Part 2 of 3
You’ve probably been seeing Iceland pop up on your news feed a lot lately – it seems like everyone and their mother is packing their bags and heading over to this beautiful, idyllic, most picturesque of countries (myself included). Iceland had never really crossed my mind as a place to go on its own, but when my boyfriend and I found a SUPER cheap Icelandair flight to Amsterdam offering a 1-3 day stopover in Reykjavik at absolutely no extra charge, we jumped on it. Since this was my boyfriend’s first big trip outside of the US, and I had never been to Iceland, we figured, “Why the hell not?” Let’s see what’s in Iceland.
Up to a few weeks prior to our trip, neither of us knew anything about Iceland. I had never even heard of the Golden Circle, let alone know if I wanted to take a tour of it. Since we were only there for two days, I just wanted to know what were some of the essential things that one should – and realistically, could – see in a short amount of time.
So if you find yourself in the same boat – having booked a 2-day stopover in Iceland on your way to or from some other destination, and are not sure what to do with your time – then this guide is for you! This is the second part of a 3-Part Series on what to do and how to prepare for a 2-Day Stopover in Iceland. Click here to read Part 1!
Day 1: Reykjavik City Center & Northern Lights Tour
Whenever I travel, I generally like to spend the first day getting acquainted with a city by walking around and taking in the atmosphere. And after filling up on Icelandic Skyr and pastries, that’s precisely what Kyle and I did.
Reykjavik is extremely walkable, so we picked up a map from our hotel lobby and, after consulting with our concierge, began our journey on nearby Laugavegur street, Reykjavik’s main drag lined with shops and restaurants.
We spent the first hour or two popping in and out of different shops, marveling at the prices of things ($30 for a stuffed animal puffin?! $250 for a wool sweater?!) and getting a feel for the city with its quaint shops and cute, colorful streets.
Reykjavik has some incredibly unique, eye-catching, picturesque buildings, many of them covered in graffitti that would make even the most seasoned fan of New York street art swoon!
We marveled at the architecture, design, and not-quite-grungy, not-quite-sleek aesthetic as we explored the city center on foot.
We eventually made our way down Laugavegur and to the impressive, gargantuan glass structure that is the Harpa, Reyjkavik’s premier concert hall and conference center.
A relatively modern building, the Harpa had its debut concert in 2011. With a design inspired by Iceland’s ubiquitous basalt landscape, the Harpa is an exquisite, glittering structure that merits a visit (and a photo opp) – especially as it is perfectly located at the beginning of Saebraut, a lovely seaside street fitted with bike and walking paths.
We had a great time just leisurely walking down the sidewalk, taking in the beautiful views of the sea and sky, stopping for pictures at the famous steel viking boat sculpture, and refreshing our pollution-filled NYC lungs with crisp, fresh salt air.
Eventually, we made our way farther east and over to the Sigurjon Olafsson outdoor sculpture museum. This free outdoor museum was recommended to us by our hotel concierge and was honestly…a little creepy! Words won’t do it justice, so perhaps the pictures will:
Where to Eat in Reykjavik
After deciding we had had enough of the Blair Witch Project for a day, we made our way back towards the city and the beautiful Hallgrimskirja Church, Reykjavik’s main landmark.
On the way, we stopped for two of the most important things that any traveler should take note of: coffee and ice cream.
Reykjavik had TONS of cute places to pop into, but my favorite street for warming up with something tasty was Frakkastigur street, which leads up to the church by the Leif Eiriksson sculpture, a gift from the US. Walking this quaint road, we were instantly lured into Brauð & Co (16, Frakkastígur, 101 Reykjavík, Iceland) by the smell of fresh-baked, hot cinnamon raisin rolls coming straight out of the oven and onto the street. As if the smell weren’t enough to entice you in for a loaf of bread, an apple crumble, or one of their famous sweet rolls (snudur), the cheerful and brightly-colored graffitied facade should do the trick.
I recommend picking up a pastry and eating it along the way to Reyjkjavik Roasters (Kárastígur 1, 101 Reykjavík, Iceland), a cute coffee shop with a minimalist hipster-like interior (is that a thing?) and a nice cappuccino.
The decor is cozy and welcoming and the staff were very friendly – it was the perfect place to warm up after getting caught in an Icelandic rain storm!
And because we clearly do things logically, it made sense that, after warming up, we would pop into a gelato shop to cool down. I mean, you don’t want to be TOO hot in Iceland, right?
Now, this next statement is coming from someone who lived in Italy for nearly four years and spoke gelato as a second language. Valdis (Miðborg, 101 Reykjavík, Iceland) was some of the best gelato I’ve ever had. It was so nice, in fact, that even though we were only there for less than 48 hours, we ate it TWICE.
Remember what I said about the colorful buildings in Reykjavik? Valdis is the epitome of that, beckoning us in with its bright baby blue and bubblegum pink facade. Of course, we didn’t stay for the eye-popping colors – we stayed for the mouth watering gelato. The first time we came, we only got one scoop, thinking we should save our appetites for dinner.
Big mistake – splurge and get two scoops, especially considering that one scoop will cost you an Icelandic arm and a leg ($5!!) so you might as well take out a second mortgage and get two for a mere $7.
I am usually a fan of anything chocolate/candy/dessert related, eschewing anything resembling a “healthy” fruit, but my favorite flavor was actually the black currant skyr, which had the tartness of the yogurt that was complemented by the sweet black currant. And ohhh, was it creamy. So, so creamy. And sweet. And packed into the cone so it was good for every last bite!
Kyle got a flavor known as After Eight, which is a popular European flavor that is essentially mint chip, and also delicious.
The second time we came back, I knew I was getting two scoops – black currant skyr (obviously) and coconut, which has always been one of my favorite gelato flavors. Unlike in the US, European coconut gelato tastes like real coconut – – not that processed, fake coconut flavoring that you so often find here. The coconut gelato at Valdis was lovely and light and sweet, but that black currant skyr…to die for. If you are in Reykjavik, you must make sure to go to Valdis for some delicious gelato – even if it’s the dead of winter, just GO!
And because we apparently found heaven on the little street that is Frakkastigur, we also stopped here for dinner, too – again, on both nights. This was not only because it was delicious, but also because it was the only meal that didn’t require my kidney to be sold off to pay for it.
The place is simple enough in name and fare – Reykjavik Fish (Frakkastígur 12, 101 Reykjavík, Iceland) – and that’s exactly what you need after a long day out in a new city. Warm, hot, crispy, DELICIOUS fish and chips served up with some amazing dipping sauces (lemon pepper dill and jalapeno garlic were among our favorites) and a good Icelandic beer? I’ll take it.
Besides fish and chips, Reykjavik Fish also serves a small variety of other typical Icelandic dishes – including Plokkfiskur (also called Plokkari), which is a sort of fish stew made with white fish, onion, milk, flour, and butter. They also serve traditional items such as baked fish, mussels and fries, and cod in bread crumbs. For those of you not into fish, there are some vegetarian (and chicken) options as well.
Trust me, though – you’ll come for the fish and chips and come back for the prices, ’cause Reykjavik a’int cheap. Reykjavik Fish is semi self-service (order at the counter, pick up utensils and water at a side cart, pick your seat), but a meal at a full-service restaurant could easily put you at $40-50/person for a main course (no sides, no drinks). Save yourself some money and take up Reykjavik Fish on their DIY offer!
And then head back to Valdis for more gelato 😉
Northern Lights + Stargazing Tour
If there’s one thing you probably already knew about Iceland before even reading this guide, it’s that the country is famous for its Aurora Borealis or “Northern Lights.” The Northern Lights are a scientific phenomenon that occurs when charged particles from the sun, often shed during great sun storms, collide with Earth’s atmosphere. These particles “excite” the atoms in the atmosphere and cause their electrons to produce photons of colored light, visible to the naked eye on clear days and in Northern latitudes. The most common color is green, but if the lights are particularly strong, you can see white, red, pink, or even violet.
Because Iceland is so far north, it experiences the similar seasonal/sunlight patterns as the North Pole. In the summer, there is nearly 24-hour sunlight. Our Day 2 tour guide told us that he returns from work at 10pm and is able to barbecue outside, on the grill, and have a drink with friends because the sun is as it would be at noon. Residents (and hotels) make sure that their bedrooms are equipped with blackout curtains, an imperative if anyone wishes to regulate their sleep cycle. What would be an incredible advantage for those who work at night or like to go out in the evening is actually a huge impediment to seeing the lights. In fact, most Northern Lights tours begin in September and reach their peak in the winter, when Iceland is covered in nearly 24-hour darkness. We went in September, so we didn’t get to experience any of these extremes – the daylight/night hours were comparable to what we experienced in NY.
However, we were just in time to hit some of the earliest seasonal tours of the Northern Lights.
There are many tours to choose from; we simply went with one of the companies, Reykjavik Sightseeing, that our hotel suggested, mainly because they also included a stargazing aspect.
I’m not going to lie when I say that we really had to rally for this tour. Having spent a nearly sleepless night on the plane the night before, then jumping into an all-day, on-foot tour of Reykjavik, we were pretty exhausted by the time the tour bus came to pick us up at 9:30pm. But we were only in Reykjavik for one night, and we had to make the most of. You can’t go to Iceland and not at least try to see the Northern Lights!
After about an hour and half of driving into the middle of nowhere with a large bus of other tourists, we stopped in a field, bundled up with scarves and gloves and hats and many layers, and waited outside looking up at the night sky for the lights to start. Our guide was unsure if we would see the lights due to the cloud coverage, but was optimistic because under the same conditions the night before the group did manage to find a clear patch of sky where the lights shone through. If you don’t see the lights and are in Reykjavik for more than 2 days, most tour companies allow you to reschedule at no cost for another night.
Waiting for what seemed like hours, we finally saw some activity in a clear patch of an otherwise cloudy sky – a steady, moving stream of green lights.
It looked sort of like green-colored clouds or smoke moving quickly across the sky. While the lights were not as bright as they might have been in better visibility (and our guide warned us that even the best lights don’t look like the photo-shopped versions we see on the internet), it was still an incredible sight to see.
And there rounds out Day 1 of our 2-Day Stopover in Iceland, as we returned back to the Storm Hotel at around 2pm. It’s a good thing that the next day we could sleep i – – oh wait, 7am wakeup call for our 8:30 Day 2 Tour. Sleep is for the weak?