Doors of Reykjavik Iceland | Umami Girl

Hæ again, and welcome back to Iceland week. (That’s Icelandic for “hi,” and it sounds like…”hi.” Very exotic.) This is the second of three posts about our July trip to southwestern Iceland, and today it’s all about Reykjavik. You can find the first post, about the south coast and Golden Circle, here.

With only four full days to explore the island, we opted to base ourselves in Reykjavik for the duration and take day trips, rather than find lodging outside the city. Obviously travel is 93 percent about the meals, so among other benefits, this approach allowed us to eat more of Reykjavik.  

We’ve had uniformly good experiences renting apartments through Airbnb in our family travels. In Reykjavik, we stayed in this lovely two-bedroom home in the embassy district, close but not too close to downtown. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: if you’re traveling with kids, the flexibility offered by a place with a kitchen and a little extra space can make all the difference between a relaxed vacation and a hassled one. We also love staying in a city’s residential or semi-residential neighborhoods as opposed to its tourist districts. It really gives you a false and overinflated sense of belonging, in the best of all possible ways.

AirBnb Door Reykjavik Iceland | Umami Girl

Reykjavik Iceland (Photo Courtesy Airbnb)

Photo credit: Airbnb website

Reykjavik is a very manageable city, to the extent that people joke it would be considered a mere town in almost any other country. It reminded us a lot of a smaller Helsinki, which reminded us of a smaller Amsterdam. It always comes back to Amsterdam with me. Amsterdam is my Kevin Bacon. 

Here’s the view from the tower of the iconic Hallgrímskirkja Church. Kinda looks like Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, right? (None of this is to minimize the awesomeness of Reykjavik — it’s comfortable but also formidable in its own Nordic way. Hey, it was settled by Vikings and runs on geothermal power. Don’t mess with it, okay?)

Reykjavik Iceland Skyline | Umami Girl

The church itself, visible in the photo below at the end of the street, looks like nothing you’d find in Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood. Ironically, though, it sure does look like it would be right at home in a place called the Land of Make Believe. Hallgrímskirkja is a relatively new addition to the landscape, designed by Guðjón Samuel in 1937 with Iceland’s volcanic basalt columns as inspiration, and not completed until 1986. It boasts a very impressive organ and is totally worth a visit.

Reykjavik Iceland Sisters | Umami Girl

Photo by Cope

Reykjavik is home to some pretty spectacular and whimsical street art.

Reykjavik Iceland Street Art | Umami Girl

Some of this street art is functional, like these bicycle gates that close off the main shopping street to car traffic during the summer.

Reykjavik Iceland Bike | Umami Girl

Photo by Cope

Some is purely Icelandic, like these Huldufolk, or hidden people. Icelanders don’t mess around with the possibility that they share their countryside with giant elves. As recently as 2014, highway construction in a suburb outside Reykjavik was stopped until a 150,000-pound rock that may or may not have been a Huldufolk chapel was moved out of the way. Hey, if I lived in Iceland, where lava can flow by your house on a not-never basis and nature generally does not mess around, I might be among the majority of the population that doesn’t rule out elfin presence. 

Hidden People Statue Reykjavik Iceland | Umami Girl

And some “street art” is not so much art as marketing that makes half the family want to hug it and buy souvenirs and the other half want to break out the lice repellant shampoo. Does anyone know whether Purell comes as a spray tan?

Reykjavik Iceland Hugs | Umami Girl

Photo by Cope

Speaking of retail, Reykjavik is full of quirky shops that make you want to buy everything — at least until you do the krona to dollar conversion and decide to make due with a photo or two of your reflection instead. This approach won’t get you home with any knitted mushroom stools, but it will remind you to appreciate the inherent coolness of a city constructed largely from corrugated iron painted in a vibrant rainbow.

Aurum Shop Reykjavik Iceland | Umami GirlReykjavik Iceland Reflection | Umami Girl

Okay, but seriously. What about the food? I hear ya. Here’s what we learned. View full post »

Gulfoss Waterfall Iceland | Umami GirlIt’s Iceland week at Umami Girl! This is the first of three posts highlighting our visit to the southwestern part of this fascinating country. Today it’s the waterfalls, geysers, volcanoes and glaciers of the south coast and “Golden Circle.” Later in the week we’ll tour Reykjavik and stop into Blue Lagoon, a hot-spring spa that’s one of the most popular tourist destinations in the country.

We loved Iceland, so these may seem like sponsored posts, but they aren’t. We traveled independently and received no payments or freebies of any kind. It’s a little embarrassing, really. I should maybe get on that for next time.

How we got there

We took advantage of Icelandair’s Stopover program, through which you can spend up to seven nights in Iceland on your way to any of 20-plus European destinations for no additional airfare. Stopover airfare is often less expensive than flying directly to Europe, though in our case it didn’t work out that way due to the strength of the dollar versus the euro at that time. Iceland itself is on the pricey side, so Icelandair has a good thing going with reasonable airfares, encouraging potential tourists to bite the bullet. They must be doing well, too, because Icelandic tourism is on a dramatic rise. The country’s population is around 300,000, and last year alone they hosted about 1.1 million tourists. It makes me wonder if there’s even anyone left to read this post.

We knew we wanted to spend some time in London early in the summer visiting friends and revisiting old haunts, and we wanted to explore Santorini as well — more on those weeks later this fall. We’d heard so much about Iceland in recent years, from friends both in England and the states, that we couldn’t resist taking a few days (four full days plus two travel days) to explore Iceland on the way. 

Solheimajökull Glacier Family Portrait Iceland | Umami Girl

How we rolled

If you’ve read any of the numerous travel posts on Umami Girl to date, you know we don’t normally hop on a tour bus and surrender our schedule to anyone. Iceland felt different, though. We didn’t think we could do justice to the combination of geology, history, language and culture on offer without some heavyweight local help.

We split the difference: we spent two nonconsecutive days with GeoIceland (touring the Golden Circle and Southern Coast), a great little company that takes small groups of people on tours around southwest Iceland; and we left the other two days to fend for ourselves. 

Our tour guide on both GeoIceland days was an entertaining and knowledgable man named Sigurdur Albert, whose strengths include Icelandic pride, deadpan humor and the ability to drive a Mercedes Sprinter minibus very close to a receding glacier. In addition to seeing and learning about the strange, beautiful landscape and geology (most of which, let’s be honest, is already a bit of a blur), we learned some excellent trivia. I won’t spoil too much, because I want you to go on these tours too. But to name a few:

  • Modern Icelandic people can read Old English without a problem because after thousands of years of divergent evolution, their language is way more similar to Old English than ours is. 
  • Fully 10 percent of adult Icelanders have published a book. 
  • Iceland has a 100 percent literacy rate.
  • (Bonus unspoken — and, honestly, largely uncontested — fact from Sigurdur Albert: all of this means Icelandic culture is generally superior.) 

Along the Road Iceland | Umami Girl

How we rocked

(Get it? This is the geology section. Oh boy.) Now is when I limit myself to photos and anecdotes so as not to butcher too many verifiable facts. As you probably know, from, like, real life or TV or because you were trying to fly somewhere from Europe in 2010 or 2014, Iceland is volcano central. There are 30 active volcanic systems on an island approximately the size of Virginia. All this geologic tumult is due to the fact that Iceland sits on the mid-Atlantic ridge, which is where the North American tectonic plate meets the Eurasian tectonic plate. The plates are separating at about two centimeters per year, and although this activity occurs primarily underwater, there are spots on land where you can see the gap. I MEAN. Right?

Here are a couple of photos that make it look like things get a little intense when the plates separate. Which, let’s be honest, they prolly do.

Techtonic Plates Meet Iceland | Umami Girl

Iceland Fissure | Umami Girl-3

But then, oh hey, here’s a photo that makes the earth prying itself apart seem positively majestic. Which I guess it also is. This is a little bit of the Silfra fissure in Thingvellir National Park, and I hear it’s the only place in the world where you can snorkel between tectonic plates. 

Tectonic Plates Meeting Iceland | Umami Girl

We didn’t snorkel. Maybe next time, when all family members have graduated from Pollywog 1 at the Y. But just because we didn’t snorkel doesn’t mean I don’t have anything to say about the creatures inhabiting the crevasse. 

Because I do.

In our travels I’ve been noticing that hipsters have ruined my razor-sharp ability to tell Americans and Europeans apart from afar. Slight frames, waxed mustaches, statement glasses — who could know anymore? But at Thingvellir the situation came to a head in the best of all possible ways.

We watched a guy in skinny jeans, hood-up hoodie and berserk facial hair literally crawl into the crack in the earth between the Eurasian and North American tectonic plates. It was like witnessing a hipster being born again. Half American, half European. What an apt ceremony.

He took a selfie. I took a moment to admire the beauty of my ironic worldview playing out in a literal way in front of my face. 

Not that anything could compare with that, but here’s a little more of our experience at Thingvellir National Park. It’s a UNESCO World Heritage site and the home of Althing, the world’s oldest existing parliamentary institution, but mostly we just modeled hats and gave piggyback rides. 

Thingvellir National Park Iceland | Umami Girl

Thingvellir National Park Portrait Iceland | Umami Girl

Piggyback at Thingvellir National Park Iceland | Umami Girl

Thingvellir National Park 2 Iceland | Umami Girl

Thingvellir national Park Iceland Family 2 | Umami Girl

Thingvellir National Park Iceland Family | Umami Girl

Thingvellir Naitonal Park Landscape Iceland | Umami Girl

Thingvellir National Park Steps Iceland | Umami Girl

Thingvellir National Park Iceland Sisters Playing | Umami Girl


Iceland’s waterfall situation is out of control. There’s one you can walk behind and one you can drink from. Come ON. 

The top photo in this post, in case you’ve been wondering, is Gulfoss. And here’s Skógafoss. Foss foss foss, am I right?

Skógafoss Waterfall Iceland | Umami GirlHere’s the waterfall at Faxi, which isn’t huge but has great lines, as nobody says about waterfalls.

Waterfall at Faxi Iceland | Umami GirlAnd then, my favorite and everyone’s favorite, Seljalandsfoss. Look at us standing behind it like a bunch of wet little penguins.

Seljalandsfoss Iceland | Umami Girl-2Under Seljalandsfoss Iceland | Umami Girl

Here’s what a waterfall looks like from behind (and what my family sounds like while they wait for me to show you). 


Standing behind Seljalandsfoss waterfall, southern Iceland.

A video posted by Carolyn Cope | Umami Girl (@umamigirl) on



Okay, let me just say right now that my photographic timing did not work out in the geyser department. This is Geysir, a spouting hot spring, and the reason we call all the rest of them geysers today. It erupts every few minutes, sometimes shooting steamy water 200 feet into the air. You’ll have to trust me. See all those people standing there? They know. 

Geysir Iceland | Umami GirlGeysir Iceland | Umami Girl-2


Flora + Fauna 

These beautiful lupines abound in the Icelandic countryside. They look magical, but they’re contentious because they aren’t native. They’re from Alaska, and in the mid 20th century someone dumped a bunch of them here. People worry that they’re choking out biodiversity by killing native plants.

Field of Lupines Iceland | Umami Girl{CLICK TO SEE MORE OF ICELAND}

  • […] Hæ again, and welcome back to Iceland week. (That’s Icelandic for “hi,” and it sounds like…”hi.” Very exotic.) This is the second of three posts about our July trip to southwestern Iceland, and today it’s all about Reykjavik. You can find the first post, about the south coast and Golden Circle, here. […]ReplyCancel

  • Rachel

    “Iceland is volcano central.” You crack me up. :-) Fun meander, thanks for sharing! I’m sure Segurdur Albert had fun things to say about the (used-to-be) fact that Iceland has more sheep than people? Or how the telephone book lists every single individual because surnames are not shared? And that telephone books note one’s profession because the number of Magnus Magnussons gets a little overwhelming? But hey… that might all be 6-year-old-perspective, late 1970s factoids. ;-)ReplyCancel

Spaghetti with Cauliflower, Shiitakes and Chickpeas | Umami Girl

Here’s an easy weeknight dinner that’s greater than the sum of its parts. This is the kind of thing I cook on the regular, almost always riffing. I’m going to make a big effort to share more of our weeknight meals here from now on, and without any literary fanfare — because I think these are the kinds of recipes that most of us find useful, whether to follow exactly or to use for inspiration. You may have to contend with next-day photographs of leftovers like the one above so I can use natural rather than studio light, but I won’t tell if you won’t. All hail the microwave.

I’ll keep it short today. Next week will be Iceland Week, with three posts about our fabulous trip to Reykjavik and the surrounding areas of southwestern Iceland. See you soon.


Vegetarian Minestrone for a Crowd | Umami Girl-1

This morning on the way into the house after yoga, my water bottle ricocheted out of my too-full hand and plummeted into the bushes. I wasn’t even sorry. I’m 39 now, so I laughed heartily at myself, letting my voice reverberate under the porch roof. I left the bottle there for several hours, because it’s my house, and this is America, and if I’m going to have to deal with all the crazy fucks who think guns have more civil rights than women, I at least plan to avail myself of my private property just shy of the point of nuisance.

Vegetarian Minestrone for a Crowd | Umami Girl - 3

Then I scooped up the girls from school at lunchtime and took them to the dentist, which was excellent. They have a kind of fluoride now where you don’t have to wait half an hour before eating. America has its strong points! Afterward we ordered grilled cheeses from the local deli. I let the girls get the bright orange cheez doodles that stain your fingers, and they scarfed it all too fast in the car on the way back to school.

Vegetarian Minestrone for a Crowd | Umami Girl -2

Tonight we’ll have soup. We’ll sit at the dinner table and be together. I can’t guarantee that no one will sigh or roll their eyes. But we’ll survive.

Later, I might even put on a sweater.

Fall is here, and it’s back to real life. I love our holidays and vacations, but real life is my favorite.

Here’s a big pot of savory, warming soup to get you through the week or share with friends. Welcome to fall. Let’s do this.


Simple Soft Shell Crabs Recipe | Umami Girl

Soft shell crab season will be over in a flash, and although I’m all about transitioning into fall with grace, I can’t let these beauties go without a little send-off party. At this party, we’ll have some wine and some low, slow jazz playing under the din of voices. You’ll have a great time catching up with a few friends you haven’t seen in too long. I’ll stop briefly in front of a mirror to check whether I have True Blood teeth and get introvert-lost wondering whether my preference for eating intact sea creatures (lobsters, soft shells) gives me more integrity than burger eaters. Don’t worry, I won’t talk to you or anyone about it ever.

Soft shells are not a different variety of crab but rather creatures of a moment in time. These crabs have recently molted, and their new shells are still so soft as to be edible. In other words, what you see here is some crabs going through a phase where they’re more vulnerable than usual. 

If only humans could identify with that at all. View full post »

  • I wish soft shell crab season lasted all year long! These look absolutely delicious! Hand me a bibb and a big ole bowl so I can face plant into this YUM! Love it! Cheers. ;)ReplyCancel

    • Thanks, Cheyanne. Me too! I make due with spider rolls from the sushi place during the rest of the year, which is no great hardship, but it’s not the same. :)ReplyCancel

  • […] 20. Simple Soft Shell Crabs This recipe is a little different from the rest of our list, but it’s super tasty and really easy. All you’ll need is soft shell crabs, olive oil, and sea salt. The crabs are flavorful enough on their own that they don’t need any additional seasonings. […]ReplyCancel

  • […] 20. Simple Soft Shell Crabs This recipe is a little different from the rest of our list, but it’s super tasty and really easy. All you’ll need is soft shell crabs, olive oil, and sea salt. The crabs are flavorful enough on their own that they don’t need any additional seasonings. […]ReplyCancel