Looking back on our whirlwind visit to Iceland, I think, for spending only three full days there, we got a good taste of the country. Which I find amazing because we based ourselves in Reykyavik and only took daytrips out. Iceland, like America, is really all about its natural beauty. So, to me, camping out in Reykyavik, was like staying in Fresno and just taking quick day trips to Yosemite and Sequoia National Parks. Well, that’s not really fair because Reykyavik is in no way like Fresno. It’s a sophisticated city of excellent restaurants, great shopping and lots of music. Besides the many rock and Pop festivals, Reykyavik has a huge concert hall, an opera house and a resident symphony. Unfortunately, the one month when they are all touring happened to be the month we were there, so I can’t speak to the music first-hand. Still, a part of me felt that I didn’t do Iceland justice because I didn’t strap on crampons and climb a volcano or at least drive around the Ring Road. However, traveling the perimeter of Iceland involves a lot of camping or staying in guest houses and, from what I read, a lot of eating hotdogs in gas stations. Even if we’d had the time, I can’t see getting Andy out on an adventure like that. Probably, my days of such adventures are over as well. I quite liked the soft beds and the Art Deco style of the Hotel Borg.
So maybe I can’t claim to be an expert in Iceland tourism, but I do have these ten suggestions:
1. Stay in or as close to Old Reykyavik as you can. We went back and forth as to whether we should stay near the harbor or up closer to midtown. Turns out each is about a five minute walk from the other. Reykyavik is very very walkable with a lot of pedestrian-only streets. We also found that, staying in Old Reykyavik, we could walk to all the museums and sights from our hotel. But I did notice that some of the larger hotels are actually further out and separated from the old part of town by a large highway, so I’d avoid those.
2. The food is incredible. Forget the tales of fermented shark. I never saw it on any menu. And avoid ordering Minke whale, which is now marketed almost exclusively toward tourists. Nearly 80% of the whale is wasted in the catch and now the vast majority of Icelanders won’t eat it. So don’t you be that tourist who does. Instead, go for fish — any fish — but especially Arctic Char and lobster, which they call langoustin. But you can’t go wrong with any restaurant that features an Icelandic tasting menu. One of the best meals we had was the Around Iceland Tasting Menu at The Fish Company. Housed in a historic 19th Century merchants’ house, the restaurant does wonderful and innovative things with Icelandic ingredients. And by the way, those ingredients do include vegetables, even in winter. Iceland grows a lot of fresh fruits and vegetables — even bananas — in geothermally heated greenhouses. Another great meal we had was the Icelandic Tasting Menu at Apotek, housed in an old apothecary. The cocktail bar seems to be the hip, happening place — however I did have to explain to the bartender how to make a Martini. The closest he could get was a shot of gin straight from the bottle with a twist of lemon as garnish.
3. Eat lots of skyr! Skyr is often described as Icelandic yogurt, but that doesn’t do it justice. Skyr is much thicker than yogurt, has a slightly sour dairy flavor, but also a bit of sweetness. That means it works in all the may Icelandic recipes where it shows up. We had it as a bed for fish, as a basis for sauces, served in the morning with honey, and for dessert, mixed with chocolate and nuts. I ate it whenever it was served to me. Which is amazing because I’m pretty much lactose intolerant. I can have a limited amount of dairy (about as much as you’d find in a latte is my daily limit) and only if the milk is heated or treated in some way. In other words, if I have a latte in the morning, I can’t have a cream-based soup in the evening. But skyr? I ate buckets of the stuff and never had a problem. Apparently the early Vikings ate tons of it, too, but the making of skyr died out everywhere but Iceland. So we have Icelanders to thank for skyr, which is higher in protein yet lower in calories than yogurt.
4. Don’t forget to drink the water. Icelandic water — straight out of the tap — all comes from glacier run-off, naturally filtered through lava rock. It’s delicious and carafes of it are served in most restaurants. Drinking it makes you realize how most bottled water and their many claims for purity are just crap.
5. Learn about Vikings. One of the best little museums we went to is the Settlement Museum which is underground and features the very well preserved foundations of a Viking longhouse. Through multi-media displays, the museum gives you a good idea of what life was like for early Icelanders. Andy is not a museum goer, so I didn’t have any luck getting him to the National Museum. Where I really should have dragged him is the Saga Museum. I’m told it illustrates these famous bloodthirsty Icelandic tales, which date from the Middle Ages, with wax work dioramas of Viking mayhem accompanied by a soundtrack of bloodthirsty screams and the sound of axes slicing into flesh. We did pass by the excellent Volcano House, which will tell you more than you can ever imagine knowing about volcanoes and also screens two very interesting short documentaries on Iceland’s two most recent major volcanic eruptions. The one on the 2011 eruption is particularly satisfying, with lots of dare-devil aerial photography looking into the crater.
6. Get out of Reykjavik. Even if you have limited time, take a tour of the Golden Circle. It takes you out to Pingvellir National Park, where you’ll see the split between the European and American tectonic plates, to the hot springs at Geysir, and to the impressive waterfall at Gullfoss. We had a rental car and did our own tour, but there seem to be a lot of tour companies that will take you there as well, either as part of a bus group or in a more intimate jeep. I wrote up our tour of the Golden Circle here.
7. Take to the air! So many of the wonders of Iceland are inaccessible except with miles of off-road driving and days of hiking. A helicopter tour will get you to them in a few hours. Several tour companies operate out of the Reykjavik airport which is just a short cab ride from downtown. Or some will pick you up at your hotel. We had an excellent tour with Reykjavik Helicopters which I wrote up here. My advice is to spring for the longest and best tour you can afford.
8. Do the Blue Lagoon. Sure it’s a bit of a touristy thing, but this man-made lagoon, heated by the byproduct water of a geothermal plant, is a lot of fun. Plus it has a swim up bar. Since it’s only about waist deep, I was able to wander around with a nice glass of Burgundy detoxifying my outside while I retoxified my insides. Reservations are a must, especially if you want one of the private rooms (highly recommended). You get a three hour window and we booked the 8 to 11 PM slot.
9. Break out all your REI gear. Performance outdoor gear seemed to be the standard uniform — even in nice restaurants. And you’ll wear your Icelandic sweater, if you buy one, most days even in midsummer. If you just can’t justify an Icelandic sweater (and when am I going to wear that in California?), check out the famous Icelandic performance gear makers such as 66 North.
10. Expect to have your sleep patterns seriously disrupted. Maybe it was the jet lag. But the Midnight Sun really compounded it. And it really is Midnight Sun and not just an extended twilight. The only time it got vaguely dusky was when there was a thick cloud cover. Otherwise, the sun was actually shining for a full 24 hours. Needless to say, it was hard to sleep. The hotel did have blackout curtains, but I couldn’t bear to draw them. Why travel all the way to a place where the sun doesn’t go down, then block out that Midnight Sun?
In summary, I love Iceland! Reykjavik lacks a little of the charm of other small European cities, like Prague, because it doesn’t have the weather for the outdoor cafes and promenading that are so enjoyable in Europe. But it makes up for it with friendly inhabitants and the fact that absolutely everyone speaks English. I did find I was able to use my German to figure out street signs, but spoken Icelandic seems to involve swallowing a lot of consonants, so you’ll never be able to use a Say It in Icelandic phrasebook. And, of course, what Iceland lacks in cafe culture, it makes up for in dramatic nature. I’d definitely go back. And maybe even tackle the Ring Road and eat gas station hot dogs.