Do you dream about exploring Reykjavik on your own? Follow in the footsteps of renowned travel writer Marcia DeSanctis. She writes for such magazines and journals as TRAVEL + LEISURE, Vogue, Air Mail, Town & Country, BBC Travel, and Departures. Her New York Times travel bestseller, 100 PLACES IN FRANCE EVERY WOMAN SHOULD GO, was a Foreword Review INDIEFAB book of the year for Nonfiction/Travel. A Hard Place to Leave: Stories from a Restless Life was recently published. This is just a fraction of her accolades, authoring, and journalism work.

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Here is the expert on exploring alone

It caught my eye when I saw her recommending my hometown, Reykjavik in a recent Forbes interview for solo female travel. I am, of course, uniquely ill-suited to talk about solo female travel, but since it is a highly growing trend I am delighted to finally be able to speak to an expert about it.

Marcia DeSanctis feels at home exploring Reykjavik on her own
Marcia DeSanctis

Hey Marcia, please tell me about your book A Hard Place to Leave: Stories from a Restless Life?

My pleasure! This book is a collection of essays—some new, and some previously published—about the desire to travel and the desire to be at home, and how these urges constantly collide. The collection has stories from 18 countries. Quite a few are from the quiet of my home in a rural part of the United States. They cover many themes. The stories range from being a parent to confronting fears, to aging, to how memories (especially memories of journeys taken) linger, to the simple joy of landing somewhere new across the world. I hope it will inspire people to be tuned into the reasons they travel, to observe, take notes, and maybe even write. Above all, it is a memoir of a woman—me—who, throughout her life, has found solace, purpose, and meaning in travel.

I am of course, completely ignorant about solo female travel. Why is it growing in popularity?

I don’t much about trends in general. However, I can speak to why I love to travel alone. I have a family, and I have lots of friends. Often I find that when I travel with people, it’s hard work. I am always worrying about what the other person wants to do. I prefer just to be responsible and for myself – make my own decisions, go my own way, eat when I want, go to bed when I want, and most importantly, do what (and how) I want. If I am somewhere for a very short while, I’d rather keep my head up, keep engaged, observant and open to meeting other people. It can be limiting to be with a companion. This is because you are not able to be as integrated with your surroundings. Obviously, when I am on a travel assignment, it is much more efficient for me to be alone. Another reason why women love to travel alone is because we tend to take care of so many things and so many people at home. When we leave domestic responsibilities behind for a while, it can be quite freeing for women.

You spent time in Reykjavik last February. What brought you here?

I was accepted to an artist residency in Laugarvatn called Gullkistan. I wanted to come and see Iceland in the winter – and what a winter it was this year, at least over the month of February!  My stay in Reykjavik ended up being several days. After my residency, I went on assignment for Travel + Leisure magazine about winter adventure in Iceland. So, I began this journey in Reykjavik, to write about the new Edition hotel – it was wonderful.

What is it about Reykjavik that makes it attractive for female solo travel?

I found it to be a very manageable city, and almost everything was within walking distance. Icelanders seem to be very social people. However, no one gave me a strange look when I was in a restaurant alone. I felt incredibly safe, and I felt wonderfully good. What I mean by “good” is that the astonishing physical beauty, dramatic geographical location, the stunning architecture on display in buildings from Harpa to Hallgrímskirkja, and that incandescent sky filled me with a rare excitement. I felt energized by a sense of my own power and lightness. With Mount Esja and skylight shifting over it every second, and the ocean, and the ships in the Old Port – it is hard to think of a great European city with the distinct maritime grandeur of Reykjavik. I had the greatest urge to explore and to drink it all in.

Reykjavik is made for walking

You can walk and walk and walk, and in every direction you turn, you see something even more spectacular. Even when I went to Sky Lagoon, which I loved ( it was a snowy day, and I floated in the pool with a storm raging) I didn’t feel the least bit unwelcome as a woman by myself. On the contrary, I felt right at home.

Reynisfjara black sand beach in Iceland.
Reynisfjara black sand beach in Iceland.

What places or activities would you recommend to travellers wanting to explore Reykjavik?

I always recommend that people should try to get lost. There is so much to discover when you are freewheeling, not hamstrung by any itinerary. But here are a few things that I would highly recommend: I took a day tour to Vik, Reynisfjara, and Skogafoss with Hidden Iceland – it was superb, and the van was super comfortable. The Icelandic Lava Show in Vik was actually surprisingly good. Sky Lagoon, of course – it is an enchanting place. I spent a lot of time on Grandagardur, and explored on foot all over the place, especially by the water. I loved dinner at La Primavera and brunch at Coocoo’s Nest. Soley’s Organics makes the most marvelous Icelandic skincare products to bring home, and nearby is the Omnom Chocolate flagship – I went there twice, because not only is the chocolate sublime (especially the lakkris and sea salt) but the packaging is so beautiful.

The Harpa in Reykjavik. Photo by Laila Gebhard on Unsplash
The Harpa in Reykjavik. Photo by Laila Gebhard on Unsplash

Culinary delights and history

The Saga Museum was very informative, and there is a really good gift shop. Maro is the most marvelous wool and knitting shop, and I stocked up on tape measures and lopi. I am still dreaming about the cinnamon buns at Brauð & Co, and the magnificent grilled char at Tides, the beautiful restaurant at Edition – and the bread and salted butter is incredible. I stumbled upon the cafe at Idno Culture House, and had wonderful lamb stew.

What advice would you give for those visiting Iceland for the first time?

I would make your reservation for a whale watch ahead of time, but make sure you allow for a free backup day – mine was canceled twice because of weather. Bring an extra layer of warm clothing – the wind can really sneak up on you, especially in the evening. Go with the flow, as the Icelandic people do. It is an island, subject to unpredictable weather, and things can change in an instant. Sometimes your plans might not happen – but something else great will. Before you go, read a few of the Icelandic sagas, get to know a little history of the Vikings, how they settled Iceland, and how Iceland had the world’s first parliament. I was surprised how frequently the country’s ancient history came up in conversation.