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Reykjavik

We slept so soundly that first night. I have not a single complaint about any of the beds I slept on in Iceland, but that first one was especially good, with a plush duvet cover for each of us and natural light streaming in from all sides. We reveled in a small breakfast of Icelandic yogurt we’d purchased at the grocery store the evening before, then we set out to explore Reyjkavik.

We wandered downhill on Laugavegur in the morning, going into whatever brightly painted storefronts interested us on Reykjavik’s main street. I needed hiking boots, but instead, I found myself with a heavy bag of souvenirs I could have easily purchased at the end of the trip, when we’d return to Reykjavik after touring the island’s perimeter. (My guy wisely waited to purchase souvenirs.)

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Sorry, France. The best ham and cheese sandwich in the world is in Iceland.

We ate lunch at Prikid, one of Reykjavik’s countless cafes that serve as coffee shops, restaurants, and bars, depending on the time of day, but it uniquely claims to be the oldest cafe in Reykjavik, open since 1951. Despite the lackluster lunch menu posted outside the restaurant, it was inexpensive, and historically significant.

Inside, it looked and smelled significantly historical. The decor looked less vintage than just neglected, and we were hit with the bitterness of years of spilt beer in the floorboards. Told to sit wherever, we found an unusually well lit corner table on the second floor with a surface that was somehow less dirty than my chair. Already depressed about food prices a day in, I ordered an $8 ham and cheese sandwich with fries.

And I’d be lying if I didn’t say it was the best ham and cheese sandwich I’ll ever eat. It was two golden slabs of buttery grilled Texas toast filled with warm Canadian bacon, gooey processed cheese, tomato, onion, and a ketchupy mayonnaise. I later learned from my guy that a couple the next table over was breaking up; I was too involved with my sandwich to notice. And I didn’t even bother to wipe my hands after squeezing the greasy communal ketchup bottle into a pocket of my thick golden fries, which, coming from kind of a germophobe, is high praise.

Tip: Guidebooks might tell you to greet people by saying “allo,” but almost everyone in Iceland will greet you with “hey,” so just do that. And when you’re in Reykjavik, there’s no need to start every interaction with, “Do you speak English?” Because yes.

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Hallgrímskirkja.

From Prikid, we went to Hallgrímskirkja, a Lutheran church and one of Reykjavik’s major tourist attractions. Designed by state architect Guðjón Samúelsson, it took 38 years to complete and was finally consecrated in 1986; its 5,275 pipe organ wasn’t completed until 1992. We enjoyed an informal concert from the pews then paid a small fee to access the observation deck in the recently renovated clock tower. (Apparently, after only 20 years, the whole thing was starting to crumble.) It was well worthwhile for the views out over Reykjavik, and the opportunity to hear the tower bells ring at the source.

We then crossed the street to explore the sculpture garden of the Einar Jónsson Museum, which is free and open to the public (the museum charges for admission). It’s well worthwhile — a light rain started soon after we arrived, and we still stayed to see everything.

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Einar Jónsson’s religious sculptures.

Our last tourist attraction of the day was a trip to the Perlan to visit the Saga Museum. Unbeknownst to me at the time, the Perlan center is a modern structure that was built around the city’s water towers in the early 1990s, and it serves only few other purposes besides. The top floor has a respected rotating restaurant, cafeteria, and viewing deck, and the first floor has the Saga Museum, which tells the story of Iceland’s early history. It’s not the worst thing in Iceland (that prize goes to a shameful pizza in the northwest), but it was hard not to roll our eyes at each other as we ambled around a small, dark room filled with dioramas and wax figures and tried to pay attention to our audio tours.

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View of Reykjavik from Hallgrímskirkja.

It’s worth noting that our lunch cafe was older than any of the tourist attractions we saw, and a number of others we skipped. Reykjavik is coming into its own as a tourist destination, and it’s doing a fine job. But it need only be itself.

That night, we ate at a trendy small plates restaurant and joined the runtur, the weekend bar and club crawl. We didn’t make it to sunrise; we were in bed shortly after midnight.

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