Reykjavik’s tourism has taken off in the past couple of years. It’s become a premier destination to those seeking adventure because of the vast array of outdoor activities. Snow mobile rides, paragliding across glaciers, and volcano explorations are just some of the offerings to appeal to adrenaline junkies. For those wanderlusting souls that are in it for relaxation alongside beautiful scenery, Iceland is home to the famously photographed Blue Lagoon, and welcomes Northern Lights’ chasers.
As Reykjavik’s tourism continues to peak, now is the time to journey to the island with the slogan “Meet in the Middle”. On Christmas night, I set off with a group of five friends on a less than 6 hour flight from JFK to KEF. It was the first stop of a three country European holiday. Other than Secret Santa at JFK, and a toast over beers before our redeye, we had zero expectations. Wow, were we blown away! Now…10 things I learned about Reykjavik!
1. Yes, this seriously is one of the most beautiful places on Earth: Our group completed the Golden Circle Afternoon Tour with Reykjavik Excursions (8.500 ISK / ~$65 USD) versus the full day tour to make the most of our two days in Iceland. The tour, conveniently inclusive of hotel pick up and drop off, stopped at Thingvellir National Park, Geysir geothermal area, and Gullfoss Waterfall. I can do my best to describe how awestruck I was at the winter wonderland, but I know I will never do it justice. Rest assured I’m right when I say just pull the damn plug and book the ticket to Iceland. You need to experience it all for yourself. I will leave you with an image that continues to resonate with me even over a month later. Our bus had just pulled into the Gullfoss parking lot. We were literally at the edge of the island. A draft was coming in through the bus windows, reminding us that it was below freezing. I made my way off the bus, and looked behind me. The sky was an illustrious pink tangled with the fading glow of the orange sun. Horizontal from the sun was the crescent moon. There it was…the sun and the moon together to create the perfect juxtaposition that only the literary greats could dream of.
2. It’s not just about the scenery- Reykjavik has nightlife that parties well into dawn: I come from New York City night life where, and I don’t say this because I am a proud New Yorker (okay, just maybe), I truly feel we have one of the nation’s best bar scenes. If not the nation, perhaps top 5 in the world. Reykjavik is completely on par with my expectations derived from New York City nightlife. Expecting long lines at Reykjavik’s “top nightclubs”, our group was taken aback to find that we were the majority of the crowd until 1AM. Partygoers come out late and stay out into the early hours of the morning. We walked, or stumbled, out of Austur at 5AM to find the streets full of life, laughter, and drunkenness.
3. Forget fine dining! Go for the food stands: During our first night in Reykjavik, we opted to have a nice sit down meal. I paid over $50 USD for a meal consisting of hearty fish soup, some under fried calamari, and a tasteless fish of the day. Disappointing? Certainly, especially considering we were recommended the restaurant inside Iceland Air Hotel Marina on more than one occasion. Our best meals in Iceland, and perhaps all of our trip excluding Duck & Waffle in London, came from food stands. It is not an exaggeration when people write that the best hotdog of their life was had at Baejarins Beztu Pylsur. A perfectly charred hot dog topped with crispy onions and a sweet relish. And don’t skip out on the chicken burger at Bitabillinn! By the end of the night, we were all fighting for the last bite. You can imagine how much a hot dog, and perfectly cooked burger can hit the spot after a long alcohol fueled night. As good as this food is after drinking, it’s even better when sober. I’m drooling as I type.
4. Looking to buy alcohol to drink as a group? Go to duty free: Liquor stores are located outside of Reykjavik city center. Unless you have a car to drive out, and it’s likely not even worth the drive, you will not be able to purchase bottles of alcohol to “pregame”. Those traveling with a group and trying to kick start the night will need to prepare in advance. Purchase the alcohol after landing at duty free in KEF. If you don’t have time or forget, never fear! Drinks are actually very reasonably priced at bars and nightclubs.
5. Re-hydrate with water dubbed the best tasting water in the world: The water is among the purest tasting water in the world. After partying, the Icelandic water re-hydrates in the tastiest way imaginable. And I hate water. I have a disdain for water because well, it doesn’t taste like anything. I finished more bottles of Icelandic water over my two day trip than I can count on my bare hands. The tour guide said that bottled Icelandic water is unfiltered from their springs. How true that is? Not quite sure, but I’ll believe it based on taste alone.
6. To tip or not to tip?: In Reykjavik, service is included in the prices. Most of the places that we frequented did a great job of calling this out. With that being said, don’t feel shy to tip someone that truly made your day. At Auster, we met a great bartender who took his time to explain all of the different Icelandic alcohols we should try while heavy beats dropped. We tipped him, and he happily proclaimed, “This is why I love Americans!” It’s nice to finally be loved.
7. For ease to the Reykjavik city center, take the Flybus Shuttle: The Flybus Shuttles are an affordable, hassle-free method of getting into Reykjavik city center from KEF. Shuttles can be booked online with Flybus through Reykjavik Excursions for under $25 USD per trip.
8. Save time- go to the Blue Lagoon when you land or before you depart: The Blue Lagoon is approximately 30 minutes away from KEF, but in the opposite direction of the city center. Our group took the direct flight from Iceland Air that brought us into KEF at 6:10AM. I toyed with the idea of going to our hotel, settling in, and heading to the Blue Lagoon from the city center. Ultimately, I decided to stay in the airport for a couple of hours because it wasn’t worth the additional 1.5 hour travel time just to potentially get an early check-in at our hotel. This proved to be the better of the two options. Reykjavik Excursions has a package deal inclusive of the shuttle to the Blue Lagoon from KEF, Lagoon entry, and shuttle from the Blue Lagoon to city center for 8.900 ISK / ~$67 USD. I highly recommend making your trip to the Blue Lagoon either when you land, or prior to your departure flight to cut down on unnecessary travel time. Luggage is easily stored upon arrival for an additional ~$5 USD. We were on the first shuttle, and even caught the sunrise while immersed in the sulfuric paradise.
9. Say “Skál” for cheers!: Ready to toast to a great trip? Say “Skál” (pronounced “Sk-all)! It means “cheers” in Icelandic.
10. …when drinking Black Death: The friendly Austur bartender told us that we needed to drink “Black Death” if we truly wanted to have the Icelandic experience. Black Death? Sure, why not?! Black Death is the nickname of Brennivín, an unsweetened schnapps that is considered the signature Icelandic alcohol. Despite it’s nickname, the drink is quite bearable and tastier than vodka. Skál!