This year for a week long New Year holiday, we stayed with friends who live in Reykjavik. Our 7 and 9 year old children get on brilliantly well with their 5 and 8 year olds (who have stayed with us in London) and we were excited to show the children Iceland, a country, my husband and I have visited twice previously.
We arrived to lashing rain and wind, thankfully we had a lift from the airport, with Kristen one of our hosts. The children soon settled in, despite not having seen each other for 18 months and were playing dens and hide and seek in no time.
The next day we awoke to a decent covering of snow and the children delighted in making a snowman and other snow creatures in the garden after sleeping in after 10am (it is dark until 11am in Reykjavik in mid-winter, result!) We managed to get out sledging for an hour after lunch before it started getting dark again, about 3.30pm.
The snow only stuck around for another day, after that we had unusually mild weather for Reykjavik for that time of year (between 6 and 7 celsius) We spent a day in Reykjavik showing the children the sights and enjoying a nice meal in a traditional Icelandic fisherman’s café. Reykjavik is beautiful in winter when the cloud and rain clears. The water twinkles under the colourful Christmas lights and stars at night. We learnt about the Icelandic legend of the Christmas Cat aka The Yule Cat
Whales of Iceland
The Whale Museum passed an interesting couple of hours. My son was particularly fascinated with the fun facts – whales make a sound underwater that could drown out the sound of a jet engine being one. It was a reasonable entry fee – lots of life-size models of whales and dolphins for the children and audio, plus signage was in clear English. There’s a small café inside which served reasonably priced (especially for Iceland) hot and cold refreshments and light snacks. Despite living a short tube ride away from the magnificent Natural History Museum in South Kensington, my children were entranced by this little museum and it was well worth going. https://www.whalesoficeland.is/
No visit to Reykjavik is complete without a stop off here. The views from the top over Reykjavik and beyond are mesmerising, particularly in the winter twilight. There is a fab natural history of Iceland exhibition with lots of interactive features for the kids. The 4D ‘Wonders of Iceland’ movie gives you a sense of the natural wonders of this small, island country. The Ice Cave was a little over hyped but a bit of fun. Warn your children it’s very short though because my two were a bit like ‘is that it?’ when we came out after 2 minutes, after waiting 45 minutes for our turn. No different than the average UK theme park ride though!
The Golden Circle tour
This is the classic tourist trail so I won’t go into too much detail. We were lucky enough to borrow a car, but otherwise you can hire them locally (not cheap) or book a coach tour (also not cheap but perhaps easier). First stop was Thingvellir – a historic site and national park in Iceland, east of Reykjavík. It was the site of Iceland’s parliament from the 10th to 18th centuries. Thingvellir sits in a rift valley caused by the separation of 2 tectonic plates, with rocky cliffs and fissures and small waterfalls. Very beautiful, even on the windy and cold day we went. Geysir was the next stop and didn’t disappoint. The Great Geysir area allows you to see Iceland’s hot springs spouting boiling water 70 metres into the air. Final stop was Gullfoss, an absolutely stunning waterfall which I could have stood and watched for hours but it was starting to get dark and my husband was keen to start the journey back to Reykjavik so I had to settle with 20 minutes of walking along the path in wonder.
Living the Icelandic life
One of the things I enjoyed most about my third trip to Iceland (the first two, we stayed in hotels) was living with an Icelandic family and getting to do lots of ordinary things with people who lived there. We went to the supermarkets (and came out a lot poorer, £25 for a very average bottle of Rioja in the adjacent liquor store!) We also went to a trampoline park (where we bumped into the Icelandic president who was there with his family – as you do! Neither my husband, nor I can ice skate but luckily our hosts can, so they took all four children ice skating too in a fantastic rink, close to the grounds of the Icelandic football team (which my son was very happy to see too).
New Year’s Eve
I couldn’t finish this article without a mention of the incredible fireworks displays we saw on New Year’s Eve. The Icelandic people certainly like their fireworks. I’ve never seen anything quite like it. We enjoyed about 18 hours’ worth of fireworks over three days. I did have a few safety concerns and it was a bit disappointing to see the fireworks litter left lying around for a few days afterwards in an otherwise very clean and environmentally conscious seeming country but my, those New Year’s Eve fireworks were spectacular. It was worth standing outside in the cold.
Swimming outside in January
We didn’t go to the Blue Lagoon this time, have been before and it’s ok – but packed with tourists as it’s on the way to the airport. Instead we enjoyed a morning at the Lagafellslaugh baths (again borrowing the car) This was a great experience for the kids. It was very quiet as it was a week day and most Icelandic children were back at school but it was a much more local experience – albeit a very different one to the Blue Lagoon. Running from the changing rooms to the ultra heated leisure pool (with slides for the kids) and spa pools was quite an experience but a good one! Highly recommended if you can get transport there: https://visitreykjavik.is/lagafellslaug
Visiting Iceland – further essentials
We flew Icelandic Air from Heathrow. Bonus is that as all the planes are used for TransAtlantic flights, you get seat back TVs. The children got a free sandwich, a gift, chocolates and Skyr yoghurt. Very impressive airline for a short haul flight.
We enjoyed our winter break but for milder weather (we were very lucky) and lots more daylight you could consider a summer break. May half-term is an ideal time to go. That said, Reykjavik was a lovely break from London in mid-winter – still cold but in a very different way. Only warning: don’t go expecting to see the Northern Lights. I’ve been twice during winter and not had so much of a glimpse. They are very elusive down the south of the country I think (although you might get lucky). Norway is probably a better bet if that’s your main reason for going in winter. The fireworks were great though and helped make up for it!