When I left Friday night for my trip to Iceland and was at the office on Tuesday morning, I got a lot of puzzled looks about how I made it there and back in a long weekend. The reality is, I have a certain amount of vacation days that I covet for my bigger travel plans. So, I’m a master at maximizing my office holidays.
To plan my long weekends, I’ll use Google flights to track prices for the dates I plan to travel. I leave the destination open-ended, and Google shows which locations are cheapest for that weekend. When I put in my dates leaving from Detroit, 6-hour direct flights to Reykjavik popped up via WOW Air for $300 – and thus my travel fate for the weekend was decided.
Iceland has become a very trendy destination over the last few years, and it’s been up there on my list. So I had to figure out how to maximize my time when I only had 72 hours and lots that I wanted to see. It was a magical place filled with vast landscapes, enchanting waterfalls and the charm of a small Nordic city. I was lucky enough to escape for a quick 72-hour tour and here is how I made the most of the six hours of daylight, and long nights in Reykjavik.
WOW air is a great no-frills airline, the Spirit of international travel if you will. There are no free drinks or meals offered during the flight so pack your snacks and beverages. Legroom is somewhat limited so you may want to upgrade to a better seat if you’re tall – but remember, upgrades and baggage means added fees! My husband and I made the most of our paid checked bag and shared a large suitcase. It was easy to do when only packing for three days. The best part of the overnight flight was seeing the northern lights from the airplane. I was hoping to see them. So, when to my surprise I saw the green, dancing lights at eye level outside my window, it was a surreal and magical experience. I was thankful to have had a window seat to see them because the cloudy skies didn’t let up in Reykjavik for the rest of the weekend.
We landed in Reykjavik at 5 AM local time on Saturday, which gave us the entire day to explore. After we rented the car and checked into our Air BNB, it was about 9 AM, and still pitch black outside. Our first day we headed south to explore the Southern coast. If you follow any travel bloggers on Instagram, I’m sure that you’ve seen photos of the iconic DC-3 airplane that crash-landed on a black sand beach in the 1970s. We were excited to get some good photos of the plane. However, Mother Nature was not our friend that day due to the high winds (that are relatively common) and rain. One thing to note is that the location it shows for parking on Google maps is wrong. If you’re coming from Reykjavik, it’s about 1/4 mile before where Google says it is. The hike out to the plane was about 2.5 miles – MUCH longer than I anticipated. It was flat and would have been a nice walk if it wasn’t for the sideways rain pelting you in the face. We pretty much got there, took some photos and turned around and were soaked. Worth this photo though.
Then we headed to Black Sand Beach in the town of Vik. It was still raining pretty hard, so much like our plane hike, our beach day was short lived. But the columns that jolt out of the smooth, black sand and tower over the beach make it feel like a scene from Game of Thrones or Lord of the Rings.
At this point, we were thoroughly soaked and headed back to Reykjavik. There are two waterfalls along the Southern coast that are worth swinging by and easy to get to: Skogafoss and Seljalandsfoss. That’s another thing. I dont know how to say one single word in Icelandic. Everything has a million vowels and equally as many syllables. It’s one of the hardest languages to learn.
We got back to the Air BNB and drank some of our duty-free scores before heading to dinner. We went to a place called Rok that serves Icelandic style small plates, and it did not disappoint. I would highly recommend to anyone who wants to get a flavor for Icelandic cuisine. Think lots of fish, pickled vegetables, cured meats and we even had reindeer. Sorry, Santa.
We headed out to explore the Golden Circle first thing in the morning. Overnight the rain had turned to snow which made driving a bit slower than anticipated. We drove through Thingvellir National Park entirely by accident, but the views were stunning. It’s so vast and empty that it’s almost eerie. Our main destination in the Golden Circle was Gullfoss waterfall. We got there at the perfect time (about 1 PM), right before a giant tour bus, and had the views pretty much to ourselves for a few minutes. After taking in Gullfoss, we drove past Geysir. Which is the Geysir of all Geysers. Literally. All other Geysers are named after Geysir. Wild how the world works sometimes. The highlight of day 2 was when we headed to the secret lagoon. It’s not as Instagram worthy as the Blue Lagoon but in my opinion its a much more authentic experience. It’s Iceland’s oldest swimming pool and super low key. The bottom is natural volcanic rock, and geothermal hot springs feed the pool. You can even enjoy a beer or two while you’re soaking.
When we got back to Reykjavik, we made a quick pre-dinner pit stop at
Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur, the famous hot dog stand in the center of town. I have to say; I wasn’t impressed. I think I opted for the wrong condiments. Mayo on a hot dog doesn’t sit well with me, but I’m sure I will get harassed by the Icelandic hot dog cult following for disagreeing. For our actual dinner, we went to Sumac by the suggestion of our bartender at ROK. It’s more of a North African or Middle Eastern vibe with an Icelandic twist, and the food was terrific. We opted for the tasting menu because we hadn’t eaten much all day and wanted to try a lot on the menu. The first course was housemade hummus and smoky pepper dip paired with harissa chicken wings. Then we had a fish course that was Icelandic style salmon (almost like lox) with a fennel foam. The main course was a pork dish served with potatoes, but the highlight of the tasting was by far dessert – a pistachio sorbet with a green apple dill oil and a sumac chickpea wafer. It was tangy, herby and sweet all at the same time. Still dreaming about it if you can’t tell. After dinner, we had our nightcap at The Lebowski Bar. Let me preface this by saying, I have never seen the Big Lebowski, but the fact there is an entire restaurant/bar that is themed after the movie is mind-blowing. They’re known for their white russians (apparently that’s also from the move?) and have quite the variety to choose from – even a tree hugger non-dairy version. The nightlife in Reykjavik was great, even with the January darkness. Most bars have a price is right style wheel behind the bar that you pay a small fee to spin and then end up with boozy prizes like “six beers” or “shots.” Be careful though. They have slots on the wheel where you might walk away with nothing. After our white russians and six beers from the boozy wheel of fortune, we headed back to the Air BNB.
We got up early to pack and clean up before we made the 45-minute trek to the famous Blue Lagoon. We pre-booked our appointment for 9 AM (which I’d highly recommend doing). When we got there, it was still dark, but the place was virtually empty. By the time we left at 11:30 it was packed. Line out of the door, every locker filled, people everywhere. They don’t offer robes or flip-flops with the basic package so I’d recommend upgrading. It was a cool experience, but I preferred the secret lagoon’s authenticity and charm over the crowded, commercialized Blue Lagoon. After the Blue Lagoon, we changed and headed to the airport. The airport is massive! So, plan accordingly. There are great food options in each of the terminals, but the farther terminals are quite the hike.
During January you can expect about 5-7 hours of daylight depending on the time of the month that you go.
If you’re renting a car, choose a company at the airport. We wasted so much time with an offsite company.
Driving in Iceland was fairly straight forward, but if you’re headed in the winter you’ll want to have an all wheel drive or a 4X4 car. In the summer it’s less important, but with the high amounts of precipitation and the mountain roads you want to be in something you’re comfortable driving.
Alcohol is really expensive in Iceland due to the high tax (fun fact: alcohol was prohibited in Iceland from 1915 to 1989). The duty-free in the Keflavik airport was open when we landed at 5 AM. Grab some wine or beer for the room/Air BNB at the airport. The prices were actually cheaper than in Detroit.
The Blue Lagoon is about 20 minutes from the Keflavik airport so I would suggest pre-booking your experience for the first stop when you arrive, or before your flight out of Keflavik. I’d try to go first thing in the morning or the last appointment at night to beat the crowds.
Wool sweaters are an Icelandic style staple, but also really expensive. There is this really cute vintage shop right in downtown Reykjavik next to the Lebowski bar that has vintage sweaters for 1/2 the price of a new one.