Reykjavik is not about to win any awards for being one of Europe’s most attractive cities, but it doesn’t need to. The world’s northernmost capital city holds both charm and appeal that does not rely on aesthetics. It’s a city of intriguing contrasts. In the height of summer, the streets are filled with 23 hours of daylight, but in the bleak midwinter months of December and January, it can feel like the city is draped in a permanent blanket of darkness. In spite of it’s cold climate, the diverging tectonic plates give rise to a constant source of heat below the ground. Reykjavik offers a bewitching combination of village innocence and big city zeal; it’s a city that clings proudly and vehemently to its past but is also excited about its future. Its inhabitants – despite the country’s recent near-bankruptcy, and high cost of living – remain cheerful and positive, with unabated creativity and an enduring spirit.
Just like the lava that bubbles beneath its surface, there is an energy that runs through the veins of this city. It’s quirky and colourful, bursting with creativity and culture, and with a vibrant nightlife and music scene. There are fine museums and art galleries, world-class restaurants, cosy cafes, and geothermal pools scattered throughout Reykjavik’s sparsely populated streets. As a direct result of the country being both volcanically and geologically active, there are very few high-rise buildings within the city; its urban area consists of low-density suburbs, and houses are widely spaced. As you wander through the city’s streets, you get a real sense of open space and of breathing clean, unpolluted air. To top all of this, there is the nautical appeal of the harbour (the opportunities to see whales and puffins, and sample some of the freshest seafood you’ve ever tasted) coupled with the draw of hiking nearby Mount Esja, which provides a dramatic backdrop to the city.
Whilst I was keen to explore many of the country’s geological wonders outside of Reykjavik, I also wanted to dedicate a day to walking the streets of this fascinating city. So, that’s exactly what I did.
From the stunning and unique architectural feats, to the street art, coffee culture, and changeable weather, here are a few of my favourite things about Reykjavik:
The Vibrant Bursts of Colour
Once you step beyond the stark grey concrete blocks of the city’s outskirts, the streets of downtown Reykjavik are lined with colourful buildings, many of which are constructed using large amounts of corrugated iron.
When the Vikings occupied Iceland, they decimated the remaining ancient forests for ship-building materials, leaving this isolated volcanic island with limited local construction materials. So, in the 1860’s, Iceland began to import this cheap building material from England. Initially used for roofs, and to clad walls in order to protect the timber, usage of corrugated iron soon became more widespread, as it was light, strong, resistant, long-lasting, and required very little maintenance. These days it’s not uncommon to see the material used on everything from mansions to service sheds.
I’m not normally a fan of concrete structures but this creation, designed by architect Guojon Samuelson, is an exception. Following a national competition to create a hilltop church which would hold 1200 people, with a 74 metre high tower that could double as a radio mast, construction of the immense Hallgrimskirkja began in 1945. Its radical design caused huge controversy, and Samuelson never lived to see its completion.
Hallgrimskirkja is an instantly recognisable landmark within the city and can apparently be seen up to 20 kilometres away. The interior of the church is surprisingly plain, but it’s worth stepping inside in order to take the elevator up to the top of the tower for a stunning 360 degree view of Reykjavik. Down below the colourful buildings look like little lego houses, placed carefully within the city’s tidy network of straight roads, and around its frozen lake.
It wasn’t until I stepped outside at the top of the tower that I realised just how changeable Reykjavik’s weather can be. At first the sun was shining down on to the snowcapped peaks of Mount Esja, however in the time that it took me to remove my camera from its bag, a large grey cloud had obscured the mountain from my view. The sky then turned white, the wind picked up, and a blizzard proceeded to roll through, tiny snowballs hitting my face and burning my cheeks. Five minutes later, the horizon looked like this once again:
Another of Reykjavik’s stunning architectural feats, Harpa is the city’s sparkling new concert hall and conference centre. Designed in part by Icelandic-Danish artist, Olafur Eliasson, Harpa is a multi-levelled structure (which also contains restaurants, a music shop, and a design store) constructed using an intricate lattice of convex and concave glass panels of different colours.
Yes, the building is eye-catching from the outside, but from the inside it dazzles; it’s kaleidoscopic. When the sun shines, the interior of Harpa is a true gem to behold.
It’s completely free to wander around, and take a multitude of photographs, or visit at night for a spectacular light show.
Continuing eastwards along the harbour from Harpa, you’ll encounter this unusual sculpture. Pointing out towards the sea and backed by snow-capped Mount Esja, Sólfar (meaning “Sun Voyager”) was designed by Jón Gunnar and built to commemorate Reykjavík’s 200th anniversary. Gunnar describes the sun ship as “symbolising the promise of new and undiscovered territory.”
The Cosy Coffee Shops
The fact that beer was illegal in Iceland until 1987, and wine remains incredibly expensive, may explain why such a huge coffee culture began to emerge in the capital around 25 years ago. Icelander’s are now the third largest consumer of coffee per capita. The appeal of Reykjavík’s cosy coffee shops is largely due to the fact that they are simply that: cosy independent establishments. The nearest you will find to a Starbucks or a Costa is Te and Kaffi, an Icelandic chain with just 8 locations across the country.
We also loved Tui Dropar (Ten Drops), located in the basement of one of the buildings along Laugavegur, who serve amazing hot chocolate. Many of the coffee shops (including Tui Dropar) also serve a variety and snacks and sandwiches and bottled beers, and are often great options for Vegetarians. Considering how expensive Reykjavík is perceived to be, the price of coffee here was on a par with what I pay back in the U.K, and personally I’d much spend an hour of my time in one of Reykjavik’s cosy options, that are full of character, warmth, and charm.
Some of the Freshest Seafood I’ve Ever Tasted
To be completely honest, we simply couldn’t afford to sample many of Reykjavik’s culinary offerings. However, we did decide to treat ourselves to some fresh seafood down by the harbour, courtesy of Sea Baron (its Icelandic name is Saegreifinn). This little place is nothing to look at from the outside – it’s an old corrugated iron shack with a fairly plain, innocuous sign on its wall – and the interior is reminiscent of a fisherman’s hut, with plastic oil drums for seats, and fishing nets draped across the ceiling. But looks can be deceiving, and in this case don’t be fooled by the shabby decor. The food here is nothing short of delicious.
The menu is simple. Lobster soup is always on it; the restaurant is famous for it. There is also a selection of fish (including whale meat if you feel brave enough to try) laid out in the open fridge. You choose which you want, take it to the counter, and the Sea Baron cooks it for you.
We had to try the lobster soup, but we also chose a skewer of Karfi (Redfish). Loving anything that’s cooked using coconut milk, I immediately fell in love with the lobster soup, and the Karfi was so fresh, it flaked delicately off the skewer.
In my mind, if you’re going to eat fresh fish, there’s no better place to do so than sat in a fisherman’s hut down by the harbours edge, on an old oil drum, with the smell of the sea in the air, and the sound of the wind and the waves outside.
Reykjavik also has a myriad of late night drinking options. We saw a fantastic live Jazz/blues band at Prikid, a lively little bar serving reasonably priced beer (reasonable for Reykjavik – it was just under £4). We got a taste of bohemian glamour at Kaffibarinn (an old corrugated iron house with a London Underground symbol over the door, that was featured in the film 101 Reykjavík) and we sampled the famous Icelandic tipple Brennivin, at Reykjavik’s atmospheric rock pub, Dillon.
Had we more time (and a lot more money!) there were so many other places we would have loved to check out. However, a few days in the city had given us a wonderful taster of what we wished had been many more.
Have you been to Reykjavík? Do you have any favourite places you’d like to recommend? Or maybe Reykjavík is somewhere that’s on your bucket list? Feel free to ask any questions or share your thoughts below.