Sprawling Reykjavík, the nation's nerve center and government seat, is home to half the island's population. On a bay overlooked by proud Mt. Esja (pronounced eh-shyuh), with its ever-changing hues, Reykjavík presents a colorful sight, its concrete houses painted in light colors and topped by vibrant red, blue, and green roofs. In contrast to the almost treeless countryside, Reykjavík has many tall, native birches, rowans, and willows, as well as imported aspen, pines, and spruces. Reykjavík's name comes from the Icelandic words for smoke, reykur, and bay, vík. In AD 874, Norseman Ingólfur Arnarson saw Iceland rising out of the misty sea and came ashore at a bay eerily shrouded with plumes of steam from nearby hot springs. Today most of the houses in Reykjavík are heated by near-boiling water from the hot springs. Natural heating avoids air pollution; there's no smoke around. You may notice, however, that the hot water brings a slight sulfur smell to the bathroom. Prices are easily on a par with other major European cities. A practical option is to purchase a Reykjavík Tourist Card at the Tourist Information Center or at the Reykjavík Youth Hostel. This card permits unlimited bus usage and admission to any of the city's seven pools, the Family Park and Zoo, and city museums. The cards are valid for one (ISK 1,200), two (ISK 1,700), or three days (ISK 2,200), and they pay for themselves after three or four uses a day. Even lacking the Tourist Card, paying admission (ISK 500 or ISK 250 for seniors or handicapped) to one of the following city art museums gets you free same-day admission to the other two: Hafnarhús, Kjarvalsstaðir, or Ásmundarsafn. Any part of town can be reached by city bus, but take a walk around to get an idea of the present and past. The best way to see Reykjavík is on foot. Many of the interesting sights are in the city center, within easy walking distance of one another. In the Old Town, classic wooden buildings rub shoulders with modern timber and concrete structures.
The dining scene in Reykjavík has been diversifying: traditional Icelandic restaurants now face competition from restaurants serving Asian, Italian, Mexican, Indian, and vegetarian fare. A recent trend has seen the emergence of several upscale establishments emphasizing locally grown ingredients.
Facing the harbor in a parking lot, this tiny but famous fast-food hut is famous for serving the original Icelandic hot dog; one person serves about a thousand hot dogs a day from the window. Ask for AYN-ah-med-UTL-lou, which will get you "one with everything": mustard, tomato sauce, rémoulade (mayonnaise with finely chopped pickles), and chopped raw and fried onions.
A collaborative project by well-known culinary innovators Hrefna Rós Sætran (founder/owner of the Fish Market) and Guðlaugur P. Frímannsson, Grillmarkaðurinn emphasizes seasonal, organic, locally grown ingredients in a beautifully designed interior that's heavy on natural materials such as wood and stone. The menu is equally "earthy" featuring lots of smoked, grilled, and barbecued meat dishes. For something classic, try the grilled chicken wings or grilled pork ribs; for something more unique, order the Minke whale steak.
Lodgings range from modern, first-class Scandinavian-style hotels to inexpensive guesthouses and B&Bs offering basic amenities at relatively low prices. Iceland's climate makes air-conditioning unnecessary. Most hotel rooms have televisions, though not always cable TV. Lower-price hotels sometimes have a television lounge in lieu of TV in each room. Ask if your hotel offers complimentary admission tickets to the closest swimming pool.
Reykjavík has an active cultural life through most of the year, and is especially strong in music and the visual arts. The classical performing-arts scene tends to quiet down somewhat in summer, though a growing number of rock and jazz concerts as well as a new chamber music festival held in Harpa, called Reykjavík Midsummer Music, have been helping to fill in the lull. The Reykjavík Arts Festival is an annual event held in May. Past festivals have drawn Luciano Pavarotti and David Bowie, among other stars. Check out The Reykjavík Grapevine (www.grapevine.is) for up-to-date listings; it's biweekly in summer, monthly in winter.
The main shopping downtown is on and around Austurstræti, Aðalstræti, Hafnarstræti, Hverfisgata, Bankastræti, Laugavegur, and Skólavörðustígur.
The Handknitting Association of Iceland, Handprjónasambandið, has its own outlet, selling, of course, only hand-knit items of various kinds.
Anna María design
Founded in 1986, this workshop and store sells a variety of jewelry for both men and women, made from a variety of materials that encompass silver, gold, and Icelandic stones.
A place of worship has existed on this site since AD 1200. The small, charming church, built 1788–96, represents the state religion, Lutheranism. It was here that sovereignty and independence were first blessed and endorsed by the church. It's also where Iceland's national anthem, actually a hymn, was first sung in 1874. Since 1845, members and cabinet ministers of every Alþing parliament have gathered here for a service before the annual session. Among the treasured items inside is a baptismal font carved and donated by the famous 19th-century master sculptor Bertel Thorvaldsen, who was half Icelandic.
On top of Öskjuhlíð, the hill overlooking Reykjavík Airport, Perlan (the Pearl) was opened in 1991 as a monument to Iceland's invaluable geothermal water supplies. Among the indoor and outdoor spectacles are art exhibits, musical performances, markets, a permanent Viking history exhibit, and fountains that spurt water like geysers. Above the six vast tanks, which once held 24 million liters of hot water, the panoramic viewing platform offers telescopes and a cafeteria complete with ice-cream parlor. The crowning glory is a revolving restaurant under the glass dome; it's pricey, but the view is second to none.
Completed in 1986 after more than 40 years of
construction, the church is named for the 17th-century hymn writer Hallgrímur
Pétursson. It has a stylized concrete facade recalling both organ pipes and the
distinctive columnar basalt formations you can see around Iceland. You may luck
into hearing a performance or practice on the church's huge pipe organ. In front
of Hallgrímskirkja is a statue of Leifur Eiríksson, the Icelander who discovered
America 500 years before Columbus. (Leif's father was Eric the Red, who
discovered Greenland.) The statue, by American sculptor Alexander Calder, was
presented to Iceland by the United States in 1930 to mark the millennium of the
Viking treasures and artifacts, silver work, wood carvings, and some unusual whalebone carvings are on display here, as well as maritime objects, historical textiles, jewelry, and crafts. There is also a coffee shop.
At the Open-Air Municipal Museum, 19th- and 20th-century houses furnished in old-fashioned style display authentic household utensils and tools for cottage industries and farming. During the summer you can see demonstrations of farm activities and taste piping-hot lummur (chewy pancakes) cooked over an old farmhouse stove. To get to the museum, take Bus 12 or 19.
East Field is a peculiar name for a west-central square. The reason: it's just east of the presumed spot where first settler Ingólfur Arnarson built his farm, today near the corner of Aðalstræti.
Ásmundur Sveinsson Sculpture Museum
Some of Ásmundur Sveinsson's original sculptures, depicting ordinary working people, myths, and folktale episodes, are exhibited in the museum's gallery and studio and in the surrounding garden. It's on the southwest edge of Laugardalur Park, opposite the traffic circle at its entrance. Take Bus 15 or 17 from Hlemmur station (a 5-minute ride).
Also known as Hafnarhús, this former warehouse of the Port of Reykjavík now houses the city's art museum. The six galleries occupy two floors, and there's a courtyard and "multipurpose" space. The museum's permanent collection includes a large number of works donated by the contemporary Icelandic artist, Erró. There are also regular temporary exhibitions.
This natural pond by the City Hall attracts birds—and bird lovers—year-round and is also popular among ice-skaters in winter. Children love feeding bread to the many varieties of swans and ducks in the pond.
Víkin SjóminjasafniÐ í Reykjavík (Víkin Maritime Museum)
Housed in an old fish factory with great views of the harbor, the maritime museum features an exhibition on Icelandic fisheries, trading vessels, and displays a whole Costal Guard Vessel which can be explored.