Iceland seems more remote than the four-and-a-half-hour flight from Boston feels. But Reykjavik, a city closer to Boston than San Francisco, is a world apart. The prime minister is in the phonebook—along with the rest of the population of 300,00—alphabetically, by first name. Violent crime is virtually non-existent. The country has no army, and police don't carry guns. Ponies, puffin, and whale are served in restaurants. Some of the landscapes looked like the moon.
My husband and I jumped on an Icelandair promotion and spent a long weekend in and around the capital city of Reykjavik; enough time to experience a bit of the magic, the mythic, and a great dose of good design. We're already plotting a return and telling everyone we know to go spend some time in the world's most northern capital.
The top of the Lutheran Church Hallgrímskirkja, the highest building in Reykjavik at 240 feet, is a great place to get your bearings and take in the views of Faxaflói Bay, the Elliðaá (one of the best salmon rivers in the country), and the mountains Akrafjall and Esja. This golden light is a 10am sunrise in late November.
My friend, the designer Brian W. Jones, who runs the blog Dear Coffee, I Love You, urged us to seek out Kaffismiðja for the best cup of coffee in Iceland. It's a neighborhood hangout (near the Lutheran church) as well as a coffee school, set up to feel like "grandma's house"—with a huge, hot pink La Marzocco coffee roaster in the middle. The creamy cappuccino was incredible and a shared table was a great place to eavesdrop on locals speaking Icelandic. English is so prevalent it was one of the few times we had to quietly enjoy the language.
The streets are meticulously cleaned every night, but thankfully the great graffiti appears untouched. There were fantastic scenes and bright geometries around many turns in Reykjavik city center. The top of this house-mountain was made with suspended one-inch sequins that rippled in the breeze, making an ordinary corner dazzling.
This library is the warm center of Finnish architect Alvar Aalto's Nordic House, built in 1968.
There are occasional reminders that the city runs on geothermic power, whether by whiffs of sulphur or sights like this. According to Wikipedia, 87% of buildings in Iceland use natural heating. In winter, Reykjavik's pavement is even de-iced geothermally. However, while the temperatures at the 64th parallel North are steadily cold, they're generally mild. The average low during the coldest part of winter in Reykjavik is 28 degrees Fahrenheit.
A tourist shop promotes a feeling of craft without kitsch. The paper money also has folk-art elements, with numbers and backgrounds designed in cross-stitch fashion.
The Icelandic term for city hall is, appropriately, Radhus. Reykjavik's City Hall was designed by local husband and wife team, Studio Granda Architects. It's perched on the edge of the city's central pond.
Experience design with a smile in a crosswalk.
The Eymundsson (a national bookstore chain) in downtown Reykjavik is open until 10 pm every night and the lounge area is furnished with dowel-leg Eames side chairs. I would have hung out there for hours if we'd had more time.
Many tourist shops tout "Icelandic design," but none curate it quite like Kraum, located in the oldest house in Reykjavik (built in 1762.) Front and center here is the Fuzzy footstool designed by Sigurður Már Helgason in 1972. Until 1998, with the opening of the Iceland Academy of the Arts, most young people interested in art, architecture, fashion, or design had to leave the country for formal study or training. Now there is a more concerted effort to recognize and nurture homegrown talent.
After a dark day, this sunset over
Reykjavik has talked about integrating the city with the working waterfront for years. In 2008, Harpa—the Reykjavik Concert Hall and Conference Center is the first major development, and is set to open in 2011. Olafur Eliasson to create a unique glass-prism facade that will act like "a calendar of light" (the artist's words.) The skin reminded me of dragonfly wings, but was actually inspired by Iceland's distinctive crystallised basalt columns. The "quasi-bricks" are made of specially reflective dichromatic glass and contain individually-controlled LED lights that will illuminate the facade at night in the full color spectrum.
The food continuously delighted us, from pastries, to skyr, to arctic chair. This masterpiece is a culinary tour of the country, served at Tom Dixon chairs. It's also beneath a bridge, making it feel like a basement clubhouse. Their slogan is: “Without fail, all the best adventures take place under a bridge.”
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Despite an unfavorable sun cycle and the most light-pollution anywhere in the country, aurora borealis was still visible from downtown Reykjavik. Although it's one of the most over-photographed sites in the city, the sculpture "
Although Centerhotel Thingholt. It's in walking distance to everything in Reykjavik city center and includes a generous breakfast buffet. Built in a former printing factory, it has a more industrial feel than a generic chain hotel. Plus, this is what the bathroom looks like!
In an empty field outside of Reykjavik looms <a data-cke-saved-href="Bauhaus, the German home improvement store. The company finished building this location, the first in Iceland, in the unlucky year of 2008. It has yet to open for business. The Bauhaus website states that the opening is postponed until the country " has="" achieved="" economic="" stability."
We drove "The Golden Circle," a classic route through some of Iceland's greatest hits within striking distance of Reykjavik. While we expected to be overwhelmed by natural wonders, we didn't expect to be stunned by rest stops. This building is just bathrooms. The far wall is glass, so you stare out to the mountains as you wash your hands. The architects,
There were many small moments of striking design too. These beautiful speakers hang above info stations inside the visitor's center in
We enjoyed the epic scale of the countryside and the Gulfoss waterfall. To get a sense of perspective, follow the road upward until you can make out small, dark figures.
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Keflavik, the self-proclaimed "best airport in Europe" is pretty relaxed.