The Insider’s Guide to Reykjavík

Poised midway between North America and Europe, Iceland is a world between worlds—filled with geysers, glaciers, a hip music scene, lonely treks, delicious breads, Celtic echoes, a thriving guiding scene and plenty of hot water. Reykjavik is the center of this action, a city where you can find everything from mixology and meditation to a trip into the innards of a volcano. Welcome to the best stopover adventure city in the world—wait, stopover? Why go anywhere else.

HOT WATER

iceland2wThe one travel essential if you are headed to Iceland? Bring a bathing suit. No matter where you go in Iceland, you will be spending time in hot water. The country’s geothermal hot spots make it the best place for soaking on the planet. You can find natrual hot springs but you will also find pools fed by geothermal water all over Reykjavik. These spots are a good place to hang with the locals, since soaking is such an important part of everyday life here. And the water in these pools is not treated with chemicals—that means that you must wash thoroughly before heading in, but it also means you won’t be bathing in chlorine and other junk. Of course, the most famous place to soak in Iceland is the Blue Lagoon (bluelagoon.com), between Reykjavik and the Keflavik international airport. It’s so famous, we almost don’t want to mention it, but its dull-turquoise water and silica mud lives up to all the hype. In Reykjavik, head to the main tourist information center on 2 Aðalstræti and pick up a Reykjavik Welcome Card (visitreykjavik.is/travel/reykjavik-welcome-card), available in 24-hour ($27), 48-hour ($36) and 72-hour ($45) versions. Not only will it give you free entrance to any thermal bath in town, it will also get you free entrance to most of the city’s museums, free rides on city buses and discounts all over town. As for Reykjavik’s thermal baths themselves, the most impressive is Laugardalslaug, a complex that includes a 50-meter swimming pool, hot pots, water slides and a steam bath. More laid-back is Vesturbæjarlaug, a great place to talk to locals while you relax. But perhaps the most interesting is the Nauthólsvík Geothermal Beach, where you can soak in a hot pot and then dip into Arctic ocean water. One last piece of advice: consider bringing a towel, too. At some local pools the cost to rent a towel is more than the cost to soak in the springs. Plus, you’ll need one if you soak in the wild.

BRING THE KIDSiceland5

Iceland is perhaps the best country for active outdoor kid travel—it’s safe, full of adventure they can handle and rife with stories of elves and trolls. It’s also a very easy place to go car camping (most developed campgrounds have running hot water). In the city, the most popular kid-centric activity is heading out on a whale and puffin watch. From the Elding (elding.is) boat, you are pretty much guaranteed to spot a cetacean, since so many of the  noble aquatic mammals spend time in Faxaflói Bay, including the most common visitors: minke, humpback and fin whales. The company hires naturalists, who run the tours and teach the kiddos about the animals and how to protect them. Another great spot for animal-loving children is the small, pleasant Reykjavik Family Park and Zoo, which features animals who live on the island—everything from the settlers’ chickens that the Vikings brought here with them to the country’s one non-imported mammal, the arctic fox. Kids can also ride the small, easy-to-manage Icelandic horses here. To extend and expand that horse experience, book a Horses and Glaciers trip with Icelandic Mountain Guides (mountainguides.is). This full-day trip is one huge adventure, putting kids ages 8-15 (and parents) in the saddle out in the countryside, stopping by stunning waterfalls and the Eyjafjallajökull volcano that erupted in 2010 (they can even pick up a bag of ash to take home), and ending up on Sólheimajökull, a glacier where the guide can help get the children in crampons and safely show them features like churning moulins, where the foot of the glacier begins to turn back to water. Back in town, the National Museum of Iceland, Viking Maritime Museum, wax-figure Saga Museum and Settlement Exhibition will all give them a sense for the Vikings and Celts who first settled this magical island.

GOLDEN CIRCLE

The most popular Iceland tour is the Golden Circle, a drive out of Reykjavík that takes in the stunning waterfall Gullfoss; Geysir, the geothermal waterspout that gave all geysers their name; and Thingvellir, the site of the first parliament in the world, where Viking chieftains would turn their backs to their colleagues and cry their grievances out to the cliffs. Plenty of private tours and buses will take you on the route, but if you drive, you can stop at the best secret spa on the island, Laugavatn Fontana (fontana.is). Here, you can soak in several swimming pools or in the geothermal lake. But the best attraction is the steam baths, warmed naturally by the whims of volcanic vents underneath them.

ADVENTURE FROM YOUR HOTEL

The best thing about Reykjavik for outdoor-adventure-minded folks is just how easy it is to head off on an epic trip right out the door of your hotel. Based in the city, Icelandic Mountain Guides (mountainguides.is) has created one of the best guiding operations on the planet, thanks to logistics that make it simple to explore the wild parts of island, even if you have not planned much. You can book a trip through them before you come or simply walk up to the booking center downtown (at the Icelandic Travel Market, 2 Bankastræti) and plan an adventure. The operation runs the gamut, offering up hardcore trips like ice and mixed climbing; multi-day backpack trips; three days of tagging summits like the famed volcano Hekla or Hvannadalshnúkur, the highest peak in the country; mountain bike excursions and enduro rides; and AT ski tours on the glaciers. You can even book Greenland expeditions. The operation also serves up lighter day trips, like a jeep tour through the mythic Thorsmork valley, Northern Lights walks (in winter) and hikes to hot springs and lava caves, as well as the standard Golden Circle. Otherwise, the hottest day excursion from Reykjavik right now is Inside the Volcano (insidethevolcano.com), another trip that picks you up at your hotel and takes you on an elevator ride into the guts of dormant Thrihnukagigur. To stay updated on the outdoor scene in Iceland (and see some amazing photographs), like Iceland Naturally on Facebook: facebook.com/icelandnaturally.

EAT AND BE MERRYiceland4

Traditional Icelandic sounds frightening—the famous scare-off-the-tourists delicacy is hákarl, or putrified shark—it is actaully well worth trying. At Cafe Loki (loki.is), you can sample skyr-filled pancakes, fresh homemade breads, salmon and, yes, even do the brave tourist thing and sample hákarl,, alongside a shot of Brennivín (known by its local monniker of “black death”). Reykjavik has developed a repuation as one of the best music cities in the world. Bjork, Sigur Ros, Ólöf Arnalds and Of Monsters and Men started here and you have the chance to catch new up-and-coming talents like lounge rockers Moses Hightower and singer/songwriter Ásgeir Trausti, who just released an album in English. Head to the KEX hostel (kexhostel.is), where you can catch local bands or maybe even take a meditative movement class with American ex-pat Tristan Gribbin (facebook.com/ModernDayMeditationIceland).

WHERE TO STAYiceland3

The city of Reykjavik has been hard at work renovating its working marina district, and the crown jewel of that project is the Icelandair Hotel Reykjavik Marina (icelandairhotels.com/marina), a hip remodeled shipping building with rooms that feel like ship cabins and the swank Slipp Bar in the lobby. A bit outside of downtown, the Icelandair Hotel Reykjavik Natura (icelandairhotels.com/natura), which has also been recently remodeled, caters to outdoor adventure since it’s easy to hit the road from here. On Thursday nights, a storyteller regales listeners here and it’s a short walk to the Nauthólsvík hot springs beach.

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