A thousand ISK equals roughly $12 CAD- be aware of this when purchasing drinks and eats, as it quickly racks up! Going out in Iceland is expensive- it is a small island in the North Atlantic and nearly everything is imported. Everybody speaks English as well as the native Icelandic and communication is easy. As a Canadian, I was frequently mistaken for American (NOT a positive thing, sorry, Southern neighbors) and next time I travel, intend to start wearing a maple leaf lapel pin again. Nearly everywhere accepts credit cards and currency is easily obtained at the National Bank. The weather in the off season was miserable. It rained every day and the daylight hours were short, the sun rising around 11 a.m and setting soon around 4 p.m. The ferry to Videy Island runs only on weekends in the off peak season, and the famous Reykjavik flea market is open only on weekends. The clouds obscured any potential for seeing the Northern Lights.
I am a fly by the seat of my pants sort of traveller- I don’t have an itinerary or a solid plan. I like to arrive, get settled into my hostel and then wander around the city streets, stumbling upon good stuff to see and do. I would not advise this for Iceland- there was a lot I felt I missed out on on this particular trip, and I think I need to go back to really experience the full picture. We arrived at Keflavik airport around 11pm and took the Flybus right to our hostel door- convenient, but expensive, and I wonder if there is a public transit option that we didn’t know about.
My travel companion and I got the 48 hour Reykjavik City Card, at a price of about $60CAD each. It offers admission to the majority of the museums around the city, the city thermal pools and the zoo and family fun park. In retrospect, we probably didn’t need the cards and spent a lot of time grudgingly exploring sparse museums in an attempt to get our money’s worth. The thermal pools were almost worth the price alone, though.
See & Do
If the admission price hadn’t been included in our City Card, I would have been pissed. In the off season, the small zoo’s outdoor spaces are sparsely inhabited by geese and ducks, a small herd of Iceland ponies and a few reindeer, all of which exhibited classic signs of boredom and distress. The ponies were chewing on wood (as a person who has ridden and worked on farms for many years, I consider myself qualified to judge their behavior), and were bored and under stimulated. They had no hay or water available to them. Two Arctic foxes raced frantically around their small enclosure, and a small selection of farm animals were housed inside bright, sterile barns, crowded into small pens with no enrichment activities or entertainment available to them. A single listless employee emerged to feed the seals at the posted time of 4 pm- on time, at least.
There is a small cafe on site where you can expect to pay $5 for a single, watery coffee. Beyond the cafe, a desolate amusement park sits quiet and abandoned for the winter. Bonus points for going and playing on the teeter totter and zipline.
City Thermal Pools (included in City Card)
Sprinkled throughout the city are a variety of thermal pools where locals go to unwind after a work day. Families, co-workers and friends can be found basking in the hot, clean water or swimming laps. Bathing suits and towels are available for rent for a reasonable price, and are usually available for purchase as well. We headed to Alftaneslaug around 8 o’clock and were pleased to find it still bustling with activity (the pools are open until 10 p.m). If you are uncomfortable with nudity in the change rooms, you might want to rethink hitting the thermal pools. Much like at the Korean spas, everybody strips completely naked to shower before donning their suits and climbing in one of the pools, ranging from 8 degrees Celcius to a whopping 42 degrees.
The Blue Lagoon (not included with the City Card) is a must-do while in Iceland. (I did not do this. I have regrets.)
Head here to sweat out your hangover from Ölsmiðjan, my favorite downtown Reykjavik dive bar.
Here’s where a little planning would have come in handy. The areas surrounding Reykjavik are rich with hiking. Mount Esja is across the harbor and dominates the skyline, and scenic Videy Island is accessible from multiple ferry points (although only on weekends in the off season). Short daylight hours, lack of pre-planning and a budget that had totally been blown by drinking too much in England really limited my hiking and outdoors options. (Let’s be real, I mostly confined my Reykjavik activities to free stuff, drinking and eating). For a hike around town, head down to the Old Harbour and check out the scenery. Tramp out beyond the water treatment center (don’t be deterred by the high, barb wire fence, the evident lack of a path, or the graffiti and litter!) and maybe you’ll happen upon a bagpipe player on Robbie Burns Day in Iceland.
Most of the major museums are included with the purchase of the City Card. They do become quickly tiresome, unless you are very interested in detailed Icelandic history. Every time I had fun at the museum, I found myself trying on the period clothing in the children’s section and laughing like an idiot. The Reykjavik Maritime Museum currently has a great display about female sailors on.
Take time out from your day and budget to see the Icelandic Phallological Museum– a more entertaining and modern museum dedicated to all things penile.
Drink & Eat
Drinking & eating out in Iceland is expensive. I have worked as a professional cook and have a great interest in trying local cuisine and good restaurants, however, that simply wasn’t in my budget and I found myself eating out at Aktu Taktu , geothermal poolside hot-dog stands (hot dogs are a big thing in Iceland, for whatever reason), The Chuck Norris Grill and prepared sandwiches from the 10-11 (a prevalent convenience store chain).
If you are on a budget like myself, I recommend staying at a hostel with a continental breakfast and kitchen facilities. Hit the grocery store for some eggs and bread or whatever suits your fancy and enjoy affordable meals at your hostel. Scour the ‘free’ bins at the hostel of leftovers from other travellers. They may run the gamut from coffee and tea to cookies, bread, cakes, microwaveable meals and fruits and veg.
Loft Hostel had a pretty decent happy hour deal on pints, and a cafe on-site (although the quality of the coffee varied greatly dependent on who was working behind the counter).
Cheap drinks (pint and a shot for 990ISK) can be found at Ölsmiðjan, a dive bar that wouldn’t be amiss in Toronto. The service was friendly and prompt, tealights adorned the rickety tables and the stuffing was coming out of the chairs. I loved it.
The poolside hotdogs are a must try, despite the gastrointestinal distress they caused me later. A completely unassuming hotdog is fished out of a bain marie of tepid hotdog water, loaded onto an equally unassuming bun, and adorned with ketchup, spicy mustard, sweet and crunchy fried onions and remoulade, a gherkin laced mayonnaise. These stands are the kind of place you’d picture Anthony Bourdain visiting for an episode of No Reservations. They are relatively affordable and comfortingly simple.
Visit the Hospital
Take a trip to the local emergency room after your travel companion slips on the ice at the harbour front during a blizzard while you’re drinking vodka straight from the bottle with some American dude named Drago. Enjoy the $50 taxi ride there after the nice guy manning the reception desk at the hostel brings you a first aid kit while looking aghast. The wait will be short compared to a Canadian E.R, where a busted lip and eyebrow will be an eight hour wait due to our overloaded emergency services. Enjoy paying for your healthcare upfront, unless you have travel insurance (ALWAYS have travel insurance!!!)
What I Would Do Differently
Pre-plan, pre-plan, pre-plan. I would hit Iceland again during peak season, when the days are longer and the weather more pleasant. I would have an itinerary that would allow for horse back riding, hiking and driving around the country. I think renting a car and driving around the island is the proper way to do it. Get your booze at duty free on your way into the country- I promise you it is cheaper and more efficient than purchasing a 6 pack from the government liquor store that will equal out to about $30CAD. Iceland is far flung and remote, with extreme winter weather. Pre-planning to get the most out of it is necessary.
A Few Notes on Hostel Etiquette
Pack your fucking bags the night before your check out. Hostel check out is usually early and bed turn over is high. Don’t be the asshole in the dorm who wakes up at 5 a.m, turns all the lights on and spends the next three hours rustling through your bag, completely repacking and otherwise disturbing the common space. Pack the night before and have your outfit for the day set out and ready to go. A certain amount of noise and disturbance is unavoidable in a communal space, but a little common sense and courtesy goes a long way.