I write this as I’m sitting under a blanket in a cosy armchair by a fire looking out on a rather gloomy day. The forecast for the next few weeks is warning of snow and there have been light dustings over the last few days. It feels like a good time to share a post about a trip Mark and I took to Reykjavík, Iceland over four years ago – I know! What has taken me so long? Well late is better than never and the experience was too good not to write about.
We booked a flight leaving London after work on a December Thursday and arrived in Reykjavik really late. Getting the bus from the airport to our hotel, with a quick changeover at Reykjavik bus station, couldn’t have been easier and we flopped straight into bed on arrival.
Day 1: Central Reykjavík and Hallgrimskirkja
We spent our first day in the centre of Reykjavik, getting an idea of the lay of the land and enjoying a bit of a mooch. Well, that was after an accidental long lie-in because the sky was so dark! Reykjavik is super small as you’d probably imagine given that it’s the capital of a country of 350,000, and is home to just 125,000 people.
We found a lovely Christmas shop, cosy cafes serving the iconic Icelandic donuts, and took a walk up to the Hallgrimskirkja, a Lutheran church with striking architecture that can be seen across the city. The inside has a bright, modern design and is a good place to take a bit of time to sit quietly.
The view down by the coast across to the small snow-capped islands of Engey and Videy is beautiful and serene. You can take a bit of time to walk along the sea front past the Sun Voyager sculpture of a Viking long-ship, up to the super modern Harpa concert hall and don’t miss out on the incredible hot dogs at Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur. It might be a food stand in a car park, but it’s a Reykjavík institution and for good reason!
Day 2: Horseriding
There are a number of activities that you could sign up to at the central tourist information centre (which I believe might have now closed, but you can still visit their website) like dog sledding, helicopter rides, jeep tours, hiking & mountaineering, whale watching and more. A lot of these are seasonal, as you can imagine, but horse riding is something you can do year round.
We were picked up at a pre-arranged meeting point in Reykjavik and driven to the farm where we got kitted out in warm, waterproof overalls and helmets. We were each paired up with a horse and had a bit of time to spend with them before getting saddled up and heading off into the snow. The horses were such great animals and mine in particular had a lovely temperament. They’re small enough that you don’t feel like you might fall really far, but stocky and strong enough that you feel like you’re in safe hands…or legs. It was really beautiful riding through the occasional flurry of snow and taking in the views and the sugar-white countryside.
Day 3: Golden Circle Tour and Northern Lights
The Golden Circle tour incorporates three of the most popular tourist sites in Iceland – Geysir, Gullfoss, and Thingvellir – in a nicely packaged-up tour. The tour takes pretty much a whole day as there’s a fair bit of driving between each place, but everywhere you drive has a beautiful snowy expanse of landscape to look out over from the comfort of a heated bus. We made sure we planned around the weather (as much as you can ever really plan for the weather!), because if it’s overcast or snowing/raining, you would miss out on some of the magic of the experience, particularly the sunrise and sunset and the indescribably breathtaking views.
Ok, so this is obviously not one of the big three I listed above, but it was really interesting nonetheless. The first stop of our tour was a huge greenhouse glowing with orange light where geothermal energy is used to grow tomatoes. We had a brief talk about what goes on and how the technology works, and an opportunity to look around the shop and café where they sell – you guessed it – tomato products! We had some delicious, fresh tomato soup to warm us right to the tips of our toes and bought a couple of things to take away too. It was a great way to break up what is a fairly long journey while the sky is still dark.
The Geysir hot spring area is a geothermal field in southwestern Iceland and was our first main stop on our Golden Circle tour. Full of boiling mud pits, little streams of steam dotted around, and of course, active geysers. This natural phenomenon occurs at volcanic sites where water slowly trickles down deep into the earth and meets hot magma, resulting in an ejection of water and steam at the surface. The Great Geysir itself only erupts a couple of times a day, and it’s impossible to really predict when that will be, but the nearby Strokkur erupts much more regularly around every 10 mins or so. We stood watching it for a good few rounds, mesmerised, while the sun struggled to finish rising.
Gullfoss waterfall is a dramatic cascade of water fed by the Hvitá river and is very close to the hearts of Icelanders. Its surrounded by an untouched landscape which at the time of our visit was covered in a blanket of pure white snow as far as you could see. The sun, hanging precariously in the sky as though holding itself up was a fight it was losing, often casts a beautiful rainbow against the mist rising from the canyon. You can walk around a fair amount of the canyon and get a range of fantastic views.
Thingvellir National Park
Thirty miles North East of Reykjavik is Thingvellir National Park where the parliament of Iceland, the Althing, was founded back in 930, making the Althing the oldest parliament in the world, and Thingvellir a site of real historical significance. In the summer months I would love to visit and go diving at the Silfra fissure where the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates are gradually diverging. It was incredible to visit in the winter though, when not long after rising, the sun began to set over the incredible icy, crisp landscape, and once again we found ourselves standing in awe of the spectacular view. Untouched, serene, and ancient.
The Northern Lights
Seeing the Northern Lights was hands-down the highlight of our already incredible Icelandic adventure. Out of the four nights we were in Iceland, there was only one where the sky was clear enough that the tour even went ahead. Every evening we checked, and every evening it was called off, until the very last night. I played down my expectations – there’s never a guarantee that you’ll see anything, and what you do see can vary hugely. We were up for the nighttime adventure regardless! We hopped on the bus and left it to the driver to find us some lights. There isn’t a set route – you go where the lights go and hope that you’re lucky enough to catch them. After a what felt like hours (and probably was at least a couple) we looked out of the bus windows to see a dark green smudge appearing across the sky. The bus pulled up at a car park – I believe it was in Thingvellir National Park, but I’m not sure – and we all leaped out to watch the big smudge flex and bend. It was faint, but you could just about make out subtle movements and flows of light. I thought to myself “you know what, it’s faint and subtle, but it’s the Northern Lights – something I’ve wanted to see for a very long time. If that’s all we see, that’s a tiny bit disappointing, but still – you’ve seen it!”. Gradually, the colours became greener, brighter and started moving faster until lights were dancing, brushing, flickering across the clear, black sky. We saw reds, greens, whites and stood, awestruck, rooted to the ground. I didn’t want to take photos because I didn’t want to waste time setting up my camera and miss something, but the light show went on so long that I ended up capturing a few grainy shots.
The colours, intensity, and the time we could spend drinking it all in made it such a magical, almost spiritual experience for me. I forgot about the fact that it was the middle of the night and that my toes were numb, and I couldn’t help but feel an overwhelming sense of gratitude that I – little me – had been gifted such an incredible experience that I had literally dreamed about since I was a child. I can’t explain how something can look so much like an illusion, or computerised effects, and yet be so real and almost tangible. It’s impossible to write this without getting caught up in the mystique…I need to pinch myself.
Day 4: Blue Lagoon
Located on the south westernmost tip of Iceland, the Blue Lagoon geothermal spa is actually closer to Keflavik International Airport than to Reykjavik, making it an ideal stop on the way to get your flight home. Our flight back to London left Keflavik on a Monday afternoon, so we caught a bus from Reykjavik bus station and enjoyed a restorative, relaxing morning enjoying the hot thermal baths before getting another bus directly to the airport. It was the perfect way to end our trip by warming and relaxing our muscles in the warm water and giving our skin a pamper with a gorgeous silica mud mask from the lagoon. We left feeling as though we were walking on clouds rather than snow!
Some top tips for the Blue Lagoon:
- Booking in advance saves a lot of hassle.
You can leave your luggage in their luggage room as they cater well for people coming from or going to the airport.
- Shower well before taking a dip, put conditioner on your hair, leave it in and tie your hair up if it’s long. This will protect your hair from the heavy mineral content of the water which it would not thank you for.
- Don’t feel like you need to head out of the big doors that lead to the pool via a nice wide (and cold!) platform – especially in winter when you’d be plunging your swim-wear-clad bod into below-freezing ambient temperature. There’s a much more pleasant indoor entry into the pool so you can be submerged in the nice warm waters before venturing outside.
- Use the mud masks! But you don’t need to swim down to the bottom to grab some – there are plenty of places dotted around the lagoon where you can grab a handful. You can buy the mask from the gift shop as well – it’s not cheap, but it made a great gift for family back home.
You can probably tell that our trip to Iceland was nothing short of magical, and whilst I’d love to go in the summer and see the landscapes in a very different way, I think a lot of the experience was down to the wintery weather and dark, mystical days. It’s easy to see why tourists are flocking to the island, which is something to be very conscious of if you decide to visit – but I hope that you might!