…and bring your rain gear
Iceland reinvented itself as a hot tourist destination after the financial meltdown of the late aughts left their economy a mess. It’s so cool to visit Iceland that you might hesitate to go as a family. How can a hipster paradise be a good fit for kids? I was surprised by what a perfect match it was.
Traveling to Iceland for ten days in 2014 on my own with my early elementary aged kids was actually inadvertent. Suffice to say we’d purchased affordable, non-refundable, tourist class tickets with Icelandair via Keflavík to join DH on a European business trip. His schedule changed leaving him unable to travel on our dates. Rather than cancel altogether and lose the money spent on plane tickets, we persuaded Icelandair to drop the connecting flight to Europe without voiding our Boston – Keflavík legs and I put together a last-minute vacation for three in the land of fire and ice.
Even though I love to travel and am confident enough to go it alone internationally , I hesitated before I made this trip. Aside from Canada—which is awesome but comfortably similar to home—this was the boys’ first voyage abroad. I was taking on a new country about which I knew little and in a language I’d never heard spoken. It was a much bigger stretch, culturally and linguistically, than our 12 day trek across Canada from Pacific to Atlantic two years before, and DH was with us for part of that trip.
You will find better travelogues and more stunning photos elsewhere on the internet, but here are some ways Iceland was a uniquely perfect introduction to global travel for our family.
Children were graciously welcomed everywhere we went
Admittedly, I didn’t attempt to go bar crawling with the kids, but we did alternate between museums, group tours, and wandering around on our own. I felt welcomed everywhere we went, and was amazed by the ready provision of family friendly amenities in public places. A museum had a little potty standing ready in the WC, presumably trusting users to clean it properly after use. (Frankly unimaginable in the US.) Children’s areas in museums were comprehensive and present in both the smallest and the most rarefied establishments. Not only were there accommodations made to entertain and educate children in most establishments, but they also had English language versions of kids’ materials. Families were never made to feel like afterthoughts, even families of tourists.
Icelandair goes so far as to feed children—gratis!—on their flights while adults in Economy class buy their food à la carte. I believe this extends to other extras like headphones and blankets, too. These are little things that are very supportive to traveling families, and likely make for a quieter, more pleasant trip for all passengers. That kind of thinking is everywhere in Iceland.
Our favorite site in the country was Ásmundarsafn, one of three buildings that comprise the Reykjavík Art Museum. This former live-work space of pioneering artist Ásmundur Sveinsson (1893-1982) is a beautiful building full of amazing works of art surrounded by an outdoor sculpture park. A museum guide told us that the artist himself specified that a sculpture of a famous lady troll from Icelandic folklore should be accessible for children to climb upon. I think that sums up the regard given to the value of children in Iceland.
I saw little groups of kids, maybe seven or eight years old, taking the city bus short distances together or playing on a playground conveniently placed outside of a large supermarket. It was clear that no adult was actively supervising these kids. I commented about this to our favorite tour guide, Steinthor, and he readily agreed.
“Of course,” he said, “because everyone is looking out for them. No adult would let these kids get into trouble.”
The prevailing attitude in Iceland, perhaps due to the small population and citizens’ high degree of inter-relatedness, is one of community support. It’s a really nice feeling for any visitor, but an outstanding one for a parent.
Children’s discounts abound, and they are significant
Yes, Iceland is expensive. Isn’t it crazy to bring the kids to one of the more expensive places you might ever visit?
Surprisingly, the kids were something of a bargain.
Make no mistake, you will feel physical pain from the size of the bill every time you feed the kids in an Icelandic restaurant, but that’s mostly a result of servers earning a living wage. Supermarket prices are also high, but nowhere near as stratospheric as the cost of a sit down meal. If you stay in a rented apartment or have a kitchenette in your hotel, you can keep these costs comparable to “nice vacation” costs back home. We ate breakfast for free at our hotel, ate out for lunch, and made sandwiches or add-hot-water soup for dinner in our room. Easy, healthy, portable snacks like baby carrots and cherry tomatoes could be found even in convenience stores.
Low children’s admissions prices at public institutions such as museums weren’t surprising, but even commercial tickets, like seats on group tours, were half price. On one popular airport shuttle, adults cost around $40, teens get a 75% discount, and kids ride free. City bus tickets for youth (12-17) are 36% of adult fare; kids aged 6-11 pay 16%. Compared to our family trip to similarly remote, expensive, tourist-centric coastal Alaska in 2016, these price breaks added up to huge savings and they didn’t take any extra work like clipping coupons or booking ahead. Affordable prices for families seem to be part and parcel of Icelandic culture.
Products sold in Iceland are often made… in Iceland!
The high cost of imports to a remote island nation means you see a lot more products on Icelandic shelves that are actually made in Iceland. Where else have you gone as a tourist and seen that? Consistently, when my kid nagged me to buy a wooden sword or a game in the gift shop, I found the item to be of good quality and locally made. I’m usually a tough sell for souvenirs because, unless I’m in China, I don’t want a Chinese bauble, but I found it harder to use that excuse in Iceland. For once, the souvenirs felt like real pieces of the culture we were visiting. While not inexpensive, most items did seem to be a good value considering their quality.
Against my usual type, I opted for a hotel with a theme for our trip, and I didn’t have very high expectations. I did some TripAdvisor research, found a good area for us, and the price was right, so I figured I would give the kids a thrill and choose a cottage at the Hotel Viking in Hafnarfjordur, about midway between the airport in Keflavík and the capital, Reykjavík. The decor was a bit over the top, and the theming extends almost everywhere, but the “Viking Cottage” interiors were full of natural, hand carved wood and whimsical touches based upon Nordic folklore. It felt the opposite of Disney-esque. It felt authentically something, if not exactly full on Viking. The kids loved it, and, actually, so did I. It was also a really comfortable space for a family with sleeping loft, bunk beds, and a dining table. We made excellent use of the electric kettle for our modest, in-room dinners every evening.
Nature’s playground for the whole family
When I mentioned earlier that you should bring your rain gear, I wasn’t kidding. We visited Iceland in March, and we experienced snow, rain, fog, sun, sleet, mist, rainbows, warmth, bitter cold… all in the same day! Dressing appropriately will make or break your enjoyment of a long day touring this gorgeous country. Once you’ve got wet jeans, you’re going to be uncomfortable back on the bus, so wear technical clothing or layer inexpensive rain pants over your everyday trousers.
I would actually recommend visiting during the less crowded off season, like we did. Tourists outnumber native Icelanders now, at least at peak times. That’s not what I want to see when I go somewhere new. Less crowded tours and attractions make me happier, and they are better for families. We enjoyed our small group tours even more because only one of them was fully booked.
In Iceland and everywhere else, I would always recommend taking a minibus tour (or smaller) instead of the big bus lines. Getting a dozen or so people in and out of a minibus is pretty manageable and costs a lot less than a private tour, but waiting for 50 tourists to unload at every site wastes too much precious vacation time.
I’ve heard that car rentals are a good option in Iceland. Certainly, roads were in good condition and traffic seemed manageable compared to the gridlock of major American cities I’ve navigated. As a mom alone with a pair of kids in early spring, however, I felt more comfortable sticking with a group and a guide. We took three tours during our ten day visit: the Golden Circle, the South Coast, and the Snaefellsnes Peninsula.
Even in March with poor weather, the Golden Circle sites were pretty crowded. Gullfoss was almost completely obscured by fog, and Geysir was interesting, but mobbed. Thingvellir National Park was the highlight for me, and I will definitely go back there when I return to Iceland someday. Walking through the literal gap between two tectonic plates is awesome.
The South Coast tour gave us our day of wildest weather, but was a great overview of some different elements of the Icelandic landscape. It was a long day, but with plenty of stops with lots of room to roam and run by glaciers, rivers and the sea. Throwing rocks was really popular with my boys, and there was plenty of room to do so without hitting any other tourists.
Snaefellsnes Peninsula presents more variety and makes a nice complement to the South Coast tour, though it was a day with even more driving time. This can work out well when your younger one naps in car! Snaefellsnes seemed to show us more birds and fishing villages and yet more interesting geological features. The long tunnel beneath a fjord was fun in and of itself for my engineering-oriented kid.
We alternated busy days with quieter ones.We found plenty to see in Hafnarfjordur, including its small museum, culture center, and the Elf Walk tour in Hellisgerdi Lava Park. We visited the local library twice (they have books in English as well as Icelandic and several other languages) and found time to select a favorite bakery. A short city bus ride into Reykjavík let us access two out of three branches of the really excellent art museum I mentioned earlier, Reykjavík 871±2 Settlement (archeological) Exhibition, National Museum of Iceland, the sculpture court of the Einar Jónsson Museum, and the iconic Hallgrímskirkja church. Aside from a little bit of shopping and rather more bakery-induced nibbling, we spent very little on excursions outside of the costly—but worth it—group tours.
Looking back, what stands out about this vacation was how extraordinarily good everything was. I say that as a mom who routinely blows her top when things go wrong, who dwells upon her own oversights, and who often gets more out of planning a vacation than actually taking it. While, yes, there was the incident where DS1 left his iPad behind at the Hafnarfjordur library and my heart stopped until we ran all the way back several blocks and retrieved it, safe and sound, from a librarian who seemed surprised I was so worried, and, of course, there’s the funny (now!) story of how the FlyBus whooshed right past us and I thought we would miss our flight home until the Hotel Viking receptionist saved the day by calling a taxi and arranging for the FlyBus company to cover the expense because we had a reservation and we were standing by the road in plain sight…
These little hiccups—which always happen when we travel, which can be the germ for great stories later or the strain that spoils a trip—are also the very key to why this adventure was so amazing. The people I met in Iceland seemed almost uniformly inclined to help, and welcoming to a stranger. There was a sense of people “all in this together” that pervaded situations as mundane as riding the bus and grocery shopping, but has been more eloquently displayed in times of trouble during Icelandic natural disasters at home or when they sent the first search and rescue team to Haiti after the 2010 earthquake there.
Iceland is a place you want to visit for its natural beauty and unique culture; it’s a place you’ll be glad you brought your family because of its people.