It’s not the largest European capital, but Reykjavík is to my mind one of the most interesting. Within hailing distance of the Arctic Circle, it can have some of the worst weather imaginable. Yet it is relatively small (about 131,000 souls) and is walkable—if it’s not too windy and wet. You can feed the sea birds by the Tjörn, the municipal pond, but they could just as easily attack you for the goodies you are doling out. The people are friendly, but it seems everyone in town gets shitfaced drunk on the weekend.
There is an air of mystery about the city, which is one reason why the mysteries of Arnaldur Indriðason and Yrsa Sigurdardottir, among others, are so popular.
I have been to Iceland twice, once in 2001 and once in 2013. Both times I fell in love with the city and wished I could stay longer. My first day in 2013 was my favorite. It was near the summer solstice, when it does not get dark until the middle of the night, and then only for a short while. Even after my long flight, I fought jet lag by forcing me to stay up until 7:00 AM Los Angeles time. I even took an evening ghost tour through the local cemetery with the sun still up past 10:00 PM Iceland time.
As I walked the streets of the city, I noticed that many of the buildings had walls of thick corrugated steel, frequently brightly colored. The stucco and chicken wire constructions that protect L.A. from earthquake damage would be blown to bits by the Arctic storms. I ran into one in Myvátn where the rain was blown horizontally through every micro-opening in my parka. And all I was trying to do was to get to the grocery store across the street.
I don’t know if I will ever get to Reykjavík again in this life, but in a way it has never left my dreams. As Edward Gorey once said: “I have fantasies of going to Iceland, never to return.”
I’ve been to Iceland twice—in 2001 and 2013—and I hope to go again. People don’t have any concept of what the country is like. One hears the old chestnut that “Iceland should be called Greenland and vice versa.” With global warming, I suspect that both countries will in future be free of most ice. Below are a few highlights if you are thinking of visiting my favorite country in Europe:
Fish is always the cheapest and most interesting thing on the menu, and you’re never far from the ship that brought it to port.
If You Don’t Like Fish, don’t worry. Icelanders eat tons of hamburgers, hot dogs (which they call pylsur), and pizza.
The Interior of the Country is a picturesque and mostly uninhabited wasteland.
Icelandic Sagas from the 12-13th centuries A.D. are the best things to read, followed by the novels of 1955 Nobel prizewinner Halldor Laxness.
Islands off the coast of Iceland make great destinations, particularly Heimaey and Flatey. The first had a famous volcanic eruption in the 1970s, and the second was the site of a medieval monastery.
English is the Second Language of most Icelanders under the age of 70, so communication is no problem.
Iceland Is Expensive, particularly if you want to rent a car. Not to worry, there’s good long distance buses.
Waterfalls and Rainbows are everywhere, making it the most scenic country in Europe—if it can be said to be part of Europe.
Volcanoes are all over the place, and many of them are active. Don’t be surprised if you see one erupting during your trip.
Reykjavík contains half the population of Iceland, yet it’s small and quite walkable (if the weather isn’t foul).
The Westfjords are a bit out of the way, but shouldn’t be missed. Great hiking and incredible coastline views.
Northern Lights can be seen in the winter, but you can’t be 100% sure of a sighting.
Although there has been talk about building a railroad connecting the international airport at Keflavík with the capital at Reykjavík, no one has laid any rails yet. The funny thing is that there have been Icelandic/English phrasebooks with entire sections on how to catch a train in Iceland. Too bad that there has never been a railroad with passenger service in the island nation.
The locomotive in the photo above was used to help load and unload ships in the Old Harbor area of Reykjavík. It rests on some narrow-gauge rails not exceeding some twenty feet in length.
If you want to get around Iceland, you just may have to take the bus.
The Guesthouse Óðinn in Reykjavík—At Midnight Around the Summer Solstice
The first time I visited Iceland, in 2001, I went in June. In 2013, I went again—this time in June so that I could see “The Land of the Midnight Sun” for myself. My first day back in Reykjavík, I deliberately stayed up late. I believe it turned out to be a 32-hour day, as the whole country is on Greenwich Mean Time (GMT). It turned out to be a day and evening crowded with sights:
I took a harbor tour to see the puffins
Twice, I stopped in at Bæjarins Bestu for their famous pylsur (that’s hot dogs in Icelandic)
I discovered pear-flavored skyr (like yogurt) at a market on Austurvöllur
I had a delicious and leisurely fish dinner at the Fish Company on Vesturgata
As a lover of Icelandic Sagas, I visited the Culture House on Hverfisgata to see the original manuscripts
I toured the Settlement Exhibition, which is an archeological dig of one of the first settlements in the city dated around AD 871
Finally, I took a ghost walking tour of Reykjavík, including the cemetery on Suðurgata
After the walking tour, I was good and tired, but I knew that I didn’t want to hit the sack until after midnight local time to minimize the jet lag. (That actually worked.) Secondly, I wanted to see when it started to get dark. I wasn’t about to stay up until 3 am local time, but I did snap a picture of my bed & breakfast right around midnight. Fortunately, the guesthouse had good blackout curtains, so I was able to drift off within minutes of hitting the pillow.
It isn’t long after you leave the airport at Keflavík that you see with your own eyes that Iceland is like nowhere else on earth. You are now in Volcanoland, on an island where there is an almost total lack of trees. There is an old joke: What do you do when you’re lost in an Icelandic forest? The answer: Stand up. Nowhere in Iceland are there trees in any number that tower above the human form. There are black sand beaches, steam venting from fumaroles visible between Keflavík and Reykjavík, hotel showers that smell of sulphur, strange ice floes tinged with a light blue shade, seemingly hundreds of waterfalls, numerous active volcanoes—and that is only the beginning.
I have been to Iceland twice, in 2001 and 2013. And I want to go again. It’s not exactly a budget destination. Yet the country is teeming with European tourists, mostly of the backpacker persuasion.
Duck-Shaped Ice Floe in the Lagoon at Jökulsárlón
On both of my trips, I visited Jökulsárlón, the lagoon full of blue-tinged ice floes from the giant Vatnajökull Glacier that is the largest in Europe. I took an amphibious boat tour of the lagoon and even tasted the ancient ice from the glacier. The lagoon is so striking that all scheduled buses passing it stop over for around an hour so that the tourists can get their fill of the sights.
Strange Rock Formations at Dimmuborgir by Lake Mývatn
The strange rock formations at Dimmuborgir by the southeast shore of Lake Mývatn are said to be the homes of elves who suddenly pop up through a hidden door and drag unsuspecting Icelanders to their subterranean halls.
Even in Reykjavík, there are strange unexplained things. To avoid jet lag, I took a ghost walk from the old harbor to the cemetery of Hólavallagarður. Although I slept well that night, I had the strangest dreams.
My Room on the Top Floor of the Guesthouse Óðinn at Midnight in June 2013
Now that we are fast approaching the darkest time of the year, my mind turns to my visit to Iceland in June 2013. In that Land of the Midnight Sun, I stayed out until midnight. When I returned to the Guesthouse Óðinn in Reykjavík around midnight, I snapped this picture. I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to sleep with all the light, but fortunately the guesthouse had good blackout curtains (which you can see on the upper left of the third floor in the above photo).
My first day in Reykjavík was a long one. My Icelandair flight from Toronto arrived early in the morning. I had to busy myself for eighteen straight hours before turning in. Otherwise, I would have awakened in the middle of the night—rarin’ to go. That way I managed to minimize the jet lag which otherwise would have bedeviled me. It was a good thing, too, because the next day I had an all day tour of the Golden Circle (Þingvellir, Gullfoss, Geyser, and the geothermal power plant at Hellisheiði on the return to Reykjavík.).
My first day in Iceland began with my arrival at Keflavík Airport around 6:30 am Greenwich Mean Time (GMT). (I should add that it is not Daylight Savings Time, which is notneeded when it’s light 24 hours a day.) In Los Angeles time, it was only 11:30 pm on the previous day. I knew that my sleep pattern would be massively disrupted if I tried to hit the sack at that point.
What I did was to go all over the place so I wouldn’t sleep until around 11 pm GMT. To that end, here is a partial listing of what I did on the first day:
In 2001, I never got a chance to visit the original saga manuscripts; so I took care of that right away by stopping in at The Culture House.
Then I walked over to the city’s famous hot dog stand: Bæjarins Beztu and got eina pylsur með öllu (what they call a hot dog with everything). Very tasty!
Then it was off to the old port to book a Sea Adventures puffin tour by boat to the Isle of Lundey (“Puffin Island”) in Faxafloi Bay.
I had some time to kill, so it was off to the Settlement Museum, also known as Reykjavík 871±2, where I saw the ruins of one of the original farmhouses from the 9th century A.D.
I hung around the Old Harbor waiting for the puffin tour, which I loved.
Next: Get a great fish dinner, using my Reykjavík Welcome card 10% discount at The Fish Company, where I dined on arctic char and other Icelandic fish delicacies. It was what my British friends would call “splashing out,” but it was worth every penny!
By the time the Haunted Walk ended around 10:30 pm, I was feeling a bit haunted myself; so I trudged back to the Guesthouse Odínn, ready to hit the sack.
I expected to have trouble dealing with the sun being up 24 hours on the longest day of the year, so I had purchased a sleep mask. All that did was make my head sweat, so I decided I would just deal with it. I laid it aside, never to pick it back up, and sank into a deep, dreamless sleep. I woke briefly around 3:00 am and saw the sun still up. Having warn myself out with all my running around, I had no trouble sinking back into sleep.
Now that I settled on a flight to/from Iceland, it’s time to get some room reservations. Iceland has a very short tourist season, running roughly from the middle of June to the end of August. Even before September, many tourist offices are closed down in preparation for the beginning of school. That’s right: Many tourist facilities are in school buildings scattered around the country. Many boarding schools become summer hotels, and then return to educational use come September.
When I arrive in Reykjavik, it will be just before the longest day of the year, during which there is no darkness to speak of. Unless the guesthouses where I stay have blackout curtains (and most of them don’t), I will have to wear eyeshades to allow me to sleep. And because of the runtur—the Icelandic equivalent of a spring weekend at a Mexican resort—and the boisterousness of hundreds of European teenagers showing they can drink like a man, I will also come equipped with earplugs. That will not be much of a problem outside the capital, however.
Greater Reykjavik is a small city by U.S. standards, about 120,000 people in a country whose total population is about 322,000. It is the world’s northernmost capital of a sovereign state. That sentence is worded thusly to eliminate Nuuk, which is the capital of the Danish colony of Greenland.
I had hoped to secure a room at the Baldursbra Guesthouse on Laufásvegur, where I stayed in 2001, but they were booked solid; so I took a chance on the Guesthouse Odinn, which is slightly nearer the center of things by Laugavegur (the main shopping street) and therefore probably more noisy. No matter. Being by myself, I am more able to put up with a variety of situations. I just hope it’s not a big party place, with young males screaming and projectile vomiting all over the place.