Two of my close friends had a burning desire to see the Northern Lights – so they zeroed in on Iceland as the place to cross this item off their travel bucket list. When they asked me to join them, how could I possibly say no? After all, Iceland has certainly become the new “IT” destination and I was anxious to see what so many people were raving about!
These “trip instigator” friends found a good Icelandair “winter package” for March 2016, which included roundtrip air to Reykjavik from a U.S. gateway city (we chose Seattle). The overnight Seattle-Reykjavik flight turned out to be just seven hours! The package also included 5 nights/ 6 days at Icelandair hotels. The itinerary, which gave us two nights in Reykjavik and three in Akureyri in the north, was designed to best experience Iceland in winter and hopefully see the Northern Lights.
Iceland’s population totals only around 330,000 people but this small North Atlantic island country hosted well over 1 million visitors in 2015. So yes, their tourist infrastructure is being stretched right now, especially during the busy summer season. Reykjavik, Iceland’s main city, has 120,000 residents and its second largest town, Akureyri, has just 18,000! I first thought that this was a typo but it’s true. Iceland’s population sparseness and vast open spaces are definitely part of the country’s charm.
We started our tour in Reykjavik, the country’s modern, vibrant capital city. Located on the southwest coast (about 45 minutes from the Keflavik International Airport), the city has a lot to offer visitors. We began our first day by visiting the “concrete church” (photo below) – the town’s iconic landmark (real name is Hallgrimskirkja). Don’t miss going up the elevator to the church tower for great views of the harbor and city streets lined with a patchwork of colorful houses (including some of the roofs).
Old Reykjavik is compact, charming and easy to walk around. The Tourist Information Centre is excellent and a great place to get your bearings and plan your day. We walked along the Reykjavik waterfront and took photos in front of another icon, the cool Sun-Craft statue (photo below).
Make sure to go inside the beautiful Harpa Concert Hall building (below) on the waterfront for its great architecture (in and out). It just opened in 2011. The Laugavegur is a long street filled with cute shops and cafes – and is perfect for exploring and getting a flavor of the hip Icelandic vibe. Speaking of flavor, we had a delicious lunch of seafood soup at the Old Icelandic Restaurant.
Our guide book mentioned a shop that carried fish skin purses. Hmm…. we were intrigued so we headed off to check it out and I’m very glad we did. The Kirsuberjatred Art Gallery & Design Shop is a collective of 11 acclaimed local women artists and designers, with a wide variety of beautiful and unusual products – items like clothing, knit sweaters, ceramics, jewelry, fish leather handbags and bowls made from dried vegetables.
The women artisans take turns staffing the shop. Arndis Johannsdottir – the fish skin purse designer and saddle smith – just happened to be on duty when we popped in. I loved speaking with Arndis and learning about her work, which she’s been doing for over 30 years. In fact, she was the industry pioneer. She turns unused salmon fish skins (which are durable and last many decades) into attractive designer purses and small bowls.
I fell in love with a beautiful teal-colored fish skin purse so yes, I did end up buying it. It was my big purchase of the trip at 28,800 ISK (Icelandic Krona), equal to $220. Of course, I asked Arndis to model the purse (see above) for my usual “remember the experience” photo. Another day, we happened to pass by the shop and this time, I acquired a small, colorful “radish bowl” (above) for 3800 IST (luckily, only $30). The bowl is made of paper mache covered on both sides by dried and dyed radishes – it’s so clever and a fun art piece.
Bjork Sighting & More Icelandic Quirk
On our first day in Reykjavik, we (our group of 4 friends) had an auspicious sign that this was going to be a great trip! Two hours after beginning our walking tour, we popped into a cute café in Old Reykjavik that caught our eye – Bergsson Mathus – to get a pick-me up coffee and tea (after our all-nighter flight). Eyeing a woman walking around the café dressed in a black lacy top and a feathery face mask, we thought she looked a lot like the singer Bjork – Iceland’s most famous celebrity and “queen of quirk” (a phrase taken from Wikipedia).
While sitting with her friends at the next table, the woman took off her mask. One of our group immediately googled Bjork on her iPhone and made a “positive ID.” How exciting! However, trying to be respectful of Bjork’s privacy, we kept our cool and just took some stealth photos. I love Jim’s clever “stealthy selfie” that just happened to have Bjork (albeit blurry) in the background. We later learned that she lives in Reykjavik, just a few blocks from the café. Like me, you may know Bjork best by the infamous “swan dress” she wore to the Academy Awards in 2001.
Other unique sights in Reykjavik included the Icelandic Phallological Museum – yep, a museum dedicated to penises! So, of course, us three women had to visit just to say we did. And actually it was very interesting from both a scientific and playful viewpoint. There are more than 215 “members” on display, which included almost all land and sea mammals found in Iceland – like whales, seals and walrus – plus other animals like elephants, bulls and giraffe. Only one was human, taken from a deceased mountaineer, but there are four other donors-in-waiting (with signed contracts on the wall). Only in playful, quirky Iceland!
Akureyri in Iceland’s Snowy North
After spending our first day and night in Reykjavik, we took a short 45-minute flight to Iceland’s north where we spent three delightful days and nights in Akureyri. This town, with just 18,000 residents (as mentioned), sits at the base of a long fjord, the Eyjafjordur. The Arctic Circle is only about 40 miles to the north, but luckily the climate here is relatively “mild” with winter temperatures averaging 0˚C (or 32˚F).
Akureyri was a perfect complement to Reykjavik, giving us a more wintery, small town experience. Deep snow blanketed all the mountains and covered much of the town. We found Akureyri charming with cute shops, good cafes and restaurants, and adorable, colorful homes, including some original houses from the 1800s. We spent one of the days just exploring the town, including a nice long walk on a path along the beautiful partly-frozen fjord.
We also took the very interesting afternoon/evening Lake Myvatn Tour, which included a Northern Lights hunt after dinner and an outdoor dip in the hot Myvatn Nature Baths. The geologically-active Lake Myvatn area, about an hour’s drive from Akureyri, has a fascinating landscape filled with volcanic craters, unusual lava formations, steaming fumaroles, and the lake itself. I have written separate posts on just Akureyri and Lake Myvatn since there is so much to share! Check out the post: Akureyri – North Iceland’s Not-To-Be-Missed Travel Gem.
Our Northern Lights Search
On this trip, I learned that viewing Iceland’s Northern Lights (aka Aurora Borealis) is definitely not guaranteed. In fact, during their Northern Lights viewing season (generally September to mid-April), you need a lot of factors to align to successfully see the Lights – the solar particles activity (the cause!), dark skies without light pollution, and cooperative weather with clear, non-cloudy night skies. Many people come to Iceland (especially on shorter stopovers) and never see the Aurora.
Each night, we signed up for a “Northern Lights” hunt. The tour operators check the weather forecast each day and cancel that evening’s tours ahead of time when it’s looking hopeless – like both of our nights in Reykjavik. However, we did go on an actual Lights “hunt” all three nights in Akureyri. The first two were a bust, but I am thrilled (and so relieved) to report that we were rewarded with a great Lights show on our final night in Akureyri!
Here’s a couple photos from that last night in Akureyri. The photos are definitely not great (and pretty blurry) but will give you a small sense of the amazing colors and whirling light patterns. I also learned just how difficult Northern Lights photography is – and now have a much greater appreciation for the beautiful Aurora photos I have seen by the pros!
Our hunt for (and final capture of) the Northern Lights is definitely a fun and interesting subject worthy of its own blog post, which I have written. Check it out: In Search of Iceland’s Amazing Northern Lights.
Iceland Weather & Final Thoughts
You might be wondering about the weather during our six March “winter” days in Iceland. The temperatures were cool to cold in the 30s (occasionally to low 40s) with a mix of sunshine, overcast, rain and snow flurries. Iceland’s weather is highly changeable, sometimes all in the same hour.
Another wild card is the frequent wind, which can really blow and turn pleasant into cold & blustery. We certainly experienced that too. But, as a long-time Southern California warm weather gal, the cold weather really wasn’t that bad. However, I did come prepared with the right winter clothes – including buying the exact same blue Patagonia jacket my friend Carol did. Yes, we were “polar twins” on the trip!
Not being the trip planner this time (as I often am), I didn’t read much ahead, instead saving my Lonely Planet Iceland guidebook (excellent, by the way) to read on the airplane. So, I will confess that I was wrongly (okay, stupidly!) thinking it was going to be “winter dark” in Iceland with no daylight. I later learned that those short days (with only 3-4 hours of light) fall close to the Dec. 20th winter solstice. So by our early March arrival, we had 11 hours of daylight which was perfect for touring.
All of us had a great time in Iceland. Even though we went primarily to experience the Northern Lights, we fell in love with the country itself! We loved the fascinating and varied natural landscape of “winter Iceland,” its really unusual sights and activities, the great food (a pleasant surprise!), and its friendly people. Iceland is green (with 100% renewable energy thanks to geothermal and hydro power), the air is clean, it’s safe and you can drink the water.
Iceland also has a delightfully fun “bathing culture” with many geothermally-heated outdoor pools, including the world famous Blue Lagoon (situated between Reykjavik and the international airport). Of course, we visited and loved it. The Blue Lagoon is another must see which I have detailed in a separate post: Iceland’s Blue Lagoon & Myvatn Nature Baths: Hot Pots and Outdoor Soaking
After experiencing the Wonders of Iceland in the Winter, I look forward to a “Warm Weather Iceland” visit sometime in the future. I would love to see more of the country, including a totally different view (green vs. snowy white) of Iceland’s amazing natural landscape.
“Inspired by Iceland” Campaign / Icelandair’s Free Stopover Program
Iceland’s recent and rapid increase in tourism has been fueled by its innovative “Inspired by Iceland” marketing and social media campaign. This was begun in response to the now-famous Eyjafjallajökull volcano (with an unpronounceable name – like most Icelandic names!) that erupted in 2010. I’m sure you remember how this “pesky” volcano continued to throw up a gigantic ash plume that grounded Europe’s airplanes for many days and caused major worldwide air travel disruptions. However, the clever, resilient and proactive Icelanders knew their tourism would take a big hit so they turned “bad press” lemons into “sexy marketing” lemonades. It clearly worked!
Icelandair (Iceland’s main airline) now has many U.S. gateways, including Seattle, Denver, Chicago, New York and a few more cities. They offer a great deal with their “Free Stopovers” program. Travelers flying between North America and Europe can stop in Iceland for up to 7 days for free (airfare wise!) In fact, one of my travel mates will be doing a 3-day Iceland stopover in mid-September on her way to London with her daughter.
I have recently begun hearing about Wow Air, a relatively new “no frills” Icelandic airline, which has begun flights to Iceland from the U.S. and Europe. But, I don’t personally have any experience with them to share. UPDATE: Unfortunately, Wow Air went bankrupt & ceased operations on 3/28/19.
For More of My Iceland Blog Posts, Check Out:
- Iceland’s Blue Lagoon & Myvatn Nature Baths: Hot Pots and Outdoor Soaking
- Akureyri – North Iceland’s Not-To-Be-Missed Travel Gem
- In Search of Iceland’s Amazing Northern Lights
COMMENTS: I look forward to your comments. Have you already visited Iceland? What did you think? What did you do? If not yet, what excites you most about traveling there?