My husband and I celebrated our tenth wedding anniversary in November and decided to take a two week vacation to Iceland to celebrate the milestone. He doesn’t care too much about specific days, but I do, and he was more than up for a longer trip to celebrate.
We spent the last couple of years tossing around ideas for where to go, and we agreed on Iceland. We brought along Bob as usual, and our longtime roommate joined us as well, which made for a fun group atmosphere for the whole trip.
We had plenty of people confused as to why we would go there in the middle of winter, but we are used to traveling in the off-season and tend to prefer it for the lower prices and smaller crowds.
Even once we were there, we got a number of locals – and other tourists – asking “why are you here?” Apparently, only 20% of winter visitors to Iceland come from North America, and the majority of those come from the east coast of the United States and Canada. It’s less than an eight hour direct flight from Seattle though, and not all that different in terms of temperature and daylight, so I feel like it should be a more popular winter destination. Clearly different than a vacation to the sun and sand, but well worth it for a very different kind of trip.
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December 29 – January 2: Reykjavik
(I had originally meant to write a full trip report in one blog post, but it turns out I have too much to say about this amazing country. Tune in for follow up posts about the rest of the places we stayed on this trip: Reykholt, Vestmannaeyjar, and Keflavík).
We landed at the Keflavík Airport outside of Reykjavik the Sunday after Christmas and stopped at the duty free store before heading to the bus into town. We’d read that the alcohol is cheapest there, and that was absolutely the case – the prices were literally half of the cost of the state run liquor stores (Vínbúðin) and not that much more expensive than home.
20:20 hindsight, we should have bought more than we did, even if it would have been a pain to carry for a bit, because the prices were that much better. They had a ton of local beer and liquors, which is what we looked for, plus a huge wine selection from all over the world.
After we left the duty free store, we went through customs and booked a bus into Reykjavik. There is a city bus that goes into town, but we were tired and ready to be done at the airport, so we paid the higher price (appx $35/person) for the ease of travel. We did take the city bus back to the airport when we picked up our car days later (we didn’t have one for the whole time we were in Reykjavik – it wasn’t needed) and I think we would just take that bus in the future. The transit app Strætó makes it easy, so download it ahead of time if you plan on any bus travel (you can buy a ticket on the app or with cash or card on the bus itself).
The bus dropped us off at the main transit terminal in Reykjavik, but we still had a good four hours before we could check into our Airbnb. I’d reached out to the host and asked if we could have an early check in, but they had guests the night before and couldn’t accommodate us. They did, however, offer to let us drop our bags at the apartment when the cleaner arrived, which we took them up on since it meant we’d have just two hours after arrival in Reykjavik before we could at least stow our luggage (if not yet take a nap).
International Cell Phone Use and Data Roaming
I hadn’t been overseas in more than a decade, and neither had my husband, so we weren’t used to the concept of being able to use a cell phone while we were there. Verizon now has an international phone plan for $10 a day, so we had set that up before we left. What I didn’t realize though was that just because you’ve set up your phone plan to auto connect to international doesn’t mean that your phone is set up to do so.
We arrived at the bus terminal around 9AM local time (so, 1AM Seattle time) tired and still a bit sick from the colds we got over Christmas. It was still pitch black, in the mid 30s Fahrenheit, windy, and raining. And then I turned on my phone and no wifi showed up with it.
Luckily, I had taken a couple of screen shots of the directions to the coffee shop we planned to wait at, so I had some very limited information to get us there, as well as the blue dot on my phone’s map showing us where we were currently located, but that was it. I looked around – in the dark – at the lack of signed street signs and somehow managed to walk us in a direct route to the coffee shop a mile away, construction detour and all.
I have a really good sense of direction, and I felt pretty darn accomplished when we arrived, but I would much rather have just had easy directions for us to follow. We’d meant to grab a paper map before the trip as well, but didn’t get to it.
As it turns out, at least on an iPhone, you need to go into your settings to allow for data roaming before it will work, as a protection against high international phone bills if you don’t sign up for the roaming plan. As proud as I was for getting us there, I would much rather have just had an easy time of it with a fully functioning phone.
After hanging out at the coffee shop for an hour, we dropped our bags at the Airbnb and headed for our first meal in Iceland. Once we could fully check in, we all took a much needed two hour nap to get us to the end of the Icelandic day and more or less on the right time zone.
Cheap Groceries in Reykjavik
A big part of why we tend to rent homes or apartments through Airbnb while we travel is access to a kitchen (though access to laundry in the unit is a big plus as well). We like to cook the majority of our meals for ourself in order to keep the cost down, and it gives us some down time, which is important when traveling with a preschooler.
We love eating at new restaurants in new places, but it’s a balance to keep trip expenses in check, and we love exploring local markets and grocery stores as well. Grocery shopping in a different country is especially fun because their stores can be so different than what you’re used to.
We did most of our shopping at Bónus but also visited a Krónan and a Super 1 as well (we were in Iceland for almost two weeks so we did quite a bit of grocery shopping). All of the stores were similar, with decent prices (for Iceland), but the disappointing part was just how much plastic there was – definitely would have been near impossible to make a plastic free December happen in Iceland, from what we experienced.
Ignoring the plastic issue, Bónus had a pretty decent selection, way better than Grocery Outlet or Aldi as far as discount grocery stores go in the states. We got to buy a variety of Icelandic food there as well as more familiar ingredients – and decaf coffee for me. Almost none of the coffee shops in Iceland offer decaf coffee, so I made my own at the Airbnb. It saved me money on coffees out for sure, but I do like to splurge on occasion, especially when traveling.
We also poked our heads in to quick marts like 10-11, but the prices were crazy expensive. They are open all night, which is a big bonus over the other grocery stores, which all seemed to close by 8PM or earlier, but that was about it.
The Reykjavik Harbor Waterfront
The apartment we rented was just a block off of the Reykjavik harbor and the waterfront trail that curves along the full length of the bay. Every day we were in Reykjavik, we spent at least some time on this waterfront walk. It was colder and windier than walking a few streets in, but the view was totally worth it. We also lucked out and the temperature hovered between the mid thirties to low forties the whole time we were in the city.
The path took us past Sun Voyager and on our way to the city center. We were staying on the outskirts of downtown, in Hlemmur, which had a Bónus and a number of restaurants just around the corner as well as a main bus terminal. It was only a ten of fifteen minute walk to the center of town (maybe twenty to Harpa, the famous concert hall).
Walking downtown midday on New Year’s Eve put us right in the middle of the annual Reykjavik harbor race, which goes along that same harbor trail. If I wasn’t fighting off that cold – and had known about it ahead of time – I totally would have loved to run in that race.
Good Food In Reykjavik: The Best Restaurants We Visited
When we arrived at our apartment early that first morning in Reykjavik, we asked the woman who had come to clean and let us in where she recommend we go get a meal. We were too jet lagged to pay good enough attention to the directions and ended up walking the other way that first day, but we made it back to the Hlemmur Food Hall a few days later, and that recommendation was an excellent one.
Most of us got the Icelandic Lamb Stew, which was really very good, but the kiddo ordered fish and chips, which stole the show. We had great fish and chips all through Iceland, but the meal he got there was the best of them all. If we’d had time to go back, I was eyeing the bahn mi and my husband some tacos, but we didn’t have a chance to go a second time. The best part about food halls are the variety of options to choose from; the worst part is you have to pick.
2. Baejarins Beztu Pylsur (Hot Dog Stand)
Hot dogs are really popular and well known as one of the cheapest meals in Iceland (like five dollars for a hot dog and a drink), where almost nothing is cheap, as well as quite tasty. They pasture a lot of lamb, and so the hot dogs are made of lamb as well.
We decided we needed to go to a hot dog stand at least once while we were there, and we picked Baejarins Beztu Pylsur (pylsur = hot dog), which had a long line even on midday New Year’s Eve. The hot dogs were good, yes, but not exceptional. After the hype, I was expecting more. The price couldn’t be best, anyway.
I had a few friends who had been to Iceland before us, and almost all of them recommended Reykjavik Street Food. We were walking around on New Year’s Day and there were only a handful of places open, dd but this restaurant was luckily one of them.
The inside of the restaurant is tiny, but they have a side eating area enclosed on three sides with a heater that has a lot more space. Since the weather was reasonably “balmy” for January in Iceland, we ate out there.
The food we got (lobster soup and fish and chips) was very good, but I wouldn’t call it exceptional. The service, however, was. The man who served us was friendly, really talkative, and handed out these Polish candy bars that seemed to be a favorite of Icelanders. I think he was handing them out to everyone, but he made sure to give the kiddo a couple extra and was especially attentive. Our service and interaction with locals was wonderful throughout our trip, so it really took something special to stand out.
4. Tapas Barinn
Part of bringing my husband’s godfather with us on trips (and why we cover his plane flight) is so that the husband and I can go out on date nights in new places while still getting to bring the kiddo along on the rest of our adventures. One of the nights in Reykjavik we made sure to do that, as we were within easy walking distance of downtown and we didn’t have to worry about driving anywhere.
Before we went to dinner, our roommate tagged along as we went to Bjorgardurinn Foss Hotel (their “beer garden” hotel bar) for some drinks. I got a beer sampler tray and they both got a couple pints. Alcohol at bars and restaurants is EXPENSIVE, but everything we tried there was very good. Beer only became legal in Iceland in 1989, and they’ve definitely made up for it with their breweries since then.
After that, our roommate went back to the apartment to make dinner and the husband and I went out for a dinner just the two of us to Tapas Barinn. The food there was exceptional, but the marinated (raw) lamb stole the show. I’ve never had lamb that good in my life and I still think about it a month later. The restaurant was expensive, but to be honest, as the price included tax and tip, it really wasn’t any more than a fancy restaurant in Seattle (except for the alcohol, of course).
The Icelandic Phallological Museum
This was actually a request by our almost five year old son once he learned that the Icelandic Penis Museum existed. We actually all had a lot of fun though, and it was more interesting than expected. Really a once in a lifetime experience, as in, once is enough, but it was hilarious and fascinating and worth the low entry fee.
New Year’s Eve in Reykjavik
One of the big draws for us to visit Iceland in late December / early January was getting to experience New Year’s Eve in Reykjavik. We’d read up and watched videos of the celebrations before we went, and we weren’t disappointed. Fireworks started going off in earnest by noon and peaked between 11:30PM and 12:45AM (though they continued to go off for days afterward).
It’s apparently tradition to have a late meal together in the evening before heading out to celebrate at midnight. To make for a special meal, we picked up plokkfiskur at a fish market and some blood sausage, plus we made pork schnitzel, buttered noodles, and red cabbage. The meal was awesome, relaxed, and way cheaper since we made it ourselves in the Airbnb.
We had no specific plans for where to watch the fireworks and just headed out to the harbor a bit after a late dinner. Once we got down to the water, we could see a giant bonfire burning down at the very end of the point, so we decided to check it out. There was an old guy manning the fire and welcomed anyone to join us, so we celebrated the new year there staying warm by the fire and viewing almost 360 degrees of fireworks. It was a night not soon forgotten.
The Blue Lagoon
We were supposed to go to The Blue Lagoon on the day we left Reykjavik, but a storm blew in and we decided it was a better decision to use the daylight to drive to our next destination. It was a bummer to miss out, but that’s the downside of traveling in the middle of winter.
We had purchased tickets ahead of time because even in January they sell out during the short daylight hours. It isn’t a cheap visit, so that was our biggest wasted expense on the trip. Oh well. One more reason to return to Iceland, I suppose (not that we needed another reason – we definitely want to go back).
If you haven’t stayed in an Airbnb before, I would highly recommend it. We love the flexibility it gives us while traveling as a family – full kitchen, laundry, and extra bathrooms, and it’s usually considerably cheaper than a hotel, especially when you travel as a group. If you’re new to Airbnb, here’s a link for $40 off your first stay.
Have you ever been to Iceland? Is it on your list?
34 thoughts on “A Winter Trip to Iceland: Part 1 (Reykjavik)”
Looks like you had a great time. I’ve been to Iceland twice, back in 1997 and in 2002. Believe it or not it was even more expensive then. I remember a beer being $9 in 1997 when you could get one in the states for $2.50.
Blue Lagoon was nice but a bit touristy. Also I almost got burned at one point as the water temperatures fluctuated a lot. It was super-hot in some places and a bit much for me.
Wow. Well, I guess the beers weren’t that expensive in comparison then 😅
Iceland looks so expensive food-wise! That might be one reason I probably never make it there unless hubby wants to go! 🙂 It’s painful enough to pay $15 per burger at home here. I’m curious, how does the fish and chips compare to the famous Ivar’s in Seattle?
WAY better than Ivar’s, IMO. And we could get $17-$18 burgers there, which includes tax and tip.
We were supposed to fly back from CPH to YVR and connect via Reykjavik but the flight got cancelled due to snowstorm. I wonder if you got hit by the same snowstorm. It’s a bummer that you didn’t get to go to Blue Lagoon.
Entirely possible! The day before we left was pretty much all cancelled.
Next time pick up a Trawire modem are the airport- they are portable and the size of a flip phone. You can connect up to 10 people on it and it works throughout the country-only 7 dollars a day.
We were there over Christmas as well!
Awesome. That is a great tip, thanks!
OMGosh! Trip of a lifetime! I can’t wait for the next installments so I can hear about the rest of the trip. Seeing fireworks 360 sounds almost dreamy, and I’m still laughing about the museum your son requested visiting!
It was so different than any experience we’ve had with fireworks at home for sure. And I should send you some photos from that museum 😆
My husband and I along with our two daughters, sons in law and granddaughter were there for New Year’s also. The trip was with 2 disappointments not entirely unexpected. We did not see northern lights as there was no activity and whale watching was canceled due to winds. However the trip was fabulous with Secret Lagoon, hiking on a glacier, and in a lava cave. We made memories to last a lifetime. Worth every penny.
Wait – were you the family in line behind us at baggage claim heading home??
i would sure eat the hell out of all those unusual items. i might have to go just to get my jollies at the dong museum.
They had some pretty fabulous shirts for sale there too lol
This is a great post to help with trip planning — Iceland is on our wish list! I have heard that food in Iceland is expensive so I agree 100% that AirBNB is a way to defray that. I do like to take a break from household work when I travel so that’s one downside. My favorite part of AirBNB (or staying in a residence, not a hotel) is the neighborhoods you tend to get access to. You mentioned being close to the waterfront — sounds great. We once rented a city apartment perched on a hill so it had a view of the whole city (in Lyon, France). I had never realized how much I valued a view till that trip, and it’s something I will prioritize in my next residence if we ever move again.
The view from the place we stayed in Vestmannaeyjar was INCREDIBLE. When the weather is bad especially, a view is awesome. But even when it’s good, you spend enough time cooking breakfast/ etc that it’s still worth it!
We definitely want to go to Iceland, so appreciate the thorough trip reports. How much daylight did you have? I don’t think we would be brave enough to go in the middle of winter, but it is a good way to make that trip cheaper!
Actually not a lot daylight than home for us, because dusk is soooo long there. Sunset was like 3:40 but wasn’t full dark til 5.
Looks like you guys had fun. I have been pondering upon visiting Iceland for a while now and keep thinking may be my kids need to be older but after reading this post, I am certain my kids would love it. Love the pictures.
It was so fun!! And I definitely don’t think they need to be older.
We went to Iceland in April a few years ago. Sounds like you did it better than we did, as we got a cheap boarding house/hostel with no kitchen so had to spend $$$ on food. One tip for folks, esp if you don’t want to spend a lot going to the Blue Lagoon but do want to hit some hot pools. There are several city-run hot pools right in Reykjavik that are similar to an entrance fee to a public pool in the US but are uncrowded and quite nice. There are also some lesser known hot springs outside the city (like Secret Lagoon) that are roughly half the price of the Blue Lagoon. If you want the experience of being at a famous place, it might be worth going to the Blue Lagoon, but if you just want a natural hot spring, definitely check out other options.
We SO wanted to do the Secret Lagoon too, and we even stayed super close to there, but that happened to be during the snow storm days, so…
Wow! I love that you went during the off-season because I never hear of anyone going at that time. I know a few people who’ve considered it to see the northern lights, but I’ve always written it off because I assumed it’d be colder and and wasn’t crazy about the shorter daylight hours. Sounds like an awesome trip!
I’m also a fan of checking out the local grocery stores and staying in Airbnbs to decrease the costs and to live more like a local. 🙂
Ha yeah, there’s a reason we got so many questions about why we were there 😂 makes for part of the adventure, for sure!
I didn’t know that beer only became legal in Iceland in 1989! That is crazy to think about. Oddly enough, though, I was well aware of the penis museum haha.
Iceland is totally on our list of places to go so I’m glad you’re sharing about your experience there (even if it took me like a week to read up. Stupid cold)
Hope you’re feeling better now!
Blue Lagoon I found was a bit overrated, you didn’t miss much! I didn’t get to try the famous hot dog, glad to know it is overrated too hah 🙂
Ha! Glad we can have each other’s backs 😉
We enjoyed the hot dogs several times. It was great. 🙂
And definitely the cheapest meal there.