The modern city’s skyline
Think of Iceland’s sweet petite capital and two words tend to come to mind – Blue Lagoon. Iceland’s world-famous lagoon – all turquoise blue waters contrasted with surrounding black lava fields – is not actually in the city itself (it’s a 50-minute drive away) but the iconic healing waters are to Reykjavik what Big Ben is to London. However, for those prepared to wander and explore there is so much more to discover and love about this sparsely populated capital city.
Assuming it’s summer, the sun will have been up long before you – as early as 3.30am. I like to start my ‘101 morning’ (Reykjavik is also known by its postal code, 101) down by the Old Harbour. Recently, this quaint setting has transformed into a hotbed for tourists where many come to get a handle on modern-day Icelandic life. If it takes your fancy you can set off from here to embark on a puffin or whale-watching boat ride. This is also the best place to soak up the architectural wonder that is the Harpa concert hall. Opened in 2011, locals are justifiably proud of this unique space with its ever-changing facade that squats at the edge of the water. Grab brunch at Smurstöðin, a newly opened restaurant at the concert hall specialising in Icelandic ingredients. Channelling the New Nordic Cuisine Movement, the menu has been developed in close collaboration with Danish chef, Claus Meyer, who co-founded the world-famous restaurant Noma (which has two Michelin stars).
This is a great hour to wander the shops and indulge in some retail therapy. I like to start at Kraum. The name of this concept shop literally translates as ‘simmering’ and that’s how it feels, like a lovely creative space bubbling away full of things you never knew you needed but now lust after. Bathed in natural light I like to stroll on the wooden floorboards stocking up on children’s puzzles, unusual lamps and exquisite jewellery all lovingly sourced from 200 or so local designers. This is the best place to find souvenirs too, perhaps a ceramic piece or, for something different, a raincoat.
Lunch. If it’s my first day back to the city I make a beeline for the Gallery Restaurant in Hotel Holt, a Reykjavik institution. Serving locals and tourists alike since 1965, this restaurant is ‘fine dining’ but there is nothing stuffy about it. As soon as you step inside you’ll see where the hotel’s name comes from, the walls are adorned with countless traditional Icelandic paintings that immediately set the scene. At the helm is Chef Fridgeir Ingi Eiriksson, who has looked after kitchens at several Michelin-starred restaurants. Expect dishes like reindeer with fresh cep and truffle honey and Hlidarberg duck with honey glazed melon.
Time to rest? Then it’s a good time to jump in a taxi and head over to the Blue Lagoon. After all, there’s a reason why it’s probably the most-visited spot in Iceland, right? I love it. The steam, the colours, the other-worldliness…It’s popular for a reason and while it can get crowded, it’s easy enough to peel away from the throngs and enjoy some moments of solitude. The air has a feel-good quality to it and there are ample spa experiences to choose from (the in-water massage is a must). This is also the place to stock up on Naturceutical products, all based on the Blue Lagoon geothermal seawater and its active ingredients: minerals, silica and algae.
With a population of 120,000 Reykjavik’s nightlife is quite sedate. But, there is more than enough for you to explore as the sun dips. Before dinner I like to head for a drink at Loftid, the swankest spot in town for a cocktail. Inside, you’ll find mannequins and cotton spools harking back to the bar’s former existence as a clothes shop. There’s a dress code here (rare for Iceland).
Time to head back to the hotel to eat and sleep. Reykjavik isn’t awash with luxury hotels. It’s not Iceland’s style and it’s yet to attract the big western brands. I like the CenterHotel Thingholt. The rooms are simple but chic and the Ísafold Restaurant on-site is excellent specialising in locally sourced cuisine. Its location, next to Reykjavik’s main shopping street, is hard to beat too for a short stay.
• Hard to say but easy to love, Hallgrímskirkja is a sight to behold. It is a huge strikingly white church and its concrete form dominates the skyline wherever you are (tip: it’s a good landmark if you get lost).
• Keen for a quick primer on Icelandic history? Then step into the National Museum where you’ll find an easy-to-follow overview of Iceland’s history and culture.
• Have a wander around Old Reykjavik and take yourself on a photo tour of Tjörnin, the city centre lake, Austurvöllur park and the city hall Raðhús.