Iceland

Admiring natural wonders... and other things to do in Reykjavik, Iceland

Spellbinding. Breathtaking. Epic. These grand words seem all too puny to describe the beauty of Iceland's landscapes. From the moment we disembarked the airport transfer bus in the centre of town (it’s an easy 45-minute drive, hella cheaper than getting a cab, and you catch it right outside the arrivals terminal) and walked to our Airbnb, the onslaught of snow set the tone instantly; this was going to be some sort of winter wonderland trip - and, boy, did Iceland deliver. Funnily enough though, apart from on this first evening, we had perfect weather. No snow fell in our three days, yet there was a thick, powder-soft blanket of the stuff wherever we went, sitting under clear blue skies all day long. 

From our short trip, we learned three things about Iceland and Reykjavik pretty quickly: firstly, everyone is so friendly! Regrettably, I didn't utter a word of Icelandic during my stay, as everyone speaks English, and the way they are... well, let's just say, you’ll hear a hell of a lot politer English on their streets than in London. Their laid-back attitude is probably owing to the fact that their whole country has 4% of the population that there is in our capital city alone.

The second thing we learned is that the whole country abounds with such #nofilter beauty and wonders - I genuinely think it’s the most naturally beautiful place I’ve ever been. Yes, everyone knows about the Northern Lights (more below) - and obvs I wanted to see them too - but there is so much more to discover, too.

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The third is that, while money is always a bone of contention for visitors to Iceland, the cost isn’t as crazy as you’d imagine. Yes, it is expensive, but you can minimise a complete kamikaze of your bank balance and still get to soak up the country’s spectacles. It is advised to get any alcohol at the airport due to the crazy prices and when it comes to food, you can eat in on some nights (hence the Airbnb - self catering!) There is a well-stocked 24-hour supermarket near Hallgrimskirkja where we stocked up on mixers, snacks and brekkie bits, and while it was (v roughly) about £40 for what would have been perhaps a £25 Tesco shop, we were prepared. You can swap out dishes too - a pack of bacon costs the equivalent of nearly a tenner, while Frankfurter sausages were soooo much cheaper. Also, we pre-booked all transfers and tours - and it was these tours that predominately led us to these stunning natural wonders…

Northern Lights

Okay, starting with the one most people travel to Iceland for between September and April. We used Reykjavik Excursions, one of just a few tour companies operating in the capital city. They put on a minibus service to pick you up from a predetermined bus stop or your hotel that drops you off to the actual coach, which sits at the city's main bus terminal. Saved us a 10-minute chilly walk.

On journey, the guide explained the science behind the Northern Lights, and how three things are needed for us to see them: complete darkness with no light pollution (we had to turn our backs on oncoming cars during the hunt); the ideal weather of clear skies, so we can see towards the higher altitude more easily; and mother nature to actually play nice, so they come out. Arguably, more interesting were the myths surrounding the lights in different communities and counties, for example, the Vikings thought the Northern Lights were a reflection of their shields flying across the sky when they passed over. We also learned that some believed in night trolls and night ravens coming out after dark - and to this day, 80% of Icelandic people recently surveyed said that they couldn't "rule out" the existence of elves.

Right, I'll come out and say it, and probably sound like an ungrateful typpi, but the lights themselves were a little bit... underwhelming. Sure, we got to see a naturally occurring phenomenon that people would kill to see, but on our night, to the naked eye, it was a little dull. Our tour guide explained how the camera often captures it a lot better than we can see with our eyes - it literally looked like a stagnant light grey cloud to our peepers. But, here’s how it looked to our tour guide’s camera:

Image: Lydia Geirsdóttir

Image: Lydia Geirsdóttir

However, for someone who has grown up with light polluted skies most of her life, seeing a clear sky peppered with sparkling stars, and feeling as if I was in my own personal snow globe? Yeah, that sight absolutely took my breath away. There's something magical about being under a million stars with your feet in crunchy snow, just standing in the pitch black looking at something a phone can't capture (yeah, I'm a secret hippy).

Dark mornings

From dark nights to dark mornings; it's proper weird waking up at 8.40am, 9.00am (aaaand a hell of a lot earlier on tour day) and it still being pitch black out. I'd say that's my only negative about the country, actually. It goes dark in the evenings at around 4.30pm, just like in British wintertime, but because it took so long to get bright in the first place, it feels weird. When we weren't getting up for tours, we spent the dark mornings and evenings playing cards to a 90s playlist, with the optional duty-free beverage, awaiting the sky to be lit up again, so we could see the grand Hallgrimskirkja from our window.

Hot springs

The country’s hot springs are another natural wonder that you have to immerse yourself in - literally. Laugarvatn Fontana is nestled just after the eerily foggy mountains (especially at night) of the Þingvellir National Park. Essentially, they are a series of outdoor pool-like hot tubs, but with naturally geothermic hot water, cooled down to varying temperatures (between 36 and 42 degrees) by water from a naturally freezing lake. There are natural saunas too, heated by the hot springs as well, so the temperature varies as the springs and plates underneath shift. FYI, the sulfur smell is strong in there. The Laugarvatn Fontana even serves a bread in its restaurant that has been baked by the heat of earth over 24 hours. Commitment to the cause, or what?

You may think being in -6 degrees in your swimmers is strange, as you run (but carefully cos, you know, slippery ice) towards one of the warm pools, but for proper strange, be sure to get your hair wet. ACTUAL ICICLES will form. It's so strange because you genuinely do not feel cold once you're in the water.

South Coast drive

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For a long ol' journey - but where you'll see some of the most spectacular natural landscapes of your life - driving along the South Coast is absolutely unmissable. Again, we opted for a tour, Grayline this time, so all we had to do is sit pretty, hop off and on when told, and listen to the tour guide’s knowledge and love of Justin Bieber. You'll drive past lots of little towns, including Springfield, which was actually named for the Simpsons’ Springfield, and a constant slew of otherworldly snowy mountainscapes that will honestly take. your. breath. away. It's genuinely like stepping foot into an epic action sequence you've seen in movies. It's quite a full day because hello, oh there you are, finally, daylight hours, but so so worth it.

I can't count the number of times during this day that I muttered "wow", or "it's beautiful" under my breath (or actively voiced it to my travel buddies). From watching the sunrise with streaks of candy pinks and purples against the stark white expanse to observing sheets of ice flowing down the river, I felt like I was in a live Pinterest board. For a country that's made up of a little over 10% ice, there so much more depth to the landscapes than just snow. We drove through the largest national park in Europe, passed a farm whose owner hangs bras along his fence and leaves them blowing in the wind to raise money for a breast cancer charity and stopped at Skogarfoss and Seljalandfos waterfalls and Vik's black sand beach. The town is only home to 300 people, who actually practise running up the hills in case of landslides. Standing here, and later on the breathtaking beach of Jokulsarlon Lagoon with its even blacker sand punctuated by dramatic shards of ice, it was incredible that in one 360-degree turn, I could take in sea, sand, snow, mountains and, later, a gorgeous sunset. I enjoyed some tasty chips from a fish and chip van, before I waved goodbye to that heavenly spot. Be wary when you're packing that the temperature varies hugely between your stops; it was a balmy -3 (who thought I'd ever say that unironically) in Vik and -15 at the lagoon in the wind (which, FYI, makes a beautifully ethereal layer of whispy snow atop the regular stuff).

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An actual chilled-out capital city

Coming from London, this is probably equally as shocking: Reykjavik, the most northern capital city in the world, is SO laid-back and generally quiet. They even had their Christmas lights up while we were there - end of January - because they are their "winter lights" to brighten up the dark months. We headed up to the top of Hallgrimskirkja to look out across the city, walk down to the water's edge to take photos (where my shoe got momentarily stuck in the snow, awks) and even frequented the largest penis museum in the world... yup. Laugavegur, the main shopping street, is no claustrophobic, maddening Oxford Street, that's for sure. We stopped at Svarta Kaffid, a traditional eatery serving soup and beer, the former in a bread bowl where they "close when the soup runs out or between 9 and 10" and the soup is a surprise when you return the next day. We also visited a highly recommended bakery during our stay, Braud & Co, and on our last day, checked out a lauded hot dog stand (yes, an actual stand is lauded) that had the perfect crispy onions.

We went to this pub called Bastard on our last day with a really cool aesthetic and a bathroom I could have spent a few hours in as comedy sketches played on loop; an Irish coffee was the equivalent of about £11, which compared to London prices, isn’t actually terrible.

One thing that did surprise me, not just in the city but out in the Icelandic countryside with the Icelandic horses, is the 4G coverage. My Instagram posting was shameless because it could be... but I strongly recommend switching your phone to aeroplane mode during the day and just enjoying the surroundings.