Weekend in . . . Reykjavik
Iceland’s vibrant capital has risen above the recent crash and eruptions
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).
7 Domestic designs
Nestled amid the touristy shops downtown are several small boutiques worth browsing for authentic local designs. Kiosk is a co-op stocked with the wares of eight young designers who also take turns running the store. There, shop for silk pillowcases adorned with exotica by the illustrator Kristjana S Williams, or snap up Milla Snorrason blouses with patterns inspired by nature and the city skyline. A broader range of Icelandic designs, from graphic art prints to hand-knit woollens, is at the nearby gallery-cum-shop Spark Design Space. If you didn’t pack warmly enough, make Geysir your first stop. The clothing store is packed with cold-weather basics: fur-lined scarves, over-the-knee stockings and adult-size woollen onesies.
8 Art three ways
For such a small city, Reykjavik has a surprisingly rich art scene. Head to the i8 gallery, where a simple white-walled space hosts exhibitions of international and Icelandic artists. A recent Olafur Eliasson show included mirror-and-glass works that toy with perception. At Hafnarhus, the home of the Reykjavik Art Museum’s contemporary collections, don’t miss the galleries filled with pieces by postmodern artist Erro (1,200 krona, €7.30). Back on the street, look for works by Danish artist Theresa Himmer, like the glittering snowcap that tops a building near the corner of Klapparstigur and Laugavegur.
9 The burger menagerie
Adventurous eaters will thrill at the many unusual dishes served at Grillmarkadurinn, an elegant new restaurant with decor heavy on knotted wood and volcanic rock. On the menu, there’s charcoal-grilled steak of Icelandic horse (5,490 krona, €33.40) and a sampler of three mini burgers featuring lobster, puffin and whale (2,890 krona, €18.10). No hankering for horse? No palate for puffin? Visit Saemundur i Sparifotunum, a pub in the Kex Hostel popular with backpackers and locals alike. In addition to the waterfront views and Nordic craft beers on tap, there are burgers of Icelandic beef with Isbui cheese and caramelized-onion mayo (2,490 krona, €15.15).
10 Up all night
The ritual of the runtur, or pub crawl, during which locals let loose in bars and clubs downtown, begins around midnight. Most places stay open until 4am (or later), so ease into the night at the subdued Slippbarinn, where jugs of murky liquor infusions are stacked atop the bar and inventive cocktails are mixed with local spirits like birch-flavoured Birkir snaps and dill aquavit. Then hit the dance floor at Harlem, a new bar with trippy graphic art scrawled across the walls. From there, roll down the block to party with the hip kids at Dolly, a year-old club where electronica pumps from a glittering DJ booth. Finally, end the night at Kaffibarinn, a rollicking bar in a rambling old house where the atmosphere is more house party than nightclub and – by this point in the runtur – the crowd is as energetic as it is inebriated.
4am or 11am
11 Morning cure
The success of your runtur will dictate the time for a stop at Baejarins Beztu Pylsur, a hot-dog stand near the harbour. The stand is a Reykjavik institution; expect a line regardless of whether it’s before sunrise or after. Order “with everything”: fried onions, raw onions, ketchup, remoulade, sweet Icelandic mustard (380 krona, €2).
12 Island peace
Iceland’s interior is studded with otherworldly marvels – thundering waterfalls, belching geysers, steaming waters of the Blue Lagoon – but if it’s unspoiled nature you’re after, there’s no need to trek deep into the countryside. Beautiful landscapes can be found mere minutes from the city by boarding the ferry that shuttles between Skarfabakki pier and the uninhabited island of Videy (1,100 krona, €6.60 round trip). Explore the western part of the tranquil island by following the circuitous path through meadows, along rocky beaches and past a series of basalt columns – an installation by the American artist Richard Serra – that dot the perimeter. The city remains within sight across the bay, but the whipping wind will likely be the only sound.
– New York Times Service
REYKJAVIK - WHERE TO
Harpa, Austurbakki 2; harpa.is.
2. 12 Tonar,
Skolavordustig 15; 12tonar.is.
Bio Paradis, Hverfisgotu 54; bioparadis.is.
Nylendugata 14; forrettabarinn.is.
4. Kaldi Bar,
Laugavegur 20B; (354) 858-0104.
Austurstraeti 6; (354) 847-9084.
5. Grotta Island.
Skolavordustig 3A; mokka.is.
Spark Design Space,
Klapparstigur 33; sparkdesignspace.com.
Skolavordustig 16; geysirshops.is.
Tryggvagata 16; i8.is.
Reykjavik Art Museum - Hafnarhus, Tryggvagata 17; artmuseum.is.
Laekjargata 2A; grillmarkadurinn.is.
Saemundur i Sparifotunum,
Skulagata 28; kexhostel.is
Tryggvagata 22. Dolly, Hafnarstraeti 4.
Bergstadastraeti 1; kaffibarinn.is.
11. Baejarins Beztu Pylsur,
12. Videy island,
The centrally located 101 Hotel (Hverfisgata 10; 101hotel.is) has 38 rooms and suites with open-plan bathrooms and heated oak floors.
A minimalist black-and-white color scheme extends to the hotel’s trendy restaurant and bar, which are adorned with contemporary Icelandic artworks. Doubles from about 36,000 kronur (about €220). Hosteling is hip at Kex Hostel (Skulagata 28; kexhostel.is), which opened in 2011 in a former biscuit factory with 142 beds spread between dorms (from 3,000 kronur; €18.30) and private rooms (three with en suite bathrooms; doubles, 21,500 kronur; €131).
The hostel also has cool, retro décor – salvaged, vintage and well-worn – and a lively in-house gastro pub.
© 2013 The New York Times
SAS flies from Dublin to Reykjavik via Copenhagen, flysas.com