“When you live in Iceland,” our taxi driver told us, “you have to know how to live. Our winters are so long and so dark that we have to appreciate every hour of sun we can get.”
Natasha, my friend since high school, and I were en route to Vesturbæjarlaug, a sundlaug (community pool) recommended by our city tour guide the day before. It’s a twenty-minute walk from downtown Reykjavik and we might have made the trek by foot had we not gone horseback riding that morning. What we thought was going to be a one-hour stroll turned into a three-hour rambling tölt, a gait specific to Icelandic horses that’s supposed to be very smooth but I’m not sure that our tushes would agree.
Before getting into the pools, we stripped down and washed off the horse farm thoroughly. Very thoroughly.
In addition to a lap pool complete with red twisty slide was a series of heated tubs. We entered the largest tentatively, securing empty spots on a bench, and quickly found a powerful jet for for an aquatic shoulder and neck massage. An older gentleman struck up a conversation and when we told him we had been horse back riding, he laughed: “You should be using the jet on your ass!”
Surrounded by murmurs and laughter among groups – families, friends, neighbors – our muscles relaxed as we each found comfortable positions, leaning on the walls, heads back, sun shining. We followed a circuit of hot pots and I eventually and gingerly made my way into the hottest – a literally steaming 111ºF.
No, that’s not one of the pools – it’s Strokker geyser, silly!
The communal feel continued for the next hour and a half, as one silver-haired green-suited woman encouraged me to plunge from the heat into the polar (get it?) opposite pool at a frigid 8ºC. Yes, yes, it’s 46ºF, but gosh, doesn’t it sound chillier in celsius?
My first numbing dip was to my knees, second to my belly button, third past my shoulders, punctuated by visits to progressively hotter hot spots. The final time, stopping just short of my chin, I glanced up to see my cheerleader give me a thumbs up. As I rushed out, she smiled: “It takes me three tries also!”
Afternoon turned to evening but the sky barely changed. As our fingers and toes wrinkled beyond recognition, we took one last pass at the jets and then joined a bevy of teens stretched out in a warm shallow pool. Half-immersed in the one-foot deep water, we turned our heads skyward, suntanning.
Natasha and Gayle’s guide to Reykjavik, Iceland
Eat and drink
Icelandic food is on the heavier side – while there’s a lot of fish, local produce seems to be largely limited to root vegetables and some berries. It did pay to seek out a few nicer places for dinner that had interesting takes of traditional fare. The restaurants never rush you, and you have to ask for your check. We ate dinner late every night because we had pretty full days and making reservations the day before or the day of usually meant that 9 pm was the only available time. That said, it’s light until around midnight, so eating at 9 pm didn’t feel late.
Breakfast, lunch, and coffee
Sandholt. Great bakery on the “main strip” – Laugavegur. We ate our first (breakfast) and last (lunch) meals there and this was a prefect way to bookend our trip. Amazing breads and other baked goods – we should have eaten more! Ask for lemon curd with your skyr – you won’t be sorry.
Gló. When you’re jonesing for some fresh, raw vegetables, head to gló. The entrees are served with a selection of salads and you could probably get by with just the salads for a light lunch.
Reykjavik Roasters. I got my daily morning fix here as it was across from my hotel and they take their coffee very seriously. The baristas are nice (and cute) and the cafe has an eclectic living room feel, complete with wooden trunk turned table in front of lounge-y couch. It’s a little off the beaten path, but if you’re in the neighborhood, it’s worth checking out. And if the coffee doesn’t get you, the avocado toast will.
Dinners (in order of preference)
Matur go Drykkur. This was one of our favorite dinners and we had tasting menus (they even have a vegetarian one!) which included two desserts, including twisted kleina doughnuts with whey caramel (!!! – I found a recipe if you want to try your hand at making yogurt and then using the whey) and, surprise surprise, skyr with strawberries and green strawberry granita. I had one of the most gorgeous (and tasty) cocktails made with chervil (which I kept mispronouncing as chevril). The restaurante has an open kitchen and is cute inside, but it’s a storefront in the middle of a parking lot and the entrance is through a hotel. Do make a reservation – we made one the night before and only 9 pm was available, and they were turning parties away at the door.
Fiskelagid. Despite the uninspiring name (it means Fish Company), this place served another favorite dinner of ours. The restaurant is down a flight of stairs and the indoor seating is subterranean and a little cave-like, but it works. We opted to skip the tasting menus, and our skyr dessert featured a caramelized blondie, lemony sorrel crystals (ahem, granita) and merengue, and hazelnut gelato. Again, a reservation is probably a good idea – we made ours at the last minute, and like almost every other night, the only time we were able to eat was at 9 pm.
Laekjarbrekka. We had a very good dinner here on our fist night, perhaps a bit less innovative than the first two restaurants I mentioned and with an older, mostly local clientele. I had arctic char with a hollandaise sauce – a bit of an odd combination but the fish was great. This is the place that started our skyr obsession, served with a scoop of blueberry sorbet and oatmeal crumbles – the inspiration for the recipe in my next post.
Loki. Right across from Hallgrimskirkja church, this casual spot serves homey traditional food and the super dense, moist rye bread – similar to Boston brown bread – that steams overnight in a geothermally-heated dirt “oven.”
CityWalk tour. This free two-ish hour walking tour of Reykjavik was a great way to get to know the city and I recommend trying to do it on your first day. Our guide was a grad student in art history, knowledgable, and, like my coffee dude, cute to boot. After the tour, he sent us a list of suggested places to visit, eat, drink, etc. We had originally booked a walking tour with Kex Hostel but after paying and arriving, we were told that the tour not offered and should have never been available on the website. The tour coordinator there told us about the CityWalk tour and, after a little bit of coaxing, cheerfully drove us to the starting point.
Eldhestar. Combination horse farm and hotel. They have a variety of horseback riding options through their rustic fields and creeks, and seem to cater to a lot of experience levels. We went with the newby crowd and were able to try the famous tölt gait. If you ride Kria, beware the shifting saddle. Included in our tour (horses and puffins) was a simple lunch at the hotel – they have soup every day and a basic sandwich bar that included some welcome vegetable, nothing fancy but enough to tide us over. Our ride was notably longer than the 1.5-2 hour advertised. They will lend you boots and rain jumpsuits which we foolishly declined and both ended up throwing out our sneakers and jeans (the horses seem to delight in wiping their grass- and snot-covered nostrils on our legs). Try to get a fly net for your face, otherwise you may end up eating a few insects. The farm picked us up at our hotel.
Puffins! Our one hour puffin tour was led by Special Tours. The boat ride was a fun way to see the adorable little birds (they have powerful binoculars onboard for anyone to use) and catch a different view of the city.
Golden circle. This is the bare minimum of nature-based touring that anyone visiting Iceland must do. It includes the geysers of Haukadalur (Geysir is the original geyser, though it’s not as active as it once was, so we saw Strokker instead which erupts every 5-10 minutes), Gulfoss Falls, and Þingvellir National Park (where the North American and European tectonic plates meet). We booked our trip with Reykjavik Excursions which was good – we opted for the later departure (10 am) highlights-only trip, because jet lag.
Harpa. Meaning “harp,” this concert hall and performance center is a stunner from outside and in. It’s won a bunch of architecture awards and was apparently built to demonstrate that Iceland was coming out of its financial difficulties. We saw a funny, cheesy one-man show that was a good tongue-in-cheek introduction to Icelandic culture.
Reykjavik 871 +/-2: The Settlement Exhibition. This small museum is at the site of an archeological dig of what is thought to be one of the first houses in Iceland from the time when the island was settled (in 871 CE). We serendipitously caught a tour and the whole thing took about an hour including some wandering time. They have a bunch of games and interactive exhibits for kids and, well, kids like us.
Hallgrimskirkja. Tall church and national monument that apparently has great views. We didn’t make it up. Apparently they have a mediation with organ on Thursdays from 12:00 – 12:30 which I would have liked to go to, but we ran out of time.
Go to as many geothermal and community pools as you can. Enough said.
Blue Lagoon. Super touristy and you should go anyway. This is a natural geothermal pool – it sinks of sulfur, but you get used to it pretty quickly. Do the silica mud mask, pay a few dollars for the algae mask as well. Let them take your photo – they’ll make you look pretty, and email the picture to you. There’s a restaurant inside – LAVA – that’s supposed to be very good but we weren’t in the mood for a fancy sit-down lunch. You need a reservation for the lagoon (we booked the comfort package which includes a towel) and any tour company can schedule it for you along with transportation. Many people go straight there from the airport since it’s so close, but I’m not quite sure about the luggage storage situation. Even with a reservation, the line to get in took at least 15 minutes, but once inside everything runs really smoothly. If you want to get a massage or other spa service, you need to book in advance. Unlike other pools, the shower here have doors if you’re squeamish about that sort of thing.
Vesturbæjarlaug. This is a community pool recommended by our walking tour guide. He said it’s a 20 minute walk from City Hall (near the bottom of Laugavegur) where our tour ended, but we took a taxi from our hotel. This is the real deal if you want to feel like part of the neighborhood. The multiple pools are chlorinated and at various temperatures. The majority seem to be in the 36º-38ºC range while there are a few “hot pots” reaching up to 44CºC and a cold bath for quick dips (or, if you’re a native, a nice long soak). Be prepared to shower and wash in your birthday suit in a single-sex room.
Salt. There is a wide variety of locally harvested salt. Norður is a flaky sea salt – think of it as the Maldon of Iceland. Saltver also makes a fleur-de-sel like product, but I opted their interestingly flavored more chunky salts (about the consistency of Diamond kosher salt) and picked up a pretty jar of birch-smoked in a 10-11 convenience store (think 7-Eleven) which had a much lower price than tourist or grocery (Bónus) stores. I also bought no-name black lava salt in a souvenir shop.
Blue Lagoon skin care products. We hemmed and hawed when we saw the price of the silica mud mask but on the last day of our trip, we broke down and each bought a tube. I’ve used it since the trip and I’m happy I ended up splurging – the mask just feels so good! If you don’t pick anything up at the lagoon itself, there’s a store on Laugavegur and one in the airport. Prices are the same everywhere.
Chocolate. Omnom is a loved the salted almond. I even tried the licorice chocolate bar by accident and I did not hate it. Definitely buy at the grocery store and there happened to be a pretty good deal at dutyfree in the airport. Apparently they have a factory tour – next time, definitely next time. Nói Síríus is the oldest and largest chocolate manufacturer in Iceland and they make an addictive milk chocolate bar with toffee bits.
Licorice (“lakkrís”) everything. Ok, not for me but it’s everywhere and in everything.
Hotel Klettur. We booked this in a deal with our flight and were very happy with it. The hotel is located about two blocks from the top of Laugavegur, so it was quiet and peaceful and still really convenient. We had a fairly basic room with a view of the water and the all-important blackout curtains. A breakfast buffet was included – it was decent and held us over, though I did get my coffee across the street at Reykjavik Roasters.
Icelandair Hotel, Reykjavik Marina. We didn’t stay here, but we had coffee at Kaffislippur, and wandered around the funkiest hotel common spaces I’ve ever seen: musical instruments hanging over a stairwell, a library, screening room with loungers, gym with a climbing wall, and who knows what else. There’s also a lot of public art around the hotel.