When people meet me, they are quick to learn that I am a city girl. Larger cities such as New York City, Tokyo, Singapore and Kuala Lumpur have quickly become some of my favourite places to visit because there was so much to do, see and eat. But now that I’ve become older, I’ve begun to appreciate a slower-paced life, nature and just standing still. This newfound admiration really came into play when I visited Iceland. It was a total dream…and despite its lack of “city”, it’s a place I wouldn’t hesitate to visit again.
My birthday was coming up and naturally, I was in need of a place to visit. I was to be competing at the end of the month which was a few short weeks away from my proposed trip so I wanted to go to a destination where I would be able to relax a bit. This place I had in mind had honestly been on my mind for a good amount of time and with its increasing spikes in tourism over the last few years, I knew I had to go there quite soon. This place was Iceland.
My heart was set on Iceland for such a long time and when I pitched the idea to my girlfriends, Ceci and Grace, they were all for it. We were to go during Thanksgiving long weekend which I thought would be an appropriate for a first visit to the island and with Icelandair flying 7.5 hours direct into Keflavik, it was a no brainer.
First thing’s first: accommodation. After an extensive amount of research, I decided on Kvosin Downtown Hotel. Because we were an awkward group of three, we wanted an option that was large enough for all of us and had a kitchen for preparing breakfast (FYI: Bonus is the cheapest grocery store in the country!). We were placed in their very spacious Social Suite which was more of an open concept and small kitchen. The hotel was Scandinavian in design and cozy, with complimentary drinks and snacks throughout the day. The only downfall was that parking was not included so you had to fend for yourself and find street parking or pay parking (just don’t get a ticket like we did!). Overall, Kvosin made an excellent foundation to explore Reykjavik on foot which was both good and bad, as you’ll find out later.
We had a rough itinerary planned – Blue Lagoon (which we all had agreed on), Golden Circle, see the northern lights, eat some Icelandic food and just drive. That was the plan which we booked our flights on. As the Chief of Planning, I knew I had to make some major changes to this plan. We kept Blue Lagoon in our original plans but after some research, I had managed to steer the group away from the prettily-packaged Golden Circle Tour and convinced them that we needed to rent a car – and I am so glad we did.
Driving around Iceland was the best decision we had ever made. Having a car gave us this freedom that we can pick and choose the places we wanted to visit, the agency to leave when we wanted to and explore as much as we wanted. However, because we had a car, what we should have done was switch hotels mid-way because driving back 5 hours one way to our hotel is a long way to go. That would probably be my only critique. That, and going to Blue Lagoon. More on that later!
Iceland’s main attractions are its natural surroundings. I have seen the most beautiful waterfalls in this country (yes, better than Hawaii and Asia) and breathtaking landscapes. I had hiked to hidden geothermal lagoons and slipped underneath barbed wires to get to some off-the-beaten path sights – and it was all worth it. This vacation was adventure-packed and brought me closer to nature – two things I lack on my many city destination vacations. And I would do it all over again in a heartbeat.
Know before you go:
If you’re flying with Icelandair, be aware that they do not provide any meals – just water. Thank god I had eaten a salad before takeoff and brought snacks with me otherwise I would’ve starved. A 7.5 hour plane ride is considered a long-haul flight so best to keep this in mind.
It’s no surprise that food in Iceland is expensive – it really is. I hopped off the plane and took a look at some of the prices – 2000 ISK (~$22 CAD) for a cold pasta salad or a turkey sandwich? Whoa. That’s insane. Just an FYI.
What to do in Iceland:
Geothermal Pools – My personal favourites thing to do in Iceland. Yes, everyone is aware of Blue Lagoon (and I did go) but if you want an overcrowded, party-central vibe with alcohol spilling in the pool, then this is the place for you. We did go early – an hour after opening – and this was the case. We spent a total of one hour there which just worth it. I would recommend Secret Lagoon which was the hottest one I had visited or, if you’re up for a mini trek and adventure, I’d say Seljavallalaug would be right up your alley. Just keep in mind that the facilities, although they are free, are cleaned once a year and the changing room is filthy.
Waterfalls – Iceland has some of the most beautiful foss in the world – and some of the largest! Selfoss, with its beautiful hidden waterfalls just to the left of it was absolutely stunning. The magnificent Gulfoss is reminiscent of a mini Niagara – but packed with tourists. Briarfoss was my personal favourite and also a bit of a trek to get to as long as you don’t mind crawling underneath barbed wire and slipping on slushy snow – in the winter time atleast! Urridafoss is not to be missed as well!
Beaches – Reynisfara is the mysterious-looking black sand beach located in the southern part of Iceland by their second largest city, Vik. Its midnight black sand is an attraction in and of itself but don’t miss the beautiful basalt rock formations and panoramic views.
Canyons – Fjaðrárgljúfur should be number one on your list if you find yourself in the south coast of Iceland (number one because I missed the glacier fields). This beautiful overgrown canyon
Northern Lights – So, we were able to see the northern lights from our flight (apparently so, I was too busy chatting up the guy beside me who later became my boyfriend for a short time). You can definitely see the northern lights in Iceland but conditions need to be ideal! We had so much cloud and rain during our stay that we weren’t able to see them. There are a few resources online that you can use to help find the lights! The more remote you are, the better.
Pony Ride – Have you seen Icelandic horses? They’re so cute and small! Like mini horses. There are a number of horse riding tours you may take. If you are riding in the winter time, be sure to dress warmly and wear everything that the tour provides you – pants, boots, jacket – you’ll need it. After much research, we went with Eldhestar and were very happy with our customized trek.
Harpa Concert Hall – If you like architecture, you will appreciate the beautifully ornate concert hall. It’s exterior is made entirely of glass and reminiscent of the basalt rock formations found at the black sand beaches. It’s equally as pretty from the inside!
Hallgrimskirkja – I’ve seen a lot of churches in my lifetime, but this is hands down one of the most unique ones I’ve ever seen. It looks like something from a movie or from another planet. Really interesting architecture here and is the tallest structure in Reykjavik.
Hlemmur Matholl - This food hall had just opened when I visited Iceland and it’s a great spot to meet for drinks or to sample some of Reykjavik’s finest gems all under one roof. The wine is delicious but do NOT leave without getting some of the artisanal ice-cream!
What to do eat in Iceland:
Pastries – Hands down, the best pastries were found at Brauð & Co. which is located steps away from the Hallgrimskirkja. Their licorice pastries were to die for!
Horse – No, it’s not weird. It’s commonly prepared in Iceland in the form of a steak. I had it in a rich peppercorn sauce (popular on most menus I’ve seen) and it was the best thing I had eaten in Iceland. We had it at Surf & Turf just off the highway by Selfoss.
Plokkfiskur – Looks like scrambled eggs, tastes like heaven. Plokkfiskur is a combination of mashed fish, potatoes, onions and a rich, béchamel sauce. It’s typically served on top of thin rye bread. I wasn’t sure what it was I had ordered as it was named the Fisherman’s Plate from Icelandic Street Food and I was blown away. I need to somehow recreate this dish again.
Skyr – Move over, Greek yogurt. Skyr is the shit. Thick AF and lower in fat than Greek yogurt with the BEST flavours possible (cheesecake flavor, anybody?), skyr makes a great breakfast option if you have a suite or don’t feel like venturing out to buy breakfast.
Puffin - Another Icelandic animal to eat here. I would describe the taste as liver…so it’s good or bad depending on how you feel about liver. It wasn’t bad, it wasn’t good but it’s definitely something to try!
Whale – Yes, you can have whale in Iceland. Prepared like a steak, it is a deep red in colour and prepared to a juicy medium-rare, it doesn’t taste like seafood at all. The taste doesn’t taste like meat either – so difficult to describe but not offensive at all.
Fermented Shark – Now, I would not recommend this unless you are an adventurous eater but this is the worst thing I have ever eaten in my life. Even worse than natto. It comes in a tiny mason jar and once you open the lid, the foulest stench you can ever imagine seeps out. The smell can only be described as rotten cheese. Then the texture…it’s like sashimi but once it hits your tongue, the taste is just as bad as its smell. So foul. Chase it down with gin – you might need a couple shots!
Seafood - Langoustine is native to the Atlantic Ocean and it's similar to that of a mini lobster. The ling cod I had at Bergsson Mathus was delicious as was the lamb and fresh sourdough.
Iceland was a complete dream and I am convinced that I will need to revisit this country during the warmer (and drier) summer months to visit the northern highlands. Even if you’re not a huge outdoors person or nature lover, I guarantee you’ll be building some fond memories here as I did.