Northern Light: The unique charms of Reykjavik

Northern Light: The unique charms of Reykjavik
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The Northern Lights, seen from Iceland. (Shutterstock)
Northern Light: The unique charms of Reykjavik
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Godafoss Waterfall in Iceland. (Shutterstock)
Northern Light: The unique charms of Reykjavik
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Harpa Concert Hall in Reykjavik. (Shutterstock)
Updated 05 June 2019

Northern Light: The unique charms of Reykjavik

Northern Light: The unique charms of Reykjavik
  • The Icelandic capital is unlike anywhere else in Europe
  • The Golden Circle is the most popular tourist route, as it’s easily accessible in a day trip from the capital. The route takes in Thingvellir National Park, the Geysir Geothermal Area and Gullfoss waterfall.

DUBLIN: Reykjavík looks like no other European capital, but Iceland is like no other European country. It is of course, technically part of Scandinavia, but the country is very different from the likes of Sweden and Denmark. Its capital is beautiful, dotted with picture-postcard wooden houses and surrounded by some of the most spectacular countryside on the planet. It’s also filled with creative, quirky locals, and despite being no bigger than a town, has a whole host of culinary and artistic diversions.

The experience you have here will depend greatly on the time of the year you go. Travel in the winter months, and you will get almost total darkness, bitter cold and, of course, the glorious Northern Lights. Travel in the summer and you can expect only a few hours of darkness every night, as well as perfect weather for walking.

For a glimpse of Iceland’s prolificacy during the boom years, take a stroll to Harpa — the massive glass concert hall on the waterfront which opened in 2011. There are regular concerts held there, but it’s worth taking one of the daily guided tours, to hear the ill-fated history of the building as well as soak up some spectacular views. 

Although Iceland is starting to question the wisdom of unfettered tourism, Reykjavík is a very breathable city. Most of the buildings are wooden and no more than three stories high, which gives the place a frontier-town vibe. Its size means it’s perfect for walking, and one of the best routes is from the city center to Hallgrimskirkja, the iconic, spaceship-like church on the edge of town. The church is open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily; take the lift to the top (73 meters up) where spectacular views of the city and surrounding coast await.

Back in the city center, head to Laugavegur, Reykjavík’s main shopping street. Amid the overpriced tourist tat (any shop that sells stuffed toy puffins), there are some wonderful handmade goods on offer in Kirsuberjatred, on Vesturgata, including jewelry, baby footwear and sustainable bowls made of (yep) radish paper.

Although Iceland’s food culture hasn’t reached the heights of its Scandinavian neighbors further east, there is plenty to choose from in the city center; everything from hole-in-the-wall burger joints to tapas-style restaurants to high-concept Icelandic cuisine. We recommend Dill, the first Icelandic restaurant to receive a Michelin star, which focuses on New Nordic cuisine (try the dried puffin and trout).

It’s also worth getting the ferry to Videy Island, which only takes five minutes from the pier at Skarfabakki. The island is small, windswept and beautiful, and features an outdoor art gallery. Chief among the exhibits is the “Peace Tower,” created by Yoko Ono, which features the message “Imagine Peace” in 24 languages. Back on the mainland, take the waterfront path that heads northwest out of the city towards the iconic lighthouse on Grotta Island. The spectacular Esja mountain range looms across the bay, and provides a spectacular backdrop, as do the regular pieces of public art along the route.  

Iceland is rightly proud of how it has harnessed the geothermal energy that exists below its surface, allowing citizens to access free, unlimited hot water. You too can enjoy this natural bounty at Laugardalslaug, a series of rock pools in Laugardsalslaug Park at the eastern edge of the city. It features an Olympic-sized outdoor pool, waterslides and numerous hot tubs and steam baths.

If you want to go further afield — and you should — there are numerous day trips that give a glimpse of the country’s otherworldly scenery. The Golden Circle is the most popular tourist route, as it’s easily accessible in a day trip from the capital. The route takes in Thingvellir National Park, the Geysir Geothermal Area and Gullfoss waterfall.

Iceland is known for its spectacular terrain, and even the 45-minute journey to Keflavik airport passes through breathtaking volcanic landscapes. The Reykjanes field is dotted with mud pools, steam vents and hot springs. If you have time, stop at the Blue Lagoon on the way back to the airport. It’s relentlessly popular (1.5 million tourists per year) and not cheap ($40), but its huge geothermal pools are the perfect way to wind down before a long flight.