I still can’t get our trip to Iceland last summer out of my mind, especially in light of the daily headlines about the volcanic eruption. It was truly one of the most exotic places I’ve yet to visit, and one of our most memorable trips. Whether you’re looking for an adventurous or cultural trip, Iceland has so much to offer. Plus, it’s safe, affordable and very diverse.
We started our trip in Reykjavik. It’s a walking city, hence very stroller-friendly. The cabs are plentiful and reasonable, which was helpful when our kids refused to walk. There are sculptures all over town dedicated to famous medieval Icelandic figures which are eye-stoppers. The main shopping street is called Langevegur which has something for everyone. Wandering through the streets looking at brightly colored houses, we walked to Tjorin pond in the centre of the city. This is where there Reykjavik’s city hall is, as well as the downtown core where its major streets intersect. The kids enjoyed feeding the ducks and pigeons in this popular part of town. We even bumped into a protest against the central bank of Iceland in this small square, providing a brief reminder of the country’s crisis.
We had loads of accommodation options from budget to deluxe. We chose to stay at guest houses and small hotels. In Reykjavik, we headed to the Baldursbra Guesthouse. Run by a French woman named Evelyn, it was clean, comfortable and centrally located. Our room was basic, with a shared bathroom. Upon our arrival, we were offered a delicious breakfast buffet. Evelyn was very helpful choosing and booking our day trips. Our double room cost $80 per night. We also stayed at Hotel Fosse Sudargarta. When we booked it, we didn’t realize the location was so far from the center. The Fosse Hotels are primarily for students or backpackers and are very simple, but actually very comfortable. Our room cost about $120 a night and came with a full buffet breakfast. For our trip out of Reykjavik, we stayed at Guesthouse Edinborg, a log cabin we had booked on Expedia at $125 a night. It was set in a spectacular glacial valley surrounded by waterfalls in a town called Skogar.
One can definitely eat on a budget in Reykjavik and get child-friendly food. We all liked Icelandic Fish & Chips, a harbor side organic bistro. The fish is tossed in barley butter and is free of white flour and refined sugar. Kid’s plates are only $5 and include “chips”, which in Iceland means roasted potatoes. The Burger Joint, loosely modeled after its famous namesake in New York City and also located on the waterfront, was very tasty and a bargain at $25 for a family of four. Krua Thai, right down the road, offers tasty and plentiful servings of Thai dishes and cost about $25 for the four of us. Most of our lunches cost about $20-$25 for all of us, buying pizzas, soup and drinks. Icelandic restaurants feature outstanding international cuisine, focusing on pure, fresh ingredients like fruits and vegetables direct from Icelandic farms. Their dairy products are some of the finest in the world. Other delicacies of interest include Belgian waffles, marzipan, hot chocolate and, of course, fish straight from the sea. However, food did become more expensive the further away we got from Reykjavik. The choices are more limited but the food is always dependable, and there are solid options for kids. Taxes and tips are included in the prices shown on the menus country-wide.
For culture vultures like me, Reykjavik’s museums are very reasonable and are real explorations into the heart and soul of the country. The National Gallery of Iceland (free admission everyday) contains the country’s most modern paintings and has an excellent children’s area. The National Museum of Iceland (free admission on Wednesdays) is a large museum showcasing Iceland’s entire history and culture, including the Vikings and medieval times. The Pearl’s Saga Museum about the Vikings, witches, history of Iceland and more is definitely not suitable for the children. Blood, stabbings, breasts …just right for nightmares.
When in doubt of what to do, head to one of Iceland’s geothermically heated pools with water slides. On average, kids are free, adults cost $3.50 to get in and they are open until midnight. We went to the biggest pool in Reykajavik called Laugardalslaug. It was smelly from the hot sulfur and kind of crowded, but everyone in the family loved it. There were indoor and outdoor swimming areas complete with steam baths and an enormous slide. Natives flock to the pools in all types of weather. The complex also contains a zoo, family park, botanical garden, sports stadium and luxury spa. A family can easily spend the entire day there and leave with content kids. Another tip when preparing for the visit: bring towels. These geothermic pools are all over the country, even in the smallest of towns, and they make for terrific cheap pit stops when kids get antsy or bored.
Iceland’s natural attractions are an absolute must-see. The Blue Lagoon, an iconic and magical spa destination, is truly from another world. It’s a lagoon of milky blue sulphurus water with steam rising all around. You bathe in the water and feel the temperature gradient rise when steaming hot water forces its way into the lagoon from underground. The Lagoon offers free steam baths and saunas, as well as free cream for facials, which I enjoyed immensely after my massage ($20 for 10 minutes). The cost to get in was $25 per adult; children are free. Although it’s partly a tourist trap, we all enjoyed it. Make sure to take a deep conditioning hair product for use post-Lagoon to avoid having everyone’s hair turn to straw from the sulfur.
We also took a day trip called the “Golden Circle” via a local tour company, Reykjavik Excursions. This is apparently the most popular tour in Iceland. All bus tours are free for children under the age of 12. There’s definitely an advantage to having an English-speaking tour guide in a country you don’t know much about. All tours include three major sights: Geyser, a geothermal spot; Gulfoss, a majestic waterfall; and Pingvellier, meaning “Parliament Fields”, a beautiful park with fantastic views that just so happens to be where the North American and European plates are moving apart. This was a good tour for all of us. Our kids loved the geysers at Pingvellier which spouted up from the ground about 40 feet right before our eyes, literally, every 5-10 minutes. They jumped around in glee every time a geyser erupted, which we captured on video. My husband and I were in awe of the huge breathtaking waterfalls at Gulfoss which plunge 105 feet into a deep canyon. Each part of the tour included time to eat or rest, which gave the kids time to refuel when necessary.
The rest of Iceland is raw, barren and as natural as you can get. Much of the best scenery in Iceland can be visited on 1 or 2 day trips from Reykjavik. We decided on a trip along the south coast. We
rented a car from Hertz at great expense (nearly $100 per day) for a few days and headed south on Route 1. The journey took us through miles of volcanic fields barren of all vegetation. We passed waterfalls, lava, farm animals and the most beautiful landscape imaginable. We loved a town called Vik, poised between mountains, sea cliffs and a beautiful black-sand beach where we walked along the cliffs. We also visited Skafatel National Park where we hiked around glaciers, volcanic lava, waterfalls, and a variety of vegetation, wildflowers and gorgeous views of lakes. Not far away are icebergs in Jokulsarlon in the southeast and lava fields around Mývatn in the north. Of course, our hikes were more limited with the kids and we often had to separate to see more of the countryside.
We used Frommer’s Guide to Iceland as our guidebook on this trip. It had a lot of good tips for travel from budget to deluxe. I also read a lot of blogs on family travel in Iceland before we left, so I know what would work and what wouldn’t work before we even landed. I hope you consider Iceland as one of the next family destinations on your list of places to go. You’ll appreciate it for its exoticness and your kids will appreciate it for its natural beauty, hence they can run around wherever you go. It’s a large country with a lot to offer everyone of all ages.