Trip duration: 4 days / 3 nights
Countries Visited: 1
Cost: $650 USD per person
Iceland is known for the Northern Lights.
You have to time it right to see the aurora borealis. Online you’ll find pictures of the stunning green hues streaking across the night sky. It’s downright breathtaking.
These were the images that we had always associated with Iceland. In fact, this is all we knew about Iceland. But the notion of a dancing green sky was intriguing enough to make us want to vist.
That being said, Iceland always seemed like one of those trips you take later in life. It felt far away, expensive, and inaccessible. Admittedly, a small part of me even assumed you’d have to live in an igloo or wear snow shoes when visiting a country so far north.
So, we never researched an Iceland trip thinking it would be out of reach. Until my wife’s cousin reached out to us about a deal at TravelZoo. The deal included:
- a round trip, non stop flight from Chicago to Iceland
- hotel for 3 nights (A Hilton, even; definitely not an igloo)
- a guided outdoor northern lights tour
- a visit to a thermal bath
- transportation to and from the airport
The entire package cost $650. This seemed ridiculously cheap to us. Airfare to Europe routinely costs this much on its own – let alone with lodging and tours. The fact that the flight was only 6 hours from Chicago and non-stop made it perfect for an extended weekend trip. We jumped on the opportunity and bought the package.
Note: while the $650.00 trip to Iceland deal is now closed, it periodically pops up again at TravelZoo. Keep an eye out.
The lack of sunlight really messes with you.
We arrived at 6am on a Thursday in December. It was still pitch black outside, and would continue to be for another 4 hours. I didn’t really sleep well on the plane, so the combination of jet lag and darkness during daytime hours was disorienting. Iceland’s international airport is an hour away from Reykjavik itself so I slept on our shuttle ride to the hotel.
In early December, sunrise in Iceland is about 10:30am and sunset is 3pm. It actually gets more extreme as you approach the solstices: Iceland gets about 4 hours of daylight in late December, and 21 hours of daylight in late June.
We took the first day to explore downtown Reykjavik during the 4.5 hours of daylight that we had. If you’re ever in a new city, we recommend looking up free walking tours. It’s a great way to get local perspective, you only pay an optional tip, and it’s a chance to socialize with other travelers.
We went with City Walk Reykjavik and were delighted with our tour guide Marteinn. We spent about two hours seeing the major sights and learning about the city’s history. The tour was top quality and we definitely recommend it.
Reykjavik’s architecture and art are gorgeous. The buildings are colorful against the wintry background, and at times you feel like you’re walking through a snow globe.
In talking with our tour guide Marteinn we learned just how socially progressive Iceland is. In particular the country takes great effort to promote gender and LGBT equality. Recently a lawmaker spoke to a legislative body while breastfeeding her child without so much as a hiccup.
Towards the end of our tour we had a surprise visit from a graduating high school class performing a drunken scavenger hunt – a sign of the country’s liberal drinking culture.
There are glaciers in Iceland.
And you can hike them if you want. It took some convincing to get my wife to agree, but online we found Arctic Adventures – a reputable company that operates glacier hiking tours. We decided to purchase their Blue Ice day-long glacier hike package recognizing that we would probably never get to step foot on a glacier again in our lives.
Let me summarize the hike: it was awesome. The Arctic Adventures Blue Ice tour guides were awesome. The experience was awesome. The views were awesome. Everything about it was… awesome. My wife does not like hiking but also thought it was awesome. If you’re on the fence about doing a glacier hike, I highly recommend it and I recommend going with this tour group.
Hiking on a glacier may sound intimidating at first. My wife was initially opposed to the idea. She envisioned us being stranded on a sheet of ice in the middle of nowhere, constantly falling over the slippery surface. She also assumed it would only work if you were in fantastic health, an avid hiker, or an outdoorsman.
But Arctic Adventures did a fantastic job making the hike accessible to everyone. You go in a group of 5-10 people – and we had no less than three guides hiking with us at all times. You are given helmets, walking picks, and crampons (aka spiky metal shoes) to walk on the ice without slipping. While there are moderate inclines sometimes involved, overall the hike is casual and not very demanding for your average office drone like me. And the pace is casual.
The views from the glacier are gorgeous. At times a sea of gray and white blend together with the horizon. It was eerie. We experienced a fog by the time we reached the top, so the pictures don’t do it justice.
The Blue Ice tour also has an optional ice climbing section. The tour guides set up a harness system and you get to scale a 30 foot ice wall with ice picks. This is actually pretty demanding physically but is totally optional. And it’s fun to do. I only made it about 5-6 feet up before my feet got too sore.
We visited a thermal bath before hunting for northern lights.
The thermal baths are a cool concept. Using just the Earth’s natural resources, most of Iceland is able to offer these outdoor hot water pools that function without any man-made power source. The water is as warm as a hot tub and invigorating against the cold air. You’ll find communal thermal baths in most small towns in Iceland.
We opted not to go to the Blue Lagoon. We had heard that it is often crowded and over priced. From our research we felt the thermal baths were an excellent alternative that was a little more intimate.
The thermal bath that we visited was Laugarvatn Fontana in Laugarvatn – a small town an hour outside of Reykjavik. It was beautifully kept and had several different pools to enter. Everything was in pristine condition, and we even had a buffet dinner afterwards.
One caveat: men are required to fully shower themselves without swimwear before entering the thermal bath. This rule is enforced strictly by the staff. So you will need to be comfortable briefly showering with strangers. When in Rome… err, Reykjavik.
Our hunt for northern lights ended up a failure.
There was heavy cloud cover during our entire stay that removed any chance to see the beautiful lights. We knew this was a possibility heading into our trip since we would only be in Iceland for 3 nights.
Ultimately it was only a minor disappointment: while we didn’t get to witness the striking views that we had always associated with Iceland, we did get to experience so much else of what the country had to offer.
If you’re researching a trip to Iceland and want to see northern lights, here are a few tips:
- Plan to be outside of Reykjavik during night time so that you have less light pollution.
- Visit during a new moon – when the moon is least visible at night time.
- If possible, schedule at last a week-long trip. On average you should see the northern lights at least once during a 7 day period.
But even if you don’t get to see the lights, it’s still a great place to visit.
Extra credit: sub-par hot dogs
You’ll surely hear about the world-famous BBP hot dog stand in Reykjavik. Reportedly, president Bill Clinton was walking through Iceland on official business and stopped to eat here after catching the scent of hot dogs in the air. Our tour guide mentioned this place, as did many other blogs that we read before visiting.
While I encourage you to try BBP hot dogs and reach your own conclusion, as a Chicagoan I would have to give a hard pass after trying it myself. The hot dogs here weren’t terrible, but certainly weren’t anything to write home about.