Northern Lights

We didn't go to Iceland purely to see the Aurora, but it was right up there on the list of reasons to go.  I was desperate to see it, and really got my hopes up - which was a bit silly really, because it's never a guaranteed thing.  A lot of people think that if you go far enough North then you're in for an epic light show every night. Not true. Seeing the Aurora is all about luck, luck and more luck, because there are just so many factors that need to be in place for it to make an appearance, and even then it might not show up!

1. Time of Year/Day(/Decade!)

The best time of year to see the lights is September through to March. Because you're heading North and you need total darkness to see the Aurora, you need to visit when you're guaranteed that. Remember that in high latitude countries such as Iceland and Norway, there's no darkness at all from late April through to August.

The lights tend to be most active from around 10pm to 4am, peaking at around midnight. However, it's a waiting game, sometimes they'll appear as early as 6pm, sometimes you might be hanging around all night. Our tour left Reykjavik at 9pm and we didn't see any lights until gone 11pm - but even those weren't as spectacular as the ones we spotted from the coach on the way back. We were sitting on the side of the road watching them dance until gone 2am.

Seeing the Aurora also depends on the Sun. The Sun goes through an 11 year cycle where sun spots and solar flares come and go. Think of it as the sun's 'heart' beating once every 11 years. When it beats, activity on the face of the sun increases. The more restless the sun, the more likely you are to see the Northern Lights. 2013 - 2014 was a Solar Maximum and therefore high latitude sky watchers were treated to fanatastic displays of Aurorae. We visited in January 2013, the perfect time to go!

1. Solar Storms

Even still, a solar maximum isn't enough to guarantee seeing the aurora! Be on the look out for solar activity in the form of solar storms. When sun spots appear on the face of the sun there's an increased chance that there'll solar flares and the possibility of something called a Coronal Mass Ejection (CME); a massive burst of electomagnetic radiation into space. If the CME hits earth, even if it's just a glancing blow, then there's the chance of a solar storm and an increased chance of Aurorae.

For the weeks leading up to our trip and the three days we were in Reykjavik I had my eyes glued to two websites; Space Weather and The Icelandic MET Office. Space Weather keeps track of sun spots and solar flares (and also plots the location of the current Aurora Oval), whereas the Icelandic MET office tracks both solar and Icelandic weather to give a daily scale of 0 to 9 showing the chance of seeing any activity. By watching both these websites I was able to decide which day would be best to go Aurora Hunting. On Sunday evening (our last chance before leaving!) a CME hit Earth and the scale was at 4, so I knew it was going to be our best chance of seeing any lights!

1. Weather

Since the Aurora happens very high up in the Atmosphere, you'll need clear skies if you're in with a chance of seeing anything. Watch the weather and pick a night when those pesky clouds won't get in the way!

Photographing the Aurora

Photographing the Aurora is another thing altogether. Iceland was the first chance we had to give our new Nikon D5100 a spin, so other than a quick play around with the settings in the hotel room about an hour before the tour we didn't get any extra help. The great thing about taking a camera along is that it's great at spotting what you can't see. When the aurora appears it'll be very faint and cloud-like in appearance (yeah, don't expect the swirling pink and green waves you see in all those time lapse photography shots!). Taking a picture of what you might suspect to be the Aurora is a good way of finding out, since cameras pick up far more than our eyes do. What looks like a grey cloud to you might appear as a bright green burst on your camera!

You'll need a high ISO and a tripod to get the best results. We didn't have a tripod, so I anchored the camera between my thighs, which wasn't too bad an alternative in the end! This site seems to have some good tips.

Whale Watching

While we were in Reykjavik we decided to join the Elding Boat Tour to see if we could see any Whales out in the bay.

It was friggin' freezing on the top deck!  But there was plenty of hot chocolate and blankets to keep us nice and toasty when the wind got worse.

Despite the freebie motion sickness tablets, the sea got way too choppy for me.  I think I probably would have vommed over the side if it hadn't been for this random Swedish sailor who decided to randomly strike up a conversation with Sunny about property prices in London.

Unfortunately, the Whales didn't make an appearance during the three or so hours we rocked about in the bay.  Elding gave us free tickets to come back another time in the next couple of years.  (Annoyingly, we checked their Whales diary the next day and found out that the Sunday tour had seen a pod of Orcas - grr!) Oh well.  At least the scenery was pretty special!

Spring Moon

Spring is coming.


The Blue Lagoon

The Blue Lagoon isn't really the most natural Geothermal Spa in Iceland, it's pretty much one giant and very exclusive (read: expensive!) spa - but saying that, it's a totally unique experience and if you're headed for Iceland you'd be stupid to miss out on it - especially when you see the colour of the water when you arrive!

The Blue Lagoon is around a 20 minute drive from Keflavík Airport, and 40 minutes from Reykjavik.  With bit of forward thinking and planning, we decided to head to the Blue Lagoon straight from the airport. Bus Travel Iceland sell a special ticket that will take you from Keflavík Airport to the Blue Lagoon and then pick you up later to take you to your hotel in Reykjavik, which was brilliant. There's luggage storage at the entrance to the Blue Lagoon so you don't have to worry about your bags too!

If you book your BL ticket in advance you'll see that there are lots of different packages.  The most basic starts at 35 Euros and literally just allows entrance into the lagoon.  If you want towels, bathrobes, treatments and other extras like pool side drinks you'll have to pay extra - although you can pick a package that covers these too.  When you enter, a very nice viking will give you a coloured band according to your package with a chip on the side that works the very fancy electronic lockers and allows you to pay for drinks and treatments when you're inside.

Before you go into the pool head through the restaurant (Lava) and up the stairs to the viewing platform which is great for taking photos of the lagoon before you go for a dip!

It's pretty special.  The water all year round is kept to between 37–39 °C and has an almost impossibly bright blue shade to it.  It's so quiet there and the excess steam combined with the scenery around the lagoon (especially if you're there when there's snow on the ground) makes you feel like you're on another planet.

If you don't opt for a top package, remember to bring a towel, robe and something to wear on your feet - especially if you're there in winter.  Out of the water, it's freeeeezing!  We (ahem, Sunny) nearly froze walking around trying to take photos!

The bottom of the lagoon is covered in mud that you can scoop up and rub on your face - as demonstrated by the hubs above. They say the lagoon is great for treating skin conditions and it's true, our skin felt seriously good all the time we were in Reyjavik!

We had a free treatment with our package, so Sunny had a Lava Scrub...


...and I had an Algae Mask.

Reykjavik Guide

Must See
  • Take the lift to the top of Hallgrímskirkja.  It only costs about 7 euros and you get a really good view of the city and surrounding mountains.
  • Walk to to the coast and take a picture of The Sun Voyager (Sólfar) - a sculpture by Jón Gunnar Árnason which represents hope and the promise of undiscovered territory...
  • Take a walk along the Old Harbour and look at the ships...
  • Visit Harpa; home of the Icelandic Symphony Orchestra and one of the prettiest buildings in Reykjavik.  It's right on the water and sparkles in the sun and gets lit up at night.  There's always something going on inside, from seminars to shows.

  • Take a walk around the streets of Bankastræti, home to some of the prettiest houses in Reykjavik, and the majority of its stores, bars and restaurants.

  • Visit Tjörnin, 'The Pond' - a lake in the middle of the city that's home to some of the noisiest swans and ducks I've ever seen!
  • Next to Tjörnin, you'll find City Hall and a lot of other government buildings.

What to Buy

Shopping in Iceland is expensive!  Laugavegur is the main shopping street in Iceland where you'll find a lot of quirky boutiques, cafes and souvenir shops.  Souvenir shops sell all the usual sorts of things, from graphic t-shirts to fridge magnets.  We bought a pretty Christmas Decoration for our collection!

Kolaportið is Reykjavik's largest Flea Market, held on a Saturday and Sunday from 11am - 5pm in an old warehouse in the Harbour near Harpa.  If you're looking for old books and a traditional Wool Jumper to take back home then this is the place to get it, you'll pay a hell of a lot more elsewhere!

If you're into real fur, Iceland's the place for it, and you'll find a variety of pelts even in small souvenir shops.  It's hard not get drawn in by it, even if you're anti-fur.  But expect to pay A LOT for even a small stole.

What and Where to Eat

Okay.  When you tell people that you're going to Iceland they'll be quick to tell you that food is expensive, and they're right if you're in the market for typically tourist food or high end a la carte dinners.  We really weren't interested in trying Rotten Shark, Minke Whale or Puffin!

Above is an example of a typical tourist trap menu.  I bet it's all lovely, if you've got money to blow!  2,690kr is roughly £14, just in case you're eyeing up the Hot Smoked Puffin starter...

Prikið - Bankastræti 12

Prikid claims to be Reykjavik's oldest Cafe and has a fantasic American Diner style menu filled with inventive burgers and affordable prices.

Cafe Loki, Lokastíg 28 (Across street from entrance to Hallgrímskirkja)

Okay.  Sunny and I (okay, mainly me...) are massive comic book fans and just had to drop in on Cafe Loki. If you're burdoned with glorious purpose, that purpose being to drink coffee and snack on Icelandic food, this is the place.  We stopped by for a hot drink after climbing up  Hallgrímskirkja.

Noodle Station (Top Right) Skólavörðustígur 21a

After a day standing out on a boat looking for whales and freezing to death, hot noodle soup was exactly what was needed, and Noodle Station provide the best in town.

Icelandic Fish & Chips (Bottom Left), Tryggvagata 8

We stumbled into Icelandic Fish and Chips on our first day, having just arrived and desperate for something to eat but far too tired to wander around looking for somewhere.  Funnily enough we managed to stumble in more than the right direction because this place does the best fish and chips in town.  It's all fresh, caught in the morning and served up at night.  The menu changes based on what was freshly caught in the morning and the prices aren't bad at all.

Where to Stay

We stayed in Centrehotel Þingholt (bottom left) which was incredibly central (just off Bankastræti) and probably the nicest hotel I've ever stayed in.  The rooms were modern and clean (we had a lovely attic room), the breakfast was amazing (the bacon and the pecan plaits were seriously awesome) and it even had a little spa which we made use of on the last night before going out into the cold to see the northern lights.

What Else?

The Blue Lagoon
The Northern Lights
Whale Watching