When visiting Iceland, the highlight for most people is the natural beauty of the island nation. From the Golden Circle, Ring Road, and the Snæfellsnes Peninsula, there are some pretty amazing sights to be seen. But we also enjoyed our time in Reykjavik as well with its charming architecture and wonderful restaurants. Among the things that should be seen when spending time in Iceland are the Hallgrímskirkja, which is the church that looms high on a hill above the city, and the Cabinet House (Stjornarrad). The church has an observation tower that provides incredible views of the city, but we were there in winter and it was too cloudy to take advantage of the views.
There is a statue of Leif Erikson, the famous Icelandic explorer, located in front of Hallgrímskirkja that was a gift from the United States. The statue actually predates the church and was erected in 1930 to celebrate the 1000th anniversary of the first meeting of Iceland’s parliament. Construction of the church began in 1945 and took 41 years to complete in 1986. The design of the church is meant to represent the mountains and glaciers that can be found in the landscape of Iceland. The most prominent feature within the church, other than it’s high arching ceiling, is the large pipe organ that was added in 1992.
The history of the Cabinet House is quite interesting. The original intent of the building was to house homeless people and to find work for them. Instead, the Danish government that ruled Iceland until 1904 turned the house into a prison, which it was until 1816. After 1904, when Iceland was granted home rule, the house started to serve as the home of the government ministers. Today it still houses the offices of Iceland’s Prime Minister. In front of the Cabinet House is a statue of the Danish king, Christian IX, who was in rule in 1874 when Iceland celebrated a millennium of people occupying the island.
Visiting Iceland is definitely one of the most interesting trips that we have taken over the years. The people were extremely friendly and the scenery was absolutely amazing. We certainly recommend spending some time in Reykjavik in addition to seeing all of the natural beauty that the country has to offer.
We made Reykjavik our home base while we were in Iceland and it certainly offered everything that we needed. When we visit Iceland again in the future, and we expect that we will, we’ll probably stay in smaller towns in different parts of Iceland, but for our first trip, we’re glad that we were able to spend time in Reykjavik. We hadn’t been in Iceland for a full day before we had already vowed that we’d be returning and that a week was not enough time to see everything that we wanted to see in this beautiful country. From the very first person that we talked to upon our arrival in Reykjavik (not the airport, that was a different story) to the very last person, every interaction was genuinely friendly. The people were as helpful as in any city that we’ve ever visited and we never once worried about crime while we were there.
We drove into Reykjavik before the sun had started to rise, which was about 8:00 a.m. After one wrong turn, we quickly found our hotel and were fortunate enough that our room was available. We had requested an early check-in in advance, but were surprised to find that it was available that early. Additionally, our room included access to the executive lounge where we could get a cooked breakfast until 11:00 a.m. After grabbing a quick bite at the hotel, we walked into Old Town, which was about a fifteen minute walk from the hotel, a walk that we would make about eight or nine times over the course of our visit. Reykjavik has a great bus system that will allow you to get around pretty easily, but we chose to walk so that we could see more of the town as well as get some exercise.
The main street of Old Town, Laugavegur, is lined with shops and restaurants. Towering over it all is Hallgrimskirkja, the largest church in Iceland. You can pay to go to the top of it and apparently on a clear day, something we didn’t have, you can see the Snæfellsjökull glacier, but we got much better views when we drove up to the peninsula. Outside of the church is a statue of Leifur Eiriksson (Leif Erikson) who is the Icelandic explorer that first discovered America. Inside the church, there is an enormous pipe organ that is impressive and beautiful. The church is definitely worth visiting while you’re in Reykjavik.
One of the interesting things that we learned is that the people of Iceland are proud of their beliefs in elves and trolls. The most common things to find in stores are the hand-made wool sweaters, stuffed animal puffins, and figurines of elves and trolls. We even bought a plate that has the images of the thirteen Yuletide Lads, who are supposed to be descended from trolls and are boogeymen that are used to scare the children into behaving at Christmastime. Considering their Viking heritage and the harsh environment that they endure, surrounded by volcanos and harsh winters, who can blame them for believing that there might be mythical creatures hidden in the mountains.
Another feature of Reykjavik are the colorful homes and buildings that line the streets. When seen from above, it is a tapestry of color throughout the town and brings some warmth to the cold winter days. Walking through the streets of Old Town down towards the old harbor, you will enjoy seeing a variety of historic buildings, each housing different businesses all owned by locals. You won’t find any chain restaurants or stores in Old Town Reykjavik. You’ll be greeted by the store owners and restaurant owners, all extremely proud of the goods, services, or food that they offer. Take the time to talk to them, they will be happy to tell you the history of their store, of Iceland, or just to chat with you for a few minutes.
We really enjoyed our time in Reykjavik, it is truly a charming little city. The people are incredibly friendly, the shops are filled with interesting goods, and the restaurants are incredible. We also enjoyed the hotel where we stayed, which was the Hilton in Reykjavik. Every evening we enjoyed a couple of glasses of wine in the lounge with other guests, many of whom were from a film production crew. We knew this because they would quietly talk about directors, screenwriters, actors/actresses, all hushed, but loud enough that we couldn’t help but overhear. We never asked them what they were there to film, we knew that Game of Thrones was filmed in Iceland, but after we got home we found out that Star Wars Episode VIII was being filmed there during the same time as our trip, so perhaps that is what they were there to film. Reykjavik was just one of the reasons that we had an incredible trip travelling to Iceland.
We actually ate more on this trip than we usually do. Perhaps it was because we love seafood or just because every day was a long day of exploring the beautiful landscapes. We definitely wanted to try authentic Icelandic fare, but there were also a few things that we knew that we wouldn’t eat. When reading about the food of Iceland before we travelled, there was quite a bit out there about the restaurants serving whale and puffin. We’d also heard about the fermented shark, which was featured on a couple of shows, including Bizarre Foods. We mostly ate in Reykjavik, but we did enjoy a couple of meals while we were travelling around the countryside.
Seafood and lamb were on every menu in one shape or form and the most traditional dishes seemed to be the soups, fish soup, meat soup, and lamb soup, of which we tried each. We had fish soup several times and each time the broth was a little different, but they were all delicious. Langoustine, which are small lobsters, were also very common on most menus. Some of the best that we had were actually at the restaurant at the Settlement Center in Borganese. They had a wonderful buffet, but we chose to order a la carte, having lamb and fish soup and then entrees. In addition to the langoustine on tagliatelle, we also had Ling, which is a white fish in the cod family, but it was lighter than traditional cod and very delicious.
When we went out to the Snæfellsnes peninsula, the Hotel Búðir was highly recommended to us as the place to stop for lunch and we weren’t disappointed. They are a wonderful hotel and would probably be a great place to stay and get out of Reykjavik, but we had to settle for just having lunch there. Again, we had fish soup as well as a lamb sandwich, with the meat being very mild in flavor.
On one of our nights out, we decided to do the chef’s menu at the Seafood Grill, something also offered at many restaurants, where you get several courses all chosen by the chef to represent the food of Iceland. We told them that we did not want puffin or whale, ordered a couple of glasses of wine, and then the food started coming, all nine courses. Unfortunately they still brought us puffin, but we asked them to replace it with a second order of goose, but otherwise every course, all meat except for dessert, were delicious. We had goose, grouper, salmon, lobster, ocean pearch, and lamb. It was way more food than we could eat, but each course was incredible.
In addition to the food, Iceland is quite proud of its beer. The most common is Gull beer, which is brewed in Reykjavik and can be found just about everywhere. We tried Boli Premium that is a premium lager that is also brewed in Reykjavik. There is no wine produced in Iceland, for obvious reasons, but we did hear that they were going to attempt it in the near future. The other thing that they produce in Iceland is vodka as well as Brennivín, which is an unsweetened schnapps that is the most popular distilled alcohol in Iceland and is usually taken as a shot.
We chose not to eat any puffin or whale during our trip because of the environmental impact. From what we heard, the puffin population has decreased by 38% since it became a popular dish on the island and some whales are still on the endangered species list. We don’t judge anyone else who chooses to eat puffin or whale, it is just something that we didn’t want have while we were there. Fermented shark is a shark head that has been left out for a month to rot and is then served. We didn’t see that on any menu, but it just sounds disgusting, so we were glad not to see it. The one other thing that we saw on a menu, but didn’t try, was reindeer. We probably would have tried that had we had the chance, but the restaurant that served it was so busy that we ended up walking out without eating there.
Overall, the food that we had was terrific, especially the seafood. Because we wanted to try as many different things as possible, we ended up eating way more than we usually would. Normally we split a meal or just eat small bites, but on this trip we ordered appetizers and full meals for each of us so that we could share and order different things. Reykjavik definitely has a wonderful variety of restaurants to choose from, both Icelandic as well as traditional restaurants such as Italian, Thai, American, etc. The food was definitely one of the highlights of our trip.