Reykjavik – World’s northernmost capital

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”. 

Downtown Reykjavik, Iceland

Downtown Reykjavik, Iceland

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. 

Contemporary art by Trjonin Lake in Reykjavik, Iceland

Contemporary art by Trjonin Lake in Reykjavik, Iceland

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. 

Walking around city center in Reykjavik, Iceland

Walking around city center in Reykjavik, Iceland

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. 

Our lunch at Messinn’s in Reykjavik, Iceland

Our lunch at Messinn’s in Reykjavik, Iceland

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. 

Trolls of Iceland

Trolls of Iceland

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. 

Sif Apartment in Reykjavik, Iceland - our hotel

Sif Apartment in Reykjavik, Iceland – 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:

  1. LAUGAVEGUR DISTRICT: Laugavegur street is where we headed on our first day. It’s the main shopping street and the primary commercial hub of downtown Reykjavik…also, one of the oldest shopping strips in Iceland. After our lunch at Shanghai Chinese restaurant, we kept walking on Laugavegur. Options for souvenir shops, boutique or designer stores, cafes, and restaurants on Laugavegur are endless.
Laugavegur District in Reykjavik, Iceland

Laugavegur District in Reykjavik, Iceland

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. 

Sun Voyager in Reykjavik, Iceland

Sun Voyager in Reykjavik, Iceland

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. 

Harpa in Reykjavik, Iceland

Harpa in Reykjavik, Iceland

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 in Reykjavik, Iceland

Hallgrimskirkja in Reykjavik, Iceland

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. 

Austorvollur square and the Icelandic Parliament in Reykjavik, Iceland

Austorvollur square and the Icelandic Parliament in Reykjavik, Iceland

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. 

Cathedral of Reykjavik in Iceland

Cathedral of Reykjavik in Iceland

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. 

Trjonin Lake and the Town Hall in Reykjavik, Iceland

Trjonin Lake and the Town Hall in Reykjavik, Iceland

 

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. 

Old Harbor in Reykjavik, Iceland

Old Harbor in Reykjavik, Iceland

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. 

From the Puffin Express Boat in Reykjavik, Iceland

From the Puffin Express Boat in Reykjavik, Iceland

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. 

 

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Managua in a day

MANAGUA, NICARAGUA: Managua is the capital and the largest city of Nicaragua. This is not your typical capital with only high-rise buildings and bunch of traffic lights. It has history, culture, and heritage as well as some stunning natural beauties.

Though Managua is the industrial or commercial center of the country, it’s not outrageously expensive like its neighboring capitals. From hotels, to food, to transportations…everything is cheap compare to United States. Unlike Panama or other Central American countries, Nicaragua has its own currency, called Cordoba. You can use USD too, but the change may be in Cordoba.

Lake Managua in Nicaragua

Lake Managua in Nicaragua

TIME of TRAVEL: After visiting El Salvador, Panama, and Costa Rica, Nicaragua concluded our Central America tour which we took back in March, 2015. We had two days to spare before returning to our home in Oregon. First day was well spent in Managua and the last day we had booked a guided tour with viator.com to visit Masaya and Granada. It was pretty hot and humid in Managua, but I guess not as bad as El Salvador. Still it’s always better to be prepared with lots of sunscreens, hats, comfortable shoes, and plenty of water bottle when you come to this region around this time of the year.

OUR HOTEL: We stayed in Holiday Inn Managua – Convention in Managua. This was a beautiful hotel with fancy restaurant, big swimming pool, nice rooms, and friendly service. First day, our hotel concierge arranged a cab-ride around the capital for few hours. The cost was $50 or 1350 NIC for this private tour in a cab. The hotel location was nice but not too close to the city center.

EATING and SHOPPING: Managua is a scattered place with shops and restaurant at every corner and on every street. But from the following places we’ve visited, Puerto Salvador Allende is probably the best place to pick a local restaurant and hunt for some souvenirs. Yes, you have to bargain when you are in Central America. Souvenirs are very colorful with lots of rainforest and natural influences but very reasonably priced.

Some souvenir stores in Puerto Salvador Allende in Managua, Nicaragua

Some souvenir stores in Puerto Salvador Allende in Managua, Nicaragua

PLACES WE’VE VISITED: We were in Nicaragua for 2 days. First day was for the capital and the next day, we took a day trip to Granada and Masaya. One day was good enough to get a good glimpse of Managua. These are some of the places we were able to visit by renting a cab.

  1. NEW CATHEDRAL or CATEDRAL de MANAGUA: This is a contemporary and unusual cathedral built in 1993. Because of its 63 domes on the roof, it looks a lot like a mosque. Inside, it is still unfinished and simple, but worshippers come here everyday. Look for the Black Christ in one of the chapels, very popular in Central America. Rows of tall palm trees decorate the square in front of this cathedral.
New Cathedral in Managua, Nicaragua

New Cathedral in Managua, Nicaragua

2) MONUMENTO del EQERCITO de NICARAGUA: From the cathedral we drove about half an hour or so to go to the Mirador Lagoon. This monument came first after entering the complex. We were there only for couple minutes. But this is a white patriotic monument with canons and symbols.
MONUMENTO del EQERCITO de NICARAGUA

MONUMENTO del EQERCITO de NICARAGUA

3) MIRADOR TISCAPA or LAGOON: From the monument, we were taken to Mirador Lagoon in just few minutes. Although it could have been maintained better, this is a place where locals come to relax or take a break from the chaotic city life. The fresh water lagoon itself is inside of a crater of an extinct volcano. We saw lots of young couples and groups chilling by the lake. It was 5 NIC to enter the park.
Mirador Lagoon in Managua, Nicaragua

Mirador Lagoon in Managua, Nicaragua

4) PARQUE CENTRAL de MANAGUA: Parque Central de Managua is a big open space at the center of the capital. This is another point where hundreds of locals gather everyday to get away from the city life within the city. After parking the car, we passed some statues and war monuments to come to the main square. Antiqua Catedral de Managua, orange building of Presidential Palace (La Casa de los Pueblos), and National Palace (Palacio Nacional) are located here. Antiqua Catedral de Managua or the Old Cathedral was under renovation, so we couldn’t go in. 3 eternal fire to honor Nicaraguan revolutionary leaders are located in front of the square. We were there after the regular office hours, not sure if the tourists can take tour inside the Presidential Palace or the National Palace. But we were told by our cab drive that President Daniel Ortega doesn’t live in the Presidential Palace. Overall, this was a nice hangout place for us in the late afternoon. If you are hungry, there are some food stalls too. Check out the beautiful monument of Ruben Dario near the entrance. Also you can see Lago Xalotlan from here.
Statue of Ruben Dario in Parque Central de Managua in Nicaragua

Statue of Ruben Dario in Parque Central de Managua in Nicaragua

5) MINI MANAGUA: Not too far from the park, we then came to the lake shore. Mini Managua, a fun park with miniature version of the city, is located by Lake Managua. The park features some of its important and historic buildings, businesses, and iconic monuments. My kids loved seeing all the mini stuff and taking a tour inside a mock airplane. There were some cafes and picnic areas here and a long path by the lake for strolling. The government doesn’t allow any kind of boating here to protect the lake from pollution. It’s 30 NIK to enter and can easily spend couple hours.
Mini Managua

Mini Managua

   6) PUERTO SALVADOR ALLENDE: This was probably my most favorite place in Managua. It was already dark when we reached here from Mini Managua. The drive was only few minutes from the last park, but parking is a headache here. 30 NIC to enter with car and 5 NIK per adult. This is more like an eating and shopping place. It was bustling with a hundreds of local crowds gathered for meals and good times. This is probably one of the best places to try some local delicacies. Loud music was everywhere…a nice hyped place to chill at night.
7) ROTONDA RUBEN DARIO: We just drove by this round-about at night without stopping. It is lit up at night and looks extravagant with the mixture of fountain and light.

San Jose – the Capital of Costa Rica

SAN JOSE, COSTA RICA: Capital of Costa Rica, San Jose,  is the heart of this beautifully country that is ringed by green mountains and deep valleys. I wouldn’t call it a huge metropolitan or modern town, like Panama City, nor it had small cozy feeling to it.  While Costa Rica was my most favorite country in this trip, its capital was the least impressive place for me. I am sure it has its own charm and hidden gems… obviously we weren’t looking at the right things.

The main pedestrian street in the heart of San Jose, Costa Rica

The main pedestrian street in the heart of San Jose, Costa Rica

TIME of TRAVEL: Costa Rica was our second country to visit in this Central America trip in the mid-March of 2015. We first visited El Salvador, then Panama and from Costa Rica we finished our trip with Nicaragua. It was very hot and humid, especially when we toured outside San Jose to the mountains and rainforests.

OUR HOTEL: We stayed in Radisson, about 15 minutes’ walk from downtown San Jose. It was a fantastic place with free breakfast and Wi-Fi. Other than its excellent customer service, we had a big swimming pool and a hot tub very close to our room. Radisson in San Jose is a very big hotel and had a big gate at the entrance for extra security.

EATING and SHOPPING: We saw plenty of fast foods in the heart of San Jose. But we did have a hard time finding a local Costa Rican restaurant…maybe we were just looking at the wrong place. We eventually had lunch in Mercado Central after few locals directed us there. Inside the market, there were some small places and quick-serve counters who were offering local dishes. We had some fish with rice and pickled vegetables, like jalapeno and chili peppers. Other than those, you can find fish soup, ceviche (raw fish), and other seafood options too.

Our lunch (fish fried rice) in San Jose, Costa Rica...inside Mercado Central

Our lunch (fish fried rice) in San Jose, Costa Rica…inside Mercado Central

Again, Mercado Central was the only place where we saw only a hand-full of stores selling local hand-crafts and souvenirs. We didn’t see any other place outside this market selling souvenirs…eventually, we didn’t buy anything from San Jose.

PLACES WE’VE VISITED: We had three full days to explore Costa Rica, out of that we spent a day in San Jose. We arrived in the morning and it was enough for us to just take a short tour of the capital for the rest of that day.

An interesting statue we saw while roaming around San Jose in Costa Rica

An interesting statue we saw while roaming around San Jose in Costa Rica

1) MERCADO CENTRAL: We walked quiet a far from our hotel to come the heart of San Jose. Once we hit the center point, we followed the pedestrian road to hunt for some local meals and after about 10 minutes, saw this market. When we asked some locals about where we can get some good seafood, they pointed at Mercado Central and gave a name of a restaurant (which I forgot).

Mercado Central is a very old and bustling indoor market and has been there since 1880. Countless shops and restaurants are packed inside this place. You can find almost anything and everything here. Quality may not be of good standard but they are very reasonably priced.

2) METROPOLITAN CATHEDRAL: While we were walking towards the main square to our hotel, we took a little detour. On the other side of the street a big square showed up with a giant Neo-classical edifice in the front. A mass was going on while we were inside the cathedral, so we couldn’t walk around much. But it’s a big place elegantly decorated with some stunning stained-glass windows from Paris and Germany. A new group of bells were installed here in 1998 which came straight from Spain. The tabernacle is a replica from the original one in 1855. The artistic tubular organ is from Belgium that was inaugurated in 1891 and it is considered as one of the best tubular organs in whole Central America. The structure suffered few major earthquakes in the past few centuries.

Catedral Metropolitana in San Jose, Costa Rica

Catedral Metropolitana in San Jose, Costa Rica

3) MAIN SQUARE with TEATRO NACIONALE: We honestly didn’t find a name of this square. It looked like the main square where people and pigeons gather to chill. Many buildings and eateries surround the square. Beside the square is the National Theater of San Jose…an old but nice architecture. There was ice-cream store where we stopped and picked up some nice flavors while walking back to the hotel at the end of the day.

The main square of San Jose, Costa Rica, which houses some museums and important buildings, including the National Theater

The main square of San Jose, Costa Rica, which houses some museums and important buildings, including the National Theater

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