Checklist: Reykjavik, Iceland

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Checklist: Reykjavik, Iceland

Just over 1000 years ago, Viking explorers settled on a small island in the North Atlantic, now known as Iceland. The relatively young mass of land sits atop a continental rift, saddling America and Europe. The result of this is many varied and extreme landscapes—and cultures.

Melting snow and ice surges down from the lofty highlands, cascading over cliffs as spectacular waterfalls before charging out to sea. Impossibly green landscapes sparsely populated with colorful farmhouses lie in the shadows of mountains, powdered with sparkling snow. Mighty volcanoes, rumbling angrily underneath ancient and ever-shifting glaciers, overlook all of this.

Get the picture?

Traveling to Iceland promises adventure akin to those had by the explorers of the new world. Unless, however, you spend your entire trip in the capital city of Reykjavik, a small town with more culture than some large cities. It’s easy to forget about the mountains and glaciers waiting to be traversed as you duck in between live music venues and varying food institutions serving everything from vegan to whale.

Reykjavik serves as the gateway to this island, a quirky place bursting with history, creativity and an innovative culinary scene. Like the country itself, the culture of Reykjavik is a mix of American and European, and surprisingly cosmopolitan for its size. Welcome to the northernmost capital in the world.

James Taylor is a freelance writer who loves to venture off into the unknown, currently based in Reykjavik, Iceland.

1.Hallgrímskirkja


Hallgrímskirkja dominates the skyline of Reykjavik, and can be seen from almost anywhere in the city. The design of the church was inspired by basalt lava flows, examples of which can be seen around the country. A symbol of the city, it stands strong, cold and bare against the volatile weather that constantly batters the city. Make sure to check out the pipe organ inside, and the amazing views of Reykjavik and the surrounding area from the top.

2. Kolaportið Flea Market


A weekend flea market, Kolaportið is an exciting array of old books, records, stamps, second hand clothes and basically anything else you can think of. The smell of hardfiskur (dried fish) permeates throughout the market, and is a good snack to have while browsing the local wares. Freshly caught fish can also be picked up here, and it's a good place to go if you're looking for a second hand lopapeysa, the Icelandic woolen jumper.
Photo by James Taylor

3. Höfði House


Located in a beautiful spot on the harbor, Höfði House is one of the most beautiful houses in the Reykjavik area. It is where former U.S President Ronald Reagan met with Mikhail Gorbatsjov, former President of the Union of Soviet Social Republics. The meeting took place inside the house in 1986, and is seen as marking the end of the Cold War. The historic house was built in 1909, and was used at first as the French Consul. It is also said to be haunted by a ghost called "The White Lady."
Photo by James Taylor

4. Íslenski Hesturinn – Icelandic Horse Rides


Explore the surreal landscapes that fill in the rest of Reykjavik (the city is more than its bustling center) on the back of the sturdy Icelandic horse. The purest breed of horse in the world, the Icelandic horse could also take the top spot for the world's friendliest. These beautiful animals have five gaits instead of three, making for riding them a unique experience to have in Iceland. The best place to do so is at Íslenski Hesturinn, a small family run business in Reykjavik
Photo by Maggie Parker

6. The Handknitting Association of Iceland


The Handknitting Association of Iceland is hands down the most legitimate place to get yourself a nice lopapeysa to take home and show off to your friends. Tourist traps will often sell sweaters not made by Icelanders even though they claim to be, so to make sure your money goes where it should, shop here. This is the place where your Icelandic grandma would go and buy the wool to make you one, if you had an Icelandic Grandma.
Photo by James Taylor

7. National Museum of Iceland


Showcasing the entire history of Iceland set out from early settlement to present day, this museum will give you a greater appreciation for the country's backstory, which as it turns out isn't all about the pillaging and plundering of Vikings. Learn about volcanic eruptions, famine, kidnappings and life under Danish and Norwegian rule, all in an easy to read and well set out exhibition. In a city full of amazing museums, this one is a must see.
Photo by James Taylor

8. Matur og Drykkur


Consistently rated by Icelanders as one of the best restaurants in the city, Matur og Drykkur sources old recipes, and serves them with an innovative and modern twist, all with local Icelandic ingredients. Make sure to reserve a table at this spot in the Grandi neighborhood before you go because this restaurant gets busy.
Photo by James Taylor

9. Pablo Discobar


The hottest new spot in the city, Pablo Discobar also has one of the coolest names for a bar ever. Tropical plants and birds are plastered on the wall, while mirror square tiles on the roof reflect a large disco ball hanging over the stairway, making this a truly dazzling place to go for a late night drink. But be warned, the cocktail menu involves a lot of mescal and tequila, which might cause you to miss the northern lights dancing above the city.
Photo by James Taylor

10. Harpa


Another structure claiming a good portion of the city's limited skyline is Harpa, the city's concert hall and conference center. While we highly recommend seeing a concert at the venue, you must at least go to admire the design. The tiled glass exterior reflects light, giving the inside and outside a sparkling effect.