Most visitors to Iceland will enter and leave through the capital city of Reykjavik. Our family was no exception. With a population of 122K, it isn’t a large city, but it is still quite lively and a lot of fun to spend a few partial days.
As a travel planning note, most guidebooks recommend not spending too much time in Reykjavik, since most of Iceland’s attraction is in its natural beauty. We’d largely agree with this travel tip, especially because there was so much else to see. We also ended up skipping the museums there. That said, we still got a feel for the city, visited the Blue Lagoon, hiked up to an erupting volcano, and had a great time!
An Evening Arrival
The first night of our trip started with a 9:00pm plane arrival, and more like 10:30pm to the hotel. With a 4 hour time change, it felt closer to 5:00pm, and the crazy amount of summer-time northern latitude light didn’t help convince our bodies that we were wrong. So, after checking into the hotel we started to explore the city. Our boys were thrilled to be out and about at midnight! But by 1:00am, we knew we had a long day in front of us and decided to get to bed.
We managed to find the main shopping and restaurant areas and noted that the clubs looked quite lively, even if having teen/pre-teen boys with us made us unable to enter.
Our hotel was a good setup for us. While Hótel Örkin was within walking distance of downtown, it wasn’t quite as central as we usually like to stay. That said, the prices were not as high as the more central hotels, they had a free breakfast buffet, and they were accepting “quarantine travelers.” As it turns out, Iceland paused quarantine for fully vaccinated travelers on July 1, but we had no way of knowing this prior to booking. Plus, the boys loved that their beds were in a loft area! Jeremy and I didn’t mind feeling a bit more spread out either.
First Day in Reykjavik
Our first day in Reykjavik wasn’t really spent in Reykjavik. Instead, we slept in a bit, and then took a self driving tour of the Golden Circle, an easy day trip from the city.
On return to Reykjavik, we found parking near the Greenland embassy, which is something that James really wanted to see (long story).
Then we walked through downtown and since none of us were particularly hungry, we found a “reasonably” priced restaurant called Reykjavik Street Food, where I enjoyed some “traditional Icelandic fish stew,” while everyone else got fish and chips. The food was simple, but quite tasty and we enjoyed sitting at an outdoor table on a street with a track painted like a rainbow. Fun!
One thing you will notice about Iceland is that food is expensive. A hamburger and fries at a restaurant is likely to cost around 2500-3000 ISK ($20-25), and the next step nicer is going to be closer to 3500-4000 ISK ($32) or more. Even a pre-made sandwich from a convenience store is likely to be at least 1200 ISK ($10). To be fair, the prices are inclusive of tax and gratuities, and tap water is included. That said, know ahead and plan/budget appropriately. We ended up doing grocery store picnic for a lot of lunches, particularly when driving the ring road.
I was quite tired after dinner, so we took a short walk to Hallgrímskirkja, and then back to the car.
Jeremy and James went out a bit later for another walk. In the morning we left for our journey around the ring road!
Back in Reykjavik
After a delightful week of a road trip along the ring road, our trip concluded back in Reykjavik. We arrived from the Snæfellsnes Peninsula late morning, took a stroll around Reykjavik, and then headed out to a medical center to get our pre-flight Covid test. Fortunately all of us tested negative, or we would have had to quarantine in an Icelandic hotel for quite some time.
The covid testing experience was fairly efficient – we were in the building for less than 5 minutes, and we got our result certificates emailed back within an hour (they offer PCR tests as well, for destinations that require it). If you pre-register like we did, the antigen test cost was a relatively modest $31 per-person.
After our test, we stopped by a suburban mall and got lunch at the food court. James decided that the Chinese food looked tasty. While the flavors were definitely Chinese, it was clearly not they way it would taste in either China or America. It’s always interesting to see each country’s take on various ethnic foods.
Fagradalsfjall Volcano Hike
After debating whether we wanted to visit some museums in Reykjavik, or hike to get a closer look at the Fagradalsfjall Volcano, we opted to go see if we could see any lava flowing down the mountain. At less than an hour drive from the city, it makes a great day trip! Plus the proximity to the airport could make it a nice pre/post flight hike.
Unfortunately after days of this volcano spewing bright red lava from its top (above is from our day 0 drive from the airport), the day that we went was dark with only a little steam being emitted. It was probably safer, and still fun, but not quite as cool as it could have been. While we could have hiked for 1.5-2 hours each way to get the best views of the active lava, we decided that the 30 minute hike each way to the lava field was good enough.
There were a few spots that were steaming and should clearly be avoided, but after watching a few people touch the lava rocks, we did as well. They were definitely still warm, but none of us got any burns.
If you decide to go, keep in mind that this is not a peaceful hike where you have the whole area to yourself. Both the parking lots and the trails are likely to be quite full. Parking on the street there was strictly forbidden and you will need to use an app on your phone to pay for parking (1000 ISK / $8). We ended up paying when we got back to our hotel, since the phone reception was weak there.
After getting back to the city, we checked into our 1 bedroom apartment at Blue Luxury Apartments. It was quite nice with a fairly good location, close to the downtown core, so I would definitely stay here again.
After resting a bit, we headed out for another walk through town. We started with the lakes and parks by City Hall.
Beautiful! I could have spent much longer here!
Next, we headed down to the harbor, which turned out not to be as interesting as expected. It is currently going through a period of major construction, so while it isn’t a great place for a walk now, it probably will be in another year or so.
We debated getting either “traditional” Icelandic food or something else for dinner. In the end, the idea of a 7 course meal that included whale, puffin, and horse, was a little too weird for most members of our family. So, we settled on Hraðlestin, an Indian restaurant. Delicious! If you go there, seriously consider getting the thali plate, it was quite good.
Souvenir Shopping and Street Art
After dinner, we simply wandered some more, popping into random souvenir shops, which are the main stores that seem to be open after dinner.
We made sure to also admire the beautiful street art.
Eventually we decided to call it quits and head back to our apartment to pack up for our next day flight. Hiking boots needed to be cleaned up a bit, and luggage reorganized to accommodate our belongings in a better way for the airplane. Since we were pushing the weight limits on our bags, we brought our travel scale to help make sure that we aren’t going to end up paying airport fees or having to rebalance things at the airport. European and Asian airlines can be more picky about weight limits than US based airlines.
The Blue Lagoon
On our way to the airport, we decided to stop at the Blue Lagoon. While very touristy, it is also very beautiful and a fun way to prep for a flight! If you have a morning arrival in Iceland, it could also make a great stop on the way to your hotel.
Prices start at 6,990 ISK ($56) for 14+, while 2-13 is free. Sorry, if you are traveling with kids under 2, they are not allowed. All paid tickets include a free drink at the swim up bar, free silica mud masks, and the use of their towels. Everyone had a great time!
Just make sure to wash your hair a couple of times once you get out. If your hair touched the water, it will be coated in minerals and will feel quite nasty until they are removed.
After finishing, we enjoyed lunch in their cafe, and then made our way to the airport.
The Keflavik Airport
Catching a flight out of the Keflavik Airport was more crazy than we expected. All the US bound flights on IcelandAir leave around the same time, so there was a very significant check-in line to drop off our bags and show the airlines our Covid test certificates.
Security lines were fairly short, but the surprise was a very long line to get through Passport Control to leave the country. We were wondering if we’d miss the flight, but other people in line were in much worse situation than us. We would have felt better about it if half of the checker windows weren’t closed.
When we finally reached the front of the line, we found out that Jeremy was randomly selected for additional screening. The rest of us were told to go to the gate, board, and wait for him. Jeremy was escorted to a room with 20+ somewhat annoyed other folks from other flights, and an understaffed situation. The flight attendants assured us that they would wait for him, but it’s never that clear – he ended up being the last one to board the flight before they shut the door.
It’s quite possible that we got some volcanic ash got on our bags (or maybe just the sulfur in the air?), which triggered some extra checking when they swabbed Jeremy’s bag. The security folks then asked him if he had visited the volcano and other details about our volcano hiking.
Upon arriving home, we washed as many of our bags as possible, and sponged off the rest. I guess we will find out on our next trip how good of a job we did.
In any case, we had an amazing 10 days in Iceland and would recommend it for your next family vacation!