Iceland 2017

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This is part two of my adventure in August 2017. Part one on Ireland can be found here

Iceland is known as the land of fire and ice. Scenes from Game of Thrones have been shot there, and it’s become a major travel destination thanks to its beauty. The country suffered a huge economic bust literally overnight, and has fueled a major comeback thanks to tourism and home construction. We set out to Reykjavik after a few days in Dublin expecting to see many of the island’s sights on the southern shore. We were gobsmacked when we found how expensive everything is. To be fair, we had warning. Every blog post and travel guide I read about the country said this. I live in San Francisco, I thought I knew about expensive. Lesson learned! I still had an amazing time and would love to go back, maybe next time in the Winter.

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If you plan to stay in the city, you will save major money walking. Reykjavik is a VERY walkable city. Our airbnb was 10 minutes from just about everything we wanted to see. We were around the corner from Hallgrimskirkja church, and a short walk downhill to the major shopping and eating street Laugavegur. The area we stayed is at the top of the hill, which is not very steep or strenuous to walk back up. You should be able to explore the entire city in a few hours. The weather was mild during our trip, with mostly sunny skies and only one short burst of rain. Iceland’s weather is notorious for changing quickly, so bring layers and be prepared for rain just in case. Our temps topped out in the 60sF, they may be warmer in July and definitely colder the rest of the year.

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Walk down to the waterfront to see this beautiful sculpture named Sólfarið, or Sun Voyager. You can look out and see Mount Esja, which is a popular hiking area. It rises out of the sea quickly, and is a constant reminder of the volcanic forces that formed the island. To the left of the Sun Voyager is the city’s beautiful concert hall, called Harpa. We didn’t make it there on this trip, although we did watch fireworks over it on our last night.

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We visited the National Museum of Iceland and I was not disappointed. Entry was ~20 USD and we walked through in about an hour and a half, but it could have extended longer because there is so much to see. The layout of the museum takes you through all of Iceland’s history from the formation of the island to its modern economic struggle. You’ll see Viking artifacts, learn about the acceptance of Christianity, how the country lived under Danish rule, and later gained independence. One of the coolest things I learned, is that Iceland is the oldest known democracy, with chieftains meeting at Þingvellir to discuss laws and how to dispense justice. The photo above is an awesome setup of a single-room home where a family would live and survive off the land. Each bed would be shared by parents and the kids, sleeping naked to keep warm. There is also a room that is a recreation of a typical Reykjavik living room during the middle of the 20th century.

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A very quirky spot to visit is the Icelandic Phallological Museum. Entry is ~15 USD and you can get through in about 45 minutes. You will see exactly what the name suggests: a bunch of penises. Over 250 penises from mammals in Iceland, both real and “imagined.” It all began when founder Sigurður Hjartarson was given a bull penis as a joke gift. 40 years later the collection has grown and is pretty impressive. A must see is the room full of special penises, those of a merman, elves, and trolls. Remember that most Icelanders still believe elves are real!

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Riding an Icelandic horse was an absolute must do for me while there. With the cost of everything we didn’t know if we’d make it, and I’m so glad we did. We opted to ride with ÍSHESTAR stables. Transport to and from the stables, and an hour long beginners ride was ~95 USD. When I go back I would love to try a more advanced ride, being able to experience the tölt is a bucket list item for me. The experience begins with a video overview of handling the horse, and then you are taken to the stables to meet your mount. The horses are sweet but more spunky than their stateside counterparts. My horse Freya was kind but had a mind of her own, opting to try to sneak out of the lineup we were in while on the trail. The hour ride makes a big loop through lava fields and beautiful vistas. The group stops in the middle so the guides can take photos of everyone. This was a highlight for sure.

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The Blue Lagoon. It’s probably the most known spot to visit in Iceland. Before our trip we wanted to avoid the Blue Lagoon at all costs. There is an older and less visited geothermal spring called the Secret Lagoon. Along with everything else, we found that that spa was much further away and therefore much more expensive to visit. With time in the trip running out, we bit the bullet and secured a spot at the lagoon. Here is where I eat my words: the Blue Lagoon is amazing and worth the visit. Our trip was booked through Reykjavik Excursions and was ~120 USD which included transport to and from the BSI bus terminal, a towel, and one drink at the swim up bar. On the trip home our driver offered to drop us at the stop closer to our airbnb, which was amazing after a long soak in the pool. It’s super important you book a slot to go. Many people just show up and aren’t able to get in. This is true during the Summer months, it may be easier in the Winter. To be safe, I’d suggest booking a time. You arrive and can upgrade your fee to include a robe and slippers. This costs another ~20 USD. Two in our group did this, and while I was jealous at the beginning, we were fine leaving. The entire group needed to deal with it though, because those robes disappeared at the end of the night. This is super unfortunate and I hope it was more from confusion and not outright theft. This didn’t take away from the experience though. The color of the lagoon is a milky blue, and comes from the high silica content in the water from a nearby geothermal power plant. It’s completely non-toxic, so no need to worry. Our session was 11pm, and even at night the lagoon looked so cool. As you walk through some parts are warmer, some cooler, and it’s never more than about shoulder deep. There is a mud mask station which makes for a fun photo opportunity. There are free lockers for your stuff and the showers (you must shower before and will want to after) are hot and the crowds move quickly. A word of warning with the showers: the water blasts EVERYWHERE so hang your towel on the outside. I had a very wet and very cold towel at the end of the night. You may stay in the lagoon as long as you want, no matter when your session began. It closes at 12:30 with the last bus pickup at 1:15am. Tourist trap or not, we enjoyed this adventure. This is also the place we saw…..

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The NORTHERN FRIGGIN LIGHTS!!!! It was completely unexpected that we’d get a chance to see these during our trip. We had heard you can begin to see them in mid-August, but the light pollution of the city made it difficult. We had finished our soak in the lagoon and had some time to kill before our bus came back. While enjoying our drinks one of the staff members of the cafe came over to let us know the lights were outside. He told us to rush out to the patio, since they can come and go quite quickly. We, and everyone still in the cafe, made a mad dash outside and there they were. I can’t describe the feeling, but it was intense. The night sky was still not completely pitch black, and the lights were pretty subtle. But they were there. We all ooed and awwed and for a moment we were all citizens of earth enjoying an amazing scene. We were told it might be better viewing in the parking lot, which is where the above shot by my friend Mike came from. Out there we saw a huge wave of lights come through, making it that much more cool. Full disclosure: the photo above had some coaxing from an editing program. The colors were not changed, but the contrast and exposure were. This is just to pump up the image and make it more noticeable. The pic came from a phone as well, so the coaxing really just helped with some of the manual settings a larger camera would have offered. I guarantee this is done with any photos we’ve seen of these lights on postcards or online, but it’s just a warning that to the naked eye they MIGHT not look as vibrant. I guess I’ll have to find out for myself, I’d love to see them in the Winter when true darkness sets in.

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Our final day in Reykjavik was the busiest of them all. It was the day of a large festival called Culture Night. Apparently it’s the largest festival in Iceland, and the streets made that clear. We wanted to go up Hallgrímskirkja for the best views of the city, but the line was insane. We wanted to tour Harpa, but the crowds were out in droves. Knowing what I know now, I would front load activities and sights in this city and region as a whole. Tourism has exploded which is great for the country, but a little rough for travelers. We spent most of our last day relaxing in our airbnb, followed by a little more walking. Reykjavik has amazing street art, some of the best I’ve seen. It’s everywhere and best of all, it’s free. We finished with a stop at the famous Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur hot dog stand. Again, we went at an off time to avoid a miserable line. We were served quick, and the hot dogs really are good. They taste lighter than American dogs, and the toppings are interesting. Get it with everything, which includes crispy onions, a rémoulade sauce, and what I think was mustard but it was very light and almost sweet. The dogs are ~4 USD so they are a real deal by Iceland standards. At the end of the day, it is just a hot dog. But if the line is short enough for you and you’re feeling like a snack, jump in and you’ll be able to say you tried them.

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Culture Night ended with a fireworks display along the water. We watched from the Sun Voyager which had people around but was not overly crowded. It was a perfect way to end the trip, literally with a bang. I feel lucky to have experienced Iceland, even if it didn’t go all as planned. This almost felt like a reconnaissance mission for others to come. Granted, it was a very expensive lesson, but one that I think will help should we come back. The Icelandic people were friendly and helpful, but take note they are direct and don’t really do small talk. Do not take it personal. They still have a wealth of knowledge and a server at one of our dinners even gave us some of her own change so we could check out their Króna. These people have been surviving on an island just below the Arctic Circle for a thousand years, I don’t blame them for wanting to get to the point. This feeling could also come from the fact we had just been in Ireland, land of the nicest people ever. Oh and get ready to see some amazing colored in eyebrows on the ladies. Not subtle and oh so powerful.

Tips!

Seriously, be ready to spend a lot. I wish we had only visited Iceland so we didn’t have the double city vacation spend-o-rama. Expect to pay ~15 USD for breakfast or lunch, and ~30 USD for dinner. This is not including beverages. Most places were ~12 USD for pints of beer, and ~20 USD (or more) for cocktails. The sticker shock is major. One way around this is to drink during the many happy hours the city has. Someone realized this was an issue, and created an app called Appy Hour that can help you find the affordable places to drink. Happy hours generally run in the afternoon between lunch and dinner, and some places have late night happy hours.

Another way to save money is to buy your booze at the duty free section of Keflavík Airport. It’s HUGE. They have shopping carts and carry everything. You can buy liquor, wine, and beer, and are able to take in 6 units per person. There is a helpful guide that tells you what goes into those units. I bought one liter of vodka and two six packs of beer. They also have snacks, although you can buy these at Bonus or another grocery store in the city.

Speaking of grocery stores, use them. We bought items for breakfast and even did an appetizer dinner one night. You will save a significant amount of money if you go this route. This is another reason airbnb is so great. We had a full kitchen and a decent sized fridge to store our goods. Bonus is the cheapest store, but there are others if you are closer to one.

Arrive early for your flights out of KEF. They have self service kiosks and bag drops, and things can get confusing. It took us four tries to get a kiosk that was able to print our bag labels, and then I was told my carry on sized bag was oversized. It’s a bit of a nightmare. This may not be an issue for all airlines, but Wow left a lot to be desired service wise. Save your sanity and arrive at LEAST two hours before boarding.

We did have meals at some amazing restaurants. My top picks:

Public House – a gastropub with an Asian twist. The best edamame I’ve ever had, and a decent late night happy hour. Their local mussels were also amazing, as was a scallop ceviche.

Eldsmiðjan – pizza with fun selections and a good happy hour. The thin crust pizza has a lot of character and the ~6 USD Viking pints were refreshing. There are two in the city and I’m sure they’re both great.

Dillon Whiskey Bar – a three story bar with more than just whiskey. They have a good happy hour and the third floor is a comfy spot that is definitely a hit with locals.

Sushi Social – we didn’t make it here, but kept wanted to so badly. Someone else go and tell me how it is!

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