Iceland: Reykjavík Day Trips with Cameron Hewitt | Rick Steves Travel Talks


Reykjavik is a great city,
but for a lot of people what they really want to do in Iceland is get out into the countryside. And fortunately, some of the
most beautiful parts of Iceland are a short drive from downtown Reykjavik. So I want to go through I
would say the four most popular day trips from Reykjavik,
the things you might be able to fit in even if you’re only
in town for a day or two. These are the ones that
you’ll be choosing from if you’re going to have
two or three days to spend. Just to give you your bearings,
Reykjavik is right here. The Blue Lagoon, the famous spa, is right by the airport
about 45 minutes away. the Golden Circle is a countryside drive to the east of Reykjavik. The South Coast is
about an hour and a half southeast of Reykjavik. There are some great sights in this area. And the last one I’ll talk
about is a little less known, but I think it’s great,
the Westman Islands which are just off shore
from the South Coast. So I’m going to go
through each one of those so you can kind of consider your options depending on how much time you have. For a lot of people, maybe
one of the main reasons they go to Iceland is to
go to the Blue Lagoon. This is this very famous
beautiful thermal spa. Water is about 100 degrees, you’re surrounded by volcanic rock. In some cases, there’s
actually steam vents coming out of the volcanic rock. Because of the unique mineral
composition of the water, it’s got kind of a blue sheen. That’s where it gets its name. I’m not here to tell you not
to go to the Blue Lagoon. I love the Blue Lagoon
and I think it’s great, but I think it’s good to know
a little bit more about it and make an informed decision. The reason for that is it’s expensive. A ticket to the Blue Lagoon
starts at about $100 per person. If you go early in the
day or later in the day, you might get an $80 ticket
or even a $70 ticket, but plan on spending
about $100 per person. But let me tell you a little
bit about the experience and you can make the
decision for yourself. Icelanders think the Blue Lagoon is kind of a strange phenomenon. Most Icelanders wouldn’t go here. First of all, they’d never pay that much. They see it as kind of a tourist trap. They also think it’s kind of funny because the Blue Lagoon
started as sort of excess water from a geothermal plant, okay? They built this plant
here in the background. So they dug holes into the ground, they pulled up this water, they realized they couldn’t
use the water as it was but they could use that
water to heat other water, fresher water, purer
water that they could then send into communities for drinking water. But then they had to do something
with all the extra water that they had just
extracted this heat from. It was still pretty hot. So they would just dump
it in the lava plain next to the plant and suddenly
people started showing up in the middle of nowhere and swimming in this really warm beautiful water. And someone had the great idea, let’s turn this into a tourist attraction and now it’s the most popular
tourist attraction in Iceland. (audience laughing) And don’t be grossed out by
this, it’s all natural water. It was just used to heat other water, it wasn’t processed in any way. But just be aware that that’s
sort of the history of it. The Blue Lagoon is just a fun experience to bob around and enjoy swimming. You can see there’s kind of a white film that builds up on the
rocks of the Blue Lagoon. And you can swim up to this
stand in the Blue Lagoon and they’ll give you some white goop that you put on your
face and it’s supposed to have sort of exfoliant properties. I don’t know if it really works, but– (audience laughing) When you’re in Iceland, you’ve got to try putting
this stuff on your face. One interesting thing
about the Blue Lagoon logistically is it’s close to the airport. So the main international
airport where you’re arriving in Iceland is about 45
minutes from Reykjavik. The Blue Lagoon is about 10
minutes from that airport. So here’s a really good tip
for efficient sightseeing. If you’re arriving early in the day, go straight to the Blue
Lagoon, enjoy it there, and then continue from
there on into Reykjavik. If you’re flying out late in the day, you could do the opposite, you could leave Reykjavik mid-day, go to the Blue Lagoon, have an afternoon there and
then board your late flight. And that would be the
most relaxed flight you’ll probably ever have, coming
straight from the Blue Lagoon. So just be aware of that
logistical part of it. The other thing you really need to know about the Blue Lagoon,
it requires reservations. And it can book up, the best
slots, the most desirable slots can book up a couple weeks ahead even, or longer in peak season. So if you’re going to
go to the Blue Lagoon, and especially if you’re trying to coordinate it with your flight time, be sure to get your booking ahead of time. It’s very unlikely
you’ll be able to get in if you don’t have an advanced reservation. I mentioned earlier that
Icelanders are a little skeptical about the Blue Lagoon, partly
because of the expense. The reason why is, be
aware the Blue Lagoon is sort of the ultimate
example of the Icelandic thermal bathing culture but
it’s not the only example. There are about a dozen
municipal swimming pools around Reykjavik that
have water just as hot as the Blue Lagoon and a
ticket costs 1/10 as much. Now you might look at this and say why would I go to a municipal
swimming pool in Iceland? What you might not realize is the water in the main pool is about 85 degrees and the water in the smaller
pools is about 100 degrees. So it’s not just a normal swimming pool, and it’s all naturally heated water that comes straight from
underneath the earth. This is also a very Icelandic experience. As I mentioned, if you’re in
Iceland for just a few days you might find you’re on a tourist trail and you don’t really break out of that and have a truly Icelandic experience. If you go to a suburban
Reykjavik thermal swimming pool, that is an Icelandic experience. In Great Britain at the
end of a busy day of work, people gather their families
and they go down to the pub. Right? In Spain and Italy at the
end of a long day’s work, people take their families
wandering through the streets. The paseo in Spain, the
passeggiata in Italy. If there’s a comparable
situation to that in Iceland, it’s that at the end of a
school day or a work day, people gather their kids and take them down to the thermal swimming pool. So if you go to one of these, you’ll be surrounded by 90% Icelanders. If you go to the Blue Lagoon, you’ll be surrounded by 99% tourists. Doing both is a great option. And in fact, I become sort of a hot water aficionado when I’m in Iceland. It’s not just Reykjavik,
you see these signs all over the country in Iceland. I think every community with
at least a hundred people has somehow scraped together the resources to have a really top notch
municipal thermal swimming pool heated by natural thermal water. So if you’re driving around Iceland and you’re getting worn out and tired, look for one of these signs, stop in. There’s a very specific procedure for how you’re supposed to come and go. It sounds intimidating, but it’s really not if you know the rules. And in the Rick Steves Iceland guidebook, we have detailed instructions for how to do these thermal swimming pools. There’s also a variety of other, they call them premium thermal baths. So you’ve got the municipal swimming pool which is about $10 a person,
you’ve go the Blue Lagoon which is $100 a person, and
then there’s four or five of these premium thermal baths that are more like $40 or $50 a person that are a little more
catering to tourists but are not as inaccessible to locals. And they are a nice compromise. I’ll talk about a few of those as we go through the destinations. There are also some places you can go out in nature and be in thermal waters. This is a little bit riskier,
you have to really know what you’re doing and make sure you don’t accidentally get into
a pool that’s too hot. But if you have a good guidebook and get good information from locals, be aware that there’s opportunities to get in hot water all over Iceland. So we’ve talked about the Blue Lagoon. The second very popular day
trip itinerary, I would say the most popular day trip
itinerary is the Golden Circle. The Golden Circle is about
a 150-mile loop drive going from Reykjavik into
the Icelandic interior, connecting three major
sights and lots of other smaller sights, if you
choose, along the way. I would say if there’s any
one kind of must-do sight, the quintessential Icelandic day trip, it would be the Golden Circle. I happen to like the South Coast which we’ll talk about next. I would say they’re, to me, equally appealing for different reasons. Let me tell you what you would do on the Golden Circle if
you decide to do this. This is 150 miles, it takes about a day. If you’re in a hurry, you could
do it in six, seven hours. If you want to linger and
have a meal along the way, it could be eight, nine, 10
hours just to give you a sense. The first of the three main stops on the Golden Circle is this place. Now let’s remember our
Icelandic language lessons. The big P with a stick on
the top is the TH sound and the two Ls are a TL sound. So this is pronounced Thingvellir. Thingvellir. It’s often spelled in English with the TH, but it’s not thing-vellir,
it’s Thingvellir, just to get you a little bit of a sense of the Icelandic language. Thingvellir is a great opportunity to learn a little bit more
about the geology of Iceland. We’ve talked about how Iceland is kind of in the middle of nowhere between
Europe and North America. However, it happens to sit right along the Mid-Atlantic Fault,
which is technically the biggest mountain range in the world. It just happens to be
under the Atlantic Ocean. This is where the North
American and the Eurasian tectonic plates are pulling apart. And this is the reason why Iceland is so volcanically active. The fault between those
two tectonic plates actually cuts right up
through the middle of Iceland. So any time you talk about volcanoes or thermal springs in Iceland, you’re talking about something
that’s along this red line. Thingvellir is right here, for example. So one reason people
like to go to Thingvellir is there’s places where
you can walk through chasms where you have the impression that you’re literally walking
between continents. It’s a little more complicated than that, but essentially one side of this picture is North America, the other
side of this picture is Europe. So for geological reasons,
Thingvellir is very popular. It’s also very popular
for historical reasons. This is a very important
place for the Icelanders because where this flag is right here on this rock is where,
starting in the year 930, the Icelanders had a great assembly. So all the chieftains of all
these widely scattered farms all over the desolate country of Iceland would come together once a year, have a big meeting, make
the important decisions about the future of their
humble little country. It’s called the Althing,
the Althing gathering. For that reason, Thingvellir
is a very important national park and is sort of kind of the constitution hall for Icelanders. They consider it kind of the birthplace of their civilization. So if you’re interested
in the history of Iceland, that’s another reason why
this Thingvellir is great. Now we’re going to continue
along the Golden Circle. And by the way, I want
to say it’s not just the three big stops, it’s all of the beautiful countryside you see in between. What’s really remarkable
about traveling in Iceland is you could be a half
hour outside of Reykjavik and you’re in a landscape that looks like no human being has ever been there before. And the Golden Circle is
a great chance to get out and really experience the
Icelandic countryside. At one point, you’re
driving along a pipeline that’s bringing superheated
natural water from the plants out in the distant
countryside all the way into downtown Reykjavik to
come out of people’s taps. So this gives you a sense of
Iceland beyond the capital. And as you travel around, you’ll stop off at a beautiful little lakefront
and here’s another little geothermal plant just
sort of hissing away, you’ll see that all over
the Icelandic countryside. The second big stop for the Golden Circle is a place called Geysir. And this is where English and other languages got the word geyser. But this was the original
word in Icelandic to describe this sort of
steaming, bubbling plain where you have a lot of
hot water spurting around. And if you’re at the plain in Geysir, you’ll look over and you
see a bunch of people standing in a big circle looking at a big hole that’s kind of bubbling up. So you’ve decided there must
be something about to happen, so you wait and get your camera ready and sure enough, after about
10 minutes it starts to bubble and boil and the geyser shoots off. Now let me warn you,
Old Faithful this ain’t. It’s not exactly every 10 minutes. It’s about every 10 minutes. Here’s another tip, don’t blink. Okay, the geyser doesn’t
last for very long. Have your camera ready, make
sure it didn’t go to sleep while you were waiting ’cause otherwise you’re waiting another 10
minutes for the next one. I would say Geysir is
not the main attraction, it’s right on the way
to some other sights. It’s fun to stop off for 20 or 30 minutes and go for a walk and get a sense of this aspect of the
Icelandic countryside. One of the stops I think
that really is a highlight on the Golden Circle is
the third major stop. And it’s this waterfall, Gullfoss. Gullfoss, and I would say there
are three great waterfalls, my favorite three waterfalls in Iceland. This is the first one, Gullfoss. And as you can see from the parking lot, you walk down a trail
and you find yourself really immersed in this amazing landscape of the thundering
waterfall, you feel the mist coming up out of this gorge
and hitting you in the face. Really a dramatic waterfall experience. There are lots of other minor attractions also on the Golden Circle. So if you have a little bit more time, you can stop off and have a meal. You can stop off at a place
like this, it’s called Kerid. It’s a crater where you
can get our of your car and walk around the lip of
this really colorful crater. And there are also several thermal bathing opportunities as well
on the Golden Circle. So in our Rick Steves Iceland guidebook, we’ve outline four convenient
thermal bathing opportunities you can fit into your Golden Circle trip if you have a little bit of extra time. Okay, so that’s the second
of the four major day trips. Blue Lagoon, Golden Circle, now we’re going to head
down to the South Coast. The South Coast is
about an hour and a half to two hour drive from downtown Reykjavik. The reason you go to the South Coast is for really dramatic natural scenery, obviously coastal scenery,
and this is also a place with a lot of volcanic activity and a chance to look at some glaciers. The reason you would do this instead of the Golden Circle is if you
want to see the seashore, if you wanted to go for some
hikes there are a few more hiking opportunities
along the South Coast. It has an almost sort
of Celtic look to it. It has these kind of rugged green rolling hills and mountains. It also has my second
favorite waterfall in Iceland. This one is called Seljalandsfoss. It’s a beautiful waterfall to look at, but it’s also fun because there’s a trail that leads all the way
behind the waterfall. Take my word for it, you
want to wear waterproof shoes and a waterproof jacket
’cause you will be soaked by the time you’re done with it. But it is really delightful
to walk around behind this stunning thundering waterfall. Another highlight for people
visiting the South Coast is this glacier, Solheimajokull. Jokull is the word for glacier, so any time you see jokull in
Icelandic that means glacier. And this is the easiest
one closest to Reykjavik where you can actually go for
a little hike and actually, depending on conditions walk
up and touch the glacier, at least see it from a distance. Nearby you can go to Reynisfjara which is a beautiful
black sand volcanic beach which has some beautiful
basalt formations. Do you remember I showed
you the church in Reykjavik that had kind of this jagged skyline? This is a basalt formation that you see all over the country, that’s what he’s sort of trying to evoke with that. The other reason why the
South Coast is well known is this is the location
of the notorious volcano that went off in 2010
and halted air travel throughout Europe because of all the ash that it threw up into the atmosphere. This is a tough Icelandic
word, Eyjafjallajokull. Eyjafjallajokull. Some people call it E15, E and 15 letters because it’s too hard to say. (audience laughing) Eyjafjallajokull. This is one of many volcanoes
along the South Coast. Usually they’re dormant, but every few years
one of them does erupt. You’re not going to see
anything from Eyjafjallajokull except you’re going to faintly
see this sort of glacier covered mountain off in
the distance as you drive. But notice this is this
red line that shows where the two tectonic
plates are pulling apart. We’re talking about this area right here, so anywhere you have
volcanoes it’s going to be on this red line running
through the middle of Iceland. If you’re interested in volcanoes, there’s an interesting
sight along the South Coast in a little town called the Lava Center, a very new modern exhibit
where you can learn more about the history and the landscape that was shaped by Iceland’s volcanoes. Okay, our last of the four
key day trips from Reykjavik is in some ways my sentimental favorite. It’s the classic backdoor. If you know Rick Steves, we
love to talk about backdoors. The idea of a backdoor is
it’s a small, lesser known, less touristed alternative to the big popular touristy destinations. For me, that is the Westman Islands. It’s a little chain of islands just a 40-minute boat
ride from the South Coast or an easy 40-minute flight
from downtown Reykjavik. Let me tell you a little bit
about the Westman Islands. I love it because it’s
a beautiful landscape, it’s certainly Iceland
but it feels different from what you’re going
to find on the mainland. It’s less touristed partly
’cause it’s tricky to reach. We have all of the details in our Rick Steves Iceland guidebook,
but basically you can take a boat from the South Coast
or you can fly from Reykjavik. Both options are somewhat
weather dependent. So especially outside of summer, you might plan your day to
go to the Westman Islands and discover the boat’s not running today. So just be prepared for that. For that reason, I would recommend
if you’ve got a few days, spend a couple of nights
on the South Coast. And then as the trip approaches and you can look at weather forecasts, if one of the days looks
better than the other, that’s the day you go
to the Westman Islands. And if it’s canceled on the other day, you can still see the sights
around the South Coast. It’s a very flexible itinerary suggestion. Why would you go to the Westman Islands? Well first of all, it’s
really just one main inhabited island that you’re going to. And it’s a charming little rustic town with a dramatic setting. It’s a very popular fishing port. And there’s all these dramatic cliffs where they teach young kids to crawl up and harvest seabird eggs. There’s a really specific culture in the Westman Islands of training kids to free climb rock faces
to harvest seabird eggs. The main reason people are
interested in Westman Islands is because it was the site
of a very famous volcano. 1973, late at night one January all of a sudden all of
the natives were woken up by the eruption of a gigantic
volcano just over their heads. Fortunately, everybody
was able to be evacuated but the world watched
over the next few weeks as the lava flow very slowly
encroached on the town. It actually ended up
swallowing parts of the town. It even threatened briefly to seal off this perfect natural harbor. Fortunately, it stopped just shy of that. If you’re interested in
volcanoes in Iceland, this is a fascinating place to go. You can actually see some
of the houses that are partly swallowed up by the
lava from the 1973 eruption. And there’s a really beautiful
state-of-the-art museum that they’ve actually built
around one of those houses and it tells you the whole
story of that eruption. If you are interested in volcanoes, I would say this might be
the best site in Iceland other than if you happen to see an eruption while you’re there,
which is not that likely. And if you leave that museum and hike up on the bluff over the town,
you’re kind of strolling and it’s just sort of a
typical Icelandic rocky bluff. And suddenly you start
to realize that there are street signs and it’s marking
where the streets of that town one generation ago were, now
50 feet below you under this wall of lava that froze up
during that 1973 eruption. It’s really an amazing place. You can even hike up
to the volcano itself. It’s mostly dormant now, it’s not hot but it’s still warm up at the top so it’s kind of interesting to really have an experience like that. If I’m on the Westman
Islands, I like to get out a little bit into the countryside. You can either take your car on the ferry or you can hire, there’s a great
company that does day tours on the Westman Islands and
they’ll drive you around. You can drive from one end
to the other in 15 minutes. One reason people like to
get out into the countryside on the Westman Islands is
the great puffin populations. If you’ve been to Iceland,
you know the puffin is sort of the unofficial national mascot. You see puffins everywhere. And there’s a good reason,
Iceland has more puffins than anywhere else in the world. Keep in mind, puffins only come
to land in the early summer and they leave in the late summer. So you would only see them
from let’s say early June or late May through the end of August. The Westman Islands have the largest puffin population anywhere in the world. So if you’re there in the
summer and you want to see puffins, this is a
great place to see them. If you want to be guaranteed of seeing a puffin any time of the day or night, you can stop by the aquarium
at the Westman Islands. They rescued a little puffling who couldn’t quite take off
with the rest of his flock and they nursed him back to health. And now he just sort of
waddles around the halls of the aquarium and gets up and close and personal with the tourists. (audience laughing) It’s really fun to go to the
aquarium in the Westman Islands and meet Toti the puffin, that’s his name. So this is the only place in Iceland you can be guaranteed of seeing a puffin. So again, in sum you’ve got four popular day trips from Reykjavik. Blue Lagoon, Golden Circle,
South Coast, Westman Islands. If you have four days in Iceland, I would probably devote
a day to each of those and spend your nights divided between Reykjavik and the South Coast.

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