Kevin and I recently returned from spending 10 days in Iceland – and what an incredible vacation. For most visitors, your first stop will be in Reykjavik, the country’s largest city (population just 120,000). While tiny compared to most major European cities, Reykjavik certainly packs a punch. Whether you’re doing a layover or starting your trip here, check out our top 5 picks on what you can’t miss.
5. Hit up Harpa, One of the World’s Most Spectacular Performing Arts Spaces
You’ll have a hard time missing Harpa, the massive honeycombed glass building right in downtown Reykjavik’s marina. Opened in May 2011, Harpa is known as the country’s top concert hall and conference space. But that’s not all you’ll find. On the first floor, there are some cute shops to explore (and earning major bonus points from me!).
If you have time, see the comedy show, “How to Become Icelandic in 60 Minutes.” Tickets start at $45 USD each. Sadly, I didn’t know about this show until our last day in Iceland (so we didn’t get to check it out). But heard rave reviews. It’s all in English (score!) and sheds light on what life is like for a typical Icelander. If you don’t feel like taking in a show, you can always join one of the guided walking tours and learn more about the building design (a good rainy day activity). Finally, the building has a top-rated (and pricey) Mediterranean restaurant called Kolabrautin. It’s on the top level with views over the marina. The restaurant has a set menu with a 3-course meal starting at $90 USD per person. If you’re looking to save a little cash, you can always grab a drink at the bar. Though this is Iceland, and you’ll soon discover that most alcoholic drinks will set you back around $18-$20 USD! No cheap dates here.
4. Take a Bite into an Icelandic Hot Dog
Hot dogs? Really? I know, it’s weird but hot dogs are one of Iceland’s top foods. I had my doubts. After all, I’m really not into hot dogs — a food that I can always remember my parents describing as “everything but the oink.” But I’m willing to give anything a try once. All over Iceland you’ll find hot dog stands oftentimes with long lines. The most famous stand is Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur (ergh, good luck pronouncing that!) and apparently translates into “the best hot dog in town.” Or at least that’s what they told us, so who knows. Before Bill Clinton went vegan, he stopped here on a trip to Iceland and helped contribute to its fame.
And the verdict? It was really tasty, especially the toppings that included thick mustard, fried onion and mayonnaise. Just don’t look at that calorie count.
3. Lounging on a Couch at One of Icelandic’s Comfy Coffee Shops
Kevin and I have a theory — the colder the place, the better the coffee shops. Iceland only cemented this theory for us. For a place that gets downright cold (even in May when we visited), they know how to make a space where you want to hole up, read a book and down hot beverages. Our favorite of all was Stofan Cafe – located inside one of the city’s oldest houses, built in 1842.
Downtown Reykjavik is compact and very walkable. In less than an hour, I explored it by foot and visited about a dozen other cafes. Other great coffee shops include the cozy spots of Cafe Babalu and C is For Cookie, Sandholt (which is more of a bakery, but definitely worth it) and local chain Te & Kaffi. At night, many of these places will turn into bars serving a variety of cocktails, wines and beer. What won’t you find? Starbucks and McDonalds. So far, they’ve yet to break into the market. Though, we did see two Dunkin Donut shops, which we joked would be how I’d convince my dad to come to Iceland!
2. Plunge into the Blue Lagoon (or one of the Many Other Hot Pools for Locals)
As mentioned, Iceland is pretty darn cold. We visited in May — heading into their summertime period — and the temperatures dropped below 30 degrees Fahrenheit, brrrr! No wonder Icelanders love hot springs. It’s a painful process leaving the locker room (where you’ll be required to shower off first) then walking to the hot springs. The walk in typically just 20-30 seconds. But boy, it is not pleasant!
I have to admit, I wasn’t sure that I’d actually enjoy the Blue Lagoon. Kevin and I try to avoid the heavily marketed (i.e. overly tourist hot spots). So many times these places are hyped up and leave us disappointed. Though, there are a few exceptions (like the Taj Mahal, Grand Canyon or Tokyo’s famed Tsukiji fish market). The Blue Lagoon is another place to add to our list. It’s not just a hot pool, but a full cultural experience. If going during the height of the season, our top recommendation is to make a booking in advance (reservations can be made here). There would be nothing worse than to travel all this way and only discover that the place is sold out.
You’ll get a window of time to arrive, so try to figure out when it’s best for you to go. Some guide books say right when you arrive (since it’s located near the airport). However, we recommend doing this at the end of your trip so you can really enjoy it (and not fall asleep from all your jet lag!). There are many packages you can pick, but we recommend going with the “Comfort” package at $74 USD per person. It includes a towel, 2 different masks (where you’ll look like a sea creature) and a bracelet that will get you a drink of your choice at the bar. It’s bliss! Just remember, it’s a HAUL from downtown Reykjavik. We had a rental car, and drove here at the end of our trip. But if you aren’t sure of your plans just yet, here is a really helpful local blog with transport options.
If you’re looking more for a local experience, we loved the hot pools at Laugar Spa. We came here on our first night (and it’s SOOO much closer than Blue Lagoon to downtown Reykjavik. In fact, we walked there in 30 minutes!). First off, it’s like a James Bond movie, where they use eye retina scanning as your access to the spa. Just stare at the mirror targets at each door and it will unlock. Well, unless you’re Kevin who couldn’t quite master this (so I served as his gatekeeper the entire time we were there!).
If you’re looking to get a workout in, this is your place. Though we were too exhausted and headed straight for the spa.
But the best part of this spa? The hot water slide – where I screamed like a little girl! No shame.
The entry cost varies here, but is pretty cheap if you just buy a pass to the gym and outdoor pool ($21 USD per person). We bought entry to the pool and the actual spa ($55 USD per person). The pricier option includes a more private changing room and access to the subterranean hot tubs, steam rooms and saunas. Though, the outdoor pool is by far the best part of this spa complex.
1. Take a Class on Icelandic Culture at the Tin Can Factory
Finally, our favorite activity we did in all of Reykjavik (and actually all of Iceland) was the “Meet the Natives” course at the Tin Can Factory. Run by husband and wife, Egill and Gigja, this is by far the best intro you’ll get to Iceland. We started our trip here — and kept referring back to it throughout our 10-day vacation. They offer both daytime and evening classes every day. We opted for the evening class, which began at 6 PM (and technically was supposed to end at 9 PM, but we kept on going because we were having so much fun!).
A lot is covered during the class. Your intro to Iceland will include a comprehensive history lesson on the early Viking settlers, the origin of the Sagas and the Icelanders‘ struggle for independence. But most mind-blowing? Icelanders do not have last names as most of the world understands them. This also means that the telephone directory is alphabetized by first name rather than the last! Secondly, they don’t take up the spouse’s last name upon marriage. And when naming a child, they have to stick to a limited list of names (from an official register of approved Icelandic given names).
After (barely) following the name system, we moved onto Icelandic pronunciation. You’ll soon realize that many Icelandic towns and sites seem to have too many consonants to pronounce. When traveling on the ring road, we’d hear people describe a site as “that peninsula that starts with Sna” when referring to the Snæfellsnes peninsula in the west of Iceland. By the end of class, we could confidently say Icelandic words like Eyjafjallajökull, one of the active volcanoes on the island. Kevin really picked up on the language quickly. It started to snow outside and think I was a little distracted!
Finally, to wrap up the class, we moved onto my favorite part — the eating part! We learned about Icelandic dishes, sampling lamb soup, lamb head (and I mean we ate nearly every part of that head!) and sampled several Icelandic beers.
If we weren’t full yet (we were!), the next part of class focussed on making a traditional dessert – pancakes stuffed with cream and jam. This was a blast. Even when I totally screwed up my pancake, Egill and Gigja humored me and said every pancake turns out perfect in the end since it’s folded. Even if Kevin couldn’t stop laughing at how bad it looked!
We still think fondly back on the night – and it’s quite a deal since you will eat plenty of food and have pretty much endless drinks. Sign up early directly on their website. They keep classes small — in fact, it was just me and Kevin for our culture class.
Oh and if you want to see me royally screw up making my pancake, check out the video clip below. Enjoy!