Just got round to writing up our 12-day trip to Iceland back in November 2020. Reykjavik is a tiny city with lots of restaurants, bars and shops but not much else to do, but the entire island has some amazing sights that you won’t see anywhere else. I was lucky enough to see the Northern Lights four days in a row! See below some tips to help fellow travelers to this unique and spectacular country:
*It is expensive – Iceland is the 2nd or 3rd most expensive country in the world, according to various sources. A cola will cost you £3, a bowl of soup (a common meal) will cost you £10-£14 and any sort of normal meal will cost you £20+. It was painful. Save money by drinking tap water only, which is the world’s best and can be refilled for free at many locations.
*Subway & Hot Dogs – The cheapest restaurant we found was Subway – you can get a footlong sub for about £8. There is one right in the middle of the main tourist area. The cheapest “real food” was the hot dogs at Baejarins Beztu Pylsur, where you can get “the world’s best hot dog” (and yes, they really are that good) for £4.
*Find Kronan, the cheapest grocery store – a great way to save money is to buy groceries, or prepared food, at grocery stores. There are some called Bonus and Super-1 right in the middle of town. However, the cheapest is one called Kronan – it is a 15-min walk outside the main center, northwest of the city by the Aurora museum. Try not to go to a store called 10-11 they have two of them in the center and you will be tempted to go, but it’s far more expensive than other stores.
*Buy drinks at happy hour – a beer/wine will cost you about £9. Thankfully, many places have happy hour, where that lowers to £5-£6. Also, happy hour starts at 3:00 or 4:00 at many places right on the main tourist street.
*Credit cards & wi-fi everywhere – in 12 days I never used cash, so there is no need to exchange a large amount at the airport. Also, there is free wi-fi nearly everywhere in the city, and on almost every bus
*HARPA is your friend – there is a large concert hall on the northern part of the center called HARPA that can be very useful. It is heated, it has couches, it has free wi-fi, free bathrooms, and a café and gift shop. During my stay there were many times where I needed heat, or wi-fi, or to use the bathrooms, and I just walked over to HARPA.
*The wind is the weather – during your stay it will likely be somewhere around 0C./33F, which is actually not that cold. What makes the weather unbearable is the wind, and no amount of layers will keep you warm with wind 30mph+. If you look at your weather app and see a wind symbol, know that it will be a rough day outside.
*Your lifesaver is a scarf/facewrap – the most important piece of clothing to protect from this extreme cold is a scarf, or something to cover your face. I was wearing a total of 12 articles of clothing but was not completely warm and happy until I purchased a scarf and wrapped it around my face.
*Buy clothes at second-hand stores – a new jacket in Iceland costs £500 and a new sweater is £200. However, there are a few stores where you can buy used clothes considerably cheaper. A great choice is a place called Wasteland, right in the city center.
*Skip the Golden Circle, do a South Coast tour instead – many people have only 2-3 days in Iceland and do the Blue Lagoon one day and the Golden Circle the other. I found the sights in the Golden Circle underwhelming (park, geyser, waterfall), but found a tour of the south coast amazing, as there are waterfalls, volcanoes, and much more to see. I recommend spending an extra £20-£30 and taking 4 more hours to see the south coast instead of the Golden Circle
*Confirm you have received proper tour details the day before – many of the tours you might go on are actually booked by third parties that aren’t even in Iceland (GetYourGuide, etc.). You book through these companies, then they are supposed to confirm the details with the actual tour company, such as Reyjavik Excursions. On several occasions I/others booked these tours and never actually received the booking information, leaving us scrambling right before the tour. When you book a tour, make sure you receive a proper email with all the details, including pick-up/drop-off time and location, and contact information for any issues.
*What I wish I had done: Glacier Walk on Sólheimajökull Glacier – there are so many things to do in Iceland! Besides just seeing various natural sights, you can ride helicopters and snowmobiles, dive/snorkel between tectonic plates, trek through lava tubes and many more. Just a personal opinion but the one thing I saw people doing that I wished I had done was trek on top of this glacier. Its huge and blue and jagged just like maybe you’ve seen on National Geographic, and hiking through it looked pretty amazing.
*Stay as close to the center as possible – there are several newer, nicer hotels (Hilton, etc.) about 1 mile east of the city center, near Laugardalur and the parks/stadiums, and if you stay there I think you will regret it. You’ll either have to take an expensive taxi, walk in the cold, or find and pay for parking. The center of the city is the area around the Laekjartorg bus station, the Hard Rock Café and the Icelandic Punk Museum. I recommend staying as close as possible to this area. R’vik is a small city and everything you will want to do is very close together.
*You must plan in advance to see the Northern Lights – of course you must get a bit lucky to see the lights, but you can also plan in advance, as in general the lights come and go along with the phases of the moon. Google “Aurora Forecast” and go to the site at SpaceWeatherLive.com – there is a long-term forecast that will tell you what days you are most likely to see them. This was very accurate during my stay, and due to proper planning I was able to see them 4 days in a row
*Make friends! – there are many travelers in Iceland from all around the world, a lot of them alone and stopping in Iceland on their way to some other exotic locale. One of the best parts of my holiday was meeting and talking to random, friendly people from abroad.