The largest city of Iceland is the northernmost capital in the world. Despite its relatively small size, it’s strikingly cosmopolitan. Join gastroenterologist Dr. Jun Ruiz as he explores Reykjavik on foot and experiences the wonders of the Blue Lagoon in this concluding feature on Iceland
Visiting Iceland was a dream come true for me. I picture this Nordic country as the ultimate spectacular nature paradise with its mountains, glaciers, waterfalls, and volcanoes. Despite ending up a solo traveler for this trip and leaving no stone unturned, I flew to my dream destination that most consider as an off the beaten path. It was such an ethereal and surreal journey to a land where fire and ice, as represented primarily by volcanoes and glaciers respectively, coexist.
My first Icelandic travelogue covered my journey through the spectacular attractions of this northernmost country in Europe during the first six days. After going full circle around the countryside of Iceland, I returned to the capital of Reykjavik where our Icelandic tour group adventure all began. I realize that the biggest adventure in life begins when you live the life of your dreams, and that is what I did.
The northernmost capital of the world
I still had two days left, yet I had not seen two of the country’s biggest draws: Blue Lagoon and the Northern Lights. I also allocated time to discover the capital city of Reykjavik for at least one day. Historically, Reykjavik was used by visitors as a home base from where they would indulge in day-long tours to explore the countryside. However, this set-up results in wasting significant time in driving back and forth to the city. That is why a full-circle tour around Iceland is more advisable. Recently, tourists are now spending more time in Reykjavik to enjoy the cultural and architectural delights of the city.
This northernmost capital is relatively small, compared to other European capitals, and is isolated from the rest of Europe. Reykjavik is the only city in Iceland that has more than 100,000 inhabitants. Is Reykjavik a scaled-down city or a scaled-up town? It depends on your perspective. It may look like a very rustic and charming laid-back town, yet it has world-class cultural centers and there is a recent development of new highrise buildings. The vibrant nightlife is getting popular with the residents and tourists alike. For its size, Reykjavik is distinctively cosmopolitan.
Reykjavik is along the southwestern coast of Iceland, and its location contributed to its historical significance. The first settler, Ingolfur Arnarson from Norway, landed here in 874 AD, after he saw clouds rising from the ground. The “smoke” was steam from geothermal springs. He named his new home Reykjavik, meaning Smoky Bay, and it became the first permanent settlement in Iceland. The city was later founded in 1786 as an official trading town. There was no urban development until the 19th century. It is now the political, business, and cultural center of the country, and is home to onethird of Iceland’s population.
The city tourism proudly states that “Reykjavík is so much more than just a destination; it’s a place of exciting possibilities surrounded by incredible landscapes, where countless adventures beckon and a host of natural wonders await.” With that tourism slogan, I was very excited to explore the northernmost capital in the world.
The City Centre and Harpa
Though there is a hop-on, hop-off bus that goes around the city, most of the main attractions are located in the compact city center and are accessible on foot. In addition, you can save the money for an out-of-town excursion or a meal. My hotel is located centrally, so I just walked to the main shopping street of Laugavegur towards the historical City Centre to soak up the culture.
What strikes me about Reykjavik is its rustic town vibe with low-rise brightly colored non-modern buildings, no more than four stories high, and eye-popping street art on its main avenue. A myriad of establishments lines this street, and include clothing boutiques, restaurants, galleries, cafes, bars, and souvenir shops. Interspersed between them are residential houses with green lawns enclosed by picket fences. Being a sucker for souvenirs, I went inside the shops and carefully looked for Iceland photo books, magnets, postcards, and shirts bearing the country’s name. As expected, the items were more expensively priced as compared to in other European cities.
I finally reached the City Centre at the end of Laugavegur. The City Centre is the oldest part of the city, where Arnarson built his farmstead. The settlement eventually expanded into what is now known as Reykjavik. Here you will find picturesque colorful wooden houses, weather-proofed in corrugated iron, and municipal buildings made of stone, like the Parliament Building.
Reykjavik’s Old Harbour was the hub of transport where commerce and trade were centralized. In the current age of tourism, it assumes a new role as the site where the whale-watching tours and puffin-viewing cruises depart from the pier. Some of the former fishermen’s huts are now transformed into nice restaurants and souvenir shops.
From the Old Harbour, take a walk to Reykjavik’s newest and jaw-dropping landmark, the world-class Harpa Concert Hall which opened in May 2011. The moment I arrived in Reykjavik and saw it glistening from a distance, I really wanted to explore this gem. The magnificent exterior has 700 glass panels, glittering in a kaleidoscopic lightshow by the water’s edge. It was designed to resemble the mosaic-like basalt columns found in Iceland. There are four concert halls inside, and is the home of the Icelandic Symphonic Orchestra. It has become one of the city’s recognizable landmarks, and the building design has won several architectural awards.
Near Harpa by the seashore is the most famous sculpture in the city that captures tourists’ attention, the Sun Voyager, that depicts a silver boat honoring the Viking travels. You can also admire spectacular views of the flat-topped Mt. Esja. Farther out is another historical building, the whitewashed Hofdi House, where former U.S. President Ronald Reagan and Russian leader Mikhail Gorbachev had a historic summit to end the Cold War.
On a clear day, take a stroll around Tjornin Lake located at the center of the city. This serene lake is called the Pond by the locals. I always find it relaxing and soothing to go by the water to step back from a hectic daily tour schedule when I am in Europe. The lake attracts around 40 species of visiting birds – most noticeably ducks and swans. Feeding the ducks is a popular pastime. The lake is turned into an outdoor skating rink during winter. The City Hall and the National Gallery (Listasafn Islands) are located around the immediate vicinity.
Just east of the lake is the monument not to be missed as it is now the most popular icon and the star of a million postcards in the whole of Reykjavik – the visually imposing Hallgrimskirja Church that proudly stands on top of a hill. This landmark towers over the city’s skyline. Walking towards the white concrete church, one can truly appreciate the modern architectural wonder of its towering presence, symmetry, and nationalistic style. This was also designed to resemble the volcanic basalt columns. The construction took 40 years, from 1945 to 1986. In front of the church is the impressive statue of Leifur Eriksson, the first European settler in North America.
There is a 74.5-m tower at the center of the church, where I rode an elevator and continued up the stairs to the top. I was rewarded with the best panoramic and breathtaking views of the city. It has been a tradition of mine to climb to the best spot in the destination to get the best vistas from the top. The interior of the church is plain, but you will admire the fine 5,275-pipe organ, which is 15-m tall.
As I was running out of time, I was not able to go to Perlan (the Pearl). It is located on top of Oskjuhlid hill, and is more than 2 km away from the city center. One has to ride a bus to reach the location. Perlan is a glass-domed structure that covers huge geothermal tanks for the city’s heating system. There is a revolving restaurant, and a viewing platform.
Our tour group had an excursion to the South Coast on my penultimate day in Iceland. It was a stormy day, and we only managed to see Seljalandsfoss, one of the tallest and most spectacular falls in Iceland. The waterfall is fed by the melting water from Eyjafjallajokull icecap that drops into a meadow with such power. Daring visitors can walk behind the waterfall, but beware of the spray. However, we were discouraged by our tour guide Soffia as the path was slippery from the rain. I went to the viewing deck to stay close to the waterfall, but got wet in the process. We were supposed to visit Skogafoss waterfalls and enjoy the black-basalt beaches of Vik, but were cancelled due to the weather.
The Blue Lagoon
No visit to Iceland is complete without a trip to the Blue Lagoon. Saving the best experience for last, I booked myself for this, but could only get a 6 p.m. evening slot on my last day in Reykjavik. I seriously wanted to experience it during daytime, but this was the only earliest available appointment, despite booking it four days earlier. You also need to book your transportation as well as the travel by bus will take 50 minutes from the city. As pre-booking is required, buy your ticket early to enjoy one of Iceland’s most popular attractions. Some had criticized the Blue Lagoon as overpriced and a tourist trap.
The Blue Lagoon is a dreamy, steamy spa resort in the midst of a lava field wilderness on the barren Reykjanes peninsula. The lagoon is 5,000 square meters, and its milky blue waters add a surreal splash of color to the steam and the rough black lava boulders. In spite of its evocative name, the lagoon is not a natural phenomenon, as the waters are the by-product of a geothermal power plant. The final temperature of the water is close to body temperature of 38 degrees, and is rich in silica, mineral salts, and other elements which condition and exfoliate the skin. As Icelandic pools are filled with constantly flowing water, chemical cleaners are rarely used.
I stepped out in the nearfreezing weather (this was middle of November) in my swimming trunks but initially covered in white bathrobe. It was such heaven to then entered the warm and steamy chest-deep waters to escape the cold. There were still hundreds of people bathing, chatting, and drinking. There are little wooden bridges that criss-cross the lagoon, a cavelike sauna carved into the lava, and a thundering waterfall that delivers a powerful hydraulic massage. The prime modern complex contains a spa treatment area, sauna, changing rooms, restaurant, snack bar, gift shop, and conference facilities.
After spending two hours in an evening bath in the geothermally heated, mineralrich seawater, I emerged relaxed, re-energized, and rejuvenated. It was already 11 P.M. when I returned back to my hotel and I waited for my ride to the airport for 3 hours. This was the perfect send-off before flying home.
I never saw the spectacular display of the Aurora Borealis during my vacation in Iceland, besides it being peak viewing season. I felt very disappointed, but I plan to go to Lapland in the future where the chances maybe higher.
My journey to spectacular Iceland was filled with beautiful memories of a lifetime. I pursued my dream destination to the Land of Fire and Ice, which is off the beaten path, despite no friends to join me. This exploration of this Nordic country, including my leisure time in Reykjavik, marks the biggest adventure that I pursued my dream daringly on my own.