Thoughts from a 33 Hour Layover In Reykjavik

I told myself that I booked the flight to Madrid that included a 33 hour layover in Reykjavik because it saved a few hundred dollars. The truth is that I booked it because I wanted to make sure to see Iceland one more time.

The trip was a bit more complicated than I had hoped it would be, as I realized in Seattle that I had left my drivers license home in Montana. A few cancellations and bookings later, I had a plan to see Iceland, a new place to stay in the city, and no rental car.

Iceland is built for tourists to enjoy their stay, as my trip showed. I landed at Keflavik Airport at 6:45, was on a Flybus headed to the city by 7:30, dropped off my bags at the central terminal by 8:15 in an automated machine, and was on my tour bus for South Iceland by 9. While I didn’t have the freedom a rental car would have provided, the tour of South Iceland didn’t disappoint, and the excellent tourist infrastructure let me have a full day of great experiences despite my mistake.

By the end of the day’s trip, though, the combination of no sleep and a wave of unexpected nostalgia had me feeling pretty beaten down when I arrived at my guesthouse, which was not quite as organized as the rest of my trip had been. I wandered out for a hot dog with brown sauce and onions both ways and crashed before I could do much more thinking, always a dangerous game when you’re feeling down.

This morning, with eight blessed hours of sleep, I wandered around the city to see a few of my favorite spots under some incredible blue skies and sun. I wandered down to the Sandholt Bakery for a sandwich and pastry, the Haarpa concert hall for some wonderful views, and the Einar Jansson Sculpture Garden for a bit of contemplation. If you’ve never been to Reykjavik (and you will), I can’t recommend the Sculpture Garden enough. It’s filled with interesting sculptures and a huge number of local cats who apparently congregate their during the day before heading home. I’ve never been there without seeing a few cats walking down the sidewalk either away from or towards the garden, almost as if they are workers headed in for a shift to gossip with each other and laze about in the sun.

This morning, as I wandered Reykjavik, it seems like the entire city is preparing for—and excited about—the city’s annual Pride Day and parade. Government buildings and businesses all seem to be flying flags, and Icelanders old and young are wearing rainbow colors. I’ll just miss the parade to catch my flight, but I’m glad to have caught a bit of the spirit.

Some of the melancholy I was feeling yesterday evening was no doubt the realization that I may not make it back to Iceland again (other than a 7 hour layover on the return trip), as there is so much else to see in the world. I’ll never regret a moment of any of the trips here. My first trip, to Ireland, may have taught me that I should indeed travel, but Iceland cemented that desire. Whether it’s been staying in some of the strangest AirBnb apartments imaginable, feeling the most intense sense of isolation on the edge of Iceland in the Westfjords, or having a White Russian at the Lebowski Bar in Reykjavik, this country continues to impress me with the wonder it generates and the weirdness it celebrates.

A few thoughts for future Iceland travelers, since Iceland is one of the few places I feel comfortable talking about in terms of advice:

  • You may hear that Iceland is overrun with tourists, and for a moment yesterday I was thinking the same thing, as in the three years since I first visited, there seems to have been noticeable growth. I realized laster, though, that it’s hardly overrun. On a beautiful day, in the height of tourist season, parking lots were not filled and I always felt like I had space to walk and think. When I compared that to Logan Pass in the summer time, I realized the absurdity of feeling like Iceland is too filled with tourists.
  • Icelanders are friendly. In a lot of ways, they remind me of Montanans from small towns. What may seem like standoffishness is probably just a little shyness or reserve. Most of the people here are incredibly willing to help if you have question or talk if you’d like.
  • Do not eat the kjammi, but you absolutely must try the hákarl. The latter is undoubtedly worse, but you’ll feel like a real Viking when you eat it. Even if you’re a vegetarian here, you really owe it to yourself to eat fish, lamb, and yes, hot dogs here.
  • Reykjavik Roasters is as good a cup of coffee as you’ll get anywhere. There is a reason they usually have a line out the door. It’s also hard to pass up Mokka Kaffi, open (and seemingly unchanged) since 1958, and the first place to offer espresso in Iceland.
  • Get out of Reykjavik and the southwest corner of the island. My guide yesterday said that 75% of people who visit Iceland never make it farther than two hours from the city. Reykjavik is a cool, quirky city, but you absolutely want to get farther away than Vik and the Golden Circle. Once you make it out a bit farther, whether towards the Westfjords or the Snæfellsnes Peninsula, you’ll really experience the island—and won’t have to worry about meeting tour buses on those crazy one-way bridges.
  • The weather is no joke. Icelanders are prone, like Montanans, to joke that if you don’t like the weather, wait fifteen minutes and it will change. The changes here are more powerful and far more sudden. Always have rain gear, no matter how blue the sky when your day starts.
  • Hitchhiking may be getting more difficult. One of the things former students have asked me about in recent years is whether or not you can hitchhike here. While it’s still probably one of the best places in the world for it, anecdotally at least it seemed people were struggling to get rides yesterday. I spoke to a group of French women who had been waiting for a ride in Vik for four hours yesterday, one of whom had hitchhiked here before, and she said that this trip was the most challenging she’d had. That being said, were I young and planning to come back, I’d certainly try.
  • As great as Keflavik is for arrivals, it can be an absolute mess for departures, with crazy lines headed nowhere and a very unclear sense of direction. My tip: if you’re carrying a bag that could conceivably be called odd or oversized (and most packs and duffels seem to qualify), take it to the special entrance for those bags in the corner of the lobby. The line there is rarely more than 4-5 people.