I stood, alone, my back toward Almannagjá, the rift and upthrust that separates North America from Europe in Iceland’s Thingvellir National Park, and gazed into Drekkingarhylurinn, the “drowning pool” where women convicted of high crimes such as witchcraft were put to death before the reformation of the penal system in the 19th century. Iceland is full of reminders that its people are at one remove from the struggle to wring a living from a cold, windswept, volcanic rock straddling the North Atlantic and Arctic oceans.
This was the second such reminder on an all-day bus tour of the so-called Golden Circle, a set of tourist attractions within easy driving distance of BSÍ, the central bus terminal in Reykjavík. The bus was full of enormous men, touring the countryside following a strongman exhibition for the national day on the 17th of June. After a brief stop at a tomato greenhouse with quite possibly the worst Bloody Marys ever served, we stopped at the geyser field at the end of the paved road toward the center of the island. One of the geysers, Strokkur, obligingly erupts every 10 minutes or so, sending a cascade of boiling water 100 feet into the air. My daughter and I stood, rapt, waiting for the next cycle, when we heard a woman’s exasperated voice.
“If you stand right there, you’re going to die, you goddamn half-wit,” she shouted in Icelandic. (I’d write her actual warning, but Icelandic has enough diacritics to freeze an American printing press forever.) I turned, shocked, grabbed my daughter and fled, just as thousands of liters of boiling water shot out of the ground and fell back onto us. I gathered my child under me as best I could and waited for the inevitable; fortunately, the air was so cold, even in mid-June, that the water was just pleasantly warm as it soaked us. The woman came running over as soon as the eruption had subsided, and I thanked her in Icelandic for the warning. “It’s nice to have you here,” she said, “but you must remember that Iceland will kill you if you don’t pay attention.”
It’s not hard to see the appeal of such a wild country. Two-thirds of its population lives in Reykjavík and its suburbs on the southwest coast; there is only one road encircling the island, it’s not paved the whole way, and it closes regularly because of weather conditions. There are thousands of places to go, hot springs to soak in, glaciers to hike and wildlife to observe. But everyone lands at Keflavík International Airport, an hour south of the city, and nearly everyone climbs aboard a Reykjavík Excursions FlyBus to get to the capital. While Iceland is huge and has tons to see, Reykjavík itself is a captivating city—but do get out and explore wild nature for a bit, even if all you do is stand in the mists of the Gullfoss waterfall. Just don’t stand in the path of the geyser.
FOOD AND DRINK
If you were to watch travel shows, you might think Icelandic cuisine is just the preserved food (called Thorramatur, the food served during the midwinter feast of the old culture) that develops when your choice is to preserve what you have or starve over winter. The kæstur hákarl, Greenland shark that’s been fermented, then wind-dried to remove its toxins, is the most (in)famous Icelandic dish; it’s so foul that even Anthony Bourdain could not force himself to swallow it. I managed to swallow one piece by drinking straight from the bottle of brennivín, the caraway-flavored local schnapps, to the great amusement of the other tourists and to the jaded eye-rolling of the servers.
Fljótt og Gott (BSÍ Bus Station, Vatnsmýrarvegur 10, 101 Reykjavík, 552 1288; fljottoggott.is), the café inside the bus station, serves an entire boiled sheep’s head, called svið. And there’s a restaurant, Café Loki (Lokastígur 28, 101 Reykjavík, 466 2828; loki.is) across the street from Hallgrímskirkja, the giant Lutheran church at the top of the hill, that serves all of the traditional Thorramatur: sviðasylta (pickled headcheese), harðfiskur (dried fish spread with butter), the aforementioned shark, etc.
But that’s not how Icelanders eat on the regular—well, except the harðfiskur with butter. Reykjavík is a cosmopolitan city despite its small size, and there are dozens of excellent restaurants throughout the city that incorporate Icelandic ingredients into truly gourmet cuisine. There are hundreds of restaurants in Reykjavík, so you are spoiled for choice. Three of the best are Matur og Drykkur (“Food and Drink”) in the Hotel Saga (Grandagarður 2, 101 Reykjavík, 571 8877; maturogdrykkur.is); Kol (Skólavörðustígur 40, 101 Reykjavík, 517 7474; kolrestaurant.is), down the hill from Hallgrímskirkja; and Bergsson Mathús (Templarasund 3, 101 Reykjavík, 571 1822; bergsson.is), near the town’s pond. The Reykjavík Fish Restaurant (Tryggvagata 4, 101 Reykjavík, 578 5656; reykjavikfish.is), near where the whale- and puffin-watching boats leave, serves the best fish and chips you’ll ever eat, with the fish literally having been swimming a few hours earlier. (Sorry, England. You lost in soccer, and you’ve lost in fish and chips.)
Iceland prohibited the sale of beer until 1989, preferring to have its people get drunk on hard liquor instead, and the result is a flourishing bar scene. Reykjavík’s bartenders are absolutely obsessed with fat-washed spirits, so it is not at all unlikely you will be tasting, for example, whiskey infused with lamb neck or genever with beef marrow. Of course, the famously pungent Icelandic herbs work their way in, too: Apotek (Austurstræti 16, 101 Reykjavík, 551 0011; apotekrestaurant.is), on Austurstræti downtown, is famous for its dill-flavored gin. Lebowski Bar (Laugavegur 20b, 101 Reykjavík, 552 2300; lebowski.is), further east on Laugavegur is, of course, the Icelandic home of the Dude, done over in eye-bending patterns (are those Persian rugs hanging on the wall?). Of course, there’s only one possible drink at a place named for the Big Lebowski: the white Russian. Borgarnes, an hour north of the city on the way to Snæfellsnes, is the home of Reyka Vodka, arguably the most eco-friendly distillery on the planet (though, sadly, closed to the general public).
While the beer scene in Iceland is nascent, the number of microbreweries is increasing, both famous labels such as Einstök and really (really, really, really) off-the-wall producers such as Brugghús Steðja, which makes beer flavored with whale testicles. You can try that one and let me know how it is; I quit the Andrew Zimmern routine after the fermented-shark debacle. Reykjavík is teeming with beer bars, from Kaldi Bar (Laugavegur 20b, 101 Reykjavík, 581 2200; kaldibar.com), which is a tasting room for a brewery north of Akureyri on the Arctic Circle, to MicroBar (Vesturgata 2, 101 Reykjavík, 865 8389), an appropriately tiny pub with an outsized list of beers located just off Ingólfstorg (Ingólfur Square).
One thing Reykjavík does not have is a flourishing gay bar scene. The only expressly gay bar, Kiki (Laugavegur 22, 101 Reykjavík, 571 0194; kiki.is), on Klapparstígur, is mostly full of gay tourists looking to go home with an Icelandic man-giant for the night. The Icelandic men-giants, however, are nowhere to be seen. It’s not that Reykjavík is gay-unfriendly; it’s just the opposite. Equality is so pervasive in Icelandic society that there’s no need for gay people to segregate themselves into private bars; if a gay man walks up to a straight man in a regular bar and hits on him, generally, the straight man will laugh it off and say he’s sorry, but he only dates women.
Regardless of where you drink at night, you will be hungry when you come out, and as it is all over the northern latitudes, the drunk food of choice is sausages, with some of the stands open as late as 5 a.m. Icelandic sausages (pylsur) are snappy lamb sausages tucked inside flimsy buns lined with your choice of fried onions, chopped onions, mustard, ketchup and remolaði, which is mayonnaise with sweet pickle relish stirred into it. Go to Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur (Tryggvagata 1, 101 Reykjavík, 511 1566; bbp.is), which translates as "the town’s best sausages,” and order the way the Icelanders do: eina með öllu (one with everything).
The weather in Iceland sucks; there’s no other word to describe it. The warmest it has ever been in Reykjavík is 78 degrees Fahrenheit; if the temperature staggers above 60, people are suddenly outside basking in the warmth. By Southern California standards, it is frigid all year round. You get used to it, eventually. Rain and snow can happen in an instant, even in summer, and with them comes cruel, biting wind. Fashion, therefore, is a matter of layers.
What you need on top, though, is a lopapeysa, one of the beautiful yoke-necked sweaters that two out of three people on the street are wearing on any chilly day. They’re made out of lopi, untreated wool from Icelandic sheep, and they are somehow incredibly warm yet still breathable. The place to start is Handprjónasamband Íslands (Skólavörðustígur 19, 101 Reykjavik, 552 1890; handknit.is), the store of the Hand-Knitting Association of Iceland, on Laugavegur, the main street of Reykjavík. A handmade lopapeysa will set you back between $150 and $300, depending on the style, number of colors and size. If there isn’t one there ready-made in your size, you can always have one made to measure for the same price. It will take a few weeks, though, so pay for shipping. You can also buy them at Thorvaldsens Bazar (Austurstræti 4, 101 Reykjavík, 551 3509; thorvaldsens.is), 66º North, and Álafoss (Álafossvegur, 270 Mosfellsbær, 566 6303; alafoss.is), in the northern suburb of Mosfellsbær. If you’re the crafty type, you can buy patterns and plötulopi wool and knit your own. You can also buy wool blankets, gloves, mittens, hats and anything else that can be made from wool.
So what do Icelanders do during the long, dark winter nights, when the sun is only up three or four hours per day? They write. One out of every 10 Icelanders will publish a book in his or her lifetime. Reading is so important to Icelanders that one of the most cherished Christmas traditions is the jólabókaflóð—the Christmas book flood. Publishers ramp up production of books, and a book is the traditional Christmas Eve gift; you unwrap your present and spend the rest of the night reading.
Mál og Menning ("Language and Culture,” Laugavegur, 101 Reykjavík, 552 3740; bmm.is) is the largest bookstore in Iceland, and it has offerings in Icelandic and English; it’s the only place you’ll find good English translations of many Icelandic writers, some of whom translated their books themselves. But the place to really dive into a book is Iða Zimsen (Vesturgata 2a, 101 Reykjavík, 511 5004), a combination bookstore and café near the Kolaportið flea market. Buy your book, then sit down against the window with a cup of good coffee and a slice of cake (with whipped cream—this is a Nordic country after all) and read.
Icelanders are also musicians; the stunningly beautiful Harpa Tónlistahús (Austurbakki 2, 101 Reykjavík, 528 5050; harpa.is) concert hall plays host to not only the Iceland Symphony Orchestra, but also to local musicians, standup comedians, lecturers and foreign pop musicians.
Branch out from Björk and Sigur Rós, though: Icelandic music swings from driving metal to ethereal abstract music, from singer/songwriters to blues. The best place to shop for music you won’t find in the U.S. is at 12 Tónar (Skólavörðustígur 15, 101 Reykjavík, 511 5656; 12tonar.is), a two-story house near the church where you can listen to any album you want before purchasing. On a cold day, it’s rejuvenating to sit inside listening to Ásgeir Trausti and sipping on a (free) cup of coffee.
MUSEUMS AND ACTIVITIES
Let’s get this out of the way immediately: Yes, there is a penis museum in Reykjavík, and yes, it is full of penises and penis-related art. The Iceland Phallological Museum (Laugavegur 116, 105 Reykjavík, 561 6663; phallus.is) is exactly what it is meant to be—a collection of about 300 penises—and it is worth a short (HA!) visit, though it might be better to wait until Jonah Falcon donates his world-record holder, as he has promised.
Prurient interests aside, the Saga Museum (Grandagarður 2, 101 Reykjavík, 511 1517; sagamuseum.is), near the docks, explains Icelandic history. Iceland has been settled for only about 1,200 years, and the museum features lifelike tableaux of certain key moments in Icelandic history, including the Christianization of the country and the first parliament ("Thing”) at Thingvellir. Though these are replicas, the clothing on the figures and the weapons in their hands were all manufactured without modern technology to preserve authenticity as much as possible. It’s a nice introduction to the Icelandic National Museum (Suðurgata 41, 101 Reykjavík, 530 2200; thjodminjasafn.is), located south of the center city toward the University of Iceland, which is a little more traditional in its telling of the story.
Hallgrímskirkja (Hallgrímstorg 101, 101 Reykjavík, 510 1000; hallgrimskirkja.is), the central cathedral of the Lutheran Church of Iceland, is located on the top of the tallest hill in the center city; you can’t miss it. On a rare clear day, go up to the top of its tower and look out on Reykjavík spread before you. And if you hear music coming from the enormous pipe organ, it’s the church organist practicing. The church is open to everyone, so organ practice turns into a miniature concert that tends to draw crowds of tourists.
Finns have their saunas; Icelanders have their swimming pools. Because hot water pours forth from the earth, there’s no lack of heated places to swim. Every town in Iceland has at least one public swimming pool; Sundhöll Reykjavíkur (Barónsstígur 45a, 101 Reykjavík, 411 5350) is the oldest in the capital. Be warned: Icelanders don’t poison their pool water with chlorine, so you must shower and scrub down fully nude before putting on your bathing suit and going into the pool. The only way into the pool area is through the showers, there are attendants there to make sure you scrub up, and no, they don’t care about your love handles or your big, fat, American ass. You’ll want to shower afterward as well since the water tends to be alkaline in Iceland.
There’s also a swimming beach in Reykjavík, Nauthólsvík (101 Reykjavík, 511 6630; nautholsvik.is), where overflow from the adjacent geothermal hot tubs flows into the Atlantic Ocean. The air temperature is frigid, but the water temperature is actually warmer than it is off the coast of Orange County. Sisu!
Note: All telephone numbers are country code 354; from the U.S., dial 011 354 and the number.