Best of Iceland: Traveling Beyond the Blue Lagoon and Golden Circle
Oregon native Kaelene Spence met her now husband while doing an internship in Australia. While he had a convincing Aussie accent, turns out he’s really an Icelander. After doing the long-distance thing and traveling together, Kaelene packed her bags and headed to the northernmost capital city in the world: Reykjavik. But she wasn’t just following a boy around the world — she pursued a career and an MBA in Iceland and has made her new home her own.
On the Postcard Academy podcast, Kaelene, who writes the blog Unlocking Kiki, a very useful resource for anyone thinking of moving or traveling to Iceland, shares her tips on how to land the job you want in a new country; the best and worst things about living in Iceland; and all her favorite off-the-beaten path travel recommendations in Reykjavik and beyond.
Iceland’s must-sees and experiences
Dine in a greenhouse. Friðheimar is a tomato farm with a restaurant near the Golden Circle. As part of your eating experience in the greenhouse, they’ll teach you how they use the geothermal water under the land to grow the produce.
Join a walking tour. Get your bearings in Reykjavik and learn some history.
See the city from Hallgrimskirkja. “At the top of the church, they have a viewing platform,” Kaelene says. “I think it’s such a fun way to kick off your time in the city. This church is the tallest building in Reykjavik and offers ocean and city views.
Shop downtown. “A street that’s really popular is Laugavegur, which is the main shopping street…from this main street there’s several different little side streets. And these are where you will find a lot of the really characteristic colorful houses of Reykjavik, and all of the quirky cafes, and lots of arts and crafts shops and Icelandic design shops.”
Soak in a local pool. These aren’t manmade swimming pools; they’re geothermal pools. “One of my favorites is called Vesturbæjarlaug pool. It’s just a few minutes out of downtown and it’s one of the locals’ favorite spots. I’ve been there a few times where I’ve seen Björk in the hot pool next to me. So it’s just a really fun place to go and visit. You never know who you’ll see.”
Hang out in a hot spring. “The best area for the hot springs in Iceland is in the Westfjords. It’s probably the least visited area of Iceland, that and the east coast, just because it’s a bit further away from Reykjavik, about a five hour drive to get there. But it’s gorgeous.”
Snorkel in Silfra. Snorkel in Iceland?? Yes, it sounds a little nuts — and it is cold — but so worth it. Swimming in the clearest water in the world, you’ll pass explosions of color you never expected to find in Iceland. “And you’re also snorkeling between the tectonic plates, so essentially you’re snorkeling between two continents, which I think is pretty cool.”
Complete the Golden Circle. This popular tourist route includes Thingvellir National Park, home of the world’s first parliament (930 A.D.!) and also where you’ll find Silfra. The Golden Circle’s other two sites are the Geysir Geothermal Area (where you can see the Great Geysir blast up to 70 meters in the air), and Gullfoss waterfall.
Should I go to the Blue Lagoon or is it all hype?
The Blue Lagoon is expensive and touristy. It’s also very convenient to get to especially if you don’t have a car. The Flybus airport transfer can bring you there upon arrival and then drop you off at your hotel. Or, this could be a fun way to end your trip before heading back to the airport. They have lots of pickup times. Personally, I had a great experience at the Blue Lagoon when I went a few years ago and would go back.
Iceland’s hidden gems
Elliðaárdalur nature reserve. “It has this beautiful river running through it and there’s several little waterfalls, and it has really nice pathways in a big loop. It’s not even a 10-minute drive from the city center. I always think it’s just the best place to get out into the Icelandic nature, but still be in the city.”
Gjain. “I always describe it as a fairytale land because you walk up to it and your first view will be just this green valley, about a dozen little waterfalls trickling down in all directions. I have yet to be there with other people, which is even more magical, especially in Iceland these days. I was just waiting for a unicorn to jump across the river.”
Thorufoss. Game of Thrones fans will recognize this massive waterfall. “It’s just a really powerful waterfall sitting kind of in the middle of nowhere — you wouldn’t expect to find it there. And I think it’s always a fun place to stop because, again, I’ve never been there with another person.”
Bruarfoss. More waterfall magic, this one an icy blue that would be the perfect backdrop for frosty mint gum.
Best museums in Reykjavik
Settlement Exhibition. Learn how the Vikings lived in and survived in Iceland’s earliest settlements.
Arbaer Open Air Museum. Step back in time and see how Icelanders lived in the 19th century.
What’s a great souvenir to buy in Iceland?
Lopapeysa (Icelandic wool sweater) or any other Icelandic wool product. Visit the weekend Kolaportið flea market and you might see locals knitting their wares. “It’s so much more than a flea market. It’s a really good location to pick up some Icelandic souvenirs or just see the different crafts that they make. A lot of jewelry you’ll see there is made from lava rocks. There’s some food you can try — even rotten shark.”
Best stores to buy Icelandic clothes?
Best places to hear live music in Reykjavik
Danish Pub. Head here if you’re looking for a party night out with live music and singalongs.
Also check out Kaffibarinn.
When is the best time to see the Northern Lights in Iceland?
September to October or March to early April, when the skies are still dark, crisp, and clear.
“A lot of people come here in the dead winter — December/January — thinking that this must be the coldest time so it must be the best for the Northern Lights,” Kaelene says. “But in fact it’s often the worst because there’s usually a lot of winter storms so the skies are cloudy and you don’t see the light.”
What culture tips should we know about Iceland before we go?
You don’t need to tip here — everything is built into the cost. You’ll probably spend more than you think you will because everything is in krona.
If you’re visiting friends, take off your shoes before entering their house. These friends are probably not married because that’s not a big thing here. Most people with kids have them out of wedlock, and then later decide maybe to get married. Also, there aren’t family names in Iceland. Kids usually get their last name from their dad’s first name. So, if your dad is named Jón, you would be Jane Jónsdóttir (Jon’s daughter) or Joe Jónsson (Jon’s son). As you can imagine, lots of people have the same name. To avoid confusion, people often call each other by their first and middle names.
One more culture tip, Icelandic people are the strong and silent type until you get to know them. Don’t take it personally if your bubbly ‘hellos’ are greeted with blank stares.
One more, one more thing. Drinking is very expensive in Iceland. You might want to pick up a bottle or two of your favorite alcohol in the airport’s duty free to pre-game before going out for the night. That’s what the kids do. Kex has good happy hour.
What neighborhood should I stay in while in Reykjavik?
The neighborhoods are convenient numbers. Stay in 101 or 107 to be close to the action. 105 is “really great for families because it is near a lot of outdoor playgrounds and attractions.”
If you found this article useful, please share it, and subscribe to the Postcard Academy podcast. Each week, expats and adventurers share their insider travel tips on the best food, nightlife, and cultural experiences in the most interesting places around the globe. I’m your host, Sarah Mikutel, an American who's spent the last 8 years living in, and traveling around, Europe.