Iceland is probably one of the most popular destinations for lovers of nature and outdoor activities. The huge variety of different landscapes, the coexistence of powerful and contrasting natural forces, the mighty waterfalls, volcanoes and fumaroles scattered everywhere make it a must-see destination for a nature trip. But Iceland also has an interesting and often underestimated urban side. A real on-the-road trip to the island can only begin with its capital city, Reykjavík, which will surprise you with the hospitality of its people, its wide range of cultural and musical offerings and its modern and creative culinary scene.
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Iceland is one of the most popular destinations for lovers of nature and outdoor activities. Its geological features and geographical location make it a must for lovers of nature and its many contrasts. If you try to ask anyone who has been here to tell you about their trip to Iceland, they will certainly tell you about the Geysers, the impressive waterfalls, the black sand beaches and the volcanoes ready to awaken at any moment. But Iceland also has an interesting, and often underestimated, urban side. Europe’s (and perhaps the world’s) most northerly capital is not only an essential starting point for an island road trip, but also a concentration of contradictions to be discovered and explored. Here, traditional dwellings clad in coloured sheet metal are flanked by modern, futuristic constructions in glass or concrete, the tradition of Icelandic sagas is accompanied by modern musical culture, and the city knows how to show a touch of modernity at every corner, skilfully mixed with a deep respect for tradition. One of the city’s most interesting scenes is certainly the gastronomic one, which in recent years has been able to grow and export internationally renowned professionals and many innovative products. Unlike the rest of the island, where the spirit of adaptation and sharing is king, Reykjavík can really satisfy all types of travellers: here you will find luxury hotels and small budget hotels, big international brands and craft shops, designer boutiques and vintage shops. And even at night, the city never rests, offering visitors and locals a wide variety of entertainment and a rich and innovative music scene.
Arriving by airplane
Most travellers choose to reach Iceland by flight. The island is well connected to the rest of Europe and Switzerland by the national airline Icelandair. All flights from abroad land and depart from Keflavík Airport, located about 50 km from the capital Reykjavík. During the summer, a domestic flight to the northern city of Akureyri also departs from Keflavík. The airport has rental counters for all major international rental companies. You can therefore easily pick up your rental car here. By car, the city of Reykjavík is about 50 minutes away. However, if you have chosen an alternative means of transport or if you prefer to pick up your rented car in the city, you can also reach Reykjavík in about 45 minutes by a comfortable express bus service at a cost of about CHF 22,00. In addition, the airport is also connected to the capital by regular buses. This is certainly the cheapest connection option (the ticket costs about CHF 14), but it is undoubtedly also the slowest (about 90 minutes). Finally, a taxi service is of course available at the airport, but this option is by far the most expensive. All informations are available here.
Arriving by ship
Iceland can also be reached by sea. Those who choose this option usually arrive on the island as part of a North Sea cruise. In fact, there are many routes that, starting from the main port cities of northern Europe, stop in Reykjavík or even circumnavigate the whole island making some strategic stops in Akureyri and Ísafjörður. Obviously this is a travel option that does not offer any freedom in the choice of attractions to visit or things to do on the island. It is therefore only advisable for those who do not wish to spend more than a short stay in well-selected tourist destinations.
Upon arrival, the island looks arid and deserted from the plane. The vast wasteland of dark rock, lying just below the wings of the plane, is certainly the first frame of our holiday in Iceland, as well as a clear foretaste of what we will see in the coming days on the island.
The international airport of Keflavík is not very big but it is efficient: upon our arrival we have no difficulty in retrieving our luggage and reaching the rental counters to pick up the car. After the usual bureaucratic formalities, we leave the terminal to go and collect the car at the car park. There is an unexpectedly cold wind outside. We visit Iceland in August and the weather is not so bad this time of year, but the icy, strong north wind is probably the thing that surprises us most and will be with us for the longest time on the island. The rental car assigned to us for this trip is a Dacia Duster which, as an affordable 4X4, is quite popular among renters in these parts. This one, however, is very dated, so that we have doubts as to whether it will be able to keep us company until the end of our stay… or will it? You will find out in the next posts about Iceland 😉
So, with our suitcases in the boot, we finally left for Reykjavík, capital of the island and first stop of our on-the-road tour! For our visit to the city, we chose the Icelandair (yes, the airline!) Group’s Reykjavík Marina hotel as our base. The hotel is located in the city’s port district, one of the most modern and lively in Reykjavík. The structure is officially classified as four stars, but the furniture of the rooms is decidedly simple and essential, in perfect Nordic style. However, we found a good hotel, clean and well maintained, with a good quality breakfast and a decent variety of food. In addition, the location is perfect for those who want to leave the car and walk around the city.
The heart of the city: Old Reykjavík and Tjörnin Pond
The heart of Reykjavík is undoubtedly its old town, which is also the starting point for many guided walking tours. But if you expect to see imposing historical stone buildings and ancient monuments, you will be disappointed. Reykjavík, in fact, is not a conventional city: the pragmatism of its people, the essential design typical of the Nordic countries and centuries and centuries of natural disasters and daily struggle with the forces of nature have shaped a city that focuses on simplicity and practicality. Of course, you will also find some historical buildings in the city, but you will certainly be more amazed by the cheerful little houses with gardens that make up the city centre and the crowded shopping streets. Among the historical buildings, certainly worth a visit is the Alþingi, an elegant building that is now the seat of the Icelandic Parliament, and the Raðhús, the city hall. But the heart of the district is undoubtedly the Tjörnin pond, home to a huge variety of migratory bird species including swans, geese and terns. In winter, the frozen lake becomes a popular skating rink. The southern shore of the lake is also occupied by several parks, which, with their well-kept paths, are the perfect destination for an afternoon stroll. If you’re a shopaholic, Icelandic design and style has been very popular in recent years. Be sure to visit the city’s many shops, craft workshops and fashion ateliers. The city’s main shopping streets are Laugavegur, Austurstraeti, Laekjargata and Skolavordustigur.
Its silhouette dominates the city skyline and is the true symbol of Reykjavík in the world. We are talking about the great Lutheran church of Hallgrímskirkja. Designed by one of Iceland’s most famous architects, Guðjón Samúelsson, the church has always been the subject of controversy between those who consider it a worthy expression of Icelandic style and those who simply consider it ugly and overly conspicuous. The white concrete building is about 75 metres high and its facade is made up of slender columns placed side by side which, in Samúelsson’s intentions, are intended to recall the basalt rocks of volcanic origin so present on the island. Built between 1945 and 1986, its spectacular exterior contrasts with a sober and austere interior where the only decorative element is an enormous organ with more than 5,000 pipes. From mid-June to the end of August, you can hear it playing by stopping to listen to one of the organ concerts. But the highlight of the church is undoubtedly its bell tower: when the weather is fine, you can climb to the top of the tower via a convenient lift. From up there, you can enjoy a wonderful panoramic view of the city. Interestingly enough, the church is named after Hallgrímur Pétursson, a 17th century poet and author of the Passion Hymns, a true cornerstone of local literature.
Here you can find information on opening hours.
Harpa Concert Hall and the Sun Voyager
The Harpa concert hall and conference centre is certainly an emblem of Iceland’s modernity and desire for experimentation, but it is also a reminder of the country’s desire for redemption and rebirth after the severe economic crisis of 2008-2011, which hit here harder than in the rest of Europe.
With its glass facades perfectly reflecting the waters of the harbour and the sky, the building is certainly one of Reykjavík’s must-see tourist attractions and a fixed stop on all guided tours of the city. In 2013, the building won the Mies van der Rohe, one of Europe’s most prestigious awards for contemporary architecture. Obviously, we suggest you visit it, perhaps at dusk, when the colours of the twilight make it all the more impressive. We were lucky enough to visit Reykjavík during Gay Pride and seeing the building surrounded by waving rainbow flags was a pleasant surprise.
Finally, if you’re not too tired, we suggest you continue along the promenade for another 500 metres. Here you will find the famous Sun Voyager, a steel sculpture by artist Jón Gunnar Árnason. It represents an old Viking ship, but what is really striking is its location. If you can be here at sunset, you’ll understand why this work of art, despite its simplicity, is so photographed by the many tourists who visit the city every year.
The Blue Lagoon
Over the years, the Blue Lagoon has become a must-see for anyone visiting the city and we don’t think we know anyone who has been to Iceland and missed it. So we included an afternoon of relaxation here in our on-the-road tour, taking care to pre-purchase tickets online. However, we would not recommend a visit, except in special circumstances. The place is obviously very beautiful and the lagoon is certainly fascinating, but to be honest what has remained indelibly in our memory after the visit – apart from the prohibitive cost of the ticket – is the enormous chaos of visitors, the exhausting queue for entry and the total lack of living space even in the changing room. The Blue Lagoon is, in fact, a tourist attraction in its own right, one of the most visited in Iceland moreover, and therefore a destination not only for individual visitors and families who find themselves here on holiday, but also a fixed destination for the many tour buses of the organized trips that punctually end their days here.
So the question is: to go or not to go to the Blue Lagoon? Here’s our suggestion: if you’re planning a trip to Iceland of just a few days’ duration, and if you don’t want to stray far from the city of Reykjavík and its surroundings, then the Blue Lagoon will probably be the only option available for a warm bath in Icelandic thermal waters. In this case, the advice is to go but to absolutely avoid the afternoon hours, which are the most popular with tourist buses.
If, on the other hand, you are planning an on-the-road trip around the island, then you should leave the Blue Lagoon alone! Iceland is full of spas, both well-equipped and unequipped, and you’ll find plenty of inexpensive and authentic ones along the way. There are also plenty of hot pools where you can bathe safely in idyllic natural surroundings. In the next posts, we’ll tell you about our experience 😉
However, on google you can find many “unofficial” maps of the main Icelandic “Hotsprings”. If, on the other hand, you decide to opt for the Blue Lagoon, you can find all the information here.
Iceland, especially Reykjavík, has a high cost of living, as is usual in Nordic countries. A holiday here can be really expensive! If you can’t do much about renting a car or flying, you can save a lot of money on food. We managed very well by buying long-life food from supermarkets for our lunches to eat while we explored the city. In our experience, the cheapest supermarkets with good quality products are those of the ‘Bonus’ chain (famous for their piggy bank logo) and the ‘Kronan’ chain. In addition, bottled water is very expensive here and, since tap water is of excellent quality, it is almost impossible to find bottled water that is not flavoured. The advice, therefore, is to take water bottles with you and fill them up daily at the hotel.
One of Reykjavík’s most curious attractions is certainly the Icelandic Phallological Museum. And yes, you will find exactly what you are thinking about: a collection of “phallological” specimens belonging to Icelandic mammals (apparently among them there is also humans! :-)).
We, although intrigued by the bizarre theme, were not able to visit this museum. But you don’t miss the chance to see this crazy exhibit and, if you do it, let us know by leaving a comment below or, if you want it, by writing an article to publish on our blog!