A Week in Reykjavik
My first view of Iceland was from a few thousand feet up and 10 minutes away from landing; the sight wasn’t what I had expected. I knew before I chose to go to Iceland, from the odd photo I’d seen here and there, that the landscape was diverse and varied depending on the region; some areas being littered with volcanoes, others covered in snow, but the view from afar completely surprised me. I tried not to do much research before heading there. I wanted my first significant solo travel to be free from presumptions; I wanted to keep an open mind.
When we were told we were approaching the island, everyone’s gaze turned to the windows for their first glimpse. I’d expected to see either a white blanket or nothing but mist but what I saw caught me by surprise. If you didn’t know any better you’d think that it was a desolate land; the ground was covered in various shades of burnt colours. Greys, blacks, browns and oranges, all burnt. After a moment or two you remember that this a country with active volcanoes and if, like me, you’ve never been to a volcanic country, this is probably a bit of a shock but is actually completely normal. In England I’m used to shades of green and brown, not grey and orange. Iceland had an otherworldly feel to it, more of a science fiction feeling than a magical one. I couldn’t wait to see more.
Of course only having carry on luggage made passing through the airport quick and easy, which was a bonus as I couldn’t wait to get some air. This may come as a surprise, but my first thoughts when I stepped outside were how cold it was. It was a bitter cold, enough to provoke a shiver within a minute or so. Now I had been told that it had been snowing recently, and was due to snow again in the coming days, but the ground was bone dry and there wasn’t a cloud in the sky. It was just cold. This didn’t bother me really, after all you don’t readily head to Iceland and expect glorious sunshine and tropical heat. I was relatively prepared for it and, more than anything else, couldn’t wait to actually arrive in Reykjavik so I could get out and explore.
After checking into my hostel, and putting an extra layer on, the first thing I did was go for a wander. I’d chosen to stay in a moderately cheap hostel straight across from the Hallgrimskirkja. This was a practical decision as the Hallgrimskirkja is at the highest point within the city centre and so I could use it to find my way back if I ever got lost (which genuinely did help one night).
One of the first things I noticed whilst out and about was that there was no ‘inner city feeling’ to Reykjavik; there wasn’t the hustle and bustle that I was expecting. The movement of cars was minimal and it was difficult to spot any kind of tourist (whether I blended in myself I’ll never know). The streets are pretty quiet and, to me at least, it felt like a constant morning.
Now one bit of advice for Diabetics (or anyone with a medical condition) is to have a look around for the nearest pharmacies, or even the local doctors surgery, within a couple of days of being there. I decided to have a look for a pharmacy on my first morning in the city. Although I was only going to be in Reykjavik for a week, and it was unlikely that I’d use up or lose all my supplies, I decided it’d be a good idea to make sure that if anything were to happen to my supplies that I could at least buy some locally. As Reykjavik is quite a small city, this didn’t take long; I saw two pharmacies whilst strolling around, both of which supplied various test strips. It looked like you could buy these over the counter for a small fortune (I once bought some emergency strips at a Pharmacy back in the UK which set me back £35). However, in terms of Insulin I was under the impression that you would have to retrieve some kind of prescription notice from the local doctor or hospital, which is understandable considering that Insulin can be quite dangerous. So if you do end up in Reykjavik be assured that you can find supplies if required (though you will have to get your wallet out).
After walking possibly 50m down from my hostel I saw something that made me stop for a couple of minutes and watch; a guy just starting do some spray painting on one of the coolest little buildings I’ve seen. I’m not sure what the building was actually used for but I assumed it was some sort of art gallery (or I could be completely wrong).
I actually felt quite lucky to have seen this first hand because one thing you will notice around Reykjavik is that there are a lot of colourful buildings knocking about and to see one being coloured made me genuinely happy.
After walking around areas quite local to my hostel I realised that the atmosphere felt like that of a small town rather than a city; it was calm and unassuming. If you consider that Iceland has a small population, and that 2/3 of that population live within the city limits, you’ll understand how isolated some parts of the country must be.
I didn’t have any real plan as to where I was walking; I was just taking it all in. A right here, a left there and before I knew it I’d reached the outskirts. At this point I thought I’d better head back to the centre with a view on getting out for the evening. In terms of temperature it’s just about tolerable in Reykjavik during the day but I wouldn’t want to be miles away from the centre once it’s gone dark. My idea of keeping an eye on where in the city I was compared to the Hallgrimskirkja paid off as, by the time I’d got back to the hostel to change, it had gone quite dark.
Being alone and in a new city, the next logical step was to take in the nightlife and sample a few of the local bars. The place to do this in Reykjavik is the Laugavegur. This is the main strip in Reykjavik with nearly the majority of restaurants and bars lining it; if you don’t find a good place to spend your evening on this street, you’ll definitely find somewhere on one of its off-branching roads. Walking down this street during the day you’re likely to overlook most of what it has to offer, but once dark the people of Reykjavik come out and it becomes an awesome place.
If you’re into your drinking and want a good night out be warned: In Iceland the people tend to come out quite late at night (nearing midnight) and it’s not uncommon for some places to be open until 4-5 am so if you want to catch a truly Icelandic night out either start drinking late or pace yourself; there’s no place for lightweights in Reykjavik! There was one particular bar on this strip that I immediately fell in love with as soon as it caught my eye: Lebowski Bar. This of course is based on the film ‘The Big Lebowski’. If you’ve seen the film: it’s fantastic! If you’ve not seen the film: it’s fantastic! This bar is so laid back and the people so welcoming that whether you’re in the city for a week or just one day, it’s worth a quick burger and a white russian. The prices here were also quite tame compared to some of the other bars; you’re looking at around 1100kr for a pint of Gull (a popular lager) which is just over £5.20.
The Dude Abides…
Walking solo into a bar in a foreign country can make you feel a little anxious at first, but that leads me onto my next point: the Icelandic people are incredibly friendly! I think one of the advantages of travelling solo is that you’re encouraged to interact with people you might otherwise avoid or possibly shy away from, but it gives you the confidence to start conversations and learn more than you ever would from tour guides or travel books. Throughout my time in Reykjavik I met quite a few different people; Icelandic students (in a late bar), an American co-pilot (in a cafe), a Welsh stag party (everywhere) and a Norwegian group of friends on an annual jolly up (who I ended up spending a bit of time with).
I actually ended up having a drink with 2 girls who were on a kind of layover in Reykjavik; they arrived that afternoon and were leaving the following morning. They were on their way to Greenland, then Canada, then south through America. I’m not sure how long they’d been travelling but they seemed quite used to it. Their ‘thing’ was collecting postcards from each city they passed through on their travels. I remember (just about) asking them question after question; how much money do you spend? How do you plan your routes? etc. and they were genuinely quite happy to help. There’s a part of me that hopes they’re still out on the road somewhere as they left a lasting impression on me. However out of all these different people, it was the Icelandic who were (generally) the most friendly and welcoming; no matter where in the city you ended up, you were always met with a warm welcome.
I like to try new food and there’s nothing more interesting than trying local food. I had an idea before I headed to Iceland that it’d be a country that enjoyed it’s seafood, and I wasn’t wrong. If you manage to pass the Italian, Indian, and burger bars you’ll more than likely find a seafood restaurant (or some sort of strange variation such as Thai Seafood-Burgers). I must admit that seafood isn’t my favourite type by any means but I decided I’d try a few different things. Depending on your taste, you can find shark, puffin, minke whale, or just plain fish and chips in various places throughout the city. The only problem I found with the food, which I find with seafood anywhere, is that I struggled working out how much insulin I needed. I ended up having two days of fluctuating blood sugars which made me feel a little peaky at times, but I was busy enough that I didn’t let it get to me too much.
If, like me, you enjoy coffee and croissants there is a little cafe I discovered just across from the Hallgrimskirkja, named Cafe Loki. It’s not particularly difficult to find, however if you only come from the north side of the city you’re likely to miss it as it’s just on the corner of a smaller road heading north west (I missed it for a few days and I was staying right next to it!) You can get a coffee and a bite to eat for less than £8 which, considering the location and view, is a bargain.
As I mentioned earlier the hostel I chose was as close to the Hallgrimskirkja as possible, which meant it would’ve been a crime not to have a peek inside. As well as its unique architecture, the church has a very distinctive feel to it, almost mystical. When I visited there was no entry fee, however there is a small fee for catching the lift to the top of the tower (this was the equivalent of around £4, but it was worth far more in my opinion). From the top you can see the whole of Reykjavik and you soon realise just how compact the city really is. One bit of advice I’d give is to really try and take in where you actually are; if I visited again I’d spend far more time up there and try and appreciate it more.
As you’re walking about Reykjavik you will no doubt notice the Harpa which is on the coast just off the Laugavegur to the north. This building is the Reykjavik concert hall and is a must see in my opinion.
It’s free to enter and you can head all the way to the top level which has great views over the local water and interior. You can also grab a bite to eat and a drink there (though it can be costly). I never got to see a show there but there are shows of some sort on throughout the year.
If you’re thinking of heading to Iceland the chances are you’re also looking to see a bit of the country itself rather than just Reykjavik. If I had more money at the time I’d have liked to have spent a few days in the city and a day or two out in a more isolated town somewhere, but unfortunately that was not to be. This meant I had to settle for the more affordable sightseeing out of town, however this isn’t a bad thing at all. There are many different tours and trails that you can choose from, but one that I’d suggest for a first time traveller, or someone who doesn’t want to worry much about being organised, is the Golden Circle Trail.
Thingveller National Park is possibly one of the most quiet and isolated places I’ve ever been to.
This trail loops out towards the centre of Iceland and back and covers 3 main natural attractions (which you could actually consider small natural wonders). This trail takes up most of your day but is more than worth it; you get to see some beautiful parts of the country for quite a low price (around £45 when I was there). You spend an hour or so in each spot, each being a different experience.
The Gullfoss is a wonder of nature and can be awe inspiring but be prepared to get wet if you stand too close!
Haukadalur features too prominent Geysirs; make sure to be close when they erupt.
Now many people asked me when I returned home whether I saw the Northern Lights or not. Sadly the answer was no. It was one of the only things I actually really intended to do whilst in Iceland but having met a couple who had been to see them (and failed) 3 nights in a row I decided to save my money. It actually turns out, according to a group of Norwegians, that you’re more likely to see them in the North of Norway or in Svalbard (somewhere on my to go list). However, you may just be lucky enough to see them in Iceland.
All in all I’d say that after only a week in Reykjavik I’d fallen in love with the place. I’d also fallen in love with travelling. As soon as I stepped off the plane I knew that this was the start of something new, and something that I’d either relish or dismiss as a bad experience. I’m glad it was the former because I knew that this would be something I wanted to do permanently. May this be the first of many travels…
–Type 1 Traveller