Off the Brochure Travel Guide: Reykjavik, Iceland
Don’t be fooled by the country’s name. Not only are Reykjavik’s winters milder than New York’s, but its popularity as a destination is growing, due to its fine balance between cosmopolitan style and rough-and-tumble nature.
Your experience here will be as relaxed or lively as you want it to be, and that’s Reykjavik’s real charm: If you seek out the bars, the clubs, and the snowmobiling, it’s a petite little firecracker; if you prefer to stroll the quiet streets and soak in the Blue Lagoon, it’s a refreshingly subdued getaway.
Either way, Reykjavik proves that good things come in small capitals.
Where is Everybody?
Reykjavik is a startlingly quiet city, to be honest. Yes, that’s a relative statement, but after flying over the Mordor-like landscape when flying in, you’ll probably be relieved to see the bars bursting with throngs of people.
So don’t freak out—there’s a lot going on, but in the typical understated Icelandic style it’s not all in your face. Pick up a copy of the free English language newspaper The Grapevine, available in many shops and cafes. The paper offers articles that introduce you to Icelandic culture and current events, as well as a guide to what’s on in the city. www.grapevine.is
As for where to stay, there’s no shortage of luxury hotels as the words “budget” and “Iceland” really don’t go together. So if you need to cut corners somewhere, anywhere, a cozy and modern option is the Sunna Guesthouse. The staff is friendly and helpful (they’ll take care of any and all of your tour bookings), and the rooms are simply but comfortably furnished, with hardwood floors. A great option is a studio apartment with a kitchenette–cooking for yourself a few times will ease the kroner shock. Breakfast is included in the price and includes the freshly baked bread, fruits, and cereals you’ll need for sustenance on your ice hike.
And location, location, location: Sunna is right in front of the Hallgrímskirkja, and it’s only a five minute walk to the center of the old town, but far away enough so that the late night revelry won’t keep you awake—a drawback to many of the bigger downtown hotels. And a bonus: if you can’t pronounce the street names, you can find your way home by following the steeple. Thorsgata 26, +354-511-5570, www.sunna.is
Alternatives to Pickled Sheep Testicles
Centuries of barren land has created local cuisine that’s, well, unorthodox. One local I met described traditional Icelandic food as “repulsive.” So if rotten shark meat isn’t your thing, you’ll be happy to know that delicious alternatives are plentiful. Mexican, Indian, Italian, Asian, whatever you want.
One of the best and most popular spots is Cafe Paris, at Austurstræti 14 in the center of town. With windows on three sides and a varied menu, Cafe Paris is the place to settle in and watch Reykjavik go by. At night the cafe turns into a thumping bar/disco, as do many places in town. It’s inexpensive by Icelandic standards, but a lunch for two will still run $40-50. +354-551-1020, www.cafeparis.is
Coffee is a big deal in Iceland, and the experience is still very local as Starbuck’s hasn’t made its appearance (yet). Almost any cafe will be full of locals spending the afternoon reading or chatting. If the high style is starting to overwhelm you, pop into Mokka. This tiny cafe’s old-school, neighborhood vibe is an antidote to the swish design Reykjavik’s known for. Skólavördurstígur 3a, +354-552-1174, www.mokka.is
A View From Above …
As the tallest building in Reykjavik you can’t miss the Hallgrímskirkja church. Be sure to buy a ticket at the church shop and take the elevator to the top for a stunning, 360-degree view of the city.
On a clear day the sky will be bluer than blue, the snowcapped mountains will be visible across the fjord, and the characteristic colorful roofs will replace any preconception you may have had of Iceland as only ever a grey city.
…and From Below
On the western side, head one block up and walk along Sudurgata. In front of the cemetery is a storybook-perfect view of Reykjavik, with Hallgrímskirkja pointing proudly into the sky and the bright buildings resting peacefully along the lake. If the sky is at all moody your view will be all the more atmospheric, as the light in Iceland throws a notably majestic cast.
Your options for day trips into the gorgeous nature surrounding Reykjavik are plenty, but it’s worthwhile to pick at least one that you can’t experience at home. Anyone up for a glacier hike? Icelandic Mountain Guides offers hikes of varying degrees of difficulty on the edge of Sólheimajökull glacier located about 90 minutes outside of the city.
The easiest level requires no experience and lasts about three hours. An experienced mountaineer will fit your feet with crampons and point out the caves, crevices, and the effects of global warming.
The only downside is that you’ll wish you could go to the top of the glacier, which is about 6 miles further on. This is an unforgettable way to experience the landscape that sets this destination apart from most others. +354-587-9999, www.mountainguide.is
From North America to Europe
Iceland is relatively new, geologically speaking, and still evolving—hence the active geysers, earthquakes, volcanoes, and hot springs, including one that turned up in a family’s living room floor. (For real. They moved). The Mid-Atlantic Ridge separates the North American and European continental plates, and it rips right through Iceland not far outside of Reykjavik.
Be sure to take the longer version of the Golden Circle tour (one of Iceland’s most popular driving tours), as you’ll be dropped off on the North American side (geologically-speaking), where you can walk across the “no man’s land” that fills the space between both plates. After walking across part of this area, your guide will drive you the rest of the way and announce your official arrival into Europe.
Text and Photos by Sumayya Essack for PeterGreenberg.com.
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