Hello everyone! As promised, this is Part 2 of my Iceland Travelogue, Part 1 being my review on the Landmannalaugar hike. Iceland is the second solo trip I’ve taken (the first being a two week stint in Paris, London, Amsterdam and Berlin) and this one was superior. I think 6 days was just right; any longer and I probably would have been miserable at the lack of meaningful in-person exchanges and creature comforts. A girl can only survive so long on small talk alone!
Iceland has been an incredibly inspiring trip, and I’m very happy with how it turned out. I know Iceland is becoming a trendy vacation spot now, but I feel like its culture is still quaint enough to be appealing.
I’ve organized my thoughts into the five main sections below, so if you’re a man or woman with a mission (as I am wont to be), you can just click on the topic you want and skip straight ahead. But I gotta warn you: I saved the best for the last.
- Culture Night (Menningarnott)
- The Blue Lagoon
- Vik and the South Coast
- My hostel, the Reykjavik Downtown Hostel
- Random observations
- How much I spent
Icelandic food is, of course, characterized by fish, given its island-in-the-Atlantic geography. The preferred meat in those parts is lamb, as they wander around the Icelandic hills and cold temperature with ease. Hardier root vegetables grow better in those climates, and potatoes, beets, and carrots are mainstays of the vegetal diet.
Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur is well-rated on Tripadvisor, but I was initially skeptical about this humble hot dog shack. After all, how great can a hot dog be? Hot dogs aren’t even a uniquely Icelandic thing! However, it was in several must-try lists and its proximity to my hostel and small portion size made it a good option for a jetlagged breakfast.
After I tried it, I understood its appeal. At a low, low price of 400 ISK (~3 USD), it gets you a tender and juicy hot dog with the snappiest casing. Icelandic hot dogs contain lamb, which gives it a stronger flavor. The hot dog lies on a bed of raw onions and fried onions, glued to the bun with a swab of ketchup. On top of the dog are swiftly applied strips of sweet mustard and remoulade, a mayo-based relish condiment.
The different textures and flavors made it a hit for me. I came back here a second time and omitted the ketchup, and regretted doing so as it failed to anchor the onions to the bun and was messier to eat.
Fiskfélagið (Fish Company) is considered to be one of the best fish places in town. I wanted to treat myself to a fancier place just for the experience, and after deciding between a few (Dill, a fancy, multi-course, molecular gastronomy-type restaurant and Matur og Drykkur, the Icelandic equivalent of “New American”), I settled on Fiskfélagið.
I ordered the arctic char (which is related to salmon), which the menu describes as “slowly cooked & rolled ARCTIC CHARR with SCALLOPS, smoked APPLE sauce & apple globes, cured & burnt LOBSTER with BEER sauce”.
This dish was delicious. The fried brown chips you see are apparently artichoke, which added crunch to the velvety, fork-tender fish. The plate was delicately flavored, with sweet-sour green apple, floral notes from the dill oil, and little globules of savory fish roe.
They then gave me the check in this cute knitted coin pouch. It only came up to about USD 21, which is not that bad at all for a plate of such complexity and multitude of components.
Sægreifinn (Sea Baron) is a no-frills eatery that serves you two things: grilled fish and lobster soup.
You choose from any of these skewers in the open fridge, and then they grill it for you. Just like that – fresh fish cooked simply. There’s whale (the top left dark red meat), cod, arctic char, scallops, and so on.
The lobster soup was the bomb. The flavorful bisque seemed to be thickened solely by lobster shells and no cream at all. The meat was soft and plump.
I also tried the mink whale: you can buy a tasting piece for 300 ISK, or ~2.30 USD.
I didn’t like it. It had the texture of steak with the taste of overly fishy tuna.
Cafe Loki was what started my love affair with rye bread. I ordered the Icelandic Plate III, which looks like the below:
From left to right: rye bread ice cream (!), mashed fish on rye, and herring on rye. Let me start with the herring: it was the most unexpectedly yummy thing ever. The fish is preserved in a sweet brine, so it almost tastes candied. I personally really enjoy canned fish like mackerel and sardines, so this was right up my alley. The rye bread it was on was dense, moist, and sweet. It was just such an delightfully unexpected bite of sweet where I expected salty, and moist where I expected crusty. The mashed fish (lokkfishkur) was less appetizing to me – it’s basically white fish mixed with mashed potatoes. It was more potato than fish and the carb on carb wasn’t doing it for me.
Unless it’s rye bread ice cream.
So rye bread, or rúgbrauð, is similar to pumpernickel, only that the Icelandic version is made with a large amount of sugar and the texture is more akin to a moist breakfast muffin than a typical wheat bread. That’s why it works so well in an ice cream – it almost functions like the chocolate chips in a stracciatella ice cream.
I ended up being slightly obsessed with rye bread after my meal at Cafe Loki and I bought one budget loaf at the grocery store, only to realize that the the more expensive one, pictured here, (just a dollar more) was definitely moister and sweeter and not quite as cardboardy as the cheaper one. I also found Cafe Loki’s recipe for their rye bread – mmm, I want to recreate the herring dish!
Slippbarinn is an inventive cocktail bar that’s relatively upscale, but every cent of the ~18 USD cocktail I paid for was worth it. (This includes tax and tip, so it’s really not bad at all.)
I had two drinks, but the real stunner was this bourbon-based drink with beet juice, sage, muddled blackberries and a sprinkle of crushed liquorice candy. I would have never thought to add beet juice to a cocktail, but the earthy sweetness plays off of the woody bourbon notes perfectly.
I actually bought some fresh beets at Trader Joe’s last night in an attempt to recreate this. I don’t have a blender or a juicer, so I may have to get my manly boyfriend to squeeze raw beets with his bare, rugged hands until they bleed.
Culture Night (Menningarnótt)
I had planned my trip to coincide with Iceland’s Culture Night, an annual event where the entire city turns into a big block party. The day kicked off with a marathon, followed by musicians performing on the streets, free waffles, and all kinds of shenanigans.
This was by the marathon finish line. There were several international participants; I had met an American participant the day before at the Landmannalaugar hot springs.
At least five different locations were giving out waffles, but I chose to go to the church because I knew they would always have waffles for wandering souls.
While eating my waffle, I got to watch some teenaged boys play their wind instruments. I think the cutest one is on the right. I think he plays a tuba.
Here are some Icelandic teenagers and party trucks in the main town square, Ingolfstorg.
There was a makeshift stage on a street intersection with turf laid out and a disco ball held up by a crane. It was pretty fuckin’ cool. The music was sleek electronic dance music, and kids and adults alike were all dancing in broad daylight. I took this picture when it was just warming up but it became quite a dance fest later.
What struck me as unusual about the entire festival was the lack of the smell of weed. If you had a culture party in NYC, you can bet your ass people are going to be getting high. Or maybe the Icelanders do harder stuff and is therefore imperceptible to the common nose. But overall, it was a truly family-friendly event and I didn’t notice any drugs or drug-addled hoodlums.
The Blue Lagoon
The Blue Lagoon is a geothermal spa with mineral-rich waters that tout several skin-healing benefits.
It’s kind of a tourist trap, but not in a bad way at all. It ends up being a well-oiled tourist-churning machine, requiring you to book a time slot in advance and not showing up willy-nilly. The facilities are modern and clean, and instead of keys or a one-time use locker, you get a magnetic-scanning wristband that both grants you entry into the premises and enables you to open your locker multiple times.
I didn’t take any pictures of the lagoon while I was in it because I didn’t want to risk ruining my phone in the water, but it’s quite a spectacular sight.
It’s a vast, steaming pool of milky blue, with billowing steam swirls and pockets of ruddy-faced Caucasians meandering around like they are neck-deep in molasses. The warm water is especially inviting in contrast to the wind-whipped surroundings. The water is rather shallow (0.5m to 1.6m), and you can’t really swim in it. Although you *could* drown in it. Secondary drowning.
Frankly, I got bored there after about half an hour. Since I went alone, there’s really not much to do other than soak and lie around like beached whales. I’d probably stay longer if I had company, but I only had myself for entertainment. Anyhow, it was a fairly expensive experience for how much time I spent there (I got the bare bones package at 45 Euros and tacked on a 5 Euro towel rental fee) but I had a good experience.
One piece of advice if you have long hair: tie it up. I ignored the advice of the attendants, thinking that my hair was immune to the silica/sulphur-filled hard water but now my bleached hair is a dry stack of hay that STILL smells like sulphur five days after having been there.
Vik and the South Coast
Like I had mentioned in my previous post, Iceland’s black sand beaches were my initial motivation for heading there. I found a tour with Island Guide Tours that took us there on my last day, and also a small town, Vik, on the southernmost point of coastal Iceland with a little over 200 residents.
The tour itself was good by most standards – the native Icelander driver/tour guide Elias was very knowledgeable and accommodating, willing to stop for our group of 10 for photos or bathroom breaks at our request. He was also charmingly fluent in English in the way a non-native speaker is fluent – entirely understandable, but uses slightly odd expressions that you have to think twice to decipher.
For instance, when we asked him how long he’s been in Iceland, he replied, “I’ve been here until I was *here*,” capping the top of his head with his palm. He then redacted his statement by gesturing at eye level to say that he had spent some time in Germany. It was cute.
What I didn’t like about the tour was how static it was. It was too much of sitting in a van and getting driven around to photogenic sites purely to take photos. I much prefer exploring a place on foot, and this van tour reminded me too much of the boring tours I took as a kid with my parents, which probably seeded my teenage abhorrence for nature.
Nature is a lot more fun when you have to be challenged to experience it. See: hiking, trail-running, sky-diving (still on the to-do list!). We got to see waterfalls, glaciers, and black beaches. I’m not sure if my lack of enthusiasm was a function of the boring mode of travel or if I was just getting worn out from being away from home.
Here’s a pro tip for you: all the gift shops sell the same shit. Take your money to Keflavik airport, which is both duty-free and tax-free and buy all the moss tea, lava salt, chocolate-coated liquorice and wool sweaters that you desire
The glacier is dirty because of volcanic ash from the 2010 eruption. Kinda reminds you of the Boston snow pile, doesn’t it?
I was also disappointed to find that the black sand beaches were more like pebbles than sand. I guess time has yet to wreak its course on Reynisfjara’s beach.
As you can see, it isn’t really sand… more like small pebbles.
The size of the pebbles ranged from that big to that small. You can see my shoes on the edge of the frame for reference. I was really hoping for silky black sand 😦
Reykjavik Downtown Hostel
I stayed at the Reykjavik Downtown Hostel, a hostel I chose for having the highest ratings on Booking.com. I stayed in a 4-bed dorm. Dorm living isn’t the best, of course, but I can compromise on creature comforts and privacy for 6 days in exchange for more $$$ to NOT lie around in bed when I’m on vacation.
What made the hostel experience more tolerable when I started getting sightseeing burnout was this lovely lofted living room that provided some respite from the shared bedroom. The one faux pas was the lack of bedside outlets or lighting, so it’s a little inconvenient to be up when no one else wants to be.
This living room is upstairs from the common kitchen (where there’s plenty of free food; I returned from my Landmannalaugar hike starving but it was too late to get dinner, so I ravaged some leftover cold cuts and made myself two sandwiches), and it’s right by a heater and a lovely window. You can see that I made myself very comfortable with some covers and a hot mug of tea.
The hostel also had some redeeming features like playing Avril 14th and Sonnentanz. I swear, Iceland has awesome taste in music. This is what the Icelandair in-flight entertainment default rank order of music genres looks like:
Whuut. It’s like as if Iceland is my music soulmate, electronic and ambient being the top two choices.
Skyr is an Icelandic yogurt-like soft cheese, and what I have here is a drinkable version. I’m typically not a sweet beverage person (and I bought the drinkable version accidentally, thinking it was solid-state skyr) but this was fucking delicious AND also has 16g of protein to ~150 calories. Oh man, if I had access to this I would drink it on the daily.
Bonus is a budget supermarket that keeps its prices low by having limited hours (they typically close by 6 pm) and also only stocking budget foods. They don’t have refrigerated shelves, but instead have an entire cold room where cold cuts hang on a rack and milk and yogurt are stacked on wire shelves. Wear your coat when you go grocery shopping!
I got this carrot cake from Bernhoftsbakari, which is supposed to be the oldest bakery in Iceland. I asked them which pastry to try because there were just so many, and the lady at the counter looked at me imploringly, trying to instill utmost confidence: “I know this sounds strange, but the carrot cake is very good.”
Hah! Really makes you think about how derivative American food is, isn’t it?
In the hostel, someone left free beer in the fridge. I had one as I was penning my Landmannalaugar post. It was nothing special, but I sure like free beer.
I bought a can of smoked cod liver, which was marketed on the packaging as being the “foie gras of the sea”. I haven’t tasted it yet, but I’m excited.
I also bought some birch schnapps and a rhubarb scented candle. Both came with little booklets to help extend my experience even further. Oh, Iceland, you seduce me with your poetic words, rouse me with your ambient electronic music, and permeate my senses with moss-covered lava fields, sulphuric geothermal hot springs, and birch forests, don’t you? I love the smell of European forest. Ahhh~
Also, currency pro-tip: If you’re only staying in Reykjavik, there is practically no need to get any Icelandic Kronas. Every establishment I’ve been to accepts credit cards, even a hot dog stand. The only places where cash may come in handy in the city may be if you’re planning on shopping at Kolaportið, the weekend flea market, which is pretty mediocre and I thus won’t be reviewing.
How much I spent
- Plane, non-stop from JFK: $583
- Bus to and from airport: $33
- Hostel for 6 nights: $403
- Day hike at Landmannalaugar: $146
- Vik day trip: $100
- Food: $125 (I had groceries for half of my meals and ate out the other half)
- Shopping (catchall for the random non-essential stuff I bought): $190
- Blue Lagoon: $82
- Total amount spent: $1,662
I actually feel pretty comfortable about this figure. I could have done without Vik, perhaps, and maybe I didn’t have to buy birch schnapps or a candle scented with rhubarb and longing, but I feel like I had a good mixture of fancy and “live-like-a-local” experiences. In fact, what made me snap out of homesick churlishness was when I cracked open the birch schnapps and lighted the rhubarb candle: the scent, the flavors, the warmth of 72 proof alcohol spreading through my body… Ahhh, Iceland, I love you again.
Now I’m craving to go another trip… Where to next?