Iceland has never ranked so high on our cruise holiday agendas and its capital Reykjavik, the most northerly in the world, has become the hot ticket for an overnight stay. Here’s what to do while you are there, northern lights, Blue Lagoon and beyond.
Where to go in Reykjavik…
The Golden Circle
Mother Nature steals the show in Reykjavik, so it goes without saying that you’ll probably want to spend a decent chunk of your time here exploring the dramatic scenery. The Golden Circle loops almost 200 miles from Reykjavik, wrapping sights like Thingvellir National Park, Strokkur geyser and the Gullfoss waterfall up into one day-long tour that’ll leave you open-mouthed in amazement at the natural wonders of the world. If a day doesn’t quite scratch your itch for adventure in the great Icelandic outdoors, Cunard’s ‘Two-Day Overland Glacier Experience’ should do the job. One of the most scenic drives in the world takes you to the south coast of the island, where mountains, glaciers, black sand beaches and waterfalls vie for your attention.
Of course, you can’t talk about Iceland’s natural beauty without mentioning the Blue Lagoon, the geothermal spa whose luminous lagoon waters have become the country’s star attraction. There’s a history and science behind the aquamarine hot waters that linger around the 38-degrees mark all year round, but all you really need to know is that the mineral rich cocktail of silica, algae and sulphur has superhero-style healing powers. With shoulders soaked and face and body smeared in complexion-perfecting white geothermal mud, all the worries in the world feel a million miles away.
Iceland has become one of the fastest growing whale watching destinations on earth and its seas are teeming with around half of all 36 species found in European waters, including Blue, Fin, Humpback and Minke whales. The period from May to September offers the highest chance of spotting the magnificent creatures from the comfort of the boat’s deck, anticipation high and hot drink in hand.
If you’re looking for a totally unique experience in Iceland, snorkelling between tectonic plates in the clearest water in the world surely fits the bill. The famous Silfra fissure, caused by the separation of the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates, is considered one of the most unusual snorkelling sights in the world. Sure it’s cold, but with a wetsuit on and a truly beautiful scene below the surface, shivering will be the last thing on your mind.
Explore the capital
With so much to see outside of the city, it’d be easy to overlook the colourful capital itself but do so at your peril. Watch the mountains meet the ocean at the waterfront and eat waffles in chintzy cafes between perusing Scandi-chic boutiques. Alternatively, embark on your own walking tour of the city’s many museums and galleries, including the intriguing National Museum of Iceland, before joining the line for ‘the best hot dog in town’ at Baejarins betzu pylsur. Beef, pork and lamb sausages are piled with toppings and finished with a generous blob of remoulade; you’ve never had a hot dog quite like it.
Even if you haven’t yet made it to Reykjavik, Hallgrimskirkja will probably look familiar. The church is the poster image of Iceland and you’ll see it from most streets in the city. The column design of the exterior replicates the 49ft church organ within and while it is impressive from outside, the views of the city and mountains beyond from the observation tower inside are even better.
Where to eat in Reykjavik…
Ready your elastic waistbands because Icelandic cuisine is heavy on the good stuff. While it isn’t unusual to see the local delicacy of puffin meat on menus, less adventurous palates will find an abundance of more traditional meat and fish dishes too. The climate and remoteness of the destination means meals are simple yet satisfying, with fresh seafood and free-roaming lamb leading the charge.
Icelandic lamb lives the good life, running wild on luminous green fields and chowing down on sweet berries, creating a flavour that’s unforgettable. You’ll find the meat in many variations in restaurants around Reykjavik, from roasted chops with pistachio crumb at KOL, considered one of the city’s best restaurants, to laden with spices at Astur-Indiafjelagid, a hidden gem that combines Indian flavour with Icelandic ingredients and is great at warming you up from the inside out.
Fish is a staple in the diet of Icelandic families and restaurants serve it every which way, from stewed to boiled, fried to roasted, grilled and more. Fishing is the country’s biggest export but there’s plenty kept back by local gourmands to serve up in Reykjavik’s many seafood restaurants. Cod, Arctic char and salmon are popular, along with tender Icelandic langoustines; sample them in a creamy coconut fish soup at Fiskfelagid.
Finally, there is Skyr, Iceland’s signature cuisine and one which has found its way over to our own shores in recent years, the health-conscious raving about its high protein yet low-fat credentials. The Norwegian Vikings brought Skyr to Iceland way back in the 9th century and it remains popular to this day, enjoyed by Icelanders with a sprinkle of sugar or berries.
Where to go for a drink in Reykjavik…
Scandinavian cities take their coffee seriously and Reykjavik doesn’t deviate from the rule. There are plenty of quaint coffee shops but few offer as warm a welcome after a cold walk as Stofan. With velvet sofas, mismatched upholstered armchairs and well-trodden floorboards, Stofan could quite easily be confused for your Nan’s front room but the atmosphere is homely and the pastries hot. Look for the little yellow building on the corner.
Up until 1989, drinking beer was banned in Iceland, having been traditionally seen as wildly unpatriotic. Fortunately for craft beer lovers the scene has since changed and bars have sprung up around Reykjavik. Microbar is one of the oldest craft beer bars in the whole of Iceland and many of the beers on offer here can’t be found anywhere else on the island. Also worth a visit is Kaldi Bar; the first microbrewery in Iceland, its brews are crafted using natural spring water from the Sólarfjall mountain in the north.
Cocktail culture is still catching on in Iceland but Reykjavik recently welcomed its first dedicated cocktail bar. Slippbarinn sits in the foyer of the Hotel Marina and has already become popular for the home-made sugar syrups and fresh juices that go into its innovative concoctions.