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Iceland - An Amazingly Beautiful, Wild and Rugged Country
Iceland is the most sparsely populated country in Europe with a population of 360,000 people on and an area of 40,000 square miles (103,000 square km). Iceland's capital, Reykjavik, accounts for about one third of the island's population.
Iceland is volcanically and geologically active and covered by large lava fields. The island is warmed by the Gulf Stream and has much more a temperate climate that the high latitude suggests. The high latitude and marine influence are, however, responsible for cool summers and a tundra climate. The average high temperature in July, Reykjavik's hottest month, is 56F (13C) and the average low temperature during the same month is 47F (8C).
Interestingly, the only native land mammal is the Arctic fox, which arrived at the end of the ice age. No reptiles or amphibians are native to the island. About 1,300 insect species inhabit Iceland, which is low compared to other countries which have over a million species. Good news: Iceland is essentially free of mosquitoes.
Human settlement of Iceland began in 874 AD when the Norwegian chieftain Ingólfr Arnarson settled permanently on the island.
Nowadays all electricity comes from renewable sources, i.e. geothermal and hydropower.
Our flight arrived early in the morning and our departure flight was also very early, so we decided to stay close to the airport. Interestingly, Hotel Smarni (Map), as it was called at that time, now Airport Hotel Aurora Star, which is located within walking distance from the airport, was also one of the lower priced hotels in Iceland. So, this was a win-win situation for us. The hotel is located an easy 200 yards from the airport (on a paved street and sidewalks). Most car rental companies have their rental cars parked between the airport and the hotel; others like Dollar and Thrifty have their cars right behind the hotel.
Despite being so close to the runways, we never heard airport noise in our room. Our room was facing the parking lot and had 2 soft and very comfortable innerspring single beds with Ikea tags. The room was a good size, very clean and came with a separate bathroom with shower that had liquid soap and shampoo dispensers and a hair dryer. The free wifi was of good speed and the elevator was quick to come.
Our flight arrived at KEF at 6am and the friendly hotel personnel that spoke excellent English had our room available and asked us if we wanted to eat breakfast (5am-8am). The breakfast buffet had hard boiled eggs, coffee, decaf, white, wheat toast and dark bread (Pumpernickel) and several types of sliced sausages and cheese. There were also different types of marmalade, sliced cucumbers and slides red and green peppers and multi vitamin juice, apple juice and water and yogurts with interesting (and unusual) flavors.
The proximity also came in handy as our departure flight was at 7:35am. We had plenty of time to eat breakfast in the hotel and leisurely stroll to the airport. It also helped that the airport was not busy at all; we were 2nd at check-in and 5th at security. As the airport is fairly small, we got to our gate in no time.
The drive to Reykjavik takes about 30-40min, but Keflavik is worth a visit, too. Also close are the Blue Lagoon and remote and totally dark areas at night if you want to chase the Aurora Borealis or just want to see a gazillion stars...or more.
Long story short: This is a great hotel in a great location for a good price. I definitely recommend it and would stay there again.
No Iceland visit would be complete without taking a bath in at least one of the thermal baths. If you don't want to spend your nest egg on a visit to the Blue Lagoon, Laugardalslaug (pool of Laugardalur) is an excellent alternative. Laugardalslaug is a public thermal bath and swimming pool complex located in the Laugardalur district Reykjavík and it is owned by the city. As the pool can get busy later in the day, I think it may be a good idea to start your day with a relaxing bath at Laugardalslaug. Laugardalslaug is the largest thermal bath complex in Iceland and it gets about 800,000 visitors per year! The complex was built from 1958–1968, expanded in 1981–1986 and 2002–2005. It now features an indoor Olympic-size swimming pool, a 50m long outdoor pool, a 400m2 playing pool, 8 hot pots of various temperatures, and a 17m2 steam bath. The water temperatures of the large pools are around 28°C, whereas the hot pot temperatures go up to 39-44°C.
We spent only a few days in Iceland and decided to explore Reykjavik, Keflavik and do a Golden Circle Tour. We rented a car for the trip from a rental agency that was right next to our hotel by the airport. The rental agency gave us a token that we used to get discounted gas at the gas stations. Driving in Iceland is easy. The roads are in good condition and the signage is sufficient. Anyway, I recommend to have google maps handy with the Iceland road map downloaded.
Iceland is of volcanic origin and you see lava fields just about everywhere unless they are hidden under glaciers. This truly makes for a moon-like scenery. Iceland is still volcanically active and this gives rise to hot springs (pools) and geysers. The hills and lava fields make perfect conditions for spectacular waterfalls. And then there are large ice caves that you can explore.
If you go in late fall, winter or early spring, you may see the aurora borealis, the Northern lights, which make for a truly outer worldish experience and memorable moments.
Not to forget, there are only 360,000 people on the island and there is plenty of solitude and untouched nature to admire.
The drive from our hotel by the airport was an easy 30-40min drive. Once in Reykjavik, we parked the car near Austurvoellur Square and did most of our exploring by foot. The map below shows where we went; if you click on the map, then you will be taken to google maps with more details.
Summer and the warmest and most expensive time of the year - I said warm as in mid-50F or 10-13C and most expensive as in prices going through the roof. You get 20-21h of sunlight per day. This is also the best time of year to go whale watching. Puffin viewing season ends in mid-August. June is the month of the midnight sun with the longest day being on June 21. July and August are the best times for e.g. scuba diving in Þingvellir or hiking around the country.
Shoulder season with lower hotel rates and temperatures in the mid- 30s to low 50s (2C-11C). The fall colors make September especially colorful and the rain is not too bad yet.
Temperatures will be in the mid-20s to lower 30s (-10C to 8C) and this is also the rainiest time of the year. If the sky is clear, then now is your best chance to see the Aurora Borealis. Now is the time for glacier hiking and ice caving. December and January only have about 4-5h of sunlight. In December you will see Reykjavik light up for Christmas and Santas scattered throughout town.
Shoulder season. The snow is melting and giving rise to green landscapes. The days are getting longer and the temperatures are going up. Puffin viewing season starts in late April. April is also the start of the whale watching season.
is May - October. With the weather being at its best in July and August; this will also be the busiest time.
is in winter as you have the largest temperature contrast. The Blue Lagoon is busiest from May - September.
Adalstraeti (Aðalstræti = “Main Street”) is the oldest street in Reykjavík. Back in the 18th century, this street connected the main farm at the southern end of this street to the harbor. The dark brown building with house number 10 was built in 1762, which makes it the oldest still standing building in Reykjavik.
Now walk to Austurvoellur Square with the statue of Jon Sigurdsson.
The square is lined with several landmark buildings which are important to the city’s history, like the Parliament building, Reykjavik‘s cathedral Domkirkjan, and Hotel Borg and you will find many cafes on Vallarstræti and Pósthússtræti. The square is dominated by a statue of Jon Sigurdsson, who was the leader of the Icelandic independence movement in the 19th century. Besides the statue, you will find him on the 500 Icelandic króna bank note, some stamps and his birthday (June 17) is Iceland's National Holiday.
The plaza is also known for protests against the handling of the financial crisis by the Icelandic government. The protests started on October 11, 2008 were organized by the political organization "Raddir fólksins" (=Voices of the people). They were held every Saturday until the resignation of the government of Prime Minister Geir Haarde in 2009.
Walk over to Aldingishus (Parliament House).
This unassuming small black stone building was built in the 19th century and houses the most ancient parliament in the world, continuing the tradition started at the Law Rock in Thingvellir.
Now walk over to Domkirkjan (City Cathedral).
This is the city's oldest church and since 1845, each session of parliament begins with a mass at Domkirkjan.
This small and charming cathedral is the seat of the Bishop of Iceland, the central church of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Iceland and the parish church of downtown Reykjavik. The current church that you see was built from 1787-1796 in traditional Lutheran church building style with simple and clean lines, but this place has been a church site since the 13th century.
Tjörnin, which means "Lake" or "Pond" is a prominent lake in downtown Reykjavík. We took a stroll around part of the scenic frozen lake and then, right before we were frozen stiff, got into the warm city hall.
The lake, which is said to be frequented by 40-50 water bird species only had a dozen or so ducks or geese sitting and walking on the ice and being fed by locals. Apparently bird feeding is so popular here that the pond is sometimes referred to as "the biggest bread soup in the world".
This modern City Hall, which was inaugurated on April 14th 1992, is built at the edge of the lake and looks as if it is rising out of it. We went inside and as we were there on a weekend, the building was nearly deserted and the upper floors closed.
The ground floor however is open every day and serves as a place to relax (there is a small cafe) all year round. It has beautiful views of the lake and a typographical model of Iceland. When we were there, there was kind of a cultural event ongoing where people brought their kids to play.
Interestingly, the idea to build a city hall is almost as old as Reykjavik itself and dates back to 1799. It then took until 1918 when the first committee to discuss the building a city hall was formed. Money to build city hall was allocated in 1929, but the plans were never implemented. In 1941, a second committee was appointed and in 1945 the Executive City Council agreed to the site proposals. In 1946 the first design competition came up with three site options, but none won the first prize. In 1950 the City Planning Co-ordination Committee proposed locating city hall on the northern end of the lake, and in 1955 City Council agreed unanimously to a location facing the northern end of the lake. Six architects were invited to submit plans and in 1964 the proposals and design details were put on public display. You guessed it, none of the construction plans were ever implemented.
Finally, in 1984 mayor David Oddsson took action to build city hall at the Northern end of the lake, he made sure that 2 lots in the northwestern corner of the lake were earmarked in 1985 and in 1986 the second design competition took place. A total of 38 entries were received and in June 1987 and the first prize was awarded to the architects Margret Hardardottir and Steve Christer. In October 1987 the site and preliminary plans were approved the City Council, the Istak contractors were commissioned to begin stage one of the project and on April 14, 1988 the groundbreaking ceremony by mayor David Oddsson took place. On April 28, 1991 mayor David Oddsson laid the cornerstone and on April 14, 1992 city hall was inaugurated headed by mayor Markus Orn Antonsson.
National Gallery of Iceland
From city hall, walk or drive over to the National Gallery of Iceland.
The National Gallery of Iceland houses a collection of Icelandic art. It has rotating exhibitions of and foreign artists. When we were there, the museum had modern Icelandic art on display that was too abstract and "modern" for us and it did not really appeal to us.
Interestingly, it was founded in 1884 in Copenhagen, Denmark and its collection consisted of donated artwork mostly by Danish artists. The collection was on show at the Alþingishús (the House of Parliament) from 1885 until 1950 when it was transferred to the building of the National Museum of Iceland at Suðurgata. There the collection was formally opened to the public in 1951. In 1987 the collection was moved to its current location.
Now get back in your car and drive up the hill to Hallgrímskirkja
Hallgrímskirkja, the church of Hallgrímur, is a Lutheran parish church in Reykjavík. The church with its unique design stands 244ft (74.5m) tall and is the largest church in Iceland and one of the tallest structures in Iceland. It has an observation deck from which you have a fantastic view of Reykjavik, the bay and faraway snow covered mountains.
The church is named after the Icelandic poet and clergyman Hallgrímur Pétursson (1614–1674).
Hallgrimskirkja is one of the city's best-known landmarks, but Domkirkjan (City Cathedral) that you visited earlier the seat of the Bishop of Iceland and the central church of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Iceland.
Here are some facts of Hallgrimskirkja:
- state architect Guðjón Samúelsson's designed the church and it was commissioned in 1937
- the design it said to resemble the trap rocks, mountains and glaciers of Iceland
- the design is similar in style to the expressionist architecture of Grundtvig's Church of Copenhagen
- it took 41 years to build the church (1945-1986)
- the tower was completed long before the rest of the church was completed
- the crypt beneath the choir was consecrated in 1948
- the steeple and wings were completed in 1974
- the nave was consecrated in 1986
- the original design called for a shorter tower, but the church leaders it to be taller than Landakotskirkja, which was the cathedral of the Catholic Church on Iceland
- The interior is 18,040 sqft (1,676 square meter)
- the church underwent major restoration in 2008 and 2009
- the large pipe organ was built in 1992 by Johannes Klais of Bonn, Germany. It has 102 ranks, 72 stops and 5275 pipes and is 49ft (15m) tall and weighs 25 metric tons.
- In front of the church stands a statue of explorer Leif Erikson (970–1020). It was made by Alexander Stirling Calder and was a gift from the United States in honor of the 1930 Althing Millennial Festival, commemorating the 1000th anniversary of Iceland's parliament at Þingvellir in 930.
- Opening hours: Winter (October – April): 9am to 5pm and Summer (May – September): 9am to 9pm
Now walk or drive about 0.5 miles (1km) to Perlan.
Perlan (The Pearl), is another prominent landmark in Reykjavík. At first sight, Perlan looks like a bunch of water tanks and this is actually how it all started. In 1939, a single hot water tank was constructed on Öskjuhlíð hill, where Perlan stands today. The location was chosen as it is about 180ft (61m) above sea level and thus a water tower here provides enough pressure to supply all of Reykjavik with water. Over the next two decades, five more tanks were erected here only to be torn down and reconstructed in the late 1980s. In 1991, those six hot water tanks were converted into the Perlan that you see today. This project was pushed by mayor Davíð Oddsson, the same mayor who laid the cornerstone for Reykjavik's city hall in 1991. Each tank can keep up to 1.1mio gallons (4mio liters) of hot water.
When you visit Perlan, see the "Wonders of Iceland" exhibition that shows the beauty of Iceland's natural scenery and a timeline that explains how Iceland was formed. Don't miss the observation deck for scenic views of Reykjavik.
Now, take your car and drive to Nauthólsvík Beach.
Nauthólsvík Beach is an ocean beach with an artificial hot spring. The ocean temperature is usually about 54-61F (12-16°C) during the summer and goes down to 28F (-2°C) in winter. The water temperature of the hot tub is year-round at 101F (38-39°C), the second hot tub however, is cooler. Enjoy hopping in the hot tub if you feel like it! There are changing facilities, showers and lockers.
Now get back in your car and drive to Höfði House.
Höfði House was built in 1909, and is considered to be one of the most beautiful and historically significant buildings in Reykjavík. Höfði House is best known as the location of the 1986 summit of US president Ronald Reagan and the Soviet Union's president Mikhail Gorbatsjov which is seen as marking the end of the Cold War.
The building is owned by the City of Reykjavík and is used for official receptions and meetings. It is not open to the public, but you can explore the park around the house. The sculpture in front of the house depicts pillars from the chieftain’s seat of the first Norwegian settler in Reykjavík.
Höfði House was originally used by the French consul in Iceland. Later on it was owned by Britain, but was sold after a former British Ambassador who lived in the house believed he saw a ghost, "The White Lady" and persuaded the British Foreign Office to sell the house.
Built in the 1930s, hotel Borg is Iceland's first luxury hotel and a historic landmark known for its signature art deco style. The hotel has 99 rooms which are individually decorated with custom furniture. There are also a spa, hot pool, steam bath, sauna, relaxation area and a gym.
We did not stay in this hotel - if you stayed there, please let us know what you think.
Get back to your car and find a parking spot near Austurvoellur Square and start exploring Reykjavik.
Now get back in your car and drive towards the Keflavik airport and stop at the Presidential residence at Bessastaðir.
Located in Álftanes outside of Reykjavik. Bessastaðir is the official residence of the President of Iceland. Bessastaðir was settled since the year 1000 and in the 13th century it was one of Snorri Sturluson's farms. Snorri Sturluson was an Icelandic politician, poet and historian who was elected law speaker to the Icelandic parliament (Althing) twice. After his assassination in 1241, Bessastaðir was claimed by the King of Norway who housed his highest-ranking Icelandic officers here. In the 18th century, Bessastaðir was briefly converted into a school and then used as a farm which was purchased in 1867 by statesman and poet Grímur Thomsen. In 1940, Bessastaðir was bought by Sigurður Jónasson and donated a year later to be used as a residence for the regent and then President of Iceland.
We found it interesting that you can drive up close to the residence without ever seeing anyone, no guards, no nothing.
Now get back in your car and drive the Fjörukráin - The Viking Village.
The Viking Village is one of the most visited tourist attractions in Iceland. Fjörukráin, the Viking Restaurant that sits 350 guests, opens for dinner at 6pm every day. When you enter, you will be transported back into the Viking era ... except for the many tourists that take photos and videos that will remind you that we are in the 21st century. The restaurant is decorated Viking style and you will be served a Viking feast with traditional meals served in old-fashioned Viking-style trays. You will be entertained by singing Valkyries & Vikings, etc.
After dinner, if you are still in the mood to explore Iceland, you can either save the last attraction, the Blue Lagoon, for another day in Iceland or drive there to relax from all the walking and eating or to reminisce about what you have experienced in this very jam-packed day.
With its light blue waters, the Blue Lagoon has become such an iconic landmark that many visitors come here directly after landing at the Keflavik airport. In 2017 the lagoon counted 1.3 million visitors.
The lagoon is man-made. It formed from the run-off waters of the Svartsengi power plant that opened here in 1976. The superheated water (464F, 240°C) comes from deep in the ground near a lava flow and the power plant uses it to run turbines that generate electricity. The steam and water then go through heat exchangers where they provide heat for a municipal water heating system. Afterwards, the warm water is discharged into the lagoon.
It is said that, in 1981, a psoriasis patient bathed in the waters and found that his symptoms were relieved. The Blue Lagoon company was then established in 1992 and studies in the 1990s showed that the lagoon does indeed have a beneficial effect on the skin disease psoriasis.
The water temperature of the lagoon is at around 99–102F (37–39°C). The behavioral rules for Thermal Pools that I have outlined above apply here too.
The lagoon is wheelchair accessible, but not suitable for children under 2 years of age.
As of 2019, the min. admission is US$55 per person (more expensive packages are available) and the opening times are:
Jan 1 - May 30: 8:00 - 21:00
May 31 - Jun 27: 7:00 - 23:00
Jun 28 - Aug 18: 7:00 - 00:00
Aug 19 - Dec 31: 8:00 - 21:00
Limited opening hours on Dec 24: 8:00 - 15:00
Interested in more blog articles about Iceland? Please check out:
For everyone who has not been at a thermal bath in Iceland, there are certain rules that need to be obeyed. So, please read them carefully:
After this relaxing start to your day, drive to downtown and find a parking spot near Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur to try Iceland's most famous hot dogs.
Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur literally means "The Town's Best Sausages". Even though part of a chain of 4 restaurants in Reykjavik, this specific hot dog stand, which is selling hot dogs in this location since the 1960s, became famous after US President Bill Clinton visited it in August 2004 while he was visiting Iceland for a UNICEF conference. Other celebrities who have visited this stand are James Hetfield (Metallica front man), Charlie Sheen and Kim Kardashian. It was also featured by Anthony Bourdain.
After Bill Clinton's visit, this location became popular and started appearing in travel guidebooks and in August 2006, the British newspaper The Guardian selected it as the best hot dog stand in Europe.
The hot dogs that Bæjarins Beztu sells are lamb-based and also contain pork and beef. They come with a bun of choice and several condiments of choice. If you want to brag with your best Icelandic, then you could say "eina með öllu", which means "one with everything"
Iceland is expensive and this hot dog stand is extra expensive. Expect to pay more than 4 Euros for a small hot dog.
For Pinterest users, here are some pins that you can use: