James and I went to Iceland for my 30th birthday, and wow. What a place. Nowhere will ever top the Amazon Rainforest as my favourite place I’ve ever been, but after spending a week there, Iceland has firmly taken the no.2 spot! I couldn’t let that wonderful holiday pass without writing a blog post on it, so I thought I would share the learnings and recommendations we have, in the hopes that if you’re visiting, we’ll be able to help you make the most out of this wonderful country!
Part 1 – Preparing for your trip to Iceland
Go for AirBnbs.
Obviously this is up to you and how you travel, but when I hear how much people who stay in hotels have paid, not only for accommodation, but for eating out, I shudder. I genuinely couldn’t have afforded to go to Iceland if I’d done that! Eating out in Iceland is infamously expensive. Instead of that, we stayed in two lovely AirBnbs, and bought all our own food – we made cheese sandwiches for lunches, and warming soup/pasta sauces in the evenings. On days where we would be out late, we simply made dinner the night before and kept it in the fridge. This saved us so much money, as the supermarket wasn’t that much more expensive than in the UK (I’d say it’s comparable to buying fancy stuff in Waitrose) and the choice is… incredible. They have everything we do, plus their own Icelandic brands, and loads of European and North American stuff that you can’t get here!
Get the bells and whistles car insurance.
You’ll probably balk when you see the price (our insurance alone was about £400 in total) but I would strongly suggest going all-out on your insurance. For Avis, it was called a Super Collision Damage Waiver, but it will vary depending on the company you go for. Anyway, why am I suggesting you splash so much of your holiday budget on car insurance? Because when we were driving along the road to visit the magical Reynisfjara black sand beach, a lorry came steaming past us on the other side of the road, kicked up a gigantic stone, and took a huge chunk out of our windscreen, which then cracked to about 50cm. We were going below the speed limit, on a regularly used road, and driving a HUGE car. So if it happened to us in those conditions… imagine how common it is. It was covered by our insurance with no problems, but guess how much it would have cost if we hadn’t gotten that full coverage insurance? £4,000. Yup. If you want to try and limit potential cost without the best coverage insurance, you can get a small car instead (ours was an absolute beast which made the windscreen very pricey) but do be aware that smaller cars can be more challenging to drive in stormy weather.
Don’t skimp on your winter clothes.
If you’re travelling during the wintertime (which is November to February) then don’t mess around, bring the right gear. People say Iceland isn’t that much colder than Western Europe, but I don’t buy it. When we were there in November it was incredibly cold, icy and windy! However, it is also the most beautiful country you will ever visit – you WANT to be out in that weather! So be prepared. Bring cleats, snowshoes, a WARM hat (my normal bobble hat was utterly useless), and thermal layers (I recommenced OEX and Tog24 brand base layers, but Icewear, an Icelandic brand you’ll find everywhere in the country, sell a brilliant line too. In fact you could get everything I mention here from them to be honest). I also strongly suggest you get a good pair of mountaineering gloves, and a thinner wool pair to go under them. My gloves have smartphone touch fingers, which was lifechanging when we went to Goðafoss waterfall – we don’t know how cold it was exactly but I have truly never felt a temperature like it, and I know I’ve been in -20 before. Winter gear might seem OTT when you’re packing it, but trust me, not being prepared for the weather will genuinely ruin your trip.
Budget for guided trips, especially in winter.
If you’re used to going it alone like I am, this is something you might initially cringe at. But I didn’t realise how extreme the landscape is – there are areas like the glaciers that you literally cannot access without a giant 4×4 monster truck. It’s different in the summer, but with all that ice, hail, snow and stormy weather, you simply cannot be safe out there on your own. Plus, the guides are LOVELY and really enrich your experience of the incredible country. I recommend Arctic Adventures and Icelandic Mountain Guides.
Be prepared for it, but don’t focus too much on seeing the Aurora.
If you aren’t going to see it, you just aren’t going to see it. No amount of staying up all night looking at gaps in the cloud is going to change how much solar activity there is! Download the app ‘Aurora’ and check it before the sun goes down to see if you have a chance. Iceland is not the best part of the world to see the lights, and although they can be spectacular up there, this country has so much to offer so you’re better off saving your energy for the daytime!
Part 2 – Recommendations for when you’re there
Sampling the local food.
Now, to be honest, we did not try that much food. I have so many food hangups, that it makes it really difficult for me and is something I have to overcome every time I travel. But here are the things we really loved:
- Dairy products – I don’t know what they do to their cows up in Iceland but their dairy products were on another level. The milk, butter, cheese and Skyr yoghurt were all noticeably more delicious than any dairy product I’ve consumed before or since. Also, Skyr is a must have – we ate it almost every day for breakfast and it would genuinely keep us going until lunch! The raspberry flavour was my favourite.
- Sandholt Bakery – This is genuinely the best bakery either of us have ever been to. I cannot recommend it highly enough, the pastries and bread were UNBELIEVABLE. I was messaging friends back home and they were like “You’re in Iceland, is this really the thing you need to be telling us about?” but seriously, they do this brown sugar iced bun that I’m still dreaming about. We even got up extra early on the day of our flight so we could come back down from the north to stop in before going to the airport. Our theory is that it’s the Icelandic butter that makes their pastries so good. Their sourdough loaf was also incredible – we ate it with local cheese and butter for lunches. Divine.
- Bakaríið við brúna – This is the bakery we went to when we were up north in Akureyri and it was also excellent. Get the farmer’s loaf if you’re buying bread.
- Fresh produce – Because of the geothermal activity, heating and energy is extremely cheap in Iceland, so they are able to grow just about anything there, using artificially heated polytunnels. This means that the fruit and veg is really amazing quality – we were blown away by the freshness and taste of just about everything we bought.
- Reykjavik Chips – This is a funny little place, which sells fresh, made to order chips – sweet potato or normal, and a variety of dips like vegan mayo, sweet chilli, barbecue etc. The chips were absolutely delicious and well worth a stop for a snack when you have a museum/shopping day in the city!
This is the only holiday I’ve ever been on where I was genuinely excited to go shopping. Plus, shoppers in the UK are eligible for tax refunds! Make sure you ask for the tax receipts! Iceland has an incredible community of makers and creators, and in recent years there has been a huge resurgence of traditional woollen goods – James and I both invested in a handknitted, 100% Icelandic wool jumper, and I mean it when I say, these things are built to last.
They are so warm, comfy and well-made, it’s insane. You can expect to be tempted by woollen blankets, Icelandic-made homewares and clothing, and of course, lots of touristy stuff, mostly featuring vikings or puffins. Most of the good shops are on a street called Laugaveger, which makes things easy, but be aware there’s another street called Skólavörðustígur which branches off from it and has some great stuff too. I particularly recommend the shops Farmers and Friends (aka Farmers Market) and Icewear, but there are so many places selling cool stuff! Just outside the city, in a shopping centre called Smaralind, there a European chain shop I’m now 100% obsessed with: Søstrene Grene, which is like a crafty, sustainable version of Tiger. The Smaralind shopping centre is a brilliant place to stop at to do your shopping when you arrive too – it’s halfway between Keflavik (where you’ll land) and Reykjavik. There’s a Hagkaup supermarket, a pharmacy, all manner of outdoor clothing, fashion and homewares, and plenty of junky food outlets and coffee places.
Hot springs/nature baths
We visited two of Iceland’s world famous geothermal baths, and no, neither of them were the Blue Lagoon. I’d seen instagram stories of it that made it look really busy and touristy, which I just didn’t fancy. I’m sure it’s great, but I wanted to relax and savour the experience. So we went to Secret Lagoon, which was the most relaxing experience of my entire life, especially when it started gently raining into the perfectly warm water. And for the ‘blue water’ experience, we went to the far north Myvatn Nature Baths – located in the middle of a lava field, we were surrounded by snowy plains, which wafted into view whenever the steam lifted. It was utter magic. The serenity of being cosy and warm in a bright blue, hot pool, in the middle of a desolate snow-covered lava field, is just… incomparable. They also have a geothermal sauna there, with a window to look out onto the landscape. There was another one we wanted to visit called Geosea, which uses geothermal seawater – but that will have to wait until next time!
Beauty/cosmetics – Now I definitely didn’t set out intending to buy any skincare products while in Iceland, but as it turns out they have two amazing brands that you will definitely want to sample. The first we discovered because the cold air was leaving my skin feeling a bit tight. Although the water is amazing for your skin, the weather isn’t, and I needed a slightly richer moisturiser. I bought one by a brand called Sóley – their Dögg Moisturiser, and it’s incredible! I’ve been using it twice daily ever since. Then when we went to the Myvatn Nature Baths they had Soley hair and body products in the showers, which we both LOVED. We bought a big bottle of the Varmi shampoo and body wash when we were at the airport. They do free shipping on orders over £100… and the terrible thing is… I know I’m gonna do it. Anyway. The second brand is called Angan, and is a higher-end, luxurious brand. I bought their Volcanic Glow Body Oil, which smells delightfully herbal, feels gorgeous, and has lovely golden shimmer in it. We also bought a gift set of their bath salts, which all use sustainably harvested, natural Icelandic plants. And they smell… unbelievable. Again we got this at the airport to save a bit of cash.
Southern Iceland – this is where we spent most of the first half of our trip (apart from a day shopping in Reyjyavik) and I’ve just written out a list of what we did, because it was all brilliant!
- Hiking on Skaftafell glacier. We went with Icelandic Mountain Guides for this tour, and loved every moment. After a drive to the glacier, we were taken up into an ice cave, which was amazing, and then up for a short walk over a literal, real glacier. The guide gave loads of fascinating info about the glacier, and it was absolutely beautiful. We also met a friendly crow!
- Snowmobiling over Langjökul glacier. We kicked off my 30th birthday bouncing over mountainous terrain in a 4×4 van, then got on a snowmobile and sped across a glacier, looking out at the awe-inspiring Icelandic landscape. I mean… can you name a better way to kick off your 30’s? It was perfect for me. We were then given a tour of a really cool ice cave, before getting back on the snowmobile. Oh god it was just so much fun! I cannot recommend it highly enough. Again, the guides were fantastic, such lovely people – this time we went with Arctic Adventures.
- Visiting the Eyjafjallajökull visitor centre. There is a Geologist-in-residence here who will show you a film about the 2010 eruption film and talk you through it, so you can understand more about the science, as well as the myths and legends around Iceland’s volcanoes, and also discover how volcanically active the island is! It was really interesting, and I highly recommend it. My Geologist husband was beside himself with glee (and so was the Geologist who worked there when he found out he could have a proper conversation with James, haha).
- Walking on Reynisfjara beach. Surreal, beautiful, ethereal, but get there early before the tour buses show up, because otherwise you’ll be constantly distracted by people not paying attention to the deadly waves.
- Exploring the Eldhraun moss covered lava field. This was one one of those moments where you really feel you could be on an alien planet.
- Soaking in the Secret Lagoon. As I’ve mentioned, heaven on earth.
- Finally, we paid a visit to Gulfoss and Skogafoss. These are two of Iceland’s most popular waterfalls, and really don’t disappoint. I do love a good waterfall, and these are just stunning. And hey, I’ve been to Niagara Falls so I know a good waterfall when I see one 😉 We also spent a little time just driving and wandering around some little towns and things – it’s nice to meander a little I think.
Northern Iceland – this is where we spent the second part of our trip, and WOW. Nothing compares to this incredible landscape. We stayed in Akureyri, and didn’t actually do that many things because we were only there for a couple of days, but we really want to return as we were blown away by how stunning it was. Here’s what we did:
- Visting the serene, icy Goðafoss. While we were there, this beautiful waterfall was half frozen over and absolutely magical. It was so cold that my fingers went numb despite being in my thermal-lined mountaineering gloves, and my phone turned itself off, so be prepared! But it was so worth it, you won’t see anything like that anywhere else. It’s one of my favourite memories.
- Soaking in Myvatn Nature Baths. The memory of floating in that blue water, in the BITING cold, is one of my favourite memories, not just of this holiday, but of my entire life.
- Walking (and gagging) around Námaskarð geothermal area. Just to prepare you, this STANK. The sulphur smell coming out of the hot taps in Iceland is completely bearable, and you get used to it right away, but this smell? It had LAYERS. I was totally unprepared, it even made me lightheaded! I’ve been to Yellowstone National Park which has similar geothermal vents and the smell was NOTHING in comparison. But still, it’s always cool to see the ground steaming and mud bubbling away.
And that’s it! Obviously this isn’t supposd to be a ‘guide to Iceland’ or anything like that, it’s just our recommendations and suggestions, based on one, incredible holiday. I really was not prepared to love Iceland as much as I did, it truly was the most wonderful place to spend my birthday, and we both loved every moment of it.