Iceland has been on my bucket list for as long as I can remember. Defined by it’s dramatic landscapes, with glaciers, hot springs, volcanos and lava fields, it’s totally different to the kind of holiday that I normally opt for, however I suppose it’s much more of an experience than a ‘relaxing break’. Regardless, everyone I’ve spoken to has regarded it as a ‘must-see destination’ and so my hypothetical trip has been planned for many years.
Recently, an opportunity with TK Maxx arose for me to actually book the trip and go – which was very exciting, as it wasn’t somewhere I thought I was going to tick off my bucket list so soon! We only had a few days to prepare, so we quickly stocked up on thermals, very thick socks and walking boots. Admittedly not quite so fashion blogger-esque, but when you’re going somewhere in the North Atlantic, with a sub-artic climate, warmth takes priority over style!
I thought I’d collate my trip into a series of sections, just in case you’re planning a trip of your very own. There were certainly some things I wished I’d known beforehand, so hopefully they help your Icelandic Adventure!
Where to eat
Iceland is not only famed for it’s climate and landscapes, but also its food, with an assortment of unusual local dishes on offer. Wind-dried fish was one snack that we saw fairly frequently – although neither of us plucked up the courage to try it out for ourselves. They also are rather fond of roasted puffin and shark meat, the latter of which is buried under ground for 12 weeks before being fermented for months, in order to make it safe for consumption. It’s usually poisonous, apparently.
However if you don’t fancy the sound of any of those wonderfully appetising dishes, then rest assured – Iceland does offer more accessible cuisine. The Icelandic Lamb soup is apparently very tasty, as is their creamy Skyr product – which looks like a yoghurt but it’s actually more of a creamy cheese and incredibly high in protein. Although I wasn’t able to try this out for myself, David did – both with a chocolate brownie and smothered over seeded bread (on different occasions, I might add). It tastes like clotted cream (but a bit more savoury) and I have to admit – I was pretty jealous not to be able to sample it!
If you’re after a meal to remember, I’d recommend booking a table at the LAVA restaurant, within the Blue Lagoon complex. It might sound mega expensive but in comparison to usual prices in Reykjavik, it’s actually very reasonable – and it’s much more of a luxurious experience than anywhere else we visited.
We managed to bag the best table next to the window, overlooking the luscious turquoise waters of the Blue Lagoon and our Premium tickets also meant that we could enjoy a complimentary glass of sparkling wine each with our lunch. The food was absolutely amazing – honestly, I couldn’t fault it – although unfortunately our pictures don’t quite do it justice. I’d recommend both the steak and the cod, the flavours blew me away!
For vegan visitors, you’ll want to book in a visit to Glo – which is situated in the centre of Reykjavik on the main street (Laugavegur, 20b). The restaurant has more of a cafe feel to it, even in the evenings – however it has an array of delicious dairy-free options – and it’s actually really well priced. You pick your main dish (raw lasagne, spinach pasta or a vegetable wrap) and then pile your plate high with salads, sides and vegetables.
If you have a dairy allergy however, do make sure you double check any extras that you opt for – as I picked up a sesame seed bar thinking it would be dairy free and the lady behind the till wasn’t Icelandic, so she couldn’t read the ingredients properly. I ended up consuming milk chocolate, which wasn’t ideal – however after realising, I opted for their completely vegan apple pie instead, which was so delicious! Even if you’re not totally vegan (like me), they still have some meat options – like Mexican chicken, so it’s suitable for all your guests!
What to see
There’s so much to see in Iceland, it all depends on how much time you have. Since we were working with just 48 hours, we wanted to cram in as much as possible – and largely spent most of our time on coaches and transfers. If you’re not keen on being bundled onto a bus to see the sights, I’d recommend booking a private super jeep adventure (in these crazy looking vehicles with tires the size of me!) – which looked absolutely incredible! If you’re on a budget, you’ll probably have to go for the former option – however rest assured, you’ll still see everything!
For us, the main priorities were to try and catch a glimpse of the Northern Lights, to visit the Blue Lagoon Spa and to see the sights within the Golden Circle. We managed to book all three (plus airport transfers) with a company who I won’t name, because they were awful. But all I will say is that I’d recommend going with either Reykjavik Excursions or Gray Line, the two main tour providers and with the most regular transfers. They pick you up from your hotel and drop you back, so door to door, you’re covered and not left stranded in the cold.
The Blue Lagoon was probably the activity I was looking forward to most – and it certainly didn’t disappoint. We wanted to make a full day of it – and so arrived around 12pm, booked lunch in the LAVA restaurant at 2pm and had a free drink included within the price of our ticket. You can wander around all day in your slippers and robe, so while it isn’t your traditional spa, it certainly has that feel to it.
I’d read lots of horror stories about women’s hair being wrecked by the sulfur water (which is amazing for skin, but not so much for your locks) so I loaded up on the conditioner before I entered the water. There is a conditioner provided by the Blue Lagoon in the showers, however it’s not very strong – so if you’ve got bleached hair especially, I’d recommend bringing your own.
Stepping into the water is the most surreal experience, because it just completely defies your brain’s expectations and leaves you feeling a little confused. It’s so so comfortingly warm (like the nicest bath you’ve ever had) and some patches you swim over are even warmer. Every guest is entitled to as many helpings of the silica mud mask, so we took full advantage of this. Apparently it’s supposed to deep-cleanse your skin – although left mine feeling rather dry. Luckily, we had a sample of the Algae mask too, which nourishes and restores your skin’s natural collagen – and while I’m usually a little cynical of these far-away claims, it obviously has natural healing properties because when I got on the bus home, my skin had never felt softer or looked more calm. I was so impressed that I spent £60 buying some to take home with me. Let’s hope it works!
When it came to getting close to nature, we opted for the Golden Circle Classic tour, which takes around 8 hours. However you do get an English guide for the day, who comes equipped with some very interesting facts. Did you know that in Iceland, there are no family names (or hereditary surnames). Instead, children are named after their father (or in some cases, their mother) so there’s no indication of family lineage. So I would be Scarlett Spencersson or for a more direct translation – Scarlett, daughter of Spencer. How interesting!
Anyway, on the trip you’ll visit the place where the tectonic plates split, the law rock (where the first Icelandic parliament was) and the Geysers, a series of bubbling hot springs on an active lava field, where magma propels the water upwards in active geysers, making for a rather spectacular show.
You’ll also see the Gullfoss Waterfall, which is the largest and most spectacular in Iceland, making it a very popular tourist destination. Oh – and if there’s time, you’ll also stop off and stroke some Icelandic horses, who are shorter and stockier than the ones we’re used to, with much thicker fur to keep them warm. Apparently they are an evolutionary breed harking back to viking age, when they used to take the strongest horses along with them on journeys!
We did book a Northern Lights Mystery tour, which starts at 8pm and lasts 5 hours into the evening, however unfortunately ours was cancelled due to weather. If the skies aren’t clear, there’s no chance you’ll catch a glimpse of what’s also known as the ‘aurora borealis’ (or ‘solar wind particles colliding with air molecules in the earth’s atmosphere, transferring their energy into light’ – ah-mazing!). It was a bit disappointing, however it’s just one of those things and although I’m sure it would have been magical and romantic to see them, we explored Reykjavik by night instead!
Where to stay
There’s a huge array of accommodation options in Iceland, however most people choose to stay in the capital Reykjavik. We opted for Fosshotel Reykjavik, which is a popular four-star hotel chain over there, so we thought it would be pretty reliable. If I’m totally honest, the rooms were a slightly upgraded version of a Travel Lodge, so I wasn’t overly impressed considering it cost us over £350 a night, however the hotel was well known and easy for the coaches to find – plus it was very central and within a 2 minute walk of the main town centre.
The breakfast was absolutely delicious – and rather cheekily, we stocked up on their bread to take with us on the coaches, as I never knew if I was going to arrive somewhere and be able to eat anything (since dairy-free isn’t really much of an option). So while I wasn’t overly impressed with the rooms, the food made up for it! The staff at the hotel were very polite and if you needed to book tours, the helpful concierge could do just this.
I know a couple of people who have booked amazing Air B n B’s while in Iceland, so that’s definitely an option we would have considered if we’d had more time, however if you’re on a real budget, I’d recommend Loft Hostel – which is very conveniently located in the centre of town and offers private rooms with en-suites for just over £200 for three nights. I actually used to work in PR at Hostelling International and so had the pleasure of working with our Loft Hostel branch several times. Everyone is so friendly, it’s very clean and well kept – and we’d have stayed there ourselves if they had enough room on such short notice.
What to pack?
As you probably know with its sub-artic climate, Iceland gets pretty cold – especially during the winter months. We actually visited in late October, when it hasn’t quite hit it’s peak ‘coldness’ however we were still freezing, so it’s worth making sure you’ve got the right gear before you go. And just a warning – unless you’re forking out £180 + on gorgeous Moschino ski boots, you’re probably not going to get anything fashion blogger esque. But hey, warmth over style! Trust me!
I opted for a Thermoball jacket from The North Face, which is very light and easy to fold up (perfect if you’re only taking hand luggage) but it’s super warm and keeps your body heat inside the jacket with the synthetic insulation (equivalent to goose down but suitable for all – even vegans!). You won’t want any of that precious heat escaping, I promise! It wasn’t cheap but I love the burgundy autumnal colour and will probably get lots of wear out of it this winter – so the cost is justifiable! Plus, you won’t want to spend all that money on the trip of a lifetime, only then to not enjoy it because you’re freezing!
David also opted for a Men’s TNF Thermoball jacket too, in the same style. This meant that not only were we matching, but we didn’t have to worry about being cold whatsoever! Yay!
I’d also advise to invest in a pair (or two) of thick socks. A pair of walking boots is essential if you’re heading off on the tours – and a pair of cosy Emu boots for the evenings and wandering round the shops is also very handy. A hat is a must-have, because heat escapes the most through your head – and plus when the wind is rattling around you, it’s a bonus to be able to keep it out of your ears! On the bottom half, a pair of thermal leggings under jeans is perfect – or you could go all out like we did and get fleece lined snazzy black trousers. The latter of which admittedly isn’t flattering or comfortable but they’re very warm!
How much does everything cost?
The thing I’d heard more than anything else when we were planning our trip is that Iceland is very expensive. Naively, I thought nothing could be as bad as London – and so I wasn’t quite prepared for just what they meant. The wages in Iceland are much higher than they are here, so while they’re relative to the locals – be prepared for a bit of a shock when you come to paying the bill. We found a fairly plain pizza restaurant (just a step up from a fast food restaurant) one evening in Reykjavik, ordered two pizzas, a coke and a water – and the final bill came to almost £60!
I’d recommend budgeting £50 per day, per person for food if you can. Make up sandwiches at breakfast (or with supermarket bread/fillings) before you head out on a day tour, as otherwise you’ll only be able to buy items from the tourist attraction restaurants, which are rather extortionate.
If you’re after a souvenir, the cheapest item you’ll find will set you back about £15 and a single red pepper is £3.50! Not that we’re in the market of buying red peppers wherever we visit, but we did stop off at a supermarket to compare prices and were absolutely blown away by how expensive everything was. It’s certainly a trip you’re going to need to save for, that’s for sure.
In fact, our trip in total cost around £2,500 for just over 48 hours in the country. That’s basically the same as our all-inclusive trip to Mexico in December, where we’re flying halfway round the world and staying in a five star luxury resort. However, you won’t experience the dramatic landscapes and incredible Blue Lagoon anywhere else in the world – for which case, it’s totally worth it.
I’m not really into geography (nor can I really feign an interest) but even I found it very surreal to see the exact place where the tectonic plates of North America and Eurasia crashed and split all those millions of years ago. It’s not every day you swim in geothermal lagoon in the middle of a lava field. And so while it is expensive, it’s still somewhere I’d recommend everyone to visit one day. It will be an experience you’ll never forget.
Have you been to Iceland? What did you think? Is it on your bucket list?
We visited Iceland as part of T K Maxx’s #RidiculousPossibilites campaign, which saw us try something completely new and out of our comfort zone, inspired by our recent purchases at their store. Read my full post on this here.