As the closest European country to the States, Iceland's also a quick ride (a 5.5-hour flight from NYC). A cornucopia of affordable excursions await students on a budget.
Iceland's capital, Reykjavik, is a charming, pedestrian-friendly city. Laugavegur (which translates to Pool Road), its main artery, is lined with shops, restaurants and taverns. Side streets lead to stunning views of the ocean from most vantages. Sculptures pepper Reykjavik and artful graffiti adorns buildings.
The Hallgrimskirkja church is Reykjavik's tallest building. Inside there's free organ music, and outside sits a 1930s Leif Ericson statue–a gift from the U.S. Reykjavik nightlife pulsates with myriad (and rocking) live music options, many don't charge cover, and after-hours bars can rock into daylight.
Free museums include Reykjavik Art Museum, National Gallery, and National Museum. Reykjavik Art Museum Hafnarhus is fashioned from an old downtown warehouse and houses modern art, including a permanent collection of revered Icelandic artist Erro.
During weekends, the bustling Kolaportio flea market's opened, which offers inexpensive baubles. It's also where the daring can sample hakarl, an ammonia-pungent, fermented shark delicacy.
Dine on few ducats
The famous hot dog stand Baejarins Beztu touts tasty lamb hot dogs, smothered in remoulade, tangy mustard and cronions. The queues grow longer and more boisterous after bar-hopping hours.
Saegreifinn (Sea Baron) flanks the ocean. It's legendary for its creamy lobster soup that's served with a basket of warm bread and butter.
The countryside has an otherworldly appeal, with its cragged rock landscapes speckled with moss, and steam bubbling up at random. The "Golden Circle" loops Thingvellir, the seat of Iceland's first parliament and where North American and Europe's tectonic plates separate, the waterfall Gulfoss, and Geysir, from where the word originates.
Blue Lagoon, a natural hot spring with a neon-aquamarine shimmery glow, is arguably one of the most relaxing places on earth. Don complimentary mud, and navigate the seemingly curative waters.
Another must-see: Aurora Borealis, the Northern Lights. If there are clear skies, it's the right season, and one is far from city lights, the lucky might witness a spectacular sight: framed by stars, amorphous vapors swirl and dance in the sky in hues of green, white and purple. Tours hit all these natural wonders, but renting a car's cheaper (around $70). The car route can also add adventure (Icelandic rental car maps are questionable), and gives the chance to leisurely explore.
Videy Island's a 10-minute ferry ride ($8 roundtrip) from Reykjavik. Once home to a monastery and a village, Videy now lies unoccupied. There are winding paths over hills and it's home to Imagine Peace Tower, which Yoko Ono designed in honor of John Lennon. From Oct. 9 through Dec. 8 the tower's lit. Night visitors can view the twinkling lights of Reykjavik, close enough to know civilization's there, but far enough for serenity.
The Tower boasts the words "Imagine Peace" carved in 24 languages on its white "wishing well" base. Time capsules containing 500,000 peace wishes from the world over are buried beneath it. Nine beams of blueish geothermally-powered light radiate from the base, and mirrors acting as prisms reflect the light upwards, piercing the night sky to form one unified beam.
Icelanders are all about their pools, and everyone has a favorite. Located downtown, Sundholl Reykjavikur's the oldest indoor pool in Iceland. Like all Reykjavik's swimming pools, Sundholl's a naturally geothermally-heated pool. Sundholl's two outdoor "hot pots" (whirlpools) are also thermal and a sauna sits adjacent. Entrance fee is less than $3.
Airfare's cheapest during low season (December-February). It's prime time for Northern Lights, but it's also when sunlight dwindles. Deals and more daylight can be found off-season (March-May and September-November). There are cultural events year-round, but music lovers flock to Iceland Airwaves. Held annually the third weekend in October, the festival attracts scores of worldwide fans, and packages for hotel, air, and festival passes are offered.
- Many hotels provide free breakfast. Make a snack for later.
- Pack protein bars.
- Bring a flask and purchase liquor at Keflavik Airport's Duty Free. We can't vouch for the legality, but Icelanders and tourists alike discreetly swig from flasks at bars and on the streets.
- Purchase Reykjavik Welcome Cards ($12 to $20). Good for 24-72 hours, they provide free admission to pools, Vioey Island ferry, museums and other attractions, unlimited bus travel, discounts at restaurants, bars, shops and more.
(All prices based on currency exchange and rates in late February, 2010)