Iceland is a Nordic island that was put on the map in 2010 when a sub-glacial volcano erupted and caused travelers chaos around the world, disrupting their flights due to the ash cloud. Proving to be a blessing in disguise, the incident turned Iceland into a tourist trap. In 2017 alone, Iceland is predicting around 2.3m visitors. Americans lead the way with Brits and Germans following closely behind, all flocking to see see Iceland’s dramatic landscapes with volcanoes, geysers, hot springs and lava fields plus Northern Lights when the sky is clear enough to see them.
We were in Reykjavik, where most of the population live, for a fleeting visit (just over two days). Reykjavik, runs on geothermal power and is home to the National and Saga museums, tracing Iceland’s Viking history.
Our chosen hotel was a wonderfully elegant, 1930’s Art Deco-style hotel called Hotel Borg by Keahotels perfectly located in the midst of all the action. It’s delicious breakfast buffet every morning set us up for the day and it had the comfiest beds to rest our tired bodies at night. The hotel was an absolute dream in every way, the staff friendly and helpful, the food offerings delicious and the decor on point.
With little time and so much to see we signed up for a tour with Reykjavik Excursions to visit some of the many wonders of Reykjavik and to learn about their local history, volcanoes and geothermal. Amongst other things, our highlights included a visit to two geothermal sites, visits of lava fields and hot springs plus stop offs at quaint towns – one of which housed a beautiful church that was built by three fishermen who whilst out at sea made a promise to God that they’d build a church if they survived after a terrible journey in which they almost drowned. Story has it that they were guided by an angel to safety. A statue of the angel sits alongside the church. The church in Strandarkirkja is one of the richest parishes in Iceland. People dutifully follow the fishermen’s example and donate money in faith that they too will overcome their obstacles.
The tour gave us a real taster of this unique island. We learnt that not only is Iceland beautiful with landscapes that feature in numerous movies and TV programs such as The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, James Bond and Games of Thrones – it’s also the most peaceful country in the world with an extremely low crime rate. Another interesting fact is that one of the reason alcohol is expensive is that Icelanders are allowed free rehab should their drinking become an issue.
We followed this tour with another with the aptly named Your Friend in Reykjavik who led a very fun beer tour, showing us some of the best bars and finest beer joints to sample 10 of Iceland’s delicious craft beers, most of which you can only find in Iceland – Skál,to that!
Places that are an absolute must, include the stunning award winning Harpa building which opened in 2011 and whose crystalline structure was inspired by Icelandic landscapes and traditions. The building features almost 10k windows and is simply beautiful. They also have an interesting play which we didn’t make unfortunately but we’ve heard good reviews of ‘How to become Icelandic in 60 minutes’. Pop into the on-site restaurant Smurstöðin – we can recommend the fish soup.
The Hallgrímskirkja church is Reykjavík’s main landmark so that one has to be ticked off. The church is like no other church we’ve seen – looks very futuristic (to us at least like a rocket). It was designed by the late Guðjón Samuel in 1937, who was often inspired in his endeavours by the fascinating shapes and forms created when lava cools into basalt rock.
There is a great deal to choose from for food, we love the variety that’s on offer and pleasantly surprised that it catered for all tastes, vegetarian, gluten free and the rest. Our favourites included a recently opened MatBar that we were fortunate enough to discover. We even had the pleasure of meeting the owner Guðjón Hauksson who talked us through his inspirations (Italian) behind the unique and enticing menu. He also persuaded us to order far more than we needed but we just couldn’t refuse – everything sounded too good not to. The atmosphere was fantastic – we even made friends with our table neighbours and shared with them our personal favourites and shared some of our dishes with them (staying true to the restaurants ethos of sharing dishes). Our highlights included a divine mozzarella with pickled tomatoes and basil vinaigrette, a fresh and mouth watering scallop ceviche, an unusual but very tasty arctic char with caper butter and almonds and some very tasty glazed beets. Guðjón also persuaded us to try what he described as the ‘foie gras of the sea’ mockfish livers which were surprisingly good.
The Fiskmarkadurinn is an upscale, stylish joint that is perhaps similar to Sexy Fish in the UK. The décor is classy and the food divine. Feeling brave we ordered smoked puffin (a local delicacy) which to us tastes like a combination of duck, liver and kidney and whale (another Iceland signature) which was similar to a tuna / beef steak on top of a sashimi platter (a divine combination of the freshest and tastiest fish we’d had in a while). We loved everything about this place, it’s fancy but relaxed and the staff extremely knowledgeable and accommodating.
Others to try are Baazar at the newly opened Hotel Oddsson which serves Mediterranean cuisine with a twist and for casual sushi and sake worth dropping into Sakebarinn located in downtown Iceland. For the adventurous try the fermented shark it tastes vile but it has to be done – there’s a few places that sell it – Seabaron is perhaps the most popular choice for this snack.
So much still to explore, our short trip was a great intro but we have to go back for the Golden Circle which was recommended to us by so many locals and of course the Blue Lagoon which we just couldn’t get a slot to – they were all taken for our duration.
There is something innately cool about Reykjavik, the shops, the people, general Scandi vibes – it’s definitely worth looking out for the street art and wall murals which were inspired by lyrics of songs – difficult to guess which artist and song but great to look at!
Be sure to pack warm clothing, Iceland gets pretty chilly – we were so glad we packed our trusted cosy yet stylish Moon Boots for the trip.
We travelled via WOW air which flies from London Gatwick to Reykjavik daily with up to two flights per day. Prices start from just £29.49 one way including taxes. For more information or to book please visit www.wowair.co.uk or call 0118 321 8384.