Iceland is a fascinating country for a whole host of reasons. This island nation – the most sparsely populated in Europe – is in many ways a true utopia, epitomising the potential of the Nordic social welfare system. With universal healthcare, free university education, and one of the highest rates of GDP per capita in the world, it is no wonder that Icelanders are some of the happiest people on Earth. Combine this with the fact that the country has no military, an obsession with books, and some of the planet’s most stunning scenery, and you can begin to understand why this humble volcanic rock is seen by many as a paradise on Earth.
For linguists such as myself, the Icelandic language – íslenska – is another draw. Icelandic, along with Swedish, Norwegian, Danish and Faroese, is one of the Scandinavian languages descended from Old Norse. Whereas the mainland languages of Sweden, Denmark and Norway have evolved together and remain more or less mutually intelligible, Icelandic has barely changed, and to this day adheres to a policy of linguistic purism. As a result, Icelanders can read the Viking eddas and sagas in the original Old Norse without too much difficulty, and Modern Icelandic has become a remarkably popular language for keen linguists to study who have been captivated by its fascinating history. For a language spoken by just over 300 000 native speakers, Icelandic is doing pretty well.
Icelandair – the main Icelandic airline – has tapped into Iceland’s incredible popularity and now offers one of the best travel deals out there; if you book flights from A to B via Reykjavík and want to stop over in Iceland for up to 7 days in between, you are able to do so for no additional fee. A difficult offer to refuse, if you have the time to spare, so I happily took advantage of it when flying back to the UK from Minnesota in September.
I only had a few days in Iceland, so had to choose what to do with my time quite carefully. Keep reading for tips on what to do in and around Reykjavík if you’re likely to be faced with similar time constraints!
The Blue Lagoon
Our flight from Minnesota landed at around 6.00 in the morning. Although this meant we didn’t get a great deal of sleep, it did mean we got to begin our stay in Iceland just as the sun was rising. Realising that the Blue Lagoon was much nearer to the airport in Keflavík than it was to Reykjavík, we decided to take a bus straight there after landing. This bus can be booked through the Blue Lagoon website, and unless you’re picking up a car at the airport or taking a private tour, it’s the only way to get there from Keflavík.
The Blue Lagoon – Bláa Lónið in Icelandic – is a tourist hotspot. In fact, the Icelander sat next to us on our flight was surprised that we were even planning to go, as there are many other cheaper or free options for bathing in hot springs elsewhere in Iceland. We decided to take the hit, as the Blue Lagoon is an iconic Icelandic site, but soon discovered that our Icelandic friend was right to be disdainful. As we were the first group to arrive, we were able to enjoy the lagoon in relative peace and quiet for 3 or 4 hours, but by midday the tour groups had begun to arrive and the charm was lost.
We enjoyed the Blue Lagoon enough that we did not regret going, but I won’t be heading back there in a hurry. If you’re planning to visit, arrive for the 8.00 opening and aim to leave before the lunchtime rush begins. Four hours is more than enough time to fully enjoy the spa.
The Icelandic capital, Reykjavík, is quite unlike any other city I have visited. It is as quiet and peaceful as a countryside village in England, yet at the same time it boasts a fantastic array of exciting restaurants, quirky bars, and boutique shops. The main sights, such as the iconic Hallgrímskirkja church and the Reykjavík waterfront, can easily be visited on foot. Take a stroll along the Laugavegur shopping street and stop in for breakfast or lunch at Sandholt – a café renowned for its exceptional grilled pulled pork sandwiches – then wander down to Sæbraut and check out the Sun Voyager sculpture pictured above.
In the evening, you have a number of options for eating out. By far my favourite restaurant in Iceland was Messinn, where the arctic char – bleikja – cooked in honey and almonds is to die for. On another night we visited Café Loki for traditional Icelandic food, as I was desperate to try hákarl – fermented shark meat. Icelandic rotten shark is a little like Marmite, but more extreme. Rather than being a case of “you either love it or you hate it”, trying hákarl is a question of “will you swallow it or will you vomit”. I quite liked it, particularly when washed down with brennivín – the Icelandic equivalent of schnapps – but it won’t be to everyone’s taste. The problem with Café Loki is that like the Blue Lagoon, it is something of a tourist trap. We didn’t hear anybody speaking Icelandic, and the prices were pretty high for pitifully small portions.
It is also definitely worth stopping at Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur on Tryggvatagata for Iceland’s iconic fast food – the hot dog (pylsa). We didn’t do the culinary city tour, but I know that this famous hot dog stands is one of the stops on the route.
If you’re lucky and the skies are clear as you walk home at night, you can even see the Northern Lights from Reykjavík. When we were there the government ordered all street lamps to be turned off for an hour so that Reykjavík residents could enjoy the spectacle. More evidence, if you need it, that Iceland is getting it right.
The Golden Circle
Reykjavík is a cool city, but Iceland’s real value lies in its limitless expanse of natural beauty. To truly appreciate this country, you have to get on the road, and for that – you’re going to need a car. There are plenty of organised tours, but if you’re anything like me and need to go at your own pace, the freedom that a hire car offers is infinitely superior to the apparent convenience of a bus and tour guide. In fact, we ended up paying less for our car than we would have spent on a tour, even after factorising petrol and parking costs. There are a few companies out there, but many charge extortionate rates, particularly if you’re booking last minute. Surprisingly, we got the best deal by going into the tourist information office on Laugavegur, who booked us a car through Geysir Car Rental with offices in the Harpa Concert Hall. It’s always worth shopping around, but we got a very fair price booking the night before, so Geysir are worth calling if you’re planning a spontaneous trip.
Once you have a suitable vehicle, the whole of Iceland is open to you. Realistically, unless you have more than three days, you’re going to struggle to see more than what southwestern Iceland has to offer. The Golden Circle is the perfect way to introduce yourself to Iceland’s breathtaking geography, and each stop on the route can be comfortably visited in one day. As it is a roughly circular route, there are two ways to tackle the journey, so doing the opposite of what we did is also an option.
If you don’t want to use data abroad, I would recommend downloading the maps.me app for navigation. The app allows you to download maps offline and is still able to plot routes for you, even without an internet connection, and has proven to be invaluable on a number of occasions.
1. Þingvellir National Park
You need only drive out of Reykjavík along road 1 and take the right turn on to road 36 – Þingvallavegur – before you can put your map down and continue straight until you reach Þingvellir National Park. There are some stunning viewpoints along the way, so you may want to stop to admire the scenery, but the best is still to come! Þingvellir National Park is one of the only places where you will need to pay for parking, but there is no entry fee. Leave the car park and descend into the rift between the Eurasian and North American plates and you will be standing on the crest of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge.
Þingvellir is central to Icelandic history, as it was here that the Alþingi – the Icelandic parliament – was founded in the year 930. As you walk through the park you can read about the country’s history, all while taking in the beauty of this historic location. If you follow the path out of the rift valley and continue for a while, you will find signs to Öxarárfoss – a small but impressive waterfall that flows into the Almannagjá gorge.
As you make your way back to the car park, take the low road through the village and alongside the river that flows into Þingvallavatn – Iceland’s largest lake. The water is still and crystal clear, so you can even see the large shoals of lake trout basking in the shallows.
Just a short drive from Þingvellir is Geysir, home to a field of famous geysers. Most bubble quietly or erupt only once in a while, but the Strokkur geyser explodes every few minutes, almost without warning, and is a sight not to be missed. This is a very popular tourist stop so the crowds do build up very quickly, but it’s an iconic stop on the Golden Circle so take the opportunity to watch the display a few times before moving on.
Gullfoss is the furthest point on this itinerary before you begin to loop back towards Reykjavík. It takes some time to drive there, but you are rewarded with a sight that will leave you in awe of the power of nature. This enormous, two-tier waterfall is part of the Ölfusá river, and it is so well concealed in the gorge that until you arrive you wouldn’t even know it was there.
The falls themselves are very impressive, but another important feature of Gullfoss is to be found in the information centre, where you can pay for one bowl of delicious Icelandic lamb stew and keep going back for as much as you like. If you set off early, which I would recommend to make sure you stay ahead of the tours, you should be at Gullfoss in time for lunch, and the lamb stew will set you up for the afternoon.
There are a few places to stop on the return journey to Reykjavík. Some of the tours simply head straight back after Gullfoss, and with others you can’t guarantee being able to visit the smaller sights. Take advantage of your hire car to stop at Skálholt – a tiny village that can be reached by taking road 35 and then turning left on to road 31. There isn’t much in the village other than a white church and a few houses, but the serene setting in the heart of the Icelandic countryside gives it a very special quality.
The last stop for us was the Kerið volcanic crater lake, reached by returning to road 35 and continuing along towards Selfoss. There is a small entry fee here, but it applies to all visitors – Icelanders included – and goes towards conservation efforts. There are a few such lakes in Iceland, but this seems to be the most popular example. On an autumn day, as the sun sets over the crater wall, it is the perfect place to end a whistle-stop tour of Iceland’s southwestern geography.
That’s it for this Weekends Away feature article. Keep checking back for more updates about other locations around the globe. If you have visited a country or city where you only spent a few days and would like to write a Weekends Away feature for The Travellers Post, please get in touch – we’re always looking for new contributors!
All images were taken by the author.