In and Around Reykjavik, Iceland

written by:
November 30, 2010

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.

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  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.
    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.
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  A view of Hallgrímskirkja from the street.
    A view of Hallgrímskirkja from the street.
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  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.
    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.
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  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.
    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.
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  The bold sweep of Alvar Aalto's Nordic House roof is echoed by a University of Iceland building. The Nordic House contains a restaurant, lecture hall, exhibition space, and public library. As an institution, it promotes Nordic culture and hosts the Reykjavik International Film Festival in September and the Iceland Airwaves music festival in October, along with other symposia and events.
    The bold sweep of Alvar Aalto's Nordic House roof is echoed by a University of Iceland building. The Nordic House contains a restaurant, lecture hall, exhibition space, and public library. As an institution, it promotes Nordic culture and hosts the Reykjavik International Film Festival in September and the Iceland Airwaves music festival in October, along with other symposia and events.
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  This library is the warm center of Finnish architect Alvar Aalto's Nordic House, built in 1968.
    This library is the warm center of Finnish architect Alvar Aalto's Nordic House, built in 1968.
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  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.
    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.
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  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.
    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.
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  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.
    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.
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  Experience design with a smile in a crosswalk.
    Experience design with a smile in a crosswalk.
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  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.
    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.
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  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.
    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.
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  After a dark day, this sunset over Vikin, the maritime museum built in a renovated fish factory, energized us.
    After a dark day, this sunset over Vikin, the maritime museum built in a renovated fish factory, energized us.
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  Reykjavik has talked about integrating the city with the working waterfront for years. In 2008, Graeme Massie Architects won the Reykjavik Old Harbor Masterplan Competition to dramatically change the landscape along the fjord. This building, Harpa—the Reykjavik Concert Hall and Conference Center is the first major development, and is set to open in 2011. Henning Larsen Architects designed the structure and collaborated with Danish-Icelandic artist 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.
    Reykjavik has talked about integrating the city with the working waterfront for years. In 2008, Graeme Massie Architects won the Reykjavik Old Harbor Masterplan Competition to dramatically change the landscape along the fjord. This building, Harpa—the Reykjavik Concert Hall and Conference Center is the first major development, and is set to open in 2011. Henning Larsen Architects designed the structure and collaborated with Danish-Icelandic artist 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.
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  The food continuously delighted us, from pastries, to skyr, to arctic chair. This masterpiece is a culinary tour of the country, served at Fish Market. The restaurant is dark, cozy, and filled with 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.”
    The food continuously delighted us, from pastries, to skyr, to arctic chair. This masterpiece is a culinary tour of the country, served at Fish Market. The restaurant is dark, cozy, and filled with 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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  On a hill above the city, sits Perlan, or "the Pearl," a strange fortress of geothermal water tanks, a silicone-figure Saga Museum, a somewhat gaudy rotating restaurant, a cafeteria, exposition spaces, and a year-round Christmas shop.
    On a hill above the city, sits Perlan, or "the Pearl," a strange fortress of geothermal water tanks, a silicone-figure Saga Museum, a somewhat gaudy rotating restaurant, a cafeteria, exposition spaces, and a year-round Christmas shop.
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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 "Sólfar," ("Sun Voyager") a representation of a Viking boat, was irresistible with the morphing northern lights behind it.
    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 "Sólfar," ("Sun Voyager") a representation of a Viking boat, was irresistible with the morphing northern lights behind it.
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  Although Hotel 101 is regularly referred to as the design hotel in Iceland, we were impressed with what just $100USD a night afforded us at 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!
    Although Hotel 101 is regularly referred to as the design hotel in Iceland, we were impressed with what just $100USD a night afforded us at 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!
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  In an empty field outside of Reykjavik looms 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."
    In an empty field outside of Reykjavik looms 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."
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  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, Gláma-Kím are based in Reykjavik.
    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, Gláma-Kím are based in Reykjavik.
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  There were many small moments of striking design too. These beautiful speakers hang above info stations inside the visitor's center in Thingvellir, the national park that is home to the site of the world's first Parliament (the Althing), and the area where the Eurasian and North American tectonic plates come together. You can scuba-dive between the continents here in Iceland's largest lake, Thingvallavatn. Spring-fed by glaciers, the lake is spectacularly cold but also clear: visibility can be more than 300 feet. People say the geological formations and colors are must-sees for serious divers.
    There were many small moments of striking design too. These beautiful speakers hang above info stations inside the visitor's center in Thingvellir, the national park that is home to the site of the world's first Parliament (the Althing), and the area where the Eurasian and North American tectonic plates come together. You can scuba-dive between the continents here in Iceland's largest lake, Thingvallavatn. Spring-fed by glaciers, the lake is spectacularly cold but also clear: visibility can be more than 300 feet. People say the geological formations and colors are must-sees for serious divers.
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  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.
    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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  The building complex at the famous Blue Lagoon is what I like to call "villain modern." It feels as though Goldfinger or another James Bond foe might appear at any moment. That is to say: it's amazing.
    The building complex at the famous Blue Lagoon is what I like to call "villain modern." It feels as though Goldfinger or another James Bond foe might appear at any moment. That is to say: it's amazing.
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  The  Svartsengi  geothermic power plant (in the background) looms over lava fields and feeds the large Blue Lagoon swimming area. The plant's runoff, heated by lava to hot-tub-perfect temperatures, is naturally colored by algae and minerals. Just twenty minutes from the Keflavik International Airport, the Blue Lagoon is touted throughout the terminal as the best place to spend a layover. We went just before our return flight, making it even harder to say goodbye.
    The  Svartsengi  geothermic power plant (in the background) looms over lava fields and feeds the large Blue Lagoon swimming area. The plant's runoff, heated by lava to hot-tub-perfect temperatures, is naturally colored by algae and minerals. Just twenty minutes from the Keflavik International Airport, the Blue Lagoon is touted throughout the terminal as the best place to spend a layover. We went just before our return flight, making it even harder to say goodbye.
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  Keflavik, the self-proclaimed "best airport in Europe" is pretty relaxed. Epal, Iceland's largest design store has an outpost here, shown in the background. At Epal, I picked up a tiny, hand-carved Icelandic horse to sit on my desk as a reminder to return.
    Keflavik, the self-proclaimed "best airport in Europe" is pretty relaxed. Epal, Iceland's largest design store has an outpost here, shown in the background. At Epal, I picked up a tiny, hand-carved Icelandic horse to sit on my desk as a reminder to return.

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