ICELAND? WHERE HAVE YOU BEEN?
Hi there and thanks for waiting for our first official on-the-road post on Iceland. So far we’ve traveled through Iceland, Sweden, Poland, and we just landed in Budapest. The travels have been incredible, we’ve made friends along the way, and we’re a little exhausted. So bear with me while we start formulating our thoughts and compressing our ideas. We’re also still learning to do this as a team, so while both Steve and I execute and write well, we do so very differently which has been something we’ve been working through along the way.
For those we’ve spoken with and those we haven’t, our goal here is to not only document our trip to keep friends and family updated but to also give you insight on how this trip is possible. This includes budget, time, resources for travel, work exchange advice, packing details, planning, information on Couchsurfing, and really honest insight into our lives. We’re expecting highs and lows and we’re ready to be transparent. So, that being said, onto Iceland.
A look at the walls of The Harpa from below.
As many of you know, Icelandair and WOW Airlines have been offering a stopover in Iceland to promote tourism and rejuvenate a portion of their economy. Though this is something that has been available since the 1960’s, it wasn’t until the last decade that they started heavily advertising the stopover to The United States. It’s honestly brilliant. If booked at the right time, flights to Europe become significantly cheaper with a stopover. It also bisects a long flight while offering an opportunity to glimpse Iceland.
Europe became our first regional destination for our trip so that we could save on airfare, take advantage of the shoulder season, and experience the warmest weather possible for the duration of our trip. We might second guess ourselves in October when we’re running through Ireland, but we’ll deal with that when the time comes.
Similar to our past trips, we scheduled a ride on the Megabus from Indianapolis to Chicago so that we could fly out of O’Hare. We made it to Chicago pretty seamlessly and quickly began breaking in our bags and our collar bones. We’ll share a bit more about packing in the future, but for now, know that both Steve and I are only carrying one 22 lb carry-on backpack each.
After walking around Chicago for a while we decided to enjoy a bit of the hustle around Millenium Park all while eating a giant block of cheese. Little did we know that this was only a brief introduction into the amount of cheese that we would soon be eating in Sweden, but that’s another story for later.
Long and short, we are all too familiar with the CTA Blue Line in Chicago, we had our second go at Couchsurfing with a wonderful couple in Logan Square, and we were both approved for Global Entry which was entirely free because of our Capital One Venture credit cards. Ding ding ding! On the downside, the DSLR took a nosedive and as a result, the lens is currently not flush with the rest of the camera. We’re waiting to find a reasonable place to fix it. So in the meantime, you’ll notice a small arc in our photos, usually on the right side, are less than focused.
So, on to Iceland, we actually ended up leaving O’Hare almost 90 minutes late. As a result, we had to make our first big-budget decision with regards to transportation into the city. Take the Flybus, which is the main tourist bus line, to and from the airport for $102.50 (11.000 ISK) round trip, or to wait another 1.5 hours for the Straeto, which is the cheaper local bus known for being inconsistent. Long and short, we went ahead on the Flybus to buy ourselves a little more time.
Our budget for our entire 9-month trip is $20,000, so Iceland really threw a wrench in the gears right out of the gates. Thankfully we were able to subsidize a bit by buying a lot of our large flights and mandatory accommodations for the trip ahead of time. But, on average, we’re looking at about $67/day for both of us, including accommodations and any further purchasing of transportation.
A look at some of the Icelandic architecture. Pastel colors and thick walls for insulation.
At this point in time, we were already pretty tired. We woke early in Bloomington, didn’t sleep very well in Chicago, and took an overnight flight to Iceland. Steve can sleep like a bear on flights, but unfortunately, I can’t say the same. We arrived in Reykjavik around 9:00 AM and immediately started exploring on foot.
We were stunned at how incredibly small and walkable Reykjavík is. For those of you who are from home, think downtown Bloomington and Indiana University’s campus combined. There were a few outliers to town, but for the most part, it really was all right there. Because we were only in Iceland for 16 hours we decided to stick to the city and check out a few local spots.
If you’re looking for travel advice, ideas, destinations, restaurants, or anything of the sort, I can’t recommend Pinterest enough. While it’s often thought of as a DIY or design hub, it’s become my travel and foodie Google. Before planning these big trips, I used Pinterest for all things cooking. Now we really look to it for budgeting ideas. I’ve worked really hard to build my personal Pinterest into a Traveling in Tandem reference board, so feel free to check it out. It’s been on pause for a month or so but will continue to grow with new ideas in the near future.
As for Iceland, we managed to do quite a bit on foot.
OUR DAY EXPLORING REYKJAVIK
I’ve said it time and time again, but Steve and I really love checking out local grocery stores. It’s a really good insight into the local food culture and cost of living. Let’s just say that no one has ever described Iceland as cheap. So Bonus Grocery was a great first stop for a breakfast that wasn’t going to break the bank. If you go to the linked website above you’ll see their logo. It’s hilarious and I don’t understand it. Think drunk piggybank falls victim to whack-a-mole. Silly marketing.
Regardless, here we learned that Iceland loves rye bread, licorice, mayonnaise, and artificial sweetener. Overall, it was a dud of a breakfast, but a cute first experience. I hate licorice, Steve abhors aspartame, and the rye bread was rough. Think banana bread meets rye bread but overall cloyingly sweet. But a good thing to know is that there are plenty of other options. Most things are imported, so expect high price tags on produce and more approachable costs for seafood.
We stumbled upon The Sun Voyager when looking for a cute oceanfront spot to sit and snack. It was also our first tourist haven. People were sternly yelling at one another to get out of their photos, contrasted by the serene ocean and mountain views in the background. Overall, a cute waterfront spot. It was also where we learned that we might have overpacked on the summer layers, and under packed on warm clothes.
One of the many groups of tourists trying to snag a photo in front of The Sun Voyager.
Harpa is a unique waterfront building that you can’t miss. Said to be inspired by the basaltic landscapes of Iceland, the concert hall and conference center is one of a kind. The glass panels form a three dimensional surface of relief with miscellaneous, chatoyant panels that cause the building to shimmer in the sunlight. It’s a beautiful building to walk through, but not somewhere you need to dedicate a lot of time unless you plan to see a concert or performance.
A look at The Harpa from afar.
Dubbed the world’s most famous hot dog stand, you’ll find photos of Bill Clinton here when searching for food recommendations in Reykjavik. They sell two things, hot dogs and drinks. You can choose to decorate your hotdog with ketchup, mustard, raw onion, and cooked onion. Regardless of what you choose, the gent behind the counter can crank it out in under 15 seconds. It’s pretty incredible to see the speed at which they work and how quickly the line moves along. It’s definitely a place of efficiency.
A short, pinched line at Baejarins Beztu Pylsur.
You should also know that Baejarins Beztu Pylsur directly translates to “the town’s best hot dogs”. And the verdict on the hotdog? It was delicious. Simple, rich, and the mustard was divine. Unfortunately, the stand is currently cornered by a chain link fence because of waterfront construction. So while you can still get to it, it’s definitely a bit pinched.
Located next to City Hall, Tjörnin Pond is a great spot to see some of the native plants and flowers in Iceland. There are a number of benches available on the west side of the pond where you can watch the ducks and get a great view of downtown to the east. Overall, it’s a cute little escape from the congested tourist spots. We saw a number of families with prams and a cute elderly woman who was slyly picking an assortment of flowers from the garden and putting them in her push cart for a bouquet. If you’re looking for a longer walk, there are great walking paths to the south with gardens and playgrounds available for little ones.
Steve checking out the Tjörnin Pond
This little, hidden gem was the only place in Reykjavik where we were actually in the midst of local people. While most opt for The Blue Lagoon, it didn’t seem like the best option for us given time and budget. But also know if you’re carrying luggage or looking for quick and convenient, the geothermal beach might not be the place for you.
Located on an inlet from the Atlantic, Nautholsvik sits southeast of town near Reykjavik University and the local airport. We just happened to arrive the last day of summer, which was the final day for free admission. There is a long geothermal pool next to the locker rooms with an adjacent steam room, geothermal hot tub, and icy cold ocean 100 meters away. Note that it’s not a good idea to wear jewelry into the water. My sterling silver ring reacted to the water to become some sort of oxidized sulfur compound. Womp womp.
We enjoyed Nautholsvik more than any other stop. It’s also the spot you have to work the hardest to access. There are no lockers, so anything you bring with you is openly accessible. We left our bags on the steps next to the pool where we could see them at all times. It was a great change of pace from plane, city, and airport hustle. The oscillation between hot and cold water worked magic on our already sore legs and shoulders.
Nautholsvik Geothermal Beach on the last day of their summer season.
Dinner was our only true meal of the day. Located across the street from Hallgrimskirkja, mentioned below, it was a bit more touristy than we intended, but also one of the only places advertising traditional Icelandic dishes. We ended up enjoying a platter with mashed potatoes with mashed fish, mashed radishes, smoked trout on rye bread, pea salad, and a meat stew. We missed the pickled shark tasting with a shot of schnapps because of the cost. I think it taught us that while we’d love the seafood, Iceland is not a place that we’d thrive because the food diversity is minimal and the food overall isn’t stellar.
You can’t miss this church when looking at the skyline. In geology terms, it looks like it’s made out of descending columnar joints. The inside is also not what you’d expect. It felt plush and eighties but was still really charming. We’re unfortunately not able to do it any justice, because by the time we visited we were so tired that I sat down on a pew and started to fall asleep. I felt rude so we thought it best to keep walking in lieu of being disrespectful. If you want to see the view from the top you are able to go up in the tower with purchase of a ticket. It’s also a fun photo spot if that’s what you’re looking for.
BACK TO THE BUS STATION
After a little more walking we headed back to the bus station because we just couldn’t walk anymore. I was asleep on the bus in 3 minutes and didn’t wake up until we stopped at the airport. It was a beautiful thing at the sacrifice of not seeing the basaltic landscape one more time.
A FEW THINGS TO KNOW
Flybus tickets are slightly cheaper each way if you purchase a round trip up front. You can purchase the tickets online or upon arrival at the airport. Also, currency exchange. The airport definitely ripped us off and they are very particular. There is a currency exchange for arrival near baggage claim, and a separate spot for those departing. The system is strict and I don’t understand it. I even ended up having to show my boarding pass when trying to buy a thing of fries before our departing flight.
The airport can be a ghost town depending on when you arrive. We went through security after arriving at the airport at 9:00 PM and we were literally the only ones there. It was the strangest thing and the security agents looked bored out of their minds. But I guess with the stopover and time zone changes, it makes sense that most of their flights to Europe leave after midnight.
With regards to spending time in local spots, we really can’t point you in the right direction aside from the geothermal beach. We tried to get lost and find ourselves off the beaten path to some extent but we couldn’t seem to do it. Maybe we didn’t go far enough southeast or it wasn’t accessible by foot, but for the most part Reykjavik seemed to be a place dominated by tourism and the locals were not fans of the situation. Almost every interaction that we had seemed liked they wanted to be clear that they had no interest in us and our enthusiasm was less than appreciated. While we can both completely understand and appreciate this perspective, it gave the whole place a somber tone.
Moving forward, we definitely expect to have this kind of interaction and experience in places. They don’t necessarily define the place, just our time there. And honestly, 16 hours isn’t enough time to judge any one place. But do know that it is expensive regardless of your budget. I wouldn’t pencil it into your budget travel, but I also wouldn’t write it off because Iceland as a whole is undeniably one of the most beautiful places in the world.
BLOOPERS ALONG THE WAY:
- Skyr, the local yogurt, will likely have a ton of artificial sweetener in it.
- Don’t trust me with a map after I exclaim that the town is logically organized. We will end up lost.
- All candy has licorice in it. Even the candy that doesn’t look anything like licorice.
- Don’t expect to find a meal under $15/person anywhere.
- Hot dogs, while not the official food of Iceland, are all over the place.
- Just pay for a locker at the bus station. Or break in your bag ahead of time. Both are good options.
- Don’t be offended by the abrasive lecture in the locker room by the woman who calls tourists disgusting. She’s doesn’t know you and she’s just having a bad day.
- Sleep on the plane before you get there. 7:00 AM comes early…