Weekend in . . . Reykjavik
Iceland’s vibrant capital has risen above the recent crash and eruptions
An elevated view over Reykjavik, IcelandPhotograph: Getty Images
The hot-dog stand Baejarins Beztu Pylsur is a Reykjavik institution, so expect a line. Photograph: Hazel Thompson for the New York Times
Mokka-Kaffir, a quiet coffee shop that opened in 1958. Photograph: Hazel Thompson for the New York Times
Central Reykjavik pictured at night. Hazel Thompson for the New York Times
The major news out of Iceland in recent years has not been good. First a banking collapse crippled the economy in 2008, and then a year and a half later, the volcanic eruption at Eyjafjallajokull halted air travel across the Atlantic and in Europe, frustrating millions. But signs of an upswing – economic and otherwise – can be spotted in Reykjavik, where this year the capital’s impressive new concert hall won the prestigious Mies van der Rohe Award, the EU’s top prize for contemporary architecture.
In other parts of town, new restaurants are embracing local fare, and the bacchanalian night life is thumping, with a crop of new bars and clubs. This winter has been predicted to be a particularly favourable time to observe the aurora borealis dancing across the night sky, but already Reykjavik is shining.
1 Hallowed halls
To get your bearings, take the elevator to the top of the austere Hallgrimskirkja, an imposing pale grey church whose distinctive stepped-slope façade frames a tower (admission, 700 krona, or about €4.26) from which a bird’s-eye view of the city’s colourful rooftops and compact downtown awaits. Then return to sea level to marvel at the city’s newest architectural landmark: The Harpa concert hall, unveiled in May 2011, is a dazzling geometric structure on the waterfront, worth a visit even if only to gaze through the honeycomb-like glass facade, designed with Danish-Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson.
2 Records and reels
A modest two-story house fronted with corrugated metal is where you’ll find 12 Tonar, a small record store, listening room and gathering place for local musicians. The pocket-size shop often hosts live performances on Friday afternoons. After the show, head downstairs to listen to any album from the ever-changing selection, which is as varied as the influences that fuel Iceland’s experimental music scene.
Prefer reels to records? Then stroll over to the cozy Bio Paradis, an independent four-screen cinema that opened in 2010 showing new movies, art-house flicks and Icelandic films (often with English subtitles), like the moving Sigur Ros documentary Heima about the band’s 2006 series of free, unannounced concerts in Iceland.
3 Icelandic tapas
Dine on a parade of creative small plates at Forrettabarinn, a new restaurant near the harbor that hums with convivial chatter. Glowing pendant lamps and eclectic artworks brighten the industrial interior, where groups of friends gather around long wooden tables to graze on hot smoked salmon and plump blue mussels. A highlight of a recent meal was a plate of buttery cod with crispy pork belly, chunks of chorizo and creamed parsnips (1,890 krona, €11.50), which was bested only by dessert: a parfait of skyr – an Icelandic yogurt-like dairy product – layered with cream and blueberries (1,390 krona, €8.50).
4 Civilised sips
Until 1989, most beers were banned in Iceland under an old prohibition law, so when it comes to beer drinking (and brewing), the country has a lot of catching up to do. Even today, craft brewing is just starting to catch on, which means it’s feasible to sample beers from most of the domestic craft breweries in a single night. Start at the year-old Kaldi Bar, where there are several cozy nooks in which to sip a pint of caramel-tinged Kaldi dark. Then pull up a stool at MicroBar, an unassuming new pub hidden behind the lobby of the City Center Hotel, which has eight taps dedicated to Icelandic craft brews like Gaedingur Brugghus’s hoppy IPA; a flight to taste all eight costs 3,500 kronur (€21.30).
5 Waterfront Walk
Walk along the waterfront path that winds northwest out of the city into the residential Seltjarnarnes area and toward the lighthouse on Grotta Island. With uninterrupted views of the Esja mountain range across the water, it’s an enjoyable two-mile trek to the tip of the peninsula. If you can’t continue on to Grotta – it’s reachable by foot only during low tide – consider dipping your toes in the geothermal footbath (actually a sculpture by Olof Nordal called Kvika) nestled among the rocks nearby.
6 Waffles and art
Take a step back in time at Mokka-Kaffi, a quiet coffee shop where the mid-century decor appears unchanged since the shop opened in 1958. Settle into a booth and warm up with coffee and the house specialty: waffles served with jam and whipped cream (850 krona/€5.20).