May 28, 2018: The Northernmost Capital
After driving for 300 miles around south coast of Iceland and the Golden Circle, I rolled into Reykjavik around 4pm on the Sunday of Memorial Day weekend, 2018. It sure was strange driving on a 4-lane road after only seeing 2-lane roads so far.
I parked my car near the city center and wandered over to a crowd outside a museum. It was not just any museum; it was the Iceland Phallological Museum. The museum, the only one of its kind, displayed penises from many different animal species. The collection was mostly marine mammals such as whales, but there were land mammals…and yes, homo sapiens.
Was it awkward? Without a doubt. Were there groups of men and women mentally comparing sizes? Absolutely. Is it worth a visit for the novelty? Definitely.
I then wandered through the main street in the Old Town: Laugavegur. Icelandic names are impossible to pronounce. This street was referred to by tourists and locals assisting tourists as “the main street”. The entire Old Town was cute with many wooden buildings. There were mostly shops catering to tourists: restaurants, bars, clothing shops and guided tour shops.
Unlike most European cities, Reykjavik has a high rate of car ownership. There are no trains. While the buses are good, the system does not extend far outside of the city. Traffic is very light because the roads are well designed and because there aren’t many people in Reykjavik (200,000)…or Iceland as a whole (320,000). The city center is very walkable and is on par with its European neighbors. On the other hand, the suburbs are completely car-centric.
There are also way more tourists than locals here (it’s very easy to tell who is Icelandic and who is not). Maybe the locals don’t like to wander the streets or maybe this part of town is too touristy.
The focal point of the city is its cathedra, Hallgrimskirkja (again, don’t even try pronouncing the names). Towering over the city, Hallgrimskirkja looks strikingly different from any other church I have ever seen. The church is the second tallest building in the country- an office building in the suburbs narrowly beats it out.
The best kept secret here is the observation deck, which can be visited for 1,000 ISK ($10 USD). From the top you can get an unobstructed 360 degree view of the city!
I then wandered down a hill into the “downtown” area. Here I found mostly offices, hotels and restaurants. The buildings were taller than those in the old town- 4-6 stories tall instead of 2-3. Of note is the Althing, Iceland’s Parliament. I also went to a mediocre flea market and tried a tiny sample of shark meat.
Outside of the flea market, I went to Iceland’s most famous food stall, Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur aka the hot dog stand. Icelandic people love their hot dogs. They love their hot dogs so much that 70% of the population of Iceland has eaten at this stand. Unlike their American cousins which are mostly made of beef, Icelandic hot dogs are made from lamb- which makes sense in a country where sheep outnumber people two to one. The hot dogs come with two types of onion, ketchup, sweet mustard and remoulade. At only 500 ISK ($5 USD) this is the best bargain to be had in all of Iceland.
Still not quite hungry, I headed over to the nearby restaurant Sægreifinn (Icelandic for Seabaron). This is considered one of the best cheap restaurants in Reykyavik. For just 4,000 ISK ($40 USD) I got a bowl of lobster soup, a fish skewer and a drink. Anywhere else in the world, this would be a huge rip off, but food prices in Iceland are insane. At most dinner places, expect to pay at least $80 for a meal and drink.
The high food prices in Iceland really confused me. Were they ripping off tourists or was it just that expensive to import food to an island that can’t naturally grow anything?
The answer turns out to be the ladder. Even locals have to pay the ridiculous restaurant prices. However, Icelandic people consider eating out to be a special treat and not an everyday occurrence. Therefore, they are willing to pay high prices to eat at restaurants because they usually cook at home with much cheaper food bought in grocery stores. Even still, Iceland is the 4th most expensive country in the world to live in. Reykyavik just opened its first Costco which is hugely successful.
It turns out the most expensive part of Iceland isn’t even the food, it’s the alcohol. I then went to a Big Lebowski themed bar. The menu had White Russians for $21-24 and beer for $14. Luckily it was happy hour, so my beer was only $9. I asked the bartender (an American from Phoenix who hates the sun) what Icelandic people do for fun if drinking is so expensive. He said that people still drink a lot despite the cost, especially in the winter. They also visit public geothermal-heated swimming pools. Instead of giving me the name of the pool, he said to go to the one that starts with L.
Laugardalslaug was a mere 10-minute drive away from the bar. For only 980 ISK (less than $10!!!!) I got entrance to the largest swimming complex in Reykyavik. Before going in, I had to clean off in the locker room. Icelandic pools are very serious about ensuring that people are clean when they enter the pools. Not only do you have to shower naked in a big room in front of everyone, but there is a guard making sure you wash all of the 5 specified areas on your body. Then you are allowed to put on your swim suit and head outside to the swimming area.
This place was incredible! There was a swimming stadium with an Olympic sized pool and a large wading pool with a water slide with hot water (genius idea). Most people, however, were huddled in the gigantic hot tub. The crowd appeared to be mostly locals, but I ended up chatting with two Italian girls and a family from Ohio. At 10pm, the pool closed, but it was still light outside.
Wanting to make the most of my time here, I drove out to the Grotta lighthouse. The weather was still gross so I was hanging out on my phone with the heat on. Eventually, I got out of the car and noticed that there were at least 20 other cars parked nearby. In every single car, someone was hanging out on their phone with the heat on. It was such a funny sight to see.
I then went to bed in my $50/night hostel dorm.
May 29, 2018: The Blue Lagoon
The next morning, the sky cleared up! I went for a brief stroll in the Old Town before driving out to Iceland’s most famous attraction, the Blue Lagoon. The Blue Lagoon is a popular geothermic spa with bright blue water. The color comes from the silica. Most people don’t know this, but the lagoon is actually manmade: the water is actually waste from the nearby geothermal power plant (the world’s largest).
The Blue Lagoon’s ownership knows they have a unique experience: admission is $100 USD and you must book in advance. On site, I had to wait in line for 10 minutes to check in. Just like the Laugardalslaug, the Blue Lagoon is strict on hygene. You must shower naked under the watch of a guard. Once clothed, you then walk out into the most beautiful site: a gigantic bright blue saltwater Jacuzzi. The water is heated by the earth to a perfect 100 degrees Fahrenheit.
Once in the lagoon, there are quite a few things to do. The admission ticket comes with one free drink from the swim bar. They had beer and cider, but I opted for a skyr smoothie instead. There also was a station where you can put on a white silica mask. Everyone was wearing the silica masks.
Over to the side, there was also a cave, hot waterfall, sauna rooms, and massage station (extra charge).
After an hour of exploring, I actually was ready to leave- you can only sit in a hot tub for so long. However, since my flight wasn’t for another 5 hours I ended up staying for about 2 ½ hours. The final 90 minutes in the Blue Lagoon were definitely nicer than spending 90 minutes in the airport.
With three hours before my flight, I showered and drove the 10 minutes to Keflavik to fly back to LA.
While I would definitely recommend the Blue Lagoon to any Iceland visitor, I could have done without Reykyavik. While the city is beautiful, well run, and full of things to see, it isn’t that special. I would rather spend my time exploring Iceland’s incredible outdoor scenery- that’s what makes Iceland special.