In early May I went on a little solo adventure to Iceland. The country had been on my to-visit list for a few years and I decided there was no time like the present.
Originally, I was supposed to go with a close friend of mine in April. Unfortunately for us, WOW Airlines, the airline company we were going to be flying with, went out of business a week before our departure date. Icelandair ticket prices rose from around $400 to $1000 instantaneously. As wonderful as we thought Iceland would be, 3 days were not worth that much for airfare alone.
So as the weeks went by I kept a close eye on ticket prices and was able to book a trip for myself in early May for a total roundtrip fare of $640 (the taxes and fees were almost as much as the original ticket price) with Icelandair. This was still a bit more expensive than I would have liked, but I couldn’t fight the urge to visit any longer.
And so began my journey to the land of ice and fire.
My flight departed from Newark airport in NJ at around 8:30pm. It would last about 5 hours and 50 minutes. Overall, the flight was comfortable. The biggest issue was that when we landed in Keflavik at around 6am, it was 2am local time. I would go on the rest of the day without any rest, totaling approximately 40 hours or more without any sleep. It was a day.
Once in Keflavik, I took the FlyBus to the main bus station in Reykjavik, the country’s capital and main city. The bus ride takes approximately 40 minutes. I came to be very much surprised at the distances between attractions and cities on the island, as I had wrongly assumed things would be closer to each other.
From the bus station, I made my way to my residence for the next few days. The Loft – HI Hostel was my first time staying at a hostel of any sort. I thought it would be a change of pace and a more immersive experience than a hotel or AirBnB. The hostel has a variety of room choices available. I selected a private double which had its own bathroom. Loft-HI also has a lovely lounge and bar upstairs with a deck. It is ideally situated near the heart of the city, making nearly all restaurants and attractions within 20 minutes walking distance.
I had read in multiple blogs that Sandholdt Bakery was a great spot for a quick breakfast when visiting, so I decided to try it out for myself as my first meal in the country. I purchased a ham and cheese croissant sandwich and an apple turnover (or strudel?). I’m not much of a coffee drinker, but given the circumstances I thought it would be wise to get a cup. I took all of this to go as I had a destination in mind to eat my first meal.
The Sun Voyager Sculpture is situated on the waterfront of the northerly bay in Reykjavik. It is simple yet elegant and the view is even more beautiful when you also take in the snow capped mountains across the bay in the distance. I was fortunate enough to get there right before groups of tourists started to visit and so was able to enjoy the view and my breakfast in relative peace. I still somehow managed to spill a bit of coffee on my pants, though.
After taking some pics, I walked along the waterfront. It was chilly. I knew it was going to be chilly. But the wind blowing off the water made it cold. I had a tshirt, hoodie, and jacket on and still felt cold. I went on to feel much better, even warm, when I explored more of the city and was out of direct contact with the wind.
I had about 2 hours before I was going to get picked up for my first tour, so I walked around Reykjavik. I saw the Prime Minister’s Office which was just a building in plain site. No security or fences. I was impressed, and would continue to be throughout the trip, at the trust Icelanders have in their safety.
I made sure to stop off at the central lake, Tjornin. The buildings around the lake were painted different colors and, along with all the different species of ducks and other birds, made for a very picturesque site.
My last major stop before returning to the hostel was Hallgrimskirkja, the largest church in the country and one of the tallest buildings. You can see it from almost anywhere in Reykjavik. It is a Lutheran church with high ceilings and lots of natural lighting. Above the entrance there is a massive organ that was actually being played when I visited. I made sure to take some time to take it all in and take a breath to prepare myself for the rest of the day.
After returning to hostel and changing into my hiking clothes, I made my way to Bus Stop 6 just 2 blocks down. Downtown Reykjavik doesn’t allow buses on the small quiet streets, so you need to go to these designated bus stops for pickup. The company running this particular tour was Arctic Adventures. The tour itself was called Snorkelling in Silfra Small-Group Adventure from Reykjavik and was booked, along with all the other tours I embarked on, through Viator.
As you might have gathered from the name, we would be snorkelling in Silfra with a small group. There were only 3 other people on the small bus, plus the driver who was a wonderful woman native to Iceland. The other tourists were from the UK and Germany.
Silfra is a fissure between the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates in Thingvellir National Park. Iceland is a hot spot because the plates are moving apart which lead to volcanic eruptions and earthquakes. I was surprised to find out that Iceland is actually growing a few centimeters every year. The fissure is one of the few places, if not the only, in the world where you can swim between tectonic plates. The water is filtered for between 30-100 years through the volcanic rock from the Langjokull glacier, meaning the water is super clear and clean. The visibility is excellent so long as there is light. There isn’t any wildlife in the water, although there is algae. I found it interesting that, although the water remains cold at around 2 degrees Celsius, it does not freeze because of the constant flow of water from the glacier.
We were put into wet suits and given the snorkelling gear and were led into the fissure. There is a current strong enough that you barely have to swim to navigate the path. I was amazed at the clarity and being able to see the evidence of seismic activity in the form of boulders littering the floor. You could even spot cracks and openings that seemed to go on forever into an abyss. One of my favorite aspects of this 30-40 minute swim was being able to actually drink the water as we made our way through the fissure. It was cold, crisp, and as tasty as water can get. After we exited, we were given hot chocolate and cookies which I thought was a nice touch.
After getting dropped off, I made my way to SNAPS for dinner. It is a French inspired bistro with a lovely interior. I had the house wine along with French onion soup, boef bourguignon, and a slice of chocolate cake. After filling up, I made my way back to the hostel, took a long hot shower, and settled in for the night.
I woke up feeling well rested. I suspect the previous long day, snorkelling, and big dinner made it easy to fall into a deep sleep. I went across the street for breakfast at Kaffitar. They had a wonderful breakfast sandwich of egg, cheese, and bacon. I paired that with a chocolate croissant and had a good start to the day. I made sure to pick up a chicken sandwich for the road just in case.
This trip was also run by Arctic Adventures and was called Hiking & Hot Spring Adventure in Reykjadalur Valley from Reykjavik. The driver, Gianni, was originally from Greece and had an interesting story of working for hiking tours across Europe. There was a young couple from Sweden who I came to befriend as we became each other’s personal photographers. There was also a group of 5-6 middle-aged women from Sweden. This would be the largest tour I was a part of.
Reykjadalur means “steam valley”. The whole area surrounding our destination is a “hot spot” and you can see steam vents all around. We even learned that few houses in the area do not even have heat installed because they tap into the naturally occurring heat beneath the ground. Farmers make good use of the area by constructing green houses for plants that might not otherwise survive or prosper in the Icelandic climate.
The hike itself took about 40 minutes as we trekked up the hills and mountains. There were stunning views of running water, hot springs with temperatures of 100 degrees Celsius, and the southern sea on the horizon. It was maybe 8 degrees Celsius outside, but the hiking, along with the clear skies and strong sun, soon made us all very warm.
The final destination was a makeshift “beach” along a section of the hot spring water. A boardwalk had been erected with open air stalls for quickly changing into swimming clothes. The water varied from very warm to hot depending what section you waded into. It was maybe a foot or so deep, so we had to sit or lie down for the experience. How odd it felt to be in such warm water in the middle of the mountains! After about an hour or so, we changed back into our hiking clothes and ate our packaged lunched. I wasn’t expecting much from the sandwich but it was actually very good! Maybe I was just really hungry, but the chicken and avocado sandwich I had purchased earlier that morning hit the spot splendidly. After lunch, we hiked back down to the bus and were taken back to our bus stops.
It was still relatively early in the evening so I decided to do some more exploring. I walked over to the Old Harbour area as it has some museums and restaurants. It is also where you can pick up tickets for boat rides for bird and whale watching.
My first stop was the Saga Museum which tells the story through wax figures of the founding and history of Iceland. The kid in me rejoiced as there was a room at the end where you can try on garments and gear of the time and take pictures. Chain link mail armor is heavy, by the way.
Afterwards I stopped at Whales of Iceland. This small museum has life sized replicas of the local orcas and whales. I didn’t spend too much time in here as they were about to close.
I finished up my tour of the Old Harbour by visiting Grandi Matholl, an indoor street food hall with several available selections. I opted for Fjarhusid which specialized in lamb, other meats, and vegetables from a farm in north-east Iceland. I had a delicious lamb burger with roasted potatoes and a glass of beer.
I then returned to the hostel to shower and prepare for some brief exploration of the Reykjavik nightlife.
I had a very long day to look forward to in the morning, so I kept my outing short. Besides wanting to get some proper rest, I did feel awkward going out to drink by myself as I had not maid any contacts within Reykjavik to go out with. Nearly all of the bars and clubs can be found on the same street, Austurstraeti which turns into Bankastraeti which also turns into Laugavegur. It was around 11:30pm and still there was light out from the sunset. The sky was a beautiful shade of purple and you could even still see families walking about. I eventually settled for the bar across the street from the hostel because it seemed busiest at that time.
Prikid is a warm corner tavern with two floors. The first floor is set up as a normal pub with bar seating while the second floor has a bar of its own but is table seating. There was a DJ playing fun music and there were quite a few young people coming in. I was hoping to make some conversation at the bar, but everyone was heading upstairs to sit with friends. After about an hour and 3 Viking beers, I decided to call it a night.
I woke up around 7am and went back across the street to Kaffitar for another breakfast. I got picked up at around 8am by Nicetravel for my last tour of the trip.
The South Coast Waterfalls and Glacier Small-Group Hiking Trip is a one day trip that was actually, unbeknownst to me, part of a larger two day trip. There were four travelers plus our driver, Nicole. She had been living in Iceland for approximately 4 years and is originally from the Czech Republic. I made friends with a guy my age from Hong Kong as we discussed traveling to different countries and became each other’s personal photographers (I’ve found that this is the easiest way to break the ice and become friends with someone on a trip). There was also a middle aged couple from Poland, also doing the two day tour.
I knew the day was going to be special after we visited our first waterfall, Irafoss. I honestly can’t find the words to describe this, or the other falls, so I will let my pictures do the describing for me.
We then moved on to one of the more popular falls, Skogafoss. I ended up getting soaked because I went as close as I could without being directly beneath the falling water. It was so powerful that it created its own wind. There is a staircase that allows you to climb to the top of the falls and onto a hiking trail. These stairs are not for the feint of heart as they are both steep and feel like they go on forever. The view from the top, and the trail which follows the path of the river, is worth the climb, though. After about 40 minutes of sightseeing, we went to a restaurant on site for lunch. I had lamb soup, a “Viking” burger, and tried the skyr cheesecake.
The third waterfall was only a short distance away. It is called Kvernofoss and is hidden from the main road, so you (or your guide) need to know about it ahead of time. This place was absolutely magical. As you are walking on the trail, you turn a corner and suddenly see a small valley with a stream flowing from the falls in the distance. It looked and felt as though I was on the set of a movie or in some sort of fantasy story. There was such greenery! The sky was clear except for a few grey clouds which produced a very light snowfall. Not enough to stick to anything or reduce visibility, but just enough to make this remarkable location even more magical. I felt bliss. Between trying to take as many pictures as I could and absorbing the sights and sounds around me, time went by far too quickly.
The next big stop was the glacier hike. Solheimajokull is what is called an outlet glacier of the much larger Myrdasjokull glacier. We put on some glacier hiking gear such as crampons, safety belt, and were given a pick axe. Once ready, we set off with our guide Javier, who happened to come from Spain. It took about 20 minutes to get to the glacier from the building. I bring this up because we went on to learn that not much longer than 20 years ago the glacier was right behind that building. There exists a lagoon in front of the glacier which had some floating ice in it. Well, that floating ice is actually several icebergs and the lagoon is about 70 meters deep (230 feet!!!). The body of water itself had formed over the last 10 years as the pace at which the glacier melted quickened due to climate change. It is believed that most of the Icelandic glaciers could go extinct within the next 100 years.
The hike itself was not at all what I would have expected. In my mind, a glacier was flat. Not this one! Because of the volcanic dust and mountain debris that littered the surface, sections of the glacier do not melt evenly. This creates a very mountainous terrain which you sometimes forget is all ice. There was some steep climbing at parts, but luckily we had those crampons. After some nerve wracking hiking, we finally got to the top which was mostly flat save for the crevasses we had to look out for. A fun point of the hike was carving out a little drinking hole in the ice and tasting the glacier melt right at the source.
At this point, we were all starting to get tired but the day was not quite over. We visited the famous black sand beach and the amazing natural architecture in the from of basalt cliffs. The riptides at the beach have been known to drag people under and actually drown them, but fortunately we visited on a calm day.
We stopped off at small restaurant for dinner in a mall, though it wasn’t anything too thrilling.
The final stop of the day had us looking at more waterfalls. The first took my breath away. Gljufrafoss is a nearly hidden waterfall in this small canyon. You need to squeeze between the rock walls to get in. Once inside, you can’t help but be absolutely amazed. The sky is open, the waterfall breaks onto the pebbled ground, and a rainbow glows across the cavern. It felt sacred to me, holy. I took a picture as close as I could get, which resulted in me getting soaked. Again. But totally worth it!
After getting my senses filled, as well as drinking from the waterfall’s stream, we walked over to the popular Seljalandsfoss. it was around 8:30pm at this point and the colors of the land and water were amazing. You can actually hike to the back of the falls and admire the sheer power of the falling water.
After some time I was picked up by another driver, Piotr (an Iceland native who has his own amazing life story), and was taken back to Reykjavik. I finally got back inside around 11pm. What a day.
After showering I decided to give the nightlife one more try. I ended up visiting the Austur nightclub because the music I heard from the street was great. It seems to be a haunt of the local population because I didn’t hear anyone speaking English. Because of this, and my general shyness, I didn’t really interact much with anyone besides the bartender. I ended up staying for about two hours, though, because the music was so great. Even though I felt awkward, especially as a lone dude in the corner with a beer, I had a decent time being around great music and people dancing and having fun. After returning to my room, I collapsed into a deep sleep.
I had a few hours to kill after checkout so I walked around Reykjavik which was very quiet on a Sunday morning. I had my first famous Icelandic hot dog from Baejarins Bezur Pylsur. It was good and made of lamb meat, but I think I still prefer the good ol’ NYC variety.
I followed a recommendation from my guide the previous day and visited the Volcano House, where you watch two documentaries on the more recent volcanic history of Iceland.
Before getting the bus back to the airport, I stopped at Eldur Og Is for a delicious crepe with ice cream.
The flight left around 5:30pm from Keflavik and I arrived back at Newark around 7:30pm. The trip back was much more comfortable than the trip going, simply because of the time we were traveling. That, and having the seat next to me be empty which allowed for more sprawling.
I have never fallen in love with a place as I did with Iceland. My only regret is not staying a day or two longer. I will most definitely be going back since there is still so much more to experience.
Do yourself a favor and experience the savage beauty of Iceland. If you do so, please be respectful of the locals and especially of the fragile ecosystem.