A Reader Wanders Iceland

Travelling, taking in the beauty of the world, is both one of my favourite things to do and one of my greatest sources of anxiety. I don’t know why exactly travelling fills me with such worry alongside the excitement, but it does. Nevertheless, I strive not to allow those anxieties to prevent me from travelling when the opportunity arises because, in the words of St Augustine, “The world is a book and those who do not travel read only one page.” – whoever heard of reading only one page of a book?

My latest travelling opportunity came in the form of a trip to Iceland, booked by my wonderful hubby as a present for my 30th birthday. It is a place we have often talked about visiting and I am so glad we got the chance to go. It is a wonderful place, filled with folklore, rugged and ethereal beauty, and friendly people.

I know of a few people planning trips there in the new people so a post combining some recommendations and sharing some highlights from our time there seemed fitting. We stayed in a wonderful Air BnB studio just 20 minutes walk outside the centre of Reykjavík- we rarely use anything other than Air BnB for our accommodation these days as it’s so easy to find comfortable, attractive, and functional accommodation at a fraction of the cost of hotels. Definitely recommended, especially if you’re travelling on a budget (particularly to somewhere like Iceland which is not cheap…). This was the idea base for our adventures as we could easily get into the city centre and were close to a supermarket, a couple of bakeries, and a restaurant, as well as being near the coast for some lovely views. We were staying for a week in total and had planned an itinerary that was equal parts mooching round Reykjavík, crashing out at the studio, and taking tours to explore further afield. It worked really well for what we wanted: the chance to see some of the best of the island and city as well as the opportunity to really relax.

Day One

Unwinding in our accommodation after a super early flight; a trip to the supermarket to pick up supplies; a wander down to the shore to admire the views and a self-catered dinner.

Day Two

Exploring Reykjavík! We bought a brilliant little Herb Lester map from Trouva.com which highlighted a great range of shops, cafes, restaurants etc in the city that we might otherwise have walked past. Reykjavík has plenty to offer by way of shops and cafes, everything from your typical tourist gift shops to elegant Scandinavian design stores.

If you’re heading into the city be sure to stop for a coffee or hot chocolate at Reykjavík Roasters, up near the Hallgrimskirkja church. Great hot drinks and cakes/pastries with a lovely atmosphere.

We dipped in and out of bookshops and gift shops, just soaking up the city and had a cheap and cheerful evening meal at Block Burger. (Cheap and cheerful doesn’t come easy in Reykjavík but this was actually really tasty and reasonable. Great chips and I highly recommend the veggie burger.)

One of my favourite things about wandering round the city was the street art hidden round every corner and the quirkiness and splendour of some of the architecture. We spent a lot of time just wandering aimlessly and enjoying the city as we found it.

Day Three

We had booked a few tours through Viator before we flew out, which I recommend doing as we were able to get decent prices and guaranteed spots – it seems like the tours can get pretty booked up so it’s worth having these planned before you go if you can. Our first tour was The Golden Circle day trip run by Greyline and we couldn’t fault them. Timely pick ups, informative and friendly tour guides, lots packed into the day!

First stop on our Golden Circle tour was Thingvellir – site of the first Icelandic Parliament, established in 930 AD, and also the point where the Eurasian and North American tectonic plates meet. An area of outstanding natural beauty and fascinating history, it was a great starting point for the tour.

From Thingvellir we moved on to Gullfoss, a beautiful and dramatic waterfall which was one of the most impressive sights we saw. We were super lucky with the weather and so standing above the falls we were treated to not only the majesty of Gullfoss itself but rainbows dancing in the mist around it – spectacular! We could also glimpse a glacier over the mountains and the view all around the Gullfoss area was magnificent.

(If you do head to Gullfoss, I highly recommend getting a hot chocolate from the visitor centre – man do Icelanders do hot chocolate right?! Delicious!)

Final official stop on the Golden Circle tour was Geysir – the site of the geyser that all other geysers are named after! Although Geysir itself is no longer active we still got to witness some pretty impressive geyser eruptions and the steam rising from the pools and outlets of the surrounding geothermal area made the whole place otherworldly.

We also got a couple of unofficial stops along the way including getting to meet some Icelandic horses (super fluffy!) and stopping in at a lovely little church with a traditional Icelandic hut next to it.

We got back to Reykjavík around 6:30pm and headed back towards our Air BnB, stopping in at Bordid for dinner along the way and this was possibly THE best meal we had whilst we were out there. Bordid is a little bakery with a cafe-restaurant attached. The food is locally sourced and super fresh, with a small but varied menu and everything was absolutely amazing! It’s not open late and is outside the city but I highly recommend it if you get chance. Just amazing. For dessert, make sure you try the cinnamon buns!

Day Four

After our jam-packed day touring the Golden Circle we spent a lazy morning crashed out at our Air BnB, only venturing out for a wander and for some food early afternoon. We enjoyed another walk round Reykjavík, visiting the Harpa theatre and wandering along the front, admiring the view across the harbour and the many cairns that have been built in the bay, as well as the striking Viking ship sculpture which beautifully framed the mountains across the sea on a clear day.

Day Five

The second of our pre-booked tours, and the longest day of our stay, day five was for exploring the south coast of the island, seeing more magnificent waterfalls and, most excitingly, doing a glacier walk! This was a 12 hour tour with a couple of long stretches of driving time to get from one place to another but TOTALLY worth with because it was incredible.

First stop was Sejlalandsfoss, an tall and elegant waterfall that seems to sprout from nowhere. Not as impressive as Gullfoss but beautiful all the same.

Second stop was Skogafoss, another waterfall that pours dramatically into a cove carved out of the land and into a glacial river that snakes away through the surrounding plain. You can walk right up to this fall and get soaked in the process! (NB: pack waterproofs!)

Next was a trip to Reynisfjara, the black sands beach that plays host to some impressive land stacks. I have to admit we didn’t spend that much time down on the beach itself as it was very cold, very windy, and a little rainy. Nevertheless, the black beach was very dramatic and I can imagine it’s a great place to explore more thoroughly on a calmer day! There’s also a great little cafe at the car park which serves hot and cold food, including the most delicious chocolate muffins! Perfect for fuelling up ready for our glacier walk.

Final stop on the tour, and probably the highlight of our holiday, was the glacier walk on Solheimajokull. I have to admit I was more than a little apprehensive about this as I had NO idea how physically taxing it might be and was a little afraid I wouldn’t be able to do it. But I needn’t have worried because it was actually surprisingly physically undemanding. I had a moment of mild panic when the guide handed me an ice pick but was quickly reassured it was mainly a photo-prop and really just there for absolute emergencies! The glacier walk was an awesome experience. Our guide was knowledgeable, friendly, and careful to make sure everyone was safe and able to keep pace. We walked about 20 minutes from the car park to reach the face of the glacier, learning along the way that just 17 years ago you could walk straight into the ice from the car park, a sobering example of the impact of climate change. At the glacier face we got booted up with crampons and had some final safety check on our equipment before snaking our way, single file, up onto the glacier.

Standing on top of the glacier itself was like standing on an alien world. No sound but the crunch of our boots on the ice and the glare of the sun illuminating the huge frozen expanse around us. Our lovely guide paused at various points to furnish us with facts and folktales about the glacier: everything from factoids such as it taking 10 cubic meters of snow to create 1 cubic centimetre of glacier ice, to tales about rainbows being born in the glacier. He also shared some shocking insights into how climate change has impacted Solheimajokull: it is currently losing 15 metres of height every year. Solheimajokull is actually just a small tongue coming off the huge Myrdalsjokull icecap that sits over the top of the Katla volcano. As it melts, the pressure of this icecap lessens and eventually there will be no pressure left containing the huge energy bubbling under its surface. Our guide said he wouldn’t want to be there in 150 years: a sad and frightening thought.

The glacier is made all the more dramatic for the covering of black ash which sits in piles and nestles in grooves and gullies in the ice, remnants of the 1918 eruption of Katla. Interestingly, there is very little ash present from the 2010 eruption of Eijafjallajokkull. The landscape is awe inspiring, and has the power of making one feel both insignificant and privileged. It’s really impossible to describe the experience of standing on such a stunning, ancient, yet diminishing natural power. If you have the chance to do this, don’t miss it.

Day Six

Another lazy morning to recover from our long day of exploration, we lounged around our Air BnB in the morning before heading for lunch at Kaffihüs – another great coffee shop outside the centre of Reykjavík.

Here we had a relaxed bite to eat and drink ready for our final trip of the holiday, out to the Blue Lagoon. The lagoon trip was the most expensive for what it was but I’m so glad we did it. It was truly an amazing and wonderfully relaxing experience. Sitting in the steaming geothermal pools, surrounded by volcanic rocks and the tips of snowy mountains felt like being in a faery realm, it was so ethereal.

We had a basic entry package for the lagoon but we could stay as long as we liked and it included a free drink from the swim up bar (anything from slush puppy to prosecco) and a free silica mud mask whilst we bathed. It was wonderful. We soaked happily for about four hours and also took advantage of the steam baths and massage waterfall. It was a great place to people watch. Lots of people had their phones or cameras in waterproof cases with them in the pools and whilst it would have been nice to have some photos from in the pools themselves we chose to forgo our devices and just enjoy the experience. It was a lovely opportunity to connect and enjoy each other’s company and I would highly recommend going device free if you get the chance to indulge in a trip to the Blue Lagoon and immerse yourself in the moment.

There is a cafe, a restaurant, and a gift shop on site and whilst we didn’t eat there it looked like a lovely (if pricey) facility. (I managed to get one shot of the lagoon from the cafe so if your desperate for a photo there is the chance there!) There’s a wide range of Blue Lagoon skincare products available but you can pick them up for a fraction of the price at the airport so maybe hold off until your journey home if you plan on treating yourself.

We got a 9pm transfer back to Reykjavík and headed to the city centre for around 10:30pm, with the intention of having a late night meal, only to find that most places closed or stopped serving food at 10pm! So we ended up having pancakes for dinner (a great shame I know) and would recommend trying out the Eldur creperie if you’re a pancake fan. Sweet and savoury and a huge range of toppings, they also offer vegan pancakes and toppings so there are options for everyone.

Day Seven

Our final day in Iceland was another lazy morning and a last wander round the city. We revisited some of our favourite shops. A couple of mine were the Geysir Heima store – beautiful homeware- and Aurum – all sorts of bits and pieces from stationery and art prints to homeware and clothing.

We had an incredible lunch at Sparta Kaffid where they serve homemade soup in crust bread bowls – perfect warming meal on a chilly Icelandic day. After a little more wandering we ended our stay with dinner in an Icelandic tavern where we avoided the shark and whale fin but enjoyed the waffle fries!

All in all the whole trip was amazing. Great food, lovely people, incredible landscapes and natural wonders. It is expensive out there but I try to look at it as spending money on memories. If you’re fortunate enough to get to visit this wonderful place then plan your time, be selective about what to spend your pennies on, and savour every moment.