A Tale of Two Reykjavíks: The One we Love and the One we Love Less

The insider's guide to Iceland's edgy capital city.  
A Tale of Two Reykjavíks: The One we Love and the One we Love Less 3
Locals soak in the long outdoor hot tub at Nauthólsvík Geothermal Beach in Reykjavík. Photo: Nanna Dís

We can talk about two Reykjavíks. The wonderful one and the awful one, the one we love and the one we love less.

The tourists come to Iceland for the first one, but sometimes you see them stuck in the latter: stranded on a traffic island, in their tip-top winter gear, with only their noses poking out, trying hard to eye Google maps on their smartphones through the raging blizzard, on their way to see the Northern Lights.

But you can also spot, inside their heads, the bright image of a sunny midnight hour on the hotel roof, with a view out on the spectacular harbour and surroundings, the ocean a shiny mirror reflecting the sunset, while the downtown area is filled with bearded hipsters in suspenders making out with elfin beauties to the beat of the latest post-Björk band.

We used to be an isolated village with an attitude, but now we’ve become the must-do western Europe stopover. The Northern Lights have become a thriving business. Every morning thousands of foreigners come rushing through the airport arrival gates, eager to see the celestial fireworks. Only half of them will get lucky. Either they land in the good Reykjavík or the bad one.

The bars of Reykjavík constantly fill up with international crowds, in town for the Secret Solstice music festival or Airwaves or Reykjavík International Film Festival, the biennial Reykjavík Literature Festival, or Design March in spring. The most popular is New Year’s Eve, when locals put on one of the biggest displays of fireworks on Earth. For over an hour the city becomes the war zone it has never been.

Reykjavik Iceland

On grey days, buildings in the heart of Reykjavík bring the rainbow (left); Grillmarkaðurinn’s (right) menu features local products like trout and skyr. Photos: Cocoy and Pops Nabua (rainbow building), Slawek Kozdras (restaurant)

Best time to visit, though, is summer. This is the time of magical Reykjavík, when the city doesn’t sleep, when it’s party time for trees, birds, and people, when the sun hides only for an hour and comes up again in a new spot. You never know where you’ll see it the next time, and this is the core of Reykjavík’s soul: You never know what’s next. You never know what kind of city awaits you in the morning. It might have been spring last night, but today it’s winter. (“Autumn is early this year,” is a favourite survival joke in May and June.) And this rule of nature affects other things. Suddenly your bank has become a hotel, the supermarket a vinyl store. The parking garage has been turned into a hospital overnight, the slow traffic you’re honking at is actually a funeral procession, and by the way, Patti Smith is singing in the garden, while that young guy taking a selfie at the gas station is actually Justin Bieber.

Loving Reykjavík is easy. It’s very user-friendly, with no six-laned traffic or sweaty crowds at subway stations (there is no metro). Every commute is ten minutes max. And even though the city has become more international, it still preserves that village feel. You’re required to say “Hi!” at least five times as you head for brunch at fresh new Bergsson Mathús café, next to the parliament, or walk over to the Eymundsson bookstore for your afterlunch coffee and a browse through all the latest releases (the most well-known exports of Iceland seem to be fish and novels). For the more ambitious, a stroll through the stacks of old books at Bókin bookstore is a must. Then head for one of the many geothermally heated outdoor swimming pools and “hot pots,” the true pride of Reykjavík. (Besides the Hungarians and Japanese, Icelanders are the only people on Earth who go to the pool without taking a swim.)

Harpa Reykjavik Iceland

Talents as varied as pianist Víkingur Ólafsson and comic Russell Brand perform at Harpa concert hall. Photo: Gerald Haenel/Laif/Redux

Night time takes you for a ride down Sæbraut, our Sunset Boulevard, where you can inhale all the surrounding islands and mountains and get a glimpse of Höfði House, an old wooden charmer among all the pre-crash banks and glass-clad buildings on Borgartún Street (now nicknamed “Boulevard of Broken Dreams”). From there on to Harpa, our new and glassy concert hall, or to an opening at the uber-cool i8 Gallery. The most acclaimed international indie films can be enjoyed at wonderful Bíó Paradís. Happy hour is happiest at lively Snaps or Kaldi Bar, named after the best local beer.

Dinner is perfect at Fiskmarkaðurinn, owned by genius chef Hrefna Sætran, or the recently opened Matur og Drykkur, where another genius, Gísli Matthías Auðunsson, is experimenting with old-school Icelandic cuisine. For nightlife, head for Kaffibarinn if you think you’re young, or Ölstofan if you know your age.

The day after, you might awake to the less lovely Reykjavík. It rains up your nose, and the radio is talking about the resignation of the prime minister or yet another Ponzi scheme dreamed up by our infamous greed-masters, and you ask yourself if this is really your favourite town.

And after another moment you have to answer, “I guess so,” because Reykjavík is unlike any other city. There is no other capital this far from it all, yet this close to the action. It has the power of the outpost, the lure of the exotic, the charm of the old, and the edge of the new. If New York is an old (Big) Apple computer, then Reykjavík is an Oculus Rift.

Plus it’s the only city I know of that shuts down because of both a blizzard and the best day of summer.

Appeared in the September 2016 issue as “Tale of Two Reykjavíks”.


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Illustration: Tamer Koseli

Where The Locals Go

You can see my city best from the Hallgrímskirkja church.

Locals know to skip the Blue Lagoon and check out the heated outdoor swimming pools instead.

12 Tónar music store is the place to buy local souvenirs.

My city’s best museum is the 19th-century National Museum of Iceland because you never know what awaits you.

July is the best time to visit my city because the light is on 24 hours a day.

The dish that represents my city best is a hot dog “with everything” at Bæjarins Beztu, and the Kaffitár latte is my city’s signature drink. Sample it at Kaffitár café.

To find out what’s going on at night and on the weekends, read the Reykjavík Grapevine.

Notable people who have called my city home include the writer and Nobel laureate Halldór Laxness.

My city is known for being cool but it’s really warm.

  • Hallgrímur Helgason is the author of "101 Reykjavík" and "The Hitman’s Guide to Housecleaning". His latest novel, "The Woman at 1000°", will soon be available in English.

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