*Editor’s Note: I’m writing this several weeks after the trip, life and all kept me from getting this sorted before now.
Back in January, I sent a good friend a quick Facebook note. “Happy New Year!” I cheered, wishing her the best for the coming year. By the time we ended that chat, we’d planned to travel abroad together this year, both our travel bugs getting antsy.
At the time, I had no idea what the next 4 months had in store for me – another new job, another cross-country move. Bit by bit, plans started to come together for a trip to Europe – London, by way or Reykjavik with a stop in Dublin. Everything lined up so that I could move back to Chicago and still keep the trip in place, which is how one afternoon in early May I found myself meeting Libby at Newark Airport and boarding a plane to Iceland.
The nordic country has never appeared on my “places I’d like to visit” list, but if all my traveling has taught me one thing it’s that the unplanned parts are often the most memorable. Reykjavik did not disappoint.
Our flight over – a red-eye – was pleasant enough, despite my inability to sleep much. Normally, I’m a fantastic plane sleeper; this time, I caught about 2 hours of shut eye before we landed in Iceland at 6am. The country’s main airport is actually about an hour’s bus ride from the city center, so after getting our bearings in one of the slickest, quiet airports I’ve ever traveled through, Libby and I loaded our bags onto the coach and drove through Icelandic countryside to our Airbnb for the night.
A word on that countryside: it is unique. These are not the rolling hills of Ireland or even the endless stretch of the desert of the southwest. The landscape of southwestern Iceland is…martian. It really feels like you’ve landed on a different planet, all craggy rock and crashing waves. There are no crops, no wildlife. Slowly, as the bus approaches Reyjkavik, civilization comes into focus; until then, it’s a small outpost of a house here and there.
We stayed in a carriage house of sorts, a stand-alone one-bedroom behind another house on a quiet side street. Our host still needed to clean the space from the previous guest, so Libby and I walked down the street to snag breakfast from a local hotel, a buffet of fruit and fresh salmon and warm bread. After 24 hours traveling, it was divine.
Our 24 hours in Iceland came courtesy of an IcelandAir marketing scheme to get travelers to Europe via Reykjavik, offering layovers from one to seven days without impacting ticket price (and thus infusing the city’s economy with our tourist dollars). Ingenious!
With our next flight to London very early the next day, we planned our day around a few things: catching up on sleep, eating, and planning the shopping we’d do on our way back, as our return flight also included a layover and we didn’t want to carry Iceland’s souvenirs with us all week.
Once settled, we got to the business of touring. We went to the top of Hallgrimskirkja, the highest point in this low-level sea town, and gasped at the crisp, colorful views below. We found a modern art museum to browse through. Between shops, we stopped at Tiu Dropar, a cozy basement cafe we happened by, for an afternoon snack (which I’m now learning is one of the oldest in the city). We ate a hot dog at Baejarins Beztu Pylsur, “the one dish to eat in Iceland,” a food stand so tiny we couldn’t find it as we looked for it, only stumbling upon it once we gave up searching.
After a quick nap, we headed back out for dinner and drinks, hoping to find a corner of the city that gave us a glimpse of an ordinary Saturday night on the town. Several locals recommended Cafe Loki for a good Icelandic dinner, and they weren’t wrong. A cold Viking beer and a warm dish of mashed fish and potatoes, and I was settling into vacation mode quite well indeed. Afterwards, we stopped for another pint at Kaldi Bar to people watch and plan the week ahead, before calling it a welcome night in advance of our next flight to London.
With the balance of the trip ahead of us, it certainly felt like we’d got off on the right foot.