For our kids’ April 2017 school vacation, we decided to take them to Europe. Our plan was to spend 4 days in London followed by a 5-day stopover in Iceland.
Because this trip covers two (very) different countries, we are splitting this into two separate recap articles on the site. The first part of the trip, covering our time in England, can be seen here. This second segment focuses on the Iceland leg of this journey
Traveling to Iceland
Sarah and I visited Iceland for the first time in September of 2015. It was an amazing experience and one of the best trips that I have ever taken. As soon as we got back from that trip, I knew that I wanted to return to Iceland, and I wanted to bring my kids to show them that amazing country. Thanks to IcelandAir and their “stopover” promotion, which allows you to extend your layover for up to 7 days for no additional flight costs, we were able to make this wish a reality and include some time in Iceland with our London trip.
Our flight from Gatwick Airport in London took off at 10:00pm on a Thursday night for our short 3-hour flight to Keflavik Airport in Iceland. There is a 1-hour time difference between the two countries (it is earlier in Iceland), so we landed at midnight, Iceland time. The entire family was pretty exhausted by the time we were on the ground, so we grabbed our luggage and headed out to pick up our rental car from a company called Green Motion.
By the time we were picked up and brought to the nearby rental car building, it was about 12:45am. Getting our bags off the shuttle, we took a ticket and prepared to wait some more. There were 5 groups of people ahead of us and only 1 person checking customers in. With each rental taking between 10 and 20 minutes to process, this meant that I didn’t pull away with our rental car until past 2:00am.
Thankfully, we had decided to book a hotel in Keflavik, just minutes from the airport, for our first evening. The lights of Hotel Keilir were off when we arrived, causing us some momentary panic, but the doors were unlocked and someone was waiting at the desk for us. He handed us our keys and we were in our room and under the covers a short time later for some much needed sleep.
Day 1 – Good Friday in Reykjavik
I am the only morning person in my family. As such, I was the first one awake on Friday morning. I wanted to give Sarah and the kids some time to rest, so I got dressed and decided to head outside for a walk. Upon leaving the hotel, I had a few realizations:
- It was amazing how close we were to the ocean. It was literally right behind the hotel!
- It was way colder than I expected it to be. I had seen that the forecast for our time in Iceland was high 30s to mid 40s, which is certainly cold, but not terribly so. I had forgotten about how strong the wind can be in Iceland, especially coming off the water. Between the temperature and that wind, it was frigid outside!
As I took a walk away from the hotel to find some breakfast for the family, I was so thankful that Sarah had insisted on packing our winter coats and gear. I had initially argued to leave them behind to save space in our luggage, assuming that we would be fine with fleeces and windbreakers. How wrong I was! Had we not packed that Winter gear, we would’ve had to buy some in Iceland, which would’ve set us back quite a bit - so once again, thank you Sarah for making us pack those jackets!
After some breakfast (Skyr, coffee, and muffins that I picked up at a convenience store near the hotel) and a shower, we headed away from Keflavik and towards Reykjavik. This is about a 45-minute drive, which meant we were in the capital city right before lunch time.
Because we had the kids with us for this visit, we decided to upgrade from a standard hotel room and rent a 2-bedroom apartment instead. We made our way to Hotel Odinsve, which runs the apartment building where our rental was. The apartment and the hotel are about a block apart, so it was pretty quick and convenient to check in at the hotel.
We had to wait about an hour for our apartment to be ready, so we decided to grab some lunch while waiting. One surprise that we found as we made our way into the streets of Reykjavik, however, was that many of the shops and restaurants were closed for the Good Friday holiday. Thankfully, we found a wonderful quirky café named Café Babalu just a short walk from the apartment. The décor of the café was incredibly fun and eclectic, the people were super friendly, and the food was delicious! We highly recommend the lamb soup and the veggie lasagna.
After lunch, we did a little shopping and Sarah picked up a knitted Icelandic blanket. She had wanted one of these since our last visit to Iceland, and she quickly found one that was just perfect for our bedroom back home. There are tons of knitted goods all through Iceland, from blankets to sweaters to hats and mittens and everything else you can imagine. Be prepared to pay for one of these hand-knitted treasures, however. A blanket will run you about $150 or so and an Icelandic sweater ranges in pricing, but we saw them in the $200 and more range.
Our bellies and our new blanket in hand, we made our way to the apartment, carrying our luggage up three flights of stairs to our rental on the top floor. The apartment building has a total of 4 rentals and it is located on a road called Skólavörðustígur. If you’ve ever seen photos of the iconic Hallgrímskirkja church in Reykjavik (pics of that church to follow shortly), this is the road that it is on. We were right in the middle of the city, off of Laugavegur, which is the main commercial road in Reykjavik (this would become an important fact later that night – stay tuned).
One interesting note on our apartment - looking out the window, we saw that the neighboring building had an area closed in with barbed wire and a very tall fence. It looked like a prison – which we later found out it was until just a few months prior! What a view.
Since many of the shops were closed in Reykjavik, we decided to head over to Hallgrímskirkja to make our way to the top to see the city. Sarah and I had done this on our first visit and we wanted to show this vantage point to the kids. It was a quick visit, however, because the winds at the viewing platform atop the church were as strong as they were cold. After taking a few photos and admiring the view, we made our way back down.
Leaving the church, we immediately caught the scent of something wonderful. “We need to find where that smell is coming from!” Sarah said as we went in search of this incredible aroma. We found the source of this scent just down the road from Hallgrímskirkja at a bakery called Brauð & Co. This colorfully quirky building has very little signage, but there was a line that stretched well outside of the door, all attracted by the same incredible smells that had captured us. The cinnamon rolls we took away with us tasted as good as they smelled! We would return to this bakery again on our next day in Reykjavik to get more of their wonderful baked goods. Honestly, my mouth is watering as I write this, thinking back to how good those cinnamon rolls were.
Still tired from our travel experience, and a bit disappointed that many of the shops and restaurants we wanted to visit in Reykjavik were closed for the day, we had a quick dinner later in the evening and then returned to the apartment. The kids were happy for some downtime and Sarah and I watched a little TV, which seemed odd since we had not turned the television on even once in our last trip to Iceland. Still, it was nice to unwind and relax a little.
The two of us went to bed shortly past midnight, only to be woken up around 1:30 by some incredibly loud music and what sounded like a party happening right beneath our apartment windows. Getting out of bed, we realized that this was because there actually was a party happening under our window.
On our first tip to Iceland, we had stayed on the edge of the city, about a 5-10 minute walk away from the main commercial district. This time we were right in the middle of the party, literally. We discovered that on weekends in Reykjavik, the fun starts well past midnight and it doesn’t end until about 5:00am when the bars close. Seriously. The night life is a huge draw in Reykjavik, both for tourists and Icelanders looking for some weekend fun – and we were right in the thick of that party.
I’m not going to mince words - this sucked. We were incredibly tired and the music was blaring until around 4:30am, along with people laughing, yelling, and just generally being very, very loud right outside of our apartment. Thankfully, the kids slept through the whole ordeal (Holly put her headphones on to drown out the noise and Jacob could sleep through an earthquake), but Sarah and I were awake the entire time. We finally fell back to sleep around 5:00am, which completely destroyed any thoughts we had of getting an early start that day.
Day 2 – The Blue Lagoon
Thanks to our challenging evening trying to sleep amidst the party scene of downtown Reykjavik, we woke up a bit later than we had planned to. Couple that late start with a general sense of lethargy as we tried to get ourselves ready for the day, and we knew that we had to adjust our plans a bit.
We had initially wanted to drive back towards Keflavik to visit the Viking Museum in the morning before heading over to a 3:00pm appointment at the Blue Lagoon Spa later in the day. Leaving the apartment at 11:30am, we knew that we would be very rushed at the museum, so we instead decided to spend the afternoon in Reykjavik hitting some of the shops that had been closed the previous day. Our first stop was lunch at The Noodle Station.
One of my favorite restaurants from my first visit to Iceland, The Noodle Station is a small shop that offers just 3 items – noodles with beef, noodles with chicken, or noodles with just vegetables. I had originally wanted to eat here for dinner the previous evening, but the line was so long that we had skipped it. This morning we were first in line when they opened the doors at noon – a good thing because within minutes of opening for business, that line stretched out the door once again! This is a very popular restaurant in the city, but it is well worth it!
After a little shopping and a trip back to Brauð & Co. for some of their cinnamon rolls, we were back in the car and headed to the Blue Lagoon.
The thermal spa at the Blue Lagoon is one of the most popular spots for tourists in Iceland. We had visited this spa on our first trip. In fact, it was the very first stop we made in the country on that vacation. That time, the weather was dark, rainy, and windy, but on this second visit the skies were brilliant blue and although it was cool, the sun was shining. It would be a perfect day in the warm waters of the lagoon!
After a quick shower in the changing area, we got into our bathing suits and made our way into the water. It felt amazing. I grabbed a few Gull beers for Sarah and I and some strawberry smoothies for the kids and we were as content as could be. It was actually really nice to relax and just enjoy each other’s company as we soaked in the warm waters.
We spent just about 2 hours at the Blue Lagoon. It ends up being a pretty expensive visit for such a short time. Realistically, you can stay at the spa as long as you’d like, but after a few hours, there not much more to do. That being said, if you are going to Iceland for the first time, the Blue Lagoon is one of those things you need to do. If I ever return to the country, I don’t think I will go for a third visit to this attraction, but I was happy to have done it on this trip and to share it with the kids.
One suggestion if you do plan on visiting The Blue Lagoon – book your tickets well in advance! Pre-booking is required to enter The Blue Lagoon, and they only allow so many people in at any given time slot to try to control the crowds. Those slots sell out, especially during the busy season, so the sooner you book, the more likely you will get the slot you want.
Back in Reykjavik, we hit up one of my other favorite restaurants for dinner, Svarta Kaffid. This small restaurant serves just 2 kinds of soup each day – 1 meat based soup and another which is meat-free. They are served in these giant bread bowls and they go perfectly with a cold pint of Gull beer. On this night, the restaurant had a lamb chili that we decided to try. The kids found it to be a bit spicy, but I absolutely loved it. After not being able to visit these spots on our first night in Reykjavik because they were closed for the holiday, I was happy we made time to do it now since we were scheduled to leave the capital the next day.
Heading back to our apartment, Sarah and I dreaded what we would experience that evening. We expected another loud night of partying outside our window, but for whatever reason, it was much quieter than it had been the previous night. Sarah went to bed early expecting to be woken up by the noise after midnight, but that rude awakening never came and we all slept soundly through the night.
Day 3 – The Golden Circle, Waterfalls, and the Drive to Vik
Easter Sunday would see us leaving Reykjavik for a drive to our next destination – the town of Vik, which is the southernmost point of the country. We had rented a 3-bedroom house in Vik - it was honestly almost as expensive to get a standard hotel room, so we opted for the bigger space and more private setting of the house. Along the way to Vik, we planned to visit a number of attractions and sights, starting with the popular Golden Circle.
Made up of 3 of Iceland’s most popular attractions, the Golden Circle includes Þingvellir National Park, Geysir, and the Gulfoss waterfall. Sarah and I had already seen the later two of these attractions, but we were excited to make our way through the national park. Unfortunately, April was still a little too early to really see the park fully alive.
When we visited Iceland in September of 2015, the land was incredibly green and lush. It was an amazing place that honestly took our breath away. Visiting these same places in April of 2017, we quickly realized that Spring had not yet sprung in Iceland. Instead of that lush, green landscape, we saw lots of browns. It was still too cold in Iceland for the green colors. In fact, snow was on the ground in lots of places. This was a little disappointing, but the landscape was still incredibly impressive. Þingvellir is huge and I can only imagine what it looks like in the summer months.
We made a few stops in Þingvellir to snap some photos and to use the bathrooms at a rest stop, but our first lengthy stop came at Geysir. After seeing the eruption a few times and walking the grounds, the kids were cold and we were all hungry, so we opted for a delicious lunch in the restaurant at this attraction. If you are driving the Golden Circle, plan to stop for lunch at Geysir. It is a nice, big dining room with lots of space and the food is excellent. One fun and quirky note about the restaurant at Geysir, however, is that all the TVs in the place are playing a loop showing Icelandic wrestling footage. This traditional sport has a long history in Iceland, but it was an odd backdrop to be eating to, especially since the loop was somewhat short, so you ended up watching the same footage again and again, unable to turn your gaze away. It was oddly hypnotizing.
Leaving Geysir, we next came to Gulfoss. This massive waterfall was one of the most impressive sights we saw on our first visit. It was interesting to see it again in this different season. The mist from the falls was frozen along the edges of the rocks, creating an icy landscape all around. In fact, you could only go so far along the viewing path near the falls due to safety concerns. When we first visited, we were able to get much closer to the falls, but the icy conditions in April prevented that on this trip.
A short ways away from Gulfoss, we got to see was a herd of Icelandic horses just hanging out by the side of the road. Holly loves horses, so we decided to stop to take a look. The horses were so gentle, they allowed us to come right up to them and interact with them a bit. Holly was thrilled to be able to pet one of these horses and to get so see them up close.
Having completed the Golden Circle, we made our way towards Route 1, which is also known as the “Ring Road” that circles the entire country. This is the road that would take us to Vik. It was also the road where our next handful of stops would be, starting with Hotel Ranga.
Hotel Ranga is where Sarah and I spent 4 nights on our last visit. It is an amazing hotel, but not really geared toward families. The one room they had that could accommodate all 4 of us was just too expensive for us to consider. We did, however, want to stop to show the kids the place and to get Jacob a cheeseburger.
When Sarah and I had stayed at Ranga in 2015, we had renewed our wedding vows at a small nearby church. After the ceremony, we had returned to the hotel for lunch, and each of us ordered a cheeseburger. No exaggeration - that burger was the best one I have ever eaten. Being the lover the cheeseburgers that he is, Jacob needed to taste one for himself. We got to the hotel around 3:00pm, only to find that lunch was done for the day and dinner was still a few hours away. The staff was so nice that they still made us some coffees and hot chocolates, and they got Jacob his cheeseburger. What was his verdict? He gave it a 9 out of 10 and agreed that it was a very fine cheeseburger indeed. Personally, I think he rated it a little low.
Our next two stops were more waterfalls. The first of these is Seljalandsfoss. This is probably my favorite of the falls we saw in Iceland. You can actually walk behind those falls, something that we did on our first visit. The winds were pretty wild this day, however, and everyone who came from behind the falls emerged soaking wet. We did not want to get soaked, so we enjoyed the falls from the front view only on this trip.
A short ways from Seljalandsfoss is Skogafoss. The mist from these falls are so intense that on a sunny day, there is almost always a rainbow at the base. On this particular day, there were actually two rainbows for us to enjoy!
To the right of Skogafoss is steep staircase that allows you to climb to the top of the falls to see it from that vantage point. This is also where the Fimmvörðuháls Hiking Trail begins. We hiked part of this trail on our last visit, but neither of the kids were up for the ascent up those steps, much less a hike, so we said our goodbyes to Skogafoss and headed to Vik.
Besides being the southernmost point of Iceland, Vik is known for two specific locations – a rock formation known as Dyrholaey and the Black Sand Beach, Reynisfjara. We stopped at Dyrholaey first, hoping that we would get lucky and see some puffins, one of the main things Holly was hoping for on this trip. Sadly, it was still too early in the season for puffins and we did not see them at this beach. In fact, we did not see much of anything because much of this area is now largely closed to tourists.
When Sarah and I went to the beaches of Vik in 2015, we do not remember seeing any danger signs posted, and we were certainly able to get very close to the edge of the water at Dyrholaey. Today, this is not the case. A number of tourists have died due to what are known as “sneaker waves” (the videos of these waves are terrifying), so the tourism council of Iceland has been forced to evaluate the safety of these areas. It’s crazy that Sarah and I never once felt like we were in danger on our first visit, but after seeing those signs and watching those videos, we were more than a little uncomfortable on these beaches.
At this point it was getting pretty late and we were all hungry. We had wanted to end our day at Reynisfjara and have dinner at the Black Sand Beach Restaurant, but it closes at 6:00pm and we had just missed that time. Instead, we decided to head to our rented house and see what food we could find in Vik.
Vik is a small town, with a population of just over 300 people. Yeah, it’s that small. We made our way to our rented house, which was pretty much in the middle of town, just a few streets away from Route 1, which goes straight through Vik. Our plan was to drop off our luggage and then grab some dinner. Unfortunately, our options were pretty limited. The grocery store next to our rental was closed for the Easter holiday, which meant that we ended up at the small gas station / convenience store / restaurant in the center of Vik. Looking up “restaurants in Vik, Iceland” now, I can see that we did have some other options (although I have no idea if they were also closed for Easter). That evening, however, we did not want to go on a search for other restaurants – so it was off to the gas station for us. The best thing I can say about the meal is that they served Gull beer at the restaurant, which was quite welcome at the end of this very long day of driving.
Day 4 – The Black Sand Beach at Vik and a Drive to Skatafel
Waking up on Monday morning after a very comfortable night’s sleep in our rented home, we decided to start our day at the one stop we failed to hit on our previous day’s drive – the Black Sand Beach of Reynisfjara. Unfortunately, there was dark skies and rain in the forecast, the only bad day of weather we had on our entire vacation, but we refused to let that stop us. We ate a quick breakfast and headed out to the beach.
Arriving at Reynisfjara, we once again saw the prominent danger signs warning visitors of sneaker waves. This beach was one of my favorite spots from my previous visit to Iceland, so I was saddened to learn of the recent deaths that had prompted these signs. Between our concern of those sneaker waves, and the fact that the wind was blowing pretty wildly that morning and kicking up lots of the black sand, we spent only 15 minutes or so walking the beach. That was, however, enough time for Holly to arrange some rocks and make a little “beach zen” display.
Leaving the actual beach, we popped into the Black Sand Beach Restaurant, also known as Svarta Fjaran, just in time for lunch. Our first visit to Vik ended with a meal of sandwiches and homemade turnip soup in this restaurant, and that is what we ordered again this time. It was just as delicious as we remembered and the perfect meal to warm our bellies on this cold, rainy day.
On our first visit to Iceland, the town of Vik was the farthest point away from Reykjavik that we travel to. With nothing else planned for this day, we decided to head East on Route 1 to explore some more of the country. Our destination was an area called Skatafel and the waterfall Svartifoss. This was about a 2-hour drive away from Vik, but the photos we had seen of this waterfall looked like it would be well worth the trip! Now we just had to hope that the weather cooperated.
The drive from Vik to Skatafel is not very notable. There is really only one stop along the way, Kirkjubæjarklaustur. If you are heading this way and you need to use the bathroom, grab some snacks, or fill up on gas, be sure to do it here, because this was honestly the only stop we came across in the entire 2+ hours between Vik and Skatafell.
The scenery on this drive started as rocky, volcanic formations. That was actually what we saw out of our car windows for quite a bit of the initial distance. Eventually, the landscape of this drive changes from mounds of volcanic rock to wide open spaces of nothing. This area also boasts some very lengthy single-lane bridges.
I had driven in Iceland before, so I was aware of Route 1’s single lane bridges. You drive up the bridge and, if someone is coming the other way, you just wait a moment for them to drive past you and then you take your turn. No big deal, except the bridges I encountered on this day were so long that you can barely even see if someone is coming at the other end! Even if you think that there is no one at first, you may start along the bridge only to discover that someone is indeed coming from the other direction. To address this situation, there are a number of wider “pull offs” on the bridges where you can pull over and the other vehicle can sneak past you. There is not much clearance here, making for a very nerve-wracking bridge crossing adventure!
We finally came to Skatafell, which is part of Vatnajökull National Park. This area is home to the largest and most voluminous ice cap in Iceland. We stopped at the visitor center and saw many tour groups preparing to head up for a glacier walk. That seemed cool, but our destination was the Svartifoss waterfall, so we jumped back in our car to finish this drive – only to discover that the road was closed. We drove 2+ hours to find that the route to the waterfall was not open to us. There was a hiking trail available, and the 1.4km trek did not seem to be too difficult at all, but we were in no way prepared for a hike. Sarah did not have on hiking shoes and we had not packed any gear or food. It was also about 3:00pm by this point and the weather had been raining on and off all day. Bottom line, it was not the ideal situation to attempt a hike in Iceland. Had Sarah and I been alone, we may have given it a shot, but not with the kids. So as sad as it sounds, we jumped back in the car and headed back to Vik. The closest we ever got to the Svartifoss waterfall was the picture I took of the sign at the trailhead.
Back at our rental, I decided to look up information on the road to Svartifoss to see why it was closed, only to discover that this is actually not a waterfall you can drive up to like the others we had seen in Iceland. To see Svartifoss, you have to hike it. I somehow missed that critical piece of information when I was first looking into this location! Lesson learned – make sure you know all the details of where you are going before you head out!
The good news is that we arrived back in Vik around 5:00, which allowed us to return to the Black Sand Beach Restaurant before they closed for the evening. We ordered cheeseburgers for everyone, and Sarah and I enjoyed a tall mug of Gull as we closed out our final full day in Iceland.
Day 5 – Time to Head Home and Some Final Thoughts
Our flight from Keflavik to Boston was scheduled to leave at 5:30pm, but we still had to hit the road early. The drive from Vik to the airport is just over 3 hours. We also wanted to make sure that we had enough time to return our rental car, and since it had taken so long to get it on that first evening in Iceland, we wanted to play it safe and give ourselves some extra time. We also wanted to arrive at the airport early enough to make sure we made it through security, etc. So in summary, we woke up, had breakfast, and took to the road.
If you talk to people who have visited Iceland, one of the things they are likely to tell you about their trip (along with the wonderful people, great food, and amazing sights) is how expensive it is. There is no better evidence of this than the lunch we had on our drive to the airport. We stopped off at a rest stop and had a few sandwiches from a Quiznos. Jacob had a cheeseburger (I believe this was his 7th burger on this trip) and Holly opted for some eggs with toast and bacon. The total bill? Almost $70. Yup, 70 bucks for a few sandwiches, a cheeseburger, and a breakfast combo. Good grief!
We arrived at the GreenMotion rental location with plenty of time before our flight. Of course, on this day they processed us immediately and we were now pretty early for our flight, but better early than late, right? We were taken to the airport where we checked in our luggage and discovered that we were even earlier than we had initially thought because our flight was actually delayed by 2 hours! Oh boy.
Our plane eventually departed Iceland at nearly 8:00pm Iceland time, arriving in Boston at 9:00pm (5 hour flight minus the 4 hour time difference means you arrive 1 hour later on the clock then you departed). By the time we made it through customs, retrieved our luggage, and drove the hour from Boston to our home in Rhode Island, it was almost 11:00pm, but since our bodies were on Iceland time, it felt like 3:00 in the morning to us. We were home safe, however, and thankful to have been able to spend such an amazing week together seeing some incredible sights in both London and Iceland.
So, some final thoughts on this Iceland trip - if you’ve read this entire recap, you likely noticed that it was not all easy going on this visit. I’m not going to lie, there were certainly some challenges on this trip, many of which were because I did not do my research properly to learn that downtown Reykjavik is rowdy on weekend nights, that many Icelandic business close for Easter weekend, or that to see Svartifoss you need to be prepared to hike. Normally I am a thorough planner, so it is unlike me to encounter so many problems that could’ve been avoided with better planning. All I can assume is that, since I had been to Iceland previously (and had done plenty of research then), maybe I had a false sense of comfort and felt like I did not need to do much research for this visit. Or maybe it was just some poor timing and bad luck. Not every trip can be perfect, but despite the bumps along the road, this visit to Iceland was still a special experience. Some things I did learn, however, and would like to share with others considering travel to this country:
- Do not visit in April. The weather is still pretty cold and the wonderful green of the landscape is not yet present. Summer is supposedly the best time to visit, but it is also the busiest. Our first trip was in mid-September, and that seemed to be a mix of decent weather and not crazy crowds. If I do return to Iceland in the future, I would likely target a late August / early September trip
- Do not stay in the center of Reykjavik on the weekend unless you want to party. If you’re looking for the night life, then by all means, stay in the city, but if you want some peace and quiet before 5am, look for a hotel outside of the main commercial district.
- If possible, avoid traveling on a holiday (like Easter), or if you do travel on the holiday, plan accordingly and pick up supplies in advance because many shops and businesses will not be open for the holiday
- Do not assume attractions are easy to get to and that you can just drive up to a parking lot to see them. I should’ve known this about Iceland. There are some very remote locations, so plan your excursions before you travel and make sure you are prepared for what lies ahead.
- Increase your budget. It is certainly possible to do Iceland more cheaply than we did, but it is not easy. Everything is expensive in Iceland, so give yourself adequate budget to enjoy your trip. Trust me, it’s much more costly to eat, drink, and relax in Iceland than you think it is!
So that’s our trip! If you haven’t done so already, be sure to check out the first part of this vacation covering our time in London. You may also be interested in the recap of our first visit to Iceland back in 2015.