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How to Make the Most of Your First Visit to Iceland

How to Make the Most of Your First Visit to Iceland

Christine Beyleveldt

We’ve been trapped in a bit of a cold spell here in Vancouver lately and it’s hard not to be brought down by the winter blues. But it’s not all bad. In fact, winter can be one of the most magical times of year! A little while ago I went to Iceland and as the name suggests, this Scandinavian country is locked in a year-round cold spell.

If you don’t mind a spot of cold weather, read on and discover how to make the most of your visit to the great north. Just be sure to pack something warm and waterproof!

Explore Reykjavík by Day

You’ll soon find that time in Iceland’s capital city goes by at a leisurely pace. If you’re a solo female traveller, no need to worry! Iceland is the safest country in the world, so you can explore to your heart’s content. Visit the Laugavegur shopping district and peruse for souvenirs, or feed the swans that gather on the pond at the heart of the city! Oh, and don’t forget to meet Ofélia – the fluffy kitten who likes to nap on the table of scarves at Icemart. Alternatively, stroll the storm-battered waterfront and snap pictures of the Sun Voyager sculpture.

Standing 240 feet tall, Hallgrimskirkja is the tallest building in Iceland and boasts the best view over Reykjavík. You can ride to the top for 1,000 krona (about $10) and honestly spend an hour marvelling at the colourful rooftops below. I did this and had to travel down to ground level soon after, having spotted the Loki Cafe across the street from above.

Explore an Alternate Reykjavík by Night

Reykjavík is entirely different by night, which should come as no surprise seeing as the winter months are eternally dark (ranging from 21 hours of darkness to a mere three hours in the summertime). My best find after dark was Gaukurinn, a lively attic bar with a very well priced happy hour menu (I recommend a glass of Borg) and free nightly shows.

I went to a comedy show one night and had such a good time that I took some newfound friends from my hostel back the very next night for live karaoke. A few nights later the bar had a drag show and the place was packed like a tin of sardines. 

If you’re looking for more refined entertainment, check out any of the shows at the Harpa Concert Hall. I saw the Viking folklore slapstick comedy show Icelandic Sagas: The Greatest Hits while I was in town.

Sample the Cuisine

Sample an Icelandic hot dog when you visit – this is an absolute must. The best hot dog stand in the city is Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur. Ask for a hot dog with “the works”, that is, a beer-boiled lamb sausage served with crispy fried onions, caramelized onions and honey mustard. 

If you’re looking for something a little more hearty, Svarta Kaffið serves the best soup in town. I recommend their creamy mushroom, lamb and sage soup served in a sourdough bread bowl. The owner of the Viking Brugghus across the street will claim he serves the best soup, but after sampling both I declared Svarta Kaffið the winner. Although props to the Brugghus owner for his unreserved chattiness. I found out from him that my Danish doppelgänger had been frequenting his establishment.

Take a Relaxing Dip in the Healing Waters of the Blue Lagoon

Public baths are the social scenes of Iceland. After work, locals go to the pool to relax and chat with their friends. Don’t be too surprised though, you’ll be expected to strip down and suds yourself up before you go in the water. Sundhöllin is a nice place for a dip in Reykjavík, but the Blue Lagoon is the best.

It’s also incredibly popular. The spa facility is named for its milky blue waters filled with white silica mud. It does wonders for your skin, but the same can’t be said for your hair. Lather it in the conditioner provided and keep it out of the water unless you want to end up with a hairdo that resembles a bale of hay. 

Complete the Golden Circle

Iceland’s beauty is in its stunning landscape that’s been carved out by glaciers and volcanic activity over thousands of years. One of the most popular tourist tracks is the Golden Circle – a common day trip from Reykjavík. A number of tour operators traverse the Golden Circle on a daily basis, first taking you to Thingvellir National Park, also called the Rift Valley. Here, the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates are slowly pulling apart, widening Iceland by a couple centimetres every year. It also created a stunning rift cutting through the vast open plains of the park. 

If you’re feeling brave, you can opt for diving in the Silfra Fissure fed by glacial runoff. The water is a frigid two degrees centigrade year-round and I didn’t regain feeling in my fingers until over an hour after my swim, but it’s some of the clearest water on earth with visibility of up to 200 feet. 

The next stop is geysir, where you’ll witness the powerful Strokkur erupting every three minutes. And finally, the mighty Gullfoss waterfall. If you’re lucky you may even befriend a few of the playful Icelandic horses along the way!

Drive the Ring Road

This last tip is for travellers with more time on their hands. You can easily rent a car in Reykjavík, get on the circuitous highway that extends the coast of the island, and explore Iceland by yourself. One of my favourite spots in the south was the Sólheimajökull glacier lagoon, which was framed by a gorgeous black sand beach.

And to the west on the Snæfellsnes Peninsula, Djúpalónssandur beach. Other popular spots include Reynisfjara, a black sand beach in the south with towering basalt rock formations and powerful waves originating in Antarctica, Svartifoss waterfall with its basalt formations and Jökulsárlón glacier lagoon in the east, and Akureyri, Iceland’s second largest city, in the far north.

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