8 Reasons to Visit Iceland Beyond the Aurora Borealis

I’ve always wanted to see the Aurora Borealis here in Canada or anywhere. The greenish natural wonder that lights up the skies at night is one of the highlights people hope to catch when they think of visiting Iceland. Given it’s location your chances of seeing them are pretty good if you’ve got the patience and planning to stay a few days. But what else is there to do in Iceland?

Recently we decided to take in a five day trip staying in Reykjavik. I honestly was surprised that there was so much more to see and do that would warrant a proper stay rather than a layover that most people do en route to or from Europe. Choosing to go in December is beautiful! The city is all dressed up during the holiday season too! We’re already planning to return because there’s so much more that we need to explore.

Blue Lagoon

Here are 8 reasons to visit Iceland now…

Food Scene: When Sigurdur Helgason, executive chef of Grillið, visited Toronto in the fall and prepared a special dinner menu showcasing the finest of Icelandic cuisine at Jump, it truly sparked my interest in Iceland’s food scene. Helgason competed in the Bocuse D’or representing Iceland and was awarded eighth place over all proving that the country’s culinary talent is worthy of the international attention it’s been receiving. Iceland is known for it’s award-winning lamb, most succulent langoustine and tasty cod. Other interesting culinary findings included puffin, minke whale, and yes, the famous street hot dog. No shortage of higher end dining experiences. Splurge at Grillið, Geiri Smart, Fiskmarkadurinn (The Fish Market). Head to the Public House for drinks and nibbles (found dumplings and other asian influenced dishes here that were pretty good).

Taste of Iceland event at Jump with Executive Chef Sigurdur Helgason of Grilled . Photo credit: Sonya Davidson

Blue Lagoon: no trip is complete to Iceland without a trip to a natural hot springs or this very popular geothermal spa. Most people will check themselves into the Blue Lagoon to begin or end their trip. Plan on about 1-1/2 hours in the waters (because your skin will start turning into a prune from being in the water for so long) and slather up with the silica mud masque. The temperature of the water is warm thanks to the heating that happens 2000 metres below the surface harnessed by the nearby geothermal power plant. Strange but true. Best to book in advance and book the package that includes a robe, towel and flip flops or bring your own. It’s cold out there in your bathing suit. If you plan on bringing a camera or your mobile device be sure to bring a waterproof clear sleeve to keep it protected. Lockers are provided and shower stalls. The tourist destination also houses the Lava restaurant and a cafe if you have time.

Photo credit: Sonya Davidson

Outside of the City: We aren’t joking when we say there are no bad photos here. Iceland is naturally beautiful everywhere. My camera and iPhone was filled with photos and we had only touched upon Iceland’s countryside with a day trip to what they call the “Golden Circle”. Many efficient tours take you to a few highlighted areas including the UNESCO World Heritage site Thingvellir National Park, Gullfoss Waterfalls, and the famous Geysirs that blow every 10 minutes. Once you’ve checked those off your list, go beyond to areas like Vik and the South Coast, go snorkelling in Silfra, go inside a glacier cave or if you’re a Game of Thrones fan, you can check out the filming locations. North Iceland has many valleys and lava fields that are breathtaking. But please be safe when taking those epic selfies. Their tourism board launched this campaign and yes, we’ve seen some tourists on our trip that tested their fate.

Arts Scene: There are many museums and galleries to fill your days that range from artifacts to contemporary art installations. Your best deal is to grab a Citypass (that can be found at the tourist information centres) that grants you access to multiple locations because chances is are, you’ll stumble across a gem of an exhibition at any given time. We visited the Reykjavik Art Museums (that actually is three museums set apart from each other – Hafnarhus, Kjarvalsstadir, Asmundarsafn) that features several exhibitions including Yoko Ono: One More Story (until February 5, 2017). This exhibition invites museum visitors to play an active part and, with unlimited freedom, in the making of the art through several installations. At one point there’s a telephone sitting on a table where at any given moment it could ring and if you happen to pick up you’ll have a live conversation with the artist herself. Also in the same gallery is the thought-provoking work of Iceland’s Erro. In his exhibition titled “War and Peace” there several large works of art that are humorous yet at the same time uncomfortable. Exhibit on until January 22, 2017. The city also has great public art installations, sculptures and street art to take in as well.

Photo credit: Sonya davidson

Yule Lads: December is definitely a worthy month to visit Iceland as the children of the country are more familiar with the 13 Yule Lads. We’ve got Santa but according to folklore, the group of funny trolls descend from the mountains during the festive season in Iceland. It is said that each night one of the Yule lads visit to leave sweets and small gifts (or rotten potatoes if you were naughty the previous day). Each Yule Lad has a special characteristic about them. You can spot them throughout the city and even some animated ones are projected on buildings that makes for a fun scavenger hunt activity.

Bowl-Licker Yule Lad. Photo courtesy of Iceland Naturally

 

Icelandic Horses: This unique breed of beautiful horses arrived in Iceland with the first settlers from Norway about 1100 years ago. The horses give me hair envy with their long wispy manes and smaller stature. They are a national treasure with strong personalities. The pure bred and can only be found here. We’ve been told that no other breeds have ever been permitted to enter Iceland.

Photo courtesy of Iceland Tourism

Music Scene & Nightlife: When I had attended the Taste of Iceland event in Toronto in the Fall, I had immediately noticed the warmth and fun side of the people and their culture. Music, food, and good fun is obvious and most people who have visited Reykjavik can attest that there is no shortage of nightlife that makes this city a hotspot of party revellers. Iceland’s music scene is also strong with several major festivals that are known to attract performers locally and globally including  the annual Iceland Airwaves Music Festival  early November. Be sure to also visit the Harpa Concert Hall while you’re in town as well. You can visit the stunning architectural wonder during the days too.

Coffee Culture: You may be surprise to learn that the coffee culture in Reykjavik is strong. With many worthy cafes to explore in the city, you’ll most likely want to linger in a few. We loved the cafe in the Canopy Hotel where you can order up your espresso based latte, baked good and then sift through their  record collection amongst the many curious items on display and request the barista to play..yes, records. Staff are super friendly and will often start up friendly conversation to see how your visit to the city is going. Also try C is for Cookie.

Canopy Hotel. Photo credit: Sonya Davidson

“What people keep asking me” Travel Tips:

Safety: Iceland has consistently ranked #1 in the world as being the safest and most peaceful place in the world in several travel magazines as well as the Global Peace Index. Everyone is super nice here.

Daylight in the winter is short: so if you’re planning to take in natural sites and epic photos then you’re limited to hours. At the beginning of December the sun rose around 10:30 am and sun started setting around 3:00 pm. And of course, during the summer months the days are longer with some points where it never gets completely dark.

Water is drinkable: Friends had warned us about the smell of sulphur in the water system at their hotels but we had opted to stay at a newer hotel in the city where the water was perfectly drinkable right from the tap with no scent. Iceland has one of the world’s cleanest ecosystems as it is home to glaciers, geysers, rivers and water is naturally filtered through layers of volcanic rock.

Photo credit: Sonya Davidson

Style scene: While you pack for Iceland and plan on time in the city it’s surprisingly urban chic in feel. No, not everyone is in parkas and massive winter boots in the city…only tourists. While we were there there was no snow on the sidewalks nor was it as cold as it was back at home in Toronto. We gave thanks to the gulfstream that went through Iceland for the better weather when we were visiting. But be warned, the weather is unpredictable. In one day we experienced rain, sun, wind, and then calmness. So, pack your kicks and a city coat as well as boots and a parka for exploring  if you have space in your luggage. I brought along my black Colmar Original jacket that has a flattering silhouette while keeping me warm that was perfect for the city as well as my warm and bright  Columbia Sportswear jacket (Women’s Carson Pass Interchange Jacket) for the days I went exploring – which was very versatile given the changing climate and conditions particularly sightseeing near the rapid waterfalls.

Shopping: There were plenty of Icelandic Wool sweater shops along the popular street of Laugavegur but we really liked the local retailer 66°NORTH that was founded in 1926. The brand specializes in winter wear for everyday life with warmth and style.

66north

Getting around: we walked everywhere in the city at all times of the day and night easily. They have efficient bus service to get tourists in and out of the airport as well as to any tours you may choose to book.

Best time of year to catch the Aurora Borealis: plan your visits later September to early April and even just a 10 minute drive outside of the city on a clear night could grant you nature’s best light show. There are no guarantees and like, weather forecasting, the local meteorologists can analyze if the conditions are good each night. But the more north in the country you venture, the better the viewing. It was overcast each night when we were there but that was okay, we loved everything we had discovered on this trip. And yes, we will go back!

Sonya is the Co-Founder and Managing Editor of AZNmodern.com. She is also a well-established contributing lifestyle writer to other sites and magazines sharing her passion for arts & culture, fashion, beauty, travel and food. Sonya is based in Toronto, Canada. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @theculturepearl

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