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Brr-Reykjavik – Iceland’s chilly capital is cool in more ways than one. The air is rarefied up here in the most northerly capital in the world, bringing with it a sense of serene yet powerful energy and plenty of grace and space. It’s bijou by international standards (with around 135,000 residents in the city proper and 235,000 in the region) but huge compared to other settlements in Iceland.
The port area is a magnet for culture vultures and revelers alike, with trendy clubs, welcoming bars, charming cafes and fascinating museums and galleries. This is a very creative and cosmopolitan city, with a world-class design scene, lots of eye-popping street art, and locals who are bright and friendly. And naturally, you’re only a step away from the Great Outdoors – and there are few places it’s greater than in this part of the world. From snowy mountain peaks to tumultuous seas and volcanic hot springs to kaleidoscopic Northern Lights, Reykjavik and its surroundings are spectacular and truly unique. With so much to explore in the city, its environs, and the rest of Iceland, renting a car in Reykjavik is the best way to see the country at your own pace, in your own controlled space.
Guide of Reykjavík
Reykjavik is no slouch when it comes to culture. There are over 60 museums here, several exhibitions spaces and creative hubs, plus a plethora of galleries. And Icelandic cultural traditions are kept alive thanks to a packed cultural calendar that includes events like the Children’s Culture Festival, Literary Festival, Fringe Festival and Reykjavik Arts Festival – events which attract local and international contributors and visitors. Another popular activity is downloading the Reykjavik Art Walk app and learning about the city’s many sculptures and public artworks as you stroll around. This is also a UNESCO City of Literature and if you’re here during the festive season, locals pile into the city’s many bookshops to buy presents – in an event known as the Christmas Book Flood.
As you’ve gathered, Reykjavik’s big on nature and there are plenty of unique attractions to choose from. For starters, Nautholsvik beach on the south coast is a (literal) geothermal hotspot, where you can relax in pleasantly warm swimming areas, but the mineral-rich seawater of Blue Lagoon is even more famous. Meanwhile, wildlife fans can take an organized boat trip to spot Minke, Sperm, Blue and Humpback whales, as well as Orca (Killer) whales – taking a boat out at midnight in midsummer is particularly spectacular. The Northern Lights dance across the skies between September and April, and you’ll also find some of the world’s best scuba diving conditions.
Even such a reasonably small capital city has its alternative side. For instance, once of Iceland’s hidden gems is the Kramhusid multicultural dance-art studio in the city center, while the Bio Paradis art house cinema on Hverfisgata is a cool place to catch a cult classic screening. Alternatively, Gaukurinn is an old concert hall that hosts cabaret evenings and the Dubliner Irish pub hosts Paloma – an iconic technol club beloved of the city’s ravers. For something really different, check out the sweat lodge in Kjosin – a specially constructed mud igloo where local shamen recreate their version of the sacred Native American soul-cleansing ceremony. Don’t leave without checking out Improv Island though – it hosts completely improvised, hour-long productions from talented actors, in which audience participation is actively encouraged. A night out to remember.
Things To Do in Reykjavík
Big nights out
New York might be the city that never sleeps, but Reykjavik has a hard-earned reputation for serious partying into the wee small hours – whether that’s during summer’s perpetual daylight or in the dusky depths of winter. The city’s party scene is referred to as ‘Djammid’ (Jam) and its lifeblood is Reykjavik’s brilliant bars, cafes, clubs, and underground drinking dens. Top hangout spots include BrewDog Reykjavik, The Student Cellar, Jungle Cocktail Bar and American Bar. Lebowski Bar is another nice place to while away and hour or two – inspired by the Coen brothers’ cult 1998 movie, its retro Americana stylings, eclectic drinks selection, daily happy hour, DJs after 9pm and live big screen sports pull in hordes of locals and tourists alike.
Fun for kids
The folks in charge of Reykjavik make various efforts to accommodate families with kids – for example, children under 12 travel for free on city buses and there are a host of indoor activities for days when it rains. One popular spot is the city’s small zoo, which has a room packed with spiders and snakes, a pool where seals splash around and an Arctic fox enclosure. There’s also a family park nearby with an expansive wooden playground. For something a bit different, take your youngsters to Perlan (on top of Reykjavik’s geothermal water tanks) to experience a huge artificial ice cave that’s 100m long and constructed from 350 tons of snow.
As you might know if you’re a sports fan, Iceland has done rather well in international sports in recent years – particularly soccer. If the European version of football floats your boat, check out upcoming fixtures for the Icelandic national soccer team at Laugardalsvollur Stadium. But there are several other spectator sports to choose from, including an unusual form of traditional wrestling known as glima, which traces its roots back to the Viking era. Another extremely popular sport here is handball and if you’d like to see it live, the season runs from September to April in various venues. Alternatively, if you want physical activities to take part in rather than just watch, try salmon or trout fishing, hiking, horse riding, downhill skiing and snowboarding, and whitewater rafting.
Eating Out in Reykjavík
Yearning for fast food in Reykjavik? You might not see all the iconic brands you’re used to, but you might discover something even better. The burger scene is strong, with local restaurants Bullan and BioBorgari serving delicious beef patties with fresh local ingredients. Alternatively, The Deli serves fantastic pizza and Mediterranean fare, Noodle Station specializes in Ramen-style noodle soup and Hlolli is an Icelandic sandwich shop chain that’s very popular. You will find some global fast food legends too – like Subway, KFC, Dominos and Taco Bell.
If you’re tempted by traditional Icelandic food, there are plenty of places to satisfy your curiosity. For starters, Old Iceland Restaurant serves authentic meat and fish dishes with seasonal vegetables and wild herbs and Café Loki is a fab family-run restaurant that’s a popular breakfast spot and serves traditional pancakes, rye ice cream and even fermented shark (if you dare). Alternatively, Dill is a magnificent Michelin-starred restaurant serving Nordic treats like goats cheese, fish stew, meatballs, and reindeer tartar. Book ahead of time as this is regarded as the best culinary experience in the city.
Global food fans don’t need to despair if they’re looking for tastes from home or just something a little less niche than some of the local establishments provide. For example, Snaps Bistro Bar is a brilliant brunch spot for avocado toast, eggs Benedict, and artisan coffee. Alternatively, Skolabru serves ocean-fresh seafood and international dishes with an Icelandic twist – in calm, elegant surroundings. Another option is GOTT, a family-owned establishment that specializes in fresh local ingredients and serves everything from homemade bread to locally sourced fish. For a delicious destination that suits varied tastes, try BLIK Bistro & grill, a stylish but welcoming restaurant that serves a mean steak grilled perfectly to your preference, gourmet hamburgers and light snacks – with scenic ocean views. Finally, if you’re inspired by Italian, pop into La Primavera Ristorante, which specializes in rustic regional Italian dishes packed with flavor.
The main international airport for the city is Keflavik (KEF), also known as Reykjavik/Keflavik. Reykjavik Airport (RKV) is closer to the capital, but this is a domestic air hub. If you want to rent a car at Keflavik (or anywhere else in Iceland) it’s easy with Enjoy Travel.
Public transport in Reykjavik is covered by the local bus service (Straeto) – you’ll recognize their distinctive yellow branding. Buying a Reykjavik City Card lets you travel across the network for 24 hours.
Remember to drive on the right side of the road in Iceland and overtake on the left. Speed limits are 30-50km/h in urban areas, 80km/h on gravel roads in rural areas and 90km/h for paved roads.
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