After our year-long trip around the world, we knew that we still wanted to travel, but we would have to limit our travels to the summer months when Della was on summer break. This meant that often we were travelling to places that were quite warm. Traveling in warm weather is not terrible, but it can lead to faster burn-out or general unpleasantness.
Therefore, in 2017, we decided to look for a location that would still be cool (but not too cold) in June or July. Ultimately, we decided on Iceland. Plus, we had read and heard so many great things about the beautiful countryside, so we figured we should hop on the bandwagon and check it out for ourselves.
Flights to Iceland are known for being affordable, especially if you can travel on off-peak times. Many low-cost carriers use it as a base to get to the European continent. However, summer is probably the peak season to travel to Iceland, so we didn’t see any great bargains. Instead, as in years past, we figured out how to use airline miles to get there. Using miles earned from signing up for the Delta Gold SkyMiles American Express, we were able to find a fare from Denver to Iceland’s main international airport, Keflavík (on the outskirts of Reykjavík), for $5.60 per person.
The journey consisted of two legs: first from Denver to JFK (New York), then an overnight flight from JFK to Keflavík. The flight from New York to Keflavík is less than six hours, so actually pretty short. The downside was that since it was so short, we didn’t really sleep very well.
We landed in Keflavík at around 7 AM, with our bodies thinking that is was just 1 AM. Our first task was to get from the airport into Reykjavík itself, since the airport is is over 30 miles away from town. There are no great budget options to get there. We booked with one of the private bus providers, Gray Line, and chose the option that would drop us off at a hotel (vs just the main bus terminal). We were a little confused when on the outskirts of the city we were shuffled off of the bus, but then we were just transferred to a smaller van to drive through the narrower streets of town.
Accommodations in Reykjavík are quite expensive. Even a room in a dorm is about $50 a person if you want to stay anywhere near the old town. We found an Airbnb in a good location close to town that was a better deal than that, so we decided to just book that. It turned out to feel more like a guesthouse – the place had nine different rooms, a couple of shared bathrooms, and two shared kitchens. The downside was that there was no reception desk, so we had the weird feeling of never really interacting with any sort of host. But, it was within walking distance of all of the attractions we wanted to see, and cheaper than many other places would have been.
Since we arrived so early, we couldn’t yet check in to the Airbnb. Fortunately, the host agreed to let us drop off our luggage in a storage area so we could at least go do something before our afternoon check-in. Then, it was time to explore Reykjavík. Here’s a soundtrack to get you in the mood to read about our two days there:
The Airbnb was located just down a hill from the iconic Hallgrímskirkja, the tallest church in Iceland, and one of Reykjavík’s most famous landmarks: given its location on a hill overlooking the city, it can be seen from miles around. We sat in the pews and enjoyed the sound of the pipe organ, then paid to take the elevator up the observation deck to look out over the city.
We decided we had enough energy to go ahead and do something we did elsewhere around the world: take a free walking tour. We went with the highly-rated CityWalk tour. Our guide Eiríkur (Eric) led us through the main attractions of the small city center: the Parliament house, a square built over the graves of some of the original settlers, an old neighborhood with colorful houses (to brighten up the day in the dark and dreary winters), the (unguarded) office of the Prime Minister, and a hill overlooking the city. Certainly not as many architectural gems or spots of historical interest as the other places where we did these tours, but we did enjoy getting a feel for the city and the culture of the Icelanders.
While on the tour, we had seen a restaurant called Restaurant Reykjavík advertising a lunch buffet for $23/person. Given that other places had just a hamburger for $20, we felt like this was probably a good deal and headed there for lunch. We enjoyed getting to sample the different dishes, many of them seafood.
Now that we had killed enough time, we returned to our Airbnb and were able to get into our room. We took a light nap, but not too long in hopes of avoiding jetlag.
We did emerge in the evening to get some dinner. We walked to the nearby Café Babalú, a quirky little place with a small food menu. We were happy to get some hot soups. Eric got the traditional Icelandic lamb soup (they love lamb in Iceland).
Walking back from dinner, we got our first real experience of the Icelandic summer: it never really gets dark. Around 11 the sun would set, but it would only ever feel like dusk. The sun would rise again a few hours later, but we never stayed up to confirm this. Luckily, neither of us had issues sleeping even in the light. Using a face mask or even just covering your face with a blanket was good enough for us.
The next day, we were a little tired, but still wanted to see more of Reykjavík. Since it was a Saturday, we made our first stop the weekly flea market. This was a great location to look for souvenirs based on the prices we would see later in the trip. We also had a chance to try the local delicacy of fermented shark. One bite was enough! We had lunch at the cafe in the flea market. Eric got another local favorite: a hot dog. (They could be found all over, but this turned out to be the only time we sampled one ourselves).
We next stopped at the museum “Reykjavík 871±2” (“871 plus or minus 2) which is built around the ruins of a hall from from Iceland’s Settlement Age. The amusing name for the museum comes from the fact that historians can’t agree on an exact date for the oldest part of the ruins, so they just decided to include the margin of error in the name.
Iceland was populated starting in the ninth century by Norse settlers – also known as Vikings. Many left Norway due to banishment for crimes or conflict with the monarchy there. Also, much of the early population consisted of slaves from Ireland which was also under Viking rule at the time. There were no indigenous people on Iceland, so the settlers were free to set up their farms wherever they felt like. Due to the isolation, the Icelandic language is said to be closer to the Old Norse than any of the other current Scandinavian languages.
The main structure that the museum was built around was a traditional Viking hall/longhouse. Interactive exhibits described the best guesses for how the hall was used. Also on exhibit was the turf wall from 871±2. There were not too many large trees in Iceland even before the settlers came, so thick turf walls were the primary pieces of wall construction and insulation.
We also visited the National Museum of Iceland, which describes the history of Iceland from the Settlement Era up to the present day. Iceland has gone through a few different major periods: the Settlement Era when Vikings migrated from Norway, the early Christian era when the country converted (peacefully) from paganism to Christianity, a period of rule by the Norwegian kings, then a period of rule by the Danish, and then finally a moved toward independence that was finalized in 1944. The exhibits were numbered, which Eric appreciated in terms of keeping us on the right track.
We then took advantage of the sunny weather and walked through a park back to the main part of town. We walked into the iconic Harpa (concert hall) and marveled at its beautiful glass walls.
After another rest break back at the Airbnb, we headed out for a late dinner. Unfortunately, it seemed that the late light fooled us and we maybe waited too long, as we had a hard time finding a place still serving food! The first place we tried had just run out of food, then another had just closed its kitchen, and another was completely closed. We finally settled on a Thai restaurant, getting our standard noodle and curry dishes. It was good, but significantly more expensive than getting the food in Thailand!
Overall, we think that two days was sufficient to get the highlights of Reykjavík. The sights aren’t mind-blowing, but it is a pleasant, walkable city center. If you can get past the sticker shock of all of the prices, you can definitely have a good time!