Iceland is a lot of driving. They don’t have any trains there, so you basically have the option of spending a ton of money to sit on a bus and take a tour, or you can do some planning ahead and do self tours with a rental car. This is what I went for, except for the northern lights, which I’ll get to at the end!
Reykjavik is the biggest city in Iceland, but even it itself has such a lovely small town feel. It’s a great base from which to explore some parts of the country. Someday when I go to Iceland in the summer, I would love to have a camper and drive it around the ring road, exploring the entire country. But for now, in late fall/winter, smaller trips based out of Reykjavik is what I decided to stick with.
Instead of going the hotel route, I booked us an entire apt Airbnb for our four nights there, ensuring we had a kitchen to ourselves. This was vital because food is SO EXPENSIVE in Iceland. No really, it’s crazy. That awesome lobster soup in Grindavik? Twenty bucks. Lobster soup in Reykjavik? Almost thirty. An entree at any of the lovely restaurants? Upwards of fifty dollars. So what we did was we went grocery shopping, loaded up and only spent about $50 total on that, and made breakfast and dinner at home and packed sandwiches for the road for when we would go exploring. My mum is an amazing cook and having that Airbnb really helped save us money in that department, and it was such a lovely apartment too. It was just beside Hallgrimskirkja, the massive church, on a quiet little street and only a few minutes walk to the cute main street Laugavegur in Reykjavik. Perfect.
Laugavegur is where most everything is in Reykjavik. The street is lined with shops, cafes and restaurants, perfect for a stroll through. Everything is quaint and colorful. We did eat out a couple times during the few days we had there, including the cafe Svarta Kaffid – a cozy spot where all they serve is two choices of soup daily, in bread bowls. We had the veggie soup and it was amazing, full of spices and warming to the core. We also had dinner our first night in Reykjavik at Glo, a vegetarian/vegan spot (that is actually incredibly affordable compared to everywhere else!). Super healthy and super filling. And I couldn’t resist stopping in for dessert to the gorgeous Le Bistro, a French cafe I featured on my instagram. I had a glass of wine and apple pie. The vibes in there were so on point, all French everything is just so my favorite aesthetic.
One of my favorite shops I found was the Red Cross thrift store where I was able to buy an Icelandic wool sweater for about $80. In other wool shops these sweaters go for like $200, so this was definitely a steal!
Another walk worth taking is down to the Old Harbour. We did this on our last day, that rainy/snowy day when we had to cancel our last mini road trip to the Northwestern Peninsula. It was beautiful to walk around that area in the dreary weather, like it was made for it. Almost made me not as sad to miss that road trip I was dying to take. 😉
The first mini road trip we did do was the Golden Circle. As I mentioned in the last post, if I knew what I know now I would have gone from the bubble, doing the Golden Circle on the way to Reykjavik, but c’est la vie – I’m always learning. We did that drive on the first full day out of Reykjavik, after a great night’s sleep in our Airbnb.
Golden Circle isn’t so much of a circle as it is a row of amazing stops. First up is Þingvellir National Park. Originally when I was planning this trip, I was very excited about the prospect of going snorkeling in the silfra fissure. It’s where two continental plates meet, and it’s here in this park! But once I got to Iceland I immediately put that on the list of things to do next time, not in winter. Even though they provide you with wetsuits, I’m such a chicken when it comes to being cold… and it being below freezing outside, and freezing in the water… yeeeah, I’ll save that for the next trip in the summer, ha.
Thingvellir (the English spelling) is still absolutely gorgeous. It is a winter wonderland this time of year, and we went on a long, cold walk all around. We even saw some mountain sheep! It’s history is pretty incredible too, as the world’s oldest parliament used to gather there, as far back as 930 AD.
The next stop on Golden Circle is Geysir Hot Springs. This place was INSANE. Probably the most otherworldly bit of Iceland I’ve seen this trip- I mentioned it on instagram, but it seriously felt like I walked into Land Before Time. It was soooo cold while we were there too but I would dip my fingers into the warm water trickling around occasionally to help me with taking photos (I was absolutely frozen otherwise!). The ‘Great Geysir’ is inactive now, but there is another one there called Strokker that erupts every 7-ish minutes. We saw it go a few times and it was magnificent. I think I actually yelped the first time because it took me by surprise, haha.
The third and final stop is the massive waterfall Gullfoss. At this point it was well below freezing outside and I was pretty much dying of cold, but we couldn’t not see this one! The sun was setting when we got there, and the most beautiful hues of pink were all around us. That’s one of my favorite things about this trip – every sunset bathed everything around us in pink; the snow, the mountains, the sky. Gullfoss is so powerful and majestic, and getting there at sunset was perfect timing.
If I had more time or had driven Golden Circle from the Bubble Hotel, there’s a couple extra stops I would have loved to make (notes for next time!). This website (awesome Iceland blog) has amazing information and ideas for extra stops, including lunch in a greenhouse and dipping in hot spring pools or warm rivers, and other waterfalls and gorgeous places of attraction close by. During the winter season now, there’s only 6 hours of daylight so we couldn’t fit much more in than the three original stops.
The other mini road trip we did was a beautiful drive to a spot where you can hike to a waterfall called Glymur. So while we didn’t actually do the hike, since it started snowing pretty heavily right when we got there and I didn’t want our car to get stuck anywhere, it was still worth it just for the drive out there. It is about and hour and a half of a drive to the spot where you park for the hike, and then another hour or two of hiking to get to the waterfall. Yet another thing on my list to do next time when the weather is right for these kinds of adventures! This blog has really lovely details of the hike in better weather and I can’t wait to try it next time.
One of the best parts of that drive we did to Glymur was the horses we found on the way home. So gorgeous, so sweet. I loved them so much!
Now for the most anticipated part (for me) of this whole trip – the Northern Lights. Sigh. So I very specifically wanted my first trip to Iceland to be in the wintertime because seeing the lights *for real* has been a lifelong dream (I’ve seen them from the plane on a flight home from Europe once a few years ago, but they were very mild and didn’t last long). While I didn’t book tours for anything else on this trip, I hoped booking a Northern Lights tour would be worth it. On Iceland’s weather website, you can actually check aurora forecasts, so I booked the tour for a night when it seemed to be a strong chance.
The lights did show up for us, and they were beautiful… but the sad thing was that we were stuck inside the tour bus, straining to see out the dark window while the ribbons of green rippled through the sky. When the bus got to the destination where there was supposed to be good viewing, the lights were already over and we didn’t see anything else. So sad! We did get hot chocolate and Icelandic ‘donuts’ and our tour guide sang songs and told us stories, but it sucked to have the only time the lights showed up during our whole trip be while we were stuck on a bus. I know now that if the forecast is good, its better to just drive your rental car out of the city and watch for them that way, instead of relying on a bus. One thing I did get out of it was that there is a Northern Lights photographing app you can buy, called NorthernLights (duh, haha). I hadn’t brought my DSLR with me on the lights chase so I was eager to try out the iPhone app, but didn’t get the chance to. Hopefully someday soon!
One last thing. On our last night, it was rainy and I googled what to do in Reykjavik in the rain. Turns out there are lots of hot springs pools all over, and in Reykjavik, not just the Blue Lagoon! I mean the Lagoon is definitely totally magical, but there are other places you can go for a hot springs dip. We headed to Laugardalslaug. It has a huge warm pool with water slides and all, lots of “hot pots” (like hot tubs), a sea water hot pot, and even a very cold 5 degree celsius tub. I did not get in that, ha. This public pool costs so much less than Blue Lagoon, and it was the perfect relaxing way to spend our last evening.
I can’t wait to go back to incredible Iceland someday. If you’re reading this with hopes of planning or are planning a trip there, I hope this was helpful in planning parts of your trip! I absolutely adore this country and can’t wait till the next trip and more Icelandic adventures 🙂