Monday, October 03, 2016

Iceland Day 1: Introduction to Reykjavik

I landed in Iceland at 5:00 am on Friday, simultaneously pleased that I would have an entire day to enjoy, but also worried about being essentially homeless (and jetlagged) in a foreign city for many hours. I couldn't check in to my guest house until 2:00 pm, which meant a nine-hour gap to fill. But first, I had to figure out how to get out of Keflavik airport.

I seem to have a sort of handicap about doors and often find myself at a destination, unable to find the way in. Is it plain stupidity? It once took me ten minutes to figure out that a rogue ampersand was the reason a doctor was suddenly unable to print any of her prescriptions but now here I was walking up and down a long airport corridor, unable to find the way out. My fellow passengers had all mysteriously scattered. I stopped in the toilet (because who knows when I'd see another one) which was down a flight of stairs in a sort of dead end enclosure full of angry looking people like hornets trapped in a jam jar.

After wandering some more, I finally noticed a tiny passport control icon on one of the signs and followed it. Passport control was deserted, despite the huge jet that had just landed and I approached the officers across a wide empty space, feeling like the Cowardly Lion coming to supplicate the Wizard of Oz. Passport control had been another worry. I expected to be tutted at for being a female, traveling alone, no doubt ready to corrupt Icelandic men with an insatiable desire for wild Viking sex. But the passport lady simply said hello, thumbed my passport for a blank page, stamped it vigorously, and I was on my way.

Getting into Reykjavik from Keflavik (a forty-five minute journey) is extremely easy on the Flybus. You can book your tickets from home and when you step out of the airport, the buses are waiting there. You can buy a ticket that will drop you off right at your hotel, but I opted to be dropped at the BSI bus station on the edge of the city. I rented a storage locker in the bus station for about $11 and it was well worth the price to be free of my heavy backpack. Feeling very light and happy, I headed into town in search of breakfast.

There was a snafu related to accessing data with my phone while in Iceland, but it's too boring to relate here. It suffices to say that unless you'll be driving yourself around the country, you'll be fine if you keep your phone in airplane mode and just use the abundant free wifi. I had the mapsme app, which works even if you are offline and it was super helpful throughout the trip.

Hallgrimskirkja and the purple Icelandic sky

With my app, I found my way from the bus station to the center of town with no trouble at all, and after stopping to admire the imposing Hallgrimskirkja, I made my way into a cozy bakery and soon was enjoying toast with jam and a cappuccino. It was a really delicious breakfast and the American man sitting at the table next to me leaned over and announced solemnly that he came to Reykjavik specifically for the bread.

I had booked a walking tour of Reykjavik for the morning. Ordinarily, I don't book walking tours, but in this case, I felt I needed a good introduction to the city. I had some ideas about what I wanted to see and do, but I thought the tour might introduce me to some things I wasn't aware of, which is exactly what happened. The tour was led by Auður, of the blog I Heart Reykjavik which I read avidly prior to my trip. There were about twelve of us in the group and we got an insider's view of Reykjavik and learned about the street art, the architecture, the city's history, and a wide breadth of fascinating facts about life in Reykjavik, such as a good place in the city to see the northern lights, restaurant recommendations, and the little tidbit that the prison system for the entire country has just 150 beds. (On my last day, I realized I hadn't heard a single siren my entire time in Iceland.)

Reykjavik backyard
Houses in Reykjavik
Mural on a garden wall depicting the turf houses that Icelanders used to live in.
Many houses in Reykjavik are finished with brightly painted corrugated iron
A street in Reykjavik with the sea in the distance

After the tour, I collected my bag from the storage locker and walked about twenty minutes to my accommodation, a guest-run house in downtown Reykjavik. The house had several private bedrooms and the kitchen, bathrooms, and dining room were shared by all. (Accommodations are much cheaper if you're willing to share a bathroom.)

My guest house

My sweet little room.

I dumped my bag and went out to see some more of the city. I'd bought a Reykjavik City Card from the tourist office at the bus station. This gave me free admission to eight museums, (alas, not the Penis Museum), free use of Reykjavik public transportation and municipal pools, a free ticket for the Viðey Island ferry, and discounts at several restaurants and shops.

First stop was the Settlement Exhibit, which was only two doors down from my guest house. This museum surrounds a 1200-year old Viking long house, which was left in place upon its discovery and the museum built around it. Also included in the exhibit are numerous artifacts from the era and information about daily life in the earliest days of Iceland's settlement.

After my embarrassing adventure in the Reykjavik City Hall, I made my way to the National Museum of Iceland, an absorbing tour of Iceland's history, from the early Viking days to the year 1944 when Iceland became an independent nation. I particularly liked the skeletons, the embroidered church robes and altar cloths, and the examples of national dress. My energy was flagging at this point, but I walked down to the Reykjavik art museum and literally couldn't find the door. There was a door, but even with my limited knowledge of Icelandic, I could tell that the sign on the front was referencing a social services office. And yet "Art Museum" was painted right on the side of the building.  Not wanting a repeat of the city hall incident, I gave up. I think jet lag had completely eclipsed my brain at this point.

My last stop before collapsing into bed was a supermarket where I settled on a prepared lamb curry for dinner. I bought tea-making supplies for the next morning, but had difficulty identifying the milk. I almost bought the product pictured below, since it was packaged in a milk carton and the name seemed right. Luckily I noticed the picture on the carton before I actually bought it.

Once back in my cozy bed, with the window cracked for the cold Icelandic air, I slept like the dead for many hours.

mjólk ≠ milk


  1. I love this recap. Great photos + practical information + Penis Museum!

  2. Will read closely when I have more time, but for now: great pics and yes, accomodation really is so much cheaper with shared bathrooms! Goes for guesthouses, obviously for hostels and also, which is great to know for anyone going to Tokyo, for the ryokans - traditional guesthouses scattered all around the city. They only earn 2 stars because of the shared bathrooms so obviously many, many people count them out and then spend ridiculous Money on expensive and maybe not very good hotels... Greatest travel tip!

  3. I've heard great things about traveling in Iceland. Your photos are fantastic! I love that mural.

  4. Wow! What an adventure! Wonderful photos :-) I don't think I'm brave enough to travel by myself so far away, but I can totally understand how you might find it very peaceful.

  5. Fascinating. I love your photos, especially all the colors, both natural and man-made.

    I felt like you did in the airport approaching passport control when I went to Canada last December. There was a looooong hallway with one desk at the end of it, with one person sitting there. It seemed like it couldn't possibly be the right way for the gateway to entering Canada. It wasn't actually passport control, but it was the right way to get there. I admire you for navigating such things while being jet lagged.

    I also had a mini-adventure in France trying to buy tomato sauce, and failing. I'm glad that carton of stuff (yogurt? cream cheese?) had a photo.

  6. Yogurt?
    That room is so precious.
    And that SKY. That's what gets me most about your photos from this trip. All that vast, cold-looking SKY.