Given Reykjavik is only a three-hour flight from the UK, it does a great job in otherworldliness. For a European capital, there’s something truly distinct about it. Maybe it’s the crisp Atlantic air, the unique design, or the sense of sea and mountain lurking just beyond. Or perhaps it’s all the culture and creativity squeezed into such a tiny place.
Reykjavik is compact enough to wander by foot. Start with a panoramic zip to the top of the 73m-high tower of the Hallgrimskirkja Lutheran church before cafe-hopping downhill to the harbour — if you can, bag a table outside coffeeshop-cum-bookstore Ida Zimsen.
From there, why not take a Walk the Crash tour, where you can learn more about Iceland’s economic implosion in 2008 and its subsequent recovery. Or hop on a number 5 bus and take a dip at the sandy beach at Nautholsvik, just past the domestic airport, where the sea is geothermally heated.
Of course, blue-sky days can’t be guaranteed, and whatever time of year you visit, pack both sunglasses and waterproofs. It pays to cover all bases this far north; you may sit and bask in warm sun in autumn or be blown sideways in a howling gale in summer.
On more inclement days, ponder the irony of a jumbo jet-sized hangar housing 23 life-sized replicas of whales, many of them endangered, in a country that still hunts whales. Icelanders may not approve of hunting, but they dislike the outside world telling them what to do even more.
Similarly handy for rainy days is the wealth of high-quality cultural spaces, including the Reykjavik Art Museum, spectacular Harpa Concert Hall and Bio Paradis art-house cinema showing English-subtitled homegrown movies.
Above all, don’t be afraid to interact with the locals, who’ll be happy to offer advice. A thank you goes a long way — or just try and pronounce Eyjafjallajökull for them. They like a laugh.
Where to eat
If breakfast isn’t included at your hotel, you could do worse than Bergsson Mathús, open daily from 7am. For just over £9, the set breakfast of yoghurt, muesli, eggs, ham, bread, jam, cheese, orange juice and coffee will fill you up, and its range of quiches, salads and pasta at lunch are good value, too. Or try the Laundromat Café, which, yes, does have a laundry downstairs as well as a welcoming attitude to mums and kids if their ‘Go ahead and breastfeed: we like both babies and boobs’ posters are anything to go by. As well as breakfast until 4pm, it dishes up steaks, burgers, sandwiches and salads.
Tucked away behind one of Reykjavik’s central streets, Grillmarkadurinn has a glamorous, low-lit interior, with a locally sourced fish and meat-based menu. Eat at the bar upstairs if you want to chat with the chefs preparing the food.
Snaps is a cosy spot with an internationally themed menu that includes items such as mussels and chips, salt cod and duck leg. You can reserve up to 6.30pm, then it’s open house. Down by the harbour, Verbúd 11 is owned by a brother and sister team who have their own fishing boats. Expect to pay around £20 for the catch of the day.
And for a real Icelandic experience, forget pickled sheep’s testicles or fermented shark and grab a hot dog instead. The Baejarins Beztu Pylsur stand translates modestly as ‘the best hot dog in town’. Its most famous client was Bill Clinton who visited in September 2004. There are several dotted around town, but the main one, near the harbour, is open until 4.30am at weekends.
The term for the pub crawl-style weekend trawl around town is djammid. To cut costs Reykjavikers get merry at home with friends before heading out late to party through the night, hopping from venue to venue.
But all that doesn’t mean it’s not also a great place for a more relaxed night out if you’re more ‘merlot’ than ‘mad for it’. Slippbarinn in the Marina hotel near the harbour is a chilled out spot with ample seating that attracts an over- 30s crowd, sometimes with live music, offering food and cocktails alongside beers and wine.
A riotous LGBT venue — fun for anyone looking to let their hair down — is the Kiki Queer Bar. The small building is centrally located and painted in the rainbow flag colours, so it’s almost impossible to miss. And The English Pub does what you’d expect it to, with football on big screens, darts boards and a range of beers on tap, as well as food and live bands. Elsewhwere, the likes of Austur, B5, Prikid and American Bar attract a younger crowd.
If you’d like to make sure you hit the top spots, Wake Up Reykjavik organises a guided, three-hour bar crawl on Fridays at 10pm.
Downtown you’ll find wool-related shops, where you can buy yarn, socks, gloves and lopapeysa-style Icelandic jumpers, which consist mostly of a single, solid colour with a ‘yoke’ design around the neck and cuffs. You’ll certainly see locals sporting them, and it’s an especially good look to bring home if you plan on setting up a hippy commune in Wales or a coffee shop in east London. Icewear is a good brand to keep an eye out for.
Given Iceland’s latitude there are some great homegrown outdoor clothing companies. The sticker-price shock is lessened (slightly) when you know you can claim up to 24% VAT back if you pass a minimum spend. Try 66 Degrees North, which produces everything from parkas and scarves to beanies and t-shirts. Cintamani is along the same lines with colourful down jackets, sweatshirts, long johns and baby clothes.
Iceland excels at homeware and design, and Reykjavik is definitely the place to stock up if you want to bring back some imaginative gifts. Kraum, in a building that dates back to 1762, is a one-stop shop bringing together dozens of local designers, where you’ll find everything from jewellery to ‘woolly’ three-legged stools and lampshades made from fish skins. If you’ve only got hand-luggage space you can’t go wrong with a Pyro Pet candle, which burns down to reveal a cool inner skeleton that’s a piece of art in its own right.
Top 10 local tips
02 Download the local bus information app. You can even pay fares directly from some smartphones. bus.is
03 Don’t waste money on bottled water. The stuff that comes out of the tap is as pure as it gets.
04 Many guidebooks say ‘don’t tip’ in cafes or restaurants, but coins left in the counter jar are often pooled for staff night outs, so don’t be stingy.
05 You can pay for anything with a credit card. A single stamp? One bag of crisps? No problem.
06 In crowds and on the street Icelanders get a lot closer to other people than Brits ever do, so don’t be surprised by apparent personal space incursions.
07 Northern Lights sightings are never guaranteed, but locals say chances improve greatly around the spring and autumn equinoxes.
08 Buy a 24- (£17), 48- (£23) or 72-hour (£26) Reykjavik Card if you plan on bashing through lots of museums. It includes bus travel, too. visitreykjavik.is
09 Head to a council-run, mineral-rich, geothermal-heated pool. Bus 11 will take you to a nice one in the suburb of Seltjarnarneslaug.
10 Bring a raincoat not an umbrella — the latter will last about two seconds in a Reykjavik gale (not unusual in the coastal city).
Books: Lonely Planet Guide to Iceland. RRP: £15.99.
How I Became the Mayor of a Large City in Iceland and Changed the World, by Jon Gnarr. RRP: £16.99. (Melville House).
On screen: Paris Nordursins (‘Paris of the North’) 2014.
How to do it
Discover the World’s four-night Reykjavik Explorer with flights and car hire is from £695 per person.
Published in the May 2016 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)