My wife and I recently fulfilled a lifelong dream of traveling to Iceland. I’ve wanted to go there since at least middle school, but maybe even before that. When I was in third grade I became fascinated by maps. I would sit in my classroom and stare at the world map on the wall while the teacher talked about unimportant things like math. I would obsess over countries I’d never heard of in far off places. This didn’t stop in third grade. Countries I remember being obssesed with for no reason other than seeing them on a map range from Afghanistan to Kazakhstan to Togo to, of course, Iceland. Whenever these countries would have their (mostly unwanted) moments in the news I would feel like some sort of hipster whose favorite country was suddenly discovered.
It’s completely anecdotal but I distinctly remember on the morning of September 11 riding to school with my dad. We always listened to the local radio and they would do a trivia question around the time I went to school. Sometimes we would call in and win whatever little prize they gave away that day. I have no idea what the question was that day, but I know that the answer was a country. Since I didn’t know the answer I remember guessing “Afghanistan” in the car. I was wrong, but later in the day I felt almost prophetic. Pretty much no one else in my fifth grade class had ever even heard of the country before that day.
To a completely different extent I felt the same when Borat came out and made Kazakhstan a household name. Togo hasn’t had their day in the sun, and when you consider why Afghanistan and Kazakhstan have had theirs, maybe Togo is fine without one.
I bring all of that up for a reason, Iceland was one of those countries I was obsessed with. And the more I obsessed over it, the more I realized that it was a place that was actually fascinating beyond just being obscure, far away, and entirely different from anything I’ve ever seen. Afghanistan was and is fascinating, so is Kazakhstan, and so is Togo. But I don’t have any desire to travel to those countries any time soon. But Iceland always seemed possible, and yet, it still seemed like a dream I wouldn’t achieve for a long time.
Even typing this now I have to check my pictures on my phone to confirm I really was there.
Through the miracle of human flight, the accessibility of an airline like Wow Air, the blessings of God in which I have a job where I can save some money for a vacation, and, most importantly, a travel partner in my wife with the same desires as me, I was able to achieve this dream much earlier in my life than I ever expected.
In a subsequent article I will break down what we did to be ready for our trip and what to expect, but for now I’ll just tell you what we did and what we enjoyed.
Why am I doing this? Because in our long preparation for our trip we read countless blogs about Iceland and they were extremely helpful to us. We took a combination of all the information we learned and it turned into a great, do-it-yourself trip for us. I hope others can read this post in preparation for their own trip and I wanted to specifically shout-out the most important and informational blogs, videos, and websites that helped us.
But in this post I am just going to tell you why you need to visit Iceland and break down our favorite experiences with some of the best pictures of the trip. Yes, it’s a bit self-indulgent, but I have gotten a lot of questions about our trip and I figured this was the easiest way to show everyone.
This is such a beautiful, interesting, safe, and friendly city. It’s easy to walk and has plenty of restaurants and parks and statues to see. The most obvious landmark is Hallgrímskirkja in the center of the city. We stayed in a Homeaway apartment just one street over from the church and it was a great apartment at a great price. We spent one day just walking around the city, going into different shops and enjoying the amazing view of the harbor and the mountains.
A few complaints I had about the city: there are few street signs which makes it very difficult to get around if you don’t know where you are going, there is graffiti everywhere (and I mean everywhere) which makes the city look dirty and cheap despite the fact that it is neither, and nothing opens until 9 am. Yes, you read that correctly, even coffee shops don’t open until 9 am. This was very frustrating on our first day when we arrived at 7 am after our overnight flight.
The Golden Circle is probably the number one thing that most tourists do in Iceland. It is a route that hits three main natural attractions Þingvellir (Thingvellir), Geysir, and Gullfoss. Þingvellir is a national park that sits at a spot where the Eurasian and North American tectonic plates meet. Unfortunately, we didn’t get to explore the park too much. However, we did get to experience one of the coolest parts of it by snorkeling in Silfra. This is a fissure between the two plates filled with crystal clear, volcanic filtered water. It was freezing cold and very uncomfortable, but definitely something that I am glad I got to do.
The other main attractions on the Golden Circle are Geysir and Gullfoss. Gullfoss is as amazing as advertised, a double cascading waterfall of enormous power and beauty, it is a sight to behold. Geysir is cool, especially if you’ve never seen a geyser. It’s a worthy stop on the Golden Circle, but not worth going out of your way to see.
But we made a couple of unique and really fun stops on our Golden Circle tour that may have been even more memorable. The first one was at the Friðheimar greenhouse and restaurant. The family that runs Friðheimar grows all of the vegetables used in their dishes in the greenhouse. They use tomatoes is virtually every dish, including dessert! It was a fun and unique stop.
Up to this point in our day, everything was planned. But on the way back we decided to be spontaneous. It had been a long day of driving and we were both tired and needed a little pick me up. On the way through Selfoss we saw an Ice Cream place called Ísbúð Huppu. We knew nothing about this place, we just saw that it looked popular and wanted to take our chances. So we pulled into the parking lot and went inside. We were the only tourists in the place. Everyone else was an Icelandic local. There were kids sports teams in there along with families and other couples like us. No one was speaking English. There was no English translation of the menu. This is very unusual for Iceland as almost everything is translated. So, I tried hard to recall all of the Icelandic I had learned leading up to my trip. The problem was that I never really learned numbers. The line was really long so we had plenty of time to observe and figure out what we wanted to order. What we soon realized was that Icelanders eat monster amounts of ice cream. We ended up ordering a small and splitting it and it was plenty of ice cream. We watched children eating mediums and larges. It was crazy.
Anyway, my turn to order finally arrived. So I walked up to the counter and asked for a Hjartabjartur. I did my best to pronounce it properly. The girl behind the counter responded with something in Icelandic that I couldn’t understand so I just kind of assumed she was asking me what I wanted again, so I nervously held up four fingers and said I wanted the number 4. She looked a little surprised and said “two?” in English. Then she said “three?” and I said, “No, four.” and she smiled and went to make what I ordered. My wife walked up to me and pointed out my mistake.
I had just ordered four things of ice cream.
Fortunately I was able to correct my mistake before she made them and everything worked out great and we are now big fans of Ísbúð Huppu. The funny part is that my pronunciation was actually good because she thought I was Icelandic and was asking me how many I wanted.
As I discuss in another post, we found out about Gjáin (Gee-Ow-in) from reading Unlocking Kiki’s post about it. It turned out to be one of our favorite places to visit. It’s about 2 hours from Reykjavik, but it feels like a different world. It’s pretty isolated, there is a tourist information center/gas station about 25 km from Gjáin and we had to stop there to ask for directions as the GPS doesn’t really recognize Gjáin as a place on the map. To get there you have to drive about 15 minutes on a dirt road that goes up the side of a small cliff. It’s a bit nervewracking in a rental car because damage to the underside of the car isn’t covered. Either way, it was worth it. We spent hours here. We even had a little picnic up at the top of one of the rocks overlooking the first waterfall.
In the Icelandic Sagas it’s said that Gaukur would go to Gjáin for his trysts with the kinswoman of Ásgrímur. These trysts eventually got him killed by ÁsgrÍmur. Which kinda sucks for Gaukur, but I can totally see why he chose Gjáin as his place to meet up.
For our last two nights we stayed at a farmhouse called Narfakot on the Reykjanes penisula between Reykjavik and the Keflavik airport. The farmhouse was owned by a woman named Dagmar and her family. We stayed in the upstairs loft while the family lived downstairs. It was absolutely amazing. The views over bay were stunning, the horses, sheep, and, most importantly, their dog Krummi were beautiful. Krummi was half-Roettweiler half-Golden Retriever. He lives the best life a dog could live, he has free reign over huge fields and an ocean to swim in every day. He also gets brand new toys from the ocean in the form of giant sticks and buoys to play with every time the tide comes in. He showed us all the way to the lighthouse and then took us back. We spent so much time playing with Krummi and enjoying the incredible scenery even when the wind was howling and it got cold. We couldn’t tear ourselves away from this amazing place with our amazing hosts.
Reykjanes (Blue Lagoon, Gunnuhvor, Bridge Between Continents)
Our last day we did another big-time touristy thing and went to the Blue Lagoon. Something like 80% of people who visit Iceland go there. It’s a very unique and strange place, and I’m glad we went. However, the next time we go to Iceland I don’t think we will go back. The water was actually only hot in certain spots, but most of the time in the water was spent trying to find the warm spots.
The most fun part of this day was spent driving around the Reykjanes Peninsula, which is often a forgotten part of Iceland. The whole thing was formed by volcanic eruptions and is a bit like a rocky, craggy, wasteland. But there are some fascinating parts of it, like the Gunnuvher mud pits and steam vents, which were really cool.
Another neat attraction was the Bridge Between Continents, which is exactly what it sounds like. It’s a bridge built over a split between the two tectonic plates. It’s a really cool look at the unique landscape. We drove around the Reykjanes Peninsula on a gloomy, cloudy, rainy day and I think that was best. It added to the spooky nature of the landscape.
So if you are planning on going to Iceland, what are you looking forward to the most? And if you’ve been, what must-see places did we miss out on? Let me know in the comments!