Family Vacations to Reykjavik, Iceland

Reykjavik, Iceland
Reykjavik's quaint, colorful town borders activities from horseback riding to helicopter tours of glaciers (Getty)

Reykjavik, Iceland Highlights

  • Meet the real Vikings at Reykjavík's Saga Museum, not the bloodthirsty, beer-guzzling madmen of Hollywood's imagination.
  • Plunge into a thermal swimming pool heated naturally by seawater rising from beneath the Earth's crust.
  • See mink and humpback whales, dolphins, and puffins on a wildlife-watching boat cruise.
  • Explore the volcanic landscape on foot, horseback, bike, or even snowmobile.
  • Witness the thundering two-tiered cataracts of Gullfoss Waterfall.

More info: Things you didn't know about Iceland

Descending toward Reykjavík's Keflavik International Airport can feel like a lunar landing, given Iceland's austere, volcanic topography. The good news about this 39,768-square-mile island marooned in the far-northern reaches of the Atlantic, however, is that it's neither inaccessible nor inhospitable for jet-setting families. The national carrier, Icelandair, serves six North American destinations including Baltimore-Washington, New York, and Boston, whisking passengers to Europe in half the time it takes to reach the continental landmass—an easy four hours.

Once you arrive (and adjust your eyes to 24-hour daylight if you're going at the height of summer), the whole island beckons like a fun and fascinating adventure playground. Icelanders take their outdoor spaces seriously, and why wouldn't you when you can choose from geothermal swimming pools, sprawling glaciers, crashing waterfalls, spectacular bird colonies, Europe's largest national park, and jagged volcanic mountains?

Given its proximity to the airport, the first stop for many visitors to Iceland is the 1.5-million-gallon Blue Lagoon. This enormous mineral spa is heated to a bath-like 98 degrees Fahrenheit by seawater rising 6,500 feet from beneath the island's volcanic crust. It might be a tad expensive, as well as busy, but it is certainly worth the cost for a first taste of Iceland's pool-mad culture. Other smaller pools, called "hot pots" by the locals, can be found throughout Reykjavík, including in many of the larger hotels. Some have more kid-friendly attractions, like the giant waterslide at Reykjavík's Árbæjarlaug pool.

Reykjavík is a very accessible and easily manageable city, with a number of options for younger travelers. Start with the National Museum of Iceland, where exhibits showcase a range of artifacts from the country's long history, including some unexpected Roman and Egyptian relics. The replica wax Vikings at the Saga Museum might lack the horns of Vikings of lore, but they offer a visual appreciation of the life and conquests of those seafaring Norsemen, not to mention a better understanding of Icelandic history and culture.

Another popular kids' attraction in the city is the Reykjavík Zoo and Family Park, which features 19 native species of domestic and wild animals, including farm cattle, rabbits, foxes, reindeer, and seals. A small aquarium portrays North Atlantic species of fish, and kids can make giant bubbles and measure the decibel level of their screams (as if they needed any encouragement) in a hands-on science park.

For more of the island's maritime history, check out the model trawlers and cutters at the Reykjavík Maritime Museum. Adjacent to the real fishing fleet bobbing in Reykjavík harbor, this area contains the spot from which most whale-watching cruises embark. Species plying the offshore waters include mink and humpback whales, as well as porpoises and dolphins. Many tours are relatively short (two to three hours), and generally suit younger kids who won't want to spend much longer on a boat looking for fleeting glimpses of flukes and fins. Bird lovers should also consider a summer trip to the isles of Akurey and Lundey, aka Puffin Island, to see the tens of thousands of nesting adults and their fuzzy hatchlings.

While numerous offerings in Reykjavik draw legions of weekend partygoers and culture vultures from around continental Europe, child visitors quickly yearn for the wilderness beckoning just beyond the city limits. Get them started with the many parks and biking trails in and around Reykjavík, including longer jaunts that reach out to the bays, beaches, and hillsides surrounding the city. A number of outfitters in the city center rent bikes, inline skates, and gear. Visit the Reykjavík City Tourism website (www.visitreykjavik.is) for listings.

It's not hard to put the "ice" in Iceland, although it's worth noting that Reykjavík and its coastal reaches are relatively balmy in winter, getting more North Atlantic-brewed cloud and rain than fluffy snowstorms. Day trips can easily be arranged from downtown Reykjavík and cover popular sights like the broad cataracts of Gullfoss Waterfall, the geysers and bubbling hot springs of the Geysir geothermal area, and the historic and natural wonders of World Heritage-listed Thingvellir National Park. Other organized excursions run the gamut from horseback-riding treks and helicopter sightseeing to glacier hiking and snowmobiling tours. The Visit Iceland website (www.visiticeland.com) includes a comprehensive listing of activities and operators.

Self-propelled families can also quickly chart their own course by renting a car and touring clockwise (or counter-clockwise) around the country. Better yet, for the road-tripping clan, Icelanders mostly speak flawless English, road signs and directional information are easily navigational, and accommodations are clean and comfortable. A week or more will give you access to major island attractions like Skaftafell National Park, the eastern fjords, and Iceland's dramatic, wildlife-rich northern coastline—not to mention more thermal pools where you will have hours to bathe!

Tip: Given its ideal anchorage between Europe and North America, why not combine a short two- to three-day stopover in Reykjavík with your trip to mainland Europe? Beyond another stamp in your passports, this is a good way to break up those interminable long-haul flights. Icelandair (www.icelandair.com) offers stopovers for up to seven days at no extra cost when you book a return fare to European hot spots like London or Paris.


Published: 11 Dec 2007 | Last Updated: 7 Aug 2012
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication

Best Hotels in Reykjavik

$306-$370
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#1
Hotel Reykjavik Centrum
$179-$238
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#2
Borg Hotel Reykjavik
$107-$676
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#3
CenterHotel Thingholt Reykjavik
$124-$644
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#4
CenterHotel Klopp Reykjavik

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