Reykjavik – the World’s Northernmost Capital City
Nearly two thirds of Iceland’s inhabitants live in the capital, Reykjavik, regarded as one of the greenest, cleanest and safest cities on the planet. In winter, there are hardly 4 hours of sunlight a day. On the contrary, if you happen to visit it around the summer solstice, you will find yourself in a city where the sun never completely sets at all. This enables tourists to make the most of their time in Iceland’s capital city, before embarking on the customary trip around the Icelandic Ring Road which skirts the whole island.
The major sightseeing area in Reykjavik is the western district of Miðborg, the city’s historical centre. Hljómskálagarður park, with its Tjörnin lake, is a good starting point, as you can sit on a bench and get your bearings on a map before venturing out on a walking route which will take you to the most interesting places in the city. At one end of the lake stands Iceland University (Háskóli Íslands) while, if you cross the bridge over it, you come to the National Gallery of Iceland, housing exhibits by the country’s most famous artists and a performance centre for traditional Icelandic culture. Standing next to it is the Reykjavik Free Church, founded in 1899, an alternative to the National Lutheran Church.
Iceland’s Parliament, known as the Alþingi, is located just a few blocks away. Built of dressed stone, it dates from 1881, although the institution itself goes back to the year 930 and is one of the oldest elected assemblies in the world.
Time for a Snack
Whether in summer or winter, one’s notion of time is somewhat warped in Iceland, on account of the marked changes in daylight hours. If there is one thing sacred in life it is snacking and Reykjavik is no exception. Heading along Lækjargata street, you come across the striking Harpa concert and conference hall, but press on towards the city’s harbour. Shortly before arriving, you pass by one of the must-see sights of the city, a hotdog stand known as Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur. Alright – we know it’s just a boiled sausage served in a typical bun smothered in various sauces, and it’s eaten outdoors, but at number 1 Tryggvagata street hundreds of sausages are served every day and long queues build up at the hotdog stand. This is undoubtedly one of the most popular gastronomic customs in Reykjavik and the most famous sausage in Iceland.
After building up your strength, it is time to continue exploring the city. The harbour is divided between the districts of Miðborg and Vesturbær. The latter is home to the Vikin Maritime Museum in which cod fishing is accorded special importance. You can taste Icelandic codfish in one of the restaurants in the harbour area, as well as other typical dishes such as lobster soup, salmon and lamb. To round off the experience, you can hire a fishing rod and while away the afternoon, or set sail on a whale-sighting excursion in Faxaflói bay.
The main area with bars is Austurstræti street and environs, while the shopping area is scattered along Laugavegur and Skólavörðustígur street. Prominent among the stores selling garments, design and food is the Álafoss wool store, the best known and traditional Icelandic wool brand. Here you can also purchase a typical Icelandic jersey, known as a Lopapeysa.
Before nightfall, you should wrap up your visit by taking in the best views of the city, which are afforded by the vantage point that is Hallgrímskirkja Church. Access to the belfry costs ISK 600 (about €4), but it is well worth the price. You could end off the day in an inviting pop-up restaurant where you can taste a peculiar fusion between Basque and Icelandic cuisine. Sumendi, as it is called, organises several dinners during the year.
If you make the journey in summer, the sun will be a constant throughout your stay, so you’d best wind up the day at the famous sculpture known as Sólfar (The Sun Voyager), evocative of places to be discovered and countries to be seen, like those Vueling brings you close to through its air routes.
Haritz Rodriguez is a travel journalist and blogger with over 17 years’ experience in radio, television, press and internet. He is an editor of Tokitan.tv and director of the Barking Blogs communication studio.more info
Spark Design Space
Since a Professor of the Academy of Arts opened it in 2010, Spark is stop compulsory in the Icelandic for the most avant-garde because it is the only Gallery in the city. Designers and artists of all kinds show their different projects and events that play with our most primary senses. Thus, it works as a platform of support for local initiatives that involve collaboration between the creators and professionals who are in it. The exhibitions are temporary and usually last about two months, after which products in your store can be purchased.
In addition, local could not be better located, in the heart of Reykjavik next to Laugavegur, the main shopping street, and 10-minute walk from the port.
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Dreams of Lava & Ice in the Icelandic Highlands
Iceland is prolific in place-names which are difficult to pronounce, recall and, of course, spell. Landmannalaugar is one of these but, once you have travelled to this oasis nestling in multi-coloured mountains, where spouting thermal springs, sulphurous vapours and fumaroles melt the ice, this musical, fifteen-letter name becomes a simple word you will never forget. On the contrary – each time you utter it, hear it or read it, you will be transported to that natural paradise which has irremediably become part of your very existence.
Landscapes From Another Planet
Here, in this remote spot, which can only be reached in a 4x4 vehicle – in summer, several 4x4 buses ply the route daily from Hella – begins one of the most popular and spectacular hiking trails in the country and, indeed, on the planet.
Officially, it is known as Laugavegur, which translates roughly to “thermal waters route”. It is usually negotiated from north to south for a distance of 56 km as far as Þórsmörk. The hike then continues another 26 km from there to Skógar along a trail known as Fimmvörðuháls. Along this route, which takes from 4 to 6 days, endless scenic surprises await the traveller, from rhyolite mountains with indescribable colours to fields of fumaroles, glaciers and waterfalls, and deserts of lava and active volcanoes.
Laugavegur is the most popular stretch of the trail and is divided into four accessible stages of from 12 to 15 km, with stopovers at Hrafntinnusker, Álftavatn, Emstrur and Þórsmörk. Experienced walkers can complete two stages in one go as there are few slopes and the daylight hours are particularly long in the northern summer. Þórsmörk has a station for 4x4 buses so you can take one back to Hella.
Continuing along the Fimmvörðuháls trail from the Þórsmörk valley, the slope becomes steeper and some areas are more exposed and windswept. This stretch can be divided into two spectacular stages with a stopover at the Fimmvörðuháls shelter. This stage is probably one of the most amazing ones in trekking. It takes you past the Mýrdallsjokull and Eyjafjallajokull glaciers, and across a lava field that emerged during the famous 2010 eruption – which grounded so many flights – culminating in a long descent on which you can admire a total of 24 spectacular waterfalls, with the legendary Skógafoss as the final flourish.
Dates: Open from June to September.
Difficulty: In good weather, the route is easy as far as Þórsmörk, and moderate up to Skógar.
Weather: Weather conditions in the Icelandic Highlands can change drastically in a few hours, even in summer. You should keep checking the weather report at shelters and abide by warnings issued by rangers and the shelter managers.
Navigation: The route is signposted in early summer with yellow stakes placed every few metres. In the event of being overtaken by fog or bad weather, it is useful to have GPS with route tracking. However, bear in mind that the route can vary slightly from year to year, particularly at river crossings.
Gear: Essential to have mountain footwear and warm clothing.
Food: There are no restaurants or grocery stores anywhere along the trail, and they do not serve food in the emergency shelters. However, you can pay for camping or an overnight with a credit card. Thus, you have to be self-sufficient and stock up with all the food you are going to need during the hike (reckon on a minimum of 1 kg per person per day).
A Roof Over Your Head: You need to book in advance to sleep at the shelters along the route. For certain summer dates, this requires booking several months ahead and the trekking agencies usually hog most of the available places.
Camping: There are camping areas around the shelters and they are always pay sites. You don’t need to book ahead, however. Some have showers and rubbish collection. Others only have drinking water and toilets. It is advisable to take a light tent that can withstand strong winds.
Rivers: Avoid crossing rivers at their narrowest point, as that is where they are deepest. You should wear tightly-fitting waterproof sandals to prevent them being ripped off by the current.
Guided Treks: If you prefer to travel light – without having to carry food or camping equipment – want to ensure a reservation in the shelters along the way and enjoy the company of a guide, the specialised agency Tierras Polares covers the whole route in July and August in the course of an 8-day trip, of which six days are spent trekking. Prices from €1,595.
Day Tour All Year Around: You can also visit Landmannalaugar on a Super Jeep Tour. The super jeep is a 4x4 vehicle with oversize tyres which can take you into the Highlands any time of the year, and pick-up is at your hotel in Reykjavik. Price per person: ISK 35,000 (€250).
Venture into the wonderland of the Icelandic Highlands – book your Vueling to Reykjavik here.
Text and photos by Sergio Fernández Tolosa & Amelia Herrero Becker (Con un par de ruedas)
The West Fjords the Remotest Most Unspoilt Iceland
Low light, wistful dusks, endless fjords, fishing villages accessible only by dirt track, thermal pools with views of the sea and, above all, tranquility – oceans of tranquility. All of this awaits travellers to Westfjords, Iceland’s loneliest, most unspoiled region. A few days spent exploring its secluded confines is the closest thing to what it must have been like until quite recently to travel around the now very popular Ring Road. We tell you how to reach this remote, captivating paradise and, once there, what to see.
1. Ísafjörður – the Old Fishing Capital
While it is the largest settlement in the Westfjords, Ísafjörður has just 2,600 inhabitants. However, in these latitudes, a census of this size is regarded as a veritable crowd of people.
The atmosphere is surprisingly lively in the quaint town centre, which features a considerable number of timber houses built in the 18th century. There are some good restaurants – fish and seafood are the local speciality – and pleasant cafés which, with the heating always up full blast, are a magnet for visitors seeking to take shelter from the invariably harsh weather outside. The Westfjords Maritime Museum is worth visiting as it is full of relics from the whaling era. It also provides valuable insights into the origins and the heyday of this isolated fishing port.
By land, sea and air: daily flights from Reykjavik have turned Ísafjörður into the quickest and most convenient port of entry to the Westfjords. It is also the point of departure for ships sailing to the Hornstrandir Nature Reserve.
2. Snæfellsnes – Journey to the Centre of the Earth
Those opting to instead make the journey to the far north overland from Reykjavik are advised to take a slight detour to explore the Snæfellsnes Peninsula. The scenic road runs around the perimeter of the whole peninsula and looming overhead is a spectacular volcano covered in glaciers which inspired Jules Verne for his novel, Journey to the Centre of the Earth.
Although the wind is usually rather gusty, the journey is rewarding as it is studded with breathtaking scenery, including lofty cliffs, rivers of lava and peach-coloured sandy beaches. One highly recommendable hike – wind permitting – is the coastal trail linking Arnarstapi to Hellnar. The 5 km route takes you past spectacular basalt formations, sea caves with blowholes weathered by the waves and natural rock arches.
3. Puffins on the Látrabjarg Cliffs
The Látrabjarg cliffs, marking the westernmost point in Europe – and probably one of the windiest, too – afford close-up sightings of the highly photogenic puffins, those flashy birds with colourful beaks that nest alongside other species on the impregnable crags, which rise to over 400 metres above the ocean.
Despite being endearing creatures, visitors should know that the locals once used to feed on puffin eggs and meat. In fact, puffin is still a select dish in some restaurants. The method used to catch these birds involves laying nets and abseiling down the cliff faces. Interestingly, the courage and skills of puffing hunters were put to good use when in 1947 a British vessel sank off these shores and all crew members were rescued and hauled one by one up the cliff faces.
Reaching Látrabjarg entails driving along one particular 50-kilometre stretch of dirt road (only on the outbound journey). Some 5 km before the lighthouse marking “Europe’s land’s end” is a rudimentary campsite suitable for camper vans or for pitching tents – there is a toilet and drinking water, but no showers or hot water.
The road takes you past Hnjótur, where there is a café and an interesting museum with a hotchpotch of items, including an aircraft from the United States Navy.
4. Thermal Pools at Reykjafjarðarlaug
Thermal pools are always a gift of nature but, in an environment like Westfjords, it becomes more of a genuine gift of the gods. One of the best warm pools – although not the only one – was built by a group of volunteers in 1975 opposite the Reykjafjörður fjord, just 50 metres off the dust road running between Bíldudalur and Hrafnseyri. The source of the spring lies a few metres upstream and wells up at 52°C, but the pool is kept at 38°C. Sadly, this is the way it was before, as in 2016 we found it closed. We hope it will reopen in 2017.
5. Dynjandi Waterfall
The Dynjandi waterfall (also known as Fjallfoss), which tumbles 100 metres in the shape of a beautiful staircase, is undoubtedly the most spectacular falls in Westfjords. It is reached by untarred mountain road and a simple camping area has been adapted for tents and camper vans. With its west-facing orientation, the best time of day to take your snaps is at dusk.
6. Seals and Jams at Litlibær
Some 70 km east of Ísafjörður in the direction of the Reykjanes thermal peninsula lives a colony of seals which is visible from the main road. To get an idea of how trusting the locals are, a farmer from the area leaves out some binoculars for anyone wishing to observe the seals in more detail, as well as a few jars of homemade jam and a piggy bank to pay the 6 euros for each jar they may want to buy.
7. Kayak Rides
In the next fjord, called Mjóifjörður (it’s easy to lose count of them), the newly paved Route 61 saves modern travellers from having to take the previous, roundabout way to the bottom of the estuary along the old 633 dirt road. Located in a remote spot is Heydalur, a country hotel with hot pools where they organise kayak outings that start at the site of the seal colony in the mouth of the fjord. Whales can also sometimes be spotted during the excursion, which lasts 5 hours.
8. Expedition to the Hornstrandir Nature Reserve
No one lives there, apart from the forest wardens, birds and Arctic foxes. This is the most isolated and unspoilt spot in Iceland and can only be reached by boat. Beyond the Hesteyri harbour – where you can sleep the night at the old doctor’s house, built in 1901 and with a capacity of 16 – there are no shops, restaurants or hotels. You will only find rudimentary camping grounds. Hence, the Hornstrandir Nature Reserve is the preserve of fauna and flora enthusiasts used to open-air living and the whims of Arctic weather. Some agencies organise guided hiking excursions lasting 4 or 5 days.
Text by Sergio Fernández Tolosa & Amelia Herrero Becker from Con un par de ruedas
Images by Con un par de ruedasmore info