As my regular readers know I love going beyond the guidebook. While I think popular sites — like the Blue Lagoon — are popular for a reason, I also think sometimes we don’t try to seek out special alternatives. As I was traveling Iceland solo I actually didn’t visit the Blue Lagoon at all. Why? Because I didn’t want to pay $50 USD to sit in a pool full of tourists, however beautiful it may be, and feel like the loner in a sea of couples, friends, and families. Even if I’d been traveling with my boyfriend, I don’t think I would have gone. I love adventure and hate crowds, and Iceland is home to numerous hot springs that are more secluded, even some that include hiking. So how can you enjoy a trip to Iceland beyond the Blue Lagoon? Check out my ultimate Iceland travel guide below, including top picks for things to do — hot spring and non-hot spring options included!
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Where To Stay In Iceland: The ODDSSON Ho(s)telI absolutely loved this hostel and hotel, which caters to both budget backpackers and the older budget traveler. On the fourth floor you’ll find a self-catering kitchen, free-to-use yoga room (with the occasional complimentary class), terrace lounge and outdoor hot tub. The first floor, on the other hand, has more of a hotel feel with a gorgeous restaurant, “yoga food” cafe, work areas with communal tables and plush couches, and free bike rentals. What’s awesome is both my dorm and my hotel room had gorgeous views of Faxaflói Bay and the Esja, Akrafjall and Skarðsheiði Mountains. Rates: ~$33-$50 USD for a 12-bedroom dorm and ~$225-$385 USD for a private hotel room. Bonus: Use code “JESSIEONAJOURNEY” for 10% off your stay! Additionally, check out !
Iceland Car RentalRenting a car is a great way to experience Iceland’s gorgeous landscapes at your own pace. Once I got used to driving I felt way more comfortable than I expected on Iceland’s roads, even in the rain and sleet. Keep in mind I’m a New Yorker who doesn’t really drive, so if you drive regularly you’ll likely have an even easier time. I rented my vehicle from SAD Cars, who picked me up from the airport upon arrival to take me to their office. I received a Group G Suzuki SX4 automatic AWD car, which to my delight was an automatic car. I’d heard an untrue rumor that Iceland only had stick shift cars, a challenge I would 100% fail at. One great website for checking road closures in Iceland is road.is, though when you rent with SADcars they also provide road updates via email. It is vital you read these emails and check for updates, as storm warnings are no joke in the country. Oh, and if you’re wondering about the name it’s the owner’s initials. Another great resource when renting a car in Iceland: Discover Cars. The comparison site allows you to compare your Iceland car rental options so you get the very best deal. In fact, you can save up to 70% on your booking using their tool! Check it out here:
Things To Do In Iceland In Winter
1. Get Healthy At Laugarvatn Fontana Hot SpringsIceland isn’t nicknamed the Land of Fire & Ice for nothing. Many visitors don’t realize that Iceland’s volcanic activity means there are many hot springs — not just the Blue Lagoon — to visit. I loved Laugarvatn Fontana, an outdoor hot springs complex that sits on a beach in the Laugarvatn Geothermal Area. As you dip into curative waters, you’ll have views of the surrounding mountains and lake. Inside, they sell craft beer, eats ranging from hot soup to giant cupcakes, and body products infused with local Icelandic ingredients. From Reykjavik, it’s a gorgeous drive through Thingvellir National Park. Moreover, you can make stops at places like Silfra and Lake Þingvellir (one of Iceland’s largest lakes) along the way, as Laugarvatn is along the Golden Circle route. Also note within the Laugarvatn Geothermal Area is Vígðalaug, another hot springs for bathing. Make sure to plan for a few hours here, as the ISK 3800 admission equates to about $34 USD.
2. Hike To Your Hot SpringsOf all the things to do in Iceland, Reykjadalur is my top pick for a hot springs alternative to the Blue Lagoon. This stop offered a gorgeous 2-mile hike that took me through honey-colored grass, up snow-covered peaks and past small crystal waterfalls with the ground steaming the whole time. It was otherworldly, and made it clear why the name of the hot springs means “Steamy Valley.” At the end, your efforts will be rewarded with a hot curative soak outdoors in a gorgeous blue natural pool. Tip: These hot springs are free, including parking, compared to the ~$50 USD fee at the Blue Lagoon. Want another great hike? Check out the Laugavegur Trail from mid-June through mid-September. The route runs 34 miles from Landmannalaugar to Þórsmörk (Thorsmork).
3. Have A Secluded Spa DipThe Secret Lagoon doesn’t just have an awesome name, but it’s half the price of the Blue Lagoon at ~$25 USD and offers a more peaceful experience. It’s one of Iceland’s oldest hot springs. In fact, it dates back to 1891 when it was the site of the local legislative body. The best part is you can watch a small geyser erupting as you indulge in your curative soak.
4. Eat Nitrogen Ice CreamIf you’re an ice cream fanatic like me — yes, even during an Iceland winter — you must stop at Joylato. The ice cream showcases typical toppings and flavors like salted caramel and strawberry, though they’re made-to-order using liquid nitrogen, with a gluten-free wafer to top it off. It can also be made vegan, and when you order you’ll choose if you want it made with coconut or cow’s milk. Other treats to try include organic Mayan Hot Chocolate with spicy chili, fruit and ice cream-topped gluten-free waffles, and raw chocolate truffles. Pairing perfectly with the vegan menu and Ganesha-themed logo are wooden bars showcasing inspirational books to read while you eat. Ice creams start at ISK 650 (~$5.75 USD) + ISK 150 for each topping (~$1.32 USD).
5. Learn Icelandic While Eating Sheep’s HeadDon’t worry, a delicious lamb soup, Icelandic pancakes and Icelandic beer are also part of the experience. The Tin Can Factory Icelandic Cultural School hosts a three-hour Meet The Natives experience infusing heritage and language lessons as well as traditional Þorrablót (Thorrablot) feast foods like geyser-baked bread, boiled sheep’s head and sour ram’s testicles. While not everything may be what you’d want for dinner, it’s an awesome inside look into local culture that also includes lively discussions on the founding of Iceland, elves and trolls, how the country preserved their culture under Denmark rule and why Icelandic words are so darn long! The cost of the Meet The Natives class is ISK 12,900 (~$114 USD).
6. Explore Local ArtSimply wander around Downtown Reykjavik and you’ll find loads of art galleries, design shops, homemade artisan crafts and photo galleries. Plus, adorning the fishing village-like architecture is loads of creative street art, from comic book scenes to a large-scale piece which I believe to be by Buff Monster (one of my favorite street artists!). Tip: You definitely don’t need a plan. That being said, a few inspiring stops not to miss include Rammagerdin, Kaolin Keramik Gallery and FOTOGRAFI. Also, don’t skip the funky art-filled Cafe Babalu.
7. Savor SkyrWhat’s skyr? It’s the healthy protein-rich, low-fat snack that everyone who visits Iceland becomes addicted to. It’s very similar to Greek yogurt, though a bit creamier and sweeter. Like Greek yogurt, the grocery store also sells a variety of flavors like chocolate, vanilla, strawberry, and banana. Tip: Have your skyr in cheesecake form at Tapas Barinn, atop a crumbly graham cracker crust adorned with fresh local fruits and passionfruit sorbet. It’s a guilt-free dessert (at least, that’s what I like to tell myself!).
8. Have A Hot Dog At Iceland’s First Fast Food RestaurantYou’ll likely walk past this food cart called Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur at some point and wonder hmmm why is the line so long? This hot dog joint was the first fast food restaurant in Iceland, opened in 1937. The hot dogs are long and made of lamb meat with pork casing (sheep outnumber people in the country). They’re topped with a unique combination of raw and fried onion, ketchup, homemade mustard and and mayo-relish remoulade atop a homemade bun. You can also get it “Clinton style” with only mustard, as former President Bill Clinton was said to have had two per day while in Reykjavik with just this topping! It’s open late, so it’s a great drunk snack after drinking in downtown Reykjavik. Bonus: It’s the cheapest meal you can have in pricey Iceland at ISK 450 (~$4 USD).
9. Eat Tapas, Icelandic StyleAt Tapas Barinn (mentioned above) in downtown Reykjavik, I got to venture beyond simply Spanish tapas to savor small plates with an Icelandic twist. Picture lots of local seafood, lamb and potato crafted in creative dishes. My favorites: marinated Icelandic lamb in a licorice tub served on a rock and pan-fried, line-caught blue ling with rich lobster sauce. All this was enjoyed after a culturally appropriate shot of traditional Brennivin Schnapps!
10. Tour The South CoastTouring Iceland’s South Coast is one of those essential experiences that, while touristy, introduces you to a number of iconic Icelandic landscapes. As it was winter and I was worried about driving solo I booked a tour with GeoIceland. We did all the major stops — Seljalandsfoss and Skogafoss waterfalls, lunch in the coastal village of Vik (where there’s a great wool shop!), Solheimajökull glacier and Reynisfjara black sand beach — as well as a quick and quirky stop at Drangurinn, an elf dwelling. According to the locals elves live in rocks, and choose who can see them and who can’t. While this may sound crazy to those outside of Iceland, keep in mind their elves aren’t tiny people with pointy green caps, but actually look like humans. One Icelander I met told me she believes their existence helps locals remember and respect nature. For example, herb pickers leave some plants behind for the elves, while infrastructure projects avoid demolishing natural aspects they think might disturb elves. The price of the tour is about $122 USD.
11. Try Rye Bread Ice Cream At Cafe LokiLoki is the deceptive Norse god known for trickery, and this cafe pays homage to him through a beautiful wall mural and local Icelandic foods. Cafe Loki is located near the Hallgrímskirkja Lutheran Church, offering views of the unique landmark while you eat. Rye bread is a typical Icelandic food, and locals are also crazy about ice cream (even in the winter!). Instead of serving ice cream with a side of bread, Cafe Loki serves up both combined in a thick cookie-dough like dessert.
12. Sip Cocoa Puff-Laced White Russians At The Lebowski BarApparently, the Big Lebowski was also a big hit in Iceland. The two-floor Lebowski Bar features flashing LED bowling pins on the outside and an inside decked out with old school Playboy magazines. Sip a unique twist on Lebowski’s drink choice of the White Russian, as it’s also the breakfast of imbibers with a sugary addition of Cocoa Puffs. Then, after you’ve got a buzz hit the dance floor.
13. Explore Reykjavik Nightlife On A Pub CrawlWhen I heard the words “pub crawl” I pictured being the oldest person with a crowd of drunk hostel-goers visiting college bars. In fact, Wake Up Reykjavik‘s pub crawl was so much better. The tour offered a mix of bar types, including the above-mentioned Lebowski Bar, a cocktail bar, a beer bar (where you’ll also try fermented shark and a shot of Black Death), and a dance club. Oh, there’s also a drunk hot dog stop, so you’re totally covered. The cost of the pub crawl is ISK 14.900 (~$138 USD).
14. Snorkel Between Tectonic PlatesYes, I (insanely) did this in winter. Actually, the 3-degree Celsius water wasn’t that cold once I was wedged into the dry suit, my Viking Adventures group laughing at how fish-like we looked. This is a must-do, as you’ll snorkel between the tectonic plates of Eurasia and North America through the crystalline waters of Silfra. The name means silver, with visibility reaching over 100 meters to better see the caves, narrow passageways and sand columns beneath. Tip: At one point you’ll be able to touch both plates at once (or at least that’s what the divers tell you). My Silfra snorkeling tour cost ~$153 USD (without hotel pickup/dropoff) and ~$189 USD (with hotel pickup/dropoff).
15. Feast Your Way Through Downtown Reykjavik With A LocalReykjavik Food Walk was one of the most energetic food tours I’ve ever done. Led by a local, you’ll try a ton of different Icelandic dishes (yes, even the famed lamb hot dog from Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur). What’s awesome is along with savoring local cheeses, decadent pastries, warming lamb soup and even cured horse meat if you’d like, you’ll learn about Icelandic culture and some of the famous landmarks like the Hallgrímskirkja Lutheran Church (it’s a waterfall design, not a penis) and the Parliament Building where locals once protested by throwing Skyr cheese onto the building. The cost of the Reykjavik Food Walk is ISK 13.900 (~$129 USD).
16. Explore The Golden CircleWhile I’m usually not a bus tour kind of lady, traveling solo in winter made me nervous to travel this long route alone. So, I booked a Classic Golden Circle Tour with Grayline, and was really glad I did. The tour included Þingvellir National Park to see gorgeous landscapes and walk through Almannagjá Fault, the 31-meter-high double Gullfoss Waterfall and the very active Geysir Hot Spring Area. We had ample time in each spot to explore, which meant at Geysir I also discovered a tourist-free trail to get some aerial photographs of the area. The cost of the Classic Golden Circle Tour is ~$104 USD per person.
17. See Penises GaloreAlong with seeing Icelandic animals in the wild, you can explore them through their penises at the Icelandic Phallological Museum. In fact, there are over 200 penises representing every single mammal in Iceland, including humans, and some foreign wildlife. Also, check out their phallic art for some added culture before you go. Entry into the museum is ISK 1500 (~$13 USD).
18. Take In An Aerial Reykjavik ViewYou can’t miss Hallgrímskirkja Lutheran Church, which towers over the city as Iceland’s tallest church at 73 meters high (244 feet). While the inside is gorgeous, definitely take the elevator or stairs up for an aerial view of the city. The cost is to visit the tower is ISK 900 (~$8 USD).
19. Visit A Very Special Reykjavik’s Oldest Cheese ShopOstabúðin is full of artisanal local cheeses, all made with cow cheese as sheep roam free and aren’t milked. Here is where you can get picnic supplies, jams, Brie’s and blues, and even meats cured and smoked in their basement, including horse if you’re so inclined.
Packing Essentials For Iceland In WinterBUFF multi-use scarf underneath for added warmth). It also doubles as a travel blanket!
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