16 March 2016

I Left my Heart in Reykjavik - Apartment & City Tour

At the end of last year I fell in love. I should say we fell in love, because there's two of us in this relationship. Dan (my long term man-friend) and I, fell head over heels for Reykjavik, the small, urban and hip capital of Iceland. I've always wanted to explore Iceland. Coming from the Falklands they have a similar climate, sparse beauty in it's environment and wildlife (we're talking whales, seals and sea birds), oh and a couple of Icelanders live there too. Chuck in a few penguins and a sea lion, and Iceland's practically home. My family has always talked about going back to the Falkland Islands (East side baby) but with return flights costing at least a couple of thousand pounds per person, it's a dream that's long been in the pipe line. So when Dan started mentioning he wanted to go to Iceland, I did the kind of reckless thing I am prone to doing sometimes and booked flights...without looking for somewhere to stay, checking if I could get the time off with work or even asking Dan (how do you think I booked our trip to go to Edinburgh...queue one semi-mad phone call from Dan). Yes, I agree I can be a tad unpredictable, but in truth I prefer the word spontaneous; it sounds more fun and care free, and less manic and volatile. 

Flights booked, I found a cute little central apartment on airbnb to rent for 8 days (it's this one if you're nosey), and Dan proceeded to be, what I like to call, a sensible salamander buying us ski jackets and thermals, while I bought several very unsensible pairs of heeled boots and a super short shirt dress as my Iceland appropriate clothing. After a super quick flight to Iceland (I can't believe it's only 3 hours from London) we landed and I hate it when Dan's right. 

It was bloody freezing.

Never have I been so grateful for Dan and his ski jacket, thermal layers and general sense. As we stepped off the plane I was so cold I almost didn't see them...the Northern Lights. Even in Iceland, it's rare to see them and we saw them stepping off the plane. Can you believe that? It was incredible! They're so beautiful, how the molecules collide, it really does look like they're dancing across the sky. By the time we got on the coach and were fast approaching Reykjavik I realised I hadn't even taken a photo, just as the driver told us we probably wouldn't see them again while we stayed in Iceland because of the cloudy forecast for the rest of the month. Not going to lie I was gutted (SPOILER - wait for the end of the post).

I was a bit nervous because despite having really only ever gone on holiday in self catered apartments (we're not one for big all inclusive getaways) we'd never used airbnb before. But having had some good recommendations from friends, we went for it and I have to say I'd 100% recommend this apartment. It's location was PERFECT, it's right off the main road coming down from the Hallgrímskirkja, Iceland's largest church which acted as our navigating point round Reykjavik. This road alone has some of the best bars and restaurants, despite being on one of the main streets tourists walk down to get to the church which could make it get a bit too touristy it's just so not. I have a whole other post planned on places to eat and drink in Reykjavik so look out for that (this food cannot be missed!!). 

The apartment itself was small but super cosy and chic, by the end of our holiday I didn't want to leave. It really felt like our home. The simple, stylish Scandinavian decor and furniture is something I'm trying to replicate in our own (sort of) London flat, but where stylish Scandi furniture is freely available at a low price in Iceland, I've yet to find pieces in England in our budget (waaaaaah! send help and links). 

Did I mention the apartment was on the same street as Reykjavik Roasters? The best coffee we had in Iceland. I didn't? Well I'm telling you now. Go, get a Swiss Mocha. Get two and pour one into a thermos flask, put the flask in your hold luggage and bring it back for me (preferably on the last day, I don't want off coffee). Oh Lord it was so good, chocolatey but bitter and sour, and I've run out of amazing adjectives to use about this coffee! As we were staying in self-catered, one of us would nip out of bed each morning, walk to the coffee shop and back, maybe even venture down to Sandholt Bakery (SPOILER - best baked goods in Reykjavik) to buy a loaf of pumpernickel or seeded bread, and some pastries (we ate LOTS of pastries). And then we'd just get back into bed with said coffee and pastries, it was dreamy. We really embraced the slow easy lifestyle of Reykjavik's inhabitants. 

I'll cover this in more detail in my post on eating out in Reykjavik, but everyone always says how expensive Reykjavik is compared to the UK, particularly when it comes to food and alcohol. By far, wine is expensive, so if you want to drink some while you're away pack a bottle in your suitcase. Apart from that alcohol is pretty much London prices, sometimes a bit more, sometimes a bit less. Foodwise, I think it's cheap. We had two major fancy meals that would have cost a bomb here in the UK and probably averaged about £65 per person, which you rarely ever get in the UK for a full tasting menu (Ink being the only exception I can think of, which coincidentally also serves Nordic style cuisine). Other food out was equally affordable. But to save a couple of pennies because we had some pretty special tours planned (what's that you want to hear more about the tours, you've got it, they're coming up in my other post about Iceland), we opted to eat breakfast in (save buying coffees and pastries, because live a little) and the occasional lunch, like this open sandwich...with salted horse. It was not our intention to eat horse in Iceland. I'm not against it, my family's Swiss and horse is commonly eaten there and in France. Although I have eaten it before, I'd never chosen to order or cook it myself. That is until we bought it thinking it was beef in the butchers and I have to say I enjoyed it (queue stones being thrown at me). It's got a real gamey rich flavour that you don't really get with any other meat. The Icelanders produce horse meat as a by-product of breeding horses for racing and work. I'll be honest, I've never been a horse person but the Icelandic horses changed that, and if I'm honest because of this I probably wouldn't eat it again (call me a fickle meat eater if you must).

Don't we all feel better now that's out in the open. 

Moving on, as I said the apartment we stayed in was right next to the main street (Skolavordustigur) which has the Hallgrímskirkja at it's peak. Not only does it have the best bars and restaurants, but it's also painted like a rainbow, it's an instagrammer's dream (at least this instagrammer's). The Hallgrímskirkja is a church which houses an absolutely huge organ, honestly, is there a bigger organ, anyone know, anyone? It's incredible, you can walk round the church for free but 800ISK will get you a ticket to go up the tower. From there you'll get a full view of Reykjavik's streets, the view of the mountains opposite (on a clear day), and you can try and count the number of different coloured houses (I got 1481). It's a great way to see the city and put things on the map as it really is the highest building around. 

Just next door to the Hallgrímskirkja on the right is the Einar Jónsson Museum, you can pay to go inside and wander round but all his best work is in the sculpture garden which is free to get into. Outside you'll find several bronze casts of some of Einar Jónsson's sculpture's, most of which feature the Norse Gods or Christianity in it's various forms. They're incredibly modern concepts considering they were created in the early 1900s, definitely worth a visit even if you're not an art buff. In addition I would like to name this Cat Garden 2 (Cat Garden 1 being in Broadstairs, Kent) as there must have been so many cats trying to get your attention walking round (note to travelling cat lovers; Icelandic cats do not respond to normal cat calling). 

While we were in Reykjavik, the majority of the time it was cloudy and a little foggy, but of course, like most Northern countries it rained...then snowed, hailed and was even so hot we walked around in October (it was unreal). Despite the slightly sodden weather, the city is small and full of plenty of good bars and coffee shops to shelter in while strolling around. One thing we really wanted to do was climb Mount Esja, which watches over Reykjavik from the other side of the harbour. I'm not a  big planner but this was one of the main things we wanted to do so I mapped it all out, how we'd get there on the bus, what route we'd take etc. What I didn't count for was how much snow was going to be underfoot, we spoke to a couple of locals and decided not to risk it based on, you know, the fact we didn't have crampons (this was seriously left out of my online research! Also love that Icelanders all have crampons). Luckily, although we didn't get to climb the mountain, we did get a couple of clear-ish days to see it from the harbour, and it was spectacular! If you're going in the Summer I would definitely say give Mount Esja a go, take some photos and tell me what we missed (mild boasting accepted on this occasion). 

At the harbour's tip is the Opera House. As expected it shows operas, concerts and plays, there's a cafe and restaurant inside. Why did we take a visit if we didn't plan on seeing anything? Because the building is gorgeous, it's like one of those surrealist paintings where you try to follow the stairs but they're constantly falling into each other. The glass making up the buildings is all different asymmetric shapes and colours, plus it's got pretty good views of the harbour and Reykjavik. It's also opposite the stand that sells the best hot dogs I've ever had so you should really go...for the hot dogs...also maybe the views. At night it's lit up like the Northern Lights, which is also pretty awesome.

From outside, Reykjavik's city hall is an imposing hulk of concrete on the shores of the beautiful Tjörnin  pond, not the most hugely aesthetic building to me but you know one woman's weed is another woman's rose. But walking inside, there's a small waterfall covered in water plants on your right and then a humongous 3D map of Iceland's terrain, it's incredible. It's all to scale, so you can see what the highest peak is, but for me the amount of glacier shown is just crazy. It kind of makes you understand why the people and animals are so sturdy (can I call an Icelander sturdy? I mean it with the upmost love and affection). Outside the pond makes its way through a park that is studded with more bronze statues, this one, what Dan likes to call the working man, with weight upon the statues shoulders I like to think is a message to take a break and not let it get you down (so I'm going to have a piece of cheesecake now and I hope you'll join me because if you've made it this far through the post I applaud you, you must have Icelandic roots, you sturdy reader).

From Reykjavik city hall, you can walk out of the city, through some woods to Perlan. Literally named after a pearl, it's a viewing platform with a neat restaurant (sensing a theme of everywhere having good restaurants? me too) and an indoor man made geyser, which is pretty cool to watch. From the platform you can see 360 degree views of the city and that's where you can see the mountains watching you on all sides. It's pretty beautiful and very, very cold. Take a ski jacket, take several ski jackets, and buy a Swiss Mocha while you're there. Of course this was our moment to take some cheesy touristy pics (hope you enjoy, there's more where they came from!).

One thing that's quite strange is that there is how little trees there are in Iceland. Coming from Britain where the woods are plentiful and luckily we have loads of great organisations like the Woodland Trust campaigning to keep Britain that way, it was weird to see. From speaking to people, they say Iceland used to be covered in trees but when the Vikings arrived they chopped the entire population down using it to build homes and for fuel. Today, they're trying to reintroduce trees to Iceland, mostly pines, but you won't see many in and around the city. Their goal is to up the number of trees covering Iceland to 5% of the land mass, which doesn't sound like a lot but a lot of the land is glacier. They're currently not even at 2% but you know we all have long-term goals.

Dan may have done a little jump for joy when we can across this little wood full of trees. Sometimes I think he likes trees more than people.  

What was that driver talking about us not seeing the Northern Lights again because of the cloudy forecast, what cloudy forecast! Ok, so it was cloudy but on the night before our last day in Reykjavik we saw them. We'd deliberately not gone on any tours because everyone we spoke to said we wouldn't see them but every night from our flat window we drank some wine late into the eve, played card games and had what I like to call Light Watch. Basically we'd turn off all the lights and stand there in the dark looking out the window (super creepily) trying to see if we could spot the Northern Lights. We had kind of given up hope, then we saw them. I grabbed my tripod put several layers over my pyjamas, and Dan and I ran down to the harbour to get a better view of them, thinking that'd be the darkest place in the city. It was beautiful and I'm so happy we got to see them again in such a great setting. We met people that went on tours the same week (even the same night as us) and didn't see them so I would ditch the tour and make Light Watch part of your evening routine.
There are several tricks to photographing the Northern Lights so if you're planning on going I'd definitely do your research first. The long and short of it is a slow shutterspeed, high ISO and higher aperture. Also I would say you HAVE to get a tripod, it doesn't have to be pricey (mine certainly wasn't) but all you'll get is blur otherwise because you want to set the shutterspeed for as long as possible. You can see the sun voyager (that's the boat) in my photos is still a bit blurry but that's because my tripod is quite light and even weighted down it was super windy on the harbour arm.  
We did so much stuff in Reykjavik a lot of which I haven't featured. I'm not going to lie, we left that little flat feeling like we were leaving our own home. It's definitely somewhere I'd like to visit again and ideally live there (just need to expand my Icelandic vocabulary first!).
Anyway things I haven't featured that I would recommend doing in Reykjavik:
- Visit the National Museum of Iceland; this was so interesting, Iceland has a really bloody and violent past. The country has undergone different countries rule, religions and still come out on top. When we were there they had an exhibition on feminism. In Iceland they have wage equality between the sexes which came from 99% of women in Iceland going on strike and standing in the streets for a day (CAN YOU BELIEVE THAT, it's amazing, Iceland's amazing, I love you).
- Go out late; people in Iceland usually don't go out drinking or eating till later in the evening because they start their days later, the bars are heaving around 12am and it's a lot of fun. So live like an Icelander and drink (sensibly) till dawn.
- Trawl the streets for Graffiti; Iceland has some of the best graffiti I've ever seen. Street artists are commissioned to paint everywhere which adds to the town's colourful appeal. I have a whole post coming up on where we saw some of the best graffiti but keep your eyes peeled because it literally is everywhere, on the side of the road from the airport, on warehouses by the harbour, on your own apartment, it's EVERYWHERE.
Things I haven't featured and would not recommend to anyone, EVER:
- Ellidaárdalur Valley; doing my research before going this valley was recommended as a must see in Reykjavik by EVERYONE, and I mean everyone, blogs, tripadvisor, Iceland's tourist board. Avoid it. You can get the bus there or walk through the industrial side of Reykjavik, on getting there you realise it's just a park surrounded by a motorway which you can hear on every side and it's super loud. Despite Reykjavik being a really clean city this park was like a rubbish tip. Just no.
- Kolaportið Flea Market; something which was recommended by a blogger based in Reykjavik. We did buy the blue rucksack you can see on Dan there and his hat, but the majority of the stuff is overpriced touristy bits or charity shop style stalls (not the one's where you'd find a gem in either). There's also a food section but it's all frozen which put me off if I'm honest. Give it a go if you like but don't go with the expectation of finding a bargain, go with the expectation of being in a crowded warehouse with a lot of tat and expensive souvenirs.

God this post has taken me so long to put together. It's going through all the photos. This contains maybe a tenth of the amount of photos I took (if that) and it's my most image heavy post ever. Hope you enjoy that. Did you get to the end? Is anyone reading this? Have I been deserted? It's ok, if you did make it to the end, have some more cheesecake, I know I will. Going through these photos has made me miss Iceland so much. The plan is to learn to drive then in a couple of years hire a campervan and go the whole way round the country. We really stuck to Reykjavik for this visit and it'd be nice to see the other side of the Island, visit the waterfalls in the South and the glaciers to the East. I literally can't wait. I have three other posts on Iceland to come which I can't wait to share with you all, one on eating out, a graffiti guide, and, the crème de la crème, The Golden Circle and Blue Lagoon (take me back now!). If anyone has any questions or is planning a trip and wants some recommendations drop me a comment below and I'll do my very best to answer them.

Till then,

Bless Bless


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