My main aspiration when traveling is: no regrets! That’s why I passionately and relentlessly research the ins-and-outs of getting around efficiently, what not to miss, and how to save money without short-changing the experience.
Especially if you’re traveling with kids, where you stay and what you do matters. A lot.
The plan was a six-day adventure with my kids (ages 9 and 11) and my girlfriend with her kids (ages 8 and 10). As soon as we chose Iceland as our destination, my researcher took center stage. Blogs and other online travel sites were immensely helpful so when we landed on the beautiful and mystical island, I felt pretty darn prepared.
While my research was fruitful, the focus of this post is to share information I didn’t find that would have been helpful so you, too, can leave with no regrets.
Eat what the locals eat
With the massive growth of tourism in Iceland since the famous volcano eruption in April 2010, new restaurants open every day. There is no shortage of Icelandic specialties to choose from.
While we didn’t try them all (the description of mashed stinky shark on toast didn’t tempt us), we made a point to try as many as possible. Here were some of our favorites:
Soup in bread bowls, similar to what you would find on the wharf in San Francisco. The sourdough bread, crunchy and chewy at the same time, is filled with thick stew-like soup that warms your whole body. We ate at Svarta Kaffid twice.
Fish & chips can be found everywhere, from fancy restaurants to walk-up stands. Our favorite was found at the Icelandic Fish House. An additional treat was visiting the attached gift shop and watching a documentary about the volcano eruption in 2010.
Gourmet meat plate typically served on wooden boards accompanied by dipping sauces. We enjoyed ours at Grillmarkadurinn, a lovely restaurant that has a warm mountain house atmosphere with a modern twist.
Lobster soup, the ultimate winner was found at Sægreifinn Restaurant in the Old Harbor. It was a clear favorite for the locals, too. Whenever we walked past it, tables overflowed any time of the day.
Stay inside and outside the city
While in Reykavik we stayed at a fairly new hotel called Reykjavik Apartment Residence Hotel.
The spacious three-bedroom was fitted with basic condiments and breakfast food, comfortable beds, and a washer and dryer. It was located one block off the main shopping street and three blocks from the harbor.
They are centrally located in a fashionable district with easy access to Laugarvegur and Skolavordustigur, the main shopping streets where you will find a wide variety of stores, boutiques, restaurants, cafes, museums, nightclubs and art galleries.
The quality location and roomy apartment made for a great choice and good value for our group.
We spent a whole day and a few nights touring around the city which is not to be missed! These are just a few pictures to try and capture our experience.
After three nights in the city we left to stay just outside at a well-rated guest house called Eyvindarholt Guesthouse. The guesthouse offers wonderful views of Álftanes, Reykjavík and the surrounding area, including the nearby presidential residence, Bessastaðir. Eyvindarholt is only a 15-minute drive from the culture, trade and amenities of Reykjavík’s city center.
The huge and luxurious breakfast includes homegrown produce and homemade food. The vegetables, berries and spices come from the kitchen garden. The animal life is rich. While only 20 minutes outside of Reykjavik, you get a real sense for what country life might be like for islanders. And why they love it so dearly.
We had free access to the nearby neighborhood pool—not your ordinary community swimming hole. This “pool” included multiple hot tubs, lap pools, wave pools and waterslides. ALL the pools were warm or hot, making it possible to stay in as long as our hearts desired. The kids loved it. I’m convinced that the concept would be successful in many cities around the world, including my own.
See as much of the country as possible
As tempting as it was to spend all our time exploring the city, splashing in the warm community pools or enjoying the views from our sweet guesthouse, the best and most unique parts of Iceland lay outside the city border.
There are two ways to get around. Rent a car or take a tour. Car rental rates are reasonable, and the roads are well maintained and well-marked. If renting a car is not your thing, there are dozens of tour companies to choose from. Just be sure to book as early as possible; not surprisingly, they fill up quickly. We tried several different companies: GoToIceland, SAGA Travel, and Discover Iceland, all providing high quality experiences.
You may be shocked at the prices: tours run $150-$250 per person. However, unless you are up for driving, you can’t visit Iceland and not venture out—way out.
We did three different day trips and all were equally fabulous:
- The Golden Circle: The Golden Circle is the most popular tourist route in southern Iceland, covering about 300 kilometres looping from Reykjavík into the southern uplands of Iceland and back. Typical stops include Thingvellir National park, Gullfoss waterfall and Geysir geothermal area.
- Southern Coast: The south coast of Iceland has long been a traveler favorite, packed with visits to significant sights like astounding waterfalls, extraordinary black sand beaches, the breathtaking Jokulsarlon glacier lagoon or Skaftafell, the jewel in the crown of Vatnajokull National Park. Part of our tour including seeing the falls on horseback, an option not to miss!
- Reykjanes Peninsula and Blue Lagoon: Take a memorable drive across the lava-scarred terrain of the Reykjanes Peninsula, where geological furies have given shape to landscapes of rare and haunting beauty. See a beautiful lighthouse that stands like a sentinel on the tip of the peninsula and try to catch a glimpse of the majestic Northern Gannet alighting in the skies. Combine this trip with a visit to the famous Blue Lagoon! A perfect way to end a perfect day.
Pack good hiking/walking shoes and a substantial wind breaker…no matter what time of year you are traveling
You will be walking at least 10,000 steps a day. It might even be a good time to buy that Fitbit you always wanted or load your phone with an app like Stepr (my personal favorite). With so much to see, and most of it only seen when traveling by foot, a good pair of sneakers and wind breaker will take you most anywhere.
The food isn’t cheap but there are ways to save money
Iceland food is expensive but don't let the prices stop you. Here are a few ways to save a few bucks.
- Kids’ meals are often less than half the price. Restaurants don’t mind if you share meals (portions are large).
- Drink tap water. If you can get past the distinct smell of sulphur, it’s actually just fine.
- Rent accommodations with a kitchen. Like most places, supermarket food was less expensive than restaurants.
- Bring the kids’ favorite snacks from home. That might save you a few hundred bucks right there!
The Blue Lagoon is absolutely a must
It lives up to the hype and no matter what others might say, there are no other lagoons or thermal pools on the island that compare.
You can take the bus from directly from the airport to the Blue Lagoon. That fact alone is a hint you should go! In a short thirty minutes you will be soaking in a beautiful pool of turquoise water covered in a mud mask guaranteed to refresh your travel-tired body and dehydrated skin.
Another option is to save the Blue Lagoon for the last day, stopping there before your flight departs. The luggage storage facilities make it that much easier.
We chose to go to the lagoon on our last day. First we toured the area—called the Volcanic Wonder—to see the bubbling lava pools, magical light houses, and the amazing continental divide: one side Europe, the other North America.
Pulling into our last destination, the Blue Lagoon, I could feel my anticipation immediately. There are a handful of places you read about, dream about, imagine yourself traveling to. When you finally get there you feel giddy. What are those places for you? Blue Lagoon was one of these for me.
We spent two glorious hours exploring the lagoon. Moving slowly through the water, we made our way to the mud mask bar several times. The kids were fascinated by the natural mud floor, squishing their toes deep into its surface. I couldn’t resist ordering my last Icelandic beer. =
When I return to Iceland in winter to catch the northern lights with my husband, you can be sure I’ll be starting and ending my trip at the Blue Lagoon—and this time I won’t miss the famous water massage, requiring a longer stay. The longer the better!
IMPORTANT BLUE LAGOON TIP: Make a reservation in advance.
One reason the lagoon lands at the top of the list of experiences in Iceland is because they limit the number of visitors, which allows for a quick check-in process, free and clean showers and lockers, and enough space to travel the lagoon without rubbing up against your neighbor.
Don’t want to pack towels or flip-flops? Rent the towel there and leave with the flip-flops as a souvenir. Both are offered at a reasonable price for Iceland standards.
Want to learn more? Here are some additional blog posts I found helpful:
Reposted with permission from Travel Moments With Kids author, Renee Manchester Dineen