I’ve fallen for this island nation, and I’ve fallen hard. My first visit in 2009 has resulted in two subsequent visits, and I can’t help but dream about a return. I am not the only one. Iceland’s charms have long bewitched travelers. From the first Norse explorers who settled upon the land in the North Atlantic and built a society to the Americans who were stationed here during World War II and never returned back to America, the island beckons. An Off-Broadway play by Drew Larimore titled Out of Iceland, which starred openly lesbian singer/comedienne Lea DeLaria, also noted this magical draw Iceland has on visitors. The protagonists find themselves both mysteriously pulled to Iceland’s center. Larimore explains the island’s magnetism with Iceland’s colorful folklore including the people’s wide-spread belief in hidden people, trolls, and elves—some can’t help but think that maybe there is something bigger than us that attracts us to the land of fire and ice.
It’s not just magical hidden people that bring visitors to Iceland, the men and women here have been known to hold special powers as well, or more likely overpowering charisma. A visit reveals ex-pats living all over Reykjavík. Manny S. originally visited from Chicago, but ultimately stayed for an attractive job and an equally attractive man. “I was first interested in Iceland because of the music scene. Many of my favorite bands came from this tiny country, so I decided to come for the Iceland Airwaves music festival. I loved everything about Iceland on my first trip here!” he says. “In the following year, I returned to Iceland twice to drive around the country and meet more people.” Sitting next to him, his partner Páll grabs his leg to get his attention. “Little did I know that I would soon meet the man who would become my husband and am still happily living in Reykjavík after eight years,” the two smile at one another. They aren’t the only ones; it’s easy to see mixed-national couples all over. Just look for the couples speaking English. It’s easier for the Icelandic partner to just speak English as Icelandic is notoriously hard to learn and converse in (though Manny has picked it up after eight years).
What was once a not-so-easy-to-get-to destination, the country is now embracing its mid-Atlantic location by attracting large numbers of tourists from both North America and Europe. IcelandAir has increased its service from the United States and Canada, and last year opened up a new direct service from Denver.
The company has also gained attention for its extremely popular stopover in Iceland package where travelers en route to or from one of their European hubs can spend a couple nights in the city at no additional airfare. This deal is best booked by contacting someone at IcelandAir who will be able to create an entire layover package for you.
On my most recent visit, my roommate, Reed, and I land early. “Five Hours to Iceland,” doesn’t exactly give you the time to rest up for a full day’s worth of adventure, but my excitement gives me more than enough energy (so I keep Reed up the whole flight). It’s pitch-black, cold, and misting when we arrive. We dazedly catch the Flybus from Keflavík (the airport city) to Reykjavík. It’s a lengthy trip through utter darkness, it’s also a trip to be prepared for. Don’t get too comfy on the bus, it stops at a station where the bus is then divided into smaller shuttle busses. Unfortunately, this is still the best way to get from the airport to your hotel. The cost of a taxi is simply absurd, and plans for a light rail are still in hypothetical stages. Luckily, the Blue Lagoon is located between Reykjavík and Keflavik so you can arrange to break up the journey by making a stop there.
About time we reach the city, the sun appears over the horizon making the bright colors of the buildings pop. A fresh dusting of snow creates a even more postcard-worthy sight. The week before we arrived, Reykjavík received an almost unheard of amount of snow. “It’s highly unusual,” our driver says. For my past two visits, the city’s weather has always been “highly unusual.” Instead of staying downtown as I usually do, we pull up to Icelandair Reykjavík Hotel Natura, which is a 15-minute walk from pretty much anything. Its minimalist, yet stylish rooms, friendly staff, and personal touches (like Icelandic story-telling on Thursday nights) make it a nice choice for the budget-minded travelers. I throw my bags in my room and pull Reed by the hand right out the front door.
Our first stop is the Hallgrímskirkja Lutheran church, which is by far the most recognizable structure in town. Located at the city’s highest point, the church’s expressionism-style architecture blends perfectly with the views of both urban Reykjavík and the natural backdrops. During New Year’s this area turns into a free-for-all celebration with Icelanders launching fireworks (which are only legal for a couple days) and wild boozing. We head to the top to get great views of the city and the surrounding area.
Afterward, we meet Hilmar Magnússon, a handsome 36-year-old local who smiles once he see us and waves us over to the city’s LGBT center, The Icelandic Queer Organization Samtökin ’78. Magnússon became one of the first people to launch a queer-history tour. The Reykjavík LGBT History and Culture Walk is a great way to learn about the city’s past and all of the gay-owned business and nightlife options. “I am very interested in politics and history, especially LGBT history, and wanted to share my knowledge, open up discussions, and educate,” he tells us. “My tours are a blend of stories from the LGBT struggle (politics, legislation, etc…) and stories from the nightlife (alcoholics, bohemians, artist, queers, poets, writers). These two threads of history are indeed tightly interwoven, and it’s impossible to see the whole picture without simultaneously looking at both of them.” Magnússon gladly caters his tours to fit your interest, so don’t be afraid to speak up. And if you get together a big enough group, he trades his dapper and dashing looks in for a sultry dress and heels, a sight definitely worth seeing. “The reaction has been very positive from locals and tourists alike. I especially feel that I can present tourists with a more nuanced and critical picture of Icelandic society than they would get at a traditional ‘promo’ sightseeing tour,” he says.
You’ll become very familiar with the main street Laugavegur during your tour and while doing your own exploring. The rolling main artery never gets old, though. With brand-new shops, cafés, restaurants, and bars, along with sweeping mountain views and vibrant street art, Reed and I find something new and exciting on every walk. There is no shortage of fun design shops like Mundi or clothing shops like Dead Gallery, where I pick up some shirts designed by Icelandic artist Jón Sæmundur.