Every experience you’ll have in Iceland will be synonymous with nature, but if hiking up a volcano or camping in lava fields doesn’t float your boat, the northernmost capital in the world has plenty of hot spots to warm the winter nights and fill the endless summer days. Many visitors know Reykjavik as an Icelandair layover or the last bastion of civilization before heading into the wilderness, but giving this town a try on its own will serve you some of the best seafood in the Atlantic, show you world class art and architecture, and offer up the cleanest urban air you’ll ever breathe.
Touchdown in Keflavik
Anyone who’s ever been curious about the Land of the Sagas has most definitely seen pictures of the Blue Lagoon. Just a 20 minute bus ride from the airport and you’ll be soaking in this world famous hot spring. Heated geothermically and known for its silica mud masks, it is like nowhere else on earth and is a must for any visitor. Several bus companies make this trip, and your return to the city, easy and efficient, but we recommend Reykjavik Excursions. Book online before your flight and make sure to get the bus and admission combo. You can also do the reverse trip on your way home, from hotel to lagoon to airport.
The most well known sight in town has got to be the Hallgrimskirkja, perched on a hill with a great view of the city and Mount Esja from atop the spire. The surrounding neighborhood is great for walking, and the Skólavörðustígur neighborhood has great shopping leading right up to it. Stop at the Noodle Station, a great spot for lunch about halfway down. At the bottom is Laugavegur, the main thoroughfare for eating, drinking, and people watching. Stop into Bakari Sandholt for all the sweets, homemade soups, and baked goodness you could ask for.
The next stop for modern architecture buffs is the City Hall built right on a scenic pond to look like it’s floating in the water. The adjacent park is great for a stroll and a quaint skyline view. And the Laundromat Cafe nearby is great for a hearty breakfast, lazy lunch, or late night drinks. And yes, there’s a Laundromat downstairs.
Insider Tip: Visitors love to feed the swans in the pond. Who wouldn’t? But if you want my advice…don’t do it. They’re vicious and you’ll be next on a long list of well-intentioned swan bite victims.
The Future Has Arrived
The real shining star of this city is the recently completed Harpa Concert Hall. Standing right on the water, this magnificent and award-winning glass building designed by Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson is a spectacle of light, shadow, and reflection. Whether you experience it in daylight, in the evening for the twinkling light show, or for a live performance, you’ll feel transported into the future by a ray of light. Speaking of glass, you’ll likely be wondering what the converted hilltop water cistern is near the city airport. Welcome to Perlan, home of the Saga Museum and restaurant under the big glass dome.
The Dog Days of Iceland
Across the parking lot from Harpa is one Icelandic institution that both locals and visitors swear by: BÃ¦jarins Beztu. Yes, we’re talking about the Icelandic national food: hot dogs. And "eina með öllu" gets you one with everything (cue the famous Buddhist monk joke…). This famous stand has been around since 1939 and serves up "pylsur" with sweet mustard, crunchy onions, and remoulade well into the night.
A Bit of Brooklyn in Reykjavik
The new cool neighborhood in town is right on the harbor, anchored by the hip new Icelandair Hotel, and there’s a lot more to it than puffin tours and whale watching. For the best catch in town, grab a table at Icelandic Fish + Chips. There’s no fresher way to enjoy coriander cod, lobster bisque, or grilled langoustines, than this unpretentious harbor hot spot. The desserts are excellent and the Icelandic moss tea is well worth a try. For more cold weather comfort food, Burger Joint is just that. A burger joint. This tiny round building on the corner of Tryggvagata is easy to mistake for a bait and tackle shop, but inside their signature "Joi Fel" burger with fries and classic rock tunes playing on the radio will make you feel right at home.
The Mean Streets
On a rainy day, enjoy the Reykjavik Art Museum. But on nicer days, make a point of exploring the street art scene all over Reykjavik. All around the harbor and especially up Hverfisgata, local artists have turned the city into an outdoor modern art museum with paintings wrapping around the sides of buildings and installation sculptures hugging abandoned facades. To wind your day down in style, Fish Company on Vesturgata is where modern design meets homey atmosphere housed in a stone building dating back to 1884. You’ll love the interior, designed with remnants of the old harbor, but eating outdoors under giant wool blankets in their little courtyard is a memorable way to enjoy the history, and great food, of this town.
Photo credits: All photos courtesy of Jonathan Pozniak