Reykjavik: So much to do, surrounded by so much to see

There is never a paucity of things to do in Iceland, whatever be the weather or the time of day. There are many waterfalls, hikes, beaches, lighthouses, glaciers, and volcanoes once you step out of the city, but the beautiful city of Reykjavik also houses some amazing wonders and experiences. It is a large city with a high energy downtown that pretty much comprises of one long street that quickly gives way to a large suburb. The prices of everything drop quite reasonably once you get a little far away from the Laugavegur – the central street of the city. Hotels, groceries, parking, and food, everything follows this trend.

We had chosen to stay in an apartment right on the Laugavegur to be close to all the food and some activity. The positive was that it was close to almost everything in the city, but it was far from anyplace you could see the lights. We would drive about 20 minutes every night to park at the Grotta Lighthouse to wait in the relative darkness for the lights to show up. They never did, during our stay. The lighthouse itself, was quite pretty though it needed a trip in the day to appreciate its beauty. It is on the quiet edge of the city and offers some stellar views of the sea, though you can’t climb on top.

Another seaside attraction is the Sun Voyager. It is neither as grand nor has much history associated. It is a stainless steel artwork built in the 1990s that looks like a ship sailing in the icy waters that make its backdrop. There are also some snow-covered mountains back there and a nice walkway on the shore around it. This makes for a lovely place to park your car and walk around and enjoy the cold breeze and the stunning scenery. Just don’t expect the piece of art to be grand in any way.

One of my favorite Reykjavik experiences was the local swimming pools. In the generally cold weather of the city, these pools make for a wonderful oasis and are mostly frequented by the locals, while the tourists head to the artificial and massive Blue Lagoon. The pools are geothermally heated and the temperature of the main pool is maintained at a balmy 26 degrees celsius. Usually, there are a number of smaller pools on the side with temperatures ranging from 28 to 40 degrees. There is also one ice pool at about 4 degrees, where people can ‘cool off’ and that is considered therapeutic. There are also options to get a massage and saunas. The water is pure and super clear without any chlorine added. The lack of chemicals feels wonderful but also makes it harder to keep the water disinfected. This makes for some very hard and embarrassing showering requirements and an attendant in the shower area to ensure all instructions are followed. The pool itself is serene to swim in as you feel the cold air when the hand comes out of the water for a stroke and then the warm respite when it goes back in.

The most recognizable landmark of the city is the church of Hallgrimskirkja. In a relatively low rise city, this 9 story facade stands out and not just for its height. It is a stunning structure made from blocks of concrete shaped to represent Icelandic culture and its geology. The church is so unworldly in its appearance that it inspired the design of the Asgardian palace in the Thor movies. An elevator ride can take you up the 73-meter high central tower and offers amazing views of the city, right from the city center.

If you think you haven’t had enough majestic views on your trip already, another option is the futuristic dome of Perlan. It is a revolving structure which an outside viewing gallery, a fine dining restaurant, a cafe and bar, a small local shop, and a science center with a very experience focused set of exhibits. During the time we visited there was a temporary exhibit replicating a snow cave, true with a -10 degree celsius temperature. Overcoats were given to everyone for the 15 minutes walkthrough. There was also a permanent exhibit on the glaciers that have severely receded due to global warming. One of such glaciers was the Mendenhall Glacier in Alaska, a place I had been too long ago, while the glacier was still at full bloom. It was sad to see the ‘then and now’ pictures. The highlight of the visit was, though, the outside viewing gallery that offered a stunning sunset view with some icy cold wind. The small domestic airport next doors made sure there were helicopters and small planes to offer a little modern variety to nature-filled photographs.

The biggest tourist draw of the area probably remains the Blue Lagoon, an artificially created massive lagoon about 40 minutes outside of the city. This requires reservations usually at least a week in advance. The place is quite amazing looking and is in the middle of nowhere, adding to the beauty. However, the sheer number of tourists and the size of the place made it seem quite touristy. I went to the place without reservations and obviously couldn’t go in. However, the drive was fantastic and there is some beautiful scenery all around it, including some previews of what the lagoon would look like.

Blue Lagoon – the outside

The city is full of restaurants and bars offering a large variety of international cuisines and some Icelandic food as well. While some of the local cafes can be quite expensive, the international fare usually turns out cheaper. A lot of the city center is walkable and it is exciting to come across the local art and souvenirs. It is never going to compare with the unworldly wilderness of Iceland, but the city of Reykjavik can stand its own on the grounds of culture against most cities many times as large.

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