Reykjavik in Winter with Kids

Akka is in school now, so in the interest of balancing her formal (school-based) and informal (experience-based) education, we limit school year travel. Instead of a few months, we now spend a few weeks in Sri Lanka over the winter. Still, when we found that flying through Reykjavik, Iceland to London was cheaper than flying directly to London en route to Colombo, we decided time limitations be hanged. A plan was hatched for a detour to what is arguably one of the most geographically/topographically interesting countries to visit.

Before We Left Boston

We always encourage enthusiasm about our destination with plenty of pre-travel discussion and engagement. Before going to Iceland, we helped generate excitement in the following ways:

  • Food: Skyr, Iceland's high protein version of yogurt, is a perennial favorite for our dairy loving daughter and both our children love smoked salmon. We made sure to tell our children about their favorite foods they would enjoy in Iceland.
  • Books: Unsurprisingly with Iceland’s small population of only ~330,000, the number of English language children's books from or about Iceland are limited. Nuptse and Lhotse go to Iceland (written by Canadian Jocey Asnong) was the best resource we found. It is written in the style of an Icelandic saga and provided a preview of many of Iceland's attractions including puffins, sheep/wool, hidden people, Icelandic horses, Vikings, volcanoes, geysers, glaciers/icebergs, black sand beaches, mountains and trolls, wildlife like foxes and seals, the sulfur smell, and traditional Icelandic food. We also purchased The Problem with Chickens on Kindle. It is a fun folktale and good story though doesn't educate as much on Iceland.  And on Google Play we found another Icelandic folktale, Half A Kingdom.
  • Scandinavian Media: Although not Iceland specific, we leveraged Scandinavian-based stories and media our children know to discuss Iceland. The movie How to Train Your Dragon jump started a conversation about Vikings. Disney's Frozen and Jan Brett's book The Trouble with Trolls were also helpful for discussing troll mythology. Fritz and the Beautiful Horses also by Jan Brett lent itself well to describing the hearty Iceland horses.
  • Internet Help: While researching travel in Iceland with kids, we found the website Iceland with Kids, a useful English-language site for families by a family with five children who spent a summer in Iceland are now writing a guidebook for family travel in Iceland. Other useful blogs/site included TravelDudes' Iceland for Kids, ParentMap's Family Trip to Iceland, and Guide to Iceland's February and Winter pages since we were visiting that time of year. We also watched a few YouTube videos, including:  Iceland: Natural Wonders - Travel Kids in Europe.

As always an important preparation for Malli is how we will manage his dairy and peanut allergies. Luckily English is widely spoken in Iceland so we didn't prepare anything in Icelandic to communicate the allergy. We did let Malli know that there would be specific foods he wouldn't be able to have like skyr, so he wouldn’t be unpleasantly surprised during the travel.

We also requested allergen-free meals from Icelandair for the flights. They normally need 48 hours notice. Icelandair provides free kids meals (adult food is available for purchase) but the kids meals are not dairy free. No one told us that when we booked the allergen free meals and we were not provided with dairy free meals for Malli but rather the typical children's fare. Luckily we know better than to count on airlines to provide allergen free meals even when they say they will, so we came prepared with plenty of meals and snacks for Malli.

Where We Stayed in Iceland

We knew little about Reykjavik before leaving but as we researched places to stay it became clear that we could not stay at many of the "family friendly hotels" recommended by other travelers. We were there during Pride Week AND as our travel was planned last minute, many hotels were fully booked.

Things worked out perfectly though. We were able to reserve an apartment at the Hotel Odinsve per the recommendation of the family travel blog, My Little Nomads. We had booked on Expedia for a good price and when we arrived early and asked for early check-in they told us they would put us in a smaller apartment that was across from the main hotel building rather than the one we had reserved a 200 meter walk away. The smaller apartment turned out to be a modern and spacious 2-bedroom with living room, and a galley kitchen and dining space. A little cafe in the same building served croissants and breakfast sandwiches with local smoked salmon. We could not have been luckier.

On our last day in Iceland we had an early morning flight, so our final night we stayed at the Bergas Guesthouse close to the airport. Our room was spacious with a set of bunk beds, a queen bed and galley kitchen. It was simple but more than sufficient for us. It also worked out perfectly when we left a laptop at the hotel, that it was only a 15 min drive to go back and get it!

What We Did in Iceland

Unfortunately, our first day was a wash due to a combination of poor planning, poor weather and having arrived with a sick kid.

Tip: Avoid flying over night if you can. The flight is too short to get any rest. We took off around 8pm and the kids were too excited to sleep until about 11:30pm. Then we landed in Reykjavik and it was morning there. By the time we took the bus to our hotel and checked in, we were all ready for a full night sleep, instead of a day of exploring.

Once we arrived in Iceland we took the bus to Reykjavik. It was rush hour and we were all so exhausted it is a good thing we did not have to drive. Kids age six and under ride are free on the bus (and just about everywhere in Iceland). With older kids, the cost of four people taking the bus might have been more than taking a taxi or renting a car.

Hallgrimskirkja Church

After sleeping most of our first day and eating some take-out food from the expensive glorified salad bar Gló , we finally ventured out the front door of the apartment building. Turns out we were just around the corner from Reyjavik's most noted landmark, the Hallgrimskirkja Church. The cost was 8 USD per adult to take the elevator to the top of the church. Perhaps luckily, it was cold and damp, because otherwise imaginably there would have been a very long line to ride the lone small elevator (maximum six people) up. We do not use a stroller, and it is a good thing. Once you arrive at the top floor, you still have to climb stairs. We only spent about 15 minutes enjoying the views, due to the cold but we all felt the views were worth the money.  After we walked to the nearby Café Babalú and warmed up over a traditional lamb soup and bread.

Exploring Reykjavik

The next morning we took a walk in the rain to Lake Tjörnin, the Old Harbor, and the Sun Voyager.  We gazed at statues around city and wandered in and out of bakeries, gift shops and books stores. We went to The Saga Museum and tried on Viking costumes which was fun and memorable. The museum itself is full of very visual depictions of Iceland's gory Viking history. They did warn us about the gore before we bought tickets. Our children were more curious than scared but if it had been a nicer day and we were not trying to escape the cold and rain,  I would have skipped this and opted for something outdoors instead.

ABostonFamily bundled up for the cold near the Strokkur Geyser in Iceland in FebruaryThe Golden Circle

Our third day in Iceland we rented a car to drive the Golden Circle. It was much cheaper to rent a  car from Reykjavik for two days then to rent from the airport when we arrived. While there are numerous bus tours, with two children who were bound to nap, need to pee or eat at any time, having a car afforded more flexibility to go at our own pace. Even though it rained all day, the Golden Circle was still a highlight of our trip. For the children walking through Pingvellir National Park, seeing the Strokkur Geyser, Gullfoss Waterfall and the Kerid Volcano Crater, brought so much from the book Nuptse and Lhotse go to Iceland to life.

Icelandic Horses

We always include the children in planning our activities on any trip. In Iceland, riding an Icelandic horse was their priority. With approximately one horse per every three people on the island, seeing Icelandic horses was easy enough. However, most riding experiences are designed for older children and adults. Luckily, one place not far from Reykjavik, Ishestar offers a "Meet the Horses" experience perfect for children too young (under six years) to go on a tour ride. We called ahead and booked a time to come on our own, rather than the arranged tour with pick up and drop off.

Blue Lagoon

The Blue Lagoon is expensive and heavily touristed yet entirely worthwhile. There are cheaper public pools in Reykjavik but nothing with the same setting of a lagoon amidst lava rock. We rather reluctantly - given the price - booked our tickets for the Blue Lagoon for 7pm on Friday a couple of weeks before we arrived. It was one of the only time slots available while we were there, as the Blue Lagoon books up months in advance. Then with our little one feverish and unwell Friday morning we knew we couldn't go. When we called the staff and explained the situation, they kindly re-booked us for our last day in town (Sunday) in hopes that he would be well enough by then.

When we arrived at the Lagoon, it was a bit like arriving at Disney World in Orlando; a massive parking lot. Walking inside was again like Disney, being ushered through long lines, and nickle'd and dime'd for any add-ons. Want a bathrobe? You pay for it!

It was worth it in the end though. We would even do it again if we find ourselves in Iceland. We all enjoyed luxuriating in the warm water and rising steam while the drizzle and cold air came down from above. It was surreal and unique and something we all enjoyed.

Icelandic Cuisine

Like any island where food and goods are imported, meals at restaurants in Iceland are expensive. Fortunately, kids' meals are widely available and to our delight were cheaper, small or simple portions of the adult food.

We had three "splurge" meals that we do not regret. The most memorable was at Café Loki where we sampled Traditional Viking Fare for the month of Thor (Porrablot). The sample platter included rotten fermented shark, pickled ram's testicles, pickled Minke whale, smoked sheep's belly, flatbread, rye bread, pickled herring on egg and bread, turnips, bean salad with skyr, jellied sheep head and something comparable to haggis. Our youngest thought it was great fun to eat all these silly foods. The older one ordered a lamb soup with rye bread from the children's menu.

Other unique foods we enjoyed and recommend trying included;

  • Pylsur: Icelandic hot dogs are available at hot dog stands in Reykjavik and at gas stations everywhere.  Two enthusiastic thumbs up from the kids and adults in our family. Also very cost efficient.
  • Skyr: Unfortunately is not an option for Malli but easy to come by at all grocery markets.
  • Lakkris: Chocolate-covered black licorice is worth a try even if you are not usually a licorice fan.
  • Bitafiskur: Dried cod snack appealed to our Sri Lankan paletes but would not be for everyone.
  • Kleina: Our Boston hearts melted with happiness when we saw this pastry referred to as the "local alternative to Dunkin' Donuts". Whoever wrote this has clearly been to Boston! We got ours at Bernhoftsbakari, just down the street and across from the Sun Voyager.
  • Plokkari: Traditional Icelandic fish stew Fish Restaurant Reykjavik -
  • Lamb: Sjavargrillid - small lamb steak with veggies and fries.
  • Lamb Soup: Iceland's answer to chicken soup and so appealing.
  • Lingonberries: These tart little berries were a fun alternate to blueberries for our morning breakfasts in our hotel room.

One night while the kids were asleep, we also decided to do a beer flight. This was easy since you can buy beer by the bottle in Iceland! We tried Einstok Icelandic White Ale, Einstok Icelandic Arctic Pale Ale, Viking Gylltur, Myrkvi Porter NR. 13, Skadl Farmhouse Ale, and Olvisholt Brugghus Lava Smoked Imperial Stout.

Continuing our Exploration of Icelandic Culture

To make the most of our travels, it is important to us that the experiences live beyond their immediate occurrence. While in Iceland, we bought a wonderful English language books at the Eymundsson Book Store and Cafe in  Reykjavik. A Giant Love Story is roughly like Greek mythology, though instead of Gods controlling the elements, it is Giants that cause volcanic eruptions, earthquakes and such. We also bought and enjoy The Troll that was Afraid of the Dark. These are in addition to our pre-trip purchases.

We have also found a few local places to ride Icelandic Horses that we are looking forward to trying.

Although limited there are a few Boston-based Icelandic Cultural Opportunities as well.

The Icelandic spirit Brennivin is available in Boston now, and rumor also has it that in addition to skyr, Icelandic hot dogs will also soon be available as well. We can't wait!

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