After checking out some of the spots Reykjavik had to offer, I went looking for the city’s legendary Hólavallagarður Cemetery. When I got there, it was pretty late at night, but since it was the dead of summer, the sun was up about 23 hours every day. It made me think of “Cemetery Gates” by The Smiths: “A dreaded sunny day, so I’ll meet you at the cemetery gates”.
Now, I love a good cemetery, and this one stands out amongst all those I’ve visited. In fact, it was voted one of Europe’s loveliest cemeteries. But it’s not just the beauty that makes this graveyard spectacular; it’s also the history. You may be thinking, “Okay, Nena, we know you’re a history nerd”, but it’s really interesting! Hear me out.
This cemetery was built in 1838, and the first person to be buried there was a woman named Guðrún Oddsdóttir. At the time, Icelandic folklore taught that the first person to be buried would serve as that cemetery’s guardian for all time. Their flesh would not rot, and it would be their duty to look after all of the people who were to be buried there in future.
Another thing that makes this cemetery so unique, is the fact that it was built with a limited number of plots. During the 1800’s in Europe, it was very common to add a new layer of earth over the graves when a cemetery had reached its capacity. Instead of building more cemeteries, they would simply bury the old ones, literally stacking the deceased on top of older graves. The reason I love cemeteries is for their historical value, so naturally, this tradition is incredibly depressing to me.
There is an old proverb that states that every man dies twice: once when they take their last breath, and a second time the last time their name is spoken on earth. How sad it would be to be completely forgotten; to literally have your remains covered up by another person’s remains. Thankfully, the Icelandic people of the Victorian-era decided against this method. Occasionally, people are still buried here. There are only a few remaining reserved plots in Hólavallagarður cemetery, but it is possible to have your urn buried in the same plot as the coffin of an ancestor. The people of Reykjavik have built several other cemeteries for its current residents.
You could get lost walking through the graves… and I did. This cemetery is fairly large, and it is hard to look for any distinguishing landmarks through the thick trees. But sometimes getting lost is the best way to truly experience the place you are visiting.
I love cemeteries that have a variety of unique headstones, and this one holds the most impressive collection I’ve ever seen.
Nena’s Travel Essentials
I also love the vibrance of this cemetery. It may be a resting place for the dead, but there is nothing morbid about it. So many of the graves have been decorated and adorned, and it is so heartwarming to see the care that has gone into preserving the graves.
Sadly, as in any cemetery, not all of them have been maintained over the years.
My favorite thing about cemeteries is finding people who lived and died during the time periods I’m most interested in. Is that weird?
As I reached the Northern edge of the cemetery, I could see the vibrant colors of the city through the dark canopy of trees.
I love the people of Iceland. Not only for their refreshing friendliness, but for their preservation of history. As stated by Björn Th. Björnsson in his book, Minningarmörk í Hólavallagarði, this cemetery is the largest and oldest museum in Reykjavik, and I would add that it is also the most beautiful.
Ahhh, yes. The Blue Lagoon. This geothermal spa is basically the Eiffel Tower of Iceland- this is what people come here for. This spa, which was actually created on accident, has become such a popular attraction, not only because it is beautiful, but also because this warm water has soothing and healing properties! People come from all over the world to soak in the murky water, and leave with silky smooth skin! Jars of warm earthy clay are situated all over the lagoon, for face masks! The bottom is covered in black sand, and some weirdly smooth rocks that feel more like Venetian glass than part of the natural landscape.
The only downside to this place is that you have to shower naked with a million other naked people, most of them elderly and overweight… I’m an art major- I see nudity a hundred times a day and it doesn’t usually phase me, but I saw some things that can never be unseen here. That being said, if you can just close your eyes until you get through the showers, it’s totally worth the experience!
Day 2! I woke up at the crack of dawn (well, I guess it wasn’t truly dawn since the sun doesn’t really go away during the summer months, but it was really early) and ventured into Reykjanes, the southern peninsula of Iceland near the capital city of Reykjavik. Reykjanes is known for its active volcanism under its surface, as well as its vast lava fields.
Within the Reykjenes Peninsula, there lies Krýsuvík, one of Iceland’s many geothermal areas. The geothermal activity is very powerful, and the people of Iceland have developed the technology to harness it; most homes and businesses in Iceland are powered by geothermal activity. There are hot springs and geysers all over the place, and it is not uncommon to see large billows of steam in the sky.Oh, and theres that lovely sulfur smell that you can never escape.
A few Kilometers south of lies Grænavatn, or the Green Lake. This lake was created when water came in contact with molten lava, and its green color comes from the high levels of sulfur in the water. This lake is very small, but also very deep, and is considered by geologists to be one of Iceland’s most noteworthy natural phenomena. For centuries there have been claims of seeing strange creatures in the lake, which doesn’t surprise me. Iceland is also home to the mysterious Lagarfljót Worm. Don’t even get me started on lake monsters. I could go on for days.
Near the ocean, there is a small fishing village, called Grindavik. Over the years, numerous wrecks of ships have been cast onto the rocks by the vicious ocean waves. Some of the remaining shipwrecks date back to 100 years ago. The surrounding land is gorgeous and diverse; beautiful green hills, volcanic rock, cold ocean waters… What more could you ask for? Lighthouses? Oh, they actually have that too. This area is strewn with lighthouses that have been built further and further from the shore as the sea began to erode the land.
To the cliffs!
Near Grindavik, there is a giant cliff (the pictures don’t do it justice. It was massive!) that you can climb, and when you get to the top, the view is breathtaking. The Arctic Tern migrate to this area to breed, and these birds are EVERYWHERE. Reykjanes is practically infested with these birds, especially near the water.
Þingvellir National Park
Last but not least, I made a stop at Þingvellir National Park in order to cross a pretty huge item off of my bucket list. This is the place where the North American tectonic plate and the Eurasian tectonic plate divide. The continental rift actually continues into the ocean, and you can book a tour that allows you to dive in between the two continents! I’m terrified of the ocean, so this was good enough for me. It’s not every day you get to stand in between two continents!
After strolling a bit more through the streets of Reykjavik, I found what I was looking for. The Icelandic Phallological Museum: home to over 280 real penises from various species, including human! I am a big fan of all things bizarre and disturbing, and this was one of the more bizarre and disturbing museums I’ve visited. And I loved every minute of it. They claim to have at least one penis from every mammal native to Iceland, and they also have some exotic specimen that have been donated, such as giraffe and zebra.
After thirteen hours of flying, I finally landed in beautiful Reykjavik, the capital of Iceland! Well, technically I landed in Keflavik, but then I took a bus directly to the heart of Reykjavik. My Airbnb was in an idyllic location, and nearly everything I wanted to see was within walking distance. When I got there, I contacted the host, who told me to get the key from the blacksmith downstairs. I thought to myself, “Blacksmith? How quaint!”
I was exhausted by the time I made it into the apartment, so when I got there I went straight to sleep. When I woke up around 7 p.m., I realized I was in good company. Maybe it’s because I was in a pretty hip area, but everyone slept all day and then hit the town around midnight, staying out until the bars closed in the morning. Every night I enjoyed the loud ambient music echoing through the streets, as I watched people taking walks, laughing and drinking. Then, at 6 a.m., it all stopped and the city was completely silent. A night owl like myself could definitely get used to living in such a city.
The next day I set out to explore the city. As I was on my way out, my roommate’s friend came over with a karaoke machine, and took it out on the balcony to perform for all the passersby. I was only able to get this short clip, but you get the idea.
The next day around noon, I ventured down to Hallgrímskirkja, Reykjavik’s iconic church. It can be seen throughout most of the city, and my apartment was no exception. Feeling confident in my navigational skills, I decided to just walk towards it until I got there, no map or anything. So what if I got lost? There is no safer city in the world to get lost in! So I grabbed my walking shoes, my lucky scarf, and my camera bag and started walking.
One thing I have noticed every time I’ve visited Europe is that people WALK differently than they do in the States. No one ever seems to be in a rush; while we Americans love to speed walk, Europeans love to stroll. So, when in Rome… Even at my leisurely European walking pace, it only took me about 20 minutes to get there, and when I did, it was as breathtaking as I had imagined.
After basking in its glory for a few minutes, I went inside and bought my ticket for the elevator (I wanted to get some shots of the chapel first, but there was a wedding going on). Once I reached the top, I waited for the other tourists to clear out of the room, and then I rushed to a vacant window from which I could photograph the beautiful rooftops of Reykjavik. It was a pretty high window, and I’m a pretty short girl, so even though I stood on the stool they had provided, I wouldn’t have been able to see out the window if I hadn’t had my camera on me. For someone who loves color as much as I do, this was truly a wonder to behold.
As I stared in awe at the beautiful city, I was rudely awakened from my deep thought by a loud “BONG…BONG…BONG…”, which caused me to fall off of my stool. Turns out the church has a functioning bell tower directly above the viewing area. I took that as the church’s way of saying “give the other tourists a chance, Nena! You’ve been hogging the window for 20 minutes!”
I honestly could have stayed there all day, taking in the beauty of the city and the cool ocean breeze, but it was time to start making my way to the next location on my list.
I had heard rumors about Elf School. I had done a little research. It wasn’t what I was expecting. It was, however, an interesting experience. Elves play a major role in Icelandic folklore, and supposedly 50% of Icelanders believe that they exist.
The headmaster (a very eccentric retired professor) gave us our textbooks and sat us all down (there were 8 students total). The classroom was full of little figurines depicting mythical creatures such as elves, dwarves, etc. We were then told many stories about elf sightings in iceland, and his theories as to why elves are not regularly seen… “You must be ‘psychic’ to see elves”, he told us. “Women are more psychic than men, gays are more psychic than non-gays, and children are far more psychic than adults”. This went on for about 4 hours.
As the end of the class neared, the headmaster’s husband brought us freshly made Icelandic pancakes (which are WAY better than American pancakes), ginger ale, and our diplomas. This is a pretty slow-paced attraction, but, then again it is school, so I don’t know what I expected. If you’re looking for something weird and off-beat to do in Reykjavik, this will be an experience you won’t soon forget.
The Laundromat Café
After such a long class, I was ready for a beer. I’d heard the Laundromat Café was touristy but still pretty awesome, so I checked it out. It was overcrowded for sure, but I loved it because it’s so unique! As you may have guessed, it’s a laundromat and a café, but also a library and bar. A bar full of delicious craft beer, including my all-time favorite beer, Ástrikur Nr. 18 (a Belgian-style ale with hints of peach).
Why don’t we have these all over the world? Nothing is more boring than sitting around while your laundry is being washed, so you may as well have some food, booze, and books while you wait! It’s also a great opportunity to fill out all those postcards you’ve been blowing off (sorry, friends 😅).
What’s in my suitcase
Reykjavik’s Old West Side
This historic part of Reykjavik was probably my favorite part of the city. It’s a bit tucked away, and there were very few tourists in the area. As I ventured further into these residential streets, I noticed the strangers I passed by were all speaking Icelandic, rather than English or German or Dutch.
I stepped into Stofan Café because it looked so adorably chic from the outside. I was delighted to find that the Café was full of locals! The barista even greeted me with a friendly “Gott Kvöld!”
After I’d had my fill of beer, I was back to exploring.
The reason I had ventured into the Old West Side in the first place was to find Reykjavik’s historic and beautiful Hólavallagarður Cemetery. It was so incredible that I dedicated an entire post to it.
Back to the Heart of the City
After a long day of walking around, I needed a little break. I went to the grocery store to stock up on Lucky Charms, and came back to the apartment for a little nap. Once I was sufficiently energized, I decided to go on a little stroll to get to know my new neighborhood.
Harpa Concert Hall
To bring an end to an amazing day, I walked down to the waterfront to marvel at this architectural wonder. The sun finally started to set, and the glass walls caught the light and created the most beautiful array of colors.
Though I’d be spending two weeks living in Reykjavik, I had many other adventures planned, so this was one of the only days I had dedicated to exploring the city. But, it only took one day for me to realize that I could genuinely see myself living here. Reykjavik is a small but lively city, perfect for an introverted artist like me. It’s a city that truly inspires creativity, but isn’t too busy or crowded. Basically, it’s what I’ve been looking for my whole life.
Any questions about planning a trip here? Drop them below!