Although we arrived in the Icelandic suburb of Mosfellsbær late at night, our first morning in Reykjavík greeted us with a cloudless blue sky and an impressive view of nearby mountains. Helen, my oldest friend and I, were quite taken aback at just how magical Iceland was. Thus began our three day adventure.
For those interested, here is a breakdown of expenses. Let me start by saying that, by Icelandic standards, Helen and I lived incredibly frugally. Aside from the unexpected £30 transfer fee from the airport to Reykjavík city centre, we not only stuck to budget, but we had an exceptional time too. The flights were around £100 for the two of us, and our Air BnB was £50 for three nights. Our largest expense was the tour we booked, but given all it encompassed, we thought it was well worth it.
In terms of transport and food, we spent very little. We relied heavily on the Strætó bus app; a bus pass lasting 2 hours for unlimited travel in the city will cost you under £2. The app itself is easy to navigate, but the adjusting to Icelandic characters and place names was a small challenge, but by the end of our first full day we’d managed to get to grips with it. For food, we lived off a mixture of Subway, sandwiches assembled with ingredients from the Bonus supermarket chain, and on one occasion, some reasonably priced noodles.
Our morning in Iceland consisted of navigating from the small neighbourhood of Mosfellsbær to Reykjavík. Thus buses would come every 20 minutes or so, and once the novelty of jumping on the mounds of untouched snow wore off, we found ourselves laughing at how our wet hair had frozen in the cold. Although we were blessed with almost perfect weather for the entirety of our trip, it was, as I’m sure you can imagine, freezing. I wore so many layers that it didn’t affect us too much, but taking my mittens off to navigate/eat was an unpleasant task.
We used the bus terminal at Hlemmur as our starting point for the days spent in the city. We were initially struck by the hipster-culture permeating through this small district. After some research, we discovered that “Hlemmur served as a second home to Reykjavík’s outcasts. Because of the terminal’s central location, it sheltered those with nowhere else to go and in the early 1980s, the spot also functioned as a haven for the young runaways of the punk generation“. There were a few bars, record shops, and the Icelandic Penis Museum was near by (a quick look in the gift shop and our curiosity was satiated).
Part of the joy of Reykjavík is its accessibility on foot. As a coastal city, walking from one end of the city to the other can be done with a stunning view of the sea. Anticipating an evening watching the Northern Lights at Grotta Lighthouse, Helen and I even sighted a whale whilst on a black sand beach. Our first day was spent exploring the various concept shops of Reykjavík, taking the occasional refuge in a coffee shop, and admiring the architecture. For those, like myself, who have a deep love of shops stocking independent magazines, art, and all manner of handmade ornaments, Reykjavík had a lot to offer. As the city centre itself is relatively small, a full day was all that was required to adequately explore everywhere. But the charm of Reykjavík, however, is found in its quaint houses, street art, friendly locals, and the brutalist architecture. The city’s most iconic landmark is easily Hallgrímskirkja Church. Even if you aren’t religious, the church and its surrounding streets of Laugavegu, Bankastræti and Austurstræti are cultural highlights. I think there are few words that can accurately describe it as well as “breathtaking”.
We would often walk past the industrial Old Harbour district, and admire Harpa Concert Hall. During sunset, the building would glitter and reflect the different hues of the sky. The building itself doesn’t necessarily reflect the rest of Reykjavík’s architecture, but I would regard it as a must see whilst you’re there.
Amongst the street art that Reykjavík has to offer, perhaps the most iconic is that of Brauð & Co. Nearby lies the independent coffee shop Reykjavík Roasters, and of the many we visited, this was unashamedly my favourite. Whilst I perched on the cushion-lad windowsill reviewing photos from the trip, Helen came across a drawer filled with notes from strangers all over the world. We spent the last few hours of our time in Reykjavík reading the stories and kind words scrawled on napkins and scraps of paper before leaving our own.
Other notable coffee shops we visited include Lamb, in which we managed to get a whole cafetière for under £3 (a necessity for keeping ourselves warm), and the candlelit Kaffihaus. We took shelter there on our first evening in hopes of catching the Northern Lights. As our Air BnB was a 30 minute journey from the city itself, and buses stopped before midnight, we were often anxious to make sure we could get back to Mosfellsbær. Sadly, this meant that we missed the Northern Lights, and in retrospect, I’d potentially hunt for an Air BnB closer to the city to avoid this again.
Our second day saw us get up early for our Golden Circle tour. Little I can say or show you will do justice to the wonders of Iceland, but it was an experience I’d highly recommend. We had also purposefully avoided going to the Blue Lagoon purely because of how inflated the entry price had become, and out of fear of it being too busy. Instead, we opted for a tour including the Secret Lagoon. Although the pool itself was small, it was quiet, located between two mountains and surrounded by pines.
By the time the day came to an end, we were exhausted. We had visited Kerid Crater, the Secret Lagoon, Thingvellir National Park, Gulfoss Waterfall, and saw the Geysirs. We curled up in our Air BnB and regularly crept out on to our Air BnB’s balcony in hopes of catching the Northern Lights with little luck. We did, however, see perhaps the clearest sky I’d seen in years. That in itself was worth the disrupted night’s sleep.
By the time we had to head back to the UK, I think we had exhausted every possible avenue and street of Reykjavík. With Iceland being so expansive, whilst on a student budget, we didn’t have the luxury of spending hundreds on tours and seeing more of the country. Yet, although it is only three months later, I can’t help but reminisce whilst looking through old photos, and I miss Iceland’s sublimity and quaint charm. Having only seen such a small fragment of such a beautiful place, I fully intend to go again, but perhaps with a considerably bigger budget to avoid missing the Northern Lights again.