On the evening that I arrived in Reykjavik, the weather had turned. What had been a beautiful summer for days running had suddenly been interrupted by clouds and rain. Nonetheless, the weather would not stop us from running through Reykjavik to see what the city had to offer cruise passengers on calls to Iceland’s capital city.
I arrived in Reykjavik with a film crew from Copenhagen to photograph and film the stunning landscape in and around this northern city. Fortunately, it was not raining buckets when we arrived, and there was always the hope that tomorrow would clear.
In fact, the weather did clear, and while the sky above us was still gray, there were patches of sunshine. We set out to explore. Starting at 8 in the morning, we would spend the next eight hours on what is probably the most popular of Iceland’s shore excursions: The Golden Circle Tour.
Cruise lines may call the tour something different, but no matter what it’s called, the tour makes a wide sweep to visit three significant attractions near Reykjavik.
- Geysir, which gave the world the word “geyser”;
- Gullfoss, a thundering double-decker waterfall; and
- Thingvellir, a UNESCO World Heritage Site where the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates meet, the only place in the world where you can see this phenomenon above water.
Our host for the day was Agust Agustsson, who represents the Port of Reykjavik. The evening before, Agust had given us a tour of the city. He told us that increasingly, cruise ships were overnighting in Iceland’s capital. And why not? After a day of touring, it’s easy to venture into Reykjavik from the Skarfabakki cruise docks, less than two miles from the city center.
Those who do venture out will find that Reykjavik has a vibrant nightlife, excellent restaurants and 24-hour sunlight in the middle of the summer. Plus, with Iceland’s recent financial crisis, the capital city is more affordable for tourists than it once was.
When in Reykjavik, find your way to the old harbor area (some of the smaller cruise ships dock there) to find Saegreifinn, a fish restaurant. The restaurant is reminiscent of Seattle’s Pike Place Market. No need to get all dressed up. This is casual dining at its best.
Be sure to try a Brennivin, an Icelandic schnapps, the country’s signature alcoholic beverage. If you’re there during the day, you may even want to do a whale-watching excursion. Oh, and to show you know your stuff, it may help if you know that Reykjavik translates to “Smoky Bay.” The smoke doesn’t come from cigarettes or factories, but from the geothermal activity in the region.
On the morning of our tour, Agust loaded us into a van for the full-day journey. Our first stop was Geysir, an area of hot springs and mud pools. The original Geysir, which gave its name to the world’s vocabulary, rarely spouts nowadays.
Just a few feet away, however, Strokkur blasts boiling water ever few minutes or so to the delight of tourists with cameras poised.
Cruise ship passengers typically have a long look at Strokkur and then dine across the road at Hotel Geysir, where some tables face the windows toward the geyser. Dine and enjoy nature’s performance. The restaurant works with extreme efficiency, serving cruise ship passengers so that they are in and out in 50 minutes and onto the next stop on the Golden Circle Tour.
Our next stop was Gullfoss, translating into “golden waterfall.” A little more than 100 years ago, the waterfall was in danger of being dammed to tap its potential for hydroelectric power. One lady fought for the preservation of the waterfall, however, and thankfully won the battle so that tourists today can appreciate this force of nature.
Next stop, Thingvellir, which is significant for two reasons: 1) It was here that Iceland got its first democratically elected parliament; and 2) the region is situated on a rift where the tectonic plates for Europe and America meet. It’s the only place in the world where you can see the meeting of two continents above water. Thingvellir is a UNESCO World Heritage Site for its cultural and geological significance.
On the way back to Reykjavik, Agust told us that Reykjavik has been welcoming cruise passengers for more than 100 years. Many of those cruisers came to see the natural attractions that we saw today.
One of the last passengers to visit Reykjavik before the second World War would become a significant figure of the war. She was Eva Brown, who filmed some of her trip with a camera that Hitler gave to her on a voyage that stopped in Iceland in 1939. About a month after the cruise ended, war broke out.
No time for the Reykjavik nightlife. Our ship was departing for Greenland. But we knew we would be leaving with much still to be seen. No doubt we would return.
Nonetheless, we had made the most of our full day in Reykjavik. If your ship happens to be calling on the Icelandic capital, I recommend the Golden Circle Tour to experience some of the best natural attractions in and around “Smoky Bay.”
Surrounded by the blue ocean and the majestic Esja mountain (2,999 feet/914 meters high), Reykjavik is a destination that will leave no visitor unimpressed. The Icelandic nature is but one of the factors that attract visitors from near and afar. Add to that the geothermal baths, a plethora of museums, and a vibrant nightlife: it is easy to understand Reykjavik’s popularity among travelers. Read more of the Avid Cruiser’s Port Profile of Reykjavik.