Famous for its geothermal pools, breathtaking glaciers, towering waterfalls, black sand beaches, geysers, wildlife, and other iconic natural wonders like the Northern Lights, Iceland is a place that feels like pure magic.
After two years of being unable to travel, 2022 was the year to start ticking off bucket list destinations, so I jumped at the chance to visit a country unlike anywhere else in the world. On the southwest coast of Iceland, I headed to the capital and largest city, Reykjavík, for four days of adventure. As well as being a clean and peaceful city which feels safe to visit (whether travelling solo, with a partner or with friends or family), it's a logical starting point for exploring the beauty of the Nordic island.
Need some help planning your trip? Consider this your Iceland cheat sheet for an epic adventure, from activities to book to the most delicious local restaurants. I promise you'll return feeling energised from all the exploring in the fresh Icelandic air...
Where to stay:
The Exeter Hotel, which overlooks Reykjavík's Old Harbour, is partly set in a converted warehouse with Scandi-chic interiors. The industrial-style rooms feel luxurious, with lovely products in the bathroom, a HUGE walk-in shower, a bathrobe and slippers, and a coffee machine. I thought the trendy decors (aka concrete walls) might make it feel cold, but it was surprisingly cosy! The hotel has an effortlessly-cool-without-trying-too-hard vibe that I'm desperately trying to recreate in my flat.
A casual but tasty buffet-style breakfast is served in Le Kock, the quirky restaurant on the ground floor of the hotel, which also has an all-day menu inspired by the chef's childhood memories and high-quality street food. Next door is the hotel's bar Tail, perfect for a pre-dinner cocktail or two. Deig, the hotel's bakery, had a queue every day, but it is essential to nab one of their delicious bagels and pastries while you're there. If you want to squeeze in some gym time, the hotel's fitness room is simple but functional, and it's worth checking out the relaxing sauna room – I was the only person there, and it was bliss.
The hotel's location is an ideal base for exploring Reykjavík – it's adjacent to the harbour for whale-watching boat trips, a short walk from the centre of town, including lots of shops and restaurants, and a 9-minute walk to the famous Rainbow Street.
What to do:
With SO much to do and see, it's challenging to pinpoint everything to add to your itinerary, but here are my highlights:
Visit the Sky Lagoon
I'll bet you've heard of the Blue Lagoon, but I recommend venturing beyond the tourist hotspot and heading to Iceland's newest geothermal experience, The Sky Lagoon. The geothermal pool has an enviable clifftop position close to Reykjavík's centre, so it's like a (hot) infinity pool overlooking the icy waters of the North Atlantic. You can bob around serenely in the spa's thermal pools with a Prosecco Rosé in hand – yes, there's a swim-up bar – while looking out at the boats floating by.
After relaxing in the lagoon, take advantage of the spa's seven-step cleansing ritual. The cold plunge is a deeply traditional step for Icelanders, which is said to stimulate your immune system, decrease blood flow in your body and tighten skin. It's certainly a shock to the system when you've been enjoying the blissfully warm thermal pool! The next step is the sauna with breathtaking views of the ocean, and there are cold fog-mist, body scrub and steam room steps to enjoy after. Top tip: time your trip to witness the incredible sunset for an otherworldly experience.
The others in my group who have previously visited Iceland said they preferred The Sky Lagoon, but if the famous Blue Lagoon is still on your must-visit list, here's a tip: it's much closer to Keflavik Airport than anything else (about 20 minutes), so it makes sense to use The Blue Lagoon as a reviving pit stop on the way to or from the airport, especially if you're short on time.
Take a tour of South Iceland
I took a full day tour of the most beautiful places on the south coast of Iceland, and it'll stay with me for a long time. Our incredibly knowledgeable and hilarious guide, Howser, drove us to four must-see spots.
We started at one of the tallest waterfalls in Iceland – the majestic Skógafoss. You can walk up to it on ground level, or climb 500 steps to the waterfall's crest for even more breathtaking photos, rainbow and all. It's no wonder the waterfall has popped up on TV multiple times, from Game of Thrones to Thor: The Dark World. Next up was the Sólheimajökull glacier, which should be on everyone's bucket list, especially as the glacier is sadly retreating so quickly due to global warming.
You'll also have the chance to walk along Reynisfjara, the world-famous black sand beach, just beside the fishing village of Vík í Mýrdal. There's more than one in the country, but this one is by far the most popular, and I'm not surprised why, with many folklore stories behind the cliff's striking hexagonal basalt columns. Watch out for the 'sneaker' waves, they can get dangerously high when least expected. We finished the day at Seljalandsfoss, the waterfall which you can walk behind and through to the other side (and watch the sunset peeking through!)
Having a guide to teach you more about the history of Iceland and keep you safe on hikes is paramount – it's also a long day of travelling, which means you can relax on the drive to each attraction, watching out the window for Icelandic goats and horses and taking snaps of volcanoes in the distance. Our trip was through easyJet holidays, who also offer a wide range of excursions booked through Musement. You can find out more about the South of Iceland tour here.
Go whale watching
Iceland is the world's top destination for whale watching, and no trip would be complete without a whale watching tour. The tours depart daily from the old harbour, opposite The Exeter Hotel, from April to October. Faxaflói bay is where you'll find plenty of harbour porpoise dolphins, minke whales and even humpbacks, so there's a good chance of seeing these beautiful animals swimming in their natural habitat. You can never predict what you will see, and how close they will swim to the boat, so it's all down to luck. Thankfully, we spotted pods of white-beaked dolphins gliding close to the boat, as well as a few surprise glimpses of minke whales! After years of watching countless nature programs, this was a dream come true to see IRL (and 100% worth standing out in the cold for hours!).
Many people use Reykjavík as a gateway to the rest of Iceland, but explore the city itself a little, and you'll warm to its wintery wonder, from the brightly painted houses to the cosy boutique shops. The city is easily walkable (providing you're wrapped up warm!), and there are plenty of tourist attractions to check out. One of the coolest places in Reykjavík is Laugavegur Street, which also happens to be one of the oldest streets in the city – it pops with bustling shops, cafes, bars, hotels, and restaurants. Don't forget the famous Rainbow Street (painted the colours of the rainbow as a sign of support for the LGBTQ+ community), which leads to the must-see Hallgrimskirkja church, towering above the colourful-roofed city. There's a lift to the eighth floor, but you'll need to climb the final steps to the viewing platform. To recharge after all the exploring, grab a coffee and drool over a cinnamon bun from one of the many bakeries – we stopped off at Baka Baka.
Intrigued by Iceland's food scene? I recommend booking a guided food tour where you will be taken to local spots to try the country's traditional cuisine, from Icelandic lamb soup (Kjötsúpa) to Plokkfiskur, a traditional fish stew. The famous hot dog stand everyone talks about is also on the itinerary.
Visit the Perlan Museum
There are so many museums to visit around Iceland, but if you're interested in learning more about the country's breathtaking nature, head to Perlan – Wonders of Iceland. It's only a 5-10 minute drive from downtown and feels like an enjoyable, interactive version of a geography lesson, explaining everything you should know about the volcanic island's geothermal activity. There's even a real ice cave built with 350 tonnes of snow and a Northern Lights Planetarium Show (in case you can't see the real thing). It's a family-friendly activity, but also super interesting for a 28-year-old adult with no kids (aka me). To top it all off, the museum has an observation deck with stunning 360-degree views of the city.
Chase the Northern Lights
Iceland's latitude and lack of light pollution make it one of the world's best locations to see this breathtaking phenomenon — IF you get lucky with a clear sky. Northern Lights tours depart from the city centre and head out of town to chase the clearest view. Top tip: Book an official trip for your first night's stay, so if the weather isn't on your side, you can join the next night's trip for free. Sadly, we learnt the hard way, booking it for our last night of the trip (and it being cancelled due to bad weather conditions). I fell so helplessly in love with Iceland that I'm already saving to return, and I will 100% be following this tip!
Where to eat and drink:
Family-owned and run restaurant Reykjavik Kitchen had a lovely vibe, suuuper friendly service and some of the best food I tried during the trip. Expect lots of fresh Icelandic fish and meat options like cured salmon, ceviche, Icelandic meat soup and seafood soup. I opted for the lamb rib eye with pumpkin and potato gratin, parsnip chips and truffle butter glaze, followed by the Skyr Creme Brulee (and I did not once regret my decision).
Matarkjallarinn - Foodcellar
Enjoy the vibey atmosphere with live dinner music from their grand piano while you feast on Foodcellar's Icelandic brasserie-style menu, using local ingredients. I may be biased because I pretty much had my dream meal: baked brie and honey to start, steak with bearnaise sauce, broccolini, portobello mushroom and twice-baked potato with bacon for the main course, and finished it all off with a Chocolate Lion Bar dessert (surely a level up from the childhood choc bar of the same name!) with raspberries and salted caramel. Delicious.
Many Icelandic restaurants are heavily meat and fish-focused, so it's worth checking the menu online first to see how well they can cater to any dietary requirements.
Jungle Cocktail Bar
Fancy a post-dinner cocktail? We loved Jungle Bar. From a Chamomile High Club (made up of gin, lemongrass, chamomile and lime) to a Spagliato… with prosecco in it, you'll find a cocktail that suits your mood. It's worth a visit for the interiors alone.
Although Iceland is a year-round destination, the winter (November to February) can be bleak and windy with less daylight. Long nights, however, are best for viewing the Northern Lights. During the summer is when most festivals and events run, mountain passes reopen and conditions are perfect to go hiking or horse riding. So pick the right time of the year to visit, depending on your priorities and cross your fingers for some luck - nature is unpredictable!
Ask Icelanders what NOT to do, and they will likely say that buying bottled water is highly unnecessary - the tap water in Iceland is some of the cleanest in the world. Plus, it's much better for the environment, so remember to bring your reusable water bottle.
Don't spend all of your time in Reykjavik. It's the perfect base, but the beauties of Iceland lie far beyond the capital. There are so many activities to do, so pack in as much as your time and budget will allow. You seriously won't regret it.
Dress! For! The! Weather! I know it sounds obvious, but high-quality waterproof and windproof gear is a must. There are plenty of shops to buy some, but they are expensive, so I suggest bringing all the layers you can fit in your suitcase.
The currency is the Icelandic Króna, and everything is... expensive. Alcohol is only available in bars, restaurants and government stores and is heavily taxed, so stock up at duty-free to save ££ if you wish to. Icelandic is the official language so it's handy to know a few phrases, but English is spoken fluently in the vast majority of the country.
Inspired to visit Reykjavik but yet to book your trip? We went with easyJet holidays which was seamless – the package holidays can be secured with £60 deposit per person and include flexible flight options and a 23kg bag allowance per person (perfect for all that warm gear you need to pack!). For example, they offer three nights at the four-star Exeter Hotel on a room-only basis for £371 per person, including the above baggage allowance and flights from London Gatwick on 6 December 2022. You can find out more info here.
easyJet holidays also offer a wide range of day trips and excursions (including the ones above) through their partner, Musement. Book here.
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