That’s what I keep saying about this trip. Iceland is beyond spectacular. Beyond breathtaking. Beyond awe inspiring.
Every vista of Mt. Esja glimpsed from Laugavegur, Reykjavík’s main shopping street. The Sunday morning we wandered into Hallgrimskirkja, the church on the hill, and were about to leave when we heard the organist start to play. The incredible art and design of the Icelanders, showcased in places like The Culture House and Reykjavík’s Art Museum. Running at Burfell volcano, just outside the city, where I took the picture below.
That beauty comes at a price, more or less. The extreme landscape was carved by intense forces of nature. The Gulf Stream, which propels clouds east across the land and creates incredibly mercurial weather patterns, also makes the island livable when by all rights it shouldn’t be. Reykjavík is in fact the most northerly capital in the world. An afternoon stroll could easily begin with hail, feature a snow storm for three blocks, then sun for a just a few moments before it starts to hail again. If you don’t like the weather – wait 30 seconds.
To that end, I was glad I’d read The Blue Fox before visiting. In lyric prose, Sjón highlights the imminence of nature over mankind. I appreciate this book so much more after having been to Iceland and seen firsthand the interweaving of religion and daily life, the importance of ritual and letter writing, and the absolute brutality of nature. You can read more of what I thought of the novel here.
In contrast to the tiny outpost described in the novel’s 1883 setting, modern Reykjavík is almost painfully trendy. Hipsters abound, looking like they all bought their clothes at the same store. And how do you spot a tourist in Reykjavík? Brown shoes. (Okay, there are lots of other ways too, but this little detail made me feel especially conspicuous).
The six days spent there was just enough time to experience the city. But only just. There are plenty of things we didn’t get to do because it was winter or because we ran out of time. That’s not even to mention all the wonderful things that lay just outside the city. Iceland has outdoor excursions to suit every hobby – from horseback riding to snorkling, rafting to sightseeing by helicopter – so you could legitimately spend your entire trip shuttling from one extreme adventure to the next. While that would be pretty cool, you wouldn’t get much of a sense of how Icelanders actually live.
I recommend limiting your time to just one or two of these adventure excursions and spending the rest of a first trip to Iceland exploring Reykjavík. The must dos:
- A walking tour.
- Eat at Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur, a chain of hotdog stands started by the current owner’s grandfather.
- A day of museum exploring with the Reykjavik city pass. Unwind as the Icelanders do at your local thermal pool (Laugardalslaug is the largest, and will give you a chance to use public transportation as well, as it is easily accessible on bus route 14).
- Visit the old harbor, where you can find may restaurants offering the catch of the day.
- Take in the vista from Hallgrimskirkja, followed by a jaunt through the breathtaking Einar Jónsson Sculpture Garden. The nearby Cafe Loki is a great place to try the (in)famous fermented shark.
- If you’re in town on a weekend, try to match the revelry of the Icelanders at one of the many bars on Laugavegur.
On a very short trip, I would actually recommend skipping the Blue Lagoon and Golden Circle tours. There’s plenty of good substitutes in and around Reykjavik. But you must leave the city to attempt to see the Northern Lights (you can check availability here). I’ve heard the Jeep tours are great because they can get places that buses simply can’t go, a must when you’re hunting the aurora.
Just go to Iceland.