The hot springs and Northern Lights have been enticing explorers to Iceland’s rugged shores for centuries, but these days, there are just as many reasons to visit the capital’s emerging design scene
We visit Iceland’s capital Reykjavík, whose booming design scene and coffee culture is as much of an attraction as the country’s hot springs and amazing views of the Northern Lights
Welcome to the land of fire, ice and groundbreaking architecture (such as the Harpa concert hall, pictured). Designmarch, Reykjavík’s annual celebration of creativity (15–18 March; designmarch.is) turns 10 this year, and will bring the city to life with exhibitions, open studios and workshops, championing the growing wealth of local designer-makers that rivals those of Iceland’s super-cool Nordic neighbours. We explore more of what the city has to offer both intrepid voyagers and culture vultures. ➤
WHERE TO STAY
This may be the optimum time to visit Reykjavík – cool-but-affordable boutique hotels and B&BS are springing up around town, but the city still feels low-key, free from swanky spas and indentikit hotel chains. Our pick of the trendy guesthouses includes the new Oddsson Hostel ( 2). A former warehouse situated on the waterside, it has been furnished with a mix of 20th-century classics by Ettore Sottsass and Alessandro Mendini, as well as custom-made metal bunk beds by local design studio Döðlur. The heated rooftop swimming pool is a highlight (from £163 per night; oddsson.is). Vintage furniture, books galore and a farmhouse-style kitchen that guests can cook in are key to Kex Hostel’s appeal (from £87 per night; kexhostel.is), while hotelwise, we recommend the slick, cosmopolitan trappings of Ion City ( 3, from £255 per night; ioncity.ioniceland.is).
BREAKFAST AND LUNCH
First thing in the morning, either head to chic, fern-fringed café Bergsson ( bergsson.net) for porridge with skyr, the Nordic answer to yoghurt, or pick up a rejuvenating coffee at Nyc-style Reykjavík Roasters (reykjavikroasters.is). Soak up the caffeine with one of bakery Sandholt’s legendary loaves, be it sourdough, a smoked pumpkin seed cobbler or a bread made from enkir, the oldest grain in the world (sandholt.is). Take your binoculars to reclaimed wood-clad The Coocoo’s Nest for lunch, and whale watch whilst eating red onion and fish stew (coocoosnest.is). Alternatively, head out further afield to Fridheimar (fridheimar.is), a tomato-growing greenhouse with space cleared in the vines for a restaurant, whose menu includes limitless bowls of its exceptional soup.
WINE AND DINE
Although housed in a former salt fish factory, Matur Og Drykkur ( 4, maturogdrykkur.is) is an extremely cosy spot for dinner. Start with the French cider spiked with homemade liqueur made from locally-found yarrow plants before picking a ‘reimagined’ traditional Icelandic dish, such as halibut soup with mussels, apples and raisins. Feeling brave? Opt for the lamb’s heart with rhubarb. Similarly warm is the welcome at bar Loftið, where a medley of light bulbs dangles overhead. For a low-key supper, head to Mat Bar (matbar.is). This new diner has looks inspired by the 1960s, but the cooking is ultra-contemporary, marrying Italian and Nordic cuisines – try the polenta with pickled carrots or the cod’s cheek with citrusy gremolata.
ARTS AND CULTURE
Reykjavík’s tallest landmark is Hallgrímskirkja Church ( 5), which, at 74 metres high is a peak example of Expressionist architecture. It was finished in the 1980s (after 40 years of construction), yet still looks futuristic today. Also looming above the famously brightly-coloured tin houses that line the city’s streets is native architect Ólafur Eliasson’s concert hall and cultural institute, Harpa ( harpa.is). Famously controversial due to its £144 million building costs, the glass edifice [see opening page] is inspired by Iceland’s basalt columns. Lastly, The Nordic House (nordichouse.is) is a Modernist must-visit. Finnish architect Alvar Aalto designed the building’s blue ceramic rooftop to mimic its mountainous backdrop. The cultural hub hosts a literary festival, a Fashion Biennale, craft markets and popular evenings of Icelandic jazz music in its charming bistro.
Along Laugavegur – which translates as ‘wash road’, as it leads to the hot springs where Icelanders used to scrub their linens – there are plenty of independent shops to explore. For modern homeware, head to Hrím, which stocks global brands as well as botanical posters painted in-house, Icelandic moss soaps and local success story Iris Hantverk’s beautiful pine cleaning tools ( hrim.is). For treasure-hunting, visit Kolaportið flea market ( kolaportid.is) to pick up vintage trinkets, bonkers jewellery that Icelandic songstress Björk would be proud to wear or vintage cashmere – a relic of the Icelandic wool industry, which new brand Farmers’ Market is reviving (farmersmarket.is).
ESCAPE THE CITY
Whatever the weather, there’s no leaving Reykjavík without a wallow in the naturallyheated hot springs. Nearest the city is the surrealist Blue Lagoon ( 1) where the indulgent should book the ‘premium’ ticket for a fluffy bathrobe, algae mask, slippers and sparkling wine (£72; bluelagoon.com). Hire a car and drive through the Fljot valley, past icy rivers and Icelandic ponies to the newly opened Deplar Farm on the snowy Troll Peninsula, a sheep farm repurposed into a 13-bedroom retreat, complete with minimalist interiors, a spa and the option to head out kayaking or relax in the saltwater pool (from £1,373 per person per night; elevenexperience.com).