To say that Iceland feels like another world is to deeply discredit its majesty. Iceland took my breath away more often than I care to admit, but that may also have been due to the icy glacial waters and steep hikes.
Andrew and I visited Iceland this past November just before Thanksgiving. This is not a common time of year to visit the country (due to limited sunlight, from only 10 am – 4 pm, and also the temperature), but oddly enough that’s why we picked it. November is typically a low season for both of our jobs, and it being their low tourist season also made for cheaper prices and less crowds.
Here I plan on detailing what we did and how we did it, in hopes of sharing our adventure with you and also helping you to plan if you see an Icelandic trip in your future!
These are the top tools I used to determine what to see, where to eat, what to pack, etc.
- Guide to Iceland
- This website was where I booked (almost) all of our day trips and activities, and it is INCREDIBLE! You are able to search by date and see prices in your countries currency. It makes comparing similar tours from various companies extremely easy.
- Iceland with a View
- https://icelandwithaview.com/ and https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCA3_auv7ls2EnECL3kqqXTw
- This is a YouTuber that I watched a lot while planning. She offers wonderful tips on where to shop and eat, plus how to pack for whatever month you are traveling in!
- The Blonde Abroad
- Kiki is pretty much my first stop for planning any trip (well, her and Rick Steves!). She has guides to all kinds of trips, and also was how I picked most of our day trips.
- Park Sleep Fly
- For this trip, to fly out of Chicago O’hare was about $500 cheaper per person than flying out of Columbus. This is pretty common, as Columbus is not a major airport. So because of this, Andrew and I elected to drive to Chicago and park our car there to catch the cheaper (and direct) flight to Reykjavik. That’s where Park Sleep Fly comes in. This is a website and service I have used many times when I am flying out of somewhere that is not my home airport. It allows you to book a hotel through them, and the hotel will allow you to park your car at their lot for the duration of your trip, as long as you stay at the hotel on the front or back end. We stayed on the tail end of the trip, and the hotel we used was the Hyatt Regency O’hare, which offered a round trip shuttle to the airport! All in all, this option of driving and staying at the hotel saved us a ton of money on our flights.
activities / day trips
Any time you’ve heard Iceland mentioned, you’ve most likely also heard about the Blue Lagoon. The Blue Lagoon is a geothermal hot spring with mineral waters, and is like stepping into bliss. Andrew treated us to the Retreat Spa, which was the exclusive side of the Lagoon, offering private dressing rooms and access to the “Blue Lagoon Ritual” which was a five step spa process of masks and full body scrubs that felt like it was cleansing all your woes away. The Retreat Spa was also lovely because it offered a private area of the Lagoon that was not open to the rest of the visitors, making it a more intimate experience. This side also did not allow any form of cell phones or cameras, so we only have the pictures that we snuck from the main Lagoon.
A common planning tip is to visit the Blue Lagoon at either the start or the end of your trip, as it is located very near to the airport. The airport and Lagoon are about a 45 minute drive from the city center of Reykjavik, so we elected to go to the Lagoon right after getting off the plane. The Blue Lagoon also offers a car service to pick you up at the airport, and then drop you off at your hotel in Reykjavik after you are finished.
One of my biggest regrets from when Andrew visited me in Italy was that I did not take more pictures of the two of us together. For this trip, I somehow talked Andrew into doing a Portrait Walk through the city with a photographer. Her name was Kat and to say that she brightened a dreary day is selling her very short! She took us around to several locations and posed us for pictures that I will treasure forever. We got full rights to the pictures afterwards, and I adore them. I booked her through AirBnB Experiences here: https://www.airbnb.com/experiences/654010
Now, something that you may not know is that Iceland has extremely strict guidelines about their horses. The horses are short and fluffy and as stubborn as Vikings. The day we went Horseback riding it ended up raining, but like Vikings we were stubborn and still went. Our hosts were lovely about showing us the ropes and pointing out features in the volcanic landscape as we rode. The company was named Íslenski Hesturinn (The Icelandic Horse).
My favorite activity (and Andrews least) was snorkeling in the Silfra fissure. The fissure is where two tectonic plates meet, and is filled with glacial runoff water. This makes it crystal clear all the way to the bottom (about 330 feet) but also holds a temperature just above freezing. Our guide for this was Bart from Adventure Vikings, who encouraged us to drink the water and float along, finishing our time with hot chocolate. Now, there are some tours that offer this activity as part of a full day trip, usually before or after a hike. My recommendation is to not do this, as you will be frozen by the time your swim is over and all you will want to do is curl up into a ball in your hotel!
Our longest day trip was to the South Coast of Iceland. This trip included seeing several National Parks with waterfalls which names I did not even attempt to pronounce (Skógafoss, Seljalandsfoss, Gljufrabui). This was Andrew’s favorite of our activities, because in the middle of the day we hiked up a the glacier Sólheimajökull, complete with ice picks and crampons. I was getting to be quite crabby by the end of the hike, but looking back it was worth it, and an experience I would not have wanted to miss. (p.s. for any Game of Thrones fans, this tour also takes you to the Reynisfjara Black Sand Beach where they filmed Dragonstone. The tour company was Troll Expeditions).
Our last tour of the trip was the Golden Circle. This is an extremely common loop for tourists to drive, hitting all of the major sites such as geysers and waterfalls in the National Parks. We also revisited the Silfra Fissure (above water this time). The tour started with a trip to the Secret Lagoon, another geothermal spa, since those are fairly common in Iceland. Then at lunch time, we got to visit the Friðheimar Greenhouse where a family grows tomatoes year round. The soup and bread warmed me to my core, and we even got to purchase some to bring home to our family. (This tour was offered by Hidden Iceland and they had the nicest motor coach by far!).
Some honorable mentions for activities:
- Sampling local foods – We tried Skyr (a yogurt / cheese) and the fermented Greenland Shark, and honestly we do not recommend either one, take our word for it…
- Northern Lights viewing – obviously you can only see the Northern Lights during the winter, but many companies offer nighttime trips to hurt them down!
- The Hallgrimskirkja Church is the center point of the city, and offers incredible views from the top; just make a small donation to the church for permission to use their elevator
- The Perlan Science Museum also offers great views of the city, and is home to a man-made ice cave if you are not able to visit one elsewhere! The only downside is that the price is high for what you get, but they do have a lovely gift shop of local Icelandic items
other tips and tricks
For packing Andrew and I each had a backpack and a carry on suitcase, as allowed by Iceland Air. We also brought along a checked bag to share that came over mostly empty, and returned VERY full. Here are the things that I packed for November in Iceland that are worth mentioning:
- Fleece lined leggings and tights
- 3 sets of thermal long underwear
- Jeans and Sweatpants
- Gortex wind and water proof pants
- Lots of wool socks
- Merino wool sweaters
- Several scarves (plus a neck wrap knitted by my lovely friend Emma)
- Hats and Gortex gloves
- Snow boots (water proof and extreme traction)
- Power adapters and chargers
- A luggage scale (we pushed that checked bag to its absolute limit)
I have been trying to figure out how to format some of the final things that I think are worth mentioning to anyone visiting Reykjavik, so I am listing them here for you to reference:
- The best place to shop for a Lopapeysa (Icelandic sweater) is at the Handknitting Association of Iceland. This little shop is tucked away on a corner, and offers dozens of designs handmade by locals. They also sell things like blankets, slippers, socks, etc.
- Our favorite restaurant was called Frederiksen Ale House. This was recommended to us by our snorkeling guide, Bart, as a place that the locals frequent for good drinks and food. Since neither Andrew nor I are particularly fond of seafood, it was a refreshing change of pace to sit and drink whiskey sours with sandwiches.
- Other great restaurants were Apotek (fancy and worth it) and Hornid (Italian and very comforting)
- One plus side of Andrews job is that he racks up a LOT of hotel points. For this trip we cashed them all in and stayed at the Hilton Konsulat Hotel (part of their Curio Collection) which offered free breakfast in the mornings and social hour in the evenings. The roof had a terrace for viewing the city, and the basement had a bathhouse that was perfect after a long hike.
This trip was very special to both Andrew and I for many reasons. It was our first big trip together start to finish, and wonderful to spend some time away from our phones and responsibilities for a little while. We plan to go back and visit in the summer, as everyone tells us it is an entirely new experience, and we cannot wait!
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oh yes, one other thing happened. . .
We are getting MARRIED!