Mention Iceland to anyone and it’s one of those places that people will say, “I really want to go there!” Mention it to me and I’d say ‘I really want to go back there’. I’ve been to Iceland twice and I’d go back in a heartbeat. With its picture-perfect volcanic landscape contributing to its wealth of outdoor activities, it’s an adventurer’s dream. But before you head out to Iceland’s epic landscapes there’s plenty to see and do in the country’s capital. Read on for the best things to do in Reykjavik…
Reykjavik is such a cool city. It has a distinct design culture and artistic creativity that punches well above its weight in terms of population. There are the obvious design stars like Harpa Concert Hall, Hallgrimskirkja Church and The Sea Voyager but amongst the brightly coloured corrugated homes that line the streets you’ll find another creative vibe when visiting Reykjavik. Shops crammed with design for the home, crafted from natural, sustainable Icelandic materials. The old harbour has become a design hub, brimming with workshops, galleries and artists. Here are some of my Reykjavik design favourites…
The steaming milky-blue waters of the Blue Lagoon, Iceland beckoned. Wearing just my swimming costume I took a deep breath and pegged-it through the biting chill of Iceland’s February weather. Wading into the hot, mineral-rich water felt all the better for the minus degree dash. I laid back and soaked blissfully as the piping hot water relaxed every muscle in my body. Heaven…
If you’ve only got time for one tour on your trip to Iceland make it a tour of The Golden Circle. Why this tour? You’ll experience three forces of nature in one unforgettable day – Gullfoss, geysers and geological rifts. This has got to be the best Iceland tour.
Iceland’s Golden Circle route in Southern Iceland, covers about 300 km starting in Reykjavík, before panning into central Iceland and back again taking in en-route the rugged beauty and power of mother nature in all her Icelandic glory. Ideally I’d like to take an Icelandic road trip but if you don’t have time this is the next best alternative.
The sky was still deep blue when we left Hotel Ion at 9am, around dawn, on an icy February morning. Visiting Iceland in winter has its bonuses though – you get to see the sunrise without having to get up at silly o’clock!
Þingvellir National Park
Our first stop was Þingvellir (pronounced Thingvellir) National Park, home to the world’s oldest parliament where the Alþingi general assembly was founded in the year 930 AD and carried on convening until 1798. Þingvellir means ‘Parliament Plains’ and the views across them are breathtaking; even on a dusky morning when a vicious wind whips your face and a weak sun struggles to light the landscape their beauty shines through.
The whole area is part of a fissure ribboning through Iceland where you can clearly see the drifting in the tectonic plate boundaries of North America and Eurasia – The Mid-Atlantic Ridge. The rift widens every year by a few millimetres and the faults in the earth’s crust filled with deep crystal-clear waters are clearly visible.
Þingvellir National Park, Iceland
Great Geysir, Strokkur, Litli Geysir
All over Iceland wafts of eggy smelling sulphur are a constant reminder of the activity going on beneath the surface. Hillsides and plains are wreathed in mists from steaming springs and bubbling mud pools but it’s the geyser field, Haukadalur, that really shows off the country’s geothermal power to full effect.
Litli Geysir, Iceland
Great Geysir, mother of Icelandic spouts, and responsible for the naming all other geysers worldwide, is a little capricious and doesn’t want to play anymore – well maybe occasionally after an earthquake or two – but when she does, she blows an imprssive 200ft skywards.
Much more reliable is nearby Strokkur (the churn) who likes to show off and happily performs every 5-8 minutes. We stood and waited while Strokkur rippled, rolled, taunted and tantalised until suddenly, the second I looked away, spewed upwards with such force it made me jump out of my skin! I just about got the shot – well, okay, half a shot and then it was gone in a wisp of vapour.
Strokkur Geyser, Iceland
There’s a restaurant nearby where you can get a warming coffee or a steaming bowl of Icelandic lamb stew to fend off the shivers. There’s a souvenir shop too – tourist prices but definitely worth a look at the fabulous homemade Icelandic crafts.
The third A-lister on Iceland’s Golden Circle tour was the majestic Gullfoss or The Golden Falls. We heard Gullfoss before we saw it and as we carefully made our way down the icy path the thundering noise of the River Hvita filled my head and a chill spray misted the air. Gullfoss is magnificent and despite the freezing weather I stood mesmerised.
The powerful river tipped over the first step and roared towards me thundering and foaming, hints of turquoise shining beneath the surface, before pitching over the crevice and exploding into the canyon below leaving me feeling completely alive and invigorated. And very, very tiny.
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I had a very brief taste of Iceland and fell in love with its wild, rugged beauty, the contrasting textures and colours of the landscape, diversity of experience and the extreme forces of nature. The Golden Circle encompassed all of that, and more, in one unforgettable day
Check out my video (below) with some Iceland highlights including a helicopter ride over the black sands of Vik and some of the country’s most beautiful landscapes and glaciers. Excuse the wobbly bits – it’s a bit tricky in a helicopter!
I believe you can learn a lot about a country, its people and its geography by the food that’s eaten there; the combination of flavours, the presentation and cooking methods used. Getting to know a country’s cuisine and the excitement of discovering new flavours is all part of the journey. Icelandic food was no exception. Here’s how I got on eating my way round Iceland…
I’d heard some pretty gruesome tales of what to expect and my taste buds arrived in Reykjavik with more than a little trepidation about the food I’d find on my plate. I’m happy to say I didn’t need the stash of chocolate Hobnobs I’d secreted in my case because Iceland served up some fabulous food.
What to eat in Iceland
So, what to eat in Iceland? Staple dishes include lamb, skyr, potatoes and fish – lots of fish. Iceland sits surrounded by chilly North Atlantic waters filled with cod, haddock, herring, halibut, skate, lobster, and salmon. The fish you’ll find on your plate in the evening was probably caught that morning. Huge geothermal heated greenhouses produce fresh vegetables and the country’s environmental awareness means that the meat, fish and seafood is some of Europe’s healthiest.
Some of the traditional fare (vegetarians look away now) is not for the faint-hearted but don’t panic because restaurants in Reykjavik also serve a lot of what you’d find at home. Here’s what Icelandic cuisine brings to the table both traditional and modern…
The lamb I ate in Iceland was beautiful, in fact the best I’ve ever tasted! Fillet of lamb served with root vegetables, parsnip, and red wine sauce was delicious, melt-in-the-mouth tender and full of flavour. I’m salivating just thinking about it again. Because Icelandic sheep roam freely in the highlands grazing on grass, plants and wild herbs the result of this idyllic life is a lean and tender meat full of flavour and devoid of hormones or pesticides. And its good to know they had a bit of lamby happiness before, well, you know…
Sheep’s Head In Iceland
Photo Credit Wikipedia
Here’s the heads up on Svið. A sheep’s head is singed to remove the wool, cut in half, de-brained, boiled and served with mashed root veg and then the lot devoured; including ears, eyes and tongue. I’d have tried a bite or two had the opportunity had arisen. Fortunately it didn’t – ditto the ram’s testicles pressed into cakes and pickled. But these aren’t just quirky snacks; the way the whole of the lamb is used and preserved was born from necessity and the need to get through lean, freezing Icelandic winters.
Icelandic hot dog
I wasn’t going to leave Reykjavík without sampling their infamous hot dog. Bæjarins beztu pylsur (the best hot dog in town) has servedhot dogs since 1937 from a hut opposite the harbour in downtown Reykjavík. They differ from your average dog in that they are made with lamb as well as pork and beef which gives them a slightly meatier flavour and a firmer texture.
The best way to eat them is ‘eina með öllu’ with everything. Which means your dog is loaded with two types of onion, crispy deep-fried and raw; ‘pylsusinnep’ a sweet brown mustard; ketchup and all finished off with remoulade, a mayonnaise mixed with finely chopped gherkin and caper. This combination adds up to a whole lot of flavour. I’m not a big fan of hot-dogs but had to try one to see if these really are the best hot dogs in the world. Verdict. Probably because every time I passed that hut there was a queue. Personally I thought they were okay. One hot dog costs 300 ISK so a good cheap lunch option on the go.
Bæjarins beztu pylsur Hot Dogs in Iceland
Fish dishes in Iceland
Icelandic fish is plentiful, fresh and delicious due to the abundant waters surrounding it. One of my favourite Icelandic fish dishes are deep-fried crispy cod balls. After biting through the light crisp batter the white, succulent cod is a wonderful contrast. Other favourites were the more healthy foods like shrimps on open sandwiches of rye bread with a twist of lemon, delicately smoked trout or salmon and meaty monkfish. All locally sourced and beautifully cooked.
Iceland has its fishy dark side in the form of cured shark. The abundant Greenland shark is poisonous because of high levels of urea present in the flesh which, by the way, smells like ammonia. Icelanders have come up with an ingenious way of making it eatable, although not necessarily palatable, and only slightly poisonous. So that’s nice. The meat is cured by burying it in sand for 6-12 weeks before hanging it to dry and ferment for four to five months. After this is done it’s called Hákarl, and is safe to eat. Yay! A small cube is swallowed and quickly washed down with a shot of Brennivín, Icelandic schnapps. Also known as Black Death Brennivin is made from fermented potatoes and caraway seeds. Did I try it? Yes, but I skipped the shark course…
Brennivin, Icelandic Scnapps
Alcohol in Iceland
Talking of alcohol, one of the top four lagers in Iceland is Gull which is made with Icelandic barley and water. Gull is sold in most bars and every state alcohol shop in Iceland. Beer was banned in Iceland from 1915 to 1st March 1989 so beer day, Bjórdagurinn, is celebrated on that day every year now. Gull is best served ice cold! Alcohol is expensive so it’s worth picking up a duty-free bottle from your departure airport.
Last up let me introduce you to skyr. Technically it’s a soft cheese, made from gelatinous milk curds which tastes like a mix of yoghurt and crème fraîche. It’s gorgeous was my food of choice for breakfast – fab with blueberries, muesli and dehydrated strawberries. The best bit though is that this super food is high in protein, rich in calcium and low carbs and fat so it’s actually good for you! Many UK supermarkets now sell Skyr.
Icelandic breakfast with skyr
That’s a little taster of some of the food I sampled. Icelandic food is fresh, interesting and absolutely delicious. Yes, there are some foods that may not appeal but you don’t know until you try them. Given the chance I’d have had a small taste of everything I’ve told you about here – even the fermented shark! What’s the weirdest food you’ve ever tried and where did you eat it?
Last weekend I was beyond excited to be in Iceland – a place that has always been right up there in my ‘really wanna see’ list. I have a whole heap of Iceland photos, foodie finds, tales of the Golden Circle, Icelandic design, a photo tour of Reykjavik,a dip in the Blue Lagoon and lots of really cool Icelandic things that I’ll be sharing with you over the next few weeks but in the meantime here’s an Instagram teaser to whet the appetite…