The Traveling Locals
New Year’s Eve in Iceland
Updated: Nov 27, 2020
Most people think of Iceland in January as perhaps not the best vacation destination, but Iceland in winter is a completely different travel destination from Iceland in summer. Is it cold? Absolutely. Freezing. But oddly enough, it was colder in Boston, from where we departed on this Nordic journey. Winter time in Iceland is magical, with most of the ground appearing like snow covered lunar landscapes pierced with boiling hot geysers and geothermal springs. And the Icelandic people really take partying on New Year’s eve to a whole new level. It was still dark 8:30am on January 1st when we finally ended our celebration, and we were in the minority. But we needed a couple hours of sleep. You don’t want to waste the barely four hours the sun barely crests over the horizon to provide a slight amount of sunlight.
We found some last-minute tickets for Iceland that were dirt cheap (under $150) on a now bankrupt and defunct airline (I guess they should have charged more). We convinced two of our friends to make this last second insane journey and we made the short flight up to Boston to catch our lift to Iceland. It was a short flight overnight from Boston to Keflavik airport on the southwest coast. We rented a car, and I was a bit intimidated to drive in snow and ice as I live in a destination without either of these natural phenomena. But the roads were surprisingly easy, and outside of a few instances of extreme weather, we turned out just fine. The drive into the capital city of Reykjavik took about 45 minutes and most of the scenery was otherworldly and cloaked in darkness as it was only 6:30am. The city really surprised us, it was extremely modern, well laid out and surrounded by extreme natural beauty. We had done some research on some unique local restaurants and they didn’t disappoint. The seafood was fresh from the north Atlantic and presented on a tray of dry ice, causing a cloud of smoke to envelope and circle around our food. And the drinks were even better. Drinking alcohol seems to be a strong pastime in Iceland, so we were going to fit in with the locals pretty well! I have never been served a drink that was on fire intentionally, and the flaming rosemary sprig on top of my drink really made it taste amazing.
New Year’s Eve Fireworks and Bonfires
We hadn’t realized Iceland is often listed as one of the best places to celebrate New Year’s eve, but after experiencing it first hand, I can see why. The evening starts off with the Icelandic tradition of bonfires stacked tall with wooden pallets and various other debris. We went to a large one on Ægisíða street in the west part of Reykjavík and were lucky to get there just as it started. There are many more bonfires to see around the city, but this one was on the beach and it was huge! The heat coming off the enormous ball of flame was nice as it was around 32F outside. I did a little research, and the tradition of the bonfire is to gather all the things and clutter you don’t need for the next year and symbolically and physically burn them.
Fireworks are taken to a level I’ve never witnessed before in Reykjavik. They started early and seemed to never stop, just an ongoing 360 degree spectacle of bright colored explosions and flares taking up the night sky. The fireworks started early, around 7pm and continued relentlessly well into the night and way past midnight. We heard that fireworks were only sold during this time of year, and it seemed credible as everyone looked like they were setting off huge displays. The volume of fireworks exploding was something I have never witnessed before. It sounds cliché but imagine the grand finale of any fireworks display you’ve seen and then imagine it continuing on for hours in every direction and you get a sense of what it’s like. We were told by locals that the best spot to view was on the Öskjuhlíð hill outside the Perlan museum, restaurant and planetarium. It was chili up on the hill, but we drank champaign to keep warm and watched as the vibrant colorful explosions lit up the sky above Reykjavik. It’s hard for pictures to do it justice, but the Icelandic people must spend a fortune on fireworks during New Years. If you’re really lucky, you’ll get the double effects of the fireworks with the backdrop of the northern lights for a truly one of a kind experience.
We then taxied down into Reykjavik to join the locals and tourists hoping from bar to bar celebrating the new year. We started at the prominent and imposing Hallgrímskirkja church, central to the city. We even found a bar dedicated to The Dude from the Big Lebowski specializing in, you guessed it, various forms of white Russian cocktails. It’s named the Lebowski bar if you want to check it out. We did indeed abide and tried a few variations of white Russians before switching over the Iceland own beer, Gull lager. An interesting and fun addition we found at most bars in Reykjavik was the “spin the wheel for more drinks” game. You pay the equivalent of one drink, but you could win as many as six additional! We must have had a horseshoe in our back pocket as we kept hitting the five and six extra drinks, while most everyone else hit zero or one. This was great as food and beer are very expensive in Iceland!
As the never-ending night continued, we were getting hungry and I wanted to try this famous local hot dog stand, mainly because I had seen Anthony Bourdain try it on his show years ago. Its called the Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur (City’s Best Hotdog) and it’s in central Reykjavik (Tryggvagata and Pósthússtræti streets). Bill Clinton even famously had a hot dog here once, so we had to try it as well. It’s a pretty small set up, similar to an American food truck, and it seemed to be open very late. We ordered ours the traditional way most Icelanders would, and were surprised by the amount of different sauces applied. It looked like ketchup, a kind of mustard, relish, and some other sauces we didn’t recognize. I acted like a total tourist and asked to take a picture and the single guy working the stand that night was not impressed or amused.
After refueling with some local processed meats, we stumbled into a couple more bars to end the night. Oddly enough, they were named the American Bar and English Pub and were close to each other. I didn’t find the prospect of ordering a Budweiser in Iceland too appealing, but it always interesting to see what other cultures impressions of American culture are. After a few pints in the British bar we emerged onto the still dark streets on Reykjavik and feeling lie it was getting seriously late, I looked at my phone to check the time. It was 8:30am!! You wouldn’t know it as masses of people were still venturing in and out of bars, but we needed a strong nap. We got into the taxi queue and went back to our hotel for a couple hours rest before heading out to the other parts of Iceland. Note, at the time we visited, the taxi line was seriously long due to high demand and low availability, so be prepared.
Blue Lagoon, Reynisfjara, Icelandic horses, Riding Icebergs at Jokulsarlon glacier
We promise to write more about our experiences in Iceland in more detail on later posts, but no travel in Iceland would be complete without mentioning the Blue Lagoon or one of the world’s most dangerous beaches, Reynisfjara. After we woke up on January 1st from our night of celebrating, we wanted to make the most of the limited sunlight. At the time of year, the sun barely comes above the horizon and sunrise is around 11:30am with sunset around 3:30pm. We headed out of Reykjavik in our rental car on route 1 along the coast and stopped at the amazing waterfall of Seljalandsfoss and Skogafoss. Most of the ground was frozen, but the waters were still warm enough to continue flowing over the dramatic crashing falls. We continued along making our way to the black sand beach of Reynisfjara. The beach is stunning, with pinnacle rock formations jutting out of the frigged Atlantic Ocean and enormous waves crashing in the surf. The rock formations to the side of the beach form strange hexagonal columns that look artificial but are created unique geological processes. This beach has claimed the lives of lots of people who did not take the warning of rogue sneaker waves seriously. Even with photos posted at the beach entrance of people being pulled out to sea and their deaths, it’s shocking to see many tourists running right up to the waves edge and even into the water! Darwinism at its finest.
While driving along Iceland's ring road on the south we spotted several groups of Icelandic horses playing in the snow. They seemed to know that at least some cars would stop and pull over to offer them treats, and we were guilty of this too. They are smaller than a standard horse and built very stocky, and they came in a multitude of colors. They were happy to take our apples and muffins we had brought along from breakfast and were happy to let us pet them. We finally made it to Jokulsarlon glacier and lagoon. Here we stayed in a dorm style hostel, and experienced one of the most intense snowstorms I’ve ever been in. That morning we went exploring an ice cave on the Jokulsarlon glacier, and saw massive icebergs flowing out from the glacier into the lagoon and after a short river, out to sea. Across the street for the lagoon, you can explore the black sand Diamond beach, named for the hundreds of icebergs of all sizes that get stuck there before the tides pulls them out. The colors of the ice are a mesmerizing deep blue turquoise, and we took the opportunity to jump on a few large ones while they were still in shallow water. It’s not everyday you can say you climbed up and took a ride on an iceberg, especially when you live in South Carolina.
We ended our trip at the Blue Lagoon, which is a bit touristy but still a must see when in Iceland. There are hotels on site, but you can also drive up and visit. It tends to sell out and they limit the amount of people inside, so make sure to purchase your tickets in advance. There are three ticket options: Comfort ($43), Premium ($64), and a Luxury spa retreat for four hours ($350). Each comes with a towel, silica mud mask and your first drink at one of the swim up bars. We went with premium as there was a second drink and reservation at the on site restaurant, a bathrobe and flip flops (it's cold outside of the water!), and faster entry into the lagoon. There was a bit of line when we arrived, so we were glad we went with the premium ticket to maximize our time in the lagoon. After we went through a mandatory group shower (awkward) you venture out into the artic weather quickly and plunge into the Blue Lagoon outside. The warm geothermal water is fantastic, and we applied the silica mask and found our way to our own corner rock grotto. It was below freezing that night and icicles would start to form on your hair as we waded through the blue heated waters. There are also several rock saunas you can relax in, but we found them extremely hot after about five minutes. We absolutely loved it and found the lagoon to be one of the highlights of the trip. With the limited amount of people and the serious amounts of steam in the darkness, you felt like you could have space all to ourselves. The only thing that would have made this soak better was the northern lights above, but sadly it was overcast. We can't wait to return to Iceland again for more adventures. We actually had tickets booked to go again when the aforementioned airline went bankrupt and we had to change our destination to Halifax, Nova Scotia. The next time we go to Iceland, we want to explore in the summer. What have your experiences in this Nordic country been?
Check out our Drone video over Reynisfjara, Icelandic Horses and Sliding Down a Glacier
Where we stayed: Hilton Reykjavik
Where we ate: Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur (City’s Best Hotdog)
Lava Restaurant, the Blue Lagoon