On a cool, cloudy morning in a quiet and secluded town almost a thousand miles from a major European city, a young boy stared at the bulky television in his living room with his mouth slightly agape. He was stunned by what he saw. As he watched news coverage of the results of the US Presidential election, his world turned completely upside down. With utter disbelief, he yelled to his mother in the other room, “But he can’t be President, he’s a man.” It was 1980.
Five years earlier in 1975, 90% of women in Iceland took to the streets. They left their mops, kitchen duties, and dirty diapers behind and rallied for equal rights. Out of necessity, many men took responsibility for their kids, their work and the household chores. From that day forward, October 24 became Women’s Day Off. And it helped to explain how how just a few years later, in the midst of the Cold War, how a woman by the name of Vigdis Finnbogadottir became the first female President in Europe, a position she held for 16 years.
Fast forward 40 years to 2016, women again took to the streets of Reykjavik – this time for equal pay. At 2:38 p.m., women left their jobs 2 hours and 22 minutes early and marched to Austurvollur square. Since they earned on average 72% of men’s wages, they left after 72% of their work day was completed. Drawing international attention, they made their point not just to the government of Iceland, but to the world-wide audience of women and employers.
And yet, this country with a mere 323,000 residents (about 1/26 the population of New York City) is still known as the best place in the world to be a working woman. With the most recent election in 2016, women now hold 48% of the seats in Iceland’s parliament (lagging behind only Cuba, Rwanda and Bolivia). Some credit for the recent gains is thanks to the uppity new party of anarchists, libertarians, and “techies” called the Pirate Party.
To visit Iceland for the first time means more than searching for geysers, glaciers, and Game of Thrones filming locations. It means appreciating how the fiercely independent people of such a small and isolated country have maintained such a far-reaching impact on the rest of the world.
The Land of Fire and Ice
For many tourists, adventure and exploration are the primary draws to Iceland: the search for rugged landscapes unspoiled by development, a chance for a spectacular view of the Aurora Borealis, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to climb on a glacier, topped off with a relaxing dip in a geothermal hot spring. Given Iceland’s strategic location between North America and Europe, getting there is the easy part. Travel companies have made stop-over flights cheap and convenient, and Iceland’s tourism board, Visit Iceland, effectively promotes Iceland’s “discovery” brand.
Known as “The Land of Fire and Ice” since active volcanos sit restlessly adjacent to sprawling glaciers, Icelanders refer to their homeland as a place of extreme contrasts. Visitors in June will likely never witness a sunset, while tourists in December may only see an hour or two of daylight.
Determining the best time to visit depends largely on one’s preferred experience. The Aurora Borealis are typically visible between late August and April. For a preview of the Northern Lights, check out this amazing video. Hikers tend to prefer July and August for the temperate climate and longer days whereas whale watching season stretches from May through September. Winter travelers should be prepared for closed roads and bring sufficient thermal gear to stay warm as temperatures can drop as low as -20 degrees in the highlands.
Our travels brought us to Iceland in June, the final stop on our 100 day journey around the world. We rented an apartment downtown, an easy walk to all of major sites and amenities in Reykjavik. With our centrally-located home base, we booked a couple of excursions, including a tour of the famous Golden Circle. If you only have a day or two to spend in Iceland, it’s a great way to see some of Iceland’s most iconic sights: the Gullfoss waterfall, the Thingvellir valley, and the Geysir hot spring area featuring the active Strokkur geyser.
We chose the GeoIceland tour company for their small minibus format. Our guide and driver was a bright and capable 23 year old Icelandic woman who explained everything from why Icelanders are known exclusively by their first names to the invention of a dating app that ensures you aren’t closely related to your love-interest (a practical innovation for an entire country with a total population less than half of Portland, Oregon).
The Gullfoss waterfall, meaning “Golden Falls”, is Iceland’s most popular waterfall. Two different falls make up this impressive natural wonder that you can hear roaring long before you wander down a winding path to the best views below. The larger of the two falls drops over 60 feet into a chasm.
The next stop, Thingvellir National Park, is a historical and cultural site marking the earliest of of early Norse and Celtic settlements. In 874 A.D. a Norwegian Chieftan named Ingólfur Arnarson founded Iceland’s first permanent settlement. The first parliament met on the site in 930 A.D., establishing an annual gathering of assembly members and their families each summer.
Just outside Thingvellir, you can pull off to the side of the road and enjoy a geological geek-out. There are few places in the world where you can witness the divide of two tectonic plates above ground. One of those places is in Iceland, where the divide between the Eurasia plate and North American plate is less than half a mile apart. For you Game of Thrones diehards, you may recognize some of these sites from the first episode of Season 4.
The last stop on the Golden Circle is the impressive Geysir Geothermal Field, featuring the now dormant Geysir that abruptly stopped erupting in 1916. Written evidence of the hot springs at Geysir date back to 1294 A.D. You can understand why it retired after 600+ years.
The main attraction now is the neighboring Strokkur geyser, which erupts and sprays onlookers every 6-10 minutes.
There are plenty other great day trips you can do solo with a guidebook or with a tour group from Reykjavik, including the South Coast with a glacier walk.
Perhaps the most popular tourist destination in all of Iceland is the Blue Lagoon, a sprawling man-made, highly commercial geothermal hot springs. It bills itself as a high-end spa, with packages ranging from basic entry to the extravagantly pampered. Even the lowest priced admission is a splurge, particularly when you still have to pay for bus transportation practically back to the airport.
“I found the Blue Lagoon to be an epic tourist trap that began with a highly regulated and rule-oriented entry and then devolved into something akin to an overpriced frat party in a communal hot tub.”
It’s no wonder there’s not a single Icelander to be found in the throngs of international visitors.
The world’s most northern capital city of a sovereign state, Reykjavik is home to only 120,000 permanent residents, but has become a booming tourism destination in recent years. Given Reykjavik’s proximity to the South Coast of Iceland, it’s a surprisingly temperate climate year round with lows in the high 20’s in the winter and highs in the mid 70’s in the summer.
Visitors to Reykjavik are usually surprised by two things: 1) how absurdly expensive everything is and 2) how late stores open and how early they close. It’s like parachuting into an exclusive small town filled with corrugated metal houses. Before arriving, we had done enough research to know that dining out was almost prohibitively expensive, unless you work hard at finding cheap eats. So we went grocery shopping in Utrecht before catching our flight and brought a backpack full of dry goods with us. We also made use of the Duty Free store in the Reykjavik airport, conveniently located just outside of customs, and picked up some beer and vino for the apartment. But take note, the main grocery store in the city opens at 11 a.m. and closes about 6 p.m., so don’t dawdle when you arrive.
We managed to find a couple of places with affordable lunches and one particularly excellent happy hour. Ostabuin is one of the top rated restaurants in the city and not prohibitively pricey, particularly early in the day. For the best cheap eats in the city, we frequented the Noodle Station for lunch. Don’t expect cheerful service, but the noodle soup (meat and veggie options) is filling and delicious. Apotek restaurant is worth a visit at happy hour, featuring creative cocktails and tasty nosh in a warm, cozy atmosphere.
Once you’ve found nourishment, you can visit Reykjavik’s most iconic site, Hallgrimkirkja (easier to locate than to pronounce). From almost anywhere in the city, you can look up and make your way to the largest church in Iceland and pay to take the elevator to the top for a birds-eye view of the city below.
After you get your fill of panoramics, you can head down to the waterfront for a walk or jog along the trail leading out of the city. For such a small city, public art abounds and creativity is by no means a scarce commodity.
If you happen to be in Reykjavik in mid-June, one of the biggest events of the year falls on June 17, the National Day of Iceland, or Icelandic Independence Day. It’s the day when national pride overcomes the country and parades and festivals take over the public squares. It’s a rare time when you see people other than tourists partying in the streets. Iceland won independence relatively recently in 1944 from the Danes, when Denmark was occupied by the Nazis. Iceland essentially unilaterally declared their independence and the government of Denmark wasn’t in much of a position to respond. So there you have it – party on!
Reykjavik is a city you can enjoy in two days or less. More than that and you’d be hard pressed to justify the expense. You might as well stay a few more days in Paris or Amsterdam or wherever your heart desires. It’s still a cool little town to kick around for a bit, but don’t be fooled by the fact that Iceland has become the “It” place in the last year.
So that’s Iceland. The home of 100% renewable energy and yet a place that boasts more cars per capita than anywhere else in the world. A place where women are thought to be the most liberated and yet still fighting for equality. And a place where you can choose to visit in complete darkness or with almost 24 hours of daylight. Just like they say, Iceland is a country of extreme contrasts.
And then, after 96 days of traveling, we headed home. At Reykjavik airport, Alisa and I played the three word game one last time. Alisa: Ready To Go. Martha: No More Planes.