Iceland / Travel

Insane About Iceland: Reykjavik, Part 1

When Icelandair introduced non-stop flights to Denver, I was elated. Iceland has been on my radar for a few years now due to glowing reviews from a few friends and, really, because it’s Iceland. I learned the whole, “Iceland is green and Greenland is icy” in school–who doesn’t want to visit a country that’s possibly the most illustrative example of the perils of a first impression?

View of Reykjavik from Hallgrímskirkja

View of Reykjavik from Hallgrímskirkja

A 7.5 hour flight from Denver, Iceland is a popular stop-over for people traveling to Europe. Some layovers are less than 12 hours; some people make it a long weekend before continuing on to London or Paris. I had only a week to explore a country the size of Ohio. Plenty of time, right?

Reykjavik is the home to about 60% of Iceland’s 319,000 residents and it has a great vibe. The streets are easy to navigate by foot and there are plenty of quirky side streets to get explore in the downtown area. Restaurants, cafes and shops are plentiful (many of the cafes turn into bars after dinner time), as are more cultural areas that highlight the long history of Iceland.

Visiting in November, I had the advantage of fewer people (Iceland AirWaves had just finished and “off season” was officially on) but the downside of less sunlight (the sun rose at about 9:30 a.m. and it got dark around 5 p.m.) which meant that I had less time to see things. Plus, it drizzled/rained quite a bit. And I have yet to replace my rain jacket that disappeared after the Kid Rock show in Aspen over Labor Day weekend.

No matter. There is plenty to see and do and I highly recommend not only exploring Reykjavik but also using it as a homebase for day trips. More on that in a bit.


Statue of Leif Erikson in front of Halgrimskirka

Leif Erikson, keeping watch over the city

  • Hallgrímskirkja: A major landmark in downtown Reykjavik, take the elevator up to the top for panoramic views of the city
  • National Museum of Iceland: Gives a comprehensive picture of Iceland’s 1200 year history and houses a vast collection of artifacts.
  • Culture House: The National Center for Cultural Heritage, this unassuming building houses Iceland’s medieval manuscripts as well as other rotating exhibits.
  • The Pearl: Perlan in Icelandic, this landmark was updated in 1991 and now has an observation deck, shops and a space for concerts and other special events. It’s a bit of a ways from downtown but worth a visit.

Spa: Iceland is practically leaking with natural hot springs so it’s no wonder that the locals are serious about their pools, saunas and hot tubs. While most neighborhoods have a pool that its denizens frequent, there are highlights for each. Here are a few to check out while you’re in town.

  • Steam rising on an overcast day at The Blue Lagoon

    The Blue Lagoon: A popular stop for visitors either arriving or departing the country, the Blue Lagoon is one of the most well-known and popular tourist destinations. With natural silica mud to smear on your face (don’t worry–everyone does it and looks equally silly) and an in-water bar, I highly recommend visiting the Blue Lagoon on your way back to the airport–it’s a great way to relax before the flight. Tip: Don’t put your head all the way under the water. As it’s a geothermal spa, the mix of salt and fresh water will leave your hair super crispy if you fully immerse your head.

  • Laugar Spa: Yes, the outdoor pool is fantastic (with a twirly slide, no less), but the real draw here is the spa. Purchase a day pass and enjoy six different saunas and steam rooms that are kept at varying temperatures, each with its own fragrance and theme. There is also a massive jacuzzi and cold (freezing) water barrels to either dunk or splash to cool down. The relaxation room, equipped with comfortable benches and a centrally located fireplace, is relaxing enough to induce a nap. If you’re so inclined, bring workout clothes to utilize the gym.
  • Vesturbæjarlaug: Featuring four “hot pots” (hot tubs) and glass steam rooms, this is a great pool to try out as the admission price is only ISK 500 (about $4). It’s more of a local scene, too, which presents a great opportunity to get to know Icelanders.

General Pool/Spa Tips:

  • Most pools either provide or rent towels. You can take your own if you like.
  • While the water is heated (most swimming pools in Iceland are fed from continuously flowing, geothermally heated, natural water sources), most of the swimming pools are outdoors. Have no fear, though, because a short walk through the cold is well rewarded when you sink into the water.
  • Because the water in the pools is being continuously replaced (that whole naturally flowing source thing), there is often no need for filters, recirculation pumps or chemical sanitization agents like chlorine. As a result, to maintain the quality of water, Icelandic pools are strict about visitors taking a shower before entering. Completely nude, with soap. In case you’re not sure about which bits to wash, here’s a diagram:

    Posted several places in the locker rooms in Iceland. Photo by I.Skoch/GlobalPost as cameras are frowned upon in locker rooms.

    Posted several places in the locker rooms in Iceland. Photo by I.Skoch/GlobalPost as cameras are frowned upon in locker rooms.

  • Neighborhood pools are a gathering place for Icelanders, much like pubs or happy hour in other countries. It’s not unusual to see a big group of people from the same company enter at one time and chat in the hot tub or saunas or hear people catch up with friends they haven’t seen in a while (at least, that’s what it looked like to me as my Icelandic is a bit rusty).

Coming Soon: Reykjavik, Part 2

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