I first visited Reykjavik in 2012; what now seems like a million years ago. On that first trip to Iceland I was introduced to some of the island country’s most famous sights, both natural and man-made, and an intense love affair with this remote destination was born. Since then I have returned three additional times with no plans of stopping, and for the most part I have explored new areas of the country each time, delving deeper into what makes it so very special. There has been one commonality on all of my trips though, the capital city of Reykjavik. I always spend at least a day or two there even though, at this point, I really have done and seen everything there is to do and see. So why exactly do I keep returning? Today I want to share a few reasons why I love Reykjavik so very much and why, I think, it should be a stop on everyone’s next trip to Iceland whether it’s their 1st or 21st trip to the country.
Although the suburbs of Reykjavik do spread out a bit, the downtown core where tourists spend their time is ultimately a fairly small place. In total, the capital city is home to only 125,000 people and while it’s by far the population center of the country, in comparison to other world cities that’s not large at all. However, I have learned over the years that there’s a lot to see and do in Reykjavik, more than enough to fill several trips to the city. If it’s your first time though, here are a few experiences I think are not to miss.
- Head to the top of Hallgrímskirkja church for stunning views of the city
- Grab lunch at one of Reykjavik’s famous hot dog stands, the most popular snack in the country (order it the Icelandic way, they’ll know what you mean)
- Go on a city tour, free or otherwise. Several companies offer great intro-tours to Reykjavik and are well worth it
- Walk along the marina area and take a boat ride out to spot whales
- Enjoy dinner at one of the many great restaurants in Reykjavik – my favorite is D’Italia
But be sure to also save some activities for future trips. On my last overnight in Reykjavik, I spent an afternoon touring the city’s famous concert hall, Harpa. Daily tours in English are given of this stunning building, and the half hour or so spent with the expert guide was both fun and informative. Plus, the harbor views from the concert hall are not to be missed. But I don’t return to Reykjavik again and again just for new experiences, I revisit the city for another more amorphous reason.
Sometimes we encounter new cities or even countries that just feel right. We don’t know why, we can’t explain or quantify it, it just is. For me, Reykjavik and even Iceland as a whole fall into this very special category. It’s one of the few places in the world that I not only enjoy returning to, I actively plan new trips as soon as the previous ones have finished. No, I probably don’t need to go to Reykjavik every time I’m in Iceland, it’s easy enough to skip and drive around. I’ve seen all of the sights, I’ve experienced life in the city and so it’s not from a traveler’s point of view that I keep returning. I go back because I love it. I love the feeling of the city with its brightly colored, Danish inspired buildings, the wind coming off the water, the beautifully laid back feel and the spirit of the downtown tourist core itself. Yes, due to Iceland’s incredible rise in global popularity, the downtown is touristy at times, but that’s ok. Because next to that puffin shop (what locals call souvenir stores) can be a fabulous restaurant, or an old building with surprising stories to tell. Most importantly though, I return to Reykjavik to greet an old friend. It’s like falling back into a rhythm with someone you haven’t seen in years. Although time has passed, you pick up right where you left off. That’s Reykjavik for me and I love it.
Reykjavik isn’t a city stuck in another time, especially now it’s growing and changing at an incredible pace. When I first visited in 2012 the country was beginning its ascent to becoming the tourism hotspot that it is today. Currently, the demand to visit Iceland is growing exponentially – it’s actually at a rate that simply cannot be maintained. However, this has changed the city and country in a number of ways. New buildings, hotels and restaurants are constantly going up in Reykjavik; each time I visit it’s a new city. This has both advantages and disadvantages for the traveler in 2018. It means that there are many more hotel options, including some great luxury properties like the Sandhotel where I stayed last time I was in town. However, it also means a dramatic increase in prices. Just in the past few years the cost of an average trip has increased double digits, and that’s showing no signs of slowing anytime soon. Keen to take advantage of the new interest in tourism, the net effect has been a more robust and interesting travel landscape. One thing that I hope never changes is the indefinable spirit and feel of the city itself.
As I’ve already written in this post a few times, I just really enjoy being in Reykjavik for the sole reason of being in Reykjavik. The culture, the people and everything else about it make sense to me, we click and it’s a mini-homecoming when I’m there. I have a favorite restaurant I always patronize when I’m in town, I have a favorite walk I try to do and I have a favorite cafe to grab a quick cup of coffee. It’s nice to have those familiar places, establishments that make me feel a little less like an awkward tourist and more like someone returning to a familiar place. Iceland is also wonderfully quirky, the national personality is independent and driven but also accepting and warm-hearted. Iceland was isolated for centuries, creating familial ties almost unlike any other place on the planet. In Iceland there aren’t 7 degrees of separation, more like 1 or 2. It’s the “Cheers” amongst the pantheon of nations, a place where everyone knows your name and is glad you’re there.
Even if you only have a passing interest in social media, there’s no doubt you’re inundated with images from Iceland on a near daily basis. There’s a reason for that, it’s a stunning country with landscapes unparalleled in the world. Reykjavik is a little different though and it’s a city not everyone will like, and that’s fine. In the winter it is dark and dreary with a wind unlike anything else I’ve ever encountered. But even then, when the sun seems to have run away forever, there are still aspects to this great world capital to love and admire, you just have to seek them out. I guess that’s my ultimate bit of advice about Reykjavik. Spend time there getting to know it, to understand it and appreciate it. Walk away from the puffin shops and walk a few blocks deeper into the city, try to learn about it not as a voyeur but a curious visitor and then I think you’ll start to enjoy returning here as much as I do.