Universal Studios Japan rocks! You’ve got to visit this theme park at least once in your lifetime — ideally, during the Halloween season.
Getting express tickets is a bit complicated, so here’s a detailed guide to the theme park, which features Harry Potter, Minions, Hello Kitty, Resident Evil, Jurassic Park and other favorite characters.
Every September/October, Universal Studios Osaka turns into a zombie fest (literally, they send out walkers to attack!) For a limited time, there are frightening special attractions dedicated to Japanese horror — including Sadako of the Ring.
Universal’s Halloween Horror Nights are brilliantly produced, with the right balance of fear and fun. (But there are themed events all year round, which match the seasons.)
If you only have a day to explore, I highly recommend getting entry tickets in advance, as well as Express Passes to bypass long lines. The online process is more than a little complicated — so read on for a detailed guide to purchasing Universal Studios Osaka tickets from their Japanese booking website.
First, directions. To get to Universal Studios Japan, take the direct 15 minute train ride from Osaka Station to Universal City Station, on the JR Yumesaki Line (aka JR Sakurajima Line). You can use a JRailPass (unlimited Japan Rail Pass for 1-3 weeks) to ride all these trains, which saves costs and makes the trip even easier.
If you have a “timed entry” ticket and need to arrive by a certain hour, give yourself plenty of time to walk from the train station to the theme park. You might need an extra 30 minutes to purchase food outside the gates, or check your bags in the coin lockers (larger suitcases can be stored at Guest Services for a fee).
The amusement park goes all-out with seasonal decorations. Since I was there in late September, I got to see Hello Kitty, Elmo and Snoopy in spooky Halloween costumes! (Shop for Sanrio goods below with a click:)
I recommend wearing good shoes for walking around all day, and shielding your eyes with sunglasses and a hat (my cap is from the Drop Dead Clothing x Sonic the Hedgehog collaboration.)
Now, a guide to buying tickets and making the most of your visit!
Osaka’s Universal Studios is compact, and it doesn’t long to walk between the various districts. However, this is a popular theme park. To avoid the crowds, try to come early, and on less busy days (avoid weekends and holidays).
While it costs more to buy Express and Special Passes, I highly suggest that you do. Otherwise, you’ll wind up waiting 1-3 hours in line for rides, and you might not be able to see the special attractions at all (as they require advance passes that sell out fast).
If you’re going with a group of friends, I encourage you to designate one person to purchase tickets and advance entries. Otherwise, you won’t be able to coordinate the timed entrances, and “slowpokes” may not be able to get in at all.
Universal Osaka has an English-language sales website, but the available options in English are very limited (for example, when I checked, there was only 1 Express option and no Horror pre-sales).
Instead, you should purchase advance tickets from their website in Japanese. Let me warn you — this process is rather complicated and “Google translate” won’t work well, so ask a friend who is fluent in Japanese to help you (and reward them for their efforts!).
I can’t describe the entire process step-by-step because the Japanese website changes constantly, as the theme park updates attractions and passes.
However, I can give you a general overview. I recommend that you purchase three things well in advance, from the Japanese language site (or if you’re in Japan, you can go to any Lawson to order them):
1) An Entry Ticket ($75), which everybody need just to get inside the theme park. If you don’t get this ticket in advance, you may need to line up outside the gates for 1-2 hours. (If you decide to only get the basic entry ticket, you can purchase this on their English site. There’s also a cheaper evening-only entry price.)
2) An Express Pass, which lets you skip the lines on certain rides. The Japanese language site gives you a variety of Express options, which range in price. I suggest that you figure out which rides/attraction you want to see, and then pick the pass that matches. I personally went for the $55 “15th anniversary Express pass,” which let me access Harry Potter and 3 rides. A steep fee, but this lets you go straight to the front of the line instead of waiting 2-3 hours for the popular rides. Worth it, especially if you only have a day to explore.
3) Advance tickets to Special attractions that you’re keen to see. Again, this will change with the seasons; in my case, I did the $75 package to skip the lines at three Japanese horror attractions. These special events require advance/extra passes regardless, and they sell out fast — so advance entry may be the only way you’ll be able to get in.
Ready for another layer of challenges? The Express and Special attraction passes have timed entries — meaning that you have to pick the exact “time window” for going to the front of the line.
Some of these “windows” sell out — so you’ll have to compare time-charts in Japanese, and do some juggling to figure out a schedule that works. For example, I chose an 11-11:20am entry for Harry Potter, and a 1:10pm entry for the first Japanese Horror attraction, followed by a 2-3pm window for the Jurassic Park rollercoaster, and so forth. The attractions may be in different areas of the park, so give yourself enough time to walk over.
Final puzzle: How to pay for Universal Studios advance tickets? If you’re in Japan, you can go to any Lawson within a day to pay. If you’re outside the country, you must use a credit card to check out from the Japanese website.
Here’s the trick: you need to input a Japanese address AND phone number, or else your credit card won’t go through. You can try putting your Osaka hotel’s address and phone; it took me a few tries, but I finally managed to get through to the confirmation page.
Complicated? Expensive? Yes, but it’s worth it for guaranteed timed entries and to avoid waiting in queue. I’m glad I splurged on the Express and Japanese Horror passes, and booked weeks before so that I had many timed entry options to choose from.
You can also save money by bringing in outside food (just keep it hidden in your bag) rather than eating the theme park food, and resisting the merchandise.
All right — now we’re inside, and ready to explore Universal Studios Osaka!
The park is divided into different sections: Jaws, Jurassic Park, Terminator, Spiderman, Waterworld, Harry Potter, Snoopy and more. The attractions are constantly changing; there previously were Resident Evil and Evangelion features.
From September to October, Universal dresses up its characters in Halloween costumes. Since this is my favorite holiday, I was excited to visit during this time.
As you can see in the photos above, many visitors come in groups, and dress extravagantly (even when it’s not Halloween).
It’s a terrific opportunity to cosplay as your favorite Universal mascot. However, keep comfortable footwear and sun protection in mind, or else you may wind up at Universal’s First Aid office (they have one near the front gate).
I saw a lot of Suicide Squad and Minion outfits. Since this is Japan, I was happy to see Nintendo represented — “It’s me, Mario!” — and a bad Japanese schoolgirl in a sailor uniform.
I was excited to see The Wizarding World of Harry Potter for the first time. My heart raced when I saw “Please respect the spell limits,” and the pointed, snow-capped rooftops of Hogsmeade village. Universal recreates Harry Potter’s world magnificently, with swells of music and meticulous attention to detail.
All aboard the Hogwarts Express! In every area of the park, you’ll find the Universal Japan staff smiling and welcome guests. In Wizarding World, they helped children perform magic tricks with wands (a few gestures made it rain candy). There was also a Harry Potter choir and stage show, performed in both English and Japanese.
You can easily spend an hour or more exploring Harry’s home. A barrel dispenses Butterbeer, a sweet non-alcoholic beverage that is a bit like butterscotch. Personally, I didn’t enjoy the taste…
Hogwarts Castle looms high over the village. Stroll past the winged boars, and into Hogwarts’ School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. This is the site of the uber popular ride, “Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey.” (Average wait time is 3 hours… but with my timed entry Express pass, I got to go straight in.)
The anticipation builds as you pass Dumbledore’s office, the Gryffindor common room and Defence Against the Dark Arts classroom. Then, you put on special goggles and get strapped into a moving chair — for a “4K 3D” ride that makes you feel as if you’re soaring through the skies with Harry, on a broomstick.
There’s also a small roller coaster called “Flight of the Hippogriff,” which dives past Hagrid’s hut. I was impressed by the moving recreation of the half-eagle half-horse creature, which you pass on your way up the tracks.
Shops, shops everywhere. You can purchase Harry Potter goods inside the various themed stores, such as Owl Post and Dogweed & Deathcap (which had a moving plant in the window.)
Inside Ollivanders, you can choose from an array of magic wands, including replicas of the film characters’ personal wands. They’re intricately carved out of wood and decorated, and are in the $50 range.
The staff does a fantastic job at immersing you in a fantasy world. I watched a little girl purchase a stuffed owl, and the shopkeeper gave her gentle instructions on how to care for the creature (“she needs lots of hugs, and to have her feathers brushed”).
I snapped a photo of these Japanese girls in front of Honeydukes, which sells sweets from the Harry Potter stories, including Bertie Bott’s Every-Flavour Beans and Chocolate Frogs.
I couldn’t help but smile as I strolled through the different parts of the park. Universal broadcasts holiday music, so I got to groove along to The Monster Mash and Time Warp.
Many of the live attractions appear at random. I caught a few Minions performing on a fire truck. Then, it was time for the parade.
Dancing Hello Kitties, and pumpkin-folk giving out free candy… How can this day get better?
Many visitors wore impressive costumes. Some couples dressed up together, such as this pair of Minions, and Hello Kitty and Daniel.
Naturally, “kawaii” cute is a frequent theme. In the “San Francisco” section of Universal Studios Osaka, I came across three Little Red Riding Hoods.
Behold — it’s Hunk from Resident Evil! If anyone can survive the zombie apocalypse, it would be this guy.
As a horror movie fan, I was thrilled to see Jason Voorhees (Halloween) and Freddy Krueger (A Nightmare on Elm Street). They’re strung up as prizes, in the games section.
The zombie attacks and Japanese horror-shows start when the sun sets… you simply must read on to see what happens.
Long time no see… Yukiro and La Carmina are back!
At the end of 2016, we journeyed to Yangon, Myanmar — and it turned out to be one of our most meaningful trips to date.
There’s so much to share from this beautiful Buddhist country. We met creative locals, volunteered, and immersed ourselves in Burmese culture. (Above: Yukiro sits in front of a patala, or traditional xylophone, and I’m wearing the traditional longyi skirt and thanaka face paste).
Until a year or two ago, Myanmar was difficult for tourists to access. Now, the country has changed its government (with Aung San Suu Kyi in power) and opened its doors. Visitors can easily get an E-Visa: we filled out the government application online, paid $50 US, and were approved in a day.
More airlines have also launched routes to the newly-built Yangon Airport. We flew on my long-time favorites, HK Express: they have a direct, fast and inexpensive flight from Hong Kong to Yangon. In just over three hours, we were in the land of Buddhist monks.
We were treated like queens at ParkRoyal Hotel Yangon, our home base for this trip. The hotel sent a BMW to pick us up from the airport, and later take us around the city. The staff greeted us at the door, and showed us to our rooms on the exclusive Orchid Club level.
Yukiro and I loved the old-world charm of this luxury hotel. As you can see above, ParkRoyal gracefully incorporates Burmese art into the design. The location is also ideal: right by cultural attractions including the golden Shwedagon Pagoda.
As part of the Orchid Club privileges, we were spoiled with freshly-baked treats every day. Such a joy to come back from sightseeing, and find little sandwiches and sweets awaiting us.
It’s a relief to visit a country without any tourist trappings (such as fast food chains and tour buses). However, this also means Myanmar can be a challenging place for some travelers to navigate (for example, streets and numbers are not easy to find). We were glad we had the ParkRoyal staff to assist us, and these comfortable rooms to return to.
● You can book a room at ParkRoyal Yangon here, at a discounted rate.
● Here’s where you can get a black off-the-shoulder top like the one I’m wearing.
In our rooms, we found these cute primers on the local etiquette. The illustrations explain regional quirks that everyone should respect, such as not pointing to objects with one’s feet, or taking photos of pregnant women without permission. (I thought the above cartoon was common knowledge… until I saw someone grab a monk to “pose” him for a photo!)
Local art and music fills the hallways of ParkRoyal Yangon. We watched a lady play the saung (national string instrument) in the lobby, and admired these traditional Burmese carved wood panels.
The hotel staff even provided us with longyi, or long single cloth skirts that are tied at the waist, and worn by both men and women in Myanmar.
As Orchid Club guests, we were privy to additional benefits including a concierge desk right on our floor. Every day, the kind staff helped us coordinate our itinerary and car/driver. They were wonderful at answering our questions about local culture, and giving us off-the-beaten-path travel tips.
We also had access to the lounge, which is always stocked with complimentary drinks and snacks. During cocktail hour, we tried Red Mountain, a Myanmar wine that comes from the hills of the southern Shan State. Yukiro took a few bottles back as gifts for friends and family (very few people have tried Burmese wine!)
On our first day, we relaxed at the hotel spa. I lay down on this inviting bed, and got a traditional Myanmar Thanaka massage that worked out all my knots.
It’s hot year-round in Yangon, and the ParkRoyal swimming pool beckoned us to dive in… but it was time to explore the city.
(Hotel photos by Sniper Chau, city photos by La Carmina. My black top is similar to this.)
Our concierge suggested that we walk to the nearby Bogyoke Aung San Market. A staff member took us there by foot, and pointed out a few neighborhood attractions on the way.
There’s an overhead bridge leads to the market, with vendors selling fruits and dried seafood on the wooden planks.
Safety note: While some outskirt regions of Myanmar are in conflict, Yangon (the biggest city and former capital) is considered one of the safest cities in all of Asia, with very little crime. All the locals we met were friendly, and no touts approached us. It’s important to stay cautious wherever you travel, but let me assure you that Yangon is not a dangerous destination.
The bridge to Boygoke spans these railroad tracks. Locals walk right on them, balancing objects on their heads.
Yangon’s infrastructure and development were better than I expected. There are a lot of Japanese and Korean electronics here, including cars and smartphones.
It’s easy to spend an hour or more exploring what was originally known as Scott Market, established in 1926 during the British rule. Upon Burmese independence in 1948, the market was renamed after Bogyoke (General) Aung San.
After the coup d’état of 1962, the country became a military dictatorship, ushering in years of violent suppression. In 2011, the junta was dissolved; in 2015, Aung San Suu Kyi’s party won a majority in both houses, and she is the democratic leader today.
(In 1989, the military government changed many official names — Rangoon became Yangon, and Burma became Myanmar. There’s some contention over the official name, but Aung San Suu Kyi stated in 2016 that foreigners could use either. J. Peterman from Seinfeld put it best: “You most likely know it as Myanmar, but it will always be Burma to me.”)
You can find all sorts of local food at Bogyoke Aung San Market. However, be careful about eating street food, if you aren’t accustomed to it.
So many sights and smells to behold. Isn’t the Burmese alphabet beautiful? The written language dates back to the 11th century. (Myanmar is bordered by China, Laos, Thailand and India — hence some of these influences).
“Langorous” was our word of the day. In Myanmar, do as the locals do: slow down, hang out, enjoy the moment.
The market has hundreds of vendors, lined up on cobblestone paths. You can find all types of antiques, jewelry, clothing, Burmese art, handicrafts, you name it.
Long, silky hair is a trademark of Burmese beauty. Yukiro and I loved this futuristic-looking hairstyle worn by “Aunty Mary.”
Bogyoke market is the best place in Yangon to pick up a longyi, or Burmese long skirt. You can choose from the various embroidered silky fabrics, and get the garment custom-tailored to fit you like a glove. The ladies can also help you match it with a sleeveless top and sheer scarf.
The shops are a rainbow of intricate, elegant fabrics. Longyis are worn by both men and women, and are a perfect mix of style and function. (The airy fabric keeps you from overheating, and protects you from mosquitoes).
As I mentioned, Burmese vendors aren’t aggressive — they don’t run up to you or try to rip you off. Shopping at this market was easygoing and enjoyable.
We went indoors to look at the gems and jewels. This cyber disco Buddha greeted us at the entrance
Myanmar is known as the world’s most Buddhist country. Close to 90% of the population practices Theravada Buddhism, which certainly contributes to the peaceful, welcoming, compassionate nature of the locals we encountered.
In a country that was formerly isolated, you’re bound to find some oddities. I did a double-take at this store window. Is that… Annabelle? (The haunted doll and horror movie star must have escaped from her locked case at the Warren’s Occult Museum!)
These funky faces reminded me of Japanese daruma. Underneath, notice the Burmese comic strips, with speech balloons in the local script.
Many vendors put up images of The Lady, Aung San Suu Kyi. During the time of military rule, she was placed under house arrest and it was forbidden to publicly display her photo. Now that she’s the leader of the country, locals can have her smiling from their walls.
Since it was humid (even around Christmas), we tended to go out for a short period, and then return to our hotel to rest before heading out again. ParkRoyal’s central location and car/driver service made all this possible.
One time, we came back to gingerbread houses and cute chocolates in our room! The pastry chef is a maestro; we gobbled everything up, like Hansel and Gretel.
We dined with the General Manager at Shiki-Tei, an exquisite Japanese restaurant inside the hotel. We started with sake-tinis and warm sake…
… followed by the freshest sashimi, yakimono (fish and steak grilled right at the table), and nabemono (hot pot with fish and vegetables in a subtle yet complex broth). A meal to remember.
Every day, we looked forward to the breakfast / brunch buffet, which is one of the best in Yangon. There’s all types of international food, but I focused on the Burmese dishes, such as spiced salads, curries…
… and one or more bowls of the national dish of Myanmar, mohinga. This is a fish and rice noodle soup — but it’s so much more than that. Mohinga is heartwarming, with every flavor and texture (salty, sour, crunchy, sweet) in perfect balance.
At first, there may be a “fishy” smell, but once you get in a few spoonfuls, you won’t be able to stop. It’s a little like laksa and pho, but uniquely Burmese. I hope you can try mohinga for yourself, as it’s a game-changer.
We’ll miss the friendly staff of ParkRoyal Hotel Yangon, who always greeted us with a “Min Gā Lar Ba!” Without them, we wouldn’t have had such a magnificent time in Myanmar.
(Find out more about this hotel here.)
Isn’t Myanmar a fascinating country? I hope this first post got you intrigued about Burmese history and culture.
There’s a lot more to come from this fascinating destination — including monks and punks. Let’s just say… you won’t be disappointed!
Hipster Helsinki travel guide: steampunk bar Hell-Sinki! Kallio district, coffee shops, modern design stores.
For those who love alternative subcultures… Helsinki is one “hell” of a travel destination!
In part one of my “Finlandia” journey, I took you to a mod furniture exhibit, and sauna / restaurant by the water. Now, I’ll show you around the coolest restaurants and shops in the hipster Kallio district. We’ll end up in a Steampunk bar that looks like an airship, complete with jets of steam.
(I’m wearing this Spider bomber coat. It’s one of my favorites, and currently on sale.)
But first, some quick happy news: La Carmina is nominated for the Best Blog Award!
I was wondering if you’d be willing to take 10 seconds to vote for me? Every bit of support counts, and you can vote once a day.
● Just click here to vote for La Carmina – I’m at the end of the check list. Thank you so much for believing in me, I really appreciate your kindness over the years!
Helsinki is one of the world’s most liberal and progressive cities — to the point where the pamphlets say, “We are not gay friendly. We are gay!”
My film team and I spent an afternoon in the Kallio district of Helsinki, where young artsy types tend to congregate.
Quite a few readers recommended Good Life Coffee, in the heart of Kallio. I was sold by their motto: “Avoid Bad Coffee.”
This coffeeshop chooses high grade beans, and takes a “no bull” approach to roasting and brewing (in their words). The result is simple, honest and delicious.
Good Life is a cozy spot for meeting up with friends, and flipping through design magazines. They also sell baked goods from local bakers; the restaurant / bar Sandro next door is also highly rated.
There’s a similar “Coffee Is Always a Good Idea” wood wall art available here.
If you’re digging my purse, you might like these Sanrio bags and platforms below:
A city with “hell” in its name has to have a dark subculture, right? At the rock shop Hell-Sinki, we found Scandinavian death metal soundtracks that would be perfect for a Viking invasion.
Then, it was time for a drink at the Steampunk bar, Steam Hellsinki.
The bar is a futuristic, fantasy vision of the Victorian era meets the Wild Wild West. Old fashioned steam technology is reimagined in creative ways, and displayed all throughout the space.
It’s amazing to see how Steampunk has spread all over the world. (Remember when we went to a steam punk coffee shop in Cape Town, South Africa?)
The decor at Steam Hell Sinki is on point. We saw Gothic types hanging out on the retro couches, beneath vintage bicycles and lamps.
The piece de resistance… is a giant zeppelin airship that doubles as a bar! Colored lights dance over the blimp, giving the impression of movement. Every so often, fog spews out from the hull.
Flowers, old pianos and vintage Victrolas add to the retro-fantasy Steampunk theme.
The resident dog is trained to put his paws up on the bar, upon command. Good boy.
Steam HellSinki has almost 100 types of gin available. The famous gin and tonics are garnished with berries and spices, and the special menu includes cocktails that come in teapots and cups.
We loved spending a relaxing evening under the chandeliers. Steampunk fans, don’t miss out on this “hell” of a bar.
No doubt, Finland is a world leader for interior design. I’m obsessed with Scandinavian and mid-century modern, so it was a joy to visit the Artek store. (They carry designs including the ones below).
If you’re as much of a design fangirl as I am, don’t miss out on the DesignMuseo (where I caught the Eero Aarnio retrospective) and nearby Design District Helsinki.
Helsinki has innovative interiors everywhere, including restaurants. I had lunch at the wonderfully named cafe, Why join the navy when you can be a pirate. Good question, arr.
I love eating clean, and feasted on the fresh fruit and vegetable smoothies, juices, and healthy wraps. Since we’re pirates, we ordered a round of local gin (try Fevertree or Napue), garnished with rosemary and cranberries, and mixed with local tonic.
(My Spider bomber coat is fit for the captain of a pirate ship.)
We had dinner with a view at Southpark Restaurant. You might be thinking “Omg they killed Kenny” — but this is not actually a theme restaurant based on the South Park cartoon. It’s a “ravintola” named because it is in the south end of Helsinki’s Sinebrychoff park.
Southpark has a wonderful atmosphere filled with light, and walls decorated with modern art. The hashtags say it all: #HellaGoodFood, #SoCalSoCool.
A lot of regulars come here, which give the room a neighborhood vibe. We loved how the owners personally took care of us, and came by the tables to chat with their guests.
All the cocktails get my top marks, especially the 1919 Sour. (They’re pictured with postcards of Tom of Finland, who pushed the boundaries of gay art in the mid 20th century.)
I know Californian food well, and Southpark nails it. The tacos were magnificent (and I’m picky), and their recipes fuse this style of cuisine with local catch and produce.
For a meal that’s fresh and full of color, and served by a friendly staff — come to Southpark, “Mmm-kay?”
Both share a passion for sustainability and organic production. In Nudge, you’ll find one-of-a-kind clothing made by Finnish designers, like this dreamy bird kimono.
All the designs come from independent creators: you’ll find natural cosmetics, eco-friendly accessories, and Finnish children’s items. (The bat necklace was calling out to me.)
Located in the same space is Rulla, where you can feast on hand-made healthy rice rolls with a Scandinavian twist. The options include salmon and shrimp with herbs, and side of tangy sauces.
Time to wind down at the hippest hotel in Helsinki, Scandic Paasi. The building overlooks the water, and is located next to a lovely park.
A picture is worth a thousand words… Scandic Paasi has outstanding modern design, in the lobby and spacious rooms.
We’re big fans of Scandic Hotels, which give great service and luxury at an affordable price point. (Remember our stay in Stockholm’s Grand Central by Scandic?)
The color-blocked bar was a mod dream. I encourage you to book a room Scandic Paasi if you’re going to Helsinki.
“Kiitos” (thank you in Finnish) to BorderlessMedia.tv for all the photography.
Helsinki is a city full of creativity — wouldn’t you agree?
● PS thank you for taking a few seconds to vote for me in the Best Blog Awards! It’ll make a huge difference in the final round (ending Jan 20), and I really appreciate your support over the years.
Click to VOTE now for La Carmina – Thank you!
12 things I love about Iceland! Travel guide to best Reykjavik restaurants, nature tours, art galleries.
Iceland, you are magic. I’ve recently been reminiscing about my trip to the “land of fire and ice,” which turned out to be one of my favorite destinations of all time!
It’s now easier than ever for North Americans to fly to Iceland. WOW and Icelandair have increased the number of inexpensive, direct routes from major cities in the US/Canada to Reykjavik. If you’re on the East Coast, you can find tickets for under $300, and the flight time is only about 6 hours.
Recently, I’ve gotten quite a few requests for Reykjavik travel tips — so I thought I’d lay it all out on one page. Enjoy my “12 things I love about Iceland,” and check out all my detailed Iceland travel guides here.
(You can also check out my travel video about my Iceland adventures, above. It includes footage of the Blue Lagoon, food, nature, art and nightlife that we experienced.)
1 – Get outdoors and discover Iceland’s unique nature
You can’t miss out on the sci-fi landscapes and mystical Northern lights. From Reykjavik, it’s easy to book a car or tour that lets you experience Iceland’s surrounding landscapes. I suggest that you do a day trip with a guide, such as a Northern lights tour package in Iceland.
Iceland’s intriguing black sand beaches were the perfect backdrop for a Gothic fashion photoshoot. My braided hair and bell-sleeves are inspired by Daenerys in Game of Thrones (the show films the “Wall” and “North” scenes on this island).
2 – Take a selfie with a horse
Icelandic horses are the definition of “kawaii” (cute). This breed developed in isolation, which gives them a short, plush appearance. The layers of fat and fur protect them from the cold, but also makes them extra warm and adorable! I stopped to say hi to a herd of Iceland horses: they gently nuzzled up and took a selfie with me.
3 – Search for elves
Many locals believe that they share their country with elves, or “Huldufólk”. According to the folklore, these little creatures hide in mossy rocks, caves and forests. I recommend stopping by Hafnarfjordur, the park where they supposedly reside. While I didn’t catch any glimpses of Huldufolk, I did enjoy the serene energy of the elf park.
4 – Witness Iceland’s waterfalls and geysers
Many travelers go on Iceland’s “Golden Circle” tour, which takes them to the most popular nature sights: Þingvellir National Park, Gullfoss waterfall, and the erupting geyser Strokkur. However, I recommend going off the beaten path: you’ll find mesmerising waterfalls and sulphuric pools, without the tourists and gift shops. Above is Öxarárfoss, my personal favorite. Such an incredible feeling to get close to these powerful falls.
5 – Dip into the Blue Lagoon
The Blue Lagoon is a popular attraction, but it’s well worth the visit. The lagoon is man-made, with warm waters rich in sulphur and silica that come from a nearby power-plant. You can choose from a variety of passes, and I recommend booking well in advance for the best possible access times.
Unlike in hot tubs, which make me light-headed, I felt great in these soothing, mineral-rich waters. You can wade into different parts of the pool for varying heat levels, and dab a white, natural face mask on your skin. Don’t forget to tie up your hair and protect it from the steam, especially if it’s colored (I put mine in a bun and wore a shower cap, after Joey Wong took these photos).
(If you like my swimsuit, you can shop for similar designs with a click below!):
6 – Smile at the street art
Street art is everywhere in Reykjavik, and it’s beautifully executed (case in point — this London Police x Above mural above, on Laugavegur street). From 2010-14, Reykjavik’s major was an offbeat comedian named Jon Gnarr. He encouraged people to create public art, which resulted in innovative large scale works all over the capital city.
7 – Shop for skulls at Dead Gallery
I noticed a Reykjavik art studio with a Buddhist mandala and skulls on the outside: how could I resist going in? This turned out to be Dead Gallery, the lair of musician and artist Jon Saemunder. Jon’s works — especially his paintings and watercolors of skeletons — are expressions of his mantra: “He who fears death cannot fully enjoy life.”
8 – Feel uplifted at Hallgrims Church
I’ve long been fascinated by Hallgrímskirkja, a futuristic church on top of a hill in the center of Reykjavik. I was thrilled to see the Expressionist architecture in person: the alien-like curves are reminiscent of stark Icelandic landscapes under snow. Inside, there is a pipe organ that reminded me of Blade Runner, and windows that reflected coffin-shaped shadows over the white altar.
9 – Pose inside a prism at Harpa Music Hall
Reykjavik is a small city and easy to explore by foot. Make your way towards the waters, where you’ll find Harpa Concert Hall. The building’s ultra-modern facade flickers in the light, with 1000 prismatic panes that seem to change colors when viewed from different angles. At night, the glass and steel structure comes to life with light projections.
10 – Dine at Apotek
One of my favorite dinners in all of Europe came from Apotek. This comfortable yet upscale restaurant is located in a 19th century pharmacy, hence the name. I started with cocktails named after medicines, and then feasted on the freshest seafood inspired by both Icelandic and Argentinian cuisine. Beautifully presentation, lovely atmosphere: I’d say this is the best restaurant in Reykjavik.
11 – Feast on fish and chips
I ate like a Viking at Icelandic Fish and Chips, an inexpensive eatery that delivers tremendous flavors. You can choose from a variety of fish such as pollock, and it comes with creative dips, roasted potatoes and vegetable sides such as cauliflower tempura. Leave room for the handmade desserts made with ingredients like coconut.
12 – Party hard in Reykjavik
The country that birthed Bjork has an exciting music/nightlife scene. I bar-hopped in Reykjavik, and was impressed by the live bands found in most of the venues. For those who love rock and alternative sounds, check out Dillon. Reykjavik has something for everyone: hip hop, LGBT, retro, and even RuPaul’s drag race performers.
(And you can pick up a Gothic swimsuit for the Blue Lagoon below!)