What to Do in Iceland When Winter Really ComesBy Robin Bennefield
Winter is coming. Go find “Game of Thrones” inspired things to do in Iceland. (Photo: Jessica Menk)
You might be thinking why in the world would you go to Iceland in winter? The nights are long (like 19 hours long) and there are snow showers like tropical rain showers almost every day. But you shouldn’t let any of that stop you, because Iceland truly becomes the “Land of Fire and Ice” in winter, a place made for legendary “Game of Thrones” inspired tripping.
EMBRACE THE FIRE AND THE LIGHT
Sounds like something the Red Witch Melisandre might say if she were a travel agent, right? Go with it. In fact, do what lots of Europeans do and celebrate New Year’s Eve in Reykjavik when the city literally lights up with over-the-top fireworks displays and massive bonfires.
Reykjavik Excursions and Gray Line Tours will take you to these neighborhood fire fests, a 200-year tradition where locals sing songs, burn the things they don’t want to bring with them into the new year and wave sparklers like little kids on the Fourth of July.
There’s even a bit of GOT or Hobbit-style lore attached: It is said that elves or hidden folk get in on the action too, lighting bonfires at each home they visit to celebrate the holidays.
The only downside is that these big tours can get really big, so seek out a smaller boutique company or a friendly local to lead the way.
You won’t need a tour to see Reykjavik’s fireworks, just head to the harbor or stand on any street corner, really, to see epic displays off apartment buildings, in backyards and any other place you can imagine. The locals take their fireworks seriously, collecting tons for these year-end festivities.
But the light show everyone comes to Iceland to see is Aurora Borealis. Imagine yourself in a dream; surrounded by stars, snow and Icelandic vodka. If you are lucky enough to have atmospheric science cooperate, you may have the opportunity to see this rare natural phenomenon, also known as the Northern Lights. Go with Super Jeep for a truly authentic experience that will have you wanting to share with your friends on Instagram.
BEHOLD LEGENDARY NATURAL WONDERS
If you only have a few days in Reykjavik, circumnavigating the Golden Circle is a prerequisite. The Golden Circle is the road to Iceland’s historic sites and iconic natural sights.
Start with Thingvellir National Park, the birthplace of Iceland as a nation and the place where North America and Europe split along tectonic plates. If you are lover of Jon Snow, you’ll be geeked to know that you have ventured north of “The Wall” and if you are here in winter, you can almost envision icicled White Walkers emerging out of the snowy horizon. You can get all the juicy filming backstory on Gray Line’s Game of Thrones tour.
The actual history of the place is as grizzly as an episode of GOT, complete with a drowning pit for women considered loose or wayward. Yikes.
From here the road leads to Iceland’s geyser area belching steam at regular intervals as a reminder that the nation of 300,000 is living on a series of giant volcanoes and geothermal activity. Continue your journey past stark white landscapes punctuated by packs of cute little Icelandic horses, a breed over 900 years old. If you can’t be Mother of Dragons, maybe you can play mother to these sweet creatures.
You won’t be able to resist stopping to pet them. Better yet, consider adding a horseback ride at family-run Laxnes Farm to your Golden Circle tour.
As iconic as Thingvellir and Gullfoss are, it doesn’t get more iconic than the Blue Lagoon. It’s on every tour and beckons you from Keflavik Airport with good reason. Pre-book because this geothermal gem shouldn’t be missed.
You’ll know you have reached paradise when you are surrounded by warm teal colored water. (It really is that blue!) Get neck deep, enjoy a glass of Prosecco at the swim up bar and forget that it’s near freezing outside.
Be sure to take advantage of the silica mask bar all around the lagoon. Slather up; they say it’s the ticket to youth. Add to the experience with an in-water massage for a feeling of total relaxation and, surprise, weightlessness.
EAT AND DRINK (FOR TOMORROW IS NOT PROMISED)
Few television characters have a shorter life span than those on GOT. Kind of makes you want to swill and feast like Tyrion Lannister. Luckily, Iceland has its fair share of bars and restos to fit the bill. Most have a laid-back neighborhood feel like Lebowski Bar (yes, like the movie) on Reykjavik’s main drag, Laugavegur.
Slip onto a barstool and order a White Russian, the house drink. In no time you’ll be chatting up a local and getting bartender-approved recommendations for more spots to meet locals.
The soundtrack? Serious soul from Curtis Mayfield, Bill Withers and Grace Jones spinning on a live DJ’s turntables. Find quirky Laundromat Café, also on Laugavegur, for coffee, brunch, burgers, beer and a place to do your laundry. There really is a Laundromat downstairs.
Doesn’t get quirkier than KEX, a modern hostel with a super cozy vibe. It’s like something straight out of a Wes Anderson movie. The common space is great for sipping a craft cocktail while enjoying the view of snowcapped mountains. Pick out a book from their diverse library while enjoying the industrial interior space.
If you are looking for hidden spots where you are guaranteed to feel like a local, dip into The Pizza Place With No Name (that’s really its name) at Hverfisgata 12. The top floor is a small brew spot called Mikkeler & Friends. Grab a beer there and then head downstairs for super delish craft pizzas with the most unique toppings. The menu alone is worth the visit for its fun illustrations of pizza ingredients.
Café Haiti is almost hiding in plain sight in Reykjavik’s Old Harbour where whale watching and other boating excursions depart. In this cozy café, owner Elda brings coffee from her homeland, Haiti, to Reykjavik’s hardcore coffee culture, while adding Haitian flavors to traditional Icelandic dishes like lamb and fish soup. It’s the perfect place to take the chill off a cold winter’s day in Reykjavik, just like a local.
Robin Bennefield is managing editor of Marriott Traveler, prone to spontaneous travel near and far without missing an episode of “Game of Thrones.” She’s on Twitter @RobinsHaveWings.
Jessica Menk, Marriott’s MLIVE art director, contributed to this story with her gorgeous photos, cool words and fond memories of Iceland. She’s on Twitter @jamgal2010.