I went on a vacation to Iceland the week before Christmas of 2018, and I had a blast! We explored much of Reykjavik and went glacier hiking, horseback riding, and relaxed in the Blue Lagoon.
My friend Lauren Smith and I were talking the previous summer about where we want to visit eventually and we found that both of us really wanted to go to Iceland. We did some math and found out that we could both afford the cost of a trip to Iceland, and we decided to go during December of 2017. We partially wanted to see how Iceland is like in winter (and have a higher probability of seeing the northern lights), but also we wanted to plan it sooner rather than later because our plans for summer 2018 weren't as certain at the time. So we decided to take the trip to Iceland as friends, and everything worked out great and we had an amazing time. There's lots of writing below, so I'm going to put a gallery of my favorite pictures right here for everyone that won't read the whole thing.
(You should scroll down to the penis museum section though, it's worth a read)
Everything is expensive compared to back in the USA. Food is often $20+ per entree, and beer is $12+ without a happy hour going on. The signature Iceland sweater is $130+, upwards of $250 for a sweater made from Icelandic sheep wool. Simple souvenirs that you expect to be $5 will be $15. We saw a 12" sandwich advertised for $15 like it was a good deal.
Lauren and I agreed that we like everything about the restaurants here (except for the prices). The main differences between in America are that once the host delivers your food, they leave you alone. They might come back at one point to take away plates and then they might ask how the food was or to refill drinks, but otherwise you're left alone. Also, they give you a receipt with the items you ordered whenever they deliver your food. Then when you're done eating and ready to leave you take the receipt up to the counter and pay. Your credit card never goes out of sight and you can stay as long or as little as you'd like without having to depend on the speed of your host. Also tipping in Iceland isn't expected.
There's a lot of street art or graffiti in the city, but we noticed all the artists/vandals seem to be respectful of one another. The street art usually are very nice pieces, and no one sprays graffiti over them. The graffiti is usually a little far from the main street. It could be that the city of Reykjavik is just good at controlling this, but either way it's nice
Electricity and traffic lights
All of the power lines in the city are underground - you won't see a single power line overhead. Their traffic lights are also just on 8' poles instead of suspended by wires. The combination of these things means that they don't have many power outages and the stop lights should still work no matter what the weather is. Sometimes it's confusing which traffic light you should be looking at, but the locals seem to have it figured out. (They drive on the right side of the road just like we do BTW)
Everyone has to shower completely naked before entering a public pool or hot tub area. It isn't too awkward because everyone in the locker room area accepts it as normal and isn't embarrassed by it.
There aren't any blinds on the windows - just curtains and/or a pull-down cover.
We didn't see any gyms or athletic centers - maybe people just jog or ride bikes or hike around here?
The water was great everywhere except our AirBnB. The place we're staying is very old, so we think they haven't replaced their pipes since the few years that they used sulphuric water from the geothermal areas as drinking water.
There are a lot of people from other countries working as tour guides. Seems like a fun job
Days 0-1 - Travel and Reykjavik
This "day" was really about 40 hours long for us due to travel times and the time change. We left Kingsport at 7:30AM Kingsport time (12:30pm iceland time), and our flight arrived in Reykjavik at 5:00AM Iceland time the next day. We pushed ourselves to stay awake until 3:00pm Iceland time so that we would be adjusted to the time zone.
We did a lot of things today, a lot more than we expected. As soon as we were dropped off in the city we walked to our AirBnB and stored our luggage under the staircase there so that we wouldn't have to carry it around all day. Then we walked to the Sandholt Bakeri which was luckily open around 7:30 AM. After breakfast we wandered downtown Reykjavik for about an hour, stopping in the single store that was open early on the Sunday morning (an ice climbing gear store), and then at the Hallgrímskirkja church.
After a short break in the church to warm up we walked down to the famous boat sculpture, the Sun Voyager. From the boat statue we saw the city's concert hall, the Harpa. We were pleasantly surprised as to how close everything was - we probably walked for less than 45 minutes to go from our AirBnB to breakfast, church, and concert hall.
At this point it was about 11:30AM, so we decided to go find lunch. When people tell you food is expensive in Iceland, they aren't exaggerating. We looked at the menus in the windows at 5 different restaurants and didn't find a meal for less than $20. Most places had burgers for $25 ish, fish and chips would be $20-$30, and even a 12" sandwich was advertised as $15. Eventually we accepted that food would be expensive and chose one of the restaurants that was open. It was an expensive meal, but also very tasty.
One neat thing we noticed about the city is that there is a lot of grafitti or street art.
After lunch we still had a few hours to kill before our AirBnB room would be ready, so we walked back to the church and paid for the tower tour where you can ride an elevator to the top of the spire and look out over all of Reykjavik. It was super cool, a little bit windy, but worth the time. We chatted up some friendly tourists from New York while we were waiting in line.
Side note: with T-Mobile I have cell service in Iceland without having to pay anything extra. I got a message from T-Mobile when we landed that said something like "Welcome to Iceland! You'll have 2G speeds and full voice/messaging data at no extra charge". So that's cool, I like T-Mobile.
While we were eating I got a message saying that our AirBnB room was ready, and because we were close to falling asleep standing up we decided to go to the AirBnB and nap. The place we're staying at is super cute with a giant bathroom with a heated towel rack. Lauren and I both slept great for our two hour nap. After the nap (around 5:00pm) we got bundled up again and walked to a local grocery store. We bought things to make sandwiches and breakfast so that we shouldn't be bleeding money quite as badly for the next few days.
After buying some groceries we went to a hot dog stand just a few minutes from our room and got some hot dogs. They were pretty good, and only $4 each!! We'll probably have hot dogs several more times before this vacation is over.
Finally, we walked to a public pool with hot tubs to relax at the end of our day. We showered "in the nude" as is required, then hung out in the hot tubs for 30 minutes or so. It was a slippery icy walk to and from the pool, but it was definitely worth it after our long day. As of this writing it's midnight Iceland time and I've basically been awake for 36 hours. I think I'll sleep pretty well tonight.
Day 2 - Reykjavik, Penis Museum, and Blue Lagoon
We got up and tried to get Blue Lagoon tickets for before we leave on our last day, but the tickets were sold out. However, there were still tickets available for later tonight, so we went ahead and bought those. The bus wasn't until 5:00pm so we had most of a day to kill. We googled what museums were within walking distance and looked into getting a city card, but the city card was semi expensive ($36) and didn't cover admission for the two museums that we wanted to go to (the whale museum and the penis museum). So we decided to go to the penis museum.
The penis museum was great (in my opinion) and had, as expected, many penises. There were lots of whale penises (one was as tall as me) and penises from many other animals. There was also a display with molds of the penises of Iceland's national handball team one year. The museum was founded by someone who received a bull penis to use as whip when he was a kid, and then his friends at the wharf gave him a few whale penises as a joke. Eventually he decided to start a collection and open a museum of penises. All in all, great museum, and I got a wooden penis bottle opener for my apartment back at college.
After the penis museum we walked back to our AirBnB and did some shopping along the way. We went in to lots of tourist type shops, I got some Christmas presents for people, Lauren got some Christmas presents for people, all in all a pretty good walk. After stopping by our AirBnB we went back to the SandHolt Bakery from the first day because it had good food at reasonable-ish prices. I had a chocolate croissant (it was okay) and Espresso (good), Lauren got some zucchini soup (good) and a cappuccino (good). Then we walked down to the water and past the Sun Voyager again, and back to our AirBnb after sharing a hot dog. Then it was time to leave for the Blue Lagoon.
We rode the bus to the Blue Lagoon and got into the water after showering in the nude again. The water in the Blue Lagoon was a very comfortable temperature - in some places it was like a very warm hot tub, in other spots it was a comfortably warm hot tub. If you ever start to overheat, all you have to do is stand up for a few seconds and let the 35°F wind blow on you for a little bit. It was dark while we were there so we couldn't see the full shocking blue color of the water, but we could still tell it was blue and a few pictures we took with flash really showed how blue it was. Overall a fun time, and definitely a stereotypical tourist thing to do while in Iceland.
After riding the bus back to Reykjavik we stopped at a pizzeria that had hamburgers for just $15 and had a nice warm meal (that wasn't hot dogs). Then we went back to our AirBnB and showered and went to sleep. Goodnight.
Day 3 - Horseback Riding
<This was fun, I'll write about it eventually>
Day 4 - Glacier Hiking
GLACIER HIKING WAS AMAZING AND WE LOVED IT
We were picked up by City Hall again and then bussed to the glacier. At the "base camp" we received an ice pick, crampons, snow googles, a helmet, and a climbing harness. It was snowing/sleeting with about a 20mph wind when we started so we were freezing at the beginning. The leaders split us into groups of 8ish, and it ended up being Lauren and I and then 6 girls that knew each other through working in the military together.
We walked for about a half mile mostly on loose basalt rock with a dusting of snow before we reached the base of the glacier. At one point we passed through an area that our guide said was an active rockfall areal so we couldn't stop and take any pictures. At the base of the glacier we stopped and our guide showed us how to put on crampons and gave us an introduction on how to use them, then we started onto the actual glacier. It was amazing!! The white snow contrasted with the blue of the glacier ice and made the glacier ice look even more blue. We probably hiked on the glacier for about 45 minutes, but it felt like 15-20 because it was such a unique experience.
The weather during our trek changed every 20 minutes or so - sometimes there were clear skies, sometimes there was wind but no snow, and sometimes there was snow and 20mph wind gusts trying to blow us over. It wasn't too bad because our guide explained early on how the weather doesn't last very long, so even if it sucks at one point it will probably be better in a few minutes.
Eventually we arrived at an area slightly out of the wind where we would get to climb up an ice wall. The guide hiked around and above it to put an anchor in the ice and throw down some ropes. Next, our guide gave us a lesson on using the ice pick and crampons to climb. Everyone in the group then climbed up the ice wall, with most people making it to the top! (I couldn't try it because I dislocated my shoulder a month ago and this would definitely be a risky activity for it) Lauren made it to the top, as you'll see in the pics below. One fun fact we overheard was that the area we rock climbed in was only a few weeks old - the glacier changes so often that the climbing area only showed up in the last few weeks, and they said it probably won't be there a month or two from now!
After the rock climbing we hiked back to the base camp, but we took a different route and got to see more variety in the glacier. We loved the streaks of ash and sand you can see in the glacier. I can't adequately describe how beautiful it was to be hiking in the middle of this glacier. Highly recommended
Day 5 - Attempt at Ice Caving
We were supposed to have an ice cave tour where we snowmobile out to it, but when we arrived at the base camp they said that the conditions were too dangerous to go out in as a group. They said it would be safe if nothing went wrong, but as soon as anything goes wrong (someone gets lost in the chain of 30 snowmobiles, someone falls off, etc) then you're screwed. So we sadly didn't get to ride snowmobiles or walk around an ice cave :( I'm trying to get a refund for it either through Arctic Adventures or our travel insurance, but I don't have high hopes.
On the semi bright side, we did get to ride in some heavily modified Mercedes Sprinter vans. They had 46" tires, and one had an automatic pressure system where the driver could change the tire pressure while driving. He started with the tire pressure at 25 PSI, and then when we got into deep snow he lowered it all the way to 10 PSI. I didn't get a picture of it, but I could see the tires on the van in front of us and they were very squished out into the snow due to the low pressure.
I also talked to the driver a good bit on the way back (we sat in the seats directly behind him) and learned some cool stuff. Apparently Iceland gets 99% of their electricity from renewable energy sources, mainly hydroelectric and geothermal. The other 1% is basically the generators that people have to use in more remote areas. There's a river that we passed by that is geothermally heated, and he said if you go to the right spot you can just hop in and go for a swim but if you go too high up on the river it will be too hot and will burn you, and if you go too far down the river it will be really cold.
I also mentioned that I was considering going back to Iceland in the summer and renting a car and driving all the way around the country and camping along the way. He said he did that with a friend in 11 days and that it was a lot of driving but also a lot of fun. You need 12ish days to do it at a comfortable pace, where you can stop at whatever you feel like and not have to drive too many hours per day. He said that some tours do the trip in 6 days, but they only stop at a set list of locations and he doesn't really recommend them. We also talked about the logistics of camping, and it sounds like there are lots of public campgrounds along the way that you can pay to use. Also he mentioned you can get a card that will work at multiple campgrounds and potentially save you some money.
We also talked about the volcanoes a little bit. Apparently the eruption that happened a few years ago that disrupted European air traffic for a week was probably a small eruption. Iceland has a different volcano, Katla, that typically erupts every 60-80 years, and it last erupted in 1918 (so it's 20 years overdue). According to our driver, the last time it erupted it put enough ash into the air that it cooled the air near it and many crops died and people starved to death later in the year. So if that happens again it could be very bad and the effects of it will be felt around the world.
Oh and at the end of the day we went back to the public pool with the giant hot tubs, it was a great way to relax after the disappointing day with lots of driving.
Day 6 - Travel back to Tennessee
It was a really long day.
But we made it.