Due to the fantastic layover option offered by Icelandair, we were able to include Iceland in our itinerary. Our big US trip taught us that any less than 3 nights in any location felt too rushed, so that is what we planned in Iceland. We had so much fun researching and planning things we could do and see while there.
The airport is on the southwest part of the island and we discovered that most tourists concentrate their time in that vicinity focusing time in Reykjavik (the capital) and on the golden circle which is a drive to three popular natural wonders – Thingvellir National Park, Geysir, and Gullfoss waterfall. We also wanted to drive south to the black sand beach at Vik.
But before that adventure, we had to pack for 7 people for 5 weeks (including weather in the 40’s in Iceland and 90’s in Germany, and ranging from hiking clothes to dress up clothes) into what we could fly with which seemed to be an adventure in and of itself!
Packing for our flight was tricky, but I am fairly proud of what we narrowed our luggage down to. I’ve seen posts of people gone for a weekend with more than we were taking for 7 for a month –lol. But when we left I reassured myself that 7 people and 7 passports were all we really needed!!
I was overcautious on packing Iceland gear though – 3 days in a place we are likely never visiting again. I just didn’t want us to be too wet or cold to enjoy it…but no one thought boots and coats were a good use of precious baggage space. I gave up on coats feeling that we could all just wear everything we brought layered on top of each other to keep the core warm (and mittens and hats are small – so we would be good there) – but feet seemed like they would make us all miserable if they were cold so we did bring boots. I hoped they were worth the added baggage.
We also packed cheap dollar store rain ponchos. We got stuck at Disney in rain one year – and believe you me – the amount we spent on 7 Disney ponchos will be a forever reminder to at least try to plan ahead! LOL
At the time we booked, we were allowed one carry on and one checked baggage per adult and one carry-on and two checked bags per child. This would have put us at 14 checked bags plus seven more carry-ons (and additionally our personal bag/purse/backpack). We actually had more room on the plane than we would have once we landed. We each narrowed our needs for the month into one carry-on and our personal tote – we had one additional checked bag (that included the boots lol).
And off we went…
We flew Icelandair direct from Chicago to Reykjavík Iceland. Day 1 actually lasted until 2 in the afternoon on day 2 as the sun never set on our flight and we didn’t check in or sleep until 2 pm Iceland time. Our flight went well, window view was amazing as the sun was on the horizon the entire flight and the overhead lights on the flight were shimmery green, blue and purple like the Aurora Borealis – so we got midnight sun AND northern lights on day one-lol.
We also saw some spectacular views of Greenland – the glaciers and icebergs were amazing even from the view thousands of feet in the air.
The two littlest kids were given headphones and drinks and meals. We all had access to complimentary movies/tv/music. It was the first flight for 4 of the 5 and the oldest was a baby the only other time he had flown.
The kids were excited and did a great job with the long flight (approximately 6 hours). I encouraged the kids to sleep (which they were too excited to do) as we had left Chicago at 6 at night – and with the 6-hour flight, we arrived at what felt like midnight. However, with the time change, it was 6 AM Iceland time, and we were starting day 2 (without any sleep).
Day 1 (the continuation) or day 2…
We had time between landing (early AM) and check in to our home rental (late afternoon) so after collecting our rental van we did some exploring of the area around the airport known as the Reykanes peninsula.
Aside: Renting a vehicle in Iceland. The rental car offices were only a short 1-2 block walk from the terminal. We learned (too late) that it would have been a good idea to leave most of the family with all of the luggage at the terminal while our driver went on the shuttle to get the rental. The driver could have then driven over to load everyone and everything.
Instead, we loaded everybody and all the luggage into the shuttle for the short drive to the offices. We rented a large van to accommodate us and fortunately in Iceland, rentals include CDW/LDW insurance. In the summer months (when we were traveling), there was no need for additional insurance: tire, window, hazard, etc. In winter months, extra insurance was highly recommended and also a 4 wheel drive would have been preferred. Even though it was summer, we were advised to stay on main roads and to stay off F-Roads as we didn’t purchase extra insurance or a 4 wheel drive.
We drove the Reykjanes peninsula – which reminded me a little of Yellowstone National Park and a little of what I think Mars might look like. There were no trees, and it was very rocky and full of random geothermal features.
We stopped at the bridge between continents; a bridge over the crevice where the American and Eurasian tectonic plates meet. Some of us stood on one side of the bridge in North America and some at the other end in Europe.
We also stopped to see a heated blowhole, and the cliff rocks in the south before heading to our big fun for the day – the Blue Lagoon.
We debated a dip at the Blue Lagoon for quite some time. It is probably the best-known tourist attraction in Iceland but it’s also very pricey. We read so many reviews recommending alternative hot springs that were far less touristy and much more natural. In the end, we decided it needed to be done – just because it is Iceland and it is the Blue Lagoon (not doing it felt a little like going to Paris and not seeing the Eiffel tower – lol)
It is supposed to help with jet lag and have many other natural benefits. I am not knowledgeable on these but I can attest that we enjoyed the relaxation, drinks, and the sunshine!!
We paid for the minimal package which included only entrance and a silica mud mask which was perfect for our big family. The water was lovely – both visually (the blue was such a pretty color) and physically – just the right temperature to keep us warm outside in swim gear in Iceland (average temperature was 100 degrees). It really was a nice way to start the trip.
After the soak in the thermal waters, we were able to check into the house and we took a mid-afternoon nap. We were able to find a reasonable home for rent on Airbnb. We looked in the vicinity of the airport and Reykjavik – about a 30-mile distance. We found a rental that was right on the coast with an amazing view. It was about halfway between the two, outside of Reykjavik about 20 miles.
The home had a kitchen, separate dining area, a sitting area and a separate gathering room with a TV-we aren’t huge television watchers especially on vacations, but we quickly realized that it wouldn’t be an option at all for most of our trip due to the language barrier. The wifi was free but slow. There was one bathroom with shower and laundry. There were also 3 bedrooms- one master, another main level room that slept two, and a loft that slept 4. It was a comfortable house with plenty of room. We slept well and otherwise, did not spend much time there. It was nice to be on the beach though as when we’ come home for the night we could take a walk on the beach and appreciate the views.
After, we headed to Reykjavik for dinner and exploring. We explored the music hall, Harpa which is beautiful, though the kids were more enamored by the rock beach next door. There were rock towers (cairns) everywhere. We challenged the kids to make the tallest stack and spent a good amount of time just enjoying that time on the beach trying to beat each other’s best and tallest towers. It really is funny to me how the often the times we are sidetracked from plans end up being the most memorable.
We ended the night with a midnight walk around the beach. It was so odd to have full daylight at midnight! Sunset was at midnight and sunrise was at 3 am but at 1245 it was still light out. I think the time between sunset and sunrise just happens to be twilight – enough light that it never quite got dark.
Day 3 – Golden Circle Iceland
We were up late this AM – our internal clocks were really off. But it was all good because it was literally never dark so we were staying up later too… at 130 AM the birds were chirping and I could see perfectly well out to the ocean.
We stopped in a bakery on the first morning after our flight and then we stopped again the second morning because the selection was delicious. And even so, we thought we’d cook for our last morning and so we went grocery shopping.
Let me tell you, we discovered we were going to have a fun month. When planning the trip, we thought we’d try to live less like a tourist and more like a visitor – renting homes vs staying in hotels, grocery shopping and preparing meals vs eating out for every meal. We thought we would be able to tell a food by what it looked like… but not so much all the time. Some we could– but most of it is wrapped fully differently than what we are used to and most of what was offered was different food than we normally eat.
On the day we went grocery shopping, my phone didn’t have service in the store so it wouldn’t work to translate and Icelandic is not an easy language… there are many letters (mostly consonants) in every word – lol. We had planned to cook bacon and eggs until we found the bacon and discovered it cost $18!!! For half a pound!!!! We settled on eggs and skinka (which we hoped was a ham).
We also purchased some pasta, some bakery items, and some ice cream. We were able to shop at Bonus – a discount grocery store – recommended by many who had traveled to Iceland as a reasonable option for food. (Iceland is a very expensive country to travel to – so we were happy to find discounts where available)
We continued to have difficulty with our phone service as we left the store. We had unfortunately not thought much about this possibility as we had no paper map nor directions as we were using our phone for this. We were really ill-prepared for this as our home in Iceland didn’t even have a typical “address” – we were given the location with latitude and longitude markers so we wouldn’t have even been able to ask for directions easily. We were able to pick up reception (thankfully) and find our way back to the home. We downloaded the information for the home and also directions when we had service so we wouldn’t have to have that complication again.
We then set out to see the golden circle – a drive including a national park, a geyser, and a waterfall. First stop, was an off the beaten path gem Porufoss.!!
We found this one on a Pinterest board – there are just so many waterfalls in Iceland that there are absolutely fabulous. Literally so many – this absolute beauty was right off the main road about 5km/~3m and an easy 100-yard walk- and we had it all to ourselves. We couldn’t believe it!!
We literally saw 7 more random waterfalls unmarked along the main road on this day, Iceland reminded me a bit of Colorado (mountains in the distance), still Yellowstone (so many geothermal features), and also a bit of what I imagine New Zealand to look like (the greenery and the waterfalls). It’s just amazing the different landscapes on such a small island.
Next, we were able to see the Thingvellir National Park a site of historical, cultural, and natural importance.
We hiked a bit, saw many fissures where the earth is pulling apart along the continental divide, and visited another waterfall Oxarafoss -also amazing and also a short easy walk from the parking lot. This one had some other visitors but not many. The kids were able to sit at the base and just enjoy the peacefulness.
Geysir basin was next, this is the site of the first geyser ever referenced in a printed source – the original geyser if you will. We were able to view similar geothermal features as we could see in Yellowstone including steam vents, hot springs, and geysers.
We watched one that blew quite a few times while we were there. We even managed to catch on film the exact moment it erupted when it literally bubbled up and then exploded. It was fun to watch as it caught us off guard every time.
Our final stop for the day was Gullfoss Waterfall.
I can’t even explain how beautiful this was, the sheer volume of water is amazing enough but it is also a double waterfall. The waterfall changes direction and falls again perpendicular to original flow into a crevasse so that it looks like the water is just disappearing into the earth. It was the most amazing waterfall I’ve ever seen and as a bonus, it is open 24/7 (perfect for summer with 24 hour light) and is free to visit.
We drove home past mountains of steam vents and realized it was a bit scary to think how much volcanic activity is going on in so many different places on one tiny island.
On our last day in Iceland, we explored the south coast.
We spent the morning in the house and enjoyed our skinka and eggs for breakfast – lucky for us it WAS ham. Then, we set off to visit the south coast as we had read about the black sand beach in Vik. On the way, we had many beautiful stops!
Seljelandsfoss was our first stop. The waterfall has a cave behind it so we were able to walk up to, around and behind them which was very wet!!!
Rain ponchos and boots for the win! I had read that there was another interesting falls a short hike away and we were actually able to see 2 more. One that we hiked up to and one that we walked through a cave to get to (Gljúfrabúi).
We spent a fair amount of time at this stop visiting the three separate falls and then taking a break for lunch. There was a stand at the falls that sold wraps, sandwiches, paninis and other simple lunch fares as well some of the most delicious desserts we had on the trip. We also tried our first local delicacy with some lamb stew – we all tried it and 4 of us liked it.
We continued our drive toward Vik. Iceland is literally one of the most beautiful (and also most odd, depending where you are) places I’ve ever been to – like no other and yet reminding me of many others ( today like Colorado-mountains, California – the beautiful shoreline, Mars-the rocky desolation, New Zealand – beautiful waterfalls and the shire from Lord of the Rings ( seriously we looked to see if they filmed here). All mixed together!
We counted 53 waterfalls that we could see from the road in a 30-mile stretch!!! Huge gorgeous waterfalls that weren’t even labeled or visited. Because there are so many other gorgeous beautiful waterfalls to see! It is crazy – and also my favorite as I LOVE waterfalls.
Our next stop was Skogafoss another beautiful falls. We walked right up to the bottom – and we walked up 328 stairs to see it from the top! The kids weren’t sure about the stairs – I may or may not have enticed them with snacks.
We were too late in the day to see a rainbow form the top but we did see one in the spray at the bottom. I’m not sure how to judge anymore as there truly just are so many falls in Iceland – and the waters are such an interesting color of blue. I would highly recommend them all as they all had their own beauty and power and tranquility. All bombarding the senses and yet providing such peace.
We ended our day at Vik- the black sand beach. The volcanic black rocks and the beautiful blue North Atlantic ocean made for an unforgettable view in a day we will long remember.
The kids laughed so much trying to avoid the waves, collecting rocks to build cairns, and climbing the basalt columns… and the adults enjoyed the sunshine and beautiful weather!
As an aside:
We learned some interesting things that I hoped would help us for the rest of the trip. We found out that knowing a couple of small phrases weren’t actually going to that helpful. We were lucky in that most Icelanders also speak English. We found out that minimal phrases like “hi”, “ bye”, “please”, and “thank you” while polite, wouldn’t have been the easiest to get by with.
We all made an effort to use pleasantries when initiating conversation but whether it was because we were obviously American by how poorly we spoke the words, or whether they all felt especially helpful toward the two adults traveling around with a posse of kiddos, we mostly never got past an Icelandic hello before they would begin speaking English with us. It brought us an interesting conversation about why Americans do not have mandatory second language in our schools (not that I would have taken Icelandic but still). We realized that we are going to have to up our game for the rest of this trip.
Also, we learned that our American 24/7 culture doesn’t extend to everywhere we will be visiting (little did we realize how accustomed we are to it). Grocery stores were open 10 AM-7 PM maybe 9 PM. We couldn’t find a restaurant open before 9 AM and one we wanted to try was only open like 11 AM – 4 PM! Regarding grocery stores, they were not the expansive US grocery stores that we were used to; the entire grocery store we visited would have fit in my grocery’s produce section.
I can’t compliment enough the helpfulness and kindness of every Icelander that we came into contact with and we have truly enjoyed each part of the country that we were able to visit.
But now, we were moving on. Next up….Germany.