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Stuck in Iceland: 20 Hours in Reykjavik

Perhaps it all started in a pub in Wallingford, England when a friendly couple told me that Iceland was on their bucket list and I replied “oh, I don’t really want to go there anymore. It’s just so full of tourists.”  Fate heard me, intervened, and 24 hours later, I was stranded in Reykjavik.

Iceland Air assured me at Heathrow that I would catch my connecting flight.  When it was announced on board that we wouldn’t make the connection, a trying-to-be-helpful flight attendant assured me that I would be put on the flight to Boston and then be able to transfer to Seattle from there.  Alas, they were all wrong.  When we actually landed in Iceland, Iceland Air didn’t even have an attendant meet the flight to help the 40+ stranded passengers.  There was a gaggle of uniformed attendants lounging and grumbling to themselves but none of them could even be bothered to give directions to the service desk.  By the time I had finally found the service desk and been standing in line for an hour, I was pretty pissed off about the whole situation.  The staff member I finally spoke with was patient and calm.  “I’m sorry this happened to you but we will put you up in a really nice hotel in the center of Reykjavik and you might have a nice day.” Well, that’s exactly what happened.

I was given round-trip taxi vouchers, a hotel with meals vouchers, and a boarding pass for 5pm the following day.  I grabbed my checked bag, met briefly with a passport control agent, and headed into the dark and cold Icelandic night.  As the airport doors slammed behind me, I was a little nervous.  My coat was thin and there was no taxi in sight.  A moment of Twilight Zone fell on me as I stood there, scanning the dark for what to do next.  Luckily a single cab was waiting around the corner.  The driver surveyed my mood and started giving me a pile of ideas for how to enjoy my surprise stopover in Iceland.  By the time he dropped me at my hotel, Hotel Centrum, forty-five minutes later, I was in high spirits and pretty excited for the adventure ahead.

I dropped my bags and headed straight for the shopping streets, thinking that even though it was dark, I might as well check it out.  (Yeah – about an hour later it dawned on me – pun intended – it’s mostly going to be dark all day – ha ha – Iceland in December!). Heading west on Laugavegur, I passed the Phallus Museum which is exactly what you are afraid it might be and then a range of shops selling everything from kitschy Viking statues to stunning and totally unaffordable art.  The night seemed to be made of shades of gray, deep black, and twinkling white lights.  The crisp Icelandic style of rounded stones, functional design, and stark lines started to grow on me.  At a fairly main intersection, I turned sharp left up Skolavordustigar past more shops and quaint restaurants to the stunningly lit Hallgrims Church at the top of a small hill.  The church can be visited at any time of day but I can’t imagine it could have been more beautiful with more light.  It simply takes your breath away was well worth the chilly hike.

I dropped back down to the hotel through a few back streets.  By now, taking out the map to navigate was something I worked hard to avoid as my fingers were really cold and stopping to look at the map just added chilly minutes to the walk back.  I did duck into a small convenience market for a selection of Icelandic chocolate and a box of cookies.  Much cheaper than anything I had seen in the tourist shops and all I ended up purchasing during my whirlwind visit.

During dinner back at the hotel, I did some lengthy research on the best way to spend a half day in Reykjavik.  I stared at my phone, asked some other tourists, and pestered all the servers.  The stranded traveler next to me at the bar actually said “Wow, it’s like you take travel planning really seriously.” Ah, yup.  He meant to visit a pool too but slept in the next day and pretty much missed everything.  We all just kept banging into each other at the airport.  I definitely saw the most so read on if you are stuck in Iceland with just a few hours to enjoy and you are willing to walk around in the cold.  It’s pretty fun.  I’ve included street names so you can follow the route.

It seems that there are several wonderful public pools and a healthy disagreement about which is best.  Laugardalslaug is the biggest and came highly recommended but it was a 30 minute walk away from the rest of the sites I wanted to see along the harbor.  The smaller Sundhöllin was remodeled and had re-opened just a week earlier.  It was close by and had a “hot pot on top” as explained to me by my server.   I am pretty sure that was a hot tub with a view. But, anyway, a visit to Sundhöllin led me back toward the church and I wanted to wander a bit further.  I finally settled on Vesturbæjarlaug which was a long walk but allowed me to see all the landmarks of interest along the way.  If time, I hoped to visit The Pearl as well.  The Pearl is a set of five giant water cooling towers which had been converted into an exhibit on glaciers with an ice cave, a revolving restaurant, and a 360-degree outdoor viewing deck.  Why water cooling towers on a hill?  Apparently, there are lots of such water cooling towers.  The water comes out of the ground at 100ᵒC and needs to cool to 60ᵒC before it can be used for geothermal heating.  Crazy.  Giant tanks of hot water just cooling down all over town.

I set an alarm, checked my bags with the concierge, enjoyed the breakfast buffet a lot more than I expected (yes – they had pink, pickled herring), and started walking toward the harbor by about 10 am. It was dark blue but not pitch black, and chilly but not freezing, maybe because I was wearing my pajamas under my clothes for an extra layer of warmth.  It’s not like I packed for Iceland!  And, as will be the theme of this whole post, I became totally and utterly mesmerized by the light.  That dark but not pitch black, slowly lightening sky.

I walked along the harbor.  I was pretty much alone.  It was just me, a few folks on bicycles passing by, and a lot of rocks and water.  The sky kept lightening.  No way my little cell phone was going to capture it but, still, I was obsessed with trying.  Finally, I arrived at my first stop, an unusually haunting sculpture called The Sun Voyager.  Apparently it is famous and a small crowd had assembled to take photos at sunrise.  Lucky me, there I was just a bit before sunrise, scheduled for 11:05 am.  Words and even pictures aren’t a fair description.  I spent a lot of minutes just staring out and I took many photos.  Simply by waiting 60 seconds, the image changed; by turning to photograph the sculpture from the other direction I saw a whole new scene.  I also spent a lot of  time daydreaming about how to get back to Iceland, about how to get back in winter to simply stand in some more in the amazing light.


From here I walked on to The Icelandic Opera House a bit further down the shore.  It is also in the relatively short list of downtown Reykjavik attractions but I did not think I would be all that excited about it.  Yet, guess what I did when I arrived?  I took a 1000 photos, stood mesmerized by the light in the glass walls of the building, and dreamed about how to return someday.  Even the insides were neat with these stunningly lit plants lining a restaurant.  I thought they were made of glass but they are just well lit plants.  Super!

Looking straight up inside the wall of The Icelandic Opera House

Then I wandered, just wandered, through shops, past The Pond (accidentally), and past a stunning church that stood out against the somewhat-bluer-than-five-minutes-ago sky.  Eventually, I made it to a quaint residential district along Hofsvallagata for my thermal swim.




The young women running the pool spoke great English and patiently rented me a bathing suit and explained the various rules.  There are a lot of rules for pools in Iceland.  They all make sense, including “no photos” (sorry), and made me wonder about our pools.  For example, you have to take off your shoes before entering the changing area and you have to dry totally off after swimming and showering before re-entering the changing area.  No dirty or wet benches and floors.  Genius!  There is also a rule about showering naked.  It stresses Americans out apparently but, really, it’s fine.  Just do what you need to do to keep the pool clean.  The pool was simply a regular old neighborhood swimming pool.  Apparently, some Icelanders take a thermal bath every single day!  Through the mist, I could make out small groups in every pool, just hanging around and chatting in Icelandic.  I experimented with hot, hotter, and hottest.  Thanks to a wonderful Hungarian woman on another trip (that’s another story), I also braved the very cold and the very steamy.  For the first 20 minutes or so, I kept thinking “OK, I did it.  I tried an Icelandic thermal pool.  Now what?  I guess I should just get out and get on with my day?”  But then something wonderfully relaxing happened.  I don’t know.  I was warm, happy, stretching muscles, breathing steam, watching the sky get bluer and bluer, and just enjoying my time.  When I was in danger of becoming a raisin, I got out, tiptoed across the icy cement, showered, dried off, changed, put my shoes back on and headed into the daylight.


My time in Iceland was coming to an end, it was about 12:30 and my taxi back to the airport would leave the hotel in two hours, but I was now rededicated to enjoying every minute, to seeing and learning as absolutely much as possible.  I took a short walk down Hofsvallagata to the water on the south side of Reykjavik, just to see what there was to see, and discovered a black sand beach.  Black sand! It was like fate reach out again and saying “See!  Aren’t you glad I stuck you in Reykjavik?”  Yes, yes, I am really glad! As you may or may not know, I collect sand and have nearly 100 sand samples from my travels.  Black sand was a big win.  I scrambled down, scooped up the thin layer of non-frozen, sun-thawed sand until my fingers on both hands stung.  I scrambled back up, and passed this creepy and unusual window art on the way back to the pool.

The young women at the pool called a taxi for me (no Wifi, no phone service, totally reliant on the kindness of strangers) and I headed off across town, past the University of Iceland and The Nordic House, and up to Perlan, or The Pearl.

I grabbed tickets to tour the world’s only indoor ice cave and hurried in to enjoy a glacial photo exhibit in a large waiting area.  A young woman announced the 1:15 tour, offered winter coats to anyone needing a bit of extra warmth and ushered us inside this man-made, awesome exhibit, a.k.a. over-priced tourist trap (but let’s not think about that.  I was in Iceland for 20 hours and I was going to see ice gosh darn it).  It was actually pretty cool (most puns per blog post award coming my way).  I learned about ice history – the 1104 ash layer, the compression of ice over time, and the volcano of the 1700s that killed 20% of Iceland’s population via a haze famine.  And I learned about ice ecology – glacier mice, “warm” moss, and potentially-live viruses terrifyingly trapped in melting ice.  I took a few stunning ice pictures and wished again to see these colors, at twilight of course, in the wild on my return trip.  All this in a 15-min glacier tour with two small associated exhibits, not too bad.


The time crunch was on now.  I zipped around the viewing deck snapping a few photos.

And then I decided to walk.  Yup.  It was about a 30 minute walk back to the hotel, as long as I didn’t get lost, and I wanted to see just a little more Reykjavik.  I dropped down through a walking path to cross the main road and ended up on Langahilo.  I crossed through a lovely park containing  Reykjavík Art Museum Kjarvalsstaðir and a children’s playground with man-made earth mounds for sledding and slipping in the ice and snow.  Through a little neighborhood, down Snorrabraut, past some more awesome graffiti, and into my hotel with five minutes to grab the dregs of the lunch buffet from Iceland Air, before hopping in a taxi back to the airport.

My taxi driver was again stupendous.  I wish I had taken notes.  She told me stories of the Blue Lagoon, showed me old barracks where the US military had once been housed, and gave me advice for a return trip.  I should rent a car and go visit her cousin who worked at Glacier View Guesthouse in Hrifunes.  We even exchanged e-mail addresses for planning my return trip!  Every single person I met in these 20 hours had been kind, helpful, and eager to see me fall in love with Iceland.  After being so very grumpy about getting stuck in Iceland, I was now on top of the moon happy with my mini-adventure and my plans to return someday, in winter, with more time, and a big camera.  Thank you Iceland Air.

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