The Iceland Ring Road Trip Part 1: Reykjavik

IT’S FOUR IN THE AFTERNOON, and I’m standing with my sister Yanyan on the tower of the Hallgrimskirkja, Reykjavik’s iconic church. The admission fee, as with any other thing in Iceland, is quite steep at 10 dollars. But I’d told her that getting on top would allow us to get a wide-angle perspective of the city – not to mention that it would give us great views. So here we are, along with other tourists, taking the views in. The scenery brings a smile as I see the houses below, which is just as I see them in dozens of photos that turn up after a Google Images search.

My sister and I are in Reykjavik to start our tour of Iceland as part of a group led by Travel Factor, a Philippine company specializing in trips catered to Filipino yuppies. The trip will take us to various parts of Iceland for nine days to experience the country’s revered landscapes. So from the Philippines, we’ve traveled countless kilometers for 60 hours via Shanghai and New York City, pumped up to get a dose of the Icelandic experience.

But as we wait for the rest of the group to arrive one by one from the airport, Yanyan and I use the time to come into grips with the country, and we begin with a walking tour of the capital. As Iceland becomes increasingly popular, so does Reykjavik get its share of the spotlight. With hordes of tourists descending into the once obscure country, the city is getting a chance to show Iceland’s other side.

The Hallgrimskirkja was designed by Guðjón Samúelsson using inspiration from Iceland’s nature.
Reykjavik’s city center features narrow streets lined with historical buildings, shops, restaurants, and cafes.
An unassuming basalt building houses the Alþingi, Iceland’s parliament.

REYKJAVIK’S HISTORY BEGAN IN 874 AD, when a Norwegian fugitive Ingólfr Arnarson established a settlement in the southwestern part Iceland and named it after the smoke he witnessed rising from the geothermal vents along the shore (Reykjavik means “smoky bay”). The site would become the first permanent settlement in the island and would witness a slow growth over the centuries.

Today it’s a bustling place with a surprisingly cosmopolitan vibe. It’s also a very creative city with the locals taking their arts, music and literature seriously. Street art decorate the city center, and numerous shops sell shirts and souvenirs with designs created by local artisans.

Around a third of Iceland’s population of 340,000 live here, providing energy to the city. Still, compared to other European capitals, it feels more like a large town. Partly, that has to do with nature lurking at every corner (glaciers are visible just behind the buildings), but mostly it’s because Reykjavik is a compact city. Its small size means visitors can hit most of the sights in a day.

Feeding the birds in the Tjörnin is a popular pastime among locals.
Reykjavik’s Ráðhús (City Hall) features a pretty lakeside view and some informative displays about Iceland.
The Settlement Exhibition stands on the site where a Viking longhouse was discovered in 2001. Today it contains displays that provide a glimpse into early Icelandic life.

WHICH IS EXACTLY WHAT YANYAN AND I NEED. After getting down from Hallgrimskirkja, we make our way across the street to another street lined with shops and cafes and continue on to Laugavegur, the city’s main drag. From here, we stroll west and come across a stone building. Called the Alþingishúsið, the humble stone structure belies its prestigious function. It’s actually the Parliament House and serves as the venue for meetings of the country’s parliament members.

A few kilometers away is Tjörnin, a pond teeming with ducks and swans. It provides a pretty view from the city hall just beside it. The city hall itself makes for an interesting stop, with a large space inside featuring exhibitions and a topographic scale of Iceland. Around the pond as well are the National Gallery of Iceland and a couple of other museums.

Walking further afield, along Reykjavik’s Old Harbor, we see Harpa, the city’s concert hall and cultural center. Designed by Danish-Icelandic architect Olafur Eliasson, it’s an attention-grabbing structure. The exterior has glass panels that changes colors, and it’s backdropped by magnificent vistas of glacier-capped mountains.

The Arnarhóll serves as a venue for several events in the city.
The Harpa typifies Reykjavik’s contemporary architecture.
Locals regard the hotdogs of Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur as the best in Iceland.

ICELANDIC CUISINE IS GENERALLY A BLACK HOLE to the rest of the world, with people imagining food here consisting of sheep head and some hearty soup. But in recent years, Nordic cuisine has been having a moment, and Icelandic dishes have held to the coattails of its Scandinavian counterparts.

Yanyan and I want to sample local food. Before returning to our hotel to meet the rest of the group, we drop by Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur where the best hotdogs in Iceland are reputedly made. Locals swear by this otherwise unassuming stall, which has served a number of delighted customers, including Bill Clinton. It’s a delicious, if really expensive, fare that somehow will define our Icelandic experience in general – unforgettable at a really steep price.

But from what we’re getting so far, we’re getting more than we’re paying for. It’s more than worth it.

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