by Alicja Lei
You’ll never forget your first-time experience in Iceland. And I say experience, because from the moment you exit the airport, all five of your senses are triggered. The crisp air that hits your skin, that breath of fresh air that’s never tasted sweeter, the faint smell of wet moss, the sound of the wind whooshing around you and the lunar-like landscape that seems so vast even though you know you’re on a tiny island.
Since moving to Iceland 4 years ago, I’ve come to realise that there is no safer place for families. Babies sleep soundly in strollers outside no matter what the weather while the parents enjoy their coffee from inside. From as young as 5, kids walk independently to school or to friends’ houses (although petty crime is a thing, so don’t leave bikes, scooters, cars unlocked or unattended). There are parks and playgrounds everywhere, every grocery store you go into has a basket of free fruit for kids to eat while the parents shop, and the public swimming pools are incomparable.
So essentially, what I’m saying is that if you had any reservations about travelling to Iceland with your children…set them aside, you’ll all love it here!
With the help of the parents in my International Parents in Iceland group, I’ve compiled some top tips to make sure that your family trip to Iceland goes as smoothly as possible.
It’s all about the layers!
The weather is going to play the biggest role in your trip to Iceland. It can change from extremes from minute to minute–as in crazy wind and rain, to calm bright sunny skies in a snap.
Have the kids be in a comfy first layer for the car and keep their warm layers and waterproof layers easily accessible, as well hats, gloves and wet weather boots.
Pro Tip: Throw an old towel in the trunk designated for wet shoes, and wet clothes. Also–and I cannot stress this enough–if there’s a weather warning, play it safe. Stay inside and stay off the roads. Here’s the best website to follow the weather, but there’s also a link to the app in the resource section below.
Public swimming pools and hot springs (called sundlaugs) are abundant in Iceland and are welcome to visitors. While the Blue Lagoon is Instagram famous (and requires advance reservations), there are far less expensive hot springs all over the country , and geo-thermally heated community pools that can usually be found in almost every town, and the kids literally cannot get enough! The pools are not only ubiquitous, they’re also super healthy with hardly any chlorine since fresh and geothermal heated water is plentiful throughout the country. In fact, these public hot spring pools have been at the center of Icelandic identity and culture for centuries (see this 2016 New York Times article).
But note before you go that pool etiquette in Iceland dictates that you shower naked before you enter the pool. So put your towel on the rack by the showers, and carry your bathing suits into the shower. There are usually high chairs and baby bath tubs for you to place the little ones in while you wash. Once you and the kiddos are all clean, you can pop on your bathing suits and head out to the pools.
Pro Tip: If your family is camping during your trip, the pools are a great place to have a nice shower to freshen up.
Be flexible with your timing
This kind of goes back to the weather, but it’s best not to keep a rigid schedule. Especially if your activity is a hike or walk, just choose the best time to head out for your hike, even if that may delay what you had planned in advance.
Pro tip: You can basically drink from any stream so bring your water bottle with you to fill up along your hikes for the yummiest spring water!
I know, it’s expensive
Yes, the burger is $27, and a beer is $14. From the moment you land in Iceland, you will have to just accept that you will have sticker shock on almost every item you purchase. This Mental Floss article explains a bit about why things are so expensive, but it’s a combination of economics, politics, and geography (it is an island after all). Kronan, Netto and Hagkaup are fantastic grocery stores, Bonus is the most economical store of the bunch. And if you head out on the road, bring more food than you anticipate because sometimes amenities are few and far between.
Some local snack ideas: If you’re feeling adventurous, pick up a bag of Harðfiskur. It’s air-dried fish, so it’s packed full of protein and no added fats. As for candy, Iceland has phenomenal chocolate and they are really into black licorice. So if that’s up your alley, then you’re in for a real treat. And if you don’t like licorice, I dare you to try þristur, it can be found in any shop and it’s voted Iceland’s favorite candy. I have yet to meet someone who doesn’t like it! Side note: the Icelandic letters Þ / þ and Ð / ð are pronounced like a “th” sounds. So the candy is not “pristur” but sounds like “thristur”. And the fish is not “hardfiskur” but sound like “harthfiskur”.
Pro tip: For the parents, buy as much alcohol as you are allowed at the duty free when you land. It’s a lot cheaper than if you buy it at the liquor stores once inside the country. Additionally, the liquor stores in the more rural parts of the country have shorter hours and you might be out adventuring during the short window. The bonus of stocking up early is that you’ll have plenty to share with fellow parents you meet along the way in the off chance that you find yourself with too much booze. Also, FYI the “beer” you see in the grocery stores is 2.5% alcohol.
Attractions and nature-centric adventuring are the only free things in Iceland! You will never be short on waterfalls, beaches, national parks, or glaciers to explore. If you’re coming in the colder months (October to April), you might be lucky enough to catch the northern lights. There are of course activities that you can pay for like snowmobiling on the glaciers, going into Ice Caves, riding Icelandic horses or a zodiac tour around the glacier lagoon. These activities will be quite pricey and it’s essentially up to the budget of your family. So, while these guided tours can be a really fun bonus, you don’t need to pay for an activity to enjoy Iceland’s natural wonders.
Pro tip: If you’re staying in a hotel in the countryside, let the front desk know that you want to be alerted if there are Northern Lights. They will wake you up if there is activity.
Side note on the Northern Lights: the stars need to align for you to see the Northern Lights. The skies have to be dark and clear and there has to be solar activity. You can monitor solar activity on the weather website or here. I wouldn’t plan your trip around the Northern Lights, as the chances of you leaving disappointed are high. But if you come to Iceland, and you see the Northern Lights, consider it the cherry on top of your already amazing trip.
4G 4 eva (aka almost universal cell phone coverage)
There are very few places in Iceland that don’t get 4G coverage. So if you’ve got a solid data plan, you’ll be able to GoogleMap your way around the country. Which also means you’ll have access to playlists for your kiddos, and games or videos for iPads as well.
Pro tip: Best to take those tablets away on the bumpy and windy roads, and also keep some plastic bags at the ready for any car sick kiddos.
If you watched Netflix’s Eurovision Movie, you might have a general idea of the Huldufolk, the elves who live around Iceland. Many Icelanders believe in elves and there’s superstitions that run deep in the culture. Most families have little traditions when it comes to the elves. In our family, there’s a magic rock located on the island of Flatey, and the “elves” always leave candy for the kids in it’s little nooks for the kids to find when we head out on our walks. Check out this guide about how to find Huldufolk while in Iceland.
You can also follow the footsteps of the Icelandic Sagas as you plan your journey. Many of the stops you are already planning on seeing are linked to these saga (like Njáls saga), so it would be great to read the sagas first and then refer back to them as you travel along the country.
Additionally, there are a lot of movies, shows, and music videos that were filmed in Iceland so if you and your kids are more into Game of Thrones, or Jusitn Bieber, there will be something for everyone in Iceland.
Planning Your Trip
If you only have 3-5 days for your trip to Iceland, there’s plenty you can do without having to trek over rivers and mountains. I always recommend visitors to head to the South Coast for 2 nights and 3 days, and try to make it as far as Jokulsarlon. Along that journey you will see amazing waterfalls, rock formations, black sand beaches, beautiful canyons, and glaciers.
Then come back to Reykjavik where one day you might check off the Golden Circle stops, but more or less get to experience that very quaint but lively town of Reykjavik.
If you’re wanting to travel off the beaten path, but not too far off of it, I would highly recommend the Snaefellsness Peninsula. It’s personally one of my favorite places on the face of this world.
And if you’ve got 10 days plus or minus, the Ring Road is the adventure for you. It’s about an 800 mile journey that takes you around the circumference of the entire island.
Bonus Pro Tips
- Download these apps before you come that will help keep you safe and informed on your journey.
- Check out this guide of specific places to visit by region.
Special thanks to parents Höllý, Marjorie, Charlotte, Anna, Amanda, Kaja, Rosi, Maria, Sorina, Lee, Bethan, Blake and Sarah who shared their personal tips on traveling through Iceland with kids.
About the Author:
Alicja Lei works as a marketing specialist for an Icelandic fintech company. She moved to Iceland four years ago for what was supposed to be just two years. She is now married to an Icelander and a mama to a 17 year old and one year old and still can’t speak Icelandic (but she’s working on it).
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