I have to add to this post prior to publicly publishing that Dan and I went to Iceland in February 2020 – pre-pandemic. Things were normal and COVID was just a slight thought in the back of our minds causing us to carry extra hand sanitizer. While things have certainly changed since February 2020, Iceland remains a great destination and it looks like they are some what opening up in 2021 (fingers crossed)! Happy future planning (February 2022?).
Dan and my last international trip pre-Coronavirus was an escape to Reykjavik, the largest city in Iceland, over Valentine’s Day weekend. Yes, another cold-climate country in the Winter (read about my prior cold-climate February trips here and here)… We enjoy visiting cities in their off-season, as you can usually find deeply discounted flights, particularly from the NYC area (hopefully that’s not a pre-corona memory of the past) and these destinations are less crowded in off-season, yet almost everything we want to do, see, and eat is open for business. And, honestly, its often colder in New York than the winter destination we visit, which was the case last February in Iceland. Further, Iceland is a super easy, five and a half hour flight from NYC and a long weekend (Wednesday night – Monday evening in our case) is a good amount of time to see the highlights. However, had I known that this would be our last trip pre-Coronavirus, I would have definitely stayed longer and seen more of Iceland.
OUR ITINERARY FOR OUR FEBRUARY TRIP TO ICELAND
Day 1, Thursday. Keflavik, the Blue Lagoon, and Reykjavik.
Many flights to Iceland from the US East Coast depart in the evening and arrive at Iceland’s international airport, Keflavik, in the verrrry early morning. We left from Newark International Airport around 7:30 PM and arrived in Reykjavik just before 6:00 AM, very tired and slightly hungover (Icelandair has a great selection of Icelandic gin, what can I say). Keep reading for more information on Keflavik and my Icelandair experience. Since Keflavik is an hour + outside of Reykjavik, but only 20 minutes from the famous Blue Lagoon, we planned to stop at the Blue Lagoon en route to Reykjavik and looking back, I very much recommend this schedule.
On arrival at Keflavik, we grabbed a quick breakfast shake from Joe & the Juice, a Danish chain that I fell in love with in Reykjavik (though apparently they are everywhere!), and waited for our taxi driver to whisk us to the Blue Lagoon. Those planing trips should note that there are several buses that depart from Keflavik to the Blue Lagoon on the regular, but we spent an extra $30 US for the convenience of a private car. I will take the bus next time; it was that easy. Our driver arrived right on time and we arrived at the Blue Lagoon just before its opening at 8 AM.
We pre-booked our timed Blue Lagoon visit a few weeks before we left via the Blue Lagoon’s website, which is mandatory. The Blue Lagoon opens at 8 AM in the winter months, and I was a bit concerned about the timing – would we arrive in time for our 8 AM ticket entry?? We arrived on time without any issue, actually arriving closer to 7:30 AM. On arrival, it was pitch black, but I could sort of make out steam from the Blue Lagoon in the background. And I have to say, the walking up to the Blue Lagoon in the darkness was pretty magical. Definitely one of my favorite memories of the entire trip.
I will post separately about our time at the Blue Lagoon, but suffice it to stay that we stayed from 8 AM until about 2 PM, when we caught the Blue Lagoon bus for the 45 minute trip into Reykjavik. Everything about the bus, to my relief, was smooth and timely. We arrived at our hotel, the Hilton Reykjavik Nordica, about an hour later. On arrival, we learned that Storm Dennis, a crazy storm with Hurricane Force 4 winds, would be hitting Iceland the following day. GREAT. We also learned that as a result, our Gourmet Golden Circle tour would need to be cancelled or rescheduled, and that we would be quarantined in the hotel until at least 1 PM the following day. Little did I know how minor a quarantine of a few hours would be; writing this now sounds absolutely ridiculous. But, it was a big to-do at the time!
Knowing that we would be in for a while (HA, recall again, this was pre-Coronavirus), we had dinner at Brewdog Cafe in Reykjavik, taking a very pricey taxi from our hotel and back. Brewdog is a Scottish craft beer chain with bar/restaurants all over Europe (and elsewhere). We’ve been to a few and generally enjoy their food and beer. Plus, they usually have a few good local beers, in addition to their own brand. As expected, the food at Brewdog was good and the bartender was happy to serve us all of his favorite Icelandic beers. We headed to bed on the early side because one, we were exhausted and two, we needed to ride out Storm Dennis.
Day 2, Friday. Storm Dennis and Reykjavik.
Friday night was a bit of a long night; the wind literally howled all though the night, and I was concerned that the huge glass windows in our room would not hold up. But, they did, and the wind slowed down in the early morning. Since we were confined to the hotel (again, I know how ridiculous this sounds), we enjoyed a late breakfast at our hotel (complimentary as Hilton Diamond members!) and a dip in the hotel’s own hot pools, which were complete with a FREE 5 minute massage for Hilton Diamond members. I went every day except one. GREAT DIAMOND MEMBER PERK!!
By mid-afternoon, the winds had mostly subsided and things were starting to reopen. Dan and I caught the public bus into Reykjavik (super easy and about a 5 minute ride) and walked around the down town area, capping off our walk with a visit to the much photographed Hallgrímskirkja, Iceland’s most famous church and one of the most popular attractions in Reykjavik, whose bell tower sadly closes to the public at 4 PM! A picture had to suffice for today’s visit.
After braving the wind for these photographs, since it was Valentine’s day, we stopped by a legit Irish pub for a Guinness! And if you know me, you know this is the very best Valentine’s present Dan can give me! If you are looking for a good pub, there are two on Austurstraeti street: The English Pub and The Drunken Rabbit Irish Pub. Both have decent happy hours, but are packed during these times. Arrive shortly before happy hour starts to get a seat.
We then had Valentine’s dinner at a very popular pizza restaurant in Reykjavik, Flatey Pizza. The pizza was wood-fried and awesome. 100% would eat there again. They also made good, interesting cocktails. The crowd was very local – we one one of maybe three tourist tables.
Day 3, Saturday. Reykjavik.
After the Friday Storm Dennis debacle, we were pretty pumped to being our first normal day in Reykjavik on Saturday! After another complimentary breakfast at our hotel, we walked into Reykjavik, about 30 minutes from the Hilton Reykjavik to the tourist center, for a food tour around the city with Wake Up Reykjavik! Our tour started at 11 AM, so we had a bit of time before meeting with our group. En route to our meet up spot at the Harpa concert hall, we stopped to take a few pictures of The Sun Voyager, a statute of an ancient Viking vessel that’s quite Instagrammable (you only need about 5 – 10 minutes here).
Our food tour started promptly at 11 and we toured around Reykjavik for about 3.5 hours, stoping at six locations and walking all over the center of Reykjavik. I wrote a post all about the Wake Up Reykjavik food tour if you are considering taking it! We enjoyed it and it was certainly a lot of food! A great way to spend a Saturday.
After our food tour, we visited a couple thrift shops at our food tour guide’s recommendation (there are some great ones in Reykjavik, and I purchased a fabulous fall blazer), the Kolaportito flea market in the Old Port, another hot spot for thrift finds, and finally stopped at Kaldi Bar and Cafe for Icelandic gin cocktails. For planning purposes, the tourist heart of Reykjavik is fairly small and walking to various parts of it is quick and easy if you are an able-bodied person. There are lots of good cocktail spots in Reykjavik. We choose Kaldi based on online reviews and were pleased with our decision – a cosy local bar where we were the only tourists. The bartenders were very nice, patient and helped us craft perfect gin cocktails. Kaldi does have a happy hour, but hand crafted cocktails are not on the menu.
Since the evening was late and we had an early Sunday morning, we called it a day after our cocktails and dined at the Hilton Reykjavik.
Day 4, Sunday. The Golden Circle.
The Golden Circle is a popular tourist route starting and ending in Reykjavik, with stops at some gorgeous sites and eateries. This is one of the easier Iceland drives to do on your own, but we scheduled a Gourmet Golden Circle tour with Magical Iceland. And if you recall, we had to reschedule our Gourmet Golden Circle tour with Magical Iceland from Friday to Sunday, which ended up being totally fine and a wonderfully amazing tour! I am writing an entire post on this tour because it was THAT GOOD, but for purposes of this post, we were on this tour from about 7:30 AM until 6:00 PM. We ate tons of delicious food and visited some of the Golden Circle’s highlights, including the Secret Lagoon (my cover photo), Friðheimar tomato farm, and the Eyrie from GoT!!!
Exhausted from our big food day, we visited the Hilton Reykjavik’s lounge for a drink and again had dinner in the hotel. We are usually not hotel-dining people, but we were stuffed from our tour and we had to be up early the following morning to make the most of our last day in Reykjavik and squeeze in a visit to the hotel spa for another free massage!
Day 5, Monday. Reykjavik and New Jersey.
Our last morning was an early one, with breakfast in the Hilton Executive Lounge and a complimentary massage in the spa. Of course. While short, the complimentary massages was the highlight of staying at the Hilton Reykjavik. Everyone in the spa pools receives a complimentary massage if you want; the staff comes up and asks you. I think Dan was the only person who declined.
After breakfast and the spa, we again took the bus into town and our first stop was a trip to the bell tower of Hallgrímskirkja (since it was closed on Friday!). As expected, views were gorgeous, but maybe not worth the pricey $10 US elevator ride to the top (no stairs for public use!).
We also did some Icelandic shopping, including purchasing an Icelandic wool sweater for me from Rammagerdin (upscale chain of Icelandic gift shop) and a Blue Lagoon lip gloss from the Blue Lagoon store, both right in the heart of Reykjavik (and also at the airport). Since we had to be back on the early side for our car to the airport, we lunched at Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur for a second round of hotdogs and paired that with another juice from Joe & the Juice. LOL – what a pair!
Per usual, our trip to Reykjavik ended with a Guinness at the cutest Irish pub, the Drunken Rabbit!
Our private car, through Airport Direct, was right on time to pick us up and we arrived at Keflavik airport about an hour later. Since there are no lounges aside from the Icelandic Air lounge, to which we did not have access, we waited for our flight to depart at a bar/eatery near our gate.
Where We Stayed in Reykjavik
We stayed at the Hilton Reykjavik, primarily because we are Diamond Hilton members and we wanted to take advantage of that. The Hilton Reykjavik is in Reykjavik, but slightly outside the tourist center. That being said, it was a 5 – 10 minute bus ride into the tourist center, with the bus picking us up right outside of the hotel. We also walked in once; the walk took about 20 minutes and was quite easy with sidewalk.
The Hilton Reykjavik is on the larger side and in addition to many rooms, is home to a pretty decent restaurant, a pricey bar, and an expensive spa, which is open to the public and complete with several hot pools. As Diamond members, we received complimentary breakfast and access to the Executive Lounge, which offered complimentary snacks, wine, liquor, and beer every evening from 5 – 7 PM. Free alcohol in expensive Iceland is amazing.
The BEST Diamond Member perk, however, was complimentary daily access to the spa, which otherwise cost about $40 USD per person when we visited. We used the hot pools in the spa every day except 1 and each day received a free short massage in the hot pool. This was truly awesome and a fabulous perk. Due to the nature of the spa, we did not take any pictures. I wouldn’t pay $40 USD for admission to the spa (and I would have been disappointed if I did), but it was so great since we had free access!
The Weather And What We Wore In Iceland in February
When we visited in February, the temperature was in the 30s F in Reykjavik, which we are used to in the winter, but it was also incredibly windy! The wind made the temperature feel much colder. It did not snow in Reykjavik on our trip, but there was snow on the ground the entire trip. Waterproof shoes were a necessity. To combat the temperature, we brought lots and lots of layers, including under shirts and pants (from Lands End, always a sale), fleece lined pants, wool sweaters, very warm winter coats, and heavy socks, gloves, and hats and ear muffs. We mixed and matched our attire to fit the weather of the day, and usually took a few extra add-ons in my day bag. No matter when you visit, I definitely recommend layers. We found ourselves taking off and adding back on frequently.
I would note that our trip was almost cancelled due to Storm Dennis, a nasty winter storm that hit Northern Europe in February. Apparently, two similar storms had hit Iceland in January and according to the locals we spoke to, these storms are becoming more frequent. That combined the regular snow received in Reykjavik, know that winter flights can be cancelled without much notice.
Pro Tips For Visiting Reykjavik In The Winter
- Everything, everything, in Iceland is super expensive. Its one of the most expensive countries I have ever visited. The expense is compounded by the fact that Iceland is largely an outdoor, adventurous destination, and may of the tourist activities would be expensive anywhere in the world. Plan ahead and try to arrange budget-minded things before you leave home, especially if you are on a tight budget.
- On the budget front, many bars and restaurants offer happy hours in the early evenings or around midnight. Take advantage of these, as alcoholic drinks are quite pricey.
- And on the drinking front, buy duty free alcohol when you leave the airport in Reykjavik. Its the cheapest there (but still not cheap). Also, we departed from Newark’s Terminal B and had dinner at Vino Volo prior to departing. They were selling 3 bottles of wine at a slight discount that could be carried on the plane (since it was post-security). I would probably do that next time (hopefully the Vino Volo survives the pandemic!).
- There are many grocery stores in Reykjavik, which actually sell groceries at relatively normal prices! The one thing in Iceland that is not expensive! We particularly liked the chain Bonus. Bonus is also a good place to purchase food souvenirs. Our Bonus sold Icelandic chocolate at literally a fraction of what I paid for it at the airport on the way out… Literally a fraction. They also sold the famous Icelandic mustard and tons of food to self-cater.
- The public bus systems in Reykjavik is super easy to use. We purchased tickets from our hotel. If you have questions, just ask the bus driver. All buses pick up and depart from a central station in Reykjavik, making it easy to transfer.
- Private buses, which must be reserved in advance, are the most reasonable way to get to and from the airport, as well as the Blue Lagoon.
- Renting a car is a good way to explore the island, but for much of the year roads are subject to winter weather conditions. And, surprisingly, many rental cars are not the weather-ready SUVs you would expect. We heard many tales of tourists having issues on the open road.
- We flew Icelandair, which is a “budget” airline, yet also Iceland’s official carrier. While tickets are cheap, you have to pay for checked luggage and food and drink on board. We pre-purchased meals and they were surprisingly tasty for airplane food. We had also heard that they were super strict on luggage size and weight. They were super strict, but let us each check a second bag for free on both flights. Not sure if this is the norm, but it was our experience.
STEAL OUR TRIP
The Blue Lagoon: Norðurljósavegur 9, 240 Grindavík. Open daily 8:00 – 21:00, 23:00 in the Summer. Time tickets must be purchased in advance on the Blue Lagoon’s website are are usually between $70 USD and $120 USD per person. Bus tickets can also be purchased on the website.
The Secret Lagoon: Open daily 11:00 – 20:00, 10:00 – 22:00 in the Summer. $21 US entrance for adults, less for seniors and children. Pre-booking online is recommended. Parking on site. Towel and bathing suit rentals available. A small cafe is onsite. The Secret Lagoon is featured in my cover photograph.
Hilton Reykjavik Nordica: Sudrlandsbraut 2, Reykjavik, 108, Iceland. As of February 2020, Diamond Hilton Members receive complimentary access to the hotel spa (even if not staying on the Club Level) and the Executive Lounge, serving alcohol in the evenings between 17:00 and 19:00.
Brewdog Cafe: Frakkastígur 8, 101, 101 Reykjavík, Iceland. Open Sunday – Monday 17:00 – 22:00, Wednesday – Thursday 12:00 – 23:00, Friday – Saturday 12:00 – 1:00. Casual spot for a local beer. Lots of locals here when we visited.
Flatey Pizzeria: Grandagarður 11, 101 Reykjavík, Iceland. 11:00 – 22:00 Weekdays, 12:30 – 10:00 Weekends. There is a second location in the Hlemmur Food Hall, at the main bus station. Reservations recommended on weekends. Casual attire. Also, mostly locals when we visited.
Magical Iceland Tours: Contact Yvir for tours through this website for information and to book tours. Worth every penny.
Wake Up Reykjavik Food Tour: Our tour, the Reykjavik Food Tour, was 13,900 ISK (approx. $95 USD) per person and included all food and drink. Other tours offered. Reservations are recommended. Tour capacity is limited and tours fill up in advance.
Bæjarins Beztu: Tryggvagata 1, 101 Reykjavík, Iceland. Open 10 AM – 1 AM daily, until 4:30 AM on Friday and Saturday. Totally outdoors and casual. Expect a short wait. Credit card accepted. Multiple locations in Iceland.
The English Pub: Austurstræti 12, 101 Reykjavík, Iceland. Open at 12:00 daily – 1:00 on Weekdays, 4:00 on Weekends (!). Happy hour daily 16:00 – 19:00.
The Drunken Rabbit Pub: Austurstræti 3, 101 Reykjavík, Iceland. Open at 12:00 daily – 1:00 on Weekdays, 4:00 on Weekends (!). Happy hour daily from 12:00 – 21:00.
Kaldi Bar: Laugavegur 20b, 101 Reykjavík, Iceland. Open daily 12:00 – 1:00, until 3:00 on the Weekends. Daily happy hour with 2 for 1 wine and beer when we visited. Lots of locals here when we visited.
ON A BUDGET
As you probably got from this post, Iceland is NOT a budget friendly destination. Save, save, save before your trip. Once arriving, my top tips are to utilize public transportation, shop at grocery stores for food, buy booze at the airport, and research free things to do before you visit. Iceland can be done on a budget, but it takes some advance planning.