8 Things You Should Know Before Visiting Iceland

January 11, 2016

Iceland travel guide

Back in 2013 I surprised Russell with a trip to the world’s northernmost capital, Reykjavik, to celebrate his birthday. Known for its its dramatic volcanic landscape of geysers, hot springs, waterfalls, glaciers and black-sand beaches, travelling to this jurassic land is an experience we will never forget.

A few years ago trips to Iceland weren't as popular as they are now, so there was limited information available online before we travelled. I've finally decided to share the lessons we learnt during our trip without the usual embellishments, so here are 8 things you should consider before booking:

1. Stay at the Icelandair Hotel Reykjavik Marina

Icelandair Hotel Reykjavik Marina

russell dovey Icelandair Hotel Reykjavik Marina

This is the best city hotel Russell and I have ever stayed in. Located next to the dry dock, make sure you request a room with a sea view - every morning we woke up to a different ship being repaired right outside our window which was rather magical.

Located in the downtown area of Reykjavik, the surrounding area is culturally rich with many museums, restaurants and galleries to explore.

dry dock iceland dry dock iceland

Filled with quirky artwork, the bar/restaurant attached to the hotel is very popular with the locals come the weekend. With a fantastic list of drinks and a menu full of rustic Scandinavian dishes, the prices are rather reasonable compared to places in the city.

Opt for bed and breakfast - with smoked salmon, beetroot shots and lots of cheese on offer, you'll need a heavy meal to fuel your adventures. And for the exercise obsessed, there's even a small gym complete with a decorative rock climbing wall.

2. Book the Golden Circle Tour in Advance

Golden Circle Tour Golden Circle Tour
With so many excursions on offer, the price of your trip can quickly add up. To spread the coast I'd recommend booking a few excursions before you fly using this website. The Golden Circle tour is an absolute must, an although the tour will take up pretty much a whole day, you get to see some unmissable sights.

Golden Circle Tour charlotte clarke
 
After being picked up from our hotel and travelling through the countryside on a coach, our tour randomly started at a tomato farm - after looking at bees and plants, we wondered round to the farm's stables and horsed around until it was time to head off. I assume this pit stop was for a much needed toilette break and to sell you lunch, which isn't included in the trip. Luckily we packed snacks and a big bottle of water to see us through the day.

Golden Circle Tour Gullfoss – The Golden Falls

Our next stop was at Gullfoss – The Golden Falls – where the mighty River Hvítá plunges into a narrow, dark canyon. We were dropped off in a car park a few hundred meters away which allowed us the see the mighty view from a distance. Slowly walking toward it in the blistering cold and wind alongside the river was exhilarating, and once you reach the waterfall you're able to get pretty close.

On sunny days a rainbow glitters in the spray above the raging torrent, which is said to be a thing of wonder. When we visited in early April the waterfall was half frozen, giving us a spectacular and out of the ordinary view.

Geysir iceland

Geysir iceland Geysir trip iceland
 
Nearby is Geysir, an area of hot springs where a huge fountains of scalding water intermittently spout from the ground. The Geysirs all spout at different intervals, so it's a good opportunity to eat lunch whilst waiting for the big boys to go off - don't miss them, as some only go off every 45 mins!

iceland national park

charlotte clarke russell dovey

A short bus drive across the barren heath leads to Þingvellir, a national park which is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Geological are constantly pulling the surface of the earth apart, and the growing gap between the Eurasian and American tectonic plates can clearly be seen - here's Russell with a foot on each plate.

3. Don't Book Weather Reliant Tours until you get there

whale watching iceland

whale watching iceland whale watching iceland

Don't book activities that can be effected by the weather until you get there. There are many tour operators in the city, and most of the time your hotel reception can book you onto the trips.

Unbeknown to us, a storm out at sea had hit just before we arrived, meaning our whale watching trip we booked was a disaster. With a 98% sucess rate of seeing a whale, we were the 2% that managed to spot nothing more than a few seagulls. Suffering with sea sickness, we were stranded out at sea for hours whilst the boat had to be anchored as the waves were too strong for it to get back to land.

The storm had also bought a lot of clouds into land, meaning we didn't get to see Northern Lights - we were thankful we didn't book the tour in advance as a few other guests spent hours on a coach each evening trying to catch a glimpse without much luck. Although this was disappointing at the time, It now gives us a great excuse to visit more Scandinavian countries to catch a glimpse of the araura.

4. Don't Swim in the Blue Lagoon if it's Snowing

blue lagoon review iceland

russell dovey blue lagoon review iceland

The Blue Lagoon is the poster boy for visiting Iceland. Located near the airport, regular shuttles from the city take you there in under half an hour. The Lagoon itself is pretty impressive, with a cocktail bar in the middle and big troughs filled with mineral rich mud for you to slather onto your face, body and hair.

However, I was disappointed to learn the 'lagoon' is a man-made pool, with thermal water pumped into it (you can see the pipe for miles whilst driving towards it). With that in mind, if I were to visit again I'd book a tour to a natural hot spring in the national park.

blue lagoon review iceland blue lagoon review iceland

Our visit to the lagoon was pretty disastrous as it started to snow whilst we were swimming. At first it was absolutely magical, swimming in a warm pool surrounded by a storm snow, but as we ventured deeper into the pool the snow began falling faster, and as it landed on the water it created a thick layer of steam.

Long story cut VERY short, we were lost in the pool for what seemed like hours, with the water getting unbearably hot as the temperature around us dropped - at times I had to repetitively jump out of the water to get momentary relief from the near-scalding temperatures. I now know the unbearable pain lobsters must feel when being submerged into the boiling pot, and it's not nice.

blue lagoon review iceland blue lagoon review iceland

You couldn't climb out as the sides are decorated with sharp boulders to make it look natural, so after swimming and jumping for an eternity we finally saw a high-vis in the distance and made our way out, shrivelled as prunes.

Once I showered I was distraught to find my hair, which was tied into a bun whilst swimming, had been singed by the steam! Itr had melted into a large mass that looked like melted plastic, and for the rest of the holiday I couldn't wear it down (I also stunk of burnt hair, which got me a few odd looks on the plane). When we got back from our trip I had over half cut off (before and after pictures below), and bearing in mind I've never even died my hair, I was pretty upset - it makes for a good dinner party story now though.

charlotte clarke charlotte clarke

charlotte clarke charlotte clarke

So Beware! Pack lots of conditioner, and if it snows frolic around a little and then take a breather. I'd also suggest bringing your own robe/towel, as renting one is super expensive, and triple check the shuttle times back as in the evening they're over an hour apart.

5. Plan Where to Eat Before you go


where to eat Reykjavik where to eat Reykjavik

where to eat Reykjavik

When we visited Stockholm, friends and family warned us it was super expensive, so we spent months living as paupers in order to save loads of spending money. When we got there, we found the prices were similar to London, and the extra cash was never spent. With this in mind, we didn't bother bringing a large amount of money to Reykjavik, which was a mistake.

Believe everything you read - it's expensive! Even a hot dog from a street vendor near our hotel charged £20 per sausage. With that in mind, get on Tripadvisor and plan your evening meals before you travel (especially if you're vegetarian/vegan). The harbour has some amazing seafood restaurants serving lobster and fish chowder, whilst a range of odd food such as wild horse, puffin and even whale steak is on the menu at restaurants in town.

6. Know What to Wear

what to wear in iceland what to wear in iceland

When we travelled to Iceland we took hand luggage only. Afraid I would freeze to death, I packed a new bright purple and orange snow suit, which took up over half of my bag. Needless to say when we arrived I soon realised I would look like an absolute wolly walking around in it.

Don't get me wrong, in April it was cold, especially when the wind blew, but if you wear layers you'll be absolutely fine. For your excursions invest in a good pair of walking boots and lots of fluffy socks. Mix up your look with hats that wont fly off, warm scarves and leather gloves (they won't get wet). And don't forget your glasses - it might be cold but it's really bright!

7. Save Time to Explore the City

things to do in Reykjavik things to do in Reykjavik

things to do in Reykjavik things to do in Reykjavik

With so many trips to the Icelandic countryside calling you away from the city, make sure you reserve at least half a day to walk around Reykjavik. You can walk to the top of Hallgrimskirkja Cathedral to see spectacular views across the city, browse the many quirky shops and admire the architecture.

things to do in Reykjavik sun voyager Reykjavik

Make sure you get a picture with the Sun Voyager, a dreamboat sculpture in ode to the sun. It represents undiscovered territory, a dream of hope, progress and freedom.

8. Pack a Good Moisturiser

Reykjavik coastline

Reykjavik coastline Reykjavik tours

The wind will cause havoc with your skin (avoid wind burn with your scarf, or even better a balaclava), as moving from the freezing cold to central heated buildings will dry you out.

A thick layer of deeply moisturising cream such as Nivea will work wonders, and after sun is super soothing after you've been out in the wind all day.