Reykjavik is Iceland’s capital city and the entrance point to this fascinating country. We had already visited the Scandinavian capitals and expected that Reykjavik will be similar. However, we were surprised to discover that it is not. It has its own charm and doesn’t look like any other capital that we’ve seen so far.
This unparalleled city glowing with lights and covered in snow, surrounded by lava fields and backed by the Atlantic Ocean and rocky mountains made me think of winter holidays. The overall atmosphere was like that of a ski resort or of a mountain town. Maybe it reminded me of a ski resort also because many of the tourists were wearing ski/snow gear. It was easy to distinguish the true Icelandic residents from the visitors who were there only for a couple of days simply by looking at their clothes. The holiday atmosphere was emphasized by the knitted hats and pullovers that were on display in many of the shopping windows. Although it was February there were still some Christmas lights hanging around, making the colorful houses look even more enchanting.
Yes, it is cold and windy in Reykjavik during the winter and I should have taken my ski jacket with me like the rest of the tourists, but the –5 degree temperature didn’t seem to be too worrying. The wind, however, makes the cold unbearable.
We spent around three days in Reykjavik and the plan for the first day was to walk around and take some photographs of the cozy streets. But what was supposed to be a tour of the city ended up being a tour of the cafés. It was so cold that we didn’t dare stay outside more than 10 minutes at a time. This is how we discovered some of the coziest cafés we’ve ever been to. The following day, we tried an outdoor swimming pool. The 40-degree thermal water helped with adjusting to the negative temperatures of the Icelandic winter, and afterward I could bear the cold for longer stretches of time. So I think I discovered their secret 🙂
A vacation in Reykjavik is a vacation where one can relax and enjoy the stunning Icelandic nature from inside a cozy interior or an outdoor thermal pool. I imagine the scenery to be stunning in the summer as well, but how can one truly experience the northernmost capital without seeing its white rooftops during the icy cold winter?
In three days we managed to see the following:
Cafés, pubs, restaurants
As I mentioned before, this short city break was mainly about enjoying Reykjavik’s atmosphere of going out. Some of the places we tried were Café Paris, Café Laundromat, Café Salon, Restaurant Rosopomodoro and Restaurant Glo. I deliberately avoided the places that serve puffin or whale meat, because I think these animals are simply too cute to be eaten. Instead, I tried the Icelandic traditional soup made out of lamb, cabbage and other vegetables, served with homemade bread and butter. It was tasty and I think it helped with staying warm.
When it comes to recommending places to eat or drink, I’m always a bit reluctant because it depends so much on a person’s mood and preferences. But in my opinion, the food at Rosopomodoro was very tasty, the atmosphere at Café Paris brought us back a few times, and the Laundromat Café was our favorite. We knew the Laundromat Café chain from Copenhagen, but I think the one in Reykjavik is cozier and the quality of the food is slightly better. Café Salon has a relaxed, cozy interior, and Glo is the place in Reykjavik where vegetarians can find something to eat :). They serve organic vegan and vegetarian food but there are not so many choices in the menu and it is more of a self-service concept than a restaurant.
The Harpa building
An impressive building in the Nordic architectural style, with huge glass walls and asymmetric windows. The building’s façade reflects the light of sunrise, sunset or simply street light, therefore getting a different nuance of color at different times of the day. I found it impressive also inside. I really liked the multitude of windows that allow an unhindered view of the mountains and ocean. I had the impression of looking through a magnified spider web :).
The building is the long awaited concert hall of Iceland, that took a couple of years to build but is now the iconic symbol of modern architecture and culture of Reykjavik. I would love to attend a concert in Harpa: one more thing to add to my to-do list :).
Perlan is another famous building in Reykjavik. It is definitely worth visiting, if not for the restaurant, the shops and the garden, at least for the panoramic view over the city. It is an interesting structure that was built to combine utility with beauty. It is formed of 6 hot water storage tanks connected by a dome made of glass and steel. The geothermal water that circulates through the dome keeps a comfortable temperature in the building around the year. At nighttime, there is a beacon light at the top of the dome similar to that of a lighthouse that can be seen from most parts of the city.
Swimming in geothermal waters
Iceland is known for its geothermal springs and is an ideal place to swim outside in the winter. The most famous such place is of course The Blue Lagoon but there are many public centers that have outdoor pools with geothermal water. I’ve tried The Blue Lagoon but also Laugardalslaug. Both of them were relaxing but I think the difference in price comes from the fact that The Blue Lagoon is surrounded by breathtaking landscapes with beautiful blue waters in the middle of black lava fields covered in snow. Laugardalslaug is more or less a typical public swimming pool.
Reykjavik’s city center and the Laugavegur shopping street
Any tourist in Reykjavik has certainly been on Laugavegur a couple of times. Packed with shops, galleries, cafés, bars and restaurants, the street is always crowded. It is the epicenter of Reykjavik and the main attraction of this small capital. The nearby streets with old, charming, colorful houses, shops and cafes are also a pleasure to explore.
By following one of the side streets, you can arrive at the Hallgrímskirkja, a church with an original shape that resembles a volcano, with a tower overlooking the entire city and its surroundings.
Another interesting place in Reykjavik is the City Hall. There, you will find a tourist information desk and also a café. The building is on the shore of Lake Tjornin, a lake preferred by nature lovers who come here to feed the multitude of birds and to enjoy the beautiful surroundings. I have never seen so many birds in a public place!
Although small for a capital city, Reykjavik has a lot to offer. For my next visit, I hope to make time to stop by the National Museum and discover more about the Viking heritage. There is also the Reykjavik Art Museum which exhibits works of Johannes Kjarval and also contemporary Icelandic and foreign art.
In Reykjavik I found my favorite sculpture in Northern Europe: the Sun Voyager, which looks simply beautiful at sunset. The steel boat represents hope, progress and freedom. According to the sculptor, the Sun ship symbolizes the promise of new, undiscovered territory.
Up until my visit, Reykjavik was an unexplored place the name of which I couldn’t even pronounce. Now, I cannot wait to go there again, next time during the long summer days when I’ll be able to enjoy the same breathtaking sceneries in friendlier weather.