Five Reasons I Loved Iceland, and One Reason I Didn't
Iceland. Oh Iceland.
It's the land of ever-changing weather and delicious Viking beer, of incredible geysers, thundering waterfalls, boiling thermal pools, smiling locals, rotten shark delicacies, mossy landscapes, volcanic mountains that continue on as far as the eye can see...
We just got back from a week in Iceland, and man, if it wasn't the most incredible place we've ever been to in our lives (well, at least for me. Mr. Nerd maintains that Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming is still life-changing for him—but I haven't been there yet, so I'll let that slide).
Seriously, though. Before we left for Iceland, I wasn't convinced that it was as great as people claim. It seemed overhyped and over-praised. I'd seen pictures, of course, but the promise of cold, windy days and short sunlight hours were enough to make me doubt how great it'd actually be.
I'll be the first to admit it. I was wrong. I'm SO GLAD I was wrong.
Iceland is a stunner. I loved almost everything about it, and here's why.
Five Reasons I Loved Iceland...
The food is delicious and incredible. Oh so incredible.
I could eat Icelandic food for ages and never get sick of it.
Do you like fish? Seafood? Lobster soup? How about strong brewed coffee and thick, freshly baked rye bread slathered with a generous portion of special Icelandic butter and topped with thinly sliced cucumbers and tomatoes? If that's not your style, have some potatoes seasoned with Icelandic herbs, paired with a lamb or reindeer steak seared to perfection.
Still no? Well, their rye bread ice cream, crepe thin pancakes with jam and slightly-sweet whipped cream, and Belgian-style waffles coated in sticky caramel are enough to make anyone's mouth water.
Icelandic food is simple and pure. They eat mostly fish served with a side of potatoes, wild mushrooms, and lots ... and lots ... of bread. Rye bread. Grain bread. Slabs as thick as bricks for breakfast, small, steaming dinner rolls for supper.
And then there's beer. Light wheat ales, thick chocolate malts, and some brews in between. You can get cans of beer from gas stations for fairly cheap, ranging anywhere from 2.5% alcohol content to 5% and up. And boy, are they refreshing ... whether chugged in a hostel with friends or savored up on a secluded mountain.
Food is expensive in Iceland; there's no getting past that. We had one fancy meal and several light meals, tried eating hot dogs (some of the cheapest Icelandic "fast food" you can find) and bought bread, cheese, and meat from the market ... and it was still all a blow to our budget. So if you visit, keep that in mind.
But the food is worth splurging on, in our opinion. Regardless of the cost.
The landscape is amazing. Inspiring. Stunning. Breath-taking.
(Add all other possible descriptive words here.)
As I mentioned before, I'd seen several pictures of Iceland before, both on Instagram and from other travel blogs. I thought it beautiful, of course, but still didn't understand how it was different from the other places I had been (like Norway or France).
Now that I've experienced it for myself, I think it's really one of those times where pictures just don't do her justice.
Iceland is all of the words I mentioned above and more. If you're in Reykjavik, just get in the car and drive 10 minutes in one direction, and you'll see the landscape change. Drive another 10 minutes, and the landscape changes again.
In our time there, we saw endless fields of black volcanic rock covered in vivid green moss. We saw volcanic mountain ranges (not covered and also covered in snow), pools of steaming, boiling water, rivers that cascaded down rough terrain, soft grassy valleys, rough red rock with exploding geysers... We saw so many new sights that after a while, my brain couldn't comprehend it. I felt like I was looking at a poster ... a picture someone else took.
Just look at these pictures (though I swear, you need to go for yourself. Right now. Also, you wouldn't believe how long it took me to pick just these photos to share. So hard to decide!).
The possibilities are endless!
Have you ever been on a trip that bored you? I hope it's not an often occurrence, but trust me, Iceland will leave you begging for more time before you board the plane home.
I believe there's a little something for everyone in Iceland! Do you like nature and the great outdoors? Go on a hike! There are dozens of 2-4 hour day hikes just a 20 minute drive from Reykjavik, which makes the capitol city a great home base. We went on two hiking trips while we were there, and we wish we could've gone on more.
If you'd rather drink than tromp through the mud, Reykjavik has a great nightlife (and day life, if you like to hit the tap all day long. We don't judge)! The main shopping street, Laugavegur, has many a bar and club that serve drinks long after midnight. It's a great way to warm up after a cold day, if you visit in the winter, or cool down after a lovely summer outing.
There are also tons of tours, both self-guided and company run. You can take a day to wander around downtown Reykjavik—trust us, LOTS to see—or drive around on a clear night to find the Northern Lights (which we didn't find this time, oh well)! There are glacier hikes, ice cave tours, horseback rides on soft, adorable Icelandic ponies... The iconic Golden Circle tour, even.
Summer opens its own set of options, too. We can't wait to go back someday and see for ourselves.
Friendly Icelandic locals.
We didn't talk in-depth to too many Icelanders, but one thing that surprised us was how happy they seem. Every time we struck conversation with someone, whether ordering food at a restaurant or discussing our plans for the day at the hostel, they spoke perfect English (thank you, lovely people!), laughed at our attempts to pronounce a dish in Icelandic, and just generally ... smiled at us.
We didn't expect it, but it really relaxed us.
* Funny anecdote incoming *
On our last day in Iceland, Mr. Nerd and I decided to head to a nearby geothermal pool in the city center. We paid our entrance and rental towel fee, then headed our separate ways into the locker rooms where we stripped and showered naked in front of several other people (you quickly get used to it, just hold your head high). I made it out of the women's lockers first and stood, shivering in the cold, next to a door waiting for Ben.
I must have stood there for a long while, looking like a lost lamb, because a friendly Icelandic boy (probably in his mid-twenties and a dead ringer for John Bradley-West, who plays Samwell Tarly in Game of Thrones) walked up to me and asked me if I was OK. When I told him I was waiting for my husband, he laughed and offered to go find him.
"His name is Ben," I said. "Tall, dark hair, beard. Probably looking awkward."
He went into the back and came out a few minutes later, shaking his head.
"Only older guys in there," he said, hunching over and gesturing to himself. "White hair. Wrinkly."
I went outside to look in the pools, thinking Ben might've ditched me. No dice. When I went back inside to warm up, Samwell rushed over to me.
"Found him. He'll be out in a minute."
Ben came out a couple minutes later looking very sheepish. Apparently, Samwell and another older gentleman (who had overheard my plight) found Ben in the bathroom and told him, in no uncertain terms, that I was looking for him and would kill him if he didn't come out. Also, they told him this while he was bare ass naked.
Icelandic humor. Gotta love it.
Reykjavik, as a city, is so much fun to walk around.
I'm not sure what more there is to write about this. Reykjavik is a pretty neat gem; no wonder two-thirds of the population live there! The architecture is fun to take pictures of as you walk through side streets and down busy sidewalks (I can't believe the colors!), the street art is like a dream, and there are tons of free things to do.
For example, if you want to enjoy a sleepy afternoon, you might head to Harpa Concert Hall for a coffee and a gander at the incredible glass windows that makes up its walls and ceiling. If you're lucky, you could see a light show (fingers crossed the sun is shining)!
Otherwise, grab a Bloody Mary or Martini at one of the many restaurants/cafes nearby and watch people as they stroll past with children and lovers in tow. We enjoyed many meals like this, studying the different travelers and locals who wander the halls of Reykjavik, a city that's as fun to explore as it is to say.
Also, stuffing your face with waffles and hot cocoa while staring up at the magnificent Hallsgrimskirkja is aaaaaalways acceptable (I've been there).
And One Reason I Did Not
Don't get me wrong. This doesn't detract from my insta love of Iceland. It's a magical place, and I'm counting the days until we can go back (hopefully for much longer next time)!
But I think it's a necessary discussion to have and a real thing to warn other travelers about. This reason detracted from our experience. It's the one thing that took my excitement and adoration for the country and made me sad. And angry.
The overwhelming attitude of tourism.
Iceland has been pressing for tourists to come visit, to explore Iceland and stimulate their economy after the Icelandic financial crisis in 2008. This has been done, in part, with the famous "Icelandair Stopover," which allows airline passengers to build an extra week into their trip with no extra cost. I have nothing against this! It's made Iceland affordable to visit (in fact, the first time we heard about Iceland was when we flew with Icelandair and had the option for a stopover ... which we, unfortunately, didn't take at the time).
However, tourists are hurting Iceland. I can't tell you how many times we saw litter in Reykjavik and in the countryside, how many times we saw people shouting to others, pushing people out of the way to get the best photos, taking up multiple parking spots with a bad parking job, ignoring parking fee requests (and getting tickets because of it), and being rude to Icelanders ... in their own country!
And this was late November, a time when Iceland is supposed to be in off season. I can't imagine what it's like to walk Reykjavik or drive the Golden Circle during the summer.
Just because Iceland is affordable to visit doesn't mean it's OK to be an irresponsible traveler. It hurt my heart to see people jumping over roped areas and tromping through sensitive mud and moss—in a national park! It horrified me when teenage girls and young men climbed up volcanic rocks and cliff sides to get "cool selfies" with a selfie stick. It sickened me when I saw people throw empty coffee cups on the ground outside by the geysers ... and when we saw a poor Icelandic man in the rain with his car parked to the side, picking up TWO FULL BAGS of garbage just scattered into a ditch by a passing traveler. It disheartened me to see thousands of coins glittering at the bottom of a natural, pristine pool, despite the sign where it clearly said NOT to. I sighed as people pocketed rocks, sand, moss, and whatever else they could find to take home as a souvenir.
We live in a time where the selfie is so important that it doesn't matter what we destroy, just as long as we get that perfect photo to post on Instagram or Facebook. It makes me so mad. So if you go to Iceland, a warning: be prepared to see irresponsible behavior from tourists and travelers alike, and realize that as the years pass, Iceland may continue to deteriorate from recklessness and selfishness.
Because ... how do you stop people like that?
Have you been to Iceland? What are the reasons you loved it or didn't love it? Leave your thoughts in the comments below. We'd love to hear from you.