Reykjavik might be small for a capital city, but it doesn't mean it's not worth exploring. It has art and culture, good restaurants, pretty views and some sights that you absolutely need to see before leaving Iceland. Although I wouldn't spend more than a day or two and would keep most of my time to discover the beauty of the rest of the country, I really enjoyed our time in Reykjavik walking around the rainbow street and trying to pronounce the name of every sight we were seeing.
what to see
One of the most popular things to see in Reykjavik is the Hallgrimskirkja church. The view from the bell tower is incredible and its organ is the largest musical instrument in all of Iceland.
You should also check out the Sun Voyager statue and it's view over the mountains.
Personally, my favorite thing to see in Reykjavik was the Harpa concert hall. The building is an immense work of art that has received multiple awards for its architecture. I absolutely loved to see the sunlight hit the colored window panes and mirrors on the walls.
how to get there
I'm guessing, since you are reading an article about Iceland on a travel blog, that you are not from Iceland. Therefore, I'm going to assume that you will either be arriving to the island by ferry and then drive along highway 1 to Reykjavik or, in most cases, arriving by plane. Most people visiting Iceland will be flying into the international airport in Keflavik, which is about a 30-minute drive out of Reykjavik. There are buses from the airport to Reykjavik, but if you are planning to visit more of Iceland, your best bet will be to rent a car or camper van in Keflavik and drive into the city. It is a very easy drive as you just follow the main road all the way to the city.
what to eat
There are plenty of restaurants of all nationalities and all types in Iceland so you are sure to find something that is to your liking. If you are brave, you can also try fermented shark, but for a nice meal, you'll want to visit the area between the Sun Voyager statue and Hallgrimskirkja which is booming with multiple terrasse restaurants and bars. The food is pretty expensive in Iceland, but nothing outrageous, especially considering tip is included in the price.
I found that food options in Iceland were very similar to what you would find in Canadian restaurants: lots of different kinds of burgers, fish and chips, meat and fries, etc. The lamb was maybe more popular. Honestly, everything that we ate was good, but nothing was particularly worth mentioning. You don't visit Iceland for its restaurants, in my opinion.
Making your own food is a very good option in Iceland that we took advantage of as often as possible as it reduces costs. I found that food prices were similar as what you would find in Canada, but the grocery stores are very small and there are definitely less options. You won't find 2000 brands of cereals like you would in the USA, there are maybe 3 or 4 types, for example. Our main difficulty when grocery shopping was the language. Everything is written in Icelandic so finding the right kind of milk was a struggle, but we made it work. The language is similar to English enough that you can find similarities enough to understand, you just hope they're not faux-amis.
Tip : if you plan on getting groceries, think about bringing at least one reusable grocery bag in your luggage. You have to pay for grocery bags in Iceland (as you should) and they aren't very sturdy.
where to stay
Reykjavik is probably the only place in Iceland where there are multiple types of accommodation options. You will find hotels of more than 10 levels, small bed and breakfasts, hostels, luxurious boutique hotels, and of course plenty of airbnbs, but just like everywhere else, accommodation is ridiculously expensive! Since we had a car, we opted for a small room in an airbnb on the Seltjarnes peninsula, about 10 minutes from the main touristic area. We were close to the grocery stores and had a view on the lighthouse and the glacier on Sneafellsnes peninsula. The area was pretty quiet, in a small neighborhood, and I totally recommend it. Either way, you will have no trouble finding a place that corresponds to your needs in Reykjavik.
I hope you enjoy your stay in Reykjavik and that it is the start of an amazing trip around Iceland!
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Let's be clear right away! I 100% loved my trip to Iceland. I am not looking to convince you not to visit Iceland or not to visit these places, quite the opposite! You absolutely should visit ALL of these places and make sure you have the time to enjoy them as they should be. But, I'm just saying you should be aware of these aspects and maybe change your expectations a little so you won't be disappointed and your visit meets your expectations.
Now that we have that cleared up, let's have a look at these magical places!
The smell at namafjall and Myvatn baths
The Myvatn Lake area has a lot to offer and plenty of things to see. From the Myvatn Baths (the lesser popular, newer version of the Blue Lagoon), to the Namafjall fumaroles and bubbling mud pits and the mars-like landscape, it is unlike any other area of Iceland and we spent two full days exploring the lava fields and other geothermal features. I loved that there were no big crowds and we were free to explore and take our time. The only part that wasn't great was the smell. I'll be completely honest, it was pungent and seemed to follow us everywhere. Anyone having visited Yellowstone or any other sulphurous mud springs will know they smell like rotten eggs, but this was something else. I was barely starting to get used to it at the end of our two days in the area. Imagine trying to relax in the blue waters of Myvatn Baths and then you suddenly get a whiff of rotten eggs that are being boiled in dead waste... I'm hoping once they are done building the baths the smell will be less intense. We still had a good time and I don't regret going to Myvatn Baths.
the crowds in diamond beach
Diamond Beach was one of the places in Iceland that I was most excited to visit, but the moment we got there I felt uncomfortable. There were people everywhere, running, screaming, jumping in front of your camera when you finally get a split second without people in your frame. It was ridiculous. A tour guide arrived with his group at some point yelling they had 10 minutes before they had to be back on the bus. They all start running every direction and yelling at each other for pictures all the while almost hitting you with their selfie-stick. 10 minutes later the guide starts whistling with an actual whistle for them to get back on the bus like they are dogs.
We walked all the way to the end of the beach and found it a little bit quieter, but not by much. The whole time we were there I was jumpy. After two years of Covid, being in the middle of a crowd that looked more like children at recess than adults on a nature visit, it was a shock.
We went back the next day in the early morning instead of the afternoon and it was so much better. There were other people, but they weren't on a tour and were taking their time to walk around. I was finally able to actually enjoy the sight of the thousands of ice diamonds on this beautiful black beach.
the fences at Fjadrargljufur canyon and skogafoss
We started our trip by visiting the East and North of Iceland and finished our tour in the crowded South. By the time we got there, I had gotten used to being able to walk freely, take my time, approach the waterfalls (by still being safe) and the South is definitely not like that. There are gates and ropes everywhere so you can barely see the canyons and there is no place to get nice pictures of waterfalls. Everyone is just walking over the ropes for pictures, but I'm just not the type of person to disrespect rules so I was just left frustrated that these ropes and gates were necessary. I get the necessity to protect Iceland's natural beauty and protect hordes of tourist that are not careful with their lives, but I hate that not everyone has the sense to be safe and not destroy these beautiful landscapes.
These places are still beautiful and worth the visit, but just be warned that you won't be able to get a good look as you are blocked on the paths that are sometimes pretty far away from the falls or the edge of the canyon.
the naked showers at Blue Lagoon and Myvatn baths
Alright, I know in Europe people aren't as prudish as we are in North America, but I personally prefer getting changed and showering in a private cabin. Just a preference. Having worked as a swimming instructor at a public pool, I totally get the importance of taking a shower before going for a swim. In these baths where the water isn't chlorinated it is especially important, but I would have preferred closed showers and changing cabins. Just be aware that you will have to shower naked in front of everyone.
the killer waves of Reynisfjara
The Reynisfjara black beach is absolutely beautiful! And the basalt columns on the side of the beach are also nice and pretty. But the waves on that beach are unsuspected killers. You'll be walking on the beach with plenty of space between the rock wall and the ocean and then suddenly there's a big wave and the water almost reaches your feet. They crash on the shore and just hearing them you know you wouldn't have a chance if you were caught in them. The beach is a must-see, but just make sure you are careful and keep an eye on the ocean.
the "Insta crowds" in multiple places, but mostly seljalandsfoss
Like I said earlier, we spent a full week in less crowded areas before getting to the very crowded South of Iceland and I just wasn't expecting such a difference. Of course, wherever there are crowds, there are people having full on photoshoots. I'm not going to lie, I love taking pictures and I definitely like getting pictures of myself wherever I go on trips, but I am also aware that the people around me are also trying to get nice pictures of their trips so there is no way I will stay in front of the view that everyone else is trying to photograph for like 10 minutes. I go, get a few pictures and get out of the way. If I'm not satisfied with the pictures, I"ll wait again for my turn and get some more. Is that so complicated?
Plan for extra time in every place you visit in the South because you will be stuck behind photoshoots pretty much everywhere you go... Good luck!
Let's be real, if these are the worst parts of my trip, you have to guess that it was a pretty incredible trip! Iceland is a wonderful destination for nature lovers and I loved every minute of my time there, but you never see any articles mentioning these less than great aspects and I think it's important to manage expectations so you are not disappointed when you visit.
Enjoy your trip!
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Iceland was our Covid trip. You know, the one that got canceled and you thought you would just push back for a year and then that got canceled again? So basically, we had a whole three years to plan, look up photos, read way too many blog articles, tag locations on Google Maps after seeing them on Instagram and go completely crazy waiting for the trip to finally happen. Let's just say, when we got there, we were prepared and ready to go EVERYWHERE! So this article is for the places that don't usually figure in the guide book, but that I believe deserve a chance.
Hveragerdi geothermal park
rHveragerdi is a village build in a hot zone, which means that it has geothermal activity. Actually, it is so hot that there are three naturally heated swimming pools and a geyser in the middle of the village! The surrounding mountains are smoking and almost every yard has its own greenhouse, isn't that so cool? So while some of the springs in Hveragerdi Geothermal Park have gone dry since an earthquake in 2008, it was one of the rare places that we saw in Iceland that explained geothermal energy and that had little activities that helped understand how it works and how it helped the inhabitants of Iceland survive in such a harsh climate. You can visit the greenhouse, cook an egg in a hot spring, taste bread baked in steam, take a foot mud bath and put you feet in a warm spring, and understand life in the region. It is a pretty short visit and costs a few dollars, but it reminded me of the Land pavilion in EPCOT in Disney World and I loved it.
I had never seen this waterfall anywhere on internet and we just happened to see it on a sign while in Seljalandfoss and decided to check it out. It was complete luck that we saw it, and it turned out to be one of my favorite spots in Iceland. Gljufrabui is located in the same park as Seljalandfoss, but being completely hidden by the canyon walls and only reachable if you walk in the water, most people don't visit even though it is really pretty and quite easy to reach with hiking boots and a rain jacket. Honestly, it's worth getting splashed!
reykjadalur hot spring thermal river
The Blue Lagoon and Myvatn Baths are absolute musts when visiting Iceland, but one thing I really wanted to do was swim in a natural hot spring. We went to Seljavallalaug swimming pool, but since the water source is broken, the water is quite cold and really murky. So when I found Reykjadalur while looking for things to do on Google Maps, I decided we had to go! I honestly thought it would be close to the road and easy to reach, but the river is actually a 45-minute hike up a mountain away from the parking lot. I recommend hiking boots, at least a full bottle of water and some snacks. Like most things in Iceland, you need to earn the beautiful things you want to see, but they are worth it and these hot springs are no exception. The hike is not technical, the trail is large and well maintained, but it is pretty steep in some places. Once you get to the spring, though, you forget all the effort that it took to get there as you soak in the warm shallow water. It is so relaxing and the view is great!
Even though there were quite a few people while we were there, it never felt crowded as there are so many little basins separated by rocks. There are no changing room or bathrooms, but there are some screens were you can change out of your bathing suit before the walk back. I recommend putting on your bathing suit before you leave and bringing a change of underwear. Water shoes or flip flop/crocs are also a good idea to walk on the rocks.
Grjotagja is a grotto filled with bright blue water near Myvatn Nature Baths. Unfortunately, swimming is prohibited, but visiting is free of charge and it is a beautiful, quick stop while in the Myvatn area in Northern Iceland. The sun shines through the entrance of the grotto and allows you to see all the way to the bottom of the clear water. The water is also warm as bath water and steam rises form it.
Glymur is one of my favorite waterfalls in Iceland and features in my top ten waterfalls as you can see here. It is the beautiful reward you receive after an hour long hike. Although the hike isn't hard for most people with a normal fitness level, it is pretty technical. You do need to cross a river on a tree trunk and hold onto ropes as you hike up so I would recommend having done some hiking in small mountains before. Otherwise, the view is gorgeous all the way up and there are a few other people hiking along, but it isn't crowded. The descent was fairly easy as you can use the ropes to rappel down the steeper inclines. You do need proper hiking boots, snacks and plenty of water. When we visited in September we found it was warm, but you would need proper clothing according to the weather.
Unfortunately, it was raining pretty heavily the day we visited and the visibility was horrible (so bad that we drew an arrow in the sand pointing to the parking lot so we wouldn't have a hard time finding it on the way back), but Meleyri Beach is a beautiful black sand beach that stretches on for miles. It isn't as popular as other beaches like Reynisfjara so you could have the place completely to yourself!
Honestly, there are so many incredible things to see in Iceland, that you probably don't need to add anything to your already packed itinerary, but these are places that we found by chance and that I am so happy we found! You won't be disappointed!
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In Iceland, there are a few things that you will see consistently: horses and sheep, mountains, and waterfalls. There is a waterfall in every little crevasse of every single mountain on the island and, though they are always beautiful, some are just more spectacular than others. Here are the 10 waterfalls that I found particularly memorable.
1. glymur waterfall
Glymur waterfall was the first one that we visited during our trip. So while it is not the first that we saw, it is the first that I can name. It is also the highest reachable waterfall in Iceland. There is one higher, but it is impossible to visit due to its location.
It took us about 3 hours to hike to Glymur and back to the parking lot, and while it is not the easiest hike, it is also doable for most people. There is a river to cross on a tree trunk and a few places where we had to use ropes to help ourselves up, but it is also very worth it. The waterfall is absolutely gorgeous and completely hidden in a canyon and the hike gave us wonderful view points over the valley and surrounding mountains.
Skogafoss is definitely one of the waterfalls you HAVE to visit in Iceland, but to be completely honest, we kind of forgot it existed as soon as we saw the rainbows! Skogafoss is also the highest waterfall on the Skoga river, but if you climb to the top, you can walk along the river and discover many smaller waterfalls and the most beautiful scenery. It is worth it to plan a bit more time and explore past the crowds.
Seljalandfoss looks impressive in pictures because you always see it from the back, meaning you can walk behind it. What I wasn't expecting, was the massive size of the waterfall and the grotto behind it. In real life, the fall is so powerful that you need a rain jacket even if you look at it from afar. It is also way higher than it looks in pictures.
4. Gljufrabui waterfall
I think Gljufrabui was my favorite waterfall of all. It is located about 300m from Seljalandfoss, but most people seemed to completely ignore it and prefer it's sister. While Seljalandsfoss is bigger, Gljufrabui is hidden behind a canyon and you can barely see it from the trail. The only way to reach it is to walk through the canyon in the water, but boy is it worth it!
Gullfoss is a very powerful waterfall located on the Golden Circle in southwest Iceland. The crevasse where the water flows is so narrow that, from the viewpoint on the left side of the river, it looks like the water is flowing underneath the earth or falling to the center of the earth. I wish I could have seen it in the winter too as the water must form really neat icicles on the sides of the canyon.
Godafoss is know for its legend. Apparently, in 1000 AD, one of Iceland's lawmakers came back home from the annual meeting at Thingvellir, where they decided to make Christianity the official religion of Iceland, and threw his statues of Norse gods in the waterfall. Although no one knows if the story is true, the waterfall is still one of the most beautiful in Iceland because of its width and the blue color of its water. The shape also reminded me of a small Niagara Falls.
Svartifoss is so different from the other waterfalls in Iceland! With its basalt columns, it looks like the pipes of a giant organ and you would recognize it anywhere. This waterfall is also part of Skaftafell-Vatnajökull National Park where you can observe glaciers, volcanoes and other waterfalls so it was a nice visit. It takes between 30 and 45 minutes to hike to the waterfall and, like most places in Iceland, it is mostly uphill, but the view along the way is gorgeous and it's not a technical hike.
The interesting part of this waterfall isn't actually the fall itself, but the kettles carved by the river. Some of them seem to interlace while the water flows through. It's really impressive! There is a small parking lot near the cascades and the view from up there gives you a nice panorama on the whole fjord and Seydisfjordur.
Dettifoss may not be pretty with its greyish-white water and moon like surroundings, but it is the most powerful waterfall in Iceland and the second most powerful in Europe. Honestly, after walking along it, I have no doubt of its power. There is so much water falling so abruptly that even from the furthest viewpoint we were still getting splashed.
Kirkjufell waterfall isn't the biggest or the strongest, it doesn't have the prettiest color, it isn't the highest either, but it's location makes it great. Right in front of the conical mountain that gives it its name, with the sun setting in the background, it has the prettiest surroundings.
To be honest, after a few days in Iceland, we barely noticed most of the waterfalls we passed along the road, but these ten were worth the detour or even the hike. Don't forget to tag them on Google maps or write them on your list of places to visit as they are absolute must-sees in Iceland.
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