Iceland Air allows passengers traveling between the US and Europe to extend their layover in Reykjavik for no extra charge. We jumped at the chance to spend a few days there on our way to Sweden.
Iceland is beautiful. Everywhere you look are signs that this is a young land with a lot of geologic activity: tectonic plates moving apart form giant cracks in the ground, earthquakes happen in the thousands, volcanoes by the dozens. There are enormous lava fields, huge glaciers, fjords, mountains, plains, lakes, and rivers. Iceland has very few trees so views are sweeping with all topography visible.
The first inhabitants were a few Celtic monks and hermits. The first settlers began to arrive in 870 and found no signs of the earlier monks. These settlers were male Vikings from Norway with female slaves they picked up in Ireland on the way. For a long time, Iceland had a few people living in very small communities. Reykjavik was founded in 1786 and had only 10,000 inhabitants at the start of WWII. A tour guide told us that people today are able to read a hymnal written in 1200 without modern translation because the language hasn’t really changed much in 800 years!
The British set up an allied occupation in 1940 and soon handed the task over to the Americans; Iceland was important to controlling traffic in the North Atlantic. As happened in the US, the war brought a booming economy to Iceland. People moved to the city of Reykjavik (in a large part due to the introduction of improved technology that allowed agriculture to be less dependent on manpower), industry jobs were created, and infrastructure was built. Iceland modernized with the new money and exposure to contemporary technology. Most of Reykjavik was built after 1950. The first paved road was constructed in 1966. Today two-thirds of the small population (320,000 total) lives in greater Reykjavik.
Reykjavik is a small bustling city. Heat and electricity come from geothermal power and are cheap. It is full of great pedestrian/bike paths removed from streets and we saw many cyclists. The city is clean and felt very safe. The country is intentionally shifting the economy to tourism. In the summer, people come to experience the long days and enjoy the warmer weather. Even though we were there a month after the summer solstice, the days were long. Sunrise was at 4:50am and sunset at 10:15pm with about 90 minutes of twilight on either side. In the winter, they come to see the northern lights. Our Airbnb host said one benefit of tourism is an increase in the quantity of high-quality restaurants in the last few years. It was easy for us to get around as almost everyone speaks English.
We were interested to hear that Reykjavik rarely gets below freezing in the winter, especially in the last decade. Ski areas in the southern part of the country have seldom had enough snow to open for the entire season for the last ten years. Apparently Icelanders who want a ski vacation book tickets to go overseas! The climate has been moderated for a long time by the Gulf Stream but this warming is a recent trend.
Iceland has about 170 public swimming pools; they are in pretty much every small community. We visited two different pools while there and they are very different than public pools in America. First, they are heated geo-thermally. Many of them are outside and are open all year; hours are from early in the morning to late at night, even midnight. In addition to the pool, there are hot tubs (up to 5 of them in a range of temperatures) and a steam room and/or sauna. There are clean orderly locker rooms with everyone given a locking locker. You bathe fully before entering the pools and dry yourself in the shower area before re-entering the locker room so the floor stays dry. These pools are incredibly popular and often full of regulars. One of the tourist publications we read said a visit to the pool is a common second date. They are wonderful and in the budget.
We spent one day on a bus touring the countryside in a popular loop called the Golden Circle. We saw steam vents, lava flows, cracks in the ground, rivers, and snow-capped mountains as we drove around. We were able to walk around a large waterfall called Gullfoss. We visited an area with many geysers, including one named Geysir that is given credit for the word by which all others are named. We saw an enormous glacier at a distance. We saw several of the 80,000 Icelandic horses. Icelanders are proud of these shaggy small-statured horses; we learned they are smart, have five gaits, and are able to survive outside in the winter on natural forage without shelter. The highlight of the trip was visiting Thingvellir National Park. It is the site chieftains chose around 930 to hold their annual parliament for two weeks every June. This meeting, in which rules were written or changed and disputes were settled, continued at this site until 1798 when it was moved to Reykjavik. It is reported that the first chieftains were pleased with the site and rerouted a small river to provide water to the area. In addition to the historic significance, it is a place where you can see the North American Plate moving away from the Eurasian Plate at 2 cm each year!
Three days was just long enough to whet our appetite for future travels in Iceland, as we dreamed of more swimming pools, hiking to hot springs, seeing fjords in the North, getting up close to the large glacier that covers 8% of Iceland, and exploring more of the beautiful country.
More pictures from our trip on the “Pictures” link at the top of the page. Note that we made some changes to how the photos are arranged. When you click on the link, it will show you a list of all our photo galleries and you’ll need to select Iceland. Or you can just click here.