In April 2011 I went on holiday to Iceland, staying in the capital city, Reykjavik. Reykjavik is the northernmost capital in the world, and is also the smallest capital city in Europe, but then Iceland itself doesn’t have the largest population either. Greater Reykjavik has a population of just over 200,000 people, which is two thirds of the population of the country as a whole. A small island to the north west of Britain, it does tend to get overlooked when concentrating on mainland Europe, but from what I’d heard it seemed like an interesting place to visit, and after seeing signs all over the Tube advertising the place, I took it as a sign that I needed to book a trip!
I booked my trip with Icelandair and the flight from Heathrow Airport took around three hours. During my time in Iceland I went on the Golden Circle tour, bathed in the Blue Lagoon and explored Reykjavik.
The flight from London to Reykjavik takes around three hours. Planes land at Keflavik Airport and you need to catch the Flybus or take a taxi (a more expensive option) to get into Reykjavik. The currency is the krona, which went down in value considerably in 2008 after the financial crisis, so Iceland is no longer quite as expensive for the visitor as it was. It’s best to exchange your money there as you’ll get a better exchange rate (I exchanged mine at the airport) and currency can be difficult to obtain back home. British nationals do not need a visa to enter. Iceland is a member of the Schengen Agreement: nationals of countries that have implemented the agreement do not need a visa either. Iceland is not a member of the EU, and you can therefore purchase duty-free products and get tax relief on many purchases there.
Tap water is perfectly safe to drink in Iceland. Medical facilities are good and available to UK citizens with an EHIC (European Health Insurance Card). The climate is milder than you might expect for somewhere so far north – it was around 4 degrees Celsius when I was there at the beginning of April, though the weather can be changeable, and it’s unwise to go off exploring unless you know what you’re doing.
A potted history of Iceland
Did you know modern day written Icelandic is close enough to Old Norse for Icelanders to be able to read the language of the old sagas? Or that 80% of Icelanders are descended from Scandinavian and British men but Irish women (since Viking raiders headed to Ireland to kidnap prospective wives before sailing off to Iceland)? These were just two of the interesting facts I learned on my trip to Reykjavik.
The first settlers are largely agreed to have landed in Iceland in the ninth century and claimed land in order to farm. A Parliament, the Althing, was held (in what is now Thingvellir National Park) annually to decide the policies of the Icelandic Commonwealth, until Iceland was brought under the rule of Denmark and Norway in the 13th century. Centuries of poverty followed, with Iceland being hit by the Black Death on two separate occasions. Christianity had been introduced during the medieval period, but during the sixteenth century the nation converted to Lutheranism and the last Catholic bishops were beheaded. During the nineteenth century, a growing independence movement inspired by romantic and nationalist ideals eventually helped to bring about a referendum in 1944 in which Icelanders voted to become a republic.
(This is an extremely short and greatly simplified version of Icelandic history!)
A little about Icelandic geography
Iceland’s geography is so unusual and rich that I thought it worth mentioning. Iceland is on the mid-Atlantic ridge, where the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates are slowly moving apart at the rate of about 2 and a half cm per year. In fact if you visit the Thingvellir National Park (the Golden Circle tour comes here) you can see the edge of the North American plate which looks like a cliff looking over the plain below. This situation explains why Iceland is prone to so many volcanoes (including the infamous eruption last year, from which you can buy bottles of ash in several places in Reykjavik!), which helps enormously when trying to date archaeological excavations. In addition it explains why you get geysers and hot springs as well as the geothermally heated Blue Lagoon and other similar pools, heated by the flow of magma beneath the earth’s surface.
Although Reykjavik is Iceland’s capital city, it has the feel of a seaside town, with old buildings, a harbour, and brightly-coloured metal panelled houses. I stayed near the historic centre in the Leifur Eriksson Hotel, which was small but clean and comfortable. My hotel was right next to the Hallgrimskirkja, a unique modern church with a tall spire. It’s possible to go up to the top of the church tower to get a good look around the city – one advantage of it being new is that there is a lift instead of the winding spiral staircase you normally get! An advantage of staying here was that it was impossible for me to get lost in Reykjavik – anywhere I went, I could see the church spire at the top of the hill so all I had to do was follow it!
It was simple and easy to walk around the city and I found that I got my bearings very quickly – impressive considering that my sense of direction is less than wonderful. I found it to be a very quiet, sparsely populated place on the whole – very different to the bustling atmosphere of London. Down by the sea it could get quite windy. Further in, the old buildings were unusual and very Scandinavian. I seemed to see lots of fairy lights in windows wherever I went – perhaps to compensate for the long winter nights, although at the time of my visit daylight hours were longer than those in Britain.
I knew that the crime rate in Iceland was very low, and I felt completely safe and at ease during my time there. However there were a few times when I was walking around in the evening and it was getting dark, there were few people around, and the wind was whistling through the buildings that I actually felt quite spooked. The atmosphere at these times was rather eerie and I can’t really blame the Icelandic people for being superstitious!
Below I discuss the different places I visited in the capital. I haven’t normally given prices as they are subject to change, but I thought costs in general were reasonable.
Reykjavik Welcome Card
This card is available to buy from the Tourist Information Office for 24, 48 or 72 hours and gives free entry to several museums, as well as free travel on central buses and access to the city’s thermal pools. I got the 24 hour card which got me free entry to the National History Museum, the Culture House, Reykjavik 871 ±2 Settlement Exhibition and the Reykjavík Maritime Museum which worked out as excellent value for me.
National Museum of Iceland
This museum was hard to find as it was slightly out of the city along a main road and looked nothing like a museum. It had the appearance of a factory or out-of-town office block and I only knew it was the right place because a. the map told me so, and b. there was a small sign in front of it with ‘Museum of Iceland’ on. I had to walk to the end to find the entrance and to my relief it looked much more like a museum on the inside.
The museum tells the story of Iceland in chronological order over two floors, beginning with the first inhabitants right up to the modern day. I found the exhibits were well-chosen and the accompanying text informative and interesting. There was an excellent balance between giving plenty of information and not boring with too much.
National Art Gallery of Iceland
This museum was very small and there were only three or four rooms. Most of the exhibits were modern paintings and sculpture. Modern art isn’t my favourite thing in the world, but there were a couple of works that caught my eye.
Reykjavik 871 ±2
This exhibition was possibly my favourite, being an underground room in the centre of which are the remains of a Viking longhouse, dated to the year 871, plus or minus two years (hence the exhibition’s name). The house itself would be very interesting to see, being very well preserved, however the creators of the exhibit have not relied on this, instead creating a fascinating interactive exhibit on the surrounding walls, providing information on how Vikings lived and the history of the Icelandic people. There is also an interactive table with a plan of the house: you can click on different sections to find out about different areas, with text in Icelandic, English and even runic script. I found all of this incredibly interesting and spent about an hour there – not bad for what is effectively one room!
Reykjavik Art Museum
This museum was pretty much full of modern art. I wouldn’t recommend going to this unless you’re a huge fan of the stuff. There were some interesting collages on the first floor using images from American popular culture, but that’s about it.
This museum was right on the harbour with a large boat just in front. It was over two floors and there wasn’t a great deal to see, but it was reasonably interesting, particularly the model of the inside of the fishing boat.
The Culture House is the former National Library of Iceland, and now houses manuscripts of the Icelandic sagas. As a librarian and a bit of a rare books geek, I loved looking at these! They are incredibly important works of literature and it was awesome to be able to see the original manuscripts.
Food and Drink
Iceland is famed for two main kinds of food: fish and lamb. I didn’t try the latter, but as a pescatarian made the most of the former. Vegetarians should have no trouble finding suitable food as there are plenty of Italian restaurants serving vegetable pizzas. I also noticed a surprising number of Thai restaurants. I think there are several Thai immigrants in Iceland and I imagine the food of the two cultures blends well together as both use lots of seafood.
For lunch, I tended to have a coffee and a pastry: there are a number of coffee shops in Reykjavik, but no global chains – no Starbucks or even McDonalds! On the Golden Circle tour there was a café at the geyser area serving sandwiches, salads and fast food such as burgers and chips.
I ate out three times: the first time at an Icelandic fish and chip restaurant near the harbour. It was a kind of café/restaurant where you had to pay at the front but your food was brought out to you. All the food is organic and I thoroughly enjoyed my battered Icelandic cod, which was fresh and thoroughly tasty, as well as the accompanying oven-baked chips. The meals are served with a skyrone of your choice – a mayonnaise-like substance based on skyr, a national dairy dish. Mine was basil and garlic flavoured and was delicious. In many ways the restaurant resembled a British one – not least because of the wartime jazz music playing in the background!
On the second night I ate at a nearby Thai restaurant, which again was quite informal as you needed to order food at the bar. I had fish again, in a Thai sauce served with rice. Again this meal was delicious.
On the third night, I didn’t have such a good experience. I decided to eat at an Italian restaurant called Caruso as it was mentioned in the guidebook and had good reviews. However when I went inside and asked for a table for one the waiter looked surprised and said he had to go and see if that was okay! I honestly think if he had gone out of my line of sight I would just have left. The other waiter he asked (more senior, presumably) didn’t bat an eyelid and showed me to a table. My meal was lovely but my experience was rather spoilt by this as I felt awkward and a bit silly, and just wanted to leave as soon as possible!
As you can see, however, there is a wide choice of food in Reykjavik so there is sure to be something for everyone. Meals can be slightly more expensive than in the UK but not overly so, particularly at the more informal places.
A lot of people go to Iceland for the nightlife as Reykjavik is famed for being a party city. I didn’t see much evidence of this on my visit – perhaps because Icelanders tend to drink at home owing to the high cost of alcohol in bars and clubs before heading out at around midnight (by which time I was tucked up in bed!). I could see plenty of bars as I walked around the city, though the quiet atmosphere that was generally present was a far cry from, say, Newcastle on a Friday night. As a female travelling alone, I wouldn’t have been comfortable going clubbing by myself but I did have a quiet drink in a bar every so often.
Golden Circle Tour
I’m going to write a separate review on this so I won’t go into a massive amount of detail here. The tour is the most popular tour taken by tourists in Iceland and it’s easy to see why – the tour is run as a day trip from Reykjavik and is very impressive. It takes in Gullfoss, which is an impressive two-tier waterfall; the geyser and hot springs area, at which you can see water bubbling and the most active geyser, Strokkur, erupting into the air every ten minutes; and the Thingvellir National Park which I mentioned above. I found the tour to be well worth the money spent: there was lots to see and the guide was cheerful and friendly.
Again, I’m going to write a separate review on this so I won’t go into too much detail. The Blue Lagoon is a famous, geothermally heated pool and it’s one of the most popular places to visit. I booked an excursion so my payment included return coach travel and the entry fee. It was incredibly surreal to be bathing outside in water as warm as your average bath, while sunlight almost blinded me and the wind whipped the skin off my face!
Overall I loved my trip to Reykjavik and I’m really glad I went. There was so much to see and do and it was nothing like I’d ever seen before. I do recommend it as a destination. It’s unusual enough to be different, enjoyable and sound impressive when people ask you what you did on your last holiday, but it’s also a safe and comfortable place to be with effectively no language barrier. Definitely worth considering as a holiday destination.
This review has also been posted on the Dooyoo website under the same username.over 2 years ago