When I told people we were taking our kids to Iceland this summer, I was met with one of two responses: a dubious “why?” or an enthusiastic “I’ve always wanted to go there!” I’ll admit, when my husband first proposed Iceland, I was in the latter camp. Why would we spend the last week of summer in a place that is colder than Northern Vermont? But as we talked to people who had been there, and researched this incredible island just off of the southernmost tip of Greenland, it became abundantly clear that Iceland met all of our criteria for an epic family vacation. It’s an authentic, athletic, educational, and inspirational (bordering on magical) destination full of experiences that don’t exist anywhere else on the planet. Where else can you hike a volcano, swim in a geothermal hot spring, walk on a glacier, see petrified trolls, and snorkel with wild salmon?
Iceland is small enough that it’s tempting to try and do and see it all, but we focused our 8-day visit on Reykjavík and South Iceland, home to the “Golden Circle.” Though we wanted to see Iceland’s renowned natural wonders, we did not want to spend our time in the car visiting crowded attractions, so we carefully planned an itinerary that mixed off-the-beaten path adventures with short jaunts to see the sites. This post details the first part of our trip, where we explored the National Musuem, Thingvellir, Langjökull Glacier, and the Blue Lagoon from our base in Reykjavík. Stay tuned for Hiking, Biking and Surfing in Hveragerði and Road Trip to Landmannalaugar coming up next!
Reykjavík and the National Museum
We began our Icelandic adventure in Reykjavík, the country’s capital and only major metropolitan area. Our first full day in the city, we planned a walking tour of the city with only one specific destination in mind: the National Museum of Iceland. Our kids don’t have a high tolerance for museums (though it’s slightly higher than my husband’s), but we figured that the National Museum would give us a good base of history and culture at the start of our trip. The Museum walks visitors through a timeline of Iceland’s history, starting with the arrival of the Vikings in the year 800. Though there is a small “hands-on” room for kids, most of the exhibit is encased in glass or behind ropes, so it may not hold the attention of small kids for long. But it’s well worth the visit and a great way to start the trip. There’s also a really nice cafe in the Museum where we fought off jet lag with strong coffee and hot chocolate.
Meandering back through the city, we stopped to watch the ducks and swans at Lake Tjornin, did some window shopping along Reykjavík’s historic pedestrian shopping street, Laugavegur, where the kids tried on fur hats and Icelandic wool sweaters, and checked out Harpa, the city’s architecturally celebrated concert hall by the water. By the time we sat down for dinner that evening, we all agreed that one day exploring Reykjavík was enough and we were ready for an adventure.
Thingvellier, Langjökull Glacier and Lava Caving
On a bit of a whim, we booked a tour with Iceland Rovers, one of Reykjavík’s many tour guides. We hadn’t planned to do a guided tour that day, but we were all itching to get out into the highlands and walking on a glacier was on our list of “must-do’s” while in Iceland. Our driver picked us up bright and early in a super jeep, the standard mode of transportation in Iceland. Heading out for our tour in a jeep equipped with 38″ tires and a snorkel thrilled the boys right from the start.
The first stop was Thingvellier (or Pingvellier), site of the first Viking Parliament and the Silfra fissure, which marks the continental divide between Europe and America. A designated UNESCO World Heritage Site, Thingvellier was a beautiful first glimpse into Iceland’s incredible landscape and history, but definitely a crowded tourist attraction. Easy trails takes visitors into the national park, and a few brave souls even donned wetsuits to snorkel in the Silfra Fissure, but we took the short path through the park and jumped back in the jeep to continue on to Langjökull glacier.
We really wanted the boys to see a glacier while we were in Iceland. They talk a lot about global warming in school and hear about the environmental concerns associated with melting glaciers, but that’s a lot different than standing on an icy blue glacier and having your guide show you how far it retreated in only ten years. We actually drove right up onto Langjökull, Iceland’s second largest ice cap, and explored for a while. At it’s thickest, Langjökull is 580 meters (1,900 feet) thick, but melting at an alarming rate. Who knows what will happen to Langjökull in their lifetime, but at least the boys will have experienced walking on a glacier first hand.
After a traditional Icelandic lunch of lamb stew and homemade bread, we continued on to the highly anticipated Hallmundarhraun lava field, where we donned helmets with lights and descended into Cave Stefanshellier, a lava tube likely formed in the year 930. Legend has it that outlaws lived in the underground caves around Hallmundarhraun, and the nearby Surtshellier Lava Tube apparently has evidence of their remains. I’ll get more into the many reasons guides are the way to go in Iceland, but for this excursion, not losing my eager boys in one of the many underground tunnels that make up the Cave Stefanshellier was good enough.
En route back to Reykjavík, we stopped at Barnafoss, a stunning waterfall coming out of the lava fields. Though lesser known than some of the waterfalls along the Golden Circle, the color of the water is really incredible and there were only a handful of other people there.
The Blue Lagoon
Our last morning in Reykjavík was a bit of a cluster. We had planned to get up early and hike Mt. Esja (a favorite of Icelanders) just outside of the city before heading to our rental house near Selfoss, but apparently someone got our car stuck in a river crossing. We ended up waiting around for a while and then getting a ride out to the airport to pick up an alternative car, which took us far from Mt. Esja, but very close to the Blue Lagoon.
We hadn’t planned to visit the Blue Lagoon. Though it’s a top recommendation in most guide books, the locals we asked in Reykjavík noted the high price of admission and suggested it wasn’t worth it. But, since we had a few hours to kill before our rental house was available, and we were driving right by, we decided to give it a shot.
The Blue Lagoon is a geothermal hot spring that was originally formed when a power plant drilled into the earth for energy. Rumor has it that bathers with eczema and other skin sensitivities were miraculously cured from the healing waters and silica mud that lined the bottom of the spring. In the 40 years that the Blue Lagoon has been in existence, it has been transformed from an unintended byproduct of a power plant to one of Iceland’s most famous attractions.
And, I have to say, it was pretty awesome. The water is an incredible milky, light blue and ranges in temperature from about 95°F – 108°F, depending on how close you get to the source. Though there are a lot of people there, the facility is really clean and well run, and the water completely replenishes itself every 40 yours, so the ick-factor of bathing in warm water with hundreds of strangers from around the world is diminished. We floated around for about 2 hours, covered our faces in the silica mud, and lounged around enjoying the sunshine.
From the Blue Lagoon, we headed south to our rental house near Selfoss and hooked up with an incredible guide for 3 days of hiking, biking and surfing around Hveragerði. As much as we enjoyed Reykjavík, our time in Hveragerði was, without a doubt, the highlight of the trip. But that’s for the next post:-)
Where to Eat & Stay in Reykjavík
Reykjavík Residence Apartment Hotel – Sometime not that long ago, squeezing our family of 4 into a standard hotel room became kind of unpleasant, especially for more than one night. The Reykjavík Residence Hotel is centrally located (easy walking distance to everything) and offers well-equipped city apartments. We splurged on an airport pick-up and breakfast delivery the first morning, which consisted of freshly baked bread, skyr (Iceland’s version of Greek Yogurt but so, so, so much better), meat, cheese, and fruit. The rooms were clean and comfortable, and had a nice Scandinavian vibe. Overall, a home run.
Cafe Paris – Iceland’s culinary specialties include sheep head and putrified shark, not exactly kid-friendly. We happened upon Cafe Paris our first night in the city and were pleasantly surprised to find excellent hamburgers, fresh salmon, lobster pasta, and traditional Icelandic deserts.
Icelandic Fish & Chips – We also had a great meal at Icelandic Fish & Chips, an organic bistro that serves its battered fish with roasted potatoes and a selection of delicious sauces like coriander & lime. Served with a fresh mango salad, this was my favorite meal in Reykjavík.