One of the reasons I love living in my home town of Sheffield, UK, is because it has a bustling city centre full of trendy bars, pubs and restaurants as well as some beautiful architecture. If you take a 10 minute drive out of the city you are out in the Peak District where you can hike, climb and cave to your hearts content.
I think this is one of the reasons I feel so at home in Iceland. Staying in its capital, Reykjavik, you have all the shops, bars and restaurants you could possibly need and with only a small population in the city of 123,000, it is a very peaceful place.
To take in the stunning views of Reykjavik, all you have to do is take a step out of your front door.
Iceland, to me, is a home away from home. I feel so at peace there. There always seems to be a myserious magic in the air which I find enchanting and this is before you start to read and listen to the local Icelandic folktales, such as the story of the terrifying Christmas Cat or Yule Cat.
At Christmas time in Iceland, families give warm clothing to each member of their household.
According to legend, there is a frightening Christmas Cat who stalks the snowy countryside and gobbles up anyone not equipped for the cold and wintery weather.
Families in Iceland work together to ensure nobody will “go to the Christmas Cat”.
Anyway, then you have the absolute beauty of the country, the stunning scenery carved out by the volcanic activity (something I’ve always been obsessed with) and moving tectonic plates. Not to mention waterfalls in abundance and the breathtaking glaciers and glacier lagoons.
Now, you can hire a car in Iceland. The roads are pretty quiet, especially after you’ve left the city and there is one main road that circuits the whole island. Many of the roads have underground geothermal heating which helps the ice and snow melt so driving conditions aren’t too bad. Myself, I took tour buses so that I could relax and meet people along the way.
So far, I’ve only managed to scratch the surface of the Southwest coast but these are some of my favourite things to do and recommendations.
Take a walk around the city, it is small enough to see everything by foot. The Cathedral, Hallgrímskirkja costs 1000ISK to go up the tower but it offers panoramic views over the city.
I particularly enjoy walking along the marina to take in the panoramic views over the mountains. At the end of the marina is Harpa, a relatively new concert hall which has some beautiful architecture, just make sure you look up when you go inside.
After a bit of walking you might want to check out one of the many coffee shops dotted about the city, where there isn’t a Starbucks or Costa in sight! Te og Kaffi is Iceland’s biggest coffee shop chain but it’s always good to check out the independent stores as well. Most stores have free samples of teas or coffees!
**Top tips** try out the local cuisine. I had it on good authority from a local Icelander to try Icelandic lamb as apparently it’s like no lamb you’ve ever tasted before. I’m not a big meat eater but when I’m away I do try and sample local delicacies.
Having done so, I can confirm the lamb is truly delicious and as promised, like no other lamb I had tried before. Whilst over there you must also try the local hot dogs (also made of lamb.)
My most favourite meal I ate whilst in Reykjavik, was the home made soup. There is normally a meat or a veggie option, all made freshly and served inside a giant bread bowl. It’s honestly the best soup I’ve ever eaten and the cute little cafe, Svarta Kaffid serving it did say it was the best soup in Reykjavik! I can’t say how welcome the cosy little cafe was whilst the wind howled and snow fell outside with the beautiful soup warming our souls.
The final thing to try whilst you’re out and about is the local ice cream. Come rain, shine or blizzard, Icelanders love their Ice cream. I’ll be honest, I thought people were bonkers eating ice cream in the winter even if you do eat it indoors (advised) but on my last day I thought, when in Rome…. I tried the smoked lava salted chocolate ice cream… heaven!
Another fantastic thing to go to in Reykjavik is Perlan. Perlan is a bunch of large hot water tanks and sitting on top of them on the forth floor is a large observation deck which offers panoramic views over the city.
Admission to the observation deck is 490ISK however, one of the hot water tanks has been converted into a museum called Wonders of Iceland. The museum has exhibitions about volcanoes, glaciers and geothermal marvels not to mention the museum’s very own ice cave and Planetarium! The cost for the museum is 3,900ISk which also includes admission to the observation deck.
One of my favourite things to do on holiday, is find a good observation deck and go up the tower just before sunset. That way, I get the view in the day time, during a (hopefully) stunning sunset and of the city all lit up at night.
**top tip** there is a free shuttle bus to and from Perlan which leaves from Harpa. The shuttle bus runs ever half an hour.
3. The Golden Circle Tour.
A good way to see alot of the more popular tourist attractions is to go on the Golden Circle Tour. The tour guides offer a history and geology of each spectacular site. On the tour you will get to walk in the footsteps of Jon Snow and the Wildlings by walking between the tectonic rift at Thingvellir National Park. Here, the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates meet or rather move away from each other and you can walk inbetween them. For the very brave, you can throw on a wet suit and swim between the plates!
The tour also offers a trip to the awe inspiring Gullfoss waterfall. If you go in the winter, the waterfall will be perfectly frozen and glistening in the sun.
**Please take heed!!!** It can be incredibly windy here! I’ve seen many people blow over so be sure to wrap up warm and hold on for your life!!! This is a video of my best friend and I trying to stay on our feet…
I think my favourite part of the tour (also very windy and cold) is the Stokkur hot springs and Geysers. Stokkur is the most reliable geyser on site launching scolding hot water up to 40 metres into the air every 6 to 10 minutes!
**top tips** (literally) try not to stand down wind. The water is very hot and you will get soaked!!!
I would advise you to take snacks and water (or a nice flask of hot tea) with you on the trip. There is a cafe at Stokkur where the bus will stop for lunch.
4. Skógafoss & Seljalandsfoss
I promised waterfalls in abundance and here are 2 more! Whilst making our way to Black Sand Beach we stopped at 2 waterfall sites, the first one being Seljalandsfoss.
This is the waterfall that you are able to walk behind to see the waterfall’s force up close and personal. Unfortunately, due to freezing conditions, this was closed off when we visited. Still though, how beautiful is this?!
Just to the left of this waterfall is a viewing tower which gives you a beautiful side view of the falls. This can also be closed in winter as the spray from the falls often freezes making it too dangerous to go up.. not that that stopped some people.
This is generally a nice area to hike so we took a stroll just to the left of the falls to stretch our legs and take in some of that fresh Icelandic air.
About a 15 minute drive from Seljalandsfoss you are greeted by the almighty Skógafoss.
Cascading from a height of 60 metres and at 25 metres wide, Skógafoss is one of Iceland’s largest waterfalls.
Trying to take these pictures on a cold, wintry day was pretty difficult. The spray from the falls had frozen on the ground so I was like Bambi on ice trying to get up close. Everyone was waddling round like penguins trying not to slip.
Icelandic folktale says there is a chest of treasure at the bottom of these falls, put there by Þrasi Þórólfsson, the first settler of Skógar. He was said to be a great warrior, well informed and with supernatural skills.
Þrasi was a wealthy man and in his later years, he decided that upon death, he did not want to share his wealth so locked away gold and treasures into a chest and dropped it into the darkest depths of the Skógafoss plunge pool.
Over many years, people have tried to find the chest with only one group of men coming close. They managed to get their rope through a ring on the chest however, after they started to raise the chest, the ring broke off allowing the chest to fall back into the depths. The men were left with only the ring.
Skógar used to have a church where the ring was fitted to the church door. In 1890 the church was demolished so the ring found its way to Eyvindarhólar and was fitted to the church door there.
In 1960 the church was demolished and the ring can now be seen in the Skógar Folk Museum.
**top tip** tread carefully, the spray from the waterfalls freezes on the ground and it really is treacherous to walk on. Also dress appropriately, it can be freezing and the falls kick out a lot of spray.
5. Black Sand Beach
Although one of the most exotic and famous beaches in the world, this is also one of the most dangerous. It has crazy undercurrents and HUGE waves as there is no land mass between Antartica and here so the waves have thousands of kilometres to build. Even on a calm day sneaker waves can appear when least expected and if any of the waves knocks you off your feet you’ve had it.
Beautiful scenery though with the huge rocky sea stacks just off the coast. According to local Icelandic folklore, these large basalt columns (in the above picture) were once trolls trying to pull ships from the ocean to shore. However, these trolls were dim and went out too late in the night; dawn broke on the horizon, turning the trolls into solid stone. – everyone knows trolls turn to stone in daylight!
**top tip** and one definitely not to be ignored. These waves truly are ferocious and absolutely massive. If you think you are far enough back from the waves…. you are not, take a few more steps back. Also… NEVER turn your back on the waves. It takes just a second for the waves to hurtle onto the shore and knock you off your feet. If this happens… you’re a goner. I heard a local say the only way people escape this situation is by digging their hands into the sand. A lady on the beach at the same time as us didn’t listen to the warnings and went into a cave… A huge wave then filled the cave and swept her and her friend out. They really are lucky to be alive.
6. Diamond Beach
Diamond Beach is a strip of black sand belonging to the greater Breiðamerkursandur glacial plain. As the beach is located next to the Jökulsárlón glacier lagoon, the icebergs which fill the lagoon wash up on the shore which against the dark contrast of the black sand, look like huge sparkling diamonds.
**top tip** calling all you nature and wildlife lovers!! Not only is this beach stunning, it is also called home by many seals. It is also the best place on the Island to see the orcas from the shore!
7. Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon
This is the first place in Iceland that blew my mind! The still water in the lagoon is situated within the Vatnajökull National Park and is truly stunning. The perfectly blue icebergs bob around in the water, some flowing down a short waterway into the Atlantic Ocean, hence the chunks of ice on Diamond Beach.
Chunks of ice also flowed up the waterway into glacier lagoon at such a speed it sounded like thunder as the icebergs collided.
During the winter, the lagoon is full of fish so hundreds of seals live here.
Honestly, I could have spent hours here, listening to the glacier collide as well as the ice crackling and popping in the icy water.
This brings me onto my next **top tip**. Take your time here. Take a seat on the rocks, enjoy the peacefulness and completely stunning scenery. It’s not often you get to witness mother nature at its best so take a deep breath and just let it all in.
8. Skaftafell National Park Glacier Hike
I honestly, don’t have the words to describe the beauty of the Icelandic glaciers. 11% of Iceland is covered in the stunning glaciers and whilst visiting, I cannot recommend enough that you take a hike on a glacier (with an expert glacier guide of course.)
This by far, was my favourite excursion (the glacier lagoon a close second.) Not only do you get to hike on the blue ice, you get to explore inside the glacier in one of its many ice caves.
After getting off the bus, we got all our safety gear on and then took about a 30 minute walk over what I can only describe as moonscape. You’re carefully walking and all of a sudden there it is, Skaftafellsjökull Glacier, looking like a giant frozen river over the moonscape.
You know when you’ve played a repetitive computer game like Tetris or Candy Crush and everytime you blink all you can see are the little screen shots of colour in your head? Well, after seeing the scenery in the below picture, that’s all I could see for days whenever I blinked or shut my eyes. I’ve never had that happen before but it clearly had an impact on me.
I was actually stopped in my tracks by the sheer beauty, I very nearly cried. No time for tears though, it was time to put my nerves and excitement to one side and get to the glacier.
Once arriving at the glacier, the group took 10 minutes to get acquainted with our crampons and take a few more pictures.
It was time to hit the ice and go in search of an ice cave. It was almost difficult to keep an eye on my footing because with every step the scenery changed and I just wanted to take it all in!
After hiking over the meandering, jolty ice for a while (successfully without falling down a crevasse) we came across the entrance to our ice cave.
Carved out by the underground glacial rivers, I can only describe the cave as the most perfect, bluest, frozen wave you’ve ever seen.
The tour group that followed us into the cave had a young gentleman that proposed to his now fiance! Who could say no to such a romantic setting?!
After heading out of the cave, the tour guide had another surprise for us, a crevasse which they had made safe for us to enter.
I actually didn’t think the day could get any better but then…
It’s hard to see from the pictures but this is probably the most perfectly carved blue ice tunnel anyone could see. Although slightly scary as it led to an abyss, it was even more beautiful.
Sadly, it was time to hike back to the bus but the views back were equally as stunning.
**top tips** always listen to your glacier guide and trust in your crampons! They will stop you from slipping and be your best friend on the ice if you listen to the advice of the guide. Also… Once again, take in every second of this once in a lifetime excursion.
Everything from Skógafoss, Seljalandsfoss, Black Sand Beach, Diamond Beach, Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon, ice hiking and caving on Skaftafellsjökull, was a 2 day excursion out of Reyjavik with a company called Troll Expeditions. This included an overnight stay with breakfast. The tour guide also keeps you up to date as to your chances of seeing the Northen Lights and where best to stand.
9. Northen Light Tour
No trip to Iceland would be complete without an expedition out into the dark night on a quest to find the illusive Northen Lights.
On my first trip to Iceland, we could see every star in the sky but alas, the sky was just not dancing for us. This time, however….
The sky danced the night away! This was truly the perfect ending to one of the best days of my life. Glacier hiking topped off with Northen Lights. 😍😍
I was supposed to go hunting for the Northen Lights with my best friend, Lauren. Unfortunately, she was taken ill that evening so couldn’t make it.
In the queue for the bus, I met another solo female traveller and we got chatting. It turned out her friend was also supposed to come on the trip with her and coincidently, her friend was also called Lauren! I took this as a sign that we were going to see the lights.
**top tips** If you take a tour bus to see the lights, try and go at the start of your holiday. If you don’t see the lights, the tour company will take you out each night until you (hopefully) see them, therefore you’ll maximise your chance of seeing them. This is the same with other tours such as Whale watching. When taking photos of the lights, remember to turn off your flash, have your ISO setting high and shutter speed on slow to take the best pictures (the tour guide can help with this) sometimes you can only see the lights through your photos and this gives you the best shot of doing so.
10. Blue Lagoon
To me, there was no better way of finishing off this holiday than to visit the Blue Lagoon on our last day.
Here you get to bask in the geothermal water whilst indulging in a complimentary face mask and drink at the poolside bar. You are given a handy wristband that calculates your bar tab meaning you don’t have to get out of the steaming hot water everytime you want a drink! What’s not to love?!
It was a very odd sensation being in 40°C water whilst having ours heads sticking out in a blizzard!
Blizzard or no blizzard, this was the most chilled out I’d been all holiday and soaked my aching legs from the days of hiking.
**tip tips** you can hire a bathrobe for a little extra however, there really isn’t any point as you can enter the lagoon from inside the centre. Once you leave the lagoon there are plenty of towels to grab. Also.. for all you photographers out there, you can take a waterproof case for your phone/camera or even buy one for your phone at the bar there.👍🏻
One last tip, it can be pricey here. My friends and I hired a very reasonable and beautiful apartment in the heart of the city and our host had all the charms of Iceland. This way, we were able to do our shopping at a supermarket to save on cash. If you chose to do this, use the Bonus Supermarkets as they are by far the cheapest. Just bear in mind they close quite early so check the timings online before you leave. The water here is also some of the freshest in the world so do not waste your money on buying bottled water. You can drink the tap water and water from most lakes, rivers and springs as long as it runs clear!
Sadly, this was the end of the trip. I wish I could have stayed forever and I cannot wait to return to explore more of this beautiful country.
Iceland, I love you!
Essential Items to Pack
- A sturdy rucksack. You’ll want to take snacks, water, cameras, first aid kit etc with you so this is a must have.
- Photography gear. You cannot visit this beautiful country without taking any pictures.
- Thermal underlayers. I’d advise getting some merino layers to help keep the wind out!
- Waterproof outer layers. You don’t want your trips ruined by being wet and cold especially as some of the trips last all day.
- Waterproof, thermal coat. Don’t spend your holiday shivering!
- Thermal hat and gloves. My gloves were waterproof and I was very grateful for them!
- Sensible hiking boots. I’d recommend boots that at least cover your ankle to help keep the snow and cold out!
- Insulated hiking socks to go with the above .
- A water bottle. It’s expensive to buy bottled water in Iceland even though all they do is fill it from a regular tap as all the water is fresh glacier water. Same some money by filling up your own bottle!
- First aid kit. I always take this with me- you just never know when you might need it.
- Flask. I enjoyed making myself a brew every morning to take out with me for the cold day ahead.
- Hand and foot warmers. For those of you that are especially nesh like me, these were a godsend.