I’m doing a lot of travel for work this Summer, mainly to nice places that I’ve wanted to visit for a long time. First up was Iceland, which has been absolutely top of the list for years and I was very very lucky to finally have an opportunity to go without bankrupting myself. So while usually I stay a day or two extra after work to look around, for this one I stayed a whole extra week for my Summer holiday.
I spent 3 days in Reykjavík attending Logic in Computer Science. Then I went to the highlands in the South for 5 days hiking.1 Then I came back to Reykjavík for a couple nights in a hostel and some time to look around. I’ll write up a report in the hiking separately.
Since I was only there a few days (and working for half of them), I only had time to see a couple of the many things to see in Reykjavík and missed a lot of the big attractions. I feel okay about that though. It’s hard to ignore the sheer volume of tourism happening all around you and the way it’s clearly affecting daily life in the city—AirBnBs have driven house prices in Reykjavík up so quickly that Iceland is considering legislating against them. Something less easy to articulate about why tourism is bad at this level in a country with such a small population is that it alienates people from their country & culture. The people visiting your country may have a different idea as a group about your country than you do. But if they seriously outnumber you, and the whole town around you starts very quickly to reflect somebody else’s conception of your home,2 you can see why there might be pushback. I can understand why the locals are ambivalent about tourists.
Anyway, because of this stuff I was happy not to be participating in obvious tourism too much. Here are some things I did get up to.
Nautholsvik geothermal beach
Directly behind Reykjavík University, just 5 minutes walk from the main building, there’s a little geothermal beach. There’s a volcanic hotspot underwater just offshore here, and Reykjavík has made a mini spa of it. Some hot water is pumped up into a hot tub a little way back from the shore, where one sits in hot sulfurous water and prepares for the sea. The rest of the boiling water from the vents escapes into a seawater lagoon, raising its temperature from “unbearable for untrained humans” to “bearable for 10 minutes or so for me, if I swim crawl hard to stay warm”. The idea is that you get hot in the tub, then run out in the wind into the sea, repeating the cycle two or three times.
I came to this beach in the evening both days after working at the conference. It’s a great way to relax and build up an appetite for dinner. The best bit is that it’s free: Reykjavík University is a little way out of town, so this area isn’t full of tourists and there’s no incentive to charge a fortune. It’s more like a public amenity: most of the people in the hot tub seemed to be employees or students at the university. I heard more spoken Icelandic here than anywhere else the whole trip.
The largest church in Iceland and Reykjavík’s most well-know landmark, it’s that church that looks like a low-variance normal distribution. Commissioned in 1937, built between 1945 and 1986, it’s quite a strange building. It was designed at time when (Lutheran) Christianity was still a powerful force in Iceland (and could still attract large congregations) and it has all the usual stuff: pulpit, font, lots and lots of pews, a very large organ, stained glass, & so on. But architecture from 1937 already looks distinctly modern, and the result felt unnatural somehow. Of course architectural styles change over time, and if the building were still used regularly by a full congregation it might feel natural. But empty of worshippers as it was, it felt like a sleek modernist parody of a church. The stone is a pale over-designed-website grey, the organ is shining silver and looks not steampunk but more, I dunno, logicianpunk? Vienna-Circle-core? There’s something cultish about it. I recently read Don Delilo’s book Zero K about a secretive facility where the global elite undergo cryonic freezing in order to live forever in the future. The inside of this church is what I imagine that facility to look like.
The outside of the church is a masterpiece of course, and as a bonus there’s a great statue of my boy Leifur Eriksson standing on the prow of a ship:
National Museum of Iceland
The main permanent exhibition is a chronological display of artifacts from the complete history of humans in Iceland (possible since it was only settled in ~870 AD). Early on there’s lots of crude, essentially iron-age, tools and weaponry. It’s really remarkable how few supplies the settlers brought and managed to live on, and to think about how hardy they must have been. These give way to a lot of medieval religious artifacts, which I felt bad about skipping over after a while. The most interesting bit for me was the period from 1700–, when Iceland was a subject nation of Denmark and technological advances in fishing and sailing began to drive their economy.
There was also a nice side exhibit about Iceland’s place in the world. There was some good stuff here about Iceland acknowledging racism; not being a colonial power, Icelanders traditionally think of themselves as being exempt from that particular historical guilt. But it points out that immigrants in modern Iceland do not escape prejudice, and Icelanders need reminding that racism existed, and still exists in their country. There is a big display about the national debate that happened in 2007(!) about whether it was okay to republish an old Icelandic book about black children, which features pretty gross racial caricatures (spoiler: no, it’s not okay). The whole display and discussion though is conducted in quite an academic way, very clearly only by white people, and it seemed to me that it could be quite upsetting for a minority ethnic person to come to this museum and read about a ‘debate’ over whether something obviously wrong and unpleasant to them is really wrong. Still the museum seemed to be trying in good faith to make a worthy point. It’s better than what we get in Britain anyway.
I made friends with a local who took me to well-known bar and music venue Gaukurinn. Although it’s right in the middle of the city, it was pretty much the only bar I went to where Icelanders outnumbered visitors. That might be because it doesn’t seem like the kind of place that’s going to cater to what customers outside of their established clientele want: the general vibe is ‘aggressively progressive’. It turned out that they were having a fundraiser for their new all-vegan diner. I arrived in time to watch Reykjavík’s premier vegan rappers Vegan Klíkan. They mostly rapped in Icelandic, but I caught the odd English “culture of death” here and there. I tried to look non-guilty. After that there was a (vegan) black metal band whose name I didn’t catch. This was the first time I’d seen any kind of metal live, and I actually kind of liked it. I know that recorded I definitely hate it, so it was a bit of a surprise to enjoy it so much. Maybe it’s an essentially live genre? Good bar anyway, cheaper beer than everywhere else too. (Relatively of course: £8/pint instead of £9+/pint. I didn’t drink much.)
Quite a long walk back afterwards, but since it was near midsummer twilight lasted all night. I took the picture below as I was walking along the bay at 2am, and that’s pretty much the darkest it got the whole time I was there.
The same local invited me to the swimming pool for the afternoon as well. Iceland has a similar swimming culture to Germany, where a trip to the pool means going to sit and chat in lots of small tubs of water, ranging from freezing to frankly burning hot. There was a steam room as well, and a water slide. Actually we didn’t do any swimming at all, but this is considered quite normal. In Iceland one can go to the pool with a friend much like going for a coffee.
The only important thing to remember at pools in Iceland is that you absolutely have to shower naked, thoroughly with soap, in the changing rooms before you get in the pool. The pools are unchlorinated and apparently it is considered very rude not to wash yourself in this way, and some locals will not hesitate to tell you off if you shower in your swimming shorts. There are even signs in English to remind tourists. I think Icelanders as a whole have a healthy attitude and are quite unembarrassed about their bodies,3 and this can be seen as a nice reflection of that. How to apply this shower policy to foreigners from cultures not accustomed to public nakedness (especially for religious reasons) is apparently the cause some disagreement among Icelanders. Some think that they should accommodate others’ preferences, others think that visitors should respect the local culture. I don’t know why I feel so strongly that the latter is correct while I’d be in favour of the former in England.
Eating the fermented shark (Kæstur hákarl)
Yeah it’s fucking horrible, don’t do it. The traditional chaser shot (Brennivín) is also horrible.
So, overall: Reykjavík, great city. It probably helps if you like the cold and aren’t a big fan of sunshine, like me. There’s something pleasant about a small city that is still a centre of culture. I’ll be back, maybe with more time and money.
Two reasons for this: (i) I really like hiking, and, lovely as Reykjavík is, I wasn’t going to go to Iceland and not go take in that scenery; (ii) Reykjavík is so expensive I can’t actually afford to stay there for a week anyway. ↩︎
A case in point are the so-called ‘Puffin shops’, the many shops in the centre of Reykjavík selling tourist tat: t-shirts, Icelandic flags, figurines, stuffed toys, & so on, the most overwhelmingly common motif being puffins. Why? Well the puffin is the national bird of Iceland innit? Except it’s not: the national bird of Iceland is the Gyrfalcon, and Icelanders feel no particular affection for the puffin at all (except as a meal). ↩︎
My bathing companion told me that to be embarrassed about being naked around others is remarkable enough that there’s a particular word for it in Icelandic. I forgot the word immediately though. It’s a tricky language, and I only managed the odd Góðan daginn and Takk fyrir here and there. ↩︎