It takes more than a national economic crisis and Europe-smothering volcanic explosion to subjugate a city as dynamic and resourceful as Reykjavik.
Ostensibly a high-tech fishing village, the diminutive capital has long had big-city ambitions, offering visitors a broad palette of attractions, from inspiring music, art and cultural scenes to geothermal hot pools and access to some of the most breathtaking natural landscapes in northern Europe.
Although home to just 150,000, Reykjavik has a creative spirit that’s apparent in the wealth of world-class museums and galleries, innovative design stores and constant slew of new (and terrific) bands; almost everyone you meet under 35 will be a poet, musician, author, designer or artist — and quite often they’ll be all of them at once.
But although Icelanders are a quiet, creative bunch, Reykjavik’s nightlife is where you’ll experience their inner Viking, with bands performing in venues as diverse as cafes, record shops and churches and DJs squeezing into tiny bars to whip crowds into a frenzy. Whether hungover or not, a trip to one of the local thermal pools is a must, especially in the colder months, when it’s possible to spot the Northern Lights.
You won’t fail to notice the constant, calming presence of the sea and mountains as you explore Reykjavik. Just beyond the city limits, easily accessible by bus or car, lie unimaginable landscapes — sparkling glaciers, lunar lava fields, black sand beaches — all waiting to be climbed, hiked, explored and photographed. Whatever time of year you visit, be prepared to fall head over heels.
Reykjavik’s central area is small enough to be comprehensively toured in a day or two. If it’s sunny, you’ll want to head straight to the city’s highest point, the rocket-shaped Hallgrimskirkja, whose 244ft-high steeple offers glorious views right across the city’s colourful houses and out to sea (admission: 700 ISK/£3.70).
A stroll around the Tjörnin (lake), with its 40 species of birds, is always pleasant; the birds remain here all year round thanks to the geothermal heating. The modernist Reykjavik City Hall, which ‘floats’ on the northeastern edge of the lake, has a 3D map of Iceland, a cafe and occasional art exhibitions. Head to the city’s jaw-dropping new concert hall, Harpa, whose coruscating facade — designed by Icelandic-Danish artist Olafur Eliasson — exemplifies the country’s commitment to culture in the post-crash era. It’s dominated the harbour area since 2011 and won the prestigious Mies van der Rohe Award for architecture in 2013. If you can’t catch a concert here, take a peek inside to experience the exquisite way light falls inside the building and enjoy the views out to sea.
From here, you can pick up the mile-long Harbour Path, a recent creation of architect Massimo Santanicchia that reanimates
some of the harbour’s dead spaces using coloured painted lines. The path will lead you to the Vikin Maritime Museum, showcasing the city’s extensive maritime history (with interactive components that will keep the kids happy), as well as whale-watching tours, run by operator Elding.
One of the biggest hitters for culture fans is the Reykjavik Art Museum, hosted in a renovated former 1930s fish warehouse, where you can get acquainted with Iceland’s most famously wild pop artist Erró, among others. The smaller Reykjavik Art Gallery features well-known modern artists like the painter Johannes Kjarval and sculptor Asmunder Sveinsson, as well as several rotating exhibitions a year.
The National Museum of Iceland, which traces the island’s 1,200-year history from settlement to the present day, is the best place to get to grips with the country’s fascinating back-story. A fun supplement to this, especially for kids, is the Saga Museum, which recreates key moments from the famed prose histories, Sagas of Icelanders, by way of waxwork figures and an audio guide.
Photography fans might want to drop into the modest Reykjavik Museum of Photography; located above the city’s library, it occasionally puts on great exhibitions of the work of modern Icelandic photographers like Gudmundur Ingolfsson. For something a little more quirky, the Icelandic Phallological Museum has specimen jars with the penises of animals ranging from sperm whales to, erm, an elf.
But, of course, a trip to Iceland wouldn’t be complete without a dip in a hot pool: the most famous is the Blue Lagoon, out towards the airport, although the local baths are cheaper, simpler and generally less crowded.
Having cunningly banished most global high-street brands to the city’s malls (visit Kringlan for a good selection), Reykjavik’s main shopping drag, Laugavegur, features an interesting selection of independent stores selling a wide range of locally produced goods. Although it can be strolled end-to-end in under an hour, you’ll find pretty much everything you might need along here, from cuddly elves and scary voodoo dolls to cutting-edge clothing and Nordic home design. The side streets are well worth exploring too, especially Skólavödustígur, which leads up to Hallgrimskirkja.
The city’s individual fashion flair can be found in shops like Gudrun Kristin Sveinbjornsdottir’s GuSt, with skirts, handbags and shoes made from local materials such as fish, leather and wool. Steinunn, the brainchild of Steinunn Sigurdardóttir, also stocks elegant and innovative men and women’s fashions made from lamb’s wool and silk in a store that also regularly exhibits works by local artists.
There are heaps of great design stores around too. Kram, located in the oldest house in Reykjavik, is a collectively-run design shop lined with innnovative knick-knacks and unusual gifts from over 200 local designers. Another co-op shop, Kiosk, sells the wares of several young designers, who take turns running the shop.
Many people come to Iceland for the music, and there are some great record shops, where you’ll find everything from Björk to the latest up-and-coming band. Smekkleysa, founded (and still run) by some of the original members of the Sugarcubes, has a store on the main street, while 12 Tonar and newcomer Lucky Records have great selections and a wonderful vibe to boot.
There will inevitably come a moment when you’ll yearn for some Icelandic knitwear — perhaps one of the lopapeysa jumpers worn by everyone from farmers and fishermen to hipsters and kids. The Handknitting Association of Iceland’s main shop is stuffed to the brim with them, as well as socks, mittens, hats and more.
Reykjavik’s restaurant scene is every bit as fluid as its hotel and nightlife scenes. Among the well-established spots where you can splash some cash and dine in style are Hotel Holt’s Gallery Restaurant, serving French cuisine in a classic 1970s environment, enlivened with Icelandic artworks, and Vid Tjörnina, which has a great lakeside location, a similarly time-warp interior and excellent Icelandic dishes, including marinated cod chins with tarragon sauce, and lamb fillet with garlic potato puree and thyme sauce.
For a more modern take on Nordic cuisine, the Nordic House’s Dill Restaurant is highly recommended; for a trendier, more upbeat atmosphere try Grillmarkadurinn, whose dramatic interior of wood and volcanic rock is as interesting as its menu of horse steak and puffin mini-burgers; or Sjávarkjallarinn, which serves high-end Asian food in a historic building.
Naturally, there are some great seafood places. Down in the (newly hip) harbour neighbourhood, try Icelandic Fish & Chips, where you’ll find fresh, locally caught fish, or grab a lobster soup at legendary sea-shack Saegreifinn (The Sea Baron).
Lunch spots and cheaper eats abound. The well-run Kex hostel offers homey and reasonably priced gastro pub cuisine alongside sea views and craft beers, while the family-friendly The Laundromat Cafe has a diner-style atmosphere and serves up hearty breakfast, brunch and dinner dishes. The ever-popular Noodle Station is a safe bet for Asian food, and if you’re looking to try a pylsur (an Icelandic hot dog, served with sweet mustard, fried onions and remoulade), head to Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur, which has been churning them out to hungry punters since 1939.
Given the Icelandic capital’s reputation for weekend excess, it may come as a surprise to learn that beer stronger than 2.25% was banned in the country right up until 1989. While it’s true that Reykjavik — or at least the downtown area known as 101 — has been making up for it since, it’s still a fairly expensive hobby, which is why many natives and expats tend to hit one of the state-run off licenses (Vin Bud) and indulge at home before heading out.
Most of the main bars and clubs are conveniently concentrated on or around Laugavegur. The micro-brewing scene has caught on here of late and both Islenski Barinn, which sells more than 30 beers from micro-breweries across Iceland, and Micro Bar, which has several Icelandic craft brews, are great spots in which to get your evening started.
After midnight, it’s time to start cutting loose. Kaffibarinn, marked by an incongruous London Underground sign outside the door, is a stalwart of the scene and still has some of the best weekend parties inside its cosy confines. Taking things up a notch, clubs like the cute, mustard-yellow Dolly has regular live acts as well as DJs, while Harlem is the latest bar to carry that anything-goes Viking spirit into the small hours.
It wasn’t so long ago that visitors to Reykjavik were routinely welcomed into the houses of locals when the half a dozen or so hotels were full. Today, the city is brimming with accommodation options, from affordable backpacker hostels to high-end hotels.
One of the first luxury hotels to be built (in the 1930s) was Hótel Borg. Located next to the Icelandic parliament, it exudes a stately, art deco theme, albeit one updated with modern comforts. In the heart of the city, chic 101 Hotel has slick designer rooms and a buzzy bar and restaurant.
For a mid-range stay that doesn’t compromise on quality, Centerhotel Arnarhvoll has simple, modern rooms plus a great Sky Bar, with cracking views. For something more youthful, try Kex hostel, a former biscuit factory transformed by movie set designer Halfdan Petiersen into a sprawling network of rooms, with a restaurant, bar and concert space right on the waterfront.
Looking to get away from it all? Ion Luxury Adventure Hotel is an oasis of contemporary design right on the edge of Thingvellir National Park — an upscale base for exploring the nearby springs and glaciers.
EasyJet flies to Reykjavik from Luton, Manchester and Edinburgh. Icelandair flies from Gatwick, Heathrow, Manchester and Glasgow; WOW Air from Gatwick. easyjet.com icelandair.co.uk wowair.is
Average flight time: 2h50m.
When to go
May-September is most popular, due to longer days and temperatures from 10-15C. But off-season there’s more chance of seeing the Northern Lights.
Need to know
Currency: Icelandic krona (ISK). £1 = 194 ISK.
International dial code: 00 354.
Time difference: GMT.
Vikin Maritime Museum. maritimemuseum.is
Reykjavik Art Museum. artmuseum.is
National Museum of Iceland. nationalmuseum.is
Reykjavik Museum of Photography. photomuseum.is
Icelandic Phallological Museum. phallus.is
Blue Lagoon. bluelagoonspa.is
Gallery Restaurant. holt.is
Vid Tjörnina. vidtjornina.is
Dill Restaurant. dillrestaurant.is
Icelandic Fish & Chips. fishandchips.is
The Laundromat Café. thelaundromatcafe.com
Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur. bbp.is
How to do it
Icelandair has a three-night Northern Lights tour, with flights from Heathrow, Gatwick, Manchester or Glasgow, based on two sharing a twin room, from £320 per person. icelandair.co.uk
Published in the June 2014 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)