On our first day on the mainland of Iceland, we visited two of the biggest tourist areas on the island: the downtown pedestrian core of the capital Reykjavik and a park outside of town that is the original site of the Althing, the Icelandic parliament. Our first impression of the island was: wow, people are right, Iceland is seriously over-touristed! In both places, we were forced to shuffle along behind a sea of other tourists from all over the world, like we were in an arctic Disneyland. On day two, we experienced a completely different Iceland, one with endless empty roads and quiet neighborhoods. As the cliché in every tourism brochure from every place in the world says: “a land of contrasts.”
Despite the crowds, Thingvellir (the site of the original Althing) was quite interesting and beautiful. The Althing is the longest continuously functioning parliament in the world but moved from this original site in the 1700’s and today no visible signs of it remain. Instead, you see a geography lesson writ large. A giant crack in the earth runs through the site, the spreading gap between the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates. Interpretive signs say that the site was chosen as a meeting place because of its central location and abundant resources but surely the imposing topography was an attraction as well. Grassy plains and lakes surround the cliffs of the tectonic canyon, which itself is filled with lush grass where it isn’t paved over for the thousands of tourists disgorged from the tour buses parked in the acres of overflowing parking lots (plural).
The center of Reykjavik is a tourist circus of souvenir shops and cafes. I suspect the locals avoid it when possible during the summer, as we do the Pike Place Market in Seattle. And somehow they manage to have traffic jams in the most sparsely populated country in Europe (unless you count our next destination, Greenland). Bookending the main tourist street are two architecturally impressive public buildings. On one end is the Hallgrímskirkja church, whose tall stone tower echoes the country’s mountains. It is on top of a hill and a helpful landmark visible from everywhere in the city. Inside, the music from a giant pipe organ echoed around the circulating tourists. At the other end of town on the waterfront is the very modern Harpa Concert Hall. We only saw the outside and the lobby but its soaring honeycomb of glass was made us wish we had time to see more.
In Reykjavik we met up with our friends Dave and Amy who were old-hands at Iceland and they planned our escape from the tourist throngs. It turns out that even a short way out of town (unless you are heading to the “Golden Circle” of the most celebrated tourist sites) the traffic dissolves and you can see a less hectic side of Iceland, with quaint villages and uncrowded natural wonders. We were the only people at one road-side steaming/boiling mud pond and enjoyed other volcanic attractions and a giant waterfall with a very manageable number of other sightseers.
Back in Reykjavik outside the tourist quarter, we enjoyed a blog-worthy meal at a nouvelle-Icelandic restaurant that overlooked a city park. And what trip to Reykjavik would be complete without a visit to the Icelandic Phallological Museum in a slightly gritty neighborhood (by tidy Icelandic standards) on the outskirts of downtown. It is a gruesome personal collection of dried, pickled or otherwise preserved penises from every species of mammal native to Iceland. On second thought, maybe a trip to Iceland would have been complete without it.