With its imagination-stoking natural wonders — volcanoes, glaciers, and puffins — Iceland is practically made for kids. And yet, when we set out to work on our Rick Steves Iceland book, we realized few guidebooks do justice to family travel. So with the help of our co-author, Ian Watson (who raised his kids in Iceland), we wrote an “Iceland for Children” chapter, loaded with 11 pages of advice on where to stay, what to pack, where to eat, and the top sights and activities for kids around the country. Here are a few highlights from that chapter.
Iceland is packed with unique geological features, which are fun both to explore, and to learn about. If your child takes an interest in volcanoes or glaciers, deputize them to become an expert and play “tour guide” when you reach key sights. Help them figure out what their name would be in Icelandic (I’m “Cameron Kemptonson.” Rick would be “Rick Dicksson.”) And challenge them to master the pronunciation of the famous volcano, Eyjafjallajökull.
In the Mývatn volcanic area, your family will discover unique land formations, steaming geothermal landscapes, and easy nature walks. (But be careful! Iceland’s many geothermal areas are full of boiling water and hissing steam. Be sure your children understand how important it is to stay on marked trails at all times, and keep younger kids close at hand.)
In the Westman Islands, you can walk up onto a lava flow that partly covered the town in 1973, visit the excellent Volcano Museum, hike up to the still-warm summit of Eldfell, and meet a puffin at the local aquarium.
Iceland also offers many opportunities to get up close to waterfalls. Surefooted kids particularly enjoy Seljalandsfoss, on the South Coast, where they can walk behind the falls. (Just be sure to bundle up, with waterproof shoes and jackets.)
The mellow, spa-like atmosphere at Iceland’s premium baths — such as the famous Blue Lagoon — feel very grown-up and may not be the best choice for kids. However, the thermal bathing scene at Iceland’s many municipal pools is perfectly kid-friendly. Many of the larger pools have colorful waterslides and other activities that are designed just for children, and there’s usually a shallow wading section for tiny tots.
Kids also love wandering among the life-size models at Whales of Iceland, a pricey but riveting attraction tucked in a big-box store zone near Reykjavík’s harbor. The “whales” are impressively detailed and bathed in a shimmering, blue light, and you’re invited to wander under and among them (with the help of the engaging, free-to-download audioguide). You’ll find yourself face-to-face with majestic giants: pilot whale, humpback whale, sei whale, bowhead whale, minke whale, Moby Dick-style sperm whale, and the largest specimen, the blue whale — which can grow up to 110 feet long. The exhibit may sound gimmicky…but it’s genuinely cool. (And many families prefer this to actual whale-watching cruises, which can come with rough waves, unpredictable weather, and a less-than-guaranteed chance of seeing more than a fleeting glimpse of whales.)
In West Iceland, the Háafell Goat Farm is a fun, hands-on activity for kids. On a remote, unpaved road about an hour east of Borgarnes, this farm represents a one-family project by Jóhanna Þorvaldsdóttir and her clan. A few years ago, they set out on an idealistic quest to breed Iceland’s nearly extinct goat stock — descended from animals brought by the first settlers. Now the family invites travelers to visit their farm, meet (and, if you like, cuddle) some adorable baby goats, learn about their work, watch the goats butt heads playfully, and peruse the wide variety of products they make from their goats: feta cheese, ice cream, soap and lotions (from tallow), and goat-hide carpets and insoles.
Lastly, if none of these suggestions seem quite right for your jaded, older kids, you may be able to get their attention by mentioning that Reykjavík has a penis museum. Excuse me: Phallological Museum. Tucked at the far end of the city’s main walking street, Laugavegur, you’ll find a one-room collection of preserved animal penises and various depictions of phalluses in folk art. Surprisingly, it’s more educational than crass. And yet, it’s impossible to visit this place without making juvenile jokes. In some ways, 12-year-old boys are the most fitting audience possible for this collection. A 12-year-old-boy-at-heart, I spent quite some time wandering around here, cracking myself up as I scrawled notes in my little notebook. Here’s my writeup for the Rick Steves Iceland guidebook:
You’ll see more wieners than you can shake a stick at — preserved, pickled peckers floating in jars of yellow liquid. You’ll see a seal’s schlong, a wolf’s wang, a zebra’s zipper trout, a fox’s frankfurter, a giraffe’s gherkin, a dog’s dong, a badger’s baloney pony, a squirrel’s schwanz, a coyote’s crankshaft, a horse’s hardware, a reindeer’s rod, an elephant’s equipment, and lots of whale willies. If you can’t get through this description without giggling, maybe you should visit. If you’re about to set down this book and write me an angry letter…don’t.
And with that…happy travels to you and your whole clan!