Monday, 20 October 2014

Christmas in Iceland

Iceland is a special place with an array of holiday traditions that are as unique as the island its self.

Christmas in Iceland

In Iceland, the Christmas festivities start on December 24th and last for 12 nights until January the 6th. In many northern countries, Christmas has its roots in ancient traditions connected to the winter solstice. Former non-Christian cultures celebrated ‘Yule’ on the shortest day of the year, which is also very close to the traditional Christmas season. Many of the early traditions surrounding Yule are a mystery to us today, but what hasn’t changed much over the centuries is the food and drink! Feasting and ale were the order of the day with Icelandic Chieftains inciting scores Yule drinking fests.

Christmas in Iceland

After Christianity became the prevalent religion, the pagan Nordic traditions were replaced by celebrations of the birth of Christ. Christianity had long since been adopted in Rome, the prevailing power of the day. Celebrations of Christmas replaced pagan holidays in many places thanks to Rome’s influence. The 13 day celebrations began in the 4th and 5th Centuries. Most Christian nations celebrated Christ’s birth on Dec. 25th and his baptism on Jan. 6th along with the adoration of the Wise Men.

Christmas in Iceland

While the holiday many be 13 days long and includes many beloved and time-honored traditions, to some getting ready for the festivities is just as much of a tradition at that time of year. For hundreds of years people have been caught up in Christmas preparations the week before the holiday kicks-off. The Icelandic people would traditionally refer to this time as ‘Fast Advent’. This name arose because of the old Christian practice of fasting before Christmas.

Just as one would leading up to Easter, Icelanders would restrict their diet in the weeks before Christmas, often eating no meat during this time. The term Advent comes straight from the Latin word ‘adventus’, which means ‘to arrive’. In many Christian cultures, Advent is a time to prepare both your spirit and your home preparations for the arrival of Christmas. Advent begins on the fourth Sunday before Christmas is a time for spiritual reflection and for hard work and everyone pitches in to make Christmas memorable. In modern times the popularity and love of Christmas has meant that people often start their Christmas preparations long before Advent arrives. However, Advent is still a special time, when we rush and plan and cook and decorate, all to get ready for a season of togetherness when we spend time with those we love.

Christmas in Iceland

Modern Icelandic Christmas may differ from the traditions of old, but the amount of time and preparation that is put into the festivities has certainly not decreased! In modern Iceland, before the bells ring in the Christmas celebrations, from cards and gifts to new Christmas clothes, a good Christmas cleaning and decorations for the house, everyone pitches into to make a festive holiday season. Thirteen days before Christmas children leave their shoes by their window to be filled by the Yule lads (the Icelandic version of Father Christmas/Santa Claus) on his visit. Like in the feast days of old, Christmas food is an essential part of any celebration. When Christmas Eve arrives and all the preparation is finally done, Icelanders settle in for 12 spectacular days and nights of parties and entertainment.

Christmas in Iceland


There is no shortage of food to be found at the Laugarvegur shopping district. With a wide array of pubs, restaurants and clubs, you appetite for Christmas cuisine is sure to be satisfied along with your desire for a night on the town.  The center also provides for a relaxing setting after a day of shopping or sightseeing.

The aroma coming from Reykjavik on Dec. 23 is sure to be a strong attraction for all fish lovers. The traditional skate parties are held yearly the day before Christmas Eve, when the natives cook this special north Atlantic species of ray fish. Most restaurants in Reykjavik offer skate at this time of year, but skate is a particular specialty of Saegreifinn seafood restaurant, which we highly recommend. The smell might take some getting used to, but the party should not be missed.

Baked goods are a specialty of an Icelandic Christmas. Laufabrauð, a uniquely shaped deep-fried wheat bread, is an Icelandic delicacy that should not be missed at Christmas time and is best eaten with a little butter. If you have a bit of a sweet tooth, why not try some of the traditional Icelandic Christmas cookies, baked with love by the locals.

Christmas in Iceland


Perfect for some last minute or after-Christmas shopping, Reykjavik boasts Europe’s largest shopping mall! Smaralind is just a short bus or taxi ride from our hostel. Smaralind’s prices are competitive with European prices, and in many, if not most cases you can find a terrific deal.

Kringlan shopping center, like Smaralind, is located in relatively close our hostel. Kringlan is regarded as Iceland’s first modern shopping mall. Even though this indoor shopping center has been open for 25 years, it has modern amenities and trendy places to shop.

Christmas in Iceland

The closest and most convenient shopping is located in the Laugarvegur shopping district, less than five minute walk from our hostel. At Christmas time, this district lights up the dark northern days with twinkling lights and festive decorations, setting a romantic scene in late November and December. The snow is the final finishing touch to make this area into the perfect winter wonder land. Come and experience the magic of an Icelandic Christmas with your loved ones and have a holiday season that you’ll never forget.

Christmas in Iceland: a holiday season as unique as Iceland itself!

Rachel, Iceland24
© 2014 Iceland24, October 2014

Saturday, 18 October 2014

Top 10 must-do’s in Iceland - Travel in Iceland

Ever wondered what’s actually worth doing in Iceland? Get a local’s perspective on 10 things you shouldn’t miss and why from a local’s point of view. Although these suggestions are numbered, they are in no particular order of importance.

1. The Golden Circle 
 when: all year round

Þingvellir national park. To be honest, it’s just a big, very pretty piece of land without anything mind blowing or spectacular in plain sight, but what’s really cool about it is the history and the geology. This is the place where the world’s first parliament was formed and the only place in the world where you can clearly see the tectonic plates of the earth’s crust glide away from one another. Plus this is where the medieval Vikings used to meet up to hang out! Check out the Visitor’s centre for all sorts of information about the place.
This first stop of the Golden Circle is only about a 40 minute drive away from Reykjavík city centre.

Top 10 must-do’s in Iceland - Travel in Iceland

Gullfoss waterfall. While you are out here you must go look at Gullfoss. Not so many “world’s greatest” historic statements to be made about it, but it’s there, it’s big and it’s pretty.
We’re not so big on rules or safety railings around here so just be careful and use common sense when trampling around the edge.

Geysir. Now this is actually awesome. This is where the word „Geyser“comes from! A geothermal area with different sizes of holes filled with bubbling mud and water and of course the famous Strokkur which spouts boiling water 15 meters up into the air every few minutes. Surprises you every time and looks incredible. The even more famous Geysir is usually dormant with old age but occasionally it joins the party.
Again, use common sense and stay inside the marked path. It’s there for a reason.

Top 10 must-do’s in Iceland - Travel in Iceland

Insider’s tip: You can actually snorkel or dive between the tectonic plates at Þingvellir in a big water filled fissure, Silfra. The water is unusually clear so you can see several meters down and all kinds of plants and pretty colours, it’s definitely a recommended experience.

2. The Glacier Lagoon (and the Vatnajökull area) 
 when: May to September

You do not want to miss this! Even though it’s located about 4 hours away from Reykjavík it’s a trip worth taking. On a clear day the drive offers a million different views; waterfalls, moss-covered mountains and glaciers and you also drive through the area affected by the infamous Eyjafjallajökull volcano eruption. (On a rainy day you can listen to some solid Icelandic tunes on your ipod and even sleep off the night before, stopping every now and then for some delicious greasy food at a petrol station).

Top 10 must-do’s in Iceland - Travel in Iceland

Once you get there you’ll be faced with enormous 1.500 year old icebergs floating in a huge lagoon framed by a part of Europe’s biggest glacier. You can either take a stroll along the pebbly waterfront or go on a 40 minute guided boat ride on an amphibious boat. If you’re lucky you could even spot a seal or see an iceberg turn over!
Rain or shine, this place is amazing.

This is kind of a 2 in 1 deal as Skaftafell national park (hosting the rest of Europe’s biggest glacier, Vatnajökull) is on the way there so you can spend some time in stunning surroundings, take a short hike up to Svartifoss waterfall or do one of the many tours provided by the local tour companies, like glacier hikes or ice climbing. Ice axes make your holiday photos so much more hardcore!

Insider’s tip: Check out Fjallsárlón, 10 kilometres west of Jökulsárlón. It’s a miniature version of the real thing, with little to none tourist traffic and you can see the glacial wall clearly.

3. The Blue Lagoon when: 
all year round

True, this place has turned into a bit of a cliché, but nevertheless you should not leave Iceland without being able to say you went there.

Even on a sunny high-season day when it’s filled with eager tourists from all of the world’s corners, there is still something special about this outdoor geothermal spa. Milky blue water surrounded by black lava and modern architecture make it worth checking out, not to mention that rejuvenated feeling you get after soaking for a couple of hours.

Top 10 must-do’s in Iceland - Travel in Iceland

So forget the cheesiness, enjoy the relaxing warm water, check out the sauna, slather on a natural silica facemask provided or even grab a drink from the bar they recently planted in the water. You can even get a massage floating on a mattress in the lagoon or a spa treatment if your budget allows it.

For those not-so-bikini ready or beer-belly conscious, you can rely on the cloudy water to keep the mystery alive and as a bonus the silica in it makes skin silky smooth (it is also used to treat several skin diseases).

Insider’s tip: Do not put your hair in the water! Lather it up with some conditioner (provided by the lagoon) in the shower before you go in and keep your head above water. Although the silica does wonders for your skin it doesn’t cooperate with hair so much.

4. Reykjavík nightlife 
 when: all year round

First of all, alcohol is extremely expensive in downtown Reykjavík so go to the liqour store (we call it „Ríkið“ but its official name is „Vínbúðin“) beforehand and buy what you require a little cheaper or shop duty free. Second of all, nobody with any sense of self respect is seen down town before midnight. The party doesn’t really kick off until around 1.30 AM. This is why a little disco nap in the afternoon can be extremely helpful if you plan to party like the locals. Showing up at eight o’clock to a half empty bar, deciding the Icelandic club scene isn’t all it’s talked up to be and going home before midnight is a typical rookie mistake. Note that we only go out on the weekends though, none of this applies during the week.

Top 10 must-do’s in Iceland - Travel in Iceland

There is no cover charge anywhere (except for the occasional concert) so if you don’t like the place, the people or the music, just move on to the next.

For something completely different, try the Viking Bar in Hafnarfjörður, you can have traditional Icelandic dinner or just sit on some reindeer skin, enjoy an enormous beer and watch the staff trying to make people take them seriously in Viking costumes.

Insider’s tip: Because alcohol is so insanely expensive we don’t do rounds in Iceland. Even if you do go ahead and buy a round, don’t expect anyone else to get the next one. But the good news is you can buy everyone drinks and be their favourite person for the next hour or so. It’s an easy way to make friends!

5. Pools 
when: all year round

Whether you’re in Reykjavík or out in the middle of nowhere, in the next 50 kilometres or so you will find a public pool. The water is thermally heated, it’s relatively cheap and the hot tubs are the Icelander’s favourite way to relax. All of the pools have at least one hot tub and playing on the water slide is completely acceptable for grown-ups. Going to the pool is the perfect way to get warm after a long day of sightseeing in random Icelandic weather.

Top 10 must-do’s in Iceland - Travel in Iceland

Insider’s tip: Everyone runs around completely naked in the change rooms and showering in the nude before swimming is mandatory. Take a deep breath and enjoy the liberal vibe or try to awkwardly change under your towel, your choice.

6. Eat something crazy 

People always ask „what’s the Icelanders’ favourite food?“ and the answer to that would be pizza. However, before we turned into major sell-outs we had our own traditions, like burying food in the ground or leaving it to hang outdoors for months before digging in.

Top 10 must-do’s in Iceland - Travel in Iceland

The must-taste local delicacies would be:

Hákarl (Fermented shark): You can get it at any local supermarket. It’s been in the ground rotting and hanging in a shed for ages. A snack for the brave.
Pylsa (Hot dog): Try „Bæjarins Bestu“ for supposedly the town’s best hot dog and ask for one with „everything“ (hot dog, bun, ketchup, mustard, remoulade sauce, raw onions, fried onions. Yum!) Harðfiskur (Dried fish): This is not only delicious but also extremely healthy, it has a bunch of protein and almost no fat and is enjoyed by most Icelanders on a daily/weekly basis. Everyone from kids to body builders loves the stuff! Don’t take it on a long bus ride though, it smells and you will experience an instant drop in your popularity.
Skyr: A unique yoghurt-like dairy product, another low fat, high protein success that is a part of people’s daily diet. It comes in all flavours imaginable and is delicious as a dessert or as a meal.
Slátur: It’s made from innards and stuffed into a sheep’s stomach. Excellent to bring along on hikes or just enjoy as a snack. Tastes good cold from the fridge or you can heat it up on a pan and whip up some mashed potatoes and even put a bit of sugar on it. Looks like dog food; tastes great.
Puffin: These cute little fellas taste amazing, they’re kind of rare at restaurants so if you do get a chance to try the delicious black bird meat, don’t miss it.
Whale: For the less politically correct, do try the whale before you leave. It is so incredibly tasty.

Insider’s tip: If none of this excites you there is one Icelandic specialty you can definitely not miss, a pepperoni pizza with cream cheese. My personal favourite deliciously sinful hangover cure.

7. The Great Outdoors 
 when: all year round

Hiking, horse riding, snowmobiling, whatever your poison is, just get out there and breathe in some of the freshest air in the world and get some adventure in you.

Whatever you do, don’t just walk around Reykjavík the entire time you’re in Iceland.

Here’s a rare opportunity for complete stillness, lots of space, no phones, TV or music, just you and the ever changing sky. Lie down between moss covered mounds, close your eyes, breathe in the smell of thyme and just enjoy existing.

Top 10 must-do’s in Iceland - Travel in Iceland

Camping up here is also wonderful, especially for the lack of bugs.

It’s easy to get out of the city, buses go in all directions outside the city limits. If you have a rental car, go check out Krísuvík geothermal area (about 30 minutes outside the city centre) or Hveragerði town geothermal area (about 40 minutes from central Reykjavík).

Insider’s tip: If you´re here during the middle of summer: stay up all night long and enjoy the 24 hour daylight. If it’s wintertime, stay up anyway and go on a northern light hunt.

8. Whale Watching 
 when: May to September

Now is your chance to go look at the gentle giants up close, an experience you will not forget. Several companies operate whale-watching tours at different locations in Iceland, including Reykjavík harbour. Dress warmly and bring your camera, you can normally get a ticket with short notice and join a 2-3 hour tour. You can easily combine it with some down town Reykjavík sightseeing.

If you don’t go see the whales, at least eat some.

Top 10 must-do’s in Iceland - Travel in Iceland

Insider’s tip: If you’re going to discuss whale killings with the locals, prepare to have your arguments put through the blender. Icelandic people in general are not opposed to whale hunting when done by the book, so don’t expect everyone to agree with your opinions on the matter.

9. Kolaportið Markets
 when: all year round

During the weekends there is a market down by the Reykjavík harbour, called Kolaportið. A funny mix of second hand clothing, furniture, antiques, books, underwear and a whole section devoted to liquorice and all kinds of fish (dried, salted, fresh, fermented). You will definitely pick up some souvenirs you never expected to buy.

Top 10 must-do’s in Iceland - Travel in Iceland

Insider’s tip: This place smells kind of funky due to the fish and all the old stuff, so don’t go there with a hangover, trust me on this.

10. Learn some Icelandic 

 While you are here, take the opportunity to learn a few words of one of the rarest languages in the world. It won’t be easy, this language is ridiculous at times but damn are you going to liven up a party back home with your perfect “Eyjafjallajökull” pronunciation.

Top 10 must-do’s in Iceland - Travel in Iceland

Pick any friendly looking Icelander and get him or her to teach you what you want to learn, it’s a good conversation starter if you want to connect with the locals. Insider’s tip: Odds are you will learn mostly dirty phrases using this method. Don’t take their word for it, go on Google Translate and find out what you’re actually saying.

October 2014

Wednesday, 15 October 2014

Itinerary Ideas: Iceland in Winter - 6 Days itinerary trip in Iceland during Winter

When visiting in winter (or really October through April), you’ll want to be conscious of two factors that can affect where you go: the weather and the shorter hours of daylight. You can easily get around in winter near Reykjavík without a 4WD vehicle, but some areas of the Ring Road will be more difficult to manage.

Iceland in winter - Winter Travel Guide Iceland

You’ll also need to travel at a slower pace, especially when the days are at their shortest (around mid-December). Unless you plan to rent a 4WD vehicle, your best bet is probably to stay near the capital. Luckily, there is plenty to see and do in and around Reykjavik to keep you busy for 10 days.

We recommend you to read our latest article about driving in Iceland.

Plan on 2-3 days for sightseeing and shopping around the city, then budget 4-6 days for day trips like cave exploring, ATV driving, glacier walking, snorkeling, horseback riding, dog sledding, and venturing as far as Vik.

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Save one day for the Golden Circle tour; if you have time and are so inclined, you can even take a day trip by plane to Akureyri or Isafjordur with AirIceland.

6 days trip in winter based in Reykjavík

Day 1. 

Once you’ve settled in, I recommend you start by getting your bearings, and there’s no better way to do that than to head up to the observation deck of Hallgrimskirkja, or “the big white church” as many people refer to it. You’ll see it from nearly anywhere in town and as long as you can find your way from there to  your hotel, you’ll never be lost in Reykjavik. You can go inside the church and take the elevator to the top for the best view in the city.

Iceland in winter - Winter Travel Guide Iceland

Afterwards, you can stroll down to the Solfar (Sun Voyager) sculpture on the waterfront and then continue down to the harbor, where you can have lunch at Icelandic Fish and Chips, or warm up with a hot bowl of lobster soup at Sægreifinn (Seabaron).

Iceland in winter - Winter Travel Guide Iceland

From there you can walk through the heart of downtown, past the Parliament building and around to the Radhus, the City Hall, to see a giant topographical map of Iceland. Swing around the Tjornin pond, past the Prime Minister’s office, and up Bankastraeti, which turns into Laugavegur, the main shopping street.  If you wants to pick up something to make for dinner, stop at the Bonus grocery store.

Day 2. 

Today is a great day to get in some outdoor activity. Arrange to go snorkeling in some of the clearest water in the world at Silfra in Thingvellir (wrapped up in a surprisingly warm dry suit to survive the frigid water temps) or go riding on an Icelandic horse.

Iceland in winter - Winter Travel Guide Iceland

Tour companies will take care of all the details, including pick up and drop off, and many tours can be combined to maximize time. For example, you could arrange to go horseback riding and combine that with a trip to the Blue Lagoon or to Geysir and Gullfoss, two of the country’s most popular attractions.

Day 3. 

If you’ve made some friends at your guesthouse or are traveling with a few other people, split the cost of a car rental and drive to the Golden Circle attractions. With even one other person, the $100 US cost of renting an automatic transmission car (including insurance) would work out better than spending 9800 ISK (about $89 US) for a tour of the Golden Circle.

Iceland in winter - Winter Travel Guide Iceland

The roads along the route are fairly well-maintained and unless a storm comes up, the drive would be no worse than driving anywhere in the US in winter. Plus, a car allows the freedom to stop as often as you’d like and detour when you want.

After a day of exploring, treat yourself to a splurge dinner, before hitting some of the clubs for the Friday night runtur.  I highly recommend Fishmarket, an upscale restaurant that serves Icelandic specialties with an Asian twist – I loved the grilled king crab claws with chili may (3900 ISK, about $35 US)  or the 6900 ISK langoustine from Vestmannaeyjar. If that’s too rich for you, there are plenty of cheap eats, like Tapas Barinn, where you can sample smaller portions at smaller prices.

Day 4.

Assuming you stayed out a little late last night and want to take it easy on Saturday, you should stick around Reykjavik. Relax in one of the public swimming pools, ride a bike around the city if the weather is nice, or do some shopping at the weekend Kolaportið flea market near the harbor.

Iceland in winter - Winter Travel Guide Iceland

If you are in the market for an Icelandic sweater, get one here for much cheaper than in the souvenir shops. If you have some cash to burn, stock up on stylish outdoor gear at 66° North or head to the Kringlan shopping center. If it’s Wednesday, today is the best day to visit the Culture House as there is no admission charge on Wednesdays.

Day 5.

You need to get a Car rental in Iceland and drive to the Jökulsárlón glacier lagoon. Jökulsárlón is today one of Iceland's best known and most popular natural wonders, and for a good reason. A magnificent view welcomes you as you arrive there and it's almost like stepping into a fairy tale landscape.

Iceland in winter - Winter Travel Guide Iceland

The lake has grown since then at varying rates because of melting of the Icelandic glaciers. The lagoon now stands 1.5 kilometres away from the ocean's edge and covers an area of about 18 km2. It recently became the deepest lake in Iceland at over 248 metres depth as glacial retreat extended its boundaries.

Day 6.

Most flights back to the US leave between 3pm and 5pm; Keflavik Airport is small and the security line moves pretty fast so you don’t need to get there much more than 90 minutes before your flight, which leaves plenty of time left in the morning to explore more of Reykjavik or schedule once last excursion. If you haven’t yet visited the Blue Lagoon, go today on your way to the airport.

Iceland in winter - Winter Travel Guide Iceland

The Flybus picks up at the BSI bus terminal, an easy 10-15 minute walk from the city center, and goes right to the Blue Lagoon. If you takes the 11am bus to the Blue Lagoon, you’ll arrive by 11:45, and will have over two hours to soak before boarding the 2:15pm bus to Keflavik, which arrives with 2.5 hours to spare before a 5pm flight.

This leaves plenty of time to have a snack, turn in any receipts for duty-free shopping to get a tax refund, exchange any remaining kronur for dollars, and relax before the flight home.

Do not forget to search for the Northern Lights

The Northern Lights appear from September to March, and though sightings are never guaranteed, there are many tour companies who will drive you to a viewing point and provide warm gear, hot drinks, and even dinner, while you wait for the lights to dance overhead. But you don’t have to pony up for a tour though. In fact, sometimes you don’t even have to leave the city, as the lights can often be seen from Reykjavik.

Iceland in winter - Winter Travel Guide Iceland

Berglind Rós, Iceland24
October 2014