Thursday, July 10, 2014

60 hours in Reykjavik, Iceland

I’ve decided that I’m going to do two different kinds of blog posts – some that are more of my thoughts and the details about Katy Cashman (like this one from the other day), and some that are descriptions of what I did and what I would suggest to other travelers, city by city. If there are every any more things you might be interested in me writing about or questions about my traveling and planning that you have, reader – let me know! I’d love to participate in as much of a conversation as I can here!

So, with that being said, here is my description of Iceland, which I visited July 8-10th 2014.

How Long? I was in Iceland for 2.5 full days, arriving early in the morning on Tuesday and leaving around 4:30 on Thursday.

Overall Impressions: Iceland was great! I originally bought a ticket through Icelandair which had 10 hour layover in Reykjavik, and I thought I’d be able to pop in and see the city. Then I learned that in order to encourage tourism, Icelandair allows you to extend your layover in Iceland for no extra cost! I’m so glad I was able to get out and see more of this country.

See more at the end about what I wish I’d known and done differently, but I hope I go back someday – with warmer clothes and a slightly more grand adventure plan.

It’s easy to be a tourist here: everyone speaks English, transport and the capital city are easy to manage and the natural beauty of the island is simply staggering – even as you are dropping down below the clouds on the airplane you can tell the place is otherworldly. Just the stuff great sagas featuring trolls, Vikings and family legacies which date back 1,000 years are made of.

What I did: I gave myself a full day to wander the city of Reykjavik, which I easily accomplished, even jetlagged and exhausted. I actually ended up going back and forth across the city a few times, just to fill time. There are great places to walk along the harbor and a few hills in the city, but I found it very straightforward and easy to navigate, besides the ridiculous street names in Icelandic, which I couldn’t even begin to try to understand. 

Street signs of Reykjavik
In the saga museum
I visited two museums in Reykjavik. The Reykjavik 871 +/-2 Museum was a well-executed mix of technology and archeology, small but engrossing. Underground and surrounding an excavated long house from the original farmstead where the city now stands (reputed to be the home of the first man to make a permanent home on the island), there are a lot of archeological details and historical information about the earliest settlers here. The Saga Museum sounded totally hokey to me, but I ended up going in and boy, was I wrong. It’s like Madame Tussauds, but the wax figures tell the stories of the ancient sagas of the land. You get a headset and the stories are told to you with the sounds of early life – from sheep braying, to blacksmiths hammers, to blood-curdling screams. Yes, I’m an oral history nut, and this was a really great way to tell the stories.I also saw the Icelandic Phallological Society Museum (yes – that is what it sounds like it is) but didn’t bother.

The second day I took a Golden Circle tour – the day-trip from Reykjavik from which you can explore the top three tourist locations in the southwestern corner of the island. I toured with Iceland Excursions, a well-oiled machine from which one can do everything in the country: get from the airport to the city/Blue Lagoon and back, take many kinds of day trips and even some longer excursions. I did the full day “Classic” Golden Circle tour and probably could have been fine with a half day. Both tours stop at the three major sites: Gulfloss, Thingvellir National Park and Geysir. The full day tour also stopped at a church where the old religious center of Iceland has stood since the adoption of Christianity (but now there’s not much there but a big Lutheran church) and a geothermal power plant. The power plant included a tour, the cost of which was not in the day trip and geology isn’t the most interesting to me, so I passed. From what I can tell, all half day tours still visit the three important sites, without the stuff I didn’t end up loving as much.

Of the three, I found the National Park the most interesting. This is the place the original settlers of Iceland decided to create the first ever democratic state in the world, where the chieftains of all the regions across the country would meet for two weeks each summer and the law reader would recite the laws of the land, a judicial group would decide the outcome of disputes and people would trade and intermingle. This is also the place where two continental plates meet and you get the chance to walk through the gorge between the two, opening by a few centimeters each year. Gulfloss is a spectacular waterfall and Geysir is a thermal pool (the original geyser, actually) which I hate to admit failed to impress after living in Yellowstone National Park (sorry, Iceland.)

Thingvellir National Park, Iceland

The Blue Lagoon
On the final day I went to the Blue Lagoon before the airport. If you are just swinging through Iceland and have more then 4-5 hours for a layover, you can absolutely make it here, and they make it very easy, with luggage storage and towel rental, etc. The spa is amazing and though I only spent an hour and a half here, I can easily see a whole day being passed, drinking beer in the milky-blue water, getting a massage and eating a good meal. For the cost of admission, you get a locker, access to the pools and exfoliating mud facials to put on as you dip around. The day I was there it was in the upper 40s, cloudy and lightly raining, and beyond the lava rocks covered in moss everywhere and the power plant steaming behind you, it’s totally bizarre to be swimming in hot-tub warm water surrounded by lifeguards in parkas!

Where I stayed: I typically use to determine where I stay because of the easy information they display and the up-to-date rating system they employ. In Reykjavik I stayed at Hlemmur Square in a 12-bed dorm which was one of the more comfortable in recent memory. Very nice facilities and though they have a lot of rooms, there is more than one kitchen and lounge for guest use, a bar and TV room downstairs, personal storage in each room and the shades in the bedrooms are dark enough that all nighttime sunshine does not keep you awake.

What I ate: Now, I’m not a foodie and I don’t exactly seek out amazing cuisine, but I do have an insanely sensitive stomach. I figure I’ll throw out anything I ate that is worth noting.

I had a breakfast at a little restaurant called the Laundromat in the City Center and really enjoyed the vibe, as well as the food (can’t go wrong with eggs, toast and a glass of orange juice). Nothing else I ate was worth mentioning in incredibly unique other than a great lamb stew, apparently a traditional dish. My impression was whatever you want in Reykjavik – burgers, fish, pizza, Vietnamese, Viking fare – you’ll find it in at least one or more places. You can also eat shark, whale and horse, but none of those sounded interesting to me in the least.

Total Costs: Iceland is EXPENSIVE, and you always feel like you’re paying an arm and a leg because 1,000 króna are equal to just under 10 USD. I anticipated this would be one of the most expensive parts of my trip, and I sure hope it was – I’ll be broke a lot sooner than I thought if I need to pay this much everywhere!!

Meals were at least $10 (even for something simple like cereal for breakfast) and could get much higher. Coffee was always $3-4. Beer was around $5 at happy hour and $8-10 normally.

Lodging was about $45 a night (very high for a dorm room in a hostel!)

Museums were at least $10 as well.
At Gulfloss, on the Golden Circle Tour
What I wish I known: I just so wish Iceland had not been a last-minute extension of a layover, but at the same time, if/when I come back I want to do it right, which would include an entirely different kind of trip for me. I was cold nearly every time I went outside (I have a fleece and a rain coat, but no long underwear or sweaters since I am mostly in the Mediterranean during this trip) and though Reykjavik is cool and the Gold Circle tour interesting, this is so clearly a playground for outdoors adventure traveling, I was itching to get out and do some biking, hiking, horseback riding… something!

Next time I’ll be only coming here, or maybe continuing on to more cool-weather adventuring in the Nordic countries, and I’ll book a horseback riding tour for a few days, or plan a backpacking trip into the countryside. Hanging in Reykjavik and visiting such well-known tourist traps was just not enough. I say, if you are coming here, really come here and experience these amazing landscapes and outdoors opportunities.
It's no Old Faithful, but a geyser is still a geyser!

1 comment:

  1. fascinating; happy trip, nice to travel vicariously with you, love e