Updated: Oct 5
Guest post written by Karli Olson
Beneath the edges of peeling clouds, I spotted a sprawling mass of grayish land that could have passed for both a polar bear’s playground and a Viking’s backyard. As it happens, the rough, weather-beaten chunk of earth was both...it was Iceland.
I didn’t take my eyes from the scene as I snapped a few grainy photos with my phone. Little crystals had formed around the outside rim of my window, alerting me that my feeling of being on top of the world was now quite literal. The clouds got closer and closer until they wrapped us in a chilly embrace, and then expelled us onto the volcanic terrain below.
Thus, my 21 hours in Iceland began.
How I Got There
My final destination was Ireland, but that hadn’t stopped Icelandair from slipping a slamming good flight deal into my internet browser and luring me further north for a layover on their little island first.
The Icelandair layover system is actually a pretty clever method to bring more tourists to the country. They offer flights from North America to Europe, with the condition of at least a short layover through the Keflavik Airport. The best part? These layovers can be extended at the choice of the traveller for up to SEVEN days, without any additional cost to the airfare when you continue to your final destination.
This time, my end goal was a bit of a priority, as the orientation for my Irish university was beginning in only a couple of days. With that in mind, I took the option of a 21-hour layover, which turned out to be more than enough time for Iceland to leave a permanent imprint on my senses and imagination.
The calendar flipped from August to January as I exited the doors of the Keflavik Airport. I was grateful for my winter coat, which proved to be much more useful against this harsh drop in temperature than it had been against the Portland summer I had left behind.
I hopped aboard my pre-booked Grayline bus (which was more of a minivan) for the scenic 45-minute drive to Reykjavik. The road was surrounded on all sides by the same terrain I’d witnessed from the sky- a mix of gray and green as rocks met stubby grass, the underbelly of long-melted glaciers.
At last, we arrived at the KEX Hostel, which was situated in a row of buildings looking out across a rippling bay to Mt. Esja. I wasn’t allowed to check in until 2pm, but thankfully the receptionist let me chuck my overstuffed, Christian-from-Pilgim’s-Progress-sized backpack into their storage locker until then.
My first order of business was visiting the Sun Voyager, a lovely Reykjavik trademark sculpture by Jón Gunnar Árnason which sat next to the bay across the street. After checking the “observe art” box on my mental checklist, I then made my way towards the city centre, which was not at all hard to find thanks to the heightened state of my next destination- Hallgrímskirkja.
The towering Lutheran church looms over the city, its multi-tiered basalt design giving the impression of a frozen geyser. It was officially completed in 1986, after a 40-year building process.
Inside, I felt a keen sense of solemnity paired with rich history as an organ’s somewhat eerie melodies filled every corner of the enormous space. The grandeur was equivalent to that of any traditional cathedral, but it was more due to the mere feeling of the place, rather than from any excessive frills or decorations. Like the outside, the belly of the church was gray from floor to ceiling, but pocketed with slivers of deep red and some of the tallest windows that I’ve ever seen. I missed its fullness of sound and feeling when I left.
Being a massive Avengers fan, I couldn’t help myself from stopping in at Cafe Loki across the street (in all honesty, it had been one of the first things on my agenda when I’d planned the visit). It didn’t hold as much mischief, though, as much as it did scrumptious smells and views from the upstairs windows. My meal, consisting of a lamb stew, brown bread and a latte, were a bit on the spendy side, but I was willing to fork out a little extra cash to get anything other than the Ritz crackers I’d been snacking on for the past 10+ hours. I have to say, it was worth every penny!
It was then time for my stomach to succumb to weird aches, probably a delayed response to the plane ride (and the sudden reminder that real food still existed). I took about a half hour to rest in my hostel before I launched into the wintery air yet again and toward my very favorite portion of the experience.
CityWalk is a highly renowned Reykjavik tour group run by locals, and I chose to take their free (donation-based) two-hour walking tour. We started at the Parliament building and wove through both large and small highlights of the city, including the Harpa Concert Hall, Lake Tjörnin, City Hall, the old prison and even the prime minister’s house. Admittedly, the city sights weren’t the only thing getting my attention...my heart couldn’t help but be set aflutter by the tall, dark and handsome tour guide spouting historic facts in his intriguing Icelandic accent (Eric, you’re a wonder!).
I was blown away by Iceland as a whole from what I learned in those two hours. With a population of only 360,000 (you could fit 12 of those into my home state of Oregon!), they have managed to survive without any military, and have ranked as the number one most eco-friendly country and one of the top five happiest countries in the world. They also have eight (yes, EIGHT!) different political parties represented in their Parliament! But don’t let me spoil all of the fun facts for you- go find out for yourself!
Since that experience, walking tours have become my new favorite way to experience the depth of a foreign city in a short amount of time, and I’ve had similarly wonderful experiences with them in Geneva and Dublin.
After the tour, I purchased a couple of souvenirs and stumbled back through the cobblestone streets to my hostel. There, I snuggled into my top bunk and spoke a little bit with the American, British, and Korean ladies in my dorm. It’s fun sometimes to be a foreigner, but it’s even more fun to be a foreigner with other people, and exchange experiences of an entirely new place.
I slept pretty soundly, save for one rude awakening (courtesy of the downstairs party people™that you’ll find in any given hostel). The next morning, I had to hop back on the shuttle to catch my next flight, but I was able to receive one last parting gift on the drive- the sight of the gray landscape being swallowed in a truly stunning pink sunrise. I guess it shouldn’t have surprised me...Iceland is the land of fire, as well as ice, for more than just the volcanoes.
The colour scheme didseparate Iceland from other places in a way...gray and stone were consistent themes, both in the natural world and in the architecture. But this gray didn’t hold any hint of despondency. Instead, it seemed to be a real-life embodiment of what people mean when they refer to a “gray area”...mysterious, intriguing, and full of possibilities. And if that isn’t the perfect summation of Iceland, I don’t know what is.
KEX Hostel bed in a female only 6-bed room: $36
Round-trip shuttle: $62
Meal at Cafe Loki: $24
Walking tour (donation): $10
What I hope to do next time:
-Visit the infamous Blue Lagoon
-Take a Northern Lights tour
-Drive the Ring Road
-See some of the many waterfalls and geysers
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