What do you do in Iceland when you only have two days to visit? Lots, that’s what.
Instead of flying directly from St. Petersburg to Seattle, my partner Rick Steves and I decided to take advantage of spending some time (for the first time) in Iceland. We hoped to break up our jet lag and to get traveler’s primer on some of the highlights of this relatively young nation. And with only about 48 hours to explore, we carpei‘d our diem and hit the ground running biking.
With our local guide, we traversed the quaint yet bustling capital, Reykjavik. The harbor is a hive of activity, with its fishing trawlers, private boats, restaurant scene, trendy hotels and volcano films. Passing by terraces packed with locals and tourists geared up in scarves, sweaters and fleece, we felt the brisk Icelandic wind whoosh through our hair and up our jacket sleeves. As I felt goose bumps multiply, I felt grateful that I had the foresight to bring my gloves.
Just pedals away from the harbor is the city center. It’s a good thing we were on bikes; it made it so easy to get around the single-lane streets. There’s a certain Nordic sense about the place (Iceland was originally settled by Norsemen in 874 AD and was affiliated with Denmark from the 1400s until 1944, when it became a republic). Absent of sky-scrapers or any building higher than four stories, the hub of this city feels more like hip and vibrant village than an intense and overwhelming capital.
Up the hill is the Hallgrimskirkja Lutheran Church. We ducked inside and caught the last ten minutes of an organ concert. While there were many visitors, I secretly wished we had been there on Sunday to attend service with Reykjavik locals. As much as I love learning about the uniqueness of cultures, I also enjoy celebrating our commonalities together. Standing before the rocket-about-to-liftoff façade of the church, a statue of Leif Erickson stands proudly, as though at the crest of a wave that will propel him forward to discover the Americas (500 years before Columbus).
We meandered along a pristine lakeside park and beyond the city center to the National Museum of Iceland. It wasn’t meant to be on our official tour of the city, but Rick and I both wanted to boost our sightseeing with more historical and anthropological context. Our guide gave us about twenty minutes to blitz the museum, and it was well worth it. Hand-carved furniture, centuries-old vellum texts, traditional clothing, and typical tools and utensils gave us a glimpse into the past and stoked our curiosity even more about life in Iceland –past and present.
After our bike tour, we made our way back to harbor to catch a private boat excursion, courtesy of the Reykjavik Tourist Board. I had never been on such a beautiful boat and half expected Robin Leach to pop up and offer us “champagne wishes and caviar dreams”. The luxurious double-decker yacht brought us out to Faza Bay in search of migratory puffins, whales, and dolphins. After a couple of hours, we were contented with one dolphin pod sighting and the blissful calm that is unique to glissading over luscious blue waters.
Back on dry land, we had a chance encounter with two of our friends (and fellow Seattleites)–the brilliant photographer Chase Jarvis and his wife/producer Kate. They and their crew were finishing up a photo shoot before flying out to another location somewhere in this great, wide world of ours. While we don’t prefer to interrupt people while they’re working, it was just too cool to bump into people you know in a country you’ve never visited. Seriously, what are the chances?
Still eager to get better-acquainted with Reykyavik, we strolled to the northeast end of the harbor to visit the recently-built glass concert hall and conference center, Harpa. Whether viewed from the water or from the land-side façades, or experienced from within, this stunning cultural center is bringing much-sought after attention. It draws world-class talent and welcomes the community to enjoy their own national favorites.
As with most new cultural-based sites around the world, it has its detractors. Here, they believe money used to fund the building could have been better spent on fishing boats to foster more growth in that industry. Proponents of Harpa, including native musical icon Bjork, say that you can’t put a price on the value of sharing art (in all its forms) with society and that it’s about time the Iceland Symphony Orchestra has a quality place to perform…instead of in a movie theater (granted, a nice one, but come on!). Besides Harpa’s vampire-red main hall (it’s really sexy and plush), there are several smaller venues for more intimate performances, lecture halls, and reception areas. Even if you don’t get to see a performance on your visit, it well worth a look inside to appreciate the beauty of the space.
After a quick freshening-up, we ventured out into the world’s northern-most capital once more. We had accomplished a lot in just seven hours, and our energy levels needed replenishing. Icelandic culinary delights were in order, so we made a beeline for the Grill Market. More on that in an upcoming post.