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One word that is often used to describe everything about this rugged little island nation in the North Atlantic is unique. In Iceland, there are certain landscapes and quirky cultural factors that combine to make your experience here unlikely to be found in other places. Here are the most unique experiences you can have in Reykjavik.
The Icelandic language, being the root of all of the other Scandinavian languages, makes it the closest to the Old Norse which the Icelandic sagas were written in during the 12th century. This means that if you manage to pick up a sentence or two of Icelandic, such as how to order a cup of coffee – Má ég að fá eitt kaffi bolla? – you are essentially ordering in Old Norse. Where else can you do this?
With the Aurora Borealis visible for nearly eight months of the year, from late August to April, your chances of seeing them are pretty high, even from the capital which has pretty minimal light pollution. If you are lucky enough to catch them in Reykjavik, head to the city pool Sundhöllin and bask in the rooftop’s geothermal hot tub.
Hákarl is a very Icelandic specialty. Originating from the days when food needed to be purified during the long winters, hákarl is processed from Greenlandic Shark – which was traditionally buried under rocks for about six months and then hung to dry for another three months. The taste has been likened to blue cheese but 1,000 times stronger in taste and smell. You can get it at a few restaurants downtown that offer traditional Icelandic food.
It is a well-known rumor in Iceland that elves and mythical creatures exist in the Icelandic countryside, although it’s more often told as a tall tale for tourism. Some take the folktales surrounding the elf myths more seriously than others; if you want to learn more from the experts in the business, you can attend the Elf School located just outside of Reykjavik in Hafnarfjörður.
Truly one of a kind, The Icelandic Phallological Museum houses the world’s largest collection of penises and penile parts. Located in downtown Reykjavik, the museum has a collection of more than 250 phallic specimens, belonging to almost all the land and sea mammals found in Iceland.
Another part of the spectrum of food that traditionally began when Iceland’s long winters meant food scarcity, and therefore no part of the animal being wasted, sheep’s head is just what it sounds like. The whole head is eaten, with the exception of the brain; some consider the cheek, tongue, and eyes as the best parts. It just tastes exactly like lamb or mutton, but it is the presentation that is so unique.
This architectural gem features a distinct glass façade reminiscent of the natural basalt columns found in the Icelandic landscape. Opened in 2011, this artistic and cultural center is a venue for many concerts and festivals, and offers great views of the surrounding mountains and the North Atlantic Ocean.
The first hotdog stand in Iceland was set up in 1937 in Reykjavik in another location from the most famous one now standing on the corner of Tryggvagata. In 2004, Bill Clinton was seen ordering a hotdog from the stand during a conference he attended at Harpa. The rest is history as his endorsement blasted the stand into popularity. In 2006, The Guardian named it the best hotdog stand in Europe. It is recommended to order one with everything which includes ketchup, sweet mustard, remoulade, fried onions, and raw onions.
There are a number of whale watching tour companies departing from the Old Harbour in Reykjavik. While it is most pleasant in the summertime on a warmer day when the marine mammals are feeding in the bay, a winter tour can sometimes bring sightings as well. You can see dolphins, minke whales, blue whales, humpbacks, harbour porpoises, as well as birdlife like puffins and guillemot. A truly mesmerizing experience with a view of Mount Esja across the bay.
Instead of the traditional solo Santa who lives at the North Pole and visits once a year, Iceland has 13 yule lads, who are like Santa’s band of quirky, mischievous brothers. They are reputed to live in Dimmuborgir, the mystical black lava landscape in the North of Iceland. As the tale goes, the 13 brothers come one by one from the mountain beginning on the first day of Advent, and after Christmas they each leave one by one back to the mountain. Also, if you don’t receive new clothes to wear at Christmas, their cat will eat you.