We all have an travel bucket list. Whether it’s to go see the African Savanna, drive along the Pacific Coast on US Route 1… we have a list that we always seem to be saying “later” to. Iceland was always near the top of my list (perhaps even the top) – the majestic cliffs, the waterfalls and geysers… it’s a paradise for anyone that loves pressing the shutter button on camera. For some reason it’s always seemed such a far place to travel, even though it’s closer than many European destinations so the trip was always being put aside. However, when a co-worker and his girlfriend uncovered an IcelandAir promotion that included hotels and a trip to catch the Northern Lights there were no more excuses! My wife and I were ready to head out even if it was in the middle of February!
Surprisingly Iceland in winter is quite mild given its proximity to the Arctic Circle thanks to the gulf stream. During our trip mercury hovered around -2 to 2 degrees Celsius which was far warmer than our hometown of Kitchener, Ontario (going through a winter freeze). Flight time was around 5 hours from Toronto and we arrived at the Keflavik airport around 6 am; too early to check-in to our hotel, but plenty of time to explore the city of Reykjavik. The city is extremely walkable, transit is easy to use (just use the Strætó app on iTunes or Google Play. You can look up routes and buy tickets all online) and crime is extremely low… did I mention that everyone speaks English? We resisted the urge to take a nap, grabbed a cup of coffee and a pastry at Reykjavik Roasters, before taking a look around town.
What to Wear in Iceland
Although the winter weather is mild, you’ll need to bundle up as the wind tends to get a bit gusty. If you’re from Canada, or enjoy winter sports, you most likely already have the necessary gear to survive the temperatures. A good winter jacket, hats, scarves mittens. Bring some long underwear and snow pants and you’ll be good to wander the beautiful countryside. It’s quite funny that back in Canada I’d never be wearing all of this winter gear just for walking around, but in Iceland everyone seems to bundle up and enjoys being outdoors all the time.
Cellphone Service and Essential Apps
Getting a pre-paid SIM card in Iceland couldn’t be easier. You can buy one on IcelandAir for around $30CDN or at the duty free store when you land at the Keflavik Airport. On the flight your provider will be SimInn, and you’ll need to activate the card on their website or else you’ll find yourself quickly out of data; I was asleep when the time came to buy one so at the duty free store I grabbed one from Nova. I popped it into my unlocked phone with no need to activate anything. You’ll get 1GB of data and you can top up online. 4G Coverage is in the main cities and along Hwy 1, while everywhere else in the country has 3G.
The apps you’ll need are:
- Strætó app on iTunes or Google Play. This gets you transit routes and tickets for Reykjavik.
- Vedur (iTunes or Google Play). This is the country’s weather map.
- 112 (iTunes or Google Play). If you get into vehicle trouble, this app will send an SMS message and GPS coordinates to Icelandic Emergeny Services before dialing 112 (aka 911 service in North America).
Now that you have your cell phone working, let’s figure out what you want to see and do!
Explore Colourful Reykjavik
The buildings of Reykjavik are influenced by the minimalist Scandinavian lifestyle with a flair of color. You’ll find vibrantly painted buildings alongside modern skyscrapers that are under construction. Keep an eye out for the colourful street art while eating a hotdog while you walk along Laugaveur – the main street for tourists. Lined with plenty of shopping and places to eat you’ll find everything you need including great selection of restaurants.
There are some unique landmarks of Reykjavik that you definitely have to visit. The Hallgrimskirkja cathedral is the most iconic building in the city with its unique architecture inspired by the basalt cliffs found on the southern part of the island. It’s on the top of a hill and towers over the everything… very hard to miss.
You can purchase a ticket to take the elevator to the top of the cathedral for a breath taking view of the city. In the wintertime you need to bundle up as it’s quite windy at the top!
The second iconic building in Reykjavik is the Harpa concert hall. It’s design is also inspired by the basalt columns cliffs of the south coast, but constructed with gorgeous glass work. Once inside don’t forget to look up as the design extends into the mirrored ceiling. We were lucky enough to enjoy the amazing acoustics of the hall with a free concert celebrating the annual Reykjavik Peace Festival. Children choirs from all over the world come to visit Iceland to promote world peace.
Along the city’s shoreline there are fantastic views along the famous Sculpture walk trail. In 1991, the US Ambassador to Iceland, Charles Cobb, presented the city with the sculpture “Partnership” to celebrate 50 years of diplomatic relations with Iceland. An identical statue resides at the home of the Cobbs in Coral Gables, Florida and the two are supposed to be connected via the gulf stream.
Get Personal With Icelandic Horses
A must see and do in Iceland is spending time up close wit their horses. Unlike the ones in North America, the Icelandic animals tend to be shorter and more bulky – closer to a large pony. Extremely friendly and enjoy being around people, to me they’re like a friendly dog you can ride on. If you are travelling the golden circle route on your own there is a fantastic stop along the highway after passing Þingvellir National Park where you can get up close with the animals.
Travel the Golden Circle
If this is your first time travelling to Iceland, you need to do the Golden Circle. You’ll find the main waterfalls, hot springs and Geysirs that the country is famous for by traveling north east on highway 35 and south west on 37. Many tourists take a chartered tour, however if you’re even just slightly adventurous I’d recommend renting a car so you can spend as much or little time at each of the stops along the route. The island is very friendly to North American drivers as you drive on the right side of the road, and even in winter you’ll find the main routes free from snow. Just make sure you get a GPS, have studded winter tires, and check Road.is for road conditions as you do need to be careful for high winds and blowing snow.
Besides the Golden Circle route, Highway 1 is the main roadway to travel around the coast of the Island. Stick to this road and you won’t get lost.
Get Off the Beaten Track – Finding Hjalparfoss
Sometime you have to go off plan to catch something interesting. On the day we were driving the Golden Circle, we needed to head south as we made arrangements to stay that night in Vik. But we weren’t done hunting for waterfalls yet! My wife wanted to see if we could find Hjalparfoss – a waterfall that is part of Iceland’s hydro system. We managed to locate it on Highway 32 but due to the amount of snow, it was too treacherous to drive on the service road. As it was only a few kilometers we decided to go on foot. Although the waterfall itself would have been much more impressive when its flowing the scenery was still amazing. The mountains and cliffs surrounding us were so impressive that your feel very humbled being a part of the planet.
We took the long way around to return to Highway 1 – continuing northward on Highway 32 until we found the hydro electric dam and went southward on highway 26th. In retrospect it probably wasn’t the wisest decision to make as the winds were making that road quite treacherous. We would have looked up the road conditions on Road.is but unfortunately we were out of cell coverage. In the end we made it Vik on the southern coast of the Island safe and sound.
See the Northern Lights
So the Northern Lights tour didn’t pan out for us. It was an overcast night when we went out so we couldn’t even see the moon. However a few days later at the Town of Vik, the lights decided to come out to play – sort of. They weren’t very strong and all our eyes could see were these slight wisps of clouds; however our cameras being much more sensitive gave us a small show. We pulled off the highway to setup our tripods and enjoyed an hour watching the LCDs of our cameras. Once of these days we’ll return to catch them with our bear eyes!
Walk on a Glacier – Sólheimajökull
If you’re looking for a Glacier walk, I can’t recommend Arcanum enough. They take smaller groups out on the Sólheimajökull glacier, but during the winter you have an excellent chance of being in an even smaller group. They provide all of the equipment such as crampons, ice axes and helmets, so just show up dressed for the outdoors and you’ll be all set. If you only think you’re going to Iceland just once, make sure you take a tour and walk on a few hundred feet of ice. The tours aren’t very long – about 2 hours there and back, but what you will see is awe inspiring. The vastness of the glacier and how far it goes is something you need to see in person.
Visit a Crashed DC-10 Plane
Just south of the Sólheimajökull Glacier, you can find the wreckage of a US Navy DC-10 that crashed on the black sand beach in 1973. We were lucky enough that the road to it was still open, but due to the amount of people visiting and those neglecting the road markers, the local farmers have closed it off. You can still get to the plane, however you’ll need to walk 4kms to see it. You normally wouldn’t be able to explore this type of wreckage in North America as it is not an official attraction. It’s not maintained, you can crawl all over the plane, and if you happen to get hurt there’s no one to blame but yourself. But when do you actually have a chance to explore a wrecked plane?
Explore the Reynisfjara Beach and Basalt Cliffs
Iceland is famous for their black sand beach made from tiny volcanic pebbles. The most famous one is Reynisfjara beach just outside from the town of Vik where you’ll find the impressive basalt column cliffs that resemble steps of pyramid. Just out from the coast you’ll also see Reynisdrangar – basalt sea stacks that legends say were trolls that were turned into stone. Even in the winter this area is quite busy with tourists and it would be hard to imagine how much more crowded it could get during the summer months. Although it could be crowded, this is the beach you need to see when visiting the island.
See the Most Photographed Mountain – Kirkjufell
On the western side of Iceland likes Kirkjufell, claimed to be the most photographed mountain of the island. It’s appeared in multiple movies including the “Life of Walter Mitty”. The weather wasn’t cooperating with when we went out with storm making its way towards us. Undeterred, we did manage to get out to see the mountain before the weather turned on us. We’ll definitely have to revisit this spot in warmer weather.
Anything else to see?
Iceland is famous for their geothermal spas. Our Northern Lights tour included a few hours to relax at the Laugarvatn Fontana geothermal spa – a welcoming experience as we were still trying to recover from jet lag. The most popular one is actually close to the Keflavik airport where you enter the country – the Blue Lagoon. If you’re looking for the ultimate luxury spa experience, I’ve heard this is the one to go to.
Visiting Iceland during the winter months was a fantastic opportunity. Over the last few years the island is becoming more popular with travelers and accomodations for the the spring and summer months book up quickly. Winter allows you to avoid the crowds while giving you a break on your bank account with off-season prices. However now that we’ve been there during the winter, we really do need to make sure to return when the weather is warmer and the water is flowing!