When I told my family I was going to Iceland in the dead of winter, everyone thought I was crazy. Part of me thought I was crazy too, but that is what was so exciting. Yes, I could have visited in the summer, but that wouldn’t have been as great of an experience. Plus, the winter is the only time to see the illusive northern lights.
Travelling to Iceland from the United States has never been easier. It’s a quick 5 hour flight from Boston to Reykjavik. The part that will take you a while to adjust to is the darkness…almost 20 hours of darkness. Sipping a latte in a coffee shop at 9:00 in the morning and staring out into darkness is an awkward experience. Many locals hang holiday lights in October and keep them up through April in order to combat depression and give the city some life.
The weather in Iceland can change in seconds. It’s actually quite cool how rapidly it goes from complete stillness to an ice storm. We began our day with a walking tour of the city – in freezing rain I may add. Our guide worked strictly on tips and it was a great way to become familiar with the landscape of Reykjavik. With a population of about 250,000, it is a small city and very walkable. All of the major attractions are within a 15-20 minute walk of the city center. Our hotel was located 2 blocks from Hallgrímskirkja, the main Lutheran church in the city, which is also one of its most iconic landmarks.
During our visit, the Harpa (Reykjavik’s concert hall and convention center) was promoting an interactive virtual reality Bjork exhibition, consisting of numerous videos and experiences surrounding Iceland’s most famous singer. The building itself is a work of art and its location on the harbor makes for stunning views of the waterfront and the city.
Be prepared to spend a bit more money than you typically would in a mainland European city. $15 for a cheap breakfast or lunch is commonplace while a nicer meal will set you back at least $50 per person.
I would suggest venturing outside the city at least one day to visit The Golden Circle which includes Þingvellir National Park, arguably the most important site in Iceland in terms of history, culture, and geology. A UNESCO world heritage site, Þingvellir National Park is home to Iceland‘s largest natural lake and the place where the tectonic plates of North America and Eurasia split and drift apart. Þingvellir is also the birth place of the Old Icelandic Commonwealth and the Alþingi assembly.
From Þingvellir, the tour continues through an area of beautiful scenery towards two of Iceland's greatest natural attractions at Gullfoss waterfall and Geysir hot spring area. At Gullfoss waterfall you can take a short walk down a pathway and get right up close to the powerful natural wonder as it cascades down into the narrow Hvítárgljúfur Canyon. Don’t forget to wear boots or rubber sole shoes as the pathway to the waterfall could be icy depending on the time of year you visit.
Back in the city, be sure to swing by the Viking Museum and the Penis Museum…yes, you heard me. The unique museum, just east of the city center, contains hundreds of specimens of genitalia from dozens of land and sea mammals from whales to foxes. Guests will be surprised to find out there are no specimens from humans….just a photo of one man and his record-setting unit.
My favorite part of Reykjavik is the city itself. There was something magical about walking along the cobblestone streets under glistening lights bundled up like Eskimos. As cold and windy as it was, people were still friendly and inviting.
On our last evening in Iceland, we visited the legendary Blue Lagoon. Think of it as the world’s largest and most therapeutic hot tub. The geothermal water originates 2,000 metres below the surface, where freshwater and seawater combine at extreme temperatures but by the time it reaches the surface it cools to a comfortable 98 degrees.
While we lounged with about a hundred of our closest friends, we kept our eyes to the sky hoping for a chance to see the northern lights, but alas, they never appeared. There’s always next winter!