Old McDonald had a cat café, E-I-E-I-O. And in this café he had lots of kitties. With a nom nom here and a purr purr there. Here a rub, there a yawn. Everywhere a nyan nyan. Old McDonald had a cat café.

First started in Taipei in 1998, the cat café industry has grown tremendously, especially in Japan’s metropoles* like Tokyo. Here in this vibrant and populous city, people predominantly live in small apartments or condos – most of which have pet restrictions. And, as you may already know, Japan’s dwindling inclination towards the traditional family unit, along with extreme work ethics, leaves many young professionals stressed and no time for relationships. It’s no surprise that after the opening of the first hugely successful cat café in Tokyo in 2005, the proliferation of more neko (Japanese for cat) cafes took off. There are at least 40 cat cafes in Tokyo alone. And cat cafes in Japan could breach the 200 mark soon.

Japan isn’t the only country with a growing cat café industry. Here in the Puget Sound where I hail from, the first cat café (Seattle Meowtropolitan) is set to open at the end of this year! But it’s not the first cat café in America. Cat Town Café, the first cat café in America, opened its doors in 2014. Since then, numerous other cafes have welcomed customers looking for meows. The phenomenon is taking place all over the world.


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after searching aimlessly for the cat cafe, there it was!

after searching aimlessly for the cat cafe, there it was!

While in Tokyo, I had the opportunity to visit such a cat café (Cat Café Calico in Shinjuku). It was an interesting experience. The first of which was having to find the place. I learned that in Japan, you have to look up as stores and restaurants are often stacked on top of each other. The entrance to Cat Café Calico is on the 6th floor but the café extends to the 5th floor as well. As you come in, you have to take off your shoes and pay a cover fee of 1,000 yen (about $8) for the first hour. Each subsequent hour was 500 yen. If you want to feed the kitties, come around 5 PM. You can purchase a small container of white chicken for 300 yen each. Trust me, you’ll be a popular target for the throng of kitties that will flock towards you. I suggest coming earlier than 5 PM so you’ll have more space to play with the kitties, then feed them and go. After 5 PM, the café become so crowded you’ll have no place to relax and you’ll be competing against the influx of people on their way home from work. People often stop by cat cafes to de-stress before heading home.

The rules are pretty simple: don’t pick up the cats, don’t play rough, and don’t feed the kitties wearing a red scarf because they have dietary restrictions. Other than that, you are free to pursue the cat of your choice, to pet him, play with him, feed him, and take pictures with him. Toys are bountiful, and there are seating areas for you to relax. A small TV and game console are also available for you to get your game on. You can also read one of the many books they have stockpiled on their shelves.

i'm sorry, can't hear you over my cute

i’m sorry, i can’t hear you over my cute

Being my first time in a cat café, I was more interested in the kitties themselves, but I could tell that the regulars who come to the café are there to relax around cats and not necessarily to play with them. Many were content just reading books and petting kitties as they come by. The majority of the patrons were young women.

So while it was mostly a novelty experience for me, people who regularly come to these cat cafes are finding real comfort and peace. These slow-paced places are a stark contrast to the chaos outside. The first couple days in Japan were dizzying to me. Being packed like sardines in the subway, getting hurried by the herd of people calmly rushing to the next subway train, and breathing down food to allow the long line of hungry businessmen/women waiting to eat were exasperating, to say the least. After 2 exhausting days in Tokyo, the cat café was a haven for me. Now imagine what these cat cafes represent to people who live there.

I found this experience really rewarding and am looking forward to going to the cat café in Seattle once it opens. The future wife and I are on board the cat café express. If you have the opportunity, give these cafes a chance.

sigh... when is next nom?

sigh… when is the next nom?

*It took me 20 minutes to find the plural form of “metropolis.” The best explanation I found was a comment from Ryan Blaine Brown (wherever and whoever you are, thanks): “Most often you see “metropolises” for the plural. More properly the plural is “metropoles,” third declension, as the word comes to English through Latin. Don’t force a second declension masculine (long “i”) or neuter (short “a”) ending here, or everyone will know you are trying too hard and don’t know Latin. And though the word was originally Greek, no one will understand what you mean if you go for the Greek plural “metropoleis,” so avoid it, too. You can either go English plural or Latin (III declension) plural.” I just thought you might appreciate this little nugget of truth. Or not. Meow.

Also… Neko Samurai!!! Look it up. Watch it. Be amused.

Finally, below is a collection of pictures from Cat Café Calico. Enjoy.



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blue lagoon

Isn’t 3 days in Iceland too short? I agree. I now realize the errors of my ways. Going to have to come back soon and stay longer this time, but in the meantime I shall reflect on memories of the 3 days that I was there. Hopefully this will be helpful to you when you’re in Iceland. For all the pictures, go to this gallery.


Day 1

map of KEF to Reykjavik

map of KEF to Reykjavik

1. US to Keflavik

We got lucky. We booked with Icelandair 5 months in advance of the trip in October, and right before we embarking on our journey, Alaska Airlines became a code-sharing partner with Icelandair – we scored double miles on Alaska! The flight was uneventful, smooth, and relatively quick. It was only a 7 hrs haul from Seattle to Keflavik Airport.

I was quite impressed with Icelandair, actually. You get free checked bags although we didn’t really need it. It’s a nice perk considering today’s standard nickel diming airline industry that charges for every little thing. Every seat on the Icelandair Boeing 757 had a blanket and Icelandic water. We kept the bottle and it’s still sitting in our fridge as we speak. The crew was professional, the flight was smooth, and airline seemed like the cared about their passengers.

The best part of the flight over to Iceland has to be the welcoming atmosphere we received going through security. We were herded to the immigration checkpoint, but along the way we were handed chocolate and water. I have not, in all my years of flying, ever received anything from anyone at the airport except disdainful stares and impatient yelling. It was refreshing to say that least.

Icelandair: 4.5/5.0

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Keflavik Airport: 5.0/5.0

2. Blue Lagoon

blue lagoon front entrance

blue lagoon front entrance

We waited 2 hours at the airport before the first bus came to pick us up to Blue Lagoon. Keflavik is out in the middle of nowhere so you can’t really walk to restaurants or shops. We booked the airport transfer and Blue Lagoon with the Icelandair package. I would recommend packaging as many of your activities with Icelandair as you can to save money.

Blue Lagoon is about 10 minutes from the airport and is in the middle of nowhere as well. It’s the only thing around so they can basically charge you whatever they want. It’s clearly a commercialized resort for international travelers as evident by the baggage storage facility in front of the resort. You’ll also note that there aren’t any local Icelanders swimming with you in the pool.

The only blue part of Blue Lagoon is the pool by the entrance, which you’re not allowed to swim in of course. Otherwise, the actual Blue Lagoon is teal.

blue lagoon teal color

teal lagoon

The layout was entirely awkward. When you’re in the pool, you can clearly see the restaurant but there’s no way to get to it. You have to retrace your steps back to the front desk half naked in your robe to get to the restaurant.

It was a very cold day and the water felt amazing. There are buckets of silica placed throughout the pool. You can apply it liberally on your face and body. We were told it’s excellent as a facemask to clear away impurities. You can just wash it off using the water in the pool. So if you find yourself in the Blue Lagoon in the near future, you’re probably going to be swimming in silica that was on my and thousands of others’ faces. Aren’t you lucky?

There’s also a steam room and sauna accessible from the pool. Next to those is an area for massages – you float around while people knead you.

I wasn’t terribly impressed with the Blue Lagoon and would recommend you skip it unless you absolutely have to experience it and say that you were there. Side note, the “blue” color isn’t entirely natural. I invite you to admire the geothermal power plant nearby. Another thing to note is that Blue Lagoon is made for tourists so expect it to be crowded. And this was in October when it supposedly is the offseason.

Best thing about Blue Lagoon: soaking in the hot water in cold weather

Do this if: you want to say you were there and make all your friends jealous of you not having that much fun

Overall experience: 3.0/5.0

Recommendation: skip

3. Hotel Fron

After a disappointing adventure time at Blue Lagoon, we arrived at Hotel Fron with its tiny sign. I swear we passed this place every time we went out for a walk and wanted to come back. It just blends in with the rest of the street and isn’t very flashy at all.

If you want to be close to all the action around downtown Reykjavik, this is probably one of the best places to stay at; however, do NOT get a room facing the street. It’s pretty awesome because you feel like one of the locals peering down at people walking around, but that feeling soon disappears when you actually want to sleep. Just a few hundred feet down the street from Hotel Fron is a bar that plays EDM (Electronic Dance Music) to the wee of the night. And when I wee of the night I mean 4 AM. Well, if you love EDM then I guess this would be pretty perfect. Oh, on the weekdays the building right across from Hotel Fron is full of office workers so you’ll have plenty of people looking at you while you’re in your room walking around in your undies. If you’re an exhibitionist I guess this would be pretty cool.

If you get a normal room at Hotel Fron, be prepared to feel cozy because the room is tiny. You won’t have a lot of room to maneuver especially if your luggage is opened. As you suspected, the bathroom is puny as well, but it was clean when we stayed there.

You won’t ever be cold inside your room though, but the sweet aroma of sulfur will enthrall your nose whenever you take a hot shower.

If those things don’t bother you, then this is the perfect hotel. You are in the middle of Laugavegur street – the main shopping/restaurant/bar/club/fun area in Reykjavik. You’re steps away from everything. This is an excellent place to make your base and all tour buses will come pick you up for your tours in front of the hotel.

Stay here if: you want to be close to all the things

Don’t stay here if: you want peace and quiet

Overall experience: 3.0/5.0 – damn you EDM at 4 in the morning!

Recommendation: stay here but don’t get a room facing the street

4. Kafe Bar

We took a 5 hours nap upon arrival at Hotel Fron. Jetlag finally caught up to us. We woke up at 10 PM and started wandering the wet streets of Laugavegur. It was still lively. People in Iceland really know how to deal with cold weather. It doesn’t seem to bother anyone. So if you want to blend in, don’t be a crybaby if it’s a little wet.

We randomly went into a coffee bar shop (I guess). Note: there are tons of coffee bars in Iceland. So what do they serve at these coffee bars? Coffee and booze – the perfect combination for a cold night. This place also served soup in a bread bowl. We got 2 of those and a glass of wine. It hit the spot. If in Iceland and cold and hungry, go to a coffee bar, get some soup, and drink up. Local Icelanders will hang out at coffee bars to drink and talk all day. So join them.

Do: hang out at coffee bars at any hour during the day or night


Day 2

city center map of Reykjavik, Iceland

city center map of Reykjavik, Iceland

1. Old Icelandic Restaurant

old iceland restaurant

old iceland restaurant

Yay day 2! It turned out the soup and wine from the previous night weren’t that fulfilling as we woke up hungry like bears ready to ravage a baby deer with claws and sharp teeth – blood smeared all over our ravenous and disgustingly beautiful mouths. That or go to the Old Icelandic Restaurant, about a 3 min walk from Hotel Fron. We decided to go the restaurant.

We were the first customers! The restaurant was neat, clean, and cozy feeling. The walls are decorated with, what I’m assuming to be, animals that we’re going to consume like savages. The waiter was nice and seated us by the windows so we could watch and laugh at people in the rain. It wasn’t raining though… so we didn’t get to laugh at anyone. The menu was simple. I appreciate simple menus. I hate thumbing through 20 pages worth of food.

wall decor at old iceland restaurant

wall decor at old iceland restaurant

It was Iceland so of course we had to order lamb soup and the fish of the day. Why do you have to order lamb soup in Iceland? Read my other post to find out – 33 tips for first timers to Iceland. Icelanders have mastered lamb dishes because the soup was entirely delicious. The fish of the day was excellent too. This was our introduction to Icelandic food, and it was a good one. We also learned that food isn’t cheap in Iceland. That meal was nearly $50. Yikes!

old iceland restaurant fish of the day old iceland restaurant

What to order: lamb soup

Overall experience: 4.5/5.0

2. Hallsgrimskija

hallsgrimskija in reykjavik, iceland

hallsgrimskija in reykjavik, iceland

Adventure time! Full and fat from our meal, we started our self-guided city tour. Our first stop was Hallsgrimskija. You can’t miss it. It’s an imposing building that can be seen from everywhere. The architecture is unique. In front of Hallsgrimskija is a statue of Eriksson (a gift from the US to celebrate Iceland’s independence – I think). This is an excellent spot to snap a shot. Now you too can have that iconic picture!

The inside of Hallsgrimskija was also very impressive with its high cathedral ceiling and giant organ right above the entrance as you enter. It’s not decorated like many of the European churches with intricate designs. It’s actually really plain looking, but I think it adds to the architectural uniqueness of the building itself.

You can buy tickets at the gift shop to take the elevator up to the clock for some incredible views of the city. Nobody was at the elevator to check if you have tickets though. From up here you can see how colorful the city really is with its many vibrant roofs and buildings. This is an excellent photo op.

Overall experience: 4.5/5.0

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3. Solfar (Sun Voyager)

Satisfied with the view from up top, we backtracked to the waterfront where Solfar stood. Light rain gave us the opportunity to be alone with the Viking sculpture, and it was magnificent. It was a lot bigger up close and is an imposing presence. Again the light rain left its mark and presented us with an exquisite photo op with the water droplets covering the metal structure.

solfar, reykjavik, iceland

solfar, reykjavik, iceland

This attraction is even better at night and sunset (or so we’ve heard). We didn’t make it back out to vet the claim but I’d imagine it being pretty awesome when lit up. Its solitary location would have made it the more alluring and mysterious. We stayed around and took in the scene for 20 minutes before heading to Harpa Hall visible in the distance.

Overall experience: 4.0/5.0

4. Harpa Hall

harpa hall, reykjavik, iceland

harpa hall, reykjavik, iceland

We didn’t really plan to go here but it was along the way to the Saga Museum so we made a side stop. The place was teeming with people attending a conference. Interesting glass windows surrounded the huge building to give it a unique perspective. This is the place where supposedly all Icelanders have visited to enjoy good music and entertainment. There are shows all the time so it’s a good place to visit. We’ve seen beautiful pictures of Harpa Hall at night as its colorful reflections on the water magnify its grandeur, but again we didn’t make it back out to see for ourselves.

You could easily spend half the day here but I would suggest checking to see if there are shows you’re interested in seeing before hand.

Come here if: you’re in the mood for a fancy night out

Overall experience: 4.5/5.0 – would be 5.0 if we had seen a show

5. Kolaportid Flea Market

From Harpa Hall, colorful stripe lines guided us along the docks to Saga Museum. It was as though we were walking on the yellow brick road in the land of Oz. This is also where the tour boats depart for tours such as whale watching and puffin viewing.

yellow brick road

yellow brick road

We made it back on the main road and noticed people going through these big doors and we followed suit. It turned out to be the Kolaportid Flea Market where you can find clothes, food, and toys at a discount. Though it is a good place for local Icelanders, the offering here is meek and not really something I’d bring back to the States. We did visit the little food court and had our first Icelandic donut. It was lightly sweetened and a lot more “doughy” than American donuts. I actually really enjoyed it.

Our tour guide for the Golden Circle later told us that hundreds of Icelanders had lined up for the grand opening of Dunkin’ Donuts that summer. Maybe Icelanders prefer the sweeter, fluffier American donuts to these doughy Icelandic donuts.

icelandic donut

icelandic donut

Come here if: you want to see local Icelanders going about their daily life

Overall experience: 3.5/5.0

Recommendation: skip if you’re short on time

6. Saga Museum

Maybe we expected too much. Maybe we should have just plopped down the $40 to dress ourselves in Viking costumes to take a few pictures in the same setup that everyone else who came here had. Maybe we weren’t ready mentally to appreciate the inspirational lack of inspiration that is the Saga Museum.

We decided not to plop down the money after all. Side note, the #1 recommended restaurant (MATUR OG DRYKKUR) according to TripAdvisor (Oct 2015) is the little café inside the Saga Museum. If you were heading out this way for the restaurant, I guess a little poking around for the museum part wouldn’t hurt. We were still full so didn’t stick around to get fat happy here.

Come here if: you want eat at MATUR OG DRYKKUR restaurant

Overall experience: 2.5/5.0

Recommendation: skip

7. Domkirkja Krists Konungs (Cathedral of Christ the King)

cathedral in reykjavik, iceland

cathedral of the christ the king

After the shock of Saga Museum, we walked aimlessly up the street and wandered to this little gem. It’s a landmark on the little map we were carrying around but had no attraction name because it’s for local Icelandic church services. With the clouds that day, the cathedral looked like something from a vampire movie. The neighborhood was quiet. There were a few people walking around but it was entirely too eerie for us… until the door opened and people were seen inside attending afternoon service. Maybe they were vampires!!!

Overall experience: 4.0/5.0 for the fear factor

8. Tungata road

From the cathedral, we walked along Tungata road towards Parliament House. We stopped in a little garden with this interesting stone structure. Upon further inspection we realized it was a gift from Latvia to celebrate Iceland’s independence. Upon further further inspection of the area, we realized the street was filled with ambassador residences. It was really odd because there were no security of any kind (or none that we could perceive with our humanly eyes). At this point it dawned on me that Iceland is really safe, not that we had any fear whatsoever walking around town up to that point. But this cemented my hesitant inclination. To learn more about this, read 33 tips for first timers to Iceland.

9. Parliament House

This was Parliament House? It looked like one of those historic hotels. We walked around the house thinking it was around the corner, but that was it. There it was in all its glorious non-gloriousness. If we didn’t have the little map telling us it was Parliament House, we would have walked right past it without giving a second thought. Actually, we did do that. What I’m trying to say is, “Thank you map.” This experience was really refreshing to me because of how “normal” the government here appeared to be.

10. City Hall

backgammon championship at city hall, reykjavik, iceland

backgammon championship at city hall

We had stowed the map away at this point and was wandering aimlessly. There’s a statue of a half man, half rock that drew us to the lake where a long bridge led us to City Hall. I thought we were entering a café but it was clear that the building was for official business of some kind. We didn’t really know what kind of business because the only thing going on was a backgammon championship being streamed over the web. I guess if there’s a lull in official governmental business you could rent out the place for important events like this backgammon championship.

Oh, there’s a huge map of Iceland in City Hall that might be of some interest. Swans and birds are also plentiful out in the water outside City Hall. Bring bread… I guess.

This stop was the end of our city tour. We made it back to Laugavegur (which is basically right next to City Hall) and strolled through the shops. We bought a fridge magnet – the only souvenir we normally bring back from any of our trips.

Overall experience: 4.0/5.0

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11. Ostabudin

Another excellent nap later, we woke up craving blood (probably because that cathedral turned us to vampires). So of course we went to Ostabudin for some whale meat. We had high expectations for Ostabudin as it was a top 10 restaurants on TripAdvisor; it didn’t disappoint.

The restaurant was packed with hungry vampires like us. The decoration was simple and the menu was a one pager. I ordered the whale steak appetizer and can’t really remember anything after that. Okay, if you’re all up in arms about me eating whale, go read my other post (linked above) before passing judgment, or gas.

It was delicious. Quite possibly the best thing I had in Iceland. Three small strips were served. Lightly seared, the meat is equivalent to a really juicy and delicious prime cut of beef. The light seasoning that came with the strips was the perfect compliment. Then some wine happened. Some other food was consumed and the meal was over. I remembered the food being a little too salty but I didn’t care anymore at that point. The meal was good.

We came back to Hotel Fron and relaxed. Our Northern Lights boat tour was canceled due to stormy weather, and it would be canceled the following night as well.

Overall experience: 4.5/5.0

Recommendation: go here


Day 3

golden circle map

golden circle map

GeoIceland was the tour company we went with for our Golden Circle tour, and I highly recommend them. It was super easy to get in contact with them and no payment was required until the tour was over. Javier (our tour guide and owner of GeoIceland) picked us up from the hotel. He was very knowledgeable as he holds degrees in geology. This Spaniard knew his stuff. He also operated his tours in the opposite direction of other tours so you’re always walking against traffic. The small size of the tour group also made it a lot more comfortable and intimate. It’s no wonder they’re the #1 tour company in Iceland.

1. Hveragerdir earthquake town

Our first stop was a small town 30 minutes outside of Reykjavik known for its numerous earthquakes. Did you know that dozens of earthquakes take place in Iceland every day? If you’re curious, read 33 tips for first timers to Iceland.

This stop was short but informative as we learned about the geology of Iceland and its short history on Earth. Inside the small shopping center, you can use the restroom and stare down a crevice cutting through the bottom of the floor. There are a few other small shops but they were mostly closed.

2. Faxi waterfall

faxi waterfall, iceland

faxi waterfall

Our second stop was this incredibly picturesque waterfall known as Faxi. Side note: there are a LOT of waterfalls in Iceland. I’ll let the pictures do the talking. You can also walk out and stand right next to it for some awesome pictures. We lucked out as the sky cleared up and the sun shining on the surface of the water gave us some beautiful shots.

Next to the waterfall is a small circular pen where farmers herd sheep for the annual shaving. We spent about half an hour here before heading to the famous Gullfoss waterfall.

Overall experience: 5.0/5.0

3. Gullfoss waterfall

gullfoss, iceland

gullfoss and a rainbow

Perhaps one of the more famous attractions in Iceland, Gullfoss waterfall makes Niagra Falls look like a little baby. There are several lookouts so there are plenty of places to take pictures. You can see the river upstream and it turns into a violent waterfall. Niagra Falls might be wider in size but it’s not as violent as Gullfoss.

We walked out to the second level of the waterfall. The mist from the water crashing against the wall and river beneath soaked us. It was difficult taking pictures down here due to the constant water blowing in our face. There are several dry spots to stand and take it all in. It felt grand – like Lord of the Rings grand.

Legend has it that there was an old farmer who threw gold into the waterfall to prevent people from taking it upon his passing; and that’s why the waterfall is called Gullfoss (Golden Waterfall). The other theory for the name is that at certain times during the day, the sun’s reflection on the waterfall gives it a golden hue for which it is named. I’m pretty sure there’s gold in there though.

Take your time to really enjoy the view here. This is a stop that all tour buses will make so it will get really crowded. I suggest coming here in the offseason or go see other waterfalls if you’re visiting in the summer – that’s if you don’t like crowds.

Overall experience: 5.0/5.0

4. Geysir

Geysir was aptly name for the geyser that used to blow there, but it’s no longer active. Instead, there is another geyser next to Geysir that erupts once every 5 minutes. The whole area is filled with pools of hot water – some were even boiling. Boiled eggs anyone? You can walk up the hill for a more panoramic view.

geyser pool boiling water

We walked around a bit but overall weren’t too excited about it. It was probably because the smell was really strong that day. The wind didn’t help either.

There’s a big shop nearby with food and souvenir. The food wasn’t that great.

Overall experience: 3.5/5.0

5. Thingvellir National Park

thingvellir national park, iceland

thingvellir national park

I loved this place. It’s probably my favorite attraction in Iceland thus far. This valley is the historic gathering place for Iceland’s parliament. Because the landscape here is constantly changing, Icelanders create makeshift houses annually during the gathering. Not only is the site a historic attraction, it is a geological gem. The valley here is being pulled apart by the Eurasian and American tectonic plates. This is evident by the gashes and ridges that can be readily seen.

We were here in October so autumn colors provided the perfect compliment to the rugged and raw landscape. There is a house nestled in all this greatness. It is a most idyllic setting for the avid photographers. Every few steps will provide more opportunities to snap away. I’m going to stop describing the place. You just have to see it for yourself. It’s breathtaking and definitely worth the visit.

Overall experience: 5.0/5.0

6. Sjavargrillid

This was the best meal of the trip, at a price of course. This dimly lit restaurant offers some of the most delicious dishes in all of Iceland. I ordered the goose breast and legs. My fiancé ordered the pasta dish. It was a lot of food, and every bite was as delicious as the first. The staff was very friendly and made some excellent recommendations (like the Icelandic alcoholic coffee).

We were left to enjoy our meals. It was definitely a laid back atmosphere. This was the one restaurant that stood out from the rest and I would highly recommend it.

Overall experience: 5.0/5.0


Day 4

1. KEF, Iceland to US

There was nothing truly interesting about our flight back to the Emerald City except that border patrol agents were on strike so we had to wait an hour to get through security. Yay home!

For all the pictures of the trip, go to this gallery.




Reading time: 21 min

My recent trip to Iceland was truly memorable. This post highlights a few things I learned that might be helpful to you either in planning for your own trip or for learning more about Iceland. To see details of my 4 days 3 nights Iceland trip, read Adventuring with 3 days in Iceland.

1. You don’t need a car

So you’ve booked a trip to Iceland and now have started looking at the map for directions from the airport to Reykjavik. Yikes! It’s a 40 minutes drive! Don’t worry; you don’t really need a car. Public transportation in Iceland is pretty sweet. Big and comfortable tour buses come all the time to take you from the airport to Reykjavik, but you should book the transfer ahead of time. Flybus is the most popular but you could also go with any of the other options.

Once in Reykjavik, you can book tours to all the main attractions outside of Reykjavik. For attractions within the city like Hallgrimskirkja, you can walk to them with ease. Think of Reykjavik as a “little” big city.

If you must book a car, you’ll soon realize that you need to know how to handle a manual – this is pretty standard in European countries. The best car rental deals might be found by booking in combination with your airfare. This is a great way to go if you’re flying with Icelandair as they offer a wide selection of automatic vehicles. For your first time in Iceland, I would recommend not having a car to force yourself to walk around and enjoy the city. Outdoor adventures can be had with the many tours available. Let the Icelanders do the driving.

2. The Blue Lagoon is a tourist trap

Yes, fear of missing out is real. And you’ve no doubt been brainwashed into believing that the Blue Lagoon is a MUST destination. All your friends who’ve been to Iceland have pictures of Blue Lagoon, so why not you, right? If you absolutely must have a picture and check a box that says you’ve been to Blue Lagoon, go for it. If not, I would recommend skipping this attraction.

It is highly commercialized. No actual Icelanders go here. It’s far from Reykjavik but only 5 minutes away from the airport. Buses stop here regularly with visitors directly from the airport. You can check your bags at the front so it’s pretty convenient. Unless they’re going to the airport a lot, Icelanders won’t be found in the pool here.

As it is a highly commercialized location, you can expect the service and that Icelandic hospitality everyone talks about to be rather lacking. The layout is also confusing as the restaurant isn’t accessible from the pool. You have to trek there by walking back through the front desk, in front of people waiting to get in while wearing a robe with not much underneath.

blue lagoon robes

blue lagoon robes, iceland

The water isn’t even blue. It’s more of a teal green color. Also, the “blue” water isn’t natural. It’s a result of the geothermal plant close by. If you’re doing any of the tours, you may ask your guide how the color of Blue Lagoon came to be. It’s not toxic but it’s definitely man-made.


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3. Local swimming pools are where all the Icelanders are at

Every city, region, or country has its unofficial spots where locals hang out. In Vietnam, coffee/beer shops (some with girls to hang out with you) are where people hang out. In Iceland, it’s the local swimming pools.

People get memberships to swimming pools like they do the gym. People often come at the same time. Over time, the same people get to know each other and swimming pool “communities” are made. Why not join this culture? If you want the real experience of a thermal pool, go to these instead. There are several in Reykjavik like Laugardalslaug, Árbæjarlaug and Sundhöllin. Look them up and go soak/socialize with the local Icelanders. These public swimming pools are also super cheap, at least as compared to Blue Lagoon.

4. Stay in Laugavegur area in Reykjavik

Laugavegur is the main shopping/party/bar/restaurant street in downtown Reykjavik. If this were your first time to Iceland, you’d probably want to be close to all the action. Many of the top 10 restaurants on TripAdvisor are on this street or really close to it. The picture below shows you Laugavegur and the attractions around it including City Hall, the old harbor and Harpa Hall – all cool places to visit by foot. The map looks pretty big but you can walk the whole thing in a few hours. Downtown Reykjavik isn’t that big.

Laugavegur City Center map

Laugavegur City Center map

Everything is within walking distance so you’ll have plenty to do, especially when the weather isn’t as nice. Also, if you’re looking for the night scene, this is it. The area is full of tourists so you’ll be able to meet a lot of fellow travelers and you can share your travel stories. Yay!

5. When to go to Iceland to see the Northern Lights

I’m definitely not an expert in this field. We didn’t get to see the Northern Lights during our visit to Iceland, but that’s just the weather being unpredictable. We visited in mid-October. We booked a boat tour to see the lights but it was cloudy, windy, and nasty the duration of our trip. It was clear the morning we went on the Golden Circle tour though – so not all was lost. Most sources recommend visiting Iceland from November to February for the best show, but this is also the time when the weather is the worst.

To see the lights, you’ll need clear skies – so the best thing to do is to stay in Iceland longer. Weather is unpredictable so you might hit a bad stretch but it could be ideal condition the following few days. You can see the Northern Lights from September all the way to May. I would recommend October and March but any of the months mentioned is good. I like October and March because these months aren’t as cold, they’re less crowded, and you’ll find amazing deals as this is considered the offseason.

6. The easiest way to see the Northern Lights

If you want the no-hassle, stress-free, set-it-and-forget-it Northern Lights experience, book a tour. Let the Icelanders who know where to go for the best pictures do the work. You’re on vacation, aren’t you? Why stress yourself out driving in the dark, cold, lonely night? Also, most tours come with extra jackets, hot beverages, tripods, and tour guides ready to take your pictures. You’ll probably be disappointed with selfies in the dark.

You can book a land tour or a boat tour, but most places will let you reschedule if the weather is bad. AND if you don’t see the lights the first time you go out with them, most places will give you a second attempt for free. This is so simple, even a caveman can has cheeseburger.

If you must venture out in the dark, cold, lonely nights, this website will be your favorite friend: http://en.vedur.is/weather/forecasts/aurora/. It’s the aurora forecast! Yay! With the forecast, you’ll actually know where to go OR if you should go at all.

Sometimes you can see the Northern Lights from Reykjavik but that really depends on how lit up the area you’re staying at is.

7. You don’t have to book tours ahead of time in the offseason

If you’re traveling in the offseason, you can book your tour while in Iceland a day or two before the day you’d like to go. There are plenty of tour companies in Iceland. They are all relatively good and do basically the same tours. Some companies have more unique tours so you may want to look up the specifics.

You’re not really going to know what the weather is going to be like months in advance so booking tours ahead of time is a risky proposition. Get to Iceland, spend a day or two getting to know downtown Reykjavik, check the weather forecast and the aurora forecast, then book some tours. You’re more likely to find the best weather for your tours this way. If you’re not sure who to book with, you can find help at any visitor center – they are super helpful (see more on this below).

We were there 5 days and had booked 2 tours ahead of time. Those tour dates also coincided with the worst weather. The tour we booked while in Iceland turned out to be the best because we knew what the weather was going to be like the next day.

8. The water in Iceland is pure and fresh

“Mommy, what’s chlorine?” “Chlorine? There is not such thing.” I’m pretty sure that’s the conversation Icelandic moms have with their children. And I can only fathom that it’s true because the water in Iceland is so freaking awesome. Thank to the glaciers, snow, rain, and springs all over Iceland, Icelanders enjoy fresh, pure water all year round.

Golden Circle Tour, Iceland

a waterfall on the Golden Circle tour

I was skeptical at first when the hotel hostess said we can drink water from the bathroom, but I tried it and it was fabulous. This only applies to cold water though. The moment you turn on the hot, it’ll start smelling like sulfur. This is because hot water in Iceland is produced from geothermal plants, which make excellent use of the naturally occurring volcanic tears all around the island.

There really is no need to buy water. You will need a water bottle though to refill whenever you need. Don’t be shy. Use the cold water straight from the tap to liberate your thirst.

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9. Iceland is entirely renewable

Thank to the abundant geothermal pools and volcanic activities on the island, Icelanders enjoy renewable energy every day. It’s quite a spectacle to see plumes of smoke rising out of the ground everywhere you go. These plumes are gashes in the Earth where one could harness its power to turn to electricity; though, obviously, some aren’t strong enough to economically make viable.

But geothermal energy production only accounts for 30% of the electricity produced, the rest comes from dams, and there are plenty of those to be had as well. On a side note, if you love waterfalls, Iceland will keep you entertain forever.

geothermal smoke plume

geothermal pool smoke plume, Iceland

It’s no surprise that Iceland has the highest power consumption per capita in the world, but even then, the power produced from these renewable sources far exceeds the demand. It’s been speculated that perhaps Iceland could produce green power for Europe. That would necessitate some really long electrical lines though. So unfortunately, the abundant power available in Iceland can’t be shared. Boo-humbug!

For a basic lesson in how geothermal energy work, head over to http://geo-energy.org/Basics.aspx.

10. Get used to the smell of sulfur

You can’t escape it. Want to take a hot shower, be prepared to be assaulted by the sweetest sulfuric fragrant ever. As mentioned before, hot water is produced by geothermal plants using energy from geothermal pools. If you don’t know exactly what that smells like, it’s on par with eggs gone wrong. It’s actually not that bad. You’ll get used to it. And soon, you’ll be longing for that smell. Introducing Geotherm Eggfresh, a new fragrance by Hung Thai. I’m going to make millions… of negative investment dollars.

Geysir, Iceland

Geysir, Iceland

11. The weather in Iceland is unpredictable

Weather forecast can only do so much. And oftentimes the reality isn’t what shows up on your app. Because of this, you should pack accordingly and always be prepared for the worst or the best. Much like the Island of Hawai’i, you can avoid bad weather by driving a little bit, but much of the country isn’t inhabited. And unlike Hawaii, you can’t expect to find warm beaches to escape the rain.

You also shouldn’t be depressed if the forecast shows rain all week because it’ll probably change by the time you get there. And even if it does rain, it might pour all at once with sunshine to follow. Before you get to Iceland, don’t stress yourself out too much by obsessively looking at the forecast. You’ll realize that even in the rain, Iceland is still awesome because of the activities you can still do.

12. Things to do when it rains

Going to Iceland and expecting sunshine the entire trip is like going to a Japanese restaurant expecting hamburgers. Rain is part of the experience. Honestly, soaking in the thermal pools is way better when it’s cold, rainy, or snowing. My visit to Iceland was all about rain – it rained 3 of the 4 days we were there. We figured that the rain is beautiful and a critical part of the overall experience. Here are a few things you can do if it rains:

  1. Swimming pool – by far the best thing to do when it’s cold
  2. Enjoy a cup of coffee and people watch
  3. Visit the Harpa Hall or the local flea market
  4. Learn about the history of Iceland by visiting the many museums and galleries in Reykjavik
  5. Go out anyway – why not? If you’re geared right, the rain won’t bother you
  6. Get drunk and get to know the locals


sun breaks on Golden Circle Tour in Iceland

golden circle tour, Iceland

13. What to pack for Iceland

The weather forecast says it’s going to be sunny the entire time you’re there? Pack as though it’s going to rain anyway. You never know what’s really going to happen there so be as prepared as you can. Obviously, if it’s summer, don’t pack heavy jackets but it’s a good idea to always have a rainproof outer layer. If you’re going to Iceland around late autumn to early spring, rain gear is a must.

As I mentioned before, it rained the majority of the time we were in Iceland but we weren’t bothered by it because we packed with rain in mind. Here is what we brought over there:

  1. Waterproof jacket with a hood, not a water repellant jacket but a waterproof jacket – something like this will do. You’re also not going to use an umbrella too much because it’s windy and unless your umbrella is strong enough it’ll be a burden more than a saving grace. You may also get waterproof pants if you want to be completely dry. I find that the waterproof pants are a little overkill but you may want to invest in some if water is your nemesis.
  2. Waterproof hiking shoes – something like this will do. I don’t know about you, but having socks and feet is about the worst thing on a trip. These will keep you dry. If you’re going to be walking on snow or ice, you might upgrade to snow boots. But if you’re doing it as part of the tour, the guide will provide you with the necessary boots so don’t bring those unless you’re going to strike out on your own.
  3. Layers, layers, layers. You don’t need to go buy a super thick jacket because you’re going to be in and out of restaurants, shops, and indoor spaces all the time. You’ll be too hot inside and lugging around a thick jacket in the stores is a pain. Bring what you already have. Your base layer should be something tight against your body and then work your way out until you’re warm.
  4. Scarf – you’ll need it, especially in the wind. It’ll protect your neck and face, and you’ll look fashionable with it.
  5. Sunglasses – even if the forecast is rain.
  6. Gloves – any pair rated for freezing temperature should do; you don’t necessarily need snowboarding gloves as they might be overkill for most conditions.
  7. A good attitude and a sense of adventure!


walking around downtown Reykjavik

Iceland government

14. Icelanders don’t expect tips

They’ll accept them, but it’s not required. This is true of most European and Asian countries. Although in Japan, tips might be rejected. If you feel the service or meal was especially awesome, then tip away but don’t feel like you HAVE to tip. As you’ll soon notice that food isn’t cheap in Iceland so maybe the “tips” are already included. This is probably just hearsay on my part because they have to import a lot of products from surrounding countries.

15. The inside lane in a roundabout has the right-of-way

A roundabout is a circular intersection where traffic flows continuously in one direction and drivers can turn into the street they want by exiting the roundabout. Busier roundabouts will have more than a lane circling them. You would think the cars on the outer ring will have the right-of-way to exit the roundabout and you’d be wrong in Iceland. The inside lane (the lane closest to the circle) has the right-of-way. If the driver exits and you happen to hit that driver, you’re at fault. If you rented a card, take extra care going through roundabouts in Iceland.

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16. Iceland’s landscape is changing

Ever wonder what it was like to live in a land before time? You’ve come to the right place. If you want to talk in terms of age, Iceland is the equivalent of an infant compared to other landmass. Iceland is around 20 millions years old whereas the American continent is billions of years old. Because Iceland is so young, its landscape is in flux, constantly changing as new landmass is formed, sunken, and raised. It’s hotbed for scientific inquiries as measurements are taken every year to see how much the landscape has changed.

You can see how young the island just by looking at the porous volcanic rocks that form the ground. I suggest not walking on them because they might collapse – there could be lava tubes underneath.

Pingvellir, Iceland

Pingvellir, Iceland

17. There are dozens of earthquakes every day in Iceland

Yes, it’s true. The great majority of them are small tremors so you probably won’t feel anything on your trip, especially if you’re staying in Reykjavik. If you don’t believe me, visit http://en.vedur.is/earthquakes-and-volcanism/earthquakes/. This site tracks earthquakes in Iceland in the last 48 hours. You’ll notice that the vast majority of these earthquakes happen along the Eurasian and North American tectonic plates split down the middle of Iceland so you’ll be okay in Reykjavik.

18. Eurasian and North American tectonic plates are pulling Iceland apart

You’ll get first hand exposure to this phenomenon if you book a Golden Circle tour with any tour company. You’ll inevitably end up at Pingvellir or Thingvellir National Park. Pingvellir means “Great Gathering” and is the gathering place of Iceland’s government dating back to the first settlement.

Here you’ll be wowed by the incredible gashes, crevices and canyons created by the opposing movement of the two tectonic plates, literally pulling Iceland apart. Besides from walking around to admire the beauty of this wonderful park, you can also book a diving tour to explore these canyons flooded with water.

19. Iceland is basically a big volcano

There is a giant topographic map you can touch by the Pingvellir gift shop. Every peak on that map is a volcano, and there are a lot of them. Some of them are more active than others but the sheer amount makes it seems as though Iceland is a land of volcanoes. Or is it the land of waterfalls? Or is it geothermal swimming pools? All the things!

20. Iceland is incredibly safe

Never once did I feel in danger while traveling in Iceland, and this includes walking around at night through dimly lit neighborhoods. According to the Institute for Criminal Policy Research, there are approximately 147 prisoners in Iceland – about 45 persons per 100,000 of the 300,000+ inhabitants living there. For more interesting statistics, visit http://www.prisonstudies.org/country/iceland. In comparison, the US has 698 persons incarcerated per 100,000 people or 15 times the rate in Iceland. This might not really be meaningful statistics, but it does show that you’re going to be safe traveling around Iceland. The real danger comes from overconfidence in the natural environment.

a gift from Latvia to Iceland

inscription for Latvia’s gift to Iceland

It probably sucks to be in jail in Iceland though because there’s probably a small list circulated around the island and everyone will know that you’ve been to jail. I suppose it’ll be super easy to keep tabs on criminals when there aren’t that many to keep tabs of.

I like to take pictures of the local enforcement wherever I go. Is that weird? I guess so. But in Iceland we couldn’t find any enforcement to take pictures of. Maybe they’re all hanging out at the swimming pools sipping on some Brennivin (Iceland’s signature hard alcohol) and juice.

21. The government is in plain sight

You might pass by the prime minister’s house or the parliament building without realizing it because they are so unassuming. There’s also little to no security anywhere to be found. Furthermore, the buildings are within walking distance from Laugavegur with no fence or anything special to indicate that they were official buildings. They just kind of blend in with the rest of the city.

We had a map of downtown Reykjavik and walked around looking for the Parliament Building and walked right past it. Only after walking too far and circling back for a closer inspection did we realized which building was it. It seems as though we could have walked straight inside thinking it was a bar.

We also stumbled into City Hall. There was no indication that it was City Hall until we got inside and saw a sign. There wasn’t much going on that day except for a backgammon championship being streamed online. Yes, you heard me: backgammon championship.

Before we got to City Hall, we found an interesting sculpture in one of the gardens. After reading the scripture on it, it turned out to be a gift from Latvia. That’s when we realized we were walking around the ambassador residences. And again there were no security or fences that we could see.

22. Expect to pay a lot for food

Even with abundant green power available, green houses aren’t entirely commercialized for mass production yet in Iceland. Believe it or not, Iceland can grow a great variety of crops but greenhouses are still a private enterprise and privately owned by farmers. As such, Iceland depends heavily on import. It’s not a short distance to get bananas from South America to Iceland. On average, a sit down restaurant will cost somewhere between $35-$80 dollars per meal for 2 persons, including drinks and 2 entrees. Thank goodness tips aren’t expected.

23. What is Icelandic food?

I don’t know if I can really summarize Icelandic food into a cuisine like Szechuan. But here are a few dishes you’ll learn to love or hate in Iceland:

  1. Lamb/meat soup – this is a staple on the island. It’s especially delicious on a cold day and sometimes can be served in a bread bowl. You’ll realize soon enough that lamb is the equivalent of chicken in America because there are more sheep on the island than Icelanders.
  2. Skyr is like mild version of yogurt that has been a part of Icelandic cuisine for a thousand years. It can be enjoyed anytime of the day as a snack or a side with any meal. You must try this.
  3. Pylsur is hot dog made mostly from lamb with some beef and pork. It is not considered “fast food” or “mystery meat, don’t eat this more than once a year food” as in America. Pylsur is enjoyed by Icelanders anytime of the day. It’s a cheap option and is delicious because the meat is organic as it has been for as long as Icelanders have been eating lamb – free range, grass fed, and hormone free.
  4. Seafood is plentiful and for obvious reasons. Iceland is an island and fishing is one of the most popular activities there. Almost every restaurant will have a “fish of the day” option.


lamb soup

lamb soup

24. Whaling is legal and you can order whale at the restaurants

I don’t know how you feel about the whole whaling thing, but it’s still legal in Iceland as long as it’s for “scientific purposes.” Scientists only use a small part of the whale for experiments or whatever it is they use the whale for and the rest is made available to the public. It’s not really an Icelandic experience that you have to try. It’s more a novelty than anything.

But it’s available if you want to try. I did. I’m not going to lie, it was delicious and probably one of the best dishes I had while in Iceland – though I felt a little guilty for eating it. About 40% of whale consumption in Iceland is from tourists. And I believe only Minke whale is available. If there’s any solace, Minke whale is supposed to be abundant and not at any risk.

25. Iceland is not diverse

Supposedly when the first settlers arrived in Iceland, they could find the artic fox living there. Other animals living in the wild were introduced later: reindeer, mink, rats, and rabbits. Because the weather is so cold, these animals survive only by staying close to hotspots found on the island such as geothermal pools.

Diversity is such a problem that wild animals are not allowed to be imported to the island for fear of disrupting the ecosystems or bring diseases that could wipe out entire populations. Horses that leave the island, for example, are not allowed to come back. If you’re moving to Iceland and have a dog or a cat, expect a lengthy quarantine period before you’re allowed to bring them home (on the order of months).

As a matter of fact, Iceland is divided into 4 quadrants. Livestock within one quadrant are not allowed to be sold to any other quadrant. In the event of a disease outbreak, it would be able to limit the damage to just one quadrant.

26. Iceland is a small country (population wise)

Iceland currently has about 330,000 inhabitants and not growing all that fast. The population in 1960 was less than 200,000 people. The majority of the population (about 65%) lives in Reykjavik capital area with smaller pockets living throughout the island. So even though Reykjavik is considered a big city, it retains that small city charm.

27. There is no homelessness

At least none that we could readily see while we were there. It is a common problem for a lot of the major cities around the world but not here. I’m a sure there are some homeless population in Iceland, but like the prison population, you can probably name all the homeless people.

28. You can donate to send Icelanders on vacation

The latest GDP per capita for Iceland is somewhere around $45,000 as compared to $53,000 for the US; however, the distribution of wealth is a lot better in Iceland. And because of this, most Icelanders are doing all right. On our flights to/from Iceland, there is an option to donate to the local population. Right away I thought it’d be for something like education or to feed the homeless or housing for the poor or something along that line, but this was for sending people on vacation who normally can’t afford vacations. What?! That’s freaking amazing! Just think about that for a moment and what it means for the people living there.

29. The welcoming party at the airport is pretty awesome

I don’t know if this is a routine thing or a fluke. We arrived in Iceland on a red-eye flight. It was around 7 AM and people were tired. We were herded to the security checkpoints at the airport. Along the way, people were handing us bottles of water and chocolate to welcome us to Iceland. Seriously? I’m used to the TSA yelling at people so this didn’t feel real, but it was real. And it was awesome.

30. The Vikings were the first Europeans to come to America

We should really think about changing Columbus Day to Eriksson Day. Lief Eriksson was truly the first explorer to visit America. You can see his statue in front of Hallsgrimskija in Reykjavik. His story is especially interesting and I invite you to learn more by heading over to http://www.history.com/news/the-viking-explorer-who-beat-columbus-to-america.

31. Enjoy Icelandic nature, but don’t be a douche

I became aware Iceland and became obsessed with visiting the country because of the natural beauty of the island. After visiting the country, I am left in awe of it and planning to come back in the near future. I hope that as you make your way to Iceland that you respect the fragile and beautiful island and help to preserve it for all who’ll come. Use common sense and pick up after yourself. Don’t be selfish and obsessed with taking pictures that you endanger yourself, others, and the environment. I didn’t see litter while in Iceland and I hope when I come back it’ll be the same.

Thingvellir National Park, Iceland

Pingvellir National Park, Iceland

32. The visitor centers are super helpful

There is one in Laugavegur and it has a ton of information as well as attendants who will help you with all things Iceland. They can even check and tell you which tours are canceled and which are still on. We came here just to see what was going on and one of the attendants tipped us off that our tour was canceled. We immediately went back to the hotel to confirm and it was indeed true.

Don’t fret too much if you haven’t done tons of planning, go to a visitor center and they’ll help you plan your entire trip if needed.

33. Iceland is green, Greenland is ice

You might want to ask a tour guide or local Icelander why this is the case. I don’t think anyone really knows but here’s your chance to speculate. You may review the article on history.com linked above to formulate your answer. Or maybe visit this page to find out why http://anitasnotebook.com/travelstories/how-iceland-and-greenland-ended-up-with-such-messed-up-names/. This is on par with what was explained to us on our Golden Circle tour.

view from the top of Hallsgrimskija

view from the top of Hallsgrimskija

I hope I’ve given you enough cursory information about Iceland that either piqued your interest or make your planning a little easier. As I said before, I am planning to come back here soon. There is so much more to see and learn. To see details of my 4 days 3 nights Iceland trip, read Adventuring with 3 days in Iceland. If you’ve been to Iceland, please let me know what your fondest lesson or memory of it was.


33 Cool Tips for First Timers to Iceland

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