I rang in 2017 in Iceland, watching the Northern lights dance vibrantly over the frozen terrain. With just about six hours of sunlight a day, winter in Iceland is dark, cold and windy, but also eerily beautiful. While many choose to visit at that time of year to see the Aurora, the spring and summer offer a completely unique experience – with green landscapes, rushing waterfalls, and a never-setting sun.
Reykjavik and Its Environs
Where to Stay – The Icelandair Hotel Reykjavik Marina is conveniently located at the Reykjavik waterfront, just a short walk from the Old Town city center. The rooms are small, yet comfortable, with touches of Icelanders’ cheeky humor. The property also includes a restaurant with an extensive breakfast buffet, a quaint cafe / bar for a morning cup of coffee or an afternoon cocktail, and a private cinema for a night in!
Where to Eat – While expensive, the food in Iceland is excellent – using high quality, local ingredients and employing innovative culinary techniques. Lamb and cod frequent the menu, along with lobster soup, salmon, skyr (an Icelandic yogurt), fresh blueberries, and (surprisingly) hot dogs. Guide books also make mention of Icelandic delicacies such as cured whale and shark, however we had a harder time finding these than anticipated.
- Food Cellar – In Old Town Reykjavik, Food Cellar’s ambiance is unparalleled, with subterranean rooms, live piano music and amazing craft cocktails. They also serve warm pretzels with ginger lemon cream cheese before dinner – just don’t eat too many and spoil your appetite!
- Kol Restaurant – We saved this for our final meal of the trip and went for the tasting menu – every bite was sublime! Make reservations in advance as it’s extremely popular and on the smaller side. They also have really interesting cocktails, some of which light on fire.
- Salt Kitchen & Bar – Perfect for a more casual dinner near the hotel.
- Pylsuhusid – Located at the center of Old Town, this hot dog house is a great spot for a quick lunch and a milkshake.
What to See –
- Hallgrimskirja – The church sits perched atop a hill and is one of the main attractions to see in Reykjavik. You can buy tickets to ascend to the top of the spire for aerial views of the city.
- Harpa – Harpa concert hall opened in 2011, showcasing an innovative architectural design. It stands out as a major landmark in the city and is worth a quick tour.
- The Sun Voyager – Designed by artist Jón Gunnar Árnason, the Sun Voyager sculpture pays homage to Iceland’s discovery by the Vikings.
- Whales of Iceland – If you need a rainy day activity, this exhibition featuring life-sized replicas of the dozens of whale species that call Iceland home is extremely informative.
Excursions – Reyjkavik makes a great home base, especially for a shorter stay in Iceland. Many tour operators offer half day and full day excursions into the countryside with pick-up from your hotel.
- The Blue Lagoon – The Blue Lagoon is a year-round destination with an average temperature of 100 degrees. As I mentioned in my winter post, it’s definitely a touristy activity, but still worth spending a couple of hours in the warm waters. I definitely recommend the Premium ticket for a more VIP experience and to avoid some crowds. This time I also enjoyed the in-water massage and thoroughly enjoyed it! Located closer to the airport at Keflavik, many visitors choose to stop by the Lagoon upon arrival or prior to departure.
- Inside the Volcano – This half-day excursion offers the very unique opportunity to descend inside a dormant volcano. About 45 minutes outside the city, the tour begins with a 2-mile hike through lava fields. Groups then take turns descending into the volcano via elevator and spend about 30 minutes exploring the extraordinary geography within. Following a warm bowl of lamb soup, you return back the way you came.
The Golden Circle
The Golden Circle is a popular route with departure from Reykjavik that takes you through the nearby countryside to see some of the area’s most unique geological features. I drove this route on my prior visit, and it was really interesting to see the juxtaposition of the main sites at two very different times of year!
On this trip, we also opted to snorkel through the frigid water at Silfra Fissure – the exact location in Thingvellir National Park where the tectonic plates are separating. This was a truly unique experience! Apparently you can also do this year-round, although I’m glad we didn’t do it in the winter, because it was freezing enough in the spring!
The Road North
From the Golden Circle, instead of returning to Reykjavik, we began our trek North and spent one night at Hotel Glymur along the way. The hotel is really in the middle of nowhere but has beautiful water views of an inlet. And while the loft-style rooms are a little unconventional, the restaurant more than makes up for it with gourmet food and an extensive homemade breakfast.
The next stop on our trip was the town of Husafell, where we spent one night at Hotel Husafell, one of the National Geographic Unique Lodges of the World. Renowned for its sustainable and Scandinavian-style design, the hotel is a modern oasis in the Icelandic countryside.
The main attraction in Husafell is Into the Glacier, a tour through a man-made cavern/tunnel within a massive glacier. You can either take a special bus to the site, or travel via snowmobile for added excitement and adventure. As an extension of the tour, you can also visit a nearby lava tube for a guided walking tour. While a little touristy in nature, the juxtaposition of the ice and lava formations is very uniquely Iceland.
From Husafell, we continued our journey North on part of the Ring Road, stopping along the way at The Settlement Center in Borgarnes where we learned about the origins of Iceland, and at Glanni Waterfall for some show-stopping scenery.
A couple of hours later, we arrived at our destination – Saudarkrokur and Hotel Tindastoll – the oldest hotel in Iceland. While Saudarkrokur is a tiny old fishing village with just 2 restaurants, we spent a night here due to its proximity to Drangey Island – my favorite excursion of our whole trip. From Hotel Tindastoll, we drove 20 minutes North to the end of the road at Reyki harbor and met our guides, a father-son team who had agreed to start their season a day early to accommodate our schedule. The tour began with a 25-minute boat ride to Dragney Island, which serves as a rookery for thousands of seabirds, including puffins! Once docked, we hiked up the steep trail to the top of the island (with the help of a rope!) where we continued our hike, learning about the history of the site and the many bird species that call it home. This was another truly unique Icelandic experience. The puffins were nesting and flew so fast it was hard to get a great picture of them but we still saw a lot of them, along with guillemots, gannets, kittiwakes, seagulls and ravens.
Akureyri and Its Environs
Akureyri is Iceland’s second largest city and located at the very Northern part of the island. This is a great home base for your Northern adventures around Iceland and where we headed following our stay at Hotel Tindastoll.
Where to Stay – Icelandair Hotel Akureyri is centrally located, and comfortably appointed. The rooms are bigger here than in Reykjavik and even the standard rooms feature small seating areas.
Where to Eat – Though the city is smaller than Reykjavik, there are still a number of fantastic restaurants to choose from. And if you’re getting a little tired of Icelandic food at this point (as we were) then the Asian/Icelandic fusion cuisine you’ll find is an unexpected, yet welcome, change.
- Rub23 – Their extensive sushi menu is a great way to still eat local, fresh fish but prepared in a different way. And don’t miss dessert!
- Strikid – Located along the waterfront, the view from the dining room (and from the patio during warmer weather) is lovely.
What to Do:
- Explore the Town – Akureyri has some cute shops and cafes along the main street. You can also walk further afield along the edge of the Botanical Garden to the Old Town, which was the original city center. Plaques highlight historic buildings and explain their former use.
- Whale Watching in Husavik – Husavik is just an hour’s drive from Akureyri and is the whale watching capital of Iceland. Several operators run tours in the town but we chose to go with Gentle Giants. The boat was small enough to get up close and personal with the whales yet not so small that I had any concern. They also provided dry gear in case of inclement weather. Humpbacks and minke whales are the two most common species to see in this area. You’ll likely see some puffin and arctic terns as well. This tour was my second favorite excursion – we saw DOZENS of whales and it was spectacular.
- Diamond Circle & Lake Myvatn – While the South of Iceland has the “Golden Circle”, the North is known for its “Diamond Circle,” which centers around the Lake Myvatn region. While you can do a full day tour from Akureyri, it’s also nice to stay in the Lake Myvatn region to minimize driving. Fosshotel Myvatn is a brand new property with stunning views of the lake shore and delightful copper accents incorporated in its interior design. Following the Diamond Circle there are a couple key stops along the way:
- Godafoss – Another massive waterfall that seemingly appears out of nowhere.
- Skutustadagigar – These moon-like craters are a unique geological formation caused by steam explosions, found only one other place on Earth.
- Dimmuborgir National Park – These lava formations are also unique in the world. Several hiking trails offer the opportunity to stretch your legs. And a small cafe provides a welcome break of warm soup and “geysir bread” – a local delicacy, this rye bread is baked in a pot underground near a hot spring.
- Hverfjall Crater – A massive ash crater you can climb to the top of. There’s not much to look at inside the crater except for a big hole, but gaining elevation offers unparalleled views of the surrounding landscape.
- Grjotagja Cave – This magical geothermal grotto is actually on private property, but was made famous as a filming location for Game of Thrones.
**Pro Tip: If you follow a similar itinerary, driving North from Reykjavik to Akureyri and don’t want to drive back south, you can take a quick flight from Akureyri down to Reykjavik’s domestic airport before your international departure from Keflavik**
Overall this trip to Iceland was more extensive and allowed me to view more of the country’s otherworldly geological formations, seasonal wildlife (including whales, puffins and other seabirds), and dive a bit deeper into Iceland’s culture, history and cuisine. I would recommend a trip to Iceland at either time of year and would be hard pressed to choose just one, so I’m glad to have experienced both. One thing that I noticed again on this trip is how expensive the country is. While the flights from the US are fairly affordable, be prepared to spend more on the remainder of your vacation.