I think a lot of us who love travel many hours during lockdown planning and dreaming about the places we wanted to go when travel was back on again (let’s just say that a few Lonely Planet guides dropped through my letterbox over twenty months). Being a city break person, I realised I hadn’t spent much time going to the traditional destinations that are popular around Christmas time, such as Vienna, Salzberg, Cologne, Estonia, Prague and Talliin, to name a few. Vienna was high on my list for the gluhwein, traditional coffeehouses and the Giant Christmas Bow. I was about to book to fly from Newcastle with Jet2, but unfortunately Austria went into lockdown on the same day. Determined to experience Christmas in a different culture, my thoughts drifted to Iceland. I was all set to go there about ten years ago but I got sick just beforehand, so the travel guide has been sitting on my bookshelf for a long time. I managed to find a good deal with lastminute.com – return flights from Manchester and four nights in Hotel Muli, a three star hotel close to the centre of the city for £288.
At that point (December 6th) the only testing requirement was a Day 2 PCR (which, annoyingly had gone up considerably to £48 from the £19 I paid for Majorca). Then in the days that follows the powers that be decreed that a pre-departure test (not a home test) was required, as well as a test in a testing centre before you left the destination. Great! My pre-departure test was with ExpressTest (£39) – luckily Iceland is accepting antigen lateral flow fit to fly tests which are cheaper than PCR tests. I found a test centre in Rekjavik the night before I flew back which was offering free tests. Instead of using Testing For All for a Day 2 PCR when I came back, I found a slightly cheaper price with Randox Testing (£43 with £5 off with an Easyjet code). So all in all £82 for tests, which would be enough to put a lot of people off but I didn’t have a choice, having already booked. (If you’re travelling make sure you check the requirements for where you’re going as some places accept antigen tests and others insist on PCR, and others aren’t asking for a test to enter the country, making the trip much cheaper). If you need a pre-departure test that needs to be shown at an airport, they won’t accept home tests – you need a certificate from a provider.
|The view from the flight, a Christmas boy at the airport, Hotel Muli and the Imagine Peace Tower|
That’s the testing bit over, thank God! And now on to the nice part. The hotel was a couple of stops by bus to the centre of Rekjavik so I decided to spend the first of three days checking out the city centre. (I didn’t have a set plan before travelling of what I was going to over the three days, I usually like to go with the flow, but I quickly realised it’s the kind of place where you can do lots of trips – I imagine lots of people have a full itinerary before they leave. Luckily there were places left on trips so I booked them via the Get Your Guide app while I was there. More on trips later). When I got to my hotel on the first night, I noticed a blue laser beam shining up into the night sky and I remembered that Yoko Ono had created the Imagine Peace Tower – a wishing well from which a tall tower of light emerges between October 9th and 8th December (his birthday and anniversary of his death). As a massive Beatles fan it was a very cool thing to see, and it’s possible to visit the Videy island to get a closer look.
|The unique Hallgrimskirkja, Rekjavik Art Museum, Tjornin lake and a traditional Icelandic house)|
I decided to do the typical tourist stuff and to start took the bus to Hallsgrimskirkja, a church like no other most people have ever seen. Constructed to resemble volcanic basalt, it looks like a weird, white concrete spacecraft and is visible from twenty miles away. Named after a poet who wrote Iceland’s most popular hymn book, the building was controversial and the architect didn’t live to see it completed (it was finished in 1986). I was hoping that the interior would match the impressive exterior, but it was quite plain (it’s easy to take stained glass for granted). It’s possible to go to the top but I didn’t realise until afterwards.
|Some Rekjavik street art, sculpture and christmas decorations (they love cats)|
The church is really close to the main shopping streets, Laugavegur and Skolavordustigur (known as the artist’s street), where you’ll find a mixture of shops and quirky boutiques, cafes and bars. I was quite surprised at the number of shops selling souvenirs – so many! The centre is pretty compact – my first stop was the Rekjavik Art Museum in Hafnarhus (1500ISK or £8.60), just near the Old Harbour. Looking through the windows I clocked a very strange multicoloured fur dome which was part of an exhibition called Abrakadabra – The Magic of Contemporary Art. The museum has a permanent exhibition of collages by famous Icelandic postmodernist Erro, which is definitely worth a look. And I realised that a lot of places do free tea and coffee which is a bit of a revelation!
I had lunch across the road at Vegan World Peace restaurant, which has an Asian menu and perfectly replicated typical meat dishes with meat substitutes (the Kung Pao was delicious). Then I set off to the National Museum, which is about fifteen minutes walk from the centre and takes you past the scenic Tjornin lake, complete with many swans. It was pretty frozen and some brave people were attempting to skate on it. The National Museum (2,000ISK or £11.60) holds some amazing artefacts from the time of Settlement (by the Vikings in the 10th century) spanning all the way up to modern day. You’ll find glass covered skeletons, weapons and day to day objects, as well as lots of religious artefacts and replicas of traditional housing and even longboats. The cafe is a great place to take a break before walking back to the centre (especially if you go in December and are acclimatising to -3C temperatures).
|Speciality Lobster soup, vegan chinese at Vegan World Peace, amazing ice cream and my new obsession Malt og Applesin|
By this time I was getting hungry and happened to walk past Saegreifinn, which had a sign outside offering lobster soup in a bowl made out of black bread. When in Rome…The soup was delicious and warming and the staff were lovely and really helpful in answering my tourist questions. I couldn’t eat all of the black bread though. If you fancy a few drinks its worth hitting the happy hours between around 4pm and 6pm otherwise the cocktails can get expensive. I popped into the Hard Rock Cafe to check out the memorabilia and had a cocktail just outside of happy hour, ouch! I was pretty tired after hitting the museums so made my way back to my hotel to check out the different tours that I’d seen advertised in the windows of the tourist companies in the city centre. The Get Your Guide app was really helpful and easy to use – I decided upon the eight hour Golden Circle bus tour (£38), which is one of the most popular tours and takes in the spectacular Gullfoss Waterfall, the sprouting geyser of Strokkur and the Kerid Crater. Most of the tours leave from outside the Storm Hotel in the centre at Bus Stop 12, so I got an early night for a 9am start.
I somehow managed to drag myself out of bed on time and get to the tour bus, which ended up being pretty full. Our guide was knowledgeable and calm (handy traits for a tour guide). After about forty minutes we stopped off at Hveragerdi to get a coffee and snacks before our first real stop at the Kerid Crater, a 3,000 year old crater lake which is normally deep blue with vivid green moss and red rock, when not covered with snow. It was still really impressive, if not a bit too slippy to get really close. I definitely wasn’t prepared for the majesty of Gullfoss Waterfall, the 105ft marvel is absolutely spectacular and I could have spent many hours just staring at it, wrapped up with cocoa. Like many of the tourist sites, there’s a cafe where you can get some hot food to warm up. We then carried on to the famous Geysir hot spring in Haukadalur Valley. The actual geysir isn’t very active, so to see some explosive action you’re transported to Strokkur hot spring which shoots boiling water between twenty metres and forty metres into the air, approximately every eight minutes. I nearly froze my hand off, gloveless holding my phone waiting for it to erupt, but it was worth it – a reminder of the power of nature. Around the geyser the ground bubbles, which reminded me of the sulphur pools in Roturua, New Zealand.
After lunch our last stop was Thingvellir National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the site of the first national assembly of Iceland in 930AD (basically their first parliament). You can walk between two tectonic plates (the North American tectonic plate and the Eurasian plate) in the Almannagja Gorge. The Park was heavily featured in Game of Thrones in Season One and Season Four. Adventurous types can snorkel or scuba dive in the Silfra ravine. Thoroughly impressed with the tour, on the way back to Rekjavik I booked onto the slightly longer (ten hour) South Coast tour, again using the Get Your Guide app.
|(from top left – the Kerid crater, Strokkur, Gullfoss waterfall, Thingvellier Park)|
That evening I decided to check out the Hlemmur Food Market, an eclectic food hall housed in the old bus terminal. Great for foodies who’d like to try a variety of Icelandic and world cuisines, here you can find an experimental restaurant which showcases foraged Icelandic foods (Skal) as well as Vietnamese (I had some delicious vegetarian rolls), a steakhouse, an authentic Napolitan pizza place, an LA taco joint and a pretty impressive gelato shop where you can get Icelandic Skyr ice cream. You can also sample Icelandic lamb and top quality tea and coffee. I also got obsessed with their national Christmas drink, Malt og Applesin – a non-alcoholic mix of orange soda and malt drink. You can buy it mixed or separate and mix it yourself – a lot of Icelandic people have their own family recipe to get the quantities exactly right and often add cola or other mixers. I tried to bring as much back as possible but ran out quickly and need more (the malt drink by itself is delicious). The highlight food-wise for me was the Lobster soup at Sjavarhornid in Rekjavik centre; served with black lava bread – highly recommended!
After a good night’s sleep I dragged myself out of bed to get to the bus stop at 8am for the South Coast tour (£58), hungry to see more sites. Our tour guide was Polish who’d lived in Iceland for a while, and played us a variety of Icelandic music over the course of the tour. We stopped off pretty early at Hvolsvollur to get coffee and snacks – a small town of 950 people with an interesting interactive earthquake museum. Next stop was Skogafoss (not far from the Eyjafjallajokull volcano that caused travel chaos in 2010), another magnificent waterfall with a sixty metre drop. You can walk right up to it and also get a great view from a staircase that leads to an observational platform, and often there’s the chance to get a great rainbow shot. I was not prepared for how stunning the Solheimajokull glacier would be – I practically cried when I got up close to it. The shades of blue of the ice were capitavating and along with the Gulfoss waterfall the most spectacular sites for me. It deeply saddened me to hear that it’s likely to disappear in the next thirty years due to climate change. We finished the tour at the Reynisfjara Beach, famous for it’s black sand, unique rock formations and jagged sea stacks, said to be trolls that were frozen in time because they were out in sunlight! The Gardar Cliff looks like something out of Game of Thrones, which look like giant organ pipes. I was blown away by the tours and think they’re great value to see as many sights and natural wonders as possible. I’d like to go back in the summer and hire a car but it was too icy and dangerous to drive in winter, in my opinion.
|Skogafoss waterfall, the spectacular Solheimajokull glacier, Reynisfjara black beach and sea stack basalt columns|