Earlier this month, Collin and I had the opportunity to visit the land of fire and ice. Iceland wasn’t really on my bucket list until last year when I learned about the majestic Blue Lagoon. Its milky blue warm waters and snow-covered mountain backdrop drew me in and I added it to the list. What I didn’t know, was the adventure that would come with visiting the land of the Vikings.
Pre-Planning Our Trip to Iceland
Around Cyber Monday, I’ve learned to search for flight deals. Now dubbed as Travel Tuesday, many airlines have specials on flights. This is actually the second year in a row I’ve purchased flights to Europe from Chicago for just $400 roundtrip. On February 3rd we celebrated 10 years of being together and I knew last year that I wanted to celebrate even though this anniversary isn’t as significant as our wedding date. Icelandair had tickets available and after a few hours of convincing Collin that this would be pretty cool, we booked it.
Before coming to Iceland, I’d done some research on what to do and see, mostly through Pinterest and various blogs. I didn’t find a ton of information on visiting during the winter months other than that it was likely we’d see the Northern Lights and there was a 100% chance that’d it’d be cold, both of which were true. When I visited Europe with my brother in May and also this time with Collin, I planned the details of the trip on my own. It’s pretty easy to figure out how to get from point A to B, find hotels, and pick tours on your own. I’ve never used a travel agency so I can’t speak to that experience, but I enjoy the planning process. If you’re planning on your end, I suggest booking hotels and transportation, but leave your days open and make a list of what you may want to see.
What to Do in Iceland in the Winter: Where to Stay
From visiting other European cities, I knew we’d want to stay in the city center, close to restaurants and bars. After a quick search on Expedia, I found Hotel Reykjavík Centrum. The building was colorful, breakfast was included, and the price was generally affordable as we paid $800 for six nights.
The hotel did not include parking and from what we could gather, most in the city center do not. There are parking garages and street parking that you can pay for and you can even pay days in advance which was great when we went on the Bubble tour.
The showers were small, but the heated floors made up for it. We learned that Iceland has a surplus of geothermal energy so heated floors and sidewalks are a bit of a norm for the country that’s covered in snow four months out of the year.
Another bonus: 2 for 1 happy hour at the restaurant bar located in our hotel. Take my word, you’re going to want to enjoy happy hour anywhere you can because of pricing, but more on that in a minute. In general, I’d definitely recommend Hotel Reykjavík Centrum if you’re planning a trip to Iceland anytime soon.
What to Do in Iceland in the Winter: Activities
Let me start this section by saying that we barely even touched all that Iceland has to offer. Day one was a wash because we were exhausted from only sleeping a couple of hours and we were trying to familiarize ourselves with the country. Day 4 was also a wash because a huge storm came in with winds up to 100 MPH leaving roads closed and tours cancelled.
Drive the Golden Circle
On our second day in Iceland, after sleeping for 15 hours, we decided to drive the Golden Circle which is in fact not a circle at all. It’s basically one road with three well-known stops along the way. The first stop is Thingvellir National Park, just under an hour from Reykjavik and a pretty easy drive. Had I been dressed warmer, this would have been a great place to hike for a couple of hours because the snow-covered mountains and lava rocks make for a beautiful setting.
If you continue for just under another hour, you’ll hit stop two which is the Geysir. This stop was great for us to grab lunch and use the bathroom. We enjoyed the most delicious gluten free Tex Mex soup from Eat Supa Well, drank tea, and bought some Icelandic chocolate. Side note, if you’ve never been to Europe, every country is proud of their chocolate and it’s something I’ve tried everywhere I’ve been (Belgium still holds spot number one with France coming in a close second). Anyway, the Geysir was cool, but we didn’t feel the need to stick around to see it go off.
Another 10 minutes up the same scenic road is Gullfoss. This waterfall was insanely beautiful and equally windy. We could have also used bathrooms and grabbed a bite to eat here. After the waterfall, we drove the two hours back to Reykjavik in snow-covered roads and low visibility which made Collin nervous. The weather can change quickly in Iceland leaving travelers at Mother Nature’s hands. That being said, there are several other stops off the Golden Circle that I wish we could have done so check out this article for those. I’ve heard great things about the crater and the secret lagoon.
On day 3 in Iceland, I had planned for us to stay in a Bubble. You should know that I prefer to explore on my own or with a small, intimate group when I travel. Large tour buses aren’t really my thing, possibly because I did that for three months when I studied abroad, but this was part of the reason I picked the Bubble. I’ve done a full post on the Bubble because this was nearly a 24-hour tour and you can check out by clicking here.
Walk around Reykjavík
On day 1 and day 4, we walked around the city of Reykjavik. We ventured in and out of shops, looked at wool goods, drank tea, and walked up to the big church. Kiddy, our Bubble tour guide, told us that Iceland doesn’t really have a dominate religion, but thousands of years ago when trading was important, settlers came and told the natives that if they decided to be Catholic, they’d trade food and goods, so the Vikings said “sure.” We did also find our guides to be quite hysterical so who knows how much of what they told us was 100% factual.
There are tours and other sights to see in the city if you’re visiting and I’d refer to this website.
Visit the Blue Lagoon
The Blue Lagoon was pretty much what started this trip so on our last full day we visited this spa-like, tourist hot spot. It’s located near the airport so people like to visit after their flight or before they leave. Personally, I’d recommend going when you land to enjoy tea or coffee in their café (that’s what we did) and then plan to come back later in your trip to actually swim in the warm waters. The silica in the water is very drying and I wanted to fully shower at the hotel after.
A few of things to know about your visit to the Blue Lagoon:
It’s touristy and busy so just prepare yourself to hunt for a locker and wait for a shower.
You’re supposed to shower before and after because of the silica in the water. I’d recommend not going under the water because your hair will be so dry. FYI- people have zero problem walking around naked and in a crowded locker room, sometimes you just gotta do what you gotta do.
You must buy a ticket in advance and have it planned.
I’d highly recommend a headband that covers your ears. I entered without one and my ears hurt after about five minutes because the air is cold. When I put my headband on, my experience was much more enjoyable.
If you can avoid it, don’t go on a weekend, but it’s pretty busy all the time.
There is so much of Iceland we didn’t see for a few reasons, mostly weather and time related, but I’d love to come back in the summer where the roads are less likely to be snow covered. I’d say you need at least four full days to even make a dent.
What to Do in Iceland in the Winter: Restaurants
Like everything else in Iceland, food is expensive and being gluten free limited my options, but this guide really helped. You can eat affordably, of course, but my theory is that we are on vacation so while we are on a budget, I don’t want to eat cheese slices and granola bars from the grocery. It’s all about how you want to experience the place you are visiting and I unfortunately can’t just walk up to a food stand and get fish and chips or pretzels because they are gluten-filled as Collin would say.
Most nights, Collin and I shared an appetizer and an entrée to help with the cost. We also hit up the happy hour at our hotel before dinner to avoid spending too much on alcohol. Side note: if you don’t like fish, Icelandic food may not be your favorite.
Messinn- So good we ate here twice. This was the first place we ate in Iceland where we enjoyed giant prawns for our starter and Arctic Char for our main course. You do need to make a reservation. This meal was about $70.
Frederiksen Ale House- This place had some awesome nachos that we shared to start. I asked if they could do grilled cod instead of fries and they were able to do so, so we had fish and chips as our entree. This meal was about $50.
The Grill Market- Beautiful setting, good service, mediocre food. We had chicken skewers to start which were fabulous, but we also ordered Arctic Char here and decided it was better at Messinn. This was definitely a nicer restaurant and if you wanted to enjoy some Iceland delicacies, this would have been a good place to do so. This meal was around $80.
Joylato- This cute bakery and ice cream shop is 100% gluten free and I was in heaven. Collin had some Skyr Gelato which was delicious and I enjoyed a cinnamon sugar banana crepe. This was about $18.
Uppsalir- This is the restaurant that was in our hotel with 2 for 1 happy hour from 5pm-7pm, nightly. We also ordered fries one night, excellent choice. We got two drinks for around $16.
Arhus- We stopped here on the Bubble tour where I ate gluten free spaghetti and Collin had a grilled chicken dish. This restaurant did offer horse if you’re adventurous, but it just wasn’t something we were in to. We spent about $50.
Budgeting for Iceland
The flights were affordable which is why we booked the trip. I just want to be open and honest in this section because had we known how much everything was going to cost, we might not have done this trip right now because being a full-time entrepreneur has been a challenge. That being said, we made it work based off of money we have saved specifically for traveling and for the fact that some of this can be expensed by Trendy in Indy for content creation as I expand my brand to include more travel.
To do all that we did (tours, hotel, flight, car rental, food) you’re looking at close to $4000. Most of our meals were $50-70. The majority of tours are at least $50 per person. To rent a car was around $500 because we got the additional insurance. Now, if you’re really pinching pennies and want to visit Iceland, you could visit in the summer and camp and buy food at the grocery to cook. However, to experience tours, stay in a hotel and rent a car, I don’t think you could do this trip for under $3000 as a couple. I’m also not an expert on budget traveling so I won’t try to give advice on that.
If you’ve made it this far, you must be really interested in planning a trip or just enjoy reading travel blogs so either way, kudos my friend. If I were to do this trip again, I’d go in the summer and plan to stay in a couple of different places versus just staying in Reykjavík to see more of the country. That being said, it was beautiful in the winter and Iceland should be on your bucket list. I hope the details of our adventure help you plan yours.
Cheers to exploring new lands,
PS: Loving this Iceland travel guide? Click here now for a complete packing list!