With a population of only 123,300 in the city proper (and just over 200,000 in the Capital Region), Iceland’s capital city of Reykjavik, is hardly a cosmopolitan destination. What the world’s northernmost capital city lacks in size, however, it makes up for in its eccentric culture, unique sights and activities that are distinctly Icelandic.
Situated in the southwestern corner of the island-nation, Reykjavik is regarded as one of the cleanest, greenest and safest cities in the world. As Iceland’s cultural, economic and governmental epicenter, a trip to Reykjavik affords travelers the opportunity to experience the country’s natural beauty, rich history, (occasionally bizarre) culture, nightlife and cuisine.
When To Go
Given Iceland’s nigh-Arctic Circle location, timing is an important factor to consider when visiting Reykjavik. During the winter months, snow covers much of the city and the rest of the country as hiking trails become snowshoeing trails and lakes freeze over. Considering that 78 percent of Americans cite the Aurora Borealis as their primary draw to Iceland, travelers should know that November to March are the darkest months of the year in Iceland, and are therefore known as the Northern Lights season. During the summer months with plenty of daylight, Iceland’s many outdoor offerings like hiking, cycling, swimming and fishing take center stage.
Ion City Hotel
For those who prefer boutique-style accommodations, the 18-room Ion City Hotel recently opened just this past May. The property has a simple, ultra-modern design, with a palette of gray and white with wooden floors appropriate for its Arctic-maritime surroundings. A stay in the Panorama Suite comes with an indoor sauna, a private balcony, a dining table, a bar area and the option to request a bartender or chef for one evening. The hotel, its spa and accompanying restaurant are all centrally located on Laugarvegur itself.
This list would be incomplete without Iceland’s first ever luxury hotel. Opened in 1930, Hotel Borg is set in one of central Reykjavik’s landscaped squares, neighboring the Icelandic parliament and the Reykjavik cathedral. Over its long lifetime, the hotel has seen several refurbishments that have lent the property its Art-Deco aesthetic and modernist touch. The hotel pays homage to its history with vintage photographs of Reykjavik and antique furniture and artwork throughout the property. Its most recent renovation in 2015 brought the hotel 43 new rooms along with an upgraded spa, restaurant and fitness center.
Canopy by Hilton Reykjavik City Center
This 112-room hotel is located in the heart of Reykjavik on Hverfisgata Street, within walking distance of famous Reykjavik attractions like Laugavegur (a street known for its shopping, eateries and pubs), Harpa Concert Hall and Convention Center and Old Reykjavik Harbor. Canopy by Hilton, Reykjavik City Center draws its design from local architecture with blue and gray volcanic rock. On site is the Icelandic-favorite Omnom Chocolate, as well as a Geiri Smart restaurant which serves traditional Icelandic seafood dishes in an upscale fashion. There is also an opportunity to experience some local literature in the hotel’s poet’s corner.
The Retreat at Blue Lagoon
Opening this February, the 62-room The Retreat at Blue Lagoon is built into the same lava flow that superheats the waters of the Blue Lagoon, which The Spa at the Retreat utilizes in its own treatments. Each room has balconies or terraces that overlook the volcanic landscape and the Lagoon’s turquoise waters. Some of The Retreats suites will have direct access to a private lagoon. The hotel is also an Icelandic food destination, with an ever-changing, high-end menu of curated Icelandic fare.
Where to Eat
Iceland’s cuisine may not be internationally revered on par with that of France, Italy or Spain. Reykjavik however is a burgeoning foodie hotspot that strikes an eclectic blend of haute international cuisine and rustic, boiled-lamb’s-head-traditional fare.
The Reykjavik Food Walk
The Reykjavik Food Walk, sponsored by Reykjavik’s Tourism Center, provides the most robust feel of Iceland's culinary scene. The three-hour tour is the premier in Icelandic food culture, bringing guests on a tour of the city marked by stops at a number of restaurants and food stops. On the tour, guests will be able to taste free-roaming Icelandic lamb, taste Skyr—a kind of Icelandic yogurt that has been part of local cuisine for more than a thousand years—and even sample locally sourced whale meat, an old-school Icelandic staple. The tour will also bring guests to sample the best local cheeses, homemade ice cream and Reykjavik’s famous hotdog stand, learning about Icelandic culture and food traditions all the while.
The tour begins at the Harpa Concert Hall. The guide will take guests through downtown Reykjavik to some of the city’s most popular restaurants as well as some hole-in-the-wall local hangouts for both casual and fine dining eating experiences—to be taken advantage of later in the trip.
Beer and mead are inextricable from Iceland's gastronomical history. Craft beer enthusiasts should consider a guided tour of the country's oldest brewery, Olgerdin Brewery. There, guests will learn about Iceland's history of alcohol production and be treated to a sample flight of Olgerdin's most famous brews, like Egil's Malt.
Things to Do
The Golden Circle
The three primary stops along the route are Thingvellir National Park, where Iceland’s first-ever settlement began in 874 A.D., the huge Gullfoss Waterfall and the geothermal zone in Haukadalur, where visitors can soak in thermal baths and the geysers Geysir and Strokkur (which erupts every 5 to 10 minutes) reside. With a rental car or a tour company, guests can begin their loop of the Golden Circle right from central Reykjavik. Guided horseback riding tours are also common throughout this area, as are helicopter tours.
For literary buffs, along the Golden Circle are a number of locations alluded to throughout Icelandic’s epic sagas and Viking folklore. There are a variety of tours available that take guests along routes dedicated to literary sites. Reykjavik unfurls into West Iceland, where the events of Egil’s Saga—regarded as the cornerstone of Icelandic literature—take place. One such site is Borg a Myrum, where Egil’s nursemaid heroically saves Egil’s life when his father, Skallagrim, tries to kill him in a berserker rage. A sculpture marks the spot where she lept into the sea trying to outrun Skallagrim; the town celebrates her with an annual festival in late June.
Harpa Concert Hall
Another striking building in the city proper, the Harpa Concert Hall’s distinctive colored glass façade is inspired by the basalt landscape of Iceland. Here, guests can look at fine art and experience some of Iceland's music, including the Iceland Symphony Orchestra and The Icelandic Opera, both of which draw from traditional Icelandic composers and source material
Icelandic Phallological Museum
No attraction quite captures the slightly offbeat, eccentric vibe of Reykjavik and the nation of Iceland better than the Icelandic Phallological Museum. Located on the Laugavegur, the museum houses the world’s largest display of penises, penile parts and phallic cultural objects. The collection of 280 specimens from 93 species of animals includes penises taken from whales, seals, other land mammals, and allegedly—Icelandic elves and trolls. While perhaps a bit strange, the museum aims to enable individuals to undertake serious study into the field of phallology in an organized, scientific manner.
If that is too weird, the centuries-old National Museum of Iceland, also in Reykjavik, provides perhaps the most comprehensive display of Icelandic art, history and artifacts in the world.
Though the city is small, Reykjavik's nightlife is locally said to rival that of London and New York in enthusiasm. Bars and clubs do not have cover charges, the queues are small and no establishment has a dress code. The popular nightlife establishments will also stay open as late as 5:00 a.m. on the weekends.
Nature & Outdoors
Frozen glaciers and volcanic lava fields collide throughout Iceland—a land of ice and fire. Though Reykjavik may be the country’s only true metropolis, there are a number of national parks, recreational areas and natural wonders not far from the city.
Popular with walkers and cyclists alike, Ellidaardalur Valley is located within Reykjavik’s city limits and has a number of lush nature trails. During the summer, fishing licenses are available to fish in the valley’s river, notable for its high populations of Arctic char, salmon and brown trout.
Krysuvik Geothermal Area
Guests can walk the long boardwalk through the bubbling and hissing solfatara (sulphurous) fields of Krysuvik, just a short drive from Reykjavik. The steaming hilltop has a wealth of information on Iceland’s unique geology, explaining the brightly colored crater lakes, volcanic geysers and caves and various crystal deposits located throughout the area. At the end of the boardwalk are the Krysuvikurberg Cliffs, famous for the thousands of seabirds—gulls, puffins, razorbills and more—that nest there, as well as the whales and aquatic creatures that can be seen from the cliffs.
One cannot travel through Reykjavik without seeing the 3,000-foot mountain that dominates the city skyline; that is Mount Esja, a year-round hiking and camping destination. The mountain is latticed by a number of well-worn and popular hiking trails that range from easy to challenging. About 650 feet from the top, a massive boulder known as “Steinn” marks the last spot to turn around before the challenging trail which crests the mountain. The mountain is just east of Reykjavik, and easily accessible by bus.
The colorful illuminations known as the Northern Lights are a cosmic phenomenon where the gases of the upper atmosphere are bombarded by electronically charged particles from the sun, forming “auroral belts” around the Earth’s magnetic poles. As previously mentioned, the prime Northern Lights season takes place from November to March, the darkest months of the year.
There are numerous Northern Lights-oriented tours that guests can access from Reykjavik, including boat tours, snowmobile trips across glaciers and coach trips. Guests can also visit Aurora Reykjavik, an information and exhibition center dedicated to the Aurora Borealis.Travelers should know that Mother Nature does not always cooperate; cloud cover, moonlight, urban night pollution and day-to-day auroral activity can all affect one’s viewing of the Northern Lights.