Many a Canadian have used Icelandair to fly home from Europe via Reykjavik, and some have taken advantage of the option to have a lengthy layover. This island is best described as fantastical, as if it inspired Game of Thrones and Middle Earth. This small island inhabited by about 300,000 is home to breathtaking sights of nature that seem as capricious as the strong bursts of wind and rain, changing in mere minutes. Close to volcanic activity on the fault lines, like near the legendary Blue Lagoon where a soft blue-hued geothermal pool invites visitors from all over, the landscape is like that of the moon (not that I know what the moon looks like). It seems barren, jagged, black. Further away, near the Kerið volcanic crater, a Mars-red terrain is imposing and breathtaking. Other parts look like any beautiful site from Switzerland, with the trio of plains, mountains and lakes. The mountains are particularly picturesque, appearing more like plateaus that disappear into the clouds.
The most popular travel option is to take a full day tour around the “golden circle”. See fault lines between the North Atlantic and North American plates, the reason for the volcanic activity, at Þingvellir national park, home to the largest lake in Iceland. See steaming water shoot out at in Geysir area (from which comes the English word Geysir). Most popular on the route is the two-tiered waterfall “Gullfoss” or golden waterfall. Walking into the fantastical mist is like going into the wardrobe and coming out in another world. For a full “circle”, go to Faxi waterfall, Skálholt (a church), the Kerið volcano crater and end with a look at the thermal energy production facility at Hellisheiðarvirkjun. This round trip takes about 7-8 hours to complete. In the evening, the blue lagoon up a little and is transformed from a squishy public swimming pool to the relaxing spa that it advertises itself to be. Around the perimeter, there are little spa stations where you can smudge tar on your face. The views of the moon-like surface nearby is quite special and unlike the other hot springs of this world. Just be prepared to see some naked people in the showers, though private showers are available.
The best way to see all of this is to rent a car (~15000 a day, gas is about twice as expensive as it is in Canada). Otherwise go on a guided tour (~10000 a person).
Reykjavik itself is quite condensed, with major sites easily walk-able. As a city of 200,000 should be, there is not too much to do, though it certainly punches above its weight. It is difficult to think of another small city having such a substantial art gallery (Hafnarhus), history museum (National Museum), a Van Rohe winning concert hall (Harpa), and an evil looking church (Hallgrimskirkja). A wealth of shopping opportunities also present itself. It features the standard for Nordic products: utilitarian style.
Options for food and drinks are notably strong as well. The finest food is at Forrettabarinn, where both duck and foal are lusciously pink and adorned with the tastiest condiments (~2000 a course). This restaurant could easily make the top 100 list. Then, for some ethically problematic but culturally sacrosanct dining, have horse and whale at Grillmarkadurinn (~2000 a starter, ~5000 for main). The drink of choice in Iceland is beer, where the price never dips below 1000 ISK. At MicroBar, which feels more like a Hotel lounge than a bar, a flight of five can be had for 2500 ISK. Or go to the groovier Kaldi Bar. A pint is about 1100 ISK.
In many ways, it is similar to Nordic culture. It isn’t a society fixated on laws and discipline, as French society is. Nordic society relies on the goodwill and common sense of individuals.
There is unobstructed entry into public transportation and checks are infrequent (compared to Paris, where there are gates as well as checks). There are no attendants at the doors of museums, as if it were a free exhibit. Some museums don’t even issue tickets. At closing time, no one ushers you out at closing time – it’s expected that you know when the museum closes and will see yourself out. This is, of course, the idealization of society, and very few societies can ever reach this level of tolerance and still function properly. But somehow, Iceland is able to.