Home to more than two thirds of the country’s 300 000-person population, Iceland’s capital Reyjkavík is as bustling a metropolis as you could expect to find on a volcanic island in the middle of the Arctic. Its authentically Scandi design influences are evident from the moment you set foot in your Airbnb. The combination of the city’s innovative architecture, perfectly put- together coffee shops and plethora of bearded men make it feel like this is where hipster style was born. Reyjkavík is small and pleasantly walkable (as long as you can brave the cold in winter). With as little as 48 hours at your disposal, you can easily get a real feel for what makes this one of Europe’s most liveable cities. A word of warning: Iceland is not inexpensive. In fact, try as I might, I just couldn’t find a way to see it on a budget. That said, I’d definitely visit again if I had another credit card handy.
The easiest and most delicious way to acquaint yourself with the place in a single afternoon is by foot (and mouth), as part of one of Wake Up Reykjavík’s popular food tours. Guided by passionate locals, the excursions start at the iconic Harpa Concert Hall, home of the Icelandic Symphonic Orchestra. Having won numerous awards for its design and architecture, which was created by the Danish firm Henning Larsen Architects in cooperation with Iceland’s Batteríiò Architects and Danish-Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson, it’s the perfect first glimpse of the country’s design-minded approach to life. It’s a good idea to arrive a little early, because that’ll give you time to browse the goods on offer at Harpa’s branch of the nation’s leading design shop, Epal. For the past 35 years, Epal has been offering a wide selection of the best of Scandinavian design – from small gift items to large furniture pieces – and stocks work by Iceland’s most prominent creatives and design brands, from Alvar Aalto to Marimekko.
The food tour starts with a taste of kjötsúpa – the classic lamb soup on which every Icelander was raised – at the supremely popular bar Íslenski Barinn. Delectably hearty and warming, it sets you up for the chilly walk, which takes in several architectural landmarks.
Over the course of the afternoon, you’ll have the chance to learn about Reykjavík residents’ unique approach to combatting the winter blues during the heart of the snowy season by painting their homes bright, happy colours. These cheerful red, blue and yellow houses cut little smiles into the rather bleak scene set by snowy streets and a grey sky. You’ll also discover more about the Viking way of life through sampling some traditional delicacies, such as fermented shark (ammonia in chewable form), cured horsemeat, rye-bread ice cream (I’ll take thirds!) and a decadent lobster stew.
Along the route you’ll pass many warmly lit creative spaces; in fact, you’d be hard-pressed to spend an hour in this city without finding yourself outside a gallery or studio of some description. Make sure to come back to the number-one venue for Icelandic design, SPARK Design Space, which is the island’s only design-specific exhibition gallery. For art enthusiasts, the Museum of Design and Applied Art, situated a short walk from the city centre, is a must-visit, too.
Following the boom of Iceland’s tourism economy (identified as a strategic income-generator during the 2008 recession, when the country’s inhabitants were hit hard by Europe’s financial crisis), you can’t walk a block without passing a souvenir shop. But you won’t find cheap trinkets here: these are not your typical garish plastic replicas that light up until the batteries die and are then relegated to the charity-shop box. In typical Icelandic fashion, gifts and curios include thoughtful and unique items such as Arctic salt packaged in mermaid-adorned origami boxes, sepia-toned illustrated maps of the island, handcrafted leather goods and cosy woollen garments.
When it comes to culinary inspiration, you’re spoilt for choice. The Icelandic attention to practical detail combined with aesthetic loveliness very much spills over into the world of food, too. At Grillmarket, patrons are ushered down an enormous spiral staircase into a romantically lit underground dining space where each new plate of the eight-course tasting menu is more delectable than the last. And at the more everyday Reykjavík Roasters, coffee preparation is made to look like a form of traditional dance. They even do patisserie and dessert perfectly here. At Apotek, a restaurant so beautiful you’ll probably want to live in it, the sweet treats are almost too pretty to eat (but do so anyway!).
When you’ve had your fill of food and eye candy, take some time to relax in the milky waters of Blue Lagoon. Located just 30 minutes outside Reykjavík, it’s easy to reach by bus. After a pre-dip shower, submerge yourself in the otherworldly thermal baths and slather a layer of cleansing natural silica mud onto your face. When in Iceland, right?