Iceland has always been a place that has intrigued me and its capital Reykjavik was certainly written somewhere on the travel wish list. It just seemed to get constantly overlooked in favour of slightly warmer and sunnier climes. So when friends of ours asked recently if we'd like to join them on a long weekend to check out what this city has to offer, and go in search of those elusive Northern Lights, we jumped at the chance of a little extra, previously unscheduled adventure.
Here's a glimpse of what we got up to and what this beautiful landscape has to offer. We're so glad we took this journey, such a surprising mix of culture, extreme stunning landscapes and fun and frolics to be had!
AROUND THE CITY
The city of Reykjavik itself has so much beauty to offer and is well worth at least a days exploration of some of the key sites, shops and restaurants. Renowned for its nightlife there is plenty to do in this coastal capital from dawn until dusk. Bearing in mind that daylight is fairly short during the winter months.
When we visited, during the last weekend of November, the sun would finally be up by around 10:30am, slowly starting to set mid afternoon and reaching darkness by about 5pm. It was cold, we had snow most days, the city bars, restaurants and shops almost overcompensate on the heating front, so layers are an absolute must. Outside of the city, on the Golden Circle Tour (see below), it was beyond freezing! So pack accordingly and be prepared.
One of the best places to start your exploration of Reykjavik is at its main landmark, Hallgrimskirkja Church. Not only is it completely stunning and totally photo-worthy from the outside, with a church organ of giant proportions worth a gasp on the inside, a trip upwards in the lift to the viewing platform will give you a beautiful overview of the city stretching out below. A great way to get your bearings before setting off on foot to find out more.
From the church we headed down to the Old Harbour where views of the snowcapped Mount Esja stretch out beyond the water. The iconic glass honeycombed architecture of the Harpa Concert Hall glistens in the sun and the famous Solfar (Sun-Voyager) Sculpture proudly stands by the waters edge. Solfar resembles a Viking Ship and represents a dreamboat in ode to the sun. In honour of the travels of the Vikings it symbolises dreams of hope, progress and freedom. Catch it correctly with the angle of the low winter sun and you'll be sure of some beautiful photos to bring home in memory of your trip.
Take a little time to wander around the inner streets of the city too. Absorb the pretty colourful houses and the vibrant street art. Shop, eat, drink and enjoy a taste of Reykjavik night-life for there's plenty to choose from. This is a city unfazed by the snow, the ice and the cold, it's business as usual at each and every turn.
EATING AND DRINKING
There's no shortage of decent eating and drinking options in the capital and from our experience, the food is very good with ample opportunity to sample local produce and tickle your tastebuds with something completely different.
Travelling in a group of friends meant that different people were tasked with organising various parts of the trip. A real treat as it was a chance to enjoy the ride a little for a change as well as benefit from the ideas, recommendations and experience of others.
Our friend Jen was in charge of the food side of things and she certainly picked out some top spots to dine in style without necessarily completely breaking the bank - something that is quite possible to do in this pretty pricey part of the world.
One place that is worth particular mention is Grillmarkaðurinn, a spot that was perfect for a group of eleven as we were, but that would be equally cosy for two if looking for somewhere just that little bit atmospheric and special.
Here you can sample the delights of Icelandic cuisine but with a uniquely modern twist. We went for the set tasting menu of 14 courses, all delicious and giving us the opportunity to try some truly local delicacies such as minke whale, Icelandic lamb and delicious salt cod, all for the fairly reasonable price of £45 per head (not including drinks). By all accounts it’s a popular destination with locals and tourists alike so if you’re planning to make a reservation make sure you do so in advance to avoid missing out.
THE GOLDEN CIRCLE
Outside of the city there are many things to see and do, attractions and natural wonders to explore. Thanks to some top pre-tour research by another member of our group we opted to take a days tour of the Golden Circle route. This is a popular tour especially in the winter that takes you to Thingvellir National Park, the Geysers and the stunning Gullfoss Falls. There’s also an opportunity to look out for the Northern Lights as darkness falls and you head back in your minibus on route to the city.
Thingvellir, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is situated in the rift valley of the Eurasian and North American tectonic plates, making it an incredibly unusual geographic and geological place to visit.
The Geysers are a site well worth seeing. When they erupt it's quite a spectacle and was possibly one of my favourite points of the tour, although that's hard to say as everything was so intriguing to witness. The ones visited on the Golden Circle tour are part of a highly active hot spring area so you'll certainly be sure to see some top Geyser action!
Gullfoss Waterfall was completely breathtaking, in more ways than one seeing as by the time we got there it was absolutely flipping freezing! But in all seriousness this is one natural wonder that will make you gasp in awe. Truly stunning.
We took our tour with Extreme Iceland, the Golden Circle Surprise, and I'd highly recommend it. Just wrap up very warm, and then wrap up again, and then a little more, because if you visit on a snowy winters day like we did, you'll come to know a whole new meaning for the word cold!
THE BLUE LAGOON
Now I feel a little cheeky including the Blue Lagoon in this post because Dan and I didn't actually venture in to the lagoon itself. We had originally opted to go dog sledding the final morning of our trip and meet our friends at the airport before heading home. Dog sledding had been very high on the bucket list for a long time but sadly it was cancelled last minute due to the extreme weather that had prevailed over the preceeding few days.
So we headed along in our group anyway but as we weren't particularly prepared for the excursion, opted instead to take a look around and eat a last local meal whilst the others took a delightful dip in the heated loveliness.
A visit to this geothermal spa is very popular, so make sure you book in advance to avoid disappointment. It's easy to see why people love it so much, the thrill of the warming blue waters against the snow capped backdrop of the landscape around you is clearly something truly unique.
It's located around 35 minutes out of Reykjavik and in the direction of the main airport so most people visit either on their way to or from the city. If we ever visit again I'd put it on to the to do list as it did look very relaxing and a fun thing to do. We still need to go dog sledding one day so who knows, perhaps we will visit again in the future.
We do however highly recommend the Lava Restaurant on site, who's set Icelandic menu was very reasonably priced and extremely delicious. A nice way to round off our trip to this vibrant, laid back and outstandingly beautiful part of the world.
So I hope you've enjoyed this little whistle stop tour of Reykjavik with me. If you're planning a trip of your own and have any questions on anything I've covered in this post please don't hesitate to leave me a comment below. I'll try to help where I can. It's such a beautiful place and I'm so very pleased to have visited. If it's not on your travel bucket list, I highly recommend adding it and getting there one day to check it all out for yourself.