Iceland has been one of my favorite places since my first trip in 2000, when I spent a large part of the summer traipsing around the country conducting geology research and studying volcanoes and glaciers. Now that we live in the Netherlands and there has been a boom in low-cost flights options, Iceland is more accessible than ever. For my birthday weekend getaway I wanted nothing more than to spend a long weekend enjoying the Reykjavík area and introducing Andrew to this beautiful place!
What to See
Reykjavík is a walkable mid-sized city with historic buildings, an active harbor, a vibrant arts scene, and a plethora of restaurants and cafes. In nice weather, wandering the streets and neighborhoods is enjoyable as is sitting by the city’s large lake, the Tjörnin, and feeding the ducks and swans.
In addition to wandering the city on foot, we also enjoyed exploring some of Reykjavík’s attractions during our short visit.
Hallgrímskirkja is Reykjavik’s iconic modern church—designed with a nod to the volcanic landforms found in the country, the outside is distinctive and the interior austere. An elevator takes visitors to an observation deck and the views from the top are not to be missed. We found that going right when the church opened in the morning was ideal—afterwards the lines started to grow and there were several tour buses outside by afternoon.
A must for any geology-lover or anyone curious about Iceland’s volcanic history, the Volcano House has an exhibition of volcanic items as well as an hourly screening of two short documentaries about historic Icelandic eruptions. The movies give great insight into to Iceland’s tumultuous geologic past and the resilience and ingenuity of the people.
The Settlement Exhibition
During the 2001 construction of what is now the Centrum Hotel, remains of a 10th century Viking longhouse were discovered. The longhouse was excavated and its foundation preserved as the focal point of The Settlement Exhibition. The archaeological remains found at the site are the oldest in Iceland dating back to around 871 AD. The museum is a compact and well organized look at Viking life with animations, historical information on Viking migration, and descriptions of the artifacts on display, not to mention the longhouse foundation itself. The exhibition is easy to miss since it’s below ground level, but we were glad we sought it out as it provided a great primer on early life in Iceland.
Einar Jónsson Museum
Einar Jónsson was a prolific Icelandic sculptor and he donated his life’s work to the state upon his death. The museum purpose-built to house his works is located across from Hallgrímskirkja. We didn’t have time to go into the museum on this trip, but the sculpture garden behind the building is free and open at night. We got a great taste of Einar’s works which were scattered across the well-lit garden.
Where to Relax
The Blue Lagoon is the obvious choice for travelers coming to Iceland. A man-made lagoon set in a lava field, it is filled with water from a nearby geothermal power plant. After the naturally hot groundwater turns turbines in the powerplant, it flows into the lagoon. There, the water hovers around 38°C (100°F) and is rich in minerals like sulfur and silica, which gives the lagoon its milky blue hue. Located near Keflavík International Airport, it’s an easy stop upon arrival or departure. Bus transfers are available on your way to or from the airport and Reykjavík if you choose not to rent a car. The ticket price for the Blue Lagoon is steep, and reservations are required. Book well in advance as availability is limited, and the price increases as space decreases. There are certainly other nice swimming holes in Iceland (including some great free natural spots, too!), but the Blue Lagoon remains the gold standard and classic Icelandic geothermal spa experience.
Iceland is blessed with a plethora of geothermally-heated community swimming pools—it seems like there is at least one in every town! Laugardalslaug is the largest outdoor pool in Reykjavik. Located outside of downtown (but easily accessible by bus or car), the pool is part of a larger athletics complex and features a waterslide, Olympic size swimming pool, steam room, multiple hot tubs ranging from 38-44°C, and a saltwater hot tub with water pulled from a nearby coastal borehole. For a fraction of the price of going to the Blue Lagoon, you can rub elbows with the locals and indulge in a traditional Icelandic pastime.
Where to Eat
Since we were only in Iceland for a long weekend, we had limited time to try all of the great restaurants that have started to appear across Reykjavík. I made dinner reservations at two that had great Icelandic fare and solid vegetarian options as well. We also had time to sample some of Reykjavík’s other popular food stops pre-dinner.
Matur og Drykkur | Grandagarður 2, 101 Reykjavík
Matur og Drykkur is located on the harbor in an old salt fish factory which was built in 1924. The building now houses the Saga Museum as well as the restaurant. Cooking creative food inspired by Icelandic staples, they offer à la carte options or tasting menus. Andrew had the Icelandic tasting menu, which included lamb three ways plus fish dishes, and I enjoyed the vegetarian tasting menu which included dishes made with staple foods like rutabaga, potatoes, fennel and horseradish. One of the best parts of the restaurant was the open finishing area where the chefs put the final touches on the dishes that were about to be served. We had prime seats to watch them use a torch to roast whole cod’s heads, which seemed to be a popular menu item that night!
Matarkjallarinn | Aðalstræti 2, 101 Reykjavík
The “food cellar” is in the basement of a 160-year-old building in downtown Reykjavík. They serve an Icelandic inspired brasserie menu including a set flight called the “Icelandic Discovery Menu.” Andrew sampled puffin, salmon and lamb and enjoyed them all. They also have vegetarian options and a robust cocktail list.
Stofan Kaffihús | Aðalstræti, 101 Reykjavík
Stofan Café is a cozy coffeehouse in an old building in downtown Reykjavík. The two-level café has a homey atmosphere and big windows onto the street which made it the perfect place for a late lunch of soup and a warm drink with a side of people watching.
Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur | Tryggvatagata 1, 101 Reykjavík
Icelanders are known for their love of hot dogs, and the Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur stand down near the harbor is famous for what are allegedly some of the best hot dogs in Europe. Made of lamb and topped with fresh & fried onions and a variety of sauces, Andrew was happy to be the taste-tester for this one. The report back was that the half-hour wait in line was worth it for the two dogs he happily consumed!
Valdís | Grandagarður, 101 Reykjavík
Valdís is rumored to have the best ice cream in Reykjavík, so of course we had to make a trip to sample it. Located in a former warehouse in the harbor area, Valdís has a rotating selection of flavors, including some Icelandic inspired ones like skyr & cherry and marzipan with licorice. Even on a winter day there was decent wait for ice cream. There are a few benches outside, and I can only imagine how busy this place gets in the summer. Portions were huge and the ice cream was, indeed, delicious.
Where to Shop
Kolaportið Flea Market | Tryggvagötu 19 , Old Harbour, Reykjavík
The Kolaportid flea market is open on Saturdays in the harbor area, right near the Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur hot dog stand. It’s a mixed bag of used bric-a-brac, new handicrafts, used books, and tons of new and used Icelandic lopi sweater options. We especially enjoyed the food vendors (and food samples!) and walked away with some of my favorite Icelandic lava bread, a dense rye bread which is traditionally cooked underground using geothermal heat.
Handknitting Association of Iceland | Skólavörðustígur 19, 101 Reykjavík
If you’re looking for a handmade lopi sweater, the Handknitting Association of Iceland has a store with hundreds of options (and all the supplies you need if you want to knit your own). The sweaters are knit by an association of Icelandic craftsmen & women, so it’s a great place to shop if you like supporting local entrepreneurs.
12 Tónar | Skólavörðustígur 15, 101 Reykjavík
12 Tónar is Iceland’s legendary record shop with a huge selection of music, including what seems to be a complete collection of music from Icelandic artists. They allow you to open any CD and sample the music in their listening room, and will even offer you a coffee while you sit and listen. The staff is super knowledgeable and can make great recommendations based on your preferences. I always end up discovering a few new artists on my trips to 12 Tónar, and walking away with some new CDs.
66°North Outlet | Faxafen 12, 108 Reykjavík
The Icelandic brand 66°North makes some of my favorite outdoor gear, but the prices are a bit steep compared to other brands. I discovered a 66°North outlet outside of downtown Reykjavík which definitely had some great deals on past-season goods. You need a car to get here easily, but it can be worth the excursion!
Guesthouse Sunna | Þórsgata 26, Reykjavík, Iceland
I discovered Guesthouse Sunna on a trip to Iceland in 2005, and I continue to recommend it to friends traveling to Reykjavík. Hotels in Reykjavík are relatively expensive compared to other European cities, and Guesthouse Sunna provides good quality lodging for a reasonable price. They offer rooms with private bath, rooms with shared bath, plus apartment style lodging and there is a kitchenette on each floor if you wish to prepare your own meals. Located a stone’s throw from Hallgrímskirkja, the location is ideal for walking around the city, but still in a quiet neighborhood. They provide a delicious, basic buffet breakfast and also have free on-site parking if you do happen to rent a car.
For anyone considering a trip to Iceland, it’s gotten easier with low-cost airlines like WOW offering inexpensive, direct flights from both the USA and throughout Europe. It’s worth keeping in mind, however, that once you arrive, prices in Iceland tend to be significantly higher than many other destinations, so it’s worth doing a little research to avoid sticker shock.
Our trip to Iceland was short, but reminded me of all the reasons I love the country. The country has changed a lot since my first trip 17 years ago—the increased number of tourists and boom in tourist infrastructure in Reykjavík was hugely obvious, and it was necessary this time around to make reservations for some of the popular sites and restaurants. If you have time to break away from the well-trod tourist route we highly recommend it! I’m already dreaming up some future adventures in the Icelandic highlands to explore some of the more off-the-beaten-path parts of the country soon.