Reykjavík and Iceland’s southern shore is a dramatic treat, offering stunning glacial scenery, volcanic landscapes and plenty of foodie spots to keep you busy
By Cheryl Caira
Reykjavík on high
With a design influenced by Iceland’s lava-sculpted terrain, Hallgrímskirkja has the best views of the capital’s cityscape from the top of the tower in the 244ft structure. Take a few minutes inside the church to look at the imposing pipe organ, built by renowned instrument maker Johannes Klais.
One of the USA’s former presidents famously visited Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur, the harbourside hotdog stand that has been serving up juicy rolls and piping hot sausage since 1937. Hotdogs are a cherished national dish in Iceland, made up mostly from Icelandic lamb, and topped with onions, ketchup, mustard and remoulade – mayonnaise mixed with gherkins and capers.
Reykjavík eatery Forréttabarinn (the Icelandic word for ‘starters’) has a relaxed, effortlessly hip feel to it – like many of the city’s venues – with a buzz that makes it a top choice at the weekend. Choose from tasty tapas options that include sautéed cod & smoked onion jam, tangy langoustines soup and smoked duck breast on a beetroot & date salad.
The centre of Reykjavík is a compact area to stroll round if retail therapy is on the cards, and the Laugavegur has lots of enticing, smart boutiques selling indy design pieces and more traditional wares. Kiosk is a superb designers’ cooperative to shop in for Icelandic labels, while the quirky Lopapeysa jumpers, made from Icelandic wool, are the country’s trademark clothing piece. The well-known Kolaportið Flea Market, held in the old harbour area at the weekend, is a great place to browse vintage clothing, woolen goods and Icelandic delicacies including liquorice and ‘kleinur’ pastries.
Fish and chips
Organic bistro Icelandic Fish and Chips offers a selection of whatever’s good on the day, whether blue ling, cod, wolf fish or haddock, and diners can choose from sides such as garlic-rosemary potatoes, greek salad and the all-important ‘skyronnaise’ dips – coriander and lime, truffle and tarragon and classic tartar are just some of the options.
Food with a view
Kolabrautin, on the fourth floor of Iceland’s attractively futuristic Harpa concert hall, is ideal for that pretty unbeatable combination of fine dining and view gazing. The restaurant looks out over Reykjavík’s Old Harbour and has a menu that fuses Mediterranean influences and Icelandic ingredients to delicious effect, along with an extensive wine and cocktail list.
Ordering drinks in Iceland’s capital city can be a legendarily exorbitant experience, so downloading Reykjavík Grapevine’s ‘Appy Hour’ app can be a helpful nudge in the right direction for slightly less expensive wine and beer sampling. The discounted imbibing periods run all night at intervals in most bars around the city.
For one of the best versions of the creamy cocktail you’ll ever taste, head to Lebowski Bar on Laugavegur, the city’s main thoroughfare – a laid-back mix of wooden-fronted shops, eclectic bars and restaurants, although the mellow vibe takes a back seat when the ‘rúntur’, which sees weekend partiers make their way round town, is in full swing.
Wine and laundry
Decorated with maps of the world and offering cosy red booths and a lot of reading material, along with Yatzy, backgammon, chess or cards, the Laundromat Café is a relaxed establishment with a varied menu of coffee, cake, salads and sandwiches as well as a decent range of wine and beer. You can actually do your laundry downstairs, as proven by the rumbling machines at work throughout the day.
Lead singer of Blur, Damon Albarn, once part-owned Kaffibarinn and was a regular there during the Britpop era. A cosy hideaway of a bar with candles atop the tables, the venue is popular with locals and tourists – look for the London Underground sign.
One of the most popular day trips from the capital, touring the Golden Circle means you can peer at the immense Gullfoss waterfall – translated as the “Golden Falls” because of the hue of the water when the sunlight hits – and also the Geysir hot springs, a thermal wonder formed at the end of the ice age. Waiting for the geysers to spurt high up into the air is brilliant fun. The tour ends at Þingvellir National Park, the site of Iceland’s oldest parliament, built into the craggy rocks, and an interesting area to explore. The visibly deep cracks traversing the park are a result of the drift between the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates.
The Blue Lagoon
Once you’ve traversed the 10-second long, freezing cold journey to the lagoon’s edge, you’re in for an idyllic dip. Located in a lava field filled with geothermal, naturally heated water, the spa is a superb place to while away several hours sipping on champagne from the lagoon’s bar (you don’t even have to leave the water) or enjoying a mineral-enriched facial or soothing silica mud massage.
Often an elusive phenomenon (depending on your luck with cloud cover), but if the green flash of the aurora does present itself, it’s something pretty magical. The key is to venture away from the city lights: you can take a boat ride from Reykjavík’s harbour and chance your luck at sea or a hop onto a coach or private jeep to try and chase them on the road.
Home to some of the country’s most spectacular natural scenery, it’s definitely worth taking the short trip from Reykjavík to the South Shore. Skógafoss waterfall, one of the stops on any South Shore tour, has a mystical, fantasy film quality to it, and at 25m wide with a drop of 60m is one of the country’s larger falls. You can hike in no time at all to the top of the waterfall and watch it from above. A highlight is being able to walk behind breathtaking Seljalandsfoss – hearing the water’s thunderous roar from the shelter of the rocks as it tumbles into the water below is completely mesmerising.
Take the opportunity to stand and behold the otherworldly Jökulsárlón lagoon and Breiðamerkurjökull, an outlet of Iceland’s largest glacier. The visit to Vik’s black volcanic beach, facing out onto the crashing waves of the Atlantic Ocean, is also starkly beautiful, with its towering basalt cliffs and spiky ‘troll rocks’ looming out at sea.