Throwback Travel: Things to do in an Icelandic Winter (Reykjav√≠k Style)

iceland_ducks.jpg
The pond in the city center

Sorry for my delay in posting. I’ve had this post in draft for quite a while. I finally decided to go through my photos and try to finish it. ūüôā Above is a photo of¬†Tj√∂rnin, which is the small lake in the city center. While we strolled around the city, we spent some time by the lake, admiring the sparkling lights and the birds along the shore. I wasn’t crazy¬†enough to walk on the frozen parts of the lake, but there were plenty of brave souls who did! Fortunately¬†I didn’t see anyone fall through the ice.

By the way, how pretty is the twilight?!

Onto the things we did to escape the winter cold… ūüôā indoor Reykjavik activities!

Icelandic Phallological Museum

Find it at: Laugavegur 116, 105 Reykjavík, Iceland

iceland_pm.jpg
Inappropriate toys at the Philological Museum Рafter several seconds, this doll opens his robe and flashes you. Joyous.

I might be twisted, but¬†The Icelandic Phallological Museum¬†had been on my “I absolutely must do this!” list for Reykjavik. I had several friends visit and tell me about the absurdity of this museum, so I knew that I had to visit!

The Phallological¬†Museum was right off of Reykjavik’s main strip, Laugavegur, so it wasn’t out-of-the-way. The museum is pretty small (and pricey – I recall it being around 10-15 euros per person);¬†you can get through it pretty quickly unless you really¬†study the museum’s¬†goods. I didn’t necessarily catalog everything, but there were definitely more collective penises… peni?… there than any other place I’ve been (which makes sense, since it advertises itself as the world’s largest display of penises and penile parts). I particularly liked the collection of household decorations and goods that apparently numerous companies not only thought were a good idea to design, but manufacture and sell. A penis shaped landline phone – you bet! And oh, of course lighting fixtures.

If penis shaped household goods aren’t your style, you can also admire large whale penises (which were larger than me), various animal penises stored in¬†mason jars with¬†formaldehyde, and global artwork in suggestive shapes! Something for everyone!

If penile parts of the past aren’t enough, don’t worry! Previous visitors of the museum have helped to adorn the walls with photos¬†of their members around the world, usually in front of sites of interest. If any men were arrested in their endeavor to flash their goods while taking a photo, I would also appreciate those stories in the display. I didn’t see any, but I imagine some of those photos had to be taken quickly, stealthily, and outside of police presence.

Hallgrimskirkja (Church of Iceland)

Find it at: Hallgrímstorg 101, 101 Reykjavík, Iceland

iceland_overlook.jpg
View from the Hallgrimskirkja viewing platform.

Hallgr√≠mskirkja is a Lutheran Church and the largest Church in Iceland. It is also one of the tallest buildings in the entire country. You can see the church from most vantage points in the city, so it helps as a guide if you manage to get turned around in Reykjavik. The church was nice on the inside, but if you’re used to the highly ornate¬†European churches in other capital cities, this one will be a bit underwhelming. Don’t get me wrong,¬†the interior is nice, but it’s very clean and minimalist. There is also a massive organ,¬†which is nice if you visit while music plays.

My favorite part, though, was the observation tower. You can buy a ticket to take an elevator up to a viewing deck. The views of the city are really cool! You can admire the colorful buildings, the water, mountains, and for us during our winter travels – the snowy landscape. Highly recommended.

Afterward, we strolled down¬†Sk√≥lav√∂r√įust√≠gur, which was a cute shopping street with a lot of boutiques and food joints; there were a ton of jewelers, clothing shops, art galleries, and mom-and-pop boutiques on this road. It eventually intersects with¬†Laugavegur.

National Museum of Iceland

Find it at:¬†Su√įurgata 41, 101 Reykjav√≠k, Iceland

iceland_nationalmuseum.jpg
National artifacts on an airport conveyor belt.

To continue the trend of finding indoor attractions to save¬†us from the cold, we spent an afternoon at the National Museum of Iceland. It’s a bit out-of-the-way if you’re staying downtown. Still,¬†we managed to walk and enjoy the stroll to the other side of Tj√∂rnin,¬†through neighborhoods with colorful houses and twinkling¬†lights.

The museum was really nice and a lot larger than I expected. You could easily spend 2¬†to¬†3 hours here. The museum has English signs throughout, which was much appreciated. The museum¬†illustrates the life of Iceland’s first inhabitants and explained the changes in power dynamics throughout the centuries. I thought the museum was generally pretty logically¬†laid out and the signs were easy to follow. I also liked the “airport conveyor” belt exhibit at the end that had more artifacts of modern Icelandic history and pop culture. Don’t worry – of course it had a Bjork album. I would have liked to have seen more about modern Icelandic contributions to larger Western¬†pop culture. Overall, it was a nice place to spend an afternoon. If you’re like me and into museum gift shops, I should add that the gift shop and cafe are nice. ūüôā

Overall, Iceland was a great destination in December. I am excited to return in the summer, when we can venture beyond the capital and the Golden Circle. Still, if you’re looking for a winter trip and want to admire the moonscape – I highly recommend Iceland. It’s a short flight from the U.S. East Coast, it’s not crowded, and nothing screams holiday spirit as¬†sipping hot chocolate while walking through the winter scenary¬†and admiring Christmas lights on¬†snow covered, brightly colored houses. Did I also mention there were folks selling roasted almonds? Warm, toasty, sugar-covered almonds! Isn’t that reason enough?

Advertisements

Throwback Travel: Icelandic Winter Day Trips

Into the Blue – Snorkeling in the Silfra Fissure

One of the top things on our Icelandic “To Do” list was the Arctic Adventures excursion called¬†¬†Into The Blue. We met at the Arctic Adventures office and packed into a van headed to¬†√ěingvellir (Thingvellir) national park¬†to snorkel in the Silfra fissure between the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates. Snorkeling in Iceland, you ask? No, it wasn’t in a hot spring or geothermal heated water. The water was glacier run-off, a nice 34 degrees Fahrenheit. We spent the first hour of the tour getting into our sleeping bag, bear-like suit material, topped with a dry suit. I had to have¬†the tour guides hug me five or six times before my suit leaked enough air that I no longer looked like the Pillsbury dough boy and a condom had a baby – I just looked like a condom at that point.

iceland_pingviller.jpgThe snorkeling trip was fun! While the suit protected us from the frigid water, our hands unfortunately were covered with wet suit material gloves. My hands were freezing and felt like they were being stabbed by pins and needles toward the end. Still, I enjoyed the adventure. The water was crystal clear, with long range visibility; it was amazing to be snorkeling, with the snow falling above us.

The Golden Circle

One of our favorites parts of the trip was our day trip around the Golden Circle. We rented a car from the main bus depot and headed out early, with our first stop at¬†√ěingvellir national park. The park was gorgeous! We drove to various parking lots and walked around, looking at the landscape. It was chilly, but definitely worth walking outside.¬†The drive had a lot of scenic areas to stop and admire the view.

iceland_goldencircledrive.jpg

We headed to Geysir. It was cool seeing the boiling water coming from the ground and the geothermal field, but the geyser itself¬†was a little underwhelming. It’s possible that we didn’t see one of the larger eruptions, but we definitely had to wait over 8-10 minutes to see the eruptions. Still, I’m glad we saw it! There was also a dining/gift shop area adjacent to the parking area. We warmed up with hot drinks and mushroom soup, so I’d call it a success. ūüôā Our last stop was seeing the¬†Gullfoss waterfall.

iceland_gullfoss.jpg

It was definitely odd driving up to the parking lot. From the parking lot, you really don’t see much of the waterfall. We were questioning if we were even in the right spot! We had to walk past the parking lot, and on the wooden walkways for a bit before we finally saw the waterfall coming into view! The waterfall was really cool to see, especially¬†the falls that seemed to domino into smaller falls. I’m sure this area is beautiful in the summer!

Blue Lagoon

The famous Blue Lagoon!¬†We knew we had to visit, after hearing about how it’s one of the top destinations in Iceland. We bought our tickets online ahead of time, since we hear that spots can book quickly.

The Blue Lagoon entrance was really cool – the walkway surrounded by black rock formations topped with moss.

iceland_bluelagoon.jpg

The facility was really nice inside. The bathing areas were packed! We got bracelets that automatically secured our lockers, so we rest assured that our stuff was safely locked away. The showering areas were also decent – there were two areas, the open showers and the curtained showers for the shy American variety.

The Lagoon itself was awesome! If I could do it over (and maybe someday I will), next time I would bring cheap flip flops. The ground was¬†freezing (of course, what did I expect? Geo-thermal heated concrete would have been nice :)) The Lagoon was undergoing construction, so some parts of it were closed off. Regardless, it was easy to find some less crowded places to escape. There were clay stations off to the side, so you can lather yourself in the famous white clay. I would recommend not picking up or looking at the clay at the bottom of the lagoon. You definitely don’t want to have a mental image of yourself bathing with other people’s hair and skin cells. Ignorance is bliss. ūüôā

There were some rest areas inside with chairs and seating areas, but they fill up quickly! There is also a large dining area, so you can enjoy food while overlooking the lagoon itself. I would definitely recommend going, especially if you have time to kill before a flight out of the city. I think next time, I would opt to try a smaller, natural spa, but I’m glad I got to experience¬†this one at least once.

Throwback Travel: Icelandic Winter and Meeting the Natives

When we told our friends that we were planning a winter excursion to an island, this statement¬†likely conjured an image¬†of a warm, tropical Carribean island with throngs of tourists all with the same idea¬†–¬†escaping the winter cold. Not exactly what we were thinking at that time…

What is there to do in Iceland during the winter? Are you crazy?

Iceland had been on my bucket list for ages; I’ve always imagined that someday, I would visit and take a long road trip in a rugged vehicle around the famous Ring Road to see the entire island and all of its natural beauty¬†(I definitely plan to go back to do this!).

I started to do a lot of online research, and undoubtedly there are many more articles about things to do in the Land of the Midnight Sun during the summer months; the winter months even restrict tourists from certain activities and venturing to specific¬†areas. It’s dark! It’s cold.¬†Ice is in the country name! What could we possibly be thinking?

Still, we were determined to spend part of December in a winter wonderland. We wanted to go somewhere that felt like it was winter and perhaps even see Christmas markets. Iceland is also a lot closer than mainland Europe. All these factors helped us finally bite the bullet and book our tickets. We were headed to Reykjavik!

iceland_cityoverview.jpg
View of the city from the Hallgrímskirkja

One of the first things we did in Iceland on our first night was visit the Tin Can Factory for its Meet the Natives session. We were able to walk from our AirBnB booking on the main street, Laugavegur. We booked the only reservations that night for the Meet the Natives session. We spent several hours at the Tin Can Factory, learning a bit about the history of Iceland, sampling Icelandic cuisine (which included fresh Icelandic butter and geothermal bread, pumpernickel bread, herbs and spices), and learning a bit about the language. We were even assigned our own Icelandic names!

Toward the end, we learned how¬†to make Icelandic pancakes, and sat down to enjoy our creations. The pancakes with cream, fruit toppings, and¬†homemade whipped cream were amazing. The classroom was dark, because the sun had long set by the time we started class. Here’s what the classroom looked like:

iceland_tinfactory01.jpg
The Tin Can Factory classroom

We also got to try some Christmas food and the Icelandic Christmas drink Malt go Appelsín.

iceland_tinfactory02.jpg
Icelandic food sampler

We headed back to our booked apartment, with stomachs stuffed and ready to spend a week exploring Reykjavik and the surrounding areas. So far, Iceland in winter was a winner!

London, UK: The Last Hurrah

london_statue.jpg

Happy New Year! I’ve been a bit of a slacker; the holiday season makes it easy to lose track. ¬†I’ve been sitting on writing my final London musings, so here they are. ūüôā

We started our day by strolling through Hyde Park. It was a grey (gray!), drizzly day, the type you always hear about when someone talks about England, with the added bonus of the occasional thunderstorms and¬†wind. Many people proclaimed throughout the day that we were¬†in the midst of a hurricane! Regardless of the official rainy day nomenclature (I’m not sure if an English hurricane is the same as a U.S. hurricane), we set off to make the most of our time in the city.

The stroll through Hyde Park was nice, with its perfect fall foliage. The leaves covered the ground and the park foot traffic was light, as people were likely avoiding the rain. It’s definitely hard to believe that that much open space is right in the heart of¬†a huge metropolis. We walked by the Princess Diana memorial, using the park as a shortcut to make our way to Harrods.

london_hydepark.jpg
Hyde Park

See, I’ve wanted to go to Harrods for a long time – probably after seeing it on some Travel Channel special. I had heard about the glorious food market, which is the primary reason I wanted to go. The food market did not disappoint. I loved strolling past the glass displays of macarons, chocolates, and other house made chocolates. I grabbed some elderflower ¬†loose leaf tea – a flavor I don’t typically see a home. We spent a few minutes admiring the shops, mostly because the room fixtures and ceilings were adorned with fancy decorations, not because I dare buy something from a couture shop. My wallet thanks me!

We walked by Buckingham Palace, which wasn’t as grand as I had imagined. I don’t know – maybe I had never really paid attention on television or in movies when it showed the palace and the changing of the guards? I guess I was expecting an imposing palace, with large grounds and gardens in the front. Don’t get me wrong – if someone offered me the place to live rent-free, I wouldn’t refuse. ūüėČ But I guess I was expecting something… more¬†magnificent? To me, Buckingham looked like it could be another government building, rather than what my mind conjures up when I think of a royal palace.

We also checked out Westminster Abbey. Initially, the line in front made us worry that the wait would be long, but it moved pretty quickly! The Abbey was a bit pricey (something I noticed about London in general). It was really nice inside, and I enjoyed seeing the numerous interior rooms, and watching the history unfold by seeing the different era styles evolving as we walked through. It was hard to believe that some of the shrines, flooring, and marble there was from the 13th century! There were a lot of different historic periods represented and a lot of recognizable individuals from history buried there – Elizabeth I and Mary Queen of Scots are in chapels opposite to one another; Elizabeth had the grander setup, from what I remember.

Our last stop in London was visiting the Tower of London. We got there with about an hour to explore before the doors closed. It was cool walking along the walls, and enjoying the night time view of¬†the Tower Bridge. We saw the Armory building and some of the weapons/cannons/knights armor (armour ;)) displayed. Our last stop on the grounds was seeing the opulent crown jewels. They were a sight to see, and the building even had a moving sidewalk in one portion to make sure the crowds didn’t monopolize the standing room in front of the displays. It was crazy to think of how valuable those jewels are. It kind of makes me wish that I had somewhere to wear a crown.

london_towerbridge.jpg
Tower Bridge from the Tower of London

London, UK: The BBMak Inspired Eye

While I’ve wanted to visit England for a long time, it has never been at the very tip-top of my list. Rightly (or wrongly), I¬†have wanted to spend my vacation time traveling to¬†countries much¬†more culturally different from my own. UK culture, with its music, television shows, ¬†movies, stores, and traditions (and celebrity chefs!), are very similar or the same as the U.S. But hey, there are some things I cannot complain about, like the fact that¬†Gordon Ramsay can infiltrate my television any day of the week!

Regardless of my greater love for the other half of Europe, I could not pass up an opportunity to¬†check out London. ūüôā We arrived in the late afternoon, quickly checking into our Hyde Park hotel and immediately heading over to the London Eye. The London Eye has been on my “must see” list for London since I can remember; I’m not sure what exactly sparked my interest. Was it hearing rave reviews from friends who had visited? Seeing photos of the famous Eye in skyline shots of London? Early 2000s era BBMak music videos? (Don’t judge!)

The Eye was pretty cool and much like most things in London, very¬†expensive. We didn’t book online, but the ticket lines moved quickly enough that I didn’t mind the wait. We opted to get the package with the Eye and the river cruise (which we took the next day). The capsules were comfortable and clean, and luckily they didn’t cram us all into them like sardines, which is always a fear with popular tourist sights anywhere.

london_eye.jpg
The London Eye capsule ahead

We were fairly lucky while on the Eye, because it had to temporarily stop, allowing us to spend an extra 15 minutes checking out the views over the Thames River. We visited on a foggy, drizzly day, but luckily the night sky gave us a lot to admire.

london_eyeonparliament.jpg
The view of the River Thames from the London Eye

While heading back to the metro station, by happenstance we ran into an amazing night food market. Fresh burgers, piping hot waffles topped with ice cream, Indian curry puffed rice, and fresh squeezed juices! There were dozens of stalls serving international fare. We opted to get some freshly-made Portuguese pastel de nata (custard tarts) and dessert waffles.

london_natas.jpg

Not a bad welcome, London!

Athens, Greece

athens_hephaisteion.jpg
The Hephaisteion, the Agora of Athens

After landing in Athens and getting ripped off by a Greek cab driver, we unpacked quickly, left the hotel, and hopped on the metro to check out the sights. We were fortunate (it was completely unplanned) to be in the city for European Heritage Days from September 24 to 26. This meant that all of the popular sights in the city, such as the Agora, Acropolis, and select museums were completely free!

For our first day, we grabbed lunch right next to the Agora. Greek food was a welcome sight after all of the Adriatic cuisine. We checked out the Ancient Agora and the surrounding grounds, which included the Ancient Agora¬†Museum, the¬†Stoa of Attalos, and the Hephaisteion. The Agora Museum was small and I wondered why they didn’t maintain some of the architectural features of the building. Walking in, I was slightly disappointed that the inside looked like it could have been in any modern building. The top floor was pretty awesome, though, with sculptures and views of the grounds and Acropolis in the distance. I don’t know too much about archeological treasures, but I enjoyed looking at the museum exhibits.

Afterward, we wandered over to the Acropolis area. It was a nice breezy day, and the area was packed. I don’t think I have anything creative to say about the Acropolis that hasn’t been said by someone else already. There was a lot of construction and preservation work going on in the area.

athens_acropolis.jpg
The Acropolis
athens_fromtheacropolis.jpg
Athens from the Acropolis

On our second day, I wanted to check out the City Sightseeing open-top bus tour. I know a lot of people dismiss these sorts of tours as too tourist-y, but I’m a tourist so I’m not above these things. ūüôā I had a really good experience riding these¬†buses in the past, so I figured it wouldn’t hurt to try it out.

athens_fromthebus.jpg
From the City Sightseeing bus

Overall, it’s not something I would recommend for Athens. The sights are pretty central in the area, and I found that most of the highlights were within walkable distance from each other. These sightseeing buses are much better for cities where the attractions are sprawled far from one another. There were also detours, due to a local marathon, which nobody notified us of, so there were a lot of skipped stops for the first half of the day. Still, it allowed us to hop-on and hop-off to different sights, including the Archeological Museum and the Temple of Zeus, and drive by the old Olympic Stadium.

One thing that stuck out to me in Athens was how sprawling the entire city is, and how much graffiti there is. There are definitely beautiful, well maintained areas, but the amount of graffiti even in the tourist center was surprising to me. It made it feel like a city that people actually lived in.

athens_graffiti.jpg
Graffiti glory

On our final day, we checked out the Acropolis Museum, which I liked but I found laid out really confusingly. The interior was beautiful and I especially liked the displays where they showed what the sculptures looked like right after they were created. There is always the vision of these pristine, white stone sculptures, but a lot of them were actually extremely colorful and ornate.

We walked over to the Botanical Gardens, which was a little disappointing. I could see this being a welcome getaway from the hustle and bustle, while still remaining in the city, but I wish the grounds were better maintained. We saw a pond that was so crammed with turtles, that they were fighting for areas to rest out of the water. There were also deceased turtles floating in the pond. I really wanted to like the Botanical Gardens, but it struck me more as a park than a place to learn about different plants and see a lot of variety.

We left late morning the next day. The Athens airport was tiny, all of the shops and cafes were outside of the secure area, and what’s up with the lack of restaurants? We made the mistake of thinking we could get to the airport early and grab a leisurely breakfast before our flight. Not the brightest idea, since there were virtually no¬†options. There were some nice stores to purchase Greek goods, though – so we grabbed some sesame honey bars, olive oils, and baklava for the road.

I am looking forward to traveling back to Greece someday and spending time outside of Athens, especially since we didn’t have time to spend on any of the numerous islands. I enjoyed the food in Athens, and it was great to see all of the sights I’ve read about my entire life. I think we spent the right amount of time in the city, and I don’t think we really missed much else. Also, we were sure to stay extra vigilant in the city. I read a lot of horror stories about pickpocketing and general theft in Athens, so we were sure to take extra care, especially during rush hour on the metro. I also found the restaurant owners extremely pushy in the city center, so keep your head down and keep walking!

Podgorica, Montenegro

We enjoyed an early morning breakfast in an abandoned Old Town Kotor before preparing for our trek to the country’s capital, Podgorica.

kotor_empty.jpg
Deserted Kotor in the early AM

On our drive, we decided to cross through the Lake Skadar National Park. We had seen photos of the beautiful lake and it was on the way, so we thought “Why not?” The national park was indeed beautiful, but we were a bit disappointed. I’m not sure if it’s the particular route that we picked, but we had a difficult time finding a place to stop and enjoy the scenery. There was a small stop off, with the tourist office and a small shop. However, there were few places to actually enjoy nature. Instead, there were groups of men who would jump at the opportunity to sell you boat ride tickets as soon as you exited your car. I think the next time in Montenegro, we’ll have to do better research about where exactly to go in the Lake Skadar region, rather than deciding to drive through aimlessly.

lakeskader_01.jpg
Lake Skadar

We were a little afraid as we got closer and closer to Podgorica and it seemed we were no closer to civilization. Luckily, the city emerged from the empty fields pretty quickly. I felt a little bad for Podgorica, as I heard it referred to as the “most charmless capital city in Europe” with warnings on online forums that included “If you have to skip anything on a Balkan itinerary, skip Podgorica.”

Granted, we were only in the city for a¬†day and a half. We walked a bit around the city center, grabbed some food, and enjoyed the parks. The city has a ton of greenery, which is always welcome in my book. Podgorica was a good place for us to recharge before our trip to Albania. There were a lot of small coffee shops and the pace was very relaxed. I’m not sure if it’s somewhere I would say I¬†have to return to¬†but I certainly wouldn’t mind returning, especially to¬†use it as a jumping off point to explore all of the places in Montenegro we did not have a chance to experience. We definitely want to come back to see the old royal capital, the Northern mountains, and the monasteries and historical sights dotted around the country, so returning though the airport in Podgorica is a very real possibility. Note to travelers: You will get very confused at the lack of car rental return signs at the airport. They don’t exist. Park the car and look for someone with an orange vest.

montenegro_millbridge.jpg
Millennium Bridge, Podgorica

On TripAdvisor, the number one place to see was the Hram Hristovog Vaskrsenja, a large church in the middle of a huge gravel parking lot. The church is very new and while it was nice to see, nothing really stood out to me as overly special.

podgorica_01.jpg
Hram Hristovog Vaskrsenja, Podgorica