A thick mist hung in the air, but that didn’t stop them from gathering by the dozen.
In hooded coats and caps, they sat at picnic tables, on the grass, along the brick embankments surrounding Ingolfstorg, a public square in the center of Reykjavik, clutching beers from the snack stall on the north end, or just their own hands.
The Iceland national football team — Strákarnir okkar, “our boys”—was playing Portugal on a massive makeshift projector screen and a country full of awe and wonder was filled with it for this team, who they hadn’t yet realized would smash all expectations en route to the Euro Cup quarterfinals.
Beyond the square, a miniature international city — a town, technically — simmered beneath the damp chill. To say that Reykjavik is bustling would be misconceived; if you can push past the hoards of tourists that are rapidly growing, the northern outpost invokes a village-like feel. In a city that is easily walkable in a day, locals have seemingly serendipitous meetings in cafes; people know each others’ names; they take lunch breaks at Ingolfstorg; life stop when football starts.
It isn’t the biggest, or the prettiest city I’ve been to, but it also has the power to make your stop in your tracks. This quiet beauty is best experienced, in my opinion, after schlepping your luggage up the steep, gravely streets rising from the BSI bus station after making the trek from the airport outside of town. Suddenly, the hill levels and the sidewalk descends, cracker-jack box houses jutting in the foreground of a cerulean blue sea.
Ta da — you’re in Reykjavik. You’ll shiver as you walk down dripping streets. You’ll bask under crisp, sharp skies when the sun pokes through. You’ll walk into a bar at sun set and walk out an hour later at sunrise, the horizon stitched with red all the while. And if you live like the city lives, at its pace and through its wacky customs, you’ll also find a vibrant core thriving below the surface.
The capital boasts restaurants, chefs and designers that belie its size and isolation. Natural repositories of cold-water fish, lamb, crustaceans and roots dictate menus but many creative takes ensure the selections are never tiresome. Design and art extends far beyond the wool sweaters and gloves so known for this region to furniture, paintings, home goods, music, eclectic shoes.
But to really exercise your sense of wonder, get out.
The landscape seems at first glance, otherworldly. Black, bulbous rock bubbles up from the treeless terrain as if from some prehistoric cauldron. Green moss coats popcorn hills, some dipping to unload crashing waterfalls, some hosting grazing sheep. Black, brown, green, wispy gray mountains sit beside active volcanoes; rock slides tumble out to black-sand beaches. Wild blue lupine, the most lovely of invasive species, grows like a weed, blanketing hilltops in a lavender carpet. Glacier pools appear suddenly, steam rises from the earth in other places.
You have left earth and landed again, on some foreign planet. Iceland.
Tips for travel:
1. Save on the flight, then be prepared to spend outrageously. Book your ticket well in advance to get the best rate; fares below $550 are attainable. Everything else is weirdly expensive. I’m talking $20 for a glass of wine, $60 for a main course, so on and so forth. Figure out the exchange rate and do the math before you make a purchase. Whatever it is might be more than you could have imagined.
2. Shop Duty-Free. Per that point, pick up any alcohol you may want for your apartment or hotel at the airport. It will be the best deal you’ll find anywhere in the city, including retail stores
3. Don’t worry about a language barrier. I am the sort that enjoys attempting the language wherever I travel. But if you don’t know a speck of Icelandic, never fear: almost all Icelanders speak fluent English.
4. Switch out some currency only if you want. I never needed it. Everywhere from restaurants to the public market to the cabs accept credit cards.
5. Don’t buy bottled water. A) You’re already spending too much money. B) Icelandic water is among the best in the world.
6. Don’t be shocked to see abandoned babies. Iceland is apparently the safest country in the world. Never is that more obvious than at lunchtime in Reykjavik, when parents leave their babies, in prams, outside whatever shop or cafe they’re in. One day at lunch, there were three such prams lined up outside, babies swaddled in blankets. When it began to rain, out all the mothers went out on cue — just to attach the pram tarp and then go back to their espressos. This culture seems to work just fine. However, in America, it would result in immediate arrest.
7. Don’t be shocked to see a lot of Americans. I mean way too many. Iceland is probably too trendy right now. Some places I travel, at some point I start longing for an American accent. Not here. The city is flooded with them. I was told nearly two million tourists visit this city of 30,000 every year and it seems a lot of them are from the good ‘ol U.S. I actually tried to escape them, and I couldn’t.
8. Prepare for eclectic weather. Even in the summer, Reykjavik can get quite chilly — and rainy, and windy and blustery. The sun also pops out in an instant, including sometimes at 11 p.m. for the first time. When it does, expect a more dramatic temperature shift than you’re accustomed to. Iceland has a much thinner ozone layer than we do, the sun feels stronger and can deliver a sunburn very quickly.
9. Stay in the center. Yes, Reykjavík is very walkable, no matter where you’re based. Still, as it feels too small and too expensive to splurge for a cab, staying in the downtown/ Austervöllur area, where most of the best shops and restaurants are centered will save energy. That area allows easy access to the Old Harbour, which has some good cafes but is mostly touristy and commercial, as well as the eastern stretches of Lagavegeur, the main street with shops and restaurants. The middle houses most of the bars and nightlight with some very good restaurants as well.
10. Get out. As cute as Reykjavík is, it gets small quickly. It’s not Barcelona or Rome, where you feel like you could languish weeks or months without fully grasping its potential. And the biggest lure of Iceland is the vast beauty of the mostly wild countryside; only 20 percent of the island is habitable. I experimented with renting a car (about $130/day) and also took a long bus tour ($205/ 14 hours, per Viator); both are adequate but a car might be preferred if you want to set your own pace. Navigation was very simple throughout the city and countryside.
11. Pack a lot. I rarely check a bag. This is partly because airlines have a way of losing/ damaging/ redirecting bags and partly because it’s just convenient. I like to travel light; I don’t like lugging heavy bags around or having extra things. But next trip to Iceland, my personal policy will change. I carried on for this trip, too, and regretted not having enough kinds of shoes, enough layers, enough warm clothes, or enough hot weather clothes for the bizarre weather changes. This is a trip where you’ll need hiking boots and high heels; a serious parka and a swimsuit; summer sandals and winter gloves. A carry on just wasn’t enough.
12. Observe Happy Hour. This is when you’ll find decently priced alcohol — many bars tout half-off cocktails, beer and wine, and most offers seem to fall from 4 to 6 p.m. Download the Reykjavík Appy Hour app on your iPhone for specifics.
13. Then go home. The bars, at happy hour, are packed and vibrant. A few hours later at, say, 10 p.m.? Dead. Largely due to the high cost of alcohol, locals (and now tourists) have learned to venture out for happy hour, then retreat to house parties or home for dinner. The bar-hopping crowd doesn’t get going again until at least 12:30, which makes for a late night or a pretty awkward in-between zone when you might find yourself to be the only one in the bar.
14. Get some money back. You’re broke by now, after all. Thankfully, Iceland offers tourists tax-free shopping in many stores (look for the tax-free flag outside) for purchases over 40,000 krona. Ask stores for the appropriate paperwork to get your refunds, which can be done at Duty Free in the airport on the way out. So instead of spending a fortune, you’ll spend a fortune minus 24.5 percent.
My top 15 highlights (in no particular order):
The South Coast: I hopped on this bus tour, a 14-hour excursion that hit Skógafoss, Seljalandfoss (a pair of very different and equally striking waterfalls), the town of Vík (a tiny village with a beautiful black-sand beach) and at the furthest point, Jökulsárlón, a stunning glacier lagoon, turquoise-blue, carved out of a dusty, brown stretch of earth. There, we boated through the exposed glaciers, jutting into the sky in kingly formations. It was a long day, for sure, and there was the annoyance of not having enough time at certain stops while there was too much at others. But the sights — however you do them — are worth it. Pro tip: skip the dinner stop at Vík and head straight out for the rocks hanging over the beach. I had toted some bread, soft cheese and a flask of wine with me.
The Food Cellar (Matarkjallarinn): New this year, Food Cellar wasn’t mentioned in any of the books or research I read before visiting Reykjavík, but chatter from a few locals had me intrigued. It turned out to be my best meal in the country. Forget looking at the menu; sit in the brick-walled lounge area wit a jazz pianist entertaining at dinner and order the chef’s “secret menu,” which changes upon the night. The best part is they will cater this menu to your wants and needs, at least to some extent. They were kind enough to create an entirely gluten-free meal for me — all six courses — that was quite memorable. Everything was wonderful, including the wine and the service, but an early course of baby scallops, seared to caramel perfection, with charred cauliflower, chili puree, crushed peanuts and a cauliflower broth will not quickly be forgotten.
Ostabúdin: The snug cafe is the perfect stop for lunch and a coffee on a day full of drizzle. You’ll find a lot of soup in Reykjavík, but this plainly named fish soup may be the best, a decadently creamy concoction with pillows of cod bobbing in a cauldron of pureed tomatoes and spices. Next door, an attached market offers cheese and pâté counters and shelves are stocked full of salts, teas, olive oils and pickled goods. Both stops are delightful.
The Golden Circle: After jaunting along the South Coast, I thought those sites couldn’t be surpassed in shock-and-awe appeal. Therein lies the wonder and beauty of Iceland; when you think you’ve finally gotten your head around the island, it surprises you once again. Gullfoss might be the most stunning natural landmark I’ve ever seen. And the day I encountered it, I did so in whipping rain, sheets blowing sideways at my face as I walked down the steps to the sprawling canyon waterfall. Even so, its effect was brilliant. Resist the urge, if the weather is similarly terrible, to stop at the first platform, snap a few pictures and leave. Although at every point downward your mind will tell you the view CAN’T POSSIBLY get better at another vantage point, it can and it does.
Blue Lagoon/ LAVA: It’s touristy for sure, and the experience doesn’t come without a steep price — both for the food and wine on site and for the mere entry. Lines, crowds and waterproof selfie sticks will remind you that you’re not the first, nor the 10 millionth to discover this. But just go. The lagoon — like walking through a waking dream — somehow evokes pure serenity even when full. On the ride out from the airport or from Reykjavík, you’ll notice, first, the plumes of steam arising from the piles of lava rubble. When you catch the first sight of the outer edges of the lagoon, that milky blue-green stream twisting and bending through the black sulpher, it’s startling. Do it all: both the silica and algae masks, at a swim-up station, and a drink or two at the swim-up bar. Just note that you’re getting super dehydrated while you’re submerged. If you go during the day, shower and head to LAVA in your bathrobe. Although the space has all the charm of a hotel conference room, the food stretched the boundaries of what I expected. The torched artic char, with a spattering of dill, roe and fennel was delicate and flavorfully balanced. The langoustine soup was like a crustacean cappuccino, frothy and rich. And the Aya brut champagne, at $22 a glass, I have to say is worth every penny. This is not where to skimp on the trip, folks.
Dillon Whiskey Bar: If you know anything about Icelandic distilling, your mind probably jumps to vodka and Brennivín (aka “Black Death”) first, but the island is not without its variety. First up, Flóki whiskey, young and immature but certainly unique. There are a couple of varieties — the stuff that’s aged for bottles and the stuff that’s aged for the mini kegs like the one sitting at the bar when I was there. It’s about one and a half times as strong as regular whiskey, by the way. Then there’s Vor gin, one variation of which is aged, interestingly in the whiskey kegs when the whiskey is harvested. This is a different gin than anything you’ve had before.
Sushi Samba: Sushi? In Iceland? Let me do you one further. Japanese-Latin American FUSHION sushi in Iceland. Confused as to why you would frequent this place? Let me give it to you plainly: because it’s amazing. That begins with the fish, much of which — including the salmon and artic char — is caught off of Iceland’s coast. The nigiri I had practically melted in my mouth. And although there are certainly varying opinions from sushi nerds about fancy rolls, the variations here are restrained (think tiny flecks of additions, even if the additions are many) and expertly created. The motif is wild, a mixture of Japanese and Latin American pop art, furnishings and music, but it works. And I don’t care that this is the least Icelandic thing ever. It’s just good.
Kolaportid Flea Market: Spend part of an afternoon here when the sun goes away. The indoor, warehouse-like building isn’t necessarily full of treasures, but it’s entertaining to sift through. At various stalls, you’ll find dishes and glassware, stockings, sweaters, jewelry, books, shoes, spices, dried kelps and seaweeds, smoked fish, sausages, dried fish, baked goods and seagull eggs — an intriguing snapshot of Scandinavian life.
Helsuhúsid/ Safabar: Sometimes, when abroad, I like to shop at pharmacies for local lotions and other products that might not be designer, but different. This is of that ilk with the added value of a juice bar lodged at the back end. The green juice might be the city’s best detox after a long midsummer night. f
Jacobson Loftid: Head to this upper-floor, square-bar lounge for some of the better cocktails in the city, but don’t show your face before 1 a.m.
Snaps: I discovered this French bistro is a local favorite and super vibrant in the early evenings. There’s a great bar for dinner/ drinks/ pouring over your latest book while savoring the lamb chops and frites with buttery béarnaise sauce.
My Concept Store: Lagaveguer, full of colorful row shops with slanted roofs, is the place to shop in the city. Of all the interesting local shops, I liked this one the most — like most spots, it isn’t cheap, but the artisan jewelry, maps, leather goods and gifts stood out among the pack. Other shops I liked included Nam, Mál og Menning (gifts), Aurum (home goods), Eva, Kroll (designer clothes, shoes), Kokka (kitchenware) and Vinberio (local candy).
Café Haiti: One of the gems along an otherwise less-than-photogenic harbor, this picturesque gem serves up strong coffee in a warm environment. I sat there writing for a long morning and enjoyed the hell out of it.
Sandholt Bakery: This was mostly torture for me, being Celiac and unable to eat gluten, but the truffles were also excellent and artistic masterpieces of their own. If you’re of the all-for-gluten variety, peep the baguette sandwiches and pastries (I saw a lot of ecstatic faces, that’s all I can say).
Sæta Svinid: My favorite pick for happy hour. Translating to “Sweet Pig,” the West Village-esque bar celebrates swine on the walls and in the wooden beams, over the copper bar and beside the hanging fixtures. If the atmosphere isn’t enough, try out their gin and tonic bar, replete with varieties including “strawberry and black pepper” and “juniper and rhubarb.”