Iceland’s lovely little capital extends warm welcome in winter.
This was the third visit to Iceland since the fall of 2014 for my husband and me. In the dark depth of winter, we were sticking around Reykjavik and hoping to see the Northern Lights between landing early on Tuesday morning and departure late Friday afternoon. At this time of year, it gets light after 10 a.m. and twilight hits around 5 p.m. — enough time to do things. If you want to see our Northern Lights images, scroll to the end of this post.
Tuesday, January 23
On this cold, gray January morning, my husband and I landed at Keflavik Airport in the dark and wet.
Fortunately, our room at the Icelandair Hotel Natura was ready, so we checked in immediately and went to the SATT Restaurant where the abundant breakfast buffet was set up. Then, on this uninspiring day, we took a nap in our simple and unphotogenic room. The bathroom was so small that the bath towel could have served as a wall-to-wall carpet. But the beds were comfortable and WiFi was included — as was a pass for the city’s extensive bus system. Good thing, because the Natura is near nothing except the domestic airport.
We would have gotten our money’s worth if we had paid for the pass, because we took a long roundtrip ride the first evening. When we started getting hungry, we hopped on the No. 5 bus, which stopped right by our hotel. We had to change to the No. 14 at the Hjellmur station, which is under renovation. The station is on a triangular island, so when we asked on which side the bus stopped, we were directed to the wrong one, and the driver was one of the few Icelanders we’ve met who spoke no English.
After two lengthy “Reykjavik By Night” rides, we reached our goal, Reykjavik Fish Restaurant, a warm, cozy harborside restaurant that did not disappoint.
Wednesday, January 24
Rested up and ready to roll, we took a morning bus to town. It was to be a cold, breezy museum day that started out clear but then clouded over.
On a previous trip to Iceland, we had visited the Icelandic Saga Centre in Hvolsvöllur. I knew very little about the Norse sagas but was intrigued by this extensive museum that focuses on Njál´s Saga and the Viking era.
Reading the sagas is too formidable a task, but I did purchase a slim volume called Icelandic Literature of the Vikings, which helped me understand when we visited Reykjavik’s smaller, simpler Saga Museum. It depicts aspects of Viking life in a series of clearly narrated dioramas.
Since actually seeing the Northern Lights was not assured, we visited Aurora Reykjavik, a small museum that explains and celebrates this phenomenon. The exhibits are beyond my photographic skills.
Not so the Maritime Museum, which should actually be called the Iceland Fishing Museum. Its very photogenic depictions about the fishing fleet then and now and explains a lot about the explosive Cod Wars between Britain and Iceland from the ’50s to the ’70s. Iceland was victor – David and Goliath in the North Atlantic. Artifacts, films, dioramas, beautiful ship models and a Coast Guard ship tied to the pier outside are features.
Three museums — even modest ones — in a day work up an appetite, so we went to nearby restaurant with water and harbor views.
The clouds had closed in long before dark, so it wasn’t to be a Northern Lights night. Again.
Thursday, January 25
Another clear, cold morning, and our first stop was HARPA, a glittering modern landmark that looks different every time I’ve seen it. During the day the sunshine (or its absence) plays across the facades, and at night, it also displays different colors. Homage to the Northern Lights. It is a conference center, performance hall and place to shop and dine at an elegant restaurant called Kolabrautin, which we did on our first visit to Reykjavik in 2014. Click here for a report.
It took a second multi-day visit for us to get to the Icelandic Phallological Museum (aka, “the penis museum”), whose collection of some 200 pickled penises is billed as the most extensive “collection of phallic specimens belonging to all the various types of mammal found in a single country.” Homo sapiens (or homo erectus) is not among them. The big boy (5 or 6 feet long) belonged to a blue whale. Penile-theme ojets are also on display. And of course, there’s a gift shop. I bought nothing.
The sky was still clear when we returned to the hotel, so we quickly booked a Northern Lights tour. The bus left the hotel around 8:30 and headed to Thingvellir National Park. In daylight, visitors come to see the rift between the Eurasian and North American tectonic plates, and also where Iceland’s first rudimentary Parliament met a millennium ago.
In winter, it is the closest place to Reykjavik that can accommodate lots of big buses and is also away from the city’s lights. We walked to the edge of the parking lot and started looking for the magic sky. I was glad for my YakTrax as I wandered around the parking lot with little frozen ice mounds all over, and when I finally found a place I liked, I stopped to watch the show. It started out looking like a thin green lava lamp, slowly changing shape. It widened and spread and filled a good portion of the sky. I thought I saw a red disk appear and quickly disappear into the green glow, but it might have been an illusion. Hard to get good pix, but my husband managed to capture these beauties — manipulated just enough to display the foreground and still show the lights.
I’ve seen more dramatic photos of curtains of light shimmering across the sky, but viewing these in person was much better. Mission accomplished.
Friday, January 26