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My brief guide to Iceland

A few of you know that I lived in Iceland for a total of around a year, and I 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. 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’s 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 in town 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 very 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. Kaffi Thomas Fraeda (bad spelling, something like that), 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!

Sirkus is a tiny bar off the main street. I told Mark Boulton to go here and he ended up having a drink with Sigur Rós.

Prikið is a long-established bar on Laugarvegur. It has a great bar downstairs with more seating upstairs. We had a private party here once, and it was 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. Don’t be fooled into eating the rotten shark, but do have a testicle if tempted or a boiled sheep head if you’re offered one.


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.

Reykjavík must-sees

Be there on 17th June if possible, as that is Independence Day, and it feels like the whole of Iceland is in town for fun and festivities. Usually, there’s 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) is the great big dome thing sitting on the hill (you’ll see it from everywhere). The views of Reykjavík, the sea, and the mountains are amazing.

Hallgrimskirkja: The massive church at the top of Skólavörðustígur. Go to the top in a lift. Amazing views in all directions.

Have a walk around the old town (around the lake Tjornin and Laekjargata, my fave partof Reykjavík. Check out the modern Ráðhús Reykjavíkur (the City Hall) stretching into the water (architected by Studio Granda).

Get out of town

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 are 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. There’s a great little fish restaurant there.

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 blows every five 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, smaller and friendlier than Reykjavik. Oh, and don’t forget to visit the Blue Lagoon.

Where I used to live

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.

That’s it

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.


# jaudrius responded on 19th February 2007 with...

Thanks for the tips, Colly! Just as I am planning my trip to Iceland. I am still worried about cost issues staying there thou. Maybe you can recommend some hostels, etc. in the area?

# Nik Steffen responded on 19th February 2007 with...

Thank You Simon, this just makes me want to go visit Iceland even more.

This is just a question. Somebody once told me that there is a bar in Reykjavik where the women go if they want to meet foreign business men because it is a way of getting off the Island. Is this truth or just an urban myth?

By the way, just saw you are listening to Hellelujah by Jeff Buckley. Great Song.

# Simon Clayson responded on 19th February 2007 with...

Well, just a quick one (I’ve only been for 3 days), and I’ll second a few on here. If you like a bit of natural wonderment, Gullfoss is incredible. I went there late March and it was still covered in snow and ice. If you do the Golden Circle, it’s easy to hire a car and do it.

Kaffibarrin. There was wi-fi in there 3 years ago… I won’t go on about this.

# Frank responded on 3rd March 2007 with...

I am going in April but comments will be dsabled by then…oh well…

# Zotter responded on 5th March 2007 with...

I like Iceland, but I was never there bevor.
You give me impulse for my next trip, thank you.

# PK responded on 16th March 2007 with...

Thanks for very interesting article. Can I translate your article into polish and publish at my webblog? I will back here and check your answer. Keep up the good work. Greetings

# Simon Collison responded on 17th March 2007 with...

PK: Yes you’d be very welcome to translate this. let me know when you have done it.