An Insider Guide to Reykjavik

Discover Iceland’s extreme landscape of fire, ice, and roasted cod head.

By Kristin Donahue December 21, 2015 Published in the January 2016 issue of Portland Monthly

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Very few places allow you to feel like you’ve stepped into an untamed bastion of raw, wild earth. Iceland is one of those places. Yes, by now you’ve read about Iceland—the Nordic island has become a darling of the international travel media. With its glacier-capped mountains, rugged coastline, steaming geothermal pools, and moss-laden valleys filled with wild ponies, this sparsely populated Viking redoubt feels like the truest form of escape.

Reykjavik, a coastal city of just 120,000, is Iceland’s urban heart, and the world’s northernmost national capital. The quaint-yet-cosmopolitan gem sits on a peninsula on the southwestern tip of the island, with a dramatic northerly backdrop of Mount Esja across Faxaflói Bay. Reykjavik evokes a European city in miniature—low-slung buildings, eclectic architecture, walkability, and reliable public transportation. But don’t be fooled by the city’s mellow daytime mood—on weekend nights, you’ll find Reykjavik’s legendary nightlife in full swing, thumping in the bars, clubs, and music venues into the wee hours.

Beyond the metropolitan area, people are scarce in Iceland. From Reykjavik, a drive to the Snæfellsnes Peninsula, the Golden Circle, or Jokusarlon will lead you to a series of surreal landscapes: lava fields expanding to the sea, glacier-fed lakes and rivers, black sand beaches, pounding waterfalls, and verdant moss fields. In fact, if you see a road sign with the symbol of a town crossed out, it denotes that you will not find any civilization beyond that point. Really. And whether it’s for a few days or a few hours, you can claim this wild wilderness for your own.


Icelandair has encouraged passengers from North America to “stop over” in Iceland for up to a week—with no additional airfare—since the 1960s, luring tourists to underappreciated Reykjavik and its surroundings. But during the country’s economic crash in 2008, visits to Iceland began to soar. In 2013, for the first time in Iceland’s history, tourism surpassed fishing as the top industry.

In May 2015 Icelandair launched a seasonal direct flight from Portland to Keflavik Airport, and (at just 7.5 hours of flying time) Reykjavik became Portland’s closest European destination. “We know people from the Pacific Northwest appreciate the outdoors and nature, making Iceland the ideal destination for Oregonians,” says Icelandair CEO Birkir Holm Gudnason. “And our connections to and from Europe work well for leisure and business travel.” In its first summer season the flight was so successful that the 2016 service, planned to run from May through November, will add a third weekly flight.



Fosshotel Reykjavik, which opened in early 2015 in the city’s business district, is Iceland’s largest hotel, with bigger rooms and grander amenities (gym, conference rooms, executive suites) than those of the city’s more modest, Scandinavian-style lodging options. From $160

If you’re seeking romance with a side of extraterrestrial adventure, the Ion Luxury Adventure Hotel is your destination. Perched in an otherworldly, remote landscape an hour outside of Reykjavik, just outside of Selfoss and near Thingvellir National Park, Ion pairs overwhelming brutalist design with a rugged volcanic landscape and a luxurious indoor-outdoor spa.
From $270


Grillmarkadurinn (Grillmarket) specializes in traditional Icelandic dishes, cooked over coals but with modern touches—and close connections to local farmers. A surreal, ruggedly modern space adds to the experience.

Matur og Drykkur (Food & Drink) may have opened only in spring 2015, but some of its recipes, like the cod head braised in stock, are over 100 years old. Let your server choose your menu, sit back, and enjoy the nation’s traditional cuisine re-created with a new flair. (Get the roasted cod head.)


In Reykjavik’s compact core, you’ll find plentiful art museums, cafés, restaurants, and boutiques, as well as the iconic Hallgrímskirkja church, with its dramatic expressionist spire, and the famed Harpa concert hall—a dazzling, angular study in steel and glass on the old harbor. Once you’ve explored the city on foot, you’ll be ready to strike out and roam the wild landscape of Iceland, where options range from horseback riding to whale watching to kayaking and four-wheeled glacier exploring. The easiest way to take in your surroundings in a single day is the classic Golden Circle tour with Iceland Horizon—a small tour bus will pick you up and lead you on a loop through southwest Iceland, from the Geysir geothermal area to the 105-foot Gullfoss waterfall to Thingvellir National Park, where the world’s oldest existing parliament was founded in the year 930.


Flight Time: 7.5 hrs

Avg Price: $800

Season: May–Nov

Aircraft: Boeing 757-200; Boeing 757-300


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