The world’s northernmost capital city, Reykjavik is a hotbed of culture, history and creativity. More than half of Iceland‘s population lives in the greater capital area, yet the city still exudes a small-town charm.
Missing the crowded streets of other European capitals, the colourful downtown area is jam-packed with world-class galleries, museums, restaurants. Topped off with a buzzing nightlife, and Reykjavik exudes an electric atmosphere that almost all who pass through it fall in love with.[related_articles]52004,54721,53123[/related_articles]
Get charged for the day with breakfast and coffee at Bergsson Mathús. A great spot to blend in with the locals, both the breakfast and brunch plates at the cosy Icelandic cafe feature a swathe of quality home-grown Icelandic ingredients.
Staff serve up great vegetarian and vegan friendly dishes, too.
After brekky, get your bearings. Luckily, Reykjavik is easily walkable, so it won’t take long to get the lay of the land – it’s the street and place names that will give you trouble.
Start with a stroll around Tjornin, the large pond downtown. Buy some bread and feed the ducks and swans crowding the edges of the water before heading up towards artsy Skólavörðustígur Street, where you can browse authentic Icelandic design in the shops that line the road.
At the top of Skólavörðustígur Street and dominating the skyline is the magnificent Hallgrímskirkja church. The stark design is inspired by the volcanic basalt columns around the country and erupting geysers.
Pay the $11 (900ISK) fee to take the lift to the top for a stunning view over the whole city, the surrounding bay, and Mount Esja across the water.
Back on ground level, head down Laugavegur towards the centre of town and grab a world-famous hot dog from Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur. ‘Pylsu með öllu’ will get you a hot dog with the lot, something that most locals would recommend you try.
Next, head up to the National Museum of Iceland, where you’ll learn all there is to know about the tiny North Atlantic nation, from its Viking roots to the destructive volcanic eruptions that have shaped its history.
For a true taste of the local cuisine in the evening, head to Matur og Drykur, which is widely considered one of the best restaurants in town. Located in the trendy Grandi area near the docks, the restaurant occupies a former salt fish factory that stopped operating in the late ’60s. Specialising in traditional Icelandic food, chefs put modern twists on classic Icelandic dishes with mouth-watering results.
If you’re lucky enough to be in town on a Friday or Saturday night, you’re in for a serious party. Bars fill up after 1am, dance floors heaving under a mix of locals and tourists from all over the world.
Squeeze in to the tightly packed Kaffibarinn and Prikið, both of which are Icelandic institutions, and then finish the night at Húrra – one of the best spots to dance until the wee hours of the morning.
Shake off the cobwebs at Sandholt Bakery on Laugavegur. Opened in 1920, the family-run bakery has a delicious array of pastries, cakes, and tarts, as well as fresh loaves of sourdough bread served straight out of the oven. Grab a seat by the window to watch the Laugavegur traffic pass by.
First, make your way down to the harbour and the magnificent Harpa Concert Hall. Perched on the edge of the water, the beautiful structure reflects and shapes all kinds of light.
Inside, you’ll be treated to outstanding views over the harbour. You can take a 45-minute guided tour for $24 (1950isk).
With over 200 pools country-wide, swimming in Iceland is an essential part of the local culture. In Reyjavik, Laugardalslaug is the biggest and the busiest, while Vesturbæjarlaug on the west side of town is a bit quieter.
Geothermally heated year-round, you’ll also be able to enjoy hot tubs at varying temperatures, a sauna, and, for the very brave, an ice bath. Before you jump in, you must hit the showers, so drop your bag in a locker, strip down and scrub clean.
Grab lunch at Ostabúðin on Skólavörðustígur, a homey little deli that serves up some of the freshest fish in the city. Order the catch of the day or a platter of Icelandic cheese.
With your belly full, head to i8 for boundary-pushing conceptual art. Local galleries can be found around every corner in Reykjavik, so don’t stress if you run out of time.
Reykjavik knows its way around a burger, and Vitabar serves one of the best. This friendly neighbourhood burger joint hasn’t changed in forever and still charges pre-GFC prices for their mouth-watering fare: You can get a burger, fries and a drink for around $19 (1600 ISK).
After dinner, splash out on drinks at Kex Hostel. Located in a former biscuit factory, the hostel and bar is one of the most stylish spots in the city. It’s a favourite among guests and locals alike thanks to the amazing atmosphere and views out over the water. On weekends, you’ll definitely be treated to free live jazz, DJ sets, local hip-hop, and everything in between.[related_articles]52576[/related_articles]
With your stay in Reykjavik coming to a close, enjoy a late evening stroll along the water’s edge to catch the midnight sun peaking over the mountains or the northern lights dancing across the sky. After a jam-packed 48 hours, you’ve no doubt gained an appreciation for Iceland’s dynamic and impressive capital.
(Lead image: Ferdinand Stöhr)[qantas_widget code=REK]Check out Qantas flights to Reykjavik.[/qantas_widget]
James Taylor is an Australian freelance travel journalist currently exploring the frozen reaches of Iceland.