A couple of weeks ago I flew to Iceland for a weekend trip for the project #KAYAKhacksIceland. Kayak, the travel site, invited 7 travel bloggers from across Europe to visit Iceland on their own and tell their own personal experience, with only one thing in common: 10 challenges to overcome with the help of Kayak as a travel planning tool.
While it was not my first solo travel (nor the second…), I was afraid that I wouldn’t be able to see much of Iceland with so little time, but was it true? Reykjavik, Hvalfjördur, Golden Circle… Find out below ;)
This is a my list of ideas to make the most of a 48 hours trip to Iceland, revolving around the #KayakHacksIceland challenges:
Enjoy the Icelandic food and the lifestyle
Reykjavik might be a little city but it is also a great place for fun, great food and slow travel. I got there after the sun had set (it was setting ten minutes after we landed in Keflavik airport) and got that feeling of “what can I do now?”
Well, there’s a lot you can do. First, each day it will be a fun day for food discovery: seafood, lamb hot dogs, fish, lamb are among the most classic choices. For the gastronomic adventurer, go for mink whale, lamb’s head (didn’t try this one), puffin… or fermented shark. This one is better when eaten with a shot of Brennivin, what they call the authentic beverage from Iceland (I prefer the Icelandic water, one of the best in the world.)
Take a local taste of it at Fishmarket, Meatmarket, Bæjarins Bestu, Tapas House (yep, I though the same, weird but it’s specialized on Icelandic recipes) or just ask a local, they know better. Or go on your own and buy some Harðfiskur at the supermarket, the Kolaportið flea market or any gas station, and chew it on your way to somewhere special. Because everywhere is the best place to eat harðfiskur (dried fish eaten as a snack.)
You’ll even come across a couple of spots where they dry the fish towards Thingvellir national park and Akranes. Like the one in the picture below (at the left.)
Now, you already know I’m a big fan of big cities (having been born in one of the biggest of them all), but as much as Reykjavik can offer it can be enjoyed in a single weekend.
Among my favorites are:
- take a free tour from Reykjavik CityWalk and discover the history and landmarks of the cit
- wander and get lost at the 101 Reykjavik and do some window shopping (or some real shopping)
- look for great graffitti and chase the rainbows in the streets
- go inside the Harpa building and get a nice view over the Reykjavik bay
- take a pic of Solfar at sunset (or dawn, depends on your plan for the day)
- climb Hallgrímskirkja church or dine at Perlan for a nice view over the city
And if you feel like having some fun, join the fun at any pub and take a taste of the beer from the local breweries.
Talk, talk, talk and learn, learn learn
When I started studying English everybody said it was THE language. English could help you get understood, everywhere in the world. Guess what? The english level is low in most countries (not only in Spain). Japan, Mexico, Portugal, Belgium, France… I’ve never been to a non-english speaking country where people spoke as much English as in Iceland. Everybody, including cab drivers, small cafes in little towns and bus drivers spoke English. And not just where? / Hi / Thanks, but more than enough to keep a proper conversation. This makes traveling easy, but also gives more room for learning about the local culture.
Icelandic is a difficult language to learn. As Erik from CityWalk Reykjavik proves above, learning Icelandic can be tough, but it also fun. And, one of the best things is that the names of places in Iceland are quite descriptive. So if you just learn some suffixes, you can easily identify a waterfall, a bay, a fjord…
¿The stragest/most unpronounceable word? We can start with Eyjafjallajökull, the famous volcano, but any other word can do. If you want to learn the basic words you’ll use in Iceland (in Spanish, English and Icelandic), like Takk takk (for thanks) or Opeð (open), check the first image of this post. You’ll find some useful sentences too :)
Go hunting for the Northern Lights
Yes, Northern Lights are probably the reason why you are heading to Iceland :)
Well, there are three conditions that you need, in order to be able to watch the aurora borealis:
- Darkness: this is the easy one; with only 6 to 4 hours of daylight in Winter, you will only need to choose an area without much light.
- High solar activity: this one you can’t control (if you can, just let me know :D )
- Clean skies: you can’t control this either, but you can check the weather on vedur.is every once in a while, for best chances to spot Northern Lights.
Sounds like a lottery, doesn’t it? Well it isn’t. There are a couple of things you can do to increase your chances:
- You can check the weather forecast and try to book on the theoretical best days. Kayak alerts are a good tool if you want to combine price and probabilities.
- You can book a hotel in an area with low light pollution and/or choose different locations. Kayak proved very useful for this. I was looking for a place in Reykjavik and discovered a nice place in the Grotta Area, known as a good place to go for this, and the user comments confirmed that northern lights could be watched from there. You’ll see that if a hotel is good for watching northern lights, comments will say it’s good for watching northern lights.
- You can book a tour that will take you to a place with higher chances to see them. Check for those who offer a second chance if you are not lucky enough.
- You can go solo, checking on the forecast. If you feel confident enough to drive at night under the icelandic weather.
I was very lucky. On my first night I was strolling around the Hotel, looking for some night pictures of the Reykjavik Bay at night and there it was, a shy green light on the horizon. It was only 7 PM and it was windy, but it made me smile like a little kid. Later at night I could spot them from the room’s window, at the park behind, everywhere around. And I was in Reykjavik, I didn’t even need to take the car or a tour for it. The next night it was cloudy, with a snow storm coming over, and I was glad I got the chance to watch them on my first night.
Feel nature as its best and enjoy the natural resources
A big number of people only remember one thing of Iceland: volcanoes. The island has plenty of them and that provides three amazing things: stunning sights everywhere you look at, the purest water and a lot of energy resources. The first way you will use them is at your Reykjavik hotel, which will be piping hot water from natural hot springs (that brings some smell to it, but it’s ok). But if you feel like enjoying it at its best, just keep your eyes open. You will see green houses, like the ones near Geysir.
But if you want to truly enjoy the hot springs, you have two different choices I recommend: joining the tourists at Blue Lagoon (remember to do your booking online, it get’s fully booked easily) or the locals at any of the local swimming pools in the Reykjavik area, for one tenth of the price. The first option is more beautiful, it is a natural hot spring and you will see the geothermal plant that provides energy to the area on the distance, and the other is more convenient, being just one tenth of the price and inside the city, but more “man-made”.
Enjoy driving along the most beautiful scenery
I have already told you how amazing it is driving in Iceland. But, whether you choose to self drive around the area or hop on a guided tour, save one day for the Golden Circle. You won’t regret it.
I prefer the self driving choice because it gives you the chance to add new places to your itinerary and wander a bit around the southwest of the Iceland. Or take your time to visit the impressive scenery up in Hvalfjördur or stop down at Stokkseyri for those strange lava-made beaches.
For a first trip to Iceland I would try to do the Golden Circle: Gulfoss, Geysir – Strpllir, Thingvellir National Park (Unesco World Heritage) and Blue Lagoon. It is a 300 kilometer loop near Reykjavik. All of it you can do it also on a tour bus, but you’ll miss some stops and some funny horses and sheep crossing the road.
Take your time to explore nature in a different way
While you can sure explore a lot by car, there are a couple of ways you can enjoy the beautiful Icelandic landscape. By horse, dogsledding, on a helicopter, from a ship, on a snowmobile… I didn’t have enough time for snowmobile or a ship; with so little daylight it was that or everything else.
So I chose dog sledding. It was fun and I got to learn a lot about a sport I didn’t know much of. Plus, I got to meet some famous actors :) The guys at the top picture appeared at “Life of Walter Mitty” feature film (one of my favourites I must say).
During winter, dog sledding is performed on dry land, the glacier is harder to reach and dogs need to be trained in both types: snow and land. But they run in a beautiful area, with the famous volcanoes on one side, a fjord on the other and with the sun coming up while we run. We even got to spot a rainbow. It’s not a cheap activity, but it can be cheaper if you are going there on your own transport. Both options can be found on Viator.
Find a home outside your home
When you choose where to sleep in Reykjavik, you will find a diverse range of options. But you should try to spot one nice guesthouse like the Blue House, where I stayed. It sounds like a backpacker choice, but you’d be amazed how nice it can be to arrive to a house where you can cook, enjoy reading or just chat with people from around the world at breakfast. Kayak proved great for choosing this sort of location.
My choice included: a good chance to watch the northern lights, free parking, a beautiful room looking towards the Grotta lighthouse, a nice park behind and one of those great public hot spring swimming pools nearby. And, while it was outside the 101 Reykjavik area, the bus number 11 could take me downtown in just 5 minutes.
Enjoy every “what if” of your luggage
Yes, there are a lot of what if you usually get in your backpack and that you never use. But in Iceland everything gets some use. You think you should never pack a swimsuit? Well, as I said before, there are a lot of swimming pools and natural hotsprings where you will use it. Sunblock? Yes, cold and wind can burn as much as sun… There are many things that you should pack to Iceland, but you should never miss these:
This post has its origin on the #KayakHacksIceland challenge, where Kayak invited 7 travel bloggers from across Europe to visit Iceland on their own and tell their own personal experience. Each blogger has designed her/his weekend in Iceland with total freedom, using Kayak to choose every aspect of their trip (dates, hotel, activities…) With only one thing in common: 10 challenges to overcome with the help of Kayak as a travel planning tool. The result? 7 different visions of Iceland – 7 different trips to Reykjavik. You can watch all the pics of the challenge and the participants on Instagram, or follow the trips with #KAYAKHacksIceland