There’s no reason for Reykjavik to be as popular as it is. It’s tiny, for one thing. Remote, for another. But the capital of Iceland is the best time you’ll have anywhere in the North Atlantic. The country has reinvented itself over the last decade, its economy ping-ponging from small-time fishing to online banking (which, ahem, didn’t end well) to tourism. As a result, the country is primed for hosting global explorers — particularly those whose idea of exploration includes white tableclothed restaurants and luxe hotels. Just one tip: pack a sweater.
Luxury is a relatively new concept in Iceland, as big money came — and then left — in the ’90s and ’00s. But the 101 Hotel makes it look like they’ve been doing it forever. Right downtown and within walking distance of all of the city’s best restaurants and clubs, the highlight is the lobby bar, where you can lounge on oversized horse-hide chairs in front of a roaring fire, local brew in hand, decompressing after a long day of glacier chasing — or gearing up before a long night of subarctic fun.
Sæmundur í Sparifötunum
Finding a restaurant that appeals to both locals and tourists can be a challenge in Reykjavik, but this gastro pub, off the hidden lobby of the KEX hotel, hits a happy and all-too-uncommon medium in this town of overpriced and often mediocre dining (blame the tourism industry). While Icelanders will no doubt point you toward the burger, the salted cod with celeriac purée is a simple and surprisingly delicate take on a local classic.
As it happens, Iceland’s best restaurant is right across the street from the 101 Hotel. Chef Gunnar Karl Gislason and sommelier Ólafur Örn Ólafsson opened the new nordic restaurant in 2014, offering a changing menu of hyper-local ingredients (yes, this means lots of cured fish and root vegetables much of the year, but trust us: you’ve never had them like this) and the best wine list north of the 64th parallel.
Reykjavik is, above all else, a party town. This is not a party bar. With its vinyl booths and needlepoint landscapes hanging on the wall, Ölstofan hasn’t changed in at least half a century — and judging by many of the grey-haired, smoke-sodden men at the bar, neither have its patrons. Which, naturally, makes it the hippest place in town, and the best place to grab a bourbon and make new friends.
Under prohibition rules, beer was forbidden in Iceland until 1989. Now they’re making up for lost time. There are dozens of breweries in the country, and thanks to close ties with Denmark and other beer-friendly Scandinavian nations, there’s no shortage of supply. Microbar is a shrine to all of it, far and away the best place to find a rare pour or to become ensnared in a conversation about malts and hops with a beer-loving local.
With multiple locations (in town and at popular sightseeing spots), you’d be forgiven for thinking Geysir was some kind of jacked-up tourist trap. Instead, it’s a thoughtfully curated shop filled with high-end Nordic goods, from Danish Royal RepubliQ leathergoods to tailored sweaters and patterned blankets made from famed Icelandic wool.
Kormáks and Skjadar
If you’re going to Iceland, you’ll need to be properly outfitted. For the most part, it’s a casual country — so spend your money on outerwear. This store/barbershop is the best place to get a hardwearing jacket (Barbours are local favourites), chambray shirt or pair of rugged leather boots, great for trudging across the volcanic island in style.
Everyone goes to the Hallgrimskirkja, Reykjavik’s iconic Lutheran church that towers over the city. But if you’re looking to get your fill of monuments, better to attend a show at the newly iconic Harpa concert hall. A set of glistening cubes overlooking the water, Harpa is a modern architectural masterpiece — and a symbol of Iceland’s commitment to the arts and to its future.
The first thing you’ll want to do when you get to Reykjavik is get out of Reykjavik. You’re here for some natural beauty, after all. The Golden Circle is a well-trod road that takes you — in a day — past three incredible sights: the massive and unrelenting Geysir (it’s, uh, a geyser, not the shop), Gullfoss, the largest waterfall in Europe, and the vistas of Thingvellir National Park.
Pack A Bathing Suit
Iceland runs on geothermal energy — it’s all a big volcano, after all. That means anywhere you dig a hole, the water you fill it with will get nice and warm all by itself, even in the frigid depths of winter. No surprise Icelanders are giddy for pools. Here are some of the best:
Head straight here after landing, since it’s located almost directly between the airport and downtown Reykjavik. Sure, this massive hot tub is a little touristy (note the tiki bar and overpriced towels), but it’s a good introduction to bathing culture in Iceland. Plus, the mud is said to have anti-aging qualities.
If you do the Golden Circle, leave time for a dip here. It’s like the Blue Lagoon only smaller and less crowded, and with a spectacular view of the foggy Icelandic countryside.
Yes, there’s a hot tub here, and a comprehensive spa (complete with half a dozen saunas of varying temperatures). But this outdoor Reykjavik pool is where locals go to get some real exercise. And after all that beer, you could probably use some, too.