Far north of the wall: Iceland

My dear fellows,

Yes, I did choose that title because I am one of those pitiful people who are desperately waiting for the new Game of Thrones season. Well, like pretty much everyone, right? First World problems and stuff… This post, however, is not going to be about the series in the first place. At least it shouldn’t. Well, I won’t be able to avoid making references anyway.

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Although I was suffering terribly because it takes so damn long until the new season comes out and because I am just not patient and because I really need a reason to put aside my university stuff, I could get some relief for exactly two weeks. Basically, when I stayed in Iceland in february. For that small, pretty isolated country shares quite a lot with the series everyone seems to be crazy about. Well, not necessarily the (very dominant) sexual part. And maybe it just seemed to me that Icelandic sounds a lot like Dothraki language. Or maybe I am simply going nuts.

Anyways, whenever I plan a journey to an unknown place, my first goal is to avoid classic tourist mistakes, amazingly naive as I am. This is not easy. Because tourist industry wants us to make those classic tourist mistakes for that is how they make money. And sometimes we want to do tourist stuff because it’s fun and because that’s what we are: tourists. And of course, public travel posts written by tourists containing advice for tourists won’t turn tourists into locals. But they might help the behave more decently and be better prepared.

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So, as I don’t want to keep this whole chitchat in a negative tone, I’d rather recommend you what to do instead of telling you what not to do. Therefore, there will be some awesome pictures involved here, there will be some food and drink included and, of course, ultimate travel tips for Iceland with regards to culture, entertainment, accommodation, nature, weather and costs. The latter might be especially interesting for everyone amongst us who is rather on the Arya Stark or Theon Grayjoy side in terms of budget.So, to make this a little easier for the busy people amongst you, I have divided this post into subtitles that allow you to jump to exactly the topic you wanna know more about:

  1. SIZE (what to expect)
  2. NATURE & WEATHER (and what to pack)
  3. FOOD & DRINKS (and where to get the best)
  4. ACCOMMODATION (absolute must-stay-ats)
  5. ENTERTAINMENT & ADVENTURES (for sunny days and Iceland-days)

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SIZE

Size matters, right? Well, Iceland is really not that big. And its capital city Reykjavik has just about as many inhabitants as the town I come from (Basel) and, well, that’s in tiny Switzerland. So Reykjavik’s city center rather reminds of a small, charming town than a metropolis. Which I loved a lot (country bumpkin, ya know). However, as soon as you get out of the city and into Iceland’s stunning nature, be it the national parc or the Highlands or, well, actually any place other than Reykjavik and its outskirts, then the volcanic island might all of a sudden seem huge. For Iceland has no more than 3.2 inhabitants per square kilometre. It’s actually like in Game of Thrones: Pretty much all of the inhabitants are concentrated in the city centres, or in this case the centre, Reykjavik. Beyond that: Land. A hell lot of land. For comparison: Switzerland has 70 times more inhabitants per square kilometre at the same time only being 1.5 times smaller. Wow, now that’s a lot of numbers. Back to nature again: It might happen that you drive on Iceland’s main street number 1 and you do feel quite abandoned. And Iceland’s hills and plains have hardly any vegetation worth mentioning, which makes them seem even vaster than they already are. There is a saying in Iceland that every single inhabitant will be glad to inform you about: “If you get lost in the forest in Iceland, stand up.” How true.

But no worries, as soon as you start feeling a bit uneasy about yourself being out there in the sticks you will pass a tour coach crammed with tourists. Yes, even in winter. The myth that Iceland is perfect for winter holidays because there is no one there at that time of the year is simply not true anymore. Face it. But that’s okay. Otherwise me and my lovely companion would not have met anyone to pull us out of the pile of snow we got stuck in with our (not-a-4-wheel-drive) car.

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NATURE AND WEATHER

Iceland has got the real version of Jon Snow’s famously predicted winter. The temperatures are not that low, though, I guess (Gulf Stream and stuff). But there is some brisk wind blowing there indeed. This leads up to two things: First of all, it is really worth visiting Iceland in winter because it looks like your exact childhood fantasy of winterwonderland. Secondly, you really need to pack the right clothes. Seriously. So here’s a short list of things you simply mustn’t renounce:

  1. warm socks (worst case the woolen socks your granny knitted for you last Christmas) and suitable shoes (which means: shoes your feet fit into when wearing aforesaid socks)
  2. thermal underwear (there is literally no way around this, no matter how unsexy you find it. I personall like to think of myself as a ninja when I wear it.)
  3. warm pullovers (yes, you are about to do that damn layering. “Onion-ing”, as my mom likes to call it.)
  4. a ski jacket (large enough to wear thermal underwear and a thick pullover beneath it)
  5. ski pants (you will definitely want to sit into the snow and be a kid again and create a snow angel, though you most probably won’t go skiing)
  6. awesomely warm gloves and some thin gloves that fit beneath them (if you really think you can leave away the latter pair of gloves: Oh you sweet summerchild!)
  7. a beanie plus a headband (layering, layering everywhere!)
  8. damn good shoes (And even if you have them damn good shoes you might consider wearing two pairs of socks. So buy your damn good shoes at least one size bigger than you need.)

Oh and last but not least: something I heard more than once when staying in Iceland was: “But you are from Switzerland, you must be used to the cold”. Well, first of all: global climate change has arrived in Switzerland, too. The last remarkably cold and snowy winter in Basel was when I was still a child. Like, officially a child. Second of all: I am not in any way used to that damn wind that makes -1°C feel like -20°C! I really cannot mention that wind often enough. I simply shall not be uderestimated.

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FOOD AND DRINKS

Whatever you have heard about Iceland regarding food: it is true. Yes, it is super expensive. Yes, they do eat dried shark. Yes, an apple does cost a fortune. Except for the American ones that all look exactly the same, like, creepily perfect, and taste like pesticide-treated styrofoam. But wait! This might all be true but it is nowhere near the whole truth! Iceland does have some true gems when it comes to nutrition. However, it took me a while to figure that out. Until then my wallet was as flat as a pancake. And again, people might be tempted to say: “But you’re from Switzerland, you are used to expensive prices!” True that. But I hardly ever eat out at home. My parents had a point teaching me how to cook very early. And the Icelandic currency makes it all worse. Like, which sorry-broke student is able to maintain her appetite when the number behind the meal is somewhere around 3750?!

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So there are ways of dealing with all those food-first-world-problems:

  • grocery stores and bakeries

This combination of the two is especially useful for those staying at a nice hostel with a shared kitchen. First of all, there is always the opportunity of meeting some nice people while preparing your meal, or even of sharing your food. Secondly, getting some nice bread at the bakery (I personally got addicted to the rúgbrauð, which is baked in hot springs, if I’m not mistaken) makes you feel little less like a poor fellow. At least this is the case for me: I could live on nice crunchy bread, some cream cheese, herbs and cucumber for ages. An thirdly it’s quite healthy an option (depending on what you buy, though). In Iceland there are quite a lot of greenhouses running on geotheraml energy. That’s a pretty cool thing because it allows them to grow a lot of veggies and fruit that would otherwise never be found in those latitudes.

  • cafés and restaurants

This is by far my favourite option, although I must admit it is also the most expensive one (not surprising, though). However, you might like to combine all of the food-strategies to give your wallet a break from time to time but still be able to indulge in Reykjavik’s awesome food-offers.

A place you absolutely need to go, and not only for their homemade cakes, crêpes and Chai Latte, is Babalu. It looks like it had been created by Willie Wonka’s crazy grandma and it will immediately lift your spirits on a cold and rainy day.

In the exact same street with the crackjaw name, Skólavörðustígur,  there is another cool place with very fair prices and the perfect solution for cold hands and hungry stomachs: Núðluskálin. It is not as adorably quirky in terms of furnishings, but its noodle-dishes and soups are amazingly manifold and fresh. As it is open till 9pm it might also be a great option for a light dinner, not costing much more than around 12 dollars per soup.

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For those who like to live King Joffrey-style for a little while are highly recommended to visit the fancy restaurants at noon. Then, the prices are often much lower for the exact same menu or meal as in the evening. However, I must say that I am not quite a great fan of fancy restaurants that make you feel misplaced or, worse, that give you the feeling of not being able to behave according to the code and immediately being uncovered as an outsider, someone not part of that society. But there is one exception in Reykjavik: Grillmarkaðurinn. My goodness, even the toilets are worth a visit! The staff is super friendly, the meals are elegantly small but fair-priced and everything I have eaten there is definitely the best possible version of how that dish could be prepared and served. Even if it is named as commonly as “roasted veggies”. And, absolutely do have a dessert. Just do!

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Oh, yes, everything is served on wooden plates. And if you’re lucky, you’ll get some awesomely fresh bread with butter and black lava salt as an appetizer. Also I could use some of those fries now. On point, is my conclusion.

So let’s move to less perfect and sophisticated but still super charming stuff: soup in bread bowls. Sounds like something for the Theon Greyjoys amongst us. And I have not counted, but I am pretty sure I have visited Svarta Kaffið five times during my holidays. There are several reasons to do that: First of all, and most importantly, it really makes you feel at home and it is not much bigger than a living room, I’d say. Secondly, their soups are really good. I mean, in winter it seems to be all they have but it easily makes a satiating dinner. You may choose from two different thick soups, they are filled into a huge, crispy bread bowl and there you go. As simple as it gets.

Whoever feels like having a drink after dinner is highly recommended to either go to the charmingly colourful Prikið, which is also a nice café during the day. Or you might consider the small Kaldi Bar, a favourite of some locals we met. Last but not least and for those who feel like taking the floor, the Lebowski Bar is an abosulte must-go. In terms of Game of Thrones, the Lebowski Bar is the place where Cersie would venture to dance with Jon Snow while Brienne and Daario are cheering them on. I think I should leave it with the GoT comparisons for today. It’s getting a bit weird and obsessive. Well, in short: pretty much everyone from 16 to 7 and slim to well-fed gathers at the Lebowski. Cool thing. Now let’s move on.

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ACCOMODATION

After all the chatter, let’s keep this part short. For there is no need to beat about the bush. When you arrive in Reykjavik your first way must absolutely lead to the kex hostel. Lovely people, cool furnishings, many different room options (however, you sholdn’t go for the 10-bed-dorm, I have heard), nice food, a bar and very central. Well, pretty much everything is central in Reykjavik. But that’s a different topic.

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An even more budget option is the Galaxy Pod. It’s small but clean and the view from the generous lounge is stunning.

For all little adventurers renting the car and driving off into the wild: absolutely include a stop at Selfoss. Now, first of all: This is by far not an appealing town, to be frank. It’s a weird mix of sleepy (at least in winter) and attempted American way of life. KFC, Subway and Co. are happy to welcome you there. But  overlook that. Towards the outskirts of the town, there are the most awesome cottages I have ever seen for a very affordable price: Gesthus Selfoss. Even if it sounds a bit posh, DO go for the Deluxe version of the cottages. Thank me later, when you sit in your Jacuzzi, knowing you didn’t pay much more than you’d have paid for a hostel with shared bathrooms.

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Also, Selfoss is a good starting point for all kinds of tours and trips. The people working there will be glad to advise you. And they knock on your door when the Aurora Borealis is starting. Even if you fell asleep naked on your sofa.

ENTERTAINMENT AND ADVENTURES

Now the northern lights bring me to my last chapter for today. What to do. Like, actively. And I won’t advise you to do the famous golden circle. Because you will do it anyways. I just advise you to avoid Geysir. It’s not cool. I mean, it could be great, actually. Especially for a geography student like me. But this place has stopped being about nature a long time ago. Now it’s about how to make as much money as possible with a floppy sandwich. And how to try to keep tourist from burning themselves at the hot springs. But I am very tempted to tell you to go to Gullfoss, because it’s just too impressive to ignore. However, stupidly, Geysir is on the way to Gullfoss. So just believe me it is not worth stopping there and promise me you only go to Gullfoss in winter, when there are, according to locals, not half as many tour buses waiting for their Germans with thick ski suits and Japanese with Converse and skinny jeans. And also, ignore the shop and the restaurant. “Restaurant”. Just do.

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So apart from that, there is a hell lot to do without necessarily bumping into tourists. Hiking on Mount Esja must be nice in summer, people told me. We wanted to go there, too, basically to have a look only, and took Bus 15 towards Mosfellsbær. We had to get off some bus stops before that town and would have needed to wait two hours for the bus to Esja, as it was Sunday. In a rather pragmatic manner we decided to take a walk on the nearby hills there. And we honestly experiemced one of the most beautiful days. The view on Reykjavik is lovely, it’s not far to go and family-friendly. So, what’s the conclusion of all that? Stay open-minded and adjustable, guys. And if you’re not, well, have a good study of bus timetables.

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Basically, I would always recommend you to rent your own car and go discover things beyond the golden circle yourself. Well, I cannot drive the car. And I am actually an opponent of cars and try to keep my emissions low and so on and so forth. But sincerely: If you don’t want to stay in the same place you’re simply lost without car in wintery Iceland. Or in my case: without car and without lovely companion who can drive the car. So thank God (the many faced one?) I had brought along the latter. Oh and: drive carefully. Only 20 minutes after having gotten our car at the rental, we managed to maneuver the thing into a pile of snow. Thank you, nice Icelander who pulled us out!

So: A place you might like to visit is Vík, for example. It’s a lovely town and its black beach is absolutely stunning. The currency and the waves there are quite strong and dangerous, though. Driving down to Vík, make sure you stop by the Vestmannaeyjar, to be accessed with the help of a ferry. I admittedly have not been there but it’s on my to-do-list for next time! Hafnarfjörður, right next to Reykjavik, is surely a nice place to stay at for families, being quiet and having a nice harbour (and a lot of elves, if you believe locals). Also, the Western Fjords must be both beautiful and secret in summer.

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Regarding Reykjavik itself: absolutely do a walking tour! I’d always go for that on the very first day there. You might meet some locals, you will get some (tourist-adapted) insider tips and you get some fresh air. I booked this one, organised by an Icelandic blogger and travel guide. Her blog I heart Reykjavik is definitely worth a reading or two before leaving for icy Iceland.

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If the weather is bad, or I could also say, in case you get the classic Iceland and you happen to be outside Reykjavik: your bad, I hope you did listen to me and got that cottage with the Jacuzzi. If you are in Reykjavik: lucky you. I would totally recommend you to get the Reykjavik city card. With it, you can go to most museums (except for the phallus-museum, damn it) for free. Also, they handwrite the date of expiry. Just saying. Just an observation. So as everything was for free, I even went to the Safnahúsið, the Icelandic Culture house. I was a bit overstrained by some of the pieces of art. Basically because I don’t know anything about it. Which left me standing in front of every second picture saying stuff like: “Oh yeah, I how desire and cravings and feelings of the artist are caught in that image”. Compared to that, I was absolutely excited about the National Museum of Iceland . Even if you do not care about Icelandic history, that well-conserved left jaw of an Icelandic woman that lived a couple hundreds of years ago, that’s impressive! Also on rainy days, for most people the forst option is the Laugardalur swimming pool in Reykjavik. Whereas I would always prefer the old-school and charmingly wrecked Sundhöll. And I know that everyone visits the blue lagoon. I won’t judge you if you do. I was tempted, too. But I was repelled by the way it’s obtrusive presence in every brochure and on every street sign.

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Iceland is much more than clichéd tourist stuff, although this is how they make money. What remains in your heart is not how you stood next to some hot water with 356 other tourists, waiting for it to present its unspectacular “poof” for a second or two. What you will take home with you are such precious moments as getting stuck in a snow pile with your car and being torn out by a nice Icelander. Or being lulled to sleep by a tiny little earthquake in your cottage somewhere in the sticks. Or hanging around at the hostel late at night with other travellers, chatting as though you had known each other for years. Or, last but ot least, the curiosity to come back this summer and discover all the things that were covered in snow. Dear Jon Snow, I hope summer is coming, too.

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