This is the third in a series of posts covering my June/July 2018 trip to Iceland. You can read an overview of the trip here.
I ended up spending about two full days, and three nights, in Reykjavik, which my research suggested was more than enough- and it pretty much was, since the grey weather made some of the things I wanted to do less exciting. It also was a bit of a disappointing city, dominated by tourists and tourism – and the insane exchange rate made me feel guilty spending money. It’s a pretty small city- only about 125,000 people. I did do some cool things, though, and you can easily spend several nights in Reykjavik with a rental car or taking day trips to various parts of Southern Iceland. So here are the highlights….
First, I did not do the Blue Lagoon – Iceland’s most famed tourist attraction, a large manmade geothermal pool and spa complex. Why not? Well, first, it’s 54 Euros just for the entry. Plus, it’s near the airport, far outside the city. The best way to do it is on the way to or from the airport, which costs about $100 including the transfers. Being in a huge manmade hot spring didn’t seem worth it to me, particularly as a solo traveler. How long could I spend there? And I wouldn’t even get great selfies! I intended instead to check out one of the public pool complexes in Reykjavik, which are open late and are substantially cheaper. With the weather, I didn’t make it, but I did make a spring on the Golden Circle I’ll discuss.
Instead, I took the Airport Express right into town, where I was able to check in to my hotel for the night, the Canopy by Hilton, and took a nap and a shower, making it out to explore at 1pm. Central Reykjavik basically runs west to east, and the Canopy was right in the center, a few blocks from the waterfront and one block from Laugavegur, the main retail/nightlife drag of town. My first stop was Bonus, the cheap supermarket in town, where I picked up some snacks and basic provisions. From there, I thought about eating lunch in a restaurant, but the prices were just so exorbitant and I wasn’t that hungry, so I settled for a skyr – an Icelandic yogurt-like product—that I had gotten for about a dollar.
The weather was pretty gloomy, but I wandered a bit eastward through a residential neighborhood before making my way to Hallgrimskirkja, one of the most prominent buildings in town. Built only in 1986, it is the largest church in Iceland and one of the tallest buildings in the country. It apparently took 40 years to build, and is pretty different than most European cathedrals, built in an expressionist style.
The coolest part of the church is the tower, which costs 1000 kr (~$9) to visit. You buy your ticket in the gift shop and then have to wait in line for the small elevator. It’s not that high, but once at the top you really do get a good orientation of the city.
From Hallgrinskirkja, I continued east, through what seemed like a deader part of the city—though one with cheaper restaurants. It also had the Icelandic Phallological Museum, i.e., the penis museum—“the world’s largest display of penises and penis parts.” It’s a very small space, about the size of two storefronts, and contains actual animal penis displays, as well as a variety of penis-related art, including bronze casts of the penises of the Icelandic Men’s Handball team. It’s 1500 kr (~$14), and kind of a gag, but on a rainy day in Reykjavik there are less entertaining things to do.
I headed back towards the city center, walking along the water, only for the rain to start coming down as I checked out the Sun Voyager sculpture, before quickly walking past the Harpa, a new striking glass concert hall, that is serving as the centerpiece for redevelopment of the East Harbor area.
Since the sun never goes down in Reykjavik in summer, after a rest at the hotel, as the rain stopped, I crossed over Lækjargata into the other main part of center Reykjavik, which has a lot of tacky pubs but also some of the more historic buildings, including Austurvöllur, a plaza facing Parliament and the older Reykjavik Cathedral.
Iceland had just been eliminated from the World Cup, but the tournament still had a large presence in town, with lots of ads featuring the Icelandic national team. There were also a lot of outdoor screens set up all over town showing the matches.
Reykjavik City Hall, a New Modernist structure, is nearby, seated right on Tjornin, a small, natural lake in the center of town, which was pretty at that time of day.
I walked back to my hotel, getting lost amongst some of the East Harbor construction, but allowing for some close-ups of big ships.
Although it was only 7:30, earlyish for a European dinner on a Saturday night, I stopped off at El Santo, a Mexican restaurant near the Canopy, as it was the most reasonably-priced restaurant I’d seen in town. Notably, there were no fast food chains in town but for a Subway. I should have sucked it up and done smarter than Mexican in Iceland… My $21 burrito was really more like a wrap. Oh, well.
Later that night, I headed out to explore the notorious Reykjavik nightlife after finishing some of my duty-free beers in my room. Stepping out onto Laugavegur at 10pm felt like an entirely different city- full of young people, mostly Icelandic, and still pretty bright out. I headed to Kiki, which is Iceland’s only remaining gay bar. They had a happy hour until 11pm, with beer only about $6, before shooting up to $12! It was almost exclusively tourists, which was good in that people were friendly, but not really a very local experience. At around 11:30pm, the bar tables were cleared out to turn it into a dance club, and there was an onslaught of straight women. Apparently, this is typical.
I ended up going to a few more bars with American tourists I met, and by 1:30, Laugavegur was even more crowded- a weird sight at 1:30am with the sun so bright and shining! This was probably the most Icelandic people I saw in my entire 5 days in Iceland.
The next day, I decided I would buy a Reykjavik City Card, which covers public transport, a ton of museums, all the city’s swimming pools, and the ferry to Videy Island (plus random resto/shopping discounts). It’s 3800 kr for 24 hours (~$36), which is easy to recover, especially if you do Videy- which alone costs 1550 kr. I hadn’t realized how hard it would be to buy a card, though. Only some of the hotels sold them, so I walked over to a “tourist information center,” which had a loooong wait. I decided to go to one of the stores nearby on Laugavegur that was listed on the website as selling them, but they were out. My third attempt was successful, and I doubled back to go to the Settlement Exhibition.
The Settlement Exhibition is recommended as one of the best museums in town, but I found the main building completely boring. It’s built around an excavation of some Viking settlement, but there really is very little visible. There are panels around it talking about Vikings but it was crowded and I wasn’t feeling it. I actually enjoyed the included. There are other museums in Reykjavik, like the Arbaer Open Air Museum and Saga Museum, and the National Museum of Iceland, that might have been a better use of time. I did enjoy the small house down the block, apparently the oldest house in Reykjavik, which you get entry to with your Settlement Exhibition ticket. Aðalstræti 10 was just purchased by the city government and turned into a museum this spring. It had a cool photography exhibit about Reykjavik in 1918- the year of (kind of) independence and Spanish flu, and another about turf houses.
From there I walked east towards the old harbor, which is mostly a boring walk, although there are some cheaper restaurants en route and it is a bit grittier. Close to the harbor itself there are a lot of bigger retail stores, and a bunch of restaurants. Someone or something had recommended one of them, Bryggjan Brugghus, so I stopped in for lunch. It was pretty underwhelming and the service was very unfriendly. I asked if I could sit outside at one of the tables on the deck where lots of people were drinking, but was told there was no food there. I asked to sit next to a window, but was told I couldn’t since I was only one person. So I had a dark interior seat. Burgers were about $30, so I went with the fish soup, for about $17, which was pretty good except for the weird white chocolate garnish. It had mussels, shrimp, and cod, and was pretty hardy.
Bryggjan Brugghus is right next to the Reykjavik Maritime Museum, a branch of the Reykjavik City Museum, with entry included with the Reykjavik city card. It’s not a huge museum, but I enjoyed it quite a bit. It has a variety of exhibits on the fishing and shipping industry in Reykjavik throughout history, with a lot of interactive elements.
Next up was my Videy Island adventure. Videy is a small island off the coast of Reykjavik, currently uninhabited, that has a lot of art installations and was supposed to be very pretty. There is a ferry that runs throughout the day from a pier near the cruise terminal, and then a few other times a day to and from piers closer into town. With the City Card, you can pick up a ticket from the private ferry company with an open-ended return. I got my ticket on the Old Harbour Pier, which is where all of the tourist boats for penguin and whale watching and other tours leave from. Unfortunately, the weather, which had been relatively nice thus far, was getting grayer.
My boat was scheduled for 2:50pm and it pulled up a bit after 3pm. It was smaller than I’d expected and it filled up completely. I sat outside on the top level, which provided for some good views of the city as we headed east, but was freezing! It took about 25 minutes to pull into Videy, where there was a long line of people waiting to take the next boat.
When I arrived, I discovered tons of Icelandic families with young children. There must have been some Sunday event, as there were clowns with hula hoops and toys, and the restaurant on the island had set up an outdoor barbecue grill. Later, there was a little show, which I managed to video, along with some scenes from the ride over.
The island as a whole, unfortunately, lacked any good signage, and the SIM card I had sucked, so I kind of just randomly walked down some paths here and there with no real purpose. Definitely get a map of the place before you go, because I had no idea what I was doing. And although it was pretty, I decided I didn’t want to spend a full two hours on the island, so I decided to take the 4:30 ferry back.
When I got to the pier at 4:15pm, there was already a line, which grew and grew. The ferry to the cruise terminal left 4:29pm with a whole bunch of people left behind. I imagine it just turned around, as it was only a five-minute ride. Unfortunately, my expectation that I’d easily find a bus back into town turned into a mess. Again, I couldn’t get great reception, and when I finally found a bus stop after walking 15 minutes, I had just missed a bus and needed to wait another 30 minutes. Instead, I walked the whole way back to my hotel—about 40 minutes along the waterfront—and I was just cranky.
That night, I had a simple dinner – hot dogs at Baejarins Beztu Pylsur – the famed hot dog stand very close to the Konsulat Hotel. It’s considered a mandatory stop for celebrity visitors, and attracts a range of both tourists and locals. As had been recommended, I ordered mine “with everything” – which included fried onions, a sort of ketchup, and mayo. I knocked back three of those suckers at about $4.50 each, washed down with a beer from duty-free, standing at a small table outside – a satisfying meal.
Later, I found myself back at Kiki, where it was drag karaoke night. It was different than most drag karaoke I had been to, in that it was very light on the karaoke. I think only about 3 or 4 patrons performed, in between the host’s sets. The host queens were fun and entertaining though, and I got to spin a wheel after my performance and won two Jaegermeister shots – perhaps the least interesting item on the prize wheel.
When I returned from my two days outside of the city, I went to a restaurant called Nora for dinner, which was on the lower price-point. It was a small plates place, and if you order two items, the third is free. I did duck tacos, shrimp skewers, and sweet potato fries. Not that big a meal but fine.
On Tuesday nights, Kiki is closed, so I instead went to Gaukurinn, which is kind of an alternative, queer-friendly bar and music space. It definitely had more Icelandic people than Kiki had, and got pretty crowded. As so happens, it was also karaoke night there. Either way, a fun space to down a few beers.
When I left Gaukurinn and started walking back to the Radisson (a pretty long walk), it was the darkest I’d seen Iceland. Tjornin looked quite pretty, as the city slept.
Reykjavik isn’t really a destination city, and I don’t think there are any must-sees in the city itself. But evenings there, while spending the days on daytrips around the country, are pleasant (but expensive). Next up, I’ll review the two Hilton family properties I stayed at in town- the Canopy and the Konsulat hotel.