Hæ again, and welcome back to Iceland week. (That’s Icelandic for “hi,” and it sounds like…”hi.” Very exotic.) This is the second of three posts about our July trip to southwestern Iceland, and today it’s all about Reykjavik. You can find the first post, about the south coast and Golden Circle, here.
With only four full days to explore the island, we opted to base ourselves in Reykjavik for the duration and take day trips, rather than find lodging outside the city. Obviously travel is 93 percent about the meals, so among other benefits, this approach allowed us to eat more of Reykjavik.
We’ve had uniformly good experiences renting apartments through Airbnb in our family travels. In Reykjavik, we stayed in this lovely two-bedroom home in the embassy district, close but not too close to downtown. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: if you’re traveling with kids, the flexibility offered by a place with a kitchen and a little extra space can make all the difference between a relaxed vacation and a hassled one. We also love staying in a city’s residential or semi-residential neighborhoods as opposed to its tourist districts. It really gives you a false and overinflated sense of belonging, in the best of all possible ways.
Reykjavik is a very manageable city, to the extent that people joke it would be considered a mere town in almost any other country. It reminded us a lot of a smaller Helsinki, which reminded us of a smaller Amsterdam. It always comes back to Amsterdam with me. Amsterdam is my Kevin Bacon.
Here’s the view from the tower of the iconic Hallgrímskirkja Church. Kinda looks like Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, right? (None of this is to minimize the awesomeness of Reykjavik — it’s comfortable but also formidable in its own Nordic way. Hey, it was settled by Vikings and runs on geothermal power. Don’t mess with it, okay?)
The church itself, visible in the photo below at the end of the street, looks like nothing you’d find in Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood. Ironically, though, it sure does look like it would be right at home in a place called the Land of Make Believe. Hallgrímskirkja is a relatively new addition to the landscape, designed by Guðjón Samuel in 1937 with Iceland’s volcanic basalt columns as inspiration, and not completed until 1986. It boasts a very impressive organ and is totally worth a visit.
Reykjavik is home to some pretty spectacular and whimsical street art.
Some of this street art is functional, like these bicycle gates that close off the main shopping street to car traffic during the summer.
Some is purely Icelandic, like these Huldufolk, or hidden people. Icelanders don’t mess around with the possibility that they share their countryside with giant elves. As recently as 2014, highway construction in a suburb outside Reykjavik was stopped until a 150,000-pound rock that may or may not have been a Huldufolk chapel was moved out of the way. Hey, if I lived in Iceland, where lava can flow by your house on a not-never basis and nature generally does not mess around, I might be among the majority of the population that doesn’t rule out elfin presence.
And some “street art” is not so much art as marketing that makes half the family want to hug it and buy souvenirs and the other half want to break out the lice repellant shampoo. Does anyone know whether Purell comes as a spray tan?
Speaking of retail, Reykjavik is full of quirky shops that make you want to buy everything — at least until you do the krona to dollar conversion and decide to make due with a photo or two of your reflection instead. This approach won’t get you home with any knitted mushroom stools, but it will remind you to appreciate the inherent coolness of a city constructed largely from corrugated iron painted in a vibrant rainbow.
Okay, but seriously. What about the food? I hear ya. Here’s what we learned.
- If you see what you think may be an Iceland-themed kids’ menu with adorably named platters like The Puffin, The Whale and The Reindeer, know that you will be eating puffin, whale, and reindeer. No judgment, just sayin’. Apparently the traditional foods of Iceland are very trendy again right now.
- I didn’t attempt to drag my jet-lagged girls and plant-eating husband to any of the much better restaurants in Reykjavik, like Fish Market, Grill Market, Dill, or Gallery Restaurant at Hotel Holt, among others. Check out this post to learn about those restaurants and others like them if you’re feeling a little more upscale.
- As for the rest of the Reykjavik dining scene, we quickly realized that food is on the pricey side whether it’s very good or kinda meh, so it’s worth seeking out what you like. Easier said than done, but here are a few of our favorites to get you started.
Vegetables aren’t the easiest to come by in Icelandic cuisine, and we’d really started to crave them after a couple of days. Gló has them in spades, and beautifully done. Some of the most satisfying vegetarian and vegan food we’ve had anywhere, with a nice vibe. Eat in or take out.
No English website as far as I can tell, but Google translate can make it a lot of fun to try to guess what’s on the menu that day. Tissue, anyone?
Snaps was very close to our apartment and recommended by our host, so we tried it and enjoyed it. I later discovered it was named Best Goddamn Restaurant (because that’s a category) in all of Reykjavik in the article linked above. It has a vaguely Parisian vibe with some fun Icelandic details, and we liked that mama could feel like a civilized, cocktail-sipping adult while the kids drew on the paper tablecloth.
C is for Cookie
A cute local coffee house with good-kitschy decor where it’s fine to be photographed midsummer with hot chocolate on the tip of your nose. There’s cheese in basically everything at C is for Cookie, but when was that ever a bad thing? (Don’t worry, vegans, there’s hummus too, and I hear it’s pretty good.)
Side note: Icelandic butter is good butter. And I somehow failed to get a photo, but Icelandic yogurt — called skyr, in case you somehow haven’t heard — is good yogurt. Rush out and buy it, but only once in a while. We learned it’s become so popular around the world that Icelandic cows simply can’t keep up. I’m totally serious. It’s a small country, okay? (And not one that pumps its cows full of hormones.)
Bada Bing Gelateria
If there’s one thing I’ve learned about family travel, it’s that while I’m busy scoping coffee, cheese and wine, the rest of the Copes are on sniper-level lookout for the best gelato every city has to offer. And like snipers, once they lock in, their focus doesn’t waver. There’s never more than one gelato place in our lives at a time.
I almost nixed Bada Bing because of the name. (Because Jesus Christ, right? Can a girl never leave New Jersey?) But it turns out the gelato is as good as the people-watching.
Which is important, because we went there every day.
They have a flavor called DAIM, which disappointingly is named after a candy and not a mild Icelandic expletive. Oh well. You can’t have everything.
But in Reykjavik, at least for a few days, you can come pretty close.
See you this weekend at Blue Lagoon.
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