Thursday, August 29, 2013

Hiking the Seljavellir Valley in Southern Iceland


"Where's the campground?" I asked, scratching my head.

My husband climbed a moraine of loose boulders and gravel, and gazed across an open field of volcanic rock and stones, marred only by a small, winding stream that cut through its center.  The field was surrounded by tall, lush, green cliffs, each featuring its own rolling, sparkling waterfall.  It was like a scene from "Lord of the Rings", but we couldn't focus on that just yet.

"I don't think there is one," he responded.

I grimaced, glancing down at my detailed, self-made travel itinerary of Iceland.  Our plan had been to stop at a location just off the Ring Road (Route 1) and make camp for the night before driving on to Skogar the next day.  I had been assured online that Seljavellir Valley was an ideal location for camping, with nearby hot springs within hiking distance.  So far, all I saw was a rutted, ill-kept parking lot, some abandoned summer homes, and granted, a beautiful yet morosely empty valley.

Iceland hot springs, hiking in Iceland
A panorama of Seljavellir Valley in Iceland.

We explored the area around the parking lot and found some stone rings that appeared to be remnants of some long ago fire pit, now disassembled and forgotten.  Rotten logs marked where campsites may or may not have been allocated.

"I think the campground is no more," I observed, and my husband agreed. We got back into the SUV and moved on down the highway to Skogar, where we found some very nice camping indeed (I'll tell you about that in my next post).

The next day, after a nice sleep under a waterfall and a brisk morning hike up its side, we returned to Seljavellir Valley.  Now that we weren't focused so much on finding a place to hunker down for the night, we were able to take some time to really enjoy the amazing view that is Seljavellir Valley.  Indeed, it used to be the site of a campground with a spectacular view, but the campground had closed down years ago.

Iceland hot springs, hiking in Iceland, Iceland waterfalls
The waterfalls of Seljavellir Valley - one per cliff, it seemed.

Instead, you can park your car in the aforementioned bumpy parking lot, hike overtop of the small, sloping moraine hill, and across the barren, flat volcanic rock plain.  All around you tower cliff walls with unusual rock formations, lush green vegetation, and twinkling, distant waterfalls. Birds soar from their cliffside nests, and the sound of rippling water from the stream guides you further into the valley.  It is a very peaceful and picturesque place.  I honestly did feel like I was walking through a scene from "The Hobbit" or other such movie.

Iceland hot springs, hiking in Iceland
Strange cliff formations and caves towered above us as we hiked.

We found a place where it was easy to cross the stream by hopping from stone to stone, and made our way further into the valley.  The pathway most tourists choose to take was extremely muddy and slippery, and we'd passed a hiking couple returning from their morning's journey on our way in who warned us to stick close to the stream and avoid the path.  So that's what we did.

We'd packed a bag with our towels and swimsuits to take with us, just in case we found a hot spring somewhere in the valley.  We weren't really sure what to expect - would the spring be big enough to accommodate swimmers?  Would it be boiling hot like the ones near the side of the road in Hveragerdi, too hot to touch?  Would they just be bubbling clay pits, or clear beautiful water holes?  Faithful that things would work out for the best, we'd packed our stuff just in case.

And then we rounded the corner.

Iceland hot springs, hiking in Iceland
The man-made pool in the middle of Seljavellir Valley - spectacular!

To my absolute delight and surprise, the 'hot spring' had been turned into a man-made pool.  A pool with change rooms.  And ladders.  In the middle of nowhere.  Literally.  It was such a surprise, I could hardly believe it was real.

We tested the water, which was clear and free of scum or debris. It was not hot, but was also far from cold.  One end was much warmer than the other, where the natural hot spring fed into the pool.  The cooled water at the opposite end trickled out of the pool and into the stream via a small cement duct.  There were actually two locations where the hot springs fed into the pool - one area had steaming water spouting from a pipe, which was pulling the natural hot water from underground, while a second area allowed water to trickle straight down the side of the cliff and into the pool.

Iceland hot springs, hiking in Iceland
A view of the Seljavellir Valley from the pool .

You'd think an amazing location such as this would have been overrun by tourists, but I don't know if many people even realize the pool is there.  What with the run-down parking lot, abandoned campground, and barren, rock strewn plain, the last thing I believe anyone would expect from Seljavellir Valley was this treasure of a pool.   And I'm glad, because it was really nice having the pool to ourselves.  A family was just leaving as we arrived, and no one else came to interrupt our swim until we ourselves were drying off to go home.

Of course, being in the middle of nowhere, the pool was obviously free to go swimming in. The 'change rooms' were just empty rooms in an empty building, and had not been cleaned in quite some time, but I didn't mind.  Had there not been a family there when we arrived, you could have changed right out in the open with no one to see you!  It is that private.

Iceland hot springs, hiking in Iceland
The change house at the man-made pool - what a backdrop!

We stayed and splashed in the water for about an hour and a half.  The pool did get chilly after awhile, and I really enjoyed moving from one hot spring entry area (the pipe was my favorite because it was hotter) to the other (I liked the cliff one except for the slime that was growing around it, thriving in the warm temperatures).  I'm sure my husband could have stayed all day, but when we heard a larger group of hikers approaching we decided it was time to pack up.  We'd had a great time, and wanted them to enjoy the same privacy we'd had.

Iceland hot springs, hiking in Iceland
Me enjoying my peaceful swim in the Seljavellir Valley pool.  

Not that I want Seljavellir Valley to become overrun and crowded, but I DO highly recommend that all my readers headed to Iceland stop there for a hike and swim.  You might luck out and find yourself alone in the pool - but if you don't, who cares?  The view surrounding you is worth it alone.

Enjoy the video of us relaxing in the pool and taking in the view! 

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Seljalandsfoss Waterfall of Iceland


While planning our driving route along Iceland's Ring Road, I noticed a recurring theme - "See Waterfall", "See Waterfall", and once again... "See Waterfall".  A waterfall here, a waterfall there, waterfalls, waterfalls, everywhere. This is not necessarily an exaggeration.  Like I said in a previous post about road-tripping it through Iceland, if you didn't have a chance to pull over and check out a waterfall on the side of the road, just wait 30 seconds for the next one to appear.

Some of them were simple, yet still quite pretty.  Some of them were obviously roaring and huge, but too far away to explore.  And some were right off the side of the road with easy access and amazing views.  My favorite waterfall, Seljalandsfoss, was one such spectacle. Located about 30 seconds off the Ring Road, about an hour and a half from Reykjavik, it is super easy to find as well!

Iceland waterfalls, Reykjavik, Ring Road Iceland
The Seljalandsfoss waterfall - spectacular!

After crossing a wide and shallow river (rivers look very different in some areas of Iceland - like giant lakes that have decided to go exploring the countryside), we noticed in the distance a ribbon of white cutting into the cliffs. According to our GPS, this was Seljalandsfoss, our destination.  It didn't look very spectacular from our then-current point of view, but we were about to be blown away!

Seljalandsfoss waterfall, Iceland waterfall
Seljalandsfoss waterfall from a distance.

The waterfall itself drops 200 feet over the edge of its cliff (the cliff, according to the information placards around the waterfall, used to be part of the actual coastline of Iceland).  It is a narrow waterfall compared to some, but thunderously loud and simply beautiful.  The spray was icy cold - I recommend a really nice waterproof jacket or rain poncho if you want to spend some quality time near Seljalandsfoss!  From every angle, you could find something to photograph or marvel at.

Iceland waterfall, things to see and do near Reykjavik
Joey outside the Seljalandsfoss waterfall.

The best part of Seljalandsfoss is that you can walk around and behind the waterfall.  On the left hand side is a set of wooden stairs that take you about a quarter of the way up the waterfall for some nice photographs. You can then either return down the steps the way you came, rounding the waterfall from the right side, or you can walk down a rocky embankment towards the back of the waterfall.

Iceland waterfall, things to see and do near Reykjavik
Walking down the embankment to the waterfall.

Iceland waterfalls, Reykjavik waterfall
The safer route to get behind the waterfall.

I will warn you, the rocky embankment is steep and made of uneven, water-eroded rocks (it is not chiseled into nice, easy stairs).  If you are not wearing proper footwear, or are not steady on your feet, don't go that way. My husband had to help a couple of older ladies navigate the rocks, fearful that they'd slip and fall into the waterfall's icy pond.

Iceland waterfall, hiking Iceland
The rocky embankment down to the back of the waterfall.

Behind the waterfall it is really wet and loud (surprise!) but truly a one-of-a-kind experience.  I myself have never been behind a waterfall before, so I really enjoyed it.

Iceland waterfall, hiking Iceland's waterfalls
Me behind the waterfall.

It is free to visit Seljalandsfoss. You can hike around it, explore the area (and its neighboring waterfall Gljufurarfoss), and just enjoy the scenery for no charge.  There are free washrooms, which look like outhouses but are flush toilets, for you to use as well.  When we were there, there was a little kiosk that sold food and beverages for somewhat reasonable prices.  I warmed up with a hot chocolate as I sat there, dripping wet from our waterfall adventure.  I also want to mention that there is a campground in the area, near the second and smaller waterfall of Gljufurarfoss, but we didn't stay there so I can't say much more about it than that.

Iceland waterfall, things to see and do near Reykjavik
Joey about to dive in?

It is a popular site - there were at least three tour buses sharing the area with us.  However, despite the parking lot being quite full, the waterfall never seemed crowded.  If you are looking to take photographs without other tourists being in the shot, I don't know what to tell you. It probably won't happen, unless you choose to go during 2 a.m. and take advantage of the 24 hour sunlight.  Either way, I highly recommend you stop to see one of Iceland's most famous waterfalls.

Iceland waterfall, romantic Iceland waterfall
We sure loved the Seljalandsfoss waterfall!

On a side note: as we were on our way to Seljalandsfoss from Reykjavik, we saw a sign indicating that the Keldur Ruins were nearby.  It was a 22 kilometer side trip off the Ring Road - through the countryside and down some gravel roads.  I was excited to see them: I'd read they featured some original sod houses and demonstrated the early way of life for Icelanders.  What I got was a total let-down!  The 'ruins' were actual sod houses, but ones that had been in use until quite recently, with shingled or metal roofs and siding on the upper halves.  The ruins were also sandwiched unpleasantly inside a muddied farm yard, where the farmers were hard at work transporting hay bales through the entrance to the establishment. It cost about $10 US just to go inside the gate and look around.

things to see and do near Iceland, Keldur
The best part of Keldur - the little building in the parking lot!

Perhaps it would have been worth it had we paid to go inside and look. From the outside of the gate, we saw nothing but modern buildings with turf layered around the outside, a muddy courtyard, tractors puttering to and fro, and a stream of cows moving into the farmyard.  It was pretty disappointing after driving for so long down such a rutted, bumpy road.  We opted to turn around and continue on our way to Skogar.  Were we wrong to do so? I don't know, but it didn't seem worth the cost.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Tour Iceland's Golden Circle: Geysir, Gulfoss, and Pingvellir National Park


Iceland is a nation full of amazing natural treasures - waterfalls, glaciers, volcanoes, lava fields, and deep canyons to mention only a few. After trekking through the city of Reykjavik for a few days, my husband and I decided to book a tour to explore some of the closer must-see destinations located in the central portion of the island known as the Golden Circle. The next day we were scheduled to pick up our rental SUV and drive the Ring Road, so we felt a bus tour was the perfect thing to gear us up for our road trip. What better way than to see the interior of the island before we set out to drive around the exterior portion?

Iceland waterfall, Gulfoss Iceland, Golden Circle tour
Gulfoss waterfall, one of the sights to see on the Golden Circle tour.

I booked with the company BusTravel Iceland just the day before we wanted to go on the tour. Booking was easy-peasy - there was room on a tour, the bus arrived on time with free pick-up at our hotel, and we received a 10% discount for booking online. I highly recommend the company (you can book from their site here). We were picked up for the afternoon tour at 12:30 and were out of Reykjavik by 1:00 p.m., after scooping up all the other passengers from their respective hotels.

Our first destination was an area of major hot springs activity near Haukadalur. This area also features a series of geysers that are extremely active due to regular earthquake activity in the region - therefore the tourist name for the area is simply "Geysir". The largest geyser is named Strokkur, and is popular due to its large fountain of water released upon eruption (up to 70 feet we were told), and the reliable and quick frequency with which it does so (every 5 to 7 minutes). It is located about an hour from Reykjavik in southwestern Iceland.

Golden Circle tour driving directions
Route from Reykjavik to Geysir

The layout of the Geysir area is quite simple and easy to navigate. There is a tourist center with a restaurant, restrooms, and a shopping area. (Joey had to buy a warmer jacket while we were there - we didn't expect Iceland's weather to be quite so biting when we were packing back in Canada.) Simple shale pathways lead sight-seers towards the main spectacle of Strokkur, but also to other bubbling hot springs and the now dormant older geyser, named aptly 'Geysir' (since Iceland's last earthquake, it has not really been very active, and Strokkur has stolen the limelight).

Geysir hole, Golden Circle geysery, Golden Circle tour Iceland
The geyser Strokkur deceptively peaceful before its explosion.

Strokkur was definitely the highlight. We got to see it erupt five or six times during our little hike through the Geysir area, and twice watched it up close with our cameras out. It really is timely - every 5 to 7 minutes is not an exaggeration (and it was closer to every 5 minutes, really).Water pooled at the top of the geyser hole bubbles and steams constantly, but eventually begins to swish from side to side and then bulge outwards. The water seems to expand and become convex, straining out from the hole but never really spilling over the edges. Then, with a huge spurt of steam, it comes shooting out and high into the air, sending waves of heat towards the audience. It was very cool to experience. I probably could have watched it for hours, but we didn't have much time at each location since our tour was only scheduled for the afternoon.

exploding geyser Iceland, Golden Circle tour, Strokkur geyser
The amazing Strokkur geyser at its height.

We did hike around the Geysir area and stop to explore some of the hot springs, and just admire the flower-coated fields that innocently steamed and bubbled here and there, as if creating a sauna in the middle of nowhere was nothing new.

Iceland thermal activity, Golden Circle tour
The area around Geysir - all of it steaming hot!

Our next stop was the amazing and gigantic waterfall Gulfoss. The waterfall is extremely close to Geysir - about a 10 minute drive.

Gulfoss to Geysir, Golden Circle driving directions Iceland
The quick jaunt between Geysir and Gulfoss

The waterfall is located in a canyon carved by the Hvita river in southwest Iceland. The crevice is 105 feet deep, which makes for a really impressive sight. Not only are there tons and tons of rushing water thundering down into the valley, but the canyon walls appear to be made of columns, naturally formed by volcanic lava.

Iceland rocks, Gulfoss rocks, Golden Circle tour Iceland
The cool rock formations at Gulfoss.

Everything is impressive about Gulfoss. The lower falls drop the furthest, and are narrower, but thunderously loud. The higher falls have a much smaller drop, but are expansive and drop their waters into a pool before heading down the lower falls. A pathway leads from the drop-off parking lot along the Hvita river, up to a vantage point where you can view the lower falls clearly and see the entirety of Gulfoss, and then up to the higher falls, where an outcropping of lava rock allows you to feel as if you are standing directly in the falls themselves.

Iceland waterfall, Golden Circle tour waterfall Iceland
Gulfoss' Upper and Lower Falls

A word of warning: if you are headed to Gulfoss, no matter the weather, pack a rain jacket or poncho, for you WILL get wet if you hike to the higher falls! Both Joey and I were soaked after visiting Gulfoss, and it didn't help matters that it was raining that day. The spray from the falls is refreshing, to say the least, but incessant and quite cold. I was constantly tucking my camera into the inside pocket of my sweater, buried under my waterproof jacket, to keep it from getting fried.

Golden Circle tour waterfall Iceland, Iceland waterfall
Soaking wet outside Gulfoss, but super happy!

Gulfoss also features a tourist center with a restaurant, gift shop and washrooms. The gift shop is tiny and jam-packed - definitely not as nice as the one in Geysir, which had more than just trinkets for sale. If you want some good quality items to remind you of your Golden Circle tour, use the shops at Geysir instead of Gulfoss for sure. (On a related note, Joey would NOT stop talking about the 'superior' jacket that he bought from Geysir for the rest of the trip. I wanted to burn it out of spite after about four days!)

Golden Circle tour waterfall Iceland, Iceland tours
The view of the Lower Falls and Hvita River

Our final stop for the afternoon was to be Pingvellir National Park. It was a bit of a drive from Gulfoss, and we were on the bus for about 50 minutes to an hour before we arrived at our destination.

Gulfoss, Pingvellir, Iceland driving directions, Golden Circle tour
The trip from Gulfoss to Pingvellir National Park

As we drove, the weather worsened and the rain turned from an annoying sprinkle to spikes driven by the wind. By the time we got to Pingvellir, it was raining so hard, and so blustery, that no one really wanted to disembark and explore. To make matters worse, there was a private function (we thought it was a wedding) happening inside the tourist center, so it was all closed up. I quickly ran to the vantage point and took some photos of the park from above, but in those five minutes became soaked to my underoos, and so I high-tailed it back to the warmth of our tour bus.

Unfortunately, we didn't see much due to rain, but the bus driver made up for the disappointing weather by driving us along the longer yet more scenic route through the park. She made sure we stopped to see some interesting geological features. We learned about the two tectonic plates (the Euro-Asian plate and the North American plate) that meet right smack in the middle of Pingvellir National Park. Iceland is only present on our fine planet because it is basically the plug on the end of a giant volcanic fissure in the crack between the plates. At several points in the park, you can actually see deep into the rifts and gorges that are made as the plates slide apart. (Some companies offer scuba diving tours of these fissures.) The gap between the plates is actually 7 km apart, but is constantly filling in with volcanic eruptions that occur approximately every 10 years.

Iceland parks, Golden Circle tour Iceland
Pingvellir National Park, with a clear view of a fissure.

Now, I know that going on controlled bus tours such as this is not everyone's cup of tea. I myself prefer to rent a car and explore on my own, at my own pace. However, there are some awesome benefits to taking bus tours. A big one for me was, we didn't have to learn to drive in Iceland under those nasty road conditions. Our driver was capable and experienced, and we took the opportunity to grill her about the road rules of Iceland before getting behind the wheel ourselves.

The second reason is that while on a bus tour, the bus driver typically regales you with tales of their homeland (or home state or province or region or whatever). I know a lot of people prefer to tune out the driver and instead stare out the windows at the landscape, or even snooze between stops, but I'm not like that. I am a sponge for random facts, and bus tours are a perfect opportunity to soak some up. It's even better when the bus driver has a wicked sense of humor.

Here are some random facts I learned while on our bus tour:

Random Fact 1. There are purple lupin flowers EVERYWHERE in Iceland - filling the ditches, taking over entire fields, growing along the sides of hills and valleys. However, purple lupin itself is not a native plant to the island of Iceland. It was brought in about one hundred years ago to control the nation's major erosion problem. A hardy plant that thrives in a vegetation zone like Iceland, people thought the lupin would help prevent the erosion of precious (and sparse) top soils. It sure did, but then it spread, and spread, and spread, strangling out other regional plants and taking over fields. Now it truly is EVERYWHERE. I thought it was quite pretty, but islanders have a totally different view of the purple petals.

Iceland vegetation, purple lupins, purple flower in Iceland
Fields and fields of purple lupins cover the Icelandic countryside.

Random Fact 2. There are tons and tons of cool looking stones all over Iceland. In many places, the stones are stacked like cairns or into shapes of people or animals. Other thoughtful and creative people have made little fences with the stones, or table and chair sets. HOWEVER, due to the aforementioned erosion problem on the island, removing stones from their original resting places is actually illegal. Piling stones (and therefore causing massive erosion to the precious top soil) can earn you a special place in Icelandic prison for up to the two years. As our bus driver said laughingly, but with a tone indicating she wasn't exactly joking, "Don't mess with our stones."

Random Fact 3. In the Icelandic school system, it is mandatory that school children need to learn to swim starting at the age of six and take lessons until they are sixteen. As a water-locked nation, it is considered a national imperative that all citizens know how to swim. (Makes sense.) Another school rule: all kids need to learn to speak and write in English and Danish (on top of mastering their home language of Icelandic). Once students reach junior high, they then have the option to master yet another language (favorites included French, Norwegian, and Spanish). That fact made me feel rather stupid, as I only really know English, and can maybe find a toilet or a beer in French, Italian, and Spanish.

Want to see Strokkur in action? Check out the video below!


Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Top 5 Things to See and Do in Reykjavik, Iceland


Yet another delay in keeping up with my blog!  I have been obsessively nesting for baby, despite not being due til January 12.  The nursery is painted and ready, with all bedding and furniture on order, and other rooms in the house have been cleaned out, purged, and organized.  However, after hearing for the umpteenth time from friends, "I can't wait to hear more about your Iceland trip", followed by a pointed look, I have decided to sit down and focus on this post, which I have been picking away at distractedly for two weeks.  I hope it is worth the wait. (Just like baby! Aaahhh!)

*****

The population of the entire nation of Iceland is around 300,000 people.  Of that, 200,000 of these citizens live in the immediate area of the capital city of Reykjavik.  I had the pleasure of staying a few days in Reykjavik during our amazing Iceland trip this summer - it is a city full of unique culture and interesting people.

Reykjavik Iceland, colors of Reykjavik
The vibrant colors of Laugavegur Street in Reykjavik.

Joey and I stayed in Guesthouse 101, located at the end of the trendy shopping street of Laugavegur.  Our hostel (for it was more of a hostel than a hotel) was in the perfect location: we were close to the harbor, some of the major city sights, and directly in the middle of a trendy area full of shops and restaurants.  (My only complaint was that, due to there being 24-hour sunlight, nobody seemed to go to bed on Laugavegur Street and they kept me up all night.)

We hiked through a big portion of the city, checking out architecture, city sights, and art installments.  Reykjavik can be an expensive city if you are always dining out in restaurants or going to clubs, but it can also be affordable if you are in a frugal state of mind.  Luckily, many of the city highlights are inexpensive and easy to find.  Here is our list of things to 'see and do' in Reykjavik:

Hallgrimskirkja Church
This spectacular church can be seen from nearly anywhere in Reykjavik.  Built between 1937 and 1940, it is not an old church by any means, but it is a stand-out piece of architecture.  Located only a few blocks from Laugavegur Street (the point by which I will navigate all of these city sights), Hallgrimskirkja is quite easy to find.  Basically you just look up, see the 244 foot tower, and walk towards it.

churches of Reykjavik, Hallgrims Church Iceland, Iceland
Hallgrimskirkja in its entirety. 
The church is pretty from the outside.  White-washed stone, geometric patterns, and a sweeping tower draw the eye no matter which angle you are approaching the building from.  In front of the church is a giant statue of Leif Eriksson, the man attributed with the discovery of Iceland.  Inside, we marveled at the shining and massive pipe organ located on the back wall of the main church hall.  There was a pipe organ concert the afternoon we visited Hallgrimskirkja, but we opted not to stick around all day just for the show (plus it cost a fair penny and we were in cheap mode at the start of our vacation).

Hallgrimskirkja, Iceland church, Reykjavik church
The massive pipe organ inside Hallgrimskirkja Church.

My favorite part of visiting the church was going to the viewing deck at the top of the tower.  The cost was 600 ISK, which was about $5.00 Canadian.  From the observation deck, you can see most of the city, from the harbor to the Pearl. The vibrant rooftop colors of Reykjavik's houses and shops create almost a cartoonish landscape.  I played with the tilt-shift function on my camera, and came up with some great shots that capture the creative nature of the cityscape!

tilt-shift photography, churches of Iceland, Reykjavik city view
The view from Hallgrimskirkja, looking directly down to the front entrance.

tilt-shift photography, churches of Iceland, Reykjavik city view
Reykjavik from above, courtesy of the Hallgrimskirkja viewing deck.

We stayed up top for about 15-20 minutes.  After that, we felt that we had seen Reykjavik from all angles, and the unseasonably cold wind was quite biting from that high up. Back down we went, jammed into the tiny and claustrophobic elevator that only fit about 4 - 6 people. (Be prepared for that!)

photography, churches of Iceland, Reykjavik city view
The City Pond from afar.  I love the beauty of Reykjavik!

Harpa Concert and Opera Hall
We stopped at a few places along the way to Reykjavik's harbor, such as the Einar Jonsson Museum, which has a beautiful sculpture garden (located 1 block away from Hallgrimskirkja Church).  The museum was closed when we visited, but the gardens were open to anyone and were quite peaceful to walk through.  We also walked past Tjornin, or the City Pond, which is a large but shallow lake in the middle of Reykjavik.  Lots of ducks and geese were present, eagerly awaiting the next person to show up with a bag of bread crumbs.  One duck even chased a five-year-old girl as we walked past, to our sadistic delight and her terror. (She laughed afterwards, which is why I can say I enjoyed watching this unfold.)

things to do in Reykjavik, Iceland art, Reykjavik sculptures
An example of what you can find in the Einer Jonsson Sculpture Garden.

Not far from the City Pond is my favorite place in Reykjavik - the Harpa Concert and Opera Hall.  This phenomenal architectural delight stole my heart immediately.  First and foremost, I love opera, so the building called to me anyway.  Secondly, it is simply beautiful.  Designed with geometrical glass plates and patterns, with random pieces of colored windows, it catches the sunlight like a giant chandelier that you can walk in. The outside is very impressive, but it doesn't even compare to being inside the building.

Harpa Concert Hall interior, stained glass windows, Iceland
Sitting in the Harpa Concert Hall is like sitting inside a kaleidoscope.

We stayed inside the Harpa Concert and Opera Hall for over an hour, just sitting on different benches in different areas, marveling at the walls and windows.  No matter which area of the building you choose to plunk down in, there is something beautiful to look at.

Harpa Concert Hall Reykjavik, Iceland architecture
Anywhere you sat in the Harpa Concert Hall, you felt like you could stay forever.

We couldn't afford to see a show during our stay in Reykjavik, but honestly, I think I'd rather look at the windows than go inside the darkened theater hall and watch a comedian.  It's just that pretty.

Harpa Concert Hall Reykjavik, Iceland architecture
Check out those colors!  It's stunning!

Harbor with Norse Boat Installment
A hop, skip, and a jump from the Harpa Concert and Opera Hall, along the harbor boardwalk, is a very cool art installment that I loved.  It is called the Sun Voyager, and it is a stainless steel model of a Norse boat in skeletal form.  During the day, it glistens and shines attractively, but I liked it the most in the evening, when the setting sun cast beautiful shades of purple, orange and pink on the mirror-like metal.

art installment Reykjavik harbor, Iceland art
The Sun Voyager with the Reykjavik sunset behind.

There is nothing there to see other than the art piece itself, but the combination of the sea in the background and the beautiful art in the foreground is enough.  It is definitely worth a visit - try it both during the day and in the evening. You'll see what I mean.

art installment Reykjavik harbor, Iceland art
Iceland has very cool art installments such as the Sun Voyager.

Iceland Phallological Museum
Now this was an unusual place to visit, but I had read about it online and was dying of curiosity to check it out.  As fate would have it, the Phallological Museum was right across the street from our hotel, Guesthouse 101, on Laugavegur Street.  As in, if you looked out our room window, you'd be looking directly at the museum entrance.  I knew then that we were meant to visit this unique collection.

Iceland penis museum, penis museum Reykjavik
This is the only photo of the museum I dare put on the blog.  Go to Iceland and see for yourself!

For those of you that don't know what "phallological" means, it refers to a part of the male anatomy that I'd prefer not to directly refer to in my blog.  The museum was founded in 1997 by a retired schoolteacher named Sigurour Hjartarson (maybe he taught biology?), who had a personal collection of specific whale and shark body parts.  From his personal collection grew this crazy museum.  It features 280 'preservations' of animals from blue whales to hamsters.  It even has a human specimen, which may I say, was super gross.

The cost to visit this bizarre collection is $10 per adult (and yes, you must be an adult).  In a cool twist, the museum accepts currency from around the world, and so we were able to pay with a Canadian $20.00 bill.  I really liked that, since it helped us retain some of our Icelandic cash.

I realize that this museum may not be for everyone, but I figured we'd never be back to Iceland, so I had better check it out while I was there.  There were some interesting facts about animals and anatomy that I hadn't known before, so I would like to point out that the museum isn't just for titillating giggles, but also for learning.  But mostly for giggles.

The Pearl
One place we never got to, despite promising ourselves each day to visit, was the famous Pearl structure in Reykjavik.  Known in Icelandic as the Perlan, this building functions as a city and tourist center.  It used to be a hot-water storage facility, but was updated in 1991, and instead a museum, shopping center, garden, and observation deck were added.

The Pearl Iceland, things to see and do in Reykjavik
The Pearl with its massive hot water tanks. Photo via.

I really wanted to go wander in the Pearl, mainly because of all the great reviews I'd read about its fantastic city views from the observation deck.  I wasn't too concerned with the shopping center, as we were in Iceland on a tight budget (and with even tighter space in our camping-gear-laden suitcases).  The Saga Museum was another point of interest for me, as it is focused on the Norse and Viking heritage of Iceland.

The Pearl Iceland, things to see and do in Reykjavik
The Pearl's observation deck at dusk.  Photo via.

I guess it wasn't meant to be. The Pearl is NOT located centrally in Reykjavik near the downtown / tourist area of Laugavegur Street.  It is quite a distance to get out to the center, and neither Joey nor I had the energy or enthusiasm to travel that far by foot. Each day in Reykjavik was busy for us, what with all of the other things we wanted to see and do, so spending half a day just walking (and potentially getting horribly lost) didn't sound very appealing.  We also figured that we'd seen some amazing city views from the top of Hallgrimskirkja, so visiting yet another observation deck seemed redundant.  Not sure if we made the right choice, but regardless of whether or not we made it to the Pearl, I feel it should still be on the "Top 5" list due to its potential to be really cool!

What Else?
Other fun things to do in Reykjavik include riding the Hop On Hop Off bus, which will take you to all of the places mentioned above plus much more.  The cost for a 24-hour ticket is 3300 ISK for one adult (roughly $29.00 to $30.00 CDN), or 1650 for kids 12 to 15 ($14.00 to $15.00 CDN). Kids under 12 ride free.  We did not do this, as we found walking from one destination to the other did not take very long.  It sure helped that our hostel was located in a very central area on Laugavegur Street.

shopping on Laugavegur Street, shopping in Iceland
Shopping on Laugavegur Street in Reykjavik is always a good time.

Shopping on Laugavegur Street is also a lot of fun. There is a wide variety of stores and wares down Laugavegur, and you can basically find whatever you want if you walk long enough.  I purchased a really nice sheepskin hide in one store, which saved my own hide during our camping excursions on those cold, rainy nights!  We also discovered that if you spend over 4000 krona, the purchase is valid for a tax redemption, which you apply for at the airport before you leave the country.  Just keep ALL receipts (they give you a normal receipt and a special tax redemption receipt), otherwise the redemption becomes invalid.

There are also many art museums and a couple of history museums in town that you can visit.  We only had a couple of days to explore Reykjavik, so we had to be very selective about what we saw during our stay.  Had we had more time, I certainly would have wandered through some of those places.  If you ever have, please tell me about it in the comments section below.

Reykjavik Harpa Concert Hall, things to do in Iceland
Joey enjoys the view of the ocean from the Harpa Concert and Opera Hall.

One cool fact we learned about the city of Reykjavik: In general, hot water is piped in directly from natural heat sources - is not heated through man-made processes.  There are some neighborhoods that have cold spring water heated and piped in, but sulfur is added (at an amount of 12%, we were told) to give it the same smell as the rest of the city's regular hot water supply, so that certain neighborhoods cannot advertise 'clean-smelling water' over the sulfuric smell to amplify the market and raise prices.  Sure, the showers smelled like sulfur, but my skin had never been better than when I was in Iceland!

Forgive the repeated video - this one was originally featured in the Blue Lagoon post, but since my Blue Lagoon footage was scarce (I spent all my time enjoying the swim rather than filming), I combined my Reykjavik footage with it.