Thursday, February 19, 2009

22 Reykjavik, Iceland

It was approaching 8:30am on a mid-February morning as we pulled into the city of our latest travel adventure. It was as pitch black as the dead of night and the streets possessed an uncanny solitude. We were unsure if this could be attributed to a different lifestyle, a sort of sleepy metropolitanism, or simply the fact that it was a Saturday. After a few days in Iceland we realized that it was unquestionably the former.Reykjavik is a truly charming city. The center of town is filled with little shops and cafes, and there are no skyscrapers in sight. We spent our time visiting museums like the Reykjavik 871 +/-2 exhibit built on the ruins of an old settlement, and the National Gallery where we learned an impressive amount about Dieter Roth, who was actually Swiss-German, but after moving to Iceland in his late 20s grew to become seemingly the nation's most celebrated artist. Our favorite was the National Museum of Iceland. The halls of the museum are expansive and present the country's history in a very modern format with a great collection of artifacts, multimedia displays, and hands-on activities like dressing up in historical outfits. Make sure to put aside several hours for this one!

We also had fun visiting the huge 3D map of Iceland located in City Hall and Hallgrimur's Church with its statue of Leif Ericson outside. On the weekends there is also an indoor flea market by the harbor where we found Icelandic board games, 80s tshirts, and other fun items. Right outside is the most popular hot dog stand in the city--always a line! Be sure to ask for one "with everything" - onions, remoulade, ketchup, and what they call mustard. The fixings were a bit sweet for our tastes, but definitely worth a try.

Reykjavik has a surprisingly wide variety of restaurants, including the northernmost Indian restaurant in the world. We enjoyed sandwiches at Geysir, pizza at Eldsmidjan (where you can get snails as a topping!) and pastries and coffee at Sanholdt Bakery. Our favorite spot of all was Cafe Paris overlooking the town square. This restaurant is super cozy and offers a great combo of European dishes and traditional Icelandic fare. They also make a killer hot chocolate.

The city awakes from its slumberous state every Friday and Saturday night for what the locals call the runtur. The 20-somethings of Reykjavik hop between the bars and discos of the city from 12am to 6am for this weekly event. Our favorite stop was a bar located on Klapparstigur. It was so hip it didn't need a name--just a sign with a very serious man in a bowler hat. Though we did not put in the requisite six hours of revelry, we had enough Gulls to make the chilly 15 minute walk back to our hotel a little more palatable.

The really striking thing about Iceland is the setting--snow covered peaks and ice capped water guard the city of Reykjavik. Once you venture a few miles outside of the city you almost immediately enter an unaffected landscape of rolling hills speckled with rivers, lakes, and the occasional church steeple surrounded by a cluster of houses. It is hard to imagine that the Iceland we discovered for the first time was that much different than the one its settlers saw a thousand years before.
A popular day trip from Reykjavik is the Golden Circle tour. It's easy to join a group on bus through one of two rival companies: Reykjavik Excursions or Iceland Excursions, but it's much less expensive and more fun to rent a car and do it yourself. First stop is Thingvellir, where Iceland's first parliament was located. The backdrop for this landmark is an amazingly picturesque rift valley where the North American and European tectonic plates meet (for all you geography geeks like Patrick!)

The next stop is the original Geysir--that's right, the geysir from which all geysirs got their name! Unfortunately the original is no longer active, but it is still filled with steaming water and right next door is the very active Strokkur geysir. We watched maybe five or six blows that shot water 30 feet high and it never got old.

The final Golden Circle site is Gullfoss, the largest waterfall in Europe. The beauty of the falls were seemingly enhanced by the frigid landscape of frozen ice and snow surrounding the cascading water. It was also frigidly cold at Gullfoss and starting to rain, so we took some pictures and scooted out of there!

Another one of Iceland's natural wonders is the Blue Lagoon. Here we bathed in eerily blue geothermal waters that are part of a lava formation. The weather was crazy when we went: cold, drizzling, and very windy, which made swimming in the steamy lagoon that much more dramatic. The water is reputed to be very good for your skin, but it also made Katrina's hair distinctly hard and sticky for about a day. The Blue Lagoon is quite close to the international airport and it is very easy to arrange for this as a two hour stop on your way out of the country through one of the bus companies previously mentioned. Plus if you buy your entrance ticket from the bus company it is considerably discounted.
We were very excited that our visit to Iceland coincided with the annual Winter Lights Festival. We had read that this annual celebration of the return of longer daylight hours would be filled with performances, museum events and more. Unfortunately, the festivities turned out to be rather absent. We hiked to a beach where evening ocean swimming had been scheduled, but no swimmers showed. Disappointed, we made our way to the skating rink for the advertised performance of the Ice Skating Club of Reykjavik only to find that it was essentially a kids' recital. Not only were we the only tourists in attendance, but we were definitely the only people not related to one of the young skaters. So word to the wise, no need to plan your trip around the Winter Lights Festival.

Our home base in Iceland was Hotel Cabin. This very clean, comfortable hotel is about a 15-minute walk from downtown. The staff is very helpful (though not very cheery) and they not only let us check in at 8:30am on our day of arrival, they even upgraded us to a larger room for free because their standards were occupied. There is also a free basic breakfast buffet in the mornings. We've never been so comfortable for $25 a night! In closing we would like to give a shout out to the Sheffield High class of 2010. Breakfast just isn't the same with out these quirky, teenage Brits.


  1. Makes me want to go too! I just got back from Shanghai, and am wondering if I should go to Cairo next.

    Just linked your blog on mine, I hope that's okay.

  2. Hi..
    Nice blog..
    ☆ Martinha ☆

  3. Hi...
    I am leaving on Friday for a trip to Norway and Iceland and am grateful for your ideas and insights on what to do and see in and around Reykjavik. It looks like it is going to be a great trip. Thanks.

  4. I am getting geared up to go to Iceland in 3 weeks! Iceland is the start of my journey. Iceland>Germany> France> Thailand> Christchurch, NZ. I can not wait to experience Iceland in October. I think it is going to be ungodly cold but I am hoping to have clear skies to get a chance to see the northern lights:) Thank you for your suggestions on here! I will be making a blog soon hope to have contact with you in the future!

  5. Iceland in October should be gorgeous! We just got done visiting Christchurch and found it coincidentally very, very similar to Reykjavik.

  6. I'm so glad to wander to your blog about Iceland in February. A friend and I are leaving in four weeks for a visit at my insistence, I'd been starting to wonder if I had made a mistake... Thanks!

  7. Enjoyed you blog. I visited Iceland in June '08 and loved it. Loved the whole Golden Circle bit - definitely best to do by car. We also ventured into the interior and drove up to Blonduus and on to Akuyeri. We then fley out to the litle island of Grimsey for 21st June -watching the sun set and rise immediately was absolutely spectacular. Husavik is another lovely spot too. We found the people very friendly. Reading aabout your travels gives me itchy feet in cold, snowy Ireland! Thanks.

  8. hi,
    i'm actually going to Iceland in Feb was just wondering how was the weather when you were there?
    i'm assuming you rented a car and drove how was that?
    i really want to go see the northern lights did you get a chance to see it?
    thanks a lot!

  9. Weather in February was cold but not too bad, in the 30s--warmer than February in Boston! Renting a car was great and the roads for the Golden Circle tour are easy to navigate. Unfortunately we didn't get to see the northern lights. I think it's the wrong season for that.

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  12. Yes must admit iceland is out of this world Amazing night live, stunning highlands, wonderful food throught especially @ Indian Mango

    Would love to go back to iceland...

  13. BREATHTAKING...I don't know anymore which pics I love the most in this post he he he...too many wonderful ones!!!

    I also can't imagine how one can walk in high heels when the surface is that slippery. Oh dear...
    golden circle travel

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