Halló Iceland!

In March 2014, seven friends and I took a trip to the land of fire and ice. Iceland was altogether breathtaking, strange, overwhelming and exhilarating. 45 percent of all visitors to the country are under the age of 30, so it’s a great country to visit for a group of young adults looking for a quick getaway, but travelers of all ages will find plenty to explore in Iceland.

I’ve finally gotten around to writing my thoughts on the trip and some helpful tips for visiting Iceland. Njóta (enjoy)!

Getting There and Staying There

The members of our group paid approximately $580 each for a round-trip, non-stop fare from Washington – Dulles International Airport (IAD) to Keflavík International Airport (KEF) on IcelandAir. We departed on a Thursday evening and the rest of the group (I continued my travels solo) returned on a Tuesday afternoon. IcelandAir is a fabulous airline (I wrote about it in June) and the four-hour trip was virtually painless. Plus, our checked bags were free.

Our gorgeous home in Iceland.

Our gorgeous home in Iceland.

IcelandAir offers discount package deals which include transportation to/from the airport, as well a stay at the Hilton (or other budget hotels in the area). Because our group was so large, we opted to rent a house instead. We chose Rent in Reykjavik, and the company’s owners, Jenny and Kata, were just wonderful. We stayed in the Thomsen – Luxury home, and not only was it a gorgeous house, it was also centrally located in downtown Reykjavik, in walking distance to all the sights, restaurants and bars. There was a slight hiccup with our check-in, but other than that, our stay was perfect. For four nights, we each paid $220.

We also rented two cars (correction: two tiny cars that could barely hold four of us and our luggage) that cost around $280 each for four days. That means we each spent $70 for cars we kept for the entire trip. Gas was a bit expensive, but we appreciated having our own transportation. That meant we could travel at our own pace, stop along the way, listen to strange Icelandic music and enjoy the quiet and privacy we couldn’t get on a bus. It’s worth noting, however, that the rental car depot is off-site from the airport, so it’s important to look for your name placard held by an employee. He or she will drive your group in a van across the street to the airport to pick up the car. From the airport, it’s about a 40 minute scenic drive to downtown.

So, before we left the U.S., each of us spent a whopping $870 for a non-stop flight, MTV Cribs: Reykjavik-caliber house and two cars we could use throughout our trip. Not bad, right?

What to Do in Iceland

While getting to and staying in Iceland is quite inexpensive, experiencing Iceland can be a bit pricey. The good news is that a lot of the parks and tourist spots are free. The bad news is that a beer will cost you $12. While we didn’t venture far east to the glaciers, here are our top 10 attractions in Iceland, in and around Reykjavik:

Gullfoss on the Golden Circle Drive

Gullfoss on the Golden Circle Drive.

1. Take the Golden Circle drive to see the site of the world’s first parliament at Thingvellir, some pretty active geysers and — my favorite part of the entire trip — Gullfoss, a waterfall so magnificent that you’ll forget about Niagara. This can be accomplished in about 6 hours, and each of the spots has a visitors center with souvenirs, food and additional maps/guides. Make sure you dress appropriately and bring comfortable shoes that are also water resistant.

2. Ride the elevator to the top of Hallgrímskirkja, the Lutheran church that sticks out in the skyline of downtown Reykjavik, for a ticket price of about $6. From inside the steeple, you’ll get a 360 degree view of the entire city filled with multi-colored roofs and the snow-covered mountains in the distance. Inside the church, you’ll hear organists play hymns, observe centuries-old stained glass and learn about the fascinating religious history of Iceland.

3. Visit the National Museum of Iceland in downtown Reykjavik. We did this on our last day, and I wish we would have gone there first. The museum, established in 1863, is a great primer on Icelandic history and culture. My favorite section was on the country’s 1703 census. The exhibits are interactive, well-maintained and exhaustive for a country of its size. I was very impressed.

4. If you know anything about Iceland, you’ve likely heard of the Blue Lagoon. National Geographic even named it one of the “25 Wonders of the World.” From the geothermal pool to the massages and facials, it was a relaxing experience unlike any other. We had a great time there, but visitors should anticipate a bit of sticker shock. Still, there’s a reason it’s the most popular tourist destination in Iceland.  Spending a little for the extras is worth it, and no trip to Iceland would be complete without a stop here.

5. If you’re visiting during the right season, make sure to take a cruise to see the Northern Lights. They are especially bright in Iceland, and the right tour guides will share the folklore, songs and science behind this phenomenon. Be sure to dress warmly because it is, quite literally, freezing on the open water. Viator allows for you to rebook your tickets if you can’t see the lights, so it’s best to take your cruise on the first night. That way, if you don’t see them, you’re able to come back each night of your trip and try again. You are most likely to catch the Northern Lights from late September to early April.

6. Marvel at the fusion of Scandinavian architecture and modern art at Reykjavik’s concert hall, the Harpa. You can also pick a show from their performance calendar that includes rock operas, concerts and plays.

7. Drink and dance at The Lebowski Bar, Iceland’s tribute to the cult classic. We grooved to “It’s Hip to Be Square” and other 80s classics while paying too much for beer. It was still the best time we had out and about in Iceland. If you’re looking to try a local brew, they serve Gull, the most popular Icelandic beer.

8. Go shopping in downtown Reykjavik. Because the downtown area is so small, you can visit a lot of great shops there. As detailed below, Iceland is pretty expensive, but they do have some neat buys, including antique instruments, native clothing, Nordic voodoo dolls and Viking accoutrements.

9. Pet or ride an Icelandic horse. These tiny horses — originally hailing from Siberia– are so protected that non-Icelandic horses are not permitted on the island. Their breed has been pure for more than 1,000 years, and they have adapted to an at times unbearable climate to become some of the strongest horses in the world. Plus, they’re pretty adorable.

10. Just east of Reykjavik, Skálholt is an old church in the middle of nowhere that has preserved nearly 1,000 years of the parish’s history — from Roman Catholicism at the country’s founding to Lutheranism centuries later. Unlike Iceland’s typically modest decor,  Skálholt’s interior is lined with mosaics, candles and stained glass. Given how sparsely populated Iceland was at its founding, the craftsmanship here is nothing short of remarkable.

Skalholt Church.

Skalholt Church.

Due to the weather, we were unable to see the volcanoes in all their splendor. I’d highly recommend doing this though, as many of my friends who have visited Iceland enjoyed it immensely.

Helpful Hints

  • Since 85 percent of Iceland’s energy comes from geothermal production, the tap water smells like rotten eggs. When you turn on the water at your hotel, you’ll notice the apparent sulfuric quality to its scent. It’s safe to drink, but I wouldn’t leave a shower running for hours at a time, as the smell is a bit much.
  • I never once used paper currency when in Iceland. Some of my friends did, but I found no need. They take Visa and MasterCard everywhere. Just be sure to let your bank know about your travel plans and check if there are any foreign transaction fees.
  • The currency in Iceland is the Icelandic Króna. Currently, the exchange rate is about $1 to 115 kr. All taxes are included in the purchase price and taxes on goods are refundable.
  • While Iceland is known for its superb wool products, I would not recommend purchasing any clothing in Iceland, as it is absurdly expensive. A woman’s wool poncho begins at around $400 at the Geysir store, Iceland’s premier clothing boutique.
  • Bring wool socks, comfortable shoes and a wind resistant hat. Being appropriately dressed is absolutely critical in Iceland.
  • Nearly all Icelanders speak English fluently in addition to their native — and frankly, impossible — Icelandic. The only exception we experienced was when we encountered a homeless man.
  • Skip over the fermented shark meat. I traveled with some adventurous companions, and those who tried hákarl  at Cafe Loki came to regret it. To quote my friend Andrew, “I could smell it after I ate it.”


Ellen’s Pack List

Aside from the typical cold weather clothes and toiletries, I also brought the following items to Iceland:

  • External battery for cell phone.
  • Power converters and adapters (EU), two of each.
  • Camera and camera battery charger.
  • Gloves.
  • Wool socks.
  • Duck shoes.
  • Scarves, lots and lots of scarves.
  • Hat.
  • Aspirin/Advil/Tylenol – trust me, you’ll need it.
  • Clif Bars.
  • Printed itineraries, confirmation codes, etc.

I’m often asked why we chose to visit Iceland. We were, of course, tempted by the cheap airfare, quick plane ride and inexpensive accommodations. We were also excited about the prospect of experiencing a unique, nearly unchanged culture and visiting a country that not many will see in their lifetimes. Once we arrived, we were amazed by the swaths of untouched Earth, nature’s splendor and a people so resilient, yet so hospitable, who have manged to survive (and thrive) in what is probably the most unlikely nation on the planet.

Plus, we have some funny stories to tell folks for years to come — stories not meant for a blog like this one.

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