I saw Iceland for the first time in a friend’s photo: she and her rock-star girlfriend were luxuriating in a pearlescent hot spring surrounded by snowdrifts and billowing steam, explorers on a magnificent alien planet.
My husband and I finally explored those hot springs and snowdrifts for ourselves five years ago, and we promptly fell in love with them; we went back two years ago, and we’re planning to go again next winter. We try to play it cool by alternating trips to Iceland with trips to other countries, but the truth is that we daydream about moving there.
“Iceland” is a misnomer, and a deliberate one at that: the Vikings gave it a nasty-sounding name to trick other Scandinavians into steering clear of it and settling instead in “Greenland” (which actually is kind of a frozen hellscape). Iceland is green, gorgeous, and breezy in the summer, and temperatures in the spring and fall hover around what you’d expect in New York City, though the daily mini-seasons, when storms blow in and out and the temperature can yo-yo, are uniquely Icelandic. Roads and museums around the island are open throughout the peak season of June through August, and if you’ve got the funds for a crazy-expensive car rental, you can take a fantastic road trip; Iceland is just under 40,000 square miles total, or about the size of Kentucky. If you’re visiting between the late fall and early spring, Reykjavik is an excellent (and charming) home base.
Where to Stay
Skip tour packages — and the strong likelihood of getting stuck at a grotty hotel that’s next to the expressway on the edge of town — and make like Marlene Dietrich and the king of Denmark. Take a room at Reykjavik’s Hótel Borg, an elegant Art Deco confection in the heart of the city. The building itself is as gorgeous as it was when the hotel first opened in 1930, but the rooms are updated with touches of modern Scandinavian luxury — think soaring ceilings and plush, muted linens. While the Borg’s prices reflect those lovely details, particularly in the peak season, they dip steeply at the end of the summer and are downright reasonable from fall through spring.
If you aim to live as the locals do, put yourself in the capable hands of Jenny and Kata at Rent in Reykjavik, Airbnb’s scrappy Icelandic cousin. After our stay at the Borg during our first trip, we did just that, and found ourselves on a penthouse balcony overlooking the city. Hotel breakfasts add up fast, so it’s great to be able to keep a refrigerator full of skyr (a dense Icelandic yogurt equivalent that makes American and even Greek versions taste like something astronauts eat) and have a first cup of coffee while admiring the cathedral out the kitchen window.
Where to Eat
Unless you’re eating hákarl (the notoriously nasty fermented shark Icelanders inflict on tourists at the flea market) or whale, it’s difficult to have a bad meal in Reykjavik. Imports are so expensive that most food is local — and often organic, thanks to regional regulations. Even the nachos I ordered at a mysterious Mexican restaurant near the harbor were serviceable, though “tortilla chip” might have lost something in translation.
Icelandic Fish & Chips should be your first and last stop for seafood, salads, and potato wedges served with ten kinds of “skyronnaise.” The menu changes with the day’s catch (which comes from the harbor right across the street), but every offering is fresh and flawless.
If you’re in the mood for something more exotic, head to Austur-Indíafjelagid, a beautiful space which happens to house the northernmost Indian restaurant in the world. Austur has been a Reykavik institution for twenty years, and deservedly so; its constellations of Northern, Southern, and tandoori spices are utterly on point.
For a satisfying, budget-friendly lunch, grab a sinus-clearing bowl of Thai soup at Noodle Station, a casually excellent stop on the way up the hill to Hallgrímskirkja, the aforementioned cathedral out our kitchen window.
Wind up your culinary explorations with a pilgrimage to Dill, star chef Gunnar Gíslason’s sexy minimalist temple of slow food adjoining the Nordic House Cultural Center. Then bring a copy of Gíslason’s new cookbook home to taunt your foodie friends. Should’ve gone to Iceland, guys.
Sunset connoisseurs should bid farewell to the city with a meal at Kolabrautin, an Icelandic-Mediterranean restaurant on one of the top floors of Harpa, Reykjavik’s newly-built harborside concert hall. Sidle up to the bar (with its jaw-dropping view and massive pink neon sign announcing SCANDINAVIAN PAIN) and order a cocktail with Martin Miller’s Gin, which is distilled in the UK and shipped to Iceland to be combined with glacial water in nearby Borgarnes.
Culture and Nightlife (in Reykjavik)
Give your trip a soundtrack with an album or three from 12 Tónar, a listener-friendly (read: a comfy basement listening room, free tea and coffee) music shop down the road from Noodle House; I recommend a volume from the Hot Spring Collection, a series of Icelandic compilations assembled by DJ Margeir. Some of the tracks are in English, but many — most of my favorites, actually — are not.
Get up to speed on the visual art scene, in turn, at Reykjavik Art Museum (speaking of art, there is a crazy-looking sphere you might see on your way out of the airport: the Jet Nest, Magnús Tómasson’s depiction of a plane hatching from an egg).
For a glimpse of the largest private art collection in the country, make your way up to Gallery Bar at Hotel Holt, the perfect place to sink into a leather barrel chair and congratulate yourself for absorbing so much culture.
Speaking of hotel bars with surprisingly comprehensive collections, I also recommend Micro Bar, inside (but not affiliated with) the Center Hotel on the waterfront; it boasts the most extensive list of local microbrews in Iceland.
The classic Reykjavik bar, of course, is Kaffibarinn, made famous in the film 101 Reykjavik. I wanted to scorn it and its hipster reputation, but on our first visit there, my husband and I met a guy who insisted on driving us out to a sculpture garden in his beat-up hatchback, friended me on Facebook, and later won an Icelandic Oscar. On our second visit, we met the bar’s all-male choir. Bars in Iceland have choirs.
What to Do (Around the Island)
As Iceland is five hours ahead of the East Coast, overnight flights from the U.S. to Keflavik arrive just in time to book the first coach ticket to the Blue Lagoon en route to one’s lodging in Reykjavik. If you heed just one piece of advice in this essay, make it this one: Going directly from the airport to the most spectacular geothermal lagoon in the country is the best possible way to begin your stay in Iceland. Yes, everyone tells you to go there; in this case, everyone is right. Other outings beyond Reykjavik require a bit of advance planning, as the popular ones tend to fill up in advance. Aim for the middle ground between cattle-call bus tours and blisteringly expensive SuperJeep rides by booking a day trip in a van of no more than 12.
If you’re lucky, your driver will spot a herd of wild Icelandic horses and pull over to let you and your fellow travelers pet them as if they were Labradors.
A peak life experience, that.
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