Executive summary: wow. I can’t wait to go back.
When I was invited to present at Office 365 Engage, the only way I could get there from Huntsville and still meet the airfare budget was to take a frankenroute: drive to Atlanta, fly JetBlue to Boston, then Icelandair from Boston-Reykjavik-Amsterdam and back. I remembered that Icelandair offered free stopovers, so I decided to tack on a couple of days for a visit when on the return leg. I ended up being on the ground for 42 glorious hours.
To help plan my trip, I read the Lonely Planet guides to Iceland and Reykjavik, then spent a bunch of time hanging out in Reddit’s VisitingIceland forum. This was very valuable and I encourage you to check it out if you’re planning a trip there.
Getting to Amsterdam
Icelandair and JetBlue are both low-cost carriers, but the inflight experience was perfectly OK. Nothing fancy, but they both got me there in reasonable comfort, certainly no worse than traditional US carriers. My outbound flight ATL-BOS was delayed by 2 hours because of taxiway construction (helllloooo, B6.. did you not know about that in advance?), then my outbound BOS-KEF was delayed because the inbound aircraft was late. Despite these delays, I got to KEF on time to make my connection on to Amsterdam. Icelandair has Row44 wifi, which worked tolerably well, for EUR9.40. They have free in-seat entertainment in economy class and free soft drinks, but no in-seat power. On the flight over, I tried to sleep but didn’t have much success because I was too busy looking out the window to see the sun.. because it was up and shining in the middle of the night!
When we landed, we deplaned onto the tarmac and boarded buses back to the terminal. This was fun because many of the passengers, me included, weren’t prepared for the weather: 48 degrees F, wind at 22kts gusting 25, and moderate rain.
Iceland is a Schengen country, so for connecting flights into the EU you clear customs there. This was fairly efficient, although the KEF terminal is long and narrow so there tend to be long lines everywhere. Incoming passengers are funneled through a large duty free shop before getting to the main concourse, but if you’re connecting onwards you probably shouldn’t bother. After a brief wait, I boarded my connecting flight (which involved another bus, but at least it wasn’t raining) and flew off to Amsterdam.
Amsterdam back to Reykjavik
I like the Amsterdam airport. It is clean, uncluttered, and easy to navigate. Their security is quick and pleasant, with lots of touches that would be welcome in the US (such as automated conveyors that move trays and bags through the X-ray machines). Icelandair opens their checkin counter 3 hours before flight time, so if you get there earlier, be prepared to lug your suitcase around while you wait. I spent some time upstairs on the Panorama Terrace watching airplanes while I waited, then dropped off my bags and stopped to buy some duty-free goodies for the home folks. I ate at the Grand Cafe Het Paleis, which burned up almost all my layover time. Boarding was quick and efficient, and my flight left at its scheduled time of 1030p. That would put me on the ground in Iceland just before midnight. I settled in to my aisle seat, took a short in-flight nap, and then fidgeted until we were on the ground.
Oh, I also bought a Flybus ticket. This shuttle service is the simplest and least expensive way to get from the airport (which in Keflavik) to Reykjavik (which is about 30mi to the northeast). For 2500 ISK (about US$24), you get a bus ticket on a nice commuter bus that runs to the BSI bus station near the Reykjavik airport. Like the Delta Shuttle, the buses run as often as necessary to handle capacity, and there are buses there after every arriving flight, no matter how late. My plan was to Flybus it from the airport to BSI, then grab a cab onward from there.
Day 0: Thursday night
Once we landed, I deplaned and was through customs in about 15 minutes. I had a slightly longer wait to get my baggage from the carousel, which I spent looking around the airport terminal. I found a vending machine and was delighted to see that it supported ApplePay. I used ApplePay for the overwhelming majority of my transactions. I only used cash after a restaurant mixup (more on that later) left me with some ISK. While Iceland isn’t cashless, it’s fair to call it “low-cash” since virtually everyone pays for virtually everything, even small purchases, with cards.
After I finally got my luggage, I boarded the Flybus and we headed out. Here’s what I spent my whole ride looking at:
The bus was full of chatter, but I was content to watch the landscape pass by; although the picture doesn’t show it, the area nearest the airport is the rocky volcanic soil that Iceland is famous for.
Day 1: Friday
I didn’t sleep especially well, mostly because I was still a bit confused about what time it actually was. Between the light and my residual jet lag from going to Haarlem, I got maybe 4hrs total, which was plenty. After I got up, I showered. Interesting true fact: Reykjavik is considered a “low heat” area, meaning that groundwater is warm, but not always hot enough for showers and the like. Keflavik is a “high heat” area, meaning that its groundwater is too hot to be used directly for households. Anyway, all the groundwater in Iceland contains sulfur and other minerals– so you don’t cook with hot water, and when you use hot water in a pool, shower, etc. its mineral content leaves you feeling a little slimy. Anyway.. shower completed, off I went.
First stop for the day was the convenience store on the corner, where I grabbed a protein bar and a diet Coke. This was only because I didn’t know there was a bakery on the other end of the building. Oh well. It was windy, and colder than I thought, so I went back to the house to grab another layer and met Jakob, my Airbnb host, and his cat. We had a nice visit; in addition to Airbnb’ing, he’s a tour guide and has several other small part-time jobs. Nice guy and I would recommend his place highly.
I took off walking again, this time to Kringlan, a giant American-style mall, just to look around. It was closed, which was no great loss; if you’ve been in an American or Canadian mall, the experience would feel very familiar. One difference: there are tables near the mall exits where you can wrap gifts for free– a nice touch.
After Kringlan, I walked over to Hallgrimskirkja, the famous modernist church. My route took me through Miklatún park, one of the small parks that dot Reykjavik. I saw a ton of cyclists and walkers out getting where they needed to go, but I couldn’t help imagining what the park, and the people, would look like in six months when winter set in. Brrrrr.
It’s hard to describe the shape of Hallgrimskirkja, sort of like a football spiked so hard it went partly underground, or a poorly baked baguette. My sister described it as being designed by someone who had read a description of cathedrals but had never actually been in one, and that’s not a bad way to put it. The church spire is tall enough to dominate the city’s skyline; you can clearly see it from a good portion of the city.
The interior of the church is understated, to put it mildly. I think the builders put much of their capital into the giant organ. An organist was playing while I was there, and it was bone-jarring, which was actually kind of awesome. Sadly I seem to have lost the video I took, not that the puny mic on my phone would have captured the majesty.
A ticket to the top of the spire costs EUR 8, which was very well worth it for the views. Apart from the spire and the sanctuary, there really isn’t anything else to see here but it is still a worthy stop.
I had read on Reddit about the “waffle wagon,” a small yellow food truck that usually sets up at Hallgrimskirkja, and when I saw it I stopped for breakfast. This turned out to be an excellent decision– that waffle was the best waffle I’ve ever had. However, it was about $8. This was very typical of Iceland overall: everything is expensive. At best you’re paying what you’d pay in a US airport (for example, a half-liter bottle of Diet Coke is usually around $4) for most things.
Hallgrimskirkja is near Laugavegur, the primary shopping and tourist street in Reykjavik, so I walked over to have a look. Much like any similar area in another city, there were lots of tourists with shopping bags. I did my fair share of browsing, but couldn’t convince myself to pay $250+ for an Icelandic sweater or $800+ for true Arctic weather gear. My friend Julio had suggested a visit to The Laundromat, a hipster-ish coffee bar (and actual laundromat), so I stopped in and had a $12 latte. It was good, and the atmosphere was fun– the place was crowded but only about half of the people I could see or hear seemed to be speaking English. After people-watching a bit, I set off for more walking and shop/browsing.
When I was planning my trip, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do Saturday. After talking to Jakob and doing more research, I decided to rent a car and drive the Golden Circle route. Rental cars go for around $60 a day for the cheapest, most basic cars, then go up from there. I decided to rent from Atak, although there are lots of other choices (Hertz, Avis, and SadCars being among them). Demand is high and most places wouldn’t do such a short rental. The rental car companies’ offices are all clustered in a sort of auto-mall a couple of miles away from downtown, so I flagged down a cab, picked up a Hyundai I20, and went back to the house to grab my big camera and some more clothes. Along the way, I stopped at the small convenience store nearest the apartment and found that the shop next door was a fried chicken joint. I ordered a two-piece meal and fries and was charged… about $42. This turned out to be a mistake on the part of the cashier, but she didn’t know how to credit my card so I ended up with $21 worth of cash. This lasted me until I made it back to Boston, with some bonus coins to give Matt for his collection. (Note on the fried chicken from this place: just don’t.)
My afternoon plan was to take a boat tour to see puffins. This turned out to be an excellent decision. The excellent MustSeeInIceland website had recommended an operator called Happy Tours, so I booked with them ($55 or so). After parking near the Maritime Museum, I stopped for ice cream (always eat Icelandic ice cream when you can; it’s delicious!) and walked over to the tour area. Amazingly, no one else had signed up for the tour, so I had the boat to myself, along with the crew. Snorri, the captain, has been working the water for nearly 40 years, and his son and daughter both work with him as tour guides. Kristey, the daughter, was a great guide: fluent in English and very knowledgeable about puffins, the harbor, and (of course) Icelandic life and culture. The water was rough, and it was windy, both of which I loved, but Kristey said that previous passengers that day had been seasick.
Without further ado, some of what I saw on the tour…
After the tour, I walked over to a nearby coffee shop and had a cup of coffee while looking out at the harbor. It was pleasantly warm inside and I was a little nervous about what the race weather would be like. About 6 I headed back to the apartment, where I met my two Airbnb-mates: Zach from Houston and his sister, both of whom were in town to run the race. Neither of them had picked up their race packets, so I offered them a ride over to the venue to save them a walk.
I ran the 10K race, which was a blast. The race organizers include a ticket to the Laugardalslaug swimming pool, which I was looking forward to trying. The pool complex is huge, with four or five large hot tubs (and when I say “large,” I mean “15′ in diameter or so”), a few giant lap pools, a waterslide, and so on. A few tips on Icelandic pool etiquette and use:
- Bring a towel because the pool won’t provide them.
- You must shower before entering the pool. You will be expected to be naked when you do, and to use plenty of soap. If casual locker-room nakedness bothers you, you’d better get over it before you hit the locker room.
- The water feels different on your skin because a) it’s more mineralized than is typical in the US and b) it has much less chlorine than US pools tend to.
- Some pools (including this one) have lockers that are operated by an RFID wristband. Wristbands are usually available from the front desk.
- At least at Laugardalslaug, the big pool is just a little cooler than body temperature, and the hot tub I was in was maybe 1 degree above.
- Expect crowding. When I was in the hot tub, I was shoulder-to-shoulder with the people around me. I don’t know how common that is at 1130 at night, but I would imagine that in the middle of a summer day it wouldn’t be uncommon.
After the pool, we set out to find food. Here’s the problem: for all its exotic nature, Reykjavik is a fairly small city. Just like Huntsville, there are very few restaurants that are open at midnight… and Iceland doesn’t have Waffle House. It didn’t seem that late, given that it was still light and we had just finished running a race– both things you normally associate with daytime. None of the places we wanted to go were open, so we ended up downtown on Laugavegur again. We found Hlolli, which is sort of like an Icelandic version of Subway; I ended up eating what was basically a BBQ beef poboy. Not bad (in fact, the bread was quite good), but it was essentially drunk food, not fine dining. That’s OK, given that I was still wearing my running clothes. On the walk back to the car, we found that the waffle wagon I mentioned earlier had set up shop in the square, so we stopped off for dessert.. then it was back to the Airbnb for bed. I got there abut 130a, and of course it was still light. That didn’t stop me from sleeping like a lava rock though.