It’s been a little over two months since we traveled to Iceland, and I my mind is still reeling from all of the beauty that we saw. It was one of the most amazing places I’ve ever visited- photos really do not do this natural beauty justice. I’ve never felt such a sense of calm peacefulness on any other trip before, and I keep mentioning how I almost feel a bit homesick for it. I am confident that I will return one day- hopefully sooner, rather than later! If it’s not already on your bucket list, you should 1000% percent add it right this moment. And if it is already on your list, or you are in the middle of planning a trip there soon, these posts will help you plan for your visit, and give you tips and tricks for your stay! I’ve broken this series up into several posts because there is just so much information to share, and today I want to share the details of where we stayed and the things we did on the first two days of our trip as a Part I entry into my Iceland Series.
We flew direct from Baltimore (BWI) to Keflavik (KEF) via WOW Air. From the second we boarded to the second we landed, I was constantly impressed with this chic budget airline. If you’re not familiar, WOW Air is a low-fare airline that operates out of Iceland. They offer flights all over Europe, but all will have a layover in Keflavik. If you’re planning a trip to somewhere else in Europe, you can also opt to extend your layover for a few days so that you can explore a bit of the country while you’re there! A great option for both your wallet and for your bucket list. The planes are new and comfortable- even though they don’t offer traditional first class seats, I’ve never had more leg room on any flight before traveling with WOW. You do have to pay a little extra to check a bag, and you have to purchase all food and beverages on your flight, but the duration is short and I’m going to share how to pack for cold weather climates in just a single carry-on in a future post!
Our flight left from BWI around 6:30 p.m., and lasted about 5.5 hours. With the time change, we arrived in Keflavik (a smaller city about 45 minutes outside of Reykjavik) at around 5:30 a.m. local time. We had arranged a rental car for the duration of our stay so that we could travel around the country on our own, and I booked ours through KEFCAR. I worked exclusively with Ragnar, who graciously offered to pick us up at the airport and take us to our car.
TIP: if you plan to drink during your stay, make sure to pick up some wine or local Icelandic liquor in duty free at the airport when you arrive- much cheaper at the airport than at the local grocery stores!
Ragnar was waiting at baggage claim with a sign for us, and he was such a welcome sight for very tired eyes. He drove us to his office to pick up our car, and explained some things about Keflavik and the surrounding areas on the way. We picked up our car, a Suzuki Grand Vitara (a wonderful 5-speed all-wheel-drive SUV that we absolutely fell in love with on our trip- more details coming soon), and Ragnar explained how to properly open the doors into the wind, something that I would soon find out was incredibly necessary and helpful. The SUV also came with studded tires, so we wouldn’t have to worry about traveling over ice or snow on the roads.
We couldn’t check into our first hotel, the Radisson Blu Saga in Reykjavik until 2 p.m., so we drove downtown and stopped at the first coffee shop that we could find for some much needed caffeine. During the beginning of the winter months (November and December), the sun rises at about 10 a.m., so we were in complete darkness for the first few hours we were there. We decided to drive around downtown to orient ourselves with the city, and we stopped by the Sun Voyager statue just as the sky was beginning to brighten.
We drove around for a little while longer and grabbed a quick lunch before checking into our room at the Radisson Blu Saga. The hotel is in Reykjavik, but is about a mile outside of the downtown area, so we had a great view of the mountains and the water. The room was small but well-appointed, and the bathroom had an amazing steam shower that was much needed after a day out in the cold.
Tip: when traveling to Iceland in the early winter months, the temperatures hover around or just above freezing. The windchill, however, will make it feel about 20 degrees colder.
We took a long nap, and ventured out for kebabs just as snow began to fall- before returning to our hotel for a steam shower and a good night’s sleep.
One of the bonuses of this particular hotel was the breakfast bar. It had everything you could think of- traditional breakfast food like bacon and eggs, pastries, charcuterie, fresh bread, and Skyr (Icelandic yogurt that has been whipped with fluffy butter). We ate our fill and packed a few sandwiches and apples for the road. For our first full day in Iceland, we decided to drive the Golden Circle, a short trip around a few of Iceland’s top attractions that are close to Reykjavik. Since the sun set around 3:30, we left as early as possible to fit it all in in one day!
As soon as you leave the city, it feels like you are in the country. We saw our first Icelandic horse sighting (one of many on the trip!), and we pulled over so I could make a few friends. The horses are short and sturdy, and have the thickest eyelashes to protect them from the harsh Icelandic weather.
ÞINGVELLIR NATIONAL PARK
Our first stop on the journey was Þingvellir National Park (pronounced “Thingvellir”). This park is about 45 minutes outside of Reykjavik, and is home to the Rift Valley, where the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates meet. It’s also where the first house of parliament in Iceland was founded in 930 AD- and it’s just a beautiful place to explore!
We drove into the park and parked the car to hike along the tectonic plates. Fun fact: the rift between the plates extends all the way out into the ocean, and in the warmer months, you can scuba dive between two continents!
It was pretty cloudy the first day we were there, but the gray skies didn’t dull the vivid greens and charcoals in the landscape. Everywhere you look, the color palette is just stunning. I love taking inspiration from places that I visit, and I came back bouncing design ideas around in my mind!
Every trip review and recommendation that I had read prior to our trip kept mentioning an ice cream parlor called Efstidalur II in Laugarvatn, and it just happened to be on our way to the next destination. So, even though it was chilly outside, we made our way up a very steep hill in the middle of the country to this charming ice cream shop, only to find out that it was a working dairy farm with a cute cafe!
There are adorable pups who greet your car as you drive up the steep driveway, and they are more than willing to let you pet them and take their photo. I wanted to take this one home with me- I mean, come on.
They make all of their ice cream on site with milk from their dairy cows, which you can see in the adjoining building. There are so many flavors to choose from, and I promise that picking a flavor will be the most difficult decision you’ll have to make during your trip. 😉
They also hand roll all of their waffle cones. I went with simple cinnamon sugar ice cream, and I’d fly back there right now just for another scoop if I could.
Tip: things in Iceland will feel overwhelmingly more expensive than the US. Currently, the conversion rate is about 116 Icelandic Króna to 1 USD- but since most things have to be imported, the prices are very high.
Our next stop was Gullfoss waterfall, one of the most famous falls in Iceland. It’s absolutely gigantic- you will see the mist on the horizon before you even see the falls. Parking is super accessible and it’s free- just park and walk down to the falls. There are a lot of stairs, depending on which overlook you choose to view the falls (we walked to all of them).
Depending on melting snow and ice, Gulfoss can produce as much as 55,000 gallons of water per second!
my trusty leather camera bag– more on my go-to travel bags in an upcoming post!
Tip: there are hundreds of waterfalls all over Iceland. The word “foss” means “falls” in Icelandic, so whenever you see it in a word, there is usually a waterfall nearby that you can visit.
Across the street from the waterfall, there is a horse farm. The horses hang out near the fence, hoping that tourists will wander over to feed them snacks, something to which I happily obliged.
How can you say no to that face?
This one very much preferred chewing on this fence post than pretty much anything or anyone else.
After I had my fill of the horses, we hopped back into the car and headed to Geysir, or Geyser. In the park, there are several inactive and one active water spouts that you can walk right up to. Strokkur, the biggest and only active geyser, erupts every 8 minutes or so, so you’re sure to see it at least once if you visit. The surrounding hot thermal springs smell like sulfur and can get very hot, but the steam was a welcome relief from the cold wind. It actually started to rain as soon as we got there, so between the rain and the mist and the water from the geyser itself, we were pretty wet when we left!
Strokkur, the active geyser, is the most beautiful aqua color. We saw it erupt, and the giant blue bubble that forms before it shoots into the air is something to behold. Video coming soon!
After we peeled off our wet outer layers and set the heat to full blast, we drove back to Reykjavik to have dinner and change clothes. We were booked on a 9 p.m. Northern Lights Boat Tour that left from Reykjavik Harbor, but it ended up being cancelled because of low visibility/ cloud cover.
Tip: when booking a Northern Lights tour, try to do so as early as possible into your trip. They will rate the visibility on a scale of 1-10, and anything below about a 4 is unlikely that you will see the lights. Make sure that you book with a company that will reschedule you at no cost on another night.
Since we had the evening free, we changed into dry clothes and hopped over to the downtown area of Reykjavik, which was decked out for Christmas in early November. We walked around a bit before settling on Lebowski Bar, a super kitsch-y restaurant that was decked out with vintage Christmas decorations and projected episodes of Seinfeld on the walls. We drank a few giant beers, ate some burgers, and collapsed back at the hotel for a good night’s sleep before setting off on our next adventure!
PLACES TO VISIT RECAP:
Make sure to stay tuned for PART II of our Iceland journey!
Thank you to WOW Air for making this adventure possible. All thoughts and opinions expressed here are 100% my own.