Prepare to be amazed. Even the bus journey from the airport is beautiful – to be fair it was sunny when I arrived and you could see the snowy mountains in the distance against the deep blue ocean. Flying into Keflavik feels like you’ve just landed on Mars with its barren, dry and crater-like terrain but Iceland possesses the skill to transform from dry, steamy volcanic rock to snow-covered frozen lakes and glaciers within minutes.
Reykjavik (Smoke Bay) is pretty cool, it’s got that big town/small city vibe with quirky shops, funky graffiti and mountains playing peek-a-boo between corrugated steel buildings. I did a walking tour with City Walk and it was a great way to get an overview of the city and learn about the history. According to the Viking Saga, Reykjavik was named so by the first Norse settler Ingólfr Arnarson, where his initial sights upon reaching the bay were the trails of smoke from the natural hot springs in the city.
For such a small place there is plenty to do, if you want the classics there’s the Hallgrímskirkja Church – the immense basalt column inspired structure – but don’t forget to also visit the Reykjavik Cathedral which is located near City Hall, it’s often overlooked but is beautiful and humbly takes you back to 1845. The view from Hallgrímskirkja is well worth the 900kr and there is an elevator (yay). I went on a miserable day, and I mean hold on to each other never mind your hats kind of windy – but it was still an incredible view and very atmospheric with all the mist so just imagine it on a sunny day. You get a 360 span of the colourful rooftops and (on a nice day) a view of the mountains that envelop the city.
Food and drink? Shops? Laugevegar is a great street. It’s filled with restaurants and bars as well as cafés and shops. Sandholt is a must, probably the best sourdough sandwich I’ve ever had and they serve amazing cakes and chocolates too – all of which you can see being made in the bakery behind a glass partition. Iceland has really good coffee, Te & Kaffi is one of their chains but it’s much better than your average Starbucks and there’s only about 3 shops. Lamb is a speciality and despite the stereotypes it doesn’t always come in the form of the head on a platter. Fermented shark is another – I opted for the lamb. Bar hopping is quite popular as happy hour is at different times across the venues (put Lebowski’s on the list if you love a white russian), there’s an app called ‘Reykjavik Appy Hour’ that was specially designed to tell you when and where the deals are – it is ridiculously expensive otherwise. This street is also great because it leads you straight into the city centre where you’ve got more shops, City Hall, the Tjörnin (the Reykjavik pond – it’s more impressive than it sounds), Parliament, and most of the museums. Next to Parliament House you’ve got the “American Bar” which is apparently where all the locals go and who will ironically not be found in the “Icelandic Bar”. Along the waterfront you’ve got stunning architecture in the form of the Harpa Concert Hall.
There’s a museum to suit everyone. For the history buffs (hi) you’ve got the Settlement Exhibition (contains the ruins of a viking long house), The Culture House, the National Museum and the Saga Museum. The National Gallery has a mixture of contemporary and 19th and 20th Century Icelandic art and there are various other arts and culture museums as well as a photography museum. There’s the Vikin Maritime Museum, Whales of Iceland, Árbær Open Air Museum and there’s even a Punk Museum and a Phallological Museum (like I said, something to suit everyone). If you’re going to do a few then it’s worth investing in the Reykjavik City Card. The card also gets you discount on thermal pools, so if you can’t make the Blue Lagoon then make sure to check out where the locals go to unwind.
If you fancy going to Reykjavik zoo they have cows in it. What’s not to love?
From Reykjavik you’re a stepping stone away from the Golden Circle and many of the wonders along Route 1 on the south coast.