Today’s subject – and the last of my Iceland posts – is Iceland’s tiny capital, Reykjavik. Although thought to be the spot where the Vikings first settled Iceland in 874, it wasn’t until 1786 that an actual city was founded here. It may be young by the standards of most European cities, but it has a surprising amount going for it – not least the fact (according to Wikipedia) that it’s one of the cleanest, greenest and safest cities in the world. We certainly felt very safe when we were there, which is a marked contrast even to many places in the UK. It’s so small that you can easily cover it on foot, and that cosiness I talked about before is there in abundance. Here’s what we did on our explorations of Reykjavik.
Sitting on a wooded hill overlooking Reykjavik, Perlan (“Pearl”) is a reimagined set of huge water tanks with a big glass dome stuck on the top, though this description does it rather a disservice. It’s a gallery space with a posh restaurant on the top floor and a cafeteria where you can have a cheaper meal with lovely views over the capital. We could see it from our hotel room window and decided that the cafe would be the perfect place to have breakfast while we waited hopefully for the weather to improve. I had a Danish pastry and it was one of the best I’ve had (outside Denmark!), and the views made it even better.
After breakfast we stepped out onto the viewing deck to admire the views. The cloud was still quite low at that point, so they weren’t too spectacular, but they were better than they appear to be from this photo! You can walk all the way around, so you effectively get a 360 degree view.
In Lee’s photo from the big camera, you can see the unusual shape of Hallgrímskirkja, the futuristic-looking church, which I’ll come back to later in this post.
Inside, Perlan has its own (pretend) geysir, which is really just a fountain, but it shoots the water up several floors every five minutes or so, which is a spectacle worth waiting around to see. On the ground floor there was a really interesting photo exhibition that absorbed our attention for some time – press photographer of the year or something like that.
The Old Harbour
From there we drove into the centre of the city and parked up in a multi-storey car park by the waterfront. The Old Harbour was our first ‘port’ (ha!) of call, and on the way we passed this lovely little red building.
The harbour is very utilitarian, as it’s still a working fishing port, but there were also a little few huts selling whale and puffin-watching boat trips (definitely something to add to the To Do list for next time!) and it was a pleasant stroll breathing in the sea air.
Lunch at Jómfrúin
For lunch we opted for a little luxury in the form of smørrebrød – open sandwiches – at a lovely restaurant called Jómfrúin. I *really* enjoyed every single bite of this delicious lunch, washed down with a glass of Prosecco (my favourite, in case you hadn’t guessed!). As you can see, it was beautifully presented. Lee had rare beef on his, which looked just as good.
This imposing concrete edifice of a church was opened in 1986 and dominates the Reykjavik skyline. Get up close to it and you’ll notice that there’s a statue of Leif Erikson in front of it, which I liked rather more than the church itself. But the main reason for visiting the church is to take the lift up the tower to see the views of Reykjavik from the top.
This is the really famous view of Reykjavik and its colourful rooftops. Hard to believe that it was the same day as the Perlan photos – the weather had completely changed again!
In this wider angle photo, you can see the frozen expanse of water also visible in the last photo of this post.
This one gives you an impression of the snowy mountains, which you really feel the presence of as you wander around the Reykjavik streets.
A close-up of the colourful houses. I’ve not seen such a jolly assortment of houses before!
The Settlement Exhibition
Reykjavik has quite a few museums, but for budget reasons we chose just one to visit this trip. We settled on the Settlement Exhibition, which is built around the excavated remains of a large Viking longhouse that some even believe may have belonged to the first Viking settler of Iceland. It dates to AD 871 plus or minus two years – dated by a volcanic eruption. The longhouse would have housed five to ten people, and you can’t really see it here but the hearth was much bigger than normal, which suggests it was more important.
There was absolutely loads of really interesting information on the Viking settlement of Iceland, including the fascinating fact that around 80% of the male settlers were Norse while around 60% of the women were Celtic, many from the Hebrides, suggesting that Norse men came over to Scotland from Norway, married local women and then they all set out to settle new lands. It was so interesting to add to what I learned in my brief study of the Vikings for my degree. It was only a small exhibition but we must have spent at least an hour in there reading through everything.
After all that exploring, we needed to sit down for a bit to rest our weary feet, and the Laundromat Cafe was just the place to do so. It’s a friendly sort of place, and I loved the way the books were arranged in groups according to their colour along the front of the bar.
We had delicious hot chocolate with lashings of luxurious whipped cream. We liked it so much that we returned to the same cafe for breakfast the next day!
The Hot Dog Stand
When it got to dinner time, we couldn’t leave without paying a visit to this unlikely Reykjavik icon for a very cheap, very delicious hot dog. It’s called Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur, which apparently means “the best hot dog in town”. After the slightly expensive lunch, this was the perfect way to balance out the budget; a hot dog and cup of Coke cost around £2.50. Bargain! It was rather hidden away on a street called Tryggvagata, so you’d definitely have to know to look for it – and I love places like that!
You can order your hot dog plain or you can have finely chopped raw onions, mustard, ketchup, crispy onions and/or a sort of curry sauce. I had everything in mine, and it was superb! Lee liked his so much that he went back for a second one.
Our last night was a clear, starry one, and although we were in the light pollution of the Reykjavik area, we decided to drive a little out of the city to see if we might be able to see the Northern Lights one last time. By chance, we discovered a large layby where lots of other people were parked, many with cameras set up on tripods pointing out over the sea. As well as more shooting stars, we could see a strange glow, streaking right across the sky and coming and going – the Northern Lights! They weren’t as impressive as the first night – to the human eye it looked a milky colour – but using a long exposure on the camera we captured these images. It comes out a lot greener on camera than it looked in real life.
The sun was shining for our final morning in Iceland, so we had a wander down to the seafront before our breakfast at the Laundromat. This is Harpa, a state-of-the-art concert hall opened in 2011. The juxtaposition between the modern architecture and the snowy mountains behind is most striking, as is this fabulous statue of a cellist.
This is the view from inside – magnificent. You can go on a guided tour of the whole place if you want to, but we didn’t have much time so we just had a look round the foyer.
This was our final view of Reykjavik as we headed out of town. The lake was completely frozen, giving the city an enchanting wintry look. I don’t know how thick the ice is, but we didn’t see anybody walking on it, so presumably not very!
I’ll end this post with some practical tips for visiting, as this was the kind of advice we appreciated before we went.
- Money: You almost certainly won’t need to get any Icelandic currency. We didn’t take any, and we never needed any because you can pay by card pretty much everywhere – even for vending machines and car parks. Iceland is almost a cashless economy, and at some places we even saw signs saying that notes were accepted but coins weren’t. I used my American Express credit card virtually everywhere – way more places accepted AmEx than they do in the UK.
- Tipping: Icelanders don’t tip – I really loved this about Iceland! The food may be more expensive, but it was so nice to be relieved of the awkwardness of tipping (it’s something I really hate about visiting America, where they expect tips for absolutely every little thing).
- Car parks: Car parks are cheap or free, even in Reykjavik, so you don’t need to worry about driving into the city centre and parking up in a multistorey car park all day.
- Weather: Thanks to the Gulf Stream, it was actually no colder than the UK, despite being much further north. The weather is very changeable, so “if you don’t like the weather, wait 15 minutes”.
- Language: Icelandic seems to me to be a fairly impenetrable language, with lots of strange symbols that I haven’t a clue how to pronounce. However, the Icelanders all grow up speaking English as well, and their English is absolutely excellent, so language was never an issue.
- Cars: Icelanders drive on the right, so cars are left-hand drive.
- Road conditions: We discovered this website too late; it gives you colour-coded, regularly updated information on the state of the roads across the whole country. Probably not relevant to summer travellers (unless maybe if there’s a volcanic eruption?), but a must if you’re planning on leaving the capital in winter.
- Water: You never need to order bottled water (and from what I understand, the Icelanders never do, except if they want sparkling) as the cold tap water is so superb and pure. The hot water coming from the tap and shower may smell slightly of sulphur, but in such a geothermal country, one would expect that.
- Daylight: Visiting in March, we found it was getting light by about 8am and dark about 8pm, so it was a good balance of light and dark. As I understand it, in the depths of winter there are only a few short hours of semi-light, while in the middle of summer it hardly gets dark at all.
- WiFi: Iceland WiFi is excellent – very fast and seemed to be available (free of charge) pretty much everywhere we went. Puts ours to shame!
Our trip to Iceland was inspired by this brilliant programme by Richard Ayoade and this post by a friend of mine who visited Iceland last summer. Both highly recommended to give you an even better flavour of this fantastic country than I have here! Now I just need to save up to go back…