Christmas in Iceland: An 8 day road trip

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The mysterious country of Iceland is known for being the land of fire + ice.

In preparation for winter in Iceland, make sure to pack essentials such as a coat, snow boots, scarf, gloves, a hat, thick socks and thermals. But don’t worry, if you’ve endured a NYC or Chicago winter, you’ll be fine here!

My number one advice while in Iceland is to stop on the side of the road to pet every Icelandic horse you can get your hands on— they're adorable!

Fun fact: Icelandic horses have five gaits, while most other breeds have three or four.

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December 21st


Start your trip by renting a vehicle from Keflavík International Airport’s Thrifty Car Rental.

33 mi

Head to downtown Reykjavik and revive yourself at Kaffitár cafe.

Purchase tickets to the Volcano House and watch a 53-minute documentary about Iceland’s volcanoes and their most famous eruptions.

There is one thing you HAVE to do on your first day in Reykjavik— take a FREE two-hour walking tour of the city. This was probably the best move of the trip. City Walk has informative and funny guides and there’s no doubt you’ll finish with so much knowledge about the city. From political movements to food to landmarks to random facts, you’ll set a solid foundation for the start of your trip.

Sit down for a meal with fresh Icelandic seafood and produce at Kopar located in the Old Harbor. Ask for a table by the window for a scenic view of the harbor and to watch the sunlight turn into darkness. For us, we also watched the weather transform from cloudy to rainy to snow to clear ☺ That’s Iceland for ya! My personal favorite dishes were the bread + butter with whey + licorice and the blue ling fish.

See if you can catch a performance at Harpa. The gorgeous building features a distinctive colored glass facade inspired by Iceland‘s exceptional and dramatic nature.

8 mi

Check-in at the inexpensive, yet comfortable Harbourfront Guesthouse to sleep off your jet lag.

 

December 22nd

Today is the day to explore Iceland’s stunning landscapes. The Golden Circle is a beautiful day trip from Reyk that hits four amazing sights. Depending on how long you explore each place and weather conditions, I’d say this trip takes about five hours.

25 mi

Start your morning by heading to Thingvellir National Park. The park is known for it’s unique location. This is where the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates are slowly splitting apart from each other and creating deep fissures in the ground. The most popular crack is Silfra, where people can actually snorkel or scuba dive between the continents!

37 mi

Next up on the route is Haukadalur, a geothermal area known for its geysers. Before checking out this spectacular natural phenomena, stop for a snack at Kantina (across from the geysers). Their mushroom soup is a delicious snack to keep you warm! In addition, Skyr yoghurt is made in Iceland and is SO yummy!! I personally recommend blueberry Skyr. Okay, now that you’re warm and not hangry, cross the street to see two of Iceland’s famous geysers; Geysir and Strokkur.

Fun fact: The word ‘geyser’ was coined after this particular one in Iceland.

Prep yourself because it smells like rotten eggs! Boiling water churns beneath the surface while steam rises from the vents that are next to mineral deposits and mud pools. While the Great Geysir no longer erupts, another one called Strokkur explodes about 100 feet into the air about every 10 minutes, so make sure you have your cameras ready!

6 mi

Now it’s time to start chasing waterfalls! Gullfoss Waterfall is the next stop on the Golden Circle route. Once at the parking lot, you’ll descend a long staircase that’ll take you to a walkway along the edge of the waterfall with amazing views of the dramatic cascade below!

Warning: It’s windy and you’ll get wet. This is my favorite attraction on the Golden Circle route! You’ll have to backtrack a bit to continue on the Golden Circle route. Do not try to continue on the road past Gullfoss (it’s a major F-road).

39 mi

Last but not least on the Golden Circle route is one of the lesser-known attractions, Kerið Crater Lake. It was once a typical shaped volcano but has since collapsed and is now filled with water. Though I didn’t do it, I’ve been told that it only takes five minutes to hike down it. If you run out of daylight time while touring the Golden Circle, I’d recommend leaving the crater out of the itinerary.

38 mi

On your drive back to the capital you’ll see a little coffee shop on the left side of the road called Bokakaffio. Unfortunately I cannot find a link for them but if you see it on the left when approaching a small town, do stop! It’s an adorable coffee shop/bookstore with a piano if you fancy brushing up your skills.

Head back to Hafnarfjörður to have to time meander the streets of the Viking Village. The town has two other names: The Town in the Lava and The Town of the Elves. To clarify—the town is built on a lava field and it’s said that Icelandic elves live in lava rocks.

 

December 23rd

It’s time to say goodbye to the capital for a night and head to Höfn,  with a stop in arguably the most exciting part of Iceland— the glacier lagoon! Before heading out on your exciting adventure, grab coffee and pastries at a tiny coffee shop across the street from the guesthouse called Norðurbakkinn.

84 mi

On your route to Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon you’ll want to stop to see Seljalandsfoss Waterfall. It’s a pretty spectacular waterfall thats water comes from the melting water of a glacier-capped volcano. The waterfall cascades over steep cliffs making it possible to walk behind the waterfall during the summer months— though always take caution because it’s slippery.

49 mi

It’s a long drive from the waterfall to the lagoon, but after about 49 miles in you’ll drive through Myrdalssandur black-lava desert. You’ll know when you’re there because you’ll feel like you’re on a different planet by the topography of your surroundings.

108 mi

You’ve finally made it to Jökulsárlón Galcier Lagoon! It’s such a breathtaking sight to see! Be sure to walk down by the water and watch the sea lions splashing around between ice chunks. It’s not time to leave until you’ve ventured across the highway (literally directly across from the lagoon) to see Diamond Beach. Chunks of glassy, deep, luminous blue ice cover the black sand at Diamond Beach creating such a stunning contrast of colors. Grab a bite to eat before heading out at the mini café located in the lagoon’s parking lot!

 
 
 
 

50 mi

Tonight is the night (if the weather permits of course) to go Northern Lights hunting near the fishing town of Höfn.

Check-in at a tiny guesthouse on the harbor called Guesthouse Hvammur. There’s not much to it but it’s an inexpensive option that’s perfectly suitable for a night.

Grab dinner at the quaint old-school diner right outside called Hafnarbuðin.  I recommend the lobster sandwich with fries.

Relax in a steam bath at the Höfn outdoor swimming pool located down the street. Don’t stay too long or you’ll get too sleepy for your upcoming nighttime adventure.

Once you’ve showered and bundled up, head out around the town and the surrounding areas to see the Northern Lights. I recommend driving past Höfn to get away from the town’s lights. You’ll want to be in a pitch black location to see them. Keep looking up. They’re spectacular and they truly dance in the sky. I saw them dance in green but they can also be spotted in pink (I wish I saw this color!), yellow, blue, violet and orange.

Pro tip: Your mobile phone won’t capture the Northern Lights, be sure to have a DSLR camera with you for epic shots!

 

December 24th

Time to make your way back to Reykjavik for Christmas!

169 mi  

As you’re headed back to the capital, make some time to see Reynisfjara Beach in Vik. The beach has black pebbles and incredibly unique basalt stacks/columns. The cliffs of Reynisfjall Mountain right about the columns are home to the infamous puffin seabirds.

If you decide to stay in Vik, I highly recommend staying at Iceland Air Hotel Vik.

As you’re driving keep an eye on the ocean, you’ll most likely sea frozen ocean waves!    

111 mi  

The city of Reykjavik will be pretty silent since it’s Christmas Eve so this is the perfect time to check into your AirBnB and relax.

 

December 25th: Christmas Day

Religious or not, you should attend Christmas Mass at the famous Hallgrímskirkja  Church for the experience. The Church is Reykjavik’s main landmark that can be seen from just about anywhere in the city. You’ll hear familiar Christmas songs being sung in Icelandic— it’s a really neat event to attend! Be sure to go to the top of the tower while you’re there! After Mass, walk around the city and admire all sights that you wouldn’t get to on a busy working day.

Stop by Meze for some delicious mulled wine.

Before heading back to the AirBnB, grab a hot dog at the world’s most successful stand (as honored by Forbes), Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur. The name literally means “the best hotdog” in town. They’re known for the hotdog with everything—ketchup, mustard, fried and raw onion, remoulade and a type of sweet mayonnaise dressing.

Fun fact: The place grew in popularity after Bill Clinton ate there.

 

December 26th

It’s time for another adventure! This time, to the other side of the island— Akureyri.

268 mi

I advise you pass Akureyri to check out Goðafoss waterfall. In Icelandic, Goðafoss means waterfall of the gods.

Fun fact: Legend has it that Christianity became the official religion of Iceland at this waterfall. In the year 1000, Iceland’s legislative assembly was debating which religion they should practice: Norse Paganism or Christianity. After a speaker of the Parliament spent a day and night meditating under a fur blanket, he decided to convert to Christianity. To symbolize his conversion, he threw his god statues into the waterfall.

33 mi

Before settling down in Akureyri, take a swim in the Mývatn Nature Baths. They’re not bright blue like the Blue Lagoon, but they are less crowded, less expensive and have the same relaxing affect on the body. If you can catch the sunset, the views are spectacular. You’ll be asked to shower before going in and given a welcome drink.

Pro tip: If you plan on wetting your hair in the geothermal baths, be aware that you’re hair will be hard for days— even after washing.

60 mi

Check-in at Icelandair Hotel Akureyri and enjoy your night.

 

December 27th

Today has a lot of pretty amazing things in store.

64 mi

Start by heading to Grjótagjá— a fissure in the ground that opens to a stunning cave pool that you can bathe in. This is the perfect spot to take a dip in the winter because the water is heated by volcanic activity deep in the Earth. Be sure to look at the signs outside of the cave and check with local guides on the temperature status of the water before taking a dip. You may recognize this cave from season three, episode Kissed by Fire, in the hit series, Game of Thrones.

7 mi

Next up are geysers at Námafjall. The boiling mud pools are sometimes called ‘Hell's Kitchen’ because of the overwhelming stench of sulfur from water boiling at such a high temperature. The orange/yellow color of this area stems from sulfur.

6 mi

Drive through Krafla Volcanic Area to see Víti (aka Hell) Crater. The crater was formed during a massive volcanic eruption that caused fires and continued for about five years.

72 mi

Now it’s time to head back to the hotel to change and head out to a nice dinner at Rub 23. This place has exquisite food! I recommend the platter with shrimp, scallops, duck and reindeer tataki as well as the Arctic char and salmon. Trust me, it will be one of the best seafood dishes you’ve ever had! We topped it off with coffee Amaretto and macaroons.

R5 bar around the corner is a great place to grab a nightcap drink before hitting the sack.

 

December 28th

Before heading back to Reykjavik, I’d recommend dog sledding. Unfortunately I didn’t get a chance to, but if you’re interested, Akureyri is the place to do it! Be sure to book in advance!

236 mi

Once back in Rekjavik, wander through the streets of the old neighborhood.

You CANNOT leave Iceland without trying their signature food— fermented shark. Yes, it tastes just as bad as it sounds and it smells even worse, but you have to do it. Café Loki, across from the Church, is the perfect place to try it. Hákarl (in Icelandic) is the national dish of Iceland, which consists of shark meat that has decomposed to ooze toxic ammonia and hung to dry for about four to six months to complete the breakdown process. During the drying process, the toxins form a crust that is then cut off, revealing an edible rubbery white flesh. It’s the tradition to pair Hákarl with a shot of ‘Black Death’— 80-proof Brennivin that tastes similar to vodka. It’s rough but you’ve gotta do it!

 

*Additional Notes*

To cut down on expenses, purchase groceries from Bonus or Kronan grocery stores.

Carry around sugar cubes or carrots to feed the Icelandic horses on the side of the road.

The mobile app called maps.me is a wonderful tool to use while in Iceland. No internet necessary.

Remember there’s only about five hours of sunlight a day during the winter. I recommend renting a car (four wheel drive) only if you feel comfortable driving in harsh weather conditions. Weather conditions can get incredibly scary and dangerous to the point of no visibility, strong winds, ice and snow. There aren’t many people living in the country, so traffic is non-existent once you’re outside of the city. Iceland has a fantastic website to check real-time road conditions called Vegagerdin.

* *This itinerary was altered due to road closures from weather conditions.


RECAP:

1. Thrifty Car Rental; 2. Kaffitár cafe; 3. Volcano House ; 4. City Walk; 5. Kopar; 6. Harpa; 7. Harbourfront Guesthouse8. Golden Circle; 9. Thingvellir National Park; 10.  Silfra; 11. Haukadalur; 12. Kantina; 13. Geysir and Strokkur 14. Gullfoss Waterfall; 15. Kerið Crater Lake; 16. Bokakaffio; 17. Hafnarfjörður; 18. Norðurbakkinn; 19. Seljalandsfoss Waterfall; 20. Myrdalssandur; 21. Jökulsárlón Galcier Lagoon; 22. Diamond Beach; 23. Höfn; 24. Guesthouse Hvammur; 25. Hafnarbuðin; 26. Höfn outdoor swimming pool; 27. Northern Lights; 28. Reykjavik; 29. Reynisfjara Beach in Vik; 30. Iceland Air Hotel Vik; 31. Hallgrímskirkja  Church; 32. Meze; 33. Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur; 34. Akureyri; 35. Goðafoss; 36. Mývatn Nature Baths; 37. Icelandair Hotel Akureyri; 38. Grjótagjá; 39. Námafjall; 40. Krafla Volcanic Area to see Víti (aka Hell) Crater; 41. Rub 23; 42. R5; 43. dog sledding; 44. Café Loki