Reykjavik: Travel Tips for First-Timers

If you go to Reykjavik in September…

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Pack warm clothes!

Not your whole winter wardrobe, but it’s true what they say – layers are the best solution. Comfortable T-shirts, jerseys, cardigans, stretchy sweaters or hoodies, plenty of socks, waterproof coats. Absolute musts: a hat or two (if you’ll have to wear one every day, you might feel like a fresh one at some point); a scarf (or two), gloves and, yes, leg-warmers. I used to think I would only use these as part of an 80s costume, but then a friend clued me in on the real thing during a cold Hamburg winter when the local wind seemed to reach my ankles no matter what I wore. It might be either chilly, or windy, or both in Reykjavik at this time of year, and you can always take them off if it gets warm. They work well with both sneakers and boots, and they are easy to pack while you’re out on a tour or walking around the city. Bottom line: get all this together and test it out at home before the trip. Shopping for suitable outfits and gear in the city is possible, but it will take time and it’s also very expensive.

Shoes!

Everyone’s different, but I would not recommend putting on anything other than sneakers or worn-in, low-heeled boots for walking around the city. Hiking or outdoor shoes are a must. Obviously they can also be used for getting around Reykjavik, which is sometimes quite hilly, but mine, for example, were a bit too heavy for that. If you go out of the city to take in the fantastic  scenery Iceland has or trek around during the Golden Circle Tour, there is no other option than hiking boots. This became especially obvious as soon as we were walking between the tectonic plates in Thingvellir National Park or making our way to the Gulfloss Waterfall. The terrain underfoot changed at intervals, and I heard more than one person lamenting their sneakers slipped on rocky outcrops or natural steps one had to clamber up. Be safe!

It’s in the bag!

A backpack with firm, wide straps that don’t cut in to your shoulders, padded back and easy to reach pockets on either side for a water bottle and an umbrella could become your best friend while walking around (after the shoes, of course). Unless you stop for a meal, you might not take it off for a while, just reach for those pockets, so make sure it doesn’t feel like it’s dragging you down backwards.

And a few other useful things to know…

Somewhat by chance I read on a blog before my trip that tap water was safe for drinking in Iceland and that there was no reason to buy bottled water. It was one of the first things I saw on a sign in the airport and in my hotel room. And it’s true! The water is clean and obviously it’s a great way to save money if you do treat yourself to a meal out – just ask for tap water. In many cafes and restaurants you’ll see a counter or a shelf with filled jugs standing at the ready.

Based on this first experience in Reykjavik and around it, women traveling alone can be assured that getting around is comfortable and safe. I wasn’t stared at or approached in any unwanted way. In fact, the only time it did happen was with a group of foreign football fans who were insisting on getting my attention even if I thought I was being clear about wanting to be left alone. True, during this trip I didn’t go out in the evening, because I was simply tired out from walking so much, so I don’t know what the situation is there, but it felt very natural to stop and sit somewhere by myself for as long as I wanted, whether outside or inside, no questions asked. There were plenty of other women of various ages doing the same.

Not just museums offer guided tours, but also various other places – check websites and book a few if you like to do that sort of thing. In most cases the tours are done by locals and it’s inspiring to hear how much they know about the place in question, as well as Iceland in general.

Nature and the unique Icelandic environment are treated with and spoken about with deep respect. This leaves a lasting impression.

The Reykjavik City Card is your ticket for local bus transport and it covers many local museums that round off discovering Iceland’s history.

Download a currency converter app on your phone! This will come in handy when you stop in front of a shop, transfixed by a pair of shoes that turn out to cost 10 times more than your last shopping trip to H&M.

Locals make a calm, relaxed impression. Any question you might have has most likely been asked by someone before you and the FAQ sections on any Icelandic websites you might be using to plan your trip are worth checking out. Otherwise, if you have any particular questions, which often happens in the case of booking a transfer, for example, someone usually gets back to you quickly.

Booking a transfer to and from Keflavik Airport is recommended. It’ll spare you time and effort, as taxi prices might be unpredictable and the whole transfer industry in general is very well organized. Pick-ups can be booked for any time, which was a blessing when I had to get up at 4 AM to catch my flight. The larger transfer companies also have desks right in the arrivals hall in the airport, so you can organize that right there, though it is better to book in advance! Allow time for getting through the airport after arrival and upon departure. It may not be too big, but it gets busy.

Think carefully before you buy a book of spells.

Educate yourself about Icelandic runes and bring back a nice souvenir with a suitable symbol.

And above all, enjoy, enjoy, enjoy.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Iceland: The Golden Circle

I put my phone away after taking pictures and spend a long stretch of time just staring at the Gulfloss Waterfall. The air is full of wet mist. The overwhelming beauty in front of me has absolutely nothing to do with us humans. I’d like to cry, but I can’t – maybe there’s simply already enough water thundering down before me in a never-ending stream. Such poetry. In motion. See what I keep doing there?

Before setting off down some steps and a path that brings me closer and closer to the Gulfloss, we are warned that some tourists have previously complained about getting wet on the way. Um. I open up the umbrella I brought with me (Yes! Hamburg rain love shout-out) and proceed.

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A few hours previously I’d boarded the bus to embark on the Golden Circle Tour that I’d booked with Gray Line before I left Hamburg. The scheduled pick-up from my hotel wasn’t as early as for the whale watching tour, meaning I had a bit more time to continue digesting seeing whales before being completely blown away by what I saw on the Golden Circle.

Most of you have probably heard about this tour or come across numerous mentions while doing research for a possible trip to Iceland. The Golden Circle is a wonderful way to get a first and lasting impression of Iceland’s unique natural wonders when you’re based in Reykjavik. It’s not a natural trail, but a carefully developed trip across very good roads, so a drive is a great idea as well, if you’d rather rent a car. I enjoyed the bus trip of roughly an hour out of Reykjavik before our first stop in Thingvellir National Park.

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We walk between the Eurasian and North American tectonic plates, just a stroll between two continents, as you do, and listen to stories from our fantastic guide about how things worked around here when Iceland’s parliament first started its existence where we are walking now, with new laws been shouted down to the people by an appointed member with exceptionally strong lungs. Slightly higher up from the path we took between the plates, our guide turns her back to us and suddenly shouts something in what sounds like very forceful Icelandic. She then turns back around and calmly explains to her wide-eyed audience that the acoustics worked very well, carrying the information down clearly to the population below.

Before we left the bus, we were told we would hear about the executions that took place here in the olden days. This is something I had not read up on at all before my trip to Reykjavik. What I hear takes me completely by surprise. It’s also very easy to let your imagination surrender when there are no distractions around and you’re not in the city. We stand above a beautiful stream, the rocks in it contrasting with the clear water, the higher tectonic plate visible on one side, and the untouched landscape, except for boardwalks, stretching out in every direction in front of us. The stream becomes both beautiful and terrible as I learn that women, most of them young, were drowned in this very place. The crime? Supposed adultery. If the woman had a child as a result of the affair, or what might very well have been rape, the child was spared, while the mother was doomed. When I ask why drowning was the execution method for the women, our guide said it was simply so. I don’t feel like examining the reasons further. As for being burnt at the stake, according to records only men were executed this way in Iceland, following accusations of sorcery. An interesting twist, if you can call it that, on what one has heard about this macabre part of European history in other countries.

After the revelations at Thingvellir and Gulfloss, we stop to look at geysirs and this provides some natural (literally) levity. I mean, curls of steam, huge jets of water shooting up in the air at regular intervals, that well-known stinky smell (which wasn’t all that intense) and the burbling noises of smaller boiling geysirs, not to mention grown men dipping their hands into puddles your guide expressly asks you not to touch and a sign that the nearest hospital is 62 km away? We also stop at the smaller Faxi Waterfall with its salmon ladder and the Skalholt church, a significant part of Iceland’s Christian history.

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Our guide told us quite a few interesting things about Reykjavik as well – population numbers (some 127,000 to roughly 350,700 in the whole country), universities, nationalities, language (based on old Norsk), salmon fishing (there’s a river where the mayor has to make the first catch of the season before everyone else is allowed to fish), chocolate production (it was imported from Poland before the 1930s). The water in Iceland is so clean that we could safely drink from rivers in the area. Eating whale meat is NOT a traditional Icelandic meal, it’s just a horrible thing perpetuated by the tourism industry. Meanwhile, if you really want to go local and get a taste (no puns intended) of history, there are still places where you can try marinated sheep testicles. I spent a while digesting (no pun intended once again) that one before I was able to refocus my brain.

I get plenty of glimpses of volcanoes – it’s mind-boggling to think that they are so close, so sleepy-looking, yet with massive violent potential, while the surrounding landscape with its mix of mountains, rocks and moss, fields and  farms popping up every now and then is encompassing in its tranquility and vastness.

We’re ushered back on the bus at the end of the tour and it starts to rain a little. The clouds are hanging low, there’s a first hint of the day growing darker, and suddenly I get a very strong feeling that we need to go now. It’s been a full day with impressions that will stay with me for the rest of my life, but if we don’t leave now, I’m sure trolls will crawl out from underneath all those mossy rocks. I’ve felt welcome and humble here, but it’s quite possible that the hour of the “hidden people” is drawing nearer, and it’s time for me to go back. I am, after all, yet again a visitor here. I might not have been asked to come, but I’m happy that I was allowed to.

 

Reykjavik: Whale Watching

I woke up feeling nervous and excited, so I guess it was just nervous excitement. Oh my God, I’ve been dreaming about doing this and now the day has arrived! Out on a boat! In open waters! With WHALES swimming around there somewhere! How will I even deal? Will I get sick on board? When was the last time I’d been on a boat other than on a river? Will I be cold? Are those overalls they say you get uncomfortable? Will I be able to hold my camera steady? How will I FEEL if I see a whale? How close will it get? Perhaps I will just sit down on the floor of the boat and cry?

My practical inner voice overrules all these questions and barks to put on some warm tights. A little while later I’m standing outside my hotel. It’s an 8:15 AM pick-up and a quick drive to the Old Harbour in Reykjavik. It’s entirely possible to get there on your own, but since it’s only my second full day here and I’m not yet well versed in local buses, I booked a shuttle. Once at the harbour, all my nerves immediately quiet down. The water is calm, the air smells of seawater, everything is clean and it looks like it’s going to be a beautiful day. I’m also not cold, so I’m definitely dressed right! It’s immediately obvious that you can take your pick of whale watching excursions and companies, all of their small ticket houses lining one side, colorful posters, fantastic promises and Whale, hello there! included. My boat is easy to spot.

In no time at all I board the boat, and I see that our passenger crowd is split mainly in two groups: a laughing, chattering gathering of middle-aged Chinese women who exhibit levels of selfie taking obsession I have never seen before, everywhere on the boat, and a few quiet Japanese couples who carefully snap their own selfies, before sitting down and calmly waiting until we disembark. In addition, there’s a smattering of British and German tourists who stick to their own little groups. One poor English guy promptly gets grabbed by one of the Chinese ladies for a selfie and receives no answer to his “Why me?”, except giggles and imperious pointing. We’re going to be a merry party.

The overalls are hanging on the lower deck, lined up by size.

Step one, check the pockets of the suit you picked aren’t torn. Step two, check that all the zippers work. Step 3, read the instructions on how to put on the overalls. Unzip the front and leg zippers, undo the velcro cuffs, take your shoes off, and then one by one, obviously starting with the legs, stick all your limbs in. Whether you take off your coat is up to you, my suit fit comfortably over everything I was already wearing. But, caution! It might be hard to slide your shoes back on and especially to tie them up if you’re wearing sneakers or lace-up ones when you’re all…puffy.

We set sail and it’s wonderful as the boat gets further and further away from the city. Our guide; Diana, reveals that there are sea sickness pills on board, but I didn’t know that they take half an hour to work, so bummer for whoever didn’t think to take one at the beginning of the trip. By the way, there are clearly labeled SICK BAGS all over the boat, and the instructions for the overalls included a request to give it to the crew member “if vomited on” by the point of return. I don’t want to be that person. However, Diana assures us that shouldn’t be a problem as conditions are good. Also, in the 18 years of the company history no one has fallen overboard. I’m feeling fine. Oh, to be at sea.

South Iceland and the waters around Reykjavik are home to porpoises, dolphins, orcas and whales. All of these together are referred to as cetaceans when talking about sightings, so thanks to Diana, who explains this, I learn a new word. Other tips on identifying the possible proximity of a whale: water blowing up (guessed) and a certain smell – fish breath!

About an hour in to our trip we have our very first sighting of a group of white-beaked dolphins at a distance from the boat, but still close enough to see one of them jump out of the water in that fast, graceful arc before it dives again. A collective, quiet “Wow” escapes us and everyone falls silent, now in full-on sighting mode. For picture taking or filming it’s advised to hold on to something with one hand and hold the camera or your phone with the other. Preferably not extending your arm too far out beyond the railing, but that might just be me. The dolphins pop up from time to time as we sail along.

We spot some peaceful porpoises during the next half hour as well – you could say they are the smaller, plumper cousins of the dolphins, and they are adorable, although in length they can reach two meters, which is bigger than my tall dad.

We’re very far out at sea now, and I can’t see Reykjavik’s shoreline anymore. There’s a feeling of anticipation in the air, Diana is quiet for a while, but I notice the boat is gradually slowing down. Two other small whale watching boats, with passengers wearing life vests and sitting much closer to the water than we are, are sailing at a distance alongside us, and they do the same. Eventually we stop completely. The only sounds I hear now  is the lapping of the water and the occasional seagull. Of course, the shadows playing on the water between tiny waves make you jump a few times. And then…

Diana reports the first whale sighting, and I see it, a long, streamlined dark back just grazing the silvery surface, moving along parallel to the boat, followed by another! The excitement in Diana’s voice can be heard as she explains that is the minke whale, and it’s not often you see more than one at the same time. The two whales follow each other, then disappear beneath the surface and appear again a few minutes later. This YouTube clip gives a good view of what they look like:

I don’t cry, because I simply can’t. The first moment it was clear that something so much larger than any of us, yet so graceful, so quiet, was swimming out there, I became speechless. Seeing a whale strips you of whatever you might have imagined the encounter to be like beforehand and leaves a humbling sense of respect. We were just visitors in this environment that didn’t belong to us, among these beautiful, breath-taking creatures who are still being hunted (don’t support, 100%).

Diana sensibly reminded us during the tour that as with all wildlife, we had to be patient and there is never a fixed guarantee when and where you will see an animal. The company follows a code that is printed and taped up inside the boat. Basically, respect the whales, or the cetaceans, boats can only come closer up to a certain limit, otherwise we wait for them to come to us, not the other way around. Like I said, we are the visitors here.

Reykjavik: Along the Water

After spending some time in the church and losing myself in various streets and shops, I check my phone and then an actual paper map (it’s nice to switch). It looks like I can easily walk to the Harpa concert hall from where I am and make it in time for the next guided tour. It’s an architectural landmark visible from any point of Saebraut and another useful orientation point for walking around. Cloudy skies greet me when I arrive, but every pane of glass of the box fitted atop the staircases inside still reflects and catches the light differently.

The building is still young and our guide tells us of the massive amounts of attention and effort that went in to the acoustic design of the various halls of the Harpa. Wood, felt, moving panels – everything has a role. Each hall has a name inspired by Icelandic nature and while our guide talks, it strikes me once again how patriotic and protective locals are about the unique landscapes and natural wonders in the country. At the end of the tour the meaning behind the name is disclosed. Also based on votes from citizens,  Harpa means “harp” in Icelandic, and it’s also a common female name or surname. Finally, harpa is a month in the old Nordic calendar, and the first day of that month meant the beginning of summer, a time of brightness and awakening. A poetic combination.

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After glimpsing the rocky coastline and the water from one of the Harpa’s many windows, I can’t wait to get there myself. Taking a closer look once I reach the walk, masses and masses of small stones piled straight up meet the eye, each resting in the middle of an enormous rock. The effect is both amusing and impressive. While I do see some tourists attempting to carefully clamber further out and leave some art of their own, I know that most of these must have been left by local trolls in the night.

Walking further down along the water, I eventually catch my first glimpse of The Sun Voyager. I’d guess that most people recognize or have seen the image even before they knew what it was. The sculpture by Jón Gunnar Árnason is arresting from any angle and it’s fascinating to see it change depending on the light and time of day. What I like most about the concept is that it’s open to interpretation and that there is no single answer to the question about what it actually is.

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On another day I take a peaceful stroll around the Old Harbour area – there’s just something about water that I can’t resist. I’m lucky to catch the harbour in different light and spend some time joyfully snapping, then stop for a delicious meal in the Höfnin restaurant not far away. It’s been a good day.

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Reykjavik: Downtown

Hamburg is two hours ahead of Reykjavik, so I wake up very early and then legitimately laze around. Eventually the smell of bacon starts wafting in from downstairs and I go to breakfast. The City Park Hotel is a busy one. Everyone is tucking in to their food, clearly with a plan for the day, either preparing to leave or close to catching a bus for their next tour.

There’s multiple bus stops nearby, but I’m itching for a long walk, so I set off. At first glance the hotel seems further away from the city center, but in reality it’s extremely easy to go downtown from here. Either walk down to the water and mountains you see on your right and then along the shore on Saebraut, it’s easy to pick a turning point to the left, basically any of them takes you to central Reykjavik. The other way, which I opt for, is to go the short distance down Hallarmúli, then turn left on Suðurlandsbraut, which eventually seamlessly gives way to Laugavegur, one of Reykjavik’s main streets. It’s easy to branch out from there.

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I’m not very different from many others as I make my way to the Hallgrimskirkja. It’s visible from my hotel as well and I take the elevator up to the observation deck. It’s just under the roof, a circular space with barred windows slightly above my head. Underneath each window there’s a sturdy wooden box with discreet foot markings. I grasp two window bars and pull myself up a bit to stand on the box. Then I carefully angle my phone between the bars and snap the views I want to capture from up here. Needless to say, they are breathtaking.

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Getting lost in the surrounding streets afterwards is easy, then it starts to rain and I get hungry. Le Bistro catches my eye – clearly French inspiration in terms of food, but with an Icelandic twist, and inside it’s cluttered and decorated with all sorts of things that make you think of a Parisian cafe with history, albeit slightly exaggerated. Every inch of space is taken up by pictures, plaques, bowls, baskets, postcards, bottles, and there are even postcards in the bathroom – my kind of place! It’s amusing to find this slice of France on my first day in Reykjavik, but my cheese platter is local and so is the melt-in-your-mouth salmon.

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Getting to Reykjavik

“What about dimensions?” – “Dimensions are INSANE.”

I’m standing in line to check in my suitcase (this hasn’t happened in ages, I’m a determined hand luggage girl every chance I get) for my first ever trip to Iceland and experiencing my very own little slice of The Big Bang Theory, only these dudes are showing off more. “I work in intel, so I can’t talk about what I specialize in,” one of the guys says in response to a question, then repeats “I work in intel” three more times during the conversation. But otherwise, they are right, dimensions can be TOTALLY insane and somehow the statement cloaks the images of Iceland swirling around my brain after all the reading I’ve done.

Time passes quickly and before I know it, the plane starts to descend in Keflavik Airport. Brown and green mountainous terrain embroidered by silver-white river threads is visible below, followed by what looks like splashes of mirrors reflecting the clouds I see from the plane.

Shortly before landing our captain says it’s very windy on the ground and to please be careful when we go down the stairs to the airport buses. As soon as I take the first step outside the cabin, I realize that this wind means business. Airport staff around us is wearing gloves, hats, and sweaters. I’m thankful for my layers and promptly feel just ever so slightly smug about being prepared.

Making my way through the airport on the way to baggage claim I basically start learning the language from reading signs, as you do, and two important words enter my vocabulary: komur (arrivals) and  snyrting (toilet). There’s enough going on, but everything seems to be ticking like clockwork, and thankfully I arrive early at the Airport Direct desk (reassuringly orange and impossible to miss) in the arrivals terminal. There are still seats on an earlier bus and within minutes I board one, then off I go.

The transfer industry is extremely well developed in Reykjavik, and while renting a car is definitely an option, for those who don’t drive or just want to sit back for a while after their flight, there’s a wide range of transfer types to choose from, all of them listed on the Keflavik Airport website.

The wind is so strong that I can see the long grass on the ground being flattened by it. I also hear it whipping against the bus. But the road is as smooth as can be and I find myself thinking that if I did drive, I’d love to drive here. And having Russian roots, the feel of the motorway from a passenger perspective is definitely something I’m attuned to. It’s also one of the first indicators that this country is doing well. The landscape outside changes, going from mixed mounds of rock, earth, grass and moss, to mountains in the distance and then blue water, neat houses and apartment buildings along the shoreline.

Our somewhat taciturn, weather-beaten driver suddenly becomes more talkative right towards the end of my journey, by which point there are only two passengers left on the bus. I say thank you and wish him a nice day when I disembark at my hotel, to which I get a “Thank you, lady!” He sounded like Fezzik in The Princess Bride.

After getting something to eat (it turns out the hotel serves a comforting dinner buffet, clearly geared towards strengthening its guests against a windy climate), I pop outside and make my way to the clearly visible Hilton Hotel nearby. Because it’s just what I do. Everyone I see walking outside is dressed in practical outdoor clothes and not one single woman is wearing heels. The Hilton is immediately warm and almost festive inside, and that’s all very nice, but I have a purpose. Here you can buy the Reykjavik City Card, and I get mine so I can g0 to all those museums with a discount and not have to think about tickets on the bus.