Reykjavik and Beyond
Iceland is a land of beauty and geological violence. Due to its formation in the last 17 million years, it is still a relatively young island. It lies on the Mid-Atlantic Ridge where the European and American plates are moving away from each other at roughly 2cm a year. Consequently, magma from deep underground wells up to the surface where it violently erupts onto the surface. There is an eruption on average every three to five years. It is this volcanism that brings so many to see Iceland. A chance to swim in the thermal springs heated by the Earth’s inner heat, watch the geysers erupting hot water high into the air, snorkel where the two plates inexorably push away from each other or just to see the amazing volcanic landscape of waterfalls, rugged mountains and grizzled glaciers stained black with volcanic ash.
Getting there and getting around
Flying to Iceland from the UK couldn’t be much simpler with both low cost and national airlines flying to Keflavik International Airport. A word of warning though, the airport is a 45-minute drive from downtown Reykjavik and bus transfers start at around £15 each way. You’ll soon discover Iceland is a very expensive country to visit. The cost of living is nearly 50% higher than in the UK.
I found hiring a car and driving to be the best way to discover Iceland. Guided tours are informative but expensive and limit you to the amount of time you can spend at any given site. The roads are generally good and traffic light once outside of Reykjavik. Be prepared for driving in snowy or icy conditions in winter and spring as you never know what you might encounter. http://www.road.is/ is invaluable for giving you up to date conditions of the roads in Iceland.
Things to do in Reykjavik
For my regular readers you know I do like a free tour in a new city and Reykjavik was no exception. CityWalk Reykjavik offers a two-hour tour giving background on the history of the country and city. These tours might not take you to all the main sights but the commentary is entertaining and informative, and it offers a great way to get your bearings in a new place. The tour guides rely on you paying what you think the tour is worth which I feel makes them far more enthusiastic about the area, especially on a cold, snowy, windy morning in March.
I’ve noticed a theme on my recent travels where the great, big church that everyone goes to see is not actually the main cathedral. Tromsø for one – I’m looking at you. The same is true for Reykjavik. Hallgrimskirkja is the church everyone is familiar with and it is a truly imposing building. Designed to look like an erupting geyser it is certainly worth a visit and worth contrasting the interior with what you would see in a Catholic church. Iceland is predominantly Lutheran. For a fee a lift will take you to the top of the tower for a view over the city. But it is just a parish church that took 40 years to build. If you’re looking for the cathedral it’s the quaint little church next to the parliament building.
If like me, you’re a chocoholic then the tour of OmNom chocolate factory is not to be missed. It’s not one for children as it involves a classroom style session learning about chocolate before diving in to try a large range of the products on offer. I tried 17 different samples on the day including some that were just testers and so not available to the general public. Unsurprisingly, with such variety some of the chocolate was amazing whilst some of it I would never want to try again. Drunk raisins with coffee was gorgeous whilst I don’t mind if I never see the 100% Peruvian again.
Iceland is a volcanic island and one of the features you can go and visit are lava tubes. Tunnels left behind where lava flows crusted over and then emptied out. One of the largest in the country is Raufarhólshellir at the Lava Tunnel, about 35 minutes drive from Reykjavik. The ice stalagmites will make you feel like you’ve walked onto the set of an Ice Aliens movie whilst the rich colours in the rock are quite spectacular.
You’ll reap the benefits of your own car if you decide to take the Golden Circle route. This route takes in some of the most popular sites such as the UNESCO World Heritage site at Þingvellir, Gulfoss waterfall and the Strokkur geyser but it is often full of tourist buses. With your own car, you can plan your trip around the quieter times, but I feel more importantly spend as little or as much time in these places as you want, not to be controlled by the tour guides timings. This will give you a chance to truly explore. It will also allow you to stop at other sites you might otherwise miss. Kerið Crater Lake is one such example. This permanent lake is found in the crater of an old volcano where you can walk the rim of the volcano and descend down to the water’s edge.
The Blue Lagoon is another top destination in Iceland, just 15 minutes from the airport and 45 minutes from Reykjavik. Is it a natural feature? No. Is it a tourist trap? Yes. Should you visit? Well, that is your decision. I was in two minds about a visit and the £75 price tag certainly made me think twice but I decided to take the plunge, literally. If you do decide to go, my advice is to try and book the earliest time slot in the morning and get there before it gets busy. This way you can enjoy the solitude and peacefulness before it becomes crowded and full of overenthusiastic visitors. In winter-time the lack of sunlight also adds to the eeriness of the lagoon. Don’t forget to use your free silica face mask even if it’s just for the selfie.
If you like to see or do something a little unusual then there are a few options in Reykjavik. First up you could check out the Punk Museum. This small museum tells the history of Icelandic punk music and is found in the old public toilets at the end of Bankastræti. The old cubicles and urinals are still there whilst the story is told through old newspaper clippings and photos. Text in English and Icelandic.
Alternatively, why not check out the Icelandic Phallological Museum on Laugavegur for everything penis related. Yes, you read that correctly. This museum contains the world’s largest collection of penises and penile parts from around the world. There is a heavy focus on animals found in and around Iceland however, you’ll also find examples from animals from around the world. There is a free audio guide included in the admission which, whilst sounding as dry as a 1970’s Open University broadcast, gives an interesting insight into what you are looking at as you move through the museum.
Eating and drinking in Reykjavik
It’s worth reiterating how expensive life is in Iceland, and eating and drinking in Reykjavik is never going to be cheap but don’t let that stop you from indulging in some great food. A lot needs to be imported which helps explain the prices.
If you want to keep it simple then you can’t go wrong at Svarta Kaffid on Laugavegur. Whilst the menu is minimalist, offering just two different soups, served in a bread bowl, the food is fantastic and very filling. I went for the beef and lamb option that was available on the day. For 1950IKr (£13) it is also good value for money.
Fish and Chips
Seafood plays a big part in the Icelandic diet and you’ll find many restaurants serving fish dishes. For local, freshly caught fish then Icelandic Fish & Chips in the Volcano House is a good place to try or if you want the local dish, Plokkari – a fish and potato pie, then try the Reykjavik Fish restaurant on Frakkastig.
Finally, if you want to eat at the place where US presidents and rock stars have eaten then head to Bæjarins
Alcohol is also highly taxed and highly priced so make use of the happy hours that many bars have to make the cost of your drinks slightly less eye-watering. There is a good craft beer scene in Iceland. Bryggjan brewery in the Grandi harbour has a range of beers brewed in house. They also offer tours of the brewery with 3 or 6 beer tasting flights.
Finally, if you want a traditional Icelandic pairing then don’t miss out on Black Death and fermented shark. The black death refers to a shot of the Icelandic schnapps Brennivin which is similar to vodka and the fermented shark is well, fermented shark. The shark is usually Greenland shark that, as it breaks down, oozes ammonia and would, therefore, be poisonous to eat. The process, that includes hanging the meat to dry, takes about 6 months and produces a product that when eaten still reeks of ammonia but is no longer toxic. When eating it I was advised to chew it at least 10 times and also breathe in to get the full effect.