In the 10 years since I first visited Iceland the country’s popularity has exploded – it’s gone from hidden gem to hotspot, and a lot of that is thanks to the airlines. With a convenient position between Europe and North America and cheap flight deals, Reykjavik has become stopover central. You can already do a free stopover on Icelandair flights to the US, and next year Icelandic budget airline WOW are starting flights from my local airport in Bristol to Canada and the USA. So it looks like I might be back in Reykjavik again soon. Not that I need much of an excuse to spend more time in this cool Nordic capital. It has a great mix of small-town friendliness with quirky design, Viking history with contemporary architecture. Its small size means you can pack a lot into a day too – here’s how I spent my latest flying visit to Reykjavik.
Reykjavik’s not a high-rise city, but there’s one building towers that over the rest – the Hallgrímskirkja church. It’s 244 feet tall and built from white concrete. The unusual design was created by Icelandic state architect Guðjón Samúelsson in the 1940s. It was inspired by Iceland’s geology, with columns on each side based on the rock formations you get when volcanic lava cools. The design was controversial at the time and it took 38 years to complete, so Samúelsson never got to see it finished. The church is pretty minimalist on the inside, but you can climb up to the top of the tower for a great view out over the city’s colourful rooftops (the slightly claustrophobic lift up to the observation platform costs 800 ISK – approx £4).
Harpa Concert Hall
There’s more geological inspiration on show at Reykjavik’s new Harpa Concert Hall. Opened in 2011, it’s a dramatic new addition to the city’s waterfront since my previous visit. The building is made up of three-dimensional windows using the same hexagonal shape as Iceland’s basalt rocks. It sparkles with light reflected from the sea and sky by day and is lit up with colourful lights by night. The concert hall is home to the Icelandic Symphony Orchestra but even if you can’t get to a performance then there’s a bar, restaurant and gift shop you can visit, as well as a terrace with views out across the harbour and mountains.
Laundromat Café lunch
I think I would practically move into the Laundromat Café if I had one near me. It’s part of a small chain that started out in Copenhagen before opening a branch in Reykjavik in 2011. It mixes up slightly kitsch American diner-style decor with a few Nordic touches. There are maps covering the walls and the bar is lined with shelves of colour-coded books – what’s not to love? The food’s good too, with big brunches, local specialities like Skyr cake and Icelandic salmon, and homemade cakes. It’s a really cosy place where you can hide out on a wintery day and read the papers, buy a book or borrow a board game. There are prints of vintage launderettes on the walls and you can actually do your laundry downstairs too.
Street art and shopping
Icelanders are creative people and Reykjavik has a big focus on design. Most buildings are made of concrete so have become a blank canvas for street art. You’ll find it all around the city – from tiny hidden sketches to colourful murals covering the whole side of a building. The artists are usually commissioned or get permission from the property owner so it’s more art than graffiti. Reykjavik is a great place for shopping too, with not many chains and lots of unique boutiques selling local products. Some of the top gifts to take home are lopapeysa (cozy Icelandic woolen jumpers), lava rock jewellery and the amazing mustard you get on Icelandic hotdogs. Or check out Kraum and Kisan for cool clothing and homewares.
Sun Voyager sunset
Just along the waterfront from Harpa is the Sun Voyager – or Sólfar in Icelandic – statue. It was designed by sculptor Jón Gunnar Árnason as a dream boat, an ode to sun and light (though there’s a certain resemblance to a Viking longboat too). It’s made of stainless steel on a base of polished granite, and on a clear day you get a backdrop of Mount Esja across the bay. If you get there just before sunset then it makes a great silhouette against the changing colours of the sky – the perfect end to a day in Reykjavik.