Following a NYE spent in Times Square downtown NYC, the bar was set very high for New Year’s celebrations. After searching for the best festivities worldwide and comparing that list to the cost of flights to each from Virginia Beach, Reykjavik came out as the winner. Because of Wow airlines steeply discounted tickets, the airfare to Iceland only cost round $400 even during the busy holiday season. Reykjavik is well known for its New Year’s city wide firework display and huge beach bonfire festivities.
Since the trip was a fairly late decision only a few weeks out, finding lodging close to the center of downtown proved to be difficult because everything had apparently been booked far in advance. The plan was to stay near the airport and take a bus back after midnight, but thankfully a last minute deal opened up a few blocks from the Hallgrímskirkja at the center of town. The hotel even had a rooftop open to guests that offered an amazing view of the city which was perfect for watching the midnight firework display!
Dec 31st- arriving on an early morning flight, we headed straight to the city center to drop off bags at the hotel and bundle up. Downtown Reykjavik was easy to explore in a day with several key sites that are centrally located including the Hafnarfjordur fish market, Reykjavik’s old city main square, the Fríkirkkan church, Park Arnarhóll, the old harbor eastern pier, and of course the Hallgrímskirkja. Yet with very limited daylight hours and very cold temperatures, the time spent outside exploring was very limited and there were frequent pub stops to stay warm. At each stop the bartenders asked which bonfire was on the schedule for our evening. Thankfully there were plenty of city maps with all the bonfire locations marked and one of the biggest fires was located very close to the edge of town. As the sun began to set, we headed out to the beach at the outskirts of the city to join the revelry at the massive beach bonfire that had been continuously recommended. Dozens of people were already huddled around the massive fire staying warm from the heat of the flames enjoying the fire and music as well as the beers that everyone was sipping to help get toasty. Sporadic sets of fireworks were already starting around the city and the anticipation for midnight was growing since in Iceland it is only legal to buy and set off fireworks on New Year’s, making it especially exciting! Nearly every city block had random displays being set off as soon as the sun faded. However, at 2300 the city became eerily quiet as all of the locals went inside their homes to watch the annual Icelandic New Year’s Eve comedy show called Áramótaskaupið which goes for the full hour leading up to midnight. We used the brief pause to head back across town to the hotel and made our way to the rooftop for the spectacular midnight performance. We could not have asked for a better location as the widespread show from the rooftop on the hill allowed us to see the fireworks in literally every direction!
Jan 1st- The next morning we got up early (considering it was following an NYE celebration) and had a hearty breakfast before beginning the road trip around the southern side of the island. One of the major disappointments of the trip was that I was unable to book a trip to the famous Blue Lagoon (which apparently requires a reservation to be made months in advance). Instead we headed to the natural springs further inland called the Laugarvatn Fontana Geothermal Baths. The spa had several pools increasing in temperature and a wooden sauna in the middle. After an hour or so of soaking in the hot water, I was brave (or stupid) enough to run down to the lake and plunge in the icy water. It was quite literally breath taking cold and I immediately, yet cautiously, hurried back across the snowy steps to jump back in the hot water. We continued on to check out the Gulfoss waterfall which is one of the most popular tourist destinations in Iceland. Thankfully the cold weather and icy stairs leading to the falls helped to thin out the crowds and we had a great view of the massive iconic waterfall! We continued on to the Seljalandsfoss falls, another impressively tall waterfall further south. However, the path was so icy that we could not make it behind the falls without crampons or ice hiking gear. As the sun finished setting, we headed to the Air bob which was a quaint little horse farm in the middle of nowhere. Even with the limited restaurant options, our host gave an excellent recommendation for a local restaurant located a few miles up the road where we were able to enjoy a hearty meal in a warm cabin before bundling up for bed.
Jan 2nd- the third morning was the coldest and most dreary making it difficult to climb out of the warm bed into the dark chilly morning. We started with a visit to Skogafoss falls despite the cold hike and constant drizzle of rain. Carefully we made our way out to the edge of the falls for a closer view. After snapping a few pictures we quickly returned to the warmth of the car and continued the drive around the island towards Vik and the famous black sand Reynisfjara beach. Reaching the beach was in and of itself a challenge with the wall of wind that hit us rounding the bend from the entrance. It was difficult to make any headway against the forceful wind until reaching the famous basalt columns lining the interior of the caves that blocked some of the powerful winds. After catching our breath, we ventured back out to struggle a bit further up the beach, but quickly decided that we had seen enough and headed back to the parking lot. There is a small café located near the entrance that we stopped by to use the facilities and dry out a bit. After warming up a bit with their stew and steaming hot chocolate, we hit the road and continued for several more hours all the way to Svartifoss Falls. By the time we arrived, it was less than an hour from sunset so we carefully climbed up the trail out to visit the waterfall. Although most of the trail was ice or snowy and we weren't in crampons, we successfully made it without falling down, which was in and of itself an accomplishment. Similar to the harsh basalt columns at Reynisfjara beach, a jagged edge filled the cave behind the falls offsetting the roaring waters. Despite the cold and the long trek back, we were very happy that we had pushed to make the hike out. We made it back to the parking lot as the final light from the sunset disappeared and we began the long drive back into town. After several nights of cloudy weather, the forecast for the night claimed that the clouds were supposed to clear and there was a decent chance to catch a glimpse of the aurora borealis, but unfortunately there was no such luck. Instead we ended up eating a full meal and trying to drink through the final bit of alcohol that we had purchased at the airport for New Years.
Jan 3rd- We woke up early to feast on a big breakfast and were pleasantly surprised to find that they offered skyr, which is a popular Icelandic dish that is technically a cheese but has more of the consistency of a yogurt. We hit the road and began the long drive back to Reykjavik for our flight out that afternoon. The weather finally cleared and the view of the land was much improved from the drive in, allowing us to see more of Iceland’s very raw landscape that had almost a savage beauty to it.
Visiting Reykjavik for NYE was a cold but very memorable trip and definitely recommended to explore Iceland at winter. I definitely want to return in summer to see a few of the things that we missed (hopefully planning a bit further in advance) including the Blue Lagoon, the ice caves in Skaftafell National Park-which were unfortunately closed due to the icy conditions, and diving between the two continents!
Currency: Icelandic Dollars
Drink: One key tip is to purchase alcohol in duty free before arrival due to the high cost of booze in Iceland. Unless you hit the bars during happy hour, expect to pay high prices for almost any alcoholic beverage.
Food: Although most of my meals for this trip consisted of a hearty stew served with thick slices of bread or gourmet hotdog from one of the gas stations, one of the must try foods is the fermented shark. It is served in many restaurants in Reykjavik and tastes about as pungent as you would imagine. Thankfully the pieces are served in small manageable cubes and don't taste too bad if served with one of the local dark beers!
Electric Outlet: Type C (European)
Visa: Not Required.