ICELAND

 

Visiting Iceland is like no place I've ever been.

 

I often describe it like going to another planet...

and, in fact, the Russians sent astronauts there to practice

walking on the moon during the Cold War

because of the weird terrain.

 

It's a small place with around 300,000 inhabitants.

There isn't a lot to do, 

but man- the scenery is amazing.

 

It's a place not to miss if you can avoid it...

especially a float around the Blue Lagoon.

 

Find my Iceland posts here.

 

REYKJAVIK

DO

NATURE EXPLORER ICELAND | First things first: we travel with this group for our trips to Iceland. They give us amazing guides, get us super jeeps into the mountains to take us to places we can't drive or pronounce... and they book everything for us. If you can, use them. They'll make your trip to Iceland perfect.

ICELANDAIR HOTEL MARINA | To be honest, I wasn't excited when I heard we were staying here. I've stayed at the IcelandAir Hotel in Keflavik near the airport and it is, well, not worth writing home about. However, this new hotel along Reykjavik's marina is fabulous. The design is great, the location is superb, the breakfast buffet is killer and well... it's just a great stop. Highly recommend this for your stay.

HOTEL ODINSVE | This hotel is not crazy expensive in Icelandic prices, it's really well located right off the main drag and near the famous Lutheran church,  Hallgrimskirkja. The hotel has really nice staff, and for larger groups- offers some swankily-outfitted apartments.

CENTERHOTEL MIDGARDUR | This hotel chain has several locations in Reykjavik, but this one is fresh and new. We stayed here- on the top floor- and the view over Reykjavik was really lovely. The hotel had snuggled in two baby beds alongside the bed & window for our kids, and the bathroom was spacious and nice. The hotel breakfast the next morning was a great start the a day exploring the popular street the hotel is situated on, Laugavegar. 

HALLGRIMSKIRKJA | This famous church has become an icon for this city since it's recent completion in 1986. Designed to look like the distinct basalt rocks found so often around Iceland, this Lutheran church is a warm and welcoming sight for tourists wandering around Reykjavic. Say hi to the famous explorer Leif Eriksson on your way in. Admission is free.

KOLAPORTID FLEA MARKET | Last year, my friend asked if I wanted to go the weekend flea market in Reykjavik. I was actually really taken back, as I had never heard of this. We went to the market- which sits conveniently down by the water in town- and I had the best time. This is one place where you can actually find fun souvenirs that won't cost an obscene amount of money. You can expect to find anything from second-hand Icelandic wool jumpers to old Icelandic sagas to random children toys. There are some small food stands that have classic bites like Icelandic donuts and hot coffee, or you can opt for a more adventurous option like the traditional air-dried fish. The market is open Saturdays and Sundays, from 11am-5pm.

SALT ELDHUS | I love doing a cooking class when we travel to new places. The cost counts for a meal, it's a fun activity for everyone and learning the new recipe is one of the best souvenirs I can take home. While most classes in this adorable cooking school feature Icelandic dishes and wine pairings, I requested a dessert + coffee combo for the group I was leading. We made Icelandic crepes with rhubarb compote and skyr whipped cream. It was so fun and so perfect. (The owner, Audur, said she was hoping to add this to the regular class offerings. Regardless of which route you end up going (savory or sweet!), I have a feeling that you won't be disappointed!) Read about our class here.

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THE SAGA MUSEUM |  Learn about the famous Icelandic Sagas at this museum located on the outskirts of town at the modern building called "The Pearl..." You'll probably have to take a taxi to get there. After you work your way through the gory stories that have become so legendary in Icelandic folklore {some of which seem very cool and some which seem a bit outlandish} make it up to the top floor to the cafe and panoramic deck. Go for a walk around the outer viewing platform for amazing views of Reykjavik, take silly pictures of yourself in the reflective mirror... and then head inside to the cafe for a cup of coffee to warm back up. (To be fair, this museum is better for the literary nerds than random tourists.)

WHALE WATCHING |  We spent four hours whale watching off the coast near Reykjavik. The boat saw one tiny part of a whale during the entire expedition.... and most of it's passengers were so far into their vomit bag that they missed it. (Myself included.) When we told our Icelandic friend we went, he cried laughing. Apparently, these expeditions are often fruitless in sightings and known to be vomit-fests. I can only say that our experience was 100% in-line with the rumors he had heard.

 

EAT

Beyond the rainbows & glaciers, the main surprise I discovered here was how good the food in Reykjavik... You won't go hungry here, though you may go broke from the exchange rate. Tucking in and out of good eateries is the perfect activity while wandering through this chilly little town.

SAETA SVINID GASTROPUB | While the downstairs looks unassumingly like any another pub, go upstairs to the dining room for great food and an ambiance that is reminiscent of NYC's Spotted Pig. We split the slow cooked shoulder of lamb and felt as if we had hit the jackpot. Also, you're going to want a side of their amazing waffle fries. Just trust me on that. 

BAKARI SANDHOLT: If you're looking for the best croissant in Reykjavik (and why wouldn't you be?), this is the place to go. This beloved bakery cranks out classic Viennosserie treats (croissants, pain au chocolate, etc), but also offers the best Scandinavian treats in the country. Try the vanilla custard danish- it's perfectly flaky and dusted with roasted almonds and a drizzle of frosting. (It's delicious.... and you're welcome.) Read my full review here.

REYKJAVIK ROASTERS: If you're looking to find that perfect cup of coffee in that perfectly hipster setting- look no further than Reykjavik Roasters. This coffee shop sits up in a minimal way, but delivers big flavor in their in-house roasted coffee. Not only is the coffee good, but they have my favorite cookies, oddly called "Sarah Bernhardts." The Danish cookies are made of an almond meringue based topped with dark chocolate dipped chocolate buttercream. The whole creation is perfectly cut with a sprinkle of salt that keeps it from getting too sweet. But enough about the cookies, back to the coffee shop. Reykjavik Roasters is definitely the type of place you'll want to bring a book or your laptop and stay a while. See my post about it here.

ISLENDIGAR BORDA SS PYLAR (AKA: "The Hot Dog Stand") | On the Iceland Air flights, they have an ad that plays on your personal tv which claims that the most popular restaurant in Reykjavic is a hot dog stand. After you find out where that is and sit there for 20 minutes while car after car pull into the tiny parking space and dudes hop out to nosh down a dog, you start to realize how true it is. 

The Icelandic people love their hotdogs, and they were, literally, the cheapest hot meal I saw the entire time. It's a pretty routine formula: bun, dog, raw onion, fried onion, mustard, ketchup & some remoulade. It is pretty tasty. I only had one. My husband on the other hand cleared a dozen during our time in Iceland. It was somewhat impressive and completely disgusting all at the same time.

BRAUD & CO | Just below Reykjavik Roasters, sits an assuming bakery. But I made the assumption it was going to be delicious, and tucked in... and I'm so glad I did. While there were many winners in the (huge) bag I walked out with, the winner was the warm cinnamon roll. Yum. Definitely on our "repeat" playlist for next year.

C IS FOR COOKIE |  Right across the street from Hotel Odinsve, there is the cutest coffee shop with some of the best food in the world. Ok, perhaps I'm slightly exaggerating there, but I'm not lying when I say their coconut cake can not be topped. It's inexplicable... and totally acceptable as a breakfast food.

PRIR FRAKKAR | Ok, so you've made it all the way to Iceland. {Well done.} It's time to get crazy and eat some crazy Icelandic cuisine. This tiny place is a favorite of Chef Jamie Oliver and when you look at the menu, you'll know why. Shark sashimi? Whale steak? Puffin tarts? Reindeer medallions? Horse tenderloin? Oh my goodness. It's not just kitschy, but it's also really good! I'd make a reservation or plan on going before 7pm. The small space will fill up with locals and well-guided tourists soon thereafter.

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SEABARRONS | Located down on the water by the docks & whale-watching boats sits the humble little restaurant, Seabarrons. This no-frills restaurant offers a short menu of freshly caught kebabs (that you literally choose out of the fridge & they cook) or their legendary Lobster Soup. The soup comes with, approximately, 500 slices of bread & butter... and the coffee in the dispenser is free. Take your giant cup of chunky lobster soup and mug down!

SJAVARGRILLID (AKA Seafood Grill) |  While this name sounds a little basic, this is a fantastic spot to eat in Reykjavik. The seafood is, honestly, some of the best I've ever had in my life. The drinks menu is very hip and the ambiance is a luxe retreat within the laid-back capital city. Make sure you make reservations ahead of time; the word is definitely out on how great this is. It's a popular place, but one worth sneaking away to for a beautiful night out in Reykjavik.

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MOKKA KAFFI | The oldest coffee shop in Iceland has a quiet mellow vibe and some delicious coffee. Go feel like an Icelandic hipster and hang out there with a tatty paperback for a few hours. It's central location Reykjavik makes it easy to access, too.

ROADHOUSE |  If fish & puffin start feeling a little heavy on your stomach, and you need some good old grease to get you back in business: Go to the Roadhouse. It's a 5-10 minute walk from the main street in town and has some crazy burger concoctions, like the one I got... a burger topped with macaroni & cheese and bacon. I don't regret anything about that experience, except that I could only stomach half of it. Next time. And they have really good milkshakes.The peanut butter one almost made me meow.

HAMBORGARABULLAN... or "BURGERJOINT" | Again, you won't find local fare here- but you will find comfort food that delivers. This small shop just off the water is the perfect place to get a burger (I love the BBQ Bacon, because... well, is an explanation needed?). The fries are good (don't skip the seasoning) and the milkshakes, though slightly McDonalds-esque, round off the experience perfectly. (Ask for a combo of coffee + chocolate.) See my full post about it here

MAT BAR | This Instagram-esque eatery is new in the food scene in Reykjavik. You’ll find it full on a Friday evening with some of Iceland’s poshest crowd. You’ll need to book in advance, but I think for a cool night out in Iceland- this is a good spot to go. We went with friends and it was really nice to order a bunch of their small plates and share. Make sure your order dessert before the kitchen closes though to avoid feeling a bit short-changed…. Speaking from experience! Our favourite eats were the cauliflower with pistachio + goats cheese, the short rib and, everyone’s favourite, the generously portioned fried-potatoes. The portions are pretty large even though they claim they are “tapas” style, so I’d recommend just going with a meat and a vegetable side.

ESSENSIA | Iceland can be cold and there’s little that can warm you up like Italian food. So when you’re stuck in that chilly moment and wondering where you should eat- go to Essensia for some soul-warming Italian food… with an Icelandic twist. Menu favourites include the delicious arancina, the bolognaise pasta, and the daily fish that is offered through the lunch menu (2 courses for 3490 ISK). If you’re coming with children, they can do smaller portions of the pastas for you, which is pretty handy. Easy to walk-in during lunch time, but would recommend booking a table for dinner.

OSTA BUDIN | Once a tiny deli in the heart of Reykjavik’s city centre, the shop has now expanded into a restaurant. Expect classic Icelandic fare- lamb fillets, arctic char and salted cod- but also a few new things like a really impressive Icelandic cheese board featuring local camemberts, blue cheese and exceptionally smokey goudas. Book ahead, as this is tiny spot is fairly popular with nearby concierges for a recommendation of where to eat.

KRUA THAI | For anyone traveling with kids to Iceland, you’ll appreciate a place that can do really good takeaway food. And especially if it’s not going to rob you blind. Well, good news parents: Krua Thai express is not only an option, but it’s delicious, huge portioned and not gonna kill your budget. The red curry is especially good and a big enough to share with a child. Or maybe another adult, but who really wants to do that? If you have time and want to sit in, you can go next door and sit in the main restaurant, Krua Thai. (Again, I’d book a table just to avoid being frustrated with getting turned away.)

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BEYOND REYKJAVIK

THE GOLDEN CIRCLE: This is the most popular route to do out of Reykjavik. Find my how-to-guide for seeing the best way to see the Golden Circle here.

HOTEL LAKI: This is where we stay when we are traveling around the South Shore of Iceland. It may not be my favorite hotel in the world, but hey- you're in Iceland. You don't have endless options. This one gets the job done... and done fairly well. And the view of the Northern Lights I had there earns it an extra star. (For more on traveling the South Shore, read my post here.) 

FOSSHOTEL NUPAR: This hotel feel like storage pods were all aligned in the middle of a stunning valley along the edge of the earth. With a close proximity to all the major sites on the Southeast coast (Jokursarlon Glacier Bay, Skaftafell National Park, etc.), this hotel sets up to be a great spot for exploring those places that are just too far to get to on a day trip from Reykjavik. Plus, the dinner buffet is huge and has something for everyone. It also is a great spot for catching the Northern Lights.

BLUE LAGOON: If you come all the way to Iceland, and you don't go to the Blue Lagoon... well, you're missing the point. Totally worth spending a half day (or full, if you can) of your trip there. If you're up for the splurge, make sure to book your in-water massage well in advance, as they book up quickly. Read more about it in my post here. If you're traveling with small children, please not that children under two are now NOT allowed in the lagoon. This is strictly enforced, but there are areas near the cafe where one parent could wait with the baby and you could trade off.

INTO THE GLACIER ICE CAVING: Okay, THIS. If you're headed to Iceland- this is the experience that will make all your friends back home flip out. This man-made ice tunnel is carved into a glacier (it is the largest in Europe), and the LED lighting throughout makes it gorgeous for photos. You kind of have to see it to believe it, but it is worth the drive up from Reykjavik to the West coast. (You also get to pass some fjords along the way!) Read about my experience here.

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ICELANDIC SUPERJEEPS: Go out of the city and into the mountains to heights you wouldn't imagine would be possible by car. And they're not really- because to do these terrains, you need a super jeep. Read all about them here.

SKOGAFOSS: This is one of my favorite stops in Iceland. "Foss" means waterfall, so every time you see it- you'll that one of Iceland's numerous waterfalls is in store. This one is my favorite though. They way it sits back in the cliff, with a gorgeous pool below... and I promise, the first time I saw it- there was a double rainbow overhead. It's magical.

HESTHEIMAR: This horse farm makes for a wonderful stop either for a half-day or an overnight stay. You can either opt for horseback riding through the countryside on Iceland's unique breed of horse or to stay as a guest at the home. The rooms are fairly basic, but the breakfast and dinner served in the family kitchen are homey and delicious. Not to be missed. 

LANDMANNALAUGUR: This place isn't easy to get to, but if you can- you should. You'll need a big car to get you there. Once you get there, there's a no-frills hut with no electricity and bunk beds. (Who's excited reading this? Anyone?) I promise, it's worth it. Bring food to cook... we brought lamb steaks and tossed them on the grill. They were the perfect meal for warming up after a soak in the warm thermal springs around the property. Don't miss the hiking trails that can lead you to some truly stunning views.

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JOKULSARLON GLACIAL LAGOON: This is one of the prettiest photo ops you'll find in Iceland. The experience of floating in a boat alongside glaciers is a perfect addition to your trip to Iceland. (And perhaps, the closest you'll actually get to ice... unless you brave visiting the actual glaciers.) For more information, read my post here.

THORSMORK: Named after the god, Thor, this valley looks like something where giant mythological creatures might have roamed. Go in an SUV- a huge one that the rental company approved for this area. Otherwise, you'll be stuck over a stream with no one to help you out for hours. (Trust me, it's far too common!) Worth the drive though. Pack a lunch. It's a lot to explore and not a lot of food options once you're there.

SKAFTAFELL NATIONAL PARK: If gorgeous scenery and hiking are your cup of tea, this is your place. If they aren't... why did you come to Iceland in the first place? Plan to spend a half-day or longer here. Campsites are available for renting. 

FRIDHEIMAR: This tomato greenhouse may seem like a relatively-lame stop for your trip, but I promise, it's actually a fun lunch stop. (And when you're in Iceland, there aren't many better options. It's kind of this or a gas station with a grill.) Book ahead to get a table so you can try out their freshly-made tomato soup served alongside a bottomless mountain of homemade bread.

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*images original to Aspiring Kennedy by Ashel Parsons