Last weekend the family and I went on a little weekend trip to London (England, not Ontario) to decompress after a insanely busy summer of building an empire. We had a jolly good time (one of my favorites was this walking tour we did with Alternative London) but I couldn’t help but compare it with my little Reykjavík and what it’s like to be a tourist in both those cities. Although Reykjavík of course pales in comparison when it comes to shopping, variety of food on offer, cultural melting pots and so forth I am going to claim here and now, without any hesitation, that it’s much easier to visit than London. Here’s why:
Reykjavík is a spread out city compared to the number of inhabitants (around 130.000). A couple of reasons is the height (or lack thereof) of the houses and lots of single family housing. Thankfully though most of the things that are of interest to the visitors in Reykjavík is concentrated to a tiny area in the city center. In London we had to walk 10 minutes or so to the nearest tube station to go anywhere (although we discovered that walking places was actually quicker and nicer) but here in Reykjavík you can basically walk from one end of the downtown area to the other in 20 minutes or so. It’s a VERY walkable city.
If you decide to save a little by booking a hotel outside of the city center (like the Hilton Nordica or the Grand Hotel for example) you can be in the center in 15 minutes if you take a bus. Or even quicker with taxi. Because of its size it’s also relatively easy to figure the city out. The streets don’t have multiple names and they are fairly straightforward. If everything else fails, all roads lead to Hallgrímskirkja anyway.
I don’t think I’m exaggerating when I say that Reykjavík is probably one of the safest capitals in the world. There’s no place in the downtown area where I wouldn’t walk alone at night and I’m never worried about my belongings. That doesn’t mean you should be stupid and leave your stuff unattended all over the place but you definitely don’t have to worry about pick-pocketing or anything of that sort.There are no taxi scams or “friendly” locals leading you into dark alleys (I mean, during summer we don’t even have dark alleys).
I think solo female travelers maybe worry about this aspect of their travel the most. They don’t need to in Reykjavík.
Lack of choices
I know lack of choices is normally not a positive thing but hear me out. In London the family and I wandered aimlessly between restaurants forever one day, so hungry that we were probably secretly contemplating snacking on each other, as we couldn’t decide on where to go. There were so many restaurants, so many places selling exactly the same things and they all cost approximately the same. We were completely lost and ended up eating bland pasta with a side of rude waiter. We punished him by only giving him the standard amount in tips. We sure did show him!
Also, attractions. London has so many attractions. We couldn’t possibly cover them all in one go, actually we probably couldn’t have covered 1% of them during our little weekend getaway. Choices and variety are a great thing when you live somewhere but it just makes the life of an over-analyzing decision-phobic more complicated during a short visit (wait, you’re not all like that?).
Reykjavík is simple. There’s a handful of good Indian places, one Ethiopian place in Flúðir if you are willing to drive the distance for your food and the restaurants are either fancy and pricey or not so fancy and slightly less pricey. There’s also a plenty to see but not too much. If you like history museums you can go to the National Museum or the Settlement Exhibition. If you like penises you go to the Penis Museum. Simple!
Did I just mention cannibalism and my family in the same sentence?
Number of tourists
Once upon a time the national sport of Iceland was hot dog eating. Nowadays it’s complaining about the number of tourists in Iceland. Said Icelanders should go abroad more and experience Oxford Street on a Saturday afternoon. Or anywhere in New York. People running around like ants everywhere. Although there’s quite a bit of tourists around in Reykjavík at the height of summer, especially when there are several big cruise ships at the harbor, it’s nothing compared to the Charles Bridge in Prague. Or the Piazza San Marco in Venice.
The fact of the matter is that outside those three months a year, or when the weather is unusually good, there’s not a lot of people around in Reykjavík. You have space for your thoughts and your shoulders don’t get a beating every two minutes when somebody brushes past you, muttering they are sorry like it means something.
Lines and queues
As we were traveling around London on a Saturday afternoon we noticed people standing in impossibly long queues all over town. First we thought that there was something special going on that particular day but later we discovered that people were simply waiting to enter popular attractions. The National Gallery had a line. St Paul’s too. The the house opposite Big Ben, that none of us could figure out what was, also had a line and ushers doing their usher things.
Then on the Sunday we took the princess to Madame Tussauds because she was really excited about it (us: less excited) but we had booked a ticket online which gave us an allotted time slot to make the entrance speedier. When we got there we waited in line to get in with everyone else allotted the exact same time slot. Then we waited in line to get a photo with basically any wax figure. We then waited in line for the Scream attraction. And for the Marvel comics attraction. The only place where there was no line was the gift shop.
I think I can say with some certainty that you’ll never encounter a 500 meter long queue to enter the National Museum. Or the Penis museum. Or even Bæjarins Beztu although the line there is unusually long for Icelandic standards and you might have to wait 5-7 minutes (gasp!) for service.