I fell madly in love with the urban landscape of Reykjavík on my stopover trip last September, and have tried to document the elements that caught my eye here. From rooftops made of colorful tin to medians strewn with volcanic rock, Reykjavík is a fascinating blend of Scandinavian heritage and frontiersman spirit, a vibrant cultural center that clings to the edge of natural wonder. For this trip, I mainly kept to the city, interested as I was in the art and design scene, but I did make time to reconnect with my childhood Icelandic Au Pair, Stella, and drive down the south coast aways with her (photos to come). Below, you will find my recommendations for things to see and do in the capital, should you be planning your own trip to Iceland. It is by no means an exhaustive list, just some of the places and things that I tried and enjoyed, and hope you will, too.
Above: Natural landscaping along the medians in the port of Reykjavík. Vibrant tin rooftops take full effect when viewed from the tower of Hallgrímskirkja. The museums and galleries in the capital were enough to keep me busy for days. Residential architecture takes a variety of forms, in a range of materials. Below: My favorite buildings in the city paired the practicality of painted corrugate siding with the whimsy of Scandinavian folk-style trim. Modern minimalism found its place within the capital, too.
Below: The impressive height of the Lutheran Hallgrímskirkja, the largest church in Iceland, took 45 years to achieve, and makes for an excellent vantage point across the city. The amorphous form of the church’s grounds, as appreciated from on high.
Above: The stairwell to the top of the tower. The architect of Hallgrímskirkja was said to have been inspired by basalt lava formations in the Icelandic landscape. Below: No-mow perennial grasses hug the rolling topography of the Sculpture Garden Einar Jónsson, providing a bit of softness in an otherwise lunar landscape. A curious apartment building in crenelated stucco.
Above and Below: A series of charming side yards and gardens, abundant in plant life after a long season of constant light. Life forms appear to be welcome additions to the cracks of city sidewalks, even a large cluster of mushrooms.
Below: Soft white buildings glow in the half-light so characteristic of Iceland.
Above: A home in Falun red, which was traditionally made from a linseed-oil based paint and used to seal buildings from wind and weather. It is an iconic color in Scandinavia, much like our New England barn red. Below: More yards, sidewalks, and city parks that embrace the vivacity of green growing things.
Mini Guide to Visiting Reykjavík
Independent People, by Halldór Laxness – Considered a gem in the canon of modern Icelandic fiction, which is saying a lot given that Iceland is fiercely proud of its literary heritage. Bjartur buys a remote sheep farm after two decades of indentured service to the local bailiff, and is determined to achieve total independence, whatever the cost. Read it before you go to get in the spirit.
Icelandic Art Manual – a free pocket guide that you can pick up in most museums in town, or read online (click above). Produced by the Icelandic Art Center each year, it provides details on museums, galleries, exhibitions and happenings country-wide.
Handpicked Iceland, by Gigi & Friends – a thoroughly vetted guide to the trendiest restaurants, shops, museums and more, no tourist traps allowed. Much of the information is available on their website for your planning purposes, although I adore my tiny, beautifully printed Handpicked Reykjavík that I bought once there.
A Giant Love Story, by Gudrun Helgadottir – One of Iceland’s most popular children’s stories. No matter your age, it’s worth delving into the magical, slightly dark mythology of the culture. Stella brought this with her when she came to Au Pair for us so many summers ago.
Loft Hostel – I paid 30 euros a night for a spot in a dorm room, which was well worth it: Loft is beautiful, clean, safe and conveniently located right in the center of town. It has a nice bar and open mic area in the main lounge, so a lot of locals come to hang out in the evenings. The staff were incredibly friendly and helpful, and best of all, I slept like the jet-lagged baby I was under a fluffy down duvet, an unexpected luxury while far from home.
Hallgrímskirkja – A great way to get your bearings on your first day, you can climb to the top of this massive church for a small fee and look out across the city. I wish I had been there in time to attend a church service or choir performance. It has a legendary pipe organ and apparently excellent music. Something for next time!
National Gallery of Iceland (aka Listasafn or Reykjavík Art Museum) – spread out across three locations in the city, the art of Iceland is a must see. I especially enjoyed the permanent collection of Erró’s work.
Above: Yasmina / Dürer’s Stepdaughter, a work by Erró in the permanent collection of the Listasafn. Interacting with a contemporary exhibit at the museum, and in a screening room for a documentary about Richard Serra’s installation, Áfangar.
Reykjavík Museum of Photography – Located on the top floor of the National Library, admission is free, and if you are able, take the stairwell up as it is lined with photos from the museum archive, offering a taste of Icelandic culture through its modern history. The gallery exhibits the work of contemporary photographers. I was utterly captivated by the self portraits of Agnieszka Sosnowska – the show is now down, but do go to her website for a moment of total peace and fascination.
Sculpture Garden Einar Jónsson – A nice quiet place to walk about, the mythological bronzes of Iceland’s first sculptor are displayed freely for the public to enjoy. Located right across the street from Hallgrímskirkja and the delicious Café Loki (see below).
Hólavallagarður Cemetery – My friend Sif brought me to this beautiful cemetery on the outskirts of the city, where we did a lovely, dark photoshoot inspired by the mysterious light, powerful mythology and humbling natural forces that pervaded my Icelandic experience.
Above: Sif in the Hólavallagarður cemetery. Larkspur growing wildly in a family plot. A modern take on the Icelandic wool sweater, designed by Edda Skúladóttir of Fluga, and sold at Skúma Skot. To see more from our photoshoot, head here.
Café Loki – Situated on the square overlooking Hallgrímskirkja, Café Loki is named for the Norse god and boasts a menu of traditional Icelandic fare. You must try their Plokkfiskur, in no uncertain terms. This is a traditional white fish and potato mash served on warm rye bread, and it is unbelievably comforting and delicious. Also give their house tea a try, its a blend of Icelandic birch, moss and arctic thyme.
Bakarí Sandholt – A charming bakery that has been run by the same family for almost a century, located right on the main drag in town. A perfect spot for some coffee, skyr (Icelandic yogurt), and a delicious pastry for a candlelit breakfast. (Seriously, they were rocking tall, taper candles when I was there at 9 am).
Tíu Dropar – Worth it, quite simply for the ambiance (see below). An eclectic café and jazz bar with a killer brunch menu.
Reykjavík is so manageable on foot that I don’t really feel the need to go into too much detail about shopping. The above mentioned guides are a great resource, and I’d also simply leave a few hours to explore town, popping your head into the places that peak your interest.
I will say, consider checking out the many vintage clothing shops in town, as well as some of the knitwear and home design stores. There’s definitely a strong Scandi-mod aesthetic to the home décor, so if that’s your jam, come prepared to want everything. I ended up purchasing a bright orange Umemi Icelandic wool knot pillow from the design gallery Kraum, and I liked the raven coat hanger that Stella had in her house so much that I bought one for my brother for Christmas (unlike most other cultures, the raven is a symbol of good luck in Iceland).
If you really go gaga for design, consider making a trip to the island in March for the weeklong festival HönnunarMars, or DesignMarch. And, for all you knitters out there, be sure to pick up some skeins of Icelandic wool, which is of a unique and very high quality, and take a peek at the plethora of knitwear design showcased in stores around the city. Wool has been a part of Icelandic culture and survival since it was settled in the 9th century: even today, every child learns to knit in school. In other words, you will be in heaven, and you should leave room in your luggage.
PS- I’m purposefully linking you to websites in Icelandic so that you can start to appreciate the beautiful script of the language! Don’t despair though, the English site link should be right there, easy to find.
PPS- To find out more about booking an Icelandair stopover, which is what I did on my way to Paris, visit icelandair.us.