Reykjavik, Iceland

Reykjavík city guide: Hot springs and hotter restaurants in Iceland’s capital

Where to go, what to see, and the restaurants that our local experts love: These are the best things to do in Reykjavík, Iceland

Iceland is Mother Nature’s dare: the terrain is inhospitable; power pumps from waterfalls; homes sit on smouldering volcanic rock; and spas are fashioned from hot springs. Even so, it’s easy to cut to the welcoming heart of its capital, Reykjavík, and surrounding area. But go now — more flights from more cities mean this wild island is about to get busy.

Things to do in Reykjavík

Reykjavík’s waterfront path is studded with sculpture. Explore it on a Wow Citybike. Register for a passcode at one of eight kiosks around town and roll from the forked-steel Sun Voyager sculpture to the Grótta Island Lighthouse, surrounded by a nature reserve and beach. Tether up at the new Whales of Iceland museum for full-scale models of the cetaceans that inhabit Iceland’s waters. There’s even whale music and subaquatic mood lighting.

The new faceted-glass Harpa music hall, designed by Olafur Elíasson, refracts the sun onto the seafront, bedazzling onlookers on its massive piazza. Concerts aren’t dirt cheap, but for half the price you can follow a guide to the fifth floor, where a mirrored ceiling produces a natural light spectacle. Take in magnificent views over hills and harbour from the padded seating on the wide open staircase around the perimeter of the building.

Iceland has more artists per capita than any other nation, and the eccentric video and performance art at the Reykjavík Art Museum freezes you in your tracks. The site, in an old harbour warehouse, recently showed Ragnar Kjartansson’s revolving stage, featuring a gold-sequinned guitarist strumming a melancholy E on a Fender Stratocaster.

Lutheran church HallgrimskirkjaShutterstock Images

Reykjavík’s answer to Oxford Street is somewhat underwhelming, but turn off it onto Skólavörðustígur, glimpse the jagged steeple of Hallgrímskirkja and you’ll get seismic shivers. At 73m, the fluted sanctuary is the tallest point in town. Steal across the white interior, climb to the belfry and peer down at a thousand corrugated-aluminium roofs in reds and blues.

Water shooting out of the earth, cascading down mountains, steaming from volcanic craters… The natural sights of the Golden Circle, 90 minutes from town, are stranger than fiction (and mostly free). Drive Route 36 to Oxarárfoss for the blustery hike to the Thingvellir waterfall. Up the road at Haukadalur, the boiling springwater Geysir rockets out of the earth every six minutes. Gullfoss Falls, meanwhile, roars down into the abyss.

Leave the city and you could be on the moon. Off the motorway lies a hostile prairie with earth as black as coal. An hour outside town, Sandvík beach  is all aquamarine waves and black sand. Bump down a dirt road to park, then clamber down the dunes into the sooty strand — on summer days it’s a heat trap. Across the highway, the wood-slat Bridge Between Continents takes you over the continental divide. On one side you’re on North America’s tectonic plate; on the other, Europe’s.

Back in the ’70s, workers from a geothermal power plant began bathing in its steamy source water and noticed their skin ailments miraculously disappear. Ever since, tourists have slathered on mud and drifted in the Blue Lagoon, a silica-rich hot spring, pooling amid volcanic stone. It’s crowded, but worth it, especially now that the pool has expanded to 8,700sq m. Book a week ahead for a convenient slot, swim up to the bar and… relax.

Blue pool at the Haukadalur geothermal areaShutterstock Images

5 of the best restaurants in Reykjavík

1. Bryggjan Kaffihús

You’ll have the best lobster bisque of your life on the terrace of this fishermen’s lunch spot. Or try the shrimp on Icelandic toast or smoked-herring salad.

Travel’s tip: Go after a dip in the nearby Blue Lagoon, rather than eating at its overpriced cafe. Miðgarður 2, Grindavík.

2. Icelandic Fish and Chips

You’ll be shocked how much better their batter is than ours — it’s an organic spelt-based crust that’s crisp, golden and candyfloss-light. Order the cod.

Travel’s tip: Explore the building, with its displays of volcanic rock, lava and ash from the Eyjafjallajökull volcano, which grounded flights for days in 2010. Tryggvagata 11.

3. ForrEtta barinn

It looks as casual as a pub yet tastes as haute as Michelin. Try the fried chicken layered with coleslaw, the beef carpaccio or the hot smoked salmon with rösti.

Travel’s tip: The plates are ‘small’ in name alone. Two per person is enough; the ‘grand appetisers’ are main-sized (ask for half portions for variety). Nýlendugata 14.

4. Messinn

Hearty seafood stews and almond-crusted arctic char arrive in iron pans with salads piled onto china. The wood-beamed dining room is grandma-chic.

Travel’s tip: In summer, book a window seat. The other tables are a bit dark. Laekjargata 6b.

5. HOfnin

The owner ushers you in like a jolly, old uncle. Try the pulled Icelandic lamb shoulder, reindeer fillet or catfish cheeks.

Travel’s tip: Tables on the upper floor are less busy and have views over the harbour. Geirsgata 7c.

3 of the best bars in Reykjavík

1. Slippbarinn

Bourbon and bitters were unheard of in Iceland before this old boat-painting factory got a makeover — and a menu of custom Negronis, Sours and Juleps. Snag a seat by the window and order the charcuterie.

Travel’s tip: Save £5 per cocktail by ordering during the 3pm-6pm happy hour. Mýrargata 2.

2. Micro Bar

It’s dead-centre in town, but stashed discreetly away.

Travel’s tip: The menu is huge and there are 14 microbrews on tap. Don’t spend £35 on the ‘tasting tray’ of 10 — just order the Gaeðingur stout or spicy Borg Leifur No. 32. Vesturgata 2.

3. Olstofan

It’s a quiet working-men’s bar and the house beer, Brió, is an icy thirst-quencher.

Travel’s tip: The odd smoker could ruin your beer. Come on a warm day when the open door creates a breeze. Vegamótastígur 4.

Northern lights seen over the glacier lagoon Jökulsárlón.
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