Feeling worlds away but being just a 5-6 hour flight from JFK, it's no surprise to me how popular this travel destination has become. Iceland is a truly unique place, from its vast array of landscapes to the amazingly fresh, local (albeit pricey) food it offers.
Check out the full rundown of our four day itinerary here. And a major thanks to my travel partners for pushing me outside of my comfort zone and for the stellar teamwork in planning on this one.
We took a 9pm flight Tuesday night from JFK and landed in Iceland at 6:45am on Wednesday morning. From there we picked up our rental car and drove about 45 minutes to The Blue Lagoon. The scenic stretch from the airport to Blue Lagoon looks otherworldly, with its volcanic rock strewn landscape. I was in total awe and this was just one of the first of many landscapes we’d see during our visit.
Heading straight to the Blue Lagoon off of the plane was the best way to cure the post-flight leg cramps and rejuvenate. We booked the Luxury Package from 9am-12pm which gave us VIP access to the lagoon via a private lounge that included coffee and light breakfast food, private changing rooms & showers, facial treatments, cocktails, robes, and butler service to name a few. I highly recommend splurging on the luxury package for max enjoyment and comfort. The biggest draw to me was the private changing rooms and showers, as well as private entrance to the lagoon.
The in-water massage was an additional cost (not included in the luxury package), but a really cool experience unlike any other massage I’ve had. You essentially lay face up on an individual float and your masseuse lays a towel over the front of you, massaging your back/arms/neck under water and dipping you into the water (neck down) every 5 minutes or so to keep you nice and toasty. We need more floating spas in this world if you ask me.
We ate lunch at The Blue Lagoon’s restaurant, Lava following our time in the lagoon. The food was really incredible, as were the views. You can also dine here in your robe! I recommend the Langoustine Soup to keep the warmth flowing.
From The Blue Lagoon, we drove to our first hotel, The Stracta Hotel in Hella, Iceland which sits toward the southern region of the country. The hotel is minimalist and eco-friendly (think IKEA), but the service and the restaurant were right up there with most luxury hotels I’ve stayed with. The Arctic Char served over risotto (pictured below), which I ordered for dinner in the hotel restaurant was the BEST fish I have ever had. Period. I expected it to be pretty good since it was fresh from the Hella Fish Market that day, but it was way beyond expectations. My friend who was traveling with us had the same meal and said the same thing.
After dinner we went for a stroll down to the Ranga river with our glasses of wine and beer, which is the largest salmon river in Iceland. Because we visited in May, the sun was up from about 4:50am – 10:30pm at night, so we were able to catch a pretty awesome sunset.
We arranged to go on The Grand South Coast Tour (Thorsmork), where two guides picked us up around 10am at our hotel in what was supposed to be a Super Jeep 4x4, but was really a lifted van with large wheels for off-roading. Never the less, it served its purpose. We opted for the shared tour (about $340/pp), but because we had a group of 4, there was just one other traveler on our tour with us (a really nice guy visiting from Cypress). They don’t give you much information on what to pack other than hiking boots. I recommend packing a waterproof jacket, hat, gloves, an extra pair of dry socks, and snacks in addition to your boots (preferably water tight boots). It’s a 9-10 hour tour with just one stop for lunch (not included in the tour cost).
This tour was the best way to see the South Coast, taking the guess-work out of having to self-navigate to the various locations. Not to mention the “hidden stop” listed on their website, which ended up being a trek through Nauthúsgil canyon in Katla Geopark, was everyone’s favorite part of the entire trip. Here’s a rundown of the places we went:
Not only is it breathtaking, but you get to climb up and walk behind the 60 meter waterfall here.
This tour took us off-roading through rivers and streams in Thorsmork Valley (named after the Norse god, Thor) to reach the next two stops.
Katla Geopark – Nauthúsgil
Here, we climbed up a small mountain, then scaled down into Nauthúsgil canyon holding onto ropes that have been permanently planted there for hikers. Once in the canyon, we climbed along the river carefully stepping from rock to rock and holding onto chain ropes fixed to the canyon’s sides for support to ultimately reach Nauthúsgil’s waterfall. There was no one else in the canyon when we visited so it was pretty incredible, though slightly terrifying for my less-than-adventurous self. We each left with some soggy feet, despite our best efforts to not slip in the water.
Note: The guide told us he only takes groups here on the younger side who appear fit enough to take on this trek. I’m guessing this is why it’s listed as a “hidden stop”.
Gígjökull is the largest outlet of the glacier and volcano Eyjafjallajökull, also known as E15. You can see in the photos it’s slowly melting and disappearing. #GlobalWarming
This was my favorite waterfall we visited, for obvious reasons (see photo below). We were super lucky that it’s infamous double rainbow made an appearance there for our visit. If you have time, stop into the restaurant next to the waterfall for lunch and order the local burger. So good.
Black Sand Beach Vik
We ended our tour visiting the sea stacks of Reynisdrangar and black sand beaches of Vik. The views overlooking the beach from Dyrhólaey were breathtaking. Photos don’t do it justice.
Hotel Ranga Restaurant
Following our very long, but very fulfilling day we had dinner at Hotel Ranga’s restaurant down the road from Stracta Hotel in Hella. Hotel Ranga is a luxury hotel with incredible views of the Ranga River. If you’re looking to splurge on your stay in Hella, you can do that here. We got pretty adventurous at dinner with some of the local delicacies (when in Iceland!) and tried Smoked Puffin (I felt pretty bad after, although my husband is still raving about it), and Reindeer Carpaccio. One of the simple things I really loved about our meal here, as well as other meals in Iceland, was the black lava salt that was set on the table with butter and fresh bread to accompany the dinner. SO good. Note: You can buy lava salt in almost any of the gift stores in Reykjavik.
We hit the road early to make the 1.5 hour drive to Reykjavik for our two night stay at Icelandair’s Marina Hotel.
Icelandair Hotels Reykjavik Marina
Perfect location, really thoughtfully designed, though tiny accommodations. The décor of the hotel is a cool eclectic, keeping it interesting from one part of the hotel to the next. The café, Kaffislipur, was my favorite part of the hotel, and it’s bar scene at Slippbarinn is rated one of the best in Iceland. Not to mention, it’s walking distance to pretty much anything you’d want to see in Reykjavik for a fraction of the cost of other nearby hotels (approx. $200/night when we went). I can’t recommend it enough.
After dropping our bags at the hotel, we walked over to Kaffivagninn for breakfast. You’ll find lots of locals eating here, where they offer both traditional Nordic food as well as classic breakfast staples, like made-to-order omelettes. They also have outdoor seating for nice days.
Elding Whale Watching
We spent the afternoon on a 3 hour whale watching tour which left right from the harbor and outfitted us in full body all-weather proof gear. It was a nice day in Reykjavik, though temperatures drop significantly out on the open water. We were lucky to see a few minke whales come up for air, as well as the occasional puffin floating on the water’s surface. It is rare on this tour that you’d see a humpback or orca, so make sure to set your expectations accordingly. They have a little bar/café on board for light refreshments and snacks to keep you occupied if the whales don’t show.
After whale watching we stopped by this gastro-pub in the heart of the Harbor area for happy hour cocktails and apps. It was a total scene, full of locals and visitors to Reykjavik, with good music and great food, well beyond your average “bar food”. I’d definitely go back.
If you’re looking to splurge, definitely treat yourself to a dinner reservation here. Tucked away in its own little courtyard in the Harbor, Grillmarkadurinn offers both farm-to-table tasting and a la carte menus within its beautifully designed restaurant. With both food and decor inspired by the “pristine nature” of Iceland, you’ll see nods to the sea stacks of Reynisdrangar in its design, as well as a modern take on local delicacies and Icelandic classics. You really can’t go wrong with your order here, but I highly recommend the Lamb Skewers. Heaven.
After dinner, we stopped by Apotek just down the road for some gluten free macarons and a night cap. We also spotted the servers from Saeta Svinid stopping in here for a late dinner/drinks after their shifts, so while we didn’t get to have a full meal here, I’m not surprised the restaurant has such incredible reviews.
The Coo Coo's Nest
We kicked off our final day with brunch at The Coo Coo’s Nest, which is what I’d describe as a spot where Iceland meets Brooklyn. This family owned restaurant draws in crowds of hip locals and the food does not disappoint. I’d highly recommend the breakfast burrito.
The Coo Coo’s Nest is located near a ton of great little boutique stores in the harbor, and just steps away is a shop called Boho we stumble upon. Check it out if you’re in the market for really gorgeous kitchen and home décor.
If you’re into serene views akin to Philly’s Boathouse Row, take a stroll by this small lake next to Reykjavik’s City Hall.
Being that I am of Norwegian decent, I wanted to take a trip to the Settlement Exhibit that gives you a view into the lives of some of the earliest Viking settlers in Iceland. The Settlement Exhibit is essentially an underground archeological dig site with findings dating back to 871 AD, located right in the Capitol. Perfect for the nerd in you.
One of the most famous sites in Reykjavik is the Lutheran Church that sits overlooking the Capitol as one of the tallest structures in Iceland. The tower of the church offers some of the most amazing views in the city and worth the small fee you’ll have to pay to ride the elevator to the top.
To end our amazing trip, we were lucky enough to be invited to a private dinner cruise in the harbor for a friend’s 30th birthday celebration. Nothing like watching the sun set on the harbor with a side of grilled lamb.
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