We flew with Icelandair from London Heathrow to Reykjavik and were very impressed with the airline. Check in was a fabulous experience, there was no queue, it wasn’t a problem that our documents hadn’t verified in advance, a quick review of them in person and we were on our way through to security. Heathrow Terminal 2 was trialling a security system where we didn’t have to remove any liquids or devices from our hand luggage, which was brilliant. Boarding started ahead of schedule and we departed right on time. There’s onboard entertainment, we hadn’t thought to pack wired headphones, so just watched a movie on our iPad instead. I was impressed with the gin menu, and the buy 2 offer! The aircraft was a Boeing 767, the premium section was 2-1-2 layout and economy 2-4-2 which works great for couples travelling who like a window seat. Our tip is to sit FG seats on the right of the aircraft as you get a better view for the approach.

On arrival there were 3 check points, the first was to check your reason for travelling and stamp your passport, the second to check you had your QR code, and the third was a full document check. There’s a sizeable supermarket / shop in the baggage claim area where locals and visitors were loading up with booze as it’s cheaper than on the island.

For car hire we booked with Lava Car. A representative met us on arrival with a minibus to shuttle us to their office and collect our vehicle. We took out the most expensive insurance which exempts the requirement for a large deposit on your card. The hand over was very thorough with photos taken of any prior damage and a copy emailed to us before we drove off. Having booked a Nissan X-Trail we also had a free upgrade to a Toyota Land Cruiser. The importance of not damaging the door hinges when opening in strong winds was stressed (not included in insurance), we laughed this off at the time as we’re used to the wind living in Lanzarote – little did we know just how strong the wind proved to be in Iceland!

Iceland is a relatively cheap destination to get to from the UK. Our 3 night package was £844 for the 2 of us including flights with bed & breakfast accommodation from 30th December 2021 to 2nd January 2022. Food and drink can be expensive though, we’ve tried to include costs below to give you an idea for spends required. That said, we dined in two of the top reviewed restaurants, so you can definitely eat out for less.

It was getting dark, with snow on the ground as we started the 50km drive to Reykjavik, it’s mainly one straight road (41) and right hand side of the road, so the same as home for us. Our Hotel, Klettur has free car parking underneath and there was space available on our arrival, you need a room key to access the garage. This hotel is modern with a quirky humour and clean.

I’d describe the rooms as basic, they’re quite compact and no frills, but warm and comfortable. The TV had some English entertainment channels (not just news!). Reception is on floor 2, our room was at ground level (112). Probably one of the quickest hotel check in’s we’ve experienced, also for a 3 night stay they don’t clean / make up the room, you can ask at reception if you need anything such as clean towels / toilet rolls etc. Due to Covid restrictions, breakfast was still being served but guests were encouraged to take it away to eat in one of the common areas, or their rooms.

Exploring Reykjavik

With only a short 3 night stay, and 2 full days out exploring, the time we spent in Reykjavik was generally walking out from our hotel to eat in the evening. We had planned more time in the city, but lost the majority of our last morning trying to sort out our free Covid test results which weren’t received.

These were our highlights:

The huge Christmas cat on Lækjartorg square, its 5m high and 6m wide. This sculpture is from Icelandic folklore which says that anyone who isn’t given new clothing for Christmas will be eaten by the cat!

Walking along Laugavegur which is one of the oldest shopping streets in the city and has a giant hopscotch from 1-100 painted on the street.

Another memorable street is Skólavörðustígur 101 which is painted in rainbow colours leading up to the Hallgrimskirkja cathedral. We didn’t manage to go up the 73m tall tower for a bird’s eye view of the city. The tower is open from 10:00-16:30 with an entry fee of Ikr 1200 per adult.

Quite a few of the buildings in 101 old town area of Reykjavik had amusing animations being screened on their facades.

The Harpa concert hall is a striking building on the waterfront that changes colour. It’s home to the Iceland Symphony Orchestra, Icelandic Opera and Reykjavík Big Band & Múlinn Jazz club.

The Sun Voyager (Sólfar) sculpture was created by Jón Gunnar Árnason.  It was a lovely place to catch the sunrise on our last morning.

The Grotta lighthouse is accessible along the causeway at low tide, look out for the thermal foot bath (we didn’t find it). This area is a good location to see the Northern lights when the forecast is right.

The Perlan museum and 360 degree restaurant is situated on the highest point in Reykjavik. We went up to see the location, but didn’t go inside.

South Coast Self Guided Drive

Originally we were planning to do this drive on our second full day, however we were warned of an incoming storm that would likely close the South Coast road, so we switched our itinerary around last minute.  At this time of year sunrise is around 11:30 in the morning, so we set off in the dark on New Year’s Eve after breakfast. Iceland’s Ring Road is called Route 1 to drive the full route (1322km) it takes a minimum of 6 days in summer and 12 in winter. We joined at Reykjavik heading towards Vik.

Our first stop was 2 hours later (126km) at the Seljalandsfoss waterfall. This natural attraction is free to visit, although there was a car park charge (€4.76). There are estimated to be over 10,000 waterfalls in Iceland. This particular one is very popular as there’s a pathway that allows visitors to walk fully around the back of the waterfall when conditions allow (normally in the summer months). On our visit the footpath was very slippery the closer we got to the waterfall. The water falls 65m over this old sea cliff. We hadn’t got any crampons so we cautiously enjoyed the view from a safe distance. There was a lovely gift shop and food stall, plus some toilets for a comfort break.

Our second point of interest just blew me away, I loved it. The Sólheimajökull glacier was just 35 minutes (40km) further down the road.  Again there was a car park charge (€6.80), which we paid but others ignored. Anyone can access the viewing point to the glacier free of charge, however it can only be hiked with a guide due to the dangerous conditions. We followed the footpath from the car park, there’s a lagoon at the base of the glacier that was almost frozen, I dropped down to the waters edge to see the icebergs. We continued on to the end of the footpath and viewpoint which was incredible. The colour of the glacier is stunning it ranges from white, to electric blue and volcanic black. We could just about see small groups exploring the glacier surface with their guides. This glacier is approx 8km long and 2km wide however it is shrinking. The lagoon at its base recedes by 50m every year. Next time I want to book a glacier hike, I was very envious of the heavily kitted up groups heading out as we made our way back to the car.

Gorgeous Icelandic Ponies

We scrapped our third stop which was to have been the DC3 plane wreck. The wind was really quite strong now and cold, neither of us fancied a 2 hour walk to see this wreckage. There are horse riding or quad bike excursions available if this is something you would like to seem. There was no sign of the shuttle bus service which is mentioned on some websites.

The last place on our South Coast to do list before we turned back to Reykjavik was Reynisfjara beach. This is an amazing black sand beach with a fabulous rock formation known as Reynisdrangar. On arrival we could hardly open the car doors against the wind, we had to move parking places, so we were nose into the wind. There was a lovely café at the side of the footpath down to the beach. There were several warnings regarding “sneaker waves”. Apparently this beach can be very dangerous and has swept people out to sea when larger than average swells have caused waves to break much higher up the beach than previous ones. The basalt rock formation is fascinating and provided a great backdrop for selfies. National Geographic voted this beach as one of the top ten non-tropical beaches to visit in the world in 1991. I would have loved to have stayed longer on the beach however the wind was taking our breath away, it was all we could do to hold the camera up to take a quick picture or two before heading back to the warmth of the café and a Swiss mocha hot drink (€10.06).

We drove back the same route which took approximately 2.5 hours (186km).

Golden Circle Self Guided Drive

On our second full day in Iceland we set off early after breakfast for our Golden Circle self guided drive. It was Saturday the 1st January and New Year’s Day.

Our first stop was the Almannagjá in Þingvellir National Park which is the Mid-Atlantic Rift between the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates. Although we could see the map point and visibly where the gorge was, it was harder than it needed to be to visit it. We parked up and walked a trail along side the gorge but not in it before we reached a point where we could access the attraction. It’s a lovely spot, we particularly enjoyed seeing the frozen waterfall on the boardwalk in this area. (Next time I fancy the snorkelling in Sifra to drift over the tectonic plates)

We had a brief stop at the Laugarvatn Fontana geothermic spa where you can taste rye bread cooked in the hot sands. We hadn’t booked and wasn’t entirely sure if we could just use their café so kept going.

The wind had really picked up, it was rocking the car from side to side when we were driving and at one point we had to stop to secure the bonnet.

I was really excited about our next stop which was the Stokkur geyser in the Haukadalur Valley. The original great geyser has been dormant for some time, the Stokkur geyser is the main attraction these days. We parked up and I started laughing watching some visitors trying to walk against the wind. The wind was rocking the car and we were worried about having a gravel rash down one side of the vehicle due to the force of the gusts. Little did I know just how scary this experience was going to be! We were kitted out with thermal trousers, ski coats, hats, scarfs and gloves, however with hindsight we were missing two essential items….. crampons and thermal gloves with touch screen that enable you to use your mobile phone. We set off and the main footpath was pure ice in places and the strong gusts of wind actually slid us along the surface. We made it out as far as the hot spring Blesi, where I took a glove off to take a quick photo. On the way back around to the geyser my boot lace came undone, so I stopped to tie it up. I couldn’t do it, the wind chill and force was stopping me from completing this simple task. I was worried about moving incase I tripped over the lace in these conditions. Eventually I made the decision to put my gloves back on and continue with the lace undone, my hands were so cold they couldn’t warm up in my thermal ski mittens. We waited some time for the geyser to blow but no such luck for us today. Back in the car, we put the heated seats on and I sat on my hands trying to get some warmth back into them, still watching in case the geyser erupted. It took almost 4 months for the partial numbness in 3 fingers on my right hand to recover from the nerve damage caused by this brief cold exposure.

Needing some food and a comfort break we continued to the Gullfoss Waterfall however all of the facilities were closed! We felt it was too dangerous to walk to the falls in the wind, so decided to end our Golden Circle tour and head back to Reykjavik. We had been planning to also see the Kerid Crater however there was no way we would be standing on the edge of that volcanic crater in these conditions.

Later we learned that the organised excursions had been cancelled for the day due to the storm, although the roads remained open, which explained why we hadn’t seen lots of other tourists on the route.

The Golden Circle route is approx 230km from Reykjavik.

We were at the end of our stay, not everything had gone to plan and despite this we both loved the destination and experience. There’s nothing quite like Iceland and we’ll be back at some point to continue our adventure.

Sadly the check in queue at Reykjavik airport was the complete opposite to our experience on departure. There were several flights open at the same desks, it took approx 1 hour to get to the front. Our seats on row 5 had extra legroom on the Boeing 737 Max.

Food in Reykjavik

We had booked evening meals for New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day so that we didn’t need to stress who was open or had tables available, especially as we would be out exploring in the car during the day.

For our first evening we walked up to the harbour and dined at Lamb Street Food. It was such a shame as the staff were struggling with a new ordering system that was causing chaos, they didn’t know who the orders belonged to, either dining in, or take away. Mike ordered the Leadersheep and I had the Piparmey. Both are flatbreads stuffed with lamb and various salad fillings. We tried 2 different local draft beers, mine was called Skyrjarmur (Skyr-Gobbler) and purple in colour, described as a blueberry sour. Mike enjoyed a glass of Gull, which is one of Iceland’s best known brands and has been enjoyed by Icelanders since March 1st 1989, when the 70 year beer prohibition in Iceland was lifted. Alcohol sales in Iceland are highly regulated, government run liquor stores (Vínbúðin) are the only places to buy alcohol. The logic behind the beer ban was that access to beer would tempt young people and workers into heavy drinking. (€53.46)

We arrived at Apotek half an hour earlier than our reservation thinking we would have a cocktail at the bar, but were turned away due to capacity. We couldn’t get in the other establishments close by so ending up walking around waiting for our reservation. There were lots of people trying to get into restaurants and being turned away, we were thankful we had booked. Our table was ready and we were seated in the main dining room with huge arched windows. It was a fantastic meal, despite our pre dinner cocktails turning up with our starters. We both said it was one of our best New Years Eve’s experiences.  Starter: Lobster tails and tiger shrimp with roasted garlic mayo, red pepper sauce, green pea and avocado purée. Main course: Rack of lamb with leeks, pickled shallots, carrots, baked celeriac, dill-spinach cream & mustard sauce. Dessert:  Double passion – salty caramel mousse, passion gel, Baileys ganache, passion mousse & pistachio layer.  Amazingly they had Cloudy Bay from New Zealand, so we ordered a bottle, I just love the Sauvignon Blanc wines from Marlborough. (€328.27)

For our last evening we were tired and hungry from our Golden Circle tour so we went to the Reykjavik Kitchen  as it was the closest restaurant to our hotel. We were lucky to get in without a reservation and were warmly welcomed. We decided to order their 3 course set menu with wine pairing rather than from the standard menu. Starters: Coffee cured salmon with homemade mascarpone, chili oats, orange glaze & melon. Main course: Lamb ribeye with creamy mashed potatoes & pumpkin, baked parsnips & carrots, romaine lettuce and truffle butter glaze. Dessert: Créme caramel with hazelnuts, pistachios & strawberries. The service was excellent, each wine and dish was explained on presentation. We finished with a choice of dessert wines, Mike chose birch and I had rhubarb. (€352)

The last thing we did before leaving for the airport was to visit the famous hot dog stand Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur for their “eina með öllu” which translates to the one with everything. The full works includes ketchup, sweet mustard, fried onion, raw onion and remolaði, a mayonnaise-based sauce with sweet relish. (€5.52)

In Summary

I have wanted to visit Iceland for several years, this was our first time. It’s not scratched the itch, we have to go back! There’s something about this beautiful country that seeps into your soul. We experienced dramatic weather and found friendly locals, stunning landscapes and fabulous food.

Cemetery lights in Iceland

The cemeteries in Iceland warmed our hearts and we remembered loved ones no long with us. At this time of year, the tradition is to place a lighted cross on each grave, these multi coloured crosses can be seen for miles as you pass by.

There’s an amazing atmosphere for New Year’s Eve. The fireworks started from around 5pm and were a constant background noise for the rest of the evening. After our evening meal we walked up to the cathedral when groups of families and friends had gathered to set off their fireworks. How anyone had any left by midnight was beyond us, never the less it was an impressive sight to bring in the new year. The traditional bonfires had been cancelled due to the Covid restrictions to stop large groups gathering.

Reykjavik ticks a lot of boxes for us, it’s a great city to be based in for short breaks. There’s lots to do if the weather turns and your excursions are cancelled.

We wanted to visit the Sky Lagoon but it was fully booked even in advance of arrival in Iceland.

Facebook album: New Year in Iceland

Iceland tips:

Northern lights should be visible from September to March. To the naked eye they look like grey streaks in the sky. Use night mode on your mobile to pick up the green light seen on photos. Clear skies and dark nights are needed for the Aurora. Use the app: hello-aurora to get notifications when Aurora activity is good in your location.

Restaurant reservations can be made easily with Dineout.

The Reykjavik Grapevine has a AppyHour app which lists the establishments with reduced price drinks in Reykjavik, they also have what’s on event information.

For whale watching April to late September is the best time to visit (June, July & August is the peak season).

To see the puffins on the South coast visit between May and late August.

The windiest month in Iceland is January, the calmer months are April to October.

Rental cars have studded tyres from 1st November to 15th April. Vehicles are collected off site a short distance away from the airport, reps will meet you on arrival and transfer you to their depot.

Check the weather forecast and road closures before setting off in your hire car.  https://en.vedur.is/ for weather and https://www.road.is/ for traffic information. Keep within the speed limits and never stop in the road to take photographs.

You can drink the tap water, it is completely safe and nicely chilled. Take a refillable drinks container with you, rather than buying bottled water.

How to book Iceland

We’d love to help you book a holiday to Iceland from a short city break in Reykjavik, to a couple of weeks completing route 1 around the island. Please either complete the form below or contact us for more information and quotes.

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