7 Unforgettable Days in Iceland in Winter
I’ve traveled to many countries in my life, I’ve seen many terrains, cultures and viewpoints. But I’ve never seen anything like Iceland. As soon as I landed and got in their super efficient bus service, I could smell the sulfur, view the volcanic ground and see the sky as the 3rd and last hour of sunlight for the day was dimming away.
I got to The Bus Hostel in an hour or so, and my friend (soon to be girlfriend) Gaia arrived later that day from London. I was starving and immediately went shopping for food. Astraurthur, the kindest receptionist I’ve ever met, gave me directions and I soon found food! Hurray!
Being vegan in a new country can be a challenge but to me it’s like a fun puzzle that lets me try new foods if I win. I couldn’t read half the ingredients and I had no data on my phone so I asked people in the shop if the bread I was holding was vegan. To my surprise, everyone’s English was impeccable and my bread was indeed vegan! Great success. I bought a few more bits and bobs and got back to the hostel. I made some porridge with banana and peanut butter and sat in the hostel’s common room.
The vibe in the common room was the epitome of cozy. It was warm feeling, warm looking and adorned with the most eclectic array of beautiful vintage furniture that worked wonderfully with each other. The people were friendly and nice, and the music was EVERYTHING. I spent half of my time in the hostel next to the speakers shazaming away all the songs.
On the first full day, we went exploring the Reykjavik city center. It was a 10 minute walk from the Bus Hostel, just walk towards the big white church and you will find it. Reykjavik’s city center is tiny, walkable and absolutely beautiful. Every coffee shop looks more hipster than the other, the street lights are tasteful and subtle, the street art is absolutely gorgeous and there’s even an ocean at the bottom of it. Great photo opportunities, trust me.
We met up with an instagram friend living in Iceland and went to the lake right before the sun set. I cannot even explain how impressive and inspiring that sunset was, it was the strongest sun I’ve ever seen. It was so bright that you could even take pics with the sun in the back and the object would still be lit. It was magic. I literally felt like I was on a different planet. I felt so incredibly lucky for the opportunity to see such a wonder in real life.
After that we went to The Coocoo’s Nest at the marina for the best vegan hot chocolate of my life and some really good soy lattes. I ended up confessing my love for my friend Gaia there (with the other friend still there!), which made for a very awkward afternoon.
Icelandic swimming pools
The next day we were recommended by Astraurthur (what would my Iceland trip be without Astraurthur?) to check out the geothermal pool Vesturbaejarlaug (don’t worry, I can’t pronounce it either). Even though every hot tap water drop in Iceland is geothermal (Fun fact, that’s why you should never drink or cook with the hot water from the tap) we decided to go viking and bathe in a geothermal pool with locals.
We were warned in advance to shower COMPLETELY NAKED (instead of while wearing swimsuits) before getting in the pool. The locals really hate it when foreigners show up in the pool with their private parts not properly washed as it wouldn’t be fun for anyone in that case.
So we made sure to clean every little bit, but, stupidly enough, we forgot our towels, not to mention we had one pair of flip flops and the ground was freezing. We couldn’t be bothered to rent a towel (it cost almost as much as the entrance fee!), so we just froze every second we spent outside the hot water. Oh and we had to dry off using blow dryers. Viking indeed. After channeling our inner Ragnar, we ran as fast as we could to the 40 degrees water. At first I felt like I was burning alive, but after a few seconds the water felt sooooooo good.
It was an insane experience I will never forget and if I can give you one word of advice (besides showering naked!), DO NOT wet your hair AT ALL or do it only right before you get out of the pool. The wind will literally freeze your head off and make this experience a nightmare if you have long hair like mine.
Off to the country side
One thing you probably know about Iceland besides it not having any forests or their high chlamydia rates (oh you didn’t know that? Well now you do. Practice safe sex kids!), is that it’s very expensive. If you’ve made up your mind to travel here, you should be fully aware of that fact.
If you want to see anything touristy, the northern lights, the national parks or the geysers, you should probably rent a car. Bus tours are great but they are very costly, so if you’re on a budget, finding people at the hostel to share a ride with or organizing with some people off of couchsurfing to rent a car with you, would be a good idea. The national parks are free and you can split gas, insurance and car rental costs to see more of Iceland for less money.
Me and my girlfriend hired a van from rent.is and did a roadtrip around The Golden Circle. We checked out the Thingvellir national park, which was stunning, the geysirs at Gullfoss and we spent the night in a camper van all the way out in Selfoss. Astraurthur told us to go to Vik to see the black sand beaches, but we were too exhausted from driving in the dark and the cold finally got to us, so we got back to Reykjavik for some fries. On the way home we almost got stuck in a snow storm (I was terrified) but we made it back safely. Sadly, we didn’t get to see the northern lights the whole entire trip, but it only means we will have to go back one day right?
The Blue Lagoon
On our last day we decided to be proper tourists and go to The Blue Lagoon. The Blue Lagoon is probably the most popular tourist attraction in Iceland and it is one of the 25 wonders of the world according to some important list. We got there in the middle of a thunderstorm and everyone was so concerned, they were actually considering closing it off for the day, but all ended up well and we went in. The showers were lush and we got a towel this time (#winning).
After we showered we were about to go outside to the pool while it was hailing. I don’t know how I embraced my inner viking, but I eventually did it and I don’t regret one second of that experience. The water outside were soooooooooooo nice and I felt amazing after bathing in them. We got into one of the caves and took some nice insta pics , then went back inside to the indoor pool. This pool was substantially colder than the one outside for a reason my brain can’t comprehend, but we survived it all. We got there when it was already dark, so sadly, we couldn’t see much of the clear blue water. I would HIGHLY recommend booking well in advance and scheduling your visit to daylight hours, as short as they may be.
And now for the moment we’ve all been waiting for (or maybe just me?). Let’s talk food.
I don’t know about you, but I am a huge foodie. I wasn’t fully happy with the oats, rice and baked beans for every meal and I decided to sacrifice my budget for eating out. You know what they say, food is a great way to learn about a culture, and I wasn’t learning much when I was making my sad little porridge for every meal. Surprisingly enough, we found a vast variety of vegan options through the app HappyCow (it’s a must for the vegan traveler), and there was even a fully vegan restaurant! Here are some places we visited.
This is the first and only (so far) fully vegan joint in Iceland. They have a super chill vibe, great music and delicious food. Gaia tried the soup and the kale salad (she approved) and I had the holy grail of sandwiches – the Kawaii sandwich with added Oumph. OH MY LORD. That sandwich was probably the best sandwich of my life. It was crunchy, oily, salty, and super flavorful. It had a fair amount of avocado, soy cream cheese, grated vegan parmesan, caramelized onions and mushrooms and Oumph. Oumph is a Swedish soy meat that needs to be exported to every corner on earth inhabiting humans. We also had their vegan viking beer called, well.. Viking. It was very tasty and made me feel cool. I’m a huge sucker for anything viking OK. I don’t judge you, you don’t judge me.
This bistro is located in the Nordic House and we went there after the pool. Thankfully it was marked on the free map we got at The Bus Hostel so after asking some bus drivers that stopped the bus for us to help with directions (show me another country that does that! God, I love Iceland), we made it to Aalto.
They have a vegan menu that was so decadent and christmassy. It was next level vegan gourmet food. We had the nut roast with some fancy salads and fancy bread, which were all super good, but my favorite was the dessert. We got a spread of seasonal sweets that literally blew my mind. Thankfully Gaia doesn’t like sweets so I ate hers too. I love my life.
Another cool restaurant with an interesting twist. It’s a bike repair shop as well! With a shower (van life anyone?)! We had a nice vegan burger, delicious fries in all shapes and sizes, vegan onion rings and a few more things. I am a huge fan of vegan junk food, so this meal totally hit the spot.
I know, I know, as travelers we all have a budget to adhere to, and I’m not gonna lie. Eating out in Iceland is expensive. So why not go to the supermarket and cook yourself a feast? There’s a nice variety of vegan essentials in the supermarkets in Iceland.
We went to Bonus because we heard it’s the cheapest. We got yummy hummus (looked awful, but as an Israeli, I approve), Linda Mccartney’s sausages, vegan nutella (by euroshopper), bread, flat bread (omg it was amazing), probably the best tasting spinach i’ve ever had and lots of other bits and bobs. For dessert we also found vegan chocolate chip cookies (by europshopper) that were super good! They also have a variety of soy products you shouldn’t miss out on.
Being emetophobic, germophobic and an extreme foodie, I NEVER eat at airports. But there I was, in the airport for 24 hours, my stash of chocolate covered rice cakes was dwindling slowly. I finished the last bit of peanut butter and I was slowly getting famished. I knew it had to be done. It was time for my first ever airport food. And what a surprise it was!
I found a 24/7 little shop in the airport with heaps of overpriced sandwiches, and they had 2 vegan options! One was a hummus wrap, and the other was some sort of sandwich. Being the hummus addict that I am, I decided to venture with the hummus wrap. Twice. It was sooooooooo good! Good flavor, good texture, none of the veggies were too soggy or gross and I thoroughly enjoyed it. I took another one for the plane.
All in all, seems like Iceland has quite a it to offer to any traveler. From restaurants with vegan options, cafes with soy milk, vegan ice cream shops, and fairly vegan friendly supermarkets [it’s all relative right?], you can always find something to eat that will make your vegan tummy happy while in Iceland. In terms of travel, it is a country you have to see at least once in your life. The nature is astonishing, the weather is an experience of it’s own, and if you get to see the northern lights, or at least a happy puffin or whale, you scored big time.