Note: I wrote this in early March 2017.
Here we goooooo! I was in Reykjavík (pronounce the í like “ee”) from March 2-6, and was able to get out of Iceland’s capital for a day on a bus tour to the south of the country. “Iceland” in Icelandic is “Ísland”, which looks like “island”, which Iceland is, technically. Now you know.
Iceland is like no place I have been before. The island is hardly inhabited (less than 350,000 people in total, 2/3 of which live in Reykjavík), and in many ways it feels like a small town because of this. All the locals know each other, there’s hardly any public transit (though the transit they do have is reliable and affordable), the capital is mostly 3-5 story buildings mixed with houses, and the rest of the island is farm lands and small villages along the coast connected by one road (“Road 1”).
And yet: it feels like a giant tourist destination, because it sorta is one. This is a new development. It has happened in the last few decades. The capital was filled with travellers. It felt like we outnumbered the locals. And since I don’t drive, the only way I was able to get out of the city was on a tour bus, which as you might imagine, was also a very touristy experience. Don’t get me wrong: the city was inviting, friendly, humble and very stylish and the tour in the south showed us the ruggedness and beauty of the mainly uninhabited Icelandic landscape. But I think next time I visit, I will go with someone who can drive, or I need to learn to drive myself. Then I’d stay in a town outside the capital, and sight-see on my own terms. I like being on the periphery, and finding the stuff no one knows about, or doing as the locals do for the time I visit a new place. It was hard to do that during my stay because I couldn’t rent a car and I don’t know anyone who lives there.
On my way to Iceland I read a few essays by a new fave author of mine, Rebecca Solnit. All three were about the country, some critical, some celebratory. They’re in her book titled “The Encyclopedia of Trouble and Spaciousness”. I would highly suggest you check it out. I also researched a bit about the history of the nation and I learned a TON during my visits to all the museums and galleries I went to. I like having context. The history is pretty interesting as it is unique compared to most other places: it was virtually all wilderness – besides a few cave-dwelling celtic monks – when Nordic and Irish settlers first arrived and started cutting down trees and building homes. Anyways: find out yourself. It’s neat stuff.
I spent my time at art galleries and museums, churches, restaurants, wandering the streets, and a film festival that happened to be taking place during my stay. Compared to other cities I have visited, Iceland was one of the most accessible for wheelchairs. There were free public bathrooms in many places. Since I wasn’t there too long I can’t give you many insider tips on what to and where to go, but I’ll give ya what I got.
Let’s get into it.
My fave was Kaffi Vínyl, an all vegan spot that constantly had records playing and very cool folks working on laptops, sharing meals, drawing or drinking. I had a delicious quinoa salad there, some wicked hot chocolate, and chia pudding. I wish I had tried more stuff from their menu but most things in Iceland are pretty pricey. It’s right by Bío Paradís, a small movie theatre that plays more artsy films than your average cinema. In fact, it’s right by everything because Reykjavík is so small and walkable, everything is close to everything. I didn’t take the bus once.
Cafe Babalú is a cute lil place just down the street from Halgrímmskirkja (a gorgeous church on a hill), they have a Star Wars themed bathroom and DELICIOUS vegan carrot cake. It had so much frosting and I really wish I had a slice to eat right now.
Gló is a raw food restaurant above a health food store. They serve cooked food as well. Everything is vegan or vegetarian but you can have chicken in your order if you ask for it (…) They serve mostly salads along with daily menu items. I had a pretty yummy savoury raw basil cake with a variety of cooked salads. I wish I had gotten some sweets too, but I only noticed them after I ordered. Looked like they had cakes and tarts.
Heilsuhúsiõ is the health food store under Gló, and they also make fresh juice, smoothies and elixir-type concoctions (wheatgrass shots, etc.). I really appreciated this place because they had a huge selection of vegan chocolate that I can’t get in Canada, plus locally baked breads, vegan ice cream, nut butters and that kinda thing. Again: not cheap, but there’s no getting around that in Iceland.
Joylato has coconut ice cream as well as dairy. Obviously I tried the coconut. It was decent, but coulda been creamier. My all-time fave is still the cashew ice cream from Cosmic Treats in Toronto. Sooorry.
Garðurinn is a vegetarian restaurant right next to Joylato where I got a really good, cheesy, quiche-type thing. They had amazing-looking vegan desserts but I was so full I didn’t try any. Sad face. Their menu is different everyday.
My second last day in the city I had an okay bowl of rice noodles, broth and veggies at Noodle Station on Laugavegur Street (the main street in Reykjavík). It was cheaper than any other meal I had, and it was filling and hot.
Sandholt was a swanky bakery / cafe that served fresh sandwiches on housemade sourdough, brunchy stuff and hot drinks. They do have a vegan sandwich, but to be honest it wasn’t mind-blowing and I wish they had grilled it so it was warm, and served it with pesto or something. But the non-vegan dishes coming out of the kitchen looked GREAT. Hot chocolate topped with fat spoonfuls of whipped cream, buttery hot croissants straight out the oven, waffles coated in maple syrup, etc. Everything seemed really high quality and fancy. Food for adults. I would have adored this place if they were more vegan-friendly.
I saw a lot of art while I was here. I stuffed myself with more art than food, as a matter of fact. Iceland seems to have found its artistic voice in the last few decades, and it’s an innovative voice inspired by Iceland’s unique environment and people.
Reykjavík Art Museum has three locations and I visited them all. They display contemporary works by new emerging artists as well as the art of classic Icelandic artists like Ásmundur Sveinsson, whose modern sculpture work can be seen in public spaces throughout the city; and Erró, who has achieved international acclaim for his pop-culture-critical “scapes” paintings. The architecture of all the venues is stunning, since I personally adore minimalist, brutalist styles.
I deeply enjoyed visiting the National Gallery of Iceland, which also has three venues (I only had time to visit two). There was one 1994 installation from artist Steina called “Pyroglyphs” that really struck me. I was fascinated by it. Also liked an exhibit centered on art as text / text as art. Very cool.
817±2 is a museum based on the settlement of the island – especially a viking settlement unearthed in 2001 – providing more archaeological details than I had energy to soak up. The layout was interesting, interactive, educational and exciting.
The National Museum of Iceland was 3 stories tall and PACKED with information and artifacts. I was exhausted by the end of it, but then again I had to get through it all in an hour. There is also a photography exhibit on the first floor which was perhaps my favourite part.
On my first full day in Reykjavík I made sure to check out the Punk Museum. It is housed in an underground building that apparently used to be public bathrooms. It’s hard to miss. To keep my description simple: the whole affair is very punk / DIY and I may be wrong but I get the sense the place is managed by one old punk guy who’s been around since the very beginning of the genre’s emergence in the country. My fave part was seeing very early photos of Björk.
I am sad to say I hardly got to check out all the clubs and bars I planned to. I was just too tired by the end of each day, and my circadian rhythms were screwed up on top of everything. I didn’t sleep well in my hostel (EVERYONE SNORES!?) and had to get up really early most days to catch planes, see churches or get on a bus tour. It’s cool: I’ll be back.
I was lucky enough to stay in Reykjavík while Bío Paradís was hosting a film festival called Stockfish. I saw three films: Stranger By The Lake, a love story/murder/thriller centred around hot french gay guys; As I Open My Eyes, a beautiful coming-of-age story about a young rebellious Tunisian girl; and I Am Not Madame Bovary, a drama about a Chinese woman trying to find legal justice for herself after being screwed over by her ex-husband. I enjoyed all of them.
Places I wanted to visit but didn’t get the chance: Kex Hostel, MicroBar, Húrra, Gaukurinn, Boston Reykjavík, Kiki Queer Club.
The Golden Circle is another popular tour route. I would recommend doing these on your own, in a rented car or if you’re lucky enough to know people in Iceland: with them, unless you like the whole curated bus tour thing. I had a great time, but generally it’s not my style.
Other spots I didn’t get the chance to check out but wanted to: Seljavallalaug, Laugarvatn Fontana, Grandi Quay, Nauthólsvík Geothermal Beach.