Although this was our second trip to Iceland – it most certainly won’t be our last. We failed, yet again, to see the Northern Lights, but this country has so many wonderful experiences to offer that it would be churlish to complain. Accompanied by our #GLO50 friends, Rachel and David, we not only took in some of the more well-known sights in the south-west of the island – to be found in all good guide books – but we also discovered some real, hidden gems along the way. Here are our top 10.
Hidden gem 1: Eric’s walking tour
Eric is a local history graduate who’s turned his passion for the city into his job. His ‘Classic’ Tour highlights some of the most famous sights and then takes you beyond them, to reveal more of the history, the culture and the stories of Iceland’s capital city.
Beginning outside the ‘pocket-sized’ Parliament building, he guided us through the old quarter of the city, through bustling shopping streets, past the dramatic Hallgrímskirkja (the church below that dominates the city) and the funky, glass-fronted Harpa concert hall on the seafront taking back-street routes to illustrate Icelandic sagas of elves, Vikings and independence from Denmark (as late as 1944).
He pointed out the best hot-dog stand in the city, explained why the main streets never have snow on them (the roads are heated by hot water piped from thermal springs) and showed us where topless, Icelandic women staged the ‘Free the Nipple’ protest recently! His walking tour is also free. He simply asked us to give what we felt was appropriate at the end of this lively, two-hour exploration of the city. We dug deep.
Hidden gem 2: Beer mitt
Not sure if this is something you can get everywhere on the island, or if it’s just an invention of Eric’s mother. Either way, we bought one. How else was John going to enjoy a Gull in the snow?
Hidden gem 3: The Sea Baron (Sægreifinn) restaurant
This fisherman’s shed on the harbour-side in Reykjavik looks a bit run-down from the outside. We’d been sent by some Brits who’d stopped us in the street to tell of their fantastic experience there. We were warned not to be put off by the tatty exterior because it’s claimed this place is home to the best lobster soup in the world. We may not be able to confirm this from a global perspective, but we can certainly say it was one of the best we’ve ever tried.
We then followed it up with amazing fish kebabs. There’s no menu here, you just choose from the daily catch on display in the chiller cabinet. Everything (apart from the soup) comes on a skewer, the veg and the potatoes arrive on skewers too. Even the long, narrow plates are designed for them – which is helpful at the long, narrow tables you share with other customers.
If you like to try local food, I’d also recommend the Icelandic tasting menus you’ll find in many of the restaurants in Reykjavik. They’re not cheap but you will get to try some new foods – minky whale, puffin and possibly fermented shark, if you are adventurous.
Visiting the Golden Circle in Iceland
Hidden gem 4: Earthquake display at Hveragerði shopping centre
As you come down over the mountains from Reykjavik on the N1 heading towards the geysers and the Gullfoss waterfall, you’ll pass by the small community of Hveragerði. Stop off at the shopping centre there. Unannounced inside you’ll find a permanent exhibition to the 2008 Icelandic earthquake. There’s dramatic cctv footage from inside the centre’s off-licence which captures the moment when, with a series of powerful judders, customers dash out of the shop as all the bottles crash to the floor. You can experience the shaking for yourself in a small ‘ride’ there and even straddle Europe and North America, thanks to plate tectonics and a glassed-in crack in the ground in the middle of the shopping centre.
Hidden gem 5: Friðheimar Tomato farm
We tucked into delicious, fresh tomato soup when we stopped off for lunch in this sub-tropical greenhouse oasis on the snowy route to the geysers.
While John and Rachel sipped bloody Marys, David chose a ‘happy Mary’ made with green tomatoes, gin and ginger and I, as designated driver, tried an alcohol-free ‘healthy Mary’.
This family-run, eco-friendly farm delivers tomatoes to the capital every day and the staff are very proud of what they do. Before sitting down to our meal, our waitress took time to tell us more about the geo-thermally heated water and generated power that makes this a year-round operation regardless of dark nights or snowy days. We met the bees that arrive from Holland each month to pollinate the plants and sampled the sweet green and red tomato sauces the team produce and sell as toppings for ice-cream and cheesecake.
Staying around Reykjavik
Hidden gem 6: Airbnb near Hafnarfjörður
OK Airbnb isn’t exactly a ‘hidden’ gem. But if you are planning a self-drive trip, it’s definitely worth considering booking your accommodation with them. There are lots of comfortable, modern – and reasonably priced – places to stay. We chose a cosy cottage called Mosi out in the countryside only 20 minutes from Reykjavik and even closer to the delightful, harbour town of Hafnarfjörður.
We looked at a lot of places before booking this one. What we liked here were the big windows around the house and the location in the countryside so we could experience dark skies and hopefully the Northern Lights.
Everything at Mosi was perfect for our 3 night stay, except of course the lack of solar activity to trigger the Lights. We didn’t meet our host Arngunnur in person either, but she gave us lots of advice via email about places to visit (most of which are here in this blog) and strongly advised us on car hire in winter (a 4×4 with studded tyres is a MUST).
Hidden gem 7: Icelandic horses
These delightful, shaggy little horses (we’d probably call them ponies) seem to be able to withstand arctic temperatures out in the fields and on the mountains in the harshest of weathers. We saw lots of them on our travels and close-up as they passed by our house from a local riding school. Riding it seems is popular for locals and there are certainly lots of opportunities for tourists to join a trek too. Look out for the strange, extra gait styles of these stumpy-legged horses that don’t exist with other breeds. Their little legs look to be going ten to the dozen while the rider sits completely still on the horses back.
Hidden gem 8: Coffee and cake
Good cake is heaven on a plate as far as John is concerned. And he wasn’t disappointed in Iceland. Wherever we stopped for refreshment, the coffee was exceptional. And the array of cakes was usually vast. Our favourite place was the Súfistinn coffee house in Hafnarfjörður. Great ambience, free wifi, terrific coffee, tasty cakes (and curry pies if you’re stopping for lunch). The town itself is very charming, with a series of folk museums explaining local history and a refreshing walk along the seafront.
John’s Viking gems
Hidden gem 9: The Settlement Museum in Reykjvik
The first settlers landed in Iceland in 871, well give or take a couple of years, hence the name of this interesting exhibition that is built on top of an excavated Viking long house. The house is still there and forms the centerpiece of the display with stories and information running around the outside. It’s nicely done and , like so many things in Iceland, it’s carried out with great panache and taste.
It’s right in the centre of Reykjavik and will take you abut an hour to look around.
Hidden gem 10: The Viking ship near the international airport
On display at the Viking World museum is the ship the Icelander (Íslendingur) which was sailed to America in the year 2000 as a part of the millennial celebration of Leifur Eiríksson’s journey to the New World.
It’s a re-creation of course but very authentic and you can climb aboard and have a good look around. If you find yourself heading to the airport with a bit of time to kill, drop in and take a look.
Finally if you are keen to learn more about Iceland, especially in winter, check out Trapped on TV. It’s the latest Scandi detective drama on BBC 4. We’re loving it – but you need to wrap up warm to watch it. Brrrr. While we didn’t experience the full force of a snow storm in Iceland, we came pretty close. There are scenes on the roads that look very familiar to us! But that’s another story….
Let us know about your favourite Icelandic hidden gems.