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Family travel: A weekend in Iceland

Iceland for the weekend? It’s closer than you think, and makes for an unforgettable family break

Family travel: A weekend in Iceland
The Blue Lagoon. Image: Getty

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“The snowflakes are like big pieces of tissue!” says Sam, 7, beaming as he tries to catch them in mittened hands. It’s May in Reykjavik, but the Icelandic capital is still throwing all four seasons at the locals and tourists moseying among its colourful, corrugated iron-clad buildings. We’ve seen Iceland in the movies, marvelled at its made-for-magazine landscapes, and popped Sigur Rós onto family playlists, but it feels surreal to finally be here. In the days ahead, we’ll wobble through lava fields, make fart jokes amidst the eggy whiff of sulphur at Geysir and slather ourselves in Silica mud at the Blue Lagoon. It’s a long-haul travel kick, just three hours from home.

1// Take a bath
“I don’t get why we’re not allowed in hot pools at home,” says Sam, sitting in a 37C mineral bath next to Lake Laugarvatn. You can always skip the Blue Lagoon (it’s crowded and prices start from ISK6,100/£44 per person), and instead head for one of over a dozen pools in the city, or lesser known places like Fontana, which can be included on a Golden Circle tour. Once there, we shower before stepping towards a popping series of pools and steam baths. Bathing like this has been an Icelandic tradition for centuries, and you can even order beer from a nearby hatch. Why can’t all pools be like this?

2// Bone up on Icelandic history
What’s it like to be a Viking? “Sore,” says Sam, laying down a heavy replica sword, helmet and shield in the National Museum of Iceland. “Painful,” adds Rosa. Entry fees to Reykjavik’s museums can also be painful, but this is a smart one-stop-shop, with exhibits ranging from Viking skeletons to a nostalgic modern history section with exhibits including VHS players, and Björk’s first LP (recorded in 1977 when she was just 12). ISK2,000/£14.50 for adults. Kids go free.

Sam in Reyjkavik

3// Tour the Golden Circle
Yes, it’s touristy. But it’s also terrific. Starting from Reykjavik, the classic Golden Circle tour takes in scenery straight out of Game of Thrones — literally, in the case of Thingvellir National Park, where tectonic plates are cleft apart at a rate of two centimetres per year (“One day we will conquer the world,” our guide quips). Other stops on the 186-mile loop include the thunderous Gullfoss waterfall and Geysir — where a thrilling, 30m spout of steaming water bursts from the earth every 4-8 minutes. You can self-drive, but the bus allows us to kick back between stops, soaking up the basalt blacks, icy whites and mossy greens through big windows… and almost everyone is crashed out asleep bythe time we return to the city.
More info at Reykjavik Excursions and Gray Line. Extreme Iceland do day tours. Cox & Kings’ family adventure trip includes a coach tour.

4// City must-sees
Iceland is home to just 325,000 souls, and Reykjavik is its souvenir-sized capital city. It’s perfect for families on foot, although weather and daylight are vastly different in summer and winter. Start on the main drag of Laugavegur before hitting the city’s oldest cafe, Mokka Kaffi for hot chocolate, or local sweet shop Vínberið for liquorice (“It’s nice and salty,” the woman tells us, ringing up a bag of lakkrís). We also steer towards 12 Tónar, a small record shop at the heart of Iceland’s intriguing indie music scene, and brave a visit to the Icelandic Phallological Museum. 220 specimens range from field mice to blue whales, with some surprising learning moments among the giggles. Don’t worry — there’s no obscenity, even if the prices are a bit stiff. A Reykjavik Card from ISK3,700/£27 for 24 hours offers decent savings on transport, pools and museums.

5// Harpa and the harbour
Reykjavik’s harbour is where to head for whale- and puffin-spotting trips, and there’s a tempting clutch of seafood restaurants in former warehouses (“We have shark and Brennivín,” reads a sign at The Sea Baron. “Don’t be a chicken!”). Rent a bike, visit the whale museum, or do as we did and simply wander the waterfront, browsing bric-a-brac like whalebone jewellery and lava bracelets at Kolaportid Flea Market before ending up at Harpa, the city’s honeycomb-like concert hall. You don’t need concert tickets to explore inside — worth it for the stellar views of the bay and mountains.

Essentials

Cox & Kings offers a five-day Reykjavik and Golden Circle Family Adventure tour from £795 per person (exc. flights). Flights from London to Iceland on WOW air starting from £29.
More info: visitreykjavik.is

Published in the Family Travel guide, free with with the Jan/Feb 2018 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)