Iceland is a beautiful Scandinavian country that sits between the tip of Europe and the edge of North America. The World’s Happiest Report has continuously ranked the country at the top, serving as evidence that Iceland is a potent tourist haven.
Despite it being smaller in size than that of the state of New York, Iceland has it all. From waterfalls to the northern lights, below, is a list of the must-dos in this magical country.
#1. Immerse in Hot Springs & Geothermal Pools
Iceland is known for its hot springs. Not only is the country full of geothermal activity, but it also houses glaciers from east to west due to its proximity to the Arctic. This contrast in temperature and geothermal activity have resulted in natural spas around the country.
The first thing I did when I set foot in Iceland was booking a bus to Blue Lagoon. A geothermal spa set amidst a lava field in Grindavik, Blue Lagoon claims itself to be one of the 25 wonders in the world.
At 9:30, a pre-planned shuttle arrived to pick me up from the airport. When the bus arrived at our stop, Iceland was still dim from early dawn. Snow hovered over the streets, landing obliquely on street lamps that illuminated the passage towards the main site.
The main building was well-appointed—featuring rich browns and warm beige that were particularly pleasing to the eye. It had numerous floor to ceiling windows overlooking the misty lagoon, which surrounded a cafe oozing the sweet aroma of coffee. The change room was simple yet elegant, with mirrors facing chambers filled with lockers.
A blanket of heavy mist overlaid the waters, so thick; shadowy bathers were only seen when meters away from one another. The body of water averaged 38°C in temperature and was surrounded by snow-covered hills. While snow was firmly spread across the mount peaks, the bottom layer of lava stones meeting the first spikes of lukewarm water was smooth and warm. Tickets range from standard to comfort, premium to luxury, with the former being USD $50 and the latter around $480. The differences are the use of towel and slippers, facial masks and other skin care products. In addition to the lagoon, there is also the option to stay at the Silica Hotel for around USD $430 a night. Other add-ons include in-water massages, a drink, transportation, and restaurant reservations. Do make sure to pre-book online!
Aside from the Blue Lagoon, there are a number of free thermal pool choices in Iceland. However, these generally require your own vehicle or a hired car since they are out of the average-tourist way. Grjótagjá is a beauty captured in episodes of Games of Thrones. It is some 5 hours away from Reykjavik but is definitely worth the drive.
#2. Visit Reykjavik
It’s been two years and I still can’t seem to pronounce or remember the spelling of the capital city of Iceland. Regardless, the city is one of the most charming I’ve set my eyes on. Though small, there is much to do around the area. In Reykjavik, I stayed at Bus Hostel. At first, I was a bit worried since Google Maps made it seem quite a distance from the city center. But since it was the cheapest option, I decided to bite the bullet. After arriving, I realized that the hostel was only an 8-minute walk from downtown and much nicer than what I expected. I ended up having a 4-people room all to myself and fell in love with the oak bar and antique furniture lounge downstairs.
Hallgrímskirkja Church is situated in central Reykjavik. It is a massive structure designed by Guðjón Samúelsson to resemble the country’s rocky landscape. It is not only one of the biggest compositions in Iceland, but also serves as Reykjavik’s northern light. Can’t mention how many times I found my way by following the tip of the church, which can be seen from almost every corner of the city.
The church also serves as an observation tower. For USD $8, you can step inside the tower and have a glance of the city’s beautiful landscape.
#3. Try Icelandic Delicacies
As a former state of Vikings and huntsmen, Iceland has some interesting platters. Just beside the Hallgrímskirkja Church, a tiny restaurant, Cafe Loki served fermented shark. Yes. fermented shark.
Kæstur hákarl is a national dish of Iceland consisting of a Greenland shark (Somniosus microcephalus) or other sleeper sharks, which has been cured with a particular fermentation process and hung to dry for four to five months. Kæstur hákarl has a strong ammonia-rich smell and fishy taste.
Wikipedia speaks the truth. Kæstur hákarl is one of Iceland’s national dish so I mean no offense when I say that it’s not for everyone. It crisscrosses between the smell of a dirty wet sock and a rotten egg. Apparently, the dish serves as a side treat for a shot of whiskey. I couldn’t even survive the first bite.
Aside from rotten fish, Iceland also offers sour ram’s testicles, sheep’s head, and blood pudding. Clearly, the country is only for the brave-hearted.
After my shark experience, I opted for something a bit more appetizing for lunch. TripAdvisor brought me over to Saegreifinn – The Sea Baron, for some renowned chowder.
The restaurant was cozy and peaceful, it’s chowder delicious. This would have been the perfect dish if it weren’t for the tiny portions. At least they provide all-you-can-eat bread & butter!
Iceland is also home to Bæjarins Beztu Pylsurto, a stand that apparently serves the most delicious hot dog. It was visited by former President Clinton during a UNICEF Conference in 2004. The lamb based hot dog is quite different from North American’s pork sausages and has a distinct flavor to it. The best in the world? Debatable.
It was delicious. The best in the world? Debatable.
Aside from the church and bizarre food, Reykjavik also offers a number of shops and bars throughout the city. Spend a few days strolling the streets, tour the Esjan volcanic mountain range, go on a whale watching excursion or visit one of the many museums in the city center.
#4. Get High on Winter Excursions
The Golden Circle
One of the most popular tourist routes in Iceland. Stops include the Þingvellir National Park, the Gullfoss waterfall, and the Haukadalur geothermal area. Green grass and shooting waterfalls-this one is for all the nature lovers.
Ice Cave Experiences
Note: book these tours prior to your departure! A small country with a booming tourist industry, these expeditions tend to fill up pretty quickly. While looking online days before my trip, I realized that my preferred company was all booked out. Booking tours, depending on the month, can be quite frustrating. Though some may want to forgo the guides and hike these caves and glaciers by themselves, safety should be taken into consideration. Unless you’ve had training with these geological formations, they may be a danger to the average tourist.
Again, these tours should be booked beforehand. Ice climbing is a hard sport, so be prepared for a serious workout and lots of fun!
#5. Iceland in December: Road Trips
If you don’t like being dragged around by tour buses and better yet, have tons of time on your hands, why not rent a car and draw up a route? It is so much more exciting to see Iceland’s natural landscape with flexibility.
While there are many routes, the most elaborate and all-encompassing, is the Ring Road.
The Ring Road covers the outer whole of the island. From volcanoes to northern lights, it provides drivers a view into the diversity of the Icelandic scenery. There is nothing like understanding the true landscape of a country than having it under the soles of your feet, or the wheels of your car.
If you squint hard enough, the yellow line around Iceland would indicate this 7-day route. It may seem like a big area to cover, but keep in mind that Iceland is only 103,000 km² and the route some 1287 km long. Without stops, this can be done within 12 hours.
Make sure to pack up on groceries, list gas station stops and have a phone card for emergency contact. Otherwise, enjoy the route of waterfalls and glaciers, volcanoes and coastlines!
#6. Iceland in December: Northern Lights
Really! Who would miss the northern lights while visiting Iceland? (Me, apparently :'( )
The northern lights are one of mother nature’s finest creations. Its contrasting and ever-changing colors are the result of colliding gaseous particles. Best time to view these lights are during cold winter months such as between January-March and September-December.
Capturing the lights is a mixture of luck and patience. Most tours will offer you a night out for free if you fail to catch the lights the first time around. But, can you last another 5 hours of absolute bone shattering cold?
The lights are sky-high on my bucket list. But my stay in Iceland did not allow me the fortune of seeing them. Worry not, as I shall return:J
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