Iceland Travel Guide

Iceland downtown Reykjavík

One of our favorite trips ever as a family was to Iceland. It's been a little over a year and one month since we visited, and I'm suddenly feeling all nostalgic because I was secretly 13 weeks pregnant with our third child, and it's where we announced the news to friends via Facebook with the caption, "P.S. Ice Ice Baby!" Appropriate, right?

 Selfie atop Kerid Crater, a volcanic crater lake in south Iceland.

Selfie atop Kerid Crater, a volcanic crater lake in south Iceland.

Let me start off by saying, this family vacation was SO good, that this is a mutual feeling all across the board even amongst the kids. My 5-year old son keeps asking us, “When can we plan another trip back to Iceland? I want to see the ponies again and get more Iceland coins.”

In typical Rose family tradition, we chose a major family vacation, in sort of a loosey-goosey way. It went like this: a sponsored ad for a travel company popped up in my Facebook news feed featuring super cheap flights to Iceland (because it was the dead of their winter), I turned to the Husb half-jokingly and said, hey, wanna go to Iceland? He said, okay why not, and that’s pretty much how we ended up in this amazing arctic island country.

At times Iceland really felt more like being on another planet–we’d drive around a sunny, non-snowy mountainside and then suddenly be transported into vast expanses of all-white as far as the eye could see, while also being blasted with treacherous gusts of tundra-like conditions. As I write this post, I’m having serious wanderlust to go back to Iceland soon. Since we went over a year ago, it seems like every fashion and lifestyle blogger and their mother are all following suit, like it's the trendy new place. But really, it's a beautiful country steeped in Nordic history, the best fresh seafood and lamb you'll ever eat and the coziest wool sweaters you'll ever wear. If Iceland is a place you’re considering visiting, check out my travel guide below! (Part 2 of traveling to Iceland with kids coming soon!)

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When to go

Winter in Iceland can be challenging, which is when we visited. The days are short, the nights are long, and it’s freaking cold! But if you time your experiences and activities just right, you can really make your time in Iceland so enjoyable. Try to go as late in the winter as you can to get a longer stretch of daylight, but still within the non-peak travel season timeframe so that your flight and accommodations won’t be as costly. If you visit in the summertime, you will not be able to see the Northern lights because you can only see them in the darkness, when skies are clear. In the summer Iceland is bright almost all that time. There are so many days of gray here, that there's even a wall mural about it in downtown Reykjavík, see?

Unfortunately for us, we missed out on experiencing the Northern Lights because it was rainy and cloudy most days that we were visiting. Will have to mark this for the next time. (There WILL be a next time!) On the upside, we explored downtown Reykjavík and the kids got to hang out with a lot of polar bears, of the stuffed variety which adorned many storefronts.

Getting there

Icelandair offers direct flights from many major airports to Keflavik, the main airport just outside of Reykjavík. Iceland just sounds so far and away and exotic that we were pleasantly surprised to learn that it is only about a 6-hour flight from the East Coast! Plus, Icelandair offers the cutest packaged in-flight busy boxes for kids, and movies like Frozen and Happy Feet.

Where to stay

Book an apartment via Airbnb. This is the apartment we rented right in the heart of downtown Reykjavík and it had all the hallmarks of a typical Scandinavian minimalist home. It was more than perfect for our family of four. You get all the comforts of home while living and exploring like a local while on vacation. I wish Airbnb was around when I was a kid!  

How to get around

Make Reykjavík your home base and rent a car to drive around the Golden Circle. This is a popular tourist route in southern Iceland, covering about 300km looping from Reykjavík into the southern uplands of Iceland and back. The country is not terribly big, and you could certainly make the drive in a few days with stops to see the sights. This was one of our favorite road trips we've ever done because of the constantly changing landscape, terrain and weather from one area to the next. Be prepared and pack a few changes of clothes–between chasing waterfalls and geysirs to trekking black sand beaches, you're sure to get soaked!

What to eat

Skyr–thick, rich, creamy Icelandic cheese that mimics a spoonable yogurt consistency and is so healthy but has no fat! Check, check, and check. It's basically crack.

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All the lamb and seafood, because these are the mainstays since the island country is surrounded by abundant Arctic waters and Icelandic lambs get to roam free in the highlands and valleys grazing on all the grass. 

Icelandic hot dogs–also called "pylsur" and everyone knows the best one in Reykjavik is Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur. Hot dogs in Iceland are made with lamb, obviously, and you should order it "eina með öllu" (one with everything) as the locals do: with a sweeter brown mustard ("pylsusinnep"), ketchup, raw onions, crunchy deep-fried onions, and a mildly tangy remoulade.

Try the specialties–we had a tasting of puffin, minke whale and wind-dried haddock. Personally, I loved the haddock which was basically dried fish jerky but it's definitely an acquired taste and my husband was not a fan. It was served as feathery soft strips and it kinda reminded me of the Chinese dried fish snacks that I always ate as a kid.

And if you are in the mood for a slow day, warm up with a freshly-ground hot coffee at Reykjavik Roasters, or my favorite because it was steps away from our AirBNB, Sandholt Bakery. Here you can park yourself on a pine wood bench and log on to free wifi while enjoying a steaming cup of something. Wearing your new Icelandic wool sweater, of course.  

What to do

Stop off to see the Icelandic horses which resemble cute mini ponies. I guess in Iceland they're just called horses though. These friendly beauties are pretty much everywhere on the sides of roads so you can just pull over to say hi. If you're not careful, they may try to eat your hat. (And if you're a mean momma, you will laugh and take pictures of it happening instead of helping.)

Go to the top of Hallgrímskirkja, Iceland's landmark church for an aerial view of Reykjavík's colorful houses with pointy rooftops. The church was designed by Guðjón Samuel in 1937 who was inspired by the shapes and forms created when lava cools into basalt rock–which you can see at the black sand beach at Vik! It also has a gargantuan pipe organ that we had the fortune to hear playing when we stopped in. Pretty sure twerking in church is frowned upon.

Don't go chasing waterfalls. Or actually, do. Iceland is a land of waterfalls and also rainbows. The most popular ones are in the South Coast. We visited Seljalandsfoss (pictured below), Skogafoss, and Gulfoss. Seljalandsfoss is a skinny waterfall that drops nearly 200 ft and is part of a river that originates in the volcano glacier Eyjafjallajökull. This is the only waterfall in Iceland that visitors can hike up and walk behind it into a small cave. At times the climb was a little treacherous with our 21-month old son, who we carried up a steep, wet, and rocky path, while our 4-year hiked. Skogafoss is one of the biggest waterfalls in Iceland and is also in the South Coast. Because of how wide it is, and how much spray it produces, there is almost always a rainbow on clear days.

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Reynishverfi black sand beach at Vik - you might have seen pics of the basalt rock formations that stick out of the sea and are called Reynisdrangar. We couldn't figure out how to get to the basalt stacks which looked so far away in the distance, so instead we ate lunch at the one local restaurant for miles (apparently hamburgers in Iceland come topped with a fried egg!), moon-walked along the black sand beach, and climbed the rocky pier. It was a super windy, cold day and be careful to stay away from the waves which tend to gust up suddenly.

Stand where the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates meet at Thingvellir National Park (and take a cheesy tourist photo to document it, that's where Dadda and Tiny Dino are headed for).

If you're #assholeparents like we sometimes are, take your kids and hike a volcanic mountain in the cold to Iceland’s oldest natural geothermal swimming pool called Seljavallaug. There's nothing fancy about this pool. It's tricky to get to, certainly is no Blue Lagoon—there are no crowds, spa services, or proper changing rooms and you gotta suck it up and strip down in a muddy area that has a roof and just one small bench while your kids fight over who gets to sit on it. Just you, the fresh glacial air, lukewarm water and a magnificent serenity surrounding the few travelers who managed to get here. Kids, it's bath time taken to another level.

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Shop at Geysir. Geysir is the premier brand in Iceland, designed and developed right from its studio in downtown Reykjavík. Inspired by Nordic city life and the country’s history of craft and knitwear, Geysir creates pieces uniquely balanced between tradition and modernity. This gorgeous Icelandic wool sweater is all shades of moss mixed with metallic gold threads. The photo doesn't do it justice. 

And lastly, another perk about Iceland? The water is so fresh and full of minerals that your skin and hair will be glowing in no time. You’ll be sorry to leave the country for this reason alone!