A month and a half in Iceland – part 1

Lindsay and I decided this past year to spend a summer somewhere new / interesting, and after some debate and consideration, we decided on Iceland.

The decision to spend (ha?) the summer in Iceland was, as is often the case with us, decided in large part (and semi-ironically) based on cost. In particular the cost of the flight through Wow Air. This is a fairly well known “deal” at this point but basically Wow Air had ~$300ish dollar flights out of Toronto direct to Reykjavik.  Lindsay and I had been talking about going to Iceland for a while, and when we saw the cheap-ish tickets within our reach we did a quick search on AirBnB to make sure that an apartment was somewhat affordable (we found a few single rooms for ~900-1000 for a month… which ended up all being “fake”, but more on that later) and just YOLOed and bought the ticket.

So, we bought our tickets on Wow air, some time went by, and BAM we packed and drove from Chicago to Toronto via our parents in Michigan. Overall I’d say the 7 hour drive was worth saving a good chunk of money but it was a bit of a hassle (in particular on the way home!). My aunt / uncle let us leave our car at their house for the entire time we were in Iceland (6 weeks total), which was super nice (thank you guys!).

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The flight was overall easy. Wow air is not exactly a super comfortable flight but honestly nothing particular memorably bad about it. Just like an uncomfortable bus that flys.

Arriving in Iceland was pretty exciting I’d say. We’d never been to Iceland before and didn’t REALLY know what to expect. I read a lot about practical issues like how the bus system works, SIM card options, the cheapest grocery stores, etc, but still didn’t really have a great feeling for what the airport would feel like. Overall I’d say Reykjavik felt small but nice. Does’t that just paint a picture!

I do have a single photo from the airport:

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So, we grabbed our luggage, went through customs / immigration, went to the little coffee shop / convenience store in the airport to buy a few SIM cards for our phone(s), and then took a series of buses to get to our guesthouse.

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We ended up having a SLIGHTLY confusing time getting to our apartment for one reason or another, we ended up going the wrong way on a bus and then had to walk a bit of extra distance and it was early enough in the AM there weren’t a ton of people around. It’s a bit strange, the ONLY time I had any communication problems AT ALL with people where people didn’t just immediately start speaking English was this first morning talking to bus drivers. Honestly if we had half a bit of experience or “feeling” for the city it would have been super easy for us to get to our apartment but as it was we were crunched for time because we were supposed to meet our host before they left for work so had somewhat of a limited window of time.

Now, previously I mentioned that it turns out the apartments we were looking at on airbnb in the 800-900 range ended up being “fake”, and this is true as far as I can tell. Maybe not “fake”, but they were listings that nobody responded too. A pretty classic “too good to be true” sort of thing it turned out. The reality is for a reasonably comfortable single room for a month we ended up spending closer to 1600 for a month. Not really too great, but luckily we live pretty frugal lives to make this sort of thing possible. The room we rented was with a woman named Birna. Birna is actually a professional tour guide, semi-retired. It’s a bit weird when you stay somewhere for an entire month, you really become housemates with a person and do things like eat dinner while they are watching TV, etc. Overall our time with Birna was very pleasant, although I’ll say that it’s somewhat hard to share a space with another person even when they are perfectly great.

Anyway, here is a very quick glimpse at what the apartment looked like:

New photo by Kevin Mitchell / Google Photos

More on our apartment / Birna in a bit, but for now, work. When we got to our apartment it was around 9am or so. We got our stuff situated and having not slept much we went to sleep for a few hours. I should say, I went to sleep a little less than 2 hours but for better or worse it was a working day! This entire trip, which I may not have yet said, was designed around one important concept: I didn’t want to miss or interrupt my normal work schedule. So it’s a bit crazy, but even driving to Toronto and flying to Iceland and all of it, I only missed part of a day of work. I even kept the same rough work schedule as I was in Chicago.

Anyway, I slept for a bit less than two hours and then started the hike to work. I rented a space at the Reykjavik Coworking Unit, which was actually supposed to have moved to a closer location but ended up being something like a 2+ mile walk each way. This isn’t a hugely long walk or anything, and I love walking, but when the hours i was working were roughly 1pm to 10:30 or 11pm. So when you’re leaving work at 11pm and are tired, and then you have to walk home two miles, it feels like a LONG walk. Honestly no complaints, I think there was probably a total of one or two nights when I REALLY felt like “this sucks”, but overall it just took a good chunk of time every day just going to and from work.

One small “lol”: the RCU shared an address with the Icelandic Penis Museum. So my first day I couldn’t find the door and I ended up having to go to the penis museum to find my office. If you put the address of the co-working space in google maps you’ll find the Iceland Penis Museum.

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So the Reykjavik Coworking Unit was a great place to call home office for a month. It was actually even better because it was the first time I HAD a “real” office since I started working full time remote two years ago, and it has since inspired me to rent an office at a co-working spacing here in Chicago. Anyway, this is what the place looked like (btw, I’ve learned it’s since moved to a different location!)

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(one sort of funny thing about this video: In it, you can briefly see some buses out the window in the background. Those buses / bus stop was were Lindsay and I were earlier that morning when had taken a wrong bus and ended up there. Just a few hours previous to walking BACK here, I had spent a good chunk of time walking around this very spot trying to get directions).

I met some really great people in this space, and the time chatting with the guys at the space was pretty awesome. If I had one regret about Iceland it’s that I never had the opportunity to hang out with the dudes at the office outside of work. They were all just really super cool, down to earth people who I have a feeling I’d have gotten along with very well if I was in Iceland for much longer. Also bonus, all of them were working on various games (VR, Unity, etc). Oh, we also shared this space with the Icelandic film festival organization / organizers, which was pretty cool. Not that I had many interactions with them, but it’s just always super cool IMO to stay somewhere longer than just a few weeks so you actually get to see real people working / hanging out / doing normal every day things. Sort of seeing behind the scenes of Iceland the tourist destination.

So that was day one basically. And honestly this walk to and from work as well as the time actually working was really how I spent most of my time for month one in Iceland. I’m not going to focus TOO much on this because at the end of the day talking about how I worked most of my waking moments in Iceland isn’t super exciting. And honestly not that colorful, because it was all pretty much the same! Overall for anybody who might be reading this thinking about doing the digital nomad thing in Iceland for a while, the internet was totally acceptable, I have a fair number of video / voice calls on google hangouts / zoom / etc and can’t say I really had a single issue.

So now I’m going to focus on the stuff we actually did in Iceland OTHER than work!

I’m going to split up the rest of this post into two sections:

  1. The stuff we did while staying in Reykjavik outside of work
  2. The stuff we did for two weeks while on vacation while driving around Iceland

The stuff we did while staying in Reykjavik outside of work

I’d say outside of work, the activities we did consisted of one of the following things:

  • Weekend trips outside of Reykjavik
  • Bathing / swimming in pools around the city
  • Grocery shopping
  • Eating hot dogs
  • Walking around the city

Grocery stores and eating hot dogs are not the most exciting things to think about perhaps, but they were a pretty big part of our time in Iceland to be honest. As anybody who knows Lindsay and me knows, we like to eat and we are frugal, so often times highlights of travel for us include going to grocery stores.

We went to, I think to MOST of the grocery stores in Reykjavik. This includes Costco, technically, although we tried to sign up for a membership and weren’t able to.

Our favorite grocery store overall was probably Kronan, with a close second being Bonus. Bonus is probably the most “famous” of the cheap-ish grocery stores, and it has some great deals, but the Kronan near our apartment was the nicest mix of good prices and high quality / selection. Here is a link on google maps to the specific location of the store. Anyway, Kronan is a chain of grocery stores much like Bonus.

One fun fact about Kronan is they sell sashimi grade salmon at this particular location (possibly others as well?). This is an amazing thing about living in a city for a month like we did, I actually spent some time researching the best place to get sashimi grade fish in Iceland, and in the end although there are a number of fish mongers / places that specifically just sell fresh fish, Kronan was the cheapest place and we made sushi a few times with the salmon there and it was great!

Despite loving Kronan, I’d say we went to Bonus as often if not more. There are more Bonuses, and they were generally more conveniently located when we were walking around the city. There was a Bonus on the way to work I’d go to fairly often to get something for lunch, generally something cheap like cup soup or something. Also we ate a LOT of these cheap little “_____ salad” things, where ______ is “salmon” or “egg” or “potato”, etc.

New photo by Kevin Mitchell / Google Photos

This is a fairly typical shopping trip:

New photo by Kevin Mitchell / Google Photos

And Lindsay showing the famous and also cheap offish brand skyr in our favorite Kronan:

New photo by Kevin Mitchell / Google Photos

We ate a lot of pretty typical stuff, pasta, cereal, sandwiches, and when we wanted a very special treat, pylsur aka hot dogs. I’ll say that these hot dogs are pretty much the only thing we found that you can really eat out in Iceland that’s going to cost you ~$5. They are also famous. You can google “pylsur” and you’ll find a bunch of info, but I’d say I probably ate these hot dogs once every three days, at least.

Also, for color, here you can listen to the fairly typical night / morning, listening to a news station on the radio (Birna listened to this every day / night) and eating a hot dog before bed. Note how bright it is… I’m GUESSING this was around 11pm or so at night (?).

BONUS PHOTO: I forgot to mention, the whole “constant daylight during the summer” thing was pretty real. Walking home at 11pm at night and watching kids playing soccer outside was somewhat surreal / great. Here is a photo of Lindsay going to bed around 9 or 10pm (note the blings being closed):

New photo by Kevin Mitchell / Google Photos

We slept with eye masks every night.

So, other than eat hot dogs and go to grocery stores, Lindsay and I spent most of our other free time (and to some extent I’m speaking for myself here because Lindsay ran a lot and did other stuff when I was working) in Reykjavik walking to various baths / pools / hot springs.

Baths in Iceland are a pretty big deal in general, and we both love baths. As you may or may not know, even during the summer Iceland is generally cold-ish, which means pools are almost always heated. Which is pretty awesome. We did a bunch of research on pools before we came to Iceland and one of the first things we did is buy a pool pass for something like $70 that gave us something like 20 “swims”. We used the entire thing I think, plus purchased a few individual tickets, so if we do the math that means we went swimming in Reykjavik roughly 10 days out of 30. So that’s not every day, but it’s a lot! And to tell the truth, our FAVORITE place to swim was actually not a place that cost money at all. That’s right, ZERO MONEY!!

Now, photos are a bit weak here, because you can’t actually take photos in any of the public baths. Luckily, we have the internet which has photos of things, even those things you arne’t supposed to take photos of! Our local pool was called Vesturbæjarlaug and you can see some photos and such on google photos here, if you care. Basically though what a fairly typical routine was for us was waking up around 8:30 or 9 (generally pretty slow days to be honest), taking a shower, then walking to Vesturbæjarlaug. Generally get there around 9:30 or 10am. Then we would swipe in, go to our respective locker rooms. Then pretty standard for public baths: strip naked, take a shower naked (important requirement!), then put your bathing suit on and go to the pool area.

I wish I could say I was swimming laps and stuff, but honestly most days I would just lay in the shallow pool and listen to people around me chatting (normally in Icelandic which I didn’t understand for obvious reasons). Lindsay would sometimes swim laps then come lay with me, or just lay with me. Vesturbæjarlaug had a great (and fairly typical) shallow area that allowed you to lay and support your head out of the water, and just relax. I’d practice holding my breath, and basically just sit there for an hour or two talking with lindsay and hanging out.

Then, we’d get up, shower / clean off, and head in to work! Stop at Bonus on the walk to work to get some food for lunch / dinner and that was one of the most common public pool experiences.

Lindsay would often spend her days after I left the pool swimming more, or exploring the city, or going to coffee shops to plan the next portion of our trip outside of work. I feel pretty lucky when I think about how well this system worked. I was “lazy” in that although I was working, Lindsay was also often working to plan out things for us to do on the weekend or provide a menu of options for us to talk through at night. Pretty lucky!

All in all, we went to I think 3 or 4 different pools while in Reykjavik. Outside of Reykjavik we went to quite a few more pools / baths, but more on that in a second. Like I said, there are the public baths that require payment, and then there are other public baths that do not. Probably my FAVORITE bath in Reykjavik was actually called “Nauthólsvík Beach” aka the manmade geothermal beach somewhat near the university and airport. This place doesn’t have amazon reviews if you look at Trip Advisor or similar, and honestly if you’re only in Reykjavik for a few days there may be better uses of your time, BUT for us it was an awesome place to come visit. It was a nice walk from home here, then it was nice to relax outside in the hot pool and look out at the water (not a beautiful ocean view or anything, but still nice to be outside!). Plus swimming in the actual cold water was really nice too.

New photo by Kevin Mitchell / Google Photos

Two final points on the baths: The soap at these baths I always found really weird. It sort of “globs” out, and is mildly scented (if at all?), and is just semi-interesting.

And, Lindsay had a goal to swim 3.2 miles for her 32nd birthday, and she did it! In my opinion, very impressive. Here she is on her final lap:

New photo by Kevin Mitchell / Google Photos

Mean, I read which is pretty normal 🙁

New photo by Kevin Mitchell / Google Photos

(these photos are at Laugardalslaug, which is one of the larger if not largest (?) public pools in Iceland. If you go to Reykjavik and want to go to ONE pool, this might be the one to go to).

OK, so that’s pools / swimming.

Our first weekend in Iceland we took a series of buses to get to a hike that promised a hot spring at the end. The name of the hike / the area we hiked was called Reykjadalur. It wasa bit of a trek to actually get to the hiking spot but was well worth the hike:

New photo by Kevin Mitchell / Google Photos
New video by Kevin Mitchell / Google Photos

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To be honest there are SO many beautiful photos of Iceland I sort of feel like “meh” posting them just because it feels a bit like, “yeah, Iceland is photogenic, cool.” So here is a photo of Lindsay carbo-loading on the hike:

New photo by Kevin Mitchell / Google Photos

and a short video of me giving her shit about said “carbo-loading”:

New video by Kevin Mitchell / Google Photos

Also sort of cool mini-story, while we were in Reykjavik getting bus(es) we found somebody’s abandoned hitchhiking sign on the side of the road:

New photo by Kevin Mitchell / Google Photos

We ended up being able to find a ride back from the trail head to Reykjavik from a couple who graduated from guess where… Michigan Tech! It was a pretty big “small world” type situation.

Also, we ended up keeping the sign and we framed is as a memory from our trip and actually I think it’s one of our only souvenirs!

New photo by Kevin Mitchell / Google Photos

Another weekend we went on something like a 9 or 10 mile hike on this beautiful path with a ton of really beautiful moss

New photo by Kevin Mitchell / Google Photos

to…

New photo by Kevin Mitchell / Google Photos

Ikea! This might sound lame, and I guess in a way it was, but we love walking, and at this point in our trip (after two weeks in Reykjavik) I was super interested in checking out Costco, which is a huge deal in Iceland. The plan was to go to Ikea and get lunch (and compare Iceland Ikea food with US Ikea food), then head to Costco and see if we could sign up for a Costco membership in Iceland. Apparently if you have a US Costco membership you can got Costco in Iceland, but we didn’t have one. We thought it might be a cool and semi-useful souvenir to get a Costco membership in Iceland (plus allow us to buy some cheap / bulk food for our eventual 2 week camping trip). It turns out that at least when we went, the customer service person at the counter told us that we couldn’t sign up for a membership without a particular piece of paperwork / identification / documentation that I believe establishes that you live in Iceland essentially. Oh well.

I was still able to enjoy a wonderful lunch at Ikea and I go no less than FIVE drinks to celebrate the long walk:

New photo by Kevin Mitchell / Google Photos

Of particular note is the “beer” – in Iceland you can only but alcohol at a particular government sanctioned store that has very limited hours (I actually never made it to one of these stores, which is a bit of a bummer / missed experience). Anyway you CAN sell “beer” as long as the alcohol content is less than 2.25%. So that’s what I was drinking there.

We took the opportunity to check out a Bonus in the area..

New photo by Kevin Mitchell / Google Photos

Plus a pet store.

Another weekend we decided to do the “golden circle”, which is Þingvellir National Park, the Geysir Geothermal Area, and Gullfoss waterfall. We also added Gamla Laugin aka the “secret lagoon” to the trip, which looked something like

New photo by Kevin Mitchell / Google Photos

I remember this secret lagoon stop particularly well because there was some American dude going on and on about how Trump was great and it was a heated argument between him and a guy with a European accent and was frustrating to listen to while in such a beautiful spot.

To do the golden circle tour we ended up renting a car for like 60 bucks for the entire weekend and just doing the tour ourselves. Honestly, it was worth doing overall (though I’d basically totally skip Gyser or at least plan 15 minutes tops just to say you saw it) but compared to the rest of Iceland the Golden Circle stuff was certainly not my favorite. Gullfoss was probably the most impressive part of the attractions we saw, just because it felt like such an incredibly powerful waterfall.

New video by Kevin Mitchell / Google Photos

Lots of nice views from Þingvellir National Park

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And another waterfall in this area:

New photo by Kevin Mitchell / Google Photos

Around this area the famous scuba diving / snorkeling place is, which we didn’t do because it’s so expensive, and honestly it seemed a bit disappointing. Still the water around here was very beautiful.

New photo by Kevin Mitchell / Google Photos

We also stopped at a crater called Kerið, which was pretty cool but honestly nothing to totally plan a trip around. I thought it was cooler than Gyser personally, for whatever that’s worth.

New photo by Kevin Mitchell / Google Photos

This isn’t anything special, but honeslty the green / plants in Iceland are really beautiful

New photo by Kevin Mitchell / Google Photos

So, other weekend trips.. Honestly some of the details are a bit fuzzy at this point, but one day I know we went on a nice hike just outside of Reykjavik (I think this was actually the weekend we rented the car for the golden circle).

New photo by Kevin Mitchell / Google Photos

I remember this hike in particular being pretty nice because there aren’t THAT many trees in Iceland, or at least not many forests, so it was nice to hike through the woods a bit.

New photo by Kevin Mitchell / Google Photos

Finally, generally we just explored Reykjavik and walked around a lot. Lindsay walked / ran so much she had blisters

We watched a woman’s soccer game outside

We took our shoes off in front of cool murals

New photo by Kevin Mitchell / Google Photos

We splurged and drank beers during hour

New photo by Kevin Mitchell / Google Photos

And we splurged and went out and ate a fancy ass meal including the probably really really terrible mink wale and puffin (pictured here with a blueberry sauce!)

New photo by Kevin Mitchell / Google Photos

Ate a donut frosted like the Icelandic flag (these were from one of the guys at the co-working space celebrating the release of a game)

New photo by Kevin Mitchell / Google Photos

One particularly terrible Friday night we decided we’d go out to a bar and try to experience the night life in Reykjavik (normally it was too expensive to go out so we didn’t, but we decided at least one night to stay up late and do the night-life party thing). As I was leaving work Lindsay gave me some whisky, which turned out to be a lot more whisky than I had really thought… then we went to Kikis, a pretty great gay gar in Reykjavik, and I ended up drinking perhaps 3 beers. Honestly, I didn’t drink THAT much, but next thing I know I was feeling miserable and we ended up walking until almost 2 in the morning around the city hoping that I would stop spinning… Anyway suffice to say it was a terrible night and I seriously regretted my actions.

Here you can see me as I’m about to walk out of work for the night:

New video by Kevin Mitchell / Google Photos

And the rest is history…

New photo by Kevin Mitchell / Google Photos

We also went to the National Museum of Iceland, which was worth visiting in my opinion:

New photo by Kevin Mitchell / Google Photos
New photo by Kevin Mitchell / Google Photos

A few other random memories:

Lindsay found a “I climbed Castle Rock” sticker on the street randomly, which is pretty crazy because Castle Rock is a somewhat obscure tourist spot up in the U.P.

New photo by Kevin Mitchell / Google Photos

We somehow killed Birna’s over and also burned / melted her microwave and also broke her measuring cup. This caused some stress. Birna’s son and daughter in law + child came to visit, which was actually really nice as they were super cool / friendly (although the house was even more cramped!).

I think I might call this a blog post for now and make another post for the two weeks we spent camping around Iceland.

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