Iceland: Golden Circle Tour, Blue Lagoon Spa, Northern lights & Reykjavik

Iceland: Golden Circle Tour, Þingvellir National Park
A stunning view along the edge of tectonic plates in Þingvellir National Park in Iceland.

Iceland: Blue Lagoon Spa, Reykjavik
The Blue Lagoon outdoor naturally heated pool at this amazing geothermal spa - a must do for a visit to Iceland 

A long weekend in Reykjavik, including some tours of Iceland

I must admit on my first visit to Iceland not much hiking was done, and we didn't venture too far off the popular tourist trails - but it did make me want to return to this stunning country and I thought I would share a few photos from this short weekend trip to Iceland as well as a few tips and recommendations, as I would definitely recommend putting Iceland on your travel bucket list, and spending more than a few days here is you can!

Iceland: Reykjavik
Reykjavik is Iceland's capital and as you can see from this popular sight from the top of Hallgrímskirkja Church - the city is fairly low-rise and colourful and as you walk around you discover Reykjavik has a charm, character and colourful culture all of it's own. On our short trip we stayed in an apartment in Reykjavik which let us experience this great city, whilst taking a few popular tourist tours out into the surrounding landscapes.

The Blue Lagoon Spa, Iceland

Iceland: Blue Lagoon Spa, Reykjavik
One of the highlights of our short holiday was a visit to The Blue Lagoon Spa. Whilst it was the middle of winter - the water temperature was a warm, bath-like, 40c and was idyllic for chilling out for a few hours after our flight to Iceland. This was the first place we visited on this trip as we went straight here from getting off the plane. The Blue Lagoon have a package which includes picking you up from the airport, taking you to the spa, and then onto Reykjavik - and I'd recommend this as a way of making the most of your time if you are on a short-break to Iceland - whether you to it at the very beginning of your trip of at the very end.

Iceland: Blue Lagoon Spa, Reykjavik
The Blue Lagoon spa is quite busy and touristy and fairly expensive - but worth the price as it's a must do, unique Iceland activity. When you arrive at the Spa you are given a digital wrist band - which you use for your large lockers (you can also store suitcases at the spa) and also to get drinks at the outdoor bar (pictured above) You can spend as much time as you like in the mineral rich waters, which includes free Silica mud facemasks if that's your thing :-) There are also sauna's and steam rooms if you fancy a break from the water. Lot's of people had brought camera's and phones in waterproof cases to take pics/selfies - and a few too many seemed more interested than filming themselves rather than enjoying the experience - I just nipped back to the locker rooms to grab my camera to take a few pics for 5 mins before putting the camera back in the locker to enjoy a chillax and a few drinks.

Enjoying a drink at the spa - it's a bit too easy to order drinks with the wristbands and no need for money :-)

Iceland Golden Circle Tour

The Golden circle tour is another popular thing for tourists to do from Reykjavik, and if it's your first time in Iceland and you don't actually have much time then it's well worth doing. It's about an 8 hour round-trip, and we opted for an organised, more personal mini-bus tour rather than a coach trip, through GeoIceland Day Tours which was highly rated on trip advisor and I'd recommend them too. On this tour the highlights included Þingvellir National Park, Gullfoss Waterfall, the Geyser Geothermal area and a chance to walk between the Eurasian and North American Tectonic plates.

Golden circle Tour, Gullfoss, Þingvellir National Park
After initially stopping at Hveragerði village for a coffee, the first waterfall we stop at is at Faxi and it's mighty cold.

Me (left) and my mate Neil with the standard photo in front of waterfall :-)

Geysir, Golden circle Tour, Gullfoss, Þingvellir National Park
We then stop at the Geysir hot spring area. The word geyser is actually derived from the area of Geysir in Iceland as on visiting the place it was the first time modern Europeans had encountered and documented such a thing

Geysir, Golden circle Tour, Gullfoss, Þingvellir National Park
Eruptions at Geysir can force boiling water up to 70m in the air every few minutes - but due to the sulphur in the water it's worth not standing downstream of the eruptions - bit smelly :-)

Geysir, Golden circle Tour, Gullfoss, Þingvellir National Park
Some really vibrant colours in the pools at Geysir

A lot of the Tour companies stop at Geysir and there are a few restaurants offering top notch food at various prices as well as a tourist shop. And these Icelanders certainly are stylish with their buildings.

Gullfoss waterfall, Golden circle Tour, Þingvellir National Park, Iceland, Tour, Trip
Next stop - perhaps one of Icelands most well-known and certainly most visited waterfalls - Gullfoss - it's a pretty impressive and powerful sight!

Gullfoss waterfall, Golden circle Tour, Þingvellir National Park, Iceland, Tour, Trip

Gullfoss waterfall, Golden circle Tour, Þingvellir National Park, Iceland, Tour, Trip
Up close at Gullfoss

Golden circle Tour, Tectonic plates, Þingvellir National Park
We then head into Þingvellir National Park - which is notable for the meeting of 2 massive tectonic plates - the Eurasian Tectonic plate and North American Tectonic Plate.

Golden circle Tour, Tectonic plates, Þingvellir National Park
There are some well-marked trails along the tectonic plates and it really brings it home to you the fact the earth is made of these moving tectonic plates.

Golden circle Tour, Tectonic plates, Þingvellir National Park
Öxarárfoss Waterfall which is fairly easy to get to on a well-marked path.

Golden circle Tour, Tectonic plates, Þingvellir National Park
A popular view along the edge of tectonic plates in Þingvellir National Park. This location is actually where the very first Icelandic Parliament was formed in 930 as it was a central point where all of Iceland's chieftains and those of viking origin could assemble. Back in those days it could take 17 days to get here from eastern Iceland

Golden circle Tour, Tectonic plates, Þingvellir National Park

Northern lights in Iceland

Iceland: Northern lights & Reykjavik
We were faced with cloudy weather on most of the 3 evenings in Reykjavik - however a couple of hours of clears skies were forecast one night so we booked on a Northern Lights trip at the tourist office at the last minute and went northern lights hunting. I expect many people who haven't visited Iceland expect the Northern lights to visible every night - but you need 3 things to align for them to appear - firstly dark nights - which isn't a problem from September to March in Iceland, you then need clear skies - which can be a problem here in winter - and finally you actually need strong northern lights activity which is caused when solar wind particles travel from the Sun and hit earth's atmosphere at the exact location you are in. Fortunately for us we had a clearing in the sky for half hour just outside of Reykjavik and witnessed the famous lights. However what you may not realise is that most of the photos you see of the Northern lights are taken with high-end cameras which allow long exposures of 20 seconds or more. It's these long exposures which let the camera pick up more light from the Solar Wind and therefore the lights appear brighter and in different colours. I didn't actually take my DSLR camera on this trip as the forcast wasn't great - but the above picture is a pretty accurate representation of what was seen with the naked eye. You can get stronger and more vibrant Northern Light activity than those above - but it's completely down to luck what happens when you are in Iceland!

Reykjavik, Iceland 

Iceland: Reykjavik
Here is a popular view of Reykjavik from the top of Hallgrímskirkja Church. Reykjavik does have a character of it's own I would put it down as one of Europes must-visit cities - lots of nice bars and restaurants and shops! And not that big so you can walk around the city easily.
Hallgrímskirkja Church, Iceland, Reykjavik
Hallgrímskirkja Church on the tourist rail :-)

Iceland, Reykjavik, Sun Voyager, Dream boat
Another one to tick off :-) The Sun Voyager sculpture bathed in the evening glow, which is meant to be a dreamboat and and ode to the sun!

The view beyond the Sun Voyager into the calm waters surrounding Reykjavik

After we had visited the Sun Voyager sculpture - we went for some nice food at the Sky Lounge just over the road which gives some great views and I'd recommend a visit.

We went out for a few drinks and food every evening in Reykjavik and there are lots of different types of bars and pubs, some quaint and cosy, some modern and funky. This is Bravo Bar which we started at most nights for the good music and relatively cheap beer (Expect to pay around £10 a pint in Reykjavik uni;ess you go out in happy hour which is usually 6-8pm and you might pick up some 2 for 1 drinks - bargain :-P

soup in a bun, iceland, reykjavik
It was pretty chilly when we were there - so what better way to warm up one night than with soup in a bun :-)

It was early December in Reykjavik - so turns out the Coca Cola vans paid a visit to the city.

Reykjavik is quite a vibrant and creative city and you will notice quite a lot of street art on buildings around the city. Apparently graffiti is strictly forbidden but a lot of building owners commission the street art. If you are a fan of that sort of thing - you could spend a day just strolling round the city taking photos of the various buildings.

Loftid Cocktail bar. Excellent range of drinks and get's quite lively later on

Good bars/clubs:

• Kaffibarinn
• Bravo
• Austur
• Loftid
• B5 bar

When to visit Iceland and Reykjavik?

When you visit Iceland - the time of year you go will make a big difference to your experience. In mid winter it will be dark for most of the day with only 4-5 hours of light from 11am to 4pm, whereas in the middle of summer it won't get really dark at all. On this trip we visited in December and because it was in the lead up to xmas it had a really nice festive feel to the city with xmas lights all over. We where told it was unseasonably mild when we went and usually there would be a lot of snow around at this time - which would have given the landscapes a different feel. Because it is dark almost of the time in winter you have a better chance of seeing the Northern lights if you are prepared to stay out most of the night - however I believe there are a lot of cloudy/rainy days at this time. If you went in the peak of summer it would give you a lot of daylight to discover Iceland and maybe view places at quieter times. If I went back on balance I would probably go back around the spring or autumn equinoxes (so march or september) giving you a decent amount of daylight - but dark enough skies to try and see the Northern Lights if thats something you want to experience. But I'm sure whatever time of year you went you'd have a great time in this place!

As ever I hope you have enjoyed that little write up and photos and it inspires you to want to visit Reykjavik and Iceland.  If you have any questions - just post a comment and I'll try and answer as I know what its like when you haven't visited a place before and don't know what to expect.

Blog Post by Stuart Hodgson, 'The Hiking Photographer'

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