partaking at first quickly abandoned it. There’s areas which have like a big bucket full of goopy clays which are like face pack which you can put on you – covering your face and hair makes you look quite the swamp monster.
I wanted to explore regardless of the pounding rain but walking across the water out in the middle with no shelter, was so painful we had to walk backwards half the time. I don’t know why I found this so funny, I guess it was some kind of bizarre exhilaration. What we did find in the end is an area with super hot water – it’s warm and lovely everywhere but you could find these little pockets with extra heat. We found it and stayed there, clinging onto the side, keeping nice and warm. An icy cold head and a nicely warm body. We met some retired couples from the USA who were there on there way over for a trip in Europe. One of the guys had been based in Iceland in the 60s when he was in the Forces. Apparently back then, this place was known, but there was no structure around – people literally just drove into the middle of nowhere and jumped in!!
This isn’t the only place with these stunning pools – you do see them scarred around the area as you drive in, so I guess in theory you could still find one out there and jump in. Certainly, an alternative and would be fun to do on your own. But the Blue Lagoon does what it does well. Although there are lots of people there it doesn’t feel hassley like tourists attraction often do. I definitely want to go back in more clement weather. I know I go on about how much I love lots of places but this really is something very special. I think it’s probably because I love the aesthetics so much.
Oh, I do love a bit of architecture and Iceland doesn’t disappoint with the corrugated iron you imagine. There were some really colourful ones.
The other predominant buildings – mostly housing but also sports centres and offices, were grey buildings – most likely from the 50s, 60s and 70s. The house we were staying in and all in the surrounding areas were an old pebbledash style. You would think, lots of grey buildings in an already bleak environment would be drab and depressing but strangely I really liked them. I always find England at it’s most depressing when it’s raining, with a grey sky and you’re somewhere with concrete buildings. I can’t figure out why it just didn’t have the same effect here.
I liked the church styles as well – seemed like something out of fairytales.
The Culture museum
We went here thinking it was free but it had changed and we had to pay to go to the main exhibition which was all about the history of the Sagas. I didn’t know anything about this before coming to Iceland but had read up about it since and realise how significant to the culture it is. The exhibition probably was not worth it to us on a travellers budget. I’m definitely not into history much past Victorian times – the further back, the less interested I get. But if you’re into Viking history or appreciate the cross-overs with things like Tolkien it would be worth it. I remember thinking that my brother would love it!
The stuff on the upper floors was actually more up our street. Some interesting art and a particularly alarming room with speakers sprinkled around the room with a woman’s voice whispering strange phrases. It was way creepy!
There’s a great antique shop which was a proper treasure trove. I don’t know what it was called, but it was on Vesturgötu. Being on a once-isolated island, it did have lots of Iceland specific, unique and interesting things. I could spend weeks in there!
There are lots of interesting shops in Reykjavik. It’s definitely not full of bland chains. I think you can go out to out of town shopping places to get more of brands but the town is a bit more interesting. Lot’s of tourist shops of course but some interesting ones sprinkled about the place.
The Photography Museum
This is a fairly small museum on the 3rd or 4th floor of the building but it’s free and definitely worth a visit if you like photography. There was a great exhibition on when we went of bikers.
There are also old photos of Icelandic people on the stairs all the way down and odd cut outs using old photos – see below.
It’s a really creative country – the amount of amazing music that comes out of such small places proves that. Maybe it’s the long cold winters so people have nothing else to do but stay in doors and do interesting things!
It’s definitely got its own unique take on things and just wandering the streets you come across all kinds of street art and quirky things.
What’s not to like?
Well in our case – the weather. We were a bit unfortunate as it should have been warmer and it was mainly the shock of not being somewhere warm but my gosh the Icelanders are hardy. We’d be sat shivering in bars or restaurants as they’d have the door and windows open.
We had a one, particularly wet, cold, miserable walk home.
Things like this are controversial and of course, I find whaling awful, but as I’ve said previously on this blog, since travelling you find you have to step back from judging cultures. It’s difficult. Particularly when things are done for the sport. When things are eaten/used, it at least doesn’t seem pointless.
Considering the atrocities that go on in agriculture in the Western world, people can be a bit hypocritical campaigning to save only the cute or magnificent. Unless you’re vegan you’re on tricky territory – battery hens and dairy cattle can have horrendous existences. Anyhow, I found something particularly strange going on in Iceland. The argument is that its tradition, but stats show that whale is barely eaten by the Icelanders anymore. Who’s eating it? The tourists!!! Probably 2 thirds of the restaurants on the main street offered whale – particularly on the taste of Iceland menus. It’s not available barely anywhere else in the world, so people give it a go. People from countries who don’t support whaling. It’s a crazy situation. If all the tourists stop eating it, the restaurants wouldn’t need a constant supplier and there likely wouldn’t be enough need to justify the continuation.
They have a similar situation going on in Japan, though it’s not being eaten by tourists. V few people in Japan want to eat it anymore and those that do are generally the older generation so this will continue to decrease. But the Japanese government seem to continue as a point of principal. They have warehouses full of unused whale meat and this has become a contentious issue within the country.
Anyhow, I may not be sure where I stand these days in hating/accusing someone who eats something I think of as wrong if that’s part of their culture, but I do know that whales being killed for a tourist ‘look what i did’ story is depressing, so people, if you go to Iceland, please, please don’t!
Excellent in Iceland
The buses are brilliant in Iceland – efficient, cheap, regular.
There is a slight downside though, in that you need to have pre-bought tickets or have the exact cash.
You can buy bus tickets at the tourist info centre, so I suggest getting a few when you first arrive so you can jump on a bus whenever you feel the need.
No need to splash the cash
You never have to use cash, a card will always do. Admittedly we didn’t travel out into more rural areas but everything we did we could pay for by card and it was all super easy.
And Iceland’s reputation for being expensive is not so true these days. It was obviously pricey for us as we’ve spent much of the last year and a half in cheap places but I wasn’t shocked by any of the prices in Iceland. I actually noticed that a lot of the high-end stuff (though we didn’t participate in) was really reasonably priced, so great if you want to treat yourself. It’s definitely cheap compared to the UK!
Safe n sound
It’s always nice being in a low crime country. I imagine a lot of Icelanders still leave their doors unlocked.
I became obsessed with the Icelandic jumpers. I so wanted one but they price made me choke. They have the design on other things like coasters but I think it’s all possibly trade-marked as all that stuff is quite pricey too. I bought a set of the worlds most expensive paper napkins as a present!
I love it – it’s a beautiful sounding and looking language.
And Fiskisupa means fish soup – brilliant!
Kilroy the kangaroo
This is (possibly) only funny for people from the UK over the age of 25:
The penis museum
We walked past it a fair few times but never really felt the need.
There are no polar bears of course, but it seemed fitting
I am definitely returning to Iceland in the future. I really want to get out and explore the country, whereas on this trip we were mainly based in the town.
I mean who wouldn’t want a go in one of these:
And I want to come back when the puffins are about!
It was an unexpected and incredible place to finish our 22 months of travel. And on a more practical level, it cut a long plane journey into 2 short, reasonable chunks. I think it’s calm, coseting effect was just what we needed as we contemplated going back to the UK, both excited to see our loved ones after so long, sad that it’d come to an end and fear and worry about what we were going to do next. It was a very strange cocktail of feelings that morning, waiting to board the plane.