Oh, Reykjavik. It’s hard to write about the 24 hours we spent in this charming city without becoming wistful, nostalgic even. It’s said there are certain spots on the planet that draw you in, capture you, and are far more majestic and thrilling than expected. This was Reykjavik.
Austin and I opted to tack a day in Reykjavik onto our first anniversary trip to Paris. IcelandAir has a travel incentive program through which you can enjoy an up-to-seven day layover in Iceland before or after a continental European destination, with no added charge. While a day in any city is hardly enough, it’s a start — to establish a superficial sense of place and determine whether we’ll one day return.
We landed at Keflavik International Airport (KEF) early-afternoon following a short hop (about three hours) from Charles de Gaulle (CDG). Stepping onto the tarmac, I was gulping breaths of the bracing and clean air.
Keflavik is a great airport. (Though, I’m writing this soon after returning from the supreme chaos that is Costa Rica’s San Jose International Airport (SJC), so perhaps its abject miserableness is inflating KEF’s good…) The airport has a minimalist and airy glass-and-wood aesthetic as you might expect of a Nordic country. Modern and efficient, it offered surprising clothing, beauty and food shops that were reflective of place versus your large international airport standards.
We opted to make the Blue Lagoon a stop on our way into Reykjavik to save precious commuting time, and I would strongly recommend this on a short stay, as the Lagoon is directly en route to or from the airport. We caught a pre-arranged FlyBus shuttle (they run every hour or so) and enjoyed a 30-minute ride to the storied Lagoon with plenty of time for a sunset dip.
Upon arrival, we stowed our luggage — I had packed our bathing suits and other necessities separately before leaving Paris — and quickly changed to maximize soak time.
You can choose from a range of packages, and be forewarned — the Lagoon will try to up-sell you a bells-and-whistles massage package. We opted to skip the frills and stick to essentials — admission and a towel — for a fraction of the cost, and were perfectly happy with our decision.
We were thrilled to be visiting the Lagoon off peak season. While fellow visitors were still aplenty, whole swathes of the massive baths were empty, offering a private experience for Austin and me to enjoy. The thermal pools are naturally heated by the geothermal pockets, making the temperature variable through the water — something for the tepid bath lover and heat seeker alike to enjoy. The contrast between the bracing, icy air mid-October and hot water was intoxicating.
Stations with silica mud are set up at a few spots in the Lagoon for guests to scoop up with a ladle and rub on. It’s worth it for the skin-healing properties, if not the photo op. I had read to coat my hair in plenty of the Lagoon-provided conditioner before getting into the waters, as the silica, while great for skin, can do a serious number on hair. Even with a heavy layer of conditioner and clarifying shampoo, I was feeling residue days later.
The Lagoon is definitely a built environment, but was so worth a visit. Watching the sunset over the mountains in the milky teal waters was a highlight of our trip.
Early-evening, we showered and caught a shuttle into town, where it dropped us off at our accommodations, the Reykjavik Residence Suites. Along the way, we were tickled to see the Imagine Peace Tower lit up — a bright green baton in the ink sky. Yoko Ono had this installation commissioned to commemorate John Lennon’s life, and it’s lit each year from his birthday (October 9, the day we arrived!) to the day he was killed (December 8).
The Residence Suites were a great accommodation pick by Austin. Quirky and modern textiles and finishes, well stocked rooms and a beautiful bathroom with a giant soaker tub (we chuckled that at 5’4″ and 5’9″ respectively, we were surely shorter than the average Icelander!). The front desk attendant was lovely, mapping out key parts of the city, and showing us the way to our dinner reservations at Dill, just up the street.
Dill, Dill, Dill.
I’ve been a follower of Gunnar Karl Gíslason’s career since 2009, when he opened the high-concept Dill at the peak of Iceland’s financial collapse — and was viewed as either mad or a genius. Thankfully, the latter narrative prevailed. When I learned we would be in Reykjavik, I immediately got to work securing reservations at his restaurant.
This meal stood out over many in my life — if Michelin did Iceland, three stars would be in Gíslason’s lap. From the completely native-sourced menu (only the wines are imported), to the glowing, cozy dining room and open kitchen, to the personable and refined service, to the beautiful custom service-ware, and most importantly, the happy-groan-inducing food — Dill was special. We opted for the seven course tasting with wine pairings, and each course blew away the previous.
We shivered through our walk back to the hotel, taking in the gorgeously illuminated Harpa Concert Hall on the waterfront. We were all but falling asleep at this point (it was past 3 AM, Paris time).
Aside: Mid-October in Reykjavik offered surprisingly beautiful weather, with bright blue skies and bracing but tolerable air. Not wanting to over-pack with multiple legs to our trip, we both wore insulated raincoats over sweaters (plus gloves and a hat for me) and were plenty warm during our stay.
After a sound sleep, we woke early to get a start on the day. Apart from being a well-appointed hotel, we loved the Residence Suites for its proximity to everything in town.
We set out by foot to fill our bellies with much-needed sustenance for the day ahead. We’d do so at Reykjavik Roasters, a coffee shop gaining acclaim for its on-site roasting and variety of brew methods. As two semi-coffee nerds, we were eager to try their blends and pack some beans to ship to Austin’s brother, who also is keen about great coffee. After enjoying a simple breakfast of sourdough bread with barberry jam and butter alongside a pour-over, we were ready to explore.
The most iconic image of Reykjavik, no doubt, is the towering Hallgrímskirkja. My inner lover of both symmetry and expressionist architecture was smitten by the church, whose design is inspired by the local basalt formations left as lava cooled into thick upright columns. It fit the landscape in an iconic, lively way, standing out against the skyline.
When you visit Hallgrímskirkja, spend the few hundred Krona (1 USD = ~130 ISK) to take the elevator to the top for sweeping 365-degree views of a city dotted with colourful low-lying buildings extending to the ocean.
Aside: We converted some currency to Icelandic Krona (ISK) to have as pocket money, but just as easily were able to pay in USD around town.
The Hallgrímskirkja is a quick study (we were there less than an hour), so we continued on. We had just eaten breakfast, else we would have stopped across the church at Cafe Loki, which came up often in our reading for its tasty Icelandic menu.
We made our way up through town toward the harbour, peeking in the shops along the way. A few favourites were the clothing store Geysir — I could have browsed for hours; Kirsuberjatréð – an artisan collective in the downtown; and Aurum for its spectacular nature-inspired jewelry.
Reykjavik also has a thriving artisan foodstuffs scene, with a few items we made a point to try. Highlights included:
Birch liqueur: we learned of this specialty, called Björk, during dessert at Dill, where they soaked a simple cake to serve with milk and prunes. While neither of us are hard liquor drinkers, we appreciated its velvety, earthy quality. (Tip: try this over Iceland’s other famous liquor, Brennivin. We were warned by our server that no one really drinks this abrasive hard liquor, it makes for mean hangovers, and to avoid it at all costs.)
Dried fish snack: called harðfiskur in Icelandic, this fish jerky of sorts is a salty local specialty. Pick it up in the grocery store where it’s cheapest, versus the gift shops or duty free.
Einstok Beer Company: we were served a delicious toasted porter during our dinner at Dill by the Icelandic Einstok Beer Company. These beers were expensive but expressive — worth scooping up a couple at the Duty Free.
Eventually, we made our way to the Old Harbour, where we stopped for lunch at Sægreifinn, a hole-in-the-wall seafood shop specializing in local varieties of fresh (fresh!) fish and a traditional broth-based lobster soup.
We chose from a fridge case of about 15 varieties of fresh fish skewers, which were grilled to order. We opted for Arctic Char and Catfish (totally different from our stinky swamp variety), a big bowl of lobster soup and a small whale steak. This meal was extraordinary. Perfectly fresh ocean fish is hard to beat. The lobster soup was the best we’ve had, with sweet chunks of lobster swimming in a thin broth that tasted of sea.
We roamed the waterfront, marvelling at the cool blue stillness of the ocean and mountains in the distance. I should note that Reykjavik is a small city. We were easily able to cover its core in a half-day without feeling like we were sacrificing key sites. Had we a bit more time (next time, as Austin says!) we’d make a point to stop off at The Perlan — an iconic building situated a bit outside the core — and take a short ferry across to Videy Island for a picnic lunch.
Eventually, we landed at our final stop, Harpa Concert Hall.
Seeing this Olafur Eliasson-designed building was high on my list for our visit to Reykjavik, but I didn’t expect to be so totally overcome by the space. I mean, it’s stunning. I spent at least an hour ascending to the top of the structure, taking dozens of photos and marvelling at the sweeping glasswork framing the ocean. Design that interacts with nature in such an extraordinary way is so emotive, and I loved how each windowpane uniquely framed the harbour and cityscape.
We wove along the harbourfront back to our hotel to retrieve our bags, a whirlwind 24 hours in Reykjavik complete. We left the city completely fulfilled yet wanting so much more of Iceland. The good news is, we’ll find our way back in the coming years for a deeper experience of this otherworldly place.
Places to Visit
Shop & Stay
Imagine Peace Tower (October through December)
36 Hours in Reykjavik on the New York Times Travel
48 Hours in Reykjavik on Euro Trip Tips
10 Places to Eat and Drink Incredibly Well in Reykjavik on Food Republic
[Our complete Reykjavik, Iceland photoset on Flickr]