This summer, my family boarded a plane at O’Hare International Airport, and six hours later, we entered the most magical place in the world. And we were practically the only tourists there.
Icelandair recently began offering direct flights from Chicago to Iceland, which makes it so much easier for families to travel to the land of hot pots, lagoons and the freshest air and water, possibly on earth.
It also happens to be incredibly kid-friendly, thanks to the Icelandic obsession with pools.
Our flight landed at about 6 a.m. Iceland time (there’s a five-hour difference), and my groggy family of myself, my husband and our two girls, ages 4 and 7, took a taxi over to the Blue Lagoon. It’s about halfway between the airport and Reykjavik, so it’s best to do this on your way to or from the airport.
The Blue Lagoon is a natural pool made of 70 percent sea water and 30 percent fresh water, heated by a Svartsengi geothermal plant to a lovely 100 degrees. Before you get into the water, you have to wash off in a communal shower, and then you can enter. In the center of the lagoon are tubs of mud masks that you can apply to your face (we did this about a dozen times, no joke).
We spent the rest of the day exploring Reykjavik, which is best done with a City Card, giving you unlimited access to the buses, museums and many of the city pools.
Plan to spend a few days in Reykjavik, which is packed with museums about Iceland’s culture and heritage. It’s also home to the zoo and the Family Park. The zoo isn’t too impressive compared to Chicago’s, but the Family Park (connected to the zoo) is extraordinary. Children can get inside gigantic balls and roll onto the water; they can get drive child-sized bulldozers; they can jump on an Icelandic bouncy house, which is essentially a gigantic trampoline. It’s easy to spend a full day there.
While Reykjavik is Iceland’s “downtown,” you’d miss much of Iceland’s beauty by staying there for your entire trip. Instead, rent a car and head south along the Golden Circle (about an hour away). The entire drive is so breathtakingly beautiful that you’ll want to pull over every few minutes to take pictures. Even the Iceland prison (which holds a whopping 150 people) overlooks mountains and fields because there are no bad views here.
Along the way south, you’ll hit Pingvellir National Park, where the Vikings established their first national parliament. It’s also a fun spot to take an easy hike with the kids.
Next, you’ll come to Geysir, a hot water spout that’s been active for 800 years. Every few minutes, it shoots water straight up in the air! After all that excitement, super-adventurous kids—and active parents—can climb a tall mountain and be rewarded with some of the most incredible views in Iceland. Our 4-year-old was able to do it, but I was panting by the time I reached the top.
Be sure to visit Gullfoss, a spectacular waterfall, with just two ropes to separate you from a 100-foot drop. The view is amazing, so of course we posed our children in front of it. (#InstagramMom)
Stop for lunch at Fridheimar, a tomato greenhouse (you get to eat inside the actual greenhouse), which specializes in soup made from their tomatoes, picked that morning. Next, walk over to the farm’s horse stables to watch a short horse show, where you’ll learn the history of Icelandic horses (they’re different from the American kind!).
If you actually want to ride a horse, you can do this at Eldhestar. Kids younger than 5 aren’t allowed on a regular horse tour, but you can pay a little extra for a private tour if you have smaller kids. We now have two budding jockeys on our hands! Our guide taught us how to trot, and he obliged when our 4-year-old wanted to go faster, faster, faster.
We went to another farm for some dessert. At Efsi Dalur, a dairy farm, we ate ice cream right in front of the cows that provided the cream.
While you’re driving around, you’ll hit plenty of hot pots, or pools. The naturally hot water has made these a main attraction. We stopped at Fontana in the Southwest (a swanky spa that had two Jacuzzis and a few smaller pools, steam room and sauna), Laugardalslaug in Reykjavik (a kid fave with a scary water slide, two kiddie slides and a Jacuzzi), plus the Blue Lagoon. But there’s at least one hot pot in every neighborhood, so keep an eye out.
This is one international trip where you may not learn a single word of the language, but you will remember how food tastes when it’s eaten on the farm where it’s produced. You’ll breathe air that’s totally pure. And you’ll come home ready to convince everyone you know that Iceland needs to be on their family’s bucket list.