We dreamed about visiting Iceland for a very long time. Last year Easyjet opened a direct route from Edinburgh to Reykjavik, offering cheap flights to Iceland, so we decided to spend the New Year in world’s northernmost capital city. With the population of around 130,000, Reykjavik is by no means a big city, and it certainly doesn’t feel like one. Not that we’re complaining! From our Airbnb apartment we could reach just about anywhere in Reykjavik in no more than half an hour on foot, and Laugavegur, the main shopping street, in around two minutes. Even though the city is rather small, there’s no shortage of things to see and do – here’s a handful of things tried and tested by Wandering Owls.
You can pay a lot of money to go for one of many northern lights trips offered by tourist companies, or you can walk around Reykjavik on a clear winter night and look up. The aurora may not be as spectacular as the one you would see out in the countryside, but at least it will be free. The best places to go aurora hunting in the city are one of its several parks and the harbour – basically anywhere that’s slightly darker than the rest. If you don’t mind a long trek, the Seltjarnarnes peninsula, some 6km from the city centre, is famed for its great aurora sightings. We spotted our first northern lights on New Year’s Eve from the Hljómskálagarður, large park located just outside the city centre. Unfortunately for the rest of our stay the sky remained cloudy and we didn’t see another aurora until the flight home, during which we witnessed the most amazing aurora spectacle high above the clouds. What a shame that a photo taken with a phone through a dirty plane window doesn’t do it any justice.
Most people visiting Iceland head to the famous Blue Lagoon geothermal pools on the Reykjanes peninsula. We weren’t willing to part with 6000 ISK (€50) each just to have a paddle alongside hundreds of tourists, so we decided to do what the Icelanders do and visit a local swimming pool. Our choice was Laugardalslaug, Reykjavik’s largest public pool. There’s a big outdoor paddle pool with water slide, 50m swimming pool, steam bath, selection of hot tubs (at 38-48 degrees) and a sea water spa tub. The water in all of these is geothermally heated and entry is dirt cheap for Icelandic standards (900 ISK or €7.50). It required some courage to jump out of the warm changing room into the cold night, but once in the water it was pleasantly warm. It was quite an experience to swim surrounded by a thick steam, with ghastly silhouettes of fellow swimmers in the distance. Unfortunately photography is not permitted inside the pool.
Reykjavik is full of murals and sculptures, scattered randomly all over the city. We spent quite a lot of time simply wandering the streets and discovering these hidden treasures. Even the less representative streets hide some secret works of art, which means it’s never boring to walk through the city.
If you get cold looking for the outdoor art, you can pop by Harpa to warm up. Reykjavik’s concert hall and conference centre is located stone’s throw from the harbour and 10 minutes from the city centre. We’re not huge fans of modern architecture, but the award-winning Harpa made a huge impression on us, both from the outside and from the inside. Reflective metallic ceilings resembling waves and colourful, honeycomb-like windows create a great sense of space that moves and shimmers when struck by sunrays. There’s also a 3D cinema showing the story of the Vikings (expensive), a restaurant (expensive) and a couple of souvenir shops (expensive).
You can start in the Old Harbour, filled with military and fishing boats, independent shops and restaurants and loads of tourist companies offering all sorts of things, from whale and puffin watching trips to bike and Segway hire. Once you pass Harpa, you get an uninterrupted view of Mount Esja across the water, and a glimpse of the isles of Engey and Videy. You can finish your walk by the Solfar (Sun Voyager) – a steel sculpture by Jón Gunnar Árnason. Resembling a Viking ship, the sculpture is supposed to look best in the first light of the rising sun. At any other time of the day it is surrounded by dozens of tourists.
You can of course go “actual” shopping, but we’re warning you – Iceland is not cheap and it’s very easy to spend a month’s salary in a matter of hours. Window-shopping however can be equally satisfying. Leaving out the ubiquitous “puffin shops” selling all sorts of kitschy and overpriced souvenirs (including canned Icelandic air…), there are plenty of independent clothes and homeware shops, art galleries, designer boutiques, hip bars and cafes, and Icelanders seem to have a great imagination when it comes to designing unusual and attractive signboards and window displays.
If you happen to be in Reykjavik on New Year’s Eve, you can’t miss the fireworks at Halgrimskirkja. The characteristic rocket-shaped church is one of the highest points in the city, and as such attracts thousands of people to welcome the New Year. There is no official fireworks display, but Icelanders make sure that the night is unforgettable. From around 11.30pm the sky is constantly lit, but the true fun begins just before midnight. People seem to try to outdo each other, putting up a show that’s fascinating and scary at the same time. Standing in a thick cloud of smoke, under the rain of ash and shredded cardboard, was definitely not something we’ve experienced before.