Iceland’s rugged natural scenery and geothermal mysteries are what attract most visitors. Reykjavik is often overlooked as a destination, serving merely as an arrival and departure point for travel to far-flung glaciers, geysers, and geothermal gems. But the capital city deserves a visit in its own right, and I intended to explore it on my trip to Iceland.
My flight to Keflavik airport was delayed for two hours, so a 10pm departure turned into a midnight one. I arrived in Iceland at 2am, but despite my jet lag, I was amazed to see that it was still light outside. The 24-hour daylight was something I had looked forward to experiencing, and I marvelled at the low light of dawn in the middle of the night.
After taking an airport bus to the city, I arrived at 101 Hotel in Reykjavik at 4am. The boutique luxury hotel had invited me to stay for two nights. It was located right in the heart of the city, one block from the main shopping street and adjacent to a park that overlooked the sparkling new Reykjavik opera house.
The lobby area was straight out of a design magazine, complete with stacks of enticing art books, large black leather sofas, antiqued wooden chairs, and paintings and sculptures from local Icelandic artists.
Exhausted, I stumbled up to my room, which was on the fifth floor. It had wall-to-wall windows that overlooked the park, opera house, and sea, offering great views of the city in the orange and purple light of early dawn.
Inside the small room was a large bed covered in starched white linens, a long desk and table, and an open bathroom with a large shower. Aveda cosmetics sat atop the sink, and the creative mini bar was packed with everything from spa products to brain teaser puzzles. The cherry on top was the free WiFi. Sweet.
I only got three hours of sleep that night. It wasn’t because of the light coming in through the heavy window shades or the noise of the late-night revellers outside. No, it was because I had to wake up early for the Golden Circle tour.
But first I had to do what I do best: eat. I headed down to the ground floor restaurant to partake of the breakfast buffet, which had an impressive spread. Everything from freshly baked bread with delicious blackberry jam, to bright orange smoked salmon with cream cheese and cucumbers, to scrambled eggs, a cheese platter, and a yogurt bar lined the counter. It was buffet bliss.
The hearty meal served me well for the long day on the Golden Circle tour. By the time I got back to the city, though, I was in need of more sustenance. This came in the form of Dill restaurant in Reykjavik. A foodie friend had recommended it to me, saying that it was the best meal he had eaten in a long time. I was excited.
Dill restaurant was located in the sleek Nordic House, a building on the outskirts of the city center designed in 1968 by the famous Finnish architect Alvar Aalto. The restaurant was on the ground floor, and offered great views of Reykjavik across a duck-filled pond.
Dinner was a tasting menu that started with the most amazing butter I have ever had. Whipped and white, it was infused with pine nut oil and topped with pine needles and gray salt. It was absolutely perfect for the Icelandic atmosphere. I could have eaten a whole bowl of it.
But I didn’t. I also had a salad of local shrimp, a main of Icelandic beef, and a dessert of strawberries and rhubarb with ice cream. Most of the produce was grown in the restaurant’s garden, which was no small feat in such a cool climate. The meal was a winner.
After dinner I went back to the hotel to sleep. I felt a little guilty for not taking part in the famous Reykjavik nightlife scene, but between the jet lag and the food coma, I was just too tired.
The next morning I woke up to a beautiful sunny day. After another go at the breakfast buffet, I stepped outside the hotel and soaked up the strong sun. Turning right, I headed to the shopping street for a bit of Reykjavik sightseeing.
The street was lined with boutiques, hotels, restaurants, cafes, and sporting goods stores. Between the wide tree-lined road, the fresh, clean air, and the scarcity of people, it felt like a Scandinavian version of Lake Tahoe or Jackson Hole in the summertime. I loved it.
My Reykjavik sightseeing walk took me past the beautiful Hallgrimskirkja Church, down another street with art galleries, souvenir shops, and quirky cafes, and through an indoor fish-and-flea market.
It took me by a tall ship with its stately masts standing proudly in the sunshine, through rows of cafes packed with brunching locals, and beside a large pond filled with ducks and seagulls.
All along the walk, I passed by brightly colored houses with corrugated metal siding, concrete buildings painted blue or white, and beautiful new constructions made of glass.
The entire city looked as if it had been built in the last 50 years, and the place was so clean that even a stray coke can sitting on a park bench looked like art.
After exploring Reykjavik, I stopped at the quirky Laundromat Cafe to sit outside and enjoy a quick drink. Then I walked back to 101 Hotel, picked up my bags, and caught the bus to Keflavik.
The 45-minute drive to the airport went by beautiful scenery and colorful coastline, reminding me of the natural wonders of Iceland that attract so many visitors. But I was happy to have had a day in the capital, and glad that I had given Reykjavik’s cool hotels, excellent restaurants, and great sightseeing their due.