When my mom and I get away together we head to a spa. Travel writer Julie Henning goes with her mom to… Iceland! Here she details some key sights in the country’s capital, and offers tips for a budget friendly visit to this Nordic country. We love her savvy advice! — Kara
At a latitude of 64°08, Reykjavik is the northernmost capital in the world. And with a population of around 120,000, it’s also the largest city in Iceland.
Because the capital is 45 minutes northeast of the Keflavík International Airport, chances are if you’re flying into Iceland from the United States, you’ll find yourself heading straight to Reykjavik to sort out your jet lag. Depending on the season, Iceland Air flies out of Boston, New York, Seattle, Minneapolis, Denver, Washington D.C. or New York, and you’ll be looking at a time difference of five to eight hours.
When I traveled to Iceland in September for a quick getaway with my mom, we were encouraged to reserve a seat on one of the shuttle buses that run red-eyed tourists between the airport and the capital city—solid advice even though we later rented a car and found out driving in Iceland is like driving at home (but with more roundabouts and speed limits and gasoline measured in litres).
Half the size Madison, Wisconsin (my home), Reykjavik feels both urban and rural at the same time. A pedestrian-friendly city with walking paths and bike lanes, Reykjavik is clearly growing, as we saw giant construction cranes hovered over multi-story buildings and modern-looking condominiums butted up to narrow streets lined with shops and cafés.
The hum and buzz of the city seems to emanate near the City Center and this is a nice place to do a bunch of touristy things like visit the Saga Museum that explains key moments in Icelandic history or the floating Whale Watching Centre in the Reykjavik Harbour, where you can learn about whales before embarking on a full-fledged whale-watching tour.
While happening upon the Harpa Concert Hall at first only to warm up and find a public toilet, it turns out Reykjavik’s hub of cultural activity makes for a lovely photo of the boats in the harbor. The building was designed in collaboration between award-winning architectural firms (one from Denmark and one from Iceland) and Danish-Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson and is a site to behold both inside and out.
When shopping for souvenirs in Reyjkavik, look for the Tax Free Worldwide stickers and try and consolidate your purchases to 4,000 ISK or more at the same place. You will need your receipt and a tax free form that is available at the store (or back at the Keflavík International Airport, where you can receive a refund in person).
Two things to know: 95 percent of the people we encountered in Icelandic spoke conversational English and most of the informational signs are either universally understood (stop sign, hospital, toilet) or written in at least two languages.
Our shuttle driver explained the reason for this phenomenon is that the total Icelandic population is just too small for things to be translated into Icelandic in a way that makes the effort worth the cost. Children watch American cartoons and many of the radio stations were playing popular songs. (Just when you thought you could leave Sponge Bob and Miley Cyrus safely at home!)
Thrifty Midwesterners to the core, my mom and I agreed that admission to Iceland’s famous Blue Lagoon was out of our price range, so we opted for the next-best-thing: the Langardular Outdoor Thermal Pool. A short walk from our hotel, the Langardular Outdoor Thermal Pool is the largest public thermal pool in Reyjkavik (and, I believe, in Iceland).
Set in the Langardular valley, the center for athletics and recreation in the city, outdoor swimming options include a 50-meter lap pool, a slightly warmer “free form” open pool with waterslides for kids, and a large hot pot area. Hot pots are hot tubs but without the abrasive chemicals and bubbles.
One thing to know: Sneaking past the showers in your bathing suit is not an option in Iceland. The country is quite strict about public health code and we even saw signs outlining specific areas of your body that needed a good pre-pool scrub down. After our locker room “experience,” I swear I am much more prepared for my next shower with 20 other naked women. Either way, the visit is well worth the $6 admission, especially if you are traveling with kids.
On the subject of kids, Reykjavik has lots to offer the family on vacation. Now realizing we were quite close to the Reykjavik City Zoo while in the Langardular valley, I’m sad we missed a visit. The zoo houses Icelandic farm animals like foxes, pigs, and goats. Newer zoo additions are an aquarium with aquatic fish and animals native to the nearby North Atlantic Ocean and a small theme park with carnival rides.
Instead, we happened upon an adorable playground in the gardens behind the Reykjavik Art Museum. Brightly colored and whimsical, the playground even had a low-to-the-ground zip line (As part of thorough trip research, I can confirm it weight of a thirty-something gal from Wisconsin.). We saw the same brand of playground equipment in every city we visited on our trip.
And while we loved most everything on our trip to Iceland, one consideration is the general expensiveness of feeding your body three meals a day. Each of the hotels we visited offered a thorough European-style breakfast with meats, fresh fruit, and strong coffee. We ate “famous Icelandic hot dogs” at a gas station and filled the reusable water bottles and thermoses imported in our suitcases.
If you are eventually traveling into the Icelandic countryside, you may want to stock up on snacks and drinks in Reykjavik. We found the Bonus store to be the most-reasonably priced; check out this guide to get you started.
That said, our best foodie find was the Kornid Bakari location nearest the Langardular Outdoor Thermal Pool (look for the building on Laugalækur Street). Inside the quaint little space you can purchase gourmet pastries, fresh baked bread, and several varieties of meat and cheese deli sandwiches at reasonable prices ($6 to $8 and worth every penny).
If you make it to the Kornid Bakari, you’re just a short distance from the Sigurjón Ólafsson museum and an eclectic sculpture garden worth a photograph. It’s near here where I found my favorite geocache in all of Reykjavik and remind you “all who wander are not lost.”
Julie Henning is the founder of WisconsinParent.com and the Midwest Editor for the family travel website Road Trips for Families. She is a member of the Midwest Travel Writers Association and lives in Madison, Wisconsin with her husband and three elementary-age kids.