Iceland is a nation that holds a special place in the hearts of many people from many places for many different reasons. Whether it’s the rolling landscapes, the charming countryside, or the vibrant capital city, Iceland’s geography never ceases to captivate and inspire all who visit. Wivian Kristiansen—a school teacher from Norway—first encountered Iceland as a child, not through a vacation, not through friends or family ties, but rather through a little-known children’s story book by an obscure Danish author (Inga Islandsfarer by Estrid Ott).
Ever since she read this special book, Wivian resolved to move to Iceland one day so that she could learn the country’s unique language in-depth. In 2013, she temporarily uprooted her life in Norway, enrolled at the University of Iceland, and made her long-held dream a reality. An avid fan of Icelandic culture, music, and city life, Wivian—who is leaving Iceland in May, after residing in Reykjavík for almost three years—has the inside scoop on what to see and what to do, for visitors in search of an authentic Icelandic experience.
Wivian, who currently works part-time at an after school program for young kids, can vividly recollect the moment Iceland entered her life and consciousness.
“I’ve been obsessed about Iceland since I was very young,” she explains, sitting at a Thai restaurant in downtown Reykjavík. “When I was eight, I ran out of books to read one time when my family went to our cabin, and my grandma said that there were books from the time my mother was young in the attic. I found this book about a young Norwegian girl who was sent to Iceland during World War II because her family was fighting in the resistance. It told the story of her last summer in Iceland, when she worked her way around Iceland with a couple of friends, and describes all the people they met and nature they saw along the way.”
For Wivian, this simple story led to a lifelong fascination with Icelanders’ mother tongue, which is often cited as one of the most difficult languages in the world to learn. Wivian reports that mastering Icelandic is, indeed, a daunting challenge, one that is full of both rewards and frustrations.
“For me, the frustrating part is the grammar,” she says, with a laugh. “Compared to Icelandic, Norwegian doesn’t have any grammar. I always tell the story that in my next life I’m just going to be born Icelandic, and then learn Norwegian. It will be so much easier!”
Waterfalls, Architecture, and Concerts
Although she’s a city dweller by nature, Wivian has travelled outside Reykjavík on several occasions to catch a glimpse of Iceland’s many majestic waterfalls.
“I have this thing about waterfalls,” she reports. “I have friends who drag me along on day trips, and they always convince me to go by telling me that there’s a waterfall at the end of the trip!” Some of Iceland’s most spectacular waterfalls include Skógarfoss in South Iceland, Dettifoss in Northeast Iceland, and Gullfoss, which many tourists see on the famed Golden Circle tour.
However, despite her love for waterfalls, Wivian cites Reykjavík as one of her favorite places in the world and encourages visitors to take a walk around the capital to explore and appreciate its unique architecture.
“I enjoy walking around town and looking at all of the wonderful buildings, especially Hallgrímskirkja [the giant church in the center of town], which I like to call ‘my church.’ It has wonderful acoustics, in addition to being a beautiful building, and I’ve been to a lot of concerts there.”
An admirer of Iceland’s premiere concert hall, Harpa, Wivian recommends checking out some of the building’s lesser-known, less-advertised musical performances in its smaller venues.
“A lot of people think of Harpa as a beautiful building with a main hall, where they have operas and orchestral performances,” she explains. “But there are a lot of smaller concert halls in there, and they have all these secret concerts that they don’t advertise the same way they the shows in the main hall.”
She also recommends checking out live music at Kex Hostel, Loft Hostel, Húrra [a local bar] and Café Rosenberg, for those who want to soak in the sounds of authentic Icelandic music in an intimate, cozy, laid-back atmosphere.
“On any random Tuesday night you can find a concert somewhere in the city,” she reports. “That’s one of the things that surprised me about moving here and made me very happy!”
Going fora Swim
One of Wivian’s favorite activities is going for a morning or evening swim in one of Reykjavík’s numerous geothermal pools, which she says is a uniquely Scandinavian experience.
“A lot of people are put off by the fact that you have to shower naked with other people before you get into the pool, but what’s so liberating here is that no one actually cares about what anyone else looks like!” she explains to those who might be reluctant to try it out.
She continues: “You just have to get used to it. My local pool is like three minutes away from my house, and I go nearly every morning and wait outside with all of the old people who are waiting to get inside. The hot pots are where people meet and discuss current news, whatever is happening in Iceland and the world. It’s funny because all of these people talk and act like they’ve solved all the world’s problems during their morning bath. No matter when I get there I will see the same people at every time every day. It’s a huge part of life here. Icelandic children don’t know life without the pool.”
Supporting Local Businesses
Wivian has some key pieces of advice for fellow visitors to Iceland, urging them to go out of their way to support Icelandic food chains and businesses.
“There are a lot of great places here for dancing,” she explains. “There are a lot of good museums. There are also so many things to see.”
The rapidly-encroaching tourism industry has dramatically altered the business landscape in Iceland, so Wivian advises travelers to visit Iceland as soon as they can, before the island nation’s cultural identity grows even more obscured.
“Come quick! The explosion in tourism is that the things that made people want to come here in the first place are disappearing because the tourism industry is taking over, and you can see very clearly that Iceland is becoming more and more a target area for international chains…Skip the puffin stores; there are a lot of Icelandic souvenirs, not made in China, that you can take home. Come to Iceland, and support local businesses