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10 hidden gems of Iceland

Iceland Mountains

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.

Emma and John with Rachel & David in Hafnafjudur

Emma and John with Rachel & David

Visiting Reykjavik

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.

Our Reykjavik tour guide, Eric

Our Reykjavik tour guide, Eric

 

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).

Hallgrímskirkja in reykjavik

Hallgrímskirkja in Reykjavik

 

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.

The wonky angles of the Harda concert hall in Reykjavik

The wonky angles of the Harpa concert hall in the background

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?

John Beer Mitt

John enjoying the local brew.

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.

Lobster soup at the Sea Baron

Lobster soup at the Sea Baron

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

A wintery geyser in Iceland

A wintery geyser

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.

Tectonic plates in Iceland

Straddling two continents.

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.

Fridheimar tomato farm in the snow

 

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’.

Iceland tomato farm and cafe

Tomato soup for lunch? Don’t mind if I do…

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Green tomato sauce on ice-cream

 

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.

Our house in the snow.

Our house in the snow.

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.

The view from our house

The view from our house

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).

Our cosy and colourful home from home

Our cosy and colourful home from home

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.

IMG_5198

 

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.

Hafnarfjörður

Hafnarfjörður and cake!

John’s Viking gems

Hidden gem 9: The Settlement Museum in Reykjvik
Reykjavík 871±2, The Settlement Exhibition

Reykjavík 871±2, The Settlement Exhibition

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
Viking Ship

The Viking ship Íslendingur

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.

 

23 Comments

  1. Linda Shaughnessy says

    What a wonderful report! I long to go back to Iceland and you have made some outstanding suggestions for what to do when I get there eventually. Thank you! Linda

    • Emma Hetherington-Royle says

      Linda we are glad we inspired you to try some new things next time you go to Iceland. Sounds like you’ve had a great visit before. Where did you go then? What made it special for you?

  2. Eygló says

    Wait until you visit Westman islands….that’s a diamond 🙂

  3. Hulda says

    Lovely blog of yours, Emma and John. I’m one of the natives and there are so many places I’ve left to see, even though I’ve been traveling a lot around the country. It seems to be endless of beautiful places to enjoy, I know I won’t be old enough to see them all. I’m so lucky to be here. <3

    • Emma Hetherington-Royle says

      Hi Hulda, we are so envious that you are able to travel around your country often, searching out more amazing places to visit. We hope to come back to Iceland in the future so if you have any tips you are happy to pass on, that would be great.
      Best wishes
      Emma

  4. Yess!! Thank you for mentioning CityWalk and me of course 😀 You made my day! It’s a lovely picture of me as well, I am going to save that one!

    Thank you again for coming!

    Best regards,

    Eiríkur Viljar Hallgrímsson Kúld ( Eric)

    • John Royle says

      You are very welcome Eric. We really enjoyed your tour and our stats show that our readers have been clicking through to your site. Excellent! Keep up the good work. You deserve it!

  5. David Goble says

    Great tour of the S.W. corner of that delightful island. Thank you Emma and John. Fetch me a Brennivín and call me Ólaf!

  6. Thank you very much for coming on our CityWalk! Thank you even more for including us in your blog. Most appreciated!
    If you are interested in the sagas or folklore stories like the elves, we’ve listed up a few in the e-mail 🙂 check it!

    best regards!
    Marteinn

    • Emma Hetherington-Royle says

      Marteinn – we couldn’t do our trip justice without mentioning your City Walk. And thank you for the email afterwards. It contained so much more information on what to see and do. We needed more days to do everything. Good luck to you and Eric and your other guides.

    • John Royle says

      You are lucky indeed Berglind! We’ll be back. So much more to explore.

  7. Polly Sim-Mutch says

    Lovely food for thought
    Your blog was passed onto me and really pleased to read it.
    We are going next Friday and we have said to ourselves we may not see the lights but going to the geezers and a whale watch. So we should see the waterfall and geezer
    Had also been told of the tomato farm and their soup.
    Hopefully will take in the walking tour with Eric now
    Thank you

    • Emma Hetherington-Royle says

      Polly,
      Glad to hear you’ve been inspired to try the city walk in Reykjavik. Eric is great fun. You will learn alot. He puts up the dates and times for each walk about 7 days beforehand on his website http://www.citywalk.is – make sure to get your names down as soon as you can. He’s very popular.

  8. As I mentioned before to John, my wife is travelling to Iceland in April with a school tour. After reading this, and watching Trapped, I suspect we may both visit in the not too distant future. I have always hoped that some day I would see the Northern Lights. Fingers crossed. Lovely pictures Emma/John. Well done on the site, though WordPress – me confused 😉

    • Emma Hetherington-Royle says

      Declan we might see you there! There is so much more we want to do in Iceland. Glad you’re liking the blog.

  9. Julie says

    We’re going on Saturday for 10 days- definitely going to try out some of your suggestions

    • Emma Hetherington-Royle says

      Hi Julie have a wonderful time. We are very envious that you are getting to spend 10 days there. If you go on the walking tour with Eric he will also supply you with lots more tips for places to eat, drink and have fun around the capital city.

  10. Looks amazing – I’ve wanted to go to Iceland for years and never made it – just need some willing babysitters and I think that’s up there for a first weekend away sans children!

    • John Royle says

      You will love it! Try to go when there is snow on the ground or in mid Summer and experience 20 hours of daylight.

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