Reykjavik has so many natural wonders, gastronomic delights and cultural highs, you won’t know where to start, says Scott Dunn’s Iceland expert Sébastien Tranchand
Until 2010, many saw Iceland as a quirky tourist destination in the North Atlantic whose gargantuan natives perennially fared well in the World’s Strongest Man competition. That was until its largest volcano, Eyjafjallajökull, erupted after two centuries of dormancy, closing European airspace for a week and putting an end to what tourism the country had in the process. This was a blessing in disguise. The Icelandic government’s subsequent “Inspired by Iceland” marketing campaign was a huge success. The following summer the country enjoyed its busiest tourism season to date, and hasn’t slowed down since. Today, tourism alone makes up one-third of the country’s economy. “There’s something mighty about Iceland that makes it so easy to market,” says Sébastien Tranchand, Scott Dunn’s representative in Reykjavik. “It’s a combination of the extreme landscapes [the glaciers, volcanoes and ice caves], the Viking history, and the fact that Iceland now offers some of the world’s best adventure tourism.”
Tranchand, a former journalist from Lyon in France, first visited Iceland in 2011 to take part in a 70km endurance race. Two years later, suitably impressed by the culture and pace of life he witnessed during his short stay, he emigrated there (surprising fact: Iceland was the inspiration for Led Zeppelin’s Immigrant Song). “It just seemed like a weird island with a lot of interesting stuff to find out about,” he remembers. “I didn’t plan to be here five years later, but it’s such a nice way to live, despite the cold.” For those – like Tranchand – in search of adventure, Iceland is a land of opportunity. “Where else can you heli-ski from the top of a mountain all the way down to the ocean?” he asks proudly, before answering his own question. “The same place you can go lava-tube caving, snowmobiling, glacier-hiking and kayaking. Or, if you want a more relaxing time, there are the hot springs, the Northern Lights, and, of course, Reykjavik itself.”
While most visitors treat the capital as a base from which to explore the rest of the island, Reykjavik has kept up with the demands of a booming tourism trade. Last year, Dill became the city’s first restaurant to earn a Michelin star, while four others were named in the Michelin Guide. New hotels, museums and markets are constantly popping up, but the city refuses to pander to the more imprudent demands of tourism. You will not find a single McDonald’s or strip club anywhere on this island. Instead, the focus is on high-end Nordic design, which complements some of the most magnificent landscapes on Earth.
A 40-50 minute hike down the coast from downtown Reykjavik is the rocky islet of Grótta. During low tide you can walk out to the lighthouse – it’s a brilliant spot to see the Northern Lights as it’s so dark. The best time to see them there is between November and February. Even in summer, Grótta is good to visit with excellent views over Faxafloi Bay at sunset. The hiking and wildlife are fantastic too.
Iceland’s restaurant scene is seriously gathering pace. There are so many up-and-coming chefs, but a trusted one would be Lárus Gunnar Jónasson at Fish Company. His restaurant, in the cosy cellar of the 1884 Zimsen building, serves exquisite local and world cuisine (mostly fish, but other delights too) made from the country’s best produce. It’s a high-end restaurant that’s not too fancy (ie, no need to dress up). Always interesting, it will never disappoint.
Reykjavik isn’t renowned for its parks, mainly because you don’t need them when you have such amazing nature so close by. That said, my favourite is Laugardalur (hot spring valley) Park, where the local women used to wash their clothes in the springs. Nowadays, you’ll find the city’s largest outdoor thermal pool there, along with a zoo, an indoor skating rink and the botanical gardens, which, in summer, boast a wonderful selection of unusual Arctic plants and flowers.
The Lava Centre is a new interactive attraction in Hvolsvöllur, about an hour outside Reykjavik – and totally worth the trip. It’s the best place to learn about volcanoes and earthquakes, as well as how eruptions and lava flows, volcanic and rift systems, faults and glacial floods have formed Iceland. It’s an obvious one for the kids, but equally fascinating for adults.
Perlan is one of the country’s new, ambitious museums. Built around six enormous hot water tanks, Perlan has constructed an ice cave within the building – the first of its kind in the world. For me, though, the highlight was the café on the observation deck, which offers a stunning panoramic view over Reykjavik, best enjoyed with a hot coffee (Icelandic coffee is famously great). Look out, too, for the new planetarium, which opens in May.
Nauthólsvík is a man-made geothermal beach in Reykjavik that is popular all year round. People swim there even on the coldest days. In winter, the water is almost freezing (the air can be much colder), but there are hot tubs and a steam bath, so you’re never shivering for long. When it’s really cold, it’s an exhilarating experience, for sure.
Ninety per cent of the time, most people seeking Iceland’s best scenery will head for the Golden Circle – a 300km circular route looping Reykjavik into the southern uplands. However, I would recommend the Reykjanes Peninsula, located on a drift zone between two continents: the North American and Eurasian plates. The landscapes are amazing – hot springs, geysers, mountains, small lakes, stunning cliffs and loads of wildlife – all concentrated in a smaller area. For some reason, tourists are always sold the Golden Circle, but this is more than on a par and, being so close to Reykjavik, would be a shame to miss.
These themed hotspots are spread across two floors of a recently renovated historical building in central Reykjavik. Downstairs, Burro is a South American-inspired tapas and steak restaurant, an excellent place to start the evening. Upstairs, Pablo’s Discobar is an incredible 1970s-themed cocktail bar with tropical décor and a wide selection of interesting drinks. It’s not too raucous, but there’s plenty of fun to be had...
This is a trendy new haunt in downtown Reykjavik, in what used to be a main bus terminal. Some of the city’s best restaurants have opened stalls there, offering street-food interpretations of what they do best. There are lots of Icelandic stands – look out for Skál! (Cheers!) and its experimental cocktails – but also Mexican, Vietnamese and Thai stalls. Who knows, you might even fancy an ice cream.
Because Iceland has so many sheep, woolly jumpers have become part of the national identity. The Handknitting Association of Iceland sells traditional woollen sweaters called lopapeysa. With their trademark “yoke” pattern and earthy colours, they make great souvenirs. The store also sells blankets, hats and gloves, made from artisans around the country, as well as knitting supplies, in case you feel the urge to take up the craft yourself.
To arrange your tailor-made trip to Iceland, call 020 8682 5080, or visit scottdunn.com/reykjavik