Category Archives: ADVENTURES IN EUROPE

Stockholm, Sweden 2017

Stockholm, Sweden 2017: Exploring the old world charm of Gamla Stan and up-and-coming Södermalm, dinner at a viking restaurant, and the ABBA Museum

Paddy and I were heading to Denmark in 2017, my first time visiting the country since spending a year as a high school exchange student back in 1997-98. During my exchange year I visited Norway twice with my host family, but never made it to Sweden. (Okay technically we drove through Sweden once in the middle of the night, but that doesn’t count). Since it was easy to book our flight into Stockholm and out of Copenhagen, we spent the first four days of our Scandinavian adventure in Stockholm.

First, a note about Stockholm: Like the rest of Scandinavia, it’s EXPENSIVE. After a bit of research while planning this trip, I came to the conclusion that renting an Airbnb is hands-down the best way to go for lodging. I had a difficult time finding a hotel room in a good location with a private bathroom for under $200 USD per night. I was able to find us a one bedroom apartment in Södermalm (the southern, “hipster” neighborhood) in a great location near public transit for $150 a night. Not only did we get a full one-bedroom apartment all to ourselves, we had a full kitchen and were able to save a lot of money on breakfast and lunch through self-catering. If you are looking to do Stockholm on a budget, Airbnb is definitely the way to go.

Day 1:

We arrived in Stockholm in early evening after approximately 15 hours of travel from Seattle (10 hour Delta flight from Seattle to Amsterdam, and a two hour KLM flight from Amsterdam to Stockholm). We collected our luggage and after a fair amount of walking through the airport located the airport train station.

*Side note about Delta’s long-haul international flights: I haven’t always had the best experiences with Delta’s domestic flights within the US, but we were surprisingly pleased with the international flight. The flight attendants were friendly, we were fed a hot meal and two snacks, had a wide array of free movies to choose from on individual seat-back screens, and we were provided with alcoholic beverages free of charge. We were even given hot towels at the beginning and end of the flight.

The Stockholm Arlanda Airport train station (look for the Arlanda C signs in the airport) has three train options to choose from. There is the Arlanda Express, the high speed train between the airport and Stockholm Central Station downtown, the SJ train for long distance commutes outside of Stockholm, and the Pendeltåg commuter train which makes more stops throughout the city and south of the city.

Since we were going past the city center to the southern Södermalm neighborhood, the Pendeltåg commuter train was the one we wanted, according to Google Maps. (The Google Maps app has become my most valuable app while traveling, it is great at figuring out public transportation almost anywhere). There were automated machines for tickets on the Arlanda Express and the SJ trains, but we didn’t see one for the Pendeltåg. We were able to buy our tickets directly from a ticket seller in the train station and pay with our credit card. It was roughly $17 per person for the train tickets, including the airport transportation fee (120 SEK per person).

Stockholm Arlanda airport train station
Stockholm Arlanda airport train station (Arlanda C)

The Pendeltåg took 40 minutes to get to Stockholm Södra station (twice the time of the Arlanda Express to Stockholm Central) but it was an easy ride.

From Stockholm Södra station we used Google Maps to navigate to our Airbnb apartment on Högbergsgatan. It was a bit more of a walk than we anticipated, mostly because Google Maps took us through some sort of “short cut” through a couple parks and we got a bit confused. When we arrived at the apartment, our Airbnb host Marco was waiting for us with the key and made sure we were able to find everything we might need in the apartment.

Airbnb apartment in Stockholm
Airbnb apartment in Stockholm
Airbnb apartment in Stockholm
Airbnb apartment in Stockholm
Airbnb apartment in Stockholm
Airbnb apartment in Stockholm

After unpacking and washing up, we were starving. We headed out in search of sustenance.

We walked over to the main arterial street Gotgatan and found ourselves eventually in Medborgarplatsen, or “citizen square.” It was about 8:00 PM on a Saturday night, and there were several outdoor eateries and beer gardens full of people getting their evening started. We looked at several menus and decided on fish and chips from Bodanra By Melander.

Medborgarplatsen, Sodermalm Stockholm
Medborgarplatsen, Sodermalm Stockholm

Two relatively small portions of fish and chips and two beers ran us about $47.00 USD. More than we wanted to spend, but those are typical Swedish prices for you. The fish and chips were delicious, though, and came with a side of Danish curry remoulade.

Bodarna By Melandar in Medborgarplatsen, Sodermalm Stockholm
Bodarna By Melandar in Medborgarplatsen, Sodermalm Stockholm
Fish and Chips from Bodarna By Melandar
Fish and Chips from Bodarna By Melandar

It was a nice evening, but not super warm. There were carts of complimentary blankets out for diners to keep warm. Nice touch.

Medborgarplatsen, Sodermalm, Stockholm
Paddy enjoying a first beer in Sweden at Medborgarplatsen, Sodermalm, Stockholm

**Money saving tip: If you like to drink, bring booze with you.

One of the most expensive things that you will encounter in Sweden is alcohol. A beer at a bar will run you between $7-$10 each, a glass of wine $10-$12, and a cocktail $15-$20. Sweden imposes a high tax on alcohol, with the highest alcohol content incurring the highest tax (cocktails and hard liquor). Beers sold in the grocery stores are only allowed to be 3.5% alcohol. Beer with higher alcohol percentages and all other wines and spirits are sold only at Systembolaget state-run liquor stores. These stores are closed on Sundays and in the evenings.

Having read this before traveling, we brought box wine with us from home. According to the Swedish customs website, you are allowed to bring one liter of spirits or four liters of wine per person into the country. Box wine packs well in a suitcase and fits four bottles of wine per box. We like the Bota Box brand. It’s cheap, but decent quality.

After our $47 fish and chips and beer, we headed back to the apartment to have a couple glasses of our box wine before bed. We stopped at the grocery store near our apartment building and picked up some bread, cheese, and other items for breakfast in the morning. We found the Swedish grocery prices to be very reasonable, and not much different from in the US.

**Regarding tipping at bars and restaurants: It isn’t customary to tip in Stockholm, which helps ease the pain of the high prices a bit. It isn’t uncommon however to tip for exceptional service. If you do tip your server, the standard tip is 10%. We tipped our server 10% at the two nicer dinners we had at this trip, as the service was very good.

 

Day 2:

After making our own coffee and breakfast at the apartment, we were ready to go explore Gamla Stan.

Gamla Stan is the original old town of Stockholm, dating back to 1252. The old buildings are well-preserved and it is one of the biggest tourist attractions in the city. If you are looking for quaint little shops and restaurants and souvenirs, this is the place to find them.

Stockholm map
Stockholm Map. Image from http://www.lonelyplanet.com/maps/europe/sweden/stockholm/map_of_stockholm.jpg

Gamla Stan was only a half mile north of our apartment in Södermalm, so we were easily able to walk there. If you aren’t someone who is able to walk a lot, the T-Bana (Tunnelbana) subway train is a good option from most parts of the city. It can get pricey for single-use tickets, however at $5.00 USD per person per ride. The train is very easy to use, and you can buy tickets with your credit card from any of the electronic kiosks available when you enter the underground stations.

Gamla Stan, Stockholm
Gamla Stan, Stockholm
Gamla Stan, Stockholm
Gamla Stan, Stockholm
Gamla Stan, Stockholm
Gamla Stan, Stockholm
Gamla Stan, Stockholm
Gamla Stan, Stockholm
Gamla Stan, Stockholm
Gamla Stan, Stockholm

We wandered through the narrow medieval cobble-stone streets until we ended up on the north end of Gamla Stan in front of the Royal Palace.

Royal Palace, Stockholm
Royal Palace, Stockholm

The Royal Palace wasn’t too crowded, so we decided to check it out. If you are someone who is interested in European monarchies and history, this would probably be a good attraction for you. It was interesting, but not the highlight of our trip. There are several sections of the museum to explore, but we just toured the Royal Treasury and the Royal Apartments.

We started with the Royal Treasury as that is where you purchase tickets. It was interesting to see all the royal crowns, sceptres, and orbs of past royal family members.

We moved on to the Royal Chapel and Royal Apartments.

The Royal Palace, Stockholm
The Royal Palace, Stockholm
The Royal Palace, Stockholm
The Royal Palace, Stockholm
The Royal Palace, Stockholm
The Royal Palace, Stockholm

It was all very regal and somewhat interesting and worth a stop. However, if you are trying to fit a lot into a short amount of time in Stockholm and don’t have time for everything, I think this is one attraction that you can skip if you aren’t really interested in Royal family history.

When we had enough of the Royal Palace, we found an exit and ended up walking out into a front row view of the changing of the guards, which a large crowd of people had obviously been waiting a while to see. I’ve seen a few changing of guards in my day, and it’s not THAT exciting. It’s cool to see if you happen upon it, but it’s not something I would wait around for in a crowd.

The Royal Palace, Stockholm
Changing of the Guards at The Royal Palace, Stockholm

We wandered around Gamla Stan a little more, stopping by the infamous Stortorget (big square) in the middle of Gamla Stan. It is the oldest town square in the city, and host to colorful and picturesque buildings. I read that in December Stortorget is host to a big Christmas market, which sounds like it would be fun to see if you are visiting at that time.

Stortorget in Gamla Stan neighborhood, Stocholm
Stortorget in Gamla Stan neighborhood, Stocholm
Stortorget in Gamla Stan neighborhood, Stocholm
Stortorget in Gamla Stan neighborhood, Stocholm

By this time it was late afternoon and our feet were getting a bit tired, so we walked back to our apartment in Södermalm for a rest.

That evening we had a dinner reservation at Aifur Krog and Bar Viking Restaurant in Gamla Stan. Aifur Krog and Bar ended up being one of the highlights of our trip. Aifur was a surprising example of touristy done right.

Aifur Krog and Bar viking restaurant, Stockholm
Aifur Krog and Bar viking restaurant, Stockholm
Aifur Krog and Bar viking restaurant, Stockholm
Aifur Krog and Bar viking restaurant, Stockholm

**Tip–definitely make a reservation here, it’s a popular place. I easily made a reservation through their website a week prior to our trip.

Aifur is set up to look like the inside of an old medieval viking tavern or ship. The tables are communal and the light is from candles. Sheep skins are draped across the benches at the tables and the silverware is modeled after old viking utensils. The staff dress in old viking attire and appeared to enjoy their jobs. The attention to detail throughout the restaurant was very impressive.

Aifur Krog and Bar viking restaurant, Stockholm
Aifur Krog and Bar viking restaurant, Stockholm
Aifur Krog and Bar viking restaurant, Stockholm
Aifur Krog and Bar viking restaurant, Stockholm
Aifur Krog and Bar viking restaurant, Stockholm
Aifur Krog and Bar viking restaurant, Stockholm
Aifur Krog and Bar viking restaurant, Stockholm
Aifur Krog and Bar viking restaurant, Stockholm

When you arrive, the host asks your names and where you are from, and then blows on a sheep horn and loudly announces you to the entire restaurant. Everyone claps.

We were seated next to a couple who didn’t seem to want to be social, but they left shortly after we arrived. Our next dining companions were a woman from California and her Mom (announced to the restaurant by our host as “Lydia and her Mom”). They were much friendlier.

We ordered mead, as it seemed like the right thing to do. The mead menu was extensive. I had a berry mead and Paddy had a spicy chili mead. The waitress let us sample the meads before we committed to a full glass, which was nice. The chili mead was really good. Not sure if they had chili peppers back in the viking days, but it was damn good.

Aifur’s menu was full of historical detail about each dish. I went with Varangian’s Roasted Dwarf Chicken, and Paddy had the Indulgence of the Raven Lord. Paddy chose his mostly on title alone, because he couldn’t not try something called “The Indulgence of the Raven Lord.” The Indulgence was a marinated flap steak, with juniper roasted pork belly, parsnip cake, sprouts, baby onions, and a red wine sauce.

Indulgence of the Raven Lord
Indulgence of the Raven Lord
Varangian's Roasted Dwarf Chicken
Varangian’s Roasted Dwarf Chicken
At Aifur Krog and Bar viking restaurant, Stockholm
At Aifur Krog and Bar viking restaurant, Stockholm

The dishes were plenty hearty by themselves, we were glad that we hadn’t ordered appetizers.

Towards the end of our meal, the restaurant was looking more and more empty. We wondered for a moment if reservations had been necessary, but were assured that they were when our host blew the sheep horn and announced the arrival of “a bunch of Austrian bankers.” The restaurant was soon filled with Austrian bankers, ready to eat, drink, and make merry. We asked for our bill, as the waitstaff was quickly becoming overwhelmed with the new guests.

Aifur viking restaurant was a bigger highlight of our trip to Stockholm than we expected it to be. The attention to detail in everything from the decor to the well-researched menu to the attire of the waitstaff was phenomenal. If you’re going to Stockholm, try not to miss this place. Be sure to make an advance online reservation.

After dinner, we thought maybe we’d continue with the theme and duck into the bar at nearby Sjätte Tunnen medieval restaurant for a drink.

Sjätte Tunnen was a little campier than Aifur, but still looked like it might be fun. I ordered their rose hip mead special, which was good but a very tiny pour, not sure it was $8.00 USD worth. The bar portion of the restaurant was rather empty and isolated, good for a date or intimate conversation if that’s what you are looking for.

We would have loved to have some more drinks and explore more bars in the Gamla Stan area, but it was just too expensive. We brought box wine for this reason, so we went back to our apartment to relax.

**Money-saving tip: If you do bring your own booze but don’t want to drink in your room/apartment, bring a water bottle or thermos and take it to the park.  It is not illegal to drink in parks in Sweden. Even cheaper–get some food at the grocery store and have a picnic for dinner.

 

Day 3:

Our second full day in Stockholm was my birthday, and the thing I wanted to do most was go to the ABBA Museum. I’m not a huge fan of ABBA, but I am all about unusual museums. I am also not at all opposed to getting on the dance floor when “Dancing Queen” comes on at a wedding reception. ABBA did write some catchy tunes.

Just about all the museums in Stockholm are conveniently located in one island location in the city called Djurgården. You can easily get to Djurgården by passenger ferry from the Slussen/Gamla Stan ferry terminal, tickets are just like the T-bana and are $5.00 USD per person each way. You may purchase tickets at the ticket window at the ferry terminal.

Djurgården ferry, Stockholm
Djurgården ferry, Stockholm
Djurgården ferry, Stockholm
Djurgården ferry, Stockholm

I had read that the ABBA Museum get’s pretty busy, and they only allow a certain amount of visitors into the museum at a time to make the experience enjoyable and not over-crowded. You can also buy your tickets in advance online for a slight discount.

We didn’t want to have a set schedule, so we just got up early and arrived shortly after the museum opened. The ABBA Museum was a short walk from the Djurgården ferry. 

On the way to the museum, we witnessed a procession of policemen on horses. Not sure what this was about.

Policemen procession at Djurgården.
Policemen procession at Djurgården.

When we arrived, the ABBA Museum was pretty empty, and no one was in line. Tickets were a bit more than I expected at $30 USD per adult, but se la vie.

We walked down a spiral staircase into a brightly colored disco-tastic experience, but this was only the pre-ABBA museum area. The museum combines the main ABBA attraction with a Swedish music and pop exhibit, which you can view before and at the end of the ABBA experience.

ABBA Museum Stockholm
ABBA Museum Stockholm
ABBA Museum Stockholm
ABBA Museum Stockholm
ABBA Museum Stockholm
ABBA Museum Stockholm

We left the rainbow disco room through a black curtained door, and were immediately assaulted by a larger-than-life movie screen montage of ABBA music and performances. After that, we entered the main portion of the ABBA museum. There were very detailed exhibits on each performer’s history and background, what their recording studio and dressing rooms would have looked like, and all of their glorious (or horrendous?) costumes.

ABBA Museum, Stockholm
ABBA Museum, Stockholm
ABBA Museum, Stockholm
ABBA Museum, Stockholm
ABBA Museum, Stockholm
Life-size wax figures, ABBA Museum, Stockholm
ABBA Museum, Stockholm
ABBA Museum, Stockholm
ABBA Museum, Stockholm
ABBA Museum, Stockholm

There were interactive exhibits as well where you could sing (and record and purchase) your karaoke ABBA track, or have a photo of your face imposed on each ABBA member’s face and dance around, your moves reflected back on a video screen (this part was a bit creepy). You could also go onstage and karaoke your favorite ABBA song with projections of ABBA dancing and performing on a stage along side you. If you are someone who is really into ABBA, you will probably have a great time.

ABBA Museum, Stockholm
ABBA Museum, Stockholm
ABBA Museum, Stockholm
ABBA Museum, Stockholm
ABBA Museum, Stockholm
ABBA Museum, Stockholm

The museum ended with more of the Swedish music exhibit, complete with videos of famous bands from the US, UK, and other countries performing at the amusement park next to the ABBA Museum (Tivoli Grönalund).

There are all sorts of fun, over-priced things to tempt you in the gift shop on your way out, we left with a Christmas ornament, magnet, and some ABBA Museum chapstick. We passed on the $25 coffee mugs and the “knit-your-own Agnetha hat” kit.

Knit your own Agnetha hat in the ABBA Museum store
Knit your own Agnetha hat in the ABBA Museum store. Also sold online: http://www.abbathemuseum.com/en/shop-en

When we left, there was a line at the ABBA Museum that we were glad we avoided by getting there early.

There are a number of museums in Djurgården, all within walking distance from each other. There is only so much museum we can handle in one day, so we thought we’d check out the most popular of all the museums, the Vasa Museum and then call it good for the day. The Vasa Museum is an exhibit of the infamous Vasa ship that sank in Stockholm Harbor in 1628, and was dredged up and made into a museum 333 years later.

Vasa Museum
Vasa Museum–view from the Djurgården ferry

To our disappointment, we didn’t get to the Vasa Museum early enough. The tour buses had all arrived, and the line to get into the museum was almost a half mile long. We decided it wasn’t worth it.

In retrospect, it might have been a better idea to visit the Vasa Museum first right when it opened, and then the ABBA Museum afterward as the Vasa Museum was clearly the most popular attraction.

If you are interested in other museums, there is also the Nordiska Museum (Nordic Museum of Swedish Culture and History), an aquarium, The Spirit Museum (a museum of booze), The Biological Museum (museum of Swedish plants and animals) and the Tivoli Grönalund amusement park.

We made our way back to the ferry, fighting through the massive ticket crowds outside the Tivoli amusement park, and enjoyed a nearly-empty boat ride back to Gamla Stan while incoming ferries arrived overflowing with tourists. We were happy to escape.

Tivoli, Stockholm
Tivoli, Stockholm
Stockholm Harbor
Stockholm Harbor

We were pretty hungry when we arrived back, so we stopped at the nearby fried-herring food truck called Nystekt Strömming  just a short walk from the ferry towards Södermalm in Slussen. For a very reasonable price, we enjoyed delicious fried herring burgers and sparkling waters. Also offered were fried or grilled herring plate lunches with mashed potatoes and pickles. This was probably the most affordable authentic Swedish food we encountered on our trip.

Nystekt Stroming food truck in Slussen, Stockholm
Nystekt Stroming food stand in Slussen, Stockholm
fried herring burger at Nystekt Stroming food truck in Slussen, Stockholm
Fried herring burger at Nystekt Stroming food truck in Slussen, Stockholm

We spent the rest of the afternoon exploring some of the shops on Götgatan Street in Södermalm. My favorite was a shop called Flying Tiger that had a bunch of really random (but fun) inexpensive stuff.

For dinner that evening, we decided to splurge as it was my birthday and all. We had made a reservation at Pelikan, an upscale traditional Swedish restaurant in Södermalm that was featured on Anthony Bourdain’s show No Reservations.

Pelikan Restaurant, Stockholm
Pelikan Restaurant, Stockholm
Pelikan Restaurant, Stockholm
Pelikan Restaurant, Stockholm

Pelikan has been a restaurant in Stockholm since 1664, has moved twice and has been in it’s current location since 1931.

The service was excellent, as was the food. We started with the charcuterie plate and the Gubbröra, a sort of salad with eggs, fresh anchovies, parsley and dill served on sweet brown bread with an egg yolk to put on top. The charcuterie plate included prosciutto, reindeer salami, pickles, and two types of Swedish cheeses. The reindeer salami was our favorite thing on the charcuterie plate, hands down.

Gubbröra and charcuterie plate starters at Pelikan, Stockholm
Gubbröra and charcuterie plate starters at Pelikan, Stockholm

The Swedish aquavit menu was quite extensive. I’ve never tried aquavit before, so I asked the waitress what she would recommend. She brought us two different kinds, mine had “floral” flavors. It was served on ice and definitely tasted like flowers. Paddy had only tried an anise-based aquavit before, and he found it refreshing to taste a more herbaceous variety. We had no idea there were so many different kinds. From what I understand, aquavit is essentially a vodka distilled with herbs and other flavors. It is something you sip slowly and is often served at celebratory dinners or gatherings.

Aquavit at Pelikan restaurant, Stockholm
Aquavit at Pelikan restaurant, Stockholm

For our entrees Paddy tried the roasted reindeer with root vegetable terrine and lingonberry sauce, and I had the fish special with fresh herbs, bleak roe, and mushrooms with a light sauce (I am not sure exactly what fish it was, but it tasted a bit like trout). It was light and fragrant and delicious. Paddy really enjoyed his reindeer, which he said had a strong, rich flavor.

Roasted reindeer entree at Pelikan restaurant, Stockholm
Roasted reindeer entree at Pelikan restaurant, Stockholm
Fish special at Pelikan restaurant, Stockholm
Fish special at Pelikan restaurant, Stockholm
Pelikan restaurant, Stockholm
Trying aquavit for the first time at Pelikan restaurant, Stockholm

For dessert we shared the chocolate terrine, which was delicious. It wasn’t super sweet–almost kind of like a chocolate cheese. It’s hard to describe but was very good. The waitress even added a candle for my birthday.

Chocolate terrine at Pelikan restaurant, Stockholm
Chocolate terrine at Pelikan restaurant, Stockholm

Pelikan was the biggest meal splurge on our trip to Stockholm and Denmark, and it didn’t disappoint. If you are looking for upscale traditional Swedish cuisine in an historic beer hall location, this is your place.

Having spent a pretty penny on dinner, we opted not to go out for some drinks afterward, but to relax back at the apartment with our box wine.

 

Day 4:

 

Our last full day in Stockholm had the best weather. There were a number of things we could have done with our day: day trips to either Drottningholm Palace or the historic viking village of Sigtuna, a ferry ride in the Stockholm archipelago, or another attempt at the Vasa Museum. But we didn’t really feel like having a plan, or dealing with buses or ferries or trains. So we opted just to walk around and see a bit more of Gamla Stan and Södermalm.

We walked around Stockholm harbor in the sunshine, and then back through Gamla Stan for a little bit of final souvenir shopping.

Rikdagshuset, Stockholm. Swedish parliament house.
Rikdagshuset, Stockholm. Swedish parliament house.
Rikdagshuset, Stockholm. Swedish parliament house.
Rikdagshuset, Stockholm. Swedish parliament house.
Rikdagshuset, Stockholm. Swedish parliament house.
Naked statue in front of Rikdagshuset, Stockholm. Swedish parliament house.

After much walking in the sun, we decided to take a “fika” (Swedish coffee break) at Wayne’s Coffee in Södermalm. Paddy had a coffee and I had a mojito lemonade (lemonade with mint leaves) and a kanelbullar, which is pretty much the national pastry of Sweden. It is essentially a yeast-bread cinnamon bun, but without all the nasty frosting and extra sugar the American cinnamon buns come with. Instead, it is light and airy, and has a sprinkling of pearl sugar on top with a light egg wash glaze. It was a perfect little afternoon snack.

Kanelbullar--Swedish cinnamon bun.
Kanelbullar–Swedish cinnamon bun.

We spent some more time walking around Södermalm. Most of the interesting shops were on Götgatan.

For dinner that evening we decided that we couldn’t leave Sweden without trying a tunnbrödsrulle.

A tunnbrödsrulle (“thin bread roll” in Swedish) is a hot dog rolled up in thin flat bread with mashed potatoes, lettuce, onions, ketchup, mustard, and shrimp salad. It is typically something Swedes get at a kiosk on the way home from the bar in the wee hours of the morning. However, since we did a mega-splurge for dinner the night before, we thought this would be an inexpensive dinner option.

 tunnbrödsrulle
tunnbrödsrulle

We ordered from the Maxi Grillen on Gotgatan  near the Medborgarplatsen. Service was less than friendly, but food was served fast. The tunnbrödsrulle came with a fork.

 tunnbrödsrulle
tunnbrödsrulle
 tunnbrödsrulle
tunnbrödsrulle

Our verdict: Definitely order sans ketchup. The ketchup was a bit overly sweet. Also, I think it might be better with a higher quality shrimp salad. This just tasted like bay shrimp drowned in mayo and thousand island dressing. I didn’t make it all the way through mine, it was really rich and gave me a bit of a stomach ache. In any event, it was uniquely Swedish and we were glad to have tried it.

If you go to Stockholm and want to try a tunnbrödsrulle sober, I would recommend trying chef Magnus Nilsson’s tunnbrödsrulle at Teatern in Södermalm. Otherwise, the junky kiosk dogs might be tasty after many, many beers. If you do try Magnus Nilsson’s tunnbrödsrulle, please let us know how it was–we wanted to go there but didn’t have time.

After our tunnbrödsrulle adventure, we got on the T-Bana subway and headed north to the Tiki Room bar in the Vasastan neighborhood.

If you’ve read much of our blog, you may have noticed that we have a tiki bar fascination.

Tiki Room Stockholm
Tiki Room Stockholm

It was very early in the evening, and most of the bar patrons were upstairs enjoying the outdoor patio. The patio was nice, but we came for the tiki bar. We ordered some drinks downstairs in the tiki lounge area and chatted with the bartender.

Tiki Room Stockholm
Tiki Room Stockholm
Tiki Room Stockholm
Tiki Room Stockholm

Since we were in Stockholm, the drinks were pretty ridiculously expensive. At $15-$20 a drink, we could really only afford to try one each. The drinks were very good, however. Tiki drinks are often made a bit too sweet, but these were perfect. I had the Red Tide, which I really enjoyed (and wished I could have tried another one).

The bartender was super friendly, and after talking to us for awhile, he ended up only charging us for one drink (sweet!).

The Tiki Room was a pretty classic-style tiki bar, very nicely done with a lot of attention to detail. There was a private back room area that I assume you can reserve for parties.

Tiki Room Stockholm
Tiki Room Stockholm
Tiki Room Stockholm
Tiki Room Stockholm
Tiki Room Stockholm
Tiki Room Stockholm
Tiki Room Stockholm
Tiki Room Stockholm

We would have loved to explore some more bars in Stockholm, but the cocktails were just too pricey. The Vasastan neighborhood was lively with people enjoying dinner and drinks at various restaurants, but most of the shops had closed by 6:00 PM. We walked around a little before heading back to the T-Bana train.

 

Overall, we had a great four days in Stockholm. Gamla Stan was definitely a highlight, with it’s old buildings, cobbled streets and cute little alleyways. Stockholm isn’t the best place to visit on a budget, so if you don’t have a lot of money to spend you won’t be going out much. Nice dinners and nightlife are not something that should be on your agenda if you need to be frugal. There are many things to do and see during the day, however. If you visit during the summer, there are lots of parks and places to enjoy a picnic in the evenings and the sun doesn’t go down until after 10:00 PM.

If we were to return to Stockholm again, I would like to explore the Stockholm Archipelago and take a day trip to the ancient viking town of Sigtuna to look at the ancient viking rune stones.

Stay tuned for the rest of our Scandinavian adventure in Denmark…

The Blue Lagoon, Iceland

The Blue Lagoon, Iceland: A two day visit to the milky-blue geothermic hot spring in a lava field in the small town of Grindavik.

 

Excerpt from original post Iceland 2015: Reykjavik and the South Coast. Read about all of our adventures in Iceland here.

Day 1:

 

The Blue Lagoon is the number one tourist attraction in Iceland, and I have to say, it was also one of the things that I was looking forward to the most. The Blue Lagoon formed from the mineral and water runoff of the nearby geothermal power plant that harvests geothermal energy from the lava field near the town of Grindavik. The pale blue color of the lagoon is a result of the white silica mud at the bottom, giving it a milky blue color. In the 1980’s, locals discovered the lagoon and began sneaking in for a swim.

Blue Lagoon Iceland
The Blue Lagoon
Blue Lagoon Iceland
The Blue Lagoon
Blue Lagoon Iceland
The Blue Lagoon–lava rock covered with white silica mud and algae makes up the bottom of the lagoon

Eventually, it was developed into the giant hot spring swimming lagoon that it is today, and The Blue Lagoon Clinic Hotel was built nearby. The silica mud is supposed to be good for your skin, and particularly good for people with skin conditions such as eczema and psoriasis. The Blue Lagoon Clinic Hotel is also a clinic for people with doctor referrals for skin treatments, but for the most part it is a nice hotel with a spa-like atmosphere and it’s own smaller private lagoon for guests only. It is small, although it has plans to expand by next year. It is recommended that you make your reservations far in advance.

We arrived The Blue Lagoon Clinic Hotel at 2:00 PM, which was check in time. The lady at the front desk told us our room was not ready and to come back at 2:00. When we informed her it was 2:00 she apologized, it had been a crazy day for the housekeeping staff and she asked us if we wouldn’t mind waiting about 30 more minutes. They had a nice guest lounge area, so we didn’t mind. We sat and read for a little bit. When she came back and told us our room was ready, she gave us a gift pack of Blue Lagoon lotion products as a thank you for waiting. We learned later how expensive those lotions were–about a $40 value. It was very nice of her.

Iceland-blue-lagoon-clinic-hotel
Blue Lagoon Clinic Hotel guest lounge

Our room was very nice, with a really comfortable bed and a view of the moss and snow covered lava fields. It included a mini fridge, fluffy bathrobes, and even had a towel warmer in the bathroom that ended up being perfect for drying our bathing suits.

Iceland 381

Iceland 382

Iceland 383

Iceland 384

Iceland 394
View from the deck of our hotel room at the Blue Lagoon Clinic
Iceland 393
The moss is flammable…
Iceland 395
The private blue lagoon for hotel guests only

The price per night was about $250.00, which is the off-season rate. It is pretty expensive, but worth it. The price includes a breakfast buffet, use of the private blue lagoon for guests only, and one daily admission per person for each day to the main Blue Lagoon, which is about a 10 minute walk through a path in the lava field. The regular admission price at the Blue Lagoon is about $50.00 per person, which doesn’t include a towel or robe. The hotel guest vouchers include towels and robes, and no advance reservation or ticket purchase is needed.

**Note: If you are visiting the Blue Lagoon without a tour group or staying at the hotel, you will need to make advance reservations. This is a new rule as of 2015, due to increased tourism maxing out the lagoon’s capacity.

After getting settled,  we were ready to check out the lagoon. We put our bathing suits in a plastic shopping bag, collected our voucher from the hotel, and walked across the slushy, icy path to the lagoon through the lava field.

Iceland 396

Checking in was easy, there was a separate line for people with vouchers and we breezed right in. We were given electronic bracelets that lock and unlock your chosen locker, and are used as a running tab for any purchases from the little cafe or the swim up bar in the lagoon. When you leave, you give your bracelet to the cashier to pay for anything you purchased while in the lagoon. It was a pretty awesome system.

Iceland (34)

Iceland (31)

Iceland (37)

In the locker room, you are expected to take a shower with soap before putting your bathing suit on and going out to the lagoon. There are even attendants in the locker room to help people find the next open shower stall (and tell you that you need to shower). There are even diagrams in the shower showing you what areas to wash–armpits, feet, crotch. It was very specific.

I had a hard time figuring out how to lock the locker with my bracelet at first, but figured it out after a few tries. You have to close your locker door, and then scan your bracelet on the main scanner on the locker block, which locks it and confirms your locker number.

Paddy didn’t have the best experience at first–in the locker room he set his robe and towel down for a second on the bench and turned around and his towel was gone. Super lame. Watch your towel….maybe more so in the men’s room than the women’s.

Once out of the locker rooms, you walk out the door onto the deck and it is a mad dash in the bitter cold to hang up your robe on the outdoor hook and get in the lagoon.

Iceland (26)

iceland 712

Iceland (21)

Iceland (24)

The water is really nice, and the bottom of the lagoon ranges from sandy and a little rough to soft squishy silica mud. There are geothermal heat regulators in various areas, and the water gets a lot hotter near them. We got beers and little packets of algae face mask from the swim-up bar.

iceland-blue-lagoon-3
Blue Lagoon Bar
Blue Lagoon Iceland
Algae mask
iceland 714
algae mask

There is a wood box on the far edge of the lagoon full of the white silica mud to use on your face as well. The lagoon also has a steam room, dry sauna, and a steamy cave that looks like a hobbit house, all located off the deck on the right side of the lagoon facing the main building. On the way out, you can get a good view of the lagoon from the observation deck at the top of the building–accessible by stairs in Lava Restaurant.

**Note: The silica and sulphur in the water really dry out your hair. My hair felt like it does after swimming in the ocean but amplified. It took two deep condition washings to finally get it back to normal, so some heavy-duty conditioner is advised for longer hair. They do provide conditioner at the lagoon in the showers, but it wasn’t very good. Wearing your hair up can help, but it gets so steamy that it’s difficult to keep it from getting wet.

After a good soak, we went back to the room to change and head into Grindavik for dinner.

Grindavik is a very tiny coastal fishing town. There isn’t a lot to see, aside from the Saltfish Museum. There are a few small restaurants, and after reviewing the options on tripadvisor, we decided to eat at Salthusid. We drove into town thinking there would be a main strip with restaurants or something by the waterfront, but there wasn’t. It was actually a little hard to find. Saldhusid is located just off the main road behind the grocery store Netto.

Iceland-salthusid-grindavik
Salthusid Restaurant

Salthusid was cozy and inviting, very Scandinavian. The name means “The Salt House” in Icelandic.

Iceland-salthusid-grindavik-4
Salthusid Restaurant

The waitress was very friendly, and it ended up being one of the best meals of our whole trip, second to Dill. We shared the lobster soup to start, and it was amazing. If Stokkseyri has the best lobster soup in Iceland, I would be very interested to compare their soup to Salthusid’s. It was so flavorful without being too heavy on the cream, with big fresh hunks of lobster in the bottom.

The best lobster soup ever at Salthusid
The best lobster soup ever at Salthusid

Paddy had a lamb tenderloin and I had cod with ratatouille. Both were outstanding. We had read that they make very good chocolate cake at Salthusid, but we were too stuffed to eat another bite. If we ever come back to Grindavik, we will be making this restaurant our number one dinner stop.

Iceland-salthusid-grindavik-2
Lamb tenderloin at Salthusid
Iceland-salthusid-grindavik-3
Cod with ratatouille at Salthusid

Iceland 385

On the way back to the hotel we could see the geothermal power plant all lit up and hard at work:

Geothermal power plant that accidentally created the Blue Lagoon
Geothermal power plant that accidentally created the Blue Lagoon
Day 2:

Friday was our last day in Iceland, and while the snow was melting now, it was WINDY. When we had left the Blue Lagoon the day before we had been leaving right as a huge tour group was coming in, and we were wondering if we could have the same luck of timing on our second trip. We went to the front desk to retrieve our daily voucher and to see if the tour groups come at certain times (they don’t), and they told us the weather was only going to get worse this afternoon, so it was best we go as soon as we can.

We seemed to luck out and get in between big tour groups again, fortunately. It was busy, but not crazy busy. Paddy slipped on the ice on the trail from the hotel to the Blue Lagoon and cracked his elbow. If you are walking on a snowy or icy day, be extra careful.

iceland-blue-lagoon-8
The Blue Lagoon

Iceland (22)

It was much windier than the day before. While the water was still really warm, the cold wind was uncomfortable on our heads. We went between the dry sauna and the lagoon, sitting under the walking bridges to shield ourselves from the wind. We finally found the best spot for a sheltered soak under the bridge and around the corner from the bar, up against some lava rocks. The water is hotter over there and the rock behind us blocked the wind a bit.

Iceland-blue-lagoon-9
The area in the lower left corner of this photo is be best spot to soak when it’s windy–the rock shelters you a bit and the water is extra hot.

We didn’t stay as long this time, we figured we had a good time the day before and the wind was getting to be a little much.

When we left, there was another HUGE tour group line waiting to get in. We were so glad we left when we did. At the end of the line near the parking lot we could hear some Germans shouting obnoxiously. We made it a little ways down the path to the hotel when I realized that I left my bathing suit bag in the gift shop at the front counter. I ran back to get it, and the whole time, the Germans never stopped shouting. It sounded like they were drunk….or angry? I don’t know. It was unbelievably obnoxious.

One of the biggest reasons we would recommend staying at the Blue Lagoon Clinic Hotel is that it has it’s own private lagoon for hotel guests only. That way, you can enjoy soaking in the lagoon again after you get back from the main one, and it is quiet and much more relaxing. They also have an indoor lagoon area for when the weather is bad.

Iceland-Blue-Lagoon-Clinic-Hotel-8
Blue Lagoon Clinic Hotel Private indoor/outdoor lagoon
Iceland-blue-lagoon-clinic-hotel-7
Blue Lagoon Clinic Hotel Private indoor/outdoor lagoon

The indoor lagoon has a door in the corner for you to go out to the outdoor lagoon from the water, which was nice. I braved the wind for a little while that afternoon, but it was too much. It was a little disappointing, because I was hoping to get some relaxing time in at the private lagoon as well before we left.

One thing the hotel doesn’t have is a sauna or steam room, which I think would be a great addition.

We relaxed the rest of the afternoon and read books. Some people may find the Grindavik area a little boring, but we were really enjoying the relaxation time before heading home and back to our jobs.

For dinner, we had made prior reservations at Lava Restaurant at the main Blue Lagoon, our last and final splurge dinner. Head chef Viktor Örn Andrésson specializes in modern Icelandic cuisine and won Iceland’s Chef of the Year award in 2013 and Nordic Chef of the Year in 2014.

Iceland 420
Lava Restaurant at The Blue Lagoon
Iceland 399
Lava Restaurant at The Blue Lagoon
Iceland 398
Lava Restaurant at The Blue Lagoon
Iceland 397
View from our table, Lava Restaurant at The Blue Lagoon

The restaurant is huge, and a more traditional style than the infamous Dill restaurant in Reykjavik. The menu was an a la carte menu featuring starters, entrees, and desserts.

The wine list was pricey, and their selection of US wines were a bit questionable (Barefoot Merlot? Turning Leaf Zinfandel? Those are cheap $6.99 bottom shelf grocery store wines…on the wine list for $40 each). Not that we wanted American wine, but their American selection made us question the value of the rest of the high-priced wines. We stuck with less expensive house wine by the glass.

For starters we had the slow cooked arctic char with fennel, pear, and char roe, and the smoked haddock with apple and sun chokes. Both were outstanding, but the arctic char was the clear favorite for both of us. The char roe exploded in your mouth and added an unexpected complimentary complexity to the pear and char.

Iceland 400
Smoked haddock starter at Lava Restaurant
Iceland 401
Slow cooked arctic char starter at Lava Restaurant

For our entrees, Paddy had Viktor Örn Andrésson’s winning dish from the Nordic Chef of the Year competition, which was fried rack of beef and beef cheek with carrot, potato, morel and port wine glaze. I had the pan fried cod with roasted langoustines, cauliflower, fennel, pear, and dill. My cod was good, cooked perfectly and the flavor was great–however it was a little overly salty. Paddy practically licked his plate clean, he said the beef dish was truly award-winning.

Iceland-lava-restaurant-4
Pan fried cod and roasted langoustines at Lava Restaurant
Iceland-lava-restaurant-5
“Award-winning” beef rack and beef cheek dish at Lava Restaurant
Iceland 403
At Lava Restaurant

For dessert I tried the “award-winning” Nordic Chef of the Year dessert: Cranberries and organic dark chocolate with marzipan, lemon, hazelnuts, and meringue. Paddy had the apple and brown butter dish with brown butter ice cream, apple and celeriac foam, apple, caramel, brioche. Both were fantastic.

Iceland 416

Iceland 418

Overall, we spent about the same amount of money at Lava as we did at Dill in Reykjavik. They were both great meals, but if you only have room in your budget for one big splurge in Iceland, I’d go with Dill. They are two completely different restaurants, however. If you’re not into 7 small tasting courses and would rather have a starter, larger entree, and dessert, Lava might be the one for you. We liked the tasting courses and variety at Dill, along with the very Icelandic and less-touristy atmosphere.

 

Overall, I feel the Blue Lagoon lived up to the hype. We would absolutely do it again, but to be honest we’d probably spend the majority of our time at the private lagoon at the Blue Lagoon hotel. The only thing we disliked about the Blue Lagoon was the hoards of tour bus tourists. Unfortunately, that is par for the course at a number one tourist attraction. The Blue Lagoon’s proximity to the airport makes it an easy and relaxing end to any trip to Iceland.

Vik, Iceland

Two nights in Vik, Iceland. A tiny town on Iceland’s southwest coast that is a great home base for southern ring road adventures.

We visited Vik, a small town in southwest Iceland for two days on a week long trip to Iceland in March 2015. It was winter when we visited, and road conditions were very unpredictable. We had to check the weather report daily to see when and if we would be able to drive that day or not, due to extreme winds and snow. We used Vik as a home base to see several attractions on the southern ring road. In good weather, Vik is only about a two and a half our drive from Rekjavik. There isn’t much to the town, but it is a great place to visit and use as a home base for exploring for a couple of days.

 

Excerpt from original post http://childfreelifeadventures.com/iceland-2015-reykjavik-the-south-coast/

Day 1:

We left Hveragerdi in the morning as early as soon as the sun came out. The weather report told us that the morning would be pretty clear and mild, but that a storm was moving in that afternoon. We got on the road as early as we could, headed east on Highway 1 to the coastal town of Vik. The drive wasn’t too bad in the beginning, and we stopped at two of Iceland’s iconic waterfalls.

Iceland 170

Iceland 171

Iceland 176

Iceland 173

Seljalandsfoss: 

Seljandsfoss waterfall is just a very short drive off the main highway 1, and there are signs for it. In warmer weather, you can actually walk behind it which is pretty awesome. It was icy and cold when we visited, so we didn’t attempt the walk behind it. There was also a fair amount of icy spray from the falls so we didn’t get super close. This waterfall is definitely worth a stop.

Iceland-Seljalandsfoss
Seljalandsfoss
Iceland-Seljalandsfoss-2
Seljalandsfoss
Iceland-Seljalandsfoss-3
Seljalandsfoss

Skógafoss:

Just a short ways down the road from Seljandsfoss is Skogafoss, which you can actually see from the highway. This 200 foot, 25 meter-wide waterfall is one of Iceland’s biggest and most impressive. There are bathrooms at the falls, as well as a little restaurant if you’re hungry. We had packed sandwiches and ate them in the car to save money and use up our groceries.

Iceland-skogafoss
Skogafoss
Iceland-Skogafoss-1
Skogafoss
Iceland-Skogafoss-2
Skogafoss

We didn’t have far to go to Vik, but the black storm clouds on the horizon warned us that we had better hurry it up. It started getting a little dicey right before we descended into the town, but we made it. The winds were picking up and the powdery snow was blowing across the road, making it difficult to see.

Iceland 188
Menacing black storm clouds closing in
Iceland 189
Farmer herding his horses in as the storm approaches

Iceland 190

Iceland 202

Iceland 208
Snow blowing in the wind
Iceland 207
Nothing but white
Iceland 212
Snow blowing on the road

We finally reached Vik, very relieved to have made it just as the storm began raging.

Heading into Vik
Heading into Vik
Vik
Vik
Iceland-Vik
Little church in Vik

We were staying at the brand new Icelandair Hotel in Vik, which had just opened in June 2014. At $175 a night, it was one of our most expensive accommodations on the trip, but very comfortable and modern. In the summer, forget it–the rates shoot up to $300/night. Way out of our budget.

Icelandair-Hotel-Vik
Icelandair Hotel Vik
Icelandair-hotel-vik
Icelandair Hotel lobby
Icelandair-hotel-vik
Icelandair Hotel lobby bar
Icelandair-hotel-vik-1
Ocean view room, Icelandair Hotel Vik
Icelandair-hotel-vik-2
Icelandair Hotel Vik
Icelandair-hotel-vik-3
Icelandair Hotel Vik
Icelandair-hotel-vik-4
View from the huge windows in our room

We checked into our room, happy to be out of the weather. I had woken up with a sore throat that morning and it became apparent by afternoon that I was coming down with a mild cold. We decided to relax in the room the rest of the afternoon and watch the stormy sea from our huge floor-to-ceiling glass windows in the room. I was glad that I had packed some cold medicine and vitamins just in case.

For dinner that evening, we asked the receptionist what our restaurant options were in town. The town is tiny and there aren’t a lot of choices. She talked up the Icelandair Hotel restaurant on site, and then mumbled disdainfully about “the grill across the street,” and “another place up the road and to the left.” I suppose it’s her job to steer us to the hotel restaurant.

Berg Restaurant at the hotel was very expensive, and looked a little overpriced. The grill across the street was a very affordable option, attached to the gas station, but we also weren’t in the mood for fried food. I consulted Tripadvisor and  decided to check out Halldorskaffi up the street.

The main street in Vik is Vikurbraut, which has a small grocery store, post office and liquor store (you do need to buy beer and wine at the liquor store, which closes at 6:00 PM), and two restaurants–HalldorsKaffi and the Lundi Restaurant in the Puffin Hostel.

Iceland-Vik
Vikurbraut St. in Vik
Iceland-Vik-1
View of church in Vik from Vikurbraut St
Iceland-Vik-Halldorskaffi
Halldorskaffi Restaurant

Halldorskaffi Restaurant Doesn’t have a sign, we recognized it from the photo someone posted on Tripadvisor. After looking at all the options, I will say that it is the best restaurant option in Vik.

Service was very friendly. The best deal they have is their daily soup special, which is a self-serve all-you-can eat soup station with homemade bread. I had the soup of the day (cauliflower) and it was delicious. I also ordered the smoked salmon appetizer and it was also very good. Paddy had a burger and fries. They serve full entree dinners (mostly fish and lamb), pizzas, burgers, salads, and sandwiches. The prices were very reasonable.

Iceland-Halldorskaffi
Halldorskaffi
Iceland-Halldorskaffi-1
All you can eat soup at Halldorskaffi
Iceland-Halldorskaffi-2
Lox (smoked salmon) appetizer and burger at Halldorskaffi
Iceland-Halldorskaffi-3
Delicious homemade cakes and pies at Halldorskaffi

There isn’t any nightlife in Vik, and I wasn’t feeling so hot because of my cold so we spent the rest of the evening in the hotel room reading and listening to the storm.

We were super excited to find out from the front desk lady that the storm was supposed to pass overnight, and that we could actually expect some sun the next day.

Jokulsarlon Glacier Lagoon and the Southern Ring Road

Day 2:

Much of the snow had melted off the road overnight, and the weather forecast was actually good for the day. We got up early, ate some yogurt, bread, and leftover tuna salad for breakfast (we just used the car as our refrigerator for the night), and set out to do a marathon sight-seeing trip on our one unicorn-day of good weather.

An hour past Vik, there is another small town called Kirkjubæjarklaustur, but not much else for miles. (Be sure to have a full gas tank). Just a short ways past Vik is an area where part of Game of Thrones was filmed, and we could definitely see why. We realized that we were really out in the “wilds of Iceland,” with nothing but snow, ice, and glaciers. It was beautiful and humbling at the same time.

Iceland 236

Iceland 234

Iceland 261

Iceland 266

After two and a half hours or so, pretty much driving on a solid sheet of ice in some parts of the road, we reached our main destination:  Jökulsárlón Glacial Lagoon. It is one of the big attractions in Iceland, and in the summer I’ve read that it is a conveyor belt churning out loads of tourists through boat tours. It was busy, but not too busy when we were there.

The sun was starting to peek out, but the wind was brutal. We walked towards the lagoon and climbed up on top of the grassy hills to get a good view, and were almost blown away.

Iceland-Jokulsarlon
Jokulsarlon Glacial Lagoon
Iceland-Jokulsarlon-2
Jokulsarlon Glacial Lagoon
Iceland-Jokulsarlon-3
Jokulsarlon Glacial Lagoon

We descended to the beach, which was better but the wind was still icy cold. It was a beautiful site to see, but we didn’t stay as long as we wanted, the wind was just too much. No boat tours were being offered either, which was fine. The view from the beach was pretty good by itself.

Iceland-jokulsarlon-4
Jokulsarlon Glacial Lagoon
Iceland-Jokulsarlon-5
Jokulsarlon Glacial Lagoon
Iceland-Jokulsarlon-6
Jokulsarlon Glacial Lagoon
Iceland-Jokulsarlon-7
Jokulsarlon Glacial Lagoon
Iceland-Jokulsarlon-7
Jokulsarlon Glacial Lagoon
Iceland 289
Freezing!
Iceland-Jokulsarlon-8
Jokulsarlon Glacial Lagoon

Fortunately, there is a small cafe and gift shop selling seafood soup, pastries, and hot drinks. We had some seafood soup for lunch, which was mediocre but hot and warmed us right up. We used the restroom, picked up a couple souvenirs and turned around to head back.

On the way back we stopped at Skaftafell National Park. Visiting Skaftafell and hiking to glaciers and waterfalls in the park had originally been part of the plan, but we realized that this was a much better destination in the summer or early fall. We didn’t have a lot of time, but thought we’d pull in and see if there was anything to be seen within a short walk of the visitor’s center. There wasn’t. Even nearby Svartifoss required crampons to even attempt the trail. We checked out the visitor’s center and then moved on.

The sun was out full force while we drove back, and we were just happy that we got to see the Glacier Lagoon and the rugged, wild winter terrain of the southern Ring Road. It was even more beautiful on the drive back, as the blue sky and bright sun added some more contrast to the landscape.

Iceland 299

Iceland 301

Iceland 307
Icy wild arctic tundra without a soul around for miles

Iceland 308

Iceland 309

Iceland (15)

Iceland 317

Iceland 316

Reynisfjara Black Sand Beach

Arriving back at the hotel in Vik, we stopped by the room to freshen up and then got back on the road a short drive west of Vik to Reynisfjara Black Sand Beach. We were hoping to catch a sunset but snow clouds were rolling in, and it began to snow a little bit. It was still a nice stroll on the beach, with the snow coming down.

Reynisfjara Beach is a must-see stop just off the Ring Road in south Iceland. The beach is covered in black sand and lava rock, with towering jagged sea stacks that look like monster teeth jutting out of the raging ocean. To the west is a rock arch going into the ocean.

Iceland 358

Iceland 357

Iceland-Reynisfjara-Beach
Reynisfjara Beach
Iceland-Reynisfjara-Beach-1
Reynisfjara Beach

Iceland 332

Iceland-Reynisfjara-Beach-2
Rock arch, Reynisfjara Beach
Iceland-Reynisfjara-Beach-3
Big lava rocks on Reynisfjara Beach
Iceland-Reynisfjara-Beach-5
Reynisfjara Beach

Hálsanefshellir sea cave is to your right (as you face the ocean), made up of hexagonal basalt columns much like the ones we saw at the Giant’s Causeway in Northern Ireland. The columns are a natural geological wonder formed from lava pouring out of the land and cooling slowly over time. They are very rare but found randomly all over the world, and also make up the waterfall cliff at Svartifoss in Skaftafell National Park. The columns at Reynisfjara are also called the “organ pipes.”

Iceland-Reynisfjara
“Organ Pipes” at Reynisfjara Beach
Iceland-Reynisfjara-2
“Organ Pipes” at Reynisfjara Beach
Iceland-Reynisfjara-3
“Organ Pipes” at Reynisfjara Beach
Iceland-Reynisfjara-4
“Organ Pipes” at Reynisfjara Beach

**Note: The waves and current at Reynisfjara are very dangerous. Do not wade in the ocean or get close to the edge of the shore, waves have been known to come out onto the beach further than expected and the current can pull you in, even from knee-deep water.

Iceland-Reynisfjara-5
Raging sea at Reynisfjara

After the beach, we went back into town and had dinner at Halldorskaffi again. Paddy had the lamb burger and I had a chicken sandwich with fries. Both were delicious, but we were starving and it didn’t quite fill us up. We picked up some snacks at the convenience store across the street from our hotel on the way back.

Iceland-Vik-2
Evening sun in Vik

Back at the hotel, we went down to have a drink at the swanky hotel bar with (yak??) fur barstools. There were a few other tourists down in the lounge area, but it was otherwise pretty quiet. There were a few people eating in the restaurant.

Icelandair-hotel-bar

Before coming to Iceland, we watched a few travel documentaries which all featured the infamous Icelandic liquor Brennivin, otherwise known as “The Black Death.” Brennivin literally translates to “burning wine” and is a type of schnapps made from potato mash and flavored with caraway. It has a very herbal flavor to it, and after doing a shot of that, my cold went away. No joke. It was a pretty mild cold, but I’d like to believe that the “Black Death” brought me back to life.

Iceland (12)

We had a couple beers and enjoyed the ambiance for a bit, but the drinks were expensive so we didn’t stay long.

Regarding Icelandic beer–beer was actually banned in Iceland from 1915 to 1989. The most popular and widely available beers are Gull, and Viking, which we found to taste like cheap, watery Budweiser or some other comparable American beer. Paddy did find a couple Icelandic beers that he liked, and said the Viking Classic wasn’t too bad. My favorite was the line of beers from the Einstök microbrewery. I didn’t get to try all of the Einstock beers, but the white ale and the toasted porter were delicious. Give Iceland a few more years, I think more craft beer may be on the way.

Iceland (13)

While Vik may be a tiny town, there is a lot to see nearby. We would definitely recommend Vik and the Icelandair Hotel, although the price was a bit high, and it was the only hotel/hostel we stayed at that didn’t include breakfast. Exploring the southern ring road was one of the highlights of our trip. It really feels like a desolate other-worldly arctic landscape, unspoiled and wild. Just be sure to keep an eye on the weather in the winter, it can be one of the most dangerous parts of the country in high wind.

Renting a Car in Iceland

Renting a Car in Iceland: What you need to know about road safety, insurance, and how to avoid unexpected charges.

 

Excerpt from original post Iceland 2015: Reykjavik & the South Coast

Things to know about renting a car in Iceland:

There are tons of threads on Tripadvisor about renting a car in Iceland, many of them filled with horror stories of being charged hundreds or even over a thousand dollars for dings, dents, etc. After reading through many of them, I determined that the big name car rental companies had the most horror stories, and Blue Car Rental had the least horror stories, so we went with them. In general, here is what you need to know:

1. The insurance barely covers anything.

If you damage the car in any way, there is a high deductible that you have to pay. This includes small dents. Blue Car Rental’s deductible was $1,100.00. If the windshield is cracked and needs to be replaced, you pay $100.00. If the chassis/underside of the car is damaged due to off-roading or driving too fast on rough bumpy roads, you are responsible for the whole amount of the damage. If the strong winds blow the doors off the car (it happens), you will be responsible for the damage as well.

2. You must pre-pay with most companies.

Reserving a car online was very easy, and I asked a couple questions via email to Blue Car before reserving, and they were very responsive and helpful. However–you have to pre-pay, and if you cancel your trip last minute, you might not get all your money back. (Your might consider travel insurance for emergency cancellations on your trip).

3. Rental rates double in the summer.

Renting a car in Iceland is going to be expensive regardless, but consider going in the spring, or after September 15th to get the best rates. Like hotel rates, everything is double the price in the peak summer season.

4. Get the sand and ash protection.

Winds in Iceland can be insanely strong. Right before we went we read news stories of cars being blown off the road by the wind and rocks being blown off cliffs into people’s car windows. These are extreme examples, but the winds are strong at times and will blow sand and volcanic ash at your car, causing damage to the paint. The sand and ash protection doesn’t cost that much extra, and could save you some money in the event that you run into these conditions.

5. In the winter, pay close attention to the road conditions and weather reports.

The most invaluable website during our trip was http://www.vegagerdin.is/english/road-conditions-and-weather/, which we were checking several times a day. They keep the road conditions up to date and you must check to make sure your route is clear before venturing out, especially in the winter. You don’t want to end up a search-and-rescue tourist trapped in a snow storm. For an up to date weather report for the day, http://en.vedur.is/weather/forecasts/areas/ is the Icelandic weather site. If a storm is predicted in the area you are planning on driving to, check with locals to see if they think going there is a good idea. If not, you may need to change your plans.

6. American credit cards and debit cards without chips don’t work on Icelandic gas pumps.

As of the end of 2015 American cards are supposed to now have “chip and PIN” card model that has been used in Europe for years. My credit card has it now, but my debit card still doesn’t. I’m hoping this will change soon. Most bars, restaurants, and shops have card machines that can process the old-style magnetic strip that American credit cards have, but gas pumps don’t. We didn’t have cards with the chip yet when we were in Iceland. We were able to get around this by pre-paying the gas station attendant, either by having them open the pump or put a pre-paid amount on the pump, or the N1 stations could provide a pre-paid gas card that could be used at the pump. If you are going out into no-man’s land, make sure you fill up your tank first. You may also want to buy a pre-paid gas card at the N1 to use at any N1 stations that might not have an attendant. Worst case scenario, have some cash on hand for emergencies–you might have to wait for someone with a card to come along that you could ask to buy the gas for you in exchange for cash. If you don’t have a card with a chip in it yet, talk to your bank and find out when they will be getting one for you.

 

Here is a video about driving in Iceland that I found on Icelandair’s video selection on the plane. It was corny, but pretty helpful.

Overall, everything worked out with renting a car, the wind didn’t blow our car doors off, no rocks or hail flew through the air and dented the body or nicked the paint. We received no additional unexpected charges. We would Recommend Blue Car Rental, and from what we read, would also recommend avoiding the big name car companies. Just be cautious, don’t drive when there’s a storm, and stay on top of the weather report. Renting a car in Iceland is the best way to see the country.

Reykjavik, Iceland

 Two days in Reykjavik, Iceland: A hip hostel, outstanding Scandinavian food, interesting theme bars, a fabulous flea market, and a penis museum. Yes, a penis museum.

 Excerpt from original post Iceland 2015: Reyjkavik & the South Coast
Day 1:

We arrived in Iceland’s Keflavik airport just outside of Reykjavik at 6:45 in the morning in a windstorm that made the plane swerve back and forth when landing on the runway. I had pre-arranged a Grayline bus to Reykjavik through Kex Hostel, which was very easy– they just told us they would add it to our room bill when we arrived, and emailed me a voucher for the bus. It was $15 per person one way, and took us right to the front door of the hostel.

After a 45 minute drive, fighting sleep while watching the sky lighten over the lava fields and listening to a group of American college frat boys talk about all the “clubbing” they were going to do in Reykjavik, we arrived at Kex Hostel.

Stepping out of the bus onto compact snow that was now essentially a big wavy sheet of ice, we collected our bags, “skated” carefully across the slippery sidewalk, and hauled them up the two flights of stairs to reception.

Kex Hostel
Kex Hostel
Kex Hostel front desk
Kex Hostel front desk

Kex Hostel is the quintessential hipster hostel of Reykjavik. It is probably the nicest hostel I’ve ever been to, however I can’t vouch for the dorm rooms–we reserved a private room. Because of our early morning arrival, I had booked the previous night as well so that we could check in right when we arrived (unlike the frat boys, who were trying to figure out how to keep their energy up until 2:00 PM when they could check in to their dorm). It was well worth it, we were dog tired and got no sleep on the plane.

Check in was easy, we pre-paid at the front desk and were given a key to our room on the third floor. It was a corner room at the end of the hall, and after seeing the photos of tiny private rooms on tripadvisor, I’m pretty sure we got the best one. It was huge, with an ocean view, large private bathroom with a tub, and a sitting area with antique furniture.

Kex Hostel Reykjavik
Our private room at Kex Hostel
Kex Hostel Reykjavik Iceland 033
Our private room at Kex Hostel
Kex Hostel Reykjavik Iceland
Our private room at Kex Hostel
Kex Hostel Reykjavik Iceland
Our private room at Kex Hostel
Our private room at Kex Hostel Reykjavik Iceland
Our private room at Kex Hostel
view from Kex Hostel Reykjavik Iceland
View from our room
Kex Hostel Reykjavik Iceland
view from our room

Don’t let the word “hostel” fool you, private rooms at Kex are not cheap like most hostels. Our room was about $150.00/night, just like a mid-range hotel room. In the summertime, the rate sky-rockets up to $350.00/night along with most hotels in Iceland. This is one of the biggest reasons we chose to travel in the winter.

**Money-saving tip: If you want to see Iceland in the summertime and are on a tight budget, consider bringing camping gear for the many campgrounds throughout the country, or at least a sleeping bag and a towel–many hostel or cabin accommodations charge less if you have your own sleeping bag vs them providing bedding and towels.

Our room included breakfast, and since we paid for the previous night we were welcome to eat at the breakfast when we checked in. The breakfast spread was typical of Icelandic hotels/hostels, but was probably the highest quality that we encountered. Included were several types of fresh baked bread, crackers, skyr (Icelandic yogurt, which is super creamy like Greek yogurt), muesli, tuna salad, deli meats, cheese, liver pate, tomatoes, cucumbers, little jars of fresh fruit, hard boiled eggs, juice, tea, and coffee.

Breakfast buffet at Kex Hostel
Breakfast buffet at Kex Hostel
Breakfast buffet at Kex Hostel
Breakfast buffet at Kex Hostel
Kex Hostel Reykjavik Iceland
Outdoor patio at Kex Hostel–I’m sure this is very nice in the summer

**Money-saving tip: We found the Icelandic breakfast buffets to be so hearty that we were able to eat enough to last us all the way until dinner. We didn’t really eat lunch the whole trip.

After breakfast, we headed up to the room and crashed for most of the day. We finally got up around 3:30 to head out and explore. Normally we wouldn’t sleep so long in an effort to regulate our schedules and combat jet lag, but we had heard that Icelandic weekend nightlife doesn’t get good until around midnight, so we figured we might as well be up late that night.

First we explored the rest of Kex Hostel and had lunch at the bar downstairs.

Kex Hostel Reykjavik Iceland
Our room number–best room!
Kex Hostel Reykjavik Iceland
Hallway with lighted pinball machine style room numbers

Kex Hostel Reykjavik Iceland

Kex Hostel Reykjavik Iceland
Third floor lounge area
Kex Hostel Reykjavik Iceland
“Classroom” on the third floor near the private rooms.
Kex Hostel Reykjavik Iceland
“Classroom” on the third floor near the private rooms.
Kex Hostel Reykjavik Iceland
“Classroom” on the third floor near the private rooms.
Kex Hostel Reykjavik Iceland
Community kitchen on third floor for self-catering
Kex Hostel Reykjavik Iceland
Random old-timey barber chair near reception
Kex Hostel Reykjavik Iceland
Reception/bar area with a giant magnetic poetry wall
Kex Hostel Reykjavik Iceland
Part of the bar/ guest lounge area.

We were hungry, and I’d read great reviews on the Kex Hostel restaurant, so we decided to check it out. We found a table by the window (made from an old sewing machine table). It didn’t look like there was table service, so we ordered at the bar. I had the baked goat cheese and pickled onions on grilled bread with a side of the sweet carrots, and Paddy had the grilled chorizo. Both were about $18 each, which is actually a pretty good price for Iceland.

Kex Hostel Restaurant Reykjavik Iceland
Matsebill (menu) at Kex Hostel bar
Kex Hostel Restaurant Reykjavik Iceland
Kex Hostel Bar
Kex Hostel Restaurant Reykjavik Iceland
Kex Hostel kitchen
Grilled chorizo and mashed potatoes at Kex Hostel
Grilled chorizo and mashed potatoes at Kex Hostel
Baked goat cheese on grilled bread at Kex Hostel with a side of sweet carrots
Baked goat cheese on grilled bread at Kex Hostel with a side of sweet carrots

We were impressed with the quality of the food. There seemed to be quite a few locals at the bar as well, and I had read that the good food and good prices bring a lot of locals to the hostel. Several tables in the bar area had reserved signs on them. Overall, the prices are good (compared to other restaurants in Reykjavik) and I would recommend coming here for a meal even if you aren’t planning on staying here.

**Money saving tip: Tipping isn’t part of the culture in Iceland, so while the restaurant prices are expensive, you don’t have to factor in a gratuity at the end. Restaurant servers are paid a decent living wage, but if the service was really excellent, it isn’t rude to leave something if you feel like it.

After we ate, it was around 4:00 PM, and we had about three more hours of daylight left. We ventured out to walk around the city and take stock of our surroundings. We headed a couple blocks up to Laugavegur Street, the main shopping street in Reykjavik.

We found the “Bad Taste Record Store:”

Bad Taste Record Store Reykjavik
Bad Taste Record Store Reykjavik

The Chuck Norris Grill:

Chuck Norris Grill Reykjavik
Chuck Norris Grill

Instructions on how to tie a tie:

Reykjavik Iceland 046

And some interesting grafitti:

Reykjavik Iceland 047

Reykjavik Iceland 048

After exploring some of the little shops (most of the ones that stay open later are souvenir stores), we reached the city center and were getting a bit cold and ready for a break. We stopped into the Laundromat Cafe for some hot tea and beer. It was a funky little spot with a laundromat in the basement, lots of book shelves around the bar, maps on the walls, and a good looking menu. We weren’t hungry yet but we enjoyed the atmosphere and friendly service.

Laundromat Cafe Reykjavik Iceland (6)
Laundromat Cafe

We continued walking around a bit more and eventually got hungry for dinner. It was around 9:00 PM and most restaurants seemed to be either packed or touristy. We were also making a solid attempt to avoid tourist restaurants with whale and puffin on the menu, two animals that are close to being on the endangered species list. While whale was a traditional food in old Icelandic times, it is no longer sustainable or necessary to eat. The really sad thing is that most Icelanders don’t eat whale, a good 60% of the whale eaten in Iceland is consumed by tourists. With tourism exploding in Iceland in the past few years and only continuing to grow, it is worrysome to think of what this could mean for whales.

Fortunately there is a growing local movement against whaling in Iceland, IceWhale.is which discourages consumption of whale meat in Iceland and promotes environmentally friendly ways of enjoying the whales of Iceland with their slogan “Meet us don’t eat us!”. Their website also provides a list of whale-friendly restaurants.

http://icewhale.is
http://icewhale.is

We eventually stumbled into a Scandinavian restaurant (Called “Scandinavian,” fittingly enough) that had been packed all evening and was now starting to thin out. We were in the mood for local food, so we ordered some Icelandic beers and the marinated salmon with mustard sauce appetizer. We weren’t super hungry, so we had soup for our entrees, which was delicious. Paddy had the Icelandic lamb soup special of the day, and I had the lobster soup. The lobster soup was very tasty, although very rich. I couldn’t quite finish all of it and I’m probably better off not knowing exactly how much butter and heavy cream I consumed.

Scandinavian restaurant Reykjavik
Scandinavian restaurant Reykjavik
Lamb soup Scandinavian restaurant Reykjavik
Icelandic lamb soup
Lobster soup Scandinavian restaurant Reykjavik Iceland
Lobster soup
Freya beer Iceland
Freya beer

**Money saving tip: Icelanders make great soup, and just about every sit-down style restaurant has it. It usually comes with fresh bread and makes a great inexpensive meal.

After dinner we were ready to check out the nightlife. I’d read up on a few places and received a few suggestions from my friend Daniel, who has been to Iceland three times. Our first stop was a new bar I’d read about, Bar Ananas. I’m a sucker for theme bars, and this one had a tropical theme (ananas means pineapple in Icelandic). We walked in to what appeared to be someone’s birthday or bachelorette party, as it was filled with women and balloons. It didn’t appear to have any cocktail menus with specialty tropical cocktails, and the bar was completely blocked by gabbing ladies. We moved on.

Our second stop was the Lebowski Bar, which is a bar with a theme dedicated entirely to the movie The Big Lebowski. It was packed, but we found a couple of bar stools at the end next to a local guy at the bar by himself. On the cocktail menu were 13 different kinds of white Russians, but after all the cream I had just eaten in the lobster soup, I opted for a cosmo. It was weak and expensive.

http://lebowski.is/En/white-russian-menu.html
http://lebowski.is/En/white-russian-menu.html

We made conversation with the local guy who was kind enough to move over for us to sit together for a little while, until two staff members showed up and told us they had to take away our bar stools because it was “turning into a pub.” Deciding that it wasn’t really our scene, we finished our drinks and moved on. We thought we might try coming back the next day before it got busy.

Paddy wanted to go to a rock bar, so we walked up to the next block and went to Dillon Whiskey Bar, which I’d read is a good place to see live bands. There was a live local rock band playing in the upstairs bar, and it being around midnight I figured we were arriving right when things were getting going. Unfortunately, the show ended shortly after we arrived and no one came on after that. The songs we did see were good, and the bar cleared out a bit afterward and we were able to have a table. The atmosphere was nice and much more our style, and the bartenders filled my wine glass almost to the brim each time.

Dillon Whiskey Bar Reykjavik Iceland
Live music at Dillon
Dillon Whiskey Bar Reykjavik Iceland
Dillon

Dillon Whiskey Bar Reykjavik Iceland

We stayed out until around 1:30 AM, and then figured we should probably get to bed so that we could start getting on some sort of a more normal schedule. We thought that Kex Hostel bar would be busy at that hour, but there was just a couple people at the bar talking to the bartender by candlelight. I think the “party gets going at midnight” rule applies mostly to dance clubs and bars like the Lebowski.

Day 2:

The next morning we ate breakfast at the Hostel and headed out to the Icelandic Phallological Museum. Yes, it’s a penis museum.

Penis Museum Reykjavik Iceland

The penis museum was founded by local historian and teacher Sigurður Hjartarson. His fellow teachers who worked summers in the whaling industry used to bring him whale penises as a joke. Eventually he began preserving and collecting penises of other mammalian species, and in 2011 he opened the museum. His collection includes 282 penises from 93 different species of mammals, including a human donation. Sigurður Hjartarson maintains that no animals are killed for the sole purpose of collecting a penis.

Penis Museum Reykjavik Iceland
Icelandic Phallological Museum
Penis Museum Reykjavik Iceland
Sperm whale penis

While we were looking at the exhibit, I overheard a little British boy ask his mother, “Mummy, why are we at a pee-pee museum?” I didn’t hear her answer.

There is a recent documentary called “The Final Member”  that came out about Sigurður Hjartarson’s quest to obtain a human speciman for the museum, that waffles between hilarious and a little disturbing. We would highly recommend it. Trailer below:

**Note: Just about everywhere in Iceland takes credit cards, except this museum. Be sure to stop by the cash machine to withdraw some kroner before visiting. Admission is 1250 kr, or around $9.50.

After the penis museum we continued down towards Reykjavik‘s main harbor to the Kolaportið Flea Market. I’d read that this market is a great place to look for an authentic used or new Icelandic sweater (lopapeysa). The flea market had all kinds of booths selling everything from antiques and trinkets to rock t-shirts and funky sunglasses. There was also a large grocery section of Asian food imports, and a little cafe area selling open-faced sandwiches and other snacks.

Kolaportid Flea Market Reykjavik Iceland
Kolaportið Flea Market

There were many booths selling sweaters, and some were used. I didn’t find any that I thought I would really wear that much though to justify the $80-$200 price tag. The wool is thick, and I think that it would be too hot for Seattle weather except for the one or two weeks every December where we have a big freeze and the weather drops into the 20’s. If you are looking for a good price on a lopapeysa, however, this is the best place to look. The market is only open on weekends.

Another great place to shop for an authentic hand-knit lopapeysa is the Hand Knitting Association of Iceland, which also has a shop in Reykjavik.

We wandered around the city a bit more, finding lots more interesting and detailed graffiti:

Reykjavik Iceland graffiti

Reykjavik Iceland graffiti

Reykjavik Iceland graffiti

Iceland 077

Reykjavik Iceland graffiti

Reykjavik Iceland graffiti

Reykjavik Iceland graffiti

Reykjavik Iceland graffiti

Reykjavik harbor Iceland
Reykjavik harbor

We were starting to get a little cold and tired so we stopped into Te og Kaffi for some tea and coffee, just off the main square.

After warming up, we headed back up Laugavegur street to do some souvenir shopping, with a quick side detour to take a quick peak at Reykjavik‘s iconic church, Hallgrimskirkja. The winds were picking up, and it was getting pretty cold.

Hallgrimskirkja Reykjavik Iceland
Paddy freezing in front of Hallgrimskirkja
Hallgrimskirkja Reykjavik Iceland
Hallgrimskirkja

Reykjavik Iceland

Reykjavik Iceland

Reykjavik Iceland

Laugavegur street Reykjavik Iceland
Laugavegur street

We finished our souvenir shopping and went back to the room for a nap.

For dinner that evening, we had made reservations far in advance for Dill, which is arguably the best upscale dining restaurant in Iceland. Chef Gunnar Karl Gíslason takes Nordic cuisine to new and innovative levels, using local ingredients–much along the lines of the world-renowned restaurant Noma in Denmark.

Dill Restaurant Reykjavik Iceland

Dill Restaurant Reykjavik Iceland

Dill Restaurant Reykjavik Iceland

We may not ever be able to afford Noma ($300 per person for a seven course meal), but we were able to make room in our budget for Dill (much more reasonable at just under $100 per person for a seven course meal). Don’t get me wrong, it was really expensive, but worth it. In this culinary realm, food begins to cross from sustenance to art, bringing new flavors and textures and ideas to the dining experience that have not been done before.

Wine pairings with all seven courses were also offered at an additional $100 per person, but we stuck with one glass of champagne and one glass of red wine each. Our bill at the end was $250, which was slightly less than we had budgeted.

The meal came with four small amuse bouche starters and house-made sourdough rolls. I don’t eat lamb, so I was going to do a 5 course meal instead but the server said that the chef could make something different for me instead of the lamb tartare course, so I went ahead and did the 7 course meal as well. The chef did a scallop tartare dish for me which was very good and extremely nice of the chef to make a substitution.

Dill Menu
Dill Menu
Dill Restaurant Reykjavik Iceland
Pork belly course with kale and black garlic
Dill Restaurant Reykjavik Iceland
Rutabaga course with cream cheese, sweet and sour dill oil, and toasted millet
Dill Restaurant Reykjavik Iceland
Icelandic Skyr with celery sorbet and roasted oats

Each course was small and complex,  and dinner took two hours total. We left full and happy, and the experience was worth every penny.

Afterwards we walked up to the Lebowski Bar to try one of their White Russians and get a look at the place before it got crowded. It wasn’t that crowded yet, but when we approached the empty tables, there were reserved signs on all of them. As much as I love the theme bar idea, it wasn’t really our crowd so we decided to move on to Dillon. That night they had a local Icelandic folk singer singing traditional Irish and Gaelic songs. The singer was pretty good, and the whole upstairs bar was singing along after awhile.

The downstairs bar was full of rowdy drunk Brits with neon glow stick raver glasses singing along to Oasis songs on the jukebox. We stayed upstairs.

My friend Daniel had suggested his favorite club Dolly (named after Dolly Parton–Dolly also has a sister bar in Copenhagen called Jolene), which we were curious about but it was in the opposite direction of our hostel, and we were enjoying the live music at Dillon. Maybe another time.

It started snowing quite a bit, and we walked back to the hostel around 1:00 AM in the falling snow, stopping for a couple quick tipsy photo-ops

Reykjavik Iceland

Reykjavik Iceland 114

Reykjavik Iceland graffiti

Reykjavik is an interesting city and a hub of modern Icelandic culture. There is much more to see and we would love to go back. If we were to return to Reykjavik, we’d like to see more local music and art, and check out some of the suburban areas away from the main shopping street. Reykjavik isn’t a very big city, but it has a lot going on.

 

Winter Driving in Iceland

 Winter Driving in Iceland: Tips on how to navigate the roads without ending up being a search and rescue statistic, or ending up with an expensive rental car repair bill

 

Driving in Iceland in the winter can be scary for even the most seasoned winter driver. The main reason is Iceland’s furious and ferocious winds, which have been reported to blow rocks off of glaciers and cars right off of the roads. Rental cars come equipped with snow tires but very little insurance, and there are places in Iceland on the ring road with absolutely nothing around for miles.

We drove around the southern part of Iceland in March with very little snow driving experience, and made it out alive. Here is our advice:

1. Pay close attention to the road conditions and weather reports

The most invaluable website during our trip was http://www.vegagerdin.is/english/road-conditions-and-weather/, which we were checking several times a day. They keep the road conditions up to date and you must check to make sure your route is clear before venturing out, especially in the winter. You don’t want to end up a search-and-rescue tourist trapped in a snow storm. For an up to date weather report for the day, http://en.vedur.is/weather/forecasts/areas/ is the Icelandic weather site. If a storm is predicted in the area you are planning on driving to, check with locals to see if they think going there is a good idea. If not, you may need to change your plans. On the day we wanted to go up to see Gullfoss the snow and wind wouldn’t let up, so we played it safe and stayed in. After we got back to the US, we read a news story about 50 tourists that had to be search and rescued up there the very next day. We were glad we stayed at our cabin and had a lazy snow day instead.

winter driving in Iceland
Winter driving in Iceland: Wind can cause snow to blow into the road causing very low visibility

2. The insurance is pretty much useless, but get the sand and ash protection just in case

Winds in Iceland can be insanely strong. Right before we went we read news stories of cars being blown off the road by the wind and rocks being blown off cliffs into people’s car windows. These are extreme examples, but the winds are strong at times and will blow sand and volcanic ash at your car, causing damage to the paint. The sand and ash protection doesn’t cost that much extra, and could save you some money in the event that you run into these conditions.

3. Park on a flat surface overnight, and don’t set your parking brake

Our car rental company told us not to set the parking brake overnight, or it would freeze and break off, and we would have to pay for it.

4. Go slow and let cars pass you if you are not used to driving in the snow

It’s okay to be the slow asshole on the highway if you aren’t comfortable or sure about the road conditions. I’m sure we pissed a lot of locals off on our first day out on snow-covered roads, but they drove around us and we made it in one piece. It’s better to take it easy than to risk an accident due to overconfidence.

Winter driving in Iceland
Winter driving in Iceland

5. Never slam on the brakes for any reason

Slamming on your brakes on an icy road is the best way to have your car spin out of control. If you need to slow down, take your foot off of the gas and downshift (this is where a manual shift car is a plus), and gently tap the brake.

We were driving along a snowy road in the southern part of the ring road, and I stopped the car to get out and take a picture of the white, desolate landscape. When I stepped out of the car and my foot hit the road I almost fell right on my ass. I didn’t fully realize that we were driving on a solid sheet of ice. Take caution and make slow stops.

winter driving in Iceland
Southern ring road winter wonderland: winter driving in Iceland

6. If you start to slide, don’t jerk the steering wheel

Aside from slamming on the brakes, the worst thing you can do if you start to slide is over-correct and jerk the wheel. Slow down by down-shifting and taking your foot off the gas, and keep a tight grip on the wheel to keep it as steady as you can.

7. Hold onto the car doors when getting in and out of the car

Again, the winds are the most dangerous part of driving in Iceland. They are STRONG. Strong enough to blow the door right off of your car. When getting in and out of the car, hold the door TIGHT to keep it from blowing back open. If the door comes off, you have to pay for it. Even the insurance with a $1000 deductible won’t cover it. And everything is more expensive in Iceland.

8. Never attempt driving on the F Roads in winter

Iceland blocks the F Roads (in the highlands in the middle of the country) off in the winter time, but every now and then some idiot will think his four wheel drive SUV can make it. Locals report seeing tire tracks around the blockades all the time. These people end up putting the lives of volunteer search and rescue workers at stake when they get lost or stuck. Don’t be a dumbass, just stick to the ring road. There are plenty of amazing sights to see there.

9. Bring a credit card with a chip in it for the gas pumps

Bring a credit card or debit card with a chip in it, and know your PIN number. Gas pumps won’t take American credit cards without a chip. We traveled just before the chip came out in the US, and we had to only use gas stations where we could pay inside. Some wouldn’t let us and we had to find one that did. Fortunately, in 2015 banks in the US started to put out chip cards, so hopefully this won’t be a hassle for you like it was for us.

Also, remember to fill up the tank before you attempt long stretches of road in between towns.

 

Iceland is a beautiful country. Summer is the peak visiting time, and the hotel, airfare, and lodging prices double June through September. We went in March, which is still winter in Iceland, and it was amazing. We didn’t get to see some of the things we wanted to because of the weather, but we had a great time in winter wonderland. Driving in Iceland in the winter was intimidating, but the snow tires made a big difference and we were cautious and everything went fine. If you plan on driving in Iceland in the winter, make sure you keep up to date daily on the weather report (it can change on a dime) and stay put if there is a big storm. Wind is the most dangerous factor in winter driving in Iceland, especially on the south coast. Stay safe and have a great trip!

Glacier on the southern ring road, Iceland
Glacier on the southern ring road, Iceland

Inishmore, Aran Islands, Ireland

Inishmore, Aran Islands: One of the highlights of our trip to Ireland in 2012. Friendly locals, peace and quiet, and some amazing ancient ruins.

 

Inishmore in the Aran Islands was one of the very last places we visited on our trip to Ireland in May 2012. It was cut short to one day due to a horrible stomach virus Paddy got while we were in Galway, which was unfortunate because it was one of my favorite parts of the trip. When we make it back to Ireland, spending more time in the Aran Islands will be a priority. The natural beauty and remote lifestyle of the islands is a piece of Irish culture not to be missed, and is also host to some amazing ancient ruins.

To get to Inishmore, we took a bus from Galway to the Aran Islands ferry in Rossaveal, about an hour away. This was all included in our ticket that we purchased at the Galway ticket office. The weather had really begun to get warm for May, and we didn’t even need our sweatshirts anymore.

The ferry was supposed to be a straight through to Inishmore, the largest and most popular of the Aran Islands. The ferry to the other islands broke down, however, and we ended up making a longer sailing to stop at the rest of the islands. If we ever go back to Ireland, I think that spending more time on all of the Aran Islands will be a top priority. We only got a small taste on this trip, and they were beautiful.

The ferry was crowded full of daytrippers looking to come for the day and rent bicycles (no cars are allowed on the islands except those owned by locals). After arriving at Inishmore, we crossed the street from the ferry to a little cafe called The Pierhouse for lunch and let the crowds pass by. It was a gorgeous day and nice enough to sit outside in the sun.

After lunch, we went to find a shuttle to our B&B, the Kilmurvey House. We started walking over to where we saw the shuttle vans parked, and one pulled up next to us and asked if we neede a ride. We hopped in and for a few Euros we were driven to our destination in about 10 minutes.

When we arrived, our hostTreasa greeted us and told us that our room wasn’t quite ready yet, but would be in just a few minutes. We sat in the nice front parlor and waited. When we checked in, we were suprised with how large the room was. It was a beautiful, sunny room with hardwood floors and a huge king sized bed. The bathroom had a bathtub with jacuzzi jets and it felt like we had scored the honeymoon suite.

Below: front of Kilmurvey House

Kilmurvey House Inishmore Aran Islands Ireland
Kilmurvey House, Inishmore

Below: our room

Kilmurvey House Inishmore Aran Islands Ireland
Kilmurvey House, Inishmore
Kilmurvey House Inishmore Aran Islands Ireland
Kilmurvey House, Inishmore

The Kilmurvey House was beautifully decorated in a very classic Irish B&B style. There were two front parlor living areas for guests, and a kitchen in the back for meals–breakfast is included, and I read that if you request ahead they will make dinner for you as well for a fee. The surrounding area is rural farmland, but there is a snack shop open during the day nearby.

Kilmurvey House Inishmore Aran Islands Ireland
Kilmurvey House, Inishmore–view from our room
Kilmurvey House Inishmore Aran Islands Ireland
Kilmurvey House, Inishmore
Kilmurvey House Inishmore Aran Islands Ireland
Kilmurvey House, Inishmore
Kilmurvey House Inishmore Aran Islands Ireland
Kilmurvey House, Inishmore

One of the best things about the Kilmurvey House is that it is right next to the biggest attraction on the island, Dun Aengus. Dun Aengus is the remains of a prehistoric ring fort dating back to the Iron Age. It was starting to get really warm, so we changed into some lighter clothes (I was glad I got to go shopping in Galway, I hadn’t packed any tank tops, just as I hadn’t packed a scarf or hat) and walked over the Dun Aengus entrance.

It was about 3:30 and the parking lot was chocked full of bicycles of daytrippers. Dun Aengus is open until 6:00 PM, and we knew that the last ferry off the island was at 5:00, so we decided to come back in an hour. In the meantime, we took a walk down the road in the opposite direction. It was beautiful. We really wished we had another day to see the whole island.

The Aran Islands are also known for their knitting and textile skills, particularly for their beautiful sweaters. If you can afford it, the sweaters here are beautiful and skillfully crafted. There was a sweater store and another souvenir store next to the B&B, and I splurged on a hooded sweater for $100.00. There is also a cafe and a snack shop available next to the B&B as well.

We headed back to Dun Aengus at around 4:45 and there was only one bicycle in the parking lot. Everyone else had left to catch the last ferry. To our delight we had the entire ruins to ourselves. It was magical.

The pathway up to Dun Aengus is a bit of a hike, but unless you have a disability or difficulty walking, it’s not too bad. I was a little huffy puffy towards the top, but it wasn’t anything crazy. Just wear good shoes and be prepared for a little bit of a hilly hike.

One of the nice things about Ireland as opposed to the USA, is that they don’t have a bunch of fences destroying the natural beauty of the ruins and the landscape. If you fall of the cliff, that’s your fault, not theirs. Don’t get too close to the edge.

After a gorgeous hike up Dun Aengus, we headed back to our room to relax and refresh for dinner.

All the dinner restaurants are in town, but Treasa arranges a complimentary shuttle into town and back for guests for dinner. She drove us and another American couple to Joe Watty’s Bar for dinner. The four of us ate together and talked about past trips and our shared love of camping. The food was excellent. Note that the prices are a little higher in the Aran Islands, which is common for most islands in the world as food and other items have to be imported from the mainland.

Joe Wattys pub Aran Islands Ireland
Joe Watty’s Pub, Inishmore

Treasa picked us up at 9:00 PM after dinner, and we caught a gorgeous sunset on the way home. It just went behind the hill when we got out of the car, but I snapped a couple photos anyway.

New York and Ireland 482

New York and Ireland 483

New York and Ireland 484

The next morning, we had a fabulous breakfast provided by our hosts at the Kilmurvey House, and then were driven back to the ferry and bid adieu. We were sad to have to leave Inishmore so soon, and made a solid promise to return someday with more time. We really want to see the other Aran Islands as well, and get off of the beaten tourist path a bit more. We strongly recommend making Inishmore and the Aran Islands a priority on your trip to Ireland.