Slowly, slowly winter day opens his arctic eye.
From the moment when he gives his first drowsy blink to the time when his leaden lids have finally opened wide, there passes not merely hour after hour; no, age follows age through the immeasurable expanses of the morning, world follows world, as in the visions of a blind man; reality follows reality and is not more – the light grows brighter.
Halldor Laxness, “Independent People”
If you are flying to Iceland from the United States, chances are you will be arriving painfully early in the morning. The ultra-cheap WOW Air transatlantic flights arrive around 5, at which time you are dying to sleep, everything outside of the airport is closed, and your lodgings won’t let you check in until at least noon. On top of that, if you are traveling in the winter, you are in for several more hours of darkness. One option is to pay for a room for the previous night, so you could go directly there and sleep, but if you want to save money, there is an easy way to stay awake until your much needed nap. Moreover, early morning in Iceland, especially in winter, can be a perfect, dreamlike way to start your trip.
When you exit the plane at Keflavik Airport, you come out to an open area with multiple restaurants with really good food (honestly) – and yes, they are open at 5 in the morning! The choices would be impressive for any airport but are downright stunning for an artic island. Head for Joe and the Juice for freshly squeezed juices and a shot of espresso. When I saw “passion fruit” as one of the ingredients, I assumed some kind of frozen flavor paste was used – until I saw a bowl of fresh passion fruit right there on the counter, next to oranges, grapefruit and apples. The coffee is also high quality, and you will need it for your lightless drive to Reykjavik.
Another stop you should make at the airport is the Duty Free store. Ask any of the cashiers for a sim card with data. The smallest value, about 10 dollars, is plenty for a week. I use an older iPhone, unlocked for free with the help of the phone company, and buy data sim cards in any country I visit. Remember to bring a standard paper clip to open the sim slot – you don’t want to find yourself scavenging counters at a foreign airport!
After you get your luggage, it’s time to pick up your car. If you’ve gone with the most economical option in Keflavik airport and prepaid for a car with Sixt, you can wait for a van that picks passengers up every 15 minutes. Or you can simply come outside and walk 600 meters across the parking lot to their office. The deals on car rentals are great in the winter, and Sixt, the cheapest option, was beyond reproach. For 200 dollars a week we got a pristine 4-door sedan with seat warmers and fully digital displays, including distance estimator for fuel. Icelandic roads are kept groomed even in a snowstorm, so the cheapest model is perfectly sufficient. It won’t be allowed on F-roads (mountain roads), but most of those are closed in the winter anyway.
By the time you’ve rented your car, it should be nearing 7 a.m. Reykjavik is about 40 minutes of leisurely driving through a desolate landscape of black mossy rock fields, possibly covered in snow. Even if the actual sunrise time is not for another 2 hours, you will begin to see light in the sky. As vividly described by Halldór Laxness, a winter arctic sunrise is a gradual, expansive experience of hopeful light, a true gift to all lovers of mornings. As you approach Reykjavik on highway 40, take a left on 49 (Miklabraut), then stay to the right on Gamla Hringbraut and take the first right at the roundabout, onto Njarðargata. This way you will enter the city through a quiet neighborhood and get a view of the towering Hallgrimskirkja, the famous church. Turn left at the plaza, curve around the Leif Eriksson statue, and turn right on Bergþórugata. Here you can find street parking, as well as friendly cats, waiting for their people to wake up and let them into warm apartments. In fact, one cat was so happy to see us that she attempted to get into the back seat of the car when I opened the door, leaving a muddy paw print as a little gift for the remainder of our trip.
Street parking in Reykjavik is very simple, with instructions in English posted explicitly. You simply pay with a credit card for the amount of hours you want and display the receipt on the dashboard. Parking is priced by zones, not by spots, and zones are really pricing levels, not geographical areas. So if you’ve already paid for Zone 2 parking on one street for several hours, you can move your car to a Zone 2 spot on another street and continue using the same receipt. And if the time you’ve paid for extends into a free period, such as Sunday, no problem – the system will automatically set your expiration for some time Monday, using your money only for hours that are not free. So go ahead and pay for at least 4 hours – you are not likely to waste any money.
You are now parked near Sundhöllin, the oldest public baths in Iceland. When I visited in early 2016, construction was underway for an expansion, but the pool remains open until they are completed in mid 2017. If you’ve arrived on a weekday, the pool has already opened. On weekends it opens at 8 a.m. Grab your swimsuit, some clean clothes, and a towel if you brought it – if not, you can rent one at the pool. You don’t need flip-flops at an Icelandic pool – nobody uses them. Instead, they keep everything obsessively clean.
Walk down the street, past a school, to the minimalist white art deco building. If you’ve arrived shortly before the pool opens, you will be waiting outside with a few other eager swimmers, bathers, and possibly a diver or two, getting ready for a Scuba class. Once inside, you can pay with a credit card for a day pass and a towel if you need it. Take off your boots and leave them in the anteroom before the locker room. Do not under any circumstances walk into the locker room in your shoes! You will incur the wrath of other guests and pool staff. Another sure way to annoy people is to take pictures inside. So put your phone away and don’t take it out. Once you’ve undressed, grab your towel, bathing suit and hair tie, put your locker key on your wrist or ankle, walk towards the showers and place your items into a cubby hole in the shower area. Yes, remain naked! Now use the soap provided in the giant communal soap dispenser and wash yourself thoroughly, including your genitals and your hair. No, the showers do not have doors. Or curtains. And you are naked, washing your butt. This is how things are done here, and nobody is going to stare. Chances are not many people are around, so it’s a good way to ease into it, but there could be a group of school children, or a parent with a baby, or a very old person showering across from you. Nobody cares that you are naked. But everybody will care if you don’t clean yourself properly before entering the pool, and they will inform you of how things are done here in Iceland. The price of shame is small for the reward of incredibly clean, low chlorine pools and hot tubs.
After your shower, you can put on your swimsuit and tie up your hair and head into the main hall with the long lap pool and giant windows. Leave your towel in the cubby – visitors don’t take them to the pool, but you will need it afterwards. This pool has been open since 1937 and, until the expansion, has remained largely unchanged since. It was designed by Guðjón Samúelsson, the creator of the expressionist church you saw earlier, and the first person from Iceland to become a trained architect. If you feel like some exercise, you can swim a few laps, or head directly upstairs to the outdoor hot tub and steam room terrace. The steam room here is small and simple but very hot – there is a shower on the terrace you should use after each time you visit it. But the two hot tubs have a glorious view of the city and for you, the brave early bird, the final stage of the sunrise. There will be plenty of people here, as Icelanders enjoy hot tubs as a national pastime and a social venue. You can start getting to know the locals right away – they will be happy to talk to you.
After you’ve enjoyed yourself thoroughly, take your time getting dressed. It’s not advisable to rush after the vascular expansion adventure you’ve just had. In the lobby of the pool is an exhibit of the history of the pool and swimming in Iceland. Now you are feeling warm and stepping outside into the crisp air will feel great. But you might also be getting sleepy again. Luckily, you’re just two blocks away from the best coffee Reykjavik has to offer. Stop by your car to drop your swim stuff, grab your book and smart phone, and walk another block to Reykjavik Roasters. Here, apart from the best coffee in town, you will also find some good choices for your second breakfast – croissants, danishes, apple cake, scones, yogurt with granola, oatmeal, as well as slices of country bread served with butter, blueberry jam, and cheese. Here you can relax for a couple of hours and enjoy mochas, lattes, people watching, WiFi and reading. In Iceland, coffee is more than a stimulating drink – it is an important social ritual and the lifeblood of survival in a harsh climate with many dark and gloomy days. Although isolated and too poor for most items of world trade, Icelandic families have been roasting imported coffee since the 18th century. By the 19th century, everyone, including children, was drinking coffee multiple times a day. If, like me, you decide to embark on reading a Halldór Laxness novel while in Iceland, you will find coffee at breakfast, at lunch, served at every home to every guest, as the main drink at a wedding, and indeed the chief source of inspiration:
“Presently the small of coffee began to fill the room. This was morning’s hallowed moment. In such a fragrance the perversity of the world is forgotten, and the soul is inspired with faith in the future…”
― Halldór Laxness, Independent People
With some coffee in you, whiling away the last couple of hours will be bearable. If you get tired of sitting, you are just minutes away from the main shopping street, Laugavegur, and from Hallgrimskirkja. The church opens at 9 and is wonderful to visit in the morning before many tourists. You can go up on the observation tower and get the best view of Reykjavik on your first day.
Hopefully your lodging allows you check in by noon. I always use AirBnb, which has numerous options in Reykjavik, most with pretty early check in times, such as noon. On your first day after an overnight flight, noon to 4 is a great time to get a well-deserved nap.
When you wake up a few hours later, you can enjoy a twilight walk through Reykjavik as you head to an early dinner. I recommend that you make your way down to Tjörnin, a lake in the center of town. Around it you will find City Hall, the Icelandic Parliament, several museums and the lovely Free Church. Part of the lake if always unfrozen and is home to eiders, swans, and many arctic birds. If the ice is thick enough, you may catch a game of ice cricket.
Going to dinner around 5 p.m. will allow you to try out one of Reykjavik’s popular restaurants without a reservation. One suggestion I make is 3 Frakkar, a traditional Icelandic restaurant centered on fish. Here you can try many of the exotic things you’ve heard about, such as fermented shark, and even whale and puffin, but you can also enjoy more palatable and less horrifying dishes with a variety of seafood and vegetables, as well as a great vegetarian entrée. As an interesting fact, this was the chess champion Bobby Fischer’s favorite restaurant, and the last photo of him ever taken was here.
If you’ve had dinner early – and the restaurant staff probably fed you quickly to make room for patrons with reservations – you can walk three blocks to Red Rock Cinema, a private movie theater owned and run by an old filmmaker who has spent his life filming volcanic eruptions in Iceland. There is another, newer volcano eruption movie showing in the harbor about the 2011 eruptions, but Red Rock is definitely the more intimate and historic experience. The filmmaker, Villi Knudsen, has been called “the Steve Zissou of Icelandic volcanoes”. He has been filming Iceland’s dramatic geological events since childhood with his father, also a filmmaker, sometimes taking truly crazy risks to get close to bursting lava, overflowing rivers, and boiling earth. He staffs his cinema and studio himself every night, along with his cats, and is happy to chat with visitors. The show starts at 7 – note that this will be one of the only places in Iceland you will need cash, 1500 ISK per person.
By now you might think your days is over. But if you’ve come from North America, your jet leg will now begin to work in your favor. And after all, you’ve come here in the winter to get a glimpse of the Northern Lights! You can’t go to bed yet.
When you make your way back to your dwelling, I suggest you put on your long underwear, if you haven’t already. Then you should drive out to Seltjarnarnes, a little peninsula home to two things you want – a 24-hour supermarket and a lighthouse. First, stop by Hagkaup, right on the main road, which has a great selection of fruits, vegetables, organic and specialty foods, a bakery, and many curious Icelandic specialties such as vacuum packed lamb’s head split in half. I love going to grocery stores in foreign countries – it’s like an ethnographic museum! If you plan to eat breakfast at home and to go on long day trips, you should grab the ever-popular Skyr and something to pack into a lunch. Iceland is expensive and very sparsely populated, so bringing your own snacks is always smart.
Once you’ve loaded up on food, you can continue along the north edge of the peninsula until you come to a dark parking lot. Even though it is nearing 11, there will be many visitors here, inspiration-point style. But most people are not here to make out – they are waiting for aurora borealis to make an appearance. It will be blustery for sure, and probably pretty slippery on the path, but you should take a walk to the Grotta lighthouse and hang out for as long as you can stand it. If you wait until midnight and nothing shows up, you can go home to your well-earned rest. You still have the rest of your trip to see the mysterious green lights. And if you do happen to see it, you will have had the most complete day imaginable after a transatlantic flight.