I have been to 19 countries so far and Iceland is at the top of my list of favourite places I’ve been to. I want everyone to enjoy it as much as I did! So, here’s some tips and tricks to help improve your trip!
We spent 5 days in Iceland. I could have spent more time there, but I also felt I got to do all the major things I wanted to do in the time we had.
I researched tours with Reykjavik Excursions and Iceland Excursions.
Reykjavik Excursions are more expensive but they offer 10% off if you book 3 or more tours. I went with Iceland Excursions after a night of reading both itineraries for the same tours. It was a good choice. The Grayline bus from the airport leaves you at the Iceland Excursions bus terminal and office. We were able to book some tours before we went to our apartment. It’s also right in the centre of town. The Flybus terminal is not in the city centre. You can book everything before you go if you prefer to do that.
THE GOLDEN CIRCLE
Includes; Pingvellir National Park, Gulfoss waterfall and the geysers.
We booked the ‘golden circle afternoon’ tour. The ‘classic golden circle’ tour a full day tour, so you’ll get more time at each destination. If you’re on a tight schedule, the afternoon tour can be combined with other tours like the blue lagoon, etc. The classic also included a stop at the geothermal greenhouses, which we drove by on the afternoon tour.
Doing the afternoon tour gave us the opportunity to see some of Reykjavik that morning before the bus left at 1pm. We walked to the Hallgrimskirkja church, and then we walked across the frozen ‘big pond’. We didn’t realise it was a pond. School kids were playing on it and there were boys having a game of football .On our last day, the ice had melted, and you could see the water.
Then we went to the Harpa concert hall. You can walk around inside for free. It’s a nice building with great views. Almost everything in Reykjavik is within walking distance. It’s more like a town than a city.
SOUTH COAST, WATERFALLS, GLACIER HIKE
This is an 11 hour tour, but trust me, you will enjoy every minute!
Normally you can walk behind Selandjafoss waterfall, but it was totally frozen over when we were there, and far too dangerous.
The glacier hike was incredible. Wear sensible clothes. Waterproofs, thermals, layers and don’t wear jeans.They give you gear, if you don’t have any (for free).
Then we went to the black sand beach and the basalt columns in Vik. The basalt columns are similar to the Giants Causeway in Northern Ireland. The water is treacherous so you can’t get in, but the timing was perfect. You watch the sun set on the beach!
The last stop is Vik, the southern most settlement in Iceland, and then you head back to Reykjavik.
I brought a book for the bus for in between stops, but the scenery is so beautiful you won’t want to miss any of it. Even when I was tired, I kept myself awake so I wouldn’t miss anything. The skyline is incredible, especially when the land is blanketed in snow. I felt like I was in an episode of planet earth with David Attenbourgh.
I am slightly obsessed with the northern lights. It’s been on my bucket list since before I even knew what a bucket list was. Saying that, I wasn’t hopeful of seeing them on this trip! There’s no guarantee you will see them, even if the weather is good. You need clear skies and minimal light pollution.
The ‘Northern Lights’ Tour is great, because if you don’t see them, you can go every night you’re there until you do. If you don’t seem them at all, you have a 2 year pass if you decide to go back for another visit
I got a free aurora borealis app on my I-phone, which monitors when you are most likely to see them. We booked the tour on the date that the app showed it was moderate/active. We got off the ‘South Coast’ tour bus at 7.30pm and jumped on to the ‘northern lights’ bus at the Grayline terminal at 8pm. We went to the first stop and stood for an hour or so and saw nothing.
Dress warm and even bring some alcohol and blankets to warm you up, if you want. We got on the bus to go to the next stop. On the way there, we could see the green lights from the bus windows. The bus driver stopped the bus as soon as he could, and we all scrambled out to see them.
We were very lucky! We met Americans on our ‘south coast’ tour that saw nothing the night before. The next day we were told that the ‘northern lights’ tour had been cancelled due to bad weather. If we hadn’t booked that night in particular we wouldn’t have seen them on this trip. I finally got to add the northern lights to my Nectar List.
Note: The northern lights look better (brighter) on camera and in photos, than they tend to do in real life.
If you have a fancy camera, but don’t really know how to use it (like myself), I would recommend doing some online tutorials before you go. Especially if you want to capture the northern lights. The camera needs to have certain settings in place to capture these lights (google northern lights camera settings).
If you have or are thinking about buying a tripod then do! It is incredibly difficult to take a photo on a 15 second shutter with the cold wind howling at you! Using a tripod eliminates your shaky hands and avoids a blurry picture.
DO NOT USE FLASH!!! You can’t take a good photo of the northern lights with your flash on and you will RUIN other people’s photos with your flash. Our tour guide kept screaming, ‘NO FLASH’. When we came home and looked at our photos we realised why.
If you’re travelling in winter when Iceland is snowy, make sure you edit the white balance on your camera settings to get a good picture.
I don’t know how you feel about selfie sticks but I can’t recommend them enough. We were able to take pictures of us together anywhere, without asking random people to take our photo. Big time saver and we got some great shots.
You can take panoramic shots on the iPhone 5/6 and possibly other phones. You can get panorama apps too. They are the best way to capture the whole scenery in one shot.
The day we had booked the blue lagoon trip, it was -7 degrees. Putting your bikini on and going outside was difficult but once you’re in, it’s wonderfully warm. They have saunas, steam rooms, and a bar in the middle of the lagoon.
They have areas were you can paste the famous blue lagoon mud on your face. It’s meant to be great for your skin, especially if you have psoriasis (like I do). You will need to wash your hair with a tonne of conditioner when you get out. Try not to get the mud in your hair either.
Sitting in bright blue water, looking out at the snow-covered hills around us with a glass of red wine was bliss! There’s a café and fancy restaurant, if you want to spend the whole day there. You can also get an outdoor massage in the water, in a private area of the lagoon.
The blue lagoon is beside the airport, so if you’re stuck for time, you can stop in for a quick swim on your way to or from the airport.
OTHER THINGS TO SEE AND DO
Some tours don’t run in the winter months, and some tours don’t run every day, so I would recommend having a general plan before you go. Do a little reading up on each tour to avoid disappointment. We didn’t have enough time to do every tour we fancied. I will be back to do these tours and activities on my next trip…
- Game of thrones tour
- Hike and swim in natural hot springs, Landmannalaugar
- Jokulsarlon glacier lagoon
- Icelandic horse riding
- Snaefellness glacial fist, western peninsula.
- Scuba diving in underwater caves
- Whale watching
- Walk through ice caves in Langjökull
- Iceland turf houses
- Krafla volcano crater
- Lava tubes and lava fields
- People shaped electrical pylons
- Vatnajokull national park
- More waterfalls. The list of beautiful waterfalls in Iceland is endless.
Things to do…
- Harpa Concert hall (free)
- Hallgrimskirkja Church (free)
This church was built to resemble the basalt columns you see on the ‘South Coast’ Tour. You can go to the top for a view over Reykjavik, for 600 isk for adults and 100 isk for kids (£3/50p). However, the two times we went, there was a funeral on, and you weren’t allowed in.
- The Big Pond (free)
The big pond was frozen over when we were there, so we could walk across it. There were tonnes of birds including swans. The city hall is situated beside the pond and the museums and galleries are facing the pond.
- Geothermal Beach (free)
On the opposite coast, near the Perlan, and within walking distance. The day we decided to go it was pouring down, (the only day it rained). So, I haven’t seen this for myself, but I will definitely go back on my next visit for a quick dip.
- Geothermal Pools
Once the rain stopped we walked to the closest geothermal pool in Reykjavik. It was only about £3 for entry and we enjoyed the hot tub pools of different temperatures. It was nice to ‘live like an Icelander’. We were the only tourists there and there was a local swim team training in one of the pools. We sat in the hot tubs until the sun went down (around 4.30pm) and walked home feeling refreshed.
- The view-point (free)
The view-point is on the coast of Reykjavik (near the Harpa). It’s a sculpture of a viking boat looking out towards the sea and snow-covered hills.
- The museums and galleries
We went to the National gallery but it was closed on a Monday. You could spend a day walking round them all.
- The Penis museum
This odd museum is the only one of its kind in the world (go figure). We didn’t get to go there, but I did have a laugh every time I saw a sign for it.
- The Perlan
The glass dome of Perlan is a revolving restaurant and cocktail bar. The revolving floor does a complete turn in two hours. It offers a great view.
- Icelandic hot dog
Baujarins bestu is a hot dog stand at the harbour facing the Harpa. It’s famous, so there is usually a queue but it never lasts long. Ask for everything on it (about £2.50 each). We had a few of these on our trip.
Note: There are free Reykjavik tours in the summer months. Tip about 500 krona (£5) to be nice 🙂
We stayed in an AIR BNB apartment. I cannot recommend this enough. the apartment was more spacious than the average hotel room. It was also cheaper than any hotel or hostel we could find. We had a kitchen and were able to save money by cooking some of our meals.
This particular apartment was perfect. A 20 second walk to the main street. If you search ‘Deluxe Central Spacious Apt’ and ‘Sigurjon’ you should find it on AIR BNB. I would definitely stay here again and can’t recommend it enough. It had a terrace and there was an additional mattress on the floor to sleep an extra two people, if you need it.
- There are no McDonalds in Iceland, (which makes me love it even more).
- ‘tak tak’ means thank you!
- £1.00 = approx. 208 Iceland krona
- You can use your bank cards almost everywhere, even very remote places.
- You can claim tax refunds on your shopping purchases.
- Tipping is not required or expected but the wages in Iceland are low, so be nice if you can afford it and tip anyway.
- The main streets/roads have geothermal hot water pumped below the surface to keep the snow from forming.
- The hot water comes from the naturally hot geothermal sources, so your showers will have a sulphur smell (rotten egg). It’s not as bad as you’d think.
- Iceland is an eco-warrior’s haven. They generate the majority of their electricity from hydropower and natural steam plants. They have built greenhouses over the geothermal areas and grow their own fruit and plants. (Bananas grown in Iceland…who would have thought)
- When naming your baby, you have to pick from an Iceland approved list of names. If you don’t want to use the names on the list you have to ask for permission, (no silly celebrity baby names in Iceland).
- 90% of the population (the population is just over 300,000) believe in elves. When something goes missing, it’s usually the elves! Construction of roads and homes is strictly prohibited, if a site is deemed to be populated by ‘little folk’.
- Icelandic horses are small like ponies. They became smaller over time to conserve heat and energy. Horses are one of Iceland’s biggest exports, but once an Iceland horse leaves, it never returns.
- Reykjavik means ‘smoky bay’. When the Vikings settled they associated the steam from the geothermal springs with smoke.
- One of my tour guides told me this story. In her settlement in Iceland they had a lady who wanted fireworks for her 90th birthday, but they wouldn’t grant her a firework licence. On the night of her birthday Eyjafjallajökull volcano erupted (2010) and they got to watch the ‘fireworks’ and lava exploding from the top of the volcano, with no danger or threat to where they were.The ash and lava was blown to the other side of the volcano by the wind while they enjoyed the show.
… AND FINALLY
If you’re like me, and like to know everything about a country before you get there, I recommend reading the Iceland Lonely Planet guide-book and any blogs you can find on Iceland. I also find great, (lesser known) places by searching Iceland on Pinterest.
Check out my Pinterest Iceland board and Instagram for pictures and blogs.
Please add your comments or Iceland travel tips below.
Enjoy your adventure and return safely!
The wandering boomerang 🙂