At first glance, the sprawling suburbs of Greater Reykjavík, home to two-thirds of Iceland’s total population, may turn you off with a forest of big box stores, mundane apartment blocks and cookie-cutter houses. If this is your introduction to Iceland, do not despair – the central heart of the city hides its quirky, scruffy, livable soul. The old houses don suits of salt-wind weathered corrugated tin dashed in a brilliant array of bright colors, livening up the central core like a patchwork quilt. Simply strolling the streets is blissful pleasure on a sunny day. This is a city meant to be lived and absorbed. You cannot rush Reykjavík with a tight schedule of rapid sightseeing. To meet her, you must slow down and duck into her cafes, restaurants and bakeries, browse her galleries and art, drink up her jet-fuel strong coffee and breathe in her literature and music.
The creative energy of Iceland pulses out of every crack and cranny of the city. Whether it’s the long, dark winters of hibernation or the fierce independence of a people descended from the Vikings that encourages individual expression, Reykjavík is an arts, literary, and music haven. Live music can be found most nights, everything from indie rock to folk to jazz. Festivals dominate the annual calendar, beckoning writers and musicians to Reykjavík. Public artwork packs every corner of the city and city officials actively encourage creative impulse with a graffiti park and whimsical expressions cropping up in unlikely places. You never know what you’ll find. A tiny briefcase-carrying pig strolling along the sidewalk weeds. A yarn wrapped bike and tree. Expressive gargoyles exploding out of a bank’s stone and mortar. City officials jack-hammering up the sidewalk for a student’s temporary geometric art installation.
Essentially a harbor town, the natural forces that shaped Iceland are never far from the city, making Reykjavík a natural base for exploring the Southwest corner of Iceland. Most tourists never make it beyond this region, crowding the sights of the Golden Circle. Huge thundering waterfalls, explosive geysers, rumbling volcanoes, an ancient rift valley steeped in the national identity of Iceland at Thingvellir, whale and puffin watching, horseback riding through lava fields – all lies on Reykjavík’s doorstep.
A city of political and intellectual debate spilling out of a vibrant café culture and into the streets, of artistic fire, literary wit, a fledging movie industry with a quirky vibe, soulful, innovative musicians, festivals and international conferences, and a diverse restaurant scene. This is the beating heart of Iceland.
Photo Gallery: Reykjavik, August – September 2011
Blog Posts about Reykjavik:
- Sæl og blessuð Íslandi!, August 5, 2011
- Icelandic Turf Houses, August 6, 2011
- Of Waterfalls, Volcanoes, and Hot Water, August 16, 2011
- The Creative and Adventurous Soul That is Reykjavik, August 18, 2011
- Music, Literature, and a Play of Lights to Soothe the Wounded Soul, September 10, 2011
- Homeward Bound: A Farewell to Iceland, September 13, 2011
When the high seat pillars of Ingólfur Arnarson washed ashore in 871 at the future site of Reykjavík, it kicked off a wave of Norse settlement in Iceland. Like most pagan Norsemen, Ingólfur trusted the gods to ordain where he would settle, so he tossed the high seat pillars into the sea and sent his slaves to scour the land in search of them. These pillars symbolized his chieftaincy as head of his multi-generational household. After three years of searching, his pillars were found. Ingólfur, spotting the nearby geothermal steam wafting above the horizon, named the site “Smoky Bay” – Reykjavík. Here he established his farm.
The soil was not particularly fertile, so for centuries Reykjavík wallowed as a simple farm, until Skúli Magnússon, the local sheriff, arrived in the 1750s. Intent on restoring Iceland’s pride and improving economic conditions under the harsh yoke of a Danish trade monopoly, Skúli transformed Reykjavík into a small manufacturing center. As the economy shifted from wool to fishing, Reykjavík boomed.
When the national parliament was resurrected in 1843, Icelanders decided to move the seat of the Althing from Thingvellir to Reykjavík, cementing Reykjavík’s status as the center of Icelandic political and economic life. World War II drove another population and building boom as Icelanders flocked to the city to work in jobs supporting the American troops stationed in nearby Keflavík. The population shift continues today, as more and more young people move to the city for education and jobs. While the economic collapse of 2008 hit the city hard, Reykjavík continues to be the heart of Icelandic life.
A huge institutional hostel surrounded by a quiet residential neighborhood and the greenery of Laugardalur on the outskirts of Reykjavík. In summer the place bursts with backpackers of all ages, but during the school year be prepared for armies of shrieking school children. If you are seeking a cheap bed, this is the most affordable hostel in town. The staff is friendly and operates a decent café off the breakfast room. They will also help book day tours to the Golden Circle, horseback riding and further afield. Services are plentiful – laundry, drying rooms, fully equipped kitchens for self-caterers, multiple computers with Internet, free Wi-Fi, and baggage storage. The Keflavík airport shuttle even picks you up right out front.
The downside? This is a huge hostel without character and plenty of uncomfortable bunk beds in cramped 6-bed dorms. Dorms lack lockers; take all your valuables with you. If you have a chronic medical condition, consider upgrading to a private room or one of the spacious 4-bed dorms in the wings. Bathrooms and showers are down the hall and sometimes even in the basement. Reykjavik City is also a 2 km walk from the city center. Not to worry – the #14 bus stops right outside. A small grocery store and bakery are in walking distance and Laugardalslaug geothermal pool is just down the street.
If you want a central location, there is always the more expensive Reykjavík Downtown HI, a smorgasbord of small guesthouses (called gistiheimili), and independent hostels. Fellow travelers raved about the brand-new KEX Hostel.
FOOD & RESTAURANTS
Self-catering is a breeze in Reykjavik and your best strategy for fighting off the outrageous cost of eating out. Just be prepared for the sticker shock if you do the exchange math; this is an island and the cost of living is higher as many foodstuffs must be imported. Bónus is the cheapest grocery, while 10-11 is at the higher end. I ate well by sticking to Icelandic foods, like skyr, as well as vegetables and bananas grown in the geothermal greenhouses and locally baked breads. Another easy stand-by is pasta topped by a simple olive oil sauce. If you grow tired of pasta, throw together a salad or stir fry. The grocery prices may look scary – wait until you see the bill for your first restaurant meal.
To fill up on the cheap while sightseeing, follow the locals. Harbor side fish and chip shops dish up the catch of the day, as well as local dishes such as lobster chowder. The humble hot dog (pýlsur) seems to be an Icelandic obsession, especially well into the drinking of a Friday night runtur. Hot dog stands are scattered throughout the city. Petrol stations serve basic fast food, but you’ll tire quickly of greasy burgers and fries.
Bakeries are the unsung heroes of budget eating. Sample an array of traditional Icelandic baked goods paired with coffee for a picnic breakfast or duck in for a cheap sandwich for lunch. On weekdays, fill up with súpu dagsins; a bowl of soup and thick, chewy bread for around 1100 to 1300 kr.
Bakarí Sandholt – One of the oldest bakeries in Reykjavík, this institution on Laugavegur, the main shopping street, has witnessed generations pass through her doors. At lunch the narrow space bustles with hungry locals and tourists alike. Just don’t expect super friendly service – the employees are brisk and efficient. Ready-made sandwiches are healthy and cheap; the pastries are a cornucopia of marzipan, almond paste and fried goodness. Find a rare seat in the back or take yours to go. (Sandwiches around 950kr. Open daily. Laugavegur 36. Website in Icelandic only.)
Kornið Bakery – A chain bakery that serves consistently good pastries, breads, and coffee. Nothing special, just very satisfying. I assembled a breakfast picnic of coffee, vinarbrauð, and a chocolate-covered cinnamon roll for only 750 kr. (Open daily, multiple locations throughout city. Website in Icelandic only.)
Sægreifinn – This fish and chip establishment on the harbor is a cultural experience. Step up to the counter and order the fresh seafood kebabs on display – they will cook it to order. Yes, that is whale meat you see in the fridge. Some tourists suspend their anti-whaling convictions to try it; do some soul-searching before you take the plunge. I passed on the whale and ordered the traditional lobster soup instead. Creamy, with big chunks of lobster and served with crispy hunks of bread. If the tiny front room is full, find a seat at the long plank tables in the back and wait for the wait staff to bring out your order. The décor is a cross between 1950s country kitsch and harbor workshop. (Lobster soup 1100kr. Open daily. Verbúð 8 Geirsgata by the small boat harbor. If you see signs for whale-watching, you’re on the right track.)
Bæjarin’s Beztu – Reykjavík’s famous pýlsur stand near the harbor jazzes up the humble hot dog. This is still just a hot dog, of course, but the best hot dog I’ve eaten. Order like a local – ask for a pýlsur með öllu (pill-sur meth ult-lu), “hot dog with everything.” Grab plenty of napkins and eat standing up as you gaze out at the huge ships. Fast and incredibly cheap. (Hot dog 300kr. Daily until late. Tryggvagata.)
Most restaurants are sell-your-kidney expensive. For a decent sit-down meal, expect to pay at least 2500 kr per person – before the drinks and dessert! I found eating out cost prohibitive, but managed to find some affordable splurges. Remember, you do not need to tip; gratuity is already figured into the menu prices.
Icelandic Fish and Chips – With the air of a creaky 19th century general store, this chip shop pairs freshly caught fish with inventive skyr dipping sauces. I recommend both the mango and coriander-lime skyrs. Order at the counter, collect your silverware and claim a table. While the fish is good, the French fries are the best I have ever had. Roughly cut wedges of potato, baked and sprinkled with huge crystals of sea salt. Even the table salt is sea salt. Now that’s brilliant. (Fiskur dagsins with fries around 1950kr. Open daily for lunch and dinner. Tryggvagata 8.)
Café Paris – A crossover from the café scene, I am including this stuffy seen-and-be-seen establishment for one reason: huge, bursting crepes filled with fresh vegetables, mushrooms, cheese, and seafood for only 1790kr (you will not leave hungry). If it’s a nice day, avoid the dim interior and snag a seat outside overlooking Austervöllur and Iceland’s parliament for the best people-watching in town. Order the regular coffee and it comes in a convenient coffee pot – no need to flag down the waitress for your ábót (seconds.) The best coffee deal in town for a mere 400kr. (Open daily. Austurstræti 14.)
Café Loki – Another café cross-over, I fell in love with Loki’s whimsical take on modern Scandinavian design. Art, color, and warm wood infuse the space, a huge wall of windows overlooks Hallgrímskirkja, and cheerful pillows line the benches. I basked in the sun while introducing myself to hangikjöt, a thinly sliced smoked lamb served on flat bread. A great place to sample traditional Icelandic food. The coffee isn’t bad either. (Open daily. Café located on the second floor; inform the barista if you will be sitting on the sidewalk. Lokastígur 28, across from Hallgrímskirkja.)
Iceland’s capital just might be the most caffeinated in the world. Cafes adorn every street and corner. This Portland, Oregon native was astounded by the sheer volume of caffeine havens crammed into the central city. There is a café for every personality. Experiment with a new café every hour or locate a favorite and become a temporary regular. Join the debating intelligentsia in their scruffy dens or bounce into the chatty bright world of the social yuppie. The world is your café oyster.
At night don’t be surprised if your favorite café completely transforms into a ritzy club complete with rope line or a raucous pub. The line between café and bar is hard to define, but the transformation seems to occur sometime shortly after happy hour. If you don’t like the vibe of a café in the harsh light of day, return at night to see if the transformation is more your style.
Café Haiti – Hands down the strongest coffee in town. Run by an Ethiopian woman and her Icelandic husband, this is a comfortable harbor retreat from the brisk wind. The interior is industrial loft, or maybe just old harbor building – cement floors, thick wood beams, and mismatched furniture. (Coffee 350-450kr. Open Mon-Sat. Geirsgata 7b, by small boat harbor.)
Kofi Tómasar Frænda – The eclectic den of students you always dreamed would define your university experience, this subterranean café is perfect for journaling, debating politics and hiding in dark corners. The windows peak out on busy Laugavegur at feet scurrying by. Newspapers pile on every free surface, exposed pipes add to the cave-like character, and tea candles dance in votives that remind me of my grandmother’s 1970s glassware. The staff is a bit lacksidasical, but you’re not really here for the service. Wait patiently at the bar for someone to emerge from the back. A full-service bar at night, the café takes on a funkier edge with a spinning DJ. (Coffee 350-400kr. Open daily. Laugavegur 2)
Hemmi & Valdi – One of my all-time favorite cafes for atmosphere when you just want a place to journal, read, or chill with friends. An endearing old house with creaky wood floors, wood paneling, shabby mismatched furniture, electrified gas lamps, Icelandic country kitsch, and a freestanding brick fireplace. Young professionals and students inhabit the corners typing away on laptops. The coffee comes in locally-fired handless ceramic mugs. This is also the cheapest happy hour beer in town. (Coffee with two refills 340kr. Happy hour beer 550kr. Laugavegur 21)
The Laundromat Café – A bustling, retro diner that serves up typical greasy diner food in huge portions, as well as bold geometric barista art in your latte. The space itself is a funky mix of grand elegance and retro diner. Huge school maps paper the walls and magazines hang from hooks in the windows. The food is decent, but the skyr desserts are the star, especially the blueberry skyr cake served parfait style. Expect a crowd of young professionals and families for lunch when every table is filled. (Skyr dessert 790kr. Open daily until late. Austurstræti 9.)
Prikið – Reykjavík’s oldest café, or at least so they claim. The space is dim with earth tones and worn as if the furniture has not been replaced since it became a café in the 1950s. The young staff is friendly and the crowd is distinctly hipster. If you get hungry, they serve pub food. A low key place to sip coffee and catch up on the newspapers piled in drifts along the bar. (Coffee 380kr. Open late. Bankastræti 12. Website in Icelandic only)
Reykjavík is famous for her party-hard weekends that extend well into the morning. Locals dress sharply and start the drinking at home before pouring out into the streets to hop the bars and clubs around midnight. Many places have dress codes and might even have a rope line – avoid jeans and hiking boots. The smarter you dress, the faster you get in. If you crave a less pretentious scene, any of the Irish or English pubs will welcome the fleece-clad. Beer is expensive, starting at 800kr for a 0,5 liter mug. Pace yourself.
The city pulses with musical talent and cafes showcase some of the best hidden talent, everything from folk to jazz to hard-driving rock to even rap. You should be able to locate a live music gig most nights. Check the free Reykjavík Grapevine for the latest event listings.
Café Rosenberg – I single out this café solely for its almost nightly rotation of fresh, live folk, indie, and blues music. If the rest of the city is quiet, Rosenberg packs in crowds appreciative of soulful song lyrics and velvety voices. Expect a cover charge, typically 1000-1200kr. (Klapparstígur 25-27, between Laugavegur and Hverfisgata.)
The calendar year is packed with festivals and conferences. Summer is particularly lively as endless days of light infuse the city with energy. The city erupts in a city-wide festival on Culture Night, always the third Saturday in August. I also experienced the Gay Pride Festival, International Jazz Festival, and my favorite, the Literary Festival. If you have a particular interest, time your visit for a festival that speaks to you and witness just how joyous an Icelandic celebration can be.
The best nightlife? If you’re lucky, a glimpse of the elusive Northern Lights. The best viewing is away from the city lights in the autumn and winter months, but even in late summer I stood in awe as a pale curtain of green shimmered above Tjörnin Lake.
MY SIGHTSEEING MUST-SEES
Reykjavík is not a city packed with traditional sightseeing. This is a place to savor the simple pleasures of a walkable city core. The real sightseeing comes in serendipitous moments – a mural that catches your eye, the folk rock band playing on a Tuesday night, running from Tjörnin Lake’s kamikaze birds in a fit of epileptic laughter, an expansion of golden light across wind-swept Seltjarnarnes at sunset. Throw out the itinerary and wander. If you happen across my favorite corners of the city, all the better.
Waterfront Walk to the Harbor – whether dawn or dusk, the path that follows Sæbraut and Kalkofnsvegur into the center of town is a pleasant alternative to catching the bus in good weather. Bike commuters pedal past as you gaze across the expansive waters to the shores of Snæfellsnes Peninsula beyond. On a clear day you may even see the Snæfellsnes Glacier, a faint mirage on the horizon. Monuments and sculptures dot the path. The lonely white Höfði House hosted the 1986 summit between President Ronald Reagan and Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev over nuclear proliferation. A simple stone commemorates the decommissioning of the American NATO base at Keflavík. Whether the monument celebrates Icelandic-American partnership or the Americans finally leaving their soil is anybody’s guess – the English inscription is too worn to read clearly and my Icelandic is too weak. Further down, the sensuous Sun Craft gleams on its way out to sea. Sculpted by Jón Gunnar Árnason, it evokes the traditional Viking ships that first brought the Norse to Iceland’s shores. A cacophony of colored glass in parallelogram form rises beyond as Harpa, Reykjavik’s brand-new performing arts center. The colored glass represents the Northern Lights, but reminds me more of bubble wrap.
Seek out the harbor just beyond Harpa. In a neglected concrete corner you’ll find an assortment of faded historical markers documenting the Cod Wars, Iceland’s struggle over their fishing grounds with Great Britain. Having never heard of this conflict, I was fascinated, especially by the black and white photographs of British Navy cruisers intentionally ramming the Icelandic Coast Guard. Further on you’ll wander through a large working harbor. While some areas are fenced off, other areas are open for you to immerse yourself in screaming gulls, slapping waves, huge cargo and fishing ships, and the smaller whale-watching fleet. My favorite time for this walk is just after dawn before crowds of tourists descend.
Literary Walking Tour – I almost missed this experience, chancing upon a small crowd of tourists just outside Reykjavík’s central library. Led by a pair of feisty librarians, we trekked all over the central city to significant spots in Icelandic history and literature. Our guides read from passages of Icelandic classics, bringing to life the past: a Saga Viking amid the rush hour traffic, protests over the American Cold War NATO base in front of the parliament building, a mythical water-horse rising out of the waters of Tjörnin Lake. I came away with an appreciation for Icelandic prose and a better understanding of her history. The best part? The tour is FREE. Just remember to wear comfortable walking shoes. (Usually Thursdays at 5:00 pm in summer. Meet outside the central library at Tryggvagata 15.)
Arbæjarsafn – This open-air collection of historic buildings from around Iceland is a must-see for one reason only – the traditional turf-roof farm buildings. This is the best place in Reykjavik to understand daily life for much of Iceland’s history before the concrete building boom after World War II. One of the oldest farms in the region, Arbæjarsafn has been engulfed by the encroaching city, a green oasis amid suburbia. Skip past the typical 19th century timber houses to the outskirts of the farm. The original farmhouse is still dank and dark, attached by a skinny hallway to the stable. Several generations lived within these humble walls for centuries. Look closely at the turf walls – they would cut blocks of turf and lay them in distinctive patterns. The attached wood extension was a significant upgrade in their standard of living. There is also a turf church in the traditional Norse style and several turf stables and outbuildings. Try to visit right at opening to dodge the worst of the school field trip crowds. (Summer daily 10-5, winter by appointment only. 1,000kr, children under 18 free. Kistuhylur 4, 4km from city center. Take bus #12 or #19.)
Browse a Bookstore – No joke. Icelandic bookstores are fascinating just for the sheer number of world literature translated into Icelandic. Visit the children’s section. You will see everything from Harry Potter to Winnie the Pooh to Dora the Explorer in Icelandic. The major chains also maintain a large English-language section. Geared towards tourists, this is the section to find Icelandic authors translated into English.
12 Tónar – My favorite music shop in all of Iceland. Laid out over two floors in a humble little house, this music shop stands out not only for its huge selection of innovative Icelandic music, but its knowledgeable staff. I described my musical tastes to the professorial shopkeeper, he immediately handed me a stack of CDs and led me to a comfortable couch in the back to listen. He even brewed me an espresso. An hour later I walked out with a small fortune of new musical discoveries. (Open Mon-Sat. Skolavörðustígur 15.)
Hallgrímskirkja – A must-see simply to join the contentious conversation over just what to think about this soaring concrete modernist cathedral. The exterior is modeled on natural volcanic basalt columns, although it reminded me more of abstract flying buttresses. The interior is much less arrogant, an airy space filled with natural light. Go for Sunday mass to experience the space how it was meant to be experienced and thrill to the huge, ornate organ. (Open daily. Sunday mass 11:00 am. Skólavörðuholt.)
Geothermal Pools (Sundlaug) – To come to Iceland and not dip into the hot waters of the local sundlaug would be a travesty. Icelandic social life revolves around the sundlaug, so grab your towel and locate the nearest municipal pool. The largest and busiest sundlaug in the city is Laugardalslaug, right next to the Reykjavík City Hostel. People of all ages flock here. Rotate through the hot pots and be sure to drink water – all this hot water can be dehydrating! There are water slides and play stations for the kids. Don’t be afraid to strike up a conversation with the locals. If you have chronic pain like me, daily soaks in the warm water is surprisingly therapeutic.
The process is fairly simple – it only appears intimidating to the uninitiated. Pay for your ticket at the counter. There is no time limit. You can soak all day to a prune. Use the bar code on the ticket to scan through the turnstiles, then locate your changing room. Menn for men, konur for women. Place your shoes on the racks just outside the locker rooms. Most lockers have keys with rubber bands to place around your wrist. Just close and twist out the key.
You are expected to shower thoroughly without your swimsuit before heading out to the pools. Ignore this and you deserve the locals’ looks of horror at your unhygienic behavior – the pools are not chlorinated. (Admission 450kr. Open daily. Hours vary by season. Laugardalslaug located at Sundlaugavegur 30a. Take bus #14)
Kolaportið Flea Market – If you are in Reykjavík on the weekend, head straight to the harbor-side warehouse housing this rambling market. This is the best place to find an (relatively) inexpensive Icelandic sweater or dig through used books for Harry Potter in the old Viking tongue. There is also a small section for food vendors. (Open Sat-Sun 11-5. Tryggvagata 19. Website in Icelandic only.)
Tjörnin Lake – The best place in town to re-enact Hitchcock’s The Birds, or at least watch others flee in terror from kamikaze kittiwakes. On sunny days this sedate lake is a pleasant place to claim a bench and watch the world march by. Turbo-prop planes on their way to Greenland roar low overhead. At night in autumn and winter, the Northern Lights shimmer across the sky. Just watch your head for vicious beaks. (Central Reykjavík, a block from Austurvöllur.)
Not every museum in Reykjavík is must-see, but some are surprisingly engaging and most are easily absorbed in an hour or two. Take advantage of Wednesdays when many museums are free.
871±2 Settlement Museum – My favorite museum in Iceland. Instead of covering up the 2004 excavations of Iceland’s first Norse settlement, they built a subterranean museum around the excavations beneath the foundations of a house. Interactive displays circle the foundations of a settlement-era Viking longhouse. Spotlights illuminate specific areas of the longhouse with the push of a button. The bones of a cow in a turf foundation, possibly a talisman. The central hearth. The ash layer from an eruption in 870 used as evidence to pinpoint the settlement’s 871 date. It’s an intimate encounter with Iceland’s Viking past. (1,000kr. Children under 18 free. Open daily 10-5. Aðalstræti 16, near Ingólftorg.)
Culture House – You are here for one exhibit only – the well-designed showcase of Iceland’s handrítin, her medieval heritage handwritten on the vellum pages of illuminated manuscripts. The exhibit guides you through the history of writing in Iceland from Viking runes etched into bone and rocks to the first written accounts of Iceland’s law, history, and Sagas. Video footage of thousands of flag-waving Icelanders meeting the Danish Navy at the harbor for the return of their handrítin gives you some clue of just how important the handritin are to Icelandic identity. The heart of the exhibit are the handrítin themselves, a small sampling displayed in a dark room. Other less thrilling exhibits fill the upper floors. (1,000kr. Open daily 11-5. Free Weds. Hverfisgata 15, near Árnarhöll.)
National Museum – A huge museum that evokes memories of echoing halls and stuffed mastodons in glass cages. The exhibits are packed with fascinating artifacts from Iceland’s thousand year history, in theory organized chronologically, but so packed together, they can be hard to follow. The first floor is where you’ll find all the Viking artifacts, from hand-carved wood panels to Viking drinking horns. The exhibits are modern and informative. The tephrochronology chart of an actual soil sample stratified with dated volcanic ash lends you some idea into how archaeologists date archaeological artifacts in Iceland. A decent café crawls with students from the nearby university. (1,200kr. Closed Mondays. Suðurgata 41.)
National Gallery – A surprisingly anemic gallery of art. Only four rooms showcase a rotating exhibit of Icelandic art, past and present. Go on the free day. (800kr. Free Wednesdays. Closed Mondays. Fríkirkjuvegur 7, across from Tjörnin Lake.)
Kjarvalsstaðir – Reykjavík is littered with art and photography museums, but this is my favorite. A student of impressionism and expressionism back in university, the romanticism of Jóhannes Kjarval’s early work speaks to my soul. This branch of the Reykjavík Art Museum is dedicated solely to his art. His work spans several eras of influence, all infused with a mystical energy and drawing from Iceland’s landscape, sagas and history. Fans of surrealism and modern abstraction will appreciate his later works as well. (1,100kr. Open daily 10-5. Flókagata, a 5 minute walk from Hlemmur bus station.)
Perlan – Like a glass spaceship, this modern steel and glass building sits above Reykjavik on Öskjuhlíð Hill. The tourist literature gushes about the Perlan’s attractions, but the only reason to go is for the fantastic 360 degree city views. The artificial geyser is underwhelming, the animatronics Saga museum hokier than Ripley’s Believe It or Not, and the upper floors given over to tourist kitsch gift shops and an overpriced restaurant. Read the Sagas yourself and visit an actual Icelandic geyser instead. (Take bus #18 from Hlemmur.)
Blue Lagoon – All the glossy brochures and packaged tours entice you to visit these electric blue geothermal waters formed by the run-off water from the nearby Svartsengi Geothermal Power Plant. A beautiful woman, her hair slicked back, soaks alone in a halo of steam against a backdrop of black volcanic rock. What the photos don’t show is Iceland’s biggest tourist trap. You will share the waters with hundreds of other tourists packed together like sardines in an overpriced eyesore of a resort spa. Ignore the restaurants, spa treatments, and poolside bar and focus instead on the view of the space-age geothermal plant and the dramatic landscape.
Despite the hype, I still recommend a rejuvenating soak after a long trans-Atlantic flight, especially if you have chronic pain and need to ease your muscles and joints. The Blue Lagoon is easy to visit on your way from the international airport in Keflavík into Reykjavík. Bus tour companies shuttle you directly to the Blue Lagoon, including your entrance fee, luggage storage, and ride into Reykjavík in the cost. Multiple departure times allow you to soak for as little or long as you like.
To avoid the crowds, arrive at opening; you’ll have the waters to yourself for a blissful 15 minutes. Remember to bring a swimsuit and towel in your purse or carry-on – renting a towel because your own is locked up with your suitcase is an expensive mistake. Rub conditioner into your hair before swimming and be sure to wash your hair thoroughly afterwards – the minerals in the lagoon are drying. You will also need to slaughter on lotion afterwards. The basic pool etiquette of Iceland’s sundlaugs also applies here – shower without your swimsuit before dipping a toe in the water. (Entrance fee 30€, spa treatments and food not included. Towels 5€. Open daily. Reykjavik Excursions offers to/from airport packages.)
For once, the path most chosen is the right choice. Some of Iceland’s greatest hits are here: a reluctant Geysir (after which all other geysers are named) and her spunky neighbor Strokkur, Gullfoss, a massive waterfall thundering into a crevice in the Earth, and Thingvellir, cradle of Iceland’s soul and the site of the Althing from 930 until 1798. The sites are jaw-dropping, but crawling with tourists. Do not expect an intimate encounter with nature; this is more of a backwoods party of strangers.
Avoid the mass bus tour companies and find a small, personal tour company or rent your own vehicle for the day. I went with Iceland Horizon in a van of nine other people and our guide/driver. Our guide combined a depth of fascinating information with humor, while beating the large bus tours to all the sites. The cost was the same as the big tours, but a better value – we saw even minor sites skipped by the big bus tours and avoided the peak crowds at Gullfoss and Geysir.
Most tours include Geysir, Gullfoss and Thingvellir.
Geysir – A small service town in a geothermal active region where geysers spew, mud pools boil, and super-heated water simmers. Geysir (the “Gusher”) is also the name of one of the world’s most active geysers. However, she is likely to be quiet when you visit as Geysir has settled into a sleepy phase. Her activity is often tied to the rumblings of the earth; an earthquake in 2008 unclogged decade’s worth of rocks and debris thrown in by tourists trying to spark an explosion of hot water up to 80 meters into the air. If you time your visit right, you just might see her blow. Your best bet is nearby Strokkur, which means “the Churn.” This feisty cousin erupts up to 30 meters high every 5 to 8 minutes. Catching a photo of Strokkur is a matter of luck and timing; just put it away and enjoy the show. Be sure to watch the wind or you’ll end up emerging from a hot steam shower. Join the cluster of tourists up wind to avoid a wet surprise. The rest of the region is covered with neon blue hot springs, smoldering ground, and Litli Geysir, a tiny spring of boisterously boiling water. Stick to the roped paths – the earth’s crust is very thin here and if you step off the path, you just might find yourself up to your knees in blistering hot water (125°C) and headed to the hospital with third degree burns. Most bus tours will allow you an hour here.
Gullfoss – Named the “Golden Falls,” supposedly this massive tempest of a waterfall glows golden in the sunlight. Honestly, I wouldn’t know, since I visited on a cloudy day and the water was an angry foam pounding down into a deep ravine. Prepare to be soaked. Take in the entire expanse of this double cascade from an overlook near the visitor’s centre. To really experience the overwhelming power of the waterfall, follow the slippery path down to a rocky outcrop that extends out into the middle of the falls. You will feel humbled in the drowning roar. There are no safety railings here and the rocks are slick. Be smart and stay away from the edge. There is a large visitor’s centre above the falls with the typical tacky tourist trinkets and a decent cafeteria. For a tasty affordable meal, ask for the lamb soup served with plenty of thick meaty chunks and crusty bread. A deal at 1350kr.
Thingvellir – Most tourists fail to appreciate the significance of this broad rift valley steeped in Icelandic history. Reading some of the Icelandic Sagas before exploring Thingvellir should be a prerequisite. Here much of the drama of clan blood feuds played out as the leading men of Iceland met for the annual Althing, their self-governing parliament that has been called the world’s longest-running democracy. The Althing first met here in 930, meeting every summer for two weeks on the open plains of an active rift valley until 1798. On the Lögberg, now marked by an Icelandic flag, the Lawspeaker would memorize and recite one-third of the law every year to the gathered assembly before the development of the written Icelandic language. Courts would settle disputes, although they did not have the power to enforce their decisions, relying instead on public opinion. Often disputes devolved into blood feuds and power struggles, with the parties involved lobbying for support among Iceland’s leading men. The Althing also served a social function, bringing people from all over the country to mingle, arrange marriages, gossip, and trade.
Thingvellir is an active rift valley where the tectonic plates of North America and Eurasia are pulling apart by a rate of 1 to 18 mm a year. Earthquakes often shake the valley and you can visually see the earth pulling apart, like a giant crust of bread. Numerous trails mark the valley, but the most dramatic walk is the simple paved path from the parking lot down into the valley to the Lögberg, following the towering wall of the North American plate. The walls served as a natural amplifier for the speakers at the Althing, one of the reasons the early Icelanders chose this spot to convene their Althing. This is also where Iceland declared their independence from Denmark in 1944 and the formation of the Republic of Iceland.
Step onto the wooden platform circling the Lögberg to find the grassy indentation believed to be the booth of Snorri the Goði. Chieftains and their men would stay in semi-permanent booths made of turf, often handed down from generation to generation. Snorri is one of the leading chieftains of the Sagas, a wise, clever, and ruthless leader, at times both villain and respected sage, a complex character who actually lived. Gaze out across the valley and imagine hundreds of people encamped here.
If you like scuba-diving, the nearby Silfra Fissure is one of the world’s top scuba-diving spots with some of the clearest water on the planet. The water here and in nearby Thingvallavatn is filtered for hundreds of years through volcanic rock, emerging so clear, visibility is up to 200 meters. To scuba dive in such clear water is disorienting; if you’re afraid of heights, this is not the activity for you.
Since most tourists fail to appreciate the history of Thingvellir, most tours only stop here for 45 minutes. If you desire more time (and I did), hire your own wheels and explore at your leisure.
Some of the smaller tours also stop at these sites along the way:
Kerið Crater – A perfect implosion crater of reddish tephra ash and rock, crawling with hints of green vegetation and filled with sparkling blue water. Formed 65 thousand years ago by a fissure eruption in which the volcano collapsed into the magma chamber, the crater is now a beautiful place for a hike around the rim. Concerts have been held in this natural amphitheater on a floating stage as people sit on the steep crater slopes. The first musician to devise this scheme was none other than Björk in 1986.
Faxafoss – A major waterfall anywhere else, in Iceland Faxafoss is considered a “minor” site. As one travel companion adroitly put it, “that’s practically half of Niagara!”
Hekla – Everywhere you go in the region, the volcano of Hekla, topped by a hood of cloud (Hekla means “Hooded”), looms ominously. This is Iceland’s most active volcano, erupting every 10 years. When I visited in 2011, Hekla was already overdue for another tantrum, last erupting in 2000, and showed signs of an impending eruption – swelling sides and streams drying up. Of course, to geologists “impending” is relative – Hekla could erupt tomorrow or five years from now. Over the centuries, Hekla’s poisonous ash has chased away nearby farms. Only two farms remain active. In the Middle Ages, Europeans believed Hekla was the gateway to hell, guarded by a giant raven. No one ascended her slopes until 1750 when two students dared to try. When you try to avoid swearing by saying “What the heck!” you are referring to Hekla.
An easy afternoon excursion from Reykjavik, Viðey is only a 5 minute ferry ride from the city but feels worlds apart. A peaceful, windswept island with walking paths, free bikes for pedaling past the ruins of a 1940s village, a sedate mansion converted into an airy café, and expansive views of the city.
Irish monks are rumored to have lived in isolation on Viðey before the settlement of Iceland by the Norse, although no evidence has been found. An Augustinian monastery was established here in 1225, a center of scholarship in medieval Iceland until the Danish-imposed Reformation. In the 16th century, the Danish government confiscated the property and expelled the monks. Iceland’s last Catholic bishop, Jón Arason, attempted to fight back by building a fort on Viðey, but was later caught and beheaded with his sons at Skálholt.
Local sheriff Skúli Magnusson built the stoic white mansion, Iceland’s oldest stone building, in the 1750s. In the early 20th century, Viðey served as the harbor for Reykjavík, even hosting Charles Lindbergh’s floatplane, as well as day-tripping British and American soldiers stationed in Reykjavík during World War II.
The appeal of Viðey is simply strolling fields scattered with wild caraway. Watch locals picking the seeds for use in their cooking, poke around the scant ruins of the monastery, and marvel at the dramatic basalt columns lining a tiny beach. The Imagine Peace Tower, designed by Yoko Ono, sends a giant beam of light soaring into the sky between October 9 (John Lennon’s birthday) and December 8 (anniversary of Lennon’s death).
At the eastern end of Viðey you’ll find the scattered remains of Sundbakki, a company town for the various incarnations of a fish processing business. The workers would lay out thousands of fish to dry in the wind, a method of preservation used widely in Iceland. The village died out in the 1950s when a fire in one of the dormitories coincided with the company’s bankruptcy. Today all that’s left is a lonely schoolhouse filled with faded photographs, concrete foundations, and scattered ship rotors buried in the tall grass.
Finding the ferry dock is trickier than it seems on the map. Catch bus #5 from the Hlemmur bus station and get off at the Skarfagarðar stop. Walk up Skarfagarðar to the ferry dock. (Roundtrip 1,000kr. Ferry schedules at www.videy.com. Daily ferries in summer, reduced hours on weekends in winter.)
Population – (2011) approximately 120,000
If you’re staying in the city center, you will probably not use the public bus system. The center is best navigated by foot with all major sites in easy walking distance. However, if you’re staying further out or wish to reach sites in the outer city, the bus system is a breeze to use. Most hostels sell day passes. You can also buy multi-day tickets at Hlemmur bus station from the attendant inside or at the major shopping malls. If you only need a single ride and are transferring buses, remember to ask for a skiptimiði (transfer) ticket. Pay your fare on the bus; exact change is required. To request a stop, push the red buttons affixed to the yellow poles facing the aisle. For a map of the bus lines, pick up a free Reykjavik City Map from the Tourist Centers scattered around town. (1 ride 350kr, 1 day pass 800kr, 3 day pass 2,000kr. Up-to-date fares, maps, and schedules at www.straeto.is )
Useful routes: Bus #15 goes to the BSÍ bus station and Reykjavik Domestic Airport. Bus #14 connects Laugardalur (Reykjavik City Hostel and geothermal pool) with Hlemmur bus station, central Reykjavik, and the BSÍ bus station.
The BSÍ bus station is your jumping off point for the rest of Iceland. All the major bus lines radiate out into Iceland and purchasing your ticket is a breeze. Just show up 15 minutes before your bus departs, purchase your ticket at the counter, and walk out to the bus. Remember to pick up the tiny booklet of bus timetables. Most buses run during high tourist season, June through mid-September. Only a few bus services continue the rest of the year, including bus routes in Southwest Iceland, to Akureyri, and out to the ferry for the Westman Islands.
To reach Keflavík International Airport, several airport shuttles run almost hourly, many with pick-ups throughout the city. Check the BSÍ website for details and current prices.
ADVICE FOR FIBROMITES
Reykjavík is easy on the fibromite. The city center is relatively flat and comfortable to walk, with most major sites and cafes in a 15 minute walking radius. Wear comfortable walking shoes with good ankle and arch support. If your feet begin to ache from walking, just duck into the plethora of cafes lining the streets for a break. To soothe your aches and pains, grab your swimsuit and check into the nearest public geothermal pool for a refreshing and restorative soak in the warm and hot waters. I indulged in a hot soak almost every day and left Iceland with my muscles and joints the least painful they have felt in years.
If you need to carefully monitor your diet, try to arrange lodging that provides you access to a kitchen. A number of small family-run guesthouses, as well as hostels with private rooms among their dorms, are good options. Cooking for yourself gives you more control over your health. Plenty of healthy foods abound in grocery stores, including a sweet rye bread called rugbrauð. Most Icelandic restaurants offer healthy choices, including lean seafood and hearty grass-fed lamb.
When researching lodging, do not assume there is an elevator. Be prepared to lug your luggage up stairs, ask for a first floor room or look for a place with an elevator. It’s important to clarify which floor you are on – in Europe, the ground floor is the first floor and the first floor is actually up one flight of stairs.
If you are hostelling, always ask if they have real beds or bunk beds. I found that I often slept better in a real bed. If bunk beds are unavoidable, try to snag a bottom bunk. If all this talk of hostelling sounds exhausting, then you probably should allow yourself to spend a little more money and find a more comfortable hotel.
To pace yourself (especially important with fibro), relax the way the locals do and make your rest a part of the experience. Find a bench along Tjörnin to soak up the sun and people-watch – just look out for dive-bombing arctic terns! Relax in a café or two. Indulge in the geothermal-heated waters of the local sundlaug.
TO BE CONTINUED
Reykjavík slowly seduced me with her fresh sea air, amazing mountain vistas, and pulsing energy. The coffee is strong, the people endlessly creative, pouring out their souls in public art and music, and the central city retains the salty character of a fishing town. This is a city that lives, an old comfortable sweater that just gets better the longer you wear it. I know I will return, to stand at Tjörnin Lake and gaze up at the Northern Lights, to lounge in her cafes, and to seek out the always evolving music scene that continues to break boundaries. One of the most likable European capitals I have ever had the privilege to walk the streets of.