In early November I visited Iceland for the first time and spent a week combining sightseeing with listening to great live music courtesy of the Iceland Airwaves Festival off-venues (see my essential tips). Here is a guide for your first visit to Reykjavik and beyond: how to choose tours, save money and have a whale of a time!
Dress for every kind of weather
The climate in Iceland is pretty unpredictable all year round and there are not a lot of reasonably priced options to buy extra gear, so come prepared. Pack your waterproofs (long insulated jacket and waterproof trousers), gloves (ideally touchscreen ones and maybe another warmer pair), base layers (merino long johns and long tops are great) and a tight-fitting woollen or fleece hat you can wear under your jacket hood. Forget about umbrellas, they will just get blown to shreds in two seconds. For my November trip (which seems to have been warmer than usual, ca. +2/-2 and almost no snow but one really big storm) I brought a pair of good quality waterproof hiking boots with good grip (I still slipped on some of the paths by the waterfalls, so be extremely careful and trust your intuition) and a pair of light, waterproof, insulated boots, which were great to use in the city and for the night-time Northern Lights tours. It’s a good idea to dress in layers and to bring plenty of t-shirts for indoors as most places are rather warm once you get inside. Make sure you have travel insurance and/or your E111 card with you (for EU citizens), it will make you just a lot less worried in case anything unexpected does happen.
Bring as much food as your suitcase will hold
Obviously, this depends a lot on the kind of trip you are planning and the budget you are on. I was staying at a hostel with a self-catering kitchen, so I brought all my breakfast items (muesli and almond milk plus coffee and tea), pasta, pesto sauce, apples and bananas for a few days. I also packed enough energy bars and chocolate to last me for the week as I spent all my days on bus tours or at concerts and didn’t have much time to shop for food. There are supermarkets like Bonus and Kronan (and also the Icelandic equivalent of 7/11 called 10-11) in central Reykjavik and some of the other towns and touristy spots around the island, but they are all fairly expensive (roughly about double of what you’ll pay at home including for basic things like bread, cheese and milk) and they really made me appreciate (and miss) the choice we get in UK supermarkets – who would have thought?
Shop around for day tours and Northern Lights trips
As I was travelling by myself, I decided to join some bus tours. There is a lot of competition and many combination offers available, e.g. horseriding, glacier-climbing, helicopter trips, caving and super jeep tours. I did some online research before my trip and compared the tour schedules for a few tours I was planning on taking. The prices vary considerably (ask for a discount if you’re doing more than one tour with one operator) and the bigger companies do a lot more advertising, which doesn’t mean they are necessarily better tours. I ended up going on three tours with Thule Travel and found them friendly and helpful. The most popular trips you can do in a day include:
- The Golden Circle tour with three main stops at Þingvellir National Park (walk between the North American and European tectonic plates), the geothermal area in Haukadalur (with the geysers Geysir and Strokkur) and the impressive Gullfoss waterfall. We also got to pet and take a selfie with some Icelandic horses on the way back, which was a great little bonus for me. All day/8 hour tour.
- South Coast Tour: We stopped at Eyjafjallajökull (the famous volcano which erupted in 2010), the Solheimajökull glacier (you can walk up to it, so great), Seljandsfoss waterfall (possible to walk behind it if weather decent), for lunch in Vik town (also a nice beach with puffins flying around the cliffs), Reynisfjara beach (Iceland’s most dangerous beach with huge waves, so keep an eye on them when you’re taking pictures) and Skogafoss waterfall (you can climb up to the top). All day/10 hour tour. Probably my favourite day during my trip.
- Northern Lights tour: I had not been sure if I should go on one of those, but even though we didn’t see very much when I went (they give you a free repeat ticket, if the lights don’t show), I quite enjoyed the ‘hunt’ being driven around lakes and fjords in the dark and met some nice other travellers on the bus. The one time I did see the lights more clearly was from my hostel window one night at around 1am, so you never know! The bus companies tell you around 5-6pm each night if the tour goes ahead (based on the likelihood of seeing the lights) and they depart between 8-9pm and bring you back to your hotel/hostel around midnight or 1am.
- Blue Lagoon tour: I didn’t end up going there this time, but do book this well in advance, as it is super popular and the daytime slots go quickly. You can also go there on the way from or to the airport and lots of people seemed to bring waterproof cameras for the obligatory silica mud-caked selfies. There are also several popular outdoor pools around Reykjavik, where you’ll probably meet more locals and will still have a good time. Hotpot Iceland lists all of them with GPS details.
If you’re renting a car instead, make sure you check the weather forecast and follow the locals’ advice as well as take a look at Safetravel. My tour bus driver worked for the Icelandic search and rescue associaton ICE-SAR and told us many stories of people who got lost or had accidents and not all of them made it back home alive.
Hunt for food and beer bargains to beat the inflated prices
Download an app called Appy Hour to get the best deals for drinks (and some food) at any given time around Reykjavik. Trust me, it’s worth it, as it will reduce the price of a pint (normally ca. 7-9 pounds) by up to a half and often lists food deals as well. If you’re vegetarian (like me) or vegan, there are a few options around town but I highly recommend bringing as much food with you as possible before you arrive. I really enjoyed the vegan lasagne plus salads at Glo Restaurant (2000 ISK/15 pounds). Meals with fish or meat can be considerably higher. Coffee and tea is about 3-5 pounds a pop, so bringing a thermos might come in really handy. As the fast food restaurants are nearly as expensive as regular restaurants, there is no reason to eat there unless you’re really craving a burger. You can drink the tap water, just make sure you don’t use the warm/hot tap as it is geothermal water and will taste of sulphur. Apart from nice local foods like Skyr (thick yoghurt) and ‘volcano’ rye bread, there will also be options for you to try all sorts of meat, but please think about what you consume and do not support the unnecessary killing of beautiful species such as whales, sharks or puffins and rather see them in their natural habitat and support organisations, such as Seeds, who work in nature conservation.
Time your stay right and you’ll get to listen to great live music for free
My first visit to Iceland coincided with Iceland Airwaves Festival, which attracts around 7000 music lovers from around the world for a week every November (review coming up). They have a huge fringe programme (free events in off-venues around town), but even if you’re visiting during another time, the city’s bars and cafes often host live music, readings and other events. Some of my favourites included IDA Zimsen book café, Kaffibarinn and Kex Hostel (where I was staying). There are also other festivals (literature, beer, music) year-round, just make sure you book your accommodation well in advance during those peak times.
Make an effort to meet the locals including Reykjavik’s most famous cat
When you’re walking around Reykjavik it can sometimes feel like there are no Icelanders left in the city as it’s such a popular tourist destination. So it’s definitely worth making an effort to meet and learn about the locals. As an animal lover, I always pet any dog or cat I come across and then talk to their owners. This time I was extra lucky as I crossed paths with Baktus (Reykjavik’s most famous cat, pictured below, with his own Instagram account) several times and also met up with an Instagram friend in real life to cuddle her cute older dog and cat. I also joined one of the free walking tours (pay what you can), which takes about 2 hours during which we not only learned about Icelandic history, but also met some high school students and visited a beautiful neighbourhood with historic wooden houses (see pic above).
No matter whether you’re visiting Iceland on a stopover for a few nights, during a festival or have more time to expore the island, it’s a beautiful and quirky place to discover and you’re sure to have a great time. Iceland is a destination which has many different seasons (Northern Lights in the winter months, puffins and whales in spring and summer etc.) and you can easily combine nature with culture. The Reykjavik Grapewine and Iceland Review are two great English-speaking print and online publications to learn about local culture, news and events while you’re visiting. Just make sure you start saving now as you’ll definitely need more money than expected!