Note: I visited Iceland a decade earlier in March 2005 and stopped to see many of the same locations, which looked very different in winter conditions.
Our last stop on the trip took us to Iceland. We had both connected through Iceland on our flights over to Europe, and for the return trip back, we were staying for two nights to have a chance to visit Reykjavik and some of the nearby attractions in western Iceland. I had visited Iceland once before in March of 2005, and I was looking forward to seeing the same country in the middle of summer as opposed to during the tail end of winter. Due to the large empty spaces that prevail in Iceland, we would be renting a car for this leg of our trip and driving ourselves from one location to another. I had my fingers crossed that the weather would be better here than it was in Bergen - my previous trip to Iceland had been windy and rainy the whole time.
Bergen threw one last curveball at us as our flight ended up being delayed by two hours. Instead of leaving around 2 pm, it didn't end up taking off until roughly 4 pm. This cut short the amount of time for sightseeing that we would have on our first evening in Iceland, which we were planning to use for a walking tour of downtown Reykjavik. Fortunately, we had the benefit of moving west and gaining extra hours as we crossed time zones as well as being far enough north in the summer that the sun wouldn't set until almost 11 pm. The flight itself was uneventful, and when we began to descend over our destination, we were able to start taking some pictures from the air. Iceland has a very unusual climate between the high northern latitude, the enveloping oceans on all sides, and the volcanic activity underlying the ground. There are virtually no trees anywhere in the country, and that allows the wind to blow unobstructed for miles and miles inland. This also makes it easy to view the landscape from above, with nothing to block the rocky terrain from the eye.
We landed and picked up our rental car, which was from an Icelandic brand that neither of us were familiar with. First time travelers to Iceland should be aware that there's virtually no public transportation in the country outside of some minimal facilities in Reykjavik, which means that the two main options for getting around are renting a car or joining a tour group. The drive from the airport at Keflavik to the capital is about 30 miles / 50 kilometers and takes the visitor through a barren landscape that looks a bit like the surface of the moon. These are former lava fields that have cooled and solidified, places where the climate is still too rough for anything to grow. Reykjavik is a different story, of course, a modern cosmopolitan city that serves as the political, economic, and cultural heart of Iceland. The greater Reykjavik area houses about 200k of the nation's 300k population, with the rest of the country consisting of gigantic empty spaces with only tiny towns and villages dotted here and there. We checked into our Airbnb lodging, then went out to get dinner and see some of the city. The pictures above come from Laugavegur street, the main shopping drag in downtown Reykjavik. It was full of shops and restaurants, many of them specifically catering to the tourist trade. We ate at the Chuck Norris Grill, which had surprisingly good food and was too amusing of a place to pass up. American food as imagined by Icelandic culture wasn't bad at all.
At the western end of the shopping district sits this isolated white structure. This is actually the Prime Minister's Office (Stjórnarráðið) of Iceland, a building that I knew about only because it had been on a bus tour of Reykjavik on my previous trip to the city. The building dates back to the 18th century and is therefore one of the oldest in Reykjavik, and it was used at times as a prison before becoming the residence of the Danish governor of Iceland and then eventually the Icelandic prime minister. There was almost a shocking level of informality to the place, with no walls or fences, no security guards, and random pedestrians strolling across the lawns. Granted, the prime minister wasn't in residence at the time (the flagpole was empty), but this was still surprising to security-obssessed Americans like us. Iceland tends to be more laid-back about these kind of things. The country is very small and it feels at times as though everyone knows everyone else, which makes for a more relaxed attitude.
Nearby is the Tjörnin, a small lake in the downtown portion of Reykjavik. This word translates as "the pond" and the Tjörnin serves as the main park for the central part of the city. On this evening it was home to dozens of birds, and the setting sun cast everything on the western side of the water into a soft golden light. We walked around part of the edge of the pond, watching the birds and taking in the scenery. The weather was perfectly clear and the temperature was just right, not too warm and not too cold. Unlike our experience in Bergen, the skies were being very accomodating here in Iceland.
A few blocks away from the Tjörnin sits this small collection of buildings at the heart of Reykjavik. The first one is the Reykjavik Cathedral (Dómkirkjan í Reykjavík), the official seat of the Bishop of Iceland and head of the national Icelandic church. This structure was first built in the 19th century and still opens every legislative sessions of the Icelandic Parliament. Just as with the Prime Minister's Office, the church's miniature size reflects the intimate character of the nation. It stands right next to the stone structure pictured above, which is the home of the Icelandic Parliament House (Alþingishúsið). This building seems way too small to host an entire country's legislative body, and today most of the administrative and staffing work goes on in other nearby buildings. There's a new adjoining structure made from glass that wasn't present when I visited a dozen years earlier, and that extra space now gets used for meetings and conference rooms. I would dearly like to see the inside of both the church and the parliament, but both times that I've visited Reykjavik they have been closed. Hopefully the next time that we visit Iceland we'll have the chance to see these places in more detail.
More street scenes from Reykjavik. The statue pictured above sits in a park directly across from the Icelandic Parliament and depicts Jón Sigurðsson, the leader of the 19th century Icelandic independence movement. The statue was in even worse condition than the last time I had seen it, and I hope that someone restores this to its former glory soon. Liz was pleased to note that the new annex to the parliament building includes a statue of Ingibjörg H. Bjarnason, an Icelandic suffragette who was the first woman to sit in the Icelandic Parilament. The big crowd gathered above had stopped to watch a street performer who was doing acrobatic tricks and sleight of hand magic tricks. The area near the parliament building was another place with shops and restaurants; I purchased a scarf for the Icelandic football (soccer) team here. I'll be rooting for their plucky squad since they made the 2018 World Cup... and the United States did not.
Reykjavik's harbor lies only a couple of streets away. Unlike your average city, Reykjavik switches suddenly from trendy stores and upscale restaurants to open water with mountains rearing up on the other side. It's surprising how quickly civilization gives way to unspoiled nature, with bare rock and even snow patches off in the distance. Reykjavik is a small city and it's easy to walk from the downtown into bare fields in less than an hour. The harbor is an active port and also serves as a destination for a few hardy cruise ships which take passengers on trips around the island. With the sun setting in the west and clear skies overhead, it made for spectacular views on this evening.
Rising up above the waterfront is a structure known as Harpa, a concert hall and conference center created in a shining palace of glass and steel. Harpa was finished in 2011 and hadn't existed on my previous trip to Iceland, making this another location that I was eager to see. Despite arriving at close to 10 pm, the concert hall was still open to the public and we were able to walk around inside unimpeded. The glass windows had a honeycomb feel to them, and looking out through them felt a bit like staring from the inside of a beehive. Harpa was divided into a series of five floors with diagonal walkways connecting them together. The largest chambers were used for the Icelandic Orchestra, but there was also a gift shop, restaurant, and small library inside this building. It was a really neat place to visit, and continues the Scandinavian tradition of putting some kind of opera house or concert hall along the waterfront of each capital city.
After leaving Harpa, we walked along the waterfront back towards our Airbnb house. This sculpture was the most noteworthy sight along that walk, a stylized ship that jutted out into the water and had a lot of people stopping to take pictures. This is apparently called the Sun Voyager (Sólfarið) and was built in 1990 to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the city of Reykjavik. According to the information that I found online this sculpture is not intended to be a Viking ship, and the artist who produced it instead wanted it to symbolize the discovery of new, undiscovered territory. It was a great way to conclude our abbreviated first day in Iceland, with the sun just touching the horizon over the top of the sculpture's masts.
We were off the next morning, driving out of Reykjavik en route to some of the most famous tourist destinations in Iceland. This path is known as the Golden Circle and takes visitors past waterfalls and geysers while exploring some of the terrain in the western part of the country. It can be completed in a single day, making it perfect for day trippers and bus tours. I had gone on this route during my previous trip to Iceland, and we were heading off early enough that we hoped to beat the crowds before they started to pile up. These were some of the initial sights that we came across on the road. Driving in Iceland during the summer is easy, as the roads tend to be almost completely empty away from Reykjavik. Ten minutes outside of the city and we were already in the wilderness, heading towards a ridge of low mountains. The weather was shaping up to be another glorious day and we were excited to be off on the road.
Our first destination was Þingvellir National Park, which is pronounced more like "Thingvellir" in English. This is a historic site where the Althing, the original medieval parliament of Iceland, met from the 10th century up to the 18th century. We stopped initially at the western edge of the park, where there was a small visitor's center and an overlook at the top of a ridge. The parking lot was already beginning to fill up with visitors, and it was clear that we shouldn't stay too long here or else we'd be inundated with other tourists. We did take the time to stop in the visitor's center to get some maps, and then look out over the ridge to the lower level of the park:
We were able to see far out into the distance here, across the lake that makes up much of the park (Þingvallavatn) and over the ridges that dropped away to the east. Iceland is known for being a volcanically active part of the world, as it sits atop the Mid Atlatic Ridge where two different tectonic plates are pulling apart in different directions. Þingvellir National Park sits directly on top of the border between those plates, and over the course of millions of years, this location will eventually pull Iceland apart into separate islands. This whole area was once a lava plain that flooded with water over time. It's a dramatic area as far as the scenery goes, quite aside from the historic importance from the earliest days of Icelandic settlement.
From the upper parking lot at Þingvellir, it's possible to walk down the ridge to the lower ground on the other side, or alternately to drive down to a series of separate parking lots at the bottom. We decided to drive down to the base of the ridge to prevent having to backtrack, and then walked from our new parking spot back towards the historic area. There was water everywhere down here, spilling down the rocks in clear streams towards the water of the lake. One of the deep pools that we passed had an informational sign that explained it had been used for executions in medieval Iceland, where according to legend condemned prisoners were drowned under the waters. That may or may not be true, and it gave a macabre twist to this otherwise beautiful little wilderness pond.
From there, the path led forward towards a raised platform with an Icelandic flag and several white buildings at its base. This was the location of the Lögberg, or "Law Rock", the meeting place of the medieval Icelandic parliament. There would be a gathering every summer in which the Althing would resolve disputes and dispense justice; outside of these gatherings, Iceland had almost no government at all. The handful of hardy settlers who lived here in the Middle Ages had enough trouble simply staying alive in the harsh climate. Today, the presence of the Icelandic flag commemorates the location of the Lögberg. We took a couple of pictures in the immediate vicinity of the rock and then another from a little distance away to get a feel for what it looks like, sitting at the foot of that ridge. There was one really annoying tourist couple who were visiting at the same time that we were, and kept asking "where's the Law Rock? I want to see the Law Rock!" even though it was extremely obvious from all of the informational signs that we were standing on top of it. They couldn't seem to grasp where it was located, even though the whole landscape in all directions was otherwise deserted, and they shook off the attempts of everyone neaby to help them. Hopefully we aren't that clueless in our own travels.
We stopped next at Geysir, another geologically active spot that's passed into the English language as its own word for a thermal jet of water exploding from the ground. Before seeing the geysers themselves, we went to the Geysir Center pictured above, a restaurant and souvenir store designed to cater to the visiting tourists. This place had grown significantly in size since I had previously been here in 2005, and now featured a second cafe as well as an expanded gift shop. What had been a little hole in the wall place had now expanded into a full fledged tourist attraction, able to cater to hundreds of people at once. We ate lunch in the new cafe portion of the Geysir Center, the wood-paneled area pictured above which featured several different selections of soup on its menu. I had the southwest-inspired soup and it was better than expected, very tasty indeed on a cool summer day.
Then it was time to head outside and explore the geysers themselves. There were three or four large geysers here and more than a dozen small ones, each of them surrounded by walkways and with individual names on placards. The largest of the geyseys erupted about every ten minutes and sprayed water as much as 50 feet into the air. This area was very reminiscent of Yellowstone Park in the western part of the USA, where similar geological forces cause hot springs to fountain up every hour or so. The water that comes out of the ground is scalding hot and in both locations the staff are careful to warn everyone that it's important to stay clear of the water. As in Yellowstone, the air had a sulfuric smell to it, similar to rotting eggs although not quite as unpleasant. We walked around from one geyser to the next, trying to catch one of the large ones when it was in the process of erupting. I had failed to get a good picture of any of these geysers when I had come here before in 2005, and I had promised myself that if I ever came back, I wouldn't let the same opportunity slip away again.
Most of the terrain around the geysers is flat, but away from the road it begins to slop upward towards a fair sized hill. We climbed up the path in the hopes of getting a good view of the geysers from above, and we were rewarded with an excellent view of the landscape stretching off towards the horizon. Note that there were no trees anywhere except the ones that the Geysir Hotel had planted next to the road; Iceland simply doesn't have much in the way of natural vegetation beyond tough grasses. We were also fortunate enough to snap a picture right when one of the main geysers was going off, catching the spray at its maximum height. All of the surrounding visitors were wisely standing upwind of the geyser, which blew the spray off to the right side of that picture. All in all, this was a great stop and fulfilled my leftover unfinished goals from the previous trip to Geysir.
We were headed next to the nearby waterfall of Gullfoss, which was only a short distance away from the water spouts at Geysir. When we were about to arrive at the parking lot, we had a group of riders on the backs of Icelandic horses cross the road in front of us. They were bringing the horses to a facility at Gullfoss at the end of a ride, and we had a great opportunity to photograph them in motion with a breathtaking backdrop of mountains and a glacier behind them. Then while we were still watching this group of riders approach, a herd of riderless horses began galloping towards the nearby fence. They must have seen the other horses in motion and wanted to come over to say hello. The horses walked right up to the fence, and we ran over to see them in person.
Look at these amazing creatures. Liz and I both love animals, and Icelandic horses are a very district breed that can only be found on the island. They're short, sturdy animals that look a lot like ponies but can carry the weight of full grown adult humans with no problems. We couldn't believe that this particular group had run right up next to us - it was like they wanted everyone to start petting them and fussing over them. This little herd had about a dozen horses in total, ranging in color from white to brown to black and with mixtures of everything in between. We probably spent about 20 minutes here fawning over the horses, and we took something like 50 photographs of them before we were done. This might be the happiest that I've ever seen Liz; she had an expression of pure delight on her face that I hope was reflected in mine as well. This was a truly serendipitous moment, when the Icelandic horses decided that they wanted to come and greet us in the midst of some of the most beautiful scenery that you'll ever see.
There was still the matter of Gullfoss itself, one of Iceland's most popular tourist attractions and the reason why we had driven out to this region. Gullfoss is a huge waterfall that descends in a series of stages until plunging into a canyon more than 100 feet deep. The name in Icelandic translates as the "golden falls", and when viewed at sunrise or sunset it apparently takes on a colorful hue. The falls were nearly taken over by a power company to be used in generating electricity before being preserved and turned into a tourist attraction by the Icelandic government. This is a really neat place to visit, and the sound of the falls greet arrivals as soon as they park in the overhead lot. The water pouring over the falls initially appears to descend into the earth before a closer approach reveals that it's falling into the canyon below. There's a viewing platform on a shelf of rock up near the falls themselves, and that spot can only be reached by walking down a narrow path that runs along one side of the canyon. When I visited Gullfoss in 2005, it was in late winter and the whole area was covered in a sheet of ice. There had been virtually no one there, and my bus group contained the only people present. The conditions were completely different here in the summer, and it was clear that the tourist industry for Gullfoss had developed significantly in the dozen years since I had first visited.
This was the view from the rocky platform next to the falls. My favorite part of the falls was the section where the water dropped away in the canyon below, the place that kicked up a massive spray of mist. That spray left much of the path towards the viewing platform wet, and during the winter, it had covered the whole approach in a fine sheet of ice. I'll have to upload those pictures in a separate travel blog entry at a later date so that everyone can see the seasonal comparison. We spent a few minutes here watching the water gushing over the falls in both the upper and lower sections. It was very loud and very windy, with the wind blowing through playing havoc with our hair. Here's a selfie of us on top of the falls with my hair looking completely crazy.
When we made it back to the entrance area, we looked down and caught the mist from the falls producing a rainbow effect. That almost looks like a cheesy Photoshop effect but I swear it was a natural part of the image that we captured. We also took a picture of the falls from the upper level overlook, which was similar aside from a slightly better view of the path leading down. Not pictured here was the visitor's center, which had been completely reconstructed and expanded since I had been here last. It was such a contrast to go from a group of 20 people on a cold, gray day during my initial visit to the hundreds of people here at the height of summer on a perfect day. Gullfoss showed two very different sides of itself under those conditions, both of which were dramatic to see.
We now began the second half of the Golden Circle and started heading back towards Reykjavik again. This stop took place at a location named Skálholt, one of the historic religious centers of Iceland. Skálholt was the seat of the Bishop of Iceland for many long centuries on end, dating back as far as roughly 1050. This was one of the cultural and religious centers of Iceland until the 19th century, when it was finally eclipsed by Reykjavik due to its isolated inland location. I included a picture here of the surrounding territory around the modern church at Skálholt hoping to indicate how far this place was out in the middle of nowhere. There have been a series of archaeological excavations on this site which produced artifacts that now sit in some of Iceland's museums. The current church dates from the 1950s and was constructed to commemorate the 1000th anniversary of the first church at Skálholt. There was a small musical group rehearsing when we went inside, and we were able to capture the afternoon sunlight entering through the stained glass windows on one side. It was quiet and peaceful here, with the large tourist crowds nowhere to be seen.
There's also a reconstruction here of what one of the traditional churches at Skálholt would have looked like. This one was made of wooden beams covered over with sod, and it represented a church that had been built on this location in the 18th century. The interior was sparse, to say the least, with a tiny altar and a piano off to one side. People in the medieval and early modern periods would have needed to travel great distances in a hostile environment just to reach a rough church that looked like this. It's no wonder that Icelandic society spent centuries on the edge of survival given these conditions.
Our next stop took place at this location, the Icelandic Horse Park at Fákasel. This was a stable of Icelandic horses that offered riding tours and a dinner show event similar to the kind that might be seen at a Medieval Times restaurant. We really wanted to go riding on the little horses but we lacked the time for a trip of that nature. Instead, we signed up to take the stable tour here and get a closer look at some of the Icelandic horses. While waiting for that to begin, we saw about half a dozen of the horses grazing outside in a small enclosure, including a pair of foals with their mothers. We saw one of them nursing while we were watching, and both of them had likely been born that spring. These little horses were even more adorable than their adult brethren, and we enjoyed watching them gallivant around their pasture while waiting for our stable tour to begin.
It turned out that we were the only two people on this particular stable tour. There had been a tour bus that came through earlier and was just leaving when we arrived - perfect! This turned into a laidback and informal tour of the grounds at Fákasel that we enjoyed immensely. The guide started by showing us their performance arena, where the horses are exhibited for shows several times per week. It was an open, empty space today and there wasn't too much to see. Then we went into the stables themselves, where the guide explained a little bit more about the Icelandic horse breed and let us walk around pretty much anywhere we wanted to say hello to the individual animals. These are small horses that only stand about 13 to 14 hands in height, typically the size of ponies, but these are considered real horses and they have no trouble carrying adult humans over long distances. The Icelandic horses hold an important role in Icelandic culture, and they are strictly controlled by the country's government. It's illegal to bring any other breed of horses into Iceland, and once an Icelandic horse leaves the country, it can never return. The Icelandic horse is most famous for having an extra gait beyond the normal four (walk, trot, canter, and gallop). This is known as the tölt, which uses the same footfall pattern as a normal walk but goes at a much faster speed, kind of a running walk that looks strange to see in motion. There's even a sixth gait known as the "flying pace" that relatively few of the horses are able to perform, a fast running pace that uses a different footfall pattern than the traditional gallop. We thoroughly enjoyed seeing more of these amazing animals, and if we come back to Iceland again, we're hoping to have a chance to go riding with some of them.
Our last destination on this busy day was the famous Blue Lagoon spa (Bláa Lónið). This geothermal spa is located in a lava field to the south of Reykjavik, and it has become one of the most famous tourist destinations in the country. The entry to the Blue Lagoon looks nothing like one would expect; visitors park in a large lot and then walk through a path of dried lava that resembles the surface of the moon. It's utterly devoid of plant life and really does resemble the surface of some alien planet. The lagoon itself is artificially created, fed by the water output of a nearby geothermal plant in the background that looks like a giant factory. The water itself has a milky complexion somewhere between white and light blue in color. It's packed full of minerals which are supposed to be good for the skin and certainly do feel nice to swim in. The water is also very warm at about 100 degrees Fahrenheit (38 degrees Celsius) and feels a bit like a gigantic bath. This is only the outside of the Blue Lagoon; entry to the bathing area itself is tightly controlled, with tickets having a designated hour of arrival. Everything at Blue Lagoon is also extremely expensive, so visitors should expect to pay through the nose for anything beyond the basic ticket entry.
We went swimming in the Blue Lagoon for somewhere between one and two hours. Naturally we couldn't bring the camera into the swimming area, and therefore all of these pictures were taken after we were done, when we were walking around the rest of the resort complex. Blue Lagoon was in the process of expanding when we visited, building a hotel annex that would double the size of the overall facility. The cafe area had also been expanded since my previous visit to Iceland a dozen years earlier. This was a place that was drawing more and more tourists each year and looking to make even more money. As far as the bathing experience went, with the benefit of two visits I can highly recommend it to anyone who might be traveling here. The warm water is very relaxing and the floor of the lagoon area consists of a soft mud that feels nice against the feet. They sell alcoholic drinks at the bar area in the lagoon, and we had a glass of wine while enjoying the waters. If possible, this is an even better place to visit at night, when there's no sun to worry about and the warm water contrasts with the cooler night. Blue Lagoon is open very late during the summer, and the crowds aren't as bad in the evening too. Definitely a place worth stopping to see despite the high prices.
That was our last stop for the day and our last stop of the trip. We didn't have time the next morning to do anything other than drive back to the airport and return our rental car, then board the flight back to the United States. Iceland was probably our favorite part of the shared trip together, with either Iceland or Copenhagen taking the top billing. We wished that we had been able to stay for more time, since we only had one full day to spend exploring the island. The weather had been perfect and every place that we stopped had put on its best face for us. We're hoping that we can return another time to spend a few more days, potentially driving completely around the island and doing some camping under the stars, perhaps going on a whale watching trip and riding the Icelandic horses. For now, we headed back home with a collection of fond memories to share with friends and family.