My friend Vanessa and I decided to go to Iceland on a whim. Although it has been on the list of places I have wanted to visit for quite some time and a priority destination to scoop out for our clients, there were no definitive plans in the works. I had already had the week blocked off for another planned work trip, and when it turned out I would not have to attend that training, we decided on a whim to use the time to visit Iceland.
Our first Icelandic experience upon debarking was driven by an intense need and desire for caffeine. We were exhausted, extra dehydrated, and slightly delirious from the time change, so we were super excited when we spotted a coffee shop/juice bar combo. Unfortunately, we learned that purchasing food and beverages at Reykjavik airport is not as simple as one would assume!
YES, you are only allowed to make purchases upon Departure, and YES, they check tickets. We were stunned and speechless. After a nine-hour flight on the most uncomfortable airline we’ve ever flown, we couldn’t even purchase a decent cup of coffee. Luckily, my new friend Elise had a connecting flight to Stockholm, and we contrived a purchase for all three of us under her ticket. What can we say? She was extremely thirsty!
Although our initial plan had been a self-driving tour of the South Coast of Iceland, we decided a few weeks before Departure that, given highly variable weather, to opt for booking most of our itinerary with drivers and guides and only renting a car for one day. Many roads are icy and often impassable in winter.
Unsure if our flight would arrive on time due to the inclement weather, we did not pre-book our transportation. However, we were happy to find shuttle buses conveniently located by baggage claim. If private transfers are not within your budget, consider purchasing round-trip shuttle tickets. The shuttle bus was comfortable and prompt, and we were excited to get another 45 minutes of sleep on our way to town.
Of course, the best-laid plans often go awry, and we learned approximately 10 minutes into our drive that we would be dropped off at a bus station with all of our luggage and instructed to wait. For whom and how long they did not say. But eventually, someone would arrive to pick us up and take us to our hotel.
Freezing cold and raining, you can imagine this was a miserable experience but alas our private driver arrived minutes later and shouted our hotel over the swarms of people. She spoke almost no English but was super friendly and proceeded to “chat” with us for the remainder of the ride. Approximately one block from our hotel, she stopped at another bus stop and instructed us that buses are not allowed in the city.
We have been to many European cities, towns, and villages and seen impossibly narrow streets, but this was most definitely not the case here. Instead, the roads in Iceland are newer, paved, and quite spacious. The city, however, wants to be kept clean, and therefore, they do not wish to the chaos of big buses, tour vans, or any vehicle over seven passengers.
Upon arriving at the hotel, we realized that despite all our delays, including the 30 minutes of sneakily obtaining and then thoroughly enjoying our airport coffee, our general navigation confusion, time spent booking our shuttle, and multiple stops, we arrived at the hotel CenterHotel Plaza at exactly 6:30 am.
Not exactly check-in time, but we hoped to persuade reception to put us on the early check-in list. We had already inquired about day-rooms, but CenterHotels do not provide that amenity. On my initial encounter, I was told, “We are at full capacity, and check-in time is 3 pm”. But of course, I don’t give up that easily. I replied as kindly as possible that I knew people would be checking out early in the morning for tours and airport departures and that we would so appreciate getting their rooms as soon as they were clean. No promises, but we were very persistent.
Then having been up for over 24 hours with nothing else to do, we checked our Yelp app and found a super cute restaurant called Bergsson Mathus, which shockingly opened at 7 am for breakfast. So after reminding the night manager one more time that whatever room checked out first was ours, we were off.
I love to travel well and eat well and have been to incredible hotels and restaurants worldwide and would say that the pricing at a Reykjavik Caffe is comparable to a 5-star hotel in London, Paris, or NY. Expect $25 eggs & toast, $18 porridge and $5 croissants.We came back to the hotel around 8:45 am and hung out in the lobby watching people check-out and smiling at the desk manager every few minutes, in case he forgot we were first in line for early check-in.
It turns out persistence pays off, and we got into our room at 10 am (for a $30 early check-in fee), but we couldn’t have been more appreciative.
The hotel itself was quite lovely, with decent-sized rooms, pretty views, a great complimentary breakfast, and a fantastic location. Unfortunately, we immediately fell asleep and woke up only when my phone rang to let us know that the Horseback riding tour we had booked was canceled. The horses were unable to do rides in such extremely cold, rainy, and windy weather. This seemed to be an ominous sign, given that they were Icelandic Horses, seemingly bred for the elements.
Since we had no other plans for the day, we ventured into what we would affectionately call the world’s coldest self-guided walking tour. Soaked by the rain, beaten up by the winds, frozen from a poor choice of clothing, we nonetheless had a fantastic time exploring this beautiful capital city. The stores were expensive but charming, the cafes and pubs inviting and the mood surprisingly upbeat given that simply walking out the door was an enormous feat.
We finished our evening at a cute restaurant Le Bistro Boissons that we happened upon because we were too cold to explore any further. Tired and hungry, we enjoyed an interesting dinner consisting of strange combinations of Icelandic and French cuisine. This was also our first exposure to traditional Icelandic food. Rotten sharks with schnapps and Icelandic sheep heads are popular dinner options. Unfortunately, neither of us is all that adventurous about food, so we were content with taking a photo of the menu instead of expanding our palate. We also realized that because Iceland has exploded on the tourist map relatively recently, the city and country are still catching up, therefore just as the hotels and tours sell out months in advance, restaurant reservations must be made before arrival.
We finished dinner full, happy, and finally almost warm and walked extremely briskly back to our hotel. Day 1 in Iceland was an adventure, a test of our will and determination, and a reminder of the fact that nature can be both magnificently beautiful and extremely harsh.
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