Reykjavik changed my view of travel forever. I’m a real lover of Northern Europe, and I love the brisk air and the festive pines adorning mainland Scandinavia. Yet, there is something very different, and very special, about Reykjavik. The land of fire and ice really does evoke the mythical, magical images of the ‘little folk’ of Iceland scurrying through the rocky landscape.
Never before has my stomach flipped so violently upon stepping out of a plane. This was, in part, down to the shock of the intense cold (in April, when I went, temperatures linger around freezing), but also thanks to the distant glow of Reykjavik, visible from the airport. At night, there is a whisper of anticipation through 101 Reykjavik, the downtown area, as people hurry between bars and pubs to enjoy Reykjavik’s buzzing social scene. During the day, it is an explosion of colour and life, with streets flanked with gorgeous, rainbow-coloured houses, and unpredictable weather adding to the inexplicable sense of excitement.
I stayed at Einholt Apartments, a short walk from Central Reykjavik, and only a minute or so from the main bus station, meaning it is ideally located for getting around. The apartment was compact, clean and cosy, and there was a small kitchenette area, which was extremely useful, given how expensive Icelandic food can be. Having internet access in the room was also a nice touch. At the time I stayed, it was around £40 a night for a double room, which was more than reasonable.
The big attraction of Reykjavik is, without a doubt, Blue Lagoon. The geothermally heated pool is filled with milky blue water, reaching temperatures of up to 40 degrees Celsius. Despite mine being a budget trip, it would be criminal not to splash out extra to swim in the Blue Lagoon. The experience of wading through an outdoor pool, watching the snow melt as it enters the steamy vicinity, is one of the most exhilarating encounters of my life.
Next would probably come the famous Golden Circle tour. This trip takes you to Strokkur, a highly active geyser, embedded in rugged, undulating hills. It spouts jets of boiling water every five minutes, unlike the less active Geysir, which used to project 80ft fountains in its heyday. Also on the agenda is Gullfoss, a regal waterfall, with a churning, violent river cascading over the rocks. On sunny days, the spray reveals a rainbow arching across the water. The final major stop is Thingvellir, the old Viking Parliament meeting ground. A real highlight is being shown the site of tectonic activity, where the Mid-Atlantic Ridge is pulling the country in two, causing a visible crack to form in the ground.
Food and drink in Reykjavik was surprisingly good. Granted: it’s expensive. It’s really expensive, actually. Of course, if you know where you’re looking, you can seek out some great meals at good value for money.
Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur, a tiny stand hidden away near the harbour, sells hotdogs generously covered in an array of classic Icelandic toppings. These are a must-eat: Bill Clinton has eaten here, and what’s good enough for him is easily good for the rest of us. They’re an absolute steal at 300kr, and dangerously addictive. Other eateries of note that won’t break the bank include Laundromat Café (amazing milkshakes), Sjávarbarinn (a very reasonable seafood buffet) and Tabasco’s, a bizarre Mexican-Icelandic hybrid (be warned: everything is insanely spicy, but totally delicious).
Other places of note include Hallgrímskirkja, the massive, imposing church standing at the top of a hill. It’s very modern and very intimidating, but the inside is surprisingly calm and sedate, and decorated in a classically Nordic, whitewashed fashion. For just a few krona, I went to the top of the church tower, for spectacular views over Reykjavik and the harbour. Please remember a hat if you decide to do this, as the wind is bitterly cold at this height, but it’s something you should definitely do.
The Reykjavik Card is a very useful purchase. It allows you free bus travel, along with free entry to most of the big museums, galleries and the zoo, and discounts at certain restaurants and shops. It also gives you free entry to the city’s swimming pools, which I tried. The pools themselves tend to be outdoor, and they can be quite chilly compared to Blue Lagoon, but there are lots of hot tubs to warm up in. The people of Reykjavik appear to love swimming, as every time I went, the pools were heaving with people, turning slightly blue as they moved between the pool and the hot tub, but not displaying the same wimpy signs of hypothermia as I was. I also used the Reykjavik Card for the zoo, which was a surprisingly sweet way to pass some time, with reindeer and an Arctic fox being the highlights.
Smekkleysa, located on the main street of Reykjavik, contains lots of albums and DVDs from Icelandic artists at very good prices, and is worth a visit if you want to avoid the overpriced souvenir shops. Likewise, the easily missed Little Christmas Shop slightly further down the road is open year-round, and stocks traditional festive ornaments, tree decorations and stockings, and contains lots of little gems to take home.
All in all, I couldn’t rate Reykjavik highly enough. I’ve never been anywhere as exciting and unique, or anywhere that I’ve wanted to explore more. Although it’s not always easy, with careful planning and a Reykjavik Card, you really can do Reykjavik on a budget. And I really, truly recommend that you do it.