All Who Wander: Southern Iceland Edition
I haven't written much in the past few weeks, but I have a very good reason: I've been prepping for, and finally went to, Iceland. I've been trying to visit since around 2012, and finally found someone crazy enough to go that far north with me in November (thanks Nick!). In fact, I've been hyping it up so much that I was a little afraid it wouldn't meet my expectations.
No worries there. I've been lucky enough to travel pretty extensively, and I can honestly say that Iceland is probably the most naturally stunning country I've ever visited. It's so beautiful, in fact, that it's almost overwhelming: I had to constantly remind myself that everything I was seeing was real. I only did the southern coast, but I'll definitely be returning during the warmer months to road trip around the entire country.
Now for the good stuff: what I ate, drank and did. Iceland may be a gorgeous country, but it's also a punishingly expensive one. I had read a ton of articles on how pricey things could be there, but I wasn't prepared for the sheer absurdity of it: beers were often around $14-19 each, and even a bowl of soup would set you back about $20. Luckily, the Icelandic people love a good happy hour, and we managed to find some affordable (and tasty) places to eat.
Where to eat
Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur (Reykjavik)
Get ready to eat a lot of hot dogs, because they're kind of a thing in Iceland. As they should be: they're made with lamb and are snappier than American hot dogs, and, I would argue, more delicious. Especially when served with raw and fried onions, ketchup, mustard and remoulade. Plus, they're only like $4! If you're going to get them anywhere, though, go to this famous little red stall in the city center first.
Reykjavik Chips (Reykjavik)
Where do you go when you're starving and, admittedly, a little bit drunk? To the closest chip shop, of course. I'm still day dreaming about these fries, piping hot, perfectly crisp on the outside and soft in the center, covered in ketchup and pickle sauce.
Sandholt Bakery (Reykjavik)
If you visit and don't get a giant cinnamon bun topped with caramel from Sandholt, don't tell me, because I'll never forgive you. I'm drooling at my desk just thinking about it. They also make a bunch of other delicious pastries (we got a danish with apricot and pistachio spreads), as well as a smoked salmon sandwich on a soft pretzel that you need to eat.
Noodle Station (Reykjavik)
Getting food for under $20 in Iceland is a challenge, which is probably why this little noodle shop was packed when we stopped there. There aren't many choices (chicken, beef or vegetables) and it wasn't the greatest pho-style dish I've ever had, but it certainly wasn't bad and it was relatively cheap, which makes it a win in my book.
As expensive as everything else is in Iceland, fish is actually pretty reasonable. Head down to the harbor and order the special at Sægreifinn: lobster bisque and their fish kabob of the day for $25. This was probably one of my favorite meals from this trip.
I would never leave a country without trying some ice cream first. Icelandic people love licorice, so I decided to stay true to their culture and had a double scoop of salted licorice and danish licorice. Life-changing.
There aren't a ton of restaurants in Vik (3-4, tops), but I have a soft spot for Halldorskaffi, where we had dinner on my birthday. Cheap(ish) beer, good homey food (I'd recommend the schnitzel and the lamb sandwich) and a pretty decent dessert selection (warm rhubarb cake!).
Minilik Ethiopian Restaurant (Golden Circle)
I had never had Ethiopian food before, and definitely didn't expect to try it for the first time in the middle of Iceland (Icelandic food can be a little, er, bland, honestly). If your taste buds are craving a little spice, which mine desperately were, Minilik comes through with some excellent and reasonably priced food that'll fill you up and help break up the monotony of constantly eating gas station hot dogs.
Where to drink*
Happy Hour 4-7
This no-frills basement bar had a huge selection of Icelandic craft beers, with two on happy hour for about $9 each. (We both went with the Stedji Lager.) We also sprung for a flight that, at $30, was definitely a splurge, but easily big enough to split. We had a great bartender who loaded our flight with his favorite local brews, including two brewed by the bar owner (a fantastic IPA and a gorgeous, smoky sour).
Skuli Craft Bar (Reykjavik)
Happy Hour 4-7
A cozy little bar right off of the main drag, Skuli's offerings included a number of non-Icelandic craft beers as well, with two to three local offerings on happy hour for $8-9. That night, all of the happy hour offerings were from Borg. My personal favorite was the Snorri, made with Icelandic barley and arctic thyme, though we also had a nice IPA called Ulfrun. I didn't eat here, but they had some great bar snacks I would check out if I went back.
Mikkeller & Friends (Reykjavik)
I LOVE Mikkeller, but don't often find it on tap in the States. So I was incredibly excited to find out they had a brewpub in Reykjavik. Not sure about their happy hour, as we ended up going later at night, but they did have slightly smaller pours for about $9. Lots of Mikkeller on tap (obviously), as well as some interesting guest taps. I started with a Mikkeller Hverfisgata Spontan (a lambic) before moving on to a lovely red sour-ish beer from Quebec that I can't remember the name of.
Happy Hour 11-9
YES YOU'RE READING THAT RIGHT. Bravo Bar may not be a craft beer heaven, but damn if they don't have an aggressive happy hour. My cheap beer of choice this trip was Viking (seriously you guys, it's delicious), and Bravo offered it for $7, a steal in Iceland. The bar had a distinctly rowdy, dive-y feel, almost like a college bar. This was probably my favorite bar in Iceland.
*You've probably noticed that I've only suggested bars in the capitol. There's a good reason for this. We spent a number of days out in the countryside (Vik, outside of Höfn and the Golden Circle area, specifically) and I would honestly not recommend drinking if you have to drive. Besides the obvious (drinking and driving is bad!), the roads can be unexpectedly treacherous. Expect ice, snow, hail and scary mountain roads with no guard rails. You'll want all of your wits about you. Basically, if you're driving, you're not drinking.
What to do*
I don't typically offer sightseeing advice, but this is a special occasion. There's a ton to do in Iceland, and honestly, some of the sights are a lot more interesting than others. Here were my personal favorite stops.
The Blue Lagoon (Between Reykjavik and the airport)
I know, I know: it's a tourist trap. But it's an awesome one. Admittedly, it's pretty pricey (about $90 each, including transportation to and from the airport or city), so if your budget is the issue, feel free to skip this for cheaper alternatives. But if you have a little extra cash, I can't recommend it enough. There's just something amazing about swimming in a massive, heated geothermal pool surrounded by mountains and volcanic rocks. If you're going to do it, though, GO EARLY. We went directly from our flight to the Blue Lagoon and got there right around 9 am, which means we got to watch the sun rise from the pool with minimal other people around. It gets super crowded, and the effect just isn't the same when you're surrounded by other tourists.
CityWalk Tour (Reykjavik)
I'm a huge fan of walking tours, because they give you a good sense of a city's layout while also teaching you a bunch of cool facts. Reykjavik's CityWalk tour was similar to Sandeman's New Europe walking tours (which I also swear by), right down to the tips-only price. Plus, your tour guide will email you their own list of must-see things in the city, including food recommendations.
The Icelandic Phallological Museum (Reykjavik)
That's right people, it's a museum full of dicks. Like, A LOT of dicks. Elephants, whales, hamsters, trolls (really!), you name it. Think Mutter Museum, if it only specialized in one particular body part. There's paintings of dicks, dicks in jars, stuffed and mounted dicks...you get the picture. Would highly recommend, if you aren't too squeamish.
Think of this as the anti-Blue Lagoon. Our tour guide recommended that we check out a local swimming pool while we were in the city, and mentioned that this one was her favorite (and apparently a hangout for Bjork!). At only $10 per person, it lacked the frills of Iceland's most famous spa, but more than made up for it in charm, authenticity and, you know, cheapness. Basically, it was just a bunch of outdoor heated pools. And if you've never relaxed in a geothermal pool at 9 am on a Saturday in 20 degree weather, I really can't recommend it enough.
Seljavallalaug (between Reykjavik and Vik, just off of the Ring Road)
Please note: unlike the other pools on this list, this is NOT heated. It's actually an abandoned swimming pool accessible by a 20 minute hike. Though there is a small amount of naturally hot water trickling into the pool, the water is pretty cold. And you're basically changing in a dirty, unheated shack. But THOSE VIEWS. Totally worth it, if you can handle a chilly dip.
Similar to Giant's Causeway in northern Ireland, Iceland's black sand beach is famous for its basalt columns, as well as its (duh) black sand. Be careful, though: the water is incredibly rough, and numerous tourists have died in the past few years after getting too close to the water's edge and being pulled in by a wave. So enjoy the view, but stand back a bit.
Lighthouse at Dyrholaey (Vik)
Is it the nicest lighthouse you've ever seen? Probably not. Is the drive up and down the mountain the lighthouse stands on kind of terrifying? Absolutely. But the view is breathtaking, and definitely worth the trip. Make sure you go on a nice day though: we were warned to stay away when the wind picks up.
Jokulsarlon & Vatnajökull (Höfn)
Fucking glaciers, guys. I can't even begin to describe how incredibly cool this glacier lagoon was. It looked like something out of a movie. Just go and revel in its glory for a little bit. Then, check out an ice cave tour. We went through Glacier Adventure, which took us in an off-road vehicle to hang out in an ice cave in the largest glacier in Europe. You can't visit an ice cave without booking a tour, so make sure to plan ahead.
Strokkur (Golden Circle)
I honestly didn't think seeing a geyser would be that cool. I stand corrected. Strokkur is one of the most active geysers in the world, going off every 10 minutes or so. The larger geyser, Geysir, is located right next to it, but it erupts much less frequently (think years instead of minutes), so don't hold your breath for that one.
Gamla Laugin (Golden Circle)
Also known as the secret lagoon, this one's somewhere between the Blue Lagoon and Vesturbæjarlaug in terms of style. This natural pool is $30 per person, and, unlike a certain other pool on this list, is warm enough to feel like bathwater. Plus, the lagoon's surroundings have been kept to look as natural as possible, which made me feel like some kind of Icelandic mermaid.
The Northern Lights
Here's some things you need to know about the Northern Lights: they aren't always as easy to see as you might think, and you'll likely have to go find them. At least, that was our experience. Activity was relatively low the week we were there (to track cloud coverage and aurora activity, the Icelandic national weather service has a great tool that was a lifesaver for us), so as soon as the aurora forecast hit a 3 we drove into the middle of nowhere a little outside of Vik and sat by the side of the road until we spotted it. Because our activity was so low, we actually didn't see the colors in the picture above; those were picked up by Nick's fancy camera. Instead, we saw what looked initially like light pollution (impossible, considering we were in the pitch black country side) suddenly become the dancing lights everyone talks about. The view was stunning, but I'd love to be able to go back and see it in color one day. So here's my tip: if you're looking for the Northern Lights, make sure it's clear, there's absolutely no light pollution around and trust your instincts: if the sky looks weird, you may be seeing the Northern Lights and not even realize it.
*You'll notice this list doesn't include any waterfalls. It's because I think waterfalls are boring. If you must see them, though, check out Skogafoss and Gullfoss. But please, for the love of god, do not bother climbing up the steps to the top of Skogafoss. It's a really long climb for a worse view of the waterfall.
If you're planning your own trip to Iceland, let me know! Send me an email or a message on Twitter or Instagram, and I'm happy to recommend more things to do (including accommodations).
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