By: Philip Hall
Photos courtesy of Eatsporkjew.com
When I hear “island vacation” I think Caribbean tropics, the beaches of Bocas del Toro, and snorkeling in the reefs of Tahiti. Iceland—which is indeed an island—is nowhere on the list, but it should be!
Thanks to Icelandair’s “free layover for up to seven days” for flights between the US and Europe, it’s easy to spend a few days in this gay friendly country (probably has something to do with all those cold winter days of darkness) eating amazing food, relaxing in the infamous blue lagoon, hiking behind countless waterfalls, and marveling at some of the most breathtaking landscapes in the world.
What to do in Iceland
There’s a million options when it comes to Iceland, and we can’t even begin to cover it all. But if time is limited and you only have a few days to poke around, you should devote one or two to Reykjavik at the end, and spend the rest driving along the southern coast.
Rent a car in Reykjavik and drive east along the southern part of the island (there’s only one main road so it’s easy), which has some of the most beautiful scenic landscapes you’ve ever seen. Make the glacial lagoon, Jökulsárlón (don’t even try to pronounce it), your furthest destination and watch glacial shards melt and crash into one another as you take some of the best wilderness photos of your life!
Heading back toward Reykjavik, exit the main road at Fjaðrárgljúfur. This is a great place to hike along the serpentine ridge of a canyon formed by glacial waters flowing for nearly three million years out to sea. The views are spectacular and it’s the kind of place you’ll never see anywhere else in the world.
As you get closer to civilization, you’ll hit the Golden Circle. This is 190 miles of natural wonders and a popular tourist loop. The highlights are the Gulifoss Waterfall, and the geysers in Haukadalur (Geysir and Strokkur), both of which you’ll spend no more than an hour at before piling back in the car.
There’s an amazing restaurant (Friðheimar) about 20 minutes from the geyser park. It’s a geothermal greenhouse where they grow tomatoes all year round—not an easy feat in Iceland. Warm up with a bowl of their delicious tomato soup and homemade cheese bread, or their fresh pasta of the day and stick around for one of their horse shows. Yup! Iceland has its own breed of pony-sized horses the Scandinavian Vikings took from Europe nearly two millennia ago, and they love showing them off. Friðheimar is popular, so call ahead and make a reservation if you can, or just order food to-go, and slurp your soup on the benches out front.
Before returning to Reykjavik, plan to stop at the Blue Lagoon for a soak in their silica- algae- and mineral-rich natural hot springs filled with geothermal water that comes from 1.2 miles below the Earth’s surface. They offer massages, facials and guided tours as well as several dining experiences (casual and fine) highlighting some of the best of Iceland’s bounty. You can easily spend a few hours here, but once your fingers prune, it’s time to move on.
Two days in Reykjavik
You really don’t need more than two days in the capital. The museums are great, but they’re intensely crammed with centuries of Icelandic lore, and every other word is impossible to say unless you speak Klingon.
Your time is best spent walking around the city center (Laugavegur Street is the main drag) and along the harbor to see the awesome modern architecture of the Harpa Concert Hall while you visit all the great shops, galleries, bars, cafes and restaurants along the way. Visit Brauð & Co on Frakkastígur Street for some amazing breakfast breads, pastries and coffee on your way up the hill to the Hallgrimskirkja Cathedral, a giant concrete structure reminiscent of the basalt rock formations peppering the Icelandic coastline. Take an elevator to the top for 360° views of the entire city below.
Grab a drink at the Lebowksi Bar just around the corner and get your Coen Brothers film fetish on and hangout at Kiki Queer Bar (at the corner of Klapparstígur and the main strip) one of the most popular gay bars in Reykjavik. The exterior is one giant rainbow so you can’t miss it. And stroll through town to grab dinner at Fish Market, a nicer restaurant putting a modern twist on Icelandic cuisine.
Food in Iceland
Nearly all Icelanders speak English and the only thing they love more than licorice candy, Appelsín (orange soda), hotdogs, and Trolls (yes, they believe magical trolls come out and play at night) are tourists, because without us their economy would fail. The seafood, lamb and dairy (ice cream and yogurt) is some of the best in the world, but if you’re game, you’ll find Puffin, whale, and reindeer on menus, and it’s all quite good.
Where to stay in Iceland
It’s best to stay in bed and breakfasts along the southern coastline, and an Airbnb near Laugavegur Street in Reykjavik, because the hotels are expensive and there aren’t many larger hotel chains to choose from.
Whether you’re seeking a vibrantly kooky international city, or the silence the expansive undeveloped landscape offers—Iceland has it all. Just prepare yourself for sticker-shock. Though chilly at times, It’s an island vacation after all, and everything is more expensive.