The global financial crisis of 2008 affected many countries, and Iceland was among those hit the hardest. While this could have been the start of a collapse of the country, Icelanders joined together, jailed bankers, and pulled themselves up from almost nothing. This phenomenon has created a renaissance in Iceland and as a result it is now attracting millions of tourists. In 2017 so far, there have been one million tourists from January to June alone, and I was fortunate enough to be one of them. Everything about this easy-going and culturally rich city drew me in, and my Icelandic experience became one of the favorite trips I’ve ever taken.
The population of Iceland holds at about 300,000, with over 200,000 Icelanders living in the greater Reykjavik area. Though the city is small, it is bustling and full of life with new restaurants and hotels seeming to open every day. The influx of tourism has the city teeming with worldwide culture via food, art and music. One thing that surprised me about the city is that there is street art everywhere. My tour guide for the week said that street art, and bright houses and buildings are encouraged because it brightens up the city during the dark winter months. I was charmed to see the colorful murals of every style and theme on many streets.
For me, the best part about Reykjavik was the food. With limited imported ingredients available, it is common protocol for restaurants to use fresh and local foods. Most restaurants have a traditional Icelandic fare consisting of salmon, cod, beef and lamb, with sides of root vegetables. My favorite dining experience in Reykjavik was at Islenski Barinn (“Icelandic Bar”) on a Friday night. I had a chance to visit this establishment with a few colleagues from our primary ground operator in Iceland, Private Travel Iceland. Here, Tomas and Styrmir of PTI encouraged me to try some of the less popular Icelandic fare, including smoked puffin, fin whale, and fermented shark. These were followed by Brennivin, unsweetened schnapps that is considered to be Iceland’s signature distilled beverage.
Though none of these dishes were anything I’d ever try again, I was still happy to have experienced it with some true Icelanders. After our meal, I expected that we would wrap up and turn in for the night, but my hosts had a different plan. Unbeknownst to me, Friday night is the night of the week when all the residents go out on the town. Soon, Islenski Barinn was full of locals and I was welcomed like an old friend. Time flew by as I took in the sights; being such a small city it seemed like everyone knew each other, ultimately creating an atmosphere of comradery. Soon I was shocked to check the time to see that it was well past midnight, even though it was still light outside. I made my way back to Hotel Borg, my home base for the night and settled in to continue my tour of the city the following day.
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention a surprising meal that is special to Reykjavik: the hot dog! Though it is not something I’d ever choose to order, I was assured that I would not have the full Reykjavik experience if I didn’t stop at one particular hot dog stand called Baejarins Beztu Pylsur. In 2006, The Guardian named it the best hot dog stand in Europe, and it has been visited by celebrities including Bill Clinton and Charlie Sheen. The Icelandic hot dog is made with lamb meat rather than pork or beef. Though many toppings are available, I was instructed to get a hot dog “eina með öllu” (“one with everything”), which is topped with ketchup, sweet mustard, remoulade, crisp fried onion and raw onion. It was an amazing meal, of course.
Though food often becomes the centerpiece of my trips, there was much more to the city than its food. The harbor area was picturesque, with many ships docked and Mount Esja rising in the distance. In the harbor area, one can find many restaurants and shops, and a few museums; this is also where the whale and puffin watching tours depart. Serving as a gateway between the harbor area and the rest of the city is Harpa Concert Hall, an iconic building in Reykjavik distinguished for its colored glass facade. The hall is open to the public daily, and guided tours are available on a limited schedule. There are a few very nice gift shops and Kolabrautin Restaurant, in the hall as well. The restaurant features Icelandic cuisine with a modern twist. Next door to Harpa, Iceland’s first five-star hotel is currently being built. The hotel is going to have the same basic design as Harpa and is sure to be an excellent addition to the harbor area.
Only short walk from the harbor is the prominent shopping street, Laugavegur. This street is filled with fashion shops, art galleries, record shops, hotels and restaurants. I must mention that Sandholt Bakery, which is located on this street, has a fabulous breakfast and perfect cup of coffee. My meal here consisted of a Danish with vanilla, fruit salad and a coffee, but there are lots of baked goods and savory sandwich options as well. I highly recommend stopping in when you have some time, to relax and enjoy the bakery. For the best experience, I also recommend getting a seat by the window and watching the tourists and locals stroll by. Laugavegur is also the site of two very charming and modern hotels: Alda Hotel and ION City Hotel. Alda features an eclectic entry with a stylish seating area and a fully functional barber shop. Upon check-in at the Alda, guests are given a cellphone preloaded with maps and recommendations for sightseeing and dining. This feature definitely came in handy when I was exploring the area! ION City Hotel opened only a week before my arrival, but it was operating seamlessly by the time we arrived. At this hotel, I really enjoyed the modern design, sofa nook by the window in my room, and Bluetooth speakers in every room. I was happy to discover that these amenities were included in every room category in the hotel. The staff at both Alda Hotel and ION City Hotel were exceptionally friendly and helpful, I will never forget the kindness I received and great conversation I had with Rick at ION City Hotel.
When staying in Reykjavik, visitors are not confined to the city: there are many day experiences offered within a short drive of the city, and many operators will pick you up directly from your hotel. Day experiences include: the Golden Circle, South Shore, Inside the Volcano, the Blue Lagoon, Into the Glacier, and more. If you only have a chance to partake in one experience, the Golden Circle has to be one of your stops! Comprised of the Geysir Area, Thingvellir National Park, and Gullfoss Waterfall, the Golden Circle is by far the most popular experience in the country. It is also an easy and enjoyable experience for our self-driving clients.Thingvellir National Park is the location of Iceland’s first Parliament, started in 930 A.D., and is located directly between the American and Eurasian tectonic plates (a fact that was unknown when the area was settled). The park is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and has many beautiful views, waterfalls, and interesting rock formations. Because the tectonic plates are shifting away from each other, deep fissures have formed, creating stunning natural displays.
The next part of the Golden Circle experience is the geyser area. This is a small and easy area to walk, and it is also the home of the great geysir, from which all geysirs get their name. It is also home to Strokkur, a smaller geysir. The Great geysir last erupted in February of 2016, and eruptions can be up to 70 meters high! Strokkur is more reliable, erupting every 6 – 10 minutes. I was not disappointed by my first experience seeing geysirs, as Strokkur erupted four times in the short time I was there! Definitely don’t miss this stop before continuing on to the last part of the experience, Gullfoss.
Gullfoss is an iconic waterfall in Iceland offering a spectacular display of the forces of nature in this country. The water here originates from the Langjokull Glacier and falls in two stages into the canyon below. This site has a great cafeteria-style restaurant and shop selling lots of Icelandic goods and clothing. Stopping at Gullfoss is a great way to round out the day and have a snack before heading back into the city. If you’d still like to see more, the Faxi Waterfall is a less popular stop nearby, and on the way is another wonderful place to stop to see some of the famed Icelandic horses.
Reykjavik is the perfect city to use as your base for a vacation that is full of culture, shopping, and adventure. I truly believe that Iceland has something for everyone. Young ones will love the hip and colorful vibe of the city, and those with a sense of adventure will enjoy the unrefined nature waiting just 30 minutes outside of the city center! The culturally inclined will delight in museums, galleries and theater, and foodies will have endless options of worldwide cuisine to choose from.
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