With its glaciers, geysers, waterfalls and wild beaches, Iceland is a magical place to visit. Aesthetically, it’s a combination of the moon, Middle Earth and the Highlands of Scotland making it uniquely other-worldly looking. Just the journey in from Keflavik airport to central Reykjavik gives a tantalising glimpse of the mysterious landscape; lava fields and hazy mountains in the distance, plumes of steam from geothermal pools rising into the sky and every mile or so, piles of stones by the roadside, apparently homes to hidden trolls, elves and fairies. Kids, we’re definitely not in Kansas (Hertfordshire) anymore.Travelling in October we were surprised to find that the weather was no colder than the UK. Of course we had dressed ready for a Polar expedition and so, having rendered our major limbs essentially useless by dressing in about ten layers each, we spent the first five minutes upon arrival stripping off in the Avis car park regretting the impulse purchases of four pairs of crampons and an ice hammer. Still, I maintain, that with Iceland being an island in the North Atlantic and prone to extreme wild weather, you should be prepared for all possibilities. I’d suggest you pack the following as a minimum per person: walking boots, waterproof down lined coats (try Uniqlo), thermal socks, gloves and hats and if you want, football base layers. Crampons and ice hammer optional. As an aside, and whilst we’re talking about essentials, if you want wine/gin/moonshine I’d advise you to pick this up at the airport upon arrival as alcohol is expensive in Iceland.
Finding a great base is all part of a successful city break and as hotel costs are astronomical in Reykjavik, we opted for an Airbnb. We rented a cosy, basement flat near the harbour, which came complete with a record player, rocking chair and a grey cat called Elvis. Cheaper by far, we chose to hire a car rather than pay for an airport transfer or for any organised tours. I did worry that I’d drive my entire family screaming into a volcano, but this fear was unfounded as the roads were absolutely fine, relatively empty, easy to drive on and everything was sign-posted. I’d strongly recommend getting a sat-nav and making sure you check the road and weather reports before you set off though. We were quite gung-ho about heading out in the car and on the day we’d planned to drive the Golden Circle, a strong storm blew in. We were still planning to go but our Airbnb host advised us to avoid driving the Golden Circle in severe weather. Which makes sense really given that at Geyser, a strong blast of wind could send boiling water and volcanic rocks hurtling into your face. If you are visiting the Golden Circle, you’ll need a good, still and clear day to see it at its best.
If you love water, you’ll love Iceland. Many people choose to visit the famous Blue Lagoon (pictured slightly disengenously from a previous trip to Iceland taken by my husband) as soon as they arrive in Iceland, it being equidistant between the airport and Reykjavik. If you want to visit here, you’ll need to book in advance. We chose to bypass it, not for any particular reason- although it is expensive- but because we wanted to try out some of Reykjavik’s swimming pools instead. Our first stop was Laugardaslaug, a large outdoor swimming complex with several hotpots of varying temperatures and a large shallow pool with slides and water toys for children. If swimming in water literally heated by volcanoes doesn’t blow your mind, then the pre swimming ritual of naked showering complete with instructions of where to wash and how to wash it probably will. I’d advise you to leave your inner Victorian at home covering up the piano legs and embrace it.
Visiting the local swimming pools in Reykjavik gives you a unique insight into Icelandic culture. The pools are full of locals; young hipster parents chilling their babies out in the warm water before bedtime, pensioners chatting politics in the cold plunge pool and workers winding down in the hot pots. We loved visiting them at dusk; the cold, wet air cooling you down as you relax in what is essentially a massive, steaming, communal bath. The chilled out Vestubaejarlaug is best for an evening bathe.
Not only is downtown Reykjavik beautiful with picturesque rows of coloured houses surrounding the main street, it’s also safe, arty and liberal and so excellent for kids to explore. Our children loved spotting the street art around the city, visiting the shops and boutiques selling the traditional
itchiest garment known to all humanity Lopapeysa sweaters, and stopping for hot chocolate in the child friendly cafes along Laugavegur street. Head to Laundromat, surely the world’s most child friendly restaurant, with a huge play area downstairs and varied menu with child friendly options. Perfect for brunch.
Your first stop downtown should be the cathedral, Hallgrimskirkja, where for a few kroner you can get an elevator to the top for panoramic views of Reykjavik, the surrounding sea, mountains and beyond. Inside it’s a very minimalist space – there are no weeping frescos or priceless works of art in this church – however the building itself, designed to resemble the Icelandic landscape, is fabulous, especially lit up at night. From here you can walk down to the harbour and visit the Sun Voyager sculpture, an ode to the sun, symbolising hope and healing, created by the sculptor Jon Gunnar.
The Harpa Concert Hall overlooks the harbour and is definitely worth a visit. You can walk around it for free and check out the amazing floor to ceiling window at the rear and the multi coloured glass façade at the front. It’s well worth looking in advance to see if there are any family friendly shows on when you are there. If not, the Iceland Symphony Orchestra have open rehearsals on a Thursday morning for ISK1.900 – about £13. Good food options at the harbour include The Sea Baron and Icelandic Fish and Chips – the latter is easier with kids I’d suggest and has the added bonus of being next door to a Volcano Museum meaning you can eat chips and then go and learn about igneous rocks. A bit like going to school in the 1980s.
For a small place, Reykjavik has lots of museums and you can easily spend a whole day exploring them. We chose to save the Phallological Museum for another trip (much to the disappointment of our children who suddenly developed an overwhelming desire to see a large collection of pickled penises from across the animal kingdom – and who can blame them) and opted for the National Museum of Iceland instead. Kids go for free and adults pay ISK2000 each- about £14.50. If you like viking combs and drinking horns, human skeletons and grave goods, then you’ll love this place. With an engaging trail designed to show off the museum’s greatest hits, we happily spent a couple of hours here. Other highlights included an interactive area complete with reading nook (reading nooks are big in Iceland), viking costumes and a slightly bizarre ‘Icelandic room from the past’ which, were it not for the absence of Juliet Bravo on the telly, could have been my Grandma’s living room in 1982. The café is child friendly, serving hearty soup for the grown ups, jam bagels for the unadventurous and hot chocolate for all.
An unexpected great find was the children’s library in Reykjavik’s Cultural Centre, Nordic House, just over the road from the museum. This is a wonderful space featuring literature from a range of Nordic countries including the Moonmins and our favourite, a selection of awesome Greenlandic literature about illiterate giants kidnapping babies and people happily killing whales. There is plenty to occupy kids for an hour or so here, including giant LEGO, board games and a small castle to play in. There is also an outdoor play area if the weather is fine and a lovely restaurant serving Scandinavian food. From here you can walk down to Lake Tjornin for some fantastic views of the city.
Without doubt, the highlight of our trip was the Golden Circle, the most incredible day trip from Reykjavik and a very easy drive of around 300km taking in three of Iceland’s sites of natural beauty – Thingvellir National Park, Geyser and the waterfall, Gullfoss. It’s actually quite unreal that only a short drive from Reykavik you find yourself in another world entirely. Take lots of snacks for the car, empty your camera and take your swimmers in case you want to stop off at a geothermal spa en route. Here is our suggested playlist so you can have the full sensory experience.
We combined our Golden Circle trip with two hours of horse riding at Laxnes Horse Farm riding the beautiful Icelandic horses that you’ll see everywhere across Iceland. The Icelandic horses are stoic, hardy and incredibly docile making them perfect for kids, inexperienced riders and people who used to ride but no longer have the upper body strength to mount what is technically a pony despite saying it would be easy*. Under the watch of expert guides, we made our way into the countryside, winding our way round rocky country lanes, trotting (or tolting) through streams and stopping to let the horses graze by a waterfall. More experienced riders can channel their inner Dothraki Warrior/Zara Phillips and ride back in the fast group. I hate the phrase ‘making memories’ but this really was exactly that.
From here you can drive to Thingvellir, site of the ancient Icelandic Parliament where the tectonic plates from North America and Europe are visible. There is a visitors centre serving hot chocolate, snacks and souvenirs and a not fully obvious trail around the some of the most historically significant aspects of the site. The rift below is full of water and braver souls can snorkel between the continental plates. A path leads up to the visitors centre through the tectonic plates technically – or tectonically – putting you in two continents at the same time. Amazing.
From Thingvellir, you drive to Geysir, home to the large, active geyser and all round showstopper, Strokkur as well as the smaller less active geyser, Geysir, which sits a few metres away bubbling wildly as if it’s waiting for someone to dump half a kilo of penne into it. The Visitors Centre at Geysir, despite looking like a budget supermarket from the outside, is actually really smart inside and well worth a visit for some overpriced soup and a coffee.
After Geyser, the next stop is the waterfall, Gullfoss, where you can watch the water thundering into the valley below. Kids will love watching the rainbows that form in the valley and you can all get right up to the edge, with only a waist high fence between you and certain death.
We finished our Iceland extravaganza with dinner in the new Reykjavik Food Court, Hlemmur. A converted bus station, the space is amazing containing a café, a bar, a bakery, a burrito stand, a liquid nitrogen ice cream stall and our favourite, SKAL! restaurant. This was the best food we had in Iceland – delicious barbecued pork cheeks and fresh arctic char, and gourmet hot dogs for the kids. Then, because we were in Iceland, we all had some ice cream, got wrapped up and went looking for the elusive Northern Lights.