Geysers, waterfalls and Northern lights | A mini break in Iceland
Review: Highlights of a long weekend exploring Reykjavik and beyond.
Like many, I had long wished to see the Northern Lights. After doing some research into the European options, I decided Iceland was a more affordable option with the lights easily accessible from the capital Reykjavík. Experts recommend November to February as being the best time to see the Northern Lights so I booked a mid-week three night break in early November. We booked flights with Easyjet for £170 return, including baggage in the hold as we knew our bulky winter wear would take up too much room in a carry-on. One thing to consider is there can be a lot of wind and rain in Iceland, so waterproof clothes are recommended in the winter. I usually wear jeans when I go to winter destinations, however with the temperatures hovering around zero degrees Celsius during our visit, if I got my jeans wet, they just wouldn’t dry. Umbrellas are pretty pointless too due to the wind so I highly recommend bringing a good waterproof coat and trousers.
Reykjavík is quite a small city so easy to navigate without a car. However if you’re going further afield, we found renting a car was much better value and gave us the freedom to see the Golden Circle in our own time compared to the coach trips on their organised schedules. However, admittedly if the weather was heavy snow, we would have plumped for the coach option due to our lack of confidence of driving in bad weather.
We booked three nights at the Best Western Reykjavík, a three-star hotel located in a residential area just 10 minutes walk from the city centre. Our room was a decent size with ensuite bathroom and essential central heating with a good breakfast included. They had a brilliant information stand with lots of leaflets of attractions and discount vouchers, which we ended up using on some attractions and dinners.
Of course, one of Iceland’s main attractions is seeing the Northern Lights. There’s many different tour companies offering a variety of tours – some are a short drive for Reykjavík, while others do overnights and long-distance locations. The closer you are to Reykjavík can make it harder to see them due to light pollution. Many tour companies offer to bring you back a second night for free if there are no lights on the night you booked. We booked our tour for the night we arrived, which meant we had our subsequent nights of our short trip available to see them should we miss them at first.
We went with a company called Gateway To Iceland, which was a small minibus with our driver doubling as our guide. The trip last 3-4 hours, includes pick-up from your hotel and cost 7,900 króna (£40 approx). Our guide was incredibly passionate about his country, traditions and the lights and was a fountain of knowledge. As you would expect, the temperatures plummet in the countryside and at night compared to Reykjavík so make sure you have thermals, gloves and hats. A trip to see the lights involves a fair bit of standing outside scanning the sky so you can get pretty chilly. I had made sure I had low expectations when it comes to the Lights as I know some people who have been disappointed if they don’t see any. It’s unlikely the Lights will be like the striking images you have seen in glossy travel magazines. Fortunately on our evening, we did get to see some Lights – albeit quite subtle. What’s surprising is the lights actually appear white to your eyes, but only looked green in your photographs. My compact camera struggled taking decent images of the Lights, but my travel companion had an SLR which picked up better shots. A tripod and long-exposure setting on your camera is essential for decent photos of the Lights.
Our first full day in Iceland we decided to focus our attention on Reykjavík and get to know the city. I highly recommend walking down to the winding road of Sæbraut and harbour for a stunning view over the water with the islands of Engey and Videy and the snowy mountains across the bay. Situated by the waterfront is The Sun Voyager (Sólfar), a sculpture by Jón Gunnar Árnason. It looks like a cross between a skeleton and the hull of a boat and is a striking image against the backdrop of the water and mountains. Further west is Harpa – a dazzling glass concert hall and cultural centre, which opened in 2011. We stopped there for a drink and perused the gift shop.
With the weather being so cold, it was no surprise to find we were often drawn into the many coffee shops for a hot beverage. I particularly loved the Kaffi Mokka on the lovely shopping street of Skólavörðustígur, leading up from the town centre towards the Hallgrímskirkja cathedral. The café dates back to 1958 and the interior has changed little since then. I loved the vintage furniture and fittings and the mixed crowd of young and old. We enjoyed toasted sandwiches and a hot chocolate, simple comfort food perfect for a cold day.
Reykjavik’s most famous sight is probably the Hallgrímskirkja cathedral, which dominates the skyline. The concrete building is an expressionist style, having being designed in the 1930s by architect Guðjón Samuelsson. Construction didn’t start until after the war in 1945, and wasn’t completed until 1986. Despite the dramatic exterior, it is surprisingly plain inside, although the huge pipe organ with 5275 pipes is very impressive. I recommend taking an elevator (600 króna) up the 75 metre high tower for 360 degree views over the city.
The city also has plenty of museums and galleries to keep you entertained in the warm. The National Gallery of Iceland is a small art gallery located near the Tjörnin lake, featuring predominantly modern art. I preferred the Reykjavík Museum Of Photography, a free gallery located on the 6th floor of the City Library. We spent a long time looking at Lauren Greenfield’s thought-provoking exhibition ‘Girl Culture’, featuring portraits and interviews of young women and girls and their thoughts on body image and where they fit in the world.
In terms of restaurants, we found the food in Iceland very good quality. One night we headed to the old harbour, which has lots of restaurants and bars. We ate a wonderful meal at Forréttabarinn, a laidback restaurant and bar, which serves a mix of mains and tapas-style dishes and has a good cocktail menu. Among our dishes included Toasted Cod & Crispy Porkbelly with Parsnip Puree & Tomato Compote and Local Mussels cooked in White Wine and Cream with Leeks and Tomatoes, which were fresh and delicious. For our last meal in Reykjavík, we treated ourselves to SushiSamba in the city centre. The funky eaterie serves a fusion of Japanese and South American cuisine and has a great cocktail list. We feasted on tapas-style portions of Salmon Ceviche, Lobster Tempura, Baked Vanilla Infused Cod and Grilled Corn. We finished with a SushiSamba Pannacotta twist on Iceland’s native dessert Skyr, which consisted of Raspberry Sorbet, White Chocolate Crumble, Passion Foam, Dulce de Leche and tasted pretty heavenly.
One of the popular tourist trips from Reykjavík is the Golden Circle – a 300km route which takes in natural sights in South Island. We started at the Þingvellir (Thingvellir) national park, a UNESCO World Heritage site situated on the junction of two tectonic plates, which can be clearly seen through the cracks in the area. As well as being the site of outstanding natural beauty, it also has historical significance as the birthplace of the world’s oldest existing parliament in 930AD. We then headed on to Strokkur, a literal hotbed of thermal activity to see some geysers and hotpools. The canteen at the visitor centre did a particularly amazing fish chowder. Our last stop was the powerful and awe-inspiring Gullfoss Waterfall, which often freezes at the height of winter.
Finally, on our last day we took part in one of Iceland’s most famous activities – soaking in geothermal pools. The one most people have seen on Icelandic tourism posters and postcards is the Blue Lagoon – located on the Reykjanes Peninsula. Guide books recommend to combine your Blue Lagoon visit at the beginning or end of the trip because it is so close to the airport which is a good idea. The Blue Lagoon is admittedly expensive and crowded, but the water is big enough so you should be able to find a quiet spot. The milky blue water is a lovely 38C, with the steam from the nearby geothermal plant adding to the atmosphere. There’s also an on-site spa for massages and facials if you’re organised enough to book a slot.
During our three days in Iceland, we saw many beautiful sights and enjoyed great food. We found the people warm and friendly and they spoke good English. Although there were so many things I wanted to do, like Whale Watching and Snowmobiling, their seasonal and weather-dependent timetable made them out of reach for me on this particular visit. A return journey will have to be made in future…
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