An Ode to Reykjavik’s Astounding Beauty

_DSC1351Sensational view from the top floor of Hallgrímskirkja, a Lutheran church in downtown Reykjavik.

At first glance, Reykjavik reminded me of the small town in the US I went to for college. Both have compact city layouts, with most of the shops and restaurants coalescing around a Main Street. The architecture is similar in a way, with buildings being cozy and quaint rather than expansive and modern. And although Reykjavik is the capital of a country, its population is only about 4 times that of the Ohio town, hovering around 120,000 people. The paces of life in both places are slow and steady.

The biggest difference between them, however, is that Reykjavik is infinitely more awe-inspiring. It’s in fact so stunning that I could see myself residing there at some point in my life, despite it being a tad too isolated and not multicultural enough.

Really, I have come to a point in my life (okay, that feels like the most American thing in a very Kardashian, reality-show kind of way that has ever come out of my mouth, haha) where I’d pick a city in which spectacular seashore and snow-covered mountain ranges views like this are within walking distance over one teeming with shops and clubs. 

As mentioned in my previous posts, staying in Reykjavik during my time in Iceland was absolutely wonderful because I was able to squeeze in many hours between my day trips to explore the city. I personally am not crazy about museums and indoor attractions, so I spent most of my waking hours outside, wandering around aimlessly and pausing whenever something interested me. A huge shout-out to weather God for giving Reykjavik great weather (though a little too windy at times for my Asian body) during my entire stay!

What I have discovered from my exploratory wanders is that Reykjavik itself is such a lovely blend of nature and man-made beauty. I was especially surprised and impressed with its vibrant and charming architecture. I thought it would have a strong Scandinavian minimalist feel, since Iceland is one of the Nordic countries. The Scandinavian influence is definitely there, but upon further exploration I also felt the flair and vividness that are more characteristic of Mediterranean countries. The best of both worlds, really!

Now, let me show you how full of character Reykjavik is, architecturally 🙂

Hallgrímskirkja (church of Hallgrímur), named after Iceland’s most revered poet, Hallgrimur Petursson, is probably Reykjavik’s most famous landmark. The mastermind behind it was architect Guðjón Samúelsson (1887-1950), who supposedly modeled it after the lava flows of Iceland. Samúelsson didn’t live to see his design come to life, though, as the church was finished in 1986, 30 years after the building work started. I don’t know about you, but I have never seen a church looking this unorthodox and edgy and am not sure if there is something like this anywhere else. Such a breath of fresh air!

Its unadorned interior is really refreshing as well, compared to the usual opulence of churches throughout Europe. 

After you’re done with the chapel, you MUST go up to the viewing deck because the views there are world-class. Too breath-taking!!!

If panoramic views are your kind of jam, I also suggest that you pay Perlan, a domed building on top of the city’s hot water storage tanks, a visit. I went at the suggestion of a local teenager, who said it was such a  “cool” building.

Well, I found the building itself kind of cool, but not extraordinary. However, the views from the fourth floor are nothing short of EXCEPTIONAL.

_DSC1317especially if you visit during golden hours. Pinch-me beautiful, isn’t it? 

_DSC1323Unlike Hallgrímskirkja, Perlan doesn’t cost to go in. You will part way with your money only if you decide to eat at the upscale restaurant inside.

The biggest selling point of Perlan observation deck is that it gives you a pretty splendid view of Hallgrímskirkja. 

After Iceland, I flew to New York City and spent a week sorting out my bank accounts and reconnecting with my college friend. On the last day of my visit, I went up to Top of the Rock to look at the Manhattan skyline, which has changed a lot since my first visit in 2007. The views were sublime, but it was like a circus up there. The experience thus became less enjoyable. The Reykjavik skyline is different, if not inferior, from that of New York, but for me personally the quality of the experience was definitely more fulfilling. I need space and solitude to fully register a scene. 

Another futuristic work of architecture in Reykjavik that I was really smitten with is Harpa (concert hall), which is only about 15-20 minutes walk from Hallgrímskirkja. I don’t have any shot of Harpa’s exterior because it’s too expansive for my camera, but if you want to see its facade, a google click will yield plenty of images. Before we go inside, here is a brief summary of this structure:

“A striking new addition to the Icelandic and European cultural scene is Harpa, the Reykjavík Concert Hall and Conference Centre and recipient of the prestigious Mies Van der Rohe award for architecture.

Harpa is one of Reykjavik‘s greatest and distinguished landmarks. It is a cultural and social centre in the heart of the city and features stunning views of the surrounding mountains and the North Atlantic Ocean. Harpa is an enchanting destination for intrigued travellers and its grand-scale award-winning architecture has attracted 4 million guests since its opening, May 4, 2011.

Harpa Reykjavik Concert Hall and Conference Centre offers the best facilities for concerts and conferences in Northern Europe. Harpa has received numerous awards and prizes. Harpa was chosen one of the best concert halls of the new millennium by the prestigious music magazine Gramophone magazine and was chosen the best performance venue in 2011 by Travel & Leisure magazine. Autumn 2012 Harpa received the prestigious award as the Best MICE Centre in Northern Europe.”

I spent the better part of one morning inside Harpa, snapping photos from every angle. (Visit early in the morning and you will most likely have it all to yourself.) And I’m here to inform you that it’s such a dazzling work of art, the type that makes you squeal with delight and then confusion because you don’t know how they managed to build it from scratch and then inferiority because you know deep down that your mark on this earth will never be as remarkable. 

Harpa really hit my sweet spot because I’m a total sucker for colors, stained glasses and geometric patterns.

I’m especially slow on the uptake when it comes to 3-dimensional stuff, but I still extremely appreciate this.

Hello, that is ME lying on the bench to make this happen 😀

One of the multi-colored glass birds hanging from the ceiling. I’m sorry that this photo does its beauty no justice. 

Onto the quaint, charming side of town:

Can it get more lovely than this?

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Don’t Be Afraid of These 3 Touristy Attractions in Iceland

Mother Nature is my muse.

I remember vividly the moments my plane descended into Iceland. Pressing my face against the airplane’s window and frantically clicking the camera button of my iPhone, I saw an aerial sight completely unlike anything I had seen before. Instead of trees, rivers, buildings, and moving vehicles, it was an endless blanket of snow. The entire landscape was painted in the most unadulterated white. From 10,000 feet, it looked indescribably beautiful and formidable!

I saw a variety of sceneries during my time in Iceland. But at every stop my reaction would revert to, “oh this is so spectacular and…intimidating”. That, I have come to conclude, is the essence of Iceland. It was exhilarating to see the wondrous things Mother Nature has gifted us but unnerving at the same time because she truly is unstoppable.

Besides the tours of Snæfellsnes peninsula and Jökulsárlón, I went on a Golden Circle tour (as one does when in Iceland) and a horse-riding tour and pampered myself at Blue Lagoon. None of these places is ground-breaking or off-the-beaten path, but I still enjoyed them immensely. I don’t have a lot of photos from each tour because of the weather, so I want to combine them in one post for your viewing convenience 😀

Like all first-timers to Iceland, I had the Golden Circle on my to-do list and chose Bustravel Iceland tour company (the same one that took me to Jökulsárlón and Vik). The Golden Circle is the quintessential tourist circus in Iceland, as its proximity to the capital of Reykjavik and the eclectic sights along the way make for a very nice and relaxing day trip. Every tour company in Iceland offers this tour and it all visits the same attractions and prices are essentially the same across the board, so you can just pick any company to go with.

_DSC0446The first stop of the tour was the Strokkur geyser, one of Iceland’s most famous natural geysers, located in Haukadalur geothermal area. Here is the confession I need to make: Even though I had never seen a geyser before I came to Iceland, Strokkur left me a little cold. Don’t get me wrong, a geyser erupting is a rare and amazing natural phenomenon and you need to see it in your lifetime. But for reasons I can’t explain, my heart just didn’t jump up and down like it always does when I see a glorious sunrise or sunset. I think it ultimately comes down to personal preference because I have friends who look at sunrise, sunset or sweeping view from the peak of a mountain and feel NOTHING. I wonder if the pervasive “rotten egg” odor around the area had a lot to do with my lack of affinity for it. 

Another geyser in the area. This one was just resting the whole time I was there.

_DSC0439The surrounding landscape around the area is enchanting, though. 

This is what I call geothermal activity 😀

After we finished with Strokkur, we made our way to Gullfoss waterfall (meaning Golden Falls), probably the most visited waterfall in Iceland. (Now you understand why this route is the most popular among tourists; not only is it conveniently located but everything along the way is Iceland’s most famous.)

Gullfoss was the first waterfall I saw in Iceland, and I was utterly overwhelmed by its size and intensity. According to World of Waterfalls’ website, Gullfoss is special in that “it featured two distinct drops in succession at right angles to each other while spanning the entire width of the Hvítá River. Adding to the scenic allure was that the river flowed wildly and freely so it could be experienced in all seasons as each season would yield very different moods and appearances.” Like Skógafoss, Gullfoss offers gorgeous rainbows when the sun comes out in the summer. Well, I didn’t get to see the coveted Icelandic rainbow, but I was very satisfied with the lingering ice and snow. 

_DSC0490It was a long drive from Gullfoss to Þingvellir National Park, the last stop of the tour. I might have dozed off at some point on the way. However, all that sleepiness disappeared the moment I arrived at the park; the gush of wind almost knocked me down. And then my eyes couldn’t open any wider at the rift valley inside the park. I had never seen anything like it before. Yeah, “I had never seen anything like it before” was the overriding theme of my Iceland trip!

The history and geology of Þingvellir are equally fascinating. It became UNESCO heritage site in 2004. From the website of UNESCO: “Þingvellir (Thingvellir) is the National Park where the Althing, an open-air assembly representing the whole of Iceland, was established in 930 and continued to meet until 1798. Over two weeks a year, the assembly set laws – seen as a covenant between free men – and settled disputes. The Althing has deep historical and symbolic associations for the people of Iceland. The property includes the Þingvellir National Park and the remains of the Althing itself: fragments of around 50 booths built from turf and stone. Remains from the 10th century are thought to be buried underground. The site also includes remains of agricultural use from the 18th and 19th centuries. The park shows evidence of the way the landscape was husbanded over 1,000 years.

And if you are feeling extra inquisitive today, I leave you with this website, which does an excellent job of explaining the complex geological features of Þingvellir. Worth a read 😉

 

IMG_5034The most adventurous, liberating, transportive thing I did in Iceland was riding a horse. Imagine it’s your first time ever riding a horse, and you are not riding a horse in a controlled environment. You are actually riding in an open field, going up and down the rugged Icelandic terrain with dramatic snow-covered mountains and glaciers on the horizon. You even cross a moving stream TWICE. Saying it’s a fun experience is a profound understatement because it truly is INCREDIBLE!

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Two Day-Trips You Absolutely Must Do in Iceland

What I am wearing : 2 pants (3 if my Calvin Klein underwear is counted), 4 layers underneath the jacket, 2 scarves and thick-ass wool socks. Oh and a running nose to boot 🙁

I need to write Instagram an I Owe You soon. No, I am not taking monetarily. I wish it were about money, though, because that kind of letter would be easier to write.

For the last three years, Instagram has taught me more about photography than anywhere else and made me significantly less ignorant about geography. Before using the app, I had no faintest idea about many countries. By that I mean I did not even know that they exist.

(By the way, isn’t it time that we befriend on Instagram? I am confuseddasher over there)

One of those countries was Iceland. And ever since I saw the first photo of it on my feed, I have been crazily obsessed.

_DSC1142My obsession is totally justifiable, right?

I made it to Iceland in April this year. Still to this day, I occasionally pinch myself that I actually went there. It is so far away, so expensive, so unusual of a destination for Vietnameses. My family and most people around me expect me, at this age of 25, to climb the corporate ladder and save as much as possible so that I can buy houses and cars and have a luxurious life later; they cannot understand my desire to travel to countries as unfamiliar as Iceland.

Here is what I have realized: when you are surrounded by people who are not fully supportive of what you love to do, you are bound to doubt yourself at some point no matter how resolute you are. I felt guilty of my love for traveling many times; I questioned if I really was nothing but a spoiled brat for slurping a lot of my money on traveling, whose benefits are not as tangible. It was a constant emotional tug-of-war between “growing up and being responsible” by traditional standards (stop traveling and start saving all your money for rainy days, for retirement, for future business endeavors etc.) and allowing myself to travel whenever possible.

But you know what? All that self-doubt completely disappeared when I was in Iceland. Seeing the otherworldly nature and landscape of Iceland, I was overwhelmed and more reassured than ever of this collect-experience-rather-than-materials path. No amount of designer stuff has ever been able to make me feel as alive as seeing the unbelievable Jökulsárlón or Thingvellir National Park did.

_DSC1065When I showed this photo to a friend of mine at home, here is what she said, word-by-word: “If I can see stuff like this in my lifetime, I don’t mind dying.”

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If you google what is the best way to travel around Iceland, you will notice the renting a car advice comes up most frequently.

It is a good suggestion, but after talking to other fellow travelers I realized it is not always the best way. It only saves you money if you have a few people to split the costs. If there are just you and another person, you will not save anything. Also, if you are the only one in your group who can drive, you are going to be too tired to savor the sceneries. My Italian friend drove for a whole day and said it was exhausting.

So, if you value your privacy more than anything and want to be in total control of your schedule, rent a car by all means. Otherwise, do not rule out tours.

Because I do not know how to drive, I had no other option but to join day tours. It ended up being an excellent way to explore the diverse landscapes of Iceland in the span of a week. Considering that these tours offer only transportation and guide, they are not exactly the cheapest options. But the spectacular visual treats I had in each tour more than made up for its price.

I did four tours, and the two most impressive ones that I whole-heartedly recommend are detailed below. Even when you do not do group tours, these two parts of Iceland must be on your visit list 😉

1. The Wonders of Snæfellsnes (by Reykjavik Excursions, approximately US$141)

This is hands-down the most amazing tour I had in Iceland.

It was epic on so many different levels: the weather was glorious, every single sight was jaw-dropping, there was ample time to take photos, the bus was spacious and clean, the tour guide was delightful, and everyone was punctual and polite. Oh did I mention that there was WiFi, though spotty at times, on the bus?

True to Reyjkavik Excursions’ promise, the Snæfellsnes Peninsula is the compressed version of Iceland. In just a day, I got to sample all the “specialties” of Iceland: volcanoes, fjords, glaciers, snow covered mountains, black sand beaches, fishing villages and coastlines that seem to stretch into infinity. I am not one for comparing sceneries because the Sahara desert and Cinque Terre are obviously not the same thing. But if I really had to, I would say Iceland (Snæfellsnes in particular) is unrivaled. 

Now, let me show you what I saw in Snæfellsnes 🙂

_DSC1131The nice thing about tours in Iceland is that they offer complementary pick-up and drop-off; you just need to show up at your hotel’s lobby at the designated time. The first stop after we left Reykjavik was Öxl, below mountain Axlarhyrna. Here we learned a chilling story about Iceland’s most callous killer, Axlar–Björn, who lived in the 16th and was believed to have killed 18 people. He offered travelers accommodation and killed them at night. But one girl escaped and reported him to the authority. These days, Iceland is doing an excellent job; its crime rate is one of the lowest in the world. If I remember correctly, it does not even have that many police officers. 

Then, we headed straight toward Arnarstapi (Stapi for short), a small fishing village at the foot of Mt. Stapafell. It was an important trading post in the early days, but now does double duty as a harbor and a prominent tourist destination in Snæfellsnes. We had about two hours for sightseeing and lunch, but I skipped lunch entirely to go around and take photos.

I am not exaggerating when I say that I was squealing with excitement the whole time I was there.

THIS PLACE SERIOUSLY DROVE ME CRAZY!

_DSC1147 _DSC1158 _DSC1166 _DSC1211_DSC1181 _DSC1204_DSC1184

The next place on our list was Djúpalónssandur, a rugged and formidable black sand beach surrounded by unusual rock formations and amazing lava fields. It used to be a busy fishing village, but is now uninhibited. I can see why; this area is pretty remote and the weather is not hospitable.

_DSC1221 _DSC1269 _DSC1262_DSC1223_DSC1227_DSC1235Now, I have to apologize because after Djúpalónssandur, I stopped taking notes so I cannot tell you guys what these towns are called. All I know are they are gorgeous and put a great end to a day full of breathtaking sceneries. Don’t you just love those vibrant Nordic houses? 🙂

(If you happen to know what their names are, please sound off in the comment section so I can update this post.)

_DSC1293_DSC1306 _DSC1304 _DSC1308_DSC1296

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