[I already know this post is going to MONSTROUS, so it’s coming at you in parts. It is also very late. But here’s part one.]
Welcome, family and friends who are reading this as well random strangers who just happened to stumble upon this blog. For those of you who don’t know, I spent a week in Iceland earlier this month which is not a normal thing that I do — so let’s blog about it.
I was experiencing major travel anxiety before this trip (as outlined here). Like, I did not want to go at all the night before. It would have been easier to stay home. But as you and I well know, that’s not how the best adventures happen. So that’s what I was telling myself as I got ready on Monday morning, crying to myself, and lining up some last minute items (like deodorant — because I always forget my deodorant for some reason). Full disclosure here — I may have been crying because (as I would soon find out) my period was about to start. I was also very, very tired, having endured a long night of tossing and turning in anticipation.
We had a long day ahead of us. We decided to fly out of Minneapolis to save ourselves over $300, but that meant a 5 1/2 hour drive before (and after) our trip . . . which seemed like a good idea at the time.
[Here’s a tip, kids — if you’re jumping through hoops to save some money, try to really think about how you’re going to feel about your decisions when the time of your trip comes. Traveling has taught me that sometimes paying extra for convenience can be extremely worth it. Just something to consider.]
But let’s skip the boring travel part. No one wants to hear about the music I listened to during the car ride or the breakfast sandwich I ate at the airport or the movie I watched on the plane (Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers), so let’s not even mention it.
Damn, too late.
Skip to landing in Keflavik International Airport, approximately a 45-minute drive from Reykjavik (our final destination). First thing I did in Iceland was take a dump. Yes, that’s right. I’m pretty sure it’s the first thing I do in every single country I visit because airplane toilets scare me. The bathroom in this airport was insane. Each stall (or room, more like) came fully equipped with sink, mirror, and hand dryer. It was an introvert’s ultimate bathroom extravaganza dream boat . . . or something. Now, traveling internationally somehow always brings up toilet talk, so I’m just getting it out of the way — the toilets there all had buttons to flush rather than handles and the water didn’t whirlpool so much as waterfall, you get what I’m saying?
Toilet talk: Check.
[Pro travel tip #2: Double check your flight times before booking — make sure that you aren’t arriving super early in the morning . . . specifically 8 hours before you’re allowed to check in to your hotel. I may or may not be speaking from experience.]
Let’s just say, I got to know the Keflavik International Airport very well. I can tell you where all the bathrooms are as well as the price of a small coffee at Joe and the Juice (a Danish coffee and juice chain).
I did get my hands on a copy of the Reykjavik Grapevine, a newspaper that, from what I can tell, is mostly geared towards tourists, with all kinds of tour listings, events going on around town, and restaurants to visit. It did have a few articles of interest, however; one covering the events that led up to the government collapse, which happened while we were there (it wasn’t exactly chaotic, though, as other nations’ newspapers were reporting — I had no idea it had happened until after the fact).
There were also many articles about the recent the tourism boom, mostly regarded as a necessary evil to boost the country’s economy but at the risk of sacrificing parts of ancient Icelandic culture and tradition — specifically the language. It seems like there’s quite a debate about how much English the country is starting to use. I’m no expert on government or Icelandic culture but I do love reading other countries’ newspapers — nothing is better to help you understand what’s on the minds of the local citizens.
Let’s skip again to our arrival in Reykjavik. After a confusing bus ride (in which we had to change buses once after being told we wouldn’t have to) and being dropped off right beside Hallgrímskirkja Church (more on that later), our bus driver gave us unhelpful directions by simply pointing in the general direction of our hostel. We wandered around for about 10 minutes trying to find the building that looked like the picture of our hostel (it’s amazing how similar every building looks), and pet two cats along the way. Spoiler alert: we found it, checked in, and finally it was NAP TIME.
We woke up for dinner around 7pm. The sun was just starting to go down, but the weather was perfect. I was in leggings and a sweater and feeling fine. We headed down Skólavörðustígur (pronunciation TBD), a beautiful and expensive shopping street, in search of something to eat. Here’s one thing I don’t understand about Iceland — why is dining out so damn expensive? The majority of the restaurants cost approximately $25-30 (roughly). It usually cost us half that much to go to any of the museums.
It might sound like I’m complaining but that’s only because I am. The food in the market across the street from our hostel was reasonably priced — does service just jack the price up? Do server’s actually receive a decent wage and therefore gratuity is included? Why does a small cup of coffee in a cafe cost me almost $5?!
After the initial sticker shock, we resorted to dining in smaller, more reasonably priced cafes, at hot dog stands (seriously, eat a hot dog in Iceland — they put our American dogs to shame), and shopping in markets for food we could easily make on our own in our ill-equipped hostel kitchens (our second hostel didn’t have a stove — how the hell am I supposed to make buttered noodles without a stove??).
We settled for a small cafe called Café Babalú and I ate the most life-giving grilled cheese ever. Maybe I was just really tired and hungry. Maybe it was the cozy atmosphere in the cafe or the warm light of the sun going down in a foreign country. Whatever it was, that grilled cheese was one of the tastiest I ever ate.
It was a great end to a not-so-great day of travel.
The next day we got up early and did my favorite thing — wandered. I love just walking around and seeing what we can find, walking into any stores/museums/venues that we think look interesting. First we entered a sculpture garden that sat kitty corner to our hostel. Turns out it was part of the Einar Jónsson Museum right across the street from Hallgrímskirkja. Jónsson is considered Iceland’s first sculptor, who drew inspiration from Icelandic folklore, as well as mythological and religious subject matter. In 1909, he offered all his works as a gift to the Icelandic people, as long as they built a museum for them (the guy doesn’t sound the most humble, but when you’re the first ever sculptor a country has, I guess you can do whatever you want). The museum officially opened in 1923 — the first building to be constructed on top of the hill Skolavorduhaed.
Seriously, there used to be nothing there. So much of Reykjavik is practically brand new. As you can see, it’s now surrounded by a bustling urban landscape.
The museum served as Jónsson’s studio and gallery. The top floor even served as his penthouse apartment. Unfortunately, we were not allowed to take pictures inside, but I snapped a few shots of some of the sculptures in the garden:
We then crossed the street to check out Hallgrímskirkja. While the church is overall quite a grand structure, the inside is pretty plain.
It did have a beautiful organ, though:
The best view was offered by taking a visit to the top. We took the tiny elevator (it only held 6 people at a time) up to the top level to take some pictures and check out the 360 degree view of the city.
To quote an American woman next to me who thought I was her husband, “Everything’s so neat and clean!” I agreed with her, but when she realized I wasn’t her husband, she ditched me to go find him and tell him how neat and clean it was. I get it. I’m always the third wheel.
All the buildings are different colors, but not eclectic – they’re all similar in style. Like I said before, everything in the area is fairly new (in terms of all of history, anyway) and in general, tidy.
We descended and made our way towards the Harpa, the main concert hall/venue in Reykjavik. It was near there where we stopped for our first hot dog. That glorious, glorious dog. I highly recommend getting one if you’re going to Iceland — and get it with everything. Everything includes onions, crispy onions, mustard, ketchup, and Icelandic mystery sauce (which is not what it’s actually called, but I don’t know what it’s actually called — all I know is that it was delicious and you should eat it). I had one of these wonderful dogs for three of my meals during the trip and I’m not even sorry.
Along the way we also took in all the graffiti and artwork — gorgeous artwork — on the sides of many buildings:
One of the articles I was reading in the paper talked about artists in Reykjavik. Most are struggling to afford the cost of living, especially in the 101 district (where we were staying), which used to be full of artists, but has recently been taken over by tourism. Because it’s such a desirable area, real estate and rental costs have spiked, causing many artists to move away from the district, even out of the country all-together in some cases.
Once we made it to the Harpa, we did some shopping in the gift shops there and admired the building. We didn’t actually see a show because the cost of tickets were out of our price range — besides, Björk wasn’t on the schedule anyway.
The building is right on the water, though — like, literally, right on top of the water. It was designed by a Danish firm in cooperation with artist Olafur Eliasson.
The day wasn’t over yet, but I’m afraid this blog post is. There’s just so much to pack in here, and I don’t want to leave anything out. Therefore, I just need to stop here so I can go into full detail about the most interesting $16 I have ever spent in my life (among other things). Intrigued?
Stay tuned for Part 2!