For a long time, Reykjavik stood as the cutesy gateway to Iceland’s madcap cavalcade of fjords, glaciers, volcanoes and moonscapes. But things are changing, as apartment blocks, showy glass buildings and new hotels spring up with seemingly indecent haste. Global attention after the 2010 Eyjafjallajökull eruption, Game Of Thrones location filming, plus cheap flights taking advantage of proximity to Europe and North America have turned the country from backwater to bucket list. New hotels are sprouting up rapidly, and Airbnb likewise.
The latter is certainly worth looking at in a country that is tear-jerkingly expensive. But there are some indications that local prices might be on the cusp of getting a little more bearable, not least judging by residents’ giddy excitement at Costco’s arrival in Iceland. The theory is that a little extra competition could force power players to reduce hefty mark-ups on goods, which can only spell good things for the city’s traditionally budget-busting accommodation offerings.
For style: Hotel Borg (£££)
On a square opposite the Icelandic parliament building, the Borg does away with Nordic minimalist mediocrity and opts for a delicious all-in art deco look. The lobby looks straight out of the 1920s, with statues holding up Olympic-esque torches. Upstairs, bathroom mirrors and headboards are done ziggurat-style, while tables and wardrobes are varnished and buffed. History is represented with black-and-white photos of events that have taken place in the square. Rooms: Doubles from ISK31,446 (£225).
For bang for buck: Icelandair Hotel Reykjavik Natura (£)
The location by the domestic airport is off-putting, but it’s only a mile-and-a-half from the heart of Old Reykjavik. And what you get for that trade-off is excellent value. The Natura is a big joint, with a lot going on. Icelandic artists are showcased around the central spiral staircase, the lobby area is dotted with sheep sculpted from scrap wood and there’s a bizarre exhibition of stuffed Icelandic birds near the conference rooms. Bedrooms are themed around flora, poets, artists and nature. Next to that, is a mini-museum about chess legend Bobby Fischer. Rooms: Doubles from ISK13,760 (£99), room only.
For cheap(ish) eats: Centerhotel Midgardur (££)
The Midgardur has a likeable buzz about it. Rooms are warmer-feeling than most in the city (partly due to taking the revolutionary step of adding carpets), with big walk-in showers and some quirkily shaped furniture. The ISK600 (£4) happy-hour beers are about as cheap as you’ll get in the city, but the location just across the road from the new Hlemmur Food Hall is a godsend. Inside a former bus terminal building, this brings together several small outlets, from a Vietnamese banh mi stall to wine bar/grill hybrids, all selling good grub at admirably affordable prices. Rooms: From ISK18,469 (£132), including breakfast.
For families: Swan House (£££)
Icelandic receptionists can be a little on the brusque side, but not here — eager helpfulness seems to be the order of the day. There’s a touch more design flair than most apartments in the city, too, with its odd mix of Scandi minimalism, country cutesy and industrial chic. Headboards look suspiciously like wooden pallets, ceilings are bare concrete, and the outdoor area goes from severe grey slabbing to a sprawling wooden deck with bird boxes. But the key factors are the sofa beds and the kitchenette. Which means self-catering becomes a viable option for those stretching the budget. Rooms: From ISK20,891 (£150), room only.
For a swim: Reykjavik Campsite (£)
Huddling in a tent in a field is always going to be the cheapest — if not the warmest — way to stay in Iceland. Reykjavik Campsite also has decent shower and cooking facilities. If camping’s a stretch too far, though, there are basic wooden cabins with bunk beds. But Reykjavik Campsite suddenly becomes approximately a million times more appealing when you realise it’s next to the Laugardalslaug, Reykjavik’s best thermal pool complex. Here, there’s a lagoon section for kids, plus an Olympic-sized lane pool, naturally heated to between 27-29C. Cabins: From ISK11,500 (£82), a night, or ISK2,200 (£16) to pitch a tent.
For little extras: Canopy (£££)
Design-wise, Canopy is hyperactively skittish, continually throwing new morsels to keep eyes stimulated. It features shelves stacked with vinyl records, lifts hidden between bookcases, wall art made of metallic white and silver discs, and kooky mismatched furniture. The rooms have a similar vibe — art nouveau wallpaper, slate grey robes, books on Icelandic picnics, and free pairs of socks in the drawer. It’s a bombardment of odd, and it somehow works. Rooms: Doubles from ISK30,597 (£219), including breakfast. canopy3.hilton.com
For sea views: Reykjavik Marina Residence (£££)
Looking out on to the harbour, these waterside suites are the sort of place it’s easy to imagine Hollywood stars staying when they’re in the country filming. They’re sprawling apartments, with massive bathrooms split into three sections — one of which has a high roll-top bath for long soaks. A loose maritime theme is adhered to, with bits of ships being turned into furniture, and barometers on the walls, while there’s a deliberate focus on Icelandic beers and chocolates in the minibars. Everything seems that little bit more plush than in other Reykjavik hotels, and the surround sound speaker system is geared up to hook your phone or iPod into. Rooms: Suites from ISK64,710 (£463), including breakfast.
For couples: 105 Townhouse Hotel
While many of Reykjavik’s hotels plump for ice — light wood and crisp white paint jobs — this new entrant on the scene opts for fire. The country’s volcanoes, rather than its glaciers, seem to be the inspiration. It’s a big red building, and the rooms go for a beginner goth effect: black padded headboards, a big ring of bare, unshaded light bulbs theatrically hanging down from the ceiling, black tiles around the rain shower. The Champagne flutes among the cutlery and crockery above the oven seem to be a nod that guests are here for a good time. Rooms: From ISK 17,006 (£122), room only.
For practicalities: City Park Hotel
Lots of hotel rooms in Reykjavik appear to have been furnished straight out of the IKEA catalogue, and this absolutely applies to the City Park Hotel. But if you’re here to see Iceland rather than Reykjavik, it’s a mighty handy crash pad. It’s just close enough to the appealing parts of the city to walk to, but has a good selection of places to eat on the doorstep, and there’s plenty of free parking around for self-drivers, too. Also handy after a long day’s exploring is the ISK2,900 (£21) buffet dinner. Rooms: From ISK15,316 (£110), including breakfast.
For backpackers: Galaxy Hostel
Standard issue hostel dorm beds have been cast aside here, in favour of fully kitted-out capsule pods. Each has a TV, USB ports, international plug sockets, a headphones slot, safes and mirrors. There are some double capsules, too. As a hostel, it gets some things right — vaguely affordable happy-hour drinks, a cute TV room with projector screening on the wall. Others not so much. The kitchen facilities are poor, and charging ISK1,500 (£11) for luggage storage is pointlessly mean. Rooms: From ISK7,000 (£51), doubles from ISK15,000 (£107). Breakfast not included.
Published in the March 2018 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)