48 Hours Reykjavík: The Best of a City in Two Days
Vacationers soak in the steamy waters of a Blue Lagoon geothermal pool.
Photograph by Brooks Walker
Glowing Spirits in Saga Land
Artful locals, steamy pools, and hot fish: That's the dish on the world's northernmost capital.
The first time I visited Reykjavík, a gamine Icelander asked me where I was from. She smiled at my American response and said, "You probably think all Icelanders are pretty, like a snowflake." I couldn't disagree. Then she added, "What you don't realize is that on the inside, we are like volcanoes waiting to erupt!" I knew then that I would have to return.
Visitors to this North Atlantic island typically come equipped with a few pastoral expectations: glaciers, geysers, volcanoes, fish, and lamb. You can add geothermal heating and genetics studies, but a sense of Iceland's capital is harder to come by. "My job is to find out what you can actually do here," says Valur Gunnarsson, editor of the Reykjavík Grapevine, a plucky paper in English. "The problem is that the city is small, but that's also the benefit. You get to know it in a day, and then you get to know everyone in it."
Gunnarsson exhibits some Icelandic traits, particularly an island-dweller's posture of ambivalence toward his homeland. "I love going to Hallgrímskirkja,
the church in the center of town, and just looking over the city, seeing how pitifully small it is, encircled by volcanic wilderness. We're the edge of civilization on this big rock of nothingness…." If this seems dismissive, it's merely an Icelandic illusion. Locals love their Viking heritage, historic resilience, and modern outlook. Reykjavík is full of life stories, but you might have to stay up late to get them. "Icelanders don't talk to strangers until 2 a.m., and by then they have no idea what they're saying," Gunnarsson says.
Europe's second-largest island hasn't outgrown its chilly reputation. The temperature averages 31°F in January and 58°F in July, but the midnight sun in summertime (and aurora borealis in winter) lighten the mood. English is widely spoken, and the city, settled in A.D. 874, is still best enjoyed on foot. Roughly 288,000 people live in Iceland, most in Reykjavík. Locals go berserk on June 17 in celebration of Independence Day, which marks the official split from Denmark in 1944. Icelandair makes daily flights to Keflavík International Airport, 45 minutes from Reykjavík.
Many Icelanders believe that their land is populated by huldufólkhidden people who inhabit volcanic fields. You could try to look for them, but the Culture House (which now exhibits the sagas and eddas, medieval manuscripts that represent the foundation of the island's history) makes for a quicker primer. Continue your local immersion at the Reykjavík Art Museum's three venues: Kjarvalsstaðir (painting and photos), Hafnarhús (contemporary art), and Ásmundarsafn (sculpture). Georg Guðni, a painter celebrated for his broad and often moody canvases that depict stark topographysays that his work embodies a cultural value. "The art scene here is a boiling pot of influences, but we Icelanders are connected by our land." When not painting, Guðni often heads to the National Gallery of Iceland.
Reykjavík is an outdoorsy city. A paved trail hugs the coast and geothermally heated public pools bubble around the urban center. On warm days, rent a bike at Borgarhjól and pedal out to Grótta Beach lighthouse (keep high tides in mind). Or join the "hot-pot people" on a morning dip in the whirlpools at Laugardalslaug Thermal Pool.
All this activity can become hunger-inducing. Stop by the Reykjavík Bagel Company for a leavened afternoon snack. Its owner, Frank Sands, is a Boston transplant who claims to have suffered from "an acute case of IWD." "When I moved here, I had Icelandic-Woman Disease," he admits. "The only cure is to marry a localand I did." So love blooms, even in these near-arctic climes. A few doors away is Safn, a local art gallery that will knock you back into urban mode.
Despite the abundant handknit lopapeysa (traditional wool sweaters) available along Skórlavördustígur, the street leading from the Hallgrímskirkja church to the Laugavegur shopping street, the Icelandic style remains decidedly cool and minimalist. Kirsuberjatréð is a design cooperative run by ten female artists. Fish-skin handbags, pendulous jewelry, and mossy felt hats fill the shelves. Music-lovers get their mellow kicks at 12 Tonár, a CD store and listening lounge with a smart selection of Icelandic music.
And then there's the maximalism: Icelanders love a good story, "especially if it involves hardship and death," says Herdís Gunnarsdóttir, who grew up listening to fishermen's tales. A nifty bookstore is Gvenður ðúllari, which sells everything from Nobel Prize-winning native Halldór Laxness' novels to curiosities, such as sheet music for an Icelandic translation of Singin' in the Rain.
WHERE THE LOCALS EAT
"Twenty years ago, Iceland was struggling, economically and gastronomically," explains Guðbjörg Logadóttir, ice-blue-eyed proprietor of the sleek fish luncheonette Fylgifiskar. "We're not struggling anymore. No more boiled haddock and lamb fat. We have the best fish in the world, and we know how to cook it." Fylgifiskar is a new-generation fish deli (marinating fishes await: salmon in mint and garlic, trout in Thai spices, Arctic char in coriander and sesame) that serves a daily lunch special. Closer to central Reykjavík, Ostabúðin is a cheese and smoked-meat shop and luncheon place that serves a plate of whatever owner Johann Jonsson hunted, fished, or rustled up from nature that day. Two intimate (if pricey) dinnertime favorites are Við Tjörnina and Humarhúsid; they specialize in delicate seafood dishes, which is what you should eat here (all apologies to the lambs and puffins), unless you're feasting on the world's best hot dogspylsurloaded with onions, sweet mustard, ketchup, and rémoulade at Bæjarins Beztu, the city's best stand. For dessert and coffee, head to Mokka Kaffi, where hot Icelandic waffles come stacked with whipped cream and fruit jam.
Reykjavík means "smoky bay," an appellation that goes undisputed by puffing locals. If you can take the smoke, there's a lot of fire to the city's weekend scene. At Café Culture, I heard Angurgapi, a hip jazz fusion band. "The city has a great vibe," guitarist Sigurdur Rognvaldsson tells me. "I go to Dillon, a cozy bar where the DJ, Andrea Jonsdóttir, plays '70s rock." Reykjavík is celebrated as a hothouse of
modern music, and the city's futurists converge on NASA disco. Cooler heads cruise around pubs such as Prikið or Kaffibarinn; the former is mellow, while the latter brims with Icelandic intrigue.
LODGINGS OF NOTE
Iceland's huldufólk might live in crags, but travelers need their creature comforts. The trendy convene at 101 Hotel, Reykjavík's newest and hippest hotel, which is loaded with techie attractions like in-room wireless Internet hookup. Hótel Borg, Iceland's first luxury hotel, retains its spacious gentility today; stop by its light-filled brasserie. Room With a View, in the city center, is an apartment hotel with a terrace overlooking rainbow-colored rooftops toward the bay. Opposite Hallgrímskirkja, Hótel Leifur Eiríksson is a spare and friendly inn. The Reykjavík send-off includes a preflight soak at the Blue Lagoon geothermal spa, located 15 minutes from the Keflavík Airport. Spend a night at the Northern Light Inn, on the edge of the spa, and explore the lava-rock landscape of the Reykjanes Peninsula before temporarily departing Iceland. After all, even the huldufólk know you'll be back again.
Sightseeing, Culture, and Shopping
Bike Rental Borgarhjól: Hverfisgata 50; +354 551 5653.
Blue Lagoon: +354 420 8800; www.bluelagoon.is.
Culture House: Hverfisgata 15, +354 545 1400; www.thjodmenning.is.
Gvenður ð·llari: Klapparstíg 35; +354 511 1925.
Hallgrímskirkja: Skólavördustígur; +354 510 1000.
Kirsuberjatréð: Vesturgata 4; +354 562 8990; www.kirs.is.
Laugardalslaug Thermal Pool: Sundlaugarvegur 30; +354 553 4039.
National Gallery of Iceland: Frikirkjuvegur 7; +354 515 9600; www.listasafn.is.
Reykjavík Art Museum: (Ásmundarsafn, Hafnarhús, Kjarvalsstaðir); www.listasafnreykjavikur.is.
Safn: Laugavegur 37; +354 561 8777.
12 Tonár: Skólavördustígur 15; +354 511 5656.
Restaurants & Bars
Apótek: Austurstræti 16; +354 575 7900.
Bæjarins Beztu: Tryggvagata and Pósthússtræti.
Café Culture: Hverfisgata 18; +354 530 9413.
Dillon: Laugavegur 30; +354 511 2400.
Fylgifiskar: Suðurlandsbraut 10; +354 533 1303.
Humarhúsid: Amtmannsstígur 1; +354 561 3303.
Kaffibarinn: Bergstaðstréti 1; +354 551 1588.
Mokka Kaffi: Skólavörðustígur 34; +354 552 1174.
NASA: Austurvöllur Square; +354 511 1313.
Ostabúðin: Skûlavörðustígur 8; +354 562 2772.
Prikið: Bankastræti 12; +354 551 3366.
Reykjavík Bagel Company: Laugavegur 81.
Við Tjörnina: Templarsund 3; +354 551 8666.
Hótel Borg: +354 551 1440; www.hotelborg.is; $200-290 U.S., including breakfast.
Hótel Leifur Eiríksson: +354 562 0800; www.hotelleifur.is; $130-200 U.S., including breakfast.
Northern Light Inn: +354 426 8650; www.northernlightinn.is; $133-190 U.S., including breakfast.
Room With a View: +354 552 7262; www.roomwithaview.is; $79-130 U.S.
101 Hotel:+354 580 0101; www.101hotel.is; $290-315 U.S.
For more information: Contact the Iceland Tourist Board (www.icetourist.is) or the Reykjavík Tourist Office (www.visitReykjavik.is).