*I visited Iceland in 2011 and wrote about it on the website Ciao. I’ve decided to edit and publish a version of my holiday diary here*
I recently went on holiday to Iceland, staying in the capital city, Reykjavik. Reykjavik is the northernmost capital in the world, and is also the smallest capital city in Europe, but then Iceland itself doesn’t have the largest population either. Greater Reykjavik has a population of just over 200,000 people, which is two thirds of the population of the country as a whole. A small island to the north west of Britain, it does tend to get overlooked when concentrating on mainland Europe, but from what I’d heard it seemed like an interesting place to visit, and after seeing signs all over the Tube advertising the place, I took it as a sign that I needed to book a trip!
I booked my trip with Icelandair and the flight from Heathrow Airport took around three hours. During my time in Iceland I went on the Golden Circle tour, bathed in the Blue Lagoon and explored Reykjavik.
The flight from London to Reykjavik takes around three hours. Planes land at Keflavik Airport and you need to catch the Flybus or take a taxi (a more expensive option) to get into Reykjavik. The currency is the krona, which went down in value considerably in 2008 after the financial crisis, so Iceland is no longer quite as expensive for the visitor as it was. It’s best to exchange your money there as you’ll get a better exchange rate (I exchanged mine at the airport) and currency can be difficult to obtain back home. British nationals do not need a visa to enter. Iceland is a member of the Schengen Agreement: nationals of countries that have implemented the agreement do not need a visa either. Iceland is not a member of the EU, and you can therefore purchase duty-free products and get tax relief on many purchases there.
Tap water is perfectly safe to drink in Iceland. Medical facilities are good and available to UK citizens with an EHIC (European Health Insurance Card). The climate is milder than you might expect for somewhere so far north – it was around 4 degrees Celsius when I was there at the beginning of April, though the weather can be changeable, and it’s unwise to go off exploring unless you know what you’re doing.
***A potted history of Iceland***
Did you know modern day written Icelandic is close enough to Old Norse for Icelanders to be able to read the language of the old sagas? Or that 80% of Icelanders are descended from Scandinavian and British men but Irish women (since Viking raiders headed to Ireland to kidnap prospective wives before sailing off to Iceland)? These were just two of the interesting facts I learned on my trip to Reykjavik.
The first settlers are largely agreed to have landed in Iceland in the ninth century and claimed land in order to farm. A Parliament, the Althing, was held (in what is now Thingvellir National Park) annually to decide the policies of the Icelandic Commonwealth, until Iceland was brought under the rule of Denmark and Norway in the 13th century. Centuries of poverty followed, with Iceland being hit by the Black Death on two separate occasions. Christianity had been introduced during the medieval period, but during the sixteenth century the nation converted to Lutheranism and the last Catholic bishops were beheaded. During the nineteenth century, a growing independence movement inspired by romantic and nationalist ideals eventually helped to bring about a referendum in 1944 in which Icelanders voted to become a republic.
(This is an extremely short and greatly simplified version of Icelandic history!)
***A little about Icelandic geography***
Iceland’s geography is so unusual and rich that I thought it worth mentioning. Iceland is on the mid-Atlantic ridge, where the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates are slowly moving apart at the rate of about 2 and a half centimetres per year. In fact if you visit the Thingvellir National Park (the Golden Circle tour comes here) you can see the edge of the North American plate which looks like a cliff looking over the plain below. This situation explains why Iceland is prone to so many volcanoes (including the infamous eruption last year, from which you can buy bottles of ash in several places in Reykjavik!), which helps enormously when trying to date archaeological excavations. In addition it explains why you get geysers and hot springs as well as the geothermally heated Blue Lagoon and other similar pools, heated by the flow of magma beneath the earth’s surface.
Although Reykjavik is Iceland’s capital city, it has the feel of a seaside town, with old buildings, a harbour, and brightly-coloured metal panelled houses. I stayed near the historic centre in the Leifur Eriksson Hotel, which was small but clean and comfortable. My hotel was right next to the Hallgrimskirkja, a unique modern church with a tall spire. It’s possible to go up to the top of the church tower to get a good look around the city – one advantage of it being new is that there is a lift instead of the winding spiral staircase you normally get! An advantage of staying here was that it was impossible for me to get lost in Reykjavik – anywhere I went, I could see the church spire at the top of the hill so all I had to do was follow it!
It was simple and easy to walk around the city and I found that I got my bearings very quickly – impressive considering that my sense of direction is less than wonderful. I found it to be a very quiet, sparsely populated place on the whole – very different to the bustling atmosphere of London. Down by the sea it could get quite windy. Further in, the old buildings were unusual and very Scandinavian. I seemed to see lots of fairy lights in windows wherever I went – perhaps to compensate for the long winter nights, although at the time of my visit daylight hours were longer than those in Britain.
I knew that the crime rate in Iceland was very low, and I felt completely safe and at ease during my time there. However there were a few times when I was walking around in the evening and it was getting dark, there were few people around, and the wind was whistling through the buildings that I actually felt quite spooked. The atmosphere at these times was rather eerie and I can’t really blame the Icelandic people for being superstitious!
Below I discuss the different places I visited in the capital. I haven’t normally given prices as they are subject to change, but I thought costs in general were reasonable.
-Reykjavik Welcome Card-
This card is available to buy from the Tourist Information Office for 24, 48 or 72 hours and gives free entry to several museums, as well as free travel on central buses and access to the city’s thermal pools. I got the 24 hour card which got me free entry to the National History Museum, the Culture House, Reykjavik 871 ±2 Settlement Exhibition and the Reykjavík Maritime Museum which worked out as excellent value for me.
-National Museum of Iceland-
This museum was hard to find as it was slightly out of the city along a main road and looked nothing like a museum. It had the appearance of a factory or out-of-town office block and I only knew it was the right place because a. the map told me so, and b. there was a small sign in front of it with ‘Museum of Iceland’ on. I had to walk to the end to find the entrance and to my relief it looked much more like a museum on the inside.
The museum tells the story of Iceland in chronological order over two floors, beginning with the first inhabitants right up to the modern day. I found the exhibits were well-chosen and the accompanying text informative and interesting. There was an excellent balance between giving plenty of information and not boring with too much.
-National Art Gallery of Iceland-
This museum was very small and there were only three or four rooms. Most of the exhibits were modern paintings and sculpture. Modern art isn’t my favourite thing in the world, but there were a couple of works that caught my eye.
-Reykjavik 871 ±2-
This exhibition was possibly my favourite, being an underground room in the centre of which are the remains of a Viking longhouse, dated to the year 871, plus or minus two years (hence the exhibition’s name). The house itself would be very interesting to see, being very well preserved, however the creators of the exhibit have not relied on this, instead creating a fascinating interactive exhibit on the surrounding walls, providing information on how Vikings lived and the history of the Icelandic people. There is also an interactive table with a plan of the house: you can click on different sections to find out about different areas, with text in Icelandic, English and even runic script. I found all of this incredibly interesting and spent about an hour there – not bad for what is effectively one room!
-Reykjavik Art Museum-
This museum was pretty much full of modern art. I wouldn’t recommend going to this unless you’re a huge fan of the stuff. There were some interesting collages on the first floor using images from American popular culture, but that’s about it.
This museum was right on the harbour with a large boat just in front. It was over two floors and there wasn’t a great deal to see, but it was reasonably interesting, particularly the model of the inside of the fishing boat.
The Culture House is the former National Library of Iceland, and now houses manuscripts of the Icelandic sagas. As a librarian and a bit of a rare books geek, I loved looking at these! They are incredibly important works of literature and it was awesome to be able to see the original manuscripts.
***Food and Drink***
Iceland is famed for two main kinds of food: fish and lamb. I didn’t try the latter, but as a pescatarian made the most of the former. Vegetarians should have no trouble finding suitable food as there are plenty of Italian restaurants serving vegetable pizzas. I also noticed a surprising number of Thai restaurants. I think there are several Thai immigrants in Iceland and I imagine the food of the two cultures blends well together as both use lots of seafood.
For lunch, I tended to have a coffee and a pastry: there are a number of coffee shops in Reykjavik, but no global chains – no Starbucks or even McDonalds! On the Golden Circle tour there was a café at the geyser area serving sandwiches, salads and fast food such as burgers and chips. There is a wide choice of food in Reykjavik so there is sure to be something for everyone. Meals can be slightly more expensive than in the UK but not overly so, particularly at the more informal places.
A lot of people go to Iceland for the nightlife as Reykjavik is famed for being a party city. I didn’t see much evidence of this on my visit – perhaps because Icelanders tend to drink at home owing to the high cost of alcohol in bars and clubs before heading out at around midnight (by which time I was tucked up in bed!). I could see plenty of bars as I walked around the city, though the quiet atmosphere that was generally present was a far cry from, say, Newcastle on a Friday night. As a female travelling alone, I wouldn’t have been comfortable going clubbing by myself but I did have a quiet drink in a bar every so often.
***Golden Circle Tour***
The Golden Circle Tour is a famous tour in Iceland, reported to be the most popular tour taken by visitors to the country. This is perhaps due to the fact that the landmarks you see on the tour are all in close proximity to one another, and they can all be visited on a day trip from Reykjavik. In addition the sights you see are incredibly impressive!
Several companies run the Golden Circle tour and it can be booked in several ways both before you go to Iceland and after you arrive. I booked mine online at icelandair.co.uk as part of a package including my flights and hotel. As part of the tour I was picked up and dropped off from my hotel so the whole procedure was very easy.
The three main sights you will see on the tour are the waterfall Gullfoss, the geyser area and the Thingvellir National Park. However, aside from this main itinerary each tour will differ slightly with the places visited.
My tour started off at a town, Hveragerði, known as the greenhouse village as geothermal energy is used to grow vegetables, fruit and flowers in greenhouses. This was billed as a toilet/coffee stop but I immediately recognised it as the obligatory gift shop visit you get on pretty much all organised tours anywhere abroad. To be fair to the organisers, this was the only gift shop stop of the day (I’ve been on tours that included more) and the prices there were no more expensive than anywhere else – I was happy to stock up on a couple of gifts there.
The second stop was a church at Skalholt, the site where the last Catholic bishop was beheaded after the adoption of Lutheran Christianity in the sixteenth century. The church itself is comparatively new but does hold a first edition of the Bible in Icelandic – in the Catholic Church the Bible must be in Latin so the translation of this work into the vernacular so that ordinary people had the chance to understand it was significant. The views here are pretty impressive I must say, and you can still see the outline of older buildings in the ground.
Finally, we moved on to the three chief sights of the tour. The first place we stopped at was Gullfoss. Gullfoss (the name means golden falls) is a fall on the Hvita River. In the 20th century there was some speculation that the waterfall might be used to generate electricity, but this was strongly opposed by Sigridur Tomasdottir, the daughter of one of the owners. Today, the waterfall remains preserved in its natural state.The bus pulled up in a car park which also contained several other buses – clearly the place is popular. It was a cold and windy day, but dying to see the waterfall, everyone on the bus tumbled out and headed down to the viewing area. Gullfoss is an impressive two-tier waterfall, which isn’t something I’d ever seen before. The water rushes over one tier and turns at an angle before tumbling down another and rushing down a gully. As you approach it you can’t see the river – it looks like the waterfall is simply rushing into the earth.
This view was suitably awe-inspiring but I had an urge to get closer. I could see that there were several people standing on a stretch of rock right next to the waterfall so I headed back, down some wooden steps and along a rocky path right up to the waterfall. Luckily I was wearing my Dr Martens which enabled me to keep my footing despite the ice which was still on the path. I was able to climb onto the rock right beside the waterfall and it was amazing to see the power of the waterfall close up.
I really liked Gullfoss as it was really impressive and different. It’s not supposed to be as good as Dettifoss, the most powerful waterfall in Europe (in north east Iceland), but this one is much easier to reach from Reykjavik! Anyone can go to see the waterfall but if you’re going to go close up you really need to be wearing suitable footwear and have no mobility problems. I did see several children by the waterfall, supervised closely by adults.
Our next stop on the tour was the geyser area. The bus pulled up at around lunchtime and we were given almost two hours to explore the area, visit the exhibition and have lunch. The weather was absolutely freezing, but I couldn’t pass up the chance to see a geyser in action!
The spring named Geysir (the name comes from an Old Norse verb geysa, meaning “to gush”) actually gave its name to geysers in general. Geysers are generally found near volcanic areas, and are formed when water near the surface of the ground works its way down and contacts hot rocks warmed by magma. The resultant pressure causes the water to intermittently erupt from the surface vent. Several geysers are found in this particular area in Iceland, but many are now extinct and others, including Geysir itself, erupt very rarely and unpredictably. However, one, Strokkur (Icelandic for “churn”), erupts reliably and often and this is the one most tourists now flock to see.
Like all the other tourists from the bus, I crossed the road to the geysers. The air was rather misty and there was a distinct smell of sulphur in the air. I wandered over to Strokkur, the most active geyser, and waited like everyone else with an expectant air. Strokkur reliably erupts every eight or so minutes and it was rather funny standing around waiting with all the other tourists with cameras glued to the spot. Eventually, with a gurgle, it erupted quite spectacularly and there were several gasps! I waited around to watch the eruption a couple of times and it was pretty impressive and like nothing I’d ever seen before. Just before it erupts it starts to bubble so you have about half a second to prepare yourself before the explosion!
Afterwards I took the time to look at some of the other geysers and pools. Geysir itself doesn’t erupt much these days. There is a pair of pools a little further up, one is bright blue owing to the mineral content and one is incredibly warm – I stood downwind and felt like I was next to a radiator, a relief in the freezing weather! You are advised not to go past the ropes as you run the risk of being burned.
I crossed the road to the building housing the exhibition. The exhibition room was dark and had some videos of volcanic eruptions and more information on the history and science of the hot springs. It doesn’t take very long to look round.
The final stop on the tour was the Thingvellir (or Þingvellir) National Park. The park has a long and distinguished history: the Icelandic Parliament was established there in AD 930, remaining there until 1789. The National Park was founded in 1930 to protect the remains of this site and also the natural aspects of the area. The Parliament helped to forge a common cultural heritage and national identity among Icelanders. The Althing (assembly) was held here, at which people could make speeches and present cases which were judged by the laws of the time. Thousands of people would flock here, setting up temporary houses and selling goods, watching entertainment and drinking ale.
The park is also significant for geographical reasons. It lies on the boundary between the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates, which are drifting apart at the rate of 2.5 cm a year. The North American plate in particular is especially impressive, towering over the flagpole on the Althing site.
As we drove towards our stop the driver pointed out the edge of the Eurasian plate. Over the years the plates have moved apart leaving a kind of low plain in between. Our coach stopped next to the North American plate which looms like a cliff over the plain.
As a group we walked for a couple of minutes up towards the North American plate, crossing a bridge and walking slightly uphill in the process. There were a couple of wooden platforms where you could stop and take photos. We stopped just beneath the plate at the point where the Althing used to be held. On the ground it was still possible to see the outlines of some of the huts built to house people attending the parliament. Our guide also pointed out the bridge at which women and criminals were drowned!
While anyone who wished could go back to the bus, most of us chose to walk up to the top of the plate and meet the coach which was going to drive round. This involved walking up a gully next to the plate. At this point a snowstorm came on and I felt as though I was in The Lord of the Rings!
At the top, the views were very impressive. We could see the sea to our right and the plain spread out in front of us. It was strange to think we had crossed over a divide in the Earth’s crust. After looking around for a while we all got back on the bus and were driven back to Reykjavik, arriving at around five. Everyone was dropped off at or near their respective hotels.
If you hired a car in Iceland it would be possible to drive to all of these landmarks and visit them yourself without the restrictions of the tour group. However, this would mean you had to find your own way around and you’d need to be a confident driver. For most people, booking onto a tour would be the easiest and most convenient way to see these major attractions.
Personally, I found the Golden Circle Tour to be one of the highlights of my trip and I’m extremely glad I decided to take it. Gullfoss was really impressive, watching Strokkur erupt was a unique experience, and visiting the Thingvellir National Park was unforgettable and significant. I thoroughly enjoyed the day and I saw, and learnt, a great deal.
The Blue Lagoon is a famous, geothermally heated pool and it’s one of the most popular places to visit. I booked an excursion so my payment included return coach travel and the entry fee. It was incredibly surreal to be bathing outside in water as warm as your average bath, while sunlight almost blinded me and the wind whipped the skin off my face!
Overall I loved my trip to Reykjavik and I’m really glad I went. There was so much to see and do and it was nothing like I’d ever seen before. I do recommend it as a destination. It’s unusual enough to be different, enjoyable and sound impressive when people ask you what you did on your last holiday, but it’s also a safe and comfortable place to be with effectively no language barrier. Definitely worth considering as a holiday destination.