Reykjavik is Iceland’s funky capital city and your gateway to experiencing a taste of the unique Icelandic culture, writes Sara Greig.
With intentions of flying from England to New York, we asked our travel agent (being budget conscious travellers) what our cheapest option was. “Icelandic Air” she replied. So with bundles of intrigue and images of Björk and Vikings, it was decided that we would have a stopover in Iceland. After our flights were booked we delved into researching what this mysterious place had to offer as we clearly had a limited view. Iceland is renowned for its natural beauty, and Reykjavik and its surrounds has tonnes to offer anyone thinking of stopping over or holidaying there.
First impressions: Ice, mysterious, airy, magical, vast, rock sculptures.
Last impressions: Unique, artsy, winter wonderland, friendly people, will have to return.
Guide to Reykjavik and its surrounds
A visit to Reykjavik wouldn’t be complete without visiting the ‘Golden Circle’. This ring route is a combination of the major tourist attractions sounding Reykjavik. It includes Gullfoss, the largest waterfall in Europe, geysers and Thingvellir National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, which is where the first Icelandic parliament met in an open air assembly from 930-1798. If natural beauty is what you’re looking for then this journey is for you. You can visit these spots in a day tour or hire a car and do it yourself (which is cheaper than a tour). If you choose the latter and you are going to be driving in winter make sure you are a confident driver as the roads can be narrow in parts and snow storms can cause very low visibility. There were times when we were driving with only a couple of metres of visibility – a bit nerve-racking. If you are up for it then you won’t be disappointed, the drive is stunningly beautiful in winter with snowy mist blowing across the roads, serene lakes and Icelandic horses galloping in the distance! Gullfoss waterfall, in my opinion, is the highlight of the golden circle, its mighty power is a must see.
One of the highlights of our trip was a ‘free’ walking tour with local guide Marteinn Briem from CityWalk. The two hour walking tour is kept casual with a book and ‘turn up at this time and place’ basis and a donations ‘pay what you think the tour is worth’ structure. We gained a real insight into the true Reykjavik, its buildings and history while being entertained by Marteinn’s stories and humour. It makes a great introduction to Reykjavik as you will get to know your bearings and discover places that you can revisit during your stay. TIP: If walking in winter wear appropriate footwear as some footpaths are completely frozen over. For more info visit: CityWalk
Of course no trip to Iceland would be complete without trying to see the Northern Lights; the mystical green Aurora Borealis that throughout history has bewildered people all over the world. If you visit Iceland from September to mid-April you have a good chance at spotting it. You can go on a bus or boat tour to see the lights or you can hire a car and hunt for them yourself. If you are planning to hire a car first you need to know where to go. A great spot very close to the city centre to wait for this wonder is the Grotta light house, here you are away from the city lights and darkness can prevail. You will need a car to get here but these are inexpensive to hire for a couple of days and well worth it if the weather is looking good.
Seeing the lights really depends on cloud coverage and strength of the lights over Iceland. If the combination is right you will have a good chance of seeing them. Our obsession with seeing them started the second night we were there and we drove to Grotta lighthouse at about 9pm. It was a fairly clear night and the lights were expected to be strong at about midnight. Patience is a must as you could be waiting for hours so expect some late / sleepless nights. At about 11pm, after straining our necks out the window wishing our car had a sunroof, we got out of the car and waited in the cold. There were many other cars pulled up and a few people waiting to see them. Another hour passed and with our freezing bodies huddled together for warmth we considered leaving as others had already done. Our eyes had adjusted to the black skies with scattered cloud and any signs of a green hue could be all too well imagined. Our eyes focused on some strange flat clouds and we noticed that they started to move. A lady next to us started hugging her friend and shouting “they’re here!” We watched the lights. A very faint green hue dancing across the sky like magnetic dust attracting each other and morphing into another shape. It danced its way behind some clouds and then disappeared. Hoping it would return we waited a bit longer, but alas nature had delivered us its gift and left for the night. It wasn’t the full blown bright green light-up-the-sky Northern Lights you may have seen in pictures, but it was the Northern Lights and it was still magical to watch.
This taster gave us a thirst for more and we did try to find them again on other nights, driving around to remote spots and spending hours in our car, necks craned, hoping that the clouds would clear, but they didn’t show for the rest of the week and that ended our Icelandic Northern Lights hunt.
If you are visiting during the wrong time of year or the weather is bad during your stay you can visit the Northern Lights Centre. Here you will find all the historical and scientific information about the Aurora along with beautiful photography and video footage to make you feel like you have at least experienced it a little bit.
Traditional Icelandic food includes smoked lamb, rye bread and fish. There are many local restaurants that serve traditional dishes. Café Loki, which is opposite Hallgrímskirkja Reykjavik church (in Reykjavik’s city centre), is particularly good. Ignore the brilliant, but quite graphic mural inside the café that shows Vikings, death, fire and rainbows, and relax and enjoy the unique dishes. There are ‘Icelandic plates’ on the menu, which offer a mix of different traditional Icelandic foods. They might come with varying fish, meat, rye bread and even fermented shark, a national Icelandic dish. Café Loki’s rye bread is particularly good.
If you are out and want to eat on the go then you have to try an Icelandic hot dog from Baejarins Beztu Pylsur. It’s a small food cart with a massive following – there is always a queue but it is worth the wait! Their hot dogs are world famous and they even have photos on display of all the famous people who have eaten there – including ex-president Bill Clinton. Why are they so good you ask? I think it’s the crispy fried onions and cheese sauce that make it.
You might have heard of the Blue Lagoon – a famous geothermal lagoon located about 40 mins south of Reykjavik. If you want hot pools set in an Icelandic landscape then this is the popular choice. These pools are impressive but they are also very touristy so if you would like more of a local experience or you don’t want to / can’t travel far from Reykjavik then here are a couple of options:
Sundhöll swimming pool is only a five minute walk from Hallgrímskirkja Reykjavik church. The art deco building looks a bit intimidating, but tourists are welcomed by the friendly staff inside. It is the oldest swimming complex in Reykjavik and with only a handful of tourists you can have a truly local experience. There is a 25m indoor swimming pool and two outdoor hot pots (spas). A casual and relaxing experience, great on a winter’s night in Reykjavik.
Nauthólsvík Beach is about a 30 minute walk from Reykjavik city centre and sits behind the domestic airport. It is a man-made beach that offers free swimming and hot pools. Geothermal water is pumped into two hot pools and into a walled off lagoon, which makes the sea water warm at around 18-20°C. Part of the bay remains open and the sea water mixes with the geothermal water. The hot pools, one being in the lagoon, range from 25-38°C. Nauthólsvík Beach is only open from May 15 –August 31st. Entry is free but it costs 200 ISK to rent a towel and 200 ISK to store your clothes in the nearby service centre.
Hallgrímskirkja Reykjavik Church
Hallgrímskirkja, the Lutheran Reykjavik church, is a powerful, architecturally inspiring masterpiece and is a must see in Reykjavik. This national monument was built in dedication to Iceland’s most famous poet Hallgrimur Petursson and took more than 40 years to complete. Reykjavik church offers a large observation tower that is perfect for getting an aerial view of the city and for taking photos of its surrounds. It is as spectacular at night as in the day when it is lit up and its powerful columns are emphasized. Admission to the tower costs 800 ISK.
Iceland opens its doors
Things are changing in Iceland and it is evident that with growing numbers of tourists each year there will be change. Iceland suffered dramatically after the European recession of 2009 and they are still recovering. But, with cheaper flights to Iceland more tourists are choosing to take a stopover or holiday there. About one million tourists visited Iceland last year, which is more than three times its population. In Reykjavik you can see the city is beginning to change as new mixes with old. More modern apartments and tourist shops in old parts of the city are springing up as more money is invested in the city’s tourism industry. There’s no time like the present to visit this truly unique country.
Iceland quick stats and fun facts:
– Country population: 331,918
– Reykavik population: 184,000
– Main religion: Evangelical Lutheran Church of Iceland
– The last name of Icelanders is derived from their father’s first name
– About 80% of Icelanders believe in elves
– Vikings who settled in Iceland in the nineth and tenth centuries brought with them their language which has remained basically unchanged ever since
Full Photo Gallery: To see more photography from Iceland click here.
PIN ME: Hover on pic and click pin button at bottom.