Considering my 23rd birthday fell on a Saturday this year, I knew a weekend break would be the best way to celebrate (of course). I decided to fully embrace my winter birthday and head to the land of ice with Julian, and hopefully experience the Aurora Borealis in person!
I’ve always heard Iceland is EXTREMELLY expensive though, but considering we were only going for 3 days, we decided it wouldn’t completely break the bank (although yes, I made the mistake of impulsively buying flights prior to anything else because they were cheap, then realising hotels pretty much cost more than anything I own).
Considering we were only going to have 3 full-days (thank you work for that Monday off), careful planning would be crucial! The first thing we had to bear in mind is that during winter, Iceland has very short daylight hours (on average only 5 hours in January). Secondly, it was clear to us 3 full days wouldn’t be enough to see the whole country (Iceland has bigger land mass than the UK, but smaller population than Croydon!). So, having a base in Reykjavík and venturing out for day tours would be the best course of action. This is what we decided to see:
There are plenty of bus or boat tours to go see the northern lights which you can book online or once you’re in Reykjavík. I shopped around on Viatour for a while and settled on this one.
We soon realised this tour would be with a company called BusTravel Iceland and considering their Instagram and website seemed ACE, I decided to go ahead and book a second tour with them (Golden Circle). I messaged them and asked for a discount as this would be the second trip on the same day with them and also my birthday, and voila…. (if you don’t ask you don’t get peeps!)
This tour to see the Northern Lights was ideal, as if you don’t see it the first time round they kindly allow you to take the tour again and again until you see it (up to 3 years validity!). Unfortunately for us, we didn’t see it despite trying for 2 consecutive nights, so decided to give up! Might have to catch the Aurora in Alaska or something next!
The Golden Circle tour with this same company was very encompassed and complete. We were taken to the main attractions for the duration of the 8-hour bus tour which included:
- Geysir geothermal area
- Gullfoss waterfall
- Þingvellir National Park
- Kerið volcanic crater (entrance fee included)
There were sufficient food stops and our guide was very informative, funny and lovely! Kudos BusTravel Iceland for a wonderful experience.
When booking our Blue Lagoon tour I made a bit of a rookie error…. I didn’t realise tickets for it got booked up WAY in advance, and going online only one week before our trip, meant that tickets for entry during daylight hours (e.g. entry at 10/11am when the sun is rising) was all booked up for all weekend!
Thankfully, when you book an entrance time you can stay as long as you’d like in the lagoon afterwards. So, rather than opting for a later available ticket (e.g. 3/4pm entry times when sun is setting) we just decided to book a super early entry time instead (8am) and wait in the cafe until 10/11am when the sun was rising and there was sufficient light to swim about.
You can book your trip to the Lagoon with various tour operators, or through them directly on their website. We booked with one of the main agencies – Reykjavik Excursions, who also do transfers from your hotel and back.
When booking, you can then decide on the type of package you want; comfort, premium and luxury. We went for the basic and cheapest which is comfort and that includes entrance only. Personally, unless you reeeeeallly want a dressing gown, slippers, drink included etc, I don’t think the extra money is worth spending on the more comprehensive packages.
We stayed in the Lagoon for around 1.5hours and really enjoyed the free silicon mud facial they give you and the temperature was just perfect at around 40°c inside!
Insider tip: If you go for the most basic package like we did, make sure to take a towel, flip-flops to walk about, change of clothes and maybe some food… their only cafe wasn’t that great and was horribly expensive!
The above were the only 3 tours we did, but others we wish we could have done include the Southern Island Day Trip or generally just renting a car and going round the island: places like Skógafoss waterfall, Seljalandsfoss, Sólheimasandur black sand beach, Jökulsárlón Glacial Lagoon are all meant to be beautfiful, but more easily reached by 4×4.
WHERE TO STAY:
We booked our hotel separately to flights (I rarely book package deals) and looked at various budget options before settling on The Brim Hotel, which was the cheapest we could find (also looked at Air BnBs which were all really unaffordable). We also considered the below alternatives which also offer budget rooms if you don’t have the cash to splash:
WHAT TO DO:
We found that truly the nicest thing to do in Reykjavík is just to walk around the city and let what’s on the next street corner surprise your sights.
We paid entrance to this museum (around £10 pp) and learned all about the most historical figures & major events in the Icelandic history, as well as current and past way of life. I was especially surprised to find out that Iceland was the first country to have a parliament, but nowadays it doesn’t have an army nor trains… The museum also has an area where you can dress up in Viking costumes and see how heavy all the clothes were to wear!
Icelandic Phallological Museum & The National Museum of Iceland
We didn’t go to the above museums, but apparently they’re really good and definitely something different (the Penis museum especially, which houses the world’s largest display of penises and penile parts of different species… kinda wish we had gone actually!)
One of the main sights in Reykjavík. You can pay around £7 to go to the top of the church and see the city from above (although it’s the tallest structure in Iceland and visible throughout the city, it’s really not that high). The church is really different to any others I have seen or have been in before with it expressionist architecture.
This building is a cultural and social arts venue in the heart of the city, where musical festivals are held regularly. We popped in to see the striking glass interior design that juxtaposes the rest of Icelandic architecture in Reykjavík. We were also recommened to have a drink at the upper level bars, but decided just to take pictures to save £.
Laugardalslaug Thermal Bath
Laugardalslaug is the city’s largest pool, heated all year around and even has hot tubs!
WHERE TO EAT:
We ate here for dinner all weekend (no shame). It’s a little NY-style pizza joint which attracts many tourists for it’s more affordable price, yummy options and fast takeaway service (McDonald’s doesn’t exist in Iceland, so this is a good alternative).
Hlemmur Mathöll Food Hall
This food hall is right opposite Davito’s and is great for brunch (although much more on the pricier side) and really good for desserts also – we had some amazing hand-made waffles!
AMAZING traditional soup restaurant on the main high street. They only serve 2 soups – inc meat options (and of course, alcolohic beverages) and it comes in a delicious bread bun bowl instead of a plate. Soups and bread are quite big, so perfect for sharing. We were lucky there were no queues when we went for dinner, but apparently it does get busy due to its popularity.
Sægreifinn Fish Restaurant
Lovely fresh fish and seafood restaurant right by the harbour with a quirky and quaint set up. Perfect for lunch and reasonably priced.
Cafe near the main church that serves traditional and authentic Icelandic homemade dishes…. no wonder the smell inside was a little funny! Overall cheap and cheerful.
Bæjarins beztu pylsu
This is a popular hot dog stand in central Reykjavik, downtown near the harbour where even Bill Clinton has been seen to eat. This kind of street food is perfect for saving money!
Eldur og Ís
We bumped into this dessert joint and decided we HAD to go in and eat, even though we had just had brunch… The ice cream and crepes on looked too good and tasted even better. The interior decor was super cute and quirky also.
Te & Kaffi
This is Iceland’s version of Starbucks where we would go for our daily cup of Icelandic specialty coffee. Our favourite “branch” was inside a shop called Eymundsson, Iceland’s oldest stationary and bookstore where we sat for a couple of hours and did some editing on our laptops on Monday.
WHERE TO DRINK (booze) IN REYKJAVIK
Big Lebowski Bar
As the name suggests, this bar is themed to the Big Lebowski film which do movie quizzes every Thursday at 9PM. We didn’t eat here but apparently the food (especially the burgers and milkshakes) are to die for!
Really atmospheric bar with great decorations right adjacent to Big Lebowski
A traditional Danish bar with an outdoor area, live music and beautiful furniture.
Austur and B5 (nightclubs)
We didn’t venture to any nightclubs but we heard that the above are decent venues with good atmosphere and music.
SOME FINAL THOUGHTS…
We loved our mini-weekend-break in Reykjavík, and do wish we had more time in this curious little (yet big) place. However, I do have to say it is literally the most expensive place I have ever been to in my life, so if you’re on a budget it may be a little tricky – even if you do the most basic option of everything, like we did.
We were upset not to have seen the Northern Lights but we had plenty of warning beforehand that they are indeed a little tricky to catch sometimes. Luck wasn’t on our side this occasion, but it just gives us an excuse to keep chasing ’em!