Introduction. What stands out about this remote island in the North Atlantic is the sheer beauty and gorgeous desolation of her landscapes. She’s a country seemingly within grasp and yet, more often than not, just out of our reach. Not quite like other places on earth, Iceland’s glacial lakes, fjords, volcanoes and waterfalls are astonishingly beautiful. The opening scene of Ridley Scott’s Prometheus, for example, was not CGIed, despite what viewers make have assumed. Rather, it captured a very real part of Vatnajökull National Park, the largest glacier in Europe.
“I’ve walked a lot in the mountains in Iceland. And as you come to a new valley, as you come to a new landscape, you have a certain view. If you stand still, the landscape doesn’t necessarily tell you how big it is. It doesn’t really tell you what you’re looking at. The moment you start to move the mountain starts to move.” ― Olafur Eliasson
Getting There : Introduction | Keflavík International Airport | Transportation to downtown Reykjavik & Iceland Excursions
Contents : Ásmundur Sveinsson Museum | Café Mezzo | City Center Hotel | Epal Design | Eyjafjallajökull | Gull Lager | Guys Stuck in Iceland | Hallgrímskirkja Church | Hamborgarabúllan | Harpa Concert Hall | Hlemmur Square | Hot Dogs | Hótel Skaftafell | In and Around Reykjavik | Jökulsárlón & The Mountains of the Moon Photo Series | Kornid Kaffi – Cafe | The Lucky Records | Nordic House | 101 Hotel & Bar | Perlan, i.e., The Pearl | Rafstöðvarvegur : The Photo Series | Rub 23 | S Bus | 66 North | Sólfar, The Sun Voyager Sculpture | Spúútnik Vintage | Stuck in Iceland | Supreme Court | Tapas Restaurant | Travel Tips | Valdís Ice Cream
“In this land of fire and ice, the horizon is split.
What hovers above is the shimmer of silver.
What lies below is the blindness of white.
And what surrounds us is this enduring mystery.
These Mountains of the Moon.”
― David-Kevin Bryant
I’m convinced Scandinavia and the greater Nordic region can simply do no wrong. Icelandair, which almost exclusively provides transport from the United States’ Eastern seaboard to Iceland, sustains the high level of customer service I first experienced with SAS. The check-in process at Washington, DC’s Dulles International could not have been any smoother or more efficient; the cabin crew was friendly and, no surprise here, astonishingly good-looking; each seat had its own entertainment system which included a very good range of documentaries about Iceland’s sites; and the flight itself, nearly flawless.
Keflavík International Airport, also known as Reykjavík-Keflavík Airport, is not as large as one would expect and its first level resembles any other international airport, i.e., multiple large screens display arrivals and departures, directions are posted as to where to locate the gates, etc. The building is intended to resemble the lines of the mountains which appear in the distance, but its upper level is where your experience will be transformed and the airport suddenly becomes something much greater than its intended goal of simply providing transport to travelers. The airport, you see, is a fantastic shopping destination unto itself. Local-only products, alcoholic beverages, and household items that would send design aficionados into heaven are available tax and duty-free. The airport, in fact, is one of the few in the world which allow this.
There is no taxi service to and from Keflavik and downtown Reykjavik, an odd curiosity until you see the distance involved. Instead, passengers make reservations with a shuttle bus service which then provides transportation door-to-door. We used Iceland Excursions / Gray Line Iceland and purchased our tickets in advance via their website (a discount was offered for round-trip purchase rather than separate one-way tickets.) An e-mailed confirmation provides a bar code which is then scanned at their ticket counter near the departure bay and then again on the bus, making for a very quick and efficient boarding process. Downtown Reykjavik is characterized by small, one-way and byzantine streets. If your reservation is on a large bus, don’t be surprised when it arrives at the city’s central bus hub and you transfer to a smaller vehicle. It’s handled well and drivers and personnel are there to assist in transferring your bags from one shuttle to another. Our’s took less than 5 minutes.
Native son and renowned sculptor Ásmundur Sveinsson (1893 – 1982) who studied in both Denmark and Sweden, explored abstract forms and using indigenous materials and artistic themes common in his home country, began displaying his work in his home. Over the years, with the help of architects Einar Sveinsson and Manfreo Vilhjálmsson, he added various annexes to the original building, expanding the exhibition, living quarters, and studio spaces. The resulting building is the Ásmundur Sveinsson Sculpture Museum, as beautiful and spectacular as the art it contains, where natural and ambient light pour in to the white structures, and Nordic, particularly Icelandic, mythology is brought to life.
One overcast day was particularly cold with bitter and biting winds. We ducked into Café Mezzo for a hot beverage and to warm up. Located on the 2nd floor at Lækjargata 2a, the cafe is a revelation. The coffee culture in Iceland is taken very seriously and I think it’s nearly impossible to stop in any of the coffee houses throughout the country and not have a great cup along with a delicious pastry. Café Mezzo certainly contributes to this. We enjoyed coffee with foamed milk and shaved chocolate on top and apple tarts. We were so content we had no problem heading back into the cold weather outside―if for no other reason than to duck back in to enjoy the cafe even more.
Located at Austurstraeti 6, just steps from Reykjavik’s main shopping street, is City Center Hotel, a downtown hotel with great style and amenities. The property is very cool but, thankfully, not self-consciously so. The lobby is tasteful, stylish and the front desk staff is wonderful. We enjoyed fantastic coffee and breakfast in its cafe many mornings. Even when it closes its breakfast service at 10:00am, the Cafe provides complimentary coffee. Like so many other establishments in Iceland, it’s a java lover’s dream come true.
“The problem with driving around Iceland is that you’re basically confronted by a new soul-enriching, breath-taking, life-affirming natural sight every five goddamn minutes.” ― Stephen Markley
Epal Design, which has a store in Keflavik airport, is a design enthusiast’s dream come true. Despite its modest size, the store features an impressive collection of iittala’s Alvar Aalto Collection of glassware and vases, Bodum espresso and coffee cups, tea light holders, gifts for children, and jewelry. I went in to simply browse and ended up Christmas shopping.
Located southeast of Reykjavik and west of Mýrdalsjökull is Eyjafjallajökull, which translates roughly in Icelandic as “island mountain glacier,” a volcanic area completely covered by an ice cap. That volcano, long dormant, erupted in spectacular fashion in 2010 and brought air travel to the North Atlantic and western Europe to a complete halt for nearly a week.
Egill Skallagrímsson Brewery’s very own Gull Lager is the beer of choice for many Icelanders and with good reason. It’s a surprisingly mild lager and very, very smooth.
It doesn’t matter what you think of Hallgrímskirkja Church, or the Church of Hallgrímur, because you will learn to depend on it as the landmark by which you will constantly be checking your bearings as you travel through Reykjavik’s byzantine streets.
Architect Guðjón Samúelsson is revered here not only for the church, which took 4 decades to complete, but also for his designs for Landakot Cathedral, the National Theatre of Iceland, and the University of Iceland. The tallest structure in the city, its design and striking ribs are intended to invoke the mountains and volcanic landscapes which characterize the island.
As you begin to explore Reykjavik, two impressions will emerge. First, the number of cafes and coffee houses is something unexpected. Icelanders love coffee and it is nearly impossible to stop in any of the establishments which populate the downtown area and not experience a great cup. Almost all of the places feature great, homemade cakes and pastries and it’s not uncommon for many of them to transform into hangouts, some with live music, later on in the evening. The second involves that staple of American diners, i.e., burgers and fries. There are so many places serving great hamburgers you will wonder how the Icelanders slipped under the radar, seized upon the quintessential American classic, and ended up making it their own. But that’s exactly what they did. Near the top of the list is Hamborgarabúllan at Geirsgata 1. The place has a laid-back style which characterize restaurants in this city and feature an impressive menu of burgers all of which are surprisingly affordable.
What happens when the love of the arts is eclipsed by the seduction of place ? I have written in the Denmark page about the architectural firm Henning Larsen Architects. The Copenhagen-based firm’s collaboration with Danish / Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson effectively answers this question with Harpa, a concert hall and conference center located in Reykjavik’s north harbor.
This being Reykjavik, this is no mere cultural institution, but rather a beautifully realized gem and gift to the city, constructed of multi-faceted glass plates which are illuminated at night. The building is so exquisite it catapults its hometown in the architectural big leagues of other world capitals.
One of the great aspects of Reykjavik is the range of temporary accommodations for travelers, ranging from inexpensive hostels to 4-star luxury properties. We stayed at Hlemmur Square, near the city central bus hub of the same name. Located at Laugavegur 105, Hlemmur is a unique blend of bar, upscale hostel, hotel, and restaurant, all located under the same roof. We stayed in the adjacent apartments and it quickly became a home away from home. The bathroom featured substantial cabinetry, storage areas, and a washing machine and dryer. Most important of all, however, was the fact it was spotless. We enjoyed breakfast and coffee in the Square’s Bar and found the staff to be very attentive and friendly. One morning, they went out of their way to contact our car rental company on our behalf. And William, in particular, makes a fantastic cup of cappuccino and has great stories to share.
The bar has a happy hour worthy of attention and features crafted beers from Borg Brugghús, or city brewery :
― Bríó, meaning joy, and made from hops in Bavaria
― Borg Úlfur Inda Pale Ale Nr. 3 was my personal favorite
― Myrkvi Porter NR.13, seasoned with coffee of all ingredients. Although a dark beer, it’s surprisingly refreshing.
― Borg Garún Nr. 19. Like the Myrkvi Porter, Garún also has coffee notes but accented with chocolate ones as well. It’s very strong but very, very smooth.
Hot Dogs. I’m not a big fan of ’em but the ones they make here, available at road-side kiosks everywhere, made me a convert. They’re nothing short of fantastic and, at the risk of starting nuclear war, they’re as good as those at Yankee Stadium. If not better. There…I said it. The line of people waiting at this one, near the Radisson Blu, went around the block.
When we left Jökulsárlón the first day of a two-day journey, it was bitterly cold, windy and pouring rain. More importantly, it was near midnight and painfully obvious we would need accommodations overnight in order to return the glacial lakes the next morning. Along the ring road, almost every bed and breakfast and guest house was occupied. We were starting to wonder if there were going to be any viable options when we stumbled upon the Hótel Skaftafell, a modern hotel seemingly in the middle of nowhere. And if the saying, “Things happen for a reason” has any truth to it, then we were fortunate all our previous attempts to find a place to sleep on a moment’s notice were futile. Not only did the Hótel Skaftafell have room for us, but we enjoyed meeting the staff there. The single best aspect of the property, however, was its bar, located upstairs. It’s small but it is where we enjoyed the best mojitos we’ve ever tasted. Who knew the globe’s best mint-infused rum drink could be had in such a pristine but isolated locale ?
In and around the city one fine, cold and blustery day…
In southeast Iceland, near Vatnajökull National Park, lies the pristine glacial lake, Jökulsárlón, and there may never be a better time to visit it than now. Iceland, along with the others forming Scandinavia and the Greater Nordic Region, are enjoying a noteworthy event. According to scientists, this has been the best time in the past dozen or so years to see the Northern Lights. And how many times can any of us experience in person the Mountains of the Moon and such an exquisite, ethereal light show from Mother Nature herself?
The Mountains of The Moon Photo Gallery :
We spent a considerable amount of time perusing the shopping district along Laugarvegar one cold but sunny day and decided to duck into Kornid Kaffi-Cafe to warm up. The place, although small, serves great coffee and features an impressive display of pastries.
Vinyl albums are making a comeback. What makes them so noteworthy, aside from their large surface area allowing for true album art, is their simple tangibility. Nothing can match the experience of holding and then unwrapping an album. And no thumb-size icon on your smart phone can ever capture the beauty of, say, The Beatles’ Abbey Road, Patti Smith’s Horses, or U2’s The Joshua Tree covers. For aficionados of the medium, make it a point to stop in Lucky Records at Rauðarárstígur 10, widely considered to be one of the greatest in the world.
From the hilarious “I wanted to change the world but I could not even change my underwear” sign that adorns one if its walls, to the extensive collection of albums, to the ability to listen to what you want to buy, Lucky transcends being a store and instead becomes an experience. If you can’t quite give up your preference for CDs, not to worry. The large store’s inventory is as impressive as their vinyl counterparts.
Although it is not a consulate or embassy, Nordic House, or Norræna Húsið, serves as an important diplomatic institution between Iceland and the other Nordic countries.
Designed by Finnish architect Alvar Henrik Aalto, the House hosts cultural events, film festivals, and houses an extensive library and restaurant. Its constructed of local materials with an understated elegance and lines which echo those of the local landscape.
No matter what is on your agenda when visiting Reykjavik, make it a point to stop in for a drink―or several―at the 101 Hotel at Hverfisgata 10 if for no other reason than to experience the very cool 101 Bar and particularly the lounge just outside it. Modern and very, very sleek, the 101 serves fantastic drinks and is the perfect place for a warm respite should the temperatures outside suddenly drop. Although the menu features small plates, burgers and sandwiches, many of which are very good, it’s the atmosphere which makes the bar a destination unto itself. From the small plates menu, the warm goat cheese wrapped in ham with figs, and the edamame are the standouts; for a sandwich, order the fantastic salmon burger with green peppercorns and jalapeño aioli.
Is it possible to fall in love with what’s essentially a hot water tank ? That depends. Are we talking about the one in the basement of your house or are we talking about Reykjavik’s Perlan, or what’s commonly referred to as “The Pearl” ? If the latter is the subject of the discussion, than the answer is clearly yes.
Designed by Ingimundur Sveinsson, Perlan is no mere pumping station. Although it contains hot water storage tanks, it’s also home to a cafeteria, a Christmas Shop, a cocktail bar, a Gourmet store, a revolving restaurant, and the Saga Museum, all of which are housed in a building with a striking mirrored dome on top.
The Rafstöðvarvegur Photo Gallery :
Iceland’s location in the North Atlantic provides it an undeniable advantage when it comes to fresh seafood and no further proof is necessary than Rub 23, a noteworthy fish and sushi restaurant located at Aðalstræti 2, 101 Reykjavík. We started off with the sushi appetizer plate which featured over a dozen pieces of carefully prepared and presented fish. As delicious as the platter was, the meal only got better when our main courses were served, i.e., the salmon with garlic and herbs was light, flaky and buttery. And the red fish with mango chili was so delicious we contemplated ordering a second plate to go. Level-headed thinking prevailed and we simply decided to return later on that week as the service itself was memorable.
S Bus. Much like Copenhagen or Dublin, the downtown area of Reykjavik is an extremely walkable and pedestrian friendly area. Renting a car and trying to navigate it’s one-way, narrow streets may not be for the faint of heart. However, if you want to travel easily and affordably, you can’t beat the country’s S Bus system. The service, which is extremely efficient and runs like clockwork, is extensive. You can purchase 1 day or 3 day passes and travel in unlimited fashion throughout the city. It also serves the areas far outside the city limits. You can in fact purchase passes by zones and see the Capital Area, i.e., Reykjavik, South Iceland, West and North, North and Northeast. Tickets can be purchased at the Hlemmur Square Bus Station, one of the network’s main hubs, or from the following locations :
― Kringlan, Laugardalslaug, Mjódd Bus Station, Snarlbarinn Hlemmi, Sundlaug Árbæjar, Sundlaug Breiðholts, Sundlaug Grafarvogs, Vesturbæjarlaug
Iceland prides itself as an integral part of the Nordic universe while still maintaining a very unique and distinct individuality. Nowhere is this more evident than her clothing and sense of style. The local 66 North stores are, by all accounts, a source of great and enviable pride. Perfectly designed for a country with constantly changing temperatures and weather conditions, the clothes, particularly the coats, are brilliant examples of layering without bulk, impeccable construction, and cuts that are unique. A word of caution, however, to those who are prone to sticker shock. Clothing this well designed and resembling nothing else in North America does not come cheap. Fashion costs; style, on the other hand, is priceless.
If Reykjavík, and greater Iceland, is a galaxy unto itself of all things vintage, then Spúútnik is the sun around which everything else revolves. A great store on Laugavegur, the city’s famous shopping area, Spúútnik is something of a marvel, featuring clothing, items for gift-giving, and jewelry. We stopped in on a whim and I ended up buying a vintage, cashmere cape for my mother and necklaces for friends back home.
Designer Jón Gunnar Árnason’s outdoor Sun Voyager sculpture, or Sólfar, is located on the harbor path on the city’s north end.
Intended to invoke the look and shape of a viking ship, the sculpture was designed and constructed to commemorate the 200th anniversary of Reykjavík.
When I returned to the States after this incredible trip, I immediately took up the task of updating my blog. In doing so, I stumbled upon a great website about Iceland called StuckInIceland. Their tag line is “Two guys making the most of being Stuck in Iceland by traveling around.” It’s a great site to check-out and I recommend it highly.
It’s probably a safe bet most people do not actively seek out judicial or municipal buildings when visiting a city for the first time, especially one which serves as the capital of a country. You should definitely reconsider this approach, however, in Reykjavik as the Supreme Court of Iceland, or Hæstiréttur Íslands, is an architectural gem. Its exterior is composed of local stones and a wall of patina copper sheets which, on its southern facade, gives the illusion of paper being gently pulled away.
There has been a trend the past several years, beginning with Copenhagen’s NOMA, named best restaurant in the world three years in a row, and continuing with Geist and Amass, for Scandinavian and Nordic cuisine to move front and center on the global food table. That nearly unprecedented arc continues unabated to Iceland where Tapas Restaurant, located at Vesturgötu 3b, served one of the best, if not the best, meal I have ever eaten.
The warmly lit restaurant is divided into a series of rooms which immediately lend a sense of close comfort to the dining experience. The menu is extensive but we were intrigued by the Chef’s Tapas Menu :
– Icelandic spirit Brennívín
– Smoked puffin with blueberry “brennivín” sauce
– Icelandic sea-trout with peppers-salsa
– Lobster tails baked in garlic
– Pan-fried blue ling with lobster sauce
– Grilled Icelandic lamb Samfaina
– Minke whale with cranberry and Malt sauce
– for dessert, white chocolate “Skyr” mousse with passion fruit coulis
We also ordered two items from the restaurant’s regular tapas menu, i.e., foie gras de canard with grilled bread & jam, and bacon-wrapped scallops and dates with sweet chili sauce. Every single aspect of the meal, from the quality and presentation of the food, to the excellent service by the staff, was spot-on and flawless. When we shared the experience shortly thereafter via social media, and in person upon our return home, however, the visceral reaction was swift and unforgiving. Two items from our meal are the reason why. Puffins, part of the duck family, are a national symbol of the country. The white and black birds, characterized by orange beaks, can be found in Iceland’s coastal cliffs and were, for many years, only served as food to those who could prove residency. The second item is, of course, the Minke whale.
Travel Tips. Iceland is not only one of the most beautiful countries in the world, but its capital city of Reykjavik and her people will waste no time in seducing you. It’s coolness factor is so off the chart, it practically redefines it. Here are some items to bear in mind as you travel through the land of fire and ice :
– Bónus is a fantastic, local supermarket chain and it’s surprisingly affordable. Wander in and buy food to make at home rather than eating out. And definitely check out the local brand, i.e., “SS,” of hot dogs.
– Climate and temperature. At a moment’s notice it can rain, or suddenly become windy. In the first few days of our trip there it was cold and blustery; sunny and cool; rainy with noticeable morning fog; we had nearly half a foot of snow overnight; warm with bright skies; and then warm and rainy―all within days of each other. Pack a waterproof parka and take it with you whenever and wherever you travel in the country.
– Hot Dogs. I’m not a big fan of hot dogs but the ones they make here, available at road-side kiosks, made me a convert. They’re nothing short of fantastic and, at the risk of starting nuclear war, they’re as good as those at Yankee Stadium.
– SIM Cards. If you’re traveling with a digital camera―and who these days isn’t ?―bring extra SIM cards with you. In a 10-day period, I exhausted 2 digital cameras, a Kodak APS-based film camera, and 10GB of my iPhone. The country is that beautiful.
– Water. Although the water is some of the purest in the world, it has a slight sulfuric smell to it which may catch you off guard initially. Not to worry, however, as it’s perfectly natural and does not affect the taste or feel against your skin.
When you travel, there are certain items which, despite the continent on which you land, and the countries in which you decide to explore, are universal. The first that comes to mind, arguably, is coffee. The Italians and the Turks may boast the loudest when it comes to having the finest but Iceland has much to brag about as their coffee, whether purchased from a cafe, hotel, restaurant or truck stop―yes, truck stop―is nothing short of fantastic. The other may be ice cream. Italy’s gelato is a dream-like experience and nothing even remotely comes close to it. Having said that, if Italy and Iceland were playing a head-to-head match in the World Cup of ice cream, it may very well end up as a draw. The latter’s Valdís is the reason why. The small shop, located in the old harbour area of Grandagarðu, makes theirs daily in small batches with an ever-changing and evolving list of flavors. It’s facade is completely unassuming but don’t let that fool you. Extra creamy and not overly sweet, Valdís’ ice cream is delicious and should be on anyone’s list of things to do when visiting the Land of Fire and Ice. The range of chocolate flavors, for example, is impressive and they make their own cones by hand.