In recent years, Iceland has more or less become the Tulum of the North. There has been a lot of press, a rapid increase in tourism, and probably at least five people you follow on Instagram have visited. And for good reason. Iceland is an otherworldly place: windswept, bare, somehow covered in both ice and lava. It has endured financial crises and erupting volcanoes and seems to have emerged more desirable. I wanted to see if for myself. And so, in September, I visited Iceland with my friends Natalie and Yanyi. Here's the rundown.
WHERE WE STAYED We ended up renting beds at a highly recommended hostel called Kex. We stayed in a six-person room with a rotating cast of friendly dudes taking up the other bunks (Hi, heartbroken Maximilliano! Good chat). It's a beautiful space—the lobby is all dark wood and clinking coffee spoons and giant windows—and the rooms and bathrooms were tidy. It was also a very busy space, with concerts throughout the day and night, which was really cool, except for when you were trying to sleep. I appreciated the social atmosphere when around midnight one night, a British kid came tearing through the hallways shouting about Northern Lights and about 10 of us went outside to see the sky shimmering. However, I hadn't stayed in a hostel since my junior year of college and I think I've officially reached the "too-old-for-this" stage. I know, I'm boring. If I were to do it again, I'd split a (reasonably-priced, beautiful) Airbnb like this one or this one with pals.
WHAT WE DID Oh my gosh, so much. So much in four days. Outside of Reykjavik, we ended up relying on tours to get us where we needed to go. This suited our needs and our time for the most part—our Golden Circle tour especially—but I think next time we would all opt for renting a car. Having a little more flexibility and comfort while exploring would have been welcome. Here's what we did:
Wandered Reykjavik. To my New York brain, it's itty-bitty. So tiny. Yet with a population of 120,000, it's also home to more than a third of the total Icelandic population. They pack in a lot of good stuff, though, and it's so worth taking the time to meander in and out of cafes and shops.
Visited the Golden Circle and the Secret Lagoon with these guys. This was a small, excellent tour, and a really great idea for a first full day. It includes four official stops—Pingvellir National Park, Geysir, Gullfoss, and the Secret Lagoon—and a few other surprises and detours, seemingly up to the driver's discretion. Let me break it down:
Pingvellir National Park. This is the site of the first ever parliament. It might sounds strange, but you can feel it. The cliffs are as craggy as you could possibly hope for; you will see a rainbow; and, if it's anything like the day we were there, the weather will change every five seconds just to add some gravitas.
Geysir. Geysir. Geyser. Bubble, bubble, toil and trouble. You know. The incredible geothermal energy causes eruptions of boiling water that reach up to 70 meters (or more than 200 feet). I convinced my friends to climb up a hill behind the crowd to see what we could see. This was a very good idea, mud and all. Also worth noting: to feed your tired self after a bit of a hike, the tourist center's lamb stew is actually great.
Gullfoss. Meaning "Golden Falls." No other word for it but "mighty." This waterfall is giant and crushing and you get why there are a whole bunch of origin stories for it's names. Worth standing by and just taking in the sound. And then maybe taking a selfie.
The Secret Lagoon. This geothermal pool may have been the highlight of the trip for me. Imagine: you're sitting in a perfectly hot water, holding a cold beer, with warm mist rising up, and cool, soft rain coming down. It was bliss. This was our last stop before we returned to Reykjavik. My nap on the bus ride back was incredible.
ICELANDIC HORSES. Obviously the other highlight. We were firmly instructed not to refer to them as ponies, despite their size. I understood this eventually, considering how violently they were jockeying for the bread we brought them. Since I had really wanted to go horseback riding, but couldn't fit it in, this was the next best thing.
Snorkeled in Silfra with this crew. My friend Natalie and I decided that it would be amazing to snorkel in 34℉ water between two tectonic plates. It was! It was also crazy. We were picked up in the early morning and driven back to Pingvellir, where Silfra—the fissure between the North American and Eurasian continental plates—is located. We suited up (three layers: long underwear, a body-shaped sleeping bag underlayer, and a drysuit, plus gloves, a hood, a mask, and a snorkel) and we marched down to the water. We swam along the fissure, and then were able to float around in a lagoon, taking in the bluest, clearest water I've ever seen and witnessing how the earth was shifting. Pretty incredible.
South Shore Adventure with these folks. This was not our most favorite day, unfortunately, despite the amazing things we saw. In the interest of full disclosure here, we had horrible weather, spent most of the day soaked to the bone, on a giant bus filled with other people who were also soaked to the bone. Not quite a recipe for success. That said, super beautiful.
Mýrdalsjökull Glacier. It was kind of frightening to see how far this glacier had seemed to recede, but what a view. That glacier blue is almost glowy, and seems to make the green of the surrounding hills glow, too.
Vik and the Black Sand Beaches. I was super excited to visit this. It was windy in a way that seemed likely to blow you away, the sky was thunderous, the black rock and black sand and black sea were imposing as all get out. And then there were sheep grazing on the hillside. Why not. We had a quick, warm, very Icelandic lunch in the tiny town of Vik and attempted to dry off.
Skógar Folk Museum. I wish we could have spent some more time at this little museum. A really fascinating collection of artifacts—from a fishing boat to traditional dress to old manuscripts—make this one of those unexpectedly great stops, especially if you're a nerd like me. It's curated with care, but not necessarily with finesse, so it kind of feels like your grandmother's house, if your grandmother was a very tidy hoarder. Doilies included. Outside, they had a few different buildings including a chapel and turf farm houses, which seemed to me like Hobbit-huts. In other words, expect my change-of-address card any day now.
Skogafoss and Seljalandsfoss. Oh, look more waterfalls! I was really cold at this point. There are not many pictures. (Note, though: You can walk behind Seljalandsfoss. Always say yes to walking behind a waterfall.)
Hallgrímskirka at sunset. While the most famous church in Iceland is worth a visit for a lot of reasons—the amazing expressionist architecture, for one—I think this view takes the cake. We visited twice: once on our first rainy day wandering Reykjavik, and once, on our one beautiful day, right as the sun was setting. It was stunning.
WHAT WE ATE. So, due to the general lack of resources (besides, you know, fish and lamb) Iceland is not exactly known for its rich and varied cuisine (though that's changing). Still, we had some great meals that really hit the spot after days out exploring.
For fish and chips, look no further than the very straightforwardly named Icelandic Fish and Chips. They serve fresh-caught, well-fried fish and very good sides (we really liked the roasted potatoes). They have a very friendly waitstaff and a very chill environment. After dinner, you can go check out the lava rocks at the Volcano Museum next door.
We were told that going to Baejarins Beztu Pylsur for an Icelandic hot dog was non-negotiable. When we asked what exactly went on the hot dog when you got it "with everything," they just said, "It's better if you don't know." It was delicious.
After a rainy day, we headed to Noodle Station with a motley crew of roommates. We brought the spicy sorta-pho (this was debated) back to the hostel, and the group of us took our time chatting and enjoying. Good food and pretty reasonably priced for Reykjavik.
I spent a leisurely afternoon sipping a cup of coffee and writing at Reykjavik Roasters. Go, make yourself comfortable. Everyone is lovely. The coffee is great.
Soup in a bread bowl. It will soothe your soul (and won't empty your pockets). Find it at Svarta Kaffid.
Our hostel, Kex, killed it at breakfast time—think skyr and dried fruit and muesli and fresh bread and butter and...—but on our last night, we decided to eat dinner there as well. I got a chorizo dish that I still think about fondly.
So, there you have it. It's an amazing, contradictory place: barren and overrun with tourists, beautiful landscapes and awful weather. On one hand I can't wait to go back—to see all that I missed, to soak in the Blue Lagoon, to rent a little car and drive the Ring Road. On the other hand, I can wait, and should wait. I want to see what Iceland is like in 10 years, 20 years. When it has stopped being the subject of a trend piece in Sunday Styles, when they've stopped having to build new hotels on every block, and when there has been more of a chance for a collective, national deep breath. They have good air for gulping after all.