Art galleries, museums, thermal public swimming pools and never-ending festivals put the city of Reykjavik on the map. // © 2013 Thinkstock
Most tourists who come to the island nation of Iceland do so for its natural offerings, from bubbling hot springs and great hiking opportunities to glaciers, volcano stalking, ice-climbing and dog-sledding — to say nothing of the Northern Lights, which appear like midnight rainbows in the winter months.
With good reason, Iceland’s extreme landscape hogs all the attention — and Reykjavik, the country’s so-called metropolis, may seem like nothing more than a place to catch the next tour bus to Aurora Borealis territory. Due to this perception, many pass up Reykjavik, though I doubt such will be the case for much longer. Tourism has been increasing steadily in Iceland since the eruption of volcano Eyjafjallajokull in 2010, and it is only a matter of time before its hipster bars, art galleries, Nordic design shops, creative cuisine (whale, anyone?), museums, thermal public swimming pools and never-ending festivals put Reykjavik on the map.
So what’s there to do in a city with population 120,000? Plenty, if you have 48 hours.
On day one, check into one of the 108 rooms at Icelandair Hotel Reykjavik Marina. Opened in 2012, Reykjavik Marina is a design hotel with a focus on the Icelandic love of storytelling, traditional arts and maritime history. Located on a working dock in an up-and-coming area of Reykjavik, the hotel faces the harbor and Mount Esja, the locals’ most beloved mountain. On the main floor at Reykjavik Marina guests will find a private theater showing Icelandic films nightly, a gym, a restaurant and Slipp Bar, where it’s hard to get a seat during happy hour.
Grab a 48-hour Reykjavik Welcome Card, which gives you free admission to all of the city’s thermal pools and many museums, as well as discounts at shops and free use of public transportation, all for just $30.
Mosey along the harbor down to the Vikin Maritime Museum to explore Reykjavik’s nautical past, learn about the harsh lifestyle of a sailor and get goose bumps studying historical shipwreck maps. Take the guided tour of Odinn, an Icelandic Coast Guard ship docked outside the museum. Make sure to look down at the water in the harbor as you cross the bridge to the museum. It’s crystal clear and teeming with sea life, unusual for a city port.
Dine at Icelandic Fish & Chips, an organic bistro just up from the port. Sample their fish of the day, which could be cod, haddock, ling, wolf fish or red fish. The best part? Dips galore! Get a three-dip sampler to accompany your fish and chips, selecting from the likes of basil and garlic, coriander and lime, chili and roasted pepper, ginger and wasabi, truffle and tarragon and more.
Soak in one of the seven thermal pools in Reykjavik, rubbing elbows with the locals. Residents are known to get up early and hit their thermal public pool before work or on the way home from the office. You’ll need a bathing suit, but will be able to rent a towel at the pool.
Hit happy hour at the Icelandair Hotel Reykjavik Marina’s Slipp Bar from 4-6 p.m to peruse their always-evolving cocktail menu. After a lime-leaf gimlet, stop in at Forretta Barinn for dinner. The artsy eatery only serves first courses or appetizers, and if you have ever wanted to try whale, lamb hearts or a nut steak with mustard dressing, this is your chance.
Start off the day with a bargain hunt along Laugavegur, the city’s main shopping strip. Those looking for Icelandic clothing should pop into Geysir, a shop selling robust wool sweaters, scarves and gloves. For quirky Icelandic design products for the home, try Hrim.
Stop for a frothy coffee and a slice of carrot cake the size of a glacier at Cafe Babalu. Did they decorate the entire cafe with garage-sale scores? It’s hard to say. The ambience is eclectic, but the place is cozy and popular with locals and tourists alike. In the summer, enjoy their large outdoor terrace.
Search out KEX, a diner on the water. Don’t be put off by the puzzling entrance — find your way upstairs to the circular bar. All of the decor in KEX has been repurposed, from the wooden floors to the vintage sofas. Choose from entrees such as fried blue ling with a romaine salad and cottage cheese, or a grilled ribeye. Note that KEX is a bar, restaurant, concert hall and hostel. It has communal rooms as well as private double rooms. It’s like no hostel you have ever been to, and the age range is varied.
Experience one of Reykjavik’s many festivals. Every month there is something going on in the city, with Sonar (in February), Design March, The Viking Festival (in June), Gay Pride (in August), the Jazz Festival (in August), Imagine Peace Tower (in October) and the Airwaves Music Festival (in November) being some of the most popular. If there isn’t a festival while you are in town, check out the line-up at Harpa, the city’s new performing arts center.
For such a small city, Reykjavik has a lot shaking. Let the tiny metropolis and its friendly citizens surprise you.