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Reykjavik, Iceland

Great Destination:

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Personality Types that Like it Best

Did You Know…?

  • The average January temperatures in Reykjavik are higher than those in New York.
  • Reykjavik is the world’s northernmost capital city.
  • Iceland continues the old Norse tradition of using patronyms rather than surnames.
  • It is the same distance from New York to Reykjavik as from New York to Los Angeles.
  • Iceland bans the import of horses, and exported Icelandic horses can never return.

Thermal wonders

Reykjavik, in the south of Iceland, is a small city by any standard, especially for a national capital, but it offers a disproportionately large basket of diversions certain to compel the attention of serious travelers, regardless of where they sit on the personality scale. Not surprisingly, however, the Icelandic metropolis and its neighborhood hold special appeal for the more venturesome among us.

Reykjavik, set between a ring of mountains and Faxafloi Bay, is the No. 1 city (with more than half Iceland’s 300,000-plus population) in a land of glaciers, volcanoes, geysers, geothermal pools, the midnight sun and dark winters — but almost no trees. Reykjavik also is in the land of unforgotten sagas, the language of the Vikings, countless elves, puffins and whales, putrefied shark (that’s lunch) and the small, hardy Icelandic horse.

On the other hand, Reykjavik provides a welcoming environment for forward-leaning architecture, art and culture, plus enough nightspots for a decent pub crawl. The legendary Bjork is the most famous local musical talent. In addition, Reykjavik has been designated a UNESCO City of Literature for its literary heritage.

Active travelers have choices for day trips, such as hiking among boiling geysers and mud pools, kayaking, scuba diving and walking on a glacier.

The adventurous have unique options of another kind: Brennivin, a very strong drink made from fermented potato pulp, and the rotten shark. Someone probably learned the hard way it is not safe to eat this shark when it’s fresh.

What with all the geothermal activity, it is a natural thing, literally, that Reykjavik is a spa city, and it is equally natural that visitors — regardless of other interests — sample the many outdoor geothermal pools. The Blue Lagoon on the edge of town, where the waters are runoff from a geothermal power plant, is merely the best known. Riding the fabled Icelandic horse is another de rigueur activity for a well-rounded visit.

Finally, Reykjavik appeals to all personality types with live music and art exhibits, fresh seafood and lamb specialties, whale watching, Laugavegur (a milelong shopping street), long summer days and very friendly locals, most of whom speak some English.

Things to do for Venturers

  • Dive in the waters of the Silfra crack, which is the rift between the American and Eurasian continental plates. It is in Thingvellir Lake inside Thingvellir National Park.
  • Put the city’s autumn Airwaves Music Festival, which showcases new talent, on your calendar (October/early November).
  • For day trips, consider snowmobiling, lava caving or glacier hiking and climbing. Or go kayaking on Iceland’s pure waters or sightsee on a motorcycle.
  • Drink local beer, but also sample Iceland’s traditional alcoholic drink, Brennivin (meaning “burnt wine”), made from fermented potato pulp and flavored with caraway. Brennivin is often called “black death” because it’s so strong. (Avoid taxes on some of your alcohol by shopping for duty-free alcohol on arrival at the airport.)
  • For a two-day excursion, walk in the valley of Porsmork at the foot of the Eyjafjallajokull volcano (famous for its 2010 eruptions) and overnight in a mountain hut there
  • Taste traditional Icelandic fare, including the famed pickled ram’s testicles and putrefied shark. Also, svid is boiled sheep’s head. To tame this adventure some, tuck into other specialties, such as graflax (cured salmon with herbs), hangikjot (smoked lamb), hverabraud (rye bread baked underground) and skyr (similar to yogurt).

Things to do for Centrics

  • Head to the nearby town of Hafnarfjordur, situated in a lava field, for an elf-spotting tour and a Viking feast. This is serious: Icelanders will reroute roads and alter building plans to avoid disturbing rocks where elves live.
  • The close-to-hand town of Mosfellsbaer offers good horseback riding. And, there are other options for riding the famed Icelandic horses.
  • Take a day trip that includes Geysir, the place that gave us the word geyser.
  • Choose a yacht cruise from Reykjavik’s old harbor for bird-watching, deep-sea fishing or whale watching — or maybe some combination of the three. Or cast your line for fish while looking for puffins, seals or whales from a traditional Icelandic oak fishing boat.
  • Ski (between December and May) at Blafjoll, Hveradalir or Skalafell, not far from Reykjavik. Or cycle in the area at other times.
  • Make time for the Icelandic Phallological Museum, which has a collection of more than 200 penises and penile parts belonging to almost all land and sea mammals in Iceland.

Things to do for Authentics

  • Time your visit to experience the midnight sun, or at the other extreme, come when the Northern Lights are at their best.
  • Take a dip in the Blue Lagoon (the water is the run-off from a power plant, which provides unusual visuals for bathers); take that idea further, and sample geothermal pools at multiple sites. Reykjavik has several. It is possible to rent a swimsuit if needed. Or, seek treatments at the Laugar Spa.
  • Take the elevator to the top of the Hallgrimskirkja Church for an overall view of the city.
  • Play golf at midnight in June.
  • Make the rounds of the art museums and galleries starting with the Reykjavik Art Museum. Then, consider the Saga Museum (focused on Iceland’s epic sagas); Arbaer Open Air Folk Museum with its turf-roof buildings, and the Reykjavik 871 +/-2: The Settlement Exhibit, created around the remains of a Viking age longhouse that is almost 1,100 years old.
  • Shop for designer clothes in the capital, or focus on handmade warm-weather items.

Additional Resources

For more information, consult Visit Reykjavík at