Iceland touring with kids
Summer holidays are long behind us and we’re looking forward to autumn adventures. The Skye team are heading back to Iceland for our 2nd trip during October and we can’t wait. This time we’ll be heading beyond Reykjavik and the Golden Circle. The house is awash with new parkas, hiking boots and maps that we pour over planning our trips.
It seems like a great time to review our first trip to Iceland with kids and to share our tips.
Iceland with kids
While we adore Iceland I have to inject a word of caution and say it may not be for every family! It is a vast country (although the population is only 300,000) and there are of necessity many hours of travelling to take in some of the amazing landscapes and sites that Iceland has to offer. If your kids are bad travellers, or have ants in their pants after more than an hour in the car, I’d suggest confining your trip to Reykjavik and the surrounding areas – there is A TON to do and you’ll thank me for not enduring “are we there yet?” “is that it?” ” I’m hungry” ” I need to pee. NOW” for hours at a time.
The most beautiful capitol city I’ve ever visited. Not because of the grandeur and history of architecture but because of it’s compact and welcoming and cosy atmosphere (created as much by the people as it’s heated pavements!). It is a tiny capitol with an absolute abundance of things to do.
We loved simply strolling the painted streets and imagining we lived in one of the colourful houses, and ducking into one of the plethora of hip coffee and bakehouses which make up an integral part of Iceland’s daytime social scene. Two of our favourites were Reykjavik Roasters and Brauð & Co. divine pastries in the most beautifully painted building! The street art is impressive and is part of the instagram success that is modern Iceland!
Hallgrímskirkja, the modern cathedral in the centre of the city drew us in for it’s incredible swooping architecture and amazing views across the city from it’s tower. Whale watching trips from the harbour offer an amazing chance to see whales, dolphins and porpoises – or as one recent trip advisor review said “3 hours of choppy grey seas, but with lovely staff and great hot chocolate”. We didn’t opt for a trip but were lucky enough to see humpback and minke whales simply from the beach later on in our journey!
There are around 20 thermal swimming pools, hot pots and public baths in the city – it’s an absolute must to experience – but essential to make sure that everyone is on board with the mandatory naked communal (single sex) showering before using the pools – maybe not a recommendation for shy early teenagers.
Blue Lagoon If the thought of the public showering is too much you can opt for the luxury version of the public pool at the Blue Lagoon near the airport (top tip make it a stop on your way to or from Reykjavik) . I organised our trip last minute (about 5 days before we left) to celebrate one of my (very large) birthdays and centred it round spending my birthday at the Blue Lagoon. It’s so famous I was worried it might be an awful tourist trap – nothing could be further from the truth. It was an overwhelmingly wonderful experience – but then a luxury feel spa, with an enormous outdoor hot pool and a swim up prosecco bar was unlikely to disappoint. The bar also had children’s drinks from the brand Krapp. My kids could not have been more delighted. We ate a long late lunch in the on site restaurant and the food and service were wonderful.
The Golden Circle
You can’t google Iceland without finding the Golden Circle amongst the search returns. A day long circuit starting and finishing in Reykjavik taking in some of Iceland’s most amazing spectacles. Þingvellir – the seat of the first parliament 1000 years ago and the spot where the north American and European continental plates meet and drift apart (you can scuba dive in the canyon between the plates!) , Geysir and Stokkur – geothermal areas where the ground literally steams and huge geysirs – jets of boiling water – regularly erupt, Gullfoss – the golden waterfall where the might of the water and the noise takes your breath away, the Secret Lagoon at Flúðir and the Reykjadalur Hot Spring Thermal River. It’s ambitious to give any of these the full attention they deserve on a day long circuit but they do give you the most incredible taste of Iceland and what is to come as you venture away from the capitol. If you have only a short time in Iceland – perhaps as a stopover – it is a superb way to spend a day enjoying the jaw dropping scenery. On our last visit we missed out the Secret Lagoon and the hot spring river so they are top of our list on our trip next week. As always when travelling with children expect unexpected highlights. 8 year old Kate definitely got the biggest thrill from a snowball fight at the side of the road!
South East Iceland to Jökulsárlón
With 2 days of our trip left we decided to road trip along the south coast of Iceland. Absoutely spellbinding. We love the highlights so much that we visited them in both directions! The fabulous waterfalls at Seljalandsfoss and Skógafoss were real stars. At the former you can walk round behind the waterfall (it’s wet and slippery but what an experience) and watch ice forming on the rocks all around the base of the falls (and on you!). Skógafoss is another endlessly photographed site as rainbows play at the foot of the immense falls – but it is no less impressive for that and is a place to embrace the presence of other visitors – they can help to show the scale of the falls in your photos!
En route to our next stop at Vík we found one of our favourite food stops of the trip. Gas stations frequently have little diners attached. Not only can you find the wonderful hotdogs that are the staple of the take away diet on Iceland (and surely please any picky children) but these small roadside diners provide a hot meal – often lamb – with vegetables and bread on a self serve basis with endless coffees. I don’t recall the cost but it was incredibly reasonable and is just one way to beat the concern about Iceland being incredibly expensive. Everyone else was Icelandic and we loved our experience there. Especially when one of the shop staff took the children to the sweet bar and let them try all the Icelandic sweets. I can report that the pepper sweets were eye watering!
Vík A charming and tiny road stop – ice cream and yet more coffee – and showcasing one of the wonderful little churches that dot the Icelandic countryside. The views out to sea are breathtaking from the church which over looks the town and there are numerous cliff top look out points. A tiny side road nearby leads to the volcanic black sand beach at Reynisfjara with it’s amazing basalt columns and huge sea cave. The kids loved it here and particularly running about in the cave and climbing the basalt columns. I lost my husband to an hour of landscape photography and we had a blissful time! It is a wonderful place to spend an hour or so just marvelling at the landscape. A word of caution about the waves here – large waves come in suddenly and can sweep you out to sea. Stay out of reach of the surf.
Jökulsárlón and Diamond Beach
It’s around a 5 hour drive from Reykavik to Jökulsárlón and from Vik we headed without stopping to Jökulsárlón. This meant a long drive across desert – it seemed like some sort of moonscape.We arrived at Jökulsárlón by accident. We saw a few cars pulled into a parking bay and curiousity led us to stop beside them. As we scrambled to the top of an earthern mound the most incredible vista opened up. A sparkling blue lagoon filled with ice bergs drifting by and seals swimming and playing. It was simply mesmerising. In summer you can take boat trips towards the foot of glacier that sweeps into the lagoon. We were content walking the shores of the lagoon and marvelling at the layers of colour captured in the ancient ice. The seals followed us – just as nosey as we are! The icebergs get swept to sea here via a short river and many end up on the beach – which has become known as Diamond beach. The low afternoon light was refracting through the ice as we arrived.
We noticed a commotion in the waters off shore and realised that we were watching a whale – a humpback – rolling and breaching. Such an incredible moment to share as a family.
Another note of caution here – please don’t climb onto the icebergs in the lagoon or at the beach. It may make the perfect photo for the ‘gram but it really isn’t worth the risk and danger.
We stayed at a small (but this is Iceland so incredibly hip) family hotel nearby. The owners breed Icelandic horses and there were new born foals to visit. We played football in the grounds until 10 pm that evening – a truly marvellous day.