Steeped in Nordic traditions and culture, Reykjavik, Iceland, is one of those mysterious destinations that everyone seems to be talking about visiting — and for good reason. Iceland has the cleanest air in the world, water so pure you can drink it right from the tap, lava-covered landscapes, roaring waterfalls, gushing geysers, and an eclectic cuisine to satisfy any appetite.
Here are five things you won’t want to miss, if you come for a visit:
1. The Food
While it might seem strange to come to Scandinavia for a hot dog, this fare has somehow worked its way into the collective palate, and you will find it everywhere. One of the best is at a simple stand located in downtown near the harbor called Bæjarins Beztu (The Best Hot Dog in Town), and there is almost always a line. Get your dogs with mustard, onions, and remolaði, which is a mayonnaise-based sauce with sweet relish.
Located on the campus of Icelandic University, AALTO Bistro is where celebrity chef Sveinn Kjartansson uses the freshest local ingredients to create his own version of “happy food for a healthy heart.” Start with his carrot soup with coriander cream, then try one of his daily seafood specials. Vegetarians will also love his pumpkin burger with crispy green cabbage and baked tomato with kale and pesto.
Icelanders seem to have a sweet tooth, and, in fact, are the largest consumers of Coca-Cola in the world. Local confections that you will want to sample include chocolate, chocolate with licorice, pastries filled with marshmallow cream, and Appelsin (orange soda) mixed with malt.
2. Golden Circle Tour With the Secret Lagoon
Sterna Travel offers a guided bus tour around Southern Iceland on this must-see, all-day adventure. After picking you up from your hotel (we recommend The Apotek Hotel, a boutique in the city center with modern décor, great views of the city and clean, comfortable and affordable rooms), your guide will take you to several spots overlooking the rugged terrain, much of which is covered with lava and green moss created from the county’s 130 volcanos. There are a couple of photo-op stops where you can walk down trails to view the local topography.
The first highlight on this trip, however, is Strokkur, a geothermal geyser shooting hot water up to 65 feet in the air every four to eight minutes. This is one of the most famous spots in the country, and it attracts people from all over the world. Afterwards, you’ll enjoy lunch in the on-site restaurant or cafeteria with a variety of hot and cold entrées.
The next stop is the stunning Gullfoss or Golden Falls, located on the Hvítá River. This is the No. 1 attraction for the area on TripAdvisor, and is truly magnificent to watch as the water careens down the stair-stepped rocks to the canyon below. On sunny days, you can easily capture a rainbow or two as the light is reflected near the water.
Your final stop will be the Secret Lagoon. This is the oldest geothermal swimming pool in the country, located in the town of Fludir. The water in the pool stays at a constant year-round temperature of about 100-104 degrees Fahrenheit and is the perfect place to soak away your cares while enjoying the beautiful surroundings.
The tour costs approximately $104 for adults.
3. Whales of Iceland Exhibition
Located in Reykjavik Harbor, this is the largest whale exhibition in Europe, featuring 23 species that can be found in local waters. The displays include some 25 realistic, life-sized models, such as white whales, pilot whales, minke whales, sperm whales, and the largest, the blue whale, which can grow to an astounding 108 feet in length.
The exhibition also has interesting interactive exhibits and a virtual reality experience where you can swim right alongside one of these ocean giants. Recently opened in February 2015, the Whales of Iceland has already attracted some 600,000 visitors.
4. Art and Cultural Venues
Reykjavik has been designated a UNESCO City of Literature, and there are an abundance of museums, festivals, and events at any time of year. The Harpa Conference Hall and Concert Center is Reykjavik’s gem, standing out against the city’s skyline. Created out of geometric glass shapes, the structure reflects the sun as if a shining, colored jewel. You can enjoy major performances here in their massive red-hued concert hall, as well as see current art exhibitions such as photographs of David Bowie, which were on display during my recent visit.
In addition to art, history, literary, and maritime museums, there are also some unusual ones such as the Árbær Open Air Museum, located a short distance from downtown. Here, you will find a recreated Icelandic village dating from the nineteenth century with more than 20 buildings that have been moved to this area. The turf houses are particularly fascinating with their sod-covered roofs, providing a glimpse into early pioneer life in Iceland.
Reykjavik enjoys a good party, and with more than 80 festivals held each year, you will always be able to sample local flavor and hospitality. Since there is only about two hours of sunlight in the winter, someone got the idea to host a Winter Lights Festival each February with glowing colored lights and events throughout the city.
The motto for the Culture Night festival, held in August from 1-11 p.m. daily, is “Come On In.” The purpose of this fête is to showcase the city’s cultural programs for the upcoming year.
5. Sport Adventures
For a small country (about the size of Ohio), Iceland sure seems to pack a lot of fun into any visit. Some of the outdoor adventures available are horseback riding, jeep and helicopter tours, scuba diving, volcano exploration, and cycling tours.
If you are an adrenaline junkie, there are plenty of activities to keep your blood pumping, like four-wheeling through the dirt and mud, courtesy of Buggy Adventures. Driving a state-of-the-art dune buggy with all the safety equipment, you will zoom across the moon-like landscape of Iceland for a true off-road experience. A variety of tour options are available.
Instead of just dreaming about visiting this Nordic island, you should start making your plans now. Warmer than New York during the winter, Iceland has genuinely friendly citizens who are welcoming to travelers. The country is also easily accessible from most major airports, and Iceland Air offers a free stopover here while en route to other locales. Whether you come for a quick visit or an extended stay, Reykjavik is one city that will leave you with lasting memories.
FTC Disclosure: This was a sponsored trip. All opinions herein are the author’s.