Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Top 5 Things to See and Do in Reykjavik, Iceland


Yet another delay in keeping up with my blog!  I have been obsessively nesting for baby, despite not being due til January 12.  The nursery is painted and ready, with all bedding and furniture on order, and other rooms in the house have been cleaned out, purged, and organized.  However, after hearing for the umpteenth time from friends, "I can't wait to hear more about your Iceland trip", followed by a pointed look, I have decided to sit down and focus on this post, which I have been picking away at distractedly for two weeks.  I hope it is worth the wait. (Just like baby! Aaahhh!)

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The population of the entire nation of Iceland is around 300,000 people.  Of that, 200,000 of these citizens live in the immediate area of the capital city of Reykjavik.  I had the pleasure of staying a few days in Reykjavik during our amazing Iceland trip this summer - it is a city full of unique culture and interesting people.

Reykjavik Iceland, colors of Reykjavik
The vibrant colors of Laugavegur Street in Reykjavik.

Joey and I stayed in Guesthouse 101, located at the end of the trendy shopping street of Laugavegur.  Our hostel (for it was more of a hostel than a hotel) was in the perfect location: we were close to the harbor, some of the major city sights, and directly in the middle of a trendy area full of shops and restaurants.  (My only complaint was that, due to there being 24-hour sunlight, nobody seemed to go to bed on Laugavegur Street and they kept me up all night.)

We hiked through a big portion of the city, checking out architecture, city sights, and art installments.  Reykjavik can be an expensive city if you are always dining out in restaurants or going to clubs, but it can also be affordable if you are in a frugal state of mind.  Luckily, many of the city highlights are inexpensive and easy to find.  Here is our list of things to 'see and do' in Reykjavik:

Hallgrimskirkja Church
This spectacular church can be seen from nearly anywhere in Reykjavik.  Built between 1937 and 1940, it is not an old church by any means, but it is a stand-out piece of architecture.  Located only a few blocks from Laugavegur Street (the point by which I will navigate all of these city sights), Hallgrimskirkja is quite easy to find.  Basically you just look up, see the 244 foot tower, and walk towards it.

churches of Reykjavik, Hallgrims Church Iceland, Iceland
Hallgrimskirkja in its entirety. 
The church is pretty from the outside.  White-washed stone, geometric patterns, and a sweeping tower draw the eye no matter which angle you are approaching the building from.  In front of the church is a giant statue of Leif Eriksson, the man attributed with the discovery of Iceland.  Inside, we marveled at the shining and massive pipe organ located on the back wall of the main church hall.  There was a pipe organ concert the afternoon we visited Hallgrimskirkja, but we opted not to stick around all day just for the show (plus it cost a fair penny and we were in cheap mode at the start of our vacation).

Hallgrimskirkja, Iceland church, Reykjavik church
The massive pipe organ inside Hallgrimskirkja Church.

My favorite part of visiting the church was going to the viewing deck at the top of the tower.  The cost was 600 ISK, which was about $5.00 Canadian.  From the observation deck, you can see most of the city, from the harbor to the Pearl. The vibrant rooftop colors of Reykjavik's houses and shops create almost a cartoonish landscape.  I played with the tilt-shift function on my camera, and came up with some great shots that capture the creative nature of the cityscape!

tilt-shift photography, churches of Iceland, Reykjavik city view
The view from Hallgrimskirkja, looking directly down to the front entrance.

tilt-shift photography, churches of Iceland, Reykjavik city view
Reykjavik from above, courtesy of the Hallgrimskirkja viewing deck.

We stayed up top for about 15-20 minutes.  After that, we felt that we had seen Reykjavik from all angles, and the unseasonably cold wind was quite biting from that high up. Back down we went, jammed into the tiny and claustrophobic elevator that only fit about 4 - 6 people. (Be prepared for that!)

photography, churches of Iceland, Reykjavik city view
The City Pond from afar.  I love the beauty of Reykjavik!

Harpa Concert and Opera Hall
We stopped at a few places along the way to Reykjavik's harbor, such as the Einar Jonsson Museum, which has a beautiful sculpture garden (located 1 block away from Hallgrimskirkja Church).  The museum was closed when we visited, but the gardens were open to anyone and were quite peaceful to walk through.  We also walked past Tjornin, or the City Pond, which is a large but shallow lake in the middle of Reykjavik.  Lots of ducks and geese were present, eagerly awaiting the next person to show up with a bag of bread crumbs.  One duck even chased a five-year-old girl as we walked past, to our sadistic delight and her terror. (She laughed afterwards, which is why I can say I enjoyed watching this unfold.)

things to do in Reykjavik, Iceland art, Reykjavik sculptures
An example of what you can find in the Einer Jonsson Sculpture Garden.

Not far from the City Pond is my favorite place in Reykjavik - the Harpa Concert and Opera Hall.  This phenomenal architectural delight stole my heart immediately.  First and foremost, I love opera, so the building called to me anyway.  Secondly, it is simply beautiful.  Designed with geometrical glass plates and patterns, with random pieces of colored windows, it catches the sunlight like a giant chandelier that you can walk in. The outside is very impressive, but it doesn't even compare to being inside the building.

Harpa Concert Hall interior, stained glass windows, Iceland
Sitting in the Harpa Concert Hall is like sitting inside a kaleidoscope.

We stayed inside the Harpa Concert and Opera Hall for over an hour, just sitting on different benches in different areas, marveling at the walls and windows.  No matter which area of the building you choose to plunk down in, there is something beautiful to look at.

Harpa Concert Hall Reykjavik, Iceland architecture
Anywhere you sat in the Harpa Concert Hall, you felt like you could stay forever.

We couldn't afford to see a show during our stay in Reykjavik, but honestly, I think I'd rather look at the windows than go inside the darkened theater hall and watch a comedian.  It's just that pretty.

Harpa Concert Hall Reykjavik, Iceland architecture
Check out those colors!  It's stunning!

Harbor with Norse Boat Installment
A hop, skip, and a jump from the Harpa Concert and Opera Hall, along the harbor boardwalk, is a very cool art installment that I loved.  It is called the Sun Voyager, and it is a stainless steel model of a Norse boat in skeletal form.  During the day, it glistens and shines attractively, but I liked it the most in the evening, when the setting sun cast beautiful shades of purple, orange and pink on the mirror-like metal.

art installment Reykjavik harbor, Iceland art
The Sun Voyager with the Reykjavik sunset behind.

There is nothing there to see other than the art piece itself, but the combination of the sea in the background and the beautiful art in the foreground is enough.  It is definitely worth a visit - try it both during the day and in the evening. You'll see what I mean.

art installment Reykjavik harbor, Iceland art
Iceland has very cool art installments such as the Sun Voyager.

Iceland Phallological Museum
Now this was an unusual place to visit, but I had read about it online and was dying of curiosity to check it out.  As fate would have it, the Phallological Museum was right across the street from our hotel, Guesthouse 101, on Laugavegur Street.  As in, if you looked out our room window, you'd be looking directly at the museum entrance.  I knew then that we were meant to visit this unique collection.

Iceland penis museum, penis museum Reykjavik
This is the only photo of the museum I dare put on the blog.  Go to Iceland and see for yourself!

For those of you that don't know what "phallological" means, it refers to a part of the male anatomy that I'd prefer not to directly refer to in my blog.  The museum was founded in 1997 by a retired schoolteacher named Sigurour Hjartarson (maybe he taught biology?), who had a personal collection of specific whale and shark body parts.  From his personal collection grew this crazy museum.  It features 280 'preservations' of animals from blue whales to hamsters.  It even has a human specimen, which may I say, was super gross.

The cost to visit this bizarre collection is $10 per adult (and yes, you must be an adult).  In a cool twist, the museum accepts currency from around the world, and so we were able to pay with a Canadian $20.00 bill.  I really liked that, since it helped us retain some of our Icelandic cash.

I realize that this museum may not be for everyone, but I figured we'd never be back to Iceland, so I had better check it out while I was there.  There were some interesting facts about animals and anatomy that I hadn't known before, so I would like to point out that the museum isn't just for titillating giggles, but also for learning.  But mostly for giggles.

The Pearl
One place we never got to, despite promising ourselves each day to visit, was the famous Pearl structure in Reykjavik.  Known in Icelandic as the Perlan, this building functions as a city and tourist center.  It used to be a hot-water storage facility, but was updated in 1991, and instead a museum, shopping center, garden, and observation deck were added.

The Pearl Iceland, things to see and do in Reykjavik
The Pearl with its massive hot water tanks. Photo via.

I really wanted to go wander in the Pearl, mainly because of all the great reviews I'd read about its fantastic city views from the observation deck.  I wasn't too concerned with the shopping center, as we were in Iceland on a tight budget (and with even tighter space in our camping-gear-laden suitcases).  The Saga Museum was another point of interest for me, as it is focused on the Norse and Viking heritage of Iceland.

The Pearl Iceland, things to see and do in Reykjavik
The Pearl's observation deck at dusk.  Photo via.

I guess it wasn't meant to be. The Pearl is NOT located centrally in Reykjavik near the downtown / tourist area of Laugavegur Street.  It is quite a distance to get out to the center, and neither Joey nor I had the energy or enthusiasm to travel that far by foot. Each day in Reykjavik was busy for us, what with all of the other things we wanted to see and do, so spending half a day just walking (and potentially getting horribly lost) didn't sound very appealing.  We also figured that we'd seen some amazing city views from the top of Hallgrimskirkja, so visiting yet another observation deck seemed redundant.  Not sure if we made the right choice, but regardless of whether or not we made it to the Pearl, I feel it should still be on the "Top 5" list due to its potential to be really cool!

What Else?
Other fun things to do in Reykjavik include riding the Hop On Hop Off bus, which will take you to all of the places mentioned above plus much more.  The cost for a 24-hour ticket is 3300 ISK for one adult (roughly $29.00 to $30.00 CDN), or 1650 for kids 12 to 15 ($14.00 to $15.00 CDN). Kids under 12 ride free.  We did not do this, as we found walking from one destination to the other did not take very long.  It sure helped that our hostel was located in a very central area on Laugavegur Street.

shopping on Laugavegur Street, shopping in Iceland
Shopping on Laugavegur Street in Reykjavik is always a good time.

Shopping on Laugavegur Street is also a lot of fun. There is a wide variety of stores and wares down Laugavegur, and you can basically find whatever you want if you walk long enough.  I purchased a really nice sheepskin hide in one store, which saved my own hide during our camping excursions on those cold, rainy nights!  We also discovered that if you spend over 4000 krona, the purchase is valid for a tax redemption, which you apply for at the airport before you leave the country.  Just keep ALL receipts (they give you a normal receipt and a special tax redemption receipt), otherwise the redemption becomes invalid.

There are also many art museums and a couple of history museums in town that you can visit.  We only had a couple of days to explore Reykjavik, so we had to be very selective about what we saw during our stay.  Had we had more time, I certainly would have wandered through some of those places.  If you ever have, please tell me about it in the comments section below.

Reykjavik Harpa Concert Hall, things to do in Iceland
Joey enjoys the view of the ocean from the Harpa Concert and Opera Hall.

One cool fact we learned about the city of Reykjavik: In general, hot water is piped in directly from natural heat sources - is not heated through man-made processes.  There are some neighborhoods that have cold spring water heated and piped in, but sulfur is added (at an amount of 12%, we were told) to give it the same smell as the rest of the city's regular hot water supply, so that certain neighborhoods cannot advertise 'clean-smelling water' over the sulfuric smell to amplify the market and raise prices.  Sure, the showers smelled like sulfur, but my skin had never been better than when I was in Iceland!

Forgive the repeated video - this one was originally featured in the Blue Lagoon post, but since my Blue Lagoon footage was scarce (I spent all my time enjoying the swim rather than filming), I combined my Reykjavik footage with it.

3 comments:

  1. Brilliant post. I love Reykjavik but we didn't go inside the Harpa building which I can now see was a mistake - it looks beautiful. Ah well, I'm going to just have to go back!! It's just a great city isn't it?

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    1. Yes, you'll have to go back just for the Harpa! LOL - it was like being inside a chandelier! Did you go to the Pearl? Will I feel the same way about missing that?

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