What do you envision when someone mentions a vacation in Iceland? If you are like most people (including me), you think of cold, snow-covered landscape, frozen lakes and rivers, and lots of darkness. You may imagine nearly empty streets and locals covered from head to toe in warm, woolen clothing, not looking up to greet passers-by.
Not so! Iceland has recently become a popular tourism destination, with lots more to offer than iceberg exploration. This article will focus on Iceland’s capital city. I will cover the countryside in an upcoming post.
Officially founded in 1786, Reykjavik is located in southwestern Iceland. It is the world’s northern-most capital city. 120,000 people call the city home, with 200,000 living in the greater Reykjavik area. The city-center is compact, surrounded by sprawling suburbs that continue to spread.
Reykjavik means “Smoky Bay”, so named by a Norse explorer who, upon arrival, noted the steam rising from the ground. Today, that pollution-free geothermal steam heats homes and outdoor swimming pools, making it truly a “green” city, and, despite the abundance of automobiles, the air in Reykjavik is clean and clear.
Weather is often cited as a reason not to visit, but extreme temperatures here are rare. Warm waters from the Gulf Stream keep Iceland from getting bitterly cold in winter, and, surprisingly, the winter temperatures here rarely dip below 14 degrees F. Likewise, summer days are cool, typically hovering around the low 60’s. Though not necessarily a wet city, Reykjavik does get its share, averaging around 200 days of measurable precipitation each year. The shortest days of winter see only 4 hours of sunlight, while during the long summer days, there may never be complete darkness.
Because of the fact that Iceland has not yet recovered from the economic crisis, it is considered a surprisingly affordable destination. Tax-free shopping for visitors is an attractive bonus. If you like to shop, Reykjavik has two large indoor shopping malls as well as a mile-long street packed with everything from woolen goods and handicrafts to world class shops and high-end designer boutiques.
Not into the retail scene? Not a problem. Churches, museums, art galleries, a symphony orchestra and an opera house draw those seeking a cultural fix by the droves. The concert scene is lively and active, attracting world-renowned musicians of every genre.
Local seafood and lamb are plentiful, and dining options range from casual pubs to five-star restaurants. Head over to a nightclub after dinner. Reykjavik has a reputation for its lively nightclubs and after-hours music scene.
Outdoor activities include whale watching, biking and walking the city’s numerous trails that run through the city and along the coast. Golf and horseback riding are popular sports, and a salmon river runs through the city!
Has all of the activity left you fatigued? Well, thanks (again) to the geothermal pools, Reykjavik has an abundance of inexpensive thermal pools and spas to suit every taste. There are large pools for swimming, whirlpool “hot pots” for soaking, and water slides for playing. The Laugar Spa is most famous, offering many other spa amenities such as massage and beauty treatments. Believe it or not, Reykjavik even has a geothermal beach!
Most people visit Iceland between June and August, however, prices for accommodation and airfare drop dramatically in the winter season, and you won’t be among the flocks of tourists flooding the streets. If you are particularly keen on going to the opera, note that the Icelandic Opera is only open during the off-season. If you’re sole destination in Iceland is Reykjavik, there is never a bad time to go.
Drop your pre-conceived notion of Iceland’s capital city and plan your trip. You may be very pleasantly surprised.