Direct from the District to Reykjavik, Iceland (Destination #1)
When I first came up with the Direct from the District project, I was delighted to realize that I already had a direct flight trip scheduled on the books - Reykjavik!
I traveled to Reykjavik (and a side trip to Sweden) in September 2017. This would be my second trip to Iceland, the first being a sobering 15 years ago.
An hour or two shorter flying time than to other destinations in Europe, Reykjavik is an ideal quick break from the East Coast. Depending on the time of year, there is the opportunity for endless daylight or a chance to see the Northern Lights. On both of my trips to Iceland, I visited for 3-4 days, combined with a trip to or from mainland Europe using the popular Icelandair stopover program. However, the unique geography, moody landscapes, and endless outdoor activities could easily fill a longer visit to this fascinating country.
Itinerary: We spent 3 nights in Reykjavik. Day 1: Explored Reykjavik. Day 2: Day trip to Western Iceland. Day 3: Day trip to Southern Iceland, including Secret Lagoon.
Something to do: The otherworldly landscape of Iceland reminds me the desolate slopes of the Scottish Highlands and Nevada's desert combined with the surface of the moon. Any trip to Iceland should prioritize spending as much time outdoors as possible to take advantage of the overwhelming natural beauty and unique geological features. Any guidebook or website will fill you in on the well-beaten path, including the Golden Circle and Blue Lagoon, which are easily accessible from Reykjavik.
I had toured the Golden Circle (a 300 km loop which includes Þingvellir National Park, the Geysir Geothermal Area, and Gullfoss waterfall) on my previous trip to Iceland. We started off this trip at Þingvellir National Park, as it was the husband's first visit. However, the parking area was heaving with tour buses, which gave us pause, and we reconsidered keeping exclusively to the Golden Circle loop. From Þingvellir National Park, we struck out on our own in a somewhat random fashion and found that any detour down a backcountry road resulted in absolute blissful solitude. It's certainly worth renting a vehicle and exploring the countryside, instead of strictly sticking to the Golden Circle itinerary. We visited astonishing waterfalls, such as Hraunfossar and Barnafoss in Western Iceland, all within a few hours from Reykjavik made even more spectacular during fall colors coinciding with our September trip.
If renting a car seems cost prohibitive, consider splitting a rental car with some fellow travelers for a day trip. During my previous trip, I convinced 3 other solo travelers in the hostel to split the rental with me for the day, and then we headed off on an adventure together. Of course, there are also innumerable tour operators who will pick you up at your hotel and take you on the day trip of your choosing.
Experiencing an Icelandic thermal bath (or hot pot) should be a must on your trip. The Blue Lagoon is the most famous, and due to its location between Keflavik airport and Reykjavik, many tour operators offer the efficient option of driving you from one to the other with a few hours at the Blue Lagoon in between. On my previous visit, I had selected the Reykjavic-Blue Lagoon-Keflavik option, and after lounging in the the milky blue waters, I flew straight to New York City with the Icelandic clay still clinging to my hair.
However, I had heard from Mjodd (my host at the Aros Guesthouse) as well on several travel forums, that due to the Blue Lagoon's popularity lately the crowds can get a little intense. Don't despair, thermal baths are dotted all over the country. On this trip, we visited the Secret Lagoon, which was delightful. We found a pleasant mix of Icelandic locals and tourists splashing about in the steaming mineral water, enjoying the ever-changing sky, while many sipped frosty beers as they floated about on pool noodles. Not a bad afternoon, right?
Somewhere to stay: I stayed at the Aros Guesthouse, a groovy midcentury-style home, with quiet, comfortable rooms, in a suburban part of Reykjavik. The friendly host of the guesthouse, Mjodd, prepares a scrumptious breakfast spread (with pancakes!) each morning. This location is car-dependent, however. It's about a 5-10 minute drive to downtown Reykjavik to eat or browse the shops.
Somewhere to eat: Restaurants in the downtown area of Reykjavik can be very expensive and the experience somewhat hit or miss. However, one choice that stood out was Resto, which served a delightful meal featuring local Icelandic ingredients (such as salted cod with onions and chorizo, or a fig ice cream for dessert) in a cozy atmosphere. Reservations recommended.
Next time: In an absolute lapse of common sense, I rented the tiniest Volkswagen imaginable from the Keflavik airport. This hatchback was about a breath bigger than a scooter with tires to match. This would have been fine for tooling around Reykjavik, but outside the city and main highways, the roads in Iceland can be rough and littered with sharp volcanic rock. We actually ended up blowing a tire in the middle of nowhere, which was decidedly not fun and even had the potential tinder for igniting a marital meltdown. We persevered and through gritted teeth, we got the spare on (which I think actually was a scooter tire). Instead of finding another awesome waterfall, we spent the next 4 hours searching for a service station to buy a new tire. If you plan to do some exploring, don't be me, rent a 4x4 vehicle! Renting a 4x4 will also mean you can access several of the 4x4 only gravel trails throughout the country.
Also, as much as I enjoyed our stay at Aros Guesthouse, next trip I would stay closer to the Reykjavik city center so that I could browse the boutiques and restaurants without having to drive after returning from a long day. After a night or two in Reykjavik, I hope to head further afield and spend a few nights in a different part of the country.
Side trips: The Icelandair stopover is well worth taking advantage of if you have another destination in Europe to visit. The husband and I were able to visit both Iceland and Sweden for the airfare of $440 each. According to the Icelandair website, you can spend up to 7 nights in Iceland and then continue on to over 30 destinations in Europe (or do the reverse and spend a few days in Iceland on your return trip). Click here<insert link> to read about Sweden.
Getting in the mood: Before this trip to Iceland, the husband and I watched the movie Bokeh, which is a bit of a post-apocalyptic downer, but the scenery of the Icelandic countryside is gorgeous and absolutely representative of what you should expect on your visit.
A quirkier option is the memoir Gnarr: How I Became the Mayor of a Large City in Iceland and Changed the World. In this political memoir, Jon Gnarr, the Icelandic comedian recounts his campaign for Mayor of Reykjavik. His unlikely political career began as a joke, and (of course!) ended up being elected. The book was translated from Icelandic to English, which may have impacted its prose a bit, but it’s an endearing, quick read.
Guide books: If you are an Amazon Prime member, Lonely Planet’s Scandinavia and Iceland titles are currently available for free on Kindle Unlimited. I had brought the Marco Polo Iceland guide as it came with a road guide and pull-out map. It was useful but not essential if you have access to Google Maps while traveling.
Available in nearly every hotel and tourist information area are regional guides (Visit West Iceland, for example) produced by the tourist board that were the most useful for day planning on the fly and also, free!
Final Notes: Iceland, like much of Scandinavia, tends to be expensive, particularly regarding food in restaurants. At a casual roadside cafe, I scanned the menu to realize that the cheapest option, Kjötsúpa, (the ubiquitous meat soup) was almost $20 a bowl. There are plenty of supermarkets and convenience stores available to supplement restaurant meals with simple snacks. Just do a little planning if you want to keep to a budget.
You won't need to exchange much money, as debit cards are accepted everywhere. Pack warm, waterproof clothes when visiting at any time of year. And don't forget that swimsuit, a dip in an Icelandic hot pot is a must!
DC-airports serving Reykjavik: BWI, IAD
Airlines: From IAD - Icelandair, From BWI - WOW Airlines
Length of Flight: About 6 hours from Washington
Price: $430-though many travelers take advantage of the free Icelandic Stopover program through Icelandair and visit on their way to another destination in Europe.
Highlights: Volcanoes, glaciers, and waterfalls galore.
When to Go:
Anytime! For long days for exploring, visit in the late spring through summer. For a chance to see the Northern Lights, go from late September-March.