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First Impressions of Iceland

I spent New Years and a good chunk of January overseas between England and Iceland. It was cold. It was hectic. And kinda fantastic.
I’ve been to England several times before, but this was my first time visiting Iceland. This post should serve as a little guide to Iceland, from a newbie’s perspective.

Everything you hear about Iceland is pretty much on point.

In winter, it’s cold. I was there in January.

Planning a trip to Iceland this winter? See what to pack here.

It’s very cold, the days are short, and warm clothes are going to be your best friend – especially if you’re spending any time out in the wilderness – AKA 99% of the island. Once you get a few miles away from the largest city in Iceland, Reykjavik (with a staggering population of about 120,000, according to Google) there’s NOTHING. FOR. MILES.

You might come across the odd farm house, cluster of fuzzy horses (yes. FUZZY horses.), and small gas station, but that is it, my friend. It is a whole lotta nothing.

But BEAUTIFUL nothing. It’s easy to see why Iceland is such a popular choice for landscape photography, because ohmygawd. *superswoon*

Dat landscape doe

Across the bay from Reykjavik, Iceland We roadtripped The Golden Circle one day, then drove 10 hours to see the Glacier lagoon another day, otherwise we were in Reykjavik.

Across the bay from Reykjavik, Iceland We roadtripped The Golden Circle one day, then drove 10 hours to see the Glacier lagoon another day, otherwise we were in Reykjavik.

But during winter, the wet windy weather requires some preparation.

If you’re going to Iceland in winter, here’s some things to bring:

  • At least one thick sweater
  • A waterproof/windproof Jacket – preferably with a hood that won’t blow off
  • Waterproof warm shoes – warm is more important than waterproof
  • Moosetracks (spikes that attach to your shoes) if you plan to spend any time hiking around
  • Earmuffs or a hat with ear flaps
  • A warm hat
  • Water resistant warm gloves
  • A warm scarf
  • Warm socks

You can buy stuff in Iceland of course, and they have great outdoors clothing – but like most things in Iceland, it’s expensive. Plan to pay at least $80 for a hat with ear flaps.

At the top of the hill at Gullfoss. EFFING COLD. For reference, I have leggings on under my pants, 2 pairs of socks, and 3 long sleeve layers. Not enough.

At the top of the hill at Gullfoss. EFFING COLD. For reference, I have leggings on under my pants, 2 pairs of socks, and 3 long sleeve layers. Not enough.

Accommodations in Iceland

You can of course do the usual hotel thing in Iceland, but for a more local experience, I’d suggest getting an apartment.

We rented an apartment in Reykjavik’s shopping district. It was easy access to all sorts of restaurants, shops, and a block or so away from the bay. We had 3 people to an apartment, which was pretty sweeeeeeeet. With an apartment you can enjoy some personal space, and have a full kitchen, and living room.

Our apartment in Reykjavik

Our apartment in Reykjavik

We rented from Reykjavik4you apartments, and they were perfect. Even better that we split the price! Savin’ money like an adult (which I totally am…) heck yisssss!

We watched Law & Order pretty much every night. Ice-T is my spirit animal.

Icelandic food

Food in Iceland is not exceptional, in my opinion. It’s pretty much dependant on where you go, you can get a little of everything, and I never had a bad meal. But I didn’t have anything particular “Icelandic.” I was expecting to eat a freshly dug-up fish at some point. No such luck.

But we did have some great soup our first night. The tiny, crowded place was a couple blocks from our apartment.

Svarta Kaffid serves only 2 soups, one vegetarian one not, in bread bowls and they change each day. Eating in Iceland is as expensive as it gets, but this was really good and affordable. Especially if you’re there in the winter – HOT SOUP FTW! It does get busy, so if you stop by be prepared to wait, but it turns over pretty fast.

Dinner our first night in Iceland - there's a restaurant called svarta kaffid that serves only 2 soups, one vegetarian one not, in bread bowls and they change each day. Eating in Iceland is as expensive as it gets, but this was really good and affordable. Especially if you're there in the winter - HOT SOUP FTW! It does get busy, so if you stop by be prepared to wait, but it turns over pretty fast.

It is painfully expensive to eat at restaurants in Iceland. Although that’s slightly offset by the fact that you can get flights on the cheap to Iceland at the moment.

My [drunken] theory on cheap Icelandic flights has a lot to do with vampires. But more on that later…

Food in Iceland is good, but be prepared to spend something like $20+ per meal, per person. Yeah. It hurts a bit.

Just do like me and don’t look at your credit card statement until you’re home. (don’t do that it’s terrible financial advice)

How to save money on food in Iceland

If you’re in Iceland for any length of time I’d definitely suggest checking out the local grocery shops. Although still pricey, they’re nothing compared to having a precooked meal at a restaurant. We picked up some good meats, cheeses, yogurt, and fruit from the grocer then got some fresh-baked bread to go with it.

Home cooking is another good reason to grab an apartment rather than a hotel!

A little bakery we grabbed some rolls at for breakfast (eating at restaurants is SUPER expensive, so we opted to grab some meat and cheese from a grocery store, plus some bread here to have at our apartment)

A little bakery we grabbed some rolls at for breakfast (eating at restaurants is SUPER expensive, so we opted to grab some meat and cheese from a grocery store, plus some bread here to have at our apartment).

Reykjavik and beyond…

What to see in Iceland

Frozen lake in Reykjavik. The university is across the lake, so students were walking across the lake to take a short cut. There were also people ice skating.

Frozen lake in Reykjavik. The university is across the lake, so students were walking across the lake to take a short cut. There were also people ice skating.

We spent our down time in Reykjavik, but rented a car so we could drive around Iceland without the hassle or expense of a tour bus. We had a couple days that were planned as “Road trip” days.

The roads beyond the city of Reykjavik are well-maintained, but you’re likely to spend HOURS surrounded by nothing but the [drop-dead gorgeous] scenery, and, in winter, hitting the occasional white-out.

What the road looks like through most of Iceland

What the road looks like through most of Iceland

A whiteout (there were a lot of these while driving)

A whiteout (there were a lot of these while driving)

A photo of the mountains through our frosted car window as we drive

A photo of the mountains through our frosted car window as we drive

We wanted to check out The Golden Circle, a famous driving route that includes some drop-dead gorgeous landscapes, a giant (COLD) waterfall, geysers, and the secret lagoon (different than The Blue Lagoon).

Geyser on the Golden Circle

Geyser on the Golden Circle

Gullfoss waterfall Iceland - a stop on the Golden Circle, and also possibly the coldest place ever. The air coming off of the water meant that we stayed for maybe 2 minutes, then ran back up the hill to get warm, then ran back down to take more photos. Phone batteries actually died because of the temperature in this spot.

Gullfoss waterfall Iceland – a stop on the Golden Circle, and also possibly the coldest place ever. The air coming off of the water meant that we stayed for maybe 2 minutes, then ran back up the hill to get warm, then ran back down to take more photos. Phone batteries actually died because of the temperature in this spot.

We wanted to go to one of the natural hot springs, but didn’t feel like paying the high pricing or dealing with the extra crowd at the famous Blue Lagoon, so instead we checked out the “Secret Lagoon.” It was less expensive (about $30 with a towel rental) and we had plenty of room to swim around. We spent a few hours just chillin’ in the warm water at the end of our first road trip day.

Of course the real adventure didn’t begin until we had to get out of the water, into the cold, winter Icelandic night air, and run for the locker rooms, dripping wet.

Someone moved my towel.

I stole my friend’s towel.

Relationships were tested.

It was every man for himself.

Also, keep in mind that during winter, Iceland gets about 4 hours of sunlight a day, so you’ll be starting most of your adventures in the dark.

"9am in Reykjavik, Iceland" - there are about 4 hours of daylight this time of year.

“9am in Reykjavik, Iceland” – there are about 4 hours of daylight this time of year. – BTW that’s not the sun, that’s a streetlamp. It’s very much still dark at 9am.

A 10-hour trip to the Glacial Lagoon

To get to the Glacial Lagoon you have to drive about 10 hours round trip from Reykjavik. If you can, I’d try to find somewhere to stay near the lagoon for the night, because that is a long day. But we did it in one.

And we did make a couple stops on the way.

Cliffs by the ocean, the little white specks are a mixture of snow and seagulls

Cliffs by the ocean, the little white specks are a mixture of snow and seagulls

Snow covered beach

Snow covered beach

Seljalandsfoss - you can walk up around and behind this waterfall, but the whole area was so frozen when we got there that people were falling, and the stairs were basically ice sculptures.

Seljalandsfoss – you can walk up around and behind this waterfall, but the whole area was so frozen when we got there that people were falling, and the stairs were basically ice sculptures.

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Glacial Lagoon

Glacial Lagoon

Iceland, you’re a legend. I’ll be back.

What to do when you have a weekend in Iceland [with photos]

What to do when you have a weekend in Iceland [with photos]

What to do when you have a weekend in Iceland [with photos]

What to do when you have a weekend in Iceland [with photos]

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I've had gelato in Italy, pizza in Egypt, crepes in Paris, and gruyere in Gruyere. I've rafted rivers, climbed canyons, been lost in foreign cities - and foreign museums :P - and road trip whenever I get the chance. I bring my camera and dog wherever I can, always looking for the next adventure, then I write about it here. Follow along and say hi!

4 Comments

  • Stef

    February 13, 2017 at 7:08 am

    Thank you for this! My husband and I are going to be spending two days in Iceland on our way home from a Scotland trip this December. Your packing list is going to help a lot! I was originally thinking we would just stay in Reykjavik, but now I’m thinking maybe we will rent a car one day and drive the Golden Circle. How much was your car rental?

    Reply
    • Hannah

      February 13, 2017 at 11:33 am

      Hey Stef! I’m so glad you found it helpful! I’m planning to put together a couple more specific list-ish posts soon too, fyi.

      Our car rental was ~$350 but we also had to rent a 7-person van which is substantially more expensive than regular car rentals. You should be able to grab one for much less, probably $150 or so. If you’re worried at all about driving on snow (which you might do just in parking lots or pulloffs on the Golden Circle) I’d opt for a wagon or SUV, but we never had any issues with the road even in our van.

      I’d def go for it, once you get out of Reykjavik driving is very easy, it’s pretty much just 2-lane roads. And you can get a GPS in your car, and apparently even wifi for a small fee. We didn’t do the wifi but I imagine it would be a nice little feature if you wanted to use your phone and not worry about data, although I’m not sure how fast it would be.

      If you post anything about your trip feel free to drop a link here, I’d love to read about it 🙂 Love the look of your blog too!

      Reply

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