The trip to Europe had been a relatively short one and after two weeks I found myself on a plane back to New York. One of the great perks of traveling is that you can plan in a layover, especially for longer distances. So that’s what I did and to no country less than Iceland! I had heard from friends that Icelandair offers a layover to the Land of Fire and Ice at no additional cost when booking a flight with them to and fro the US and any European country. It actually is a great deal if you are traveling to the Nordic countries, such as Finland and Norway, because the flight can be cheaper. When booking the flight to Germany, I paid roughly $100 more than with a direct flight to Frankfurt at that time. However, I saw Iceland as a trip by itself and did not consider an extra $100 for seeing an entirely different country a bad deal. The layover can be anywhere from a few hours to up to one week. Since I really had to get back to work, I planned on 2 ½ days. For the first impression of this lovely country, it was enough, although almost a bit too short.
From Keflav Airport, it’s only a short ride to Reykjavik. If you don’t feel like taking a cab, there are a multitude of shuttle busses which take you to the capital. You could also book a deal ahead of time with two of the major bus companies, which is what I did and I ended up saving a few bucks on a roundtrip.
The ride from the airport to Reykjavik leads through a few volcanic fields already. It’s pretty impressive to take in the landscape during the 30 minute-ride. I stayed around Hlemmur Square, which was a pretty central area to be in. Most hotels and hostels which are downtown will actually be in a great location, because downtown Reykjavik is not too extensive to begin with. But some (such as the Arctic Comfort Hotel) can also be in an industrial area, and getting around from there by means of walking could turn into a potential hassle, as I heard from a fellow traveler.
From downtown it’s not hard to walk up and down the main street, as the capital is relatively small. The first few shops that caught my eye were actually a candy store and a stuffed animal boutique. Puffins are supposedly the national symbol of Iceland, so I found myself amongst a lot of stuffed animals that were Puffin-shaped. I also purchased a lollipop in the shape of the Icelandic flag (which reminded me a lot of the UK flag) from a random souvenir store that had huge Teddy Bears outside.
Even though it rained throughout my entire stay, I barely made use of my umbrella. It was the type of rain that drizzles too little to bother with taking it out but it still was not great when taking pictures in the rain.
From the main street, I made a detour to one of the most common tourist attractions: Hallgrimskirkja. It’s a Lutheran church built from 1945-86, so relatively new. It’s also oddly shaped and offers amazing views from the top. When I first went at night, it was closed so I visited again during the day. Here a pipe organ player was tuning his organ and playing various pieces on the impressive instrument. I got to listen to him while walking through the church, which made for a pretty solemn atmosphere.
Walking down the main street via detour of Hallgrimskirkja led me straight to the Harpa. The Harpa is Reykjavik’s cultural center for performances and conferences such as the opera, concerts and other music-induced shows. Luckily it was still open when I arrived around 8pm, because I needed it desperately to warm up. It is 5 large stories high and on top there is a bar that overlooks the Harbor. I ended up taking pictures at the Harbor and around the Harpa and while doing so, my tripod almost fell into the freezing water. Overall, it was quite an eventful night shoot, since the area was semi-deserted and had an eery feeling to it.
The first grub I had that day was in the afternoon, when I stopped by at an Asian-inspired noodle bistro. I was able to eat Pho for $8 – so far one of the cheapest meals I had in Iceland. On other nights I had some fancy dinner at a French bistro and some mediocre sandwich at an Icelandic dive bar setting. Be aware that their food and dining closes down pretty early. At 10pm I had a hard time finding a bar or restaurant with an open kitchen. Make sure you go around 9pm the latest to get the full dining experience during the weeek, otherwise you will end up snacking on chips like I did on my first night.
Going out in Iceland does not seem to be as overly cheap as it is in other European countries. Beer prices were similar to New York and I even paid around $8 for a pint of local brew. Not sure exactly what the tipping rules are, so I stuck to a dollar a drink.
Iceland does not take any other currencies than their Kronás, which you can pull out of an ATM machine at the airport or exchange before and during your trip.
I also found that Icelandic chocolate makes for a nice souvenir for friends. If you want to buy cheap souvenirs, the airport and duty free shops there are your best bet when flying back home.
Overall, Reykjavik reminded me of a capital with a pretty small-town feel. People are down-to-earth and humble, and similar to rural areas in other European countries. Perhaps it’s closest to the Swedish or Norwegian culture, so I am sure those countries could relate best to it. The language was partly understandable by German natives when reading, but certainly not when listening to it being spoken. Here again, perhaps the Nordic cultures have more of an advantage. One of our tour guides actually made a reference to how funny the language actually is but a great deal of people do speak English, so that is helpful. Overall, Icelandic people seem to have a great sense of humor once you get it.
Although Reykjavik is a small town, there are still a lot of things to do and after two days I still didn’t get the full capital experience. You could probably walk around for a week and not be bored. But of course the landscape is what attracts people to Iceland, and in order to take that in it’s crucial to get out of the city.