How to make good use of your time in Iceland’s capital, Reykjavík. Good food, whale watching, swimming pools, a bit of culture and shopping should do the trick.
If I was a tourist I’d probably go to Perlan (Öskjuhlíð. It’s that globe-y thing you see on the hill.) and enjoy a wonderful 360° view of Reykjavík in a perfectly kitsch location and have breakfast in the cafeteria. Although I do have the sneaking suspicion that food wise Grái kötturinn, a hole in the wall on Hverfisgata 16a, known for luxurious brunches, would be a better choice. It’s perfect if you have a big hole to fill and it opens ridiculously early. Or just head to the next Kaffitár (Bankastræti 8, Höfðatorg and more) and have amazing coffee and something breakfasty on the side.
Whale of a time
There’s nothing like spending your morning spotting those “gentle giants”. From April through September there are tours a few times a day, the first at 9am and they last 2.5 to 3.5 hours. In winter there is one tour a day at 1pm and lasts a bit longer. In June and July there is also a midnight tour, leaving at half past eight, which sounds like pure delight. Dress accordingly with the right clothes you’ve packed (although some gear is provided), and understand that you might be on one of the unlucky boats (an even better reason to do some giant-eating later). But if you are lucky there is nothing quite like it! Check out Elding, a local whale watching company.
Or a different kind of splashing….
the swimming pool. If you’re an early bird, I recommend you sneak this one in before breakfast, that’s when the regulars go. If you don’t like to swim, don’t worry, just soak your traveling-sore muscles in steaming hot water in one of the whirlpools and talk politics with some strangers. But please, please wash first, without your swimwear that is, or you might expect a lashing out from one of the locals.
Every Reykvíkingur (a person from Reykjavík) will have their preferred pool and there’s bound to be one near you. Note that Sundhöllin (Barónsstígur 45a), the one closest to the city center has an indoor pool (the whirlpools however are outside), whilst traditionally Icelandic swimming pools are outdoors, heated of course, but on the other hand the architecture of Sundhöllin is wonderful.
If you’re in the mood for a rustic seafood experience, Sægreifinn (Geirsgata 8 ) is the place. The lobster soup has a Thai feel to it and is delicious. Here you can also taste some barbecued minke whale. I find this particularly fitting if you just got off the boat and saw some alive ones. It’s also perfectly convenient as it is right next to the whale watching pier.
If you want a different kind of seafood, the more upscale Fiskmarkaðurinn(Aðalstræti 12) does an excellent lunch menu and for extremely reasonable prices. The spider maki is drop dead good.
If you are in the mood for culture, the Reykjavik Art Museum (Tryggvagata 17) at Hafnarhúsið is one of the best places in town to see art, and just a skip and a hop down the street is Gallery i8 (Tryggvagata 16), a nice little private art gallery.
If it’s weekend, head next to Kolaportið (Tryggvagata 19), the Reykjavík flea market, located on the same street. Browse through second hand records and buy some gravlax, salmon cured in sugar, salt and dill, or whatever else takes your fancy.
Perhaps you’re more in a shopping kind of mindset. Take a stroll up Austurstræti, which changes into Bankastræti and then Laugavegur, up to Hlemmur bus station. This is our main shopping street, and also the main restaurant and bar street, well it’s actually simply our main street. Just remember to look down the streets cutting through, some gems lie hidden there. Skólavörðustígur, leading up to Hallgrímskirkja, the landmark church of Reykjavík is also stroll-worthy. Once you’re up the hill you can go up to the bell tower and admire the surroundings from there. It costs a few hundred kronur to go up in the elevator but the view is good and the wind will enliven any spirit.
If it’s summer and the weather is good, do as we do and hope for an outside table somewhere at Austurvöllur (a grassy plaza in the city center) and have a little something and do some people watching. No table, no worries! There is plenty of grass, a liquor store around the corner or coffee to go from anywhere, Te og Kaffi in the Eymundsson Bookstore on Austurstræti being the recommended choice.
When there, gaze in the direction of the house of parliament – Alþingishúsið – and imagine it’s dark and snowy and the whole plaza is filled with furious, screaming protesters, Austurvöllur’s christmas tree (an enormous Norwegian gift) is on fire and history is happening. Ask people about it if you dare, you will get emotional sagas or boring speeches, but probably both.
Evening – Eating time again
It’s a little tricky to suggest something that is cheap but still a showcase of Icelandic food culture, unless it is something that shows how we have adopted other nations’ food cultures. So here goes:
My favorite burger joint is the B5-branch of Búllan (Bankastræti 5). You enter a fancy schmancy cocktail bar-type place, but on the right side of the bar there is another world, the Narnia of burger-joints. You can eat in there or get your burger served in the über cool bar area. The ketchup comes in plastic containers in the joint bit, but glass bottles in the bar, but it doesn’t matter because what you really want to do is substitute it with the best ever Béarnaise.
Osushi is a sushi-train restaurant up the escalator from Iða, the bookstore (Lækjargata 2a) and is a surprisingly comfortable place where you can easily control how much you spend and indeed how much you eat.
Tapas barinn (Vesturgata 3b) is perfect for a varied meal. There’s puffin on the menu here, don’t miss your chance, it’s divine! There’s also whale and kangaroo if you’re feeling adventurous. Booking ahead might be a good idea.
Íslenski barinn (Pósthússtræti 9) offers the tastes of Iceland, from herring and shellfish to lamb carpaccio and foal in a relaxed setting.
I would recommend the aforementioned Fiskmarkaðurinn (Aðalstræti 12) for Asian fish fusion or Sjávarkjallarinn (Aðalstræti 2) or Dill (Norræna Húsið, Hringbraut) for Scandinavian cuisine. Sjávarkjallarinn, or the Seafood Cellar, is located, as implied by name, in a chic yet rustic cellar in the city center. Dill is situated in the Nordic House, overlooking a beautiful bit of central moorland and beyond that the city itself. Booking ahead is advised for all three.
101 Bar (Hverfisgata 10) is the perfect place for a post-restaurant drink. Essentially a hotel bar for the ever so fancy boutique Hotel 101, this is designer chic where you still feel at home, and probably the least hotel bar-like bar you’ll ever go to.
I have to also mention here that if you happen to pass by Hafnarfjörður, Fjörukráin (Strandgata 55, Hafnarfjörður) is one of my favorite places to have a pint, or perhaps some Brennivín, THE shot of Iceland.
Out on the town
Tastes in places, crowds and music differ greatly so I’m not going to recommend any one place. Just take a stroll up or down Laugavegur and walk towards the tunes you like. Another trick would be to stop people in the street that look like they would frequent a place you would like and ask them for advice. Drunk Icelanders are normally quite helpful, although they might not always want to share their favorite place with newcomers, afraid that they will overcrowd it.
The party starts between 1 and 2am, and after 2am you’ll see which places are the popular ones judging by the massive queues outside. We don’t really do clubs but rather overfilled bars, which might happen to be where you had your breakfast or a cup of coffee earlier in the day.
If you’re ready to experience modern Iceland in a sip, ask for a licorice shot, Topas or Opal, we drink it like candy, which is really what it is, with some vodka added.
Early morning hours
If the bar you’re in is chucking you out, it’s surely time for a snack. Head down to Bæjarins Bestu the best Icelandic hot-dog stand in town. It is located across the street from the aforementioned flea market (if you get lost everyone knows where it is). Just look for a small shed with a long queue of hungry people in front.
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