With winter in full swing it’s normal to fantasize about getting away. Most people choose to escape to the Caribbean islands; sunshine, turquoise waters, and tropical drinks. Others head to popular ski destinations; choosing to spend their days on the slopes and their nights in snow-topped chalets. Or you could be like us, and choose a girls’ getaway to Iceland.
Iceland is a hot destination right now. And I mean hot in terms of popularity, not in terms of temperature. However, you may be surprised to know that Iceland isn’t as cold as you would think. The average temperature for the winter in Iceland is only about -2C; that feel almost like t-shirt weather for February in Canada. But no matter how cold (or warm) Iceland is, there’s no doubt that it’s magical during the winter months. With the chance at seeing the northern lights, the promise of stunning scenery, and the lure of thermal pools, a girls’ getaway to Iceland in the winter is a great idea.
Flights to Iceland land in Keflavik airport, which is about 45 minutes from Reykjavik, Iceland’s capital city. It is important to note that there is no public transportation from the airport into the city, you will need to either hire a car, take a transfer bus, or get a taxi. Before you get too excited; none of these are ‘cheap’ options.
If you plan on being in Iceland for a while it might be worth it to hire a car. Keep in mind that gas is very expensive here and, if travelling in the winter, you should probably have experience driving in snow and ice.
Taxis are not very regular in Iceland, and will be the most expensive option. But if you insist, you can call one.
The most budget friendly option, especially for those only in town for a couple of days, is to take the bus. There are a couple companies that offer direct routes into the city centre, so check the schedules and see what best suits you. The offices are by the airport exit and can’t be missed. As of February 2017, we paid $35CDN/person one way direct to our hotel.
Where to Stay
Short term travellers will want to base themselves in Reykjavik’s city centre. While Reykjavik isn’t that large, there are two areas that you will want to stick to.
The main area would be by the shopping street Laugavegur street. This is where you will find the majority of shops, restaurants, and tour agencies. There are plenty of hotels nearby.
Another good area to stay in is down by the harbor; it’s a bit of a walk to the attractions by Laugavegur street, but there are some good seafood restaurants nearby, the Harpa concert hall, and a beautiful view over the water.
It’s also important to note that since Iceland is such a popular destination right now, hotels book up really quickly. For this reason, it’s best not to leave finding accommodation until the last minute. I would suggest booking well in advance.
If you are on a budget, try: Kex hostel (dorm or private rooms)
If you are looking for midrange, try: CenterHotel Skjaldbreid
If you want a luxury splurge, try: Hotel Holt
What to See and Do
There are a million and one things to do and see in Iceland, making it a top destination for nature lovers. It would be easy to spend a couple weeks exploring the island, but if you have to narrow it down to only a couple of days, like we did, here is what I suggest:
Day 1: Explore the City
Reykjavik may be small, but it has a lot to see. Must dos include walking down Laugavegur street, the city’s main shopping street. Just off the main street is Reykjavik’s iconic cathedral, Hallgrimskirkja. If the weather is co-operating, it’s worth it to climb to the top for the panoramic view. Also, be sure to keep an eye out for some colourful street art as you explore this area.
Visitors should also head down to the waterfront to take in views of the ocean. Here you can find Harpa, Iceland’s main concert and music hall, and the famous Viking boat sculpture, the Sun Voyager.
Reykjavík is also full of museums including the national museum, the maritime museum, the art museum, the aurora museum, and even the infamous phallological museum (aka the penis museum) which might be worth it just for a giggle (this is a girls trip, after all).
If you are interested in walking tours, there is a free walking tour of the city run by City Walk. The tour runs daily but must be booked in advance on their website.
Day 2: Take a Day Trip
As cool as Reykjavik is, you don’t come to Iceland to stay in the city (if you do, you have a problem). There are dozens of day trips running from the city ranging from adventure tours like snowmobiling, glacier hiking, or scuba diving to sight-seeing tours that explore the countryside.
The two most popular tours are probably the golden circle which visits Þingvellir National Park, Gullfoss waterfall, and a geyser among other highlights, and the south coast tour which visits the black sand beach of Vik, a glacier, and a couple of the country’s most popular waterfalls. After two visits to Iceland, I have done both tours and if you are limited to taking one I would suggest the south coast tour; the scenery is amazing and I preferred the stops offered here compared to those offered in the golden circle tour. I also suggest using Bustravel Iceland for their friendly and informative guides, comfortable busses, and the fact that they run many of their tours on a daily basis. Check out my experience with Bustravel Iceland on their southern Iceland tour here.
Day 3: Relax at the Blue Lagoon
The Blue Lagoon is a definite highlight of Iceland, and a must for any girls’ getaway. It’s beautiful, relaxing, and completely indulgent. If you have an afternoon flight, I highly recommend going before. It’s the perfect way to chill out before an international flight, and the water (and free face mask) are perfect for moisturizing your skin before a flight. For more on the Blue Lagoon be sure to read this.
If the weather co-operates: Hunt the Northern Lights at Night
The northern lights are a huge highlight for visiting Iceland in the winter, and although the weather hasn’t co-operated for both of my visits, you may get lucky. I would suggest booking a tour in advance (they do sell out!) just in case. If they get cancelled because of bad weather, which is what happened to me, you don’t get charged and, if your schedule is allows, you can re-book for another night.
Surprisingly, Iceland has a vast number of cuisines available in restaurants throughout the city. From Italian to Thai, Indian to American, there’s something for everyone. I actually tasted the best lasagna I have ever had at an Italian restaurant called Rossopomodoro; it was the perfect warm meal after exploring the countryside on a rainy day.
Another favourite spot of mine (though better for lunch than dinner) is Sandholt which serves up delicious soups and sandwiches. They also have an impressive dessert selection.
Seafood is very popular in Iceland, along with lamb and you will find these types of dishes available in many restaurants. Other popular items are the Icelandic hot dog, and skyr which is a delicious Icelandic yogurt.
For a larger list of Icelandic restaurants, including where to find some of the more traditional food, check out this top ten list.
Iceland has a lot of unique items to buy for souvenirs; from clothing to jewelry, to cosmetics and skin care. What you choose to buy (or not buy) is up to you, but here’s some of my suggestions.
Blue Lagoon Products
I LOVE the face masks. I bought them my first trip in 2012, paid a minor fortune to order more a couple years later for my mom for Christmas, and was happy to stock up again during this visit. They are pricey, but as someone with sensitive skin, they are worth it. There is a retail store in town, at the Blue Lagoon, and at the airport. WAIT UNTIL YOU GET TO THE AIRPORT. Trust me, it’s cheaper. And if you are travelling carry-on only, it’s safer. Also keep in mind that if you go to the Blue Lagoon and book through their website, you get a 15% discount with your voucher that will work at any Blue Lagoon store.
Iceland has lots of local artisans creating all kinds of interesting pieces, but the most popular items are those made with lava rocks, or Viking symbols. The lava rock jewelry is definitely unique and interesting, but most of the lava doesn’t actually come from Iceland. If you don’t care that it may not be originally Icelandic, then don’t worry about it. But if you want something truly Icelandic I might suggest going to one of the local artisans, or looking at the Viking symbol pieces.
If you don’t know already, Icelandic wool sweaters are somewhat famous. Beautiful knit pieces in all kinds of designs and colours are available throughout the country. While you can get one just about anywhere I would recommend looking at the Hand Knitting association of Iceland shops, where everything is locally made. If you don’t like the styles and designs here (they can be more souvenir-like than stylish) then head to an Icewear store. As well as wool sweaters, it’s also worth taking a look at hats, scarves, and mitts and the beautiful wool blankets.
It’s always fun to pick up some fun little souvenirs while you travel, and Iceland has no shortage. There are plenty of magnets, shot glasses, t-shirts, and postcards with Icelandic scenery but there are also more traditional items as well that are a little more unique. One of my favorite things to pick up in Iceland are Christmas ornaments of the Yule Lads, traditional Icelandic folklore characters. There are also plenty of Icelandic folklore stories about the Huldufólk, or hidden people, which are interesting to bring home as well.
Budget- Friendly Tips
Iceland is known to be expensive; everything from food, hotels, transportation, and tours will cost more here than in North America and many other European cities. However, there are a few ways you can save money.
Choose a hotel that offers free breakfast
Usually this will be a little more expensive that a hotel that doesn’t, however when compared to buying breakfast at a local restaurant, you are likely still getting ahead. Plus, if you fill up on a big breakfast, you can have a lighter (and therefore cheaper) lunch.
Use the grocery stores
Yes, Icelandic food is probably more expensive than what you are used to at home, however, an easy way to help cut costs is to take advantage of the grocery store rather than eating out all the time. While you may not be able to cook yourself a full dinner, you should consider buying snacks, breakfast items (if your hotel doesn’t offer), or even supplies for sandwiches here. One of the most popular grocery stores in Reykjavík is called Bonus; it has a bright yellow sign with a pink pig.
Pro tip: Icelandic chocolate is a popular souvenir but will cost you $5+ in souvenir stores, so grab the local brand, Sirius Rjomasukkuladi, from the grocery store instead. It’s just as good (perhaps better) and costs half the price for a big bar.
Bring a water bottle
Icelandic tap water is not only safe to drink, but it’s also delicious. Make sure to bring a reusable water bottle with you to carry around during the day, and save money by asking for water instead of ordering a drink at restaurants.
Bring your own Booze
Alcohol in Iceland comes with a hefty price tag (think $12CAD+ for 1 beer). If you want to drink during your trip you may want to consider buying some alcohol at the duty free before boarding your flight to Iceland to store in your room for evenings. Just make sure you have a bottle opener (if needed) I can tell you from personal experience that those cost $15+ (ouch).
It may not be the typical choice, but if you are up for some beautiful nature and a bit of an adventure, then a girls’ getaway to Iceland is a must!