Reykjavik Stories and Tips

General info about Iceland

Church on the Tjorn Photo, Reykjavik, Iceland

Everyone speaks English. I didn't want to be the type of tourist who assumes that everyone will speak English, so I tried to learn a few words, but I couldn't find any good pronunciation guides or phrasebooks. It didn't matter -- people were happy to cut off my pantomiming by speaking English. By the time they graduate at age 16, Icelandic students must read, write, and speak Icelandic, Danish, and English.

I had more sunlight than I reckoned on. The sun came up around 7:00 a.m., and it stayed light until 8:30 p.m. or so. I was repeatedly told the fine weather -- cloudless skies, light though ever-present wind, and temperatures in the low 40s that felt warmer thanks to the brilliant sunshine -- was unusual for this time of year.

Because of the prevalence of hot springs all over the country, everything is heated geothermally (they even run hot-water pipes underneath the streets and sidewalks to keep them free of ice -- this means you frequently get whiffs of sulfur as you walk down the street), and nearly all their power comes from hydroelectricity or steam turbines. The bus system is terrific and the city seems to encourage walking (not that there aren't plenty of cars). The countryside has very few trees, because in medieval times, the Vikings cut down the birch forests and never replanted them. Now, planting trees is a popular activity for company picnics, family outings, and teenagers' public service projects.

Reykjavík's architecture is not especially... what's the word... good. Their primary building materials are corrugated tin and concrete. The corrugated tin that covers private houses and other small buildings can actually look pretty good (when it's not rusted through) -- they paint it in vibrant, saturated colors and add attractive trimmings. But the large buildings are godawfully ugly -- depressing, Soviet-style blocks with no character.

Finally, on your flights to and from Iceland, I recommend asking for a window seat. On the way over, I saw the aurora borealis for the first time, through the airplane window. On the way home, I saw stunning, rugged mountains and glaciers in southern Greenland and beautiful lakes and mountains in northern Canada.

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