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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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Ireland 2017

Dunguaire Castle

Last night I returned from an eight day adventure across the pond. We spent four and a half days in Dublin, and three and a half in Reykjavik. I saw amazing natural wonders and met beautiful people. This post is all about Ireland. The follow up on Iceland can be found here.

airbnb is your friend

We began in Dublin heading to our apartment right in the city center. Just off O’Connell Street it was the perfect home base for our time in the city. O’Connell is lined with hotels, bars, restaurants, and is the main thoroughfare of Dublin. Madigan’s became our “local” pub for the trip and the staff is beyond friendly and super hilarious. The weather was spotty even for August so we had a mix of bright sun, overcast humidity, and pouring rain. Walking is easy to do but layers will be your friend. As will comfortable walking shoes. There are a lot of things to see in limited space, but being comfortable will be help to get in those extra miles for all the sightseeing you can.

Phoenix Park

Our friends were running the Dublin half marathon, which is actually the reason this trip happened. We walked through Phoenix Park to greet them for their finish. Here’s where those comfortable shoes come in. Our taxi driver dropped us at the southern entrance to the park and we then discovered the race finish was at the northern entrance to the park. Thank the luck of the Irish for the good weather! We walked through the park full of tall grass, sweeping lawns, and the second largest standing obelisk in the world, Wellington Monument. The Dublin Zoo is in the park, as well as the president’s residence. After seeing our runners finish, we headed to a pub for a few pints for recovery.

Cliffs of Moher

We booked a full day trip to Galway and I HIGHLY recommend this to anyone visiting Ireland. You can drive completely across the country in a few hours out of Dublin, staring at beautiful scenery along the way. Our tour was booked through Kennedy & Carr and our driver Dominic kept us entertained with stories and even songs. He started in the beginning explaining the formation of the island, the story of Irish independence and the strife that came with it, and ended with current events such as Brexit and where he hopes his country will go. The end point for our trip was the Cliffs of Moher. Everyone I know who has been to Ireland has been there, and it’s for good reason. At the recommendation of our tour driver, we took the Doolin Ferry for a trip to see the cliffs from below. The boats leave on the hour, and the entire journey is about 45 mins. A word of caution though, the sea was rough for us so I wouldn’t try this if you have trouble with sea sickness. The trip back to the dock was smoother so it may have been a wind issue, but even I had to hold hard to the rail at times to avoid slipping. The views from below are great, and you can see some of the sea birds that make their nests there. If you don’t have the time, or the stomach, for the ferry there is nothing to fear. The cliffs from above are breathtaking.

Brazen Head

Pubs are obviously a huge part of the Ireland experience. The bartenders are pleasant, helpful, and always willing to engage in conversation. The Irish are hands down the nicest people I’ve ever met. Their gift of gab is real, and it was rare to meet someone who didn’t feel honestly interested in us. For women the experience is different, but probably not for the reason you’d think. It was illegal for women to drink in pubs up into the 1970s. Pubs that did allow them kept them in separate rooms called “snugs.” The women’s restrooms in older pubs are often in odd places due to this history. They literally had to figure out where to put a separate set of water closets. Now everyone drinks together, and you can find whatever you’re looking for whether that’s a quiet place to sip some whiskey or a rowdy spot to drink many pints. The photo above is from The Brazen Head, which calls itself Irelands oldest pub. Drinks have been enjoyed there since 1198, when it was a coach house. It’s a stop on those hop on hop off tours, so be prepared for large crowds. We went in the space between lunch and happy hour and found the courtyard nearly empty. After an hour or so it became totally slammed as people stopped in for drinks before dinner. It’s worth a stop to see the rich wood inside pub, and the beautiful outdoor seating.

Guinness Storehouse

The Guinness really does taste better in Ireland. The beer is just as dark, but with a light and refreshing taste. The head is sweet and I was a little sad when it was gone. The Guinness Storehouse is a great stop in Dublin and I think it’s worth braving the crowds. Go before lunch, and you are totally fine skipping the guided tour and just enjoying it yourself. Each level covers a different part of the Guinness story. My favorite was the advertising level, where you can see the amazing marketing Guinness has come up with over the years. There are a lot of fun photos to be taken there. You can learn to pour the perfect pint, or you can go straight to the Gravity Bar to enjoy your comped taste of Ireland’s finest. The bar is at the very top of the building and has the best view of Dublin. The 360 view will show you the architecture of old buildings and rolling hills at the edge of the city.

River Liffey

The River Liffey cuts straight through Dublin and serves as a helpful landmark to find your way. It’s a great walk where you can see tourists and locals alike. Definitely make a stop for photos at the Ha’penny Bridge. There are plenty of bars and restaurants along the way where you can quell your hunger or quench your thirst.

Ireland is a land rich with history, pain, and redemption. The people of this island have battled nature, the English, and themselves. They received all the knowledge of the known world after the rest of Europe slipped into the dark ages. They kept this info safe in the Book of Kells, and shared it with humanity when the light came back. The 1798 Irish Rebellion and the Easter Rising of 1916 showed locals and the world the power of the Irish people. Many believed in their right to self govern, and with over 200 civilian deaths in 1916 the rest of the island began to feel the same. Ireland still deals with the struggle of having two separate nations in one area, separated by religion and violence. In spite of all of this, the Irish people are warm, humorous, and always ready with a helpful tip or a friendly chat. The rest of the world can learn a lot from them.

Tips!

Save your money on the trip to and from the airport by riding the Aircoach. Each trip is 6 EUR and it’s super easy to find. The ride from the Dublin airport to the city center is about 30 minutes.

There are taxi stands at all hotels and some other spots around the city. There is an abundance of taxis since there is no limit on medallions. Since we always saw them at the stands, we actually didn’t know you can hail a taxi just as you would anywhere else. After the race we found ourselves in the suburbs with no sign of a stand. I quickly found the app mytaxi which allows you to call a taxi just like an Uber. You pay through the app and it makes it easy if you are stuck away from the city center and need a ride.

The hop on hop off buses can be fun if the weather is good. It’s a great way to spend the day making your way around Dublin and saving on the walking. If you’re planning to visit the Guinness Storehouse you can buy a ticket from the bus tour company before. This gives you a skip the line pass which can really come in handy on busy days. Buy it along with your bus ticket and you’re good to go.

If you can afford the extra cost, go with a private tour to Galway. We had a group of seven and the bus easily could have fit 15 or 20. The cost came to be about 130 USD per person and it was 100% worth it. The large buses will get you to the same place, but the journey will not be the same. We had the chance to go off the original itinerary and stop at a totally empty abbey. Kennedy and Carr is only one company, there are many others who I’m sure will offer a similar experience.

Most pubs stop serving at midnight or 12:30. There are “late” bars that will stay open until around 3am. You can look these up easily on google or yelp. The Temple Bar area has a lot, but expect to pay more in that part of town than others. We went to The Globe which had amazing dancing and a great crowd. There is a large room in the back with couches and is a great place to go with a group when it’s crowded.

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