Picture the most magical place you’ve ever been. Perhaps it’s a place only held in your dreams. It’s exciting and inviting and altogether leaves you with the ultimate feeling of yes. This is everything a place should be, and everyone should experience being here at some point in their lives. Perhaps it’s a country, a city, a special nook in your own home that leaves you with such comfort you couldn’t possibly want for anything more.
For many the place you envision may not be one covered in snow and ice, where the average temperature rarely reaches above 55°F. And while Mickey Mouse tells us that the Magic Kingdom is the most magical place on Earth, I beg to differ. For me, that place is Iceland.
Iceland is pure magic. A country roughly the size of Kentucky; an island enveloped in mountains and crater lakes, volcanoes and hundred-foot geysers. My visit to Iceland was invigorating and breathtaking; truly an experience unlike any other.
A unique misnomer of sorts, I was surprised to find that 99% of Iceland’s landscape is actually made up of volcanic rocks. Hot, burning, lava formed this crisp, cool country that Icelandic natives and tourists alike cherish for its remarkably stunning landscape where Icelandic horses run wild. Alive with 22 active volcanoes, Iceland is now responsible for more than a third of all the fresh lava on earth!
My adventure to Iceland began with a cheap flight from Boston ($99) and a burning desire to freeze in a land unknown with Tyler, my best friend from college. I knew nothing of the culture, people, currency, topography or local cuisine. Spoiler alert — folks in Iceland eat whale! And I tried it! More on that in a bit…
A viking once told me that the best way to prepare for a trip to a foreign country was to get some of the local currency ahead of time. So, to prepare for my trip in February of 2016 I procured some Icelandic krona which, by the way, looks like Monopoly money and it’s my favorite. I’m not sure which I enjoyed more; spending the colorful money, or saving it because it was so fun to look at (and because everything in Iceland was so expensive I had no choice but to hang onto my precious krona or risk being poor). In any case, Tyler didn’t get local currency ahead of time.
When we arrived at the airport in Iceland (KEF), she went over to an ATM to withdraw some local cash. The only problem was that she got the whole comma/period thing confused and withdrew WAY more cash than she needed. WHOOPS! We hadn’t been in the country for an hour and already we were those Americans. Shock at her mistake soon turned into laughter and a quick lesson learned — beware of the comma! Tyler couldn’t exchange her extra money back until we left the country.
The Airport (KEF)
Someone once told me airports are the worst places on this planet. This person never went to Iceland. Gather round, y’all. I’ve found the airport of my dreams, and probably yours too. Truly. Iceland has a population of roughly 300,000 and, golly gee, they know what they’re doing. There’s a reason KEF has won the “Best Airport in Europe” award from the Airports Council International (ACI) several years in a row. I’m always worried that I won’t be able to read the signs in foreign airports and I’ll end up like Tom Hanks in The Terminal; utterly stuck. Truth is, I wouldn’t even be mad if I was forever stuck in KEF. The bathrooms in this airport are worth the trip to Iceland alone. America, take note. Pristine, individual little pods where everything is hands-free and powered by Dyson and made by elves.
Aside from the bathrooms, the entire airport is small, clean and modern. KEF is super easy to navigate and I only ever want to fly out of there from now on. From the airport alone and before ever stepping foot on volcanic rocks, I already had an inkling I was in a magical fairyland of wonderment.
As sad as I was to leave the airport, I was excited to see what the rest of Iceland had in store for me. Surely there’d be gumdrop trees and elves scurrying around the volcanic ash. The bus ride from the airport to the city of Reykjavik was dark, as most hours are in Iceland during the winter months, so I couldn’t see the gumdrops or elves. But I’m sure they were there. Tired and hungry, I was too excited to sleep. How could I? Though in complete darkness, I strained my eyes to soak in the surrounding landscape. I was in Iceland! I couldn’t see much, but I felt it. Pulsating excitement and willing the sun to rise so I could start this adventure properly. I wanted to scurry atop the nearest glacier and shout I’ve made it! Elves and vikings, come hither! And then I fell asleep.
One eye open, then two. Blink, blink, blink. We had made it! The bus dropped Tyler and I right at the entrance of the hostel we were staying at – the Kex Hostel. I love hostels and I especially recommend them if you’re traveling alone. Hostels are the perfect places to meet fellow travelers and get ideas about what to do in whatever city you’re adventuring in. Hostels are breeding grounds for excitement, exploration and late-night card games. Kex is quirkily decorated and peppered with flyers about the latest goings-on in town. The dining area is complete with a bar and home to a spectacular view of the water and snow-capped mountains. If I had to stay locked in the Kex Hostel for the entirety of my stay in Iceland, I wouldn’t have even been mad.
Waking up to a dark sky at 9AM took some getting used to. I’d wake up thinking it must be 6AM, only to look at my phone and realize breakfast was nearly over! Speaking of, the breakfast served at Kex was Icelandically delicious. Skyr (an Icelandic dairy product similar to yogurt), meats, cheeses, bread, tomatoes, and THE JAM! By golly oh my. Maybe it’s because I have the biggest sweet tooth in all of the land, but I’m telling you that jam was heavenly. Made by elves for sure. I actually reached out to the hostel after the fact to find out what flavors of jam they served because I couldn’t quite figure it out while I was there. I received a reply nearly instantly, informing me that they serve “blueberry, apricot and orange marmalade jams.” The brand is an Icelandic one called Mömmu Drottningarsulta. So tasty.
I hope my Icelandic adventure is really getting you pumped so far. You should book your ticket for no other reasons than to experience the KEF airport’s bathrooms, and to eat the jam at the Kex Hostel. Really important things. But wait! There’s more!
A Tour of Reykjavik
A cold spattering of rain fell over Reykjavik as Tyler and I bundled up and headed out to join a local walking tour. We discovered it through a flyer in our hostel and figured it’d be a great way to learn more about the Icelandic culture and what there was to do in this charming small town. Hosted by a company called Citywalk, our tour was led by the super knowledgeable Eiríkur (who insisted we call him Erik). He led us around different streets and a few monuments, teaching us a bit of the history behind what we were seeing. Erik told us how safe a country Iceland is; they have a super low crime rate (think: just one murder a year). This peaceful, environmentally friendly country is a true gem. There was a solid number of folks on the tour; I recommend staying up at the head of the pack during these walking tours so you can chat a bit with the guide when he (or she) is not busy talking to the entire group.
At one point, Erik gathered the group of us around and said he needed a model. Naturally, I volunteered. I ended up modeling a very cool wool glove, known as “the hanskie,” that doubles as a drink holder! Given the extremely cold climate in Iceland, folks needed a way to keep their hands warm while still being able to hold a cold drink. Though I didn’t get to keep the glove, I was able to wear it for the duration of our tour and I did get a free orange soda to test it with!
Tyler and I ventured on our own to the Hallgrimskirkja Church, not once but twice. The first time, we trekked up a hill and as we turned a corner, I could see this beautiful church that stretched up into the clear blue sky. Once inside, we were surrounded by beautiful organs and other tourists. For a small fee, guests can take an elevator to the top to get an incredibly colorful view of Reykjavik. Tyler and I regrettably skipped going up on that clear blue-skied day; more on that later…
Folks in Iceland are warm and quirky, liberal and happy. They don’t discriminate and are open to embracing the weird of the world. Proof? They have a penis museum. Yep, you read that right.
The Icelandic Phallological Museum was another spot Tyler and I were sure not to miss during our trip. We found our way, stepped into a small museum of sorts (really just a large room, with a few side rooms) and were soon surrounded by, well, penises. This is the only museum in the world to contain a collection of phallic specimens belonging to all the various types of mammals found in a single country. I was in awe thinking, one, who thought up this idea and, two, wow, whale penises are taller than I am! It didn’t take long to go through the entire museum; it was quite small.
Walking along the streets of Iceland is a colorful adventure; shops are uniquely quirky, but definitely pricey. Tyler was on the hunt for a journal so she could write about her adventures, and it took forever to find one decently priced. Except for one special store Tyler and I fell in love with…Tiger! We walked in and found this absolute jumble of random things for sale – from weirdly shaped erasers and coloring books with hamburgers on them to cheap journals and everything in between.
Unfortunately, no tigers. I came to find out that Tiger takes its name from the Danish pronunciation of the animal name, tiger. It sounds roughly the same as the Danish word “tier,” used to denote a ten kroner coin. Ah, so that’s why Tiger was an affordable store.
When in Iceland, do as the vikings do. Well, the vikings did eat some pretty crazy things. And, so, I ate plenty of things I’d never even heard of. And if I had heard of them, I never would’ve thought I’d ever willingly eat them. Sour whale, ram’s testicles, sheep’s head jelly, pickled herring and the dreaded fermented “rotten” hákarl (shark)….just to name a few. All things that I can now say I’ve put in my mouth. Eek! All of these were included in a sample platter at Cafe Loki; a local spot which specializes in Icelandic traditional cuisine and was recommended by our tour guide, Erik. The cafe is located right across the street from the famous Hallgrimskirkja Church.
I wasn’t super excited about diving into the foreign bites… Famed Chef Anthony Bourdain has said the fermented shark is the “single worst and most disgusting thing” he’s ever eaten in HIS LIFE. And that dude has eaten plenty of crazy things around the world. So, I was rightfully scared. The cafe was cozy and inviting though, so I felt a bit more at ease. Two girls sat next to us and contemplated what to get. They saw Tyler and I ordering the traditional platter and, after chatting with them a bit, they decided to give it a go too! We were all in it together! And then the platter arrived and everything was REAL. Right in front of us. Oh jeez! I found the ram testicles to be the most off-putting. They were the worst things (tied with sour whale) on the dish, in my opinion. I managed to get through the fermented shark pretty easily; it wasn’t as bad as everyone claims it is. Other bites on the dish included blood sausage, liver sausage, dried lamb and dried fish…it was a certainly a culinary adventure! Would I eat any of those things again? Probably not. But I’m glad I tried it while I was there.
While the sour whale at Cafe Loki was one of the worst things I’ve ever eaten, I can say that regular whale is quite good. Tyler and I split a “whale steak” at a place called Ostabúðin. It wasn’t what I expected at all. I was expecting the dish to come out looking more like the white sour whale from Cafe Loki, but it looked like dark meat and was more like eating a gamey land animal. We both liked it! So if you want more normal, delicious Icelandic food that locals eat, check this place out.
Crisp, pure, void of taste and, yet, so tasty — this is Icelandic water. I didn’t know I could actually love, or truly enjoy, drinking water until Iceland. It’s glacial and made from the tears of elves. But they’re crying from laughter, not out of sadness. A viking once told me that.
Seriously though, Iceland boasts one of the world’s cleanest ecosystems and I learned more about this through touring around with Erik. The water is slowly and naturally filtered through layers of volcanic rock, thereby producing a natural spring water so pure that nothing is added or taken away. And it’s DELICIOUS. Also, the bread in Iceland is equally delicious and Tyler and I concluded that it must be because it’s made with this magical water. Everything about Iceland is magical.
More on the food though – Icelanders LOVE hot dogs. The most famous stand in Reykjavik is the Baejarins Beztu Pylsur, known for their lamb dogs. It’s a small stand and the always present line is a sure sign that the dogs they’re churning out are worth it. Standing there in the cold, we ordered our dogs and gobbled them up on the spot (after a quick photoshoot). We were fueled and ready to continue exploring!
This a quick story about an Icelandic cat named Bubbles. She was pure and black and Tyler and I found her as we were wandering the streets one day. I believe the elves led us to her. We followed her around for a bit and then she scurried away. Perhaps we’ll meet again. I miss you Bubbles!
A viking once told me that whether you visit Reykjavik in the summer with endless sunlight or in the freezing cold winter (as I did) when the capital sees only few hours of daylight, you can always count on a spirited nightlife. Though, I have a feeling this viking meant on the weekends. We happened to be there during weeknights and it wasn’t super crazy. Tyler and I walked along one of the popular streets nearby the Kex Hostel and ended up at the Lebowski Bar, known for having over 15 versions of the White Russian drink! We each tried a couple of the versions – all very good, intoxicatingly so!
The nights were chillingly cold and, with not many people out, we didn’t quite get to experience the nightlife most rave about. Still a fun time though!
Missed Opportunities And Reading The Fine Print
I’m all about spontaneity and winging it. It’s basically my life’s motto. But, my friends, sometimes it’s best to actually plan ahead. One of the things I was most looking forward to in Iceland was visiting the Blue Lagoon. But it was all booked up for the dates and times we wanted to go; womp womp! Make sure to look into popular places/events to see if you need to book in advance. If I learned anything while wandering around the land of ice, it was to embrace the motto, do it while you can. It’s so frustratingly easy to see an opportunity and say, “oh well we can always do that later/tomorrow/etc,” but if you have the time and money (if necessary) to do whatever “it” is in the moment — DO IT!
Tyler and I went to visit the famous Hallgrimskirkja Church in Reykjavik on our first day in town (a cold, but clear, day). We had the option of going up the tower to get a 360 view of the city but opted to save that for another time. Welp! Wrong choice as the rest of our days were blustery and blizzard-like. We ended up going up the tower on our last day just because but it was snowing so much we couldn’t see anything! So, going forward, if you have an opportunity to do something cool, please do it right then and there! Your life will be richer for it.
Another lesson learned in Iceland, read the fine print! If you venture to Iceland, you’ll probably become familiar with the Flybus. It runs to and from the airport and you can easily book tickets on the spot or online. However…Ty and I booked a ticket for an 1130AM pickup from our hostel; we stood outside from 1125 to close to noon before calling the folks to see what was up. Turns out we needed to be outside half an hour prior to our listed departure time — whoops! Luckily we got placed on the next bus free of any extra charge, but my freezing fingers and toes could’ve been saved a bit had we been more vigilant.
Iceland, I love You
My time in Iceland was solely spent in Reykjavik and I’m glad I had ample time to venture around the capital. While no Northern Lights or Icelandic horses were seen this time around, I plan on going back one day to experience the more rustic, natural side of Iceland. I’ll always have fond memories of my first trip there though. Laughing as I trudged through snowstorms, stepped in huge icy puddles, soaking my feet right through my socks, and took bites of brains and testicles. Who could ever forget an experience like that?!
Many people go to Iceland to experience the Golden Circle, a popular tourist route in southern Iceland. I hope to do that one day as well. To experience the waterfalls, volcanoes and natural hot springs. I’ve always enjoyed cold, brisk weather. I feel I might have a bit of Icelandic elvish blood running through my veins, rushing through me, urging me to go back. I will.