Friday, November 28, 2014

Iceland pt. 2/What to do in Reykjavik

We spent our first full day in Iceland simply wandering around Reykjavik. We had arrived late the previous evening (after midnight, actually), and decided that the perfect way to acclimate ourselves to this most northern of cities was to soak it all in on the fly - no agenda, no plans, just wherever the wind would take us. So we walked and ate and walked some more and ate some more and had a perfectly delightful little day that set the pace for the rest of our week. We had five full days in Iceland - two of those days we rented a car and headed out to parts unknown, but for the other three, we kept it more local (if you consider things like a horseback ride excursion and a trip to the Blue Lagoon as local, which in comparison to the rest of Iceland, I do.)

*Downtown Reykjavik
It's no secret - you go to Iceland for the scenic countryside and otherworldly landscapes, and the bulk of Things To Do exist outside of the cites. But downtown Reykjavik is downright adorable, and if you have the time in your schedule, it is absolutely worth it to devote an entire day to staying in the city. A mishmash of old-world European cobblestone streets, Nordic rooftops, and blocky Communist facades, simply walking around with my camera in hand was a true delight. Other highlights included touring the starkly beautiful Hallgrimskirche Church, wandering the dozens of stores and restaurants Laugavegur Street, and though I hate to admit it, grabbing a White Russian at the bizarrely placed LebowskiBar (make sure you hit up their happy hour!). Because when in Rome...

*Reykjavik Art Museum
I love me an art museum, and visiting at least one of the three branches of the Reykjavik Art Museum was high on the to-do list. Since we were near Hafnarhus, we stopped there first - and were told that even though only about half the exhibits were open, each $10 ticket also gains entrance to the other two branches that were a mere bus ride away. So we bit the bullet and bought two tickets. It turned out that "half the exhibits" amounted to three - but I'll admit that they were pretty fantastic. We spent about 20 minutes in one of the rooms in which a microphone was set up in front of a 270 degree screen; any sounds projected into the microphone caused images to pop up on and bounce all over the screens. Immediately after getting our fill of beatboxing into the mic, we headed out to find one of the other museum branches. We'd been assured that it was located off one of the local Reykjavik bus stops, so we bought two bus rides and waited for the appropriate bus. It came within a few minutes, but once we sat down we realized we had no idea where we should get off. I asked the bus driver to point out our stop, but either he didn't understand or didn't care to honor my inquiry. Even though I was following our journey on a map, we never got quite close enough to the museum to warrant hopping off a bus and walking along unfamiliar roads - so we stayed on the bus for the entire route. The whole thing took almost two hours and was ultimately a huge waste of time. To add insult to injury, the weather that afternoon was glorious - sunny and fairly warm, a rarity in rainy September. So we spent the entire golden hour on a bus in a random Reykjavik suburb - not exactly a high point in my traveling history. But that was the worst thing that happened to us the entire week, so I can't complain too much. Lesson learned, though: finding your own way to the outer art museums is complicated - don't waste your time!!

*Drink all the coffee
It was cold and rainy every day after that first full day. We didn't let the weather spoil our plans, but after whatever touristy activity we did during the morning and early afternoon we were ready for a nice hot beverage. Luckily, one can find a cozy cafe approximately every seven feet in Reykjavik. By the end of our week, we had a few favorites - Laundromat Cafe for it's laid back hipster vibes, Bókakaffi because it's attached to a bookstore, and Stofan Kaffihús, which was so comfortable and relaxing that we had to drag ourselves out of there after like four straight hours of reading and drinking cappuccinos.

*Eat all the food
I'm not gonna lie - I really wasn't sure what to expect. The only thing I could glean from other friends and bloggers who had already been to Iceland was that we had to try the hotdogs. Ok, fine. So I'm going to go all the way to Iceland and eat a hotdog. Great. But what about the other 20 meals of the week? Well it turns out that we had nothing to fear, because the food in Iceland is wonderful. (It's also expensive and fried and covered in sinfully buttery sauces, but vacation, right?) Smoked cod at Laundromat Cafe. The breakfast buffet at Kex Hostel. Whale steaks and mushroom burgers at Islenski Barrin (we ate there two nights in a row). Fish and chips at, well, Icelandic Fish & Chips. Everything was delicious and filling and new and familiar all at the same time and I gained a gajillion pounds and didn't even care

*Horseback Riding 
If there was one thing we wanted to do in Iceland, it was to go horseback riding. Specifically, I wanted to experience the tölt, which is a 5th gait indigenous only to Icelandic horses due to centuries of strict breeding laws. I'm not normally a fan of group tours, but I also understood that the only way we were going to go horseback riding was to book a day trip - so I did some research and sent some emails and before long, we found ourselves on the back of a horse in the middle of the Icelandic countryside, surrounded by babbling brooks, rising mountains, and steam billowing from the ground. If you had told me I was no longer on Planet Earth, I'd have believed you in a heartbeat. The ride lasted about 5 hours and included transportation to/from downtown Reykjavik and a coffee break in the middle of the ride, and I don't know if this was just a happy accident, but there was only one other person on our ride, which gave a wonderfully personalized and intimate feel to the entire trip. Our guide was delightful and knowledgeable, the scenery was incredible, and I got to try the tölt.

*Blue Lagoon
Touristy? Yes. Overpriced? Slightly. Worth it? I definitely think so. Are you really going to go all the way to Iceland and then NOT go to the Blue Lagoon just because everybody else does? I didn't think so. A few tips if you go:
   - We bought our tickets ahead of time. We had an 11:00am entrance and sailed right past what looked to be a pretty hefty line at the front desk. Because of our schedule, the only day we could go was Saturday - and while we were worried that a weekend day might be crazily crowded, we instead found the spa occupied but by no means overrun with people.
   - There are a few levels of admission, and we sprung for the Comfort Package, which gave us a drink and a cold stone mud mask in addition to the regular (standard) admission. We both chose nonalcoholic for the drink, which seems like a shame, but the water was so hot that the thought of beer made me want to puke. Luckily, I chose the non-dairy green smoothie, and it was fantastic. The mud mask was great too, and I felt much more comfortable applying that to my face than I did the white masks available to everyone via strange troughs placed throughout the lagoon.
   - We rented a car for the second half of the trip, and intentionally planned to visit the lagoon on a day when we still had the car. This was immensely helpful since the only other options to get there from Reykjavik were either a group tour (no thanks) or to stop at the lagoon on our way to/from the airport on the FlyBus. Neither flight time allowed for this, so using the rented car became our only, and best, option.

Iceland is expensive, and when we realized that the only hotel with which we had redeemable points was booked, we almost had to find another destination. But then we decided to stay in an Airbnb rental - and boy am I glad we did. Our rented flat was nearly perfect - a great location, clean, well lit, fast internet, a cute balcony with a beautiful view, even a giant espresso maker with complementary coffee. Granted, the layout of the apartment was a little wonky with strangely slanted ceilings everywhere, but we're fairly short people, so it didn't even matter all that much. And we saved hundreds of dollars by staying in a flat instead of a hotel, so any and all oddities were immediately forgiven. I will definitely be using Airbnb again in the future - and if you check it out for yourself, use this link and save $25 on your rental!

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