Reykjavik is a capital city bursting with individuality. Within a few steps you can find urban cool (funky graffiti), cute whimsy (coloured houses), stark industrialism (corrugated iron) and sleek futurism (chrome sculptures) all working in harmony with one another. This gives Reykjavik a quirky contemporary charm all of its own.
On my first trip to Iceland I stayed with four friends in a fantastic airbnb house that was a 20-minute walk along the coast from downtown Reykjavik. This scenic walk in the fresh sea air was a perfect way to start our day, and we even got to appreciate some art along the way.
The most notable of the sculptures lining the coast is the Solfar (Sun Voyager) sculpture, which I’d describe as a science-fiction interpretation of a Viking longboat. Made up of long curved bars of stainless steel – some of them shaped like forks – it’s a fitting introduction to the spirit of modern Reykjavik.
As it was early December when we visited, the sun only rose at around 10.45am. However, as you’ll see from my photos, the sky was so overcast when we visited Reykjavik that even the five hours of daylight we had were pretty dark. Nevertheless, I hope you’ll agree with me that Reykjavik’s charm shone through the darkness.
A superior hot dog
The first thing we did upon arriving downtown was book tickets for Björk Digital at Harpa Concert Hall (more on that later). But after that our priority was finding food – specifically “the best hotdog stand in Europe” according to The Guardian. The hotdog stand in question is Bæjarins Beztu, handily situated on the coast just a few minutes’ walk from Harpa. As expected, there was a queue when we arrived but we didn’t have to wait long.
I’m not exaggerating when I say that this simple sausage in a bun – served with crispy fried onions, diced raw onions, ketchup, sweet brown mustard and remoulade (a sauce made with mayonnaise, mustard, capers and herbs) – was the best hot dog I’ve ever had. It could be because the Icelanders use lamb in their sausages in addition to pork and beef, but I think it was more likely the delicious accompaniments that made each bite a little crispy, spicy, sweet and creamy. I wish I’d ordered two.
The only person in our party unsatisfied by Bæjarins Beztu was the vegetarian, for whom we had to find a suitable alternative. A nearby town square hosting a Christmassy ice-skating rink offered ‘Reykjavik Chips’, a stand selling cooked-to-order chips with a choice of about 10 sauces. I plumped for a cone of chips with sweet mustard (yum) and chilli sauce (meh) and they were hot, crisp and delicious, but became too salty towards the bottom. I didn’t get a photo of the chips, but I did get some of the interesting buildings we walked past while eating them…
Savoury taste buds sated, our next quest was to find Sandholt, a café recommended for its hot chocolate. Our search took us down one of Reykjavik’s main shopping streets to the other side of town, allowing us to take in the unique style of the city’s streets. Everything here, from rainbow-coloured shop-fronts to bicycle-shaped bike racks, is crying out to be photographed.
There is wonderful street art on every corner, featuring everything from monochrome ghosts to colourful cartoon animals. Several shops are painted with art reflecting their aesthetics – we saw a record store decorated with stylish black and white swirls, and an alternative/skater shop fronted by a kind of lurid rave octopus! The artistically diverse graffiti was probably my favourite thing about the city.
Many photo stops and a few touristy gift shops later, when we eventually spotted Sandholt we were more than ready for a pit stop. You enter the café past a glass takeaway counter filled with delectable cakes, after which you find yourself in a bright yet cosy space. We were shown to a corner table surrounded by yellow cushions, illuminated by a quirky lampshade hung with a stone.
My friends ordered some beautiful cakes, my favourite being a lemon tart topped with lavender, while I ordered just a cup of hot chocolate. It wasn’t as thick as Spanish hot chocolate or as rich as Belgian – instead, its specialness came from its slightly tart creaminess, which made me wonder whether they’d sneaked some Skyr in there (this is an ubiquitous Icelandic cultured dairy product similar to natural yoghurt).
Reykjavik’s most recognisable building must be Hallgrímskirkja, a very large, very modern church formed of stepped white concrete. Though loosely church-shaped, its brutalistic aesthetic couldn’t be much more different to your standard, elaborately detailed European cathedral.
Its interior shares the simplicity and modernity of the exterior but is softer and prettier with tall, thin windows and curved white ceilings. The highlight is the magnificent organ, whose gleaming pipes point not only vertically but also horizontally, like futuristic guns.
Reykjavik from above
A lift in the church foyer takes you up to the top of the building, which is little more than a brick and concrete shell: bitingly cold wind rushes through the windowless holes in the wall. But with this being the city’s tallest building, the bird’s-eye-view from here is fantastic. The many small, square buildings’ roofs form a colourful patchwork far below, bordered by dark roads flowing with car headlights. Going up to see it is a worthwhile endeavour even on as dark a day as we had.
Harpa and Björk Digital
Harpa concert hall is an attractive building by day, but it really comes alive at night when its fish-scale-patterned glass walls start to dance with coloured lights. It contains various shops, restaurants and exhibitions but we only had time to do one thing there – the intriguing ‘Björk Digital’ exhibition.
We didn’t know what to expect, so if you’re going and want it to be a surprise you should skip the next paragraph!
Basically, you’re shown a series of new Björk music videos in increasingly immersive ways. For the first experience you’re stood in a dark room to watch a music video split across two screens on opposite sides of the room, each showing different footage. You view the next four videos through virtual reality headsets that put you inside the videos – for the final one you even have joysticks that you can use as hands in the video! I’d never tried virtual reality before, so it was a fascinating experience. Afterwards you have the option to go to the basement to watch some or all of a two-hour stream of older Björk videos.
Dinner at Islenski barinn
We chose the restaurant for our evening meal by browsing menus as we walked up the street we’d traversed earlier, seeking out places that weren’t enormously expensive. Islenski Barinn drew us in with its moderate prices and Icelandic-sounding dishes. The atmosphere inside is one of a cosy wood-panelled pub with table service and a great number of beers. I feel that I took the easy option with the reindeer burger, which besides the lingonberry jam inside was not noticeably different to a normal burger. The others sampled puffin, whale and traditional fish stew, all of which were enjoyed.
We were too full for dessert so instead walked home, through fairy-lit backstreets and back along the coast, for another night in the hot tub. Rather than posting photos of us in the tub I’ll leave you with the photos I took on the walk home, of yet more interesting buildings and Reykjavik’s glorious glowing cityscape.
All text and photos (c) Juliet Langton, December 2016. All rights reserved.