If you’ve been to Iceland you’ll understand the singer Björk. Born and raised in Reykjavik, she epitomises this country’s quirky, eclectic energy. Visitors on holiday can get a brief glimpse of Iceland’s natural attractions and history by doing The Golden Circle, including Gulfoss (Golden Waterfall), the geothermal field of Haukadalur where Strokkur Geyser erupts very few minutes and the UNESCO World Heritage site, Þingvellir National Park where the original Parliament met. All this is can be done in a day trip from Reykjavik, Iceland’s historic and vibrant capital city.
In spite of a very changeable climate that Brits will feel at home in and those from warmer countries may find ‘challenging’, Reykjavik is one of the party capitals of Europe. Lively techno and hard rock bars vie with cool cafes and trendy eateries. But it’s the fascinating cultural scene, unusual architecture, every-changing seascapes and crisp, sparkling air that I loved. Standing on The Square one look at the unassuming, low level Alþing (Parliament House) tells you that this is a country that seems at ease with its identity and has no need to dominate. The white-walled Cathedral next door would not look out of place in a provincial town. And that’s the secret of Reykjavik’s appeal – it’s small, accessible and utterly charming.
The best way to explore the city is on foot. In a few hours you can see all the main sights ‘downtown’ – we had a guide but it’s not difficult to navigate. With the sea on one side and linear streets you can’t get too lost. In front of the Tourist Information Centre on little Faxaflói Square we were shown a rather strange looking sculpture of tall concrete stakes with steam coming from the running water. Apparently this represents the founding of the city when a Norwegian Viking settler farmed this land and called it Reykjavik aka ‘steamy/smoky bay‘.
At the nearby Landnamssyningin (Settlement Exhibition) I tried to imagine what ancient island life was like around 1000 AD from the remnants of a turf wall and some Viking objects. Can’t say I succeeded but worth a try! Much more appealing was the Kraum Centre for Icelandic Craft in House No 10 Adalstraeti, said to be the oldest wooden house in centre of the city. As you can imagine, these houses are prone to fire and decay being so near the sea so it is amazing that any have survived. There was an intriguing collection of pottery, jewellery, household utensils and clothes, all with a definite Icelandic twist in their creation and construction.
Shoppers are well catered for with a great mix of international names and very high quality local brands. In the city’s largest shopping centre, Kringlan (a few minutes’ drive from the heart of the city, you’ll find names like Karen Illen, Deisel, Next, Zara and Hugo Boss. One of the most well-known local names is 66°North, created in 1926 to provide outdoor clothing to protect the fishermen and labourers from the extremes of Arctic weather. Now uber-fashionable, their garments combine practicality and contemporary design. I got a very snug fleece that looks good and is very cosy on the Lake District fells in winter! If you have time, just go off the main streets to discover quirky little shops selling all manner of tempting goodies.
Laugavegur is the main shopping street. Woollen items are a favourite and the Hand-knitting Association of Iceland has a couple of shops in town. Or you could try a quirky chocolate volcano on an iced cake from a bespoke chocolatier …
Heading towards busy Hafn (harbour) we could smell the fishing boats before we saw them. Serious looking craft bedecked with industrial-strength nets were bobbing about near the ferries, a military vessel and other shipping that regularly sail around these chilly waters. There’s also a ferry taking day-trippers over to Viday Island, where we had dinner one memorable night.
Looming over it all like some enormous honeycomb is the Harpa Concert Hall and Conference Centre. Home to the Icelandic Symphony Orchestra, this state-of-the-art building was only completed in 2011. Music concerts, opera , art exhibitions and international conferences are held all year round and there are a couple of shops as well as an excellent restaurant. Eating a delicious lunch of fresh seafood and local dishes we had a breath-taking view of the harbour’s icy blue waters as the sun shimmered through the geometric windows.
This is a glimpse of a few of the highlights of Reykjavik’s attractions. Look out for the next article on the city’s Art Museum and Culture House, lovely Tjörnin (The Pond), a boat trip to Viðey Island, a privileged glimpse inside the Höfði House, where Gorbachov and Reagan met for the Reykjavik summit and a visit to the Presidential Palace to meet the outgoing Icelandic President.
Read about my experience of The Iceland Golden Circle here. It’s very quirky and special!