If you’re going to be in Reykjavik for New Year’s Eve and you are hoping to eat at a restaurant, I suggest you make a reservation months in advance. A few weeks before our trip, I finally had time to sit down and email some restaurants. By “some,” I mean 20-30. All of them were booked OR they closed at 4:30pm.
Optimistic, I didn’t make any reservation. We could find food somewhere, right?
Our plan was to explore the Golden Circle – Thingvellir, Geysir, and Gulfoss – and then come back to Reykjavik, grab food somewhere – maybe even a grocery store! – and then head into town for the festivities. But the night before, Kacey mentioned Jokulsarlon glacier lagoon again.
“I know we said it’s too far away,” she said. “But I keep reading about it and I really want to see it.”
The last time I’d gone, the sky had been grey and the glaciers had been cool, but somewhat underwhelming. (Can a glacier be underwhelming? I sound like a pompous ass.)
I told Kacey I’d be up for it, but I didn’t want her to be disappointed. We typed it into Google maps and found it an achievable 4 hours away. We’d drive out, snap some photos, then come back in time for dinner.
We left around 8am after stopping at a grocery store for “breakfast”: Skyr and a croissant (me), an orange and a banana (Allison), and a banana (Kacey). It’s important to note, as this was the closest thing we had to a meal for the next 24 hours or so.
Our car GPS notified us that the lagoon was actually six hours away, but we set out anyway, braving wind, rain, and snow just outside of Reykjavik. It was a disheartening start, but I’m glad we continued. As soon as the sun came up, we were in another world. The entire drive took us through snow-covered plains, past white mountains, along a dark sea. Everything was bathed in that magical rosy arctic sunlight. This far north, at this time of year, the sun doesn’t actually rise; it lingers along the horizon all day and then very gradually disappears. This makes everything look pink and lavender and pastel blue. It’s absolutely beautiful.
We stopped at a gas station near the lagoon to refill our windshield wiper fluid. I wanted to buy something, but the line was too long.
“There’s a cafe at the lagoon,” I said, and we soldiered onward.
We reached the lagoon around 2pm. It was breathtaking. It was not the same lagoon I’d visited under grey skies a few Aprils ago. With the sun getting ready to set, all of the icebergs glistened with a rainbow of gold, crimson, and blue. We took myriad photos and I read my Lonely Planet. Apparently, the lagoon is relatively new – about 80 years old. The glacier, Breidamerkurjokull, used to actually extend up to the Ring Road, which rides along the ocean. But the glacier has been receding, and as it does, it creates this lagoon where pieces of it break off and float on out to sea.
If the lagoon itself isn’t magical enough, you can cross over to the beach on the other side of the Ring Road and walk along the black sand, photographing these magnificent chunks of ice before they get dragged out to sea. At one point, as we walked and photographed, a great crack resounded and a chunk of ice broke off one of the icebergs in the lagoon. It was incredible.
We could’ve stayed there for hours, had it been a little warmer – and if we’d had more time. We still had to figure out dinner and be back to Reykjavik. I walked up to the lagoon cafe to find it had closed at 1pm.
“We can stop at the gas station on the way back,” I suggested.
That, too, was closed.
We drove back through brilliantly beautiful scenery until the sun set and the sky began to darken. With that came fears of starving. No restaurants were open. We pulled off into Vik to see if anything was open there. Nothing was. Then we tried some touristy waterfall restaurants. Nothing. A man in a gift shop laughed at us and took a photo with his iPad.
An hour outside of Reykjavik, the lights came out. They dazzled us over the mountains for a long time, but for some reason, the moment that stands out the most was driving down into Reykjavik, fireworks already exploding on the horizon, the lights off to the right, and Miranda Lambert on the shuffle.
On our way into Reykjavik, we passed a number of bonfires and closed gas stations. Things were not looking good. When we reached our Air BnB, we had almost no gas and absolutely no food. We managed to find some crackers and chocolates and coffee, so we made a meager meal while I messaged the guy from the airport to see what he knew.
He was out at a bonfire and typed back, “Go outside! The lights are out!” From where I stood, I couldn’t see them, but apparently Reykjavik got quite the show. Go figure.
We had a cab pick us up around 10pm and take us into town, where we tried to find a restaurant. In the end, we somehow stumbled into this weird hotel lobby where a handful of people were quietly reading books. We bought some sandwiches and took them upstairs to where the bar was, and the bartender hooked us up with Einstok.
It’s legal to take beer on the street there, so we each took one to go and headed to the plaza by the church where the fireworks would go off. Icelanders do New Year’s a little bit different in that the year-long fireworks ban is lifted for one week and everyone goes out and buys fireworks. They gather and set them off. Fire safety be damned!
As we huddled in the plaza, surrounded by an enthusiastic crowd, people shuffled by with little rockets and fireworks, preparing to launch them. There was no midnight countdown, though the fireworks at midnight were impressive. They were everywhere, with pieces shooting off in dozens of directions.
We stood there, occasionally shouting out, “Am I on fire?” I got hit in the eye and felt one go into my hood. It was exhilarating, but I was also happy to get out of there unscathed.
In Reykjavik, bars open after midnight on New Year’s, so as soon as the festivities were done, we made our way down Laugavegur to check out the bars and ring in the new year with Icelandic beer and dancing.
It may not be the most obvious place to want to spend New Year’s, but if you can get there, it is definitely worth it.