Iceland will always be a special place to me as it’s where my husband Lee proposed, after booking the trip as a surprise for my birthday. It’s such a beautiful place and with the average flight time from London being only 3 hours, it's perfect for a short break from the UK.
Thingvellir National Park
I have always wanted to see the Northern Lights, which are best seen in Iceland during their winter season, between October to February, so Lee had booked the trip for mid-January with the hope of having a good chance to spot them.
The average temperature for Iceland in the winter is -0.5, however there was a snow storm which coincided with the time we were visiting! This made for quite a windy and bumpy landing in the plane but the pilot was clearly used to landing planes in snowy conditions. The snow stayed throughout our trip, keeping the temperature at a cool -5 to -8 in Reykjavik and a frosty -10 to -14 in the more rural parts - we were glad we had multiple layers and had packed gel hand and foot warmers! The snow did change some of our plans, but we still had the best few days away and it made everything look even more beautiful...
Explore Downtown Reykjavik
Downtown Reykjavik is a striking contrast of urban and nature, with views across the water to Mount Esja. Take a walk around the town, and pop into one of the many cafes to warm up with some hot chocolate! There are many art galleries in downtown Reykjavik as well as the (slightly bizarre and random) Icelandic Phallological Museum!. You can also walk up the Hallgrimskirkja church tower for an elevated view of downtown Reykjavik. Near to our hotel, away from the downtown area, you can wander round the Royal Botanic Gardens. The pavements in downtown Reykjavik have a geothermal heating system installed to warm up the ground and keep the snow and ice from settling, which is really ingenious and makes wandering around town a lot easier!
In the evening, there are plenty of bars with live entertainment to choose from.
The Hallgrimskirkja, Lee with one of the smaller icicles and me getting caught in a snow flurry on our way into downtown Reykjavik!
Take a day trip
If you don't have your own vehicle, don't worry as there are so many day trips to choose from. One of the most popular tours is the Golden Circle Tour. There are many companies who offer this tour, some of which have slight differences, so you can choose the one you feel is right for you.
Our trip set off early morning in the dark and there were only about 14 people on our minibus, which was nice as it felt much more intimate. You can also explore at your own pace at each location on the tour. Our first stop was at Thingvellir National Park. It was added to the UNESCO World Heritage list in 2004 and has both historical and geological importance as it was where the oldest parliament was founded in 930. It is also the point at where you can see the American and Eurasian tectonic plates pulling apart.
We arrived here just as the sun began to rise and it was really quite something to witness.
Watching the sunrise over Thingvellir National Park
The next stop was to the Geysir geothermal area. The largest geyser is the Strokkur and every few minutes, it shoots a column of water up to 25- 30 meters into the air.
Watching The Strokkur at the Geysir
After the Strokkur, we continued to the Gullfoss waterfall. This waterfall in the river Hvita plunges 32m over two tiers and is really quite spectacular, it was my favourite stop on the tour (I might be biased as this is the spot Lee chose to propose!)
The perfect spot for a proposal at Gulfoss Waterfall!
Our final stop on the tour was to the Fontana Spa. Most of the Golden Circle tours we found stopped at the famous Blue Lagoon, however when we compared the two spas, we felt that the Fontana would be less touristy and quieter and we were right - our tour group was the only group in the small complex! When we arrived we were shown how they cook their local rye bread in the geothermal ground (it tasted amazing by the way!), before soaking in the warm geothermal pools. The pools all look out onto the lake and we had gorgeous views of the snow-capped mountains and landscape.
To make it even more special, our tour guide arranged for Lee and I to have a glass of sparkling wine brought to us in the pool to celebrate our engagement and our group were so sweet and vacated to another one of the pools so we could enjoy the moment to ourselves. I will never forget that moment, it was truly so special! I would really recommend the Fontana spa as it was so quiet and intimate. It just felt very peaceful and natural.
Baking soda bread in the ground and a view of the Fontana pools on the edge of the lake
See the Northern lights
One of the main reasons that Lee surprised me with a trip to Iceland was because I wanted to see the Northern Lights. There are several websites where you can check the forecast for the aurora. We’d been checking the forecast in the run up to our trip and it was just getting worse, due to the snow storm and cloud cover. When we arrived in Reykjavik, we asked at the tourist office and they advised us that we would be unlikely to see the aurora and if we did, it would not be clear or bright. Many of the tour companies do allow you to join them again the next day if you do not see the aurora on the night you book, however we didn't fancy sitting out in the cold two nights in a row waiting for something we had been told was unlikely to happen. It was very disappointing not to see them - but it’s still on my list!
Iceland is an outdoor-lovers paradise and there is so much rugged natural beauty to explore on foot. We had planned to hike Mount Esja, which is quite popular with locals and easily accessible as it sits in the city boundary. Unfortunately we discovered that the trail was closed as it was impassable due to the heavy snowfall and ice. (The amount of snow on the ground whilst we were in Iceland was crazy!)
We were a bit disappointed as our budget wouldn't stretch to another day trip so we were hoping we could have a day hiking. After a quick look on google maps, we decided to follow the coastline right around the edge of Reykjavik and then warmed up with a hot chocolate! For other hiking routes, check out the top ten hiking trails as recommended by Iceland Travels.
Looking over Downtown Reykjavik to Mount Esja
Do as the locals do
The day we were due to fly home, our flight was not until the late afternoon, so we decided to check out one of the local swimming pools. This might sound odd - I've never visited a local leisure centre pool whilst on a break away before, however we were recommended to visit them by a couple we got chatting to on the circle tour and I’m glad we did. We ended our little Iceland getaway sat outside in the pitch black (because it was still only about 9 am) in these small, warm geothermal pools and it was so soothing and relaxing.
A memorable break - we couldn't stop smiling!
Tips for visiting Iceland
When’s the best time to visit?
The answer to this question really depends on how you want to see Iceland and how good you are with the cold! Summer is June to September and brings 24 hours of daylight. This is the most popular season with tourists visiting the island. Winter is October to April and this is when you’re most likely to see snowy landscapes and average temperatures of 0.5 degrees celsius. (Although as I’ve mentioned, when we visited there was an ongoing snow storm and the temperatures were particularly low, on average they were around -5 to -8 in Reykjavik but as low as -14 out in the rural parts!). Winter also brings the shortest amount of daylight hours, but is the best time to see the Northern lights.
What should I pack?
The weather is constantly changing in Iceland, it could be raining and cold, then 15 minutes later, the sun can start shining through, so you need to be prepared for any weather. A good pair of walking shoes or boots are a must, as you will most likely be walking during your visit to Iceland, as well as thermals, a fleece, hat & gloves and waterproofs.
During the day, I wore my fleece-lined waterproof hiking trousers, thermal baselayer, top layer, fleece and waterproof coat with two pairs of socks and my hiking boots. For the evening, I wore jeans with tights underneath(!) and a warm jumper, hat and waterproof coat. For this trip, you will be packing for practicality rather than high fashion, so keep it casual. We visited in January and even in the evening, we often wore our hiking boots as it was really snowy and icy at the time of year we went. Jeans and a chunky jumper are fine for restaurants and pubs. Also, don’t forget to pack your swimwear as you’ll want to visit hot springs! Sunglasses are a good shout too, as even in the winter, the sun can be quite bright.
Tip: If you are taking hand luggage only, as we did, wear everything heavy and bulky! We turned up to the airport dressed for an expedition! We had our hiking boots, waterproof coats, hat, scarf and gloves all on so that we didn't have to pack it in our carry-on!
Where to stay?
Most people base themselves in Reykjavik and either hire a car or take day trips from there, which is what we did. There are so many hotels to choose from in Reykjavik, but expect to pay high prices, Because of this, we chose to stay further out from the main downtown area to try and keep costs in-budget. We stayed at Hotel Island, and we were lucky enough to have a top floor room with a large picture window that covered two sides of the room and looked out across the towns and mountains. Buses stopped along the main road in to town, but we could also walk it in around 45 minutes.
How much money will I need?
Iceland is an expensive destination. Flights there are relatively cheap, however once you are there, it can be pricey. For accommodation, stay further out from the downtown area to avoid really high costs and try to book ahead if you can. Eating and drinking out (especially drinking) is the most noticeably expensive cost, and due to the spareness of the country, it can be difficult without hiring your own vehicle or booking onto a tour.
The Sun Voyager sculpture in downtown Reykjavik
I would definitely visit Iceland again. I would love to go in the spring / summer as everything looks so different without being covered in several feet of snow! Visiting in the summer months, I would probably opt to hire a car so that we could explore a little further afield with the confidence of not getting stuck in snow or ice! Despite not being able to hike Mount Esja, or see the Northern lights, we had the best short break in Iceland. Yes, the weather was very cold and very snowy but we had come prepared and packed lots of warm layers and the snow just made everything appear so beautiful.
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