REYKJAVIK, ICELAND: My 62nd country to visit – Iceland is a country of the Vikings, where trolls and elves live in the mountains and where Norse Gods like Odin, his powerful sons Thor and Loki were once worshiped. This modern Nordic island, in the North Atlantic Ocean in between Europe and North America has dramatic landscapes and extreme geological contrasts. On one hand, Iceland has some of the largest glaciers in Europe and on the other, it has some of the most active volcanoes in the world. This is a land of “Fire and Ice”.
Iceland is the most sparsely populated country in Europe with a population of only 350k and most of them live in the capital, Reykjavik. The country is big on exporting fish. Over 80% of the houses and buildings are heated by geothermal energy.
Reykjavik, which means smokey or steamy bay, is the capital and the largest city of Iceland; also a focal point to start your journey in this island. Keflavik International Airport is a little less than an hour drive from the city center of Reykjavik. Flybus is a cheaper way to reach the capital. We took a taxi from the airport and paid about $130 USD one-way for 4 of us. Renting cars or camper vans are very popular here, especially if you are planning to explore the Ring Road.
Few things to keep in mind while traveling to Iceland: currency here is Icelandic kronas or ISK. U.S. citizens don’t need visas for a short stay. Visiting this island nation can get very expensive, a lot more than mainland European countries. Good thing is tipping is not a popular culture here, in restaurants or in excursions. I didn’t see anyone tipping anywhere. For public transportation, Straeto mobile app for public bus is pretty handy where you can pay ahead of time, look at the map, and schedule for each route.
TIME of TRAVEL: It was during my kids’ summer break (end of July to be specific) when we flew to Iceland. My sister flew in from the East Coast. We met and stayed together in Reyjkavik during our whole stay. We were in Iceland for 5 nights. Although we were prepared for rain and sun with waterproof jackets, hats, rain boots, and hoodies, it barely rained during our stay…nothing we couldn’t have handled with just a t-shirt. But it does get chilly and windy in some places. So, being prepared doesn’t hurt, especially if you are traveling with children like I was.
The sun used to set around midnight when we were there and it was out before 3am again. It didn’t get completely dark outside even with those couple hours without the sun. To see the complete midnight sun, June is the best time to visit Iceland. It only lasts for 2-3 weeks around that time. Summer is definitely the best time to explore since chances are that all of the sites will be easily accessible. It was a bit cloudy, gloomy, and drizzled a few times those few days. But I can imagine winter in Iceland would be very magical with snow covered mountains and landscapes.
EATING and SHOPPING: Since Iceland is very expensive when it comes to…well, everything, my sister and I brought package food with us, like pre packaged udon soup from Costco, Ramen/cup noodles, tuna cans, and some snacks. We also made a trip to a 24/7 small grocery on Laugevaur to buy basic things like eggs, bread, oil, mayonnaise, fruits, and etc for breakfast where I paid around $60 for just a handful of few stuff. We still ate out for a few meals and the cost for some of those plates were A LOT. But when you are in Iceland, you have to try their lamb and seafood. There are lots of American chain fast food restaurants also, like Subway, Taco Bell, KFC and etc. Even the 6 inch Subway sandwich we had for one meal, I paid about $12.
Laugevaur Street is packed with a variety of restaurants. Our first lunch was at Shanghai, a small Chinese on Laugavegur strip. Do stop at Sandholt for coffee and pastries. I loved its contemporary looking interior and lots of desserts options. Another awesome place to dine in Reykjavik is Icelandic Street Food on Laugevaur street…while I wasn’t a big fan of their “Volcanic Soup”…a smokey tomato based soup, the pan-fried cod was perfect.
For one of the lunches, we came to Messinn’s…few minutes walk from the Trjonin Lake. Saltfish mousse with rye bread for appetizer is something I’ve never tried before and was tasty beyond expectation. For the main course, we all had Icelandic fish. All the dishes came with potatoes and spinach. Lastly for dessert, apple crumbles with ice cream was a yum. Icelandic lamb and seafood were my most favorite items here. I could eat seafood here at every meal if the price wasn’t like $30 per plate. We had lamb only once …it was exceptionally flavorful and perfectly cooked.
For souvenirs, Laugevaur would be a great choice. Icelandic wool products, like socks, hats, gloves are definitely popular souvenirs. We bought a few wool products from the Icelandic brand store, Icewear. These items run very expensive….woolen sweaters can be a couple hundred dollars. Miniature Viking ships, beer-mugs, trolls, and elves are fun items to bring back home. I bought some lava soaps, Icelandic chocolate bars, a photo book of Iceland, and bracelets made from real volcanic stones.
MY HOTEL: We stayed in Sif Apartment, very close to the center of Reykjavik. You will find lots of apartment style hotels in the capital. Sif Apartment is a newly renovated stylish, Scandinavian looking building with new furniture, features, and everything. There was no front desk on site but their great communication and accurate instructions made it very easy for us to check-in and to store our luggage in their facility before our check-in time. The apartment is located only 15 minutes walk from the city center and the big touristic spots, like Sun Voyager or Harpa. Hlemmur, one of the main bus stations in central Rekjavik, was only 2-3 minutes walk away from our hotel.
PLACES I’VE VISITED: We had about a day and a half to really explore the capital. While Reykjavik is very scenic and ready to entertain its guests with different tastes, the most fascinating part of Iceland is outside the capital. There are lots of excursions that you can take from Reykjavik with different options and price ranges. The best and cheapest way to roam around is renting a car with a GPS and go around the Ring Road. Good thing is that most of the sites here don’t have entry fees.
The actual downtown area is pretty small and the focal point of tourism. Walking around the city center which is characterized by Scandinavian style colorful houses is nice and highly recommended, since most of the attractions are within walking distance.
Here are all the places we’ve visited in Reykjavik:
2. SUN VOYAGER: From Laugavegur district, it’s about 5 minutes walk to Sun Voyager. It’s a huge steel boat sculpture set on granite by the sea.
3. HARPA: You can see the glass made honey-comb concert hall, Harpa, while walking by the water from Sun Voyager. It’s the home of national opera and symphony. The building opened back in 2011. It’s free to go in and look around. They also have few guided tours inside the building. We spend about half an hour walking around and checking out couple stores inside Harpa.
4. HALLGRIMSKIRKJA or CHURCH of HALLGRIMUR: After our Golden Circle and Snaefellsness excursions, we spent a full day in Reykjavik downtown again. And this was our first stop. It’s about 10 minutes walk from Laugavegur street.
Hallgrimskirkja is a striking architecture with 73 meter high tower, inspired by Icelandic traditions. But unfortunately, they were preparing for a concert and the church was closed to the public when we were there. The tower was open and visitors can climb it for a fee (although we didn’t do it). This is an iconic landmark of Iceland for its artistic and modern edifice.
5. AUSTURVOLLUR SQUARE/ICELAND PARLIAMENT/THE CATHEDRAL of REYKJAVIK: This is a tiny square in the heart of Reykjavik. Both the parliament and the national cathedral stand by Austorvollur square.
The Icelandic Parliament is a classical 19th century structure built in 1881. Don’t let the size fool you…it is one of the important buildings in Reykjavik. Opposite of the parliament near Austurvollur is the Cathedral of Reykjavik. This is the seat of the Bishop of Iceland. Recent renovation reflect its original 18th century design.
6. TRJONIN LAKE and TOWN HALL: This is a small but a prominent lake in central Reykjavik with the City Hall on one side. We passed along its shore and spent a few minutes. Few museums are close to this lake. There is also an outdoor restaurant right by it.
7. OLD HARBOR and PUFFIN EXPRESS TOUR: This trip was put on our itinerary specifically for my 9-years old daughter. She loves animals and birds…and this was a perfect opportunity to get some real life education. We learned a lot about puffins and their history in Iceland. The short boat ride to the puffin island was enjoyable too.
It was $57 per person for one hour boat ride to a nearby island where puffins live. It departs from the old harbor There are other places in Iceland where you can go puffin watching but this was something closer to Reykjavik that we could do.
The Old Harbor is a starting point for most (if not all) of the water cruises/excursions to nearby sites. Few restaurants and cafes are here with different tour companies.
IF I VISIT ICELAND AGAIN: If I come to Iceland again, which I probably will, I would stay in the same Sif Apartment for its location. I would also like to rent a car or a camper van to go around the Ring Road and visit some secret lagoons, beaches, hot springs, small villages, and especially some ice caves. I still regret not buying a woolen sweater or a wintry jacket from Icewear or 66 North. Finally, I wouldn’t miss eating more of their fresh fish. I do want to see the northern lights too, but I’m not sure if I can take the freezing temperature here…let’s see.