Europe’s northernmost and westernmost capital is a delightful destination, part old Norse, part modern city, with a quirky personality of its own. The puffin, troll and elf souvenirs found in all the gift stores are apt mascots for a city with a decidedly playful streak.
More than half of Iceland‘s population lives there (or nearby), in one of the world’s smallest capital cities — some 200,000 people. Most travelers visit between late May and early October, especially during the summer months, when the daylight literally lasts around the clock. Visitors and residents alike seem to stay awake, golfing, strolling the compact town’s picturesque streets, drinking Gull beer at sidewalk cafes and cycling along the seafront promenade.
Many believe that Reykjavik’s character is more defined in winter, when daunting weather and 20-hour nights are defied by rollicking pubs and a sense of humor. But locals laugh at the climate, whether calm or tempestuous. They keep warm in the iconic handsome sweaters for which Iceland is best known; the long hours indoors and out inspire artisans, evidenced by many shops that display lovely local art and clothing.
This is a city that has learned to make the best of things. The Icelandic landscape is bare and covered with volcanic rock. With no trees for building houses, 18th-century settlers used driftwood that floated in from the sea, covering the wood in sheets of corrugated tin and painting walls and roofs in vivid colors to brighten the scene. The rock that abounds was turned into material for a fine stone parliament building, erected in 1881. Citizens have planted and nurtured welcome oases of green. The geothermal springs that bubble underground have been put to work to provide hot water for residents.
Iceland has seen much advancement in the past few years. Progress is plain to see in the sleek, contemporary buildings that are changing the cityscape. Several worthwhile museums salute local history and art, and whimsical street murals dot the city center. With fishing as the predominant occupation, restaurants serve up delectable seafood, and gourmet dining of all kinds is plentiful and popular. (One local told me that, because Iceland has no traditional food culture, its young chefs feel far more free to create innovative dishes with a trend toward local products that range from blueberries to lamb.)
But if you ask natives for their favorite eating place, the answer most often will be a simple hot dog stand near the harbor.
Reykjavik is a clean and safe city, compact and easy to navigate on foot. As charming as it is, no visit to Iceland is complete without getting out into the vast interior, which lies at the city’s doorstep.
The Old Town: Reykjavik’s best sight is the city itself. A couple of hours on foot in the old part of the city allows you to experience its unique spirit, busy harbor, colorful houses, whimsical murals and sculptures, and interesting architecture, old and new. Start at the main tourist office at 2 Adalstraeti, where you can pick up free printed walking guides. The points of interest are easy to find, roughly between the old harbor and the town pond (Tjornin on the map).
Along Tryggvagata, the street beside the harbor, at Posthusstraeti, an enormous mosaic depicts the city’s maritime life. Keep strolling to see plaques with photos of old sailing ships, one of the old steam locomotives used to build a harbor railroad and the ultra-modern concert hall rising above the harbor. Head south toward the pond on almost any street, and you’ll be in the oldest part of town, passing brightly colored buildings with tin roofs. You never know where you’ll encounter an intriguing small gallery, a humorous sculpture or a mural. Around the pond are the modernistic City Hall on stilts and the 1881 classic stone Parliament.
If your schedule allows, you can take advantage of the two-hour guided walking tours sponsored by Goecco Outdoor Adventures, with guaranteed departures May 15 to September 15 at 1 p.m. daily, departing from the Elding Whale Watching stand, located on the old harbor. Another free walking tour option departs twice a day from Laekjartorg Square at noon and 2 p.m. (Visit FreeWalkingTour.is on the Web.) Led by university students, the one-hour tour visits the Althingi Parliament, Hallgrimskirkja Church, Harpa Symphony Hall and more. In both cases, all it will cost you is a tip for the guide.
Hallgrimskirkja Church: Not everyone admires the odd stair-step architecture, but there’s no missing this unusual church, named after Icelandic poet Hallgrimur Petursson. Iceland’s largest church, seating more than 1,000, sits at the top of a hill at the end of the shopping street Skolavordustigur. Take the elevator to the tower, which literally towers over the town, for great city views. The concrete form was designed by former state architect Gudjon Samuelsson and was supposedly inspired by volcanic basalt rock formations. On the grounds is a statue of Norwegian-born Leif Ericson, the Viking said to have discovered America 500 years before Columbus. It was a gift from the United States in 1930 on the 1,000th anniversary of the world’s oldest Parliament, Iceland’s Althing. On some days during the summer months, you may be able to catch a concert at Hallgrimskirkja (usually at noon).
Reykjavik Art Museum: If art is your pleasure, head to the Reykjavik Art Museum — but there’s a catch: the museum is divided into three different locations. The most convenient is Hafnarhus (on Tryggvagata), the contemporary art museum, housed in a former warehouse across the street from the old harbor. A special gallery there is devoted to the large, comic book-style paintings donated by the Iceland-born artist Erro. The other two sites are short cab rides from the town center. Kjarvalsstadir (in Miklatun Park) is the oldest and largest, housing paintings and sculpture by well-established artists. The Asmundur Sveinsson Sculpture Museum and Park> (Sigtun) resides in a striking, contemporary, domed building and is named for the sculptor who designed the edifice and whose work is featured inside.
The Harpa Concert Hall is located along the water. The striking building, made of colored glass, opened in 2011 and is home to the Iceland Symphony Orchestra and Icelandic Opera; it also hosts a variety of concerts, international conferences, trade shows and more.
History Museums: If you’d like to immerse yourself in Iceland’s history and culture, you’ve got a few museums from which to choose. If you want to learn more about the country, the National Museum of Iceland, near the town pond, will fill you in nicely. The Reykjavik City Museum, dedicated to the city’s past, operates the underground Settlement Museum, inspired by the remains of a Viking-age longhouse, circa 930 A.D., that was uncovered in 2001. The museum uses multimedia displays, models and artifacts to bring the story of the city’s earliest settlers to life.
Iceland’s Golden Circle tour offers a chance to explore the island’s raw and rugged interior. The trio of sites includes the Strokkur Geyser, where jets spout anywhere from 60 to 100 feet; the mystically beautiful Gullfoss (or Golden Falls), Europe’s largest waterfall, tumbling into a glacial river with a 105-foot double cascade; and Thingvellir, a scenic national park that marks where Europe’s first Parliament, the Althing, was formed in 930 A.D.
The Blue Lagoon: Located about 40 minutes from downtown, the Blue Lagoon is one of Iceland’s most popular destinations. Steaming, mineral-rich hot water from far beneath the earth forms this spectacular manmade lagoon, amid a rugged lava landscape. A health spa also offers mudpacks and massages. The lagoon’s geothermal water is believed to be beneficial for everything from skin problems to arthritis.
Thermal Pools: Reykjavik is famous for its steamy geothermal swimming pools, fed by underground springs. The biggest and best known is the Laugardalslaug, with both indoor and outdoor pools, plus “hot pots” and a thermal steam bath for those who really like it hot. Take a cab or the No. 14 bus. The pool is part of Laugardalur, the city’s largest park, where you can easily spend a rewarding day. The park includes botanic gardens — showing off local plant life and great displays of seasonal flowers — as well as the city zoo. Editor’s Note: In order to keep the pools clean, all visitors to any of Reykjavik’s thermal pools must wash thoroughly with soap (and without a swimsuit) before getting in.
The Pearl and Saga Museum: Take a cab or the No. 18 bus to see two only-in-Iceland sites — the Pearl and the Saga Museum. Named for its dome shape, the Pearl is a multi-use building that rests on top of six storage tanks that hold the hot thermal waters that heat the city. Inside the building is the curious Saga Museum, a cafe, shops and an elegant revolving restaurant. The free viewing deck on the fourth floor has a great panoramic view — for a closer look, try one of the telescopes stationed around the platform. More than 176,000 trees have been planted on the steep hillside, resulting in a woodland setting with cycling and walking paths that are rare for the city.
The Saga Museum recreates Viking history with eerily lifelike replicas of historical Icelandic figures, based on descriptions found in the old Icelandic sagas. For an authentic ambience, a soundtrack of bloody Viking ax fights plays in the background. A short movie at the end of the tour tells you how the figures were made. Fun fact: Local residents served as models for some of the figures.
Arbaer Open-Air Folk Museum: Operated by Reykjavik City Museum, Arbaer Open-Air Folk Museum is a period farm turned into an open-air museum with more than 20 buildings forming a town square, village and farm. Most of the buildings have been relocated from central Reykjavik. Craftspeople demonstrate traditional farm-life crafts and chores. Although it’s located in a suburb of Reykjavik, the museum is easily accessible. Take bus No. 19 from Hlemmer, the main bus station on Laugavegur, and ask to get off at Strengur, a quick walk from the museum.
Puffin Tours: Boat tours take visitors past the Puffin Islands, where thousands of these adorable birds are found in mating season. Special Tours runs a Puffin Express tour to the islands of Akurey and Lundey, from May 1 to August 20, using small boats that bring you close to shore.
From gourmet food to simple meals, Reykjavik has something for every taste and budget. Seafood and lamb are the stars of Icelandic menus. Fish is right-off-the-boat fresh. Cod is the most popular choice, though haddock, Arctic char, halibut, salmon and monkfish are also common. The locally raised lamb has been allowed to range freely and feed on grasses and bushes that have never known chemicals, giving the meat a distinctive flavor, which slightly resembles that of wild game.
Cheap and Chic: Two of the city’s hottest nighttime venues are perfect stops for an affordable lunch. Cafe Mokka (Skolavordustigu) is Reykjavik’s classic coffee bar. Vegamot, conveniently set on a little street between Laugavegur and Skolavordustigur (the two main shopping streets), is a buzzing bar and club at night — but it’s also a great stop by day, when you’ll find salads, sandwiches and gourmet pizzas, as well as full meals. On sunny days, the outside garden is packed.
Convenient: Geysir Bistro, next to the main tourist office, is a pleasant cafe with well-priced prix fixe lunches that include soup and coffee.
Classic Seafood: Vid Tjornina, whose name means “by the lake,” offers a cozy, homey setting with a bit of kitsch — hanging lamps over the tables, embroidered tablecloths, hand-carved chairs. Local cod is a specialty served many ways; the marinated cod cheeks taste much better than they sound.
A Special Splurge: Fiskfelagid, or “Fish Company,” earns raves for its fresh seafood and international menu. You might try lobster prepared Malaysian-style with lemongrass, chili sambal and pineapple, or sink your teeth into Russian caramelized beetroot with goat cheese and turnips. Be sure to save room for dessert.
Hot Dogs: Icelanders are crazy about hot dogs, and the place to find out why is a simple stand near the harbor called Baejarins Beztu Pylsur (this literally means “best hot dog in town,” and we have to say: it’s mighty fine), a standby since 1939. Look for it on Tryggvagata, just east of Posthusstraeti. (Head toward the Radisson Blu 1919 hotel in the old town, and look for a line of people.) To sample a hot dog the way the natives like it, order it with everything — sweet mustard, fried onion and a remoulade sauce.
Shopping in Reykjavik
Looking for the perfect souvenir? Hand-knitted Icelandic wool sweaters are lovely to look at and are guaranteed to keep you warm! One of the best sources is the Handknitting Association of Iceland, with locations on both main shopping streets — Laugavegur and Skolavordustigur. A third, smaller shop is located inside the Radisson Blu Hotel Saga. Also watch for the whimsical knitted hats that are a local trademark.
Laugavegur and intersecting Skolavordustigur, the main shopping streets, are well worth strolling even if you don’t plan on buying anything. The shops display not only the traditional Nordic sweaters but also the modern design that is an increasing influence in Reykjavik. As you browse, don’t forget to look toward the water at cross streets for striking views and murals in unexpected places.
Reykjavik’s largest shopping center is Kringlan, with more than 180 boutiques and restaurants a few miles outside the city center. You name it — clothing, jewelry, music, food, souvenirs, art — and you can probably buy it here.
If you’re not a resident of Iceland, you can get a refund of any Value Added Tax (VAT) paid on your purchases while in Iceland. You must spend at least 4,000 ISK (about $35 USD at this writing) and show both the goods and the required documentation when you leave the country. See the Keflavik International Airport website for more details.
–written by Eleanor Berman; updated by Dori Saltzman