I’ve always wanted to visit a Nordic country and found myself intrigued by photographs of Iceland’s rugged, other-worldly beauty. When I used to think of Iceland, I imagined…Bjork, if I’m being honest. Now when I think of Iceland, I also imagine…
…dark fields of lava covering the rich volcanic landscape, streams of chalky blue, glacier-fed waters flowing to the ocean, and billowy mist from crashing waterfalls and steamy geysers filling the air under the green glow of the aurora borealis.
Dramatic, but accurate! Though our trip was short, it was packed with a ton of adventure and I’m already dreaming of a return voyage. After spending a full day hopping on connecting flights between California and New York, we finally headed off to Keflavik, where Iceland’s international airport is based. Maybe it was the excitement of visiting a new country or maybe it was the cool airplane entertainment system loaded with new movies, but we got very little sleep on the flight. When we arrived it was just after midnight and we were exhausted. Still, there was no time to rest because it was only 8:00 a.m. local time and officially day 1 of our Icelandic adventuring.
Lucky for us, our first day would be spent relaxing. What better way to start a vacation and cure jet lag than with a nice trip to the spa? Though not lacking in any natural beauty, Iceland’s geothermal hot spring retreat, the Blue Lagoon, is technically a man-made attraction. The lagoon was formed when runoff water from a nearby geothermal power plant began pooling in the surrounding lava fields. People began bathing in the pools believing the water possessed healing properties and eventually the site was transformed into a fully operational spa, becoming one of Iceland’s most popular destinations.
Just a day before our arrival, southwestern Iceland had received its first snowfall of the season. It snowed lightly as we left the airport to board a shuttle that would take us directly to the lagoon. When we arrived, we checked in our luggage and headed off to the locker rooms to change.
I was very pleased to learn that the Blue Lagoon is super accessible. Facilities in the main complex including the changing area, showers, and restrooms are all accessible. The pool is equipped with a mechanical lift and also has a ramp where visitors can enter the water using specialized waterproof wheelchairs. Another wonderful feature the Blue Lagoon offers is free admission for a person assisting an individual who has a disability.
I was concerned that the Blue Lagoon’s water would be lukewarm given the recent snowfall and chilly 32°F weather. The water was actually quite pleasant and I learned the average temperature of the pool is between 98 and 103 °F.
Although highly visited, the Blue Lagoon’s water is completely replenished with fresh geothermal seawater, which has high levels of silica, algae, and minerals, every two days. There’s a fun mask bar where visitors can slather on silica and algae masks or purchase a lava scrub. And of course, there’s a regular bar serving drinks too. Visitors can swim-up for sparkling wine, beer, smoothies, or juice. At check-in, all visitors are given waterproof, electronic wristbands that can be used to make purchases anywhere in the Blue Lagoon, which means you don’t have to carry around cards or cash. The wristband also serves as a key to the provided lockers. Smart and simple to use!
After wading in the pool for a bit we headed over to the Lava Restaurant for lunch. We toweled off then walked over in the flip flops and robes that were included with our admission. Entering a restaurant wearing a robe felt strange at first but we quickly realized how comfortable and cozy we felt.
The restaurant has great two or three course set menus but guests can also order a la carte. Hoping to catch a good variety, we ordered the seafood menu and the Icelandic gourmet menu. Our first courses were langoustine soup (basically icelandic crawfish) with dulse (a salty seaweed-like vegetable) and birch and juniper cured arctic char with horseradish, cucumber, rye bread, and pickled mustard seeds.
As soon as the food hit our bellies we drifted off into a state of sleep deprivation and food coma. I failed to take any additional pictures of our meal but we also enjoyed cod and lamb main courses and a caramel chocolate mousse for dessert. Everything we ate was absolutely delicious and we thoroughly enjoyed dining in our robes overlooking the lagoon. After we dined we planned on visiting the sauna and steam room but we were pretty tired so instead we showered, bunded up in our winter clothes, retrieved our luggage, and caught a shuttle to our hotel in Reykjavik.
Our hotel room was small but clean and quite cozy with a beautiful view of the ocean. The floors were heated and radiant heat warmed the room to a comfortable temperature. After getting settled in we took a nap before our 8:00 p.m. northern lights tour that evening.
Feeling rested and suited up in our snow gear, we headed out to chase the northern lights. We eagerly boarded a shuttle and our guide, an enthusiastic physicist, shared some of Iceland’s history with us and the science behind the glowing green lights.
Unfortunately, we didn’t see any beautiful bands of green illuminating the sky. It was snowing pretty heavily and we weren’t able to see the lights through the cloud coverage. The skies wouldn’t be any clearer for the duration of our stay so we decided against attempting to go out to see them again. But, we were having such a wonderful trip so far it was hard to feel disappointed and it was easy to say to ourselves, “guess we’ll have to come back to Iceland again.”
Feeling well-rested and eager to explore the city, we started off our second day with a food walk tour in downtown Reykjavik. Our guide was a local, born and raised in Iceland, who shared a ton of information about the city and Icelandic culture as our group toured the streets.
Looking back, the food walk tour was one of my favorite activities on our trip. The other travelers in our small tour group were great and we all really seemed to enjoyed the food, conversation, information, and company. There was even another couple from Texas in our group. Yee-haw!
We visited six different restaurants and walked approximately 1.3 miles on the 3-hour tour. Our first stop was a popular bar for Icelandic lamb meat soup, a special schnapps made from potatoes, and a sample of hákarl, fermented shark. Yup, shark, which is a national food of Iceland, infamously known for having a horrible taste and odor. Honestly, I didn’t think it was bad, especially chased with the schnapps. Next we visited a cheese shop where we sampled black Gouda, Gull Ostur (gold brie), and bleu cheese. We also sampled cured Icelandic lamb seasoned with rosemary, thyme and anise, smoked Icelandic goose with raspberry champagne vinaigrette, and cured Icelandic horse seasoned with rosemary, thyme and curry. Yep, horse. Eek! I’ll admit I was feeling a bit reluctant while pondering the ethics behind eating shark, and especially horse. However, in the U.S. we eat fish, cows, and pigs (a species even more intelligent than horses) without a second thought. It was also somewhat comforting to learn that Icelandic horses and sheep roam free out in the wild, hopefully living their best lives, before farmers round up herds for slaughter.
Next we indulged in rye bread ice cream with whipped cream and caramelised rhubarb syrup from Café Loki. This was one of my favorite foods on the tour. The texture was similar to cookies and cream but the flavor was buttery and lightly sweetened. Our main course was at Messinn and served up family style. We had arctic char cooked in honey and almonds with potatoes, tomatoes, and mixed greens, and an Icelandic fish stew called plokkfiskur, a mashed cod dish with potatoes, onions, butter, cream, garlic, celery, white wine and lime served with fresh rye bread.
After a bit more walking we arrived at Bæjarins Bestu, for a treat that some sources have crowned the “best hot dog in Europe.” Established in 1937, this Icelandic national treasure serves up lamb-based hot dogs dressed with sweet mustard, ketchup, raw onion, crispy fried onion, and remolaði, a mayonnaise-based sauce with sweet relish. Possibly the best hot dog I’ve ever had! In fact, we returned the following day for more.
Our last stop was to the trendy restaurant and bar, Apótek. Here we had coffee and a Skyr mousse dessert with strawberry and lime gel, sponge cheesecake pastry, and fresh berries. So good and a great way to end the tour.
After our tour we decided to continue exploring downtown Reykjavik on foot. During our tour we passed by Hallgrímskirkja, the largest church in Iceland and one of the country’s most stunning works of architecture. We weren’t able to see the inside because a funeral was being held but we returned after dark to see the church lit up. In the photograph below, you may notice the national flag is flown at half mast, which is a traditional Icelandic practice for honoring a resident who is being laid to rest. I learned that the statue that stands outside of the church depicts explorer Leif Erikson and was a gift from the U.S. to celebrate the one thousandth anniversary of the Althling, Iceland’s parliament.
The city was beautiful covered in a layer of fluffy snow. We had fun venturing into shops and galleries and admiring statues and art displays along the way. It was a great way to burn off some of the calories we consumed during the food walk tour.
We couldn’t resist a photo op with the yule cat sculpture unveiled earlier this year. Her proper name is Jólakötturinn, and this giant, red-eyed, feline beast from Icelandic folklore is believed to devour those who don’t receive warm clothing to wear for Christmas.
The next morning we headed out early for the Golden Circle tour to see some of Iceland’s stunning natural beauty, which I’ll cover in part 2 of our Icelandic adventure. Thanks for reading!