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Iceland Heat

Blue Lagoon geothermal spa

Photo by Raymond Patrick

The Blue Lagoon geothermal spa.

Will you come to Iceland? Yes, you will. It’s closer than you think and easier than you think, and, well, exactly as surreal as you think. But first, an assignment. Don’t make that face—it’s simple, and anyway, you’re about to visit one of the most beautiful, bizarre, friendly, otherworldly places on Earth. But to get the full effect, you must first think of the Vikings.

In fact, think like the Vikings. A little more than a millennium ago, a motley assortment of Norse chieftains made a phenomenally insane decision. They left the safety of their (oppressive and overcrowded) homeland and sailed into the unknown. Not a tropical unknown or a pleasant Mediterranean unknown. We’re talking cold, isolated and extravagantly volcanic unknown. They hauled up on an empty sprawl of land and invented a country.

Which means that the descendants of these people—the men and women you meet today on the streets of Reykjavik—have actual insanity in their blood. It’s why you will love them, and why you’ll sort of wish you were one of them.

Gullfoss falls photo by Raymond Patrick.

You’ll love that the nation’s most popular restaurant is a hot dog stand. You’ll love that the majority of Icelanders believe in elves; famously, construction projects are occasionally halted to ensure no “hidden people’s” homes will be damaged. You’ll love that this is the only country in the world powered entirely by renewable energy. You’ll love the reverence for stories here, from their beloved sagas to good bar yarns—and maybe this keenness for stories explains why Icelanders go to the movies more than any other people, an oddly endearing statistic. Got a problem? You’ll love that the prime minister’s number is in the phone book. 

Of course, the country hasn’t been without woe. The collapse of the financial sector in 2008 was more catastrophic here, relatively speaking, than anywhere else on the globe. All three major commercial banks imploded, the economy plummeted and citizens saw their savings vanish. But as disastrous as the economic fiasco was, an unlikely fact trickled out in the aftermath: For all their anger over the collapse, Icelanders also and improbably appeared to remain happy. Having consistently ranked among the highest on international measures of happiness, they continued to do so, turmoil and all.

When not pondering the island’s natural buoyancy, a visitor invariably reflects on other likable curiosities—for instance, the country’s singular mix of deep quirk and old-fashioned provincialism. This may be the nation that elected an anarchist comedian as mayor of its capital, but it’s also a place where parents must secure approval from the Icelandic Naming Committee before giving their baby a name not previously used in the country.

        We've created a playlist of songs by our favorite Icelandic artists. Tune in now!

Speaking of names, mentioning Björk’s in the context of Iceland is a little like bringing up Crocodile Dundee in Australia. But there’s a reason the idiosyncratic musician became, fairly or unfairly, something of a mascot for the country: She functions as a kind of shorthand for the eccentricity that seems to issue from the tap here. Iceland is a steamy, bubbling fairy tale realm of vast glaciers and moonlike lava fields. Your job as a visitor, in turn, is to design a trip that connects you with the dreamlike essence of the place—it’s hopping capital, its pockets of misty solitude, its vast expanses of dramatic nothingness.

On subsequent trips you can voyage to the nether reaches of the island. For now, the 10 recommendations below focus mostly on Reykjavik—after all, two-thirds of the population lives here—with a couple of easy excursions beyond.


Harpa photo by Raymond Patrick.        

Lace up! The world’s northernmost capital ticks on a human scale. Shade-dappled cemeteries, colorful old homes, narrow little streets, whatever art happening you chance upon—walking sets you at the right pace to appreciate all of these. It’s also just a postage stamp of a town, small enough that, after a few days, you’ll enjoy the special traveler thrill of recognizing that cozy little bookstore from the other day. Highlights include the Einar Jónsson museum and sculpture garden, which celebrates the nation’s first modern sculptor; the huge, glass and arrestingly postmodern Harpa concert hall; and the Volcano House, a wonderfully odd cinema owned by three brothers and devoted entirely to screening two films about, yes, volcanoes.

Compared to other European cities, Reykjavik is a backwoods, woolly outpost (just calling it European takes some getting used to; the architectural hodgepodge is impossible to square with the centuries-old permanence of a French or Italian town). But despite the remoteness, or maybe because of it, the place is alive. To find the city’s bustling heart, hover around the 101, as it’s called—the postal code for downtown. This is where the action is, and you won’t need a car.

Hallgrímskirkja Church photo by Raymond Patrick.

Just a short walk from the Einar Jónsson museum is the rather striking landmark you’ve been noticing ever since arriving: the iconic Hallgrímskirkja Church, perched atop Skólavörðuholt hill. Like so much of Reykjavik construction, the church—Iceland’s largest—seems to have a style all its own, quite apart from any clear tradition. For a small fee, an elevator will deliver you to the best views in town.

Iceland is a fishing nation. Fishing has always been a pillar of the economy and the country’s biggest industry (70 percent of its exports are fish-related, and most go to Russia, interestingly). Reykjavik’s harbor warrants a stroll, as the nation’s history is tied up in the jumble of old boats. It’s also here that you can book a variety of sightseeing tours, from whales to puffins, whose hopeful yet forlorn-looking faces saturate the city in plush form. Walk up to any of the ticket booths and book a tour to see the real McCoy.

Reykjavik has no shortage of stylish shops, offering the chance to sink a few thousand krona on chic this and minimalist that. Fine, but for a vastly more memorable shopping experience, and far better deals, hit the Kolaportið weekend flea market. From knockoff shades to vintage clothes, kitschy crafts to homemade food, you’ll find everything you totally don’t need in this sprawling bazaar. What’s more, you’ll be browsing alongside actual locals. The full scope of Icelandic interestingness is on display here, and it’s worth losing yourself in the maze of aisles. Open weekends from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.

For years, Reykjavik has been a go-to spot for European jet-setters in need of intense carousing, and Friday begins with a lesson in travel planning. The lesson is: Forget it, don’t try to plan, just surrender to the raucous riptide. Something wild, bordering on feral, happens to this modest city at the end of the workweek. After first applying a generous primer coat at home, Icelanders hit the bars around 11 p.m. and don’t quit until dawn.

Saegreifinn photo by Raymond Patrick.

Every weekend is New Year’s Eve around the 101 district’s Bankastraeti, Laugavegur and Skolavordustigur streets, and the sounds of revelry reverberate through the otherwise mellow neighborhood. (It’s worth pondering, somewhere around your eighth can of Víking Sterkur, beer’s prohibition here until 1989.)

6. EAT
Fermented shark is an acquired taste. You acquire it after you’ve had your frontal lobe removed, plus all of your taste buds. (Anthony Bourdain famously called hákarl “the single worst, most disgusting and terrible-tasting thing” he’d ever tried.) But whether to bravely sample it or just poke morbidly at it, this traditional Icelandic delicacy is one of several you should seek out. (Minke whale, for its part, is surprisingly ungross. It’s delicious—you wouldn’t know it from sirloin steak—plus more plentiful than other whales you might snack on.) A few additional recommendations:

  • Creamy lobster soup at the charmingly no-fuss seafood shack Saegreifinn, down by the harbor. Rub elbows with fishermen and the occasional foodie.
  • A more refined take on seafood at the upscale Sjavargrillid. Chef Gústav Axel Gunnlaugsson hails from a small fishing town up north, but he brings a sophisticated and inventive approach to his dishes.
  • A tiny shoebox of an institution serving nearly seven decades of hot dogs, a nation’s undying love: The iconic Baejarins Beztu Pylsur has been serving shockingly good franks since 1937, and it has a constant line out front to prove it, even at 2 a.m. Don’t worry, it moves fast—within 10 minutes you’ll have devoured your first and convinced yourself to queue up for a second.

Your head is throbbing (don’t worry, standard Sunday morning condition) and your few remaining senses are clear: Get thee to the countryside. Blasting through peaceful swaths of blueberries and dwarf birch is the massive Gullfoss, Iceland’s most famous waterfall. At 105 feet wide, Europe’s most powerful falls is a breathtaking exhibit A for the country’s unique, geological psychosis.

It’s also a monument to some impressive Icelandic passion. In the first half of the 20th century, there was a movement to convert the falls to a hydroelectric plant. Sigríður, a farmer’s daughter, devoted herself to protecting Gullfoss, taking epic protest walks and at one point threatening to hurl herself in. Ultimately, she won the fight, and a plaque with her image now marks the site. (And Sigríður’s lawyer went on to become president of Iceland.)

OK, maybe you don’t have a government of your own. But at Þingvellir National Park, 40 minutes outside of Reykjavik, you can stand in this striking natural expanse and imagine Iceland’s outdoor parliament—the world’s first parliament, incidentally—convening here from 930 to 1789. As far as the eye could see, thousands of citizens gathered and camped for days on end, watering their horses in the meandering streams. Picture Woodstock for the woolly statesmen set. The fact that nations are no longer governed outdoors will seem like an abiding disappointment before you leave. (Geologically, the place is no less marvelous. It’s one of only two sites on the planet where a pair of tectonic plates collide visibly above ground.)

Photo by Raymond Patrick.        

The Vikings may be gone, but their hardy, Viking-esque horses remain. The beasts are often referred to as ponies, due to their diminutive stature. But Icelanders insist they’re horses through and through—all the more so for their hardscrabble adaptation to centuries of ice and cold. The cool thing about these rugged creatures? An extra gear. Whereas most horses can walk, trot, canter and gallop, their Icelandic counterparts offer the tolt, as well, a spectacularly even gallop, so smooth that riders have been known to sip tea at full speed. Tea or not, a half day’s ride at an operation such as Islenski Hesturinn makes for an unforgettable way to tour an area just outside the city.

10. SOAK
A bit of strategy here: You won’t want to leave Iceland. By your final day you’ll have investigated real estate prices, imagined yourself rocking one of those classic lopapeysa sweaters full-time and discreetly broaching the subject of renouncing your citizenship with various family members. If somehow you fail to ensconce yourself here, save this last stop as a consolation prize en route to the airport.

The Blue Lagoon geothermal spa might well be the most touristy spot in the country. It also happens to be wildly worth it. A steaming, powder-blue lagoon surrounded by black lava fields as far as the eye can see, this is Earth’s best impression of another planet. Wade in the hot water, spread silica mud on your face, duck into a cave and otherwise melt away all concerns until it’s time to catch your flight.

Don’t worry. You’ll be back. //

Delta flies direct to Reykjavik's Keflavík International Airport (KEF) from New York City from June 2 to September 1.
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Spill It: Tell Us What You Think!

craig osborn
OK, I acknowledge this is a mixed message. I want to start with a big thank-you for the article on Iceland. Very informative about a wonderful place. But secondly, are you kidding me? In the caption of the photo about the Icelandic horses, you mention they have a gate? I realize you have tight publishing deadlines, but please have the journalistic and editorial pride to spell our words properly - gait.
6/23/2013 10:31:36 PM

Íeda J. Herman
Great info, great read :-)
8/31/2013 9:14:28 AM

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