Sightseeing and sampling the local food scene are two of the joys of travel. Here are my picks of the best things to see and eat on a short break in Iceland’s capital.
Sight 1: Hallgrímskirkja
You will be able to see this distinctive church from all over Reykjavik, and it should be your first port of call to get your bearings and enjoy stunning views. It looks pretty impressive from the outside, and nothing like any other church you will ever see, with concrete columns either side of its 73-metre tower said to represent volcanic basalt.
Outside the entrance stands a statue of the explorer Leifur Eiríksson, who locals believe was the first European to discover North America. I’d never heard of him, and thought perhaps the legend of Christopher Columbus had not reached these parts yet. In fact Leifur’s discovery came 500 years before that of Columbus.
The best thing about Hallgrímskirkja is the view from the tower. An elevator will whisk you up to the top (there is no staircase option), from where you can look down on the city’s multi-coloured corrugated iron houses which look like properties on a Monopoly board. In the other direction across the bay is the snow-capped Mount Esja.
I’ve been to plenty of these city viewpoints across Europe, and this is definitely in my top-three. I spent a good fifteen minutes up there as snowflakes flew in my face, gaping in awe at my surroundings, and only came down when I could no longer feel my hands.
Bite 1: Fiskmarkaðurinn (Aðalstræti 12, www.fiskmarkadurinn.is)
Our first night in Reykjavik happened to be Kat’s birthday, so I’d done a bit of research and booked a table at Fiskmarkaðurinn (“Fish Market”). This is high-end dining of the finest quality – there is even a tasting menu, so don’t expect it to be cheap.
As you might be able to imagine, seafood is the order of the day. We chose two courses each, before sharing a white chocolate cheesecake. Service is excellent, although they do cram you in a little – this is a very popular place.
Portions are bigger than we expected for such a poncey place. I’m glad I opted for the doorstep of salmon over the smoked puffin and minke whale – it was well worth the credit-card battering, and we agreed that Fiskmarkaðurinn was a new entry in our top-five holiday meals.
Sight 2: Perlan
This odd looking building – a glass dome resting on cylindrical water storage tanks – is just north of the city centre, but it’s a nice walk through a park and wooded hills to get there. Perlan houses a restaurant and a café, but like Hallgrímskirkja, the main draw is the 360º view from the observation deck.
Although it was a bitterly cold day, I’d heard good things about the ice-cream at Perlan, and enjoyed panoramic views of Reykjavik with a lovely cup of vanilla ice-cream in my gloved hand. Being further away and lower down than Hallgrímskirkja, Mount Esja looked bigger and scarier than yesterday while the view from the other side of the dome is a delight for planespotters.
With no railway in Iceland, and roads often impassable, flying is the best way to get to other parts of the island. Although visitors to Iceland are likely to land at the international airport at Keflavik 50km away, Reykjavik’s own airport – for internal flights as well as those to Greenland and the Faroe Islands – is right behind Perlan.
Bite 2: Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur (Tryggvagata, www.bbp.is)
If you spent more than you’d have liked to the night before, this hot-dog shack on the side of a road near the harbour is your chance to balance the books. Some people say hot-dogs are practically the national dish of Iceland, and not only are they delicious and dirt cheap here, it has the best logo you will see at any eating establishment.
For around £2 (400 ISK), you can munch on a tasty sausage in a roll with ketchup, mustard, relish, and crunchy onions. Bill Clinton famously chose this place when he was in town, and you should too.
Sight 3: The Sun Voyager
I reckon the most photogenic view in Reykjavik can be enjoyed from The Sun Voyager (Sólfar in Icelandic), facing the harbour on Sæbraut. This eerie stainless steel sculpture of a boat has been here since 1990, when it was unveiled to commemorate Reykjavik’s bicentenary. The sculptor, Jón Gunnar Árnason, died the year before so never got the chance to see it in place, but you definitely should.
Popular with amateur photographers, this is a special place especially when the clouds lift to reveal the snowy mountains across the bay. The Icelandic weather is famously changeable, so you shouldn’t have to wait too long to see it in just about all conditions – snow, rain, cloud and sunshine (with a bit of hail thrown in for good measure).
Bite 3: Harry’s (Rauðarárstigur 33, www.harrysreykjavik.com)
Before I went to Iceland, I’d always enjoyed fish and chips, although not quite enough to choose it ahead of Chinese as my takeaway of choice. But after having it at Harry’s restaurant, I know I’ll never taste fish in England as good.
The meal I’d had the night before at the imaginatively titled Icelandic Fish and Chips was the best fish and chips I’d eaten in my life – until, that is, I went to Harry’s. Their cod in light batter was sublime, and was almost like a different beast to the stuff we get served in England. No wonder Icelanders were so keen to win the Cod Wars against the UK in the 1950s and 1970s, gaining an increase to their fishing territory (although it must be said we’d have no problems winning a Chip War.)
If you want to get out of the city and see more of this fantastic country (and you should), read about my experiences at Iceland’s best and most popular two excursions – the Blue Lagoon and the Golden Circle.