Early last December, Kyle went on a trip to Germany with his PhD program. I was pretty bummed that I didn’t get to experience Germany in December so, being the wonderful husband that he is, he arranged for us to meet in Iceland as soon as he finished in Germany. We were both taken aback by just how magical Christmastime in Iceland really was. I had to constantly remind myself that I was not at the North Pole.
I took WOW airlines from Baltimore, which meant getting there was very inexpensive. It’s well known that budget airlines rack up their fair share of complaints, many well deserved, but this just wasn’t the case for WOW. The airplane was clean and I had the same amount of seat and leg room as I do on any other flight. There were no complimentary beverages or snacks, but I knew that ahead of time and brought some with me.
The only challenge was packing a weeks worth of winter clothes into a 5 kg carry on bag. Of course, it would have been easy enough to pay the extra for more weight but I actually seemed to manage this OK. Despite how much I stressed over it the week before the trip.
I arrived several hours ahead of Kyle on December 15th. I took a bus from the airport to our hotel, checked in, and took a nap. By the time he arrived I was refreshed and ready to explore the city!
Our hotel was very lovely and had an amazing daily complimentary breakfast. It was very convenient to downtown Reykjavik, Iceland’s capital city. We were able to walk all over the city from there with no need for a car or cabs.
Our first evening we explored Laugavegur Street and were certainly not bored. The downtown area has tons of things going on and everyone can find a nice spot to relax and warm up.
The weather in Iceland was actually much milder than I had mentally prepared for. There wasn’t much more than a few inches of snow on the ground in the city. I definitely needed a coat, hat, scarf, and gloves, but for the middle of December, it wasn’t as bitterly cold as I expected. On a few occasions outside of the city it was quite windy and much colder though.
Here’s a list of our favorite things in Iceland:
The Blue Lagoon is not to be missed. We drove to the lagoon while we had a rental car but there are plenty of other ways to get there. Definitely not walking distance from the city though. As soon as you step on to the sidewalk from the parking lot it’s clear you’re at an amazing spa. At the entrance counter you’re issued a waterproof wristband that grants you access to a locker and is also scanned for any purchases you make at the swim up bar. You pay for any purchases upon exit and return of the wristbands.
After changing and showering in the locker room, you can either enter the lagoon by an inside pool to keep you nice and warm or walk straight out into the cold and enter the pool from the deck. I, of course, chose to enter from the inside.
Once you’re in the amazingly warm beautiful water there’s plenty of deeper water to stand in or places to sit in caves or at the swim-up bar. You’ll have two options for complimentary mud masks – silica or algae. Both masks have amazing reviews and are said to have considerable healing power. I loved trying the masks but didn’t notice any remarkable changes after. Then again, I really wasn’t looking for any.
The only drawback I experienced at the Blue Lagoon was the loss of my engagement ring. Upon entry, you’re instructed to remove any silver-colored jewelry. I placed my rings in my coat pocket but when I returned to the locker I was unable to find either ring. Eventually I did find my wedding band stuck inside my wallet. Interestingly, when I finally exited the locker room in despair, Kyle said he was also unable to find his wedding band! Eventually he found his under the driver’s seat of the rental car, just as we were turning it back in. But my engagement ring has never been seen (by me anyway) again.
After the Blue Lagoon, we drove to the Bridge Between Continents. The small footbridge was constructed over the major fissure which provides clear evidence of a diverging plate margin. The bridge was constructed as a symbol for the connection between Europe and North America.
Golden Circle Tour
I believe we used Greyline for the Golden Circle Tour. We had a great tour guide/driver who gave us lots of great info along the way. Despite a majority of the day being spent on the bus it was an exhausting day, full of wonderful sites and several waterfalls. Like the Blue Lagoon, the Golden Circle Tour is not to be missed. If you’re going in winter I would highly recommend using a tour company. The winds became too strong near the end of our tour for traffic to cross the last bridge to see the National Park. If we’d been in a rental car we probably wouldn’t have realized the winds had gotten strong enough for it to be a dangerous drive.
Because we weren’t able to make it to the park, the tour offered to allow everyone to return the next day, free of charge. We opted not to take them up on the offer as we saw almost the entire tour.
My apologies for a lack of a picture on this one. We used Bustravel for the Northern Lights Tour. Again, we had a great guide who was very informative. They explain up front that if your group isn’t lucky enough to see the lights, you can come back and go on another tour anytime within a year of the original tour, free of charge. The tours are only conducted if weather conditions are conducive to a possibility of seeing the lights. If you are scheduled for a tour and the probability of seeing the lights is low, they will cancel the tour for that night and notify your hotel. In this case, you can re-book for another night with more favorable conditions (so don’t wait until the last night of your trip to book this tour!).
We did see a small glimmer of the lights. Our guide thought that they were “warming up” and would return if we waited a while longer, as the conditions were optimal on the night of our tour. Sadly, we had no such luck.
While we did enjoy our tour, it would be completely possible to see the lights via a rental car. You just have to drive a fair way outside of the city. You can easily check the probability of seeing the lights on a variety of Aurora forecasting sites such as this one.
On a walking trip around the city we went to the Northern Lights Museum, which was small but very informative. We left knowing significantly more about the science behind the lights than when we went in. Just don’t ask me to reiterate it now, a year later.
A True Winter Wonderland
I would be remiss if I did not reiterate how magical the entire city is at Christmastime. Beautiful star lights hang in every store window. Seriously, every single establishment. You hear Christmas songs everywhere you go. There’s snow on the ground but you aren’t freezing and, if you do get cold, a warm drink is just around the corner. Everyone is cheerful and so kind. There’s no shortage of Christmas Trees, stockings, and elves all around as well. And let’s not forget the ice skating rink right down town.
We also had a great time playing Christmas Trivia at the Lebowski Bar (complete with bowling alley in the back, of course). The trivia was actually pretty challenging!
You can’t miss this beautiful church in the middle of the city. But, what some people do miss is the trip up to the top. There is a small fee but it is well worth it! Make sure you choose a clear day to go. The inside of the church is also very pretty. There were Christmas choir performances scheduled as well but we missed them due to tours.
We decided to rent a car for two days. The cars come with tours preset into the GPS + information about what you’ll find on each tour. We chose to go on the waterfall tour and saw 5 (if I remember correctly) large waterfalls in one afternoon on a beautiful drive along the coast.
The rental car was also the easiest way for us to get to the Blue Lagoon, as mentioned above.
When we left the Blue Lagoon; however, it began to sleet. In Iceland, they call this “icing conditions”. We saw a wreck up ahead of us and all traffic began to slow. Kyle turned on his flashers as we approached the wreck. Unfortunately, a few minutes later another driver slid into us from behind. Luckily everyone was OK in both cars. Up ahead of us though, a truck had slid off the road and flipped into the lava field. Only a few minutes after that another car hit a telephone pole about 1/2 a mile behind us. So that’s 4 total wrecks in about a 10-15 minute period within a mile stretch of road.
When the officer arrived, he made sure there were no injuries and then immediately inquired as to whether or not we needed to get to the airport. The officer, the other driver and passenger were all very kind and the entire incident ended up costing us nothing but an hour of our time.
All that to say, driving in Iceland is dangerous – the lava fields are not kind to cars. So, if you drive there be very careful if it starts to sleet!
The Sculpture and Shore Walk
One lovely early afternoon, we had nothing on the agenda and decided to head down to The Sculpture and Shore Walk, which wraps around the entire city. I’m sure you have seen photos of the steel boat sculpture, but there are many other parks and beautiful things to see the entire way around the waterfront. If you have some time, it’s a great way to spend an afternoon.
Iceland is so unique in so many different ways. In the winter, the sun only shines for about 6 hours per day. But, as we learned during our Golden Circle tour, Iceland averages more hours of sunlight per year than most countries because they receive so much sun in the summer.
There are no chimneys in Iceland as everything is heated geothermally. The landscape of lava fields, mountains, and Icelandic horses (not ponies!) were all so beautiful. The folklore, history, and traditions in Iceland are just as alive as the Christmas Spirit there.
I would love to return in the summer for camping, horseback riding, and scuba diving between two continents! But I would never trade seeing Iceland during magical Christmastime. It was impossible not to be enveloped in the Christmas spirit and it set a perfect mood for the rest of the year.