Denmark Diaries: Freetown Christiania and Nyhavn

Friday, April 20, 2018

In the morning, we went out with our friend Dani to a place called O’s American Breakfast. When traveling, in addition to trying new foods, I’m also usually curious to see the local interpretation of American staples. Since moving abroad, Dani had been in search of American-style pancakes, and the ones at O’s were big and fluffy, just like what you’d get at a diner back home.

After breakfast, Dani met up with a friend and Kurt and I headed for the Metro to Christianshavn. We were spending our day exploring Freetown Christiania, an autonomous district in a squatted military area. The area is probably most notoriously known as the “Green Light District” because of the proliferation of people buying and selling marijuana on Pusher Street. Weed is not legal in Denmark and the prevalence of dealers in the Freetown area ebbs and flows, depending on whether the community is currently putting pressure on forcing them out. One humorous observation Kurt made was the long line at the ATM next to the Christianshavn Metro stop, as people planning to visit Freetown loaded up on cash.

Christiania street art

I’s frowned up to take pictures of people and the activity in Freetown, so I only snuck a few snaps of street art

The area is filled with stalls and vendors selling t-shirts, jewelry, food, and drinks, so Kurt and I looked around for a little, dodging errant skateboards and unleashed dogs, then grabbed an outdoor table and a round of beers at Cafe Nemoland. Freetown draws lots of tourists and the people-watching was highly entertaining. While much of the crowd consisted of hippies who smelled like Otto’s jacket, I was approached by a 70-something English woman in a skirt suit who politely asked me where the loo was. The other best thing about Nemoland was the bathroom, which was an all-gender room with many stalls and a large aquarium full of fish next to the sinks, and I am sure I am not the first person to see it and want to reenact the scene from Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet.

We got a second round of beers then took a walk around until we came upon a large pond. The banks were lined with people relaxing, smoking, drinking, and enjoying the warm sunshine. Someone had a jam box playing music. We sat in the grass, watching swans swim in the sun-dappled water. Denmark, I’m in love with you.

As we walked past the pond, we saw more of the residential area including houses, art studios and a preschool.

We eventually passed over the canal that acts as the Christiania border, then walked over to another iconic area we hadn’t visited yet, Nyhavn. The colorful row houses along the canal are possibly one of the most famous postcard-friendly views of Copenhagen. In the 17th century, the ‘potato rows’ were built to house shipyard workers, and the canals were notorious for heavy-drinking sailors and prostitutions. The writer Hans Christian Andersen lived there in the 1800’s, and nowadays, it’s a popular tourist destination filled with restaurants and stores.

couple standing in front of the row houses in Nyhavn

Nyhavn selfie

For dinner, we went back to the Nørrebro area for burgers and liquid nitrogen ice cream at Istid. I got banana ice cream with chocolate chips and vegan bacon pieces.

a cup of ice cream

yummmm

It had been a long but perfect day with plenty of sightseeing and food-tasting packed in. I was slightly in denial that we only had one more full day of our trip left, as I could easily stay in this city for much longer.

 

 

 

Sweden/Denmark Diaries: The Best Milkshake in the World

Thursday, April 19, 2018

*clickbait title

In the morning, we packed up our things and called an Uber to Centralstation (something good to know: Uber is legal in Sweden but not in Denmark). At the station, we wandered around the large foodcourt figuring out what we each wanted for breakfast. I opted for a muffin, yogurt, and coffee from Espresso House and grabbed a table. Kurt’s food took longer to prepare and when he sat down with sliders and a milkshake, I thought he was nuts (it wasn’t quite 11 a.m. yet). But I had immediate regrets when I took a sip of his TIRAMISU MILKSHAKE which was the greatest thing ever. If there is anything you take away from this blog, and you find yourself in Malmö someday, go to Sliders and Shakes and order a tiramisu milkshake and a birdie num num slider. I’ve never been more sad about yogurt.

Oresund bridge

this is awesome as a video and terrible as a still photo

The train between Malmö and Copenhagen is pretty rad because it takes you over the Øresund bridge, which at one point tunnels underwater. There’s a Scandinavian crime show called The Bridge that begins with a scene in which a body is found on the Øresund, halfway between two countries (there was an American remake a few years ago, set on the U.S./Mexico border).

After we arrived back in Copenhagen, we went back to our friends’ house and relaxed for the afternoon. The last few days had been go-go-go, so it felt nice to sit around and hang out in the sun on the balcony. Our friends had gotten a babysitter for the night, so we got to go out to dinner together and socialize. After the kids were settled in, we took the Metro to Nørrebro, an area known for being young, hip, and multicultural. We also got to see the lakes for the first time, which are three manmade features lined with walking and biking paths. On a Thursday night, tons of people were out, sitting on the bridges socializing and kicking off the weekend early.

Copenhagen lake

We had dinner at a restaurant called Alabama Social, which was excellent. It was a great night of catching up and hearing all about expat life, plus I discovered burrata–wins all around. After our meal, we walked along the lake then into the neighborhood, stopping for beers at Mikkeller & Friends.

man in bar with three glasses in front of him

Another round at Mikkeller & Friends

Kurt and I ended up staying out for a few more rounds after our friends went home to relieve the babysitter, then walked the 2.6 km back to Frederiksberg. Between the milkshakes, Southern-style dinner, desserts, and craft beers, we had lots of extra calories to burn.

Domino's food truck

Q: what do this truck and I have in common? A: so much cheese inside us

Sweden Diaries: Kickin’ it in Malmö

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Our hotel had an impressive complimentary breakfast spread complete with eggs, bacon, pastries, and nutella, so we filled ourselves up before checking out and going to the train station. After one night in Helsingborg, we were headed for Malmö,  Sweden’s third largest city. I picked up a drink called Oatly at a 7-11, which had the slogan “Powered by Swedish oats.” Another fun fact we discovered at the train station: Burger King in Sweden features a burger called Angry Bacon King.

After a 50-minute train ride, we arrived in downtown Malmö.The skyline features the instantly recognizable Turning Torso, the tallest skyscraper in Scandinavia. Each floor is turned 1.6 degrees more than the previous one, resulting in a top floor that’s a full 90 degrees clockwise from the first level.

tall, white, twisting skyscraper called Turning Torso

The Turning Torso skyscraper

The center of Malmö features a large park, Slottsträdgården (Castle Garden). Within the park, there’s the remains of a castle, a windmill, and a museum. It was a perfect, sunny, 70-degree day and I was happy to have my sunglasses (though we neglected to bring sunscreen to Sweden).

woman standing in front of a windmill

Chasing windmills

After we explored everything inside of Castle Garden, we walked to the main downtown drag of stores, restaurants, and beers for an afternoon beverage. A cafe called Folk a Rock immediately caught our eye with its CD album cover art decor, so we bought a round of beers and sat in the sun.

man drinking a beer at a sidewalk cafe

right behind Kurt is a TGI Friday’s

At this point in the trip, I’d noticed that whenever we heard music playing in a bar, store, or restaurant, it was an American pop tune from the late nineties/early aughts. It was like Scandinavia bought every volume of the Dawson’s Creek soundtrack, put them on shuffle, and called it a day. But the Danish and Swedish definitely beat us Americans on the fashion front. As we watched people stroll by, I noticed a trio of men in their late twenties wearing tailored pants, crisp shirts, suede jackets, and stylish leather boots. Back home, their equivalents would be decked out in Star Wars t-shirts, flannels, and beards. This isn’t a read (I have a few Star Wars and Marvel t-shirts in my closet as I speak plus I live in yoga pants) but it is nice to see people put effort and care into their attire.

We wanted Swedish meatballs because #tourists, so Kurt googled a list of the best places to go and one article actually said IKEA (apparently they make them fresh at the Swedish locations, unlike our frozen mystery meat in the States). It reminded me of a friend who once said “If you want a good Chicago hot dog, honestly, just go to Home Depot.” We ended up finding a more traditional spot, a pub called Bullen, and the meatballs with lingonberries did not disappoint.

plate of Swedish meatballs

the good stuff

Before heading to our Airbnb, I wanted to do a bit of shopping. We visited a few stores and both ended up buying sneakers. I had chosen poorly when it came to the one pair shoes I brought to Sweden; cobblestones will really kill your stabilizer muscles. I changed out of my flat boots into New Balances at a coffee shop because my ankles were dying. We found a sci fi/fantasy bookstore and I geeked out over all of the amazing European cover art different from the American editions. I purchased a copy of Harry Potter & The Philosopher’s Stone with a Ravenclaw-specific cover.

I don’t think I’ve mentioned it on this blog yet but despite my dusky appearance, I am of Swedish descent. My great-great grandma immigrated to the States at the age of 15. She spoke no English and arrived with a note pinned to the inside of her coat with her aunt’s address in Chicago, and another on the outside that said “Mind your own business.” I like this story and think it is pretty awesome and brave, and am using this as weak justification for spending the equivalent of $50 USD on a blue winter hat that I really didn’t need that has a Swedish flag and an arctic fox on it.

Our Airbnb was a few miles outside of the city center in a residential neighborhood. For dinner, we went to a neighborhood sports pub where the bartender asked Kurt if he was Scottish or Swedish (we assumed this had to do with the football game that was about to start). While eating my shrimp sandwich, I finally heard a Robyn song (it was a cover but I’ll still consider it local music). As the night grew late, we sprawled out in our Airbnb living room, resting our tired legs and splitting a bottle of wine to unwind.

 

Denmark/Sweden Diaries: Helsingør to Helsingborg

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

We set an alarm to wake up at 8 a.m., then each packed a small backpack with clothes for the next two days. We were back on the move. With helpful directions from our local friends, we took the metro to Nørreport, then transferred to the train line that goes north up Denmark’s east coast. We ran into a brief, humorous hiccup at the billeter machine when the couple in front of us asked for help buying their tickets in French. Unable to to assist, we tried asking the man standing behind us, who turned out to be Dutch and was equally confused. Between three languages and a lot of fumbling, we all eventually figured out which tickets we needed to purchase.

Kurt and I took a 45-minute train ride along the coast while lounging in comfortable seats and charging our phones. European trains are so fast, smooth, clean, and efficient. Our stop, Helsingbørg, was at the end of the line. It was a short walk from the station to our destination, Kronborg Castle. The Renaissance-era stronghold, situated on the Øresund Strait, was Shakespeare’s inspiration for Elsinore, home of Hamlet.

a woman stands in front of a Danish castle

Elsinore

We started with a guided tour of the dungeons, at the statue of Holger Danske near the entrance. Holger is a Danish historical figure and icon whose likeness rests below the castle until the day he must rise up to once again protect and defend his Mother country. The statue is really cool and it made me wonder how many young Danes have tattoos of it. During the Swedish siege of the castle, the Danish infantry were forced to hunker down in the dungeons for  6 weeks. They lived in squalor and cramped quarters, and their only rations were salted herring for every meal and 8 liters of beer per man per day, made from kitchen scraps.

statue of Holger Danske

Holger Danske

We did a self-guided tour of the rest of the castle, exploring the King and Queen’s quarters, the ballroom/banquet hall, the chapel, and the courtyard. An exhibit showed all of the live shows of Hamlet that had been performed in the courtyard; the 1937 production on the grounds of Elsinore starred Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh.

castle courtyard

castle courtyard

We walked 206 steps to the top of the castle tower, where we could walk onto the rooftop and get an aerial view of Helsingør and Sweden, just across the water.

a man stands on front of a view of the Oresund strait

Kurt on the rooftop

After we finished the Castle tour, we walked around Helsingør and found a small bar that served a traditional Danish lunch. We had curried herring, liver mousse, roast beef, mushrooms and bacon, and rye bread. The sun had come out, and the seaside town looked picturesque next to the sparkling water. We walked back to the train station, where we bought our tickets for the Scandlines ferry to take us to Sweden.

After a brief 20-minute ride across the strait, we arrived in Sweden! We showed our passports at the gate and walked into Helsingborg. It turned out that many of the attractions we were interested in seeing closed at 6 p.m., so we dropped off our things at our hotel and headed right back out.

Kärnan is a medieval tower located in the heart of Helsingborg, the sole remains of a larger seaside fortress. After hearing all about the “bloodthirsty Swedes” during our Kronborg tour, it was funny to read the depictions of the war from the Swedish point of view where they bemoaned the many times the Danes had occupied their side of the strait. Kärnan was surrounded by a large park with a hilltop view of the sea, so we took a stroll and enjoyed the beautiful weather.

Karnan tower

Kärnan Tower

As the afternoon grew later, we took a walk along the water and stopped for a glass of wine at a seaside restaurant. Most of the people we saw walking along the water were tall, blond, and dressed in head-to-toe black; the local lewk was Scandinavian goth realness.

seaside view of Helsingborg, Sweden

Hej Sweden!

One thing I noticed in both Sweden and Denmark was that as soon as the sun came out, people flocked to outdoor spaces to drink in the rays. The waterfront path became packed with joggers, walkers, and groups of friends grabbing chairs or patches of grass to lay out and enjoy the beautiful day. In that way, Scandinavia reminded me a lot of Chicago. After a long, dark winter, we flourish in the longer days of late spring.

It had been a long day of walking and sightseeing, so we made it an early night with a quick shawarma dinner and a shared bottle of wine back at the hotel.

Denmark Diaries: The Word of the Day is “Beer”

Monday, April 16, 2018

We woke up feeling the effects of our impromptu bar crawl, and a hefty breakfast was in order. Luckily, a delicious brunch place, Sokkelund, was in easy walking distance–and even better, they served coffee refills. I had scrambled eggs with salmon and avocado.

After fueling up properly, we were ready to start our day. The Carlsberg Brewery was a 20-minute walk away, most of it through a scenic park. One of the many things I loved about Copenhagen was the amount of green public spaces. The path wound its way past ponds filled with swans and a tree onto which dozens of people had tied handwritten cards and pacifiers with ribbons. In Scandinavian traditional folklore, once a baby gave up their pacifier  they would write a note thanking it for its service and tie to a tree in remembrance.

tree covered in handwritten notes with pacifiers tied to branches on ribbons

pacifier tree

The area where the Carlsberg brewery is located is currently being developed into a whole village complete with apartments, restaurants, and shops. We arrived at the brewery just in time to miss the tour, so instead, we bellied up to the bar for some samples. Our bartender told us that Chicago was his favorite U.S. city (second time in two days!) and it reminded him a lot of his hometown Glasgow.

plate of oysters

We ate most of these oysters before we took a photo

For dinner, we went to an area called Kødbyen Meatpacking District, or “Meat City.” As the sun slowly set, we sat outside and ate oysters from Kødbyens Fiskebar, then crossed the plaza to check out Warpigs  Brewpub and their BBQ selection. As soon as we walked into Warpigs, I felt like I was in a Chicago bar (which makes sense, given Mikkeller’s partnership with Three Floyds). We got a few different beers, the pork shoulder, pork and beans, and pecan pie, and everything was fantastic.

plate of BBQ pork and beans

We also ate most of this pork before we took a photo

After two back-to-back meals (don’t judge, we’re on vacay), walking to our next destination sounded heavenly. Too bad we stumbled onto the next place we wanted to check out within 400 meters: Fermentoren Beer Bar. We descended the steps into the small, packed bar and knew that we’d struck gold yet again. The bar had an excellent selection of craft beers on tap, so we found an open table where we could squeeze ourselves and camp out for a while.

beer

beer

On the last leg of our walk home, we made one final stop at a bar that totally intrigued us from the outside with its Western-themed motifs and obscured windows, a place called HH Ranch. As we stepped inside, I could swear we just transported to rural kitschy America. The bar was decked out in wood paneling and log cabin decor, and the barstools were made out of western saddles. There was even a Johnny Mnemonic-themed pinball machine(!!).  The place was a total trip. We had one final lager and then called it a night; we had big plans for the next day.

 

Denmark Diaries: Towers, Roller Coasters, and Beer

Sunday, April 14, 2018

I woke up around 3:30 a.m. local time to the sound of chirping birds (apparently, the title of Happiest Country on Earth includes wildlife because those birds sounded chipper all night long). After tossing and turning for a bit, I managed to fall back asleep until…11:30 a.m. Oops! Kurt and I didn’t want to sleep away half of our first full day, but so it goes. We rose and showered, then met up with our friends. The kids were ready for lunch and Kurt and I for breakfast, so we took the Metro two stops over to Nørreport, in the heart of the city. Right by the train stop, we went to Torvehallerne, which is a large market with indoor and outdoor vendors and tons of food stalls, booths, and wares. I went for a traditional porridge breakfast made with fresh organic ingredients from Grød along with my morning (noon) coffee, and Kurt got a Danish sandwich, coffee, and a beer (a.k.a. vacation mode). After lunch, we said goodbye to our friends who had family errands to take care of, and Kurt I headed out to sightsee on our own.

Our first stop was Rundetaarn, or Round Tower, an architectural project of Christian IV built in the 17th century. The tower consists of a 209-meter long spiral ramp, built because the King wanted to be able to ride his horse all the way to the top. I love horses and tales of extreme hubris, so we needed to check it out. About halfway up the tower there’s a coffee shop and art exhibit, and then on the observation deck, you get a fantastic 360-degree view of Copenhagen. Selfies were taken.

skyline view of Copenhagen

Not a selfie.

We wandered around the shops of Strøget for a bit, then found a sidewalk cafe to rest and enjoy a beer. The table seated next to us consisted of two British men around our age, so we ended up chatting with them for a bit, commiserating on the rough state of our countries. When we told them where we were from, they got really excited and told us that Chicago is their favorite U.S. city, which is always nice to hear.

We did a bit more walking until we saw the top of the swing ride at Tivoli Gardens, so we headed in that direction. Tivoli is the second oldest operating amusement park in the world and our friends mentioned that it was a ‘must’ for our trip. We bought entrance tickets, then strolled the grounds and checked out the incredible gardens and classic rides and games. We saw the swing ride that lured us to the park like a beacon, and I couldn’t get over how high up it went. Definitely put the dinky swings at Six Flags to shame.

swing ride at amusement park

a hard nope for me as an acrophobic

There’s an extensive food court adjacent to the fairgrounds, so we got some desserts and hung out inside until a light rain passed through. As the evening grew later, the lights throughout the park turned on, revealing colorful lanterns. I tried getting a picture of Kurt under the lights using his fancy camera, but struggled with the shutter for so long that a random passerby approached and said to me “I can’t take it anymore; go stand next to him and I’ll take the photo.”

couple stands on walkway under colorful lanterns

photo taken by a man tortured by witnessing my ineptness

After leaving Tivoli, we continued our walking streak, burning off the calories from the schnitzel and chocolate mousse I’d consumed. We realized two key facts: we were less than 2 miles from our friends’ house, and there was a Mikkeller bar located on our direct route home. Wins all around! Our nighttime stroll turned into a lowkey pub crawl as we stopped for pints at Mikkeller, followed by a German bar, and ending at a neighborhood bistro.

man sits at small bar table attached to wall

Table for two

We returned home by midnight, the pints helping lull us to sleep (and onto a closer proximation to local time).

 

Denmark Diaries: Arriving in Copenhagen

Friday, April 13/Saturday, April 14, 2018

On a lovely Friday the 13th evening, Kurt and I embarked on a trip to Denmark to visit some friends living abroad and explore Copenhagen. We wrapped up a hectic work week, then took a quick Uber to O’Hare Airport where we’d be departing from on IcelandAir. On the plane, I watched The Greatest Showman  and tried to nap, then we had an hour-long layover in Reykjavík (oh hai Iceland!) before landing in Copenhagen around 12:40 pm the next day.

At the airport, we ran into some confusion when, after picking up our bags and reaching the exit doors to outside, we thought we missed Customs entirely and accidentally snuck into Denmark. (Later, we learned that since we went through Customs in Reykjavík during our layover, we didn’t need to show our passports again in Denmark because both countries are in the Schengen Area.)

We bought train tickets at the billeter machine, then took the Metro to Fredericksberg, a residential area within Copenhagen where our friends live. Once we arrived at the correct Metro stop, we ducked into a Starbucks to get some free wifi and find the directions for the 5-minute walk to our friends’ home.

image of Copenhagen street and a bicycle parking area

Copenhagen!

After settling in and then catching up a bit in our friends’ living room, we all took a walk together around the neighborhood for a tour of some local food, coffee, and bar options. With their two young kids in tow, we grabbed a hot dog and coffees and sat in a park where the kids could play and draw for a bit. I observed two young girls taking turns rollerblading on a 4×8′ apartment building balcony.

For a late lunch/early dinner/whatever meal was closest to mine and Kurt’s whacked-out internal clocks, we went to the Laundromat Cafe. Kurt and I instantly recognized it because we had had a drink at their Iceland location a year earlier. The great thing about visiting friends with kids is that everyone’s up for getting ice cream after a meal, so we followed lunch with a trip to Social Foodies, a dessert shop with philanthropic interests in helping marginalized communities in Africa. (Even more of a reason to eat ice cream every day!)

IMG_9437

Fredericksberg, Copenhagen

The sun was setting by the time we got back to the house, and Kurt and I said goodnight to our friends who began their bedtime routine for the kids. We did some light unpacking, then passed out pretty quickly ourselves after a long day and night of traveling into a time zone 7 hours ahead of Chicago.

Iceland Diaries: Homeward Bound, Final Thoughts

Sunday, Feb. 19

The morning was spent packing our bags and cleaning up the Airbnb. We finished exactly at checkout time, 11 a.m., then made the 10-minute walk with our bags to the bus terminal, where we had 40 minutes or so to kill before our Flybus departed. As I was sitting and enjoying my coffee, one of my friends pointed out a girl walking through the station to me: “She’s got the same bag as you.” Sure enough, she also had a bright blue Deuter pack. I noticed her briefly before turning back to my phone and coffee. When we eventually boarded the Flybus, it was packed, with every last seat taken.

At the airport, we climbed off the bus and went to pick up our bags. We were near the back so most of the passengers had already grabbed their belongings. Kurt got his bag and pointed at the blue Deuter bag left in the cargo hold. As I picked it up, I spotted two Nalgenes tucked into the front pockets. I didn’t have two Nalgenes. My heart leapt into my throat and I froze in panic. “Wait, this isn’t my bag!”

“You better find her fast!” Kurt said, snapping out of my shock. Wearing the stranger’s backpack, I sprinted inside the airport and scanned the crowd for my pack. Finally, I spotted her in line at the WOW Airline counter, just about to check in. I ran over and tapped her on the shoulder, saying breathlessly “I think you’ve my bag.” She looked at my pack and hers.

“Oh my God! I am so, so sorry. Wow, that would have been terrible!” she said. We traded backpacks back.

“No worries! I’m just glad I found you!” I said. My heartbeat began to slow back down as I made my way back to my friends, relieved. If my friend hadn’t pointed out the duplicate bag back at the bus terminal, I might not have looked as closely when I picked up the bag and wouldn’t have realized until we got back home.

view of Greenland from our plane

Major bag crisis averted. We checked in, did some final shopping, got some food, and made our way to the gate. It was the beginning of the end of our smooth, uneventful journey back to Chicago. I stayed awake for the return flight, and took advantage of IcelandAir’s movie selection. After considering Frozen, I stuck with the Arctic theme and watched The Golden Compass, followed by the musical Chicago to bring it on home. I was sad that our amazing vacation was over, but was eager to get home and be reunited with our dog and two cats.

A few closing thoughts on our trip: Iceland is a stunningly beautiful country. The people are friendly. It’s expensive as hell, but an easy trip to make (only a 6-hour flight from Chicago, no language barrier, etc.). The country has a population of 323,000 and tourism is on the rise, with an estimated 1.5 visitors in 2016. That same year also saw the first time that American tourists outnumbered Icelandic residents. The people of Iceland were nothing but hospitable to us during our trip, and have talked of the economic growth and job boom due to the surge in tourism. But on the other hand, there’s the common complaint that Iceland is turning into ‘Disneyland’ for American tourists. Another local talked to us about the rising cost of food and nightlife; prices increase because tourists will pay it, but it is pushing out the locals who are finding it harder to go out to dinner that often. And then there’s always the issue of tourists who behave poorly (thankfully we didn’t witness any of this, except for a table full of British women who dine-and-ditched at a restaurant in Hella). Hearing and seeing these things is a bummer because it is a fantastic destination and I’d hate to see it change too much. I can’t imagine the solitude of the southern coast overrun by a rash of brand new hotels popping up and down the beach to accommodate the masses.

All that being said, I’m definitely glad we went, and I would still encourage others to visit. It was like living in a beautiful storybook illustration for a week. Here’s a few tips I’ll share:

  • Don’t be scared off of traveling during the winter; the crowds will be smaller and there’s still so much to do and see! But you will need to maximize the daylight hours so schedule your days smartly, or plan for a longer trip in order to pack everything in.
  • Don’t get your hopes up too much about seeing the Northern Lights, especially if you only have a week or less. You need a combination of the right conditions (a moderate or strong Aurora forecast and a clear night sky). It’s a matter of luck.
  • If you’re planning to drink, load up on booze at the Duty Free store at the airport as soon as you land in Iceland. It’s time to revisit the pregaming days of your twenties, because drinks at bars and restaurants are $$$.
  • Get out of the city. Reykjavík is a fun place to visit and you’ll surely enjoy the restaurants and bars, but at the end of the day, it’s a small town and you’ll get the feel for it quickly. Rent a car or book a seat on a tour bus and drive out of town for as much of your trip as possible to view the stunning sights and geographical wonders.
  • If you rent a vehicle, don’t mess around and get the gravel insurance.
  • Bring a reusable water bottle. All of the tap water is safe to drink and tastes great (just let the tap run for a minute if the hot water has been on recently, and the sulfur smell will disappear).
  • You can use credit cards everywhere, so don’t worry about converting USD into ISK. I didn’t touch cash once for our entire trip, and used my credit card for everything from taxis to beers to a single cup of coffee. And don’t look at your credit card bill until you get home; you’ll have more fun that way.
  • We turned off our cellular data on our phones and got by easily just using wifi, as it’s found in pretty much every hotel, restaurant, tour bus, bus terminal, horse farm, you name it.
  • Hang onto your shopping receipts because you can get VAT (value added taxes) refunds when purchasing goods for 6,000 ISK or more.
  • Bring your own towels and flip flops to the swimming pools to save some money (or in case they don’t have any). Consider a waterproof phone case or electronics bag if you want to take a lot of photos at the pool or in Blue Lagoon.
  • Wear layers and make sure the top ones are waterproof, especially on days when you’re hiking around waterfalls.
  • Don’t be afraid of Harpa; she’s a good horse. Rub her neck just under her mane; she loves it.

Skál!

Iceland Diaries: Nerding Out on the Game of Thrones Tour

Saturday, Feb. 18

We had only booked one tour bus day trip excursion for the duration of our Iceland trip, and because we are who we are, it was a Game of Thrones shooting location tour. Almost all of the regulars from our yearly GoT Marathon were on the Iceland trip, so it made perfect sense. We took a quick shuttle ride to the bus terminal, where we boarded a giant touring bus. Having no idea of what to expect, we were surprised by the amount of people who had signed up; the bus was nearly filled to capacity with people of all nationalities, ranging in ages from twenty-somethings to an unexpected amount of elderly Thrones fans. “Winter is coming” t-shirts were spotted throughout the crowd.

Our tour guide reminded me of an Icelandic Simon Pegg. He kicked off the tour by introducing his two young sons, who were tagging along for the day. All three family members wore Star Wars t-shirts. The bus ventured out of the city and rumbled along gravel country roads until we arrived at… the exact same horse farm I had visited the day before, ha. One of the stablehands had a black Iceland horse waiting for us in the paddock, which we could pet and take photos with. The horse had been featured in an episode, so we were meeting our first GoT celeb. We learned that the scenes at Castle Black are filmed in Ireland, but scenes North of the Wall are in Iceland. Keep an eye on the horses while watching the show; Irish horses are taller than Icelandic horses, so if Jon Snow’s horse seems to experience shrinkage issues, it’s because they switched up shooting locations.

Kurt in front of Þórufoss

The next stop and first shooting location was a waterfall called Þórufoss. As our guide explained, it was the site for a scene from season 4 wherein one of Daenerys’s dragons attacks a herd of goats while a horrified farmer looks on. Since we forked over 92 for a narrated tour, we got to learn fun facts like the name of the goat that Drogon set aflame, which is Casanova. Casanova is not only famous for being featured on Game of Thrones; he is also a local celebrity because he fell deathly ill and was saved by wearing custom woollen sweaters. Thanks to Icelandic handmade goods, Casanova can continue to go and have a thriving acting career. After our tour guide told this story, I turned to my friends and said “This is EXACTLY what I signed up for.”

Þingvellir

Þingvellir National Park is part of the Golden Circle and a popular tourist stop for the excellent reason that it is majestically, stunningly beautiful. It’s also the location for the path to the Eyrie and the Bloody Gate. IRL, the canyon between opposing walls of mossy rocks is the spot where the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates separate. There’s also random waterfalls because Iceland. We spent a lot of time in this gorgeous spot, taking photos and enjoying a rare February moment of bright sunshine.

screenshot of the Bloody Gate

actual location minus the CGI

After boarding the bus again, we traveled a winding road through the park and saw other spots where some wildling camp scenes were filmed. The trails had been closed off to preserve the natural landscape, so we had to view it from the road. The next stop was an hour’s drive away, but first we had a lunch break at a small diner attached to a convenience store, where I had one of the best burgers of my life (no joke) (also, I might have just been really, really hungry).

those bloody Thenns

The final stop of the tour was a settlement-era Viking lodge in Þjórsárdalur Valley. In the show, the location doubled as a village ravaged by Thenns. You will recall this as the scene in which Ollie’s parents are killed by the tribe of cannibals. I love a tour where the guide says “This is the location of the human sacrifice.” He carried along laminated stills from the show at each stop, and I took a photo of one in front of the location to compare. He also was excited to tell us that his good friend appeared as an extra on the show, and brought along a screenshot of his buddy in full costume alongside Tormund Giantsbane.

After the tour wrapped up, we had an hour-long bus ride back to the city. My only wish was for more behind-the-scenes tidbits and juicy gossip, though I did appreciate the tour guide’s local observations, such as when he ripped on the town of Selfoss for being “famous for dairy production and their love of cheesy techno.” He also waxed rhapsodic about the romance between the actors who play Jon Snow and Ygritte, offering up their relationship as consolation for the breakup of Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes (the couple famously split up right after Katie visited Tom on the Icelandic set of his movie Oblivion).

That evening back in Reykjavík, we had our last dinner together as a group at Sægreifinn, which I had heard about from the Iceland episode of a now-canceled travel show that our group used to love called Three Sheets. The lobster soup lived up to our expectations.The night ended with a few rounds of beer at Bryggjan Brugghús, Iceland’s first microbrewery, then it was back to the Airbnb for one final night (insert all the crying face emoji).

 

Iceland Diaries: OMG! Ponies!

Friday, Feb. 17

Kurt woke up at 8 a.m. and quietly got dressed in our dark room before heading out. He and a few other of our friends had plans to rent a car and visit a geothermal plant (they are enginerds) and hike to the Hot River. I slept in a little bit longer, falling into the rhythm of the late Icelandic sunrise. I had my own itinerary for the day, and I was looking forward to a solo adventure.

First, I met Lauren and Charlie for coffee and croissants at Reykjavík Roasters. They had a little bit of time to hang out before catching their Flybus to the airport. The mugs at the coffee shop were some of the tiniest ones yet, but the servings were bottomless so I got a few refills. It took this trip for me to realize that my coffee addiction has reached Gilmore Girl levels. Lauren and Charlie told me a little more about their horseback riding excursion a few days earlier, as I had booked a ride at the same stable for the afternoon. They had done some galloping during their trail ride, and Lauren’s horse, Harpa, tripped while going down a river bed and tossed Lauren to the ground. “But don’t worry, it’s a fun time!” they both said. OK then.

I boarded the shuttle bus to the stables at the hotel near our Airbnb. I was the first one in the bus. The driver greeted me warmly and then asked me if I had any juicy gossip. Next, we picked up a man and woman from their hotel, who were best friends on vacation from Boston. They had arrived in Reykjavík at 6 a.m. that morning, got a few hours of sleep, and were heading out on their first excursion. The man got out his phone and started scrolling through news, saying “Ugh let’s see what Trump’s done since we left the States.”

OMG! Ponies!

We arrived at the stable, about 30 minutes outside of Reykjavík, and met the rest of our group. The stablehands sized us up with their eyes one by one, then handed us a one-piece rubber suit to put on over our clothes. The suits were bulky and cumbersome, but they would keep us warm and dry in the rain and through river crossings.

After putting on our suits, boots, gloves, and helmets, we watched the stablehands bring horses into the paddock. I had been looking forward to getting close to Icelandic horses the entire trip. They’re adorable with their shaggy coats and short, stout frames. The breed is incredibly pure; no other horses are allowed into Iceland, and once an Iceland horse leaves the country, it can never be brought back in. The animals in the paddock were feisty and spirited, whinnying, nipping at each other, and rearing up in small acts of dominance. The guy from Boston nudged his friend and said “That one horse looks really agitated. I want you to get that one.”

The trail leader, a thin blond woman with a no-nonsense demeanor, went down the line and asked each of us how much riding experience we had. Everyone said that they’d done a few trail rides before, “but not in a few years.” I took riding lessons through junior high and used to jump, but it’s been literally decades. After I replied to her question, she pointed to a brown horse by the fence and said “You take Harpa.” Of course.

Harpa and me, BFFs

We mounted up on our horses, then followed another young, blond woman who was the assistant guide (everyone in Iceland looks vaguely like Margot Robbie, and no, it doesn’t give you a complex, like, at all). The horses followed each other, nose to tail, out of the paddock and along the gravel road to the trail. Harpa liked to be right up front, behind or next to the leader. As we began our trail ride, muscle memory of my old riding lessons came back. I relaxed in the saddle, letting my hips swing with the horse’s movement. Our guide brought her horse to a trot, and the rest of us followed suit. I looked forward to doing some cantering in the rolling farmland hills.

Unfortunately, we never worked our way up to anything more than a trot. About 40 minutes into the 2-hour ride, Margot Robbie #2 paused the train, told us to wait, and then dismounted and walked towards the back of the group. Up at the front, I couldn’t see what was going on behind me. A few minutes later, she returned on her horse, leading a riderless horse by his reins. What happened his rider? I wondered. Then I recognized the horse as belonging to Margot Robbie #1. Our guide led us down the road a bit further, then told us to stop and dismount to give our horses a little break. Once I climbed down off Harpa, I saw Margot Robbie #1 walking on the ground while holding the bridle of another horse. The rider had apparently been having some control issues.

As we stretched and let our horses nibble at grass, the Margots conferred with each other for a moment, then asked us in their usual brief, all-business manner: “Everyone OK with going fast?” We weren’t sure what they meant: more trotting? or would we move up into a canter? Would we get to try the famous Icelandic fifth gate, the tölt? We never did find out, as a few of the beginner level riders quickly said that they didn’t want go any faster than the trot. Margot #1 nodded crisply, and we mounted back up. Almost immediately, a horse named Sparkles decided that she was over it and took off the wrong way down the trail, despite the panicked shouting of her rider. Two other horses decided to follow for funsies, adding to the rebellion. Margot #1 had to shoot down the road after Sparkles and grab the reins. We got back on the trail. About 20 minutes later, we stopped again because someone fell off while walking. For the rest of the ride, the Margots had to run a tight ship to compensate for our group’s lack of horsemanship skills.

Next time, I’ll sign up for the intermediate group.

I do want to thank Harpa, who was nothing but a dream for me. She did have a tendency to try to kick any other horse who got too close to her rear, but I get that. We reached the horse farm, ending our leisurely afternoon ride. I dismounted, gave Harpa lots of pets and neck rubs, and hung up her bridle, then changed out of my rubber suit. The group of us clambered back into the shuttle bus, smelling horsey, and got dropped off back in the city.

Back at the Airbnb, I showered and dressed. With our group reassembled after everyone got back from their day’s activities, we walked into the city center and ate dinner at Frederiksen Ale House, then stopped into Pablo Discobar solely because of the name. Their signature cocktail involved Cocoa Puffs. We ended up not staying, and decided that the wise decision would be to make it an early night. The next morning, we needed to be up bright and early for our final excursion: the Game of Thrones Tour.