It’s kind of insane that anyone lives in Iceland. There’s virtually no arable land, and during the winter, there are only about four hours of full daylight each day. And with only about 340,000 residents, the nation once boasted a popular dating app that promised to determine if singles were related to any potential matches.
But some of the very features that make Iceland a difficult place to live — like the rugged, icy landscape out of a Patagonia catalog fever dream — make it a great place to visit. So great, in fact, that by some estimates the number of American tourists visiting each year now exceeds the number of actual residents.
A flight from New York City to Reykjavík takes about the same time as one to L.A., making it a feasible long-weekend trip. Prices are in the bargain range, too, with the cheapest fares via Icelandair and WOW air averaging around $400 round-trip, with the occasional $99 special. But prices once there militate for a short stay: That lack of arable land means almost all food must be imported, which is why dinner at a decent restaurant can easily cost about $80.
The capital and main destination for tourists, Reykjavík, is compact. It’s possible to see the highlights in a day or two and even have time left over for a nature excursion to see geysers, glaciers, and hot springs about an hour and a half outside the city. Taxis in Reykjavík can be expensive, and buses don’t go through the city center, so your best bet for getting around in warmer months is walking or renting a bike.
Start out at the Hallgrímskirkja, which is the largest church in Iceland, and an imposing expressionist structure that evokes a glacial wall. The church has an observation deck with expansive views of the city and coastline below.
About a fifteen-minute walk away is the Harpa; it’s worth popping by the concert hall and its colored-glass façade even if you don’t have time to catch a concert there. Another fifteen minutes will take you to Búrið — the Icelandic Pantry — a cheese shop that showcases local products. Stop in to talk to Eirný Sigurðardóttir, the opinionated owner, who will tell you that Siggi Hilmarsson, of the eponymous yogurt, is a lovely man, but his yogurt is not real Icelandic skyr (and then will let you taste some of the genuine article, which is more like a funky cream cheese).
Across the street is Bryggjan Brugghús, a microbrewery with harbor views and good seafood dishes. Skip dessert and walk ten more minutes to Omnom Chocolate: At 2 p.m. on weekdays, the artisanal chocolate maker offers English-language factory tours (3,000 Icelandic krónur, or ISK, about $30), which include tastings of their single-origin bars and seasonal treats with flavors like spiced white chocolate with caramel. For souvenirs, stop by Farmers and Friends a few steps away, a shop owned by couple Bergþóra Guðnadóttir and Jóel Pálsson. She designs clothes made from natural materials, and he’s a musician who curates the store’s CD and album selection.
As you make your way back into town, stop by one of Reykjavík’s art galleries: i8, Listamenn, and Berg Contemporary all show works by established and emerging Icelandic artists. Before you take a bit of a breather back at the hotel, pop into Smekkleysa Records: Bad Taste Record Store. The shop was started in the mid-1980s by members of the Sugarcubes, the band that brought Björk her first fame.
If you’re up for a dinner splurge, try Geiri Smart, where the kitchen will put together tasting menus of dishes like smoked cod with fermented potatoes, lamb sirloin with celery root, and crème fraîche ice cream with passionfruit and cherries. For after-dinner drinks hit up the Lebowski Bar. Sure, it’s mostly filled with foreigners and many of the variations on the White Russian are highly questionable (banana?), but the simulacrum of Americana–meets–movie memorabilia somehow works, and the place is usually packed with people dancing to oldies.
If you’re trying to pack in as much as possible, embrace joining the tourist horde and book a day excursion to the Golden Circle, a popular sightseeing route in southern Iceland. Companies like Reykjavík Excursions offer eight-hour trips that visit Strokkur Geyser, Gullfoss Waterfall, and Þingvellir National Park for around 11,000 ISK ($110).
Those who are a bit braver — and willing to rent a car — can break away from the crowds a bit by driving outside of the city and renting ATVs. Unnar Garðarsson is an incredibly patient man who operates ATV Iceland in Fljótshlíð, about an hour and a half away from Reykjavík in the midst of a volcanic landscape that could double as a Star Wars planet. He’ll take groups — even those full of novices who keep getting their ATVs stuck in snowdrifts or mud puddles — on customizable tours past mountains and waterfalls and through small streams. Price varies depending on what you want to see and if you want to stop to eat — if you do, he’ll set up a picnic in a cave along the river Fiská. Prices start at about 23,500 ISK ($230) per person.
For an excursion idea with a little street cred, we asked Iceland’s “first punk” Einar Örn Benediktsson, formerly of the Sugarcubes and current member of Ghostigital, what he would do — he did chair a committee for culture and tourism when he served on Reykjavík’s city council as a member of the now-disbanded “Best Party.” (Their theme song was Tina Turner’s “The Best.” Really.)
Einar Örn suggests hopping on a fifteen-minute ferry ride from the Harpa music hall to Viðey Island, where there are extensive nature trails, artworks by Yoko Ono and Richard Serra, and one of the country’s oldest churches. If you buy a Reykjavík City Card, available in one-, two-, and three-day options, you get a free ferry ride to the island along with free admission to museums and other discounts.
For most tourists, a must-visit is the Blue Lagoon — it’s only twenty minutes from the airport so it’s an easy stop on your way out or in. If going only by Instagram photos, you’d think it was in a remote, isolated volcanic moonscape. And while it is beautiful, with wafting clouds of steam floating off milky-blue waters, it is also a scenic Spa Castle on steroids. While the lava field surroundings are mysterious, the less romantic truth is that it is a manmade lagoon fed by a nearby geothermal power plant, and at certain times of the year it’s nearly impossible to secure a reservation.
Locals recommend the lesser-known Secret Lagoon, which is about an hour and twenty minutes away from Reykjavík in the town of Flúðir, near the Golden Circle tourist route. Dating back to the 1890s, it was the oldest public pool in Iceland, but it fell into disrepair. Renovated and reopened in 2014, it gained a cult following despite not advertising. There are walking paths through the mossy rocks surrounding the manmade lagoon, where visitors can explore bubbling hot springs and a small geyser that goes off every five to ten minutes. Plan on pre-booking, but admission runs just 2,800 ISK, as opposed to 5,400 at the Blue Lagoon (about $28 versus $53).
How to get there
Icelandair and WOW air have flights that leave from JFK and Newark. They start at about $400, but there are frequent specials for as low as $99. Both airlines offer stopover deals where you can stay in Iceland for about a week on your way to or from another European destination.
Where to stay
The first in Hilton’s new, hipper Canopy line of hotels, Canopy by Hilton Reykjavík City Center offers perks that can make the cost of an Iceland vacation sting a little less, like free bike rental; Wi-Fi; a breakfast bag with fruit, yogurt, and juice; and a free nightly happy hour featuring cocktails made from local spirits. Rates start at 28,000 ISK ($280).
Where to eat
In addition to Bryggjan Brugghús, Geiri Smart, and Lebowski Bar, there’s Slippbarinn, a restaurant at the Icelandair Hotel Reykjavík Marina that’s known for its cocktails, and Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur, a harborside stand with hot dogs made from lamb, pork, and beef.