The adventure starts here. I had packed my life into a bag and was setting off on a press trip across Europe for over a month. I would be reviewing over 40 restaurants in six countries and dancing my way through some of the worlds most famous art galleries, museums, castles, monasteries and cathedrals. “The Land of Volcanoes and Ice” has been on my to do list for the past 10 years. A country which offers unparalleled natural wonders as well as a nouveau cuisine which showcases a strong connection to the terroir of the region. During my first trip to Europe in 2005 I promised myself that I would make the stop across the Atlantic to the wee island nation of Iceland. And I’m ever so glad I did…
My first “Icelandic moment” was just as I was boarding my Iceland Air flight Boston-Reykjavik. Each of the head rests on the plane featured scripted lessons on how to say “goodnight or good morning” in Icelandic. I sat down in my chair and felt so calm as Sigur Ros lulled the entire plane to sleep. The screen in front of me had a promo video for Bjork’s new album Biophilia. My heart skipped a beat. I’m a huge Bjork fan, have seen her live three times and even directed a homage to her Debut Album with the help of a few of my friends. I already felt a connection to this place.
Six hours later I arrived in Reykjavik. I had maybe managed to sleep four hours (with the help of a wee sleeping pill) but forced myself to wake up by splashing my face with glacial water at the airport bathroom. I hopped on a bus bound for the city centre at 6am which is approximately 45 minutes from the international airport. It was a cool rainy morning. The drive into the city was stunning. Cute little houses, beautiful ocean views and oh, that volcanic landscape!
I arrived at a relatively new hotel (which is not currently featured in any of the travel guides) called Kex. The hotel features dorm style hostel accommodation as well as private rooms. The entire place is a design nerds dream. An open concept restaurant and bar on the same floor as reception is a popular hangout for travelers and locals alike. My good friend Sarah who I backpacked through South America with in 2008 flew from her current home in London UK to spend three days with me running around Iceland’s capital. I met with Sarah shortly after arriving and we immediately strapped on our boots and weathered the cool rain in search of our first restaurant review. It was pouring out but we took the time to window shop (neat fashion boutiques and stores selling stuffed Puffin). The city is so compact and easily walkable so it only took us about 10 minutes to find our brunch spot, The Laundromat Cafe.
After brunch we visited The Settlement Exhibition (also known as Reykjavik 871±2) , a part of the Reykjavik City Museum. In 2001 archaeological remains were excavated in Aðalstræti, which turned out to be the oldest relics of human habitation in Reykjavik, from before AD 871 ±2. The finds included a longhouse, which is now preserved in its original location as the focal point of the exhibition about life in Viking Age Reykjavik. While visiting a museum which focuses on the rubble and remains of an ancient Viking cabin may sound a bit dry it is anything but! The Museum curators and designers have used mixed media and interactive displays to showcase how people lived way back when which actually received the NODEM award in 2006 for “Best Design and Digital Experiences in Museums” in the Nordic countries.
Once finished at the museum we stood in the lobby overlooking the square which was receiving a serious pounding from the rain. We bolted out the doors and spent the next hour or so getting a bit lost. My shoes filled with cold water and my socks were soaking wet. We joked that if I thought positively about the situation I could spin it as an “exotic Icelandic foot treatment.” We took a quick break from running in circles by bolting into a cute little church which had two rows of wooden pews and a beautiful organ at the back.
We hopped back into the rain, frozen feet and wet eyelashes, for the city harbour where we grabbed our tickets for a whale watching tour with Elding. I tried to ring out my socks and keep warm in the Elding museum which is located on a ship on the harbour. The exhibit showcased some trippy underwater films of whales and dolphins as well as a lot of nautical brick and brack. Moments later we were on a bus (out of the rain thank God) for a quick drive to our tour boat. Sarah and I have actually done three whale watching tours together in Victoria British Colombia and Salinas Ecuador (you’d think we were enthusiasts or something). Whale watching in Victoria during the summer is lovely and nothing beats zooming around Ecuador with your feet dangling in the warm ocean spray of tropical coastal Ecuador. Whale watching in Iceland on a cold spring afternoon in the rain is another story. I should disclose that at this point in the trip I had been running around the city for 12 hours on barely 4 hours of sleep, my feet were cold and my body ached. While tourists dressed in snow suits poked about the boat looking for Free Willy I found myself closing my eyes dreaming of a warm shower. I would highly suggest if you are visiting Iceland during the summer (July and August) and have never been whale watching before to definitely check out this unique wildlife tour.
As soon as our boat reached the harbour we hobbled/bolted to Kex for a hot shower (no time for a nap although that would have been heavenly). We walked back downtown for our first dinner review at Grill Market. Once sufficiently drunk and stuffed beyond our wildest dreams on creative little culinary creations we took a slow walk back to our hotel along the boardwalk. I stood mesmerized staring up at the cities stunning Harpa Centre which glows and moves like a swarm of fire flies in the night. Once back in our room I immediately hopped into bed, rubbed my bloated tummy affectionately like an overdue pregnant woman (just imagine I was “glowing”) and immediately fell into a deep sleep.
The following morning Sarah complained that I snore. I shrugged it off by making her pity the rather arduous schedule we had the previous day. We opted to skip breakfast as we were still full from our dinner. Our first stop was the cities notorious Icelandic Phallological Museum. This odd ball museum is probably the only of its kind in the world to contain a collection of phallic specimens belonging to all the various types of mammal found in a single country. The museum contains a collection of more than 250 penises belonging to almost all the land and sea mammals that can be found in Iceland. Visitors to the museum encounter fifty odd specimens belonging to seventeen different kinds of whale, one specimen taken from a rogue polar bear, thirty something specimens belonging to seven different kinds of seal and walrus, and 150 specimens originating from twenty different kinds of land mammal. It should be noted that the museum has also been fortunate enough to receive “legally-certified gift tokens for four specimens belonging to Homo Sapiens.” Yes you heard that right. A few crazy guys from Iceland donated their penises to the museum. Of course there is also a gift shop which sells postcards, penis key chains and morbid goat scrotum lamp shades. The museum is such an oddball experience. You can’t help but think about who on earth would start such a collection. Some words from the founder…
“The foundation was laid in 1974 when I got a pizzle or a bull’s penis. As a child I was sent into the countryside during summer vacations and there I was given a pizzle as a whip for the animals. At that time in 1974 I was living in the town of Akranes on the south-west coast, working as a headmaster in a secondary school. Some of my teachers used to work in summer in a nearby whaling station and after the first specimen they started bringing me whale penises, supposedly to tease me. Then the idea came up gradually that it might be interesting collecting specimens from more mammalian species.”
After seeing too many pickled penis in a jar we sneaked ourselves out of the museum and into the sunshine for a bit of fresh air. We both felt a bit nauseated so decided cleansing ourselves from the experience would be appropriate at the cities most famous holy monument Hallgrimskirkja Cathedral. It was a Sunday so there was actually a service going when we arrived so we just stood quietly as a Icelandic church choir sung their hearts out. A fierce statue of Leif Ericson the famous Viking stands directly in front of the cathedral’s steps offering up a great photo opportunity.
Next stop, The National Museum of Iceland which I simply adored! We first grabbed a coffee and kleinur, a traditional twisted Icelandic donut to give us a quick boost before browsing. The museum is a must see for all visitors to Iceland with two floors packed full of everything from ancient viking artifacts to 20th century fashion. While I enjoyed everything the museum had to offer I really do have to say the highlight for me was the last room where a rotating oval track showcases Iceland in the modern day. I jumped for joy when I saw an LP Record of Bjork’s first album, the self titled Bjork. Even as a child she was such a creative renaissance child. The album art was fantastic.
With our stomachs growling we walked back to the city centre, past several beautiful graffiti covered buildings. Our lunch review was at The Icelandic Bar, a restaurant which showcases the most traditional Icelandic cuisine (don’t squirm) and local microbrews.
Once finished lunch we hopped on a bus bound for the ever so famous Blue Lagoon Thermal Spa for an afternoon of rest, relaxation and pampering. The Spa is located between the airport and city centre so is an excellent spot to visit before hopping on your flight back home. We took a 40 minute scenic drive to the spa and immediately hopped into the change rooms and met outside in our plush white robes. We were given a few drinks tickets to enjoy at the thermal pool side bar which were a nice treat. We were really lucky to have been blessed with a blue sky day. The sun was out and everyone seemed so content bobbing up in down in the piping hot indigo coloured steaming pool.
We hopped in the steaming liquid and immediately I felt my muscles relax. You can cover your face in silica mud at stations around the pool as well as enjoy a beating of a back rub at a waterfall. Sarah and I had been really pushing ourselves for the past two days, running around the city, enduring cold rain and arduous restaurant reviews. We both sort of let out a relaxed exhale and floated in silence for a few glorious moments.
After an hour or two in the pool we slowly walked out of the pool as if we had noodles for legs. We quickly changed and dashed for our bus back to the city centre. We ran back to our hotel, quickly switched into our fine dining attire for our restaurant review at Kolabrautin located inside the stunning Harpa Centre.
After dinner we waddled home like two penguins with big smiles on our faces. The following morning we woke up early for a 9 hour Golden Circle Tour which allowed us to visit some of the islands most famous natural wonders. We once again quickly showered, switched into our evening attire and enjoyed our final restaurant review in Reykjavik at Fish Company.
After dinner we both sat on our beds chatting about our whirlwind tour of Iceland’s capital. We had eaten plates full of inspiration and strolled through a city which is relatively small but offers the cultural attractions of the worlds best. Reykjavik while hard to spell (and pronounce) is even harder to leave. Do yourself a favor and visit one of Europe’s most unique capital treasures. Tell them I sent you!
My visit to Iceland was a press trip coordinated by Tourism Iceland. Accommodation, restaurant visits and activities featured in this destination guide were complimentary.