After four fantastic days in Paris, we began our trek home to Chicago via WOW airlines ($175/person from Paris to Reykjavik, Iceland and $175/person Reykjavik to Chicago). We had to layover for two hours so we figured, why not stay two days and explore? After booking, we learned friends had visited recently and raved of Iceland’s natural beauty.
We arrived late in the evening, but it felt much earlier. So close to the summer solstice in early June, the sky was light and bright nearly all 24 hours of the day. We rented the first car of our European trip and were giddy that it had a GPS system to help us navigate the new territory – no more taking screenshots of maps and directions while on wifi to avoid international phone charges – yay!
There are many rugged buses as pictured to the right, that take travelers on tours but if you have more than two people it’s more cost effective to rent your own car.
We made the easy drive to our Airbnb apartment in Reykjavik on Laugavegur, the main shopping and dining street in the heart of Iceland’s capital – the northernmost national capital of the world! (I love fun facts like this, my kids often groan at my sharing of these tidbits of knowledge but then later I overhear them retelling.)
We recommend Eldsmiðjan (Laugavegur 81) pizzeria for delicious & fresh, Icelandic birch oven-fired pizzas, great for families and open late – that first night we at dinner at almost 11 pm, our body clocks fooled by the light sky.
I don’t know if it was just at our awesome apartment, or if it’s common for the rest of Iceland with the abundance of naturally geothermal heated water, but water for a shower was instantly hot, and the water pressure stronger than I’ve ever felt! All fueled and cleaned up we called it a night in preparation for our day trip around Iceland’s popular ‘Golden Circle’ driving tour the day to follow.
We set off early towards the start of the Circle at Pingvellir National Park, via highway 1 to a road called Nesjavallaleid (highway 435) which I read was a more scenic route than highway 36 and took only fifteen minutes longer to travel. Do note, because of its high elevation running through mountains, Nesjavallaleid (pronounced NESS-ya-VAHT-la-layth, we had fun just trying to pronounce Icelandic words) is open only May-September.
Cloud cover on our driving tour day prevented us from seeing the mountain peaks but the dried magma fields and Icelandic moss all around was like nothing we’ve seen before. A giant water pipe runs alongside the road for much of the drive until you reach the Nesjavellir geothermal power station which sends 250 gallons of boiling water per second through that pipe to Reykjavik – exactly why I wonder if all residences in that city have the instantly hot and powerfully pressured water!
Highway 435 ends at a ‘T’ intersection with highway 360 where you turn left to follow a route that winds along Pingvallavatn, the largest natural lake on the island at 84 square kilometers. My kids and I really enjoyed the beautiful views of the lake but my husband, our driver, didn’t get to appreciate that scenery having to keep his eyes on the skinny road with more than a few blind summits and no guardrails. We thanked him. The lakeside is speckled with some pretty summer homes. We learned that building on the lake is no longer allowed but existing homes are grandfathered in. How nice Iceland is taking action to preserve its natural landscape.
At Pingvellir (pronounced THING-VET-leer) the rift between the tectonic plates is a sight to behold. We learned the plates move apart roughly 2 cm per year. We hiked the walkway built over the rift and took in the expansive views then motored on to Geysir (which translates to “gusher” and is where our English word geyser comes from).
Full disclosure – most of the six of us were not prepared for the weather difference between London/Paris and Reykjavik. Most of us were packed for 70 degree & sunny weather rather than 50 degree and rainy (somehow my husband and second oldest daughter had the forethought to pack a couple more layers and a rain jacket). If the weather in Iceland was milder we would have hiked more around each of these destinations on the Circle.
At Geysir, there’s a large visitor center and hotel with restaurants and a souvenir and clothing shop. Be prepared, food and drink are super expensive there as throughout the country, even grocery stores. Pack food for the driving tour if you can because there aren’t many options to pick something up along the way either.
The original Geysir (pronounced GAY-sear) was dormant for decades but after an earthquake in 2000, it started erupting sporadically but very rarely. It didn’t gush while we were there. We did see the Strokkur (translates to ‘butter churn’) geyser erupt, which it does every 7-10 minutes or less and a couple times on our visit blew within just 4 minutes of another eruption.
The anticipation then the surprising sight of the water blasting into the air and gasps of joy is truly a delightful experience. The blue color of the water in the geysers, especially Blesi, is beyond beautiful. It was raining, and we were freezing but wrapped in extra bath towels from our Airbnb and snuggling under umbrellas we persevered to stay to see several eruptions of Strokkur.
In the quick ten-minute ride from Geysir to Gullfoss, we blasted the car’s heat to warm up. Gullfoss (translates to ‘golden waterfall’), is the first giant two-stage waterfall with a twist I’ve ever seen, with the gorge nearly perpendicular to the first falls so the water flows to the side toward the second falls. It was even chillier there with than our other stops with cold winds and sprays from the falls.
We viewed from afar, opted not to hike all the way down to the falls, and instead set course to Gamila Laugin – The Secret Lagoon – Iceland’s oldest geothermic naturally heated swimming pool with water temperature 96-104 Fahrenheit.
Swimming in the lagoon felt heavenly after sightseeing in the cold wet weather all day and warmed up our core body temps in no time. We picked this spot for thermal bathing because it was a natural lagoon vs man-made, and it was a fantastic last stop in our Golden Circle driving tour.
There’s a walkway around the lagoon where you can see the hot springs that heat the water and how it trickles right into the pool at spots. Be careful in those spots while inside the pool, they can feel scalding before dissipating into the rest of the water. But it’s not too hot, my teen daughters and I searched for & found the hottest spot in the pool to lounge in and were very happy. Also, my kids and I liked the cute, tiny fairy houses in the landscaping around the pool. If you decide to take a thermal swim at the Secret Lagoon, bring your bathing suits and your towels. Towels aren’t provided.
It was a very quiet hour and a half ride home from Fludir to Reykjavik with all four kiddos snoozing in the back. We tried finding a restaurant to have dinner but super expensive menu prices shocked us, so we picked up pasta, spaghetti sauce, and vegetables from the grocery store near our Airbnb. Even the grocery store prices for food are sky high compared to those in our greater Chicago area markets. A dozen eggs cost $10 there!
And if you like a glass of wine in the evening as I do, heed the advice I read on the plane from Paris to Iceland (and thank goodness I did!) – buy any alcohol you’d like in the duty-free shop before leaving the airport. In Iceland, alcohol is sold only in special stores that have funky hours according to my travel book. Apparently, even the locals visit the airport to purchase wine and such there. If/when we do return to Iceland, I will consider packing and paying to check one suitcase full of food supplies and would recommend doing so to anyone visiting this beautiful country anytime soon.
This trip the six of us traveled by backpack, all twelve days through London, Paris, and Reykjavik – no checked bags at all. It was easier than you’d think and cut the cost of the adventure greatly.
Until next time…thank you for reading! Tina