13 Things I Learned in Iceland

I'm always fascinated by the unexpected things I learn while visiting a foreign country. In Dublin, I learned that restaurants serve mayo instead of ranch, and there are more sheep than people in Ireland. Iceland was an incredible country. The views were awe-inspiring and the locals were extremely friendly. Five days was just enough time to explore the Southern Coast and soak in the Nordic culture of the island. Along the way, I learned some interesting things about the Icelandic way of life, along with several traveling tips that proved useful. Random snippets about money, food, transportation, weather, wild animals, traffic laws and nightlife are below.

1. Iceland is expensive. Before leaving the states, I knew Iceland was going to cost a pretty penny. I was wrong, however, to assume it would be similar to the rest of Europe. Iceland is significantly more expensive. As in, a bowl of soup and a soda cost about 20+ USD. When we visited Haukadalur Valley, I really wanted to buy a stuffed puffin in the gift shop. It was adorable and tiny and I had to have it! Until I noticed the price tag: 30 USD. Nope.

The stores I browsed in Downtown Reykjavik had some really awesome items (the hats and scarves were beautiful), but everything was way out of my price range. When I visited Ireland last year, it was very easy to buy a few souvenirs and stay within my budget. In Iceland, however, the only thing I left with was a keychain.

2. The seafood is phenomenal. On our first day in Reykjavik, we ate fresh halibut skewers and lobster soup at Sea Baron. It was delicious. The fish was seasoned to perfection and flaked dreamily from the kebob. The soup was rich and creamy with large chunks of tender lobster floating near the bottom. 

3. The hot dogs are heaven on earth. Oh, pylsurs. My love affair with those glorious lamb dogs will never end. At only 3 USD, they were a cheap and delicious meal when we found ourselves getting hungry on the road. On a similar note, gas stations in Iceland have great food options. They're always fully stocked with freshly made sandwiches - curry chicken and barbecue chicken with sweet potato were our favorites.

4. The weather is totally unpredictable. Our trip was filled with rain, snow, fog and sunshine - usually, all in one day! It was impossible to tell what the weather was going to do within the next five minutes. Dark skies made way for random bits of sunshine, and clear weather sometimes morphed into thick fog.

5. Don't plan your trip around the Northern Lights because you might not see them. Iceland is a cloudy little country. The skies were overcast each day of our trip, which prevented us from seeing the Northern Lights. We were slightly disappointed, but the beauty of Iceland made up for it. There are so many incredible things to see while visiting. The Northern Lights shouldn't be your first priority. Just think of it as an extra bonus if the aurora borealis comes out of hiding.

6. Renting a car is the best way to get around. We loved renting a car because it gave us plenty of freedom to make our own plans instead of operating on a tour bus schedule. The only downside was gas. It was very expensive.

7. Icelandic is a beautiful (and extremely challenging) language. I could listen to someone speak Icelandic all day long. It's a lovely, gentle language. My efforts to learn various words and phrases, however, were fruitless. The only thing I successfully learned to say was "takk", which means "thank you".

8. Wild horses are everywhere, and they're really friendly. They may look like ponies, but they're actually horses. Icelandic horses are adorable and have great personalities. Their colors range from chocolate brown to creamy white, and their manes are soft and thick. We pulled over to the side of the road to take some pictures and ended up befriending an entire pack. They even tried to munch on my scarf and steal Michael's beanie. 

9. It's a wee bit chilly. This might be obvious, but it somehow escaped me that visiting Iceland in March would be a frosty endeavor. Fortunately, I packed appropriately and was fairly comfortable during our trip.

10. Bars get REALLY busy REALLY fast. In Iceland, people leave work at 5pm, head home to nap for a few hours, wake up for dinner later in the evening, and hit the bars afterwards. It's completely normal to get home at 7am from a night on the town. Michael and I were jet-lagged and exhausted for most of our trip, so we didn't partake in the bar scene. We did, however, try to grab a few drinks around 11pm one night. Every bar we visited was totally packed. We gave up and got some Icelandic candy and a few beers from a gas station instead. 

11. Icelandair is an awesome airline. I was really impressed by Icelandair. They filled the plane from back to front, which made the boarding process super speedy. They also handed out free Icelandic glacial water, which was oh so appropriate.

12. Traffic cameras are everywhere. When we started driving our rental car, the GPS beeped like mad every time we approached a stoplight. We couldn't figure out what it was trying to tell us. "Warning!" would shoot across the screen, which made us worry something was wrong with the car. As it turns out, the GPS was trying to warn us about upcoming traffic cameras. They're all over Reykjavik, hidden above stoplights when you'd least expect it. Most speeding tickets are handed out this way, so we had to be careful while driving in the city.

13. Hakarl might sound unappetizing, but you have to try it. We sat next to an American couple at Cafe Loki, and they offered the rest of their hakarl to us because they were done with their meal. We happily obliged, excited to complete our tourist obligation of sampling rotten shark. Our excitement lasted all of two minutes. The putrid odor was unbearable. The sample made Michael gag (and I may have spit mine into a napkin, yikes). Don't let that scare you, though! Try hakarl yourself. It's basically mandatory in Reykjavik.

The Blue Lagoon

We waited until our very last day to venture to Blue Lagoon because it's located right between Reykjavik and Keflavik International Airport. After three days of gallivanting all over Iceland, we couldn't wait to relax in the geothermal spa and prepare for our long flight home.

We planned on purchasing a Standard ticket but instead opted for the Comfort ticket, which included a bathrobe, towel, free drink and algae mask. After receiving our wristbands, we split up to shower and change. The locker rooms were modern and sleek, offering digital lockers, dressing rooms and vanity tables with blow dryers and towels. The most surprising part of the locker room was the shower area. Right before entering the lagoon, you're required to wash off. Most of the women were completely nude, which surprised me! I kept my bathing suit on, but the unapologetic nudity was refreshing. The employees urge you to condition your hair before and after swimming, and I seriously urge you to follow their directions. I planned on keeping my hair in a ponytail so I rinsed off in the shower, skipped the conditioner, and was on my way. Predictably, my elastic band broke when we entered the lagoon, and my hair was soaked. Even after a deep conditioning after our swim, my hair was stiff and dry. That's because of the water's high silica content. Fortunately, with the help of some coconut oil, the dryness subsided after about a week.

Stepping into the open air after showering was quite a shock. We went directly from heated tile floors to icy concrete and freezing winds. It was 35 degrees outside, and being in a bathing suit was excruciating. I literally threw my bathrobe on a wooden rack and went straight for the lagoon. Wispy steam rose slowly from the milky blue water, and it felt amazing! Some parts of the spa were warmer than others, so we gravitated toward the heat. We made a pit stop at the floating bar and grabbed our complimentary drinks before exploring the lagoon. Michael got a beer and I ordered a delicious green smoothie with kale, spinach and pineapple.

Surprisingly, the wind was really strong during our visit. I'm not sure if that's normal or if it was just a random occurrence. It was hard to venture around without shielding our eyes because the water was splashing around like crazy. After we got our drinks, a gust of wind tossed half my smoothie all over my face. It was in my hair and my eyes; I couldn't see where I was going, and Michael couldn't stop laughing. That was fun!

Eventually, we made our way to the edge of the lagoon to experiment with the silica mud. After rubbing it all over my body, my skin felt incredibly smooth. Unfortunately, we ended up having to skip our algae masks because we were in a rush to get to the airport.

Before coming to Iceland, a friend said my limbs would feel like jello after leaving the lagoon. He was right! My entire body felt extremely relaxed and refreshed. The mineral-rich water combined with the beautiful, mountainous scenery created the ideal environment for a spa. I only wish we had been able to spend more time in the water. It was the perfect ending to our trip after spending three days in the Nordic cold. If I ever get the opportunity to return, I'll definitely devote an entire day to the Blue Lagoon. It's an incredible experience you don't want to miss if you're visiting Iceland.

Chasing Waterfalls

One of my main priorities in Iceland was to see as many waterfalls as possible with less than a week to explore. We ended up seeing three, which wasn't too shabby. The first was the mighty Gullfoss. The second was Selandjafoss, which we stumbled upon during our two hour drive to Vik. The waterfall was eerily deserted when we pulled into the black pebble parking lot. After opening the car door, I could immediately feel cool mist drifting from the falls. The rushing sound of water was heavenly. Growing up at the beach has given me a fondness for rushing bodies of water. The sound is so soothing.

We ventured to the edge of the falls as a tour bus pulled into the parking lot. Several visitors ventured up a walkway that led behind Selandjafoss. It started raining and I was worried about my camera, so Michael took off and enjoyed the view while I stashed my camera in the car. With over an hour left until we reached Vik, we eventually decided to continue our drive.

Our next stop was Skogafoss. This was my favorite waterfall. Tourists lined up against the misty edge with heavy duty tripods, capturing the magnificence of the crashing water. Words really can't describe how incredible it was to stand beside such a powerful force of nature. I felt tiny and far removed from the woes of everyday life. Social media, technology, work stress and fears about the future drifted into the back of my mind. I was able to bask in the waterfall's presence, undisturbed by reality.

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The wonderful thing about Iceland was how strikingly beautiful every inch of the country was. Gullfoss, Selandjafoss and Skogafoss are pretty well known waterfalls, but venturing off the beaten path proved to hold amazing sights, too. We saw numerous streams, rivers and waterfalls while on the road. It was hard not to stop every couple of minutes and take photos of everything. If you're not visiting Iceland for the landscapes and the breathtaking scenery, you're doing it wrong. There's so much to take in. It's almost overwhelming, but in the greatest way possible.

Icelandic Hot Dogs

Before traveling to Reykjavik, my mom excitedly asked if I had ever heard of "the famous hot dog stand" in Iceland. I was a little confused at first. Where exactly was this place, how could hot dogs be that good, and how on earth did my mom know about it? "Your grandmother's sister-in-law lives in Reykjavik and said you have to eat a hot dog while you're there. Look it up online!" I asked for a specific name, but she didn't have a clue. She urged me to google it. With a very vague description and zero understanding of the (complex) Icelandic language, I began searching the web. Within seconds, my answer appeared.

Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur is a tiny hot dog stand in downtown Reykjavik near Old Harbour. It was featured on the first season of Anthony Bourdain's TV show No Reservations and has been visited by the likes of Bill Clinton and Madonna. Hungry locals and tourists can be seen gathering outside the stand at all hours of the day to order a hot dog (pylsur) with "the works". At only 350 krona (about $3 USD) in an incredibly expensive city, this quick little treat is the perfect lunch, dinner, or midday snack.

So what exactly makes Icelandic hot dogs a magnificent delicacy? For starters, they're not your regular Oscar Meyer wieners. In fact, they taste nothing like the standard American hot dog. Icelandic pylsurs are made predominately of quality lamb meat. The snap! of the sausage casing as you bite into the bun is an interesting surprise, and the flavor is utterly delicious. In fact, the sausages are rumored to be braised in beer, which may contribute to the rich flavor. Secondly, Icelandic hot dogs are garnished with a colorful array of condiments. Toppings include honey mustard, ketchup, and remolaude (a mayonnaise-based sauce with sweet relish). In addition, both fried and raw onions coat the inside of the bun.

Michael and I waited in line for about five minutes before ordering a hot dog "eina með öllu" ("one with everything"). The small parking lot's single picnic table was occupied, so we stood beside the stand while devouring our first Icelandic pylsur in the freezing cold. It completely exceeded my expectations. The exquisite combination of ingredients was unexpected; the hot dog appeared deceivingly simple but was packed with flavor. Sweet mustard, crunchy onions, savory sausage and a fluffy bun coated my tastebuds in pure ecstasy. 

Commonly referred to as "the Icelandic national food", pylsurs are a staple of the country's diet. Visiting Reykjavik without eating a coveted hot dog is like visiting Italy without eating a bowl of pasta. You have to do it - and you'll want to do it, trust me! Bæjarins Beztu is the most popular hotdog stand in the country (perhaps even in Europe), but pylsurs are served at gas stations and convenience stores all over Iceland. We ate a handful of lamb dogs at various gas stations while driving around the Southern Coast in our rental car, and each one was just as satisfying as the last.

If you're visiting Iceland anytime soon, have a delicious lamb pylsur for me (or two, or three, or four!). I'll be dreaming about Bæjarins Beztu until the next time I visit Iceland. Until then, I'll be drooling over the photos I took on our trip. 

The Golden Circle

On Tuesday, Michael and I woke up bright and early to get started on our Golden Circle adventure. Our first stop was Thingvellir National Park. Our trusty Nissan zoomed down the deserted highway, winding through small mountain passes and transporting us safely through the elements. Rain, light snow, thick fog - you name it. We were lucky to get an automatic transmission from Go Iceland. It was slightly more expensive than a manual car, but it was worth it. Neither of us knew how to drive stick, and with Iceland's abundance of roundabouts and tricky traffic patterns, we would've seriously struggled. Something we quickly learned while driving through Southern Iceland is that literally everywhere in the land of fire and ice is breathtakingly beautiful. The snow-capped mountains are beautiful. The rock formations are beautiful. The streams and waterfalls are beautiful. Volcanic rock, white sand, mossy hills, snow-covered fields and gushing rivers dotted the countryside. There was never a dull landscape on our road trip. In fact, many describe Iceland as being "otherworldly". This is the only adjective that could possibly describe our drive to Thingvellir. We found ourselves in the midst of a snow-covered mountain, and the skies were eerily gray. We were lost in a white haze of clouds and fog; it literally felt like we were at the end of the world.

After arriving at Thingvellir, we spent a few minutes inside the Visitor Center before walking along a pathway that led between two giant rock structures. One side dipped to reveal a massive rift valley. This area is where the North American tectonic plate is slowly separating from the European tectonic plate. This continental drift can be seen in the cracks and fissures that cover the region, some filled with crystal clear water.

Widespread volcanic activity causes measurable earthquakes in the area, but we were lucky to avoid any of that. Speaking of "lucky", I was surprised to hear about Mount Hekla's potential eruption after we returned to the states. Michael knew about it but didn't tell me because he thought I would chicken out of the trip. He doesn't know me very well, obviously. Volcano chasing? I'm down. Maybe. Alright, maybe not, but I still would've gone!

The view from the park was incredible. Several trails led to different overlooks of the rift valley. Bright green evergreen trees lined the continental drift, and rocky streams and waterfalls filled the region. It was a geological paradise.

It started raining midway through our walk, but fortunately we had rain jackets. It also helped that I was wearing about seven layers of clothing. I'm always cold, so dressing warm was my biggest priority during the trip. We managed to stay comfortable with several layers, wool socks, pocket hand warmers, and thick gloves. 

We spent over an hour admiring the sights at Thingvellir before heading to Haukadalur Valley to see the magnificent geysers. But first, we stopped at a convenience store to chow down on delicious pylsurs. (Side note: If you see a gas station or a convenience store while driving through Iceland, STOP. Even if your tank is full, even if you don't have to go to the bathroom, even if you're not hungry. Stop anyway. You might be traveling through vast, empty landscapes for hours and hours without a single sign of civilization.) I knew we were nearing the geysers when I noticed steam rising from the fields around us. After parking, we paid 600 krona to enter the park and spent some time walking around the paved pathways. Litli Geysir was the first hot spring we encountered. The boiling water was bubbling and steaming. It resembled a spooky witch's cauldron, churning and gurgling chaotically. The movement of the hot spring was entrancing.

While snapping a few photos of Litli Geysir, I jumped from a sudden eruption about fifty feet away. Steam billowed into a huge cloud, filling the valley and sweeping away in the wind. We soon discovered Strokkur, one of the most active geysers in the park. We stood around patiently, watching the water (which was eerily still between bursts of steam) and trying to figure out where to stand so we didn't get soaked.

After a moment of reckless abandon, we found ourselves standing right next to the roped fence. We were as close as we could get to they geyser's eruption, which took me by surprise the first couple times. Strokkur erupts every 5-15 minutes, so I had no idea when it was going to explode into the air. I posed my camera with my index finger ready to "snap" on command, but after several uneventful minutes, my hands felt like they were going to freeze right off. Every second spent shivering, however, was worth the end result. Strokkur's eruptions were incredible. Right before bursting, the geyser's blue water would swirl around, retreat deeply into the hot spring and burst forth with astonishing intensity. The "roar" of the eruption took everybody by surprise. Several visitors visibly jumped backwards and covered their heads. It sounded just like standing underneath a huge, crashing wave at the beach.

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Haukadalur Valley was unlike anything I've ever seen before. The geothermal activity was fascinating. I was surprised to learn that Iceland's energy and heat are provided solely by steam power. The island doesn't need to rely on fossil fuels since there's such an abundance of geothermal heat. Crazy, right?

With destination number two of The Golden Circle complete, we headed for our third stop: Gullfoss Waterfall. The falls appeared to be a river, but on closer inspection, the water plunged into a deep crevice below. We walked down a long pathway and up a few steps to view the waterfall from a tall, overarching standpoint. Afterwards, we descended to the bottom of the falls and took a few photos of the majestic wonder before us. It was beautiful.

Gullfoss is one of the most popular tourist attractions in Iceland, and for good reason. The waterfall is absolutely stunning. Snow covered the banks of the falls, adding an icy chill to the view. Visitors swarmed the area, hiking closer to the Hvítá River and snapping photos. 

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We realized we were hungry while we were at Gullfoss, so we headed back to Reykjavik shortly after walking around the area. Overall, our drive around The Golden Circle was incredible. Renting a car and taking the tour at our own pace was a great decision. We were able to stop as often as we wanted, whether it was to play with a pack of wild horses (the CUTEST!), grab a quick snack, or take pictures of a rocky stream on the side of the road. After renting a car for the very first time in a European country, I don't think I'll ever go back to crowded bus tours. The freedom of creating our own schedule was great. It also helped that we were in a gorgeous country. It was easy to find ourselves reveling in the magical landscapes of Iceland. We could've stayed at each stop forever.