Iceland: Midsummer night’s dream with a slice of paradise

I recently attended a talk on blogging organised by the London Writers Café. We were asked what topics we blogged about and I mentioned travel as one of my main interests. I then realised that I hadn’t written a travel piece this year. So here is my take on midsummer in Iceland. Unusually for me, this was a holiday, not a business trip, so my insights and travel tips are from a slightly different perspective than usual.

Continuing my fixation with Scandinavia, I had been thinking about Iceland for some time. The original idea was to see the Northern Lights. Then the opportunity arose to take a few days’ holiday at midsummer, which I have long considered a special time of year. It turned out to be a midsummer night’s dream.

Iceland is the furthest north I have ever been – and I have visited Stockholm and Moscow. In the summer there is no night at all. It is the land of the midnight sun.


We arrived in Reykjavik at about 11pm and the sun was dipping towards the horizon like a traditional sunset. But it never actually set. The landscape on the drive to Reykjavik was stunning – and reminiscent of Ridley Scott’s Prometheus as sunset became sunrise.

We stayed at the Centerhotel Arnarhvoll which we were told was fully booked, though we didn’t see many other people. Perhaps it’s because I’m from London, but to me Iceland is a land of empty spaces. Reykjavik is Iceland’s biggest city and most populated area and even with all the midsummer tourists, there did not seem to be many people around. The hotel was ten minutes’ walk from the city centre; the room had a sea view and so does the hotel’s Panorama Restaurant, which serves an incredibly varied breakfast and is perfect for an evening drink. As I said, I was on holiday, but I mention in passing that the Centerhotel Arnarhvoll has free wireless internet that works very well…

Iceland is a wonderful tourist destination. There is plenty to see and the people are great! The Icelandic language is based on Old Norse and is challenging to say the least. Icelanders recognise this and there are plenty of fun souvenir t-shirts. I bought one with the slogan “I don’t speak Icelandic”!

Everyone speaks English and in a useful way – not just prices and numbers, so it is easy to organise sightseeing and transportation. There is no touting or hassling even though tourism is a major industry. The souvenirs are brilliant, and sometimes bizarre, but Iceland is expensive, so it is best not to get too carried away. Think about what you would like to keep/wear when you are back at home. For example these onesies looked ever so cute in the shop, but we resisted…


Íslandia is one of several shops that specialise in Icelandic souvenirs, notably the famous lopapeysa (Icelandic jumpers) which are sold all over Reykjavik – I bought a cardigan. It looks nice and kept me warm on late night sightseeing tours, but left bits of wool all over my black t-shirt… we bought books about legends, trolls and runes.

Norse legends refer to the various “hidden people” that include elves, trolls and fairies. Trolls in Iceland are not necessarily bad, though they can be dangerous. They are sometimes depicted as lovable characters, sometimes as massive smelly destructive monsters. It depends what you read. I met this cute troll in the city centre.


Had we been staying longer, we might have considered a day at Magnús Skarphéðinsson’s famous elf school, and I did email, but apparently it only happens on Fridays…

24-hour daylight means you can do a lot, if you have the energy – and we certainly did! We got back to the hotel well after midnight each night and it felt surreal walking back in broad daylight in the early hours of the morning.

Reykjavik sightseeing and culture

We visited Hallgrímskirkja, the big church in the city centre, just in time to listen to choir practice before climbing the tower to take photographs of the marvellous views across the city and the harbour. Then we walked down Skólavörðustígur, a street full of arts and crafts galleries and cafés that leads into Laugavegur, the main shopping street.

The Settlement Exhibition in the city centre beneath the Hotel Centrum is worth a visit. It is a relatively small exhibition of the history and archaeology of an early Icelandic settlement and includes numerous interactive elements.

The Reykjavik Art Museum is on three sites  We visited Kjarvalsstaðir, which focuses on painting and sculpture and is a short walk from the city centre. The permanent exhibition of key works by Icelandic landscape painters, notably Jóhannes S. Kjarval (1885–1972), is an excellent example of how Iceland’s unique and fabulous scenery has influenced and inspired its art.

Food and drink

This was not a ‘foodie’ holiday. Icelandic menus include unusual items like whale and puffin, but if, like me, you’re not keen to eat the local species, there is a wide variety of restaurants and cafes, including pizza and sushi as well as conventional Scandinavian food. We liked sitting in the sun at Café Babalú, a hip rooftop vegetarian café. As with many Scandinavian destinations, the coffee is excellent.

We particularly enjoyed a meal in Hornið, one of the city’s oldest bistros (I thought it might have a Viking theme, but Hornið means corner in Icelandic, and the food is Italian-style…)

Reykjavik has a massive choice of bars and clubs including Kaffibarinn owned by Damon Albarn (look out for the London Underground style sign).

The Golden Circle

A major cultural highlight was an evening Golden Circle tour which included Gullfoss, the Golden Waterfall. The trip takes about three hours each way and passes through some spectacular scenery. The rugged volcanic landscape is breathtaking – it feels like we are on a tour of a different planet.


We saw the site of Iceland’s ancient parliament and the point at which the European and North American continents meet. Apparently the two continents are gradually moving apart. I discovered that it is not possible to stand with one foot on each continent…


Gullfoss is breathtaking, and definitely reminiscent of the Prometheus movie. It is a steep and slippery walk from the car park to the waterfall, and perhaps because we were there at night, even though it was light, there was a strong wind and a chill in the air, so it is important to have appropriate footwear and something warm to wear – the shop sells Icelandic knitwear and hot drinks, but it helps to be prepared because it really is worth getting close to the waterfall and experiencing the power of this wild and wonderful landscape at close quarters.


On the way back we visited Geysir, a spouting hot spring that gave its name to geysers worldwide. The original Geysir is dormant, but nearby Strokkur, apparently the world’s most active geyser, erupts every 5-10 minutes.


This was a long tour, but every element was amazing and it was a photographer’s dream. The photographs on this blog were taken with an iPhone 4S and a Nikon Coolpix compact camera. I have posted more photographs on Flickr

The Blue Lagoon

I have saved the best for last as I will never forget the Blue Lagoon The brochures raise expectations and the experience exceeded them. My photographs are not adjusted – it really was this colour.


The spa is very well organised with spotlessly clean changing rooms, showers and lockers. Towels and bathrobes are provided – you only need to bring a swimming costume. Various spa treatments are available, but we just swam around and enjoyed the unique experience. The water is almost too warm and there is a swim-up bar with a good selection of alcoholic and soft drinks. Silica mud is available to put on your skin and you can buy this to take back. I didn’t try it as my skin is quite sensitive, and following the advice of the hotel receptionist, I kept my (long) hair out of the water.

Relaxing in warm blue water drinking strawberry wine was a slice of paradise that will keep me smiling for a long time. However, sunscreen is important as the sun is quite strong and reflects off the bright water. As you can see from my picture below, I didn’t apply enough…

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