As far as weekend destinations go, Reykjavik is a bit of an underdog. It’s understandable, I guess, that with such poor weather in the UK, most Brits tend to head to mainland Europe for a weekend break. With cities like Venice, Paris and Barcelona a stone’s throw away, it’s easy to see why so many of us choose to head South, and yet it seems we’ve been missing a trick all along…
Sheltered by dramatic volcanic hills, and fringed by icy Atlantic sea, Iceland’s capital city has somehow managed to achieve the balance between urban charm and rugged wilderness; a meeting point between Europe, Scandinavia and America, the town has an interesting blend of cultural influences, yet still manages to maintain its own distinct personality. I visited for the first time in September 2015, and quickly found myself falling for the city and its quirky charm; here are my top ten reasons to love Reykjavik, though the list is by no means definitive…
It’s not too big
They say that good things come in small packages, and Iceland’s capital is no exception. With a population of just 120,000, Reykjavik can’t exactly be described as an urban metropolis, and yet that’s all the more reason to love it; it’s the perfect size for exploring on foot, you’re never far between sights, and as long you keep the Hallgrímskirkja church in sight, it’s virtually impossible to get lost! Don’t let its size fool you though, there’s a lot packed into those colourful streets!
You can go outdoor swimming at any time of the year!
If there’s one thing the Icelandic people love, it’s an outdoor pool; bathing is an important part of the local culture, and is as much a social activity as it is a relaxing one. Heated directly from the country’s geothermic sources, the water is said to have natural healing powers, and believe me, there’s nothing more refreshing after a day of sight-seeing than chilling out in a hot tub! But be warned though, you are expected to shower fully naked before entering the pools, so mind and bring a towel if you don’t want your dangly bits on display!
The shopping is great.
I won’t lie – Reykjavik is not cheap. That being said, the shopping opportunities are plentiful! For trendy winter wear, independent boutiques and souveneirs, head to the main shopping streets, Laugarvegur and Skólavördustígur. Or, if you’re looking to pick up a bargain, check out the weekend Fleamarket by the harbour. If there’s one purchase that you must make, however, it’s a traditional Icelandic sweater, or Lopapeysa. They don’t come cheap, but if bought from the right place, then the quality is phenomenal, and will keep you warm for years! Want to know you’re getting the best quality? Head to the Handknitting Association of Iceland, a cooperative which ensures that all its products are made locally, and that all manufacturers profit from sales.
It’s got a bustling harbour
Perhaps it’s because I’m an islander myself, but I’ve always been a bit of a sucker for a nice harbour. Still an active port, the city’s Old Harbour is a colourful and vibrant place to stroll, with views out towards Mount Esja and an abundance of things to do. Adventurous souls will want to head straight out on one of the many whale watching tours, but for those who prefer to stay on dry land, there’s also the fantastic Whales of Iceland museum, which houses life-sized models of the various creatures that inhabit the nearby waters. Further along the waterfront, you’ll find the magnificent Harpa concert hall, which is well worth checking out – both inside and out! In the evening, head to Saegreifinn, a converted fisherman’s shack which serves a mean bowl of lobster soup, before heading over to the Sun Voyager sculpture, the best place in town to watch the sun go down (if you’re there in Winter, that is!).
The nightlife is thriving
Perhaps it’s the dark winter evenings, perhaps it’s those long summer nights, maybe it’s the volcanic energy…whatever it is, the Icelandic people know how to party! Reykjavic is fast gaining a reputation for offering some of the best nightlife in Europe, and it’s easy to see why! There’s a relaxed trendiness to the bars, most of which are within stumbling distance from each other, and there’s a great mix of people socializing, from locals to travellers, weary after a day spent embracing the great outdoors. But be warned though, because of the high cost of importation, alcohol does not come cheap! Most locals prefer to share a drink at home before heading out, which is why the bars are often not busy until after midnight. Want my advice? Grab yourself a bottle or two from Duty Free at the airport before arriving in the city, and avoid ordering cocktails!
It’s a foodie’s paradise!
Still in the process of recovering from the economic crash of 2008, Iceland is experiencing somewhat of a food Renaissance; during its recession, the country struggled with the importation costs of food, and so began to return to its traditional agricultural and fishing routes. Now that Icelandic food has become fashionable again, Reykjavik is the perfect place to tuck into world-class seafood, as well as traditional dishes like Hangikjöt (smoked lamb), or Kjötsúpa (meat soup)…of course, there are also the less conventional meals of Svið (basically a boiled sheep’s head) and Hákarl (a cured shark dish known for its vomit-inducing reactions), but I’d stay clear of those unless you have a very, very strong stomach! The city is brimming with great, quirky places to eat. For lunch, head to Babalu, a cafe which feels a bit more like the inside of the Mad Hatter’s conservatory (don’t forget to check out the Star Wars themed bathroom!). For dinner, check out Grillmarkadurinn, the best grill-house in town – or, if you’re really looking to push the boat out, treat yourself to a meal at The Perlan (The Pearl), a fantastic revolving restaraunt with views out across the city. Oh, and don’t forget to try a hot-dog from Baejarins Beztu Pylsur… the stand may look unassuming, but these humble hot dogs have gained themselves a reputation for being the best in town, and believe me, the locals love their hot dogs! Make sure to ask for eina med ollu, or ‘the works’: ketchup, sweet mustard, raw and fried onions and remoulade…mmm….
It’s the perfect gateway to get out and explore the landscape
One of the best things about Reykjavik is that you don’t have to go far to find yourself immersed in the great Icelandic outdoors; the city itself sits in the shadows of distant volcanos, and even the drive from the airport will leave you in awe, as you pass through an alien landscape of lava fields and remote clusters of houses. There are countless great day trips which depart from the city centre, and will have you gazing up at waterfalls or across glacial landscapes in no time. I’d strongly recommended doing a tour of the Golden Circle, which takes you around some of the country’s most significant natural sights, from the Thingvellur National Park – once a Viking parliamentary meeting point – to the beautiful Gulfoss waterfall and Geysir, home to some of the country’s most active geysers. From the city, you can also visit the Snæfellsnes peninsula and Skógafoss waterfall, and during the winter, there are tours available which take you out to see the Northern Lights, an absolute must if conditions are on your side!!
The art scene is buzzing
With its rugged natural beauty, colourful history and rich folklore, Iceland is a country which breeds creativity, and this is evident throughout its capital, which is home to bright mural art and a smattering of world renowned galleries. Read The Culture Guide‘s brilliant guide to the various art houses in town, wander the streets for inspiration, or check out the Reykjavik Arts Festival, which runs throughout May every year.
The heritage sites are world class
Want to learn about the country’s heritage and culture? Then you’re in luck, because Reykjavik is home to numerous great museums, from the impressive National Museum of Iceland to Arbaer, an open-air recreation of a traditional Icelandic village. If you’re interested in learning more about the Viking settlements, then head to the Maritime Museum by the harbour, or the interactive Settlement Exhibition, which gives fantastic insight into day-to-day life during Age, and will hopefully convince you that the Vikings weren’t just axe-wielding, village pillaging maniacs…and speaking of crazy, don’t forget to check out the Icelandic Phallological Museum, which houses the world’s largest collection of penises. Yep, penises. Including human.
It doesn’t take itself too seriously…
With its mismatched houses, colourful lanes and laidback atmosphere, there’s something deeply unpretentious about Reykjavik which – in my opinion – makes it all the more loveable. It’s the sort of place where you where you can walk through the city centre still in your outdoor clothing and not feel out of place, where the street signs are laden with innuendo, and where the locals will happily stop for a chat (even if you do spend most of that conversation cooing over their adorable Icelandic sheepdog)…There’s a quirkiness to the city that’s hard to define, a sort of unfinished, unkempt edge that sets it apart from other European cities and will make you feel at home, which makes leaving that much harder…
So there you have it. Ten reasons to love Reykjavik. All this, and only a couple of hours from the UK…
Fancy taking a visual tour through my time in Reykjavik? Check out my photography post here.