Isolated in the middle of nowhere, Iceland is a magical place of eternal sunshine, brilliant scenery and the freshest, cleanest air you can imagine. And, despite its name, travelling there with kids in the summer it not as hard (or as cold) as you’d imagine. For a far away family holiday destination that's truly extraordinary, you can't miss Iceland with kids.
The Destination: Iceland With Kids
Picture a desert-like landscape of volcanic fields, tiny horses, oddly clothed locals and simply magnificent natural beauty. The skies are huge, the scenery is stunning and the environment so pristine you can literally trawl the (visible) bottom of the ocean and eat the crustaceans straight out of the water fresh. Iceland is far away enough from the rest of the world to retain its uniqueness and small-town friendliness, but still European enough to be safe, English-speaking and have all the amenities you need.
From June to August this country of extremes experiences only 3 hours of darkness a day and the temperature is a pleasantly cool 13 to 15 degrees Celsius. This makes it perfect for sight-seeing as many of the tourist attractions are open til the wee hours.
Perhaps because their window to the rest of the outside world is so small, the people of Iceland are extremely friendly and welcoming of children. Mothers shopping in Reykjavík regularly leave their children in strollers out in the street while they browse inside and most tour operators are more than willing to compromise itineraries and experiences to suit small kids. But perhaps more importantly, Icelandic people are proud of their unique way of life – they embrace their difference with a humorous attitude (and sense of dress).
The swan-wearing songstress Bjork is a personification of her homeland – quirky, slightly outrageous, certainty a bit wacky but also super charming and strikingly beautiful. Iceland is a place everyone in the family will love and remember.
The Attractions In Iceland With Kids
The capital city, Reykjavík, is more like a small town and easy to navigate. It’s a good base from which to explore most of the geographic wonders – and those are impressively accessible for everyone from the smallest babies to the elderly. [For more travel tips on Reykjavik with kids, see the suitcases&strollers story here.]
The most famous tourist attraction is The Blue Lagoon, a geothermic spa which is conveniently located on the way between Keflavik Airport and Reykjavík. Everyone is welcome to experience these warm natural pools in the middle of a lava field. The mineral-rich waters do reportedly help with skin and other health conditions but they are exactly that – the presence of minerals means you must monitor young children who might decide to drink the water.
The Blue Lagoon really is a
spa retreat with a difference. Apart from being so family-friendly, there are
natural divets filled with mud for impromptu skin masks, there is a bar and
in-water massages are on offer. Plus, if you have limited time, buses from
Reykjavík commonly stop enroute to the airport so you can get you hour or two
of unwinding time. (Luggage storage facilities are available).
If you’d prefer to interact with the locals, there are several local bathhouses with geothermal glacier waters where Icelanders come to play. Picture a neighbourhood, YMCA-style public swimming pool facility with slides and smaller pools called “hot pots” for different temperatures of water that are all chemical- and chlorine-free. All the geothermal pools are extremely hygienic (everyone must have a naked shower using soap before entry) and baby arm floaties for swimming and high chairs to assist with showering are common (including at The Blue Lagoon).
The other significant must-do in Iceland is the Golden Circle. The 300 metre circle covers three major attractions – the Pingvellir National Park, Gullfoss falls and the Geysir and Strokkur geysers.
Thingvellir has some magnificent scenery as this is where two Teutonic plates meet above ground. It is possible for adults and older children (over 13 years) to snorkel through the crevice between, but diving is for grown-ups only. While the view underwater is dramatic, be warned that the waters are cold enough to require a (clumsy and awkward) dry suit which is unlikely to be worth the trouble unless the children are very strong swimmers and extremely keen to participate.
Gullfoss is a glorious glacial waterfall that offers stunning photo opportunities. The kids will also enjoy Geysir and Strokkur out in the geothermal fields with their frequent geyser eruptions every few minutes.
It is manageable to do the
Golden Circle in a daytrip (with coffee and meal stops) from Reykjavík although
if you are worried about small children’s nap times, hire a car and self-drive
it at your own pace. Alternatively, take advantage of the never-setting sun and
visit a couple of times throughout the day or right into the evening as suits
[For more family travel tips on the Golden Circle with kids, see the suitcases&strollers story here.]
Devote some time to also viewing the glorious wildlife in Iceland too. You can book tours to do whale watching which are extremely well organised. Snowsuits are provided for adults so you only need to look after your kids’ clothes (don’t forget, it can get super cold out on the ocean).
While it’s a peaceful experience to be on the open water, if you’ve never been whale watching before, bring your patience and pre-warn the children. The wild animals do not appear on cue and after several hours all you may see is a tail or squirt of water. If your kids have trouble keeping still, this may not be a good option for you.
A good alternative is to focus on puffin-watching instead. Some tours will take you out in a dinghy so you can get very close to the ridiculously cute birds. If your children loved Happy Feet, an hour or two of this might provide more entertainment than the more elusive sea mammals.
Another popular tourist daytrip attraction is the glacial lagoon of Jökulsárlón. Tours will take you out on a boat among the floating ice formations but this requires some commitment. It’s over four hours’ drive from Reykjavík and many tourists report you will only spend an hour or two on the boat before returning back to town.
There is a Ring Road (known as Route One) around the entire country that is popular with tourists and may allow you some better vantage points to Iceland’s volcanoes. But do keep in mind these more extreme locations often involve some serious hiking so you should assess your children’s stamina before being too ambitious.
It’s worth spending a day or two in town to explore Reykjavík proper. Along with lots of second-hand clothes stores where you can purchase the iconic and eclectic local fashion looks there is Red Rock Cinema (6A Hellusund, Reykjavík, Iceland, Tel: +354 845 9548) where you can view daily volcano movies. The fascinating structure known as the Hallgrimskirkja Church sometimes holds concerts featuring their famed organ and marvelous acoustics that are quite spell binding.
Because it is so remote, things are expensive in Iceland. Unusually, bananas are a very popular and readily available and the seafood is some of the freshest and most delicious you will eat anywhere in the world. Most restaurants and cafes are also quite kid-friendly.
For a kitschy foray into Iceland’s past, book a meal at the themed Viking Restaurant for a fun meal of crooning Valkyries, Brennivín schnapps served in lamb horns and a traditional dinner feast.
[If you are concerned about the expense of buying kids snacks, bring some from home in your suitcase. Click on the suitcases&strollers story here for some ideas on travel snacks for kids.]
Family Friendly Accommodation in Iceland With Kids
There are hotels in Reykjavík but a by far more interesting and popular experience is to opt for a guesthouse. Staying in a quaint, corrugated iron-clad home will provide an intimate and authentic opportunity to interact with your hosts and you can select whatever amenities suit you from full kitchen to just a bed. Cats are extremely popular household pets in Iceland, so if your children have allergies enquire about the feline situation before you book.
Forsaela House and Apartments caters to families of all sizes with little apartments right through to the larger Halldora House and has all the baby amenities such as high chairs and infant cots.
It can be difficult to adjust babies and small children to new time zones given there are so few hours without daylight in the Icelandic summer. If you want to be operating on local time, pack some travel blackout curtains with you such as the Gro Anywhere Blind. [For more travel tips on how to handle changing time zones, see the suitcases&strollers story How To Cope With Jetlag.]
Alternatively, it is worth considering keeping the kids on their natural schedule. Because of the long daylight hours, many tours still operate even late into the night and sites are likely to be quieter at these times. (Bear in mind that local amenities such as shops tend to close around 6pm though.)
Although temperatures are manageable in the summer, it is still cold. Everyone should have full winter clothing including proper walking shoes, coats, hats and sweaters.
Outside peak summertime months, many of the major tourist attractions are closed, so if you are planning a trip around the Northern Lights in the winter, be prepared to stay indoors a lot as there isn’t much to do.
Flybus is the easiest and most convenient way to get from Reykjavík to the airport. Even if you are travelling solo with young kids, it is surprisingly smooth – all you need to do is transfer from the larger bus to the smaller shuttle direct to your accommodation (including guesthouses). There is also the option to stop over at Blue Lagoon on your way in or out of the airport.
Images: Leslie Beckman