Iceland’s capital, Reykjavík is a city of contrasts as it’s warmer than its latitude suggests, has a small town feel but is a big city, and mixes modern with medieval to create a vibrant vacation destination the world has discovered so I joined the masses and built a 2-night, 2-day stop over on my way home from a visit to Copenhagen to sample its sights.

Legend has it that the Norwegian Ingólfr Arnarson upon sighting Iceland’s shores somewhere around AD 870 cast his ship captain’s seat pillars into the ocean vowing to build a settlement where they washed ashore.  The pillars ran aground in an area called Reykjavík which roughly translates into English as smoke cove or smoky bay in many a modern travel guide.

While the most northerly capital city in the world thanks to the Gulf Stream the weather in Reykjavik is actually fairly temperate with the lowest temperate on record  at -19.7 °C, a temperature often experienced in Edmonton throughout the Winter months.

It’s worth packing smart and coming prepared with a good waterproof outer layer to cover an under layer of a warm sweater and T-shirt. Gloves and a toque are also necessary even in summer months especially if out sightseeing in the countryside. My hotel, the Hotel Skuggi,  had a heated towel rack in the bathroom that served to dry out wet clothes overnight but it pays to avoid heavy cotton sweatshirts or denim pants that take a long time to dry in favor of other materials such as wool sweaters that provide warmth without the weight when wet. Wool sweaters are a big tourist souvenir but can be pricey so it pays to shop around. Don’t forget to pack the bathing suits as there are a number of natural and man-made geothermal mineral baths found around the country.

The main entry point into Iceland for most travellers is Keflavik International Airport which is located a 45-minute drive southwest of Reykjavík. While taxi’s and car rentals are available the least expensive way into town is on the Flybus which runs regularly throughout the year and costs the equivalent of $47 Canadian Dollars. Note however that this basic ticket only provides transportation to a central Reykjavík bus terminal and not to hotels so would recommend paying the extra $10 to buy the Flybus Plus which includes hotel drop-off and pick-up.

The weather was felt even before touching down on the airport tarmac as the Icelandair Boeing 757 I was flying in from Copenhagen was being buffeted by high winds which made for an unusual taxi to the gate once we did manage to land. As there was no jetway the passengers braved the blast of Artic air and fine mist to descend a stairway for a short walk to a waiting bus for the brief ride the terminal. It was quite an introduction to this northern land where weather plays a big part of any tour plans as a found out shortly thereafter while boarding the Flybus into Reykjavík to hear the highway had been closed earlier due to extremely high winds which roar in from the ocean and over the treeless lava fields the road cuts through.

Much of Reykjavík’s city center is walkable and so has a small city feel but it’s capital region sprawls and is home to almost two-thirds of Iceland’s population of 330,000. I opted for a guided morning half-day tour of the capital which connected on to a half day Golden Circle tour of scenic spots a short distance from Reykjavik which I’ll save for a future blog post. A longer stay would allow more time to linger and explore all the sights in and around the capital but will have to save those for another visit.

The tour’s highlight is a visit to the Hallgrímskirkja, a landmark visible throughout the city with its soaring spire grey said to resemble the hexagonal basalt columns formed from lava flows which are a common natural feature found around Iceland.

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The Lutheran church with its soaring nave and austere interior was commissioned in 1937 but not consecrated until 1986.

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One of the few highlights of warm wood in the monochromatic grey church interior is the Klaisorgan, a 15 metre tall pipe organ with some 5,000 pipes which was installed in 1992.

Creative Commons Licence
Hallgrimskirkja Organ by Tony Hisgett is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 International License.

The statue of native son and Nordic explorer Leif Eriksson who visited North America 500 years before the Columbus explorer occupies a central spot right in front of the Hallgrímskirkja making for good photos. The statue is actually older than the church itself as it was a gift from the United States to mark the 1000th anniversary of Iceland’s parliament in 1930.

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At 73 meters the Hallgrímskirkja spire is the second tallest building in Iceland and its observation platform may be accessed for a small entry fee and a little patience waiting in line for the elevator ride to the top . The view from upon high takes in the harbour and multi-coloured buildings and if the timing is right a small commuter aircraft landing at the city center Reykjavík Airport.

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The splash of colour helps to bring variety to what can be a grey North Atlantic winter.

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Höfði House is the stout harbour front house that was built for a French consul in 1909 but is most famous for having hosted the 1986 Reykjavik Summit between the U.S. President Ronald Reagan and the U.S.S.R’s Mikhail Gorbachev that help bring an end to the decades old Cold War.

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Near the historic house is a statue to one of its former residents, Einar Benediktsson, a leading poet and editor of the nation’s first daily newspaper in the early 20th century whose nationalist sentiments helped the Icelandic independence movement to eventually end almost 600 years of Danish rule in 1944.

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The Pearl (Perlan in Icelandic) is a multi-use building that houses six massive water tanks, revolving restaurant, café, souvenir shop and a public observation deck that affords a view over Reykjavík.

photo by author

photo by author


 Sun Voyager is a harbour front steel sculpture by Jon Gunnar Arnason which resembles a stylized Viking ship but is in instead a dream boat and ode to the sun. Sadly there was no sun to be seen on my October visit and was greeted instead with a steady drizzle that quickly grew to a pelting downpour.

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The low clouds and sudden squall kept me from venturing further along the harbour front promenade that stretches from the Sun Voyager to Harpa, the concert hall and conference center that features an ever changing coloured glass façade.

photo by author

The main shopping street in Reykjavík is Laugavegur which literally translates as “wash road” as it used to lead to the great old hot springs in Laugardalur where the entire city’s washing was once done.  Today it’s a fairly touristy thoroughfare with souvenir shops, restaurants and bars but is very walkable and worth a stroll day or night.

While I was elated having seen the intensity of the Aurora Borealis or Northern Lights weeks before my visit in news reports I was deflated to learn that my prepaid tour to watch this natural northern phenomenon was cancelled two nights in a row due to overcast skies. It’s clearly stated that the tour is non-refundable as there’s no controlling the elements but the tour companies will allow you to reschedule for another night during your stay when the weather may be better. I’d considered reserving this tour once I arrive into Reykjavik but didn’t want to run the risk of the tours being full which is a definite concern in the Summer high season when hotel occupancy and tour availability is in its highest demand.

There is far more to the city however than just its man-made and natural sights as I found the people of Reykjavik and Iceland to be warm and engaging and fluent English speakers. Tourism plays a large and growing part of the economy but it’s still fairly new so there isn’t the pervasive level of tourism I’ve experienced elsewhere with street hawkers, timeshare sharks or porters with their hands out expecting a tip. The driver and guide for the city tour is a working mother in a country where it isn’t as uncommon as other countries and talked about her kids, the school they were in and the languages they were learning and offer some real insights into national politics and economic trends that have buffeted Iceland in the past decade helping to shape its current fortunes. Iceland consistently ranks as one of the happiest places on earth and it’s often attributed to factors such as gender equality, a high standard of living with social programs, and a confident, resilient population who believe in a strong sense of community to raise their own children and those of their neighbors. Having received such a warm welcome on my first short visit this traveller looks forward to another longer visit to this happy island.