Reykjavik Stories and Tips

Walking around Reykjavik

The penis museum Photo, Reykjavik, Iceland

I slept longer than I meant to (after an overnight flight, landing at Keflavik airport at about 6:30 a.m.), so I didn't get to downtown Reykjavík until 3:00 p.m. On the walk from my hotel to downtown, I passed the Icelandic Phallological Institute, a.k.a. the penis museum. It's like the Mütter Museum crossed with Spencer Gifts -- one side of the small, one-room museum contains jars of dismembered members floating in formaldehyde; the other has various penis-related tchotchkes that range from a joke 3-foot-long condom to handcrafted items that could nearly be called art.

The "scientific" side has 100 "penises and penile parts" from Icelandic mammals (no human specimens yet, although three are pledged, and one future donor thoughtfully included a cast of his donation for display). Many of them are so decomposed that they're barely recognizable. Others -- like the whale penises mounted on the wall -- are downright scary in their extreme pointiness. The museum's brochure mystifyingly notes that "phallology is an ancient science which, until recent years, has received very little attention in Iceland, except as a borderline field of study in other academic disciplines such as history, art, psychology, literature, and other artistic fields like music and ballet." Phallology is a field of study in ballet?

Visitor tip: Certainly a worthwhile stop, especially since it will take you about 15 minutes to view the entire collection, and that's if you read all the little identifying cards. Besides, telling people you've been to the penis museum generates envy and amazement the likes of which few other attractions can provoke, except possibly South of the Border.

Though I held out little hope that anything the rest of this trip could top the penis museum, I continued to the downtown area. Reykjavík is a very walkable city. Not only do they provide walking paths everywhere, even along highways, but it's on a small, intimate scale. Plus, when you push the button at a traffic light that triggers the "walk" sign, it changes almost immediately. People I'd spoken to made it sound as though my hotel was miles away from downtown, but I walked there in about 20 minutes. The city has a fine municipal bus system, which I rode frequently, but you really can walk everywhere. At first blush the city looks confusing, but it's quite easy to get your bearings.

Visitor tip: Stop by the tourist information center and buy a "Reykjavík card" -- it gives you free admission to most of the museums around town, plus free rides on the bus system.

Iceland's Government House (the prime minister's office), ridiculously small, sits across from the tourist information center. Further down the main road, Lækjargata, is the Tjörn, a small lake ("tjörn" is Icelandic for "lake") that the tourist brochure describes as "bird-infested," which I thought was a strong term until I actually saw the swarm of ducks, swans, and geese. The city hall is a modern building cantilevered over the north end of the lake. It was not open.

I walked down to the natural history museum. It was closed for renovations. Over to Norse House, a building designed by Alvar Aalto, meant to recall a Viking ship. Closed. On to the Árni Magnússon Institute, said to have an amazing collection of the ancient saga manuscripts. Closed 15 minutes before I got there.

Visitor tip: Get to all the museums you want to see before 4:00 p.m. Most places seem to be open 10:00 to 5:00 at the latest, at least during the off season.

So I headed up the hill to the Hallgrímskirka, the giant cathedral that dominates the city. It's meant to evoke the basaltic lava columns you can see all over the country, but it comes off a little too Albert Speer for my taste. Out front is a heroically posed statue of Leifur Eiríksson, who discovered (and, some claim, settled) North America centuries before Columbus. The elevator to the spire of the cathedral was -- you guessed it -- closed, but as I walked through the church, a wispy young woman in scruffy jeans started singing underneath the impressive organ pipes, played by her accompanist. She had an amazing voice, and it lent a marvelous atmosphere to the church.

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