How to Stopover in Reykjavík, Iceland

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A Brief History of Tourism in Iceland

In less than a decade, Iceland put itself on the travel map with its Icelandair Free Stopover campaign. Located right in the Midatlantic, why not spend a night or 7 in Reykjavík, the capital city, at no extra airfare charge when to-ing and fro-ing between North America and Europe?

IMG_0311Photo taken from the top of Hallgrímskirkja in city center Reykjavík in May 2012.

I can remember when a former colleague and her boyfriend went to Iceland back in autumn 2009, and we all looked at them and said a collective “Huh?!” We knew nothing about the country to be honest, and they were the first people we had ever heard of traveling there. Now, with 969,181 tourists visiting Iceland in 2014, mostly from the UK and the US but also from as far as Japan and China, I would venture to say that this type of anecdote is a thing of the past.

Something tells me the Icelandic tourism gods are trying something new now, though. It’s no longer about the Free Stopover but more about the Return Visit or the Extended Stay. ‘There’s more to see!’ was recently the tagline on the cover of Reykjavík Living.

My Iceland Stopover

But if you’re like me, traveling between North America and Greenland, then the whole Free Stopover thing is still highly relevant and, in fact, necessary. Unfortunately the ‘free’ part is not applicable since Icelandair does not yet fly onward to Greenland.

The first few times in Iceland I tried the classics like getting all purified and mud-masked in the Blue Lagoon, being the youngest by a handful of decades on the Golden Circle Bus Tour, and seeing how Glacier Walking in Iceland compares to Greenland.

But often my transit time in Iceland is during pretty odd hours of the day – like 3 AM to 5 PM or like 6 AM to 10 AM – so I stay close to city center most times. Which makes me a great source of info for how to kill it during a stopover!

Top 7 Must Do’s on a Reykjavík Stopover

Without further ado, here is my personal list of tried and true things to do in Reykjavík city center. So tried and true, in fact, that if I’m in the city, you’re almost guaranteed to find me at one of these places!

1. Shop the Strip

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Ravens shop at Laugavegur 15.

Did you know that Reykjavík means ‘place of 10,000 kitschy things’? Just kidding, it means ‘the smoky harbor’ (I think), but anyway the city is chock full of shopping opps!

Laugavegur is the main east-west thoroughfare in Reykjavík city center, and in summer time it is closed for cars and becomes a pedestrian street. You could literally spend hours making your way from shop to shop. There’s a lot of super touristy stores where you can buy all the Made in China puffin magnets and Viking helmets your heart desires, but there’s also plenty of small, locally owned clothing and gift shops.

Sorry in advance that this list is woman- and gift-oriented 🙂 Check out:

* Kronkron at Laugavegur 63 for technicolored designer Icelandic shoes. They are a bit pricy, but literally one of a kind.

* Systur & Makar at Laugavegur 40 for handmade cards, lotions, fun jewelry, and small gifts.

* Fóa at Laugavegur 2 for fish skin accessories, woolen and wooden wares, and bone jewelry.

* Ravens at Laugavegur 15 for Greenlandic designer clothing and authentic handmade beaded jewelry.

Also, don’t let the thought ‘Maybe I can find this in the airport tax free’ enter your mind for a minute. As long as you have a permanent address outside Iceland, anything you buy anywhere in Iceland (over 6000 ISK / 40 EUR / 45 USD) is eligible for a 14% tax refund. Ask the cashier for the tax refund receipt, fill it out, and drop it off in Keflavik International Airport.

2. Grab a Coffee

IMG_5590Te & Kaffi coffee shop at Laugavegur 27.

There are a ton of coffee shops around Reykjavík. It makes sense, right? How else are you expected to stay awake long enough to enjoy all 22 hours of sunlight in summertime?

Visit Café Babalú at Skólavörðustígur 22, a colorful building just downhill from Hallgrímskirkja, for organic juices and yummy dessert crepes. In summer the upstairs patio is sun-soaked, and in winter you’re invited to make yourself cozy and stay a while with board games and Chai Latte.

Also try Café Haiti at the harbor at Geirsgata 7c for strong coffee and a story about how a Caribbean found herself in Iceland.

Or go to Te & Kaffi at Laugavegur 27 and order yourself a pot of Lapsang Souchong, a.k.a. smoked tea and affectionately known in my world as ‘the best tea there ever was’.

3. Visit the Greenland Centre

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Greenland Centre at Laugavegur 96. Photo credit: glc.gl.

This shop at Laugavegur 96 is near and dear to my heart, for obvious reasons but also because it has such a welcoming atmosphere. Browse fine clothing and accessories made from Greenlandic animal skins like reindeer, seal, and muskox. Whether you are on your way to/from Greenland or still dreaming to check off this #1 Bucket List destination, chat with the owners about Greenland and particularly South Greenland, their specialty.

4. Stuff your Face

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Salted cod entrée at MAR at Geirsgata 9.

Maybe I sound redundant saying that Reykjavík is filled with this, that, and the other, but Reykjavík is also filled with tons of restaurants! In the US, I’m a diehard fan of the Eater websites to tell me the hot places to try, so without it in Reykjavík, I admit that I tend to stick to what I know.

I love Kaffi Sólon at Bankastræti 7a for the quiet atmosphere indoors and comfort food. They pared down their menu a bit recently so my favorite risotto dish is just a memory now, but they’ve got a super burger (that’s literally the name) and many fish dishes.

Fish Market at Aðalstræti 12 is a full dining experience great for groups, and you better go ahead and start some endurance training for your stomach now. Their tasting menu is something like 9 mouthwatering courses and can be shared between many people!

MAR at the harbor at Geirsgata 9 is nice for a swanky lunch!

5. Gaze at the Outdoor Art Museum

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And by outdoor art museum I mean the oh-so-colorful graffiti that is all over Reykjavík. Some are beautiful, some are scary, some are abstract, and some are thought provoking, but all have the artists’ hearts and souls behind them.

6. Catch a Concert

I’m told Iceland is a musically inclined country. Hmm, I didn’t know it. Just kidding! Most of the world probably knows Icelandic music because of Björk back in the 90’s and more recently because of Of Monsters and Men.

Hey, here’s a trip idea for you!

In mid-June, hit Iceland for the Summer Solstice Festival and then pop over to Greenland for National Day (21 June). Greenland celebrates achieving Self Rule Government from Denmark in style and sunshine on the longest day of the year! Kayaking competitions, live music, and barbecues are just some of the day’s activities, and they vary from town to town. Nuuk, the capital city, throws the biggest shindig and it is just a 3-hour flight from Reykjavík via either Air Greenland or Air Iceland. You could also reach Ilulissat, Kulusuk, and Narsarsuaq directly from Reykjavík.

7. Count the Cool Cars

IMG_6436Photo taken in December 2013.

The Land Rover Defender must be the national car of Iceland because it is everywhere. I’m sure it’s for function in wintertime, but if I lived here, I would have one for purely for fashion! Man, it looks good.

Want to read about hopping from one Arctic metropolis to another? Check out the City Hopping in the Arctic article I wrote for our Visit Greenland newsletter in 2014.

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7 thoughts on “How to Stopover in Reykjavík, Iceland

    • Thanks, forensictraveller, for the comment! Yes, it’s always a fun place to use as a stepping stone before and after Greenland, and it never fails to highlight for me how very unique Greenland really is.

      • Forensictraveller, I’m happy to hear Greenland is so high up on your travel list!

        “What is Greenland like?” Wow, that’s a big question! I guess in a sentence I could say:

        Greenland is a natural and cultural anomaly!

        There is a landscape unlike anywhere else on Earth with fantastic mountains and the massive Greenland Ice Sheet covering 80% of the landmass, which creates glaciers and icebergs all over the coastline.

        The people are welcoming, educated, and globally aware while simultaneously proudly maintaining their Inuit culture.

        In Greenland, there is just this feeling that you are in a very special place.

        Can I ask you, why do you travel? What are your interests when visiting foreign countries?

      • Hmm! Sounds just as amazing as I imagined it!

        Hmmm! Why do I travel? I think it’s because I have a curiosity about the way things work, the way people live. The way places have become the way they are. Usually I’m attracted to natural wonders, but I also enjoy adventurous things that aren’t too scary. Haha. I’m saying all this while on a boat heading back from the Great Barrier Reef off the coast of Queensland 🐠. I guess I just have an addiction to new experiences!

      • Forensictraveller,

        It sounds like your Globetrotter heart will find a home in Greenland! In terms of the cultural piece, you would love to see Nuuk, the capital, as well as a smaller place to get the full spectrum of understanding about how life used to be in Greenland (and still is in many settlements) and how life has grown to be in the bigger towns and capital city thanks to the fishing industry, tourism, and globalization.

        Of course, Greenland is also a huge nature destination – not only for travelers but for locals, too. There is no separating nature and culture in Greenland; they are one in the same!

        In a landmass the size of Western Europe, there are the same number of people living that can fit in a single football stadium. So to say that nature is the majority of Greenland is more than an understatement.

        There are many nature activities from day hiking to long distance trekking to glacier walking to sailing to kayaking to fishing to snowshoeing to skiing (downhill & cross country) to dog sledding! There are even people who have done SCUBA diving around icebergs, but they are primarily self sufficient in terms of all their equipment.

        Well, I hope to see you in Greenland one day, forensictraveller!

  1. Pingback: Time flies when you do! But where does it go? | Adventures of a Polarphile

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