Reykjavik, City of Ducks and Museums

This is part of a set of posts on a trip to Iceland by our family of 5.

We arrived last night in Reykjavik after a long drive down through Snaefellsjokull National Park and a great visit to Reykholt and Snorrastofa.  We booked a self-catering apartment in the city for our last 3 nights, which would include two whole days in the capitol.  The apartments we had reservations at were overbooked but they had arranged for an alternate, larger apartment so we drove there and settled in.  Just as with the self-catered cottages, the experience is very hands-off.  We had a couple of keycodes that we entered to open a door here, a keybox there, and didn’t interact with any humans.  But it worked fine and if that’s a way to save money in Iceland, it’s worth it.

The second apartment building we visited was in the process of being updated.  Our apartment was obviously newly renovated, with a few things not working.  These didn’t impact us but I’ve seen some online reviews that were less forgiving.  We were going to walk around the town today and visit the national museum.

Tjornin Lake and Old Reykjavik

Iceland’s parliament, the Althing

One of the highlights of the trip for me was visiting the large lake in the middle of the town.  I was hoping to see some birds that might not be native to North America, that I wouldn’t otherwise get a chance to see.  We walked down the main shopping street, Laugavegur (vegur=way or road) to the old areas of the city.  I had heard stories of the shopping done on Laugavegur and equated it with hoity toity boutiques and very chic (ahem, expensive) products.  In fact, it was nothing like that and was just a street with lots of shops on it.  If you leave Laugavegur, you’re primarily in residential streets.

We walked down to the Adalstraeti, the oldest street in the city.  We meandered in and out of this area, and the Grjotathorp, an area that retains the street layout from its original 18th century construction.  This led us past the modern parliament building as well as to the city hall.  Behind the city hall is Tjornin Lake.

A view of Tjarnagata, the street running up the west side of Tjornin Lake
A view of Tjarnagata, the street running up the west side of Tjornin Lake

The lake is pretty typical – people standing around watching and feeding the birds, and the birds taking advantage of the free food source.  But it’s a lovely open area in the middle of the town.  When you are standing by its edge, with the very low profile of the city around you and the clear sky above, it helps to make the city very inviting.  There were mallards, which seem to be everywhere we travel!  But there were also ducks we’d only seen in documentaries:  greylag geese and whooper swans.  There were small tufted ducks and even some eiders.  The former still had their beaks tucked under their wings but their eyes were open and they would paddle their way around without moving their head.  The eiders have a remarkable green color on the back of their necks and the white of their feathers was incredibly crisp looking.

The National Museum

We made a pretty early start and after walking around downtown and visiting the lake still had time to burn.  We were visiting in March and this is off-season.  Museums don’t open every day and, when they do open, it may not be until 10am or noon.  In this case, the National Museum of Iceland didn’t open until 10am.  We walked down Tjarnargata towards downtown, grabbed a donut and coffee, and then walked back.  The museum is near the campus of the University of Iceland.

We had a good look around.  The first floor in particular had interesting exhibits of early history of Iceland.  It was remarkable to see the small statue of Thor and to understand the discussion about whether it was meant to depict Christ or Thor.  The second floor was more a mishmash of artifacts, many of which we’d seen less well-preserved versions of while at the Skogar Folk Museum.  I was most struck at the impact of the Danes and Norse on Iceland, aspects like the trade monopoly Denmark imposed on the islanders.

small-viking-at-national-museum-of-iceland-reykjavik-icelandOur kids enjoyed the hands-on collection, which included some dress up clothes and some games where you build a small Viking village.  The Viking sword, shield, and helmet were a big draw for grown ups as well as children, and was clearly designed for photos to be had!  The sword and helmet were attached to wires to help to take some of the weight off small arms and heads.

If do have a child for whom you are getting a gift, the store at the Museum has wooden swords and shields and they were a big hit for our younger warriors.  The store here and the one at Reykholt were also excellent for Icelandic books, and there are a few titles that I have not been able to find anywhere except at bookstores in Iceland.

Reykjavik Maritime Museum

After getting our fill of the national history, we walked up to the harbor and to the Reykjavik Maritime Museum.  It was interesting to be surrounded by boats and also to get a sneak peek out the whale watching boats we were likely to ride on the next day.  We’d left it a bit late in the day but had plenty of time to see the exhibits, starting with a quick one on the Cod War between Iceland and the UK.

The most remarkable part of this museum for me were the many models of boats.  Every room you went into had large model ships relating to the shipping, fishing, or other activity under discussion in the exhibit.  Whether it was museum staff or just dedicated modelers, they were an amazing collection.

We headed home at the end of the day pretty well wiped out.  We had walked more than 8 miles all told and, after hitting a Bonus grocery store and grabbing food for dinner and breakfast, we collapsed at the apartment.  Tomorrow would be our last full day in Iceland and the main event was to go whale watching.

Previous:  Day 4:  Snaefellsjokull National Park and Snorrastofa |  Next:  Day 6:  Whale Watching and Home

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