18th February, 2007
Quite a lot of people know that I lived in Iceland for a total of around a year, and I therefore get lots of emails asking about things to see and do in Reykjavík. To save me the trouble of writing back every time, I decided to post up my must-see list here.
I’ve not actually been over there for a couple of years, but I would think most of the stuff on my list is still relevant.
Figure 1: Hallgrimskirkja and the colourful houses of 101 Reykjavík.
OK, let’s get started. I can’t cover everything, but allow me to delve into such key subjects as shopping, drinking, eating, culture—and the opportunities to get out of town and explore.
Laugavegur (main street) - don’t go to the Kringlan - it is a UK-style shopping centre. For music, don’t miss 12 Tonar, Bad Taste (Smekkleysa), Skifan and numerous other small independent stores around the city. Cool old clothes can be found in Sputnik on laugarvegur, and also be sure to check out Naked Ape.
My main tip for the thrifty is Kolaportið. If you are there on a Saturday, go to this massive indoor flea market by the harbour. You’ll come away with so much tat, and a great experience (the local sellers are really funny).
Kaffibarrin: The one Damon Albarn of Blur had a share in. Tiny, but full of media types, wifi and pop stars. Kaffi Brenslan: Amazing beer menu. Kaffi Thomson turns into a club at night and they open up the caves below. Pretty girls in there (well, they are every where). Kaffi Thomas Fraeda (bad spelling, something like it), Laugarvegur. Good place during the day for tea, cake and reading. Cafe Solun Islandus on Laugarvegur is arty and sexy. I still lament the loss of Cafe Frank, where I spent most of Summer 1998. Bring it back!
Prikið, on Laugarvegur has a great bar downstairs with more seating upstairs. Pretty people. We had a private party here once, and it was bloody wonderful.
Kaffi Mokka, just on Skólavörðustígur where it meets Laugarvegur. The best coffee shop in the whole world. Local folks, beautiful staff, great atmosphere. Damn fine coffee and cake.
You have to have an Icelandic hot-dog from a shop or trailer. Amazing. Also, Sirius chocolate bars are wonderful. E. Finsson’s Pitusosa sauce is the perfect accompaniment to any cold snack. I used to have it shipped over to the UK as there is no substitute here. Otherwise, make sure to try some smoked Icelandic lamb, Buri cheese, or cartons of chocolate milk. Otherwise, be careful what you eat.
You MUST go to the Hafnarhús (Harbour House) gallery near the harbour. Renovated by Studio Granda architects. I’ll say no more, just go check out the building. Also worth checking out Kjarvalsstaðir gallery too. There are many, many more galleries, including some exceptional artist-led projects, and public art is everywhere.
If you can, be there on 17th June, as that is Independence Day, and it feels like the whole of Iceland is in town for fun and festivities. Usually live music too. Speaking of live music, try and visit the Iceland Airwaves music festival in October - two or three days of excellent local and international bands playing all over the city.
Perlan (the Pearl); great big dome thing sitting on the hill (you’ll see it from everywhere). Views of Reykjavík, the sea, mountains are amazing.
Hallgrimskirkja: The massive church at the top of Skólavörðustígur. Go to the top in a lift. Amazing views again.
A short bus ride will take you to the foot of Mount Esja, the vast plateau overlooking Reykjavík’s harbour. It is a full day’s strenuous walking to the summit, but the views over the capital, coastline and into the interior highlands is a phenomenal reward. Be sure to sign the visitor’s book at the summit.
Snæfellsjökull and Stykkishólmur: The former is a vast cone-shaped old volcano on the end of a long thin peninsula. Famous for being Jules Verne’s porthole into the centre of the earth, and in modern times it is a great place to go snowmobiling. The latter is a small town with a bustling harbour, great pub and good camping facilities.
Flatey is an island in the vast waters of Breiðafjörður, and is accessible only by ferry from Stykkishólmur. It is tiny, and you can walk around it in one hour, but what a place! Like going back 200 years. Great little fish restaurant there too.
The Golden Circle is a popular trip around the key must-sees for those on short visits, taking in Geysir (where the mighty Strokkur still blos every 5 minutes), Gullfoss (a raging two-tier waterfall that will take your breath away), and the deeply historical Þingvellir, home of the first parliament and scene of many great saga tales.
Laugarvegur is the mammoth trek from the hot springs area of Landmannalaugar to the glacial valley of Þórsmörk, named after the shopping street in Reykjavík due to it’s popularity. I did this walk once, and it took four days, but possibly the best four days of my life.
Route 1 is the 1339km main road (often little more than a track and rickety wooden bridges) surrounding the island. Hire a car and go at least as far as the glacial lagoon Jokulsarlon. Myrdalsjokull is a vast glacier with a deep caldera where you can go snowmobiling and pretend you are James Bond, and I also recommend a stop off at the lighthouse on the cliffs above Dyrholaey.
I also recommend a short trip to the harbour town of Hafnarfjörður, a beautiful place full of art and culture, but smaller and friendlier than Reykjavik. Oh, and don’t forget to visit the Blue Lagoon.
Oh, and if you get the Flybus from the airport, it is a 40 minute drive to Reykjavík. As you begin to approach civilisation after twenty-odd minutes, you see two massive red and white cylindrical towers. as soon as you see them, keep looking left in the harbour for a big white farmhouse with a red roof, just by rock pools and the sea. That is one of the places where I used to live! Remote.
I could go on and on. There’s just so much to do whether in the capital or in the wilds of the interior. Most people recommend visiting in the Summer when the sun is strong, and there’s more going on, but I love it at all times of the year. New year fireworks are something else! Whatever time you go, just make sure to take lots and lots of money.
If you have anything to contribute, and have visited Iceland, or are a local and wish to correct me, then drop a comment below.