After the winter we just had, I’m not entirely sure why Iceland in June seemed like a good idea, but something about a land of volcanoes, ice, and elves appealed, so a couple weeks ago, I unearthed my ski socks, down jacket, and mittens, and packed a bag for Reykjavik, where the average June temperature hovers below 50.
My plan for this trip was to do some serious hiking in southern Iceland (more on that later), but before getting out of town, I spent a day exploring Reykjavik. Europe’s northernmost capital was smaller than I expected, more akin to a seaport like Gloucester or Annapolis than a bustling European capital. Which is appropriate: Reykjavik was founded in 870 A.D. by seafaring Vikings, and for centuries operated as a seaport. Until the 20th century, there were few roads linking communities on the island. Instead, people travelled by boat.
Though Reykjavik is relatively small, I managed to walk 15 miles in the city on the first day. I couldn’t help it: the small streets and picturesque houses make it a very walkable city. The city was hosting a color run the morning I arrived, which made for a pretty hilarious spectacle with hundreds of fair-haired people running through clouds of neon dust. I spent the rest of the day passing people with rock-star quality hair and crossing blue and pink tinged streets.
Rather than give you a play by play of the day, here are a few highlights:
My first stop was at Hallgrimskirkja, Reykjavik’s iconic church. It was about 8 a.m. when I arrived, and the city was just waking up, so the church wasn’t open. I walked around and snapped some photos and then headed into town in search of coffee.
Reykjavik has a great cafe scene, I don’t think I had a bad cup of coffee the entire time I was there, regardless of whether I was at a quaint cafe, a mountain hut, or a gas station.
Harpa Concert Hall
After breakfast, I headed to the coast and found myself near the Harpa Concert Hall, another of the city’s iconic structures. Of course I had to go in for a gander. Built of steel and glass, the structure reminded me of a giant honeycomb, overlooking the harbor.
Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur
I never would have sought out hot dogs in Iceland has I not read this story in Conde Nast Traveller. Iceland’s culinary history is colorful (to be generous). With a short growing season and long winters, food preservation was important: smoking, drying, and brining meat and fish is pervasive. But while whey brined shark (hakarl) is an acquired taste, hot dogs hold more universal appeal. So, I headed to Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur (translation: the best hog dog in town) to try one of the famous Icelandic hot dogs, made mostly from free-range organic lamb wrapped in a natural casing (with a bit of pork and beef thrown in for good measure).
There was a line when I arrived, but it moved quickly. At 400 krona (about $3), they were a steal, so I got two, with everything. Everything was raw onions, fried onions, sweet mustard, and “remoulade” a mayonnaise-based sauce. The hotdogs were served in a perfect, soft, white bun, with the onions underneath and the sauce in two neat lines over the top. The casing crunched satisfyingly, and the actual sausages weren’t as salty as their American counterparts. All in all, it was a pretty great lunch.
The day I arrived was also the start of the Festival of the Sea. Every Icelandic ship was in the harbor, and all the sailors had a day off. I walked from the Harpa Concert Hall along the water, reading displays about Iceland’s maritime disasters (there are many), admiring boats, and looking confusedly at an exhibit of Icelandic seafood that featured real, slightly decaying specimens.
It was a great way to learn more about the history of Iceland, and if you’re hankering for a fishing or whale watching excursion, this is the place to go. There are also a host of seafood restaurants overlooking the water, as well as a maritime museum.
When your homeland has a lot of volcanic activity like Iceland does, you also have some pretty awesome geothermal resources. Icelandic communities have capitalized on this by building a host of outdoor, heated, community swimming pools, and making swim lessons compulsory for all school children.
In Reykjavik, the biggest of these pools is the Laugardalslaug, located slightly east of downtown Reykjavik. It was about a half hour walk from my hotel downtown, but the pool is also accessible by public bus (routes and schedules here).
Icelanders use minimal chemicals in their pools, so a cleansing shower (with soap, no bathing suit) is required before you get in. The wet walk from the locker room to the outdoor pool was something of a shock (it was 45 degrees the day I went), but the warmth of the hot tubs made it all worth it.
Fortunately, the pool didn’t look like this on the day I visited. In addition to several hot tubs of various temperatures, the facility features a lap pool, a huge children’s play area, floating chess and waterslides. With admission about $5 (plus another $5 to rent a towel), it’s a steal. For the best people watching, go when work gets out and Icelanders are enjoying time with their families.
Reykjavik is also the culinary and shopping hub of the country, so if you’re looking for a good meal or neat souvenirs, this is your spot. I had a traditional tasting menu one night featuring smoked puffin, seared mike whale, reindeer, arctic char, and skyr… it was a different, but delicious experience.