After spending five days in Iceland, I can't understand what took me so long to visit. The country is a mere five-hour flight from New York (like flying to California) but it's a world away in terms of the scale of its nature adventures. Iceland is truly an outdoor enthusiast's paradise.
Reykjavik is a small, charming city with one main street, a cute harbor, excellent restaurants, and a handful of city sights to explore, like the new opera house. But if you want to get the best of Iceland, the prime sightseeing is outside of town. I hadn't planned any excursions in advance so I had to work fast and learn about what I needed to see.
I short-listed a few activities after asking fellow hotel guests what they recommended. Here's what I did:
- Rafting: On our full day of rafting we also chose the Golden Circle tour, which included a trip to a waterfall, geyser, and a park, with Arctic Adventures. (We found they have the best mix of activities.) If you're feeling extra-adventurous, you have the option of jumping off a 40-foot cliff into water. I'm proud to say I did it...after hesitating for five minutes.
- Hot springs: Let's face it: No visit to Iceland is complete with a trip to the Blue Lagoon. Sure, it's filled with tourists, there but it's worth it, if only to take a dip in the springs and see the amazing lava fields and mountain ranges that border it. I opted for a bus and spa package from Reykjavik Excursions. I recommend you allocate a few hours to the lagoon for wading in the outdoor pool, having lunch, relaxing in the lounge, and even a massage. Unlike other typical massages, you're not in a room, but rather on the water – it was quite unique. Note: While the Blue Lagoon is the best known, there are other thermal pools and spas in town and in other outlying regions.
- Lava caving: I didn't even know this term existed until recently. I was on a caving expedition, combined with a hike to a hot spring and river. I quickly realized I hadn't packed proper shoes. If you're going, hiking shoes, rather than sneakers, are definitely recommended. Lava caving is not simply a stroll through some caves. We were crouching, crawling, and squeezing our bodies through some tight spaces – you'd better be flexible for this tour! Post caving, our small group headed over to a valley for hiking down to and soaking in a hot stream while enjoying the beautiful mountains surrounding the valley. You'll want to bring wool undergarments to protect from the cold wind. Also, wear a bathing suit under your pants; it'll make it easier when you reach the stream. Keep in mind: This is a six-hour tour, but it's well worth it.
Back in town: In many ways, Reykjavik serves as your base camp. Everyone has an early breakfast and spends the day outdoors on excursions.
Dining: I recommend Höfnin Restaurant, a small charming Icelandic restaurant where you'll often dine with the locals. Fiskmarkadurinn (Fish Market) was another favorite – be sure to try the variety of smoked fish, the puffin in blueberry sauce (that cute bird is actually very tasty), or the lamb with Jerusalem artichokes. Also, skyr is the national dessert, so be sure to taste it somewhere - it's similar to frozen yogurt.
Nightlife: Reykjavik's late-night scene is pretty limited during the week; but on the weekends, the town comes to life. In summer, the bars put up black curtains to keep the sun – it sets at 10:30pm and starts to rise again at 3:30am!
Hotels: Reykjavik isn't really a five-star kind of city, but there are several excellent four-star hotels, including the 101 (trendy), the Hotel Borg (classic), the Radisson Blu Saga Hotel (contemporary), and the CenterHotel Thingholt (modern). Luckily, nothing is too far from the town center.
Overall: I wish I had time for some more organized activities. While traveling, I bumped into many travelers who had done five or six of these tours (and they're not cheap; most are over $150). When I come back, I'd love to do a glacier walk and glacier boating and a snorkeling and hiking combo – that is, if it's not too cold. I suggest bringing a windbreaker, even in summer! When the wind picks up, it gets cold. And gloves are a good idea for the lava caving. Icelanders are extremely friendly, there's great service, and everyone is approachable. I'm definitely going back someday. The good news is that Iceland is perfect for a stopover – with Icelandair, you can spend up to a week here (for no extra charge) before going on to Europe.