Our Icelandic adventure began with an 11:40 red eye out of JKF on Wednesday night. The flight was approximately 4.5 hours long and we landed in the international airport in Keflavik around 8:40, an hour before schedule. I have to say, landing in Iceland was a little anticlimactic. I guess it was naïve to expect towering mountains, geysers, and hot springs at the airport but I don’t claim not to be naïve. I was surprised how close to the ocean it was.
Even though its titled the Reykjavik International Airport, its actual locale is in Keflavik, a small town located on the tip of the Reykjanes Peninsula that used to house a U.S. military base. We took a Grayline Shuttle from Keflavik to Reykjavik, about a forty minute drive. There’s a few different shuttle companies but that was the one recommended by our hostel and I had no complaints about the ride, mainly because I slept most of the way. I usually don’t sleep well on planes and I sleep even worse when I’m excited so I think I might have gotten a total of 1 hour on the flight over.
I was looking forward to getting to Reykjavik Backpacker’s, our hostel, and passing out for a couple of hours however while we were able to leave our bags at the hostel, checkout wasn’t until two. At this point it was around 10:30 in the morning. Even though we were completely exhausted we figured we might only be in Iceland once so we should explore the city until we had a chance to come nap.
Reykjavik Backpackers was an excellent choice for a hostel. To start, you can’t beat the location. It’s located in the heart of the Laugavegur, Reykjavik’s commercial thoroughfare filled with bars, restaurants, and stores. It was exactly where you wanted to be on the weekend and all the tour companies we utilized were within walking distance. It was also only five shorts blocks to downtown and Reykjavik’s harbor where a lot of action occurs. For most of the day (except the early morning when trucks delivered to the bars) Laugavegur is closed to traffic, allowing only pedestrians and cyclists and you’re allowed to walk outside with drinks on the weekend giving it a sort of Bourbon Street type feel (says the guy who’s never been to New Orleans).
Reykjavik Backpackers is midsized as far as hostels go. It’s four stories with housing on the 2nd-4th stories. Aside from normal front desk duties it also doubles as a tourism information center. We were able to book multiple tours, rent cars, and change accommodations (we were going to stay in Keflavik for a night but fell in love with Reykjavik) all from the hostel which made our trip that much easier. The first floor houses the Bunk Bar. The bar’s open nightly till 1 and has an outdoor patio to sit in out back (which we never used). Hostel guests get discounts and happy hour is two for one drinks 4-8. This, as you’ll see in a moment, proved to be deadly our first night.
We did pretty well for being walking zombies who hadn’t showered in a while. We first walked up the street to the Hallgrímskirkja, a large church tower that towers of the city’s skyline. Most of websites I’d looked on previously said that it was a Reykjavik “must see” but we didn’t feel like paying or waiting to get to the top of it and headed towards another of Reykjavik’s iconic pieces of architecture, The Perlan, a large sphere-like building housing a rotating restaurant, cafeteria, and viewing platform on a wooded hill above the city. Before going into the Perlan and climbing to the circular viewing platform on its top, we got our first taste of the famous Icelandic geothermal activity. A small park sat to the south of the building and we noticed steam rising when taking some pictures. We walked down a gravel path and found a small bubbling hot spring. The best part was that three or four, what I presumed to be Icelanders, where casually hanging out there having a small break, unfazed by what sat in front of them.
From the top of The Perlan we got our first real view of Reykjavik, the downtown and harbor district directly in front of us, the airport and geothermal beach to our left and the suburbs, Laugarladar Valley and Mount Esja to the right (we couldn’t see behind us as the Perlan’s dome blocked it).
My first impression of Reykjavik was a very clean city (we got to realize all of Iceland is clean). I don’t know if there is some sort of height limitation but the majority of the buildings are not more than 5 stories tall. The wood buildings, houses painted bright colors, and the cobbled streets combined with the salty ocean air reminded both Katelyn and I of Cape Cod. Reykjavik is a small city, in fact it only has roughly 120,000 inhabitants (Washignton, our capital, has over 600,000 for comparison) and I noticed that at least amongst the traveling set, you ran into or noticed people. We did a few different tours and while we made new friends on some that we generally would run into while out and about you also noticed people from other tours and even from our flight just wandering about which helped cultivate the small town feel it had.
After The Perlan we headed down towards the harbor to walk around a bit. A standout there was a memorial to all the ships that sink off the coast of Iceland. There were many boards split up by decade with maps of where the ships sank and what caused this wrecks. While Iceland is very modern and tourist friendly, this memorial emphasized just what a wild and desolate place that it could be.
We ended our jaunt around Reykjavik around 1:30 grabbing some lunch at a pizza shop on the Laugavegur. We checked into our hostel a little after 3 and promptly passed out until about 6. We’d booked an 8 person room, which thankfully was empty so we were able to pass out uninterrupted for a couple of hours.
When we woke up from our extended nap the Laugevagur was much noisier (our window overlooked it and stayed cracked the duration of our stay). We decided to check out the two for one happy hour deal the Bunk Bar had and promised we’d eventually find somewhere to grab a late dinner. Word to the wise: do not booze on an empty stomach when you’re extremely jet lagged. While I had a ton of fun, the night really escalated quickly. I believe we paid for four drinks, meaning we consumed 8. I was drinking Summer Ale (which I recommend) and Katelyn was housing wine.
Reykjavik is fun because the bar culture really emphasizes bar crawling. You stay at a place for a drink or two and then make your way forward. After our four ill advised “doubles” at the Bunk Bar we headed to Obla-Di-Obla-Da, a Beatles themed bar I’d seen earlier that day where we had a pair of Viking drafts (the two standard draft beers in Iceland were Viking and Gull).
Our next stop was The Big Lewbowski Bar, a very popular hangout with a nice second story deck themed after the well like American Movie. Now, I’ve never seen the Big Lewbowski and know very little about it but wish I did as I feel I’d appreciate much more about this bar. It’s definitely on my list of things to watch this summer in the hopes that things like the diner theme, 21 variations of White Russians, and wall of Playboy covers might make sense to me.
Our final stop of the night was The English Pub which is where things get fuzzy. We’re not sure how long we stayed, what we had to drink, or how much money we spent (I’m still refusing to look at my bank statement for that night) and both my sister and I have vague recollections of cheering along to the beer wheel. Let me elaborate. Almost every bar we went to in Reykjavik had a drink wheel. You pay an upfront fee (usually about $15-$20 dollars…remember Iceland is not cheap) and spin the wheel to see where you’d land. Options varied from “nothing” to “10 beers.” Almost every bar we went into had one of these guys.
I do remember sitting in the English Pub’s Beer Garden and marveling about the lack of evening. It really is light out 24/7 in Reykjavik which leads to a real lack of sense of time.
I’d like to say we left the English Pub a little after midnight, but can’t tell you for sure.
I can tell you that Reykjavik won the first round.