There is much more to Iceland than hot dogs, but I’m going to start there. I spent 3-1/2 days in Iceland and ate three hot dogs during that time. I had one at the Baejarins Beztu Pylsur stand, made famous by Anthony Bourdain and Bill Clinton. I thought their hot dogs were gross, but I feel everyone who goes to Iceland needs to visit this place as a rite of passage.
I had another at a gas station/convenience store on the way to the glaciers on the south coast. That one was awesome – the outside had the “snap,” and the whole thing was wrapped in bacon. Yum.
I had another one at another gas station and it was better than the famous one but not as good as the bacon wrapped one…but then how could it be?
Hot dogs aside, I really loved Iceland. One of my favorite things about Iceland was the people – they were crusty and authentic. I took three tours when I was there. When I take tours here at home, the tour guides are always super enthusiastic and peppy. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but I prefer a more dialed down approach. My first Iceland tour guide drove a small group of us all over the countryside for 12 hours. It was a standard tour of the Golden Circle (a series of three natural wonders visitors to Iceland should see if they can) with a stop at a hot springs and a cozy dinner, but she also pointed out the farm she worked on one summer to get away from her parents and the school she went to for several years. She lead us through the sites in subfreezing temps, wearing only the Icelandic wool sweater her mom had knitted her, while the rest of us shivered in our heavy coats and several layers below that. She also gave us directions to Bjork’s house. My second tour guide was a Canadian expat, so he wasn’t quite as crusty as the true Icelanders, but he had settled into a pretty low key mode during his time there. My final tour guide was the bus driver for the “Northern Lights Mystery” trip. All this guy needed to do was drive the bus to the middle of nowhere to give us a chance to see the northern lights without any light pollution, but he took it upon himself to keep us entertained by telling us Icelandic folk tales…until the northern lights started to appear outside the windows of the bus and he switched to giving us tips for taking photos of them – we never did learn how the folk tales ended. Later, when we all got back on the bus after witnessing a northern lights show that had even long-time locals raving the next day, the bus driver said, “Well, that was pretty okay.” I did meet some gregarious Icelanders, most notably the group of drunken guys celebrating a bachelor party in the hot tub at the hot springs we visited on one of my day tours.
The other thing I really liked was the tourist infrastructure – it’s almost Swiss-like in its efficiency, particularly impressive for a country with so few people and tourists. Shuttle buses pick you up at your hotel and take you to other buses that take you on your tour, or to the airport or whatever. Things were always on time and well-coordinated. Plus, most of the tour buses have wifi, which was invaluable for me when I spent some time on my phone researching how to take pictures of the northern lights (this was before my bus driver’s not entirely helpful instruction guide).
What didn’t I love about Iceland? Well, it was really expensive. I don’t normally buy the $25 hotel buffet breakfast, but in this case it was the best bargain of the day. Breakfast outside the hotel would have cost almost as much, but at the hotel I could eat as much as I wanted to tide me over until dinner.
I recommend Iceland to anyone who has a little bit of sense of adventure. Below are some practicalities and recommendations based on my experience there.
When to go: I went in mid-March, which IMHO is a perfect time to go. You still get winter pricing (traveling there in the summer is a lot more expensive), but that time of year the days are about as long as the nights. I have friends who have gone in the dead of winter and say it never really gets light – the best you get is a few hours of dusk in the middle of the day. If you want to have a chance of seeing northern lights, you need to go when there actually is a night. March was good for this. Once you start getting into April, the nights become too short.
Getting there: I did an Icelandair winter package, and it cost about $1,000 for air, three nights hotel in Reykjavik and a full day tour that included dinner. It’s a 7 hour flight from Seattle and a 7 to 8 hour time difference depending on time of year. Icelandair is a budget airline, but it was comfortable enough. Icelandair also allows you to do multi-day layovers for no added airfare on your way to or from Europe – a nice way to kill two birds with one stone.
Getting around: I did all my ground travel on shuttle buses, day tours and walking. The slick tourist infrastructure makes getting around pretty easy. Next time I would want to rent a car for at least part of the time to have more freedom of movement outside of the city.
Lodging: My Icelandair package included a choice of two hotels, and I picked the Hilton Nordica – “where the stars stay” (according to some website I saw at the time). It was nice enough and seemed to have free wifi at least part of the time. It was a little far from the center of town, but right on the bus line and a nice brisk walk if that’s your thing. Each room comes with a free bus pass, which I didn’t end up using. Next time I would probably pick a place in town.
Food: Iceland is not a foodie destination unless you like fermented shark and eating your national bird (the puffin). I actually didn’t try either of these things, but generally I wasn’t impressed with the food, especially given how expensive it was. I can’t say I gave it much of a chance though since the majority of my meals were either hot dogs or hotel breakfast buffets. The breakfast buffet had everything I could ever want and more – American breakfast, European breakfast, Icelandic breakfast, Japanese breakfast…well worth the money.
Things I enjoyed:
Exploring Reykjavik on foot – it’s scenic and there are lots of quirky things to see
Visiting Hallgrimskirkja and checking out the view from the top
Golden Circle – three natural wonders:
Thingvellir – on the rift between the North American and Eurasian techtonic plates as well as the site of the world’s first (?) parliament
South coast waterfalls – Skogafoss and Seljalandsfoss
This church in Vik
Seeing the northern lights – It’s best to go somewhere outside of the city where there isn’t light pollution. Look up the aurora forecast while you’re there. The higher the number the better – the night I saw them it was 9 out of 9.
Blue Lagoon – It’s also known as the Disneyland of Iceland, but don’t let that scare you off. It’s close to the airport, so do it on your way to or from the airport. There’s luggage storage and airport buses take you there.
Things I wouldn’t do again:
Saga Museum – Overpriced, but entertaining for one visit, especially if you like your museum exhibits accompanied by recordings of blood-curdling screams
Glacier hike – It was decently scenic but kind of boring. I primarily did the glacier hike to see the south coast, which I did really enjoy.
On the list for next time: I want to stay in a small fishing village for a night or two. I’d also like to explore in a rental car, ride an Icelandic horse and see puffins in the wild.