27 November 2016

Reykjavik I: Exploring Downtown Reykjavik

Iceland has been on my bucket list for a number of years but I've always been paralysed by indecision: should I go in the summer for long days, road trips and puffin-spotting, or in the winter for potential Northern Lights activity but likely bad weather? I ended up opting for the latter for my first trip to the country; I've been enjoying it so much so far that I'm sure a return in the summer will be on the cards. Iceland is also an expensive country — even booking my apartment six months in advance and waiting for an Expedia discount code did not result in cheap accommodation, and almost everything in Reykjavik from coffee to food and tours seems to have a pretty hefty price tag.

I arrived at Keflavik Airport on Friday evening and took a bus into the city centre. Both Gray Line and Reykjavik Excursions run coaches  with departures pegged to flight arrivals. However, they aren't cheap: I went with Gray Line and it cost about £28 for a drop-off at the city centre Gray Line office. Nor is the service particularly fast as although the stated journey time to the city is 45 minutes, we had to wait for about 40 minutes before we left and then had to stop off at the bus terminal outside the city centre for a somewhat poorly explained transfer to a mini-bus for the rest of the journey. It took me about 2 hours to get from the gate to my apartment (and I had a carry-on suitcase).

I was tired and hungry when I arrived, so I only stayed in my apartment long enough to drop off my bags and head out in search of dinner. I had planned to go to Hamborgarabúllan, the burger restaurant that inspired Tommi's Burger Joint in London, but they close at 9:00 pm, so instead I went to Sægreifinn, a little seafood shack in the Old Harbour that had been recommended. They were about to close too and I couldn't manage a big meal, so I ordered their signature dish, the lobster soup, along with an Appelsinn (Iceland's Fanta equivalent). This cost me 1700 krona (about £12) — pretty reasonably priced by Reykjavik standards — and was really tasty, although it could have done with more lobster. After dinner, I walked up to Hallgrímskirkja, Reykjavik's most famous church. It was pretty, although not very easily photographed by night.

My apartment was very comfortable but, as is common in downtown Reykjavik accommodations, just opposite a noisy bar/club that stayed open until 4:00 am. To say that I'm not a party animal is something of an understatement but although I was expecting the noise, I'd thought (hoped?) it might end around 1:00. I brought ear plugs but still didn't sleep very well, although I felt better after making myself an Aeropress coffee and eating some skyr (Icelandic yoghurt) and rye bread. I didn't bring my running kit after mistakenly assuming that the streets would be too snowy (I learned later that Iceland has so much energy that they can just heat many of the streets!), so I went for a walk instead. I rarely get to see sunrise but even I could manage it at 10:30 and it was really stunning. I also walked down to the waterfront to enjoy the view of the snowy mountains.

I spent the morning doing a two-hour walking tour with CityWalk. Our guide Sara, a history graduate, who was extremely knowledgeable and entertaining, took us to some of the key sights in Old Reykjavik. I learnt as much about the culture and mentality of Iceland as I did about the history and I would really recommend the tour. They have a pay-what-you-want system so you can give your guide what you think the tour was worth. We started in Austurvöllur Square, outside Alþingi, the unassuming Icelandic parliament building (following the recent elections, they're still trying to work out who is going to govern), and the pretty white church, Domkirkjan. We then walked around to Tjörnin, a small lake or large pond, depending on how you look at it; locals just call it the pond (Sara told us that Icelanders weren't too creative on the naming front). There are a lot of ducks and swans and views of some pretty houses next to the city hall, outside which is a monument to the unknown bureaucrat.

We walked on to a hidden cemetery and then a rock that those who believe in elves (yes) say is an elvish rock that, according to local lore, even heavy lifting devices have failed to shift. We finished the tour at Harpa, a concert hall and events space that is housed in a stunning building. The honeycomb glass walls are inspired by the northern lights and at night, they are lit up in ever-changing colour combinations. Even if you aren't attending a concert, it's well worth going inside to take a look.

Reykjavik's city centre is very compact so I spent most of the rest of the afternoon exploring on foot. Continuing my efforts to avoid spending all of my pennies on food, I had a cheap lunch at Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur, said to be the best hotdog stand in the city — according to Bill Clinton and Kim Kardashian, anyway! The lamb and pork hotdog "with everything" (crispy and raw onions, mustard and various other sauces) is 420 krona (a bargainous £3). But then I undid my good work by spending about £9 on a blueberry muffin and a cortado at the original branch of Kaffitár, a local roaster and small coffee shop chain. The cortado was fine but served a little too hot (it was very busy).

As the forecast rain had still not made an appearance, I then returned to Hallgrímskirkja to go up the church's 73-metre tower (900 krona), which offers one of the best views of the city. I had to wait about 20 minutes but the queue was inside the church, which has a stark but beautiful interior. There was an organ practice taking place, which could be a good or a bad thing depending on your opinion of organ music, but the organ itself was very impressive to look at.

The views from the church tower were even more impressive, however. Even on a cold, cloudy and greyish day, those iconic and colourful Reykjavik buildings are picture-postcard perfect. It was really cold at the top of the tower, though, so once I had done a complete circuit, taking in the 360-degree views, I made my way back down.

I warmed up at the second branch of local roaster, Reykjavik Roasters, on Brautarholt. The café is beautifully designed and I had an excellent chocolatey Brazilian coffee, brewed through the Kalita Wave and accompanied by a chocolate flapjack. As usual, I will blog about my coffee experiences at the end of the trip.

Finally, the rain set in — the final nail in the coffin for the Northern Lights tour I had booked for the evening. Fortunately, most of the companies that run tours will rebook you if the tour is cancelled owing to bad weather or poor aurora conditions, so I still have two more chances this trip. I comforted myself with a little window shopping on Laugavegur, one of Reykjavik's main shopping streets, which has some interesting boutiques and homeware stores as well as plenty of touristy shops. I also made a brief visit to the small but interesting Reykjavik Museum of Photography, and then returned to my apartment to chill — well, to warm up, really.

For dinner, I went to a restaurant called Icelandic Fish and Chips (you can take the Brit out of Britain...) in the Old Harbour area. Cheap chippy, this ain't, but I did have a really nice meal. You choose your fish from among the three fish of the day — last night it was ling, hake and cod — which will be served in a spelt batter, and you can also select your sides and dips. I went for the cod with a side of crispy potatoes and tartar sauce. This cost about 2,400 krona (£16) without drinks and the serving size wasn't exactly huge, but the cod was really tasty and the batter crisp and light.

I went for a post-dinner cocktail at a bar called Loftið, happily arriving before the end of happy hour, which ended at 9:00 pm. This meant that my cocktail only cost 1500 krona (about £11) — not exactly cheap but it was mixed beautifully. I had a Clint Eastwood, which involved rum, pineapple, agave, lime and rosemary, and it was fruity and refreshing. The bar itself is lovely: cool but low-key.

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