Just Back From Iceland

From its cosmopolitan capital to its stunning natural scenery, must-see Iceland offers appealingly sharp contrasts.

Bird’s-eye view of Reykjavík from the top of the Hallgrímskirkja

Photo: Patrick Wall

It’s not late—it’s only about 8 p.m. or so—but already the Nordic night has set in, and the sky above Reykjavík, the capital of must-see Iceland, has turned pitch black save for patches of clouds painted iridescent emerald by city lights. A biting wind has whipped off the frigid harbor, and now it’s blowing down the narrow streets. Looking for a respite from the cold, my wife and I duck into a cozy café on a side street. As we unravel our jumble of hats and scarves and coats, I turn to my wife and chuckle.

“Whose bright idea was it to go to Iceland in February?”

It was mine, of course. Low off-season travel prices and a favorable exchange rate with the Icelandic krona made a chance to see the celestial ballet that is the northern lights too enticing to pass up despite the temperatures. So, yes, it’s often cold—Reykjavík’s average high hits about 36 degrees Fahrenheit, and then there are those crisp Arctic winds—but this dazzling Nordic treasure delights even when the mercury dips down near freezing.

Despite its population—only about 118,000 people live in Reykjavík, and only another 86,000 in the surrounding region—the capital doesn’t feel like a small town. During the day, Reykjavík buzzes with a palpable energy, and delights lurk around every corner. Laugavegur is the main shopping artery; it’s lined with fashionable shops purveying designer clothes, luxury goods and the famous Icelandic wool sweaters. The city’s smaller capillaries, like Skólavörðustígur, are lined with ice cream shops, small art galleries and record stores. (The quaint and cool 12 Tonar has a small listening room with turntables and headphones.) Art is everywhere in Reykjavík, whether in small galleries or state-run museums. The Reykjavík Art Museum–Hafnarhús is flush with daring contemporary art; an entire wing is dedicated to controversial Icelandic artist Erro. Reykjavík even has a surprising street art scene; many of its buildings—even some homes—are covered in dazzlingly intricate graffiti.

A good place to familiarize yourself with Reykjavík’s easily walkable city center is at the top of the Hallgrímskirkja which offers a must-see view of Iceland. An elevator takes you to the top of the church tower (for a small fee), from where you can get a bird’s-eye view of the city’s colorful rooftops and the glaciers that rest on the opposite side of the harbor. There are more direct routes to the Hallgrímskirkja, but a circuitous walk along the shore of the Tjörnin, the small, gem-like lake in the center of the city, is worth the extra minutes. A walk along the harbor, too, reveals architectural marvels, like the waterfront concert hall Harpa, which glistens like a jewel—especially at night, when its honeycomb-like façade is streaked with colors that recall the northern lights.

Like many other cosmopolitan European capitals, Reykjavík offers a wealth of fine restaurants that trade in fresh and locally sourced food, like the elegant Grillmarkadurinn (try the grilled redfish, which comes topped with a snow crab roll) and the Icelandic-Asian fusion restaurant Fish Market. While Iceland’s gastronomy scene is on the rise, adventurous palates will find treasures in the country’s native cuisine. The Icelandic Plate No. 2 at Café Loki offers a sampling of traditional foods: rye bread slices with mashed fish and smoked trout; a flat rye cake with smoked lamb; dried cod; and hákarl, fermented shark. (The waitress who served the plate advised us not to smell the bite-sized shark cubes before popping them in our mouths. It’s advice worth heeding: It’s a putrid smell that recalls paint thinner.) For dessert, it’s hard to beat a pancake filled with skyr—a delectable dairy treat that’s somewhere between yogurt and pudding—and topped with caramel and cream.

The pylsur—a must-try delicacy in Iceland

Photo: Patrick Wall

But the must-try delicacy is the pylsur, a hot dog that might just be the best hot dog in the world. The casing of the sausages—a delicious combination of pork, beef and lamb—gives a satisfying snap when you bite into it. It’s topped with three sauces—a stripe of tangy ketchup, a glob of mud-brown mustard that’s appealingly peanutty, and a mayonaisey remoulade that’s spiced with capers and gherkins—and both raw and fried onions. Get one at Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur, but expect to wait in line, especially at night when people are filing into and out of the bars.

Indeed, Reykjavík teems with lively nightlife. Quaint coffee bars turn into hopping speakeasies. Hostels play host to adventurous free jazz. On the weekends, revelers cut loose in the clubs and bars on Laugavegur during the runtur, a pub crawl that occurs in spite of—perhaps even in defiance of—the bitter cold. Coen Brothers fans should take time to find Lebowski Bar, a Big Lebowski-themed bar on Lauguvagur; if you have no frame of reference (or you want to keep away from the madding crowds), try one of the cozier bars, like Hotel Holt’s Gallery Bar or the chic cocktail bar Slippbarrin, where you can sample Iceland’s excellent craft beers and spirits.

Get outside of Reykjavík, though, and one enters a whole new world of must-see Iceland. It is a topographical marvel; Iceland’s craggy and desolate, the way you imagine the surface of the moon. Beautiful and unspoiled landscapes can be found just minutes outside the city center, but further exploration into Iceland’s sparsely inhabited center yields its greatest geologic treasures. A tour of the Golden Circle, a looping route into central Iceland and back, hits some of the country’s most stunning sites: the Geysir geothermal area, where the Strokkur geyser shoots bursts of water and steam into the crisp air; the massive, thundering Gullfoss waterfall; and the spartan but awesome Thingvellir National Park, where, if you stand in the right spot in a crevice, you can reach out and touch both the North American and Eurasian plates.

Geothermal baths and hot springs, too, dot Iceland’s landscape. A trip to hunt the northern lights is often paired with a stop at one—like Laugarvatn Fontana, a spa built on the geothermal springs under the lake Laugarvatn, is bedecked in luxurious hardwood and natural stones. Sitting in its outdoor mineral baths provides an invigorating experience. Your body is warm and toasty, but your head is exposed to the winter cold. Our after-spa northern lights viewing trip turned out to be a bust, unfortunately—cloud cover had scuttled our chance to see the aurora borealis.

All this means, of course, we have to go back, my wife and I. There are plenty more things to do in Iceland. There are lights to see, tiny Icelandic horses to ride, active volcanoes to climb and another side of the island to explore.

But mostly I just want to go back for another pylsur. Maybe in September, though.

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David Kallas, AAA Travel Counselor, Murray, Utah

I'm all about once-in-a-lifetime trips to destinations such as the Cook Islands, Australia or an African safari. I love to plan trips that my clients return from not regretting anything.

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