For our honeymoon, a cheap yet adventurous destination had to be in the cards. Iceland seemed to have everything we could ask for, so without much hesitation I booked us non-stop flights from Pittsburgh to Reykjavik in late September on Wow Air. It seemed a good time to go because there is a chance you can see the Northern Lights (winter months are the best and darkest) but you’re also less likely to have road closures due to harsh weather. Well, we got to experience both!
This city in the north has everything you could want and we truly did not want to leave! While there, be sure to take a walk around and check out little shops, cafes, and their ice cream shop for the biggest display of toppings we have ever seen. There are a lot of museums to choose from, and we ended up going to a very small one called Into the Arctic, which was interesting for reading about the Arctic Circle’s history and eskimos. At night, we went on a date to see the movie “It” in a small and old-timey theatre with all locals. We were surprised to see the movie stop half-way through for an intermission! Everyone left the theatre for some candy and a bathroom break and regrouped about 5 minutes later.
Traditional Icelandic Food
Sæta Svínið Gastropub in Reykjavik had a 7 course meal with the option to try new ingredients we may never have the opportunity to eat back home. The meal was done perfectly and every new dish they brought out for us was exciting and delicious. We got to try Brennivin, Smoked Puffin, Minke Whale, Arctic Char, Horse Carpaccio, Ling, Lamb Rump Steak, and Skyr cream dessert. My personal favorite was the whale which reminded me of fresh raw tuna and Grant said his favorite was the puffin. We would highly recommend going here for a taste of Iceland!
Driving around this country, you’ll notice houses are small and quaint. Landowners have expansive farms and can build as large of a house as they wish – but they like to keep their homes moderate in size and practical. We really enjoyed the architecture throughout Iceland.
The accommodation we stayed at was fairly expensive per night, and some were more cozy than others. We did really enjoy farm stays and guesthouses because we stayed with locals who were easygoing and had good recommendations for things to do around the area. One we spent the night in Borgarnes when we were passing through after a lot of driving (backtracking thanks to the road closure) truly felt like a Wes Anderson film set. As for our favorite accommodation of the entire trip – we had this beautiful and quaint Airbnb cabin all to ourselves looking straight out to the famous Kirkjufell Mountain (yes, from Game of Thrones). That night we made friends with the owner’s border collie, who came to hang out with us often and we cooked a delicious salmon and veggie dish for dinner together as the sun set outside. The even gave provided two very neon ponchos for guests to lounge around in. It was a great way to end our journey!
Taking a Beer Bath
Admittedly, we seized the opportunity while it was right in front of us to be able to say we did – when else would we ever bathe in beer!? The experience was interesting – not really relaxing but Grant and I went into it with a goal in mind: to drink as much beer as we possibly could in the time allotted. The beer spa was located outside of Akureyri in the north of Iceland, and we almost decided not to indulge because of the price. They only allow you to soak in the beer bath for 20-25 minutes. The bath is in a private room for couples, so we got into the warm beer and poured ourselves as many beers as we could chug from the tap next to it. After the time has passed, you put your robes back on and are led to a “relaxation room” where they play soothing music and tuck you into a bed. Now…this was the part we had trouble with. We literally just chugged at least 3 beers each and were tipsy going into a room that you’re expected to be absolutely silent in. There were other couples already laying up there and I just couldn’t contain the silliness of the situation and started to crack up. Once I began, I couldn’t suppress my laughter. Luckily, the couple to our right also found it funny and began to laugh with us. The staff really wasn’t happy about it but we ended up going downstairs to the brewery together and made friends for the night, having dinner in Akureyri and getting to know each other.
A hilarious tradition in Iceland around Christmas time comes from the belief in Yule Lads. “Icelandic children get to enjoy the favors of not one, but 13 Father Christmases. Called the Yule Lads, these merry but mischievous fellows take turns visiting kids on the 13 nights leading up to Christmas. On each of those nights, children place one of their shoes on the windowsill. For good boys and girls, the Yule Lad will leave candy. If not, the Yule Lads are not subtle in expressing their disapproval: they fill the shoe with rotting potatoes.” We had a good laugh about their names, some of which as “Spoon Licker,” “Sausage Swiper,” and “Door Sniffer.” Read more about them here.
In my guidebook, I read that sheep outnumber the population of humans on the island of Iceland. During our trip, we could tell that was true. There were sheep and horses all throughout the country, basically around every turn. We couldn’t get very close to the sheep because they ran anytime we parked our car near them, but we did make some horse friends near Kirkjufell. Please be aware of what you feed them, if anything, as the farmers who own them probably don’t want you to give them cheese puffs or junk food just so they’ll hang out with you.
Gas Station Hot Dogs
On the flip side, there were days when we could not indulge in such an expensive meal and we were happy to find delicious options at gas stations around the country. The gas station hot dogs in Iceland are around $3 and are topped with raw onion, crispy fried onions, ketchup, sweet brown mustard called pylsusinnep, and remoulade, a sauce made with mayo, capers, mustard, and herbs. If you want to try the most famous hot dog in the country, people line up at Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur, a small street stand in Reykjavik. To us, the hot dogs there were really tasty but not overwhelmingly different than any you’d find at the gas stations. A score for budget travelers!
Hot Springs/Nature Baths
A main attraction in Iceland are the volcanic hot springs that have a milky-blue coloration because of sulfur in the water. We visited the Myvatn Nature Bath because I was a little wary of a too-crowded Blue Lagoon, known for being very popular with tourists. It was in a very pretty location but one thing Grant and I wished was for the water to be warmer! It was quite a large bath so perhaps a smaller one would have kept the water hotter for guests. We didn’t indulge, but there was the option to have a beer while soaking in the baths and the entire experience is interesting to say the least.
The Great Outdoors!
Iceland speaks for itself when it comes to the breathtaking nature you’ll witness on your road trip around the island. The sweeping coastlines, glaciers, volcanic formations, and waterfalls trickling down mountains everywhere you turn keep the drive from feeling mundane. Even stepping out of your car for a short walk around you’ll notice the ground is covered with squishy moss, which reminded me of being underwater. It is an otherworldly experience.
Our favorite things to see and learn about were the basalt columns on the black sand beaches in Vik.
Seeing the Northern Lights dance through the sky was something we’ll never forget.
We also really enjoyed going behind the Seljalandsfoss waterfall and getting absolutely soaked with mist.
Getting to duck into the small and humid Grjótagjá cave from Game of Thrones was a neat experience.
Lastly, we were caught in a crazy hail storm right as we arrived at a glacier, so we parked and layered up as much as we could in our clothing. We trekked until we got a view of the glacier, took a crappy picture, and turned right around. The rest of the day was spent in our under layers trying to dry everything off but it was a fun adventure.
Tips For a Smoother Trip
- Buy an Icelandic SIM card. If you have an iPhone, chances are good that you have a SIM card in it that you can take out and replace with a local SIM card. Go to any gas station and ask them for one, pop it in, and voila! You’ll be able to surf the web without needing wifi passwords. Of course, be aware that you’ll have to re-load it probably more than once with more data, but that can be done at a gas station or on the SIM card provider’s website easily.
- Bring bug spray. I was unlucky around Myvatn and woke up with at least 50 extremely itchy bug bites. You may not realize there are bugs biting you even in cold temperatures. I suspect it happened during the nature bath when I was in a bathing suit, as it was the only time I didn’t have a lot of layers on. The area is known for having tiny black midges, which are basically a smaller mosquito.
- Plan ahead with accommodation. The island has been gaining in popularity over the past 5 years and the number of tourists needing a place to sleep outweigh the guesthouses and AirBnB’s, so it is smart to have a plan if you aren’t camping.
- All-wheel drive vehicles aren’t necessary, but are a good idea. There was a road closure that prevented us from taking ring road to Hofn (the main road), which was a drag but could have been worse if we were on the opposite side of the road closure in the mountains. Weather can be very unpredictable and it’s always a good idea to have a car that can take you from point A to B safely. Plus, we had a pretty fun time swerving into some mud puddles on back roads and getting our rental car nice and seasoned.
- Pack granola bars and snacks. There were a lot of times we were hungry in the car and this helped us to save a little money, although I do highly recommend eating skyr – Icelandic yogurt that can be purchased at basically any gas station.
- Download offline google maps onto your phone. This will help to save money on GPS rentals and will give you the assurance that you always have a map to refer back to.
- Bring wool under layers. Grant and I always had wool leggings under our pants to keep our legs warmer, and it was not as necessary under our coats and sweaters, yet never a bad idea to have on hand! Here is the kind we wear.
- Buy a guide book. We brought the Lonely Planet‘s guide to Iceland and really enjoyed having literature at our fingertips so we could find new towns and attractions on the fly.
- Talk to locals and other travelers on the same route. They’re all familiar with the attractions you want to see and may know even more that you’ve never heard of. If we hadn’t talked to some girls who were also staying at our AirBnB, we wouldn’t have gone out to see the Northern Lights! They had an app that we downloaded after the conversation that helped us track the lights and the likelihood of viewing them.
- Try to stay flexible and positive. We all know when traveling, you’re bound to have some bumps in the road. The road closure really messed up our schedule and we ended up having to backtrack on ring road as well as find 2-3 nights of different accommodation than we had planned. We stayed positive and just tried to enjoy the ride. Iceland is all about the thrill of the adventure, so relax and enjoy it!