There is no place in the world like Iceland, period. Nothing more needs be said and nothing less would do it justice. While I had combined my trip to Iceland with Sweden, I think they deserve separate posts (and even trips) – so here goes. Planning for Iceland wasn’t easy because there isn’t much information to go by and outside of Reykjavik, the hotels get a little flimsy in the online reviews. The terrain and the kind of things you can do are so different from anywhere else, that you are taking a leap of faith in most situation. The saving grace was that you really can’t get much wrong in Iceland, even the most ill-planned tours will lead you to some stunning scenery and unbelievable landscapes – just make sure you rent a car. Most of Iceland doesn’t even feel like Earth, in a good way.
We chose to make the trip in late September in the hope of having enough daylight to see all the beautiful sights and having some chances of catching some Northern Lights. We got the first, not the second – which was just some bad luck with timing but this is just motivation to go back soon. It was quite cold at the time but never so bad that we couldn’t get out and probably the perfect weather for the long hikes and walks that you need to do in Iceland.
The list of things to do in Iceland is endless, so unless you are planning to live there, some trade-offs will have to be made. There is of course the drive around the country that can be done in some 7-10 days. If you choose to stay in a place, like we did, Reykjavik has several things around – the golden circle, a drive to Vik, the touristy blue lagoon, geothermally heated pools, Hallgrimskirkja church and a lot of nice markets to walk around. While it seems like a waste to be looking for markets in Iceland, often they provide some variety from stunning waterfalls and outlandish scenery. There is also the charm of finding number of paintings and sculptures of the Norse God Thor in a very different depiction that we are used to in the movies.
We stayed in a managed apartment on the second floor of a building right of the main street in Reykjavik which made grocery stores and many restaurants very accessible. This was very convenient for evening fun and food, but not the best idea for spotting the northern lights or for finding parking spots. It is much easier to spot the lights staying far away from the city as then you don’t have to go to a faraway spot and park your car there waiting for the lights. Most hotels away from the lights will wake you up if the lights are visible and you can see them from the comfort of the hotel porch. This wasn’t possible from the city. We had to drive up each night to Grotta lighthouse parking about 20 minutes away, to get away from the street lights.
I had rented a car and that was easily the most no-brainer decision for the trip. Picking up the car at the airport rental was a pain though and I guess there is not much of a choice around that. The pickup area is a shuttle ride away and the process is slow and tedious with long lines. They keep trying upsell insurance of all sorts and the insurance bill could easily out weight the cost of rental. Fuel, like everything else, is expensive too and there aren’t many gas stations to be found. One painful thing was that the fuel pumps block off a large amount on the cards when you pre-authorize the charge. This amount stays blocked for a few days even if you pump much less gas.
Driving around is easy because of the lack of traffic but getting into the city can be interesting, especially finding parking. There are lot of different parking zones with very different prices and timings. Nights are free parking but at 8 am the meters need to be fed and the printed slips places on the dash. In the city centre parking can be hard to find but as you drive only a little bit away, it eases off quite a bit.
Food is quite expensive all around Iceland and surprisingly local food is usually heavier on the wallet than just pasta or a pizza. Usually finding good food wasn’t hard but whenever we tried something too fancy, it didn’t turn out as well. The local food is quite heavy on lamb meat and one of the more memorable dishes was a soup made with lamb and some local vegetables – quite delicious. The local drink is the Icelandic Schnapps or the Aquavit is had like a shot and isn’t likely to be the best thing you ever tasted or as they say, it’s an acquired taste. The best drink in Iceland is probably just plain tap water. Many natural springs mean that Icelandic water is probably tastier than the most expensive spring water you can buy in a market. We drove around quite a bit and at nearly every major destination, we were able to find a simple self serve cafe/ restaurant that had some tasty simple fast food and a bit of local fare.
They say that the journey can be better than the destination, this is a country where the journey is the destination!