More than half the people in Iceland believe in elves and it’s not hard to understand why. The Icelandic landscape practically lends itself to supernatural belief with its vast volcanic plains and tall mountains that appear to harbor something more mystical. In many ways, Iceland is a lot like Hawaii where I grew up. Both volcanic islands of fire and ice (Hawaii has some ice), they each host unique landscapes, a menu of mythologies, incredibly friendly people and unique cuisine. I quickly felt the familiarity of home.
There’s magic here, power in the terrain so menacing yet serene at the same time. Jagged rocks stretch into the distance, harsh if not for the soft layer of green forming above, adding color to the cold mist that always seems to linger about. Sheep and diminutive Icelandic horses roam the lands with no natural predators, save for the occasional polar bear that sneaks in from Greenland when things freeze over.
Iceland is not a big country, and its premier city, Reykjavík, can certainly be explored in a few days. But the more one uncovers here, the more the land seems to give, and it appears Iceland is a country that can’t really be thoroughly understood in just a quick visit (the language alone is daunting), however small the country may appear.
I spent about five days in Reykjavík. The following is a recollection of where I’ve been, serving as highlights (in the order in which I experienced them) for you should you find yourself in Iceland on your own whirlwind adventure.
THE BLUE LAGOON
Naturally, my first stop after arriving at Keflavík International Airport was the Blue Lagoon. One of the country’s top tourist attractions, it’s conveniently located between Keflavík and Reykjavík, making it a good stop to and/or from the airport. And while there are numerous thermal pools that are cheaper and more frequented by locals, visiting the Blue Lagoon at least once is a worthwhile experience for the newcomer.
I booked a ticket with Reykjavík Excursions’ Flybus, which provides transportation from Keflavík to the Blue Lagoon, admission to the attraction and, afterwards, transportation from the Blue Lagoon to Reykjavík. Luggage can be stored for a nominal fee at the Lagoon, and towels, flip flops, and even bathing suits can be rented. Access to lockers and payment for the poolside bar are administered via a waterproof wristband, so you can keep all your valuables safely locked in the locker rooms while you relax.
Arriving on a particularly rainy and otherwise miserable day, I thought I had picked a bad time to visit the Blue Lagoon. I was far from wrong, as the cold chill and even the rain created an ambient mist that drifted above the smoky blue water. Even the hail that came down briefly was of no consequence. (“Magical,” again, that adjective so handy and overused when thinking of this place.) There were all types of people here from Europe, Asia and the Americas floating about with complimentary white mud masks splattered on their faces, Gull beer or some algae drink in hand.
After showering and retrieving my things, I took the hourly bus into Reykjavík and arrived at my rented apartment on Laugavegur, the main drag in downtown Reykjavík. Most of the city’s top shops, bars and restaurants can be found on or not too far from this street. While filled with tourists, locals hang here too (imagine the evolving scene, for better or worse, for them). Tired from traveling and somewhat disoriented from soaking all day, I took the first night easy and headed to one of Reykjavík’s top bars for a local beer.
I did not know it then, but Kaldi Bar would become my home away from apartment for the next five days. The bar had come highly recommended online, so I expected a busy and packed house. What I found instead was an incredibly cozy and down-to-earth locale with wonderful decor, a nice selection of Icelandic beers (on draft and in bottles), and a full bar with local spirits. I was fortunate enough to enter on a slow night, giving me the opportunity to meet the bar’s owner, Georg (a cool guy and a great photographer) and a pretty blonde bartender who taught me my first Icelandic word: takk (“thanks”). Alongside Kaldi beer, I also tried some Icelandic spirits: an aquavit called Brennivín and a schnapps flavored like the candy Opal, the latter commonly taken after eating hákarl (the fermented shark that Anthony Bourdain so famously described as “the single worst, most disgusting and terrible tasting thing” he’s ever had). Needless to say, I came here every day I spent in Iceland.
Kaldi doesn’t serve food, so you may want to head over to Vegamot nearby for some quality cuisine. I had dinner here with the lovely Inga of Tiny Iceland (obviously she chose the spot) and really enjoyed it. For something more Icelandic later in the night, head to Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur for a hot dog (this is Iceland’s most popular and most affordable food item). The stand near the waterfront has been in operation since 1937, touting itself as “the best hot dogs in town” as per its name. Former patrons include Bill Clinton, Anthony Bourdain, James Hetfield of Metallica and Charlie Sheen. Get it eina með öllu (with everything) and your dog will come complemented with fried onions, remoulade and a brown… sauce… thing. Probably best not to ask.
Every city has its chief landmark, and, in this regard, Hallgrímskirkja is Reykjavík’s number one site. From across the city, one can spot the towering Lutheran church, making it both the best vantage point to see the city from up high as well as a point of reference for when you’re horribly, horribly lost. Drop a few (hundred) krónur for an elevator ride to the top where you’ll get panoramic views of the entire city. While the price may seem steep (no pun intended), I felt it was worth it to get my bearings of the city calibrated.
When you’re done, head over to Café Loki across the street for one of their several Icelandic plates, each a sampling of local delicacies. I had the sampler with salmon on rye, dried trout, lamb, a fish mash thing and the infamous hákarl (a little over $20… ouch, yes, but this is Iceland). I finished it with a crepe filled with Skyr, a sweet similar-to-yogurt product, and caramel. Did I like the fermented shark? No. Not at all. But I found myself buying a container of it at Inspired by Iceland in the airport before leaving. And, yes, I got it into the States and made my friends try it. Muhahaha.
THE NATIONAL MUSEUM OF ICELAND
It’s not enough to visit a place, meet the people, and sample its food and nightlife; a responsible visitor ought to seek an education on the local history of a destination. For this, there’s no better place in Reykjavík than the National Museum of Iceland (Þjóðminjasafn Íslands). Exploring the country’s history from its establishment to the 20th Century, the National Museum utilizes both artifacts and multimedia exhibits to show what life was like in Iceland throughout the ages with its permanent exhibit, Making of a Nation – Heritage and History in Iceland. I found the modern relics most profound, notably the collection of household goods. The temporary exhibit during the time of my visit was a spectacular showcase of Icelandic silverwork. The museum can be explored thoroughly in 2-3 hours, depending on your absorption speed. There’s also a gift shop and a cafe attached. (I love museum gift shops, even if I can’t always afford them.)
HARPA CONCERT HALL
After the National Museum of Iceland, I rushed over to the Harpa Concert Hall for their behind-the-scenes tour (held only once daily during the winter months, so check their schedule). The architecture award-winning building is both a tribute to Iceland’s economic and cultural revival. Planned for construction just before the country’s 2008 economic collapse, it originally also included the building of a series of other modern structures that would’ve transformed the city’s waterfront. The concert hall itself was eventually completed, thankfully, featuring numerous auditoriums, conference halls, meeting rooms and a lobby that allows sunlight to slip through its many windows and illuminate the glass bird sculptures overhead. Elsa, our excellent guide, demonstrated the amazing acoustics of the main concert hall with an operatic performance of her own. Be sure to also visit Harpa at night, when LED lights illuminate the structure into a vibrant light show.
THE NORTHERN LIGHTS
When is the best time to see the Aurora Borealis in Iceland? From what I’ve read, you can see them starting from late August to early March, though the deeper you are into the winter season, the better your chances become. As my trip was in September, I had to at least attempt to see this marvelous phenomenon. I booked once again with Reykjavík Excursions for transportation that would take us deep into the cold, dark night for a chance at sampling one of nature’s greatest glories. Clouds prevented us from seeing anything during the first night (and I froze quite a bit), but, per RE’s policy, I was able to go back out with them as many times as I wished until I saw the Lights. I dedicated myself to a second attempt the next night (this time with more layers and even two socks on each foot), and we actually managed to see the Aurora, albeit faintly. Whew! (Tip: They recommend a 25-to-30-second exposure with 800 ISO and as low an aperture setting as you can get. Of course, this means you ought to have a tripod. As I didn’t have one, I quickly scouted each night for rocks and trees I could attach my camera to…)
THE GOLDEN CIRCLE
I’ve apparently saved the best for last, as the Golden Circle is typically cited as Iceland’s number one attraction. Ideally, you’d circle the island on your own, renting a car and taking all the time in the world to pitch a tent in various places and getting lost in the sublime landscape. But if you’re short on time like I was, it’s far easier to book a tour with Gray Line Iceland Excursions to see some of the highlights of the Iceland frontier with their nine-hour adventure. The guided tour takes you to Þingvellir National Park (a UNESCO World Heritage Site), past the tectonic plates separating Europe and North America, the Gullfoss waterfall, the Geysir and Strokkur hot springs, Skálholt medieval church, and the Nesjavellir Geothermal Power Station (where you can get a tour for an additional fee). You’ll also see some sights in passing from Game of Thrones and The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. Beware of spoilers of the former.
There are so many sights and attractions in Iceland worth visiting that this short list doesn’t even come close to a respectable itinerary, so start with these suggestions and expand the list on your own. Available for addition are Reykjavík City Hall, numerous art galleries, the city’s thermal pools, craft beer joints and unique spots like Lebowski Bar (yes, a Big Lebowski-themed bar), and much more within Reykjavík alone. Add to this the vast Icelandic countryside and you may find yourself sticking around for longer than you anticipated.