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?
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.