As far as bucket list locations go Iceland was top of the list. It’s always felt like a fantastical sort of destination I read about it in magical trilogies as a teen. Pink tinged landscapes, frozen waterfalls, sparkling Northern Lights and the natives all swathed in reindeer hides eating outlandish dishes. My trip I took mid December was my travel highlight of 2017 and I’ve documented all my recommendations and things to do and see in Iceland.
Where to stay
There are lots of different types of travellers and I’m the sort that likes to pick my accommodation choices carefully. For our 5-day trip we decided to split our time between two places in the capital city Reykjavik. We did consider staying somewhere a little more remote for a few nights but after doing some more research and asking around all the tours and excursions collected people from the capital and drove you to the destinations. We stayed central which was a really good idea in my opinion. It also wasn’t a hassle moving around, as Reykjavik is so small. We walked everywhere!
41 A Townhouse
I loved 41 A Townhouse. It’s an apartment-hotel concept that looks like a minimalistic townhouse from the outside. There is a concierge 12 hours a day and a series of rooms, most with a streamlined kitchen and living room. The interiors are sleek and dark with pops of mustard and brown leather. I was slightly obsessed with the bathroom floor tiles as well. If we’d wanted to stay in and cook one night we could have. Instead, we stocked the fridge with wine and snacks. There was also unlimited free coffee in the rooms.
We stayed in one of the penthouse rooms you see pictured. Worth noting that there is building works going on next door right now and look to be staying for a while. There was little noise from the site when we stayed there, however there were workers near our windows in the morning when we woke so curtains stayed whilst we sashayed around nude.
41 A Townhouse is very centrally located on Laugavegur, the main strip running straight through the capital. Rates start from £169 per night.
Eyja Guldsmeden Hotel
On day 3 of our trip we moved slightly more up town to a more “neighborhood-y” area to the Eyja Guldsmeden Hotel about 10 minute walked from the main drag. I picked this hotel based on the interiors of the rooms; all wooden 4-poster beds with reindeer and sheepskins. The Eyja has quite an eco-hipster vibe with organic and ecofriendly bathroom treats and cute snug room to sip wine in the evenings. There’s also happy hour to take advantage of too, which is a blessing as alcohol is very expensive in Iceland. We stayed in a Superior double room with a view of the mountains. Rates start from £199.
Where to eat
Food is one of THE most important parts of any trip for me and I had heard so many amazing things about the food in Iceland. For such a niche and secluded place the culinary delights are plentiful. Iceland is excellent for more adventures palettes; their national dishes include, puffin, horse and minke whale (the only one I had the balls to try (and begrudgingly agreed that it was delicious (like the tenderest steak you’ll ever eat)). We enjoyed a mix of street food, authentic eateries and well commended restaurants in the schedule.
If you are after authentic Icelandic grub then Loki comes up top on Tripadvisor. We went for a low-key dinner of Icelandic meat soup, Beer, Fish pie, cheese and smoked trout on rye bread. All washed down with local beer. Icelanders traditionally love cold plates as it raises the body temp. I highly recommend the Icelandic soup traditionally sever with either lamb or reindeer meet.
For a pre dinner street snack one eve we ate a few Hot Dogs served on squishy rolls with mustard, mayo and onions. BBP is voted best hot dog in the country by Conde Nast Traveller. They tasted good and were probably the cheapest piece of food we bought all trip but weren’t anything to write home about. We witnessed a few Americans declaring them unfit to eat whilst eating them all anyway…
Out most extravagant meal out was at Grillmarkadurinn, an Icelandic grill restaurant with an impressive tasting menu. We choose the tasting Menu so we could try a selection of chef specialties put together to “thrill the palette”. Thrilling it was, I dubiously ate lamb tartar and enjoyed it. Probably my fav meal of the trip and the most expensive too, our bill was £270 for two tasting menus and 6 drinks each.
On the last eve we ate close to the Eyja hotel in an old bus shelter that had been converted into a canteen with different eateries. We had burritos and nachos from La Poblana in Hlemmur and order beer and G&T’s for the bar opposite, casual and tasty.
What to wear / pack
Other than not bringing enough spending money not packing the right clothing for a trip to Iceland in winter is a big mistake.
Layering is key and let me start with Thermals. This is the base layer of life in Iceland in December. We both wore thermal leggings and tops every day of the trip. I picked mine up from Next Label online and Tom got his from Uniqlo. Thermal or hiking socks are also a must.
We both had heat tech ultra light down jackets from uniqlo as well. They come in several different shapes and colours and roll up to the size of a pork pie but keep in the warmth so well. I wore mine under my coat everyday.
Pack a knitted beanie and a snood is always a good shout as it is less material and fussy than a scarf but you can also use it to cover up your face if you’re out in particularly harsh icy winds. Cheap ones can be found at outdoor hiking stores like Mountain Warehouse. Your Topshop knitted gloves won’t cut it either. I choose Northface ones made for cold climates.
Walking boots or hiking boots are good as they are usually well insulated and waterproof. I have some epic UGG Viki boots from Next label online that are fully sheepskin lined and waterproof and have artic ice grip on the bottom too. If your boots aren’t great on snow and ice you can pick up some yack tracks from amazon that will give your shoes extra grip.
The rest is common sense. I packed 4 jumpers, jeans and cotton t-shirts so my wardrobe wasn’t especially fashionable but I accessorised with hat or two.
Make sure you up your skincare regime for the colder climates. I packed a LRP Citaplast hand cream and lip balm for the trip and added an extra oil to my skincare regime to help protect my skin.
Currently £1 = 141.52 Icelandic Króna, $1 = 105.88 Icelandic Króna and 1 Euro = 125.66 Icelandic Króna.
The first few days we were continuously trying to convert Iceland prices into ££ and continuously being shocked at how much we were paying for things. For example 2 cheese croissants and coffees one morning cost a casual £35. By day 3 I stopped asking and just paid the bill, surrendering to the insane prices.
What to do
There is plenty of shopping to do in Iceland’s capital city. The main shopping street, Laugavegur, has plenty of boutiques filled with chic Icelandic goodies like ceramics, candles, skins and furs, handmade booties, taxidermy and other gifts ideas. It’s all more expensive than prices at home with the exception of the real native stuff like the sheepskins that were almost half the price.
If you don’t pack appropriately there are a ton a chic winter style boutiques to stock up on winter clothing and accessories.
V.I.Info – Alcohol is only for sale in liquor stores.
Iceland has many breathtaking natural wonders to visit on your trip. We chose to do a Northern Lights Tours, The Golden Circle tour and take a trip to the famous Blue lagoon. All of these were booked through the very efficient and reliable Grayline Iceland tour operator. You pre-book your chosen excursions online and they provide you with information on your nearest pick up point to join the tour, however if you are staying at a well known hotel it is likely that they will pick you up and drop you off.
The Northern Lights
This was hands down the funniest night of our trip. I have always wanted to see the Northern lights however I understood how elusive they could be. The elements need to align in order to witness this amazing spectacle in the night sky; solar activity, good visibility and a dark setting with little-to-zero light pollution. We got an email that day letting us know conditions were good enough for the trip to go ahead and were driven to a remote place an hour outside of the city to watch and WAIT.
Waiting is the optimal word here and well prepared we were. By prepared I don’t mean we had tripods and amazing camera lenses. Our version of prepared is a belly full of food and a bottle of Whisky. We were out in the icy wasteland for approx. 3 hours where we proceeded to get slaughtered on a bottle of Jack Daniels we paid about £80 for. We saw a smidge of green lights in the sky for all of 30 minutes but had the funniest night sliding through the Icelandic bush in pitch black, screaming with laughter. My finest moment was when I went arse-over-tit in front of a 20-strong group of Japanese tourists and their tripods. They came away ice cold with some pretty amazing photography but I’m pretty sure we had the better night. Ha ha ha.
It’s worth noting if you were not satisfied with your Northern Lights sighting you are able to re-use your ticket for two years from purchase date and return FOC when you like to watch and wait again.
Golden Circle Tour
This is a full day trip (8 hours) that visits 3 of Icelandic beautiful nature spots including; Þingvellir National Park, Gullfoss Waterfall & Geysir geothermal area.
With this excursion you get round trip transportation and a professional guide (ours was really sweet, knowledgeable and funny).
The visit to the National park includes a walk between the chasm between the North American and Euroasian tectonic plates and a fascinating view of the Old Icelandic Commonwealth meeting point where the first Viking Kings met to discuss politics and carry out brutal viking-age justice.
My favourite spot was viewing the Geysir explosions every five minutes or so. A massive eruption of hot, sulphur smelling steam from the earth only a couple metres from us. Epic and beautiful.
The Blue Lagoon
The Blue Lagoon was my favourite excursion on our trip and may have been something to do with the fact I got to drink champagne whilst floating in 40-degree thermal water with a mud facemask on. Old habits die-hard.
There are several different packages you can opt for. We chose the comfort one that included entry, a towel, 1 free drink from the lagoon bar and 2 facemasks. This was
It’s a really bizarre and funny thing floating around in this big milky blue lagoon with hundreds of other people, swigging booze with white mud smeared all over their face. It’s romantic and beautiful and surreal all at the same time. Not to mention the photo ops are unreal.
How to get there
We flew from London Gatwick to Iceland’s Keflavík International Airport on Easy Jet going out and Icelandic air coming back. The flight is an easy 3.5 hours and we paid about £160 for rtn fights each.
I would recommend getting a coach into Reykjavik from the airport and not a taxi as the 50-minute journey by car cost £117 versus £30 on a Grayline coach. You can pre book your airport transfers here or jump on the next bus when you arrive at the airport. They run regularly. Grayline.com.