Guide to Reykjavik

Whether or not the sun goes down, night-time in Iceland's capital pulses with an oh-so-cool party vibe, writes David Whitley.

STAY

Budget

Guesthouses and apartments are generally the best bet in Iceland. Of the latter, the Bolholt Apartments (6 Bolholt, 517 4050, stay.is) are spacious if cheaply furnished, with bargain off-season rates starting at 8500 kronur. For hotels, the Metropolitan, (4A Ranargotu, 511 1155, metropolitan.is, from 7500 kronur) is a little worn around the edges and spartan but it's close to the action. The Arctic Comfort (19 Sidumuli, 588 5588, arcticcomforthotel.is, from 8000 kronur) is three kilometres from the city centre but the light wood furnishings and flat-screen televisions are of better quality than those in most other budget options.

Mid-range

The CenterHotel Thingholt (3 Thingholtsstraeti, 595 8530, centerhotel-thingholt.h-rzn.com, from €75.20) is a stylish surprise, with volcanic stone walls, a striking black-and-white colour scheme and a sense of place lacking in other hotels. Another pleasant surprise is Hotel

Reykjavik (37 Raudararstigur, 514 7000, hotelreykjavik.is, from €82), which looks bland and businesslike from the outside but has perky rooms, many of which have balconies. You will also get lots of odd bird pictures and genuinely friendly staff. The Leifur Eirikisson (45 Skolavordustigur, 562 0800, hotelleifur.is, from 13,400 kronur) is a decent alternative and the rooms have colour and life to them, although they straddle that dangerous line between cosy and poky.

Luxe

The Hilton Reykjavik Nordica (2 Sudurlandsbraut, 444 5000, hiltonreykjavik.com) has a sense of modernist swagger about it and is the most likeable of the city's business-oriented hotels. Doubles usually start at the €100 mark but off-season bargains for less than €60 can sometimes be found. The quietly agreeable Odinsve (1 Thorsgata, 511 6200, hotelodinsve.is, from 17,200 kronur) has a traditional Scandinavian look — bright with wood floors — but adds enough flourishes to stop things becoming boring. Hotel Holt (37 Bergstadastraeti, 552 5700, holt.is, from €143) is the one with a sumptuous elegance to it. The rooms aren't huge but personal service and an air of refinement help compensate.

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Lash out

101 Hotel, (10 Hverfisgata, 580 0101, 101hotel.is, from €234) and Hotel Borg (11 Posthusstraeti, 551 1440, hotelborg.is, from €216) are the best in town. The 101 is a hip design option with plenty of gadgetry, roll-top baths, a startling colour scheme and downstairs spa. Ask for one of the art deco rooms at the Borg; they are beautifully done and you see clever detailing at every turn. Most rooms have spa-jet baths, too. The Grand (38 Sigtun, 514 8000, grand.is, from €196) is Iceland's biggest hotel but it is intended for conferences and the overdose of light wood in the rooms renders them rather bland.

SHOP + PLAY

To market

The good burghers of Reykjavik don't find the idea of standing outside all day trying to entice people to buy things from their stalls particularly appealing. The only market worth having a nose around is the Kolaportid Flea Market (Tryggvagotu 19), which runs at weekends beside the harbour. It's where you'll find those "special" cured meats that are supposedly local specialities but really only serve to make Icelanders snigger when they see tourists buying them. You'll also find vintage clothes, toys and antiques.

Go shop

Kirsuberjatred, (4 Vesturgata, 562 8990, kirs.is) is run by 11 female artists and sells "Icelandic conversation pieces for your home". The fish-skin bags, coloured bowls, glasswork and music boxes are particularly gorgeous. Take a look around the distinctive designer jewellery on display in Aurum (4 Bankastraeti, 551 2770, aurum.is). If it's too pricey, take a step down and the shop morphs into a gifts and homewares store. But for a proper Icelandic shopping experience, mooch around the woolly jumpers, hats and gloves at the Handknitting Association of Iceland store (19 Skolavordustigor, 552 1890, handknit.is) — it's half kitsch and half deadly serious.

Live music

It sometimes seems as though everyone in Reykjavik is in a band or electronic duo and this means many bars have live music at least once a week. Sodoma (22 Tryggvagata, 821 6921, sodoma.is) will tend to host a few of the bands that have passed the test elsewhere. Faktory (6 Smidjustigur, 865 2360) is a two-floor venue that exercises prodigious genre-hopping on its gig calendar, while Dillon (30 Laugavegur, 578 2424) is more predictable. This upstairs joint doesn't have bands every night but, when it does, they're loud and wielding guitars of the rock variety.

Nightclubs

Friday and Saturday nights get raucous in Reykjavik, as seemingly the entire city bar- and club-hops in an alcohol-induced frenzy. The "runtur", as it's known, doesn't really start until after midnight and dress codes are fairly strict for getting in to most places. Like many places in Reykjavik, B5, (5 Bankstraeti, 552 9600, b5.is) is a bar-bistro that morphs into a club later on. The vibe is sleek, the DJs hip and you're more likely to see Mojitos being tackled than pints of lager. NASA (4 Thorvaldsensstraeti, 511 1313, nasa.is) is the big boy, though — it's where you go to shake it and get sweaty with the masses.

SEE + DO

Icons

The 75-metre-tall Hallgrimskirkja on Skolavorduholti, (510 1000) has dramatic graph-like columns crescendoing to a central tower and looks like something you wouldn't want to pick a fight with. The enormous organ inside resembles an evil Transformers robot. The giant hilltop Perlan looks like a novelty bra from a distance but the Saga Museum inside (511 1517, sagamuseum.is) is the place to get your Viking fix. The life-size models are suitably axe-wielding and gory to either scare or delight the kids. And you can't come to Iceland without bathing in a geothermal pool — Laugardalslaug (Sundlaugarveg, 411 5100) is the best spot for some natural hot-tub action.

Culture

Villi Knudsen's Volcano Show (6A Hellusund, 845 9548) is very odd — it's a part-talk, part-cinema experience. It's hardly the world's greatest achievement in film scripting or direction but the footage from 60-odd years of Icelandic eruptions is staggering. The Culture House (15 Hverfisgata, 545 1400) is worth a visit for anyone wanting to understand the way ancient Norse sagas have influenced both today's Icelandic society and writers such as J.R.R. Tolkien. For galleries, the three spread-out homes of the Reykjavik Art Museum (artmuseum.is) are individually middling but make a decent collection as a whole if you take on the trio.

On foot

The island of Videy, near Reykjavik, is criss-crossed with walking trails, most of which provide ample opportunities to spy on the burgeoning bird life. Ferries to Videy are frequent throughout the day. For those who are hardy enough to take on the probable continual battering from the wind, Reykjavik also has a network of coastal walking paths that can be combined for a scenic stroll. In summer, it's worth taking advantage of the long daylight hours with Goecco Outdoor Adventures. Its White Night Hiking tour (696 7474, goecco.com, 22,500 kronur) takes in lava fields, waterfalls, fairytale scenery and the chance to bathe in hot streams.

Follow the leader

A Golden Circle day tour, taking in Gullfoss waterfall, geysers and the Thingvellir National Park, is popular for good reason. Reykjavik Excursions (580 5400, re.is) will take you out for 9800 kronur. Wildlife lovers should look to the sea rather than the land. Whales are common in Icelandic waters and Special Tours (892 0099, specialtours.is) offers 2½-hour cruises from the Old Harbour for anyone wanting to spot them, for €45 ($60). Hour-long, €20 puffin-spotting cruises, are also available. To get active, Reykjavik Bike Tours (694 8956, icelandbike.com, 4000 kronur) offers a fabulous 18-kilometre cycling jaunt around the city's coastal paths at night.

EAT + DRINK

Cafe culture

Despite being pitched as family-friendly, The Laundromat Cafe (9 Austurstraeti, 587 7555, thelaundromatcafe.com) is hipster central. You'll find the walls covered in maps, bright young things slouching on the red leather booths and verbal foreplay going on between the occupants of the barside swivel stools. The big windows and outdoor seating at Cafe Paris, (14 Austurstraeti, 551 1020, cafeparis.is) make it the prime people-watching spot but Cafe Babalu (22A Skolavordustig, 552 2278, babalu.is) is the most endearing joint for a coffee and a sandwich. The colourful rooftop terrace is a delight, while the postcards, posters and plants decor is absurdly cluttered in the best possible way.

Snack attack

It's essentially a hot dog stand in a metal box in a car park but don't let anyone in Reykjavik hear you say a bad word about Baejarins Beztu (10 Tryggvagotu, 894 4515). Bill Clinton has eaten here and the queues are pretty much permanent. For sandwiches and cakes, Kornid (4 Laekjargata, 552 1803) does a cracking job and you can see from the racks of bread behind the counter that everything's fresh. Speaking of fresh, that's what Sushi Smidjan (3 Geirsgotu, 517 3366) does best. This harbourside restaurant has a takeout room at the back, selling boxed-up sushi to those in a hurry.

Top of the town

Vox at the Hilton, (Sudurlandsbraut 2, 444 5000, hilton.reykjavik.com) is generally recognised as the top dining experience in town — it'smodern-looking, with wallet-busting modern Nordic cuisine. The seasonal menu with wine matching is 18,400 kronur but it's where everyone wants to eat. Fishing is the backbone of Iceland's economy, so you can get good seafood all over town. Fiskmarkadurinn (12 Adalstraeti, 578 8877, fiskmarkadurinn.is) does it better than most, however, and the Asian influences add an exciting twist for foodies. Laekjarbrekka (2 Bankastraeti, 551 4430, laekjarbrekka.is) has a take-grandma-for-a-birthday-treat primness about it but the wooden building is ultra-cute and the Icelandic classic dishes (including puffin) are done beautifully.

By the glass

Drinking is an expensive business in Reykjavik and smart cookies will approach the city happy hour by happy hour. The free Reykjavik Grapevine newspaper provides a handy list of them. The long party strip — Austurstraeti, Bankastraeti and Laugavegur — is where most bar-hopping happens. Mainstream Icelandic lager tastes like spittoon backwash but Islenki Barinn (9 Posthusstraeti, 578 2020, islenskibarinn.is) sells just about every beer made in the country and some smaller names are far more drinkable. Kaffibarinn (1 Bergstadastraeti, 551 1588) is a top place to hang and chat with arty types, while the absurdly eclectic decor at Boston (28b Laugavegur, 517 7816) fosters a cool, loungy atmosphere.

Hot tip

When travelling to Iceland, make sure you pack plenty of layers. Due to its seaside location and the Gulf Stream, winters are a lot milder than you would perhaps expect but even on summer days the thermometer can struggle to crack 10 degrees. The country's position just under the Arctic Circle makes winters very dark and summers very light. And when you experience near 24-hour daylight in summer, you will need blackout curtains or an eye mask if you want a good night's sleep.

Getting there

Reykjavik is about as far as you can get from Sydney, so expect at least a 30-hour slog in each direction. The most sanity-preserving route is probably via Bangkok and Copenhagen with Scandinavian Airlines (1300 727 707, flysas.com/en/au). Expect to pay at least $2750 for an economy-class return fare. For alternative routes, Reykjavik-based Dohop (dohop.com) specialises in finding cheap deals that have to be made as separate bookings because airlines might not codeshare (for example, fly British Airways to London, then take a separate flight to Reykjavik with Icelandair).

Visas and currency

Unless you plan to stay for more than three months, no visa is needed. The currency is the krona and it has been unstable since the global financial crisis. Some businesses quote prices in euros instead. $1 = 125.70 kronur, or €0.75.

Calling Reykjavik

Iceland is too small to have city codes, so just add the country code, +354, when calling from Australia.

More information

visitreykjavik.is.

David Whitley was a guest of Design Hotels.

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