Reykjavík Does It Right

Day one, we wandered from our apartment by the old harbor, heading down any street that struck our fancy. We met a friendly, giant calico cat near houses with inviting gardens. It was bright and sunny, and I could instantly imagine spending long afternoons and late nights here, grilling dinner and chatting outside until the sun got to setting.

On the way back to our apartment later, we saw two probable tourists greeting an even bigger animal. The next day, he was out again, and so we got acquainted with the giant feline we thought could have been a dog, christening him Huge Haroun. Same colors, same fur—but his head was at least twice as big as our spunky Haroun’s. We pet Huge Haroun until he caught sight of another cat and bounded off in pursuit. We felt sorry for his target, whether he or she was enemy or reluctant paramour (we suspected the latter).

We passed some churches and wandered through a pretty, green park, also populated by friendly cats, along with some relaxing Icelanders and their little dogs.

From my repertoire of weird Icelandic facts: Dogs were made illegal in Reykjavík in the 1920s, due to a tapeworm that they passed on to humans, often fatally. I think it was in the 1980s that the city started allowing exemptions to the law: if you paid an annual fee, and your neighbors consented, you could have a dog. Dog ownership is on the rise in the city, but Reykjavík remains a city of cats, and friendly ones at that. Most of them have homes: cats are required to be microchipped in Iceland, and a study I read about somewhere found that almost all of the cats they met on the street belonged to someone. What lucky cats they are, free to roam this pretty city and make friends all around. One of the apartments we tried to rent required guests to keep a window open, so their cat could come and go, and Cats of Reykjavík posted a funny story from someone who woke up with a strange cat in their bed. There’s approximately one cat for every ten people in Reykjavík—it’s my kind of place.

iceland reykjavik


Jane, Cooper, and Huge Haroun, with his massive head and mane.

Before we wound our way down to the city center, we found ourselves in a neighborhood of impressive houses, still mostly made of corrugated metal painted pretty colors, and also surrounded by lovely gardens. We were on a little hill, and looked across to see famous Hallgrímskirkja (Hallgrím’s church) in the distance. We headed vaguely in that direction and explored the charming city center, talking for a while by Tjörnin, the small lake behind the parliament building, and mysteriously passing up a waffle cart opportunity in favor of (quite good) vegetarian dinner, like responsible adults. (We got rave reviews of the waffle cart from my friend Carolyn when we met up with her on our final day, but failed to track it down. Do better than us!)

The waterfront beckoned, so we walked along it, before eating dessert al fresco at Café Paris on Austurvöllur square. On our way home, we watched the sun set over the harbor, Snæfellsjökull (snow mountain glacier) far off in the distance. When we drove back to the airport to pick Emma up around midnight, the sun’s glow was still hovering along the horizon, silhouetting the snow mountain perched on the end of its peninsula, Snæfellsnes, a few hours north of us on the far side of the bay.

Before we’d begun our descent into Keflavík International Airport that morning, I was feeling sorry for myself. That short and largely sleepless night had felt like a very long journey. I blasphemously, treasonously thought to myself that Europe wasn’t worth this torture, and was considering swearing off long-haul flights indefinitely. (It was only five hours, if overnight.)

The morning sky over the deep blue Atlantic and then the sight of land—new and strange for me—was a welcome relief. Keflavík is the most appealing airport I’ve seen: fishing boats in the ocean, bright green grass, volcanic terrain. Emma had stopped over for a day in June, en route to Ukraine, and she said there was lupine blooming everywhere, even along the runway. Sure, it smelled like sulphur in the rental car parking lot (yay for volcanic hot spots!)—but isn’t that much better than urban sprawl and an overwhelming aroma of exhaust?

It’s under an hour from Keflavík to Reykjavík, a drive past lava fields and crazy mountains, with the ocean out the driver’s side. By then, despite hunger and exhaustion, we were already completely satisfied with our decision to come to Iceland (and our decision for Cooper to be the driver).

What else do I want you to know about Reykjavík? It’s welcoming. It’s cozy. So many streets lead to the sea; Mount Esja, peacefully standing to the north of the city, peeks at you between city blocks.

Outside the city, the ground leaks steam in plumes; Reykjavík means smoke cove, or smoke bay. The city water comes from hot springs; it has to be chilled before it comes out your faucet cold. The city pools are warm and are accompanied by hot pots, indoors and out. When it’s dark enough (fall, winter, and spring), you can see the northern lights even in Iceland’s capital. (They recently shut off the city lights for what was predicted to be a particularly impressive aurora—see what I mean when I say that Reykjavík does it right?)

naultholsvik geothermal lagoon
Nautholsvík geothermal beach, a big hit for us.

Before the trip, I looked forward to experiencing Reykjavík, which other friends had loved visiting. I was excited to hang out in a European city with my friends, to walk around and eat pastries and check out the geothermal beach. I wanted to go to some museums (we actually only made it to one, but it was good) and see the sculpture “Sólfar” (Sun Voyager) and the iconic church, Hallgrímskirkja. But although we spent every night in the capital, we made nature a priority: sweeping vistas, the seaside, mountains and volcanoes and things we’d never seen before. I wanted to see as much as possible outside the urban area.

Sólfar, by Jón Gunnar Árnason; Mt. Esja in the background.

But let me reiterate: it’s a city of cats, with a geothermal beach and mountains all around. If they waived the quarantine period for Table Cat and Haroun, I would move there in a second.


Previously: Unexpectedly Iceland.

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