Helicopters and volcanoes, hot springs and quirky events, food to die for and hotels with serious style, Sasha Arms discovers some of Iceland’s best offerings.
Many people liken arriving in Iceland to landing on the moon. This is because of the lava fields – increasingly covered in snow the further you travel away from Reykjavik’s Keflavik International Airport, stretching for as far as the eye can see. While this and the few signs of human life in general give a middle-of-nowhere-possibly-like-the-moon kind of feeling, I doubt very much the moon has toasty coaches with free Wi-Fi (a nice touch from Reykjavik Excursions) to take you to your hotel from your equally comfy Icelandair flight.
For a city, Reykjavik is small. The city’s backdrop is snow-laden volcanoes in the distance. And everywhere you go there is a prevalent sense of Nordic-hipster-cool, embodied as much by the young trendy Icelanders in the street as the restaurants, cafés, shops and hotels with carefully crafted interior design.
Things to do
Iceland’s sparse, bounteous landscape and truly unique geographical features mean there are plenty of outdoor pursuits on offer, and Reykjavik is the ideal base from which to partake in them.
The highlight of our trip was most definitely the helicopter journey we took with Nordurflug. The fact it was our inaugural helicopter flight was exciting enough, but the bird’s eye view you get of Iceland from the skies is quite simply unmatchable anywhere else in the world. We swooped past volcanoes, over craters and past mud pools boiling furiously away. We flew over geothermal power stations, busy extracting the endless energy from the volcanoes and converting it into the country’s power source. We took in the pristine icy landscape in the distance, and even saw the sights of Reykjavik from the sky. Our pilot Gudjon insisted on landing on a volcano for a while and we stomped through the snow – truly in the middle of nowhere – to breathe in plumes of warm sulphurous air spilling out of the volcano, survey the thrilling scenery, and heat our hands in a stream of geo-thermally heated water.
Whale watching is another popular day trip for visitors. There is a high likelihood of spotting whales and the whale watching boats depart right from the city in Reykjavik’s Old Harbour. We had been hoping to go on a Special Tours’ trip, but unfortunately the sea was too rough on the day we wanted to go and all the whale watching trips were cancelled.
The Northern Lights:
Northern Lights bus tours are a popular evening trip for visitors and Reykjavik Excursions runs one of the biggest Northern Lights operations. Coach loads of us departed, each with a tour guide intent on taking us to an exceptional Northern Lights spotting location somewhere outside the city. We were lucky – within twenty minutes of driving a white streak in the sky was spotted and proclaimed to be the Northern Lights. Many visitors on the bus hadn’t got the memo that the Northern Lights can look white to the naked eye, and it’s often, in fact, a decent camera and photo-taking technique that makes it look all mystical and green. But it felt good to return victorious – there’s never a guarantee the elusive Northern Lights will come out to play.
Geo-thermal Pools and Spas:
The Blue Lagoon – comprised of naturally occurring outdoor geo-thermally heated pools – is another popular visit for tourists. However, if you haven’t got time to get out of the city for this, Reykjavik has a few good spas for you to get some relaxation time in. Laugar Spa is one of them. A huge complex on the outskirts of the city, it seems a popular hangout for Reykjavik’s hipster gym buffs. We headed straight for the spa and took advantage of the multiple steam rooms, saunas and Jacuzzis. The fire room was our favourite, and we reclined in loungers surrounding a blazing fire in the centre of the room for some time. Before we left, we thought we’d indulge in a massage. An hour later, we emerged having been thoroughly pressed and pummelled, and apparently with brand new bodies. They must have known what they were doing to be able to make the stresses and strains of our London lives disappear.
Reykjavik’s not all outdoor adventures and spas though; the city is also home to the random Icelandic Phallalogical Museum, the Aurora Reykjavik Museum (in case you miss the Northern Lights for real) and the architecturally impressive Harpa Concert Hall. Typically, there are plenty of alternative events going on too, you just have to ask around to find out about them. While we were there, we watched the Olympic Weightlifting heats of the Reykjavik International Games, and looked in on a party-cum-alternative-games-event, where pillow fighting and tug of wars formed the evening’s entertainment.
What to eat
Reykjavik is most certainly one of the hottest new contenders on the world’s foodie scene. While Icelanders still love their hot dogs and ice cream (whatever the weather), fine dining restaurants with talented chefs at the helm have emerged across the city - all of them embracing the idea of bringing world class culinary techniques to locally sourced food.
Grillmarket is found in a quasi-art-studio interior decked out with walls made of multiple woods, peppered with a section of green moss here and there. Each dish has a lot going on, but the ingenuity behind each creation is doubtless. We were quickly sold on the quality of the food when the sultana-pocked bread with butter and volcanic salt was served, not to mention the sweet duck salad with coriander dressing, the beef Carpaccio with chilli jam, pesto and almonds, and fresh-from-the-sea grilled salmon.
Vid Tjornina is one of Reykjavik’s oldest family run restaurants and has relocated to new premises in the City Hall – a visit to this Iceland institution should be on the cards for any visitor spending a few days in Reykjavik.
Fish Company is the place to go for high-end fish dishes. Their FISHSOUP with langoustine, coconut jelly and Icelandic seaweed is the best kept secret in the city, while the sushi is melt-in-the-mouth: we tried the tempura lobster ‘FC Maki’ served with lemongrass, anis and red chilli.
The nearby Fishmarket is another Reykjavik institution for Asian inspired fish dishes, and the nine course tasting menu with matched drinks is the way to truly indulge. Rock shrimp tempura, slightly cured minke whale with pureed turnip, mixed sushi with sake, grilled cod, salmon, lamb and goose…indulgence it surely was.
Those who prefer more of a party vibe and who are keen to try local staples will enjoy Tapas Bar and its Icelandic Gourmet Feast menu. The introductory shot of Brennivin (also known as ‘Black Death’) set the scene for our evening. We went on to sample smoked puffin (a bit like game and surprisingly tender) with blueberry sauce, Icelandic sea trout, lobster tails, blue ling, grilled Icelandic lamb and minke whale with cranberry and malt sauce. The Spanish tapas – ideal for the slightly less adventurous – is spot on too.
Finally, by far the most unusual meal to be had in Reykjavik is at DILL restaurant, located a bit of a trek from the city centre inside the pristine Nordic House. The culinary prowess of Chef Gunnar Karl Gíslason is apparent in every detail. Home-made crisps made from sprout leaves hang from branches of the table’s centrepiece, while the sourdough malt bread is served with salt extracted from seawater by geothermal power. Each evening plays host to a new tasting menu, and it’s hard not to savour every moment.
Where to stay
There is no shortage of accommodation in Reykjavik, and each option has its own distinct style. 101 Hotel is the embodiment of that cool Nordic style, all mirrors, glass and minimalist design, with open plan rooms and bathrooms. The Bose iPod dock is a handy touch and helps you feel at home in these city crash pads.
The Radisson Blu Saga is on a much larger scale and is found a short walk from the city centre. The rooms come in standard Radisson designs, while the Nespresso coffee machine comes in handy before a night of Northern Lights hunting. Complete with all the amenities a traveler might need, from restaurants, bars and breakfast buffets, to gym facilities and a hairdresser, this is the hotel for those who prefer resort-style hotel stays.
Finally, Hotel Borg back in the city centre makes for a Reykjavik stay with a touch of understated glamour. A building filled with history, the hotel’s fairly recent renovation gives it an Art Deco style complete with all the mod cons. Plush beds, trendy Aliseo facial mirrors, sweeping staircases peppered with orchids, and cool globe lights outside each door makes it feel all at once stylish and homely.
Plan your trip to Iceland:
- Icelandair operates flights from 35 cities in 16 countries
- Reykjavik Excursions runs frequent coach transfers to and from the international airport, and various trips including to see the Northern Lights
- See the Visit Iceland website for more information
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Fly.com Expert Tips
How To Get There: Reykjavik Keflavik International Airport (KEF) is serviced by 15 domestic and international airlines, including Icelandiar, SAS and Delta Air Lines (summer only). It is approximately 32 miles to downtown Reykjavik. Visitors have several options to get to Reykjavik, including either the Airport Express or Flybus, which takes about 45 minutes to get downtown. The airport Information regarding area transportation is available here.
Best Time To Visit: If your goal, when visiting Iceland, is to see the Northern Lights, then the best time is between November and May, which is considered the off-season. Flights and hotels will be cheaper during this time period, but you’ll have fewer flight options, as well as shorter hours for museums and attractions. The shoulder season between April and early-June is a good time, before the rush of summer tourists and the flowers will be blooming. Daylight will be longer at this point, but prices are still cheaper than the peak summer months of late-June to August. Starting from June onwards, it doesn’t really get dark, as the sun will be above the horizon for most of the night. But this is when the tours and attractions are in full swing.
Sample Fares: Fares displayed are the lowest roundtrip fares found in the last 48 hours to Reykjavik from:
Boston — $569 Travel May 20 – 29
Los Angeles — $949 Travel May 19 – 25
New York City — $399May 15 – 16
Seattle — $735 Travel June 2 – 16
Washington, D.C. — $845 Travel May 29 – June 6
Flights to Reykjavik >>
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