Europe, Iceland, Travel

Traveling To Iceland In the Winter – The Basics of What You Need to Know

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Tjörnin – the small lake in Reykjavik

My other half and I made a pact that we would go to a different spot in the world for New Year’s, every year. This year, we chose Iceland and we are so glad we did!

We have had many friends go to this beautiful country in the spring/summer but usually not in the winter (one did and she said it was “f*#@ing cold out”).  In doing more research, we realized we had to do it as a winter trip (knowing we’d have to come back in the summer months too), as their NYE traditions are something we wanted to be a part of.

In this post, I’m going to give you the basics of what you need to know, to travel to and from there.  The other posts in this series will give you more about our itinerary for the trip.

The Basics

Iceland is a very clean and VERY SAFE place to be.  Icelanders are respectful of each other, everyone has employment, and generally, everyone is very healthy and happy.  It’s also not as inhabited as many other countries are, which makes it peaceful and enjoyable.

Below are some things to note about Iceland:

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  • They are on the Krohn (ISK).  Right now, it’s $0.88 to 1 ISK.  Everyone expects credit cards to be taken – cash is rarely exchanged there (but can be).
  • They drive on the right side of the road, so driving a rental car shouldn’t be difficult
    • Most of the roadways are made with heating elements, which minimizes the need to plow in the winter.  It’s still icy in the winter though so if you’re not a proficient winter driver, don’t do it.
  • They can have all four seasons in one day (packing can be a pain) – in the winter, we experienced temps from 23-40 degrees Fahrenheit – so we got winter.. and winter 🙂
  • In the winter, they have five hours of daylight – in January, the sun rises at 11:30am and sets at 4:30pm.  In the summer, they have 21 hours of daylight.
  • They have very little wildlife – Reindeer, Icelandic horses, and arctic foxes are about it
  • Food and drink are very expensive (more on that in a bit), as almost everything has to be shipped in (pre-gaming at home is popular there)
  • Bars and restaurants shut down at 1am and 11pm, respectively
  • Restaurants will never ask you how you want your meat cooked – it will be medium unless otherwise specified.  I am a “medium” person but it was too rare for me.  I started asking for medium-well and it turned out much better.
  • There is so much beauty – you could truly spend a month attempting to explore every single part of it and you still wouldn’t get to everything
  • The water might smell funny but it is completely drinkable.  In fact, it’s the first tap water I’ve had that I’ve actually drank a lot of!
  • They are one of the “greenest” countries in the world, given that their water is naturally heated by the volcano.  This means their power is clean.
  • They also get a lot of earthquakes, given they are between two tectonic plates.  Almost all of the buildings can withstand up to a 9 on the Richter scale

Below are some things to know about Reykjavik:

  • Ingólfur Arnarson named Reykjavik in AD 874.  It means “steamy bay” in Icelandic because of the hot springs and lakes in the city.  However, there was no urban development until the 19th century, which makes it a relatively young town.
  • Everyone is young in age there.  The university, telecom jobs, and the Acting Academy are all nearby, which makes up most of the 130,000 inhabitants.
  • You can literally walk everywhere downtown.  We walked about 3-4 miles a day and it felt like nothing.  There is so much to see and do that you don’t even notice.
  • Restaurants and cafes hold odd hours.  Most cafes do not open until 9am or 10am and they shut down by dinner time.  Many of the restaurants do not open until lunch time and stay open until about 11pm.
  • Restaurants do not take online reservations – you must call or email them.
  • Taxis are available but they are expensive.  There’s really no need to get one at all, unless you really are that far away.

Getting To/From Iceland

Flying to/from Iceland isn’t all that bad if you know what to expect.  Below was our journey in getting there and back.

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Stunning views as we flew over Greenland to get home – the white dot is the moon.

Airfare: We chose WOW Air out of cost (it was $400pp roundtrip but I know there are even better last minute deals out there).  It’s a great airline, so long as you understand the additional fees you can incur:

  • $50 per checked bag, per way
  • Beverages and food are at-cost
  • If you choose your seat, as opposed to being randomly assigned one, that will also cost money, depending on what you select

Other than that, the seats were very comfortable and the attendants very helpful and friendly.  I would fly them again, for sure!

Delays: Note that flight delays are high in the winter, due to weather out of Iceland.  We were 5 1/2 hours delayed getting there and we were one-hour delayed getting home. WOW was great and gave us food vouchers to use at any of the restaurants at BWI, or even in-flight

Time: Flight time is also something to think about.  It was 5 hours to get to Iceland (from BWI) but given weather patterns and the jet stream, it took us almost 7 hours to get home.

Keflavik Airport: They do not require a customs form to enter and if you’re a U.S. Citizen, do not need a Visa.  You will need to make sure APIS has your information before you go.

Duty Free: When you get to Iceland, GET DUTY FREE LIQUOR ON THE WAY OUT!  I cannot stress this enough.  Drinks are anywhere from $13 – $25 per drink there.  For $78, we got two splits of Moet, a half liter of Black Label, and a half liter of Icelandic vodka.

Getting to Reykjavik: Like I stated above, taxis are expensive and it’s a one-hour drive to get to Reykjavik.  (You can also rent a car but not entirely recommended in the winter.) We opted to use Grayline, which used large, comfortable tour buses to get us to the bus terminal, transferring onto smaller buses to drop people off at their hotels. It was about $30pp, one-way.

Where We Stayed

There are a decent amount of hotels to stay in, in Reykjavik.  And, it’s one of few places I would absolutely recommend renting from Air BnB, as well.  Again, because everything is so walkable, safe, and clean, there really isn’t a bad spot to stay.  However, since it was our first time there, we opted for the City Center Hotel, which was a great boutique hotel, smack in the middle of the city.  The total paid for four nights was $1000 ($250/night), which included all taxes and other fees.  Note that because it’s in the center of town, it backs up to a lot of the nightlife, which can mean some noise, coming from outside.

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What To Pack

I cannot stress this enough: WARM CLOTHES AND LAYERS ARE YOUR FRIEND!!!  When we did the Golden Circle Trip, I was in yoga pants, long underwear pants, and two pairs of sweatpants (I don’t own snow pants but definitely will if I do this again).  On the top, I was in a long underwear shirt, another long-sleeved shirt, my Lululemon jacket, and my hooded puffer coat.  In addition to this, I wore a pair of boot socks and a pair of knee-high socks, with my Sorel arctic snow boots.  On my head, I had a lined, wool hat and my hood.  On my hands, a thinner pair of gloves under my ski gloves.  Around my neck, a scarf that could wrap around my face if need be. While this sounds ridiculous, that tour takes you to the tundra of no where 🙂

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35 degrees out
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Me in three layers
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Me in four layers

Walking around the city could be just as cold, with me wearing 2-3 layers everywhere. My suggestion, for packing for a 4-day winter trip (guy or girl), is the following:

  • At least two pairs of socks for each day
  • Snow boots and hiking boots
  • If you decide to go to nicer restaurants, bring a pair of nicer boots or shoes that have a tread on them
  • Snow pants (if you have them)
  • A pair of long underwear (top and bottom) for each day
  • A pair of leggings or yoga pants to put over the long underwear each day
  • A pair of sweatpants that can last you 2-3 days
  • A hooded sweatshirt/ regular sweatshirt that can last you 2-3 days
  • A long-sleeved, warm shirt for each day
  • Jeans and a nice, warm sweater for going out in, should you choose to go out to nicer places
  • Lined beanies or other winter hats for each day
  • Two pairs of gloves for each day
  • Three scarves – the backup ones will get wet, trust me
  • A poncho
  • A swimsuit if you go to the Blue Lagoon (which I HIGHLY recommend)

Other Things to Pack

  • A selfie stick.  I would NEVER have thought that to be a good idea, until I realized how much beautiful scenery was going to surround me.  I don’t regret the decision at all (although I’m still against them being used for everything).
  • A real, waterproof, temperature-proof camera.  My little Nikon came in handy a few times, while at the Golden Circle and the Blue Lagoon!

Places to Dine:

Given the time of year we went, we didn’t get to experience a lot of the dining we had wanted to.  Below is a complete list of all the places you should try:

Restaurants

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Icelandic Ice Cream with chocolate “knife” at Grillmarkadurinn
  • Apotek – The food and atmosphere are incredible.  I ordered the small plate of short ribs and a side of garlic and rosemary mashed potatoes.  I also ordered a Vanilla Espresso martini.  Others at our table had the salmon and plaice.  I hear both were very good as well.
  • Grillmarkadurinn – We stumbled upon this down an alleyway and fell in love with it!  A new restaurant for Reykjavik, it features an amazing, mouth-watering menu.  It’s another must-eat-at.  I ordered the peanut steak (vegan dish) and corn on the cob (both were unbelievable).  My other half ordered the salmon and loved it.  We shared the Icelandic ice cream assortment for dessert – a must-have!
  • Osta Budin – The number one place on our list we couldn’t get into
  • Snaps – An award-winning place that I hear serves a great weekend brunch
  • Messinn – Go there for drinks and dessert
  • Kopar – It’s right on the water, in the harbor

Cafes

Bars/Clubs

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  • Kaffibarinn – The most well-known bar in Iceland.  It’s partly owned by a famous British singer and was also the setting for a well-known Icelandic movie.  It’s a cozy and quaint hole-in-the-wall.
  • Tivoli – The upscale, trendier crowd goes here
  • Gallery – Inside Hotel Holt
  • Boston – A place where entertainment professionals go to drink
  • B5 – Lounge/upscale club
  • Loftid – The upscale, trendier crowd goes here

Other Things to Note:

  • The grocery stores are 24/7 there.  10-11 is the most popular one and sells almost every single thing you need.  I highly recommend going there for snacks, lunches, and beverages, such as soda and water.
  • They use the standard Euro plug for their electronics.  Make sure you have a Voltage converter with the two-prong plugs.
  • Most everything is shut down New Year’s Day with the exception of a few restaurants, including the Laundromat Cafe and Hard Rock Cafe.  We learned from a waitress at Hard Rock that everyone orders an additional entree to bring home with them for New Year’s Day, since food is in short supply.  I wish this was something we had known ahead of time.  In addition, only a few shops, such as The Viking, were open as well.
  • Fish (including shark and mink whale), reindeer, lamb, and horse are all staples of Icelandic menus.  They also eat a lot of wheat product and Skyr – high-protein yogurt, made of whey.  Since I’m Celiac, it was somewhat difficult to find gluten-free food.

Check out my other posts on our Icelandic adventure for more information on the tours we took!

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