When I was in Junior High School, Hard Rock Cafe T-Shirts were all the rage. People tried to get the most obscure location shirt they could find, to impress friends I suppose. I didn’t participate in this particular fad, but a shirt I saw a friend wear one day left a lasting impression with me. The crisp white shirt featured the traditional Hard Rock logo and underneath was printed ‘Reykjavik.’ I was entranced. I had heard of this place before, but had no idea where it was and knew nothing about it. All I knew about Reykjavik was that it was tiny and far away and that I would probably never see it in person.
While the Reykjavik Hard Rock Cafe closed a few years ago, I finally found myself in the Icelandic capital after decades of pining. I think most people have some sort of preconceived notion of what the city must be like, but no one has a really clear idea until they visit. It’s not like Paris, the star of countless movies and books and featured prominently in popular culture. Reykjavik is a quiet destination. It’s popular, but not ostentatious, making it a travel mystery unless actually visited. With that in mind, I want to share with you all my impressions of Reykjavik, Iceland.
We first arrived into town a little after eight in the morning, yet it still looked and felt as if it were the middle of the night. Light is a fleeting friend of Iceland in the winter, and daybreak doesn’t usually happen until almost ten in the morning. Since the international airport at Keflavik is forty minutes from Reykjavik, most visitors take the Fly Bus into town, which means almost everyone spends time at the Central Bus Terminal. The terminal is a central meeting point for tourists as they take advantage of the many tours offered to whisk them around to various Icelandic locales. It’s a strange commonality, but in a mirror of Icelandic society it places everyone on an equal level, no matter their background.
From the bus station, another van took us to our hotel, although the graffiti on the wall next door surprised me when the driver announced that we had arrived. The hotel was close to the city center and had an unassuming appearance from the outside. Like many businesses in Iceland though, the drab exterior cleverly hid a veritable gallery of Nordic design inside. That’s a nuance of Reykjavik I enjoyed, subtle design attributes added to buildings and sites around town purely for aesthetic reasons. Nothing gaudy or over the top, just gentle gestures that make life a little more enjoyable.
Walking around town, the first thing I noticed was that many buildings had corrugated iron siding painted in a rainbow of colors. The lack of trees in Iceland has long complicated the building process, so concrete and iron have been a necessary tool. Instead of creating an oppressive, utilitarian feel, the architecture still manages to be soft and vibrant, with clear traces of Scandinavian influence throughout.
Iceland has an interesting history, a fact most Icelanders will offer to share at a moment’s notice. Denmark was the last country to assert authority over the island nation and after some experiments with home rule and near sovereignty; Iceland finally became a totally independent republic in 1944. People in Reykjavik are proud of their long history, with constant allusions to Viking ancestors, to whom surely everyone must be related. That’s because not many people live in Iceland, just 320,000 with two-thirds of them in Reykjavik. This makes the whole country feel like a giant small town where everyone knows your name.
In the middle of the historic core in Reykjavik, there are no skyscrapers or massive towers. Instead modest sized buildings line the streets and seagulls fly overhead. Iceland is a water nation, and Reykjavik a water town. It’s everywhere, from the smells and salty breezes to the breathtaking views across the bay. The sea is a part of the identity of Iceland and it’s impossible to miss as you wander around town.
If this post seems a bit rambly, that’s because it is, that’s also how I explored Reykjavik. I didn’t have a map or a goal; I just bundled up and started walking. I walked past the mammoth church, the Hallgrímskirkja, through a sculpture garden, around quiet neighborhoods, circumnavigated the city pond and sat staring at a flock of cranky geese bullying some ducks. I looked around and didn’t see any security, very few cops, nothing that pointed towards fear or violence. I looked at the people who, while not necessarily exuding warmth, were always willing to answer a question or help us out. As I sat there a dad with his young son approached, bundled up almost to the point of absurdity. They pulled out a bag of bread and started pelting the ducks and geese with nuggets of stale rolls. Whenever the little boy hit one in the head he’d laugh and look around. He caught my eye and waved, I waved back and smiled. It was a simple moment but it will be forever how I think of Reykjavik.
So what’s Reykjavik like? It’s a walkable city with character, the tough northern kind that doesn’t take any crap. It’s a real city, the downtown is used just as much as the suburbs. Things don’t close at 5pm and instead there’s real life downtown. It’s a city of pride, both of its history and the future with the dogmatic belief that things can’t get any worse, so why not hope for the best. But to really learn what Reykjavik is like, you’ll just have to visit for yourself.
Have you been to Reykjavik? What did you think?