A weekend in Reykjavík, Iceland

Typically when I fly to Europe from Canada, I almost always depart from Montreal and land in France. Considering the geopolitical situation in Western Europe right now, the idea of spending time in the airports and train stations of France or Germany is not particularly appealing.

Thanks to WOW airlines, a low-cost airline operating out of Iceland, there are now very cheap flights departing from Montreal and Toronto to Reykjavík. The overnight flight from Montreal, crossing Labrador and Greenland’s rugged terrain, takes about four and a half hours.

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Once your plane finally does land in Iceland, you’ll find yourself in a EU country that is part of the Schengen Zone, with plenty of other budget airlines flying in and out of destinations from mainland Europe. When you add up the cheap flight out of Montreal, the short distance (4.5 hours instead of 7 or 8), the access to other European budget airlines, and the appeal of an adventure so close to the arctic, flying to Reykjavík, Iceland becomes a very intriguing destination.

The view from my plane approaching Iceland at 5am.
The view from my plane approaching Iceland at 5am.

My flight touched down at Keflavik Airport at a little after 5am, local time. The airport itself was a bit chaotic, with duty free zones and passport control stations criss-crossing all over the place. In the centre of the duty free section, was a juice stand blasting techno music, in what I imagine was an attempt to amp up the energy level at 5am.

Keflavik Airport is a 45 minute bus ride outside of Reykjavík. The scenic journey takes you through Iceland’s treeless tundra. The bus dropped me off at the main terminal in the south end of the city. When I first got off the bus and looked around, I wondered what I had gotten myself into. The terminal is a run down building that looks like it belongs in the the poorest regions of Eastern Europe. Surrounding the terminal are fields of grass. There is no hustle and bustle or the grandiose architecture that you gear yourself up for when heading to the capital city of a European country.

Looking up the hill towards the city, I could see the top of the Hallgrímskirkja, Reykjavík’s dominant church steeple. With my suitcase in tow, I negotiated my way up the quiet city streets at 6am. I stopped at the Hallgrímskirkja and snapped a few photos. My airbnb apartment wouldn’t be open for check-in until early afternoon, so I had time to kill.

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I walked downhill, into the commercial district of the city, looking for some breakfast. The city was a ghost town with barely any people out and about and even fewer businesses opened. I finally found a Dunkin Donuts that was open. I grabbed a bit to eat and studied the tourist map I picked up in the airport.

The good thing about Reykjavík being such a small city is that it is extremely walkable. After I left the Dunkin Donuts, I set about to explore the city on foot. After a few hours, I had seen pretty much all of the important tourist sites. I was fortunate to get what is pretty much perfect weather for a Canadian tourist during my entire visit: sunshine with highs in the teens.

Parliament of Iceland
Parliament of Iceland
At the Parliament of Iceland
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The Catholic Cathedral

 

Nightlife in Reykjavík

 

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Austurstraeti at night

A word on the nightlife in Iceland’s capital. I had read before my trip that in Reykjavík, the weekend nights get crazy and that I was going to see some things. This turned out to be accurate. I’ve done a fair bit of traveling and have enjoyed nightlife in places such as Bangkok, Budapest and Berlin. Reykjavík was as memorable as any of those cities.  Here is what I witnessed in just two nights:

∙ Fall down drunk men and women. Women were falling down drunk inside bars and the security people paid no attention to it. Business as usual. It wasn’t just young people getting drunk. I saw a woman in her 40s or 50s fall down and collapse ass over tea kettle at around 4am on a sidewalk. Guys were staggering all over the place.
∙ People openly doing cocaine in the middle of the city’s main street.
∙ Thug pimps offering me up girls. One offered to have me meet a girl on the street at around 5am. At a bar another purposely pushed a working girl into me inside a bar, in the hopes that I’d be drunk enough to go along with it.
∙ People smashing beer bottles all over the streets and smashing their beer and wine glasses inside the bars. I had chards of glass wedged in the soles of my shoes that I had to dislodge with my keys.

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Like other European cities, Reykjavík allows you to open carry alcohol which I quite like. There are 24 hour convenience stores that sell beer all night. You can run up and down the street with a cheap beer in hand while you decide what bar to visit next. Bar hopping is easy, with just about every venue being within walking distance.

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The party goes on until well into the morning. Think 6 or 7am. Most people don’t even bother getting to the bars until after midnight. A good nap is key before heading out.

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Rest and Recovery

With all the walking I did, by day with my camera and in the evenings exploring the nightlife, I was pretty drained by the time Sunday arrived. I decided to spend the day relaxing at one of the city’s many thermal pools which have water temperatures of 36C-40C, heated by the thermal energy underneath Iceland’s rocky terrain. I ended up at a small neighbourhood pool called Vesturbaejarlaug. It has four hot tubs,  a steam bath, sauna and a gym. From what I could hear, most of the people there were locals, but there was still a fair number of American and German tourists taking a dip as well.

City Hall
City Hall

I also tried out a few coffee shops. A local chain called Te & Kaffi had some nice locations. One was on the third floor of a bookstore and souvenir shop on Austurstraeti, right in the city centre, featuring a huge rooftop patio and an open concept that gave way to lots of natural light. The coffee was pretty good too.

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Hot dogs are a popular snack in Iceland. They are larger than your typical baseball style dog you see in Canada and the US, but not as large as some of the Wurst type sausages you will see in Germany. According to one article “the hot dogs are made mostly with lamb (and sometimes with a little pork) and traditionally topped with mustard, ketchup, fried onion, raw onion and remolaði, a mayonnaise-based sauce with sweet relish.” The sweet relish is a really nice touch.

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I really enjoyed my weekend visit to Reykjavík. There is natural beauty everywhere you look, which is great for a hobby photographer like me. I definitely plan to return. With the convenience of the short, cheap flight by WOW airlines, it’s too good an opportunity to pass up. Flying to mainland Europe takes a lot more planning and you need to block out a significant chunk of time (weeks instead of days) to really make it worth your while. The shorter distance to Iceland is a game-changer. I expect visits to Iceland will be a regular occurrence for me in the coming years.

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