This guest post comes to us courtesy of our friend Kelsi Smith, who recently returned from a journey to Iceland. Toting her camera and gear in our upcycled Northwest Backpack, she shares some insights on traveling to and planning an Icelandic vacation.
Land of Fire and Ice or Land of Waterfalls, Rainbows, Sour Beer and Hot Pools? Or all of the above?
I just returned from a trip to Iceland which is a place best described as magical. I’m one of those annoying people to travel with who’s basically an expert on the location before they even set foot in it. Weeks of research and a few spreadsheets later, you’re guaranteed the most thorough and fun-filled trip of your life (and don’t worry, there’s time for spontaneity included - and no, it’s not scheduled… )
All of this is to say, if you’re headed anywhere, I’m the best kind of friend you can have. For the sake of this post, you’re all my new best friends and I’m going to share what my months of research and week in Iceland taught me.
When to Go:
Depending on the time of year you go, Iceland is a totally different creature, so know what you want to experience ad plan accordingly. The same things that you see in the October-April are very different to what you’ll see April-September. The key things to note are as follows:
To see the Northern Lights you need complete darkness, a nearly cloudless sky and a bunch of time for that opportunity. Since during the summer the sun can be up through Midnight only to rise again a few hours later, the likelihood of seeing them is slim. In winter the sun can rise as late as 11.30am and set as early as 3.30pm - way more opportunity. In the winter you are going to be fighting cloud cover but so long as you give yourself enough opportunity - you will see something.
If ice caves are your jam, you can also only see them in winter, most tours only run through the beginning of April.
However, in the winter, many areas are shut for safety, certain areas are impassable after big snow storms and since the weather is so changeable, safety is a real concern. This means some of those famous waterfalls will be inaccessible and tours can be cancelled last minute due to weather. Most trips including a boat tour of the Glacier Lagoon (Jokulsarlon) and trips to see the puffins outside of Reykjavik only happen in the summer.
All this is to say, Iceland is worth at least two trips, because you needed an excuse.
What to Pack (Winter Edition)
- Lots of layers (including thermals) That said, it’s warmer in Iceland than it is in New York in the winter. The coldest it got, even at night, was 20 degrees. During the day it was around 38-40.
- Waterproofs - weather is super changeable and the rain can come from nowhere, even in the summer!
- A DSLR camera and a tripod. You will not get pictures of the Northern Lights without one. Not to mention, if there’s cloud cover, you won’t SEE the Northern Lights without one.
- The Looptworks Northwest backpack with camera bag insert. Chances are you’re flying Icelandic Air or Wow Air - cheap, but you have to pay for anything more than a “personal item” (yep even a carry on!). This lightweight and sturdy backpack was my saving grace. The camera bag insert held my camera and four lenses and still left room for my laptop (in it's own special pocket), my headphones, my water bottle, my iPad (housed in it’s Tiki case, natch) and all the various drugs and ephemera I need to sit in a metal tube 35,000 feet in the air without freaking the fuck out. When on the road, during the trip, I was even able to cart my tripod alongside. You could say the Northwest backpack was responsible for every photo I took in Iceland. My camera and years of practicing photography might be offended, but you could say it.
- Your swimsuit. Yes really. Hot pools abound and you should always be ready to dive in.
What to See
- Northern Lights. Honestly there’s nothing more awe inspiring than weird green and purple lights dancing across the sky. I highly recommend taking a private tour - if there’s more than more than three of you a private tour costs the same and you’ll feel like you’re hunting weather like you’re in Twister - except you’re looking for harmless pretty lights - not deathly tornadoes.
- Golden Circle. The Golden Circle is a 300km roundtrip route that encompasses some of the most popular tourist spots in Iceland. You’ll absolutely be sharing the sites with many, many other people, but these sites are worth it. The Golden Circle includes the Þingvellir National Park (where the North American and European tectonic plates meet), the Gullfoss waterfall, and the geothermal area in Haukadalur, where the geysers Geysir and Strokkur are located.
- A Hot Pool or Two. Blue Lagoon is the most famous and most popular (you will need a reservation before you leave and it does book up) but the “Secret Lagoon” is just as great, it’s just not blue (though honestly the Blue Lagoon is barely blue either). Whatever you do, grab a cold Gull (local lager) and get in a hot pool.
- A Black Sand Beach. There’s something about the palette of a black sand beach against the rough Icelandic sea that speaks to my dark side. It’s moody, it’s beautiful. It’s kind of really windy. We stopped at the one in the town of Vík - there’s one a little further down the coast featuring a crashed US Navy plane (everyone survived!) that’s been slowly deteriorating since it crashed in 1973.
- The Icelandic Phallological Museum. Erected in 1997 is home to 280 specimens and all the puns you could possibly make. If you’ve ever wanted to see a whales penis up close and personal, this is the place.
- Jökulsárlón (The Glacier Lagoon). Definitely don’t recommend swimming in this one, it’s not hot and it’s filled with icebergs. But it’s was the most breathtaking stop on our trip. I was mesmerized.
What to Eat
- A Pylsur. An Icelandic hotdog, it’s the cheapest meal you’ll find in Iceland, you can find them everywhere. If you want to get the top dog (Bill Clinton did forreals) head to Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur, it’s been around since 1937 and the name literally translates as “The Towns Best Sausages”. Make sure you get everything on it.
- Lamb. I’ve never eaten so much lamb in a concentrated period, but Icelandic lamb is really delicious (and Iceland has some of the most conscious farming in the world). Whether it was a lamb burger at a pub (Nora Magasin) or fancy lamb shank at one of Reykjavík’s finest restaurants (Fiskmarkadurinn) or just a lamb stew from a roadside service station (somewhere near a glacier…) You can’t go wrong if you get the lamb.
- Fish. I don’t like fish. Merp. Sorry. But my co-conspirators did, and again Fiskmarkadurinn is highly recommended by them, and fish is kind of Iceland’s thing so you should try it. I did try the Arctic Char. It was good. Despite being fishy. Don’t eat the fermented shark. Anthony Bourdain said it’s the worst thing he’s ever eaten, but if you really insist, you can grab it from the food court at Reykajavík’s indoor flea market the “Kolaportid”. We were also told by locals that whale only continues to be a delicacy for tourists. If tourists stop eating it, they’ll stop serving it.
- Candy. So licorice is definitely the thing here - especially salted or covered in chocolate or caramel. If you’re not a licorice person there are other options, Omnom offers bean to bar chocolate in unusual combos and my personal favourite was Rabarbia - a caramel made with rhubarb, essentially a rhubarb brittle. Vínberið is a great candy store in the heart of Reykjavík where you can grab all of this. The Apple Crumble at Café Babalú. Oh. My. God.
What (and where) to Drink
First things first. Whilst the Icelandic folks like to drink, the country has some pretty serious licensing laws. You can only buy alcohol at the state run stores and it felt like they were never open. Drinking in bars is very expensive. It’s highly recommended, if drinking is a priority for you, to grab some booze at the airport on your way in, where it’s duty free. We did not do this, as much as we like drinking, picking out something you want to drink at 4am after a 9 hour flight is really overwhelming - but it did mean bars were our only option.
- Craft Beer. Beer has only been legal in Iceland since 1989 but they have embraced it wholeheartedly. It’s one of your cheaper options when you’re out and about and it’s actually rather good. The best places to stop are Micro Bar, Skúli Craft Bar and Mikkeller and Friends (of the Danish chain). They all have a great variety of both Icelandic and Scandinavian craft beers and were some of my personal favorite stops. The Sour Beer trend is alive and well here and I sampled some of the Gose I've had anywhere.
- A Tiki Cocktail. Yes, Iceland has it’s very own Tiki Bar, Bar Ananas. It’s not the best Tiki Bar. But it’s a tiki bar. In Iceland. The novelty value is entirely worth it.
- A White Russian. A country that likes a theme for sure, Lebowski Bar is dedicated all things Big Lebowski. They have over 20 different White Russians available, and while we initially figured it would be some sort of tourist trap, but the white russians were absolutely delicious, or maybe we were just trapped tourists.
- Bruce Willis. Prikið, a great breakfast spot (and the oldest restaurant in Reykjavík) serves a boozy milkshake named Bruce Willis and dubbed “The Hangover Helper”. The milkshake contains Jack Daniels, espresso and caramel sauce.
Kelsi Smith is a writer, photographer and digital marketing exec. British born and raised she lives in Los Angeles with her husband and four kittens: Elvis, Willie Nelson, Agent Cooper and Edgar.
You can follow her at her blog: thestylesmithdiaries.com
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