OK – let’s be honest. If you ask my toddler what the best thing about travel is, he will say jumping on other people’s furniture. Truth. And, that is exactly what he did in Reykjavik.
We spent four days in Reykjavik, and stayed in a studio apartment right in the city center, with a private kitchen and bathroom. Every apartment in the building is decorated in a one-of-a-kind theme, and we got the one with the teddy bears crucified on the wall.
Initially a shock to the senses, believe it or not, I actually grew to love everything about that apartment. Despite the scary teddy bear theme, funhouse colors, retro furniture, Scotch plaid décor, and the silly, silly bed that took the skin right off your shin every time you (invariably) bumped into it rounding the corner.
It was fun and felt like home, but more specifically, I loved it because 1) the kids had a little more space to play, 2) it had a small but fully functional kitchen that we cooked all our meals in, 3) the sofa bed pulled-out right on the floor, giving our toddler a safe place to do his favorite thing of late: jump on the furniture. It was in a great walkable location in the city center, and much cheaper than Reykjavik hotels (which are upwards of $200 USD per night, yikes). The cherry on top was the fact that they provided cribs for our kids, which was one of the main reasons we chose it.
Iceland’s capital and home to two hundred thousand people, Reykjavik is more than “just a city.” It has cool nightlife (more for those traveling without babies and toddlers!), a killer art and music scene (everyone is a creative here), and its own old-town charm.
The “must-sees” include the Hallgrímskirkja, (the modern-looking Lutheran church with a beautiful tower), the recently built Harpa opera house (which was once a controversial building project, but now loved by locals), and the city hall which houses a 3D topographical map of Iceland the size of a large conference room. We enjoyed seeing all of these. But what we loved most about Reykjavik was just walking around and soaking in the city vibe.
The city does not feel touristy at all. The streets are lovely. Beautiful murals, street art, and sculpture in the space between shops, bars and restaurants are everywhere. (A lot of the street art is sponsored by shop or restaurant owners.) The locals we met were very friendly. And, its harbor location is beautiful. All great reasons to spend a couple of days here. There are also many day trips possible from here. These were some of our highlights.
Þingvellir, Geysir, & Gullfoss, a.k.a “The Golden Circle”
There are many organized excursions available, but we chose to drive it ourselves. The route, which includes three famous natural wonders: Þingvellir (anglicized as Thingvellir), Geysir, and Gullfoss, is under 300km and very easy to do in one day if you have a car.
Our first stop was Thingvellir, which holds geological and historical significance. It is on this spot that the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates meet, and are gradually drifting apart. How cool is that!? We actually hiked along the Almannagjá fault, to a beautiful little waterfall, Öxarárfoss. Our toddler walked most of this trail on his own.
Thingvellir is also the site of the oldest parliament in the world, where the first Icelandic settlers met and organized a government in 930 AD. It is a UNESCO World Heritage site, on this basis. Overall, Thingvellir National Park is magical, and is worth a visit.
Next, we visited Geysir, a geothermal area not far from Thingvellir. The second tallest geyser in the world, named Geysir, the world’s fourth tallest geyser, named Strokkur, as well as a bunch of smaller ones are located here. Geysir is not currently active, but we did see Strokkur shoot scalding water 30-meters into the air several times, as it erupts pretty regularly every 5-10 minutes.
I have never seen anything like this ever before. The sulfur made the air smell like rotten eggs. If you look closely at the deep blue water and wait and watch, you can actually see each phase of it…the blue color deepening, then whitening, the white bubble that suddenly forms, then gets bigger, until suddenly it erupts! I was absolutely mesmerized by this fascinating place.
We tore ourselves away eventually and rolled on to Gullfoss, our last stop on the Golden Circle.
Many say that Gullfoss is the best waterfall in Europe. The Hvítá river drops dramatically into a ravine, with two successive cascades forming a ninety degree angle.
We caught some rainbows from the top, followed the steep concrete pathway down and peered over the edge, marveling at the sheer force of these falls!
There were so many other beautiful places we saw in Iceland that I would love to share with you all, but I don’t want to go on and on. I do want to share our experience with the food and Icelandic swimming pools – simply because it was so unique.
A Note on Iceland’s Swimming Pools
Swimming pools are crazy popular in Iceland. We learned that the swimming pool is to Icelanders what “the coffeeshop” is to Americans, or “the pub” is to the British. It’s where you go to relax, mingle, and catch up with all your old friends (or meet new ones). It’s really hard not to unwind at an Icelandic swimming pool – they’re geothermally heated, and many are outdoors. The warm water feels especially wonderful against your skin when the cold winds blow! Didn’t pack a swimsuit? No problem. You can rent one at any pool, kid and adult sizes are available! On a drive around Northwestern Iceland one day, we spontaneously decided to stop and try the renowned outdoor swimming pool in Hofsós. It’s tucked into a hillside that drops into the sea, and you can see the mountains and Drangey Island across the fjord. The view alone makes this pool most Icelanders’ favorite, but they also have water toys for kids, and a large sauna. Johann and I got into the pool and had a blast! Ryan hung out with Arya on a lounge chair and chatted up a friendly Canadian couple who were also traveling around Iceland with a six-month baby. It’s always nice to see that we are not alone in our adventures.
In this spectacular setting, with the view, the infinity-pool-like atmosphere, and the geothermal water warming our skin against the bitterly cold winds, the whole experience was other-worldly.
A Note about Food
Food in Iceland is expensive. We took advantage of having our own vehicle, and bought groceries every few days – which was cheaper than eating out. We stocked up on milk and other groceries throughout our trip at two local supermarket chains, Bónus and Netto. (We also found diapers and wipes there when we needed them.) Our guesthouse in Akureyri had a shared kitchen and a refrigerator that we took advantage of, and we enjoyed cooking in our apartment in Reykjavik.
Skyr was a big hit – this is a wonderfully thick Icelandic-style yogurt, and we had some for breakfast or snack everyday. Strained and thick like Greek yogurt, but much milder in flavor.
We found one brand of Skyr available in our local grocery stores back home here in the US!
We still wanted to experience the local cuisine (one of the reasons we love to travel – we are foodies!) so we budgeted our trip money so that we could still eat a few meals out. And, we ate our fair share of well-prepared Icelandic fish!
Thanks for reading, and letting me re-live the experience by sharing our adventure with you all. I am so grateful we got the opportunity to go to such a beautiful country. It wasn’t quite what I was expecting, and it has made me fall in love with this place we call Earth in a whole new way. We would love to go back, someday. We had an amazing time, and so did our kids. Nowhere else have we seen so much vastness and variety in the landscape, in a relatively small geographical area. While we wanted to stop everywhere and see everything, it really helped that we didn’t try to cram in too much. There was lots we didn’t do. We didn’t go anywhere Southeast at all. And, we didn’t go to the Blue Lagoon, either. A stone’s throw from Keflavik International Airport, the Blue Lagoon is actually Iceland’s most famous attraction. Everyone told us it is pretty cool, but also that it is a shameless tourist trap. The water is a tad too hot for babies anyway. We decided to skip it. But maybe next time!
If you are interested in traveling to Iceland (with or without little ones), let me know and I’d be happy to try to answer any questions you have!