Tag Archives: Europe

Things I’ve been doing other than blogging

  1. Traveling for fun. We took our family trip to Germany and Belgium back in October (over 2 months ago – how crazy is that!) and I promise I will get around to blogging about that soon. Traveling with my parents was different, in a good way, as our budget was rather higher than what Adam and I usually have when we travel on our own. I discovered that Germany wasn’t my favorite country, and that I never care to go back to Brussels. But Bruges – that my friends is a magical city. I’m already planning our next trip; I’m thinking either Spain/Portugal or back to Italy (the country of my soul).

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    In summary, we did a lot of this.

  2. Traveling for work. In addition to my normal trips to DC, my company picked up a new client in Las Vegas, and I was there for two weeks – which, as you can imagine, is a looooong time to spend in Vegas. It’s hard for me to complain though, as the flight to Vegas is less than half of my flight time to DC, and Las Vegas restaurants are exponentially more enjoyable when someone else is picking up the tab. While we didn’t eat on the Strip every night, we did get to try several highly rated restaurants in different casinos, which is an experience in and of itself. One night my boss came to town and took us to Emeril’s Delmonico restaurant which was over-the-top delicious (with a price tag to match – not something I could ever afford on my own dime!) and served me the absolute best ahi tuna I have ever had in my entire life. I’m still dreaming about that meal.

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    I also got to drunkenly spend time with this stud, who is an exact replica of the original David, even down to the marble used. #onlyinvegas

  3. Hiked my first (and possibly last) 14’er. In Colorado, hiking a 14’er is a rite of passage. These routes are so named because they climb to an elevation of at least 14,000 feet. The “easy” 14’ers take about 5 hours round trip and are only 5 miles in distance. They go up in difficulty from there, with some covering 10 miles and requiring an 8+ hour time commitment. Because, in the words of my husband, “hiking is just walking, but for longer” (wrong – nothing is ever “just” at 14,000 feet altitude), we were over-ambitious and chose Mt. Bierstadt as our first mountain (ranked 38 out of 53 in terms of difficulty), rather than the much friendlier Torrey’s Peak (ranked only 9 out of 53). As we quickly learned, a 6-mile, 2,000 ft. elevation gain is nothing to laugh at, and 1/2 way into the ascent, neither of us were remotely pleased with life. But we stuck it out, were rewarded with Clif bars, buffalo jerky, and excellent views at the top, and I can cross it off my bucket list.

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    Reached the top! Finally smiling.

  4. Hosted my first Thanksgiving. Although I’ve done Thanksgiving cooking for Adam and I for the past 4 years, it’s always been only the two of us, so the quantity of food isn’t that different and the pressure was never very high. Usually, we just grill Cornish game hens rather than doing a full turkey. This year, though, my parents came up from Florida, and even though they have to love me no matter what, the stakes were raised a bit. Fortunately, the turkey turned out wonderfully – even I thought so, and I’m not a turkey fan. I dry-brined and spatchcocked it for more even cooking. Served along with traditional Thanksgiving sides, it was a wonderful meal, and of course it meant so much that my parents made the journey out. My mom spent most of her time cleaning, reorganizing, and helping me complete house projects I’d been meaning to get around to, but we also took some time to play in the snow, grab Starbucks peppermint mochas, shop, and pick out a Christmas tree. It was a pretty perfect week of vacation.

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    My mom is loving this. My dad is wearing long underwear, two sweaters, a scarf, a hat, gloves (with hand-warmers), extra-thick socks, and is tolerating this.

  5. Waking up earlier to enjoy morning coffee and sunrises in a quiet house. I used to be a huge morning person – even in college I was up before the sun (and everyone else) 98% of the time. I was that weirdo who purposely scheduled 8AM classes – and liked it. But since I started working from home, I slipped into a bad habit of sleeping until my husband’s alarm clock went off at 7:15. I make him breakfast every morning, and he needs to be out of the house by 7:45 to make his daily 8AM meeting. Waking up that late kept stressing me out, and even though getting out of a warm bed while it’s still cold and dark isn’t easy, I’m so much happier overall. My alarm goes off at 5:45AM and I have time to make coffee, do some dishes, catch up on emails, and watch the sun rise. It’s the perfect routine for me and I’m glad to have rediscovered my inner morning person!

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    Trees on fire

  6. Trying to compose a Christmas list like a gosh-darn adult. Here’s what I should be putting on my Christmas wish list: a new faucet for the kitchen, snow tires (as we just got another foot of snow here in Denver and we’re on track to have one of the snowiest winters in recent memory), furniture (right now our TV is propped up on a chair from the kitchen table and we have a spare mattress doing stand-in duty as a couch in the basement), Home Depot gift cards, money to pay someone to put insulation in our 50+ year-old home (see the part about the snow), a snowblower, and so so many other things we need for our first home. What I want to put on my Christmas wish list is a little different: a jewelry subscription from Erin McDermott (you know, because I toooootally get dressed and wear jewelry when I work from home #not), overpriced gym clothes (but they’re SO CUTE – send help), money to put towards our next Europe trip, cozy sweaters, and a gift card to our favorite pizzeria in Denver, plus a bajillion other superficial things that I just don’t need, dammit. Adulting is overrated.
  7. Ordered new blinds. The front of our house has two large sets of windows – my husband pulled one set of blinds down within 2 weeks of us moving into the house, and a foster dog shredded the other set when we left her alone in the house for too long and she escaped from her crate. They were the cheap, plastic variety, so I don’t mind replacing them, but talk about the least fun thing to spend money on in the history of ever. I suppose it’s a small price to pay to spare our 80-year-old neighbors the shock of seeing us walk around less than fully clothed.h5qsgltx6rzmzr9y8xvrwc1dcuspc2itfdldryckbpaizqd4mvgbj-dvjwqhs3gtwbaaemf1bi-q_5-2po_td3zdfnch_6sxda68ttvhzh-tc_gy5x49c3rrva1

And that’s about it! I was trying to get to 10, but I simply haven’t done enough fun/cool/blog-worthy things. We leave for Florida next week to spend Christmas with my family, which will be a weather change from this snowy tundra, to say the least. Denver is predicted to have a white Christmas while Florida is….predicted to be 85 and sunny. I never thought in a million years that I’d be saying this, but after spending the past week bundled up like an eskimo and shoveling snow from our driveway, sidewalk, and walkway, I might not might a bit of warm weather.

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How to plan a trip to Europe – Part II

I interrupted this series to share our big news (we bought a house!), but now I’m back with Part II of How to Plan a Trip to Europe.

The first part of this series was all about getting together a vague outline, and we determined, generally, the who, where, when of the trip. This part is all about drilling down to specifics to end up with a moderately detailed daily itinerary.

Luxembourg garden, Paris.

Luxembourg garden, Paris.

Although first, I suppose I should convince you of why you need to go through all this effort in the first place? Couldn’t you just buy plane tickets, make some hotel reservations, show up, and figure it out once you get there? Well, sure. It’s your vacation, so you do you.

But consider this. In Florence, there are five sites that are widely considered “must-see” (the Duomo, its bell tower, and Baptistery; the Accademia, home of Michelangelo’s David; the Uffizi Gallery, which displays countless Italian masterpieces, including works by Simone Martini, Fra Angelico, Sandro Botticelli, and the like; the Palazzo Vecchio; and the Ponte Vecchio bridge). Then you have the other blockbusters (the churches of Santa Croce, Santa Maria Novella, and San Marco, the Bargello museum, and Piazzale Michelangelo and nearby San Miniato church), and even more amazing museums, churches, markets, bridges, and shopping districts. Then consider that lines for the blockbuster sites can be hours long, even during the off-season, and that certain sites are open early, some stay open late, and they all close on various days of the week. How in the world would you keep that all straight? And wouldn’t it be a shame to spend all that money on a trip to Florence and not be able to enjoy as many of its amazing sites as reasonably possible?

Lines at major European sites can be hours long. Don’t waste precious time during your vacation standing in line behind a bunch of sweaty, smelly tourists. You’re better than that! (Image source here.)

Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your- trust me. A little planning before your trip will make your vacation so. much. better.

Trip Planning – Part II

(Remember, steps 1 – 5 were covered in the Trip Planning – Part I post.)

6. Finalize travel dates, make a list of cities, and buy flights. Now that you’ve decided on a general destination, confirm travel dates with everyone in the group (plus or minus a few days to allow for savings on airfare). Make a list of cities that sound interesting, then do some more research, considering where you could fly into or out of. Go through and prioritize the cities you’ve written down – which deserve more time, which can be done as day trips, which can be cut? Keep in mind airfare costs, distance between cities, balancing busy cities with relaxed towns, and practicality of transportation. Booking airfare is my least favorite part, but it’s worthwhile to investigate several different options on multiple carriers and websites. Remember that it’s usually better to fly “open-jaw”, into and out of different cities; not only do you get to see more without having to return to a city you’ve already visited, it’s usually cheaper. I prefer to visit fewer cities for longer periods of time to cut down on moving between hotels; for a two week trip, I would do no more than 7 overnight cities, and even less than that if we were a larger group.  For our two week trip to Germany and Belgium this fall, here’s our plan:

Munich – 3 nights

Staufen – 2 nights

Baden-Baden – 1 night

Bacharach – 2 nights

Bruges – 3 nights

Brussels – 3 nights

Italian Monastery, Assisi.

Italian Monastery.

7. Lock down hotel reservations (maybe). If you’re traveling during a large festival or during peak season, make sure to book rooms as early as possible. For travel during the off-season, you can leave this step until later or even book as you go, depending on how comfortable you are with spontaneity. When it was just Adam and I traveling through Italy in the winter, we emailed hotels a few days in advance or our arrival and never had an issue. We were also able to save quite a bit of money. However, for our trip to Germany in September, I’ve already booked all hotel rooms for the entire trip, since we’ll be traveling during shoulder season and will need two rooms (one for us, one for my parents) in each hotel.

8. Sketch a daily itinerary, but remember to be flexible. A daily itinerary is much more important for big cities with major sites (London, Paris, Rome, Florence, Amsterdam, Berlin) than it is for small towns. For each city on your list, determine which attractions you’d like to see, then go through and prioritize (sense a theme?). You likely won’t be able to see everything, so don’t even try. Tell yourself you will return. I’ve been to London, Paris, and Rome multiple times and haven’t even come close to crossing everything off on my list. Take advantage of sites that are open early or late, and buy advance tickets if possible, but don’t try to cram in too much! My general guideline is that we spend half the day doing planned sightseeing in museums, churches, etc. and the other half soaking up the local culture in parks, cafes, or wandering in back alleys. In Florence, for example, I wouldn’t plan to visit the Accademia, Uffizi, Bargello, and Duomo all in the same day. That leaves no time for enjoying la dolce vita! Rather, we’d visit the Accademia in the morning, have a relaxing picnic lunch, escape the afternoon heat by wandering through the Bargello museum, and finish the day by watching the sun set over the city at Piazzale Michelangelo. For major sites, definitely buy advance tickets unless you plan to buy a city pass that allows you to skip the lines. And don’t be afraid to switch things up once you arrive! Maybe the weather today isn’t ideal for wandering through the gardens of Versailles, or you just don’t feel like stepping foot in another museum. European vacations are about so much more than the sights – it’s about the experience, the food, the joy of the unknown and unfamiliar. I believe that the best travel recommendations come from people you know, so be open to changing your itinerary if a coworker, friend, or favorite blogger who has recently visited your destination tells you about a spot they particularly loved.

View over the Seine, Paris.

View over the Seine, Paris.

9. Read up on your destination and get excited! Your trip is mostly planned, so now you can move on to the fun part. I love reading books and watching movies about the cities or countries we’re visiting, whether they’re historical fiction or current documentaries. In my opinion, the more you know about a destination, the more interesting it is when you visit. Read the news and stay informed about national events. Most European citizens (especially in larger cities) speak at least some English and would love to discuss current events with you. There’s also a somewhat negative perception among Europeans that all Americans care about is their own country, so let’s all work to change that image. Most importantly, get excited for your vacation! Not only will you not be working (the best part about vacations, in my opinion), you’ll be broadening your world and expanding your horizons, and all that research will certainly pay off!

What do you think? Is my trip planning overkill? How do you go about picking a vacation spot? Have your favorite trips been planned or more spontaneous? Where should we travel next?

How to plan a trip to Europe – Part I

As I’ve probably mentioned before, travel is where Adam and I spent the bulk of our disposable income, and we save all year in order to afford it. Generally, once a year, we take two weeks off and head to Europe. In 2013, we spent a month in Italy while we were both between jobs. In 2014, we visited Iceland, London, Paris, and Normandy. For 2015, rather than receiving a Christmas gift from my parents, we’re heading with them to Germany and Belgium this September.

I’ve spoken to so many people who treat trip planning as the worst part about vacation, but for me, it’s one of the most exciting. It helps that I am almost too Type-A to function (name that movie), and that I read travel guides like some people read mystery novels. When a friend’s trip to Japan had to be postponed due to family issues, she and her husband decided to switch their plans and travel through Europe for 2 weeks instead. I practically begged her to let me plan their trip. Dazed and confused, she agreed, wondering why anyone would want to do all that work for a trip they weren’t taking. But for me, trip planning isn’t work, it’s fun. (I know, it’s a problem, send help.) It seems overwhelming at first, but it helps to break it down into multiple steps.

My strategy is to start with the big picture, and work down into the details, similar to starting with an outline for an essay and filling in the specifics later. I also start trip planning months in advance. This gives you lots of time to delve into it slowly and to adjust as the situation changes. I have been planning our Germany/Belgium trip for the fall of 2015 since Christmas of 2014. That’s not to say that a trip can’t be planned in less time – my point here is that it’s never too early to start. With that said, let’s get going!

Trip Planning – Part I

The initial phase of trip planning should be very, very vague, and is actually the most difficult. Ideally, this phase happens at least 4 months before your trip, though up to a year is not uncommon for me (see above). Just keep in mind that plans change, and remember to be flexible. This is your vacation – not an obligation – and it should be fun!

1. First things first – who, when, how long, how much? Determine your trip length, timing, rough budget, and number of travelers, before you even start considering destinations. Two travelers have significantly more flexibility than a group of eight. Only have a week? Maybe you want to go somewhere with a shorter flight time – like London or Dublin. Tight budget? Travel during the off-season and avoid more expensive countries (England, Iceland, the Scandinavian countries). Keep in mind that Adam and I spent the same amount of money ($6,000) to travel to Italy for a month (that’s our total cost, including airfare, hotels, meals, etc., for both of us) in the winter as we did to travel to Iceland, London, and Paris for two weeks during the fall. I do my best to avoid Europe during the summer, as it’s generally more hot, more crowded, and more expensive, but if summer is the only time you can fit in a trip to Europe, it’s still doable. Just consider that planning will be more important that it would be for traveling during the off-season, as hotels, flights, etc. are going to book up more quickly.

Sunset in Assisi, Italy. January 2013.

Sunset in Assisi, Italy. January 2013.

2. Generally, where do you want to go? Consider the items discussed in 1, above, and keep in mind that this should be an extremely vague region or country – not a list of cities. (Patience, young grasshopper – we’ll get to that part!) I find it helpful to pull up a map of Europe so I have a better understanding of the layout. Due to geographical configuration, some countries may work better as their own destination (Italy), while others could be combined (Belgium/The Netherlands). For our upcoming trip, my husband knew he wanted to travel to Germany, so we used that as our starting point and worked from there. If you’re open to a variety of countries, check out Google Flights and do an open-ended search to Europe to compare flight prices to all sorts of destinations. Or visit your favorite airline’s website to see if they’re offering any deals. Lufthansa regularly has good deals during the off-season, and is by far my favorite international carrier.

London, England. October 2014

London, England. October 2014

3. What kind of traveler are you? Spend some time reflecting on the travel style and likes/dislikes of the individuals going on the trip. Are you traveling with kids, older adults, or a large group? Consider establishing a “home base” for most or all of the time and taking day trips from there. Is this your first time to Europe or abroad, or are you a group of fairly experienced travelers? For newbies, maybe it’s best to start somewhere familiar (London) and gradually work east as everyone becomes more comfortable.

For the upcoming trip, our group’s “travel profile” looks something like this: 4 able-bodied adults, experienced travelers, selective cultural highlights (not too many museums or churches), prefer a mix of big cities and small towns, need plenty of time to drink beer. 

My husband, the carnivore. Bolzano, Italy. January 2013

My husband, the carnivore. Bolzano, Italy. January 2013

4. Investigate logistics. Once you have a general idea of where you want to go, do some research to make sure it’s feasible for your group. Can you find flights within your budget? Are there any conferences or festivals that are going to make certain cities more crowded/expensive on certain dates (i.e. Oktoberfest)? (I find the Rick Steves website helpful for this purpose – from the homepage, click on Explore Europe, then your country of choice, then Plan. For each country, you can see a listing of upcoming holidays and festivals.) Remember that airline prices can change drastically from one day to the next, so I like to check several times over the course of a month to and from various destinations to get a general idea of flight costs. Once I’m mostly sure that flight prices are going to be reasonable, I move on to the next step.

5. Do some research! For me, this translates to – buy a guidebook! This is, far and away my favorite part (if you couldn’t already tell from the double exclamation marks). Of course, you could use all the wonderful free resources that are available, from the internet, your local library, and friends, coworkers, and acquaintences. But for me, buying a new guidebook is like getting an early Christmas present. Once I’m reasonably certain about our travel destination, I like to skim through the guidebook to make sure I’m not missing anything. Maybe I thought I wanted to visit Frankfurt but once I read more about it, I decide that it’s skippable. Either way, I’ll need my own guidebook eventually. I’m almost embarrassed to share this with the internet, but this is what my books look like when I’m done with them.

Guidebooks

Yes, those are color-coded sticky tabs and yes I did make my husband appropriate them from work. Just be glad you can’t see the inside pages which are full of highlights, underlines, and hand-written notes.

Now that you have a rough outline of the trip, the next stage is to fill in the details! Stay tuned for Part II of the series on how I work through the rest of the trip to come up with a detailed daily itinerary.

Europe 2014 – Bayeux

From Paris, we took a train to Bayeux, a small town famous for a certain tapestry. After the hustle and bustle of two major cities (London and Paris), we were ready for some small-town ambience and relaxation. Bayeux would also serve as a great home base for exploring the nearby D-Day beaches.

We arrived in Bayeux, dropped our bags off at our wonderful bed & breakfast, and set out to explore the town. After a quick stroll, we arrived at the cathedral, the heart of Bayeux.

Bayeux is only 6 miles from the D-Day beaches, but incredibly, the city (and its magnificent cathedral) was spared destruction during WWII because a local chaplain made sure the Allied forces knew that Bayeux was not a German headquarters. The cathedral, dating back to 1077, is as large as Notre Dame in Paris, and absolutely dominates the city. Historians believe the Bayeux Tapestry originally hung in the nave, which is decorated with Norman geometric carvings.

Bayeux was the first city liberated after the D-Day landings, and there are memorial plaques all around the city to commemorate the victory and give thanks for the American and British troops.

We watched the sun set behind the cathedral, then headed to a cafe for onion soup, crepes, and wine. It was an incredible, relaxing day.

For more information on our Europe 2014 trip, check out these other blog posts:

  • 2 nights in Reykjavik  Hallgrimskirkja church, yummy food, and gorgeous scenery
  • London Part I – arrival in London, fish & chips, a snazzy pub, and the British Library
  • London Part II – walking tour of London highlights, Westminster Abbey, and an Irish pub
  • London Part III – St. Paul’s, Borough Market, and an incredible WWI memorial at the Tower of London
  • Paris Part Ia walk through Luxembourg gardens and sunset at the Eiffel Tower
  • Paris Part IIthree blockbuster sites: Notre Dame, Versailles, and Sainte Chapelle
  • Paris Part III – the Louvre, Musée d’Orsay, and Auguste Rodin museum
  • D-Day Beaches – paying tribute to the Greatest Generation
  • Mont Saint-Michel – an abbey on an island

Europe 2014 – London Part I

From Reykjavik, we hopped a plane to London, only a few hours away. Due to weather-related delays (of course it snowed the morning we left Iceland), we didn’t arrive into Gatwick until noon, and by the time we took the train into the city and checked in at our hotel near Victoria Station, it was nearly 2pm and we were ravenous. Using Yelp (love it when restaurant reviews are in my language), we found a nearby pub supposedly famous for – what else – fish and chips. The meal was far from healthy, but the portions were huge, the fish was perfectly cooked, and the prices (for London) were reasonable. Feeling fueled and appropriately “Londonized”, we headed off to see the city.

Standing outside at the Reykjavik bus terminal in the middle of the snow.

Standing outside at the Reykjavik bus terminal in the middle of the snow.

I’d been to London before, about 5 years ago, on a girls trip with my mom, aunts, cousin, and grandmother. We’d spent 4 days in the city and had covered most of the museums and major sites. My husband, while an avid traveler, is not nearly the museum geek that I am, so on this trip, we focused on seeing more of the city itself and spending less time indoors (although we did make an exception for pubs).

It's not exactly the best photo, but you get the idea. Mmmmm fried food.

It’s not the best photo, but you get the idea. Mmmmm fried food. (You can tell this is my husband’s plate because everything is doused in pepper.)

One site that I refused to pass up, even though I’d already been, was the Treasurers of the British Library. For the price of free (!!), you can see an incredible collection of historical manuscripts and other treasured pieces of writing. Along with historical heavy-hitters such as a Gutenberg Bible, the Lindisfarne Gospels, and a notebook of Leonardo da Vinci, there is an impressive collection of maps, plus writing from other famous, more contemporary authors. Think drafts of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, scraps of paper that start to tell the story of The Boy Who Lived (that would be Harry Potter), music scores of Beatles lyrics edited by John Lennon and Paul McCartney, and so many others that I’m forgetting. Let’s just say the British Library is my happy place, and I would have stayed for hours if not for my patient and good-natured, but clearly ready to leave, husband. He’s a good sport, but history isn’t really his first love.

Beer, though, that’s something we both love. I’m especially enthusiastic when I can get my beer in a beautiful, Victorian setting, such as the Princess Louise, which is located not far from the British Library. The interior decorations of the Princess Louise date from the late 1800s, and pictures, even professional ones such as the one below, do not do it justice. The entrance leads you into a long hallway, off of which several partitioned “drinking spaces” give access to the bar. There is stunning detail everywhere you look – stained or etched glass, intricate mosaics, carefully carved wooden panels. I’ll tell ya, drinking in places like these can put all your other favorite bars in a rather harsh perspective!

Interior of Princess Louise. Photo taken by Michael Slaughter for heritagepubs.org.uk.

After our beers, it was time to head to dinner. It was drizzly outside, so we decided to take a bus over to Soho, one of the most famous and vibrant London neighborhoods, known for its conglomeration of delicious ethnic restaurants. Traffic in London is pretty awful, so buses aren’t exactly the most efficient form of transportation, but sometimes it’s nice to watch the city creep by from the top of a double-decker bus, rather than have it zoom by underground.

My husband is a fanatic for Chinese food, so we decided on Y Ming Chinese Restaurant, known for authentic Northern Chinese cooking. I can’t remember what we ordered, and I have a fairly strict “no pictures at the table” restaurant policy. I do remember really enjoying mine (some sort of slurpy noodle soup, I think), while my husband wasn’t as thrilled about his. Overall, it was a good meal, but certainly not the best we had in London.

Our first afternoon in London was pretty rainy and nasty, so we didn’t take any pictures with our nice camera. Next post will cover our walking tour of London, for which we had amazing weather, and will be full of photos!

For more information on our Europe 2014 trip, check out these other blog posts:

  • 2 nights in Reykjavik  Hallgrimskirkja church, yummy food, and gorgeous scenery
  • London Part II – walking tour of London highlights, Westminster Abbey, and an Irish pub
  • London Part III – St. Paul’s, Borough Market, and an incredible WWI memorial at the Tower of London
  • Paris Part Ia walk through Luxembourg gardens and sunset at the Eiffel Tower
  • Paris Part IIthree blockbuster sites: Notre Dame, Versailles, and Sainte Chapelle
  • Paris Part III – the Louvre, Musée d’Orsay, and Auguste Rodin museum
  • Bayeux – small town France
  • D-Day Beaches – paying tribute to the Greatest Generation
  • Mont Saint-Michel – an abbey on an island

Europe 2014 – 2 nights in Reykjavik

Thanks to a few Icelandair advertisements strategically placed in DC metro stations, I learned about their free stopover policy several months ago. It’s only a 5 hour flight from DC (Dulles) to Reykjavik, and then just under 3 hours from Reykjavik to London, so it seemed like a great way to break up a long trans-Atlantic trip. I’ve wanted to visit Iceland ever since I read Jar City by Icelandic author Arnaldur Indridason, and fitting it in on our way to London turned out to be perfect.

Iceland

Our flight left Dulles at 8:30pm on Saturday and touched down in Reykjavik at 6:30am local time. Because we were visiting in late October, the sun wasn’t yet up, and wouldn’t be for another few hours. We never check bags, unless the flight attendants are particularly nasty (they weren’t), so we were able to go straight through customs with our carry-ons and were on a bus into town within 30 minutes. Reykjavik airport is small and efficient. The drive took about 45 minutes total; I can’t say I was awake for any or all of it. After a quick switch at the bus terminal (tour buses and narrow Reykjavik streets aren’t exactly compatible), the mini bus dropped us right around the corner from our incredible airbnb house, which I found for loads cheaper than any of the other hotels in Reykjavik.

Despite all the warnings about napping and jet lag, we were going on a few hours of sleep at best, and the down comforters on the king size bed were too much to resist. We decided that if the sun wasn’t up yet, we didn’t need to be either.

A few hours later, with sunlight streaming through our window, we found the energy to get out of bed, shower, and bundle up to explore the city. Temperatures were in the low 30s – not exactly warm, but certainly bearable. First up, the church of Hallgrimskirkja, which looks unlike any other church I’ve ever seen.

Hallgrimskirkja

The church was right up the street from our airbnb house and is said to have been designed to resemble the basalt lava flows in Iceland’s landscape. The statue in front is of Leif Eriksson, famous Icelandic explorer. The church is free to enter, but is very spartan inside, keeping with the Lutheran tradition.

Inside Hallgrimskirkja

Inside Hallgrimskirkja is bright and airy and worlds away from the embellished and adorned Catholic cathedrals I’m used to visiting in Europe. At the back of the church is a large and beautiful pipe organ, the only adornment. The organ weighs 25 tons.

Hallgrimskirkja pipe organ

Although the organ is impressive, the real attraction, in my opinion, is the bell tower, which is open to visitors for a small fee (I believe it was Ikr 900 per person – just over $7). You buy tickets in the small gift shop, then take a very small elevator all the way to the top.

Hallgrimskirkja square

Reykjavik view

Reykjavik view

After our tour of Hallgrimskirkja, it was time for lunch. We quickly found out that food in Iceland is expensive, so we turned to a local hole-in-the-wall noodle place for a hearty, warming meal on the cheap. I can’t remember the name of it, but it was popular and amazing. Hubby got chicken, I got veggies, both extra spicy. It was deeeeelicious.

Noodle lunch After lunch, the plan was to walk down to the harbor area and do some sightseeing, but the weather had other ideas. Just as we were heading out, it started pouring. Already cold and tired, we were not ready to add soaking wet to the mix, so we opted for a low-key afternoon in a coffee shop with our books and bowls of steaming lattes. Eventually, the rain stopped and we ventured out to do some browsing in the shops along Laugavegur, where I picked up a souvenir from the Handknitting Association of Iceland (see photo below).

This hat my look silly, but it was warm!

This hat may look silly, but it is warm!

After an early dinner (we ate at Fish, which was ok but not great), it was time for bed. None of the legendary Reykjavik pub crawl action for us! I’m not as young as I used to be, folks.

Day Two in Reykjavik was sunny, but cold with a biting wind. We spent the day wandering around town, window shopping, and trying to stay warm.

Colorful houses

Beatles bar

I let my husband steal my hat to keep warm

I let my husband steal my hat to keep warm

Lunch at Snaps

Lunch at Snaps

For lunch, we decided to splurge on the lunch special at Snaps restaurant (located in the Hotel Odensve). We were not disappointed! The menu descriptions were victim of a little mistranslation (the description on my husband’s meal – the far plate in the photo said “open faced sandwich”), but both dishes were incredible. We couldn’t believe how much food we received for the price (Ikr 1800 per plate) – especially when prices for similar restaurants were at least Ikr 2200.

After lunch, we caught a bus out to Laugardalslaug, one of the local swimming pools on the outskirt of town. While not nearly as resort-like as the famous Blue Lagoon, it was incredibly nice for loads cheaper. One thing you must do in Iceland, either at Blue Lagoon or at a local pool, is take a dip in a “hot pot” – a small pool naturally heated by geothermal springs. Basking in clear blue water, naturally heated to 104 degrees, while the snow falls was easily our favorite experience in Iceland. I didn’t visit Blue Lagoon, so I can’t compare, but I highly recommend Laugardalslaug – it’s easy to get to, incredibly clean, and we were the only non-Icelandic people there. I wish I had taken a picture, but I find that hot tubs and iPhones aren’t the best of friends.

After a few hours lounging in the hot pots, it was time to catch the bus back into town, find something for dinner, and go to bed early before our 4am wakeup call. Next stop – London!

Check out these other posts to read about the rest of our Europe 2014 trip! 

  • London Part I – arrival in London, fish & chips, a snazzy pub, and the British Library
  • London Part II – walking tour of London highlights, Westminster Abbey, and an Irish pub
  • London Part III – St. Paul’s, Borough Market, and an incredible WWI memorial at the Tower of London
  • Paris Part Ia walk through Luxembourg gardens and sunset at the Eiffel Tower
  • Paris Part IIthree blockbuster sites: Notre Dame, Versailles, and Sainte Chapelle
  • Paris Part III – the Louvre, Musée d’Orsay, and Auguste Rodin museum
  • Bayeux – small town France
  • D-Day Beaches – paying tribute to the Greatest Generation
  • Mont Saint-Michel – an abbey on an island