I'm sharing my travel experiences, candid opinions and what's on my mind. If you think it's inappropriate for a travel writer to stir up discussion on his blog with political observations and insights gained from traveling abroad, you may not want to read any further. — Rick
The Blue Lagoon spa, steaming in the middle of a vast and remote Icelandic lava field, is an unforgettable experience. But it’s expensive — you’ll pay at least $60, just to get through the door. Is it worth it? Not really. But for many people, it’s part of the Iceland experience.
The Blue Lagoon is a 45-minute drive from Reykjavík, but it’s only about 15 minutes from the international airport — making it well-designed for people coming or going by air. Parking is safe and easy, there are plenty of bus connections, and there’s a handy luggage storage facility on site. Give yourself a couple hours to soak and luxuriate, and don’t arrive without a reservation.
I scheduled my visit at the end of a busy week in Iceland, so I could take advantage of the proximity to the airport and enjoy a relaxing soak right before my long flight home. Still, as I stripped to my bathing suit and put my wallet, car keys, iPhone, and clothing into the locker, I felt a bit nervous. Shutting the door, I walked to the spa thinking how, if anyone broke into my locker and took my stuff, I’d be left nearly naked and stranded in Iceland, my flight taking off without me.
Two hours later, in a very relaxed state, I climbed out of the lagoon, returned to the locker room, and found the door to my locker wide open. It turns out that I had failed to touch my wristband to the sensor to lock the door, and it popped open after I thought I had closed it. But I had nothing to worry about — all my belongings were just sitting there, as I’d left them. And I was on my way.
I’m so excited about our new Rick Steves Iceland guidebook, researched and written by Ian Watson and Cameron Hewitt. The first edition just came out a few months ago, and, right out of the gate, it’s already one of our top sellers — and for good reason. I just spent a busy week traveling around Iceland with it, and it’s excellent. (And judging from the enthusiastic feedback I received along the way, many happy travelers agree.)
My main goal for this trip was to fine-tune the writing for the second edition of the book. I also wanted to simply enjoy Iceland — and scout for a possible TV shoot next year. I was grateful for the help of local guides each day, including Guðrún, an excellent guide I booked through Tours By Locals in Reykjavík.
Considering all the tourism inundating Iceland lately, I was impressed by how few walking tour options there are for visitors. The most established isCityWalk Reykjavík, which is offered as a “free tour.” I generally have my guard up when I see a tour advertised as “free,” but these felt better to me than most free tours I’ve tried on the Continent. Rather than aggressively hitting up participants at the end for a tip, as often happens elsewhere, they instead just say, “Pay what you think it’s worth.” Plus, the guides are all locals. My guide was wonderful, and the experience was a delight.
The charming little Nordic capital was holding its annual Gay Pride festival while I was there, and the whole city was festooned with rainbows. It was joyful to be in a land where the entire government lovingly embraces the idea that all its citizens should be celebrated. There was a sweetness to it, and I was reminded of Mr. Rogers’ simple but profound notion that “Everybody’s special.”
Then, on my last evening, I had a dreamy encounter with a gentle, hippy-style musician. I was dashing to a dinner reservation when he approached me on the street with a “namaste” sweetness. He said, “Are you Rick Steves?” I said, “Yes.” He gave me a CD of his music, folded his hands into a little bow, and said, “It’s a pleasure to meet you. Please enjoy my music.” Then he was gone.
The next day, as I wandered the city streets, I longed to cross paths again, so I could talk with him a bit. With his lovely hair and beard, Teitur Magnússon wasn’t hard to find. I ran into him, strolling a baby in a carriage, and we enjoyed a short conversation. That chance meeting reminded me that, beyond Iceland’s natural thrills, there’s a fragile and unique wonder on this rock that is very human. And even though the country’s entire population is smaller than Wichita’s, it has a lively cultural scene.
Enjoying Teitur’s music on YouTube after I got home, I realized that I’ve spliced a lot of great musicians into my world as souvenirs from my travels over the years. How about you?
BTW, for anyone who struggles with languages, like I do, Iceland can be a special challenge. It’s strange to travel in a country where it’s hard to actually remember any of the proper nouns. I set my bar very low: to learn how to spell the capital city, Reykjavík. And I’m proud to report, I succeeded.
While it’s fun to say, “Iceland’s diet is all about survival” (and much of it is), it also has a thriving foodie scene. To be sure I was up-to-date on eating in Reykjavík, I enjoyed a movable feast over the course of an evening with Valur, who runs Your Friend in Reykjavík. We recommend Valur’s food tours in our Rick Steves Iceland guidebook, and I wanted to personally experience every morsel.
In this clip, you’ll join Valur and me at just one of seven stops during an evening filled with edible memories. This stop highlights some traditional foods. After some tasty “Icelandic lobster” (langoustine) soup, I try minke whale — and Valur explains why Icelanders have no guilt about hunting them. Next up, it’s the notorious rotted shark, which smells like old cheese with ammonia…but is better than poison. (It’s best to wash it down with the local firewater, a.k.a. “black death.”) Much of Iceland’s cuisine certainly is all about survival.
I spent a long day with a local guide exploring the Golden Circle, the quintessential side-trip from Reykjavík, and working on this very important chapter in our new Iceland guidebook. There are three major stops along the route: Gullfoss waterfall, Þingvellir’s great fissure, and Geysir, a steaming field of hot springs and geysers.
The English word “geyser” comes from a geyser here that’s actually named Geysir. While the original geyser is no longer very active, its neighbor, Strokkur, belches hot water into the air every 10 minutes or so. You can see how crowded a sight like this is — but it’s no problem. When enjoying the natural punch of Iceland’s sights, there’s generally lots of parking and lots of space.
The best day out from Reykjavík is an all-day road trip called the Golden Circle. The drive is punctuated by roadside attractions, and the highlight is Þingvellir — a sight that’s of both historical and geological importance. Walk with me down the great fissure, where the tectonic plates of Europe and America meet.