Iceland Travel Review

Since I spent most of September 2016 gallivanting around Iceland, I’ve been getting a bunch of questions about the place; what it’s like, things to do, travel budgets, and so on… so I figured I’d take some time and put all my thoughts in one place.

A quick summary of my trip;

  • Flew to Iceland on the night of September 5th
  • Stayed in Reykjavík from September 6 – 13
  • Took a bus to Akureyri on September 14
  • Flew back to Reykjavík on September 21
  • Flew home on September 26

Note; since I work primarily in digital marketing, graphic design, and so on, I was able to work remotely for the entire duration of my trip. I’ll cover that experience in another post though.

Travelling There

I took WOW Air, and with no bells and whistles it cost me $270. The overnight flight with not-a-lot-of-leg-room was pretty gruelling. I didn’t get much sleep, which was also rough since the flight arrived at 4am local time.

The Blue Lagoon, a popular destination either heading to or from the airport. Get there first thing in the morning, or it'll be way more packed than this.

The Blue Lagoon, a popular destination either heading to or from the airport. Get there first thing in the morning, or it’ll be way more packed than this.

After kicking around in the airport for a couple of hours, I headed to the Blue Lagoon to wake up. This turned out to be an excellent decision, as the beer, sunrise, and warm water helped reset my internal clock.

Note about temperature: Iceland isn’t as cold as you’d think. Due to a number of factors, the temperatures hover around 5 to 15 Celsius throughout most of their summer/fall. Depending on how you deal with cold, it’ll be anything from t-shirt weather to light jacket weather.

Note about time change: This is my second overnight flight to Europe, and both times I’ve found it easiest to power through the entire day and go to bed at a regular time (if not a bit early).

Note about leg room: On the way back, I dropped an extra $60 to choose a seat with ‘XXL’ leg room. Highly worth it.

My little apartment loft in Reykjavík.

My little apartment loft in Reykjavík.

Reykjavik

Accommodations
I stayed in an Airbnb that I found that was just outside of the city centre (perhaps a 10-minute walk). Hulda, the host & owner, was super friendly, and I can’t recommend the accommodations enough.

I shared the apartment with two people; Marija, a Master’s student on exchange from Lithuania, and Stéphanie, a journalist from Paris. I quickly realized that Airbnb can also be a great way to meet wonderful people!

The old prison courtyard at the heart of an art museum.

The old prison courtyard at the heart of an art museum.

Art & Culture

For a country of only 320,000 people, Iceland invests heavily into the arts. These are some of the less obvious things I did that I’d recommend highly;

  • One of their main art galleries is a retrofitted prison. I didn’t realize this until happening by a window that looked out into the old courtyard. It is home to an extensive collection of Erró, a postmodern artist whose pieces are both whimsical and striking.
  • The Harpa, Reykjavík’s concert hall, is a triumph of contemporary architecture. I attended a performance of “How to become Icelandic in 60 minutes“, which was thoroughly entertaining.
  • The view from the top floor of the Harpa.

    The view from the top floor of the Harpa.

  • The Kjarvalsstaðir is a museum with a permanent exhibit of the work of Johannes Sveinsson Kjarval, considered to be one of Iceland’s most important painters for his work depicting the natural beauty of Iceland.
  • Einar Jónsson was an Icelandic sculptor whose incredible portfolio of works fills an entire museum. The museum is an often-overlooked building across the street from the Hallgrímskirkja (the big church in the middle of Reykjavík). I wandered in on a whim, and can’t imagine having left Iceland without seeing Jónsson’s work.
Food & Drink in Reykjavik

Hope you like seafood.

  • Plokkfiskur at Icelandic Fish & Chips
  • Lobster soup & whale at Saegreifinn
  • White Russians at Lebowski Bar (yes, there is a Big Lebowski themed bar and it is amazing)
  • Puffin appetizer & reindeer burger at Íslenski Barinn

Note on prices: Things in Iceland are expensive, because most food has to be shipped in from elsewhere. Before you complain about the prices, however, keep in mind that Iceland has historically been one of (if not the) poorest countries in Europe, and that many folks in Iceland have a second job to make ends meet due to the high cost of living.

So, if you come over from the land of $1.69 Junior Chickens and dollar-per-litre gasoline and gripe about the prices, people will look at you like you’re being an asshole (because you are).

A view of Reykjavík from the top of Perlan.

A view of Reykjavík from the top of Perlan.

Views from the bus from Reykjavík to Akureyri.

Views from the bus from Reykjavík to Akureyri.

Akureyri & The North

After spending a week in Reykjavík, I was looking forward to exploring a new locale. Akureyri is the largest city in the North, and numbers about 20,000 people.

Because I don’t drive, I took a bus there, which is highly recommended as it’s a great way to see the landscape. Having never really seen mountains before, this gave me a great appreciation for the scale of the country, and also a view into the farming activity that goes on throughout the year (hint: lots of sheep).

Note: On the way back to Reykjavík, I took a plane. Only slightly more expensive, but takes one hour (max) as opposed to six.

As an urban centre, Akureyri is a picturesque town set on a fjord, surrounded by mountains and dominated by several major hills that give character to the city while making it exciting to walk through. I stayed at the Bjarmó Guest House, hosted by Halla, Einar, and Vala (another Airbnb success story).

Dettifoss, an extremely powerful waterfall in northern Iceland.

Dettifoss, an extremely powerful waterfall in northern Iceland.

I spent most of my time outside here, whether hiking on Súlur or meandering through the Akureyri Botanical Garden. I took a day trip in the ‘Diamond Circle’, covered many of the tourist-friendly places in the north, including waterfalls, natural formations, and boiling mud pits.

The tour was led by a super friendly guy named Leo (by the way, if you ever want to go hiking in the area, check out his company, Wide Open).

Perhaps my favourite moment of the entire trip happened while about 3000 feet up on Súlur – perhaps 30 minutes from the summit, it began pouring rain. Normally this wouldn’t be an issue, but it was about 3 Celsius and I had maybe 2 hours until dark. I turned back, because I didn’t want to be soaking wet, in the dark, climbing down a mountain. On the way back down, I was the only person around to see this…

The photo doesn't do it justice.

The photo doesn’t do it justice.

The Typical Tourist Stuff

Once back in Reykjavík, I went on a few day tours that covered some of the more obvious things to see in Iceland. After a week hiking on Icelandic mountains, being around out-of-shape tourists was a little obnoxious.

Things that are ‘must-see’ or ‘must-do’ include;

  • Seljalandsfoss
  • Skogafoss
  • The Skogar Folk Museum (the life’s work of one man to preserve Icelandic heritage)
  • The black sand beaches at Vík
  • Þingvellir National Park
  • Hiking in þórsmörk
  • The ‘Golden Circle’

Some additional notes:

  • Stay away from the water at Vík. The waves are powerful and unpredictable, the water is cold, and a couple of stupid tourists die each year. If the sea takes you here, it won’t give you back.
  • If you rent a car in Iceland, get a 4×4. This is something I heard pretty much unanimously from anyone that rented something that wasn’t a 4×4.
  • If you go to a public pool, wash. Everything. It’s expected to shower (naked) before swimming, because nobody wants your dirty tourist privates in their nice glacier water.
  • The hot water will smell weird to you, but the tap water is very safe to drink. If you buy bottled water, you’re an idiot.
  • It’s pronounced AY-YAH-fee-adla-yo-koo-dl. The dl is kinda silent. Good luck.
Some of the few pictures I took:
Boiling mud pits in the North.

Boiling mud pits in the North.

Views from Sulúr.

Views from Sulúr.

Hiking in Vesturdalur.

Hiking in Vesturdalur.

Facing South from the summit of Valahnúkur, looking at the Eyjafjallajökull glacier.

Facing South from the summit of Valahnúkur, looking at the Eyjafjallajökull glacier.

View of the Eyjafjallajökull glacier, facing North.

View of the Eyjafjallajökull glacier, facing North.

Stupid people at Vík letting themselves get caught between the sea and a cliff with high tide coming in.

Stupid people at Vík letting themselves get caught between the sea and a cliff with high tide coming in.