Back in 870AD, a boatload of Norsemen threw a wood pole into the sea and founded a town where it washed ashore. This rather unusual method of establishing a city could be the reason why modern Reykjavík is the Scandinavian capital of quirk.
With only 120,000 inhabitants the creative output of this small northern capital generates the illusion of a far larger metropolis. Easy to navigate on foot, you’ll find Reykjavík to be populated by open-minded, urbane denizens fuelled by art, design, music and excellent food.
If you need to escape the heat of a southern European summer then Reykjavík makes for a good weekender – the hottest day on record was back in July 2008, when it reached a scorching 25 degrees Celsius. And if you’ve got the grit to deal with zero-degree temperatures winter, it is absolutely magical.
The restaurant at Hotel Borg
Even the toughest Icelander has the heart of a Scandi designer. Built by champion wrestler, strongman and Barnum & Baily Circus performer Jóhannes Jósefsson in 1930, this art deco hotel is set on the lovely Austurvöllur Square.
The mysterious side of Scandi design shows at 101 Hotel with its gleaming blacks and whites, wood floorboards and art collection that vies with the best galleries in the world. Rooms are minimalist yet warm and plush and the bar is right out of Scandinavian noir.
The Mountain Suite at this downtown establishment is a private haven of casual elegance. Perfectly located, the suites and apartments in this refurbished early 18th century building are the ideal launching point for Icelandic adventures.
The Laugarvatn Fontana Spa
Iceland is powered by geothermal energy, which means there are gorgeous geothermal pools and spas all over the place. There’s the popular Blue Lagoon but as the cheesy name may suggest, it’s a bit of a tourist trap. Instead, head to the Laugarvatn Fontana, blissfully off the tourist radar. Make sure you have a few slices of their rye bread that is baked underground.
Reykjavík is a very walkable city so strolling around and seeing the sights by yourself is completely doable. However, for some insider knowledge, take a walking tour with the adorable I Heart Reykjavik gang. A family-run business founded by Auður Ösp – a local whose business became so successful she enlisted the help of her family and friends. They’ll show you all the sights plus give you the lowdown on Icelandic culture, custom and language plus the best bars, cafes and restaurants. They’ll even cook you an Icelandic family dinner.
Just to add further quirkiness to the home of elves and other mythical creatures is the national obsession with hotdogs. Get yours at the famous Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur hot dog stand. Forrettabarinn is a ‘starters bar’ where Icelandic tapas are best enjoyed before moving onto Dill Restaurant for a truly incredible culinary experience of local produce matched with superb wines.
Stop in at the Hand Knitting Association of Iceland to snap up one of their gorgeous wool throws and pass by Kiosk and Myrin for exceptional fashion by local designers. Lovers of Scandi interiors should be sure to check out Bara Design, Eitt A and Kirsuberjatred.
Designs from Kiosk & Myrin
Music runs deep in the Icelandic soul and Reykjavík is teeming with talent. Here are just a few artists to whet your musical appetite.
Björk – obviously. From the early Sugarcubes to her latest arty wanderings she put Iceland on the global musical map.
Emiliana Torini. Her breakout album Fisherman’s Woman is a perfect mix of deeply felt emotion and restrained poetic yearning.
Sigur Rós. Swaying power ballads that leave goose bumps (even if you don’t understand the lyrics).
Of Monsters and Men. Sweet, catchy vocals hide a characteristically dusky Icelandic sentiment.
Asgeir. A beautiful boy with a guitar and a sweet voice; folktronica at its best.
Gusgus. This arty techno outfit mixes disco pop with angsty synths and provocation.
Múm. The best band you’ve never heard of. Downbeat electronica for sitting by a fire and hanging with your lover.
Vök. Tunes for the chill out room or after hours.